#TomLehrer in #Australia (also, happy 90th…)

Tom Lehrer celebrated his 90th birthday today – he’s definitely old and grey.

Born in New York, Lehrer began studying classical piano aged seven. However, popular music caught his eye, and he began writing show tunes . A prodigy, he started at Harvard aged 15. There he began to write comic songs, including a spoof football fight song –  “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” – which has been performed ever since.

By 1953 he had enough songs to release a 12 song album ‘Songs by Tom Lehrer’, which included classics like “The Old Dope Peddler” (“he gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well, that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele”, a song telling boy scouts to “Be Prepared” (culminating – spoiler alert – in the invocation to always carry condoms) and other songs from the silly to the downright macabre.

Since US radio stations wouldn’t play songs about murder, racism, plagiarism and worse, the album was a ‘sleeper hit’ – spreading by word of mouth. Lehrer later recalled “lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola.”

Lehrer spent the next few years working as a researcher at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and was drafted into the Army from 1955 to 1957. He continued to play nighclubs in Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco, His musical “career” then received a huge boost from…. Princess Margaret. The oration accompanying her honorary doctorate in music from the University of London mentioned her liking for Lehrer’s work.

(Lehrer ended up performed in front of the royal family, and afterwards Prince Philip shook his hand and said he’d always enjoyed listening to “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. Lehrer asked if the Queen liked it too. “Oh, she thinks it’s horrid. She leaves the room if we put it on”.)

The BBC was less shy than American radio stations about playing his songs, and Lehrer became well known in the UK, having sold 370,000 records by the end of the 1950s.

And then, in 1960, taking the opportunity that his new-found fame allowed him, he visited the Australia of Robert Menzies….

On tour in Australia

Lehrer’s music was already on the Australian radar. The previous year a Labor MP had asked the Prime Minister if he knew any of Lehrer’s work, which had been withdrawn by the record company EMI from sale for fear of offence (and possibly banned).

Menzies denied knowledge – “Do I gather that these songs are romantic or what?”

During his tour Lehrer made mock efforts to set the record straight.

When he performed in Brisbane, the chief of police tried to prevent Lehrer singing Be Prepared (aside its condom advice it had also advised “don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice, unless you get a good percentage of her price”).

While audiences in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney got the full benefit of Lehrer’s decidely cynical and bleak worldview (surely influenced by Yiddish sensibilities), Adelaide was not so lucky. Ruled with an iron fist by Thomas Playford, South Australia was not ready for Lehrer.

A young ALP MP called Don Dunstan asked questions of Playford about censorship, but to no avail. During his two nights of performing at Adelaide Town Hall, there were five songs which were off-limits. His audience knew those songs, and at one point he teasingly began to play one of them. Lehrer apparently quipped that South Australia had the “finest 18th century government in the world”.

Lehrer took it all in his stride, saying that having been “banned, censored, mentioned in several houses of parliament and threatened with arrest” was “the highlight of his life”.

tom lehrer discovers australiaThe tour resulted in an album of live recordings “Tom Lehrer discovers Australia (and vice versa)” (the cover shows him in a staring contest with a kangaroo). Lehrer also debuted a song that couldn’t be banned- “The Masochism Tango” (“I ache for the touch of your lips dear, but much more for the touch of your whips dear…”)

Aftermath

After Australia Lehrer briefly taught political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and presumably got confused with Noam Chomsky, who is exactly the same age.)

He then produced a flurry of brilliant topical songs for a short-lived satirical TV show called ‘That was the week that was’. The album (That Was the Year that Was’ covers smut, the teaching of ‘new math’ and – infamously – a song about the German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun (‘once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that’s not my department says Werhner von Braun’.)

And then – tired of touring, tired of singing the same songs, and with real life becoming ever less funny, Lehrer basically retired from performing. His last gig, in 1972, was a fundraiser for the doomed Presidential candidate George McGovern.

He then spent 40 years teaching math and American popular music at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In 1999 the British historian Martin Gilbert named Lehrer as one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years. “Lehrer was able to express and to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century … Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind,”

Indeed, for a man who hasn’t really performed since 1972, Lehrer’s fan-base remains enormous (full disclosure: my one appearance on the UK ‘Mastermind’ hinged on my specialist round -the songs of Tom Lehrer.)  In 2012, when the rapper 2 Chainz, a rapper, asked to sample “The Old Dope Peddler” in one of his tracks, Mr Lehrer was keen to help. “I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this,” he supposedly answered. “Please give my regards to Mr Chainz, or may I call him 2?”

So, to celebrate this man, have a trawl through his (remarkably small number of) songs.

I guarantee there will be something to delight, horrify and amuse, as you slide down the razor blade of life…

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How to lose, for sure. Aka “the information deficit model is killing us.” #vasectomy

We are losing.  All we need to do to keep losing is to keep on doing what we are doing.  Simples.

Reflecting on the mirror-image of master and slave

We can see it in our opponents. And if we denounce them for their condescension and silence, well,  our tribe rewards us for seeing it and saying it.  What’s that Buffalo Springfield lyric

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say “hooray for our side

What we see in our opponents is the top-down model, the assumption that what people lack is information, and that they – our lords and masters – have that information, which they will nobly inject into our heads.

And what that achieves, of course, is the shutting down of debate. Our opponents do it deliberately, because it suits their political needs;  prevent awkward questions,  remind everyone (including themselves) who is the boss, remind everyone who it is who – quite literally – sets the agenda.

We see it in those people, and we rightly condemn them for sharp practice, for wilfully blind, wilfully deafening devices.

And then we turn right around and do EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS ourselves. We let our own lords and masters, who run unions and campaigning groups,  do the exactly the same thing. And we lack the courage, patience, clarity, persistence to do anything about it. Well, actually, I lack the cpcp. Maybe you don’t.

Two examples.

First:  The strike I’ve been part of. The energy on the picket lines, the humour, the talent, the connections? All pissed against the wall by specialists without spirit, unimaginative technocrats who sit us in rows, take no interest in building our bonding capital, our capacity to act as networks. Not leaders then, but shepherds.

And we take it.

Second: A room full of people, some of whom have mingled. The meeting leader calls the meeting to start. he announces that there will be five consecutive films, totalling fifty minutes. Then there will be a panel discussion, mostly of men. Then he starts showing the films. No effort to get us to meet a stranger (so why is it called a meeting, ffs?) No breaks between films to discuss. Just us sat in rows watching and listening.

And we take it.

Nobody complains, nobody protests. That’s just the way we do things… I invoke the law of two feet. Of course I do. I always do. Too heart-sick, too tired now.

Same behaviour, different motives. But same consequences

But although the behaviour is the same, I suspect the underlying motivation is different. Unlike our lords and masters, there is no deliberate attempt to shut down debate. Sometimes, yes, there are egomaniacs who just want to be the centre of attention- cynosures (the word I learnt last week).

But I suspect that that’s not what was going on in the two examples above. It’s just that organisers don’t know any better, or dare not innovate (nobody ever got fired for buying IBM).

But then, the followers don’t demand more. And in the absence of demand, then I guess you’re a fool to expect innovation (which is risky) or hopeful monsters that might survive.

We are losing. We will continue to lose. We will continue to be atomised, demoralised, prey to incompetents, Judas Goats and egomaniacs, until we insist on better institutions (both in the ‘cultural norms’ AND the ‘real existing organisations). sense. Which means, since this will not happen, that we will continue to lose.

Blathering about my bloody sterilisation for the hundredth time

In December 2004 I had a vasectomy, so that I wouldn’t have to explain to a child of mine how we fucked it up for them, how we were handing on a planet stripped bare of its extraordinary diversity, a semi-inhabitable slagheap.

People used to think I was a whackjob for believing that. I don’t get that quite so much these days. We can see the future from where we stand (or sit, in rows). If we choose to see it. Most of us, understandably, choose to listen instead to soothing blandishments.

Stuff it, shove it… where the sun don’t shine… lyrics for the #apocalypse

In ‘The Future’  (1992) Leonard Cohen sings
“Take the only tree that’s left
And stuff it up the hole in your culture.”

In   “I, Spy”,  (1995) Jarvis Cocker of Pulp sings
“Take a year in Provence,
and shove it up your ass.”

Do I have anything to add? No. Just I suppose that this thing of darkness, we don’t want to acknowledge. We want to throw it away. But as the ecologists keep telling us, there is no ‘away’.

Whoops…

The big picture: waving goodbye to Kondratieff, plausible futures etc…

Big Picture Thinking (BPT) is endlessly seductive, isn’t it?  What’s the old saying? “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

(see here for more on this).

Well, some mediocre minds can discuss ideas, especially the big sweepy-generalisation-y stuff.  Then again, some super-bright folks have a go too.

BPT comes in multiple forms. We have

  • three revolutions- agricultural, industrial and informational from the Tofflers of this world.
  • There’s Marx of course (Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism and Full Communism.  These last two under control of the Infallible Party, natch).
  • Then we have the Kondratieff Wave stuff about waves of technological innovation since the industrial revolution.

But there are many  critiques of the whole K-wave thing, and the problem of pattern “recognition”  (i.e. seeing them when they ain’t necessarily there;  We’re the easiest people to fool).

One BPT effort that I quite like is the Boyden ‘biohistory’ thing.  Boyden, who’s been at the Australian National University since 1960, explains here that you can divvy up the last few tens of thousands of years in five phases

fifthwave bodyen.PNG

What the Kondratieff Wave stuff (I almost typed ‘guff’!) and the Boyden stuff have in common is the hope/assumption/prediction/whatevs that we are going to come into a wondrous new age of “long waves of prosperity” (cleantech and ecological modernisation and the uber-fication of everything) and ‘biorenaissance.’

Maybe the BPTers actually believe it, or believing it pays the bills, or maybe they’re hoping it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe again they just can’t get out of bed in the morning without sucking on a Hopium pipe marked Paris Agreement.

We SHOULD be able to reach such a state.  As a species we have (had) the capacity, in theory at least….

But me, I have a different BP”T” thing going on. I have long been convinced that the second half of the twenty-first century is going to make the first half of the twentieth look like a golden age of peace, love and understanding.  I am great fun at parties.  I think: I never get invited. Go figure.

Of Aristotle, courage and #ussstrikes

Anger fades. This is both a ‘good’ thing and a bad one. After all it’s no fun to go through life as angry as I am (trust me on this). Angry at our so-called ‘leaders’ who mouth pieties and platitudes while not taking actions which would give our species the slenderest chance of survival. Angry at social movements for bumbling along in the smugosphere and ignoring both their failures and the possibilities of useful innovation. And angry, of course – narcissistically and neurotically – at myself for missed opportunities, for failing to have the courage and discipline to change and to speak out effectively, and to demonstrate consistently how things could be done differently.

Please stay with this post. That is the last lot of “I”-ing you’ll have to endure.

Aristotle said

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

More recently, climate scientist Kate Marvel argued that what we need is not hope but courage.

Imo, that courage includes the courage to innovate, to get out of the stale ‘zombie repertoires’ that we so easily fall into.

Throughout this strike I’ve heard people talk about the “feeling” on the picket line. Feelings fade. I’ve seen this cycle play out on a bunch of occasions – people get enthused, hopeful for having hope again, believing “their side” can win. And then comes the dolchstoss – often from our own side – because we have followed the same old script of poorly (or NOT) designed and facilitated meetings, where big mouths make small points, where the same stale rhetoric and repertoires rule.

We have/had this opportunity on the picket lines and in our meetings after the pickets to begin to break down the isolation and silo-ism that is one of the defining features of any modern workplace, and especially the university. And to my eyes, at my university, we have not taken it. We have not created loose networks based on roles, interests, skills etc. We have not started each meeting with a ‘turn to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself, share an anecdote’.

Yesterday was the nadir (so far). Our union branch told us there was a meeting. About 40 or 50 of us were there, and waited for it to start. I made sure that various people I knew got to know each other. And we waited. And then, finally, with no explanation, the meeting was cancelled and we were told to come back tomorrow.

Great. Really fucking motivating. DON’T CALL A MEETING IF YOU DON’T HAVE A PLAN FOR BUILDING THE BONDING CAPITAL OF YOUR ORGANISATION. FOR FUCK’S SAKE.

We need novice lines, we need small group discussions about how we cope with the inevitable hangover from these strikes. We need to talk about what the management will do over the coming months to punish trouble-makers, to chip away at solidarity and whatever deal finally emerges.

We actually needed to start with the movement-building (as opposed to mobilising) weeks, nay, months, nay, years ago. Maybe we will start today. But going on what I have seen so far of the skills, knowledge, atttitudes and aptitudes of those in office if not in power, I doubt it.

“You’ve had your fun” – on emotions, rituals and resistance #USSStrike

So, the USS strike moves into its fourth week, with more industrial action likely.  I’ve just lost a small gig because of it, but am not on the breadline yet.  For the Vice Chancellors to climb down now, and admit that their scare campaign around the pension scheme is based on the rubberiest of figures and assumptions that make Australia’s climate denialists look sane and rational, will require some delicate footwork. Meanwhile, students suffer because of their intransigence.

There have (as you’d expect given who is striking) some extremely astute analysis of what is going on, on all levels. The latest I’ve read (and h/t Graeme Hayes) is

On the emotional and material politics of the strike

by Dr Chris Millard.

It’s short and astute, and very highly recommended.  One of the points that struck me was this –

“As I see it, this brings into focus the demand to reschedule teaching, which had previously been backed by, by many institutions, by a threat to deduct up to 100% of pay for each day teaching was not rescheduled. (Most institutions have backed down under public pressure on this particular point. A list of institutions not understood to have backed down on this point at the time of writing can be seen here). However, the fact that the demand was made at all is important, in both material and emotional terms. According to the view that mistakes strike action for an expression of feeling, once the feeling is expressed, there is no reason why the teaching can’t be done. It can be rescheduled (the logistical impossibility notwithstanding), because making the point was the point, rather than the withdrawal of labour. In other words: the supportive demonstrations, the protest, the signs, the placards have obscured the core of the strike, i.e. the withdrawal of labour.” (emphasis added by me)

This put me in mind of something I read in Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals about 20 years ago-

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic. Recently the head of a corporation showed me the blue-print of a new plant and pointed to a large ground-floor area: “Boy, have we got an architect who is with it!” he chuckled. “See that big hall? That’s our sit-in room! When the sit-inners come they’ll be shown in and there will be coffee, T.V. And good toilet facilities – they can sit here until hell freezes over.”

Now you can relegate sit-ins to the Smithsonian Museum.

Alinsky, S. 1971. Rules for Radicals. P163.

We mistake the feeling and the appearance for the thing itself.  We are hairless chimps with opposable thumbs and ideas above our station.  And it is not ending well, in biological terms.

IAM what IAM – on models, muddles and human failure.

Six weeks or so I went to a talk by a man I respect immensely. I knew exactly what I would be getting – he’s delivered basically the same talk every time I’ve seen him, going back over a decade. He explains what we need to do, starting now (we should have started decades ago, but we don’t have a time machine). He explains how the longer we wait, the harder it gets (like dieting to fit into a wedding dress/suit). He always finishes with the same Roberto Unger quote. He’s sincere, incredibly well-informed (it’s his day job, after all) and fearlessly honest.

He’s added a new element to the talk over the last few times. He has explained just how disgusting/bogus/insane (take your pick – they’re my adjectives, but I am sure he’d agree) our reliance on “Bio Energy Carbon Capture and Storage” is. This is the proposal by which – now, you’ll think I am making this up, and I kind of wish I were – we would plant gazillions of acres of crops which we would then transport to power stations, burn, then capture the carbon dioxide and then pump it into aquifers left empty because the oil has been sucked out. And we would do this on a global scale, for decades, in order to get ‘negative emissions’ to keep the world from overshooting the so-called “safe” limit of two degrees of global warming. It’s a scheme so hubristic as to make Dr Strangelove blush.

And Professor Kevin Anderson – for it is he – explains just how crazy it is.

And yet, and yet….

I’ve known Kevin for over a decade. Kevin kindly spoke at the first ever Manchester Climate Forum event, in February 2007, just after the release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Kevin wrote a lovely intro to the “Call to Real Action” document that a bunch of us put together in early 2009, in an effort (ultimately futile) to get Manchester City Council to take, well, Real Action, on climate change. Kevin and I have shared beers, jokes etc. I’ve interviewed him a bunch of times.

But there is a thing that is bugging me. And it is the IAM question.

In his talk six weeks ago Kevin explained that there are these things called “Integrated Assessment Models” which bring together economists, technology wonks and some social scientists to develop models of ‘how we get to two degrees’. And the only way they can make the numbers work, is with BECCS.

Now, I know about the idiocy of IAMs from other sources. So I was probably laughing earlier and harder than some others when Kevin explained them that day six weeks ago.

And here is my big but.

It is fun, but WAY TOO EASY  to point at ‘smart’ people in love with their computer models, too scared to tell their political paymasters that social change is needed at an unprecedented scale, and that we are not going to geek our way out of this mess.

It’s shooting fish in an acidified barrel.

Because when you point one finger at someone else, I recently learned, you point three others back at yourself.

There are two other “IAMs” that we need to challenge with sincerity, knowledge and honest. Those two models are (drum roll please)

The Intellectual Advice Model and the Inane Activism Model.

I’ll describe each, explain what I think each leaves out, and then explain why, in my opinion, it persists.

Then I will riff on class.

If you want my SOLUTIONS, well they’re scattered all around, like confetti at a mass wedding. Pay me in beer and I’ll consolidate them.

Intellectual Advice Model

The model that Kevin, and I and countless antecedents since “pollution”, “conservation” and “the environment” became big ticket items in the late 1960s have have been engaging in is the Intellectual Advice Model. Smart and diligent people would Do Science and then present their findings.  This would convince our lords and masters of the errors of their ways, and things would – as if by magic, change for the better, albeit slowly.

It’s a myth of Enlightenment thinking that we dare not puncture. For then we would see that our hierarchies are less overtly vicious than the Stalinist ones, but not significantly more amenable to education. There is a plan (five year, ten year, the plan of ‘let the “market” (sic) rip’) and they’re gonna stick to it. Take the Peter Principle, throw in some Wilhelm Reich and it all makes sense. We are led by scared and scarred people who need power not just to feather their beds, but to resolve psychic wounds. So it goes.

What it leaves out

All the best environmental thinking in the West (I’m shamefully ignorant of Majority World thinking) comes from Australians. Oh yes. And here is a satirical piece from an Australian who was combatting rapacious forestry chainsaw-happy bureaucrats, who knew what they were up to.

Sift available information carefully, water down scientific recommendations, add large cup of public money, a hint of public consultation, mix in essence of buzz-word, season with the merest pinch of artificial green colouring. Boil together until all logic has evaporated, heat until light and fluffy and garnish with the promise of jobs.

And he wrote that … in 1991 I have other examples from the 1960s and 70s available upon request.

 

And academics to be involved in these, desperate for ‘policy relevance’ tokens that they can use at their next promotion/retention panel.

Why it persists

The model conveniently leaves out POWER (political, economic, and in large parts of the world military power). It means that those proffering the advice get to see themselves as somehow disinterested, neutral, above the fray. And it means they can persist in believing that they live in something approaching a democracy, when ultimately they live in plutocracy, semi-benign at best.

Inane Activism Model

[Update 4 March – here I am talking about activism in the Minority World (aka ‘teh developed world’, ‘the West’.  The picture is vastly different in places where they blatantly shoot you for dissenting.]

I will confess for a long time I used to think technocrats Baaad. Academics okay. “Grass roots” struggles authentic and better.

Bwahahahahaha.

My experience (these days limited by the need to write a thesis and the inability to stomach any more bullshit) of ‘grass roots’ activism is that it made up of people fighting a cause who are unable and/or unwilling to insist upon reliability in their colleagues, some of whom are clearly fighting parental battles through their ‘politics’ (and yes, I am perfectly aware of just how Daily Mail I sound right now. Even broken and fascist clocks are right twice a day).

And the activism – especially the middle class stuff – is based on the information deficit model, whereby Informed Activists will offer Intellectual Advice to our lords and masters, who will then see the error of their ways. Srsly.

And it goes on about a three or four years cycle, by which time people are exhausted, burnt out (never to return in many cases) cynical and confused. But the hard core persist, waiting for the next recruiting opportunity.

And the activists are – for reasons of time, emotional resources etc – unable to see the broader cyclical patterns, and to intervene to improve their own cultures.

I wrote something in Peace News last year about this – about the NGOs (and other groups) inability to even understand the need for absorptive capacity, let alone the capacity to build that capacity. While you’re at it, I wrote for the same excellent journal on the nature of academics and/vs activists.

I’ve also written about the Smugosphere, emotathons, ego-fodder, and much else.

What it leaves out

The Inane Activism model, with its inflatable elephants, its petitions, its importuning of our lords and masters, and its willingness to conflate access for influence, leaves out the same things that the Intellectual Advice Model does: Power.

Why it persists

The inane activism persists because it meets the psychological needs of those doing it (to be Right, to be Righteous, etc. Some forms of Inane Activism offer valuable martyrdom tokens too). It meets social needs (there is one group in Manchester which is basically a friendship group that might admit new members if they stik around for a year or two, which they tend not to do). It meets their financial needs in some cases. So it goes.

At this moment, if you’ve read this far, you’ll be thinking “he is some sort of Trotskyist.” For your benefit, and that of SDS or whatever they now call themselves, I. Am. Not. A. Trot. I am a bit like Frank Turner, but without the guitar. I am some kind of classical liberal, or a disappointed romantic or whatever. I don’t know, don’t care, and I don’t see how it is relevant to my observations about the failures of the IAMs above. So if you’re asking who I am, then maybe it’s because you don’t actually want to address my criticisms of the models, but instead engage in some ad homineming and some tu quoqueing…

That elephant. #Stayclassy…

The elephant in the room, with all three of these models, is of course, class. I am achingly middle-class, but even I have enough common sense and empathy to see that.)

  • The IAM modellers are, to a man and a computer, middle-class (or even part of a technocratic elite of sorts).
  • Those who engage in the giving of intellectual advice are middle-class, though some are falling through the cracks into the precariat, shoved by the USS and their pension-shredding, against a broader back drop of the marketisation of the university etc.
  • And the activists who campaign “purely” on climate change in the UK are usually middle class (I will now have a thousand people point to poor people involved in fracking. But that is a local poisoning the land for fun and profit issue as much as it is a broader climate issue). The climate movement is riddled with it. One of the many many reasons for its collapse in 2009/10 (that and some idiotic ‘strategising’ (if you could call it that) by the big NGOs. They do love a good summit…)

We (middle-class) people would rather cling to our class privilege (akin to white skin privilege) than actually change the way we do things, and take working class concerns seriously. They’re a ‘distraction’, they’re ‘messy’, they’re ‘social problems’ etc etc.

So, the next time someone invites me to laugh at an Integrated Assessment Model, I will ask them to join me in laughing at Intellectual Advice Models and Inane Activism models. That at least will add the hilarity levels on a planet being stripped of its biological wealth by some crazed infantile hairless apes with opposable thumbs and more neurons than is good for them or anything else.

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