by Yule Heibel on September 15, 2005

I defy anyone to try to read Bill Moyers’s incredible essay, Soul Freedom while simultaneously listening (in a second tab) to DJ Sujinho – I love Baile Funk. It’s impossible. The sound of explosions and the driving martial beat, juxtaposed to Moyers’s words of both compassion and critique: they make you choose. With lurid fascination, I let “I love Baile Funk” come one third of the way to its conclusion, and then I clicked outta there. The DJ Sujinho mp3 was via Boom Selection, which was via Aurgasm: I love these music sites, they bring great stuff to my attention, but there are times when I’m not cool with martial tones.

And I don’t care if the beat is meant “ironically” or anything else — instead I find myself strangely in tune with the most crotchety side of Adorno, who claimed that syncopated rhythms replicated the erasure of individuality one finds in the factory or the military machine, except that the rhythms make that loss of individuality feel like fun …or something to that effect.

Syncope refers to fainting, probably because it comes from the Greek “syn” (meaning “with”) and “koptein” (meaning “cut”), hence the doctors thought it would be cool to have it mean “loss of consciousness” (think: “with cutting of consciousness,” “with cutting” being somewhat like “loss of”). But it also has meanings in music and in language. In language, it’s cutting out a middle sound (“ne’er” for “never,” eg.). In music, I guess it’s sort of the opposite, in a way: stressing the normally unstressed beat in a bar, although I gather that’s only one meaning. It can be like a syncopation in language, too, insofar as it’s the failure to sound a tone on an accented beat (see this Wikipedia entry).

But let’s not get too technical. Basically, I guess that in his more ideological moments, Adorno tried to argue that the syncopated rhythms of some modern music (and yes, he was referring to one of my favourite musical forms, jazz — although apologists have tried to cut him some slack by saying that he only heard “dixieland” kitsch, not John Coltrane; I doubt it: Coltrane was available for Adorno to hear, and he probably did) suggested a cutting out of consciousness by dint of a martial (or at best: synchronised, typical of machine-made mass production) pounding that homogenised everything to the same common denominator. While the masses were boogeying and messin’ around, Adorno sat back and said they were undifferentiated and bereft of true individuality.

I’ve always resented that, but just now, hoping to multitask (or escape vicariously in multiple ways, take your terminally unconscious, undifferentiated pick), I had to admit that maybe he had a point.

Moyers is trying to make some fairly subtle points in his essay, and you’re not likely to grasp them if your ears are assaulted in Dolby Stereo by sonic booms in rhythms syncopated to deny beginning, middle, end. Just constant rupture. Boom, boom, boom: explosion upon explosion.

Soul Freedom argues for connections. Moyers talks about the Baptists, and their search for freedom of religion way back in the 17th century American colonies. He talks about how these ideas made their way into the American Constitution, which sought to assure freedom of religion:

Unlike the Old World that had been wracked with religious wars and persecution, the government of America would take no sides in the religious free-for-all that liberty would make possible and politics would make inevitable. The First Amendment neither inculcates religion nor inoculates against it. Americans could be loyal to the Constitution without being hostile to God, or they could pay no heed to God without fear of being mugged by an official God Squad.[More…]

And, being written on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of 9/11, it talks about the new God Squads who take their power from the Koran. As Moyers points out, “Yes, the Koran speaks of mercy and compassion and calls for ethical living. But such passages are no match for the ferocity of instruction found there for waging war for God’s sake.” But the mission of all God Squads isn’t just to deal with life & death in a cut-and-dried manner (killing “infidels”); it also revolves around controlling the minds of the living. Through fear, for example. If you can fill people’s hearts with fear, then “people will give up the risks of democracy for the assurances of security; fill that heart with fear and you can shake the house to its foundations.”

But it’s not just the Koran that’s full of blood lust. The Bible is just about the same:

Yes, I know: the early church fathers, trying to cover up the blood-soaked trail of God’s sport, decreed that anything that disagrees with Christian dogma about the perfection of God is to be interpreted spiritually. Yes, I know: Edward Gibbon himself acknowledged that the literal Biblical sense of God “is repugnant to every principle of faith as well as reason” and that we must therefore read the scriptures through a veil of allegory. Yes, I know: we can go through the Bible and construct a God more pleasing to the better angels of our nature (as I have done.) Yes, I know: Christians claim the Old Testament God of wrath was supplanted by the Gospel’s God of love [See The God of Evil, Allan Hawkins, Exlibris.]

I know these things; all of us know these things. But we also know that the “violence-of-God” tradition remains embedded deep in the DNA of monotheistic faith. We also know that fundamentalists the world over and at home consider the “sacred texts” to be literally God’s word on all matters.

Inside that logic you cannot read part of the Bible allegorically and the rest of it literally; if you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection, and the depiction of the Great Judgment at the end times you must also believe that God is sadistic, brutal, vengeful, callow, cruel, and savage — that God slaughters. Millions believe it.[More…]

Which brings us back to the pesky Baptists and their demand for religious freedom. What we have now, with Generals (Boykin, eg.) waging war in the name of the Christian God and evangelists calling for political murder, is loss of what Moyers calls “soul freedom.”

Our democratic values are imperiled because too many people of reason are willing to appease irrational people just because they are pious. Republican moderates tried appeasement and survive today only in gulags set aside for them by the Karl Roves, Bill Frists and Tom DeLays.

Democrats are divided and paralyzed, afraid that if they take on the organized radical right they will lose what little power they have. Trying to learn to talk about God as Republicans do, they’re talking gobbledygook, compromising the strongest thing going for them — the case for a moral economy and the moral argument for the secular checks and balances that have made America “a safe haven for the cause of conscience.” [More…]

You gotta read this essay, for Moyers’s adumbration of the soul includes the political-economic belly, too. Just don’t syncopate your conscious understanding…

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