“American Pie” Is a Reactionary Political Whine

American PieIn the first band I was ever in, the first song we did was “American Pie.” I’m not sure why. It wasn’t a song I was particularly fond of. It was probably because it was easy, although certainly “Wild Thing” would have been easier. It is a song that has largely been given a free ride over the years with his jumbled lyrics about the history of rock music. It is an okay song, but overall tedious and too long.

Earlier this year, Don McLean auctioned off the original lyric sheet for the song. He got over a million dollars for it. But he also claimed that the notes would reveal all there was to reveal. And what they revealed were really obvious things like the “the king” being Elvis and “the jester” being Dylan. I’ve never found the song particularly mysterious. It seems designed to make listeners feel good about themselves for figuring out its transparent metaphors.

Something else “revealed” by McLean was that the song was about the death of the rock-n-roll that he loved as a kid. He said, “[Life] is becoming less idyllic.” You know what that’s called: growing up. Everyone thinks “life” was more idyllic when they were kids because, you know, they were kids — life was more idyllic. Nothing had happened to the music other than what had always happened: it continued to grow and evolve.

The other night, I was thinking about the song and the obvious hit me: it’s a reactionary political song. It’s the pop music equivalent of “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s one big — eight and a half minute — whine about how the hippies had ruined everything. The song makes continual reference to Christianity. This has generally been interpreted as the spiritual side of music, “Can music, save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?” But that isn’t really what he seems to be getting at.

The motivation behind “American Pie” is McLean’s complaint about growing up and the loss of innocence. So he’s just grabbed onto the cultural signifiers of the time that allow him to say “Now is bad, then was good.” And give the sad sap content of the album — with songs like “Empty Chairs” and “Vincent” — we get a clear picture of adolescent discontent. (Yes, I know he was 25 at the time.) And he reached for a convenient excuse for his displeasure — his parents and that “stuck-up girl in history class” no longer fitting the bill.

It’s ironic that McLean’s big whine would turn out to be exactly what he was complaining about: rock-n-roll with an over-serious, pseudo-intellectual gloss, ultimately stripped of its power. And the rest of his career is one of easy listening pop and country. There were people around who were doing the kind of rock music that he claimed to miss: The Troggs and Velvet Underground to name just two. But “American Pie” is not about the music. His discontent was with life. And he’s way off target. “American Pie” could have been written in 1957 as a complaint about how Buddy Holly had destroyed music.

We Atheists Should Admit We Might Be Murderers

Lauren NelsonIn the Friendly Atheist section of Patheos, Lauren Nelson wrote, Before You Claim the UCC Shooting Was About Christian Persecution, Consider All the Evidence. It’s a relatively deep dive into whether the shooter was an atheist and whether this had anything to do with singling out Christians. And the answer to the first question is clearly no. He certainly had a problem with organized religion, but he doesn’t seem to have been an atheist. We now have some indication that the answer to the second question is also no.

But I think it is a mistake to make such an argument. Implicit in it is the claim that an atheist wouldn’t target random people for execution as an expression of atheism. That might not be the case here, but given the frequency of mass shootings, it may well happen — and soon. And then atheists will be in the same place that Christians now find themselves: committing the no true Scotsman fallacy. We’ll have to listen to people claiming that anyone who really understood the tenets of atheism wouldn’t have committed this horrible act.

I am an atheist, but I know the atheist community far too well to rely on this. There are many atheists who get mad at me for saying this, but there really is a strong connection between atheism and libertarianism. Atheism doesn’t necessarily turn someone into a humanist. Many atheists feel it is perfectly acceptable to let human beings die in the name of their primitive economic theories. In general, they don’t think it is all right to explicitly kill others. But it is hardly far off the beaten path. Ayn Rand was very much enamored with serial killer William Hickman and Nietzsche’s Übermensch. It doesn’t take any effort at all to actually become the serial killer and imagined Übermensch.

But there is a more fundamental point here. Humans are clever. It does not take much to use just about anything to justify something that you did or want to do. True, it would be harder to justify murder using Jainism than Judaism. But I feel certain it can be done. And atheism is a hell of a lot closer to Judaism than it is to Jainism — at least judging from the way that prominent atheists talk. So I think we atheists ought to give our theist brothers and sisters a break. We should just assume that some very prominent horrific act has already been committed by an outspoken and clear atheist.

Does this mean that atheism is bad? Not at all. It is just an acknowledgement that people use all kinds of things to justify their terrible behavior. And that would allow my fellow atheists to better see that the acts terrorists, lone gunmen, and Republican politicians do not necessarily say anything about the religion of those people. If there is one lesson from religion that I wish that atheists would learn, it would be the dangers of hubris taught in the Old Testament. As a group, we atheists are very full of ourselves. I would hate for me and my philosophy to be judged on the basis of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Prank Discloses Fraud of Mainstream News

Jon HendrenLast week, Edward Snowden got his own twitter account. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, because I just thought that he would have had one. But what surprised me even more was that a lot of conservatives were outraged by this. For example, George Pataki Calls for Twitter to Censor Edward Snowden’s Tweet, Because America. Given the controversy, HLN (used to be Headline News) decided to bring some people on to discuss the issue. That was their first mistake, because it isn’t a controversy — just an example of conservatives demagoguing an issue, and that is not news.

To speak for the side that believes in the First Amendment, HLN wanted to get John Hendren — the correspondent for Al Jazeera English. But instead, they got Jon Hendren — a computer nerd who is apparently also a comedian and troll. In one way, it’s an understandable mistake. Jon is far more famous on twitter than John. And this was all about twitter, after all. In another way, it’s not understandable: Jon Hendren’s twitter handle is @fart. It is even displayed on the screen while he’s talking.

This video clip is three and a half minutes long. It’s quite normal for the first two minutes of that. But I recommend watching the whole thing:

I don’t think I’ve seen anything that funny in months. It reminds me of Bob and Ray’s Komodo Dragon sketch. The joke in that sketch is that the interviewer is not listening at all to what the interviewee is saying. And the joke is repeated again and again. But that’s planned. Here, Yasmin Vossoughian isn’t in on it. She just is in real life what Bob and Ray’s interviewer was: someone not in the least bit interested in the story or the people involved in it. And the comedic genius of Hendren is that he pushes it to the point that anyone even vaguely paying attention would have noticed.

We shouldn’t vilify Vossoughian, because she is but a typical example of the mainstream news. I’ve seen this same thing over and over again with politicians. The conservative movement has used this fact to their advantage. It allows them to normalize extreme positions. It is not at all hard to imagine a politician saying, “All undocumented residents should be put into work camps,” and have that followed up with, “And you think this is a position that will play well in the coming election?”

That’s what really bothers me. It is very much like we no longer have news. We have entertainers playing the part of people bringing us the news. That’s why they so love things like last week’s mass shooting: they know just how real journalists would act in those situations. There’s little concern of error. But when it comes to covering issues where there are two disputed sides, they are lost. So if Ted Cruz announces that all the Jews must be killed, they will just go for it, thinking that it is just one of those things that Republicans now think.

To his credit, after Jon Hendren appeared on HLN, he tweeted:

For the people watching HLN, I doubt it made any difference.

Morning Music: The Spanish Entomologist

Greenhouse - Leo KottkeNext in our journey through the career of Leo Kottke, we have 1972’s Greenhouse. He sings a lot more on this album. And at times, he’s very good. For example, check out Tiny Island. He also does a few songs by John Fahey — probably the biggest influence on Kottke’s style. The album is a true solo album — except for the last track on the album, it is just Kottke with his guitar. And it was recorded in just three days.

The song I’ve chosen today is, “The Spanish Entomologist.” It is really too delightful for words. It’s a medley. It starts with “Grand Texas” — but you probably know it from the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” (That would be a good week of music — following that progression.) And then he transitions into the Sons of the Pioneers song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” And then back. Unfortunately, I can’t find a live version of the song, so here is the title track with nothing to look at but the album cover. Not that it matters; it’s two and a half music of joy.

Anniversary Post: Bellerophon

Star WobbleOn this day in 1995 — 20 years ago — Bellerophon (51 Pegasi b) was discovered. It was the first planet discovered to be orbiting around a Sun like star — 51 Pegasi. It was the second exoplanet ever discovered. And it is quite a planet, which destroyed some theories about solar system formation. It is a very big planet: roughly half the mass of Jupiter. But it is really close to 51 Pegasi — just 0.05 AU, which is six times closer than Mercury is to the Sun. The year on Bellerophon is four Earth days long.

Bellerophon was discovered the way that about half of all exoplanets have been discovered: with Doppler spectroscopy. I put the animation above (courtesy of Zhatt at Wikipedia) so that you would see how this works. As I’ve discussed before, Jupiter doesn’t actually orbit around the Sun; it orbits around the center of mass of it and the Sun (forget the rest of the solar system for now). But as a result, the Sun also orbits around the center of mass of the solar system.

As a result of Jupiter, the Sun wobbles — changing speed by about 12 m/s over the course of one Jupiter orbit (12 years). Since the 1990s, we’ve had equipment capable of detecting Jupiter if we were observing from another solar system. In the case of 51 Pegasi, the wobble was much greater: 70 m/s. But in the early 2000s, new systems were installed that could detect wobbles as small as 0.3 m/s. And soon, we should have systems that can detect wobbles of just 0.1 m/s. That last one is important because the Earth induces a 0.1 m/s wobble in the Sun. It’s very exciting.