Sunday, February 19, 2006

God's Got a Sick Sense of Humour (hopefully)

About 15 years ago I started writing a book of essays about the UK electro-pop band, Depeche Mode. I am finally in the final-final edit of the book and while doing the final read-through I found an essay which I feel is germaine to the whole Danish-anti-Muslim-comic-strip flap. In 1984, Depeche Mode released a single in the UK called "Blasphemous Rumours." The single was a flop but it caused a bit of controversy and the BBC refused to play it due to it's supposedly anti-Christian message. Interestingly enough, the JACK-FM format in the US rotates the song A LOT and I do hear it on college radio "flash-back" hours from time to time. It is a great tune, sonically speaking, and, though perhaps a bit over-wrought, asks some difficult questions about the nature of faith. So, here's the essay in its entirety.


from "Depeche Mode: Your Favorite Darkness" © 2006 by David Fulton.

‘Blasphemous Rumours’
- The enduring power of this song is best embodied in the effect it has on long-time fans when the band perform it live. In the film of 101 there is a moving and somewhat disturbing scene in which the camera captures a young woman in the throes of hysterics as she sings along with Gahan. She is given over to total emotional abandon like nothing short of Beatlemania. This moment manages to encapsulate in one stunning visual everything that needs to be understood about the relationship between Depeche Mode and its audience. The words and the music create a dialog for a voiceless and often ignored, generation of middle-class kids who have big thoughts and important concerns but lack the language and the public platform that a pop act can provide. ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ (‘BR’), though it has ceased to be featured in the band's live set since that historic Pasadena show in 1988, exemplifies the sort of song that Depeche Mode does better than any other pop act outside of U2 or REM: a song of ideas and consequence.

Musically, ‘BR’ is the band's most complex and challenging track to date. It manages to walk the line between the dark minimalism of ‘Pipeline’ and the thickly-layered sounds found on Black Celebration Indeed, ‘Pipeline’, with its sparse instrumentation blending eastern drum patterns with industrial sterility, offers an ersatz sonic template for the production crew on ‘BR’. Tension builds in both songs from the onset with enigmatic percussion signifying an almost religious solemnity. While ‘Pipeline’ is a quasi-work song, ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ suggests something no less dire than a funeral procession. In this case, the death of the god of Martin Gore's youth.

Gore presents us with two superficially similar situations involving young women. The first, a sixteen year old girl in the midst of adolescence attempts suicide because she is “bored with life.” The attempt is a failure and there is a strange, dark sarcasm from Gore who “thanks” God for the “small mercies” of “allowing” her to fall short of her intended goal of self-annihilation. The second verse deals with the girl's mother and her reaction to the events. The suicide note is read while “16 candles burn in her mind,” and the guilt and a sense of responsibility is assuaged “once again” by prayer. The chorus then kicks in; a black nursery rhyme, not unlike the one heard on ‘Everything Counts’, infuses the song with acid irony as God is giving, in the words of one critic (Neil Tennant), “a severe ticking off.” To be sure, Gore does not mince words in his accusing the Almighty of a sort of spiritual hubris. By declaring that God has a less than empathetic attitude toward the suffering of mankind, Gore is also calling into question the whole franchise of Christianity. The songwriter does not cull from the headlines, as he does later on ‘New Dress’, stories of famine and war. Instead, he chooses to focus on a home-grown microcosm of domestic, middle-class suffering. The second young woman dies after being hit by a car despite her finding “new life in Jesus Christ.” Although Gore does not explicitly say so, he is obviously outraged by the absurd irony of, on the one hand, a girl who wants to die being made to live by the grace of God while another, who was ostensibly “in love with everything” dies senselessly at the hands of a capricious fate. The world which Gore chooses to ground his discontent is assuredly the world of a decidedly English form of Christianity which buttresses the meager spiritual lives of its island-bound population with fatalism and a clock-work sensibility about the workings of the universe. It is easier, in the case of the sixteen year old suicide and the eighteen year old car crash victim, to accept the nature of “God's will” rather than to look at the underlying and often difficult questions: what drives a young girl to attempt suicide? What sort of God allows such a tragic and senseless death as the one the befalls “one of His own?” The latter is obviously the more dangerous of the two questions. To investigate the problem of why God allows suffering would mean an acceptance of three uncomfortable and disturbing possibilities - a) that of an absentee deity; a god that created and then subsequently retired, b) Gore's God of the “sick sense of humour;” a malevolent, even evil god that actually enjoys watching the travails of humankind, or c) the utter lack of God.

It is telling that the discourse that ensued upon the release of the ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ single focuses almost exclusively on the accusation of irreligion and not the difficult questions raised by Gore. The songwriter was attacked for his lack of piety and sensitivity and the debate soon became one of censorship versus free speech. Gore's inability to properly frame the debate in the press when it was his turn to speak did little to further the discussion. Eventually, the controversy wore off once the single's brief, four week stay on the singles chart ended. Sadly, little if any attention has ever been given to the significant problems raised by the song. Discussions in the modern era on the subject of God are themselves not modern and seem to begin and end with the tired dialectic of evolution and creationism. The thorny topic of the place of God in a postmodern, highly mobile, multicultural society (and I am referring specifically to the so-called “global west,” encompassing Western Europe and North America) is seldom broached with any depth on any media. The occasional ten minute back-and-forth on the BBC simply begins the approach.

What Gore is hoping to do with ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ is to express a very real, though seldom articulated, frustration with the God of Christianity. Can it offer anything other than the most rudimentary comfort, like that sought by the praying mother over her suicidal daughter, or is the faith found hollow and lacking in the late twentieth century? For Gore, the trappings and ceremonies of conventional religion are simply relics of a bygone era and what is required is a new, more relevant way into God. He will not find it on Some Great Reward, and the next album will sink him deeper into an agnostic darkness where a desperate hedonism is invoked to combat feelings of imminent doom and despair. It will nearly 20 years before Gore can imagine a God suitable to his temperment and needs. Until then, it is a long road of struggle and searching.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Letter to Congressman Brad Sherman

Brad Sherman is my Congressional Representative. He is also the House Ranking Member on the Committee on International Relations.

Congressman Brad Sherman

500 Van Nuys Boulevard, Suite 420

Sherman Oaks, CA. 91403-1791

Dear Congressman Sherman:

I recently received a communication from your office stating your position on women’s reproductive rights, hand-gun control, and the environment. While these stances are gratifying to one who adheres to traditional, Democratic progressive values, recent developments in the so-called “war on terrorism” have prompted me to write to you today.

By now I am sure you are aware of the UN report on the human rights abuses occurring at Guantanamo Bay (see enclosed article). Of particular concern is the on-going policy of violent force-feeding of prisoners by military personnel in an effort to quash hunger-striking detainees. Listening to a report of the goings-on at the camp on the CBC last week, I was sickened to hear that US soldiers are engaged in behaviors which at best could be termed abuse, and at worst, torture. How can we, as a nation, export the ideals of a liberty, democracy, and free speech if our own agents (presumably acting on our proxy in the theater of war) carry out actions associated with the worst abuses of fascists dictatorships?

More generally, I remain greatly disturbed by the status of these prisoners as “enemy combatants.” This example of what I characterize as typical White House double-speak, allows the government to maintain these individuals in legal limbo indefinitely, thus violating nearly every treaty the US has been signatory to since the Geneva Conventions.

When these detentions began three-years ago, I doubt many of us imagined that, in 2006, we would continue to house population of individuals who have never been charged with any crime, in any court, in any district (civil, federal, or military). While this circumstance alone would suffice to cause alarm in any conscientious American, the fact that our own soldiers may be responsible for the continued abuse of prisoners under our care is odious, reprehensible, and must not be allowed to stand.

Congressman, I hope you will continue to work in your capacity as ranking member of the Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Human Rights to see that these prisoners are transferred into the American criminal justice system and processed with the full complement of rights outlined in the Constitution. We cannot allow these violations of basic human freedoms to continue, and we cannot tacitly endorse torture under any circumstance.

You constituent,

David DeWitt Fulton

Force-feeding breaks protest at Guantánamo

· Lawyers say abuse has left only four on hunger strike
· Pentagon denies policy of punishing detainees

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Friday February 10, 2006


The Pentagon faced a groundswell of protest about its treatment of detainees at Guantánamo yesterday after it emerged that a hunger strike had been broken by force-feeding inmates and putting them in restraints.

Five months after inmates at Guantánamo began the strike to protest against their indefinite detention at the US naval base only four remain on hunger strike. Three of those are being force-fed with tubes through the nose, a Pentagon spokesman said.

He denied charges that the Pentagon was trying to break the hunger strike by punishing the protesters. "They are not trying to reduce the hunger strike, but they are going to feed people to protect life," he said. The feeding was administered by medical professionals in "a humane and compassionate manner" using the same process as in civilian prisons.

The spokesman said the men were stable, and their condition was being monitored by doctors - a claim disputed by lawyers who have recently visited Guantánamo. The lawyers described the four hunger strikers as being extremely ill, and said that one was close to death.

The lawyers also accused the military of trying to break the protest through painful force-feeding, or by subjecting the hunger strikers to isolation and restraints, to avoid the risk of detainees committing suicide by starvation.

"The military at Guantánamo has reacted extremely violently against the detainees who have been involved in the hunger strike protest. They have come down very harshly," said Gitanjali Gutierrez, a lawyer for the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents more than 100 inmates. Ms Gutierrez visited the base last month.

In court documents inmates have accused their jailers of being overly rough in the insertion and removal of feeding tubes - a charge the Pentagon denies. In addition, the New York Times reported yesterday that guards had strapped detainees into restraint chairs for hours at a time to prevent them from vomiting after being force-fed. Other hunger strikers have been placed in isolation for long periods, or deprived of blankets or books.

The newspaper said the tougher measures were imposed in recent weeks amid fears at the Pentagon that some of the prisoners were determined to kill themselves. Since the resort to restraints and forcefeeding there has been a steep drop in the number of hunger strikers, from 84 in December to four.

"They are abusing them psychologically, they are abusing them physically to the point where it becomes too painful to continue in the strike. They harass them until they begin to eat again," it claimed.

Amnesty International called for independent medical experts to be allowed to visit the hunger strikers.

"These fresh reports concerning the cruel treatment of hunger strikers are disturbing," Amnesty's UK director, Kate Allen, said.

There have been periodic hunger strikes at Guantánamo since the Bush administration established the prison in January 2002 to hold suspects in the war on terror beyond the oversight of the US courts. However, since last year the hunger strikes have intensified, with the inmates reportedly in despair that they will ever be released.

At the height of the protest last September more than 130 prisoners were on hunger strike, according to the Pentagon. However, detainees' lawyers fear the true numbers are even higher because the US military will only consider a detainee is on hunger strike if he misses nine consecutive meals.

The Pentagon spokesman would not be drawn yesterday on why so many detainees had abandoned their protest. However, one official said: "The hunger strike issue is more of a publicity ploy than anything else. Al-Qaida training manuals tell them what type of resistance to offer when detained."

He added: "Maybe they started eating again since it didn't work."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Annoying Bush Thing #10,092

Herr Bush’s recent pat on the back for thwarting an alleged plot to ram a plane into downtown LA’s Library Towers annoys me on many levels. For one, it is Bush and he annoys me in general. Notice the way he talks when he is trying to be authoritative… he over enunciates and goes to the nth degree to be deliberate, as though we are the ones with the coke-addled brain and the possum’s IQ. Second, it is annoying because the speech is an obvious ploy to make the clearly illegal wire taps seem worthwhile… as though Al Qaida is actually phoning the US and saying “hey, the world famous Library Towers! Let’s Rol!” As though the terrorists are as lame-brained as this administration. As though they don’t know how to communicate with each other through smoke signals and secret handshakes. But what really cheeses my potato is the fact that no one in Los Angeles was told about this alleged plot on the city’s tallest building. Mayor Villaragosa had to find out by listening to Bush’s speech:

‘"I'm amazed that the president would make this (announcement) on national TV and not inform us of these details through the appropriate channels," the mayor told The Associated Press. "I don't expect a call from the president - but somebody” – Mayor Villargosa to the AP.

What this tells me is two things: ONE, there is NO interest in really preventing terrorism. If there was, there really would be information sharing between local and federal agencies. TWO, Bush doesn’t really care about Los Angeles. So it’s worse than Kanye thinks. It’s not so much that Bush don’t care about Black people, he don’t care about PEOPLE. PERIOD. He is the narcissist’s narcissist.

In LA, we are sitting ducks and, sadly, it is just a matter of time before something happens. We are vulnerable in so many places that it is stupid to even think we could “give something away” to the terrorists (not that I am going to present any idea here.) The only hope is that the fat man in Sacramento and the legislative circus act will consider spending some time constructing some plan for ourselves rather than rely on the Feds to provide the answer.