Nelson McKeeby talks about New American Romanticism in Peterborough, New Hampshire. October 3rd, 2015
It had been a number of years since I met Nelson McKeeby, and I had been young at the time, but as he is apparently a Midwesterner and I am recovering from the same issue I decided to hear him speak in Peterborough. The discussion was his proposed concept of American Romanticism, or rather the emergence of a new romantic movement to counter what he saw as increasingly dangerous destruction of civility, logic, and clear thought some segments of American society. This is my own notes on what he said rendered into sort of a thesis statement that one could use for a college course, if one was inclined.
I was at a Republican party meeting, I go to these because I am nominally a member of that party and I like the sense of having some political say in society, when the conversation predictably drifted to what we would do with our muslim, black, foreign born, president. It was a conversation between six men, women are rarely invited to these things unless they keep quiet and are well behaved, and they were angry as hell. This was nothing new to me. White Republican men had been angry as hell all through the 1990s, and this was just a new phase of it. The education system, left to wander the dusty roads of inward thinking, had slowly abandoned these people in favor of training less and less relevant younger thinkers, and in the process had also abandoned them to Fox News.
And here I stood, my Libertarianism expressed through being a sex positive queer heterosexual male who was basically non-violent as a follower of the Quaker church, and who was neurodiverse but able to understand what these men were saying. Not because I was one of them exactly or agreed, but because I knew some powerful forces in society had failed them. The liberal movement, which brought such wonderful advancements to our society, had also attacked the more liberal sides of religion and forced these men away from compromise. To them white male was becoming a curse word used by the elite to explain why they should work shitty jobs, loose their pensions, and be humiliated. And education had quit trying to teach the nature of objective thinking to anyone in over a decade. It had started with far left thinkers needed to make sure that logical thought pattens did not reveal the vacuity of their answers to societies problems, but it was jumped on by the far right who loved the idea that truth was only a subjective reality that could be discarded for any reason by the powerful when it became inconvenient.
And yet for the failure of the left, the evil shadows of the right were starting to cast a pall on human thinking. The men around me were no longer rational thinkers but thinkers who could no longer be counted on to tell fact from fancy. Endless years of soft-headed thinking from talk radio hosts, and mindless hours of Fox News generated mental terrorism, had left the strength of the American people, its rural exo-center, unable to fight off the disease of propaganda. Years ago they had been right to question if affirmative action improved living conditions for people of color. Now they questioned the assumption that people of color deserved equal billing in "their nation", a nation that they defined as one who only the white northern European claims to originalism are recognized.
And then things started to get evil. I remember when my father heard on an evil man's radio show that he could not afford to allow people who disagreed with this man to live in the country. The second amendment to the United States constitution, ceased to be about protecting yourself during the interval when the government is racing to provide universal protecting in times of trouble, and began to be about using the weapons intended on defense to kill people who looked and spoke differently, under the assumption their inability to agree with the people who owned the source of propaganda made them un-American, and thus liable for death at the hands of you.
And let me be clear here that 2015 is the edge of the precipe. This is the year that declares to us that the forces of a new war faces the American people. It is a war that the other side has been tooling up to fight for years. It is like World War Two, or the Civil War, in that the forces of civilization have woken up damn near too late to even join the fight that the other side has been hiding weapons and material to fight for years. And like both of those wars, the results of the fighting will be existential to the very meaning of our society. If the other side wins, we will die as a idea under the weight of barbarism created by the very people who claim they want to fight it, that are telling us to close our eyes and brown, yellow, red, green, orange, and silver are turned from colors in our coloring boxes to some form of evil.
So what will our downfall look like? It will not look like what you think, because the war is not going to be fought by the weapons that the other side is planning to fight with. They will build concentration camps, separating children from parents, swabbing cheeks for DNA, and getting a few citizens caught up by accident. They will alienate our friends around the globe so that as we fall, no one hands us a line. They will rally thousands, a minority of us, but still loud and deadly, and they will one by one call out the thinkers, the creatives, the scientists, and the most honorable of us. They will use lies openly sure they cannot be caught. They will use corruption where we cannot. They will use hate hoping we turn hate against them. They will use God's love to justify all sorts of evil. And they will, like the NAZI of the 1930s and the Slavers of the 1850s, seem to win every battle, destroying our honest law enforcement, killing the ideas of checks and balances, subverting the courts, and forcing the men and women of ethics to say only the words handed to them, written on paper that burns when it is read. And when the forces of good are in retreat, when Bull Run is fought and lost, and Corregidor's valiant defenders, a mixed race of the bravest of us all, march into the hell of concentration camps, we will sit in horror and wonder what can be done to save us.
And that is when we will remember that once before a battle was being fought just like this. As we march to a new Crack in Time, it behooves us to consider 1968 and the moment when lies and hatred almost triumphed over the will of the common people, and the single thing that saved us all... Love.
That is correct. In 1968 the same forces that threaten us now were making an attempt to take us over as a people. They used the threat of a foreign adversary, a feeling of alienation by a small part of the people of the land, a bizarre and never ending war fought in a way that questioning its meaning meant questioning the soldiers who did little but do what they were told, and a government who made the choice in that year to lie to its people. And here I do not mean lie on any regular scale, but to lie in a way that the very fabric of the universe started to shift, tearing holes into other dimensions through which all sorts of chaos could slip into the thinking of people. That was a Crack in Time which many of my stories refer to. The crack that was only sewn together by people announcing that they would not longer follow the propaganda of a sick government lead by the most evil of us, but would instead watch Nichelle Nicholes and William Shatner kiss, one of the first times a person who identified as African American and a person who identified as White had kissed as more or less equals on stage. It was a forced kiss, a kiss that should not have been, a kiss camouflaged by a story line. That kiss though saved the universe.
This is the second where art mattered. It is also the point where the evil men and women who are marching us to Ragnarok fear, because it is such a small thing. It is the idea that romanticism using tools like surrealism, metafiction, hypernarration, and biomythography, words our dictionaries do not even let us write in many cases, sneaks into the middle of public thought and says No Pasa aqui! And it will be the artists and the common people who block evil and send it back where it started.
My own artistic journey, in this case a music path, could almost be measured from a day in 1987 when I was in Central Mexico, alone, scared, and without much money, when I heard the band Caifanes playing to a group of Mexican youth that somehow included me in the middle. My own artistic journey could be said to have started in the back yard of a house in Saint Petersburg in the 1970s, but the reality was my first gestalt of higher order thinking came right them in D-R when I was listening to a band I could not really understand, in the middle of tens of thousands of people whom, it turns out, understood me better than I could possibly have realized. These were people who lived in a series of shadows, under a giant church, under an careless government, beneath the weight of poverty, of history, of a land that was not always friendly to the people who lived in it. They lived amongst the ruins of a people who were both predecessors and who were very much still part of them, a shadow world within the shadow world. And yet they were bright like sunshine.
The people of Mexico do not have to prepare for a coming war. They have been fighting it for years, a war for them where art each generation clears them just enough of a path through the corruption and venality of their rulers to squeeze through. It was listening to one of their songs that I realized art was addressing a very deep cultural need for reflectance and understanding.
Cuando me muera y me tengan que enterrar
Quiero que sea con una de tus fotografías
Para que no me de miedo estar abajo
Para que no se me olvide como es tu cara
Para imaginar que estoy contigo
Y sentirme un poquito vivo
When I die and they have to bury me
I want it to be with one of your photographs
So do not be afraid of being down
So I do not forget how your face is
To imagine that I am with you
And feel a little bit alive
Caifanes saw itself as carrying on the tradition of King Crimson. Although hipper and closer to a British Pop song of the era, the words of Matenme Porque Me Muero were harder hitting and more thought provoking than most British tunes of the era, and required one to go back to the music of Iggy Pop and the Passenger to feel the angst and the desire for societal change that the punk movement brought with it.
I left that music stand and indeed Mexico hyper aware that my own vision that would eventually detect this coming crack in time was imperfection, but that in my imperfection, perhaps I was achieving an artistic clarity. In photography there is a theory called Zone of Confusion. Without diving deep into the math, the idea of zone of confusion is that the less detail available to the eye in the form of usable data, either because the eye lacks the receptors or because there is less light available than receptors to decode it, the more the eye will see a picture in clear focus when mathematically only a small amount of it can possibly be accurately rendered. A perfect rendition of an object many meters away made of many tens of billions of molecules would be a rendition that would in essence be useless, since the detail could only be taken in as small views, creating no opportunity for gestalt. Gestalt can only occur in that situation by an imperfection of vision. In essence, by squinting, you may have a better view.
What this means is that by visiting Mexico, I was able to see a society that I was always squinting at both because I totally lacked context with which to judge the society, but also because my language barrier created a natural iris through which the data that flowed to me had to be parsed, and the result was actually a great clarity of the foundations of the people I was living and traveling with. In Mexico more than once I gained employment with a machete, usually cutting agave or cane. The men who worked with me worked as I did, in a shirt and pants, old shoes, and with a hat often made of straw. When work was done though they would wash off under a pipe, and each would carefully put on a new set of clothing. They wore colorful trousers, beautiful cowboy boots, belts made from tough but finely tooled leather, shirts that were finely made but rugged, cowboy hats that were like cockades for a rooster, and finally, no matter how hot it was, a sports coat and a tie of some sort.
A tourist who perhaps did not recognize me as a fellow countryman remarked loudly how odd it was that the Mexican workers liked to pretend they were better off than they were by dressing as cowboys. And suddenly I understood how my own working amongst these men had allowed me to see them not by learning their last detail, which was impossible, but by allowing me the opportunity to block out enough light to see the truth of the gestalt. They were proud men who gave respect by how they dressed. They wore a coat to dinner because this was how they said to their wife and children that they respected them. They did not wear clothes as I might, to proclaim a demand for respect, but instead to show that by careful attention to their appearance they were honoring the men they worked with, the women who they lived with, and the town they belonged to. And there I found a truth. In Mexico, clothing often has to be decoded because it is not just about what Erving Goffman in Presentation of Self in Everyday Life believed, as witnessed by his statement, “...and to the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.” The men I worked with wore clothing primarily as a means of demonstrating in a world where they had little control over their social image that they considered the people around them worth extra effort. By squinting, I saw the images clearer than a tourist with the advantage of perfect panopticon vision.
Which brings this first lecture to a close, not with a complete thought, but with an incomplete one, and my first lesson in two parts. The coming war is not one of violence. They have the guns, they will steal our government, and they lack our morality with regard to life. When triggers are pulled we will appear to be defeated, and we will never win such confrontations. Instead the oncoming war is one of love, and the tools we wield are a sense of romance exemplified by the words of a Mexican music group singing that love overcomes death. The second principal I commend to you is that the other side, who can only speak with lies attached to a spotlight of ridicule, is already blinded to the truth. That the people they despise are far different than they can possible imagine, and that diversity will be the armor that protects us in our peaceful attempt to fight this new war.
Thank you for allowing me to speak to you tonight, can someone hand me back my glass of Benedictine, I think I put it down on the front table.