Illustration by Shino Arihara
When I was in my middle teens and beginning to feel some oats as a critical thinker, I divided the world into two sets of people: those who got Electric Light Orchestra and those who didn’t. I didn’t set out on purpose to construct a character litmus test around a neo-wall-of-sound English dance band that practically nobody in my South L.A. neighborhood cared about. Passing or failing this test was really not about judgment, but enlightenment. After a few oddball friends and I agreed on the greatness of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, the musical touchstones of our day and place, we felt free to look for that greatness elsewhere. We heard the higher math of lowdown funk and glimpsed its protean soul not just in ELO but in the Eagles, Sweet and Steely Dan. To us this was homage, not heresy. Our peers who didn’t understand that we were not selling out black music but taking the bedrock musical argument of R&B and applying it wherever it made sense — well, those people would never get it, never get that black music was bigger and wider than itself, just as the Constitution was bigger than the men who wrote it. They were doomed to sit on their porches and travel little. Yet while my posse might have been frustrated with these folks’ unwillingness to recognize the true catholic spirit of the music they wanted to claim only for themselves, we did not disdain them so much as depart from them; our discoveries made us righteous but generous, and we held out hope that one day the doubters would hear “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” or “Deacon Blues” and recognize the truth. Surely it was only a matter of time.
I find the world as divided today, but find myself far less optimistic that people will see the light. My advancing age and the truly dire state of the planet means I have lost the generosity of old. There are no gray areas in which to assign people a date in the future when they’ll hear music the right way and change their minds. Right now, in my mind, the population is split between those who support the continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq and those who don’t. The war forced me into an absolutism I never had and don’t quite like, but our intellectual freedom is on the line here — the same freedom that once led me to assume ideals about music across color lines and stick with them to the death. The stakes leave me no choice. Anybody on the wrong side of the war issue is not a horse to be led to water, but a direct threat to the psychic resources and emotional resolve that I guard ever more warily, like food during famine.
I make no exceptions. I’m not planning on cutting any slack for pro-war sentiment in my family, not even for the oldest and most irascible among us. I take silence or professed neutrality as de facto support of the war; when I questioned a longtime friend about Iraq and he declared that “I don’t get involved in politics,” I immediately began to reassess being involved with him at all.
I know that Americans compartmentalize their concerns in a way that the rest of the world does not, and that my friend was probably only trying to shield us from unpleasantness. But the impulse toward avoidance is no longer anything to admire or write off as well-meaning. September 11 should have taught us that, though it’s a lesson we’ve learned badly, because when it comes to global business we don’t consider things a whit more than we’re expected to. We do not imagine or extrapolate from what is in front of us. We look at the world only to misread it or believe we can tune it out at will. Most important, as the war abroad quickens the encroachment of civil and free-speech liberties at home, I am forced to ask my friends and family to examine the whole state of the republic and offer their analysis.
The risks here are great. I am demanding opinions that I may not want to hear, that may sow seeds of irreconcilable differences between me and some people I love and thought I knew, like the friend who turned out to be apolitical. Here is a litmus test that goes beyond party politics or a single issue like affirmative action or even war itself: It is a test not of positions, but of the deep, secular faith in the democratic argument required for this country to exist at all. Because of that faith, I have been able to weather a great many disappointments in the 20-odd years since I internalized the notion that the world might be mine. That faith assures me that Bush’s bluster and endless transgressions are not bigger than the idea of the country he’s governing. He doesn’t understand the Constitution and the sanctity of American self-invention nearly as well as many of us do; for all his preaching about freedom, he can’t possibly divine the reach of its music. So he has put me on a mission of finding the faith in others, or leaving them be. I don’t have the luxury of that faith being an option. I probably never did. I may still embrace my neutral friend’s other good qualities — sense of humor, style — but when I embrace him, our fingers will never quite touch.
In the black-and-white of my new world, there is less wasted motion, there are fewer idle words. My most casual conversations produce more questions than statements. When someone not much more familiar than a stranger asks me how I am, I tend to say, “Fine, considering the war. How do you feel about it? Heard about Halliburton and those postwar contract bids? Disgraceful, isn’t it?” I had a perfectly good dynamic going with the owners of a dry cleaner I’ve been patronizing for the last year, until the day after the U.S. dropped the first bombs in Iraq. The kindly owner who once praised me for being a positive thinker asked me that morning how I was, as always, and I said okay, except for the war. Wasn’t it terrible? She paused a second before answering that the U.S. forces were already zeroing in on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and that liberation was near, thank goodness. Stunned, I announced my opposition to the whole damn enterprise and stalked out without taking my dry cleaning. (I went back some days later, but we didn’t exactly talk. I decided I could spend my money there, but nothing more.)
When my 18-year-old niece and my best friend both sent me chain-letter e-mail “prayer wheels” for the safe return of our troops, I sent back scathing replies in which I denounced the cheap sentiment and flimsy patriotism of commingling God, flags and eagles. I demanded they go back and examine history and their own notions of what America is supposed to be about, as opposed to how those notions are being currently exploited. The next day I got a sheepish reply from my friend, a churchgoer who agreed with me and admitted he had forwarded the prayer wheel somewhat unthinkingly. I was relieved, because I count him among that original posse who shared in the revelations of ELO and company; at 42, despite many setbacks in his life, he pursues his dream of being a working musician and is still among the most hopelessly idealistic people I know. This is the kind of hopelessness we could use, that I’m seeking so mercilessly. I didn’t hear back from my niece. But she’s young, still discovering the contours and potency of her own ideas, and how those ideas might benefit a world not similarly positioned but one that, 20 years from now, might still be vain or curious enough to be convinced of its own greatness. To her, I grant time.