Thursday, March 22, 2018
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
March 18, 2018
Larry Norman was perhaps the most complex figure in 20th-century American music. He was a mess of contradictions, a singer with a message who grew more contradictory the more he tried to keep his message pure. He struggled quite visibly, grappling both with his own personal failings and with a movement that he helped start but which leapt beyond his control, mutating into something he hated and which had world-changing implications.
Who was Larry Norman? He’s one of the fathers of spiritual rock music, “the Forrest Gump of evangelical Christianity”—which puts him on the front lines of America’s culture wars, though on whose side it’s hard to say—and the subject of Gregory Alan Thornbury’s fantastic new biography, Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music? The book, titled after one of Norman’s best-known songs, draws extensively on Norman’s personal archives, where he was thoughtful and introspective about his beliefs, work, and doubts, giving Thornbury’s work a level of insight and intimacy that’s all too rare among recently published artist biographies. When it comes to telling the story of an artist, what makes a good biography is not the fame or even the talent of the book’s subject, but the complexity of the figure and how that manifests itself through their life and work. Norman’s story has this in abundance. Why Should The Devil also serves as a primer on Christian rock, a critical analysis of the genre, and a compact history of Christianity in the latter half of last century, a period where Jesus went from a counterculture hero to all outcasts to a cynically deployed tool of the religious right.
Today, Christian rock is closer to sub-emo and ska in the extent to which it is maligned by mainstream critics, a statement Norman himself would’ve likely agreed with. (He died in 2008). He was a man of faith but also an artist of integrity, who wanted to push music forward and saw no reason why spiritual music couldn’t challenge audiences and rock at the same time. He played on the same bills as The Who, the Doors, and Janis Joplin, and later jammed with members of the Sex Pistols, and appeared onstage with Pixies frontman Black Francis. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were fans; U2 and Gun N’ Roses both cited him as an influence.
There are a number of fascinating through-lines in the book, each of which arise organically from the material and are explored in depth by multiple articulate perspectives; this isn’t a book of cheap shots.
One theme centers on religious pop art in general, and whether it should be accessible enough for secular audiences or geared toward the converted, and if so, whether it should challenge or celebrate one’s faith. On top of that, there’s an analysis of faith-based art on artistic grounds, with the argument it lacks the kind of inspiration or technical skill that would make it of interest to those who appreciate craftsmanship but aren’t there for the sermon. (This argument easily applies to the recent spate of Christian films, which have a loyal audience of the already converted but don’t even try to preach to any other choir.) The book quotes a Christian record executive who dismisses the genre as “not art” and “merely propaganda,” saying “it never relies on—in fact it seems to be ignorant of—allegory, symbolism, metaphor, inner-rhyme, play-on-word, surrealism, and many of the other poetry born elements of music that have made it the highly celebrated art form it has become.”
Norman, who pushed the envelope both artistically and thematically, is at the heart of these debates. He wanted it both ways, Thornbury writes: “He wanted to rock and he wanted to talk about Jesus, he wanted to follow Jesus and to offend other followers of Jesus, for people to enjoy his music but also be discomfited by it.” Of course this pleased no one; he was “too edgy for the Jesus people and too religious for the run-of-the mill rock fans.” Christian stores didn’t stock his records and secular ones didn’t know how to categorize him. (“‘Christian psychedelic’ was hardly a category.”)
He’s a fascinating character to have at the center of a book. Like Dylan, who had his own religious phase, Norman had a combative relationship with interviewers, lashed out at any attempt to define him, and grew discomforted with his own success. But there’s another layer to this, which is that Dylan resisted narrow definitions for his own reasons, while Norman viewed himself relative to a higher power. He was essentially preaching in his concerts, which made his popularity something of a moral paradox. The more popular he became, the more his music was about him as opposed to Jesus, even though the popularity meant more people were hearing his message in the first place.
His struggles are palpable and very relatable, and they’re far more interesting than the contract disputes and behind-the-scenes anecdotes that make up so many artistic biographies. Norman has his flaws and weaknesses (failed marriages, an apparent child out of wedlock he was reluctant to acknowledge), but he’s also sincere in his message. The core of the book is what it means to truly be a Christian in the mold of Jesus, and what a life like that looks like. Certainly there’s something parable-esque about how Norman preferred spend time with “honest, albeit crass-talking” punk rockers, rather than suffering through “the pious spiritual mumbo-jumbo from his fellow CCM artists.”
There’s something exhilarating in the example Norman sets: He rails against religious institutions for their racism and other sins, and is dismayed when the Republican Party co-opts Jesus and ignores his message of love, tolerance, and helping the misfortunate. At one point he’s the subject of a smear campaign, as an establishment that doesn’t want to be questioned grows threatened by his willingness to call out all sinners, particularly those in religious power. At times he seems to take umbrage at everyone, including his own fans; he “would often stop playing [in concert] if people started clapping during his songs or singing along. His main interest was forcing his audience toward self-examination, so if people were having fun at his concert, Larry though, they probably weren’t thinking hard enough.”
Thornbury captures this personality its all its complexity, and by the end Norman seems like one of the great unsung cultural figures of the era. It’s hard to not have affection for an artist who views clichés as a sin (“maybe not to God, but to the muse of art”) and who can go from chewing out his own sound crew (“Could you turn the guitar up on the dial just past where it says ‘folk music?’ ... This is rock ’n’ roll, okay? Louder is better.”) to dismissing the genre he pioneered with a joke. “As for mixing God with rock music,” he muses at one point, “well, maybe with God all things are possible, but this was not one of them.”
By Russ McSwain
March 21, 2018
Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist, is having an enormous impact on our culture. His refusal to use legally mandated language has reverberated around the world.
He is obviously rattling leftists as they continue to make hysterical claims about him. The most recent and long-winded example comes from Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs. He published an almost twelve-thousand-word essay in that journal. It's hard to believe, but even with all those words he lands not a single blow on Peterson. He does manage to make a complete fool of himself.
His essay begins by listing an impressive group of people, including the head of Harvard's Psychology Department, who praise Peterson's work. He then sets out to try to prove them all wrong. He also lists a large number of writers who have treated Peterson unfairly. He then supersedes them all. There is no way to cover all the silliness in this piece, but I can explain a few of the problems in it. If you think I'm making this stuff up, by all means, read the whole messy, wordy essay.
Robinson has a long windup. There are many long paragraphs with snide remarks and hand-crafted editing designed to make Peterson look vague. The man is anything but vague. Finally, we arrive at the first factual disagreement with Peterson. In the famous interview with Cathy Newman, Jordan said that you now have more female than male doctors, and the trend in that direction is accelerating.
Robinson tells us there are not more female than male physicians either in the U.S. or Canada. (In context, you can hear the rim shot.) It's worth dwelling on this supposed killer line. Peterson was in England being interviewed by Newman. His English interviewer is pelting him with questions about the lack of female executives in England. Jordan explained that women are often drawn to alternative professions. For example, you, in England, have more female doctors than male. That's what he said, and he is correct. Don't take my word or his. Invest thirty minutes to watch a truly intelligent and, under the circumstances, gracious person at work in that half-hour interview.
While it's worth noting that trends in the medical profession in North America are moving in the English direction, the current ratios are not germane to the conversation Jordan and Ms. Newman had about England. It is fair to ask: was Robinson trying to slip one by, like a Clintonian lawyer, or is he just sloppy in his thinking? I think it's a combination of both in roughly equal measure. He, like many of his peers on the left, is half-cocked. That phrase will come in handy later.
The original basis for Peterson's worldwide notoriety is his objection to being compelled to use legally mandated language. This is a huge step beyond the current Canadian laws, which prohibit and criminalize certain speech. Robinson denies that the law does any such thing and that it's crazy to think speech would be criminalized. The link he provides looks moderate enough. It's the text of the law that simply adds gender pronouns to existing hate speech law. Robinson is careful not to link to the existing law, but we easily grasp its content by noting that the amendment is to the Criminal Code. I'm not a lawyer, so instead of the legal text, here is Wikipedia on that criminal code. Peterson is right.
Again, I don't think Robinson is lying. There is a funny space that some people on the left occupy that blinds them to facts. They are just very odd people.
To paint Peterson as a space cadet, Robinson presents a "random" transcript of 17 minutes of a YouTube lecture. He then dares the reader to read all the way through because it's so spacey. I lost the dare. In print, the lecture is full of anecdotes and asides that make it hard to follow. But if you have 17 minutes and have not watched Peterson, this YouTube lecture is a good one to start with. As a lecture, it is enlightening, in places very funny, and finally at the end a little sad. Two thoughts: Robinson may have shot himself in the foot, as some of his cohorts might actually watch this video. They will see Robinson in the same negative light as I do.
If you believe the claim that this video, which clearly does not translate to print, was selected "at random," please come to Florida, because I have some prime land for you. In today's world, you'll make a fortune growing oranges.
One of the reasons why unfettered speech is vitally important is that it's our only alternative to violence. Peterson makes a couple of recurring points here. One is that he, like most men, knows how to stand up to other men who have unfairly trespassed. We all know that in a serious – say again, serious – dispute, things can get physical. Peterson says in a variety places that no one respects a man who makes it clear that under no circumstances will he stand up for himself. His second point is that physical force is clearly prohibited between men and women. It is forbidden, and for good reason. But that prohibition can put men in an untenable position. It is important to recognize that problem.
Robinson reads this prohibition as Peterson regretting that he can't hit a woman. That's pretty amazing. Here is the video in question.
Decide for yourself. But our man doesn't stop there. He stoops to the lowest of all internet tactics: he quotes from the comments section. I never know who is serious or even who is, in a case like this, a troll saying things I've never heard right-of-center people say. I think Robinson understands the problem. Not for lack of trying, I can't find a place to leave comments on the Current Affairs website.
A recurring theme in Peterson's work is the need to fix yourself before you reform the world. The world is made up of complex systems. It requires a competence to change a complex system for the better. It is much easier to destroy a complex system than it is to improve it. One step on the road to competence is to fix yourself. Peterson says to develop some competence. Clean your room before you try to reform the whole world. While he means that literally, he also means it metaphorically.
This sends Robinson into a frenzy of lists of things that people like him aim to fix, and these things are of greater importance than a tidy room. He completely ignores competence. I do not have space here to debate all the issues, but it is clear that many of the reforms designed to help the disadvantaged have done more harm than good. Rather than get too far afield, I'll say just this: black unemployment is at an all-time low and continuing to improve. Liberals, progressives, socialists, or whatever had nothing to do with that. Programs they want to implement will actually undo this progress.
A final point: There is a paradox. Like me and many other folks on the right, Peterson is a fan of the socialist George Orwell. Virtually everyone knows 1984 and Animal Farm. Few people are familiar with The Road to Wigan Pier. It is a fabulous book that is divided in half. The first half is a heartbreaking picture of the brutality of working-class life in early 20th-century England. It catalogs what the left wants to call the contradictions of capitalism. But it's not that at all. It paints a clear picture of the deprivations caused by the social and personal disruptions of moving from near subsistence farming to an industrial economy. It's terrible, but so is what came before it.
Peterson spends many lectures movingly describing these deprivations. He is also, like many of us, interested in the second half of the book. In it, Orwell describes his total disgust with socialists. They are not interested in alleviating suffering. They are smug, resentful, bratty snobs who want to strike out at people. That pushed Peterson away from socialism, as it did me and many other people.
Robinson says we should work on our reading comprehension, because here is Orwell's conclusion: "To recoil from Socialism because so many socialists are inferior people is as absurd as refusing to travel by train because you dislike the ticket-collector's face."
I read that line as a teenager. My opinion has not changed: Orwell was wrong. Socialism puts the government in charge of all economic resources. When people realize they and all their relatives are mere economic resources, then the depraved nature of individual socialists takes on paramount importance. They are the inferior people who under socialism run everything – run it badly and run it cruelly. We see that in every instance, in every part of the world, where socialism's been implemented. When Orwell wrote Wigan Pier, socialists were neither nice nor competent. In Robinson, we can all see that they've gone downhill. Had Orwell lived to see the drivel published by Current Affairs, it's quite likely he'd rethink that quotation.
It is possible that Mr. Robinson's room is neat and tidy. His magazine and his writing are not. His work is creepy in its dishonesty. He should clean up his act. That would start with an apology for the garbage he's spread in this essay. When that's done, maybe we'll listen to his ideas for reforming the world. Well, maybe.
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
The mess of a CIA operation had horrific consequences for the organized crime scene back in the United States.
By Seth Ferranti
March 19, 2018
In April 1961, about 1,500 Cuban exiles trained and backed by the CIA set out to invade and overthrow the Fidel Castro regime. The Bay of Pigs operation, as it has since become notoriously known, was, of course, an unmitigated disaster—those exiles who weren't killed by well-prepared pro-Castro forces were rounded up and imprisoned until the Kennedy Administration was able to negotiate their release. The fiasco not only helped lay the groundwork for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but generally made the United States look like shit.
The mess of a CIA operation had long-term consequences for the organized crime scene back in the United States, too. Among those members of Brigade 2506—the would-be-liberators of Cuba—released back to American custody in 1962 was José Miguel Battle, Sr., a former Havana cop. He went on to reinvent himself in the US as El Padrino, a "Godfather" of the Cuban-American Mafia. Thanks in part to his connections to both legendary Italian mafiosi and the Havana underworld, he became a sort of king of the numbers racket in the New York/New Jersey metro area. With criminal interests all along the Eastern seaboard, Battle’s run continued into the George W. Bush era, when he and his son were finally arrested in 2004. Numbers, murder, and drugs—El Padrino seemed to outlast politics itself in a ruthless bid for power and riches.
In his new book, The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld, out March 20, the master of true crime TJ English explores the life of the Cuban mob boss who, the author concluded, consciously modeled himself on Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone as he got older. VICE caught up with English about his new book and where El Padrino ranks in the chronicles of gangster lore. Here’s what he had to say.
VICE: What do you think José Miguel Battle learned as a vice cop in Havana that would help him head a criminal empire in the United States?
He learned how corruption works and how the world operates. How organized crime is a conduit between the upper world (the business and political class) and the underworld (the criminals and gangsters). Battle delivered the skim from the casinos to the presidential palace. He was the go-between, the bagman between Meyer Lanksy and President Fulgencio Batista and his government. Battle really understood how you needed to take care of people within the system. Payment would be made to whoever needed.
When he got to the United States and wanted to set up this gambling empire revolving around a numbers racket, or what Latinos called “bolita,” he knew if it was properly organized, it could be a goldmine. Part of organizing it was making sure he cleared it with the necessary Mafia figures in the United States. He set up meetings, through Santo Trafficante, with all the key Mafia figures in the New York/New Jersey area and started this bolita enterprise, which was quite vast and profitable on many levels.
It's remarkable that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion seemed to ultimately bring together the men who would become the Cuban Mafia in America. But given the way things were run in Batista's Cuba, it's not exactly shocking, right?
A lot of the Mafia figures and Cubans who were displaced by the revolution were angry. They had lost money, property, and belongings, had been unceremoniously kicked out of the country, and wanted to take Cuba back. They had a mutual interest with the CIA and the US government, who saw the Communist government of Fidel Castro as a threat, and wanted to overthrow it. All these elements—the Mafia, the CIA, and the Cuban exiles—formed a coalition and became determined to kill Castro and take back Cuba. The biggest initiative in that effort was the Bay of Pigs invasion. The men from this botched invasion, including Battle, became the foundation of The Corporation.
A lot of Americans' frame of reference for Cuban gangsters is probably still Brian De Palma’s Scarface, which emphasizes the Mariel boatlift of Cubans into Florida. How did Al Pacino's Tony Montana compare to the real man they called El Padrino?
José Miguel Battle was more of an establishment figure, the guy with lots of connections in the upper world. Tony Montana was a refugee, a guy with nothing, from the lowest level of the gutter who rose up. El Padrino was much more of an old-school don, because of his understanding of how the system worked. But the Mariel boatlift did have an impact on The Corporation. When they arrived in New Jersey and Miami, they were immediately integrated into the criminal underworld, and they were the kinda guys who would do the type of criminal assignments that other people might not be willing to do. Murders, all kinds of hard-line criminal activities. Some of the most violent criminal activity was done by the Marielitos, as they were called.
Like plenty of real-life and fictional mob figures, El Padrino didn’t exactly take kindly to betrayals. But the incident with his one-time protege Ernesto Torres—whom he is said to have ordered killed—was the closest he came to hard time in prison before he actually got nabbed in 2004, right?
Ernesto Torres was known to the organization as El Hijo Prodigo, the prodigal son. He was this young kid, 19-years-old, who showed talent as a gangster and as a killer. He started out pretty much as a hitman: One of his first missions was to try to avenge the murder of Battle's brother. Battle saw him as someone he could mentor and shape, maybe even to take over the organization. Others in the organization couldn't quite understand it, because this guy Torres wasn't very bright and didn't seem like the kind of guy who would make a good leader. Ernesto was always broke. He started kidnapping other bankers in the organization, and holding them for ransom money.
Eventually, Torres did the unthinkable and shot one of the kidnapped bankers. The guy survived, but Torres almost killed him. The other bankers told Battle that he had to do something about it because this guy was a loose cannon.
[After Torres's death], Battle was put on trial for conspiracy and found guilty on one of the counts. It looked like he was going to be put away for a long time—his reign was over. Torres's girlfriend had testified against him, but Battle beat that charge on a technicality. He got a lighter sentence. When there was some belief that he would be tried again using the girlfriend as a witness, the organization took care of that situation by murdering her before that trial could ever take place.
El Padrino was eventually brought down due to the dogged pursuit of one law enforcement official—David Shanks—whom you had access to. Why do you think he made bringing down this mafioso his career?
David Shanks was just a Miami cop who came into the story of The Corporation kind of late. By the time he was involved, Battle had moved from New Jersey down to Miami, and the Corporation had been up and running for a least 15 years or 20 years in the New York area, and was now moving its operations. David Shanks was the guy who had worked organized crime, particularly street gambling and money laundering. He's one of the guys who first comprehended, I think, the full scope of what the Corporation was all about. He did a lot of it through tracking the money and how the money was being laundered by a kind of a check-cashing scheme, and he had connected that money-laundering scheme to the organization itself. He investigated them for about 20 years.
How do stories that teeter in the grey areas of politics and crime, like the ones you are so inclined to write, reflect on what’s going on today in that arena in our country?
If you don't understand the history and the workings or organized crime in America, you can't understand America. That's how intertwined they are, and always have been, and still are. We talk often about how the mafia diminished and all that, and, of course, it has. But I don't think the corrupt mandate that created organized crime has diminished at all. It just keep taking on new forms and new shapes depending on what the dominant racket is in any given era at any given time. At one time it was illegal booze. Then it was sort of labor racketeering, and then it was narcotics. Any number of things. Political corruption and law enforcement corruption is always part and parcel to what makes the world go around. I don't think that's changed much.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about English's new book, which drops Tuesday, here.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.