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A COMMENTARY ON THE AMERICAN GOTHIC SCENE

So it is coming up on two weeks now since we launched the video and it has been viewed, between Facebook and youtube, just under 2000 times. We have received lots of great feedback from folks and we really appreciate people writing in and leaving comments. It’s so nice to hear. 

There is one thing that we want to address about the scene in the video that is set up like the classic American Gothic portrait. In this scene we were trying to represent both sides of the current political situation in the USA; I (Zac) am wearing a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat which would represent someone being a very strong Trump supporter and Rob is wearing a shirt that very obviously reflects the opinion of someone who loathes Trump. The problem is that most people, on the first viewing, only see the shirt and don’t see the hat, making the scene lopsided. We want to be clear that this imbalance was not our intention (though upon reflection it does seem to capture the current political landscape in the US) and also to state that our costumes don’t in any way reflect our own personal politics. They’re just costumes. 

Because Rob came from the US and I came from Spain and we only had a small window of time to shoot the video we really had no chance to review and re-do scenes. So for the better or for the worse the scenes came out just as they are. It has been noted by a few that this scene is off balance and the sides aren’t equally represented. Maybe that is what the woman (apparently the man’s daughter) is thinking in the original American Gothic portrait (?). 

Anyway this scene with the lyrics is an important one because the song is just as pertinent to the USA as to Northern Ireland.

“You ignorant American, you see it ain’t that easy, look at your own country with its democrats and republicans. And I see they have a point! There is no easy answer. It’s the misuse of power that’s creating all the fear”. 

That last line about the “misuse of power” puts me in mind of something I experienced the other day. In the news I saw a prominent American politician make a statement that was so dishonest and so full of hypocrisy that it really caused a feeling inside of me of disgust and anger. But here is the thing; it’s likely that this politician knows full well that what they are saying is both hypocritical and false, and that it is going to provoke anger. And what is more, it seems to me, is that they want this anger. It serves them. And then it leapt into my mind the scene from “Return of the Jedi” where the evil emperor is trying to turn Luke Skywalker to the dark side saying:

You want this! [referring to his lightsaber]. The hate is swelling in you now. Take your Jedi weapon. Use it! I am unarmed. Strike me down with it! Give in to your anger. With each passing moment you make yourself more my servant.” 

By taking up real anger and bitterness inside of ourselves for our political opposites is to become one side of the same coin and it’s the devil’s money. This whole video project was undertaken to make exactly this point. 

This generation of Americans are starting to get a taste of what real caustic political division is like. If we continue in this direction we have only to look at where Northern Ireland went to see what the scenery will be like. It’s an ever-shrinking world where everything has a political significance and violence ensues. Where suddenly which sports team you support makes a political statement, or what name you give your child. You won’t be allowed to enjoy certain activities, certain shows, or certain music because it will label you. Neighbors will fight with each other and report on each other. Paranoia will creep in. 

Northern Ireland has put a ton of effort into healing the rift that tore apart their society and they have done very well at healing the division – maybe better than anywhere in the world. And while as Americans we can look to them for an example of how bad things can get, we can also look to them for the best ways to combat against caustic political and cultural division, by finding the things we all love and “gather around” …food, humor, music, art, faith, nature, sports, beauty, etc. I learned a lot from folks in Northern Ireland about kindness and hospitality and about maintaining a good sense of humor. The making of this video involved many people of many different backgrounds and perspectives in essence gathering around it and we hope that it will continue on in this way into the future.

Playing for Peace

Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. Sigmund Freud didn’t like music because he didn’t like something affecting his emotions that he didn’t understand. Kurt Vonnegut said that the only proof of God needed is music. According to Bono, “music can change the world because it can change people”. Really? Is music all that? It’s always there isn’t it? In the store, at the gym, with every show on TV. You could say it has even become trite because it is so commonplace. But try removing it. What would happen?

Just the other day I watched the newly released film “Brooklyn” about a young woman who leaves her family in Ireland and moves to New York in the 1950’s. In one scene where she is volunteering at Christmas time, a man stands up and sings an Irish ballad. You can hear the heartache. I was even tempted to cry and I am not even Irish. Actually, I’ll just go ahead and admit that I did cry which is really ridiculous when you think about it – sitting there with my popcorn having nothing at all to do with Irish immigrants in New York in the 1950’s, a big salty tear coursing down my cheek. But I will have you know – I did play rugby.

When I was playing rugby we would put on AC-DC’s “Thunderstruck” and start throwing each other around on the bus just prior to arriving at our match. We would pull up in the parking lot and pile off the bus like a pack of wild dogs with that song thrumming through our veins. And with every victory it was “We are the Champions” by Queen at the top of our voices. I hear those songs now and I am right there back on the bus.

The connective power of music is extraordinary. It links us to memories, to people, places and cultures, to products (unfortunately); some would say it connects us to God or the ethereal. It has even been proven that music has the capacity to rebuild neural pathways in victims of a stroke. And it is great for building peace.

I have been a musician to peace and reconciliation gatherings in the Balkans a number of times. I also spent a year in Belfast working with the reconciliation programme at Edgehill College. I played tunes to students, ex-combatants, ministers and priests, women’s groups and for a film we made. We even did some work with folks from Moldova. Every time I experienced the strange power of music and rhythms; sometimes helping to heal, other times bringing out a smile or a thought – each time making a connection.

Once an acquaintance of mine was conducting a seminar in Colorado with a bunch of dignitaries from Sudan. He called me hoping I could come and play some music for the folks because he said the atmosphere was tense. I was completely lost standing there with my guitar in front of these folks from Sudan. What do I play? I tried a couple of songs after which they clapped politely, but I knew there was no connection. And then I played “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley. That was the key to a break-through. They all literally got up and started dancing. In a half hour’s time, they were all standing together in the middle of the room singing African melodies.

Bob Marley was a peacemaker. He said, “I don’t stand for black man’s side, I don’t stand for white man’s side, I stand for God’s side.” A lot of people don’t know that Bob Marley was half white; his father was an Englishman, and this caused him a lot of pain growing up in Jamaica. I would wager that if it weren’t for the conflict that this created within him, we would never have had the brilliance of his music and his message of peace. He was a black key and a white key – two different notes, and it was Mozart who said that “music is not in the notes but in the silence between”.

I think conflict transformation is at the heart of a lot of artists. They are trying to build connective tissue between the broken bits in themselves and that often comes with the knowledge that it is the reality of this world that causes the brokenness and therefore it has to be changed.

A Matter of the Heart

I am not Catholic or Orthodox but I like the idea of fasting for Lent and over the years I have practiced my own version of letting go of something for 40 days. I usually search myself for what thing I have inside of me that needs reigning in or what scaly tailed little demon I need to flick off my shoulder. This year I decided it was going to be a total blackout of all news and social media and I started off in robust fashion, replacing facebook with an actual book and trading the clamor of the news for the sweet sound of music. And it was good, peaceful, healthy and then – coronavirus happened.

Over the years I have become something of a news junkie. It’s a love/hate thing. I like to compare different outlets to see how they report the same incident. I like the subtle twist of words, the deceptive edits, the omissions, the manipulation of information, the left/right clash. I guess I like to think that I can sift through it and arrive at something approximating the truth and I guess that I do this because the truth is important to me – not that I can really do much about it. But then there is something inside of me that pricks at my conscience that maybe this isn’t a very good use of time. Hence my fast.

Like I said I started off well but then my wife kept talking about this virus that was happening (she was my only permitted news source). Every day the story kept building and then she started to get irritated with my fasting because I didn’t know anything at all and she wanted to be able to talk about it with someone- and well it was kind of killing me too because it was a huge story developing and I was in the dark. Then one day I received a rather provocative text message from a friend of mine in the states (I live in Spain) who, despite our being very good friends, is very different from me in our politics and I would say that this difference is something that we enjoy, although sometimes we wind up in absurd debates that can leave an air of unease between us that we then have to soothe with a cold beer or some other shared love.

His text message resulted at the end of my fast and I went on an epic news consumption binge the resulted in a series of emails between he and I that eventually brought us into a harmonious alliance…Haha – that’s a joke. It was verbal jousting, hours of reading, searching the internet, and waisting a stupid amount of time – all to end up with us agreeing that it was a waste of time. We agreed to disagree – very civilized of us. We did, however, leave off agreeing that John Prine was a brilliant songwriter and a beautiful soul (and that’s the truth -RIP).

After this I should have wisely returned to my lenten journey but alas here I am today still consuming the news and looking at Facebook. The coronavirus is one of the biggest stories of our time and it has become a morass of conflicting information, conspiracy theories, propaganda from all directions, and unfortunately has become overtly politicized. I’m up to my knees in the muck of it all.

Looking back to my exchange/debate with my friend I ponder the question of how can two people of reasonable intelligence look at the same situation and arrive at completely different interpretations. Really – how is this possible? What does this say about our minds? And with so much varying information can we really know the truth of anything? The lesson I take away from my curtailed lenten fast and from all the subsequent hours of media consumption is that the knowledge in my head is limited in nature and constantly shifting and re-organizing and that I should treat this knowledge lightly and keep the lines soft and open. But even more importantly I need to remember the knowledge I have in my heart that is simpler and more solid. For example, my friend, who I so disagree with, is really genuinely a beautiful person and our friendship is something real, immediate, and true. And this truth is truer than the loosely cobbled together “truths” I have rattling around in my brain. In these days and in the days to come of this crisis I must honor and protect the truths in my heart because ultimately they consist of the only kind of knowledge we can truly know.

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