May 24, 2013
Tomorrow is a day of international protest against Monsanto (http://occupy-monsanto.com/), the American-based multinational agricultural and biotechnology corporation. To mark this occasion, we invited Marenka Cerny, admin for the Facebook page Bono and Monsanto Forum for Conscious Debate and Discovery https://www.facebook.com/BonoMonsanto, to share her work, activism, and thoughts in a guest editorial on U2’s Bono supporting Monsanto in his strategies for fighting poverty in Africa. We at the webzine encourage fans to read, research on their own to reach their own conclusions, and act as they are so moved. –Andrew William Smith, webzine editor
Perhaps years ago the technique of genetically engineered crops was understood by Bono as the miracle Africa needed to produce food in extreme climates. Maybe it actually is. We are calling for Bono to speak explicitly about GE technology and the maligned practices of the chemical-agriculture companies. In the meantime, we are examining the evidence that humanity is being used as a science experiment for profit and without permission.
We created the Facebook page Bono and Monsanto Forum for Conscious Debate and Discovery four months ago in response to the cognitive dissonance that has resulted from the involvement of one of the most politically influential and venerated artists of our time in highly questionable activity with potentially disastrous consequences. Because he has the hearts of millions and the ear of every political leader—and because he is a most beloved, consummate, and sagacious poet of our generation—Bono deserves the respect of accountability.
Wikipedia describes “Bono [as] one of the world’s best-known philanthropic performers and was named the most politically effective celebrity of all time by the National Journal… He has been dubbed, “the face of fusion philanthropy,” both for his success enlisting powerful allies from a diverse spectrum of leaders in government, religious institutions, philanthropic organizations, popular media, and the business world, as well as for spearheading new organizational networks that bind global humanitarian relief with geopolitical activism and corporate commercial enterprise…”
At one time or another, we have all been let down by people we look up to. But in this case, the effects of Bono’s actions are far-reaching in potentially dangerous ways. His tacit alliance with the chemical companies is confusing. We are wondering what his motivations are. With his 25+ years experience lobbying to end extreme poverty in Africa, is this truly the best way he can see to get Africa the food it needs? What does he think about feeding Africa and the world genetically modified food? Bono gives very brief mention in these two links to chem-ag companies and indirectly to the technique of genetic engineering, one in a newscast and one speaking to the pre-G8 symposium a year ago:
For a partial transcription—“Bono Addresses global leaders on hunger, agriculture and transparency at pre-G8 symposium”
In this interview, Bono references “whole new methods of agriculture to increase productivity” within the first minutes. “Bono – Well Paid Spokesman for the Elitists” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CvlQLcyawg
This is the main article that has been reposted many times since the G8 Summit last year.
ActivistPost: “U2, Bono? Celeb partners with Monsanto, G8, to biowreck African farms with GMOs”
Most comments on the web about Bono and Monsanto are about giving up on him (to put it mildly). We’re looking for the fans who care about what’s in our food and don’t want to give up on him. Of course Bono’s allowed to make mistakes, be a bad-boy rock star, or be misguided, and still be loved. Through our Facebook page, we seek to know whether Bono’s intentions to solve extreme poverty have been compromised from extraordinary altruism to a power-hungry alliance with the chem-ag companies for global domination of the world’s food supply. We hope that’s not true—we want to think Bono can be a venture capitalist and still be cool. We want fans to speak louder—we need him and want him on our side—to say, Bono, please come back. Whatever the results of this conversation, our advocacy and engagement are not about disrespecting Bono. We seek to understand the apparent dissonance between his actions and his words.
Seeking transparency for unconscious and unconscionable capitalism are not just a luxury of an armchair activist, but imperative for humanity’s future and present. The research that is available shows that as well as the apparent dangers to human health, genetically-engineered (GE) crops are known to damage topsoil through monocropping, to require ever-increasing amounts of pesticide, and have not yet proven to reliably produce higher yields. Monsanto has been strong-arming the U.S. government and small farmers around the world, and has spent tens of millions of dollars to withhold labeling of their products. GE science is young, and the long-term effects on humans and the environment are unknown.
10 Reasons Why We Don’t Need GM Foods
After 5 months of searching for the backstory of how it is Bono seems so comfortable promoting GE food in Africa, there’s also the larger question of the approach of capitalism as a solution to poverty, which is a fundamental part of Bono’s speeches in the past decade, and which he calls “Entrepreneurial Capitalism.” Is this a viable subset of capitalism, the basic existence of which is not to provide social service agencies, but to make a profit? We’d be curious to hear from everyone who is criticizing Bono’s association with Monsanto what you also think of capitalism and corporate power as a means for ending extreme poverty.
We are gathering energy to add to the momentum of the world’s resistance to the chemical companies’ intention to control food production and distribution on this planet. Many people have alternative solutions to meeting the needs of the world’s food supply. Help us to compose and promote a letter to Bono and others. Tell us what you think of all this and ask any questions. Help us address the question of revering the work of an artist while questioning their integrity elsewhere. What would you say, in your own words, to Bono? –Marenka Cerny, Life-long U2-lover, Admin on Facebook: Bono and Monsanto Forum for Conscious Debate and Discovery https://www.facebook.com/BonoMonsanto
‘Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad’ is a stunning song written for Sinatra. For those who are pro-Bono and anti-GMO, this is surely one of our songs in this moment in time.
Two shots of happy, one shot of sad
You think I’m no good, well I know I’ve been bad
Took you to a place, now you can’t get back
Two shots of happy, one shot of sad
Bono, Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad
also (poor video quality but beautiful performance) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzgCPimHu7w
“Frank Sinatra just blew me away. Actually, me and Edge wrote a tune called ‘Two Shots Of Happy, One Shot Of Sad.’ We made a drinks cabinet shrine to Frank that when you open it plays that song! We’ve never released it… I sent it to him for his 80th birthday, full orchestra, the whole thing. Quite an indulgence.” – Bono, NME 1997
May 18, 2013
Psalms present us with cultural linguistic poem-experiences of passion and pleading, praise and pain, love and loss, anticipation and anger, worship and wonder. Rock music also offers religiously relevant encounters in an electronic correlation of guitars and lyrics—a new kind of text for a different context—yet songs similarly saturate us in sonic blasts of poetic pop culture and spirited counterculture to water our souls with a wager that there’s a way out of teenage boredom and middle-aged malaise. We can scream, shout, singalong. We can defy, dance, and devote. Linking the Psalms to U2 songs means all of the above and much more, keeping God in the conversation as we open the door.
The fan-band experience could seem unequal or it could be conversational. The great teacher Walter Brueggemann encourages us to read the Psalms in prayer and thus in dialogue with God, and the fan’s relationship to the U2 catalog could follow a similar tack, not just listening, but talking back. If courageous enough to converse with the Creator in prayer, Brueggemann suggests we could thusly speak truth to earthly power in protest. Naming this subversive, the theologian arms us not only with thorns to poke the sides of empire but to “stand up to rock stars” and embrace a critical fandom that engages U2 without reducing fandom to idolatry.
The Psalter’s “boldness and passion” take us “out beyond our conventional liturgical and devotional practices.” Headphone devotions take the same trip through the wires past traditional worship towards transformation, to “nothing less than resurrection,” as Brueggemann puts it, “the gift of new life that the God praised and summoned intends us to have.”
Rock music as a daily devotional tool surely gets practiced by runners, walkers, weight-lifters, and coffee-sipping hipsters on the daily, but to theorize such in a theological-liturgical manner means new terrain. Like with the songs “Bad” or “Drowning Man,” like “Vertigo” or “Wake Up Dead Man,” the psalms have an aching rock-bottom blues disposition that’s not pretty or pious. Even ever popular and too readily categorized U2, rock music itself remains a renegade force in culture, still largely undomesticated in its musicological meme. Brueggemann begs us to see past what he calls “equilibrium” to that queasy and uneasy place that the Psalter takes us, liminal “experiences of dislocation and relocation” because it “is experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and surprisingly given life that empower us to pray and sing.”
Brueggemann names the valleys and plateaus as “the edge of humanness” or as limit-experiences and peak experiences. U2’s career-spanning sonic song catalog relishes in the underbelly: sparring with war and addiction; flirting with celebrity cults and trashcan messiahs; tempting our ears and eyes with sparkly technological-meets-existential dread and drama.
While it would be fun to try to pinpoint an album, song, or trilogy where Bono was lyrically at his most junkyard sacred, he allows us no such epiphany, for there is no such line on the horizon. The Psalms get mashed-up in a clever and almost sinister blender with American modernist writers like Ginsberg and Bukowski to fuel Hewson’s lyrics with flourishing hooks, flamboyant hope, and flamethrower holiness.
Like the elusive but enigmatic “Holy One” of the psalter and the gospels, U2 songs give us what Brueggemann describes as the “powerful, dangerous, and joyful rawness of human reality.” Like the Bible, U2 songs take unlikely and unsavory protagonists and turn them into saints. But to render rawness rightly in a late 20th century and early 21st century context, sometimes the poet needs backup, preferably a backing band of ex-surrealist pranksters from the Streets of Dublin. Sometimes we forget that the bloke blithely blessing popes and politicians was once the lark from Lypton Village. It’s no accident on my ledger that when Bono showed up in the Beatles-inspired Across the Universe, he ended up “on the bus” as a west coast hippy priest in suede fringe, a Neal Cassady/Ken Kesey-inspired psychedelic trickster.
The likes of Brueggemann would warn us not to domesticate divinity into irrelevance or sanitize the Psalms into sugary sweetness. We best not do this with the U2 catalog, which in part influenced why the songs I first chose to “pray” include tracks that can sometimes be “abrasive, revolutionary, and dangerous.”
Brueggemann tells us, “The Psalms are an assurance to us that when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny the deepness of our own human pilgrimage.” In light of this, I have chosen to pray first with a lot B-sides and non-album tracks, because sadly, as sacred as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Where The Streets Have No Name,” their jukebox familiarity can breed contempt with curtained seasoned listeners. When I put on the headphones for U2, I take off my scholar’s hat, put down my preacher’s pen, and get as vulnerable and prostrate for their message as the fanboy who first discovered them three decades ago. To pray these songs in private is to rediscover them. They are wild horses to ride, cash to steal, a deep blue sea in which to drown, and lies to transform into truth. – Andrew William Smith, Editor
Check out the Headphone Devotionals project blog where we can pray the U2 songs together: http://headphonedevotionals.blogspot.com/
Quotes from Walter Brueggemann come from the book Praying the Psalms – support his prophetic voice by checking out his work. Photo of Walter Brueggemann from the 2013 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN by Andrew W. Smith.
May 10, 2013
Back in December 1984, I went to my first U2 show at Detroit’s Fox Theater. The first leg of the Unforgettable Fire tour, it was the band’s last set of “intimate” shows before graduating to arenas and stadiums. After the gig, I was that 17-year-old hardcore fan who waited dutifully in the Detroit winter weather by the backstage door. Eventually our patience paid off, and we met everyone in the band except for Larry.
The most memorable moment from that night aside from the concert itself was asking Bono for a hug and Bono generously sharing it. Today, I wish I could give Bono another hug. Today, the man born Paul Hewson turns 53.
Another U2 album finally appears eventual or inevitable, perhaps by the end of this year. At this late stage in their career, each record could be the last. And each record could tarnish with dismissal or disdain or varnish with more adulation and praise their creative reputation. But see, this fan kind of needs a new U2 record just about now to distract me from the rest of the U2 newsfeed.
Bono is all over the interwebs today. Even as the Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with birthday blessings from fans and charitable groups like (Red) or the African Well Fund, other sources like Google news alerts just blew-up with the latest phase in Bono backlash. Because Dave Marsh reviews Harry Browne’s forthcoming book The Frontman. As we know this leftish Springsteen scholar Marsh has devoted decades of an entire career tangent to tagging Bono with the online rhetorical graffiti of gritty shame and righteous blame.
But Marsh’s latest screed on Counterpunch counters the viciousness of his previous attacks with a tone of pity. Bono is no longer an object of scathing leftwing critique but an object for a softer but no less mean-spirited ridicule. Marsh feigns feeling sorry for Bono and calls him pathetic. For not knowing any better. For being a tool and a fool. We’ll have to see how this new lesser-evil Bono-hate all fits with Browne’s book when it is actually released soon. Besides Marsh, also cluttering my newsfeeds was yet another article articulating the band’s problematic tax practices and a blog responding to Marsh, neither agreeing with him or taking him on.
As U2 fans, we have a choice whether or not to engage with criticism like this. Some choose to ignore it; others take a defensive stance. My perspective has always been one taken from Bono’s lyrical playbook: “stand up to rock stars.” Or put another way, practice critical fandom. Despite what others say, he’s neither saint nor messiah and is worthy of constructive pushback, especially if it comes from a good place. I definitely don’t see Bono as an uber-capitalist “lapdog for neoliberals” as he’s been called, and at the same time, I don’t think we need to be lapdogs or sycophants for Bono or U2.
At the recent U2 conference, Laurie Britt-Smith and I and some of our co-presenters engaged in a critical dialogue about some of the queasy reservations we have about digital activism, capitalist charity, and how these apply to the ONE campaign and product (RED). We hardly reached conclusions or consensus, but in light of those conversations and these recent attacks on Bono’s political and economic perspectives, I have some tentative shots into the ongoing online conversation I’d like to launch.
Bono is not and has never been a leftist in the sense that Marsh, Browne, or the editors of Counterpunch are. Moreover he’s not and probably will never be a rightist as some critics have complained. Is he an intellectually weak, foolish, and hypocritical liberal as is also proposed?
I don’t know how I feel about liberalism or capitalism beyond the degree to which I participate in both by necessity. But I do know what I perceive as the source of my activism and Bono’s: Jesus and the Bible; spirituality and scripture; the new commandments of radical love and service taught by the carpenter from Nazareth. What’s been called the preferential option for the poor. Bono’s lack of economic literacy, or worse, allegiance to wrong-headed economic mentors, may make me and others uncomfortable and may play into the hands of the problem-creators rather than the problem-solvers, yet Bono’s biblical, musical, and poetic literacy remain on target in my eyes and heart.
In 2005 just after How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, as much as I loved that record and the subsequent Vertigo tour, part of me wanted to give up on Bono for his self-imposed public silence on the Iraq War, for hanging so intimately with people like George Bush and my then least favorite Tennessean Bill Frist. That year, I picked up Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Not only does the frontman answer all his critics in a nuanced manner, he diminishes and self-deprecates his own significance. The alleged egomaniac also has a streak of deep and deferential humility.
But more than that, he speaks ever so elegantly and evangelically about his faith in Jesus and how Christian religious perspective, spiritual practice, and central gospel narrative inform everything he does. Like Bono, I am no economist, but also like Bono, I take seriously the Biblical teachings about poverty and justice.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to see Jesus in the (RED) campaign, but Bono’s willingness to work with Bush, Clinton, Obama, Gates, Sachs, and others comes from statements like this, that he attributes to lessons he learned from Martin King: “Don’t respond to caricature—the Left, the Right, the Progressives, the Reactionary. Don’t take people on rumor. Find the light in them . . .”
It’s hard to understate the light that Bono and U2 have given us with songs and albums and concert tours. But Bono also reminds us that there’s some of that God light in people as different as Bill Frist is from Dave Marsh and in people from other faith traditions, as his COEXIST bit on the Vertigo tour so strongly stated.
The odd rivalry between Marsh and Bono, according to the critic, began with a mediocre review of The Unforgettable Fire. Marsh claims to have given Bono a book about Elvis because Marsh didn’t get “Elvis Presley and America.” As I listen to that deep track off Unforgettable Fire for the umpteenth time, I don’t know that I get it either, but I get what it does to me: how it gets me, how it’s music that takes me outside the music, that gives me knowledge more than ideas, connection more than critique, grace more than karma.
I don’t mind standing up to rock stars. But I don’t mind standing up to grumpy rock critics with an axe to grind either. But I’d rather not stand up to anybody and instead look for the light within, for the Christ within all. And I’d like to give Bono this virtual hug on his birthday. Fact is I’d like to give Dave Marsh one, too. They both probably need a hug more than either would admit. –Andrew William Smith, Editor
Photos are by Andrew Smith from outside the Vertigo tour show in St. Louis in late 2005.
March 30, 2013
Back in 2003, Beth Maynard and Raewynne Whitely released a book of sermons about U2, subtitled as a text on “preaching the U2 catalog.” Around that time I did not consider myself a Christian, but Maynard’s “U2 Sermons” blog that followed the book was deeply influential in jogging my memory about Jesus and how Bono’s prophetic Christian message on top of Edge’s guitar was the primary pull that turned me into a U2 fanboy, early in the 1980s when listening to Boy, October, and War.
Being reminded of this sacred synchronicity of how spirituality and rock music dynamically distill themselves in U2 helped me find God again in the lyrics to the 2004 smash album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Listening to that album and its followup No Line On The Horizon led to my “Moment of Surrender” at a U2 concert in North Carolina in October 2009, where I fell to my knees and wept during the closing song and in my heart recommitted my life to Jesus. Granted, this submission to my higher power had actually been going down throughout that year, but this particular concert-closing contained an element of altar call for me.
Back in the 1980s, U2 lyrics were the stuff of Sunday-night youth group discussions at my Presbyterian church in suburban Detroit. A U2 concert at the Joe Louis Arena on the Unforgettable Fire tour was a church outing for Christian teens at my church and I imagine many others like ours all over the US at that time.
Just as Maynard and many of her minister colleagues managed to make a book out of how we could preach the U2 catalog, I am currently focused on how we can pray the U2 catalog, treating the songs as prayers and psalms, incorporating U2’s lyrics and music into our daily devotional life.
With the headphones in private, or blasting loud from the best speakers in the house, listening to U2 has always been an almost ritualistic spiritual encounter for me. Taking the cue from what Bono has disclosed in interviews about songs and psalms, we can develop a notion of devotional listening, taking it from a casual sonic comfort and transforming it into a more refined example of what some people call a “spiritual discipline.” But before delving deeper into some of the U2 songs that we could treat as contemporary psalms (as I hope to do in other articles), we can look at Bono’s relationship with the music that inspired him as a youth, as well as at his relationship with the psalms of the Bible and how these both inspire the music he’s made.
In a 2005 interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, a middle-aged Bono divulges how in his youth his own spiritual practice began in a similar way with the popular songs of Dylan and Lennon, of folk, rock, and punk. Bono recalls:
“Even then I prayed more outside of the church than inside. It gets back to the songs I was listening to; to me, they were prayers. ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ That wasn’t a rhetorical question to me. It was addressed to God. It’s a question I wanted to know the answer to, and I’m wondering, who do I ask that to?”
Like so many of us, Bono had intimate spiritual encounters with the headphones on.
He told Wenner, “I was in my room listening on headphones on a tape recorder. It’s very intimate. It’s like talking to somebody on the phone, like talking to John Lennon on the phone. I’m not exaggerating to say that. This music changed the shape of the room. It changed the shape of the world outside the room; the way you looked out the window and what you were looking at.”
Bono actually experienced an apostle Paul kind-of-moment listening to the secular prophet Lennon. “I remember John singing ‘Oh My Love.’ It’s like a little hymn. It’s certainly a prayer of some kind – even if he was an atheist. ‘Oh, my love/For the first time in my life/My eyes can see/I see the wind/Oh, I see the trees/Everything is clear in our world.’ For me it was like he was talking about the veil lifting off, the scales falling from the eyes. Seeing out the window with a new clarity that love brings you. I remember that feeling.”
This idea, then, of “songs as prayers” has captivated Bono since the beginning. So by the time the band gets to writing its own albums, Bono’s spirit and mind are captivated about how to tap that root and how to kneel to touch the sky. In the book U2 By U2, he reveals the creative process that brought us the song “Gloria”:
“But I believed – and still do – that the way to unlock yourself, creatively and spiritually and pretty much every other way, is to be truthful. It’s the hardest thing to do, to be truthful with yourself. And if you’ve nothing to say, that’s the first line of the song, ‘I’ve got nothing to say.’ So I started to write about that. The song ‘Gloria’ is about that struggle. I turned it into a psalm. I try to stand up but I can’t find my feet. I try to speak up but only in you am I complete. Gloria in te domine. Wild thing for a twenty-two year old. Gregorian chant mixed with this psalm. It was a stained-glass kind of song.”
“Gloria” appeared on the band’s second album October, when spontaneously and prayerfully unlocking the truth within carried an added importance due to the unfortunate loss of Bono’s lyrics notebook before the recording process. On the follow-up disc called War, as the band wrapped up its recording session, with their time in the studio all used up and another band waiting in the wings, the album felt one song short.
“Let’s do a psalm,” blurted Bono, who opened the good book to Psalm 40. Simply called “40,” the closer to that record became the traditional closer to U2 concerts for many years, with countless in the crowd repeating the chorus, long after the band left the stage: “How long to sing this song?” When most people think of U2 and the Psalms, it’s this text that comes to mind.
Years later on the Elevation Tour that followed the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bono took a knee and prefaced his performance of “Where The Streets Have No Name” with a brief recitation from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 116: “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation—A toast to God! I’ll pray in the name of God; I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, And I’ll do it together with his people.” The revival that the band’s career experienced in the early 2000s certainly felt worthy of a “toast to God.”
In 1999, when Canongate published a pocket-paperback edition of the Psalms in the UK, Bono’s words provided the introductory remarks. There, Bono makes the important point that Psalms are as much blues as they are gospel, explaining, “Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of my favorite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s despair that the psalmist really reveals and the nature of his special relationship with God.” This tension between gospel and blues that Bono locates in an ancient text actually forms the central attraction found in much great rock music.
In his immediate appreciation of the Psalms, Bono compares the honesty of these sacred texts to likes of Lennon and Dylan as well as to Al Green and Stevie Wonder. Echoing a sentiment he will share later in the interview with Jann Wenner, Bono writes, “Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do – they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD.”
It’s this profound experiential sense of God that so many of us fans draw from U2’s music. Clearly this happens at the rare communal concert experiences every few years with a few thousand fellow devotees. But it also happens every day. Away from church, often alone, frequently with the headphones on, these songs reach and touch us deep down inside. And even old songs feel like new songs. And how long will we sing these songs? A lifetime, for many fans, won’t be long enough. –Andrew William Smith, Editor
These ideas will be addressed further in a presentation at the U2 Conference in Cleveland and in a study of specific U2 songs as prayers.
February 23, 2013
This morning, prepping for a class I’m teaching called Writing about Film and Music, I stumbled across a YouTube clip of the legendary Brian Eno, producer of U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree, talking about his role in the making of that iconic album:
I got the sense that U2 was capable of making a real marriage between the two things I was talking about, between something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool—and uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool, and coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, with a certain defensiveness, actually, not exposing something, because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed…
Later, Eno says that U2 was never a critical darling, because they were perceived as wearing their “hearts on their sleeve.” Recall the way Bono has used arena stages as a bully pulpit for his various causes: El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and gun violence. I confess I’ve always loved this about Bono, though I know it makes lots of people squeamish.
Later in the same clip, The Edge reveals that during the writing of The Joshua Tree, the band was inspired by the work of the New Journalists, especially Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song.
In other writing, I’ve suggested that perhaps narrative nonfiction is the most important art form at the moment, as it helps us to engage in and express our spiritual selves. I see an opportunity here to push a little more on this notion that spiritual nonfiction is our most culturally relevant form of writing.
After teaching class, I ran across another reference to coolness and detachment in a recent American Scholar column, in which William Deresiewicz defines the “upper middlebrow” as an aesthetic that is neither middlebrow nor highbrow where feelings are “hidden by a veil of cool.”
According to Deresiewicz, the upper middlebrow is “edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive”—and is produced by a variety of un-reproachable figures and institutions, including Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, the HBO series Girls, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The New Yorker, and This American Life.
Like Deresiewicz, I see those asking for a closer inspection of these arguably “cool” artists and works, those who sense that their perceived value is based on how fully they affirm our world view and the nearly limitless spectrum of values that secular humanism embraces, are not just seen as uncool, but as oppressors.
I’ll admit it: I spent years chasing after cool before I finally settled down into an un-ironic pursuit of truth. Quite unexpectedly, this search has manifested itself in becoming a nonfiction writer.
Nonfiction seeks to remove that veil, or in some cases, multiple veils, of distance and detachment. And the New Journalism, whose first-person reportorial techniques have been thoroughly absorbed into the other sub-genres of personal essay and memoir, is credited with being the form that cut through the bureaucratic double-speak of government officials, the public veneer of celebrities, and the biases all reporters harbor.
The personal essay appeals to me right now because it’s where we can attempt to stop lying to ourselves—no more posturing, no more hiding behind a house style—though we may stumble in the attempt.
To be clear: I’m not calling for a boycott of novels or short stories. I still believe that fiction has the power to transform hearts and minds like no other medium. The genius of fiction is in grappling with characters who seem so unlike us, but who are actually holding up a mirror.
So here I am, an Irish Catholic boy, a Notre Dame grad no less, holding up U2 as the antidote to our detachment. But we must find inspiration where we can, and I am inspired by the determination to remain awake at the expense of being cool. I laugh at Colbert and Stewart, and even Girls.
But I’m tired of upper-middlebrow detachment. Like Deresiewicz, I yearn for works of art and culture that will challenge rather than affirm our views about the world, and what we believe to be our essential nature. I want to hear it from the mouths of the lost and the confused. I don’t mind that it sometimes feels like the blind leading the blind. Cool just doesn’t it do it for me anymore. –David Griffith
David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. He teaches at Sweet Briar College. A different, longer version of this piece previously appeared on IMAGE’s blog Good Letters, hosted by Patheos. You can find it here: