Musicians are Cowards

What follows are are some thoughts on how dissent is marginalised within our society that have been trundling around in my head for a while…

“Musicians are cowards” is a recurrent line in the final track on a Silver Mount Zion’s 2001 album “born into trouble as the sparks fly upwards” (the title being a reference to the book of Job 5:7  “Yet man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upwards” – a verse I guess I am not alone in identifying with, in light of current global events). Some of the lyrics go like this:

“pimples are flowers,

musicians are cowards!

let’s argue in the kitchen,

for hours and hours.

tomorrow is a travesty,

tomorrow should be ours.

musicians are cowards!

musicians are cowards!”

I think it captures an aspect of human nature very well, particularly that of a certain kind of human being – “musicians” can be meant more generally than those literally making music. For the purposes of this post I will count myself as a “musician”. Many of us I’m sure have had the experience of setting the world to rights in our kitchen. Perhaps we write songs, or poetry, or blogs aiming to inspire others with a vision of how the world might be better. Somehow our songs and poems and blog posts can’t seem to add up to a better world, but realistically why should we expect them to? We should be getting out there collectively, organising, making tomorrow ours, but somehow this seems beyond our courage. Why might that be?

The "Born into trouble..." album cover - also my wordpress "gravatar"

I think the reluctance goes beyond a simplistic cowardice, although it is a certain kind of cowardice and we “musicians” mustn’t be too eager to make excuses for ourselves. Supposedly Diogenes of Sinope would walk the streets of Athens carrying a lit lantern in broad daylight. When confused passers-by stopped to ask what on earth he was doing, he would reply “I am searching for an honest man”. Henry David Thoreau made a similar challenge to his fellow human beings, stating in Walden that:

“There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man”

To me “musicians are cowards” is an analogous (though somewhat affectionate – the line being delivered by actual musicians!) condemnation of those who substitute professions of virtue (like blog entries) for actual virtue (like organising towards practical action to oppose vile institutions). In the past there was the excuse that the virtuous embodiment of ethical values could quite easily get one killed, as abundant examples of martyred prophets will testify. Voltaire, with characteristic concision, summarised the danger thus:

“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong”

Today, with the right to freedom of speech won, we “musicians” lack this particular danger, but in its place is an equally powerful self-censoring  “prudence” captured wittily by Mark Twain:

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

Why do so many of us live according to the percieved opinions of our peers and our “superiors”? Why can we not act upon out convictions, taking practical steps to make a better world – what is the price of renouncing Twain’s “prudence”?

This is where one is faced with the reality of systems of control in the absence of force. Dissenters cannot be killed or imprisoned for the most part, as they were in the recent past. So institutions such as corporations and governments require other forms of insulation against dissent. The surest method is to systematically dissuade dissent, either by buying people off with various inducements to “tow the line” or by making it particularly uncomfortable for them to become one of Thoreau’s “virtuous men”.

This is achieved by indirect coercion. For example, it might be unwise to become a vocal supporter of workplace democracy if you work for a large corporation. Your colleagues will probably steer clear of you, as an individual liable to endanger their career. If your erratic behavior continues then probably some pretext will be found for your dismissal – you weren’t a “team player” or you regrettably didn’t gel with the “vision” or “ethos” of the corporation.

Journalist Robert Fisk recalls in his book “The Great War for Civilisation” how he was effectively forced to choose between “towing the line” and his journalistic integrity, after Rupert Murdoch took over the Times and various “edits” started being made to Fisk’s article’s to mute their message. He chose the latter option and left the paper. Most choose the former, often reflexively and without need for overt coercion, creating the illusion of consent by free individuals. His story makes an interesting insider’s account into what lies beneath the veneer of the “free press” and one can imagine that similar things occur every day in virtually every other profession . Everybody is free of course; free to either exercise “prudence” or to resign.

Most people implicitly appreciate all this; they have the sense to keep quiet and behave as expected. Besides, anybody liable to cause more of a fuss would likely have been weeded out by earlier institutional filters. Job interviews for example – most careers guidance literature encourages applicants to research the ethos of the company and think about how to lend personal credence to it – a sensible person will pick up on the subtext – no overt “thought control” will be required to produce the desired effect. And one can think of similar scenarios whereby politicians, economists, lawyers, doctors, teachers etc are constrained in what positions they can get away with advocating.

Well, we all need jobs of course, to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. We are required to tacitly accept a certain set of values in order to discharge our everyday duties without incident. And of course, through embodying certain initially alien values habitually, day-in, day-out, we begin to internalise them. We dislike the cognitive dissonance associated with believing one set of things and practicing another. So we write off any earlier commitment to social justice as a naive youthful optimism. The “real world” works in a particular way we are quite unable to change, having become resigned to passivity for the sake of self preservation. Anyway, it isn’t so bad once you adjust to it. Perhaps we wake in fitful starts from time to time and wonder if our lives are really being spent in ways honestly befitting our true natures. But such frightening moments pass, can be put to the back of our minds, a skill we soon hone through its increasingly frequent practice.

Really though, this is quite a miserable existence. Thoreau again:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

It will not be easy, but perhaps we “musicians” can draw, from a sufficiently vivid imagining of what the world might be, the individual courage to let our song out and the collective courage to make it our reality? Now or never!

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~ by freedomthistime on October 20, 2011.

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