Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Libertarianism's imcompatability with the Gospel

Of late I've been involved in a private discussion group with a number of other, equally feisty "progressive evangelicals" who either frequent Sojourners' "God's Politics" blog or used to do so. One of that number recently made the observation that the late writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, a mother of the libertarian movement who subscribed to what's called "objectivism" and has lately become popular again among anti-Obama types, never mentioned any children in her writings. I've never read Rand and have little interest in doing so; however, if that be the case it might explain a lot of things.

Why is that important? Basically, it undercuts one of the biggest pillars of libertarian thought: Authority -- or the lack thereof.

As I understand it, the philosophy of objectivism holds that the primary purpose of life is seeking and maintaining personal happiness and that anything that gets in its way must be pushed aside -- in other words, "it's all about me." Now, that philosophy justifies our consumer-driven economy and culture, but taken to an extreme it actually leads to moral corrosion. I say that because, basically, it allows people to be self-indulgent and never concerned about how their choices affect their families or society at large. Worse, any outside force that tries to hold folks accountable is obliged to be resisted.

And this is one reason so many people hate government, not just its alleged excesses.

All this contrasts with the Christian Gospel, which from the start lays a finger on the human race's biggest problem: Sin. That is to say, a deicidal impulse that says "I want no restraints on or authority over me at all -- certainly not a God." Or in some cases, folks who recognize a deity may say, "The only one who's going to tell me what to do is God."

Well, God as understood in Jesus Christ doesn't work quite like that.

Yes, we Christians are called to have a "personal relationship" with Him; however, that includes being part of a local assembly -- what we call a church -- to which we are expected to yield our rights and privileges and to give of ourselves. As such, we're to be transformed from selfish people concerned only about what we can get to those who are willing to take on responsibility for the greater good. And that's a sign of maturity.

So what does this have to do with Rand's lack of children in her writings? Well, the implication is that, once the artificial "restraints" are cast off, people will simply act maturely and humanely. Any parent knows otherwise, that he or she has to set limits on a child's behavior for his/her own good down the road. Government, business, clubs -- and even the jazz and blues I play as an avocation -- have a set of rules that must be followed for the sake of harmony.

And that's why I believe that libertarianism has scant respect for the doctrine of sin. Some years ago a preacher at my former church mentioned, in another sermon, that children could be seen as sinners in need of a Savior. One woman, believing children to be innocent, objected to his comment.

The wise pastor asked her, "Do you have children?"

"Yes," she answered.

"Do they have to be taught to misbehave or do they do that naturally?"

After some thought, she conceded, "Oh."

The libertarian will likely tell you that people will do the right thing if they were left alone, especially by government. This history of this country -- heck, the world -- should demonstrate otherwise. And while I'm not a "statist" or "pro-government," we would be foolish to desire a world without it.

But that leads to a more important matter: Justice trumps freedom -- in fact, justice is the framework without which freedom cannot even exist. Many libertarians I know don't get this because of their obsessive focus on "freedom"; however, not even God grants absolute freedom because to do so would compromise His sovereignty -- which He will never relinquish.

On his album "Slow Train Coming," the then-active Christian Bob Dylan had a song "Gotta Serve Somebody." That concept still applies because there's always some authority over us, and it's time libertarians accepted that their "freedom" is by definition limited.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

'Smooth jazz' -- on its way out?

"Contemporary jazz" -- roughly, an amalgam of rock/funk rhythms, pop melodies and jazz improvisation -- first caught my ear as a teenager. I was predisposed to it because, in addition to the pop music I heard in the 1970s, I was reared on a steady diet of jazz thanks to my late jazz-musician father.

So when the then-novel "smooth jazz" radio format began to gain steam in the 1990s, with Pittsburgh getting a station in 1996, I was enthused. Two years later, I began covering it for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and got to meet a number of musicians.

But Pittsburgh lost its station in 1999, and I've heard that the format is dying all over the country.

In retrospect, I think I know what's been happening. It's the natural outgrowth of a change in radio culture over the past few decades -- more about ratings (that is, money) and less about the music. Ironically, I would say that the focus on ratings actually drives them down eventually.

Have you noticed, for example, that fewer and fewer stations have live DJ's who tell you what's playing? That's often because the music is piped in by satellite and isn't locally-produced. More "efficient," perhaps, but less emotional connection to whatever's being played. (Heck, the on-air personalities may not even know what's being played.)

Then, you'll notice the playlists on smooth-jazz stations. The format ignores good music from the past from folks like Chuck Mangione, Spyro Gyra, Tom Scott and Bob James; meanwhile, you'll hear Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Sting, only the latter two with even a tenuous connection to jazz. Many of these jazz festivals started inviting R&B stars, which turned off the people who really wanted to hear their favorite jazz artists.

Another problem is that the format is pretty much here-today, gone-tomorrow anyway, playing few, if any, classic tunes that stand the test of time -- not even Kenny G has come up with anything that has stuck ("Songbird" notwithstanding). I can't think of any smooth-jazz equivalent to "Chameleon," "Mr. Magic" or "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," which not only audiences know but also musicians can and will play. I have a CD in my car with James' "Westchester Lady"; that tune was recorded nearly 40 years ago and he still plays it live.

So maybe the demise of the format isn't such a bad thing after all. Jim DeCesare, the host of the late, lamented local radio show "Jazzz[sic] Impressions," said in an interview with me some years ago, "They didn't do it right." At one time, about two-thirds of the albums I bought I first heard on his show -- and he always gave background information to the listener, which I ate up.

I think that's what needs to happen today -- more connections to the audiences and less focus on ad dollars. The result should be not only better, more appropriate music but also more money because more people would be listening. I certainly would.