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Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World

The arrival of amplified rock music performed by free-spirited
longhairs was not, to put it mildly, greeted with enthusiasm by the
Cold Warriors of the West. Nearly a decade after Elvis’s pelvis
dislocated social mores and Frank Sinatra denounced rock as “the
martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the
Earth,” rock ’n’ roll refuseniks were still crying bloody murder.
In September 1964, National Review founder and
tireless anticommunist William F. Buckley reacted to pop music’s
British Invasion with a spasm of Victorian disgust: “Let me say it,
as evidence of my final measure of devotion to the truth,” Buckley
huffed. “The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it
sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are so
unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically
insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned
heads of antimusic, even as the imposter popes went down in history
as ‘anti-popes.’”

Twenty years later, the then wife of Democratic senator and Cold
War hawk Al Gore cofounded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)
in reaction to the heavy metal and early rap genres that, Tipper
Gore claimed, were “infecting the youth of the world with messages
they cannot handle.” Musicians from John Denver to Frank Zappa were
hauled to Washington to argue under oath (futilely) against a
warning-sticker censorship regime. Gangsta rappers like Ice-T stood
accused of increasing violence against cops, danceclub bonbons like
Cyndi Lauper and Sheena Easton glorified sex, and metal acts from
Kiss to Iron Maiden were transmitting secret backwards paeans to
Satan himself. In her 1987 book Raising PG Kids in an
X-Rated World
, Gore fretted over the demonic import of the
role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and argued that listening to
acts such as Ozzy Osbourne was “playing with fire” and all too
often led to death and damnation. “Many kids experiment with the
deadly satanic game,” she warned, “and get hooked.” She claimed to
be against censorship but instructed her readers to “file petitions
with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington to request
inquiries into the license renewals of television and radio
stations that violate the public interest.”

Though such outbursts always look comical in retrospect—Buckley
ended up befriending John Lennon in the 1970s, and Tipper Gore
attempted to rehabilitate her uptight image by insisting during her
husband’s 2000 campaign that she’d been a reliable Deadhead all
along—the gag reflex that produced them is alive and well. Radical
Islam has replaced communism as the existential bogeyman requiring
eternal vigilance, and some vigilantes have drawn a link between
the vulgar pop culture of the West and the murderous religious
radicalism of the Middle East, most notoriously in conservative
Dinesh D’Souza’s obscene 2007 book The Enemy at Home:
The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11
“Conservatives,” D’Souza wrote, “must stop promoting American
popular culture because it is producing a blowback of Muslim rage.
With a few exceptions, the right should not bother to defend
American movies, music, and television. From the point of view of
traditional values, they are indefensible. Moreover, why should the
right stand up for the left’s debased values? Why should our people
defend their America? Rather, American conservatives should join
the Muslims and others in condemning the global moral degeneracy
that is produced by liberal values.”

If music has become ever-more morally degenerate—and one need
only look at the PMRC’s now-pedestrian “Filthy Fifteen” list from
1985 to see the long tumble from Twisted Sister (whose “We’re Not
Going to Take It,” a by-the-numbers rave up, supposedly promoted
violence) and Cyndi Lauper (whose forgotten hit “She Bop” promoted
masturbation) to GWAR (whose albums include This Toilet
Earth and We Kill Everything) and Slipknot (who
wear scary masks and subtitled one album The Subliminal
)—then it would stand to reason that the era of
globalized hip-hop, video game violence, and pornography would have
set back the cause of human freedom by generations. In fact, the
exact opposite has happened.

Freedom House, a U.S. government–funded international nonprofit
founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, has been
conducting “Freedom of the World” surveys since 1973, measuring by
a set of stable, if subjective, criteria whether countries are
“free,” “partly free,” or “not free.” The group’s initial analysis
of 151 countries found that nearly half (46 percent) were not free,
compared to 29 percent free and 25 percent partly free. The
collapse of totalitarian communism beginning in 1989 resulted in
free countries outnumbering the unfree for the first time, and by
2010, with 194 countries to choose from (itself an indication of
increased freedom), the numbers from 1973 had almost exactly
reversed: 46 percent free, 30 percent partly free, and 24 percent

We’re not just talking about correlation between the spread of
pop culture and international freedom: There is direct, observable
causation. The remarkable two weeks of Egyptian street protests
that led to the resignation of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak were
populated mostly by leaderless young people who could no longer
tolerate being censored (Mubarak’s attempts to shut down Facebook
may well have been his fatal mistake). For more than a decade, the
Egyptian regime had waged a brutal and eventually losing battle
against a burgeoning homegrown heavy metal movement in a crackdown
known as the “Satanic Panic.” As Cairo’s unofficial metal historian
Sameh “Slacker” Sabry told journalist Richard Poplak in 2009, “My
question to you is: Would you stop listening to the music you loved
if someone was going to throw you in jail for it? If the answer is
yes, then you don’t love the music enough. I have been charged for
Satanism; I have been called a devil worshipper. Many times. My
name has been in print—with my age, my school—I was waiting for
them to come for me. I did not change. I did not hide. You want a
piece of me—come get it.”

Poplak, writing in a book on pop culture and Islam that came out
six months before the historic events in Cairo, concluded on a
prescient note:

What I had seen that night was on some small level a
revolution—or at least a concentrated act of defiance—played out to
the fuzz and wail of heavy metal music. I had seen kids assert
their right to rock. There is this expectation, a shared if
unarticulated belief that these bands—like the legendary [Czech
band] Plastic People of the Universe, who carried the ethos of
revolution inside the psych-swirl of their avant-rock—herald some
hope for future freedoms. Regardless of lyrical content, simply by
existing, merely by banging head, [the Egyptian bands] Wyvern,
Deathless Anguish and company are harbingers of change.

What sort of change? Some of the architecture of that change was
spelled out in the Alexandria Declaration, a March 2004 statement
from Middle Eastern intellectuals advocating a series of liberal
reforms, above all  “guaranteed freedom of expression in all
its forms, topmost among which is freedom of the press, and
audio-visual and electronic media.” The Alexandra Declaration, as
the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported in
February 2011, is a “‘Charter 77’ for reform in the Arab

Charter 77, just like the Plastic People of the Universe, is a
relatively obscure reference in twenty-first-century America. Yet,
its 1970s-era call for freedom of expression in communist Europe is
at the very center of the single-most foundational story of how
supposed Western cultural decadence combined with dissident
aspirations in the unfree world to produce not just unprecedented
liberation but a useable blueprint for oppressed people everywhere
to cast off the shackles of their masters. Standing at the center
of that story is the literal author of the blueprint, a rumpled
star child of the 1960s whose love and understanding of rock music
helped free his country and inspire freedom in so many others:
Václav Havel, the late leader of what came to be known as the
“Velvet Revolution.”

That story begins with another story, that of the Velvet
Underground, a band whose best-known member, Lou Reed, chafed not
under the oppression of Russian tanks but the strictures of postwar
Long Island suburbia. A hippie-hating countercultural figure, the
teenaged Reed had been given electroshock treatments to “cure” his
homosexual tendencies. Reed would later find a mentor in the
legendarily alcoholic and writer’s blocked poet Delmore Schwartz,
before gaining fame for singing about drug abuse and cross-dressing
and fronting a band that openly sang about soul-sapping heroin
rather than consciousness-raising LSD during 1967’s Summer of

No one is exactly sure how a copy of The Velvet Underground
Nico found its way to Czechoslovakia before
Soviet tanks crushed the cultural opening of the Prague Spring in
August 1968. After all, the March 1967 debut album by Andy Warhol’s
nihilistic house band barely sold in America, peaking at just #171
on the Billboard charts before quickly disappearing. Rock
critics would not come around to declaring it one of the best
albums ever made until decades later. There is that famous line,
variously attributed to superproducer Brian Eno or R.E.M. guitarist
Peter Buck, that “only a thousand people bought the record, but
every one of them started a band.” And though Czechs were starting
bands right and left, as part of an all-too-brief cultural
reemergence that saw artists such as filmmaker Miloš Forman and
novelist Milan Kundera gain international prominence, there was a
lot of catching up to do in 1967 and 1968 for a country that had
recently outlawed William F. Buckley’s least favorite band. “It is
so strange,” the singer of a Czech Velvet Underground cover band
would muse a few years after communism’s demise, “that Prague was
so up-to-date.”

Whatever the source, this influential piece of dissonant,
drug-saturated, hyperurban yet occasionally gentle music, with the
flat everyman vocals of Lou Reed alternating with the morose German
female baritone of supermodel Nico, wound up in the hands of a
teenage butcher’s apprentice and budding rock bassist named Milan
“Meijla” Hlavsa. “The Velvet Underground was something very
different, very new, very real,” Hlavsa recalled a quarter century
later, “because their music was a part of their life. . . . It
brought us America in a real way. It was good to see that in the
States there were normal people who had problems like us.” One
month after the 1968 Soviet invasion, Hlavsa and some buddies
started a band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Named
after the song “Plastic People” by future Tipper Gore foil Frank
Zappa (though perhaps also influenced by the Andy Warhol/Velvet
Underground “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” multimedia extravaganzas
that the band would go on to emulate), Plastic People was mostly a
cover band at first, singing versions in heavily accented English
of Zappa, the Doors, the Fugs, and the Velvets. “The base of our
music was the Velvet Underground,” Hlavsa said.

Though the passage of time has dulled the shock value, the
Velvet Underground in its time was like a needle in the eye even to
seasoned Western rock audiences. One of the only music magazines to
take contemporary note of The Velvet Underground
called it “a full-fledged attack on the ears and on the
brain.” Legendary Rolling Stone critic Lester
Bangs in 1969 called the band a “bunch of
junkiefaggot-sadomasochist-speed-freaks who roared their anger and
their pain in storms of screaming feedback and words spat out like
strings of epithets.” And he liked them. The songs were
about heroin, hitting your girlfriend, scoring drugs, and the
pathos of planning for the next Manhattan party. The drummer was a
girl (no normal occurrence in those days), who played standing up,
with mallets. “The real question is what this music is about—smack,
meth, deviate sex and drugdreams, or something deeper?” wondered
Bangs. “The most important lesson [about] the Velvet Underground,”
he concluded, was “the power of the human soul to transcend its
darker levels.” This was not the sort of material that either
Dinesh D’Souza or Tipper Gore could bop along to.

Now, imagine how it might have gone over in a totalitarian
country where longhairs like Hlavsa were arrested, literally, for
having long hair, as well as for the crime of possessing unapproved
music. Rock bands in Czechoslovakia required a license from the
government, and in those days of communist “normalization,” the
Plastic People’s was soon revoked. The band continued to play, but
only at weddings (one of the few activities beyond the government’s
control) and at secret, one-time shows advertised through paranoid
word of mouth. The Plastics acquired a Warholesque “artistic
director,” the crazed alcoholic imp Ivan Martin Jirous, and
eventually replaced its English-language repertoire with a bunch of
Czech originals derived from the poetry of various banned authors.
The songs weren’t political in any conventional sense, but when the
state dictates culture, all unapproved acts become political, like
it or not.

Vaclav Havel, RIP

The great
anti-communist dissident, writer, and politician
Vaclav Havel is dead at the age of 75

From Matt Welch’s great 2003 profile, Velvet President:

Like Orwell, Havel was a fiction writer whose engagement with
the world led him to master the nonfiction political essay. Both
men, in self-described sentiment, were of “the left,” yet both men
infuriated the left with their stinging criticism and ornery
independence. Both were haunted by the Death of God, delighted by
the idiosyncratic habits of their countrymen, and physically
diminished as a direct result of their confrontation with
totalitarians (not to mention their love of tobacco). As
essentially neurotic men with weak mustaches, both have given
generations of normal citizens hope that, with discipline and
effort, they too can shake propaganda from everyday language and
stand up to the foulest dictatorships.

Unlike Orwell, Havel lived long enough to enjoy a robust third
act, and his last six months in office demonstrated the same kind
of restless, iconoclastic activism that has made him an enemy of
ideologues and ally of freedom lovers for nearly five decades.

Read the whole thing.

Reason on Havel

What a Shock

Des Moines Register endorses Romney.

By the way, does the Register employ high-school interns to write its endorsements? We read: “Ron Paul’s libertarian ideology would lead to economic chaos and isolationism, neither of which this nation can afford.”

Apart from the puerile-serioso “this nation,” what is this supposed to mean? The country can’t afford peace? We need more $5 trillion wars? Being more hated and isolated than ever before in history is something we can afford? And after more than a decade of Federal Reserve manipulation of interest rates and federal domination of the mortgage market, we are to fear “economic chaos” from stopping these things?

Oh, and this: Romney “has evolved from one-time independent to moderate Republican in liberal Massachusetts to proud conservative today. He does not deny changing his position on some issues, but he will say he has made mistakes and has learned from them. Though Romney has tended to adapt some positions to different times and places, he is hardly unique. It should be possible for a politician to say, ‘I was wrong, and I have changed my mind.’”

Romney said in 2002, “My views are progressive.” In 2007 he tried to run for president as a conservative. For the Des Moines Register, this total transformation in five years is a question of “I was wrong, and I have changed my mind.”

I suspect regular people might have a more colorful way of describing it.

Road Trip…or Moon Shot?

Eric Peters

You don’t
have to be a cranky old fart to find yourself increasingly at odds
with the multiplexed interfaces, mouse inputs and menus, touch screen
displays and tyrannical computer “aids” that are becoming
commonplace features on modern cars – and which sometimes do
their best to back seat drive you into vein-popping fury.

It often begins
as soon as you settle into your seat. Dare to drive away without
immediately buckling-up for safety like a good little boy or girl,
and the “Danger! Danger! Will Robinson!” sound
effects commence. Some of the “Belt Minder” chimes on
new cars shriek at a pitch apparently calculated to enrage any normal
human within 60 seconds. Picture the old Incredible Hulk
TV series; some redneck thug has just cold-cocked Bruce Banner…
an easygoing guy, so long as you don’t make him angry. The
end result in both cases is the same: The blood boils, the fury
builds to explosive levels – and before you realize what’s
happening, you’re Lou Ferrigno in green body paint hurling
a bank of computers across the room. Only it’s that buzzer
in the dash you want to club to death.

Hulk smash!

I feel the
same way about having to fight a Traction Control computer that
doesn’t want to let me do a burnout or slide through a corner
under my control. Some of these systems have “off”
switches – but many can’t be completely disabled.
At least, not without going through an elaborate, multi-step process.
They cut power, or “selectively apply the brakes” (or
both) to make sure you don’t have too much fun.

Is it juvenile
to want to lay a bit of rubber in a performance car? Sure –
but isn’t that why people buy high-performance cars? If not,
why bother? No one needs a three or four hundred horsepower engine
to get efficiently from A to B.

But I absolutely
understand wanting one. And when you pay for one, you ought to be
able to use it.


Luxury cars
are probably the worst offenders when it comes to needless complexity.
And it’s because there’s really not much difference anymore
between a well-optioned $26,000 car and a $45,000 “luxury”
model. The build quality of even $15,000 cars today is generally
superior to that of top-of-the-line models of 30 years ago –
and things like powerful engines, climate control air conditioning,
electric sunroofs, power windows and locks, keyless entry, GPS,
leather trim and aluminum alloy wheels are commonplace. It’s
hard to find a car at the $28-30K level that hasn’t got all
these things – and much more besides. So how to justify the
50-75 percent jump in price to the so-called “premium”
automobile? Easy. Dump in as much fancy technology as you can gin

Result? Luxury
cars are usually just more of a hassle to operate.

Electric tilt/telescoping
wheels take longer to move into position than manually-adjustable
versions.Easy to use knobs to turn the radio on and off, change
stations – and adjust the air temperature/fan speed, etc. –
have been replaced by menus that you are forced to scroll through
via a mouse input.

cars also tend to come fitted with the kind of superfluous idiocy
that makes a powerful argument for taxing the rich back into sanity.
For example, Mercedes has incorporated little whirring electric
motors and actuators into the doors of their big S-Class sedans
so that their dainty owners don’t have to shut them manually.
Instead, they just push them sort of closed and the electro-gizmos
do the rest. Same with the trunk – which was apparently designed
for people with the upper body strength of Monty “I’m
giving you the beating of your life!
” Burns.

Look, anyone
too feeble to open or close the trunk himself – or who needs
electric assist to fully close the door – is too gimpy to be
permitted behind the wheel.

Luxury cars
are also the on the leading edge of automotive idiot-proofing. Many
now offer “intelligent” cruise control that turns drivers
into addled idiots by absolving them of responsibility for paying
attention to the road and changing traffic conditions. The computer
– using radar or laser transmitters built into the car’s
bumper – can tell if the traffic up ahead is slowing down or
speeding up and can automatically adjust the car’s speed to
maintain the proper following distance, without the “driver”
(so-called) needing to take any other action but continue to yak
on his cell phone and gape vacuously into space.

The latest
things are even worse, including “lane departure” warning
systems that operate on the same principle, using sensors and computers
to keep the car from wandering out of its proper slot due to an
inattentive or asleep-at-the-switch “driver.”

Why not just
take the bus?

an argument – not too Luddite, just sensible – to be made
for backing away from a lot of this stuff. Like cell phones, much
of the junk being added to cars is sold as a convenience when in
reality it’s simply adding to the stress (and expense) of day-to-day
living. I think we could use more style, more fun – more soul
— and less in the way of fussbudget gadgets and electronic
nannying to cocoon us from our own stupidity.

What do you

with permission from EricPetersAutos.com.

17, 2011

Eric Peters
[send him mail] is an automotive
columnist and author of
Atrocities and Road Hogs
(2011). Visit his

© 2011 Eric Peters

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