Sunday, April 30, 2023

Let's Go, Bunnies!

I've complained before about the quality of public discussion, and I'm going to try to go a little deeper this time.

The historian Seth Cotlar linked to this article about a 1959 controversy inspired by a children's book, The Rabbits' Wedding by Garth Williams. (The article is paywalled, but as a subscriber Cotlar could share it on Twitter.  If the link from here doesn't work, try clicking through to his tweet.)  Williams is most famous as the illustrator of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, the Little House on the Prairie books and many others; but he also wrote the text for The Rabbits' Wedding. The book is out of print, shamefully enough, but maybe the article will spur enough interest for a reissue.

According to the article, The Rabbits' Wedding is about a black rabbit and a white rabbit who meet, fall in love, and marry.  Unsurprisingly, the White Citizens' Council organized a nationwide campaign against the book, trying to get it removed from libraries in Alabama, which (just as unsurprisingly) boosted its sales.  The author played coy:

Williams’s wide-eyed innocence mimicked that of his rabbit characters: “I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque.” He averred that his motivations were innocuous, just craft and thrift: A black-and-white book, with occasional pops of yellow, would cut production costs.

His biographers told the Times

that the artist was gregarious, well connected and vaguely progressive, but no activist. “His first response to attacks on ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding’ is ‘I’m just an artist,’” James Wallace noted. He added that Williams also said he “hopes children enjoy the book and that the voices of hate will never overcome the kind of togetherness ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding’ represents.”

"No activist" and "vaguely progressive" is praising him with faint damns.  "Just an artist" reminds me of the Noble Engineer Robert Heinlein, who liked to claim that he was just an entertainer, a hard-working hack who wrote for money, and that art shouldn't contain a Message - when he wasn't feuding with his publisher to keep the militarist and rugged-individualist messages he'd put into his juvenile SF novels.  He had, he insisted, a right and a duty to educate the young. (He was also anti-racist in his way, so I imagine he would have sided with Williams if he heard about this controversy.)  As the SF writer and critic Joanna Russ wrote, "it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on."  Just about everybody who says art should be message-free soon shows that they don't mean it; their messages aren't really messages at all, just Common Sense.  And to be fair to Garth Williams, he initially reacted by "rage-writing a 30-page response to criticism of his picture book," before "settl[ing] on the high road in a statement" to the effect that we should all love each other.

In the climate of late 1950s America, taking the high road was probably a smart move.  Anyway, opinion pieces fought the battle for The Rabbits' Wedding openly and enthusiastically.  But that was then and this is now, and what unsettles me just a wee bit about the article and Cotlar's commentary is that it feels disingenuous.

One commenter on Cotlar's tweet said it out loud: "It was an innocent child's book. They saw what they wanted to see. The hatred that they harbored distorted everything. Unfortunately, that still hasn't changed." This is an example of doublethink that would qualify for the 1984 Hall of Fame. Of course the book was "innocent," whatever that much-abused word means. "(Decades later, Williams would dryly remark, 'I didn’t say that they went to bed together.')"  Children's publishers especially were always hypervigilant about the content of their products, so it's not plausible that they didn't know that they were publishing an allegory about "interracial" love and marriage. (That hypervigilance makes it all the more revealing about the kind of content that they allowed, such as the racism in some of Dr. Seuss's children's books.)  The racists who attacked the book didn't just imagine it: The Rabbits' Wedding was a slap at their beliefs and values, and that was a noble and proper gesture, then and now.  Why pretend otherwise, especially now?

"Innocent" in this context presumably means an absence of explicit sexual content. Think of the critic Joan Acocella, who wants more than anything else to believe that Willa Cather was "innocent," meaning that she died a virgin.  Or the online movie reviewer who wrote a few years ago about Disney's The Fox and the Hound 2 that

In these post-Brokeback Mountain days, it is hard to see Copper and Tod's friendship—their playful wrestling, their longing looks at one another, their efforts to create satisfying relationships with other characters to substitute for their inability to be together—in a completely innocent fashion. But that is neither here nor there.” Is it? Pinsky was saying that because of Ang Lee’s successful film, he could no longer see the frolicking of two talking animals in a children’s animated cartoon as “completely innocent.”

The racists who called The Rabbits' Wedding "salacious" weren't the only ones who saw what their personal obsessions drove them to see. Considering that some adults today are adamant that a marriage is "innocent" -- meaning no exchange of bodily fluids, even in theory -- sexuality clearly makes them uneasy.  I'm reminded of an exchange in the IU student newspaper a couple of decades ago: they published a letter from a bigot fulminating about sodomy, and then a reply from a young woman who cried, "My gay friends would never do something like that!" I've always wondered how she reacted when she learned that in fact they do. Attempts to stir up antigay revulsion by describing our disgusting sexual practices continued into this century, as did indignant denials that respectable Homo-Americans would do such things. And at least one compassionate Christian divine prefers the word "homosexual" to "gay" because the former word "has the advantage of speaking with sharp particularity to the actual issue at stake", probably meaning buttsex.

There's a lot less anxiety around "interracial" relationships than there was sixty years ago, but it hasn't died out altogether. I was surprised by how much it was in evidence in a famously liberal and diverse city like San Francisco. (Which is not to say that all San Franciscans are racist, only that I found more racism than I expected.)  People may talk blithely about color-blindness and not judging others by the color of their skin, but actual differences are another matter.  The same goes for straight liberals (usually male) who are fierce supporters of gay marriage but are pruriently horrified by sodomy.

This curious inability, in 2023, to face the brute reality of controversies found a recent echo when a high school in Howard City, Michigan required two students to remove sweatshirts bearing the motto "Let's Go, Brandon."  Their mother filed suit in support of their First Amendment rights.  For those lucky enough not to know, "Let's Go Brandon" become a "not-so-secret handshake" among MAGA Republicans after a reporter misheard NASCAR fans at Talladega chanting "Fuck Joe Biden."  As a secret, it's on a par with "420," but I suppose that's part of the appeal.  The ACLU and FIRE are on the kids' side, and rightly so.  I might say more about that in another post, but I mention in this one because this time the Right is taking the position of The Rabbits' Wedding's partisans - Hahaha, it's just an innocent allegory! -- and the liberals are fuming that though seemingly clean, the sweatshirts are "salacious"! Think of the innocent children being led astray, their minds polluted by filth! 

I think a better response to "Let's Go Brandon" is to congratulate the MAGA in question for supporting Chicago's new mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, a progressive black Democrat of the type that makes right-wingers foam at the mouth.  The real question ought to be how people in a free society should respond to deliberately provocative expressions, whether they be children's books or t-shirts, and I'll try to take that up soon.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Know Your Place

Clarence Thomas bestie Harlan Crow has so many friends testifying to his good character.  As Law Boy Esq. put it on Twitter, "incredible to watch everyone on the right chime in with 'I am also financially intertwined with the billionaire Nazi guy'."

Among these friends is the notorious Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve and other modern classics.  Murray declared that Crow's "decency, integrity, and kindness" are recognized by everyone who knows him, "[i]ncluding people of the left." (It would be interesting to know who some of those "people of the left" are, but it's not really important.) Murray even dedicated his 2020 book Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class to Crow.

I have to admit that much of what I'm seeing online about Thomas, Crow, and Murray is basically ragegasms, the opiate of liberals and the left.  The people throwing these tantrums don't know how mainstream Murray's views are, by which I mean that they are held not only by the right but by liberals and many leftists.

As I've pointed out before, people who are outraged by scientific rationalizations of race and sex are likely to embrace biological explanations of sexual orientation, gender and other "identity", mental illness, and alcoholism and other addictions.  Racial essentialism is making a comeback too, as shown by the popularity of DNA testing to trace people's "roots."

Murray has sometimes tried to minimize his interest in race, and to foreground the application of his methods and arguments to class.  It's on that issue that liberals agree with him, even if they're not aware of it.  Chris Hayes, the liberal pundit for MSNBC who occupies probably the farthest "left" position in American corporate media, wrote in his 2012 book on meritocracy, "First, kids are not created equal.  Some are much smarter than others.  And second, the hierarchy of brains is entirely distinct from the social hierarchies of race, wealth, and privilege.  That was the idea, anyway" (35), of Hunter College High School's competitive entrance exams to select superior students.  I pointed out in my discussion of his book that Hayes assumes that unequal smartness has something to with how kids are "created," and that the superior kids deserve an elite place in society. Not all liberals would agree with Hayes, but I don't have the impression that many even noticed the problematic position he took here.

It's not true that "the hierarchy of brains is entirely distinct from the social hierarchies of race, wealth, and privilege."  The privileges of wealth, race, and sex have always been justified on the basis of innate virtue.  If they weren't just naturally superior (so goes the claim), the rich, the male, the white wouldn't be on top of the heap; but a look at the Bushes, the Trumps, the Kennedys, the Buckleys, and other American elites should be enough to show that money buys the mediocre and even the inferior a lot of influence and power.  Charles Murray isn't the first social scientist to try to justify those social hierarchies on the basis of biology, and he won't be the last. Many have toiled in that vineyard, and though their fruits have been discredited many times over the past century, there's never a shortage of money to keep them toiling, nor of sensitive journalists who will promote their claims. 

I think that even fewer leftists would agree with Frederik DeBoer, who wrote in 2017 a tortured defense of biological stratification.  Soon after posting it, he deleted it and almost all of his online writing up to that point, so I'll draw here on the extensive quotations I used in my discussion.

To me, the hard political question is the gap after the gaps — the question of what to do with differences in academic and intellectual potential after we have closed the racial and gender achievement gaps. What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?

I've been trying to find some quotations I remember from Charles Murray that looked very similar to this; no luck.  Murray admits that racism and sexism are real and deplorable, but they are receding, so differences in status and wealth will increasingly be due solely to innate and immutable differences in ability.  The result will be a 'natural' stratification in society as genetically superior marry and live among their own kind.  It's all rather sad, but some are destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, and presumably to live in squalor.  Being enlightened scientists, we don't blame them, but we can't pretend that they are as good as we are.

This is, of course, the traditional defense of racial and other hierarchies.  DeBoer was aware that the optics of his position were unfortunate, and he hastily denied that he had any such position in mind,  However:

The bad news is that there now appears to me to be overwhelming evidence that there are profound individual differences in academic potential, that different individual human beings have significantly unequal likelihoods of ascending to various tiers of academic performance. Educational philosophy for centuries has assumed great plasticity in the academic potential of any particular student, that given good teachers and hard work, most anyone can reach most any academic pinnacle. And the case that I would someday like to make, that I have been tinkering with making for many years, is that this appears to be substantially untrue. Instead, it appears that in general and on average, human beings are remarkably static in how they are sorted relative to others in all manner of metrics of academic achievement. In education, with remarkable consistency, the high performers stay high, and the low performers stay low. And it seems likely that this reflects some complex construct that we might call academic talent, which whatever its origins (whether genetic, environmental, parental, neonatal, circumstantial, etc) is far less mutable than has traditionally been understood,

All this may or may not be true.  But first, it's evasive.  While DeBoer strenuously distanced himself from racist or sexist or even classist interpretations of his "case," he seemed to be assuming that low-performing students pop up at random in any population.  How is society to know which kids should be encouraged, and which kids left to their own devices? He didn't say.  Later in this article DeBoer acknowledged that our "metrics" for academic talent are inadequate; he went on hiatus soon after he posted it, but he has returned, and has published a couple of books which apparently (judging from their Amazon listings and reviews) extend his position.  Maybe I'll get to them, maybe I won't.

A few years later I began reading the English novelist Miss Read, whose stories are set in a rural English village and narrated by a kindly but conservative English schoolmarm.  I think Miss Read would have agreed with DeBoer.  She's on the alert for the talented few who can be prepped for advancement to grammar school, but is content to teach most of her pupils no more than the three R's, because they just aren't capable of any more than that. If she were right, England should have remained a rural backwater, populated by barely literate farmers and shopkeepers and the schoolmarms who stuffed the ABCs into their reluctant brains.

But she was wrong.  Most of the kids I went to school with in the 1950s and 1960s, in a semi-rural Indiana town, looked to me like Miss Read's pupils looked to her.  But many or most of them went on to community college and beyond, learned accounting and computer and other skills, which if not intellectual are certainly academic.  What Miss Read and Frederik DeBoer don't seem to realize is that although you can map "achievement" on a graph and individuals may stay much the same relative to each other, the average goes up.  The mediocrities of today know a lot more than the mediocrities of a century ago.

Another related example: When the first digital computers were developed, they were programmed by women - women who essentially created the field of programming.  What they did was considered easy, albeit drudgework that men shouldn't have to bother themselves by doing.  But eventually men moved into the field and women were driven out.  At that point programming came to be regarded as a very difficult, advanced intellectual task beyond the ability of women, something only men were capable of, and women fought their way back into the field with great difficulty against that assumption.  It wasn't the task that changed, or the academic abilities needed to carry it out.  For details, see Claire L. Evans, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet (Portfolio, 2018).

There's also the little matter that some more intellectual subjects, like reading, writing, history, and others, are taught systematically so as to bore most students.  I say "systematically" because I don't know that anyone sat down and planned it that way, but the results are consistent.  When students are taught with better methods, they learn a lot more, and they learn it eagerly and with interest.  Whether DeBoer would consider that "plasticity," I don't know.  Nor does it matter.  

What matters here is that though DeBoer considers himself a leftist, he basically agrees with the educationally conservative (though condescendingly liberal, in a sense) Miss Read and the right-wing Charles Murray.  Murray's position, however much liberals may deplore it, is in reality one that they hold themselves in many cases.  That's why they react to the mere mention of his name with fury: it's easier than informing themselves and thinking about it.

Individual differences, however "profound," are not a problem.  Society needs differences.  If everybody were Einstein, there'd be no one to do everything that an Einstein doesn't, won't, or can't do.  Schooling should be oriented, not to finding the few who can tolerate boredom enough to learn intellectual skills, but to finding out what each student can do and helping them to learn to do it.  I cheerfully concede that there would be a lot of opposition to doing that, but it's not the result of individual differences.  I also think that DeBoer, Hayes, Miss Read, and their ilk exaggerate the difficulty of most of what must be learned.  The "metrics" we have can't tell us in advance what a child is capable of, though that's the holy grail of certain researchers (and mocked by Michael Young in his satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy). Such people are not the friends of human potential, but its opponents, and they can be found all over the political spectrum.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

The Kindness of Billionaries

An educational aspect of Clarence Thomas's latest scandal is how hard it is not to get distracted by side issues.  I'm not casting the first stone here; I've gotten distracted during controversies myself.  It's just a reminder how difficult critical rationality is.

In Thomas's case, the issue is that he accepted hefty personal gifts without reporting them, as all government officials are supposed to do.  The entertaining distraction is that the donor is a billionaire with a large collection of, among other things, Nazi memorabilia.  Thomas's friends and his enemies seem to agree that this is important, and have debated whether having a signed copy of Mein Kampf, for example, means that you are pro-Nazi. Numerous dubious people have come forward to testify to Harlan Crow's personal probity and decency.  I have no opinion about it.  If it mattered, Crow would have to be investigated and questioned -- I don't know who should do it -- and even then, I'd have to trust the investigators.

But it doesn't matter.  I nearly wrote there about Crow's "guilt," though he hasn't been charged with anything.  Suppose that a liberal billionaire with a large collection of Martin Luther King Jr. memorabilia were "secretly" buying expensive personal gifts for a liberal Supreme Court Justice, who didn't report them.  The ethics violation would be the same.  I'm sure that if this fantasy scenario were real, liberal commentators would be lining up to defend the Justice and to testify to the donor's good character, while the right wing would suddenly become very scrupulous about avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, and denouncing the stranglehold elites have on our public life.  That's politics, and not just American politics: despite all the prattle about principles and ideals, what matters is team spirit and closing ranks against the opposition.

I wasn't surprised at all when this scandal broke.  Clarence Thomas has always benefited from the help and protection of wealthy, mostly white men.  I suspect one reason he didn't report Crow's gifts was his deep (and not entirely unfounded -- he is an American black man, after all) sense of grievance.  Remember "high tech lynching"?  I'm speculating here, but corrupt men and women often feel entitled to skim whatever payoffs they can, since they're just barely scraping by on their miserly pay, and they feel put-upon when they get caught; why shouldn't Thomas feel the same way?  Their defenders accuse their critics of wanting them to starve on the streets: why shouldn't they earn a little pin money for their years of selfless public service?

I have no idea how this is going to play out.  I'm not a journalist, so don't ask me what we can expect; we'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, April 10, 2023

What We Can Expect

I began mulling over this post on March 19, when Donald Trump announced that he would be arrested (or indicted) the following Tuesday.  The corporate media went wild with speculation pretending to be analysis, as anyone might have expected.  Trump was not indicted that Tuesday, but that didn't stop the buzzing of the pundits.  He was indicted a week later, which led to more gleeful buzzing although the charges were sealed until his arraignment on March 30. The MAGA Right was furious, while liberals were mostly uninterested in the substance of the matter, preferring to dwell on the fact that no president or ex-president had ever been indicted before, and speculating about what effect we could expect the indictment to have on Trump's candidacy for the 2024 presidential election.  NPR's Morning Edition relied on the usual gang of inarticulate academics, Republican "consultants," and right-wing media commentators.  Television news offered up prolonged coverage of Trump's motorcade to the airport, his plane idling on the tarmac before takeoff, and again, his return to Mar-a-Lago. Gag-making, but only to be expected.  (If you think this is just an American media failure, try this BBC story, complete with a flowchart.)

True, no US president or ex-president has been held accountable for his crimes before, but that's an indictment of our political and justice system.  It obsessed the media because it could pass as an "objective" fact so no one could accuse them of bias, because it fit with the media's fondness for collecting firsts, and it also let responsible pundits express their shock that a rich and powerful person was being held accountable as if he were poor and black, which is so unfair.

Trump and his toadies have denounced the indictment as "political," which is true but unimportant.  It's also political that Trump has escaped prosecution for as long as he has. If prosecutor Alvin Bragg previously declined to prosecute him, that was also a political decision. Trump's impeachments were political, and it was political that Senate Republicans refused to vote for conviction. Bill Clinton's impeachment was political, as was Richard Nixon's resignation to escape removal, and Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon so that he wouldn't face prosecution after he left office.  The same is true every time a political official is removed (or not) from office.  I'm not saying, of course, that there are no actual legal issues involved in any of these cases, but as the mainstream coverage of Trump shows, they get lost in the flurry of distraction and propaganda.

I was mildly surprised when some leftists, such as the journalist Doug Henwood, objected to Trump's indictment.  On March 30 Henwood tweeted, "This case against Trump seems flimsy and he can work his martyr role. I could see him gaining from it."  Of course he'll work his martyr role, and he's done that.  It's quite possible he'll gain from it, even if he's convicted. But he'll also gain if he's not indicted; that's how he became president in the first place.  I don't know how flimsy the case against him is, and I don't believe Henwood really does either.  That will be up to the jury.

Henwood also agreed "100" percent with a tweet that read "This is a huge mistake but whatever / The frivolity of this particular charge diminishes the actual serious crimes Trump has committed. It also opens the door for frivolous charges on every Democratic former president forever".  Again, this is trivially true, but it was also true of Nixon's downfall. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was GOP payback for Nixon, and it failed, nor was it followed up. I believe I also saw similar objections to both impeachments of Trump.  Yes, it's a risk, but there's also a risk of not prosecuting Trump. He'll work his martyr role no matter what he's accused of, and even if he's convicted of anything, he'll be appealing for the rest of his life; he'll never pay any other penalty.  But there are other, cleverer GOP / MAGA pols waiting to take his place.  Convicting Trump might be a tiny deterrent.

The political cartoonist and writer Ted Rall posted on Facebook at around the same time that Trump was only indicted because he had proven to be a "class traitor" so the elites were ready to toss him overboard.  Also trivially true; I remember leftists such as Noam Chomsky saying the same about Nixon, that he only got into real trouble because he clashed with his peers, attacking the Washington Post and so on.  But that was not a reason to give him impunity, nor to leave him in office.  I'm not sure Rall intended to imply that, but it was a stupid post anyway.  Anyone who wants Trump to be punished should bear those considerations in mind, but the precedent against indicting ex-Presidents has already fallen; it's time to break the precedent on convicting one.

There's a lot more going on politically than Trump right now -- the removal of two Democratic state legislators in Tennessee, action by the MAGA right against libraries, against drag performance and transgender people, against abortion drugs, revelations about Clarence Thomas's corruption, need I go on? For now I would rather let the wheels of justice grind and let a jury decide about Trump.  He's under investigation elsewhere, though, and I fully expect that our media will do their best to exploit any outcomes that may emerge while obfuscating their significance.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Going For the Bronze; or, Now the Deluge

I've fallen prey to the TikTok invasion of Facebook, and I finally know what doomscrolling is.  I was enjoying short videos, or "reels," of cute old Mexican men dancing, but lately the algorithm has decided that I should see the work of many religious nuts, especially but not only Christians.  It's partly my own fault, of course: I don't have to click into the reels.  And it doesn't help that I've been commenting on many of them, and receiving comments in return.

So, one clever fellow informed me today that the Bronze Age Bible is best classified as fiction.  He posted the same statement under other comments, so it wasn't just me.  It's the same sort of simple-minded snappy comeback that all of us like at some time in our lives.  Christians have them too, such as "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist!"  Which, when I think about it, isn't as clever as they think it is.  Bragging about their shortage of faith?  Really?  I understand the point they're trying to make, but it really doesn't work.  This is a matter I hope to return to.

But back to Mr. Bronze Age Fiction.  While it's true, there's a lot of fiction in the Christian Bible, there's a lot of non-fiction as well: proverbs, sermons, and so on.  In this respect much of the Bible is like Plato's dialogues, which use a fictional framework for philosophical discussion.  What got my goat, though, was "Bronze Age." The Christian Bible, both Testaments, is a collection of Iron Age writings.  The odd thing is that I can't recall ever seeing a fellow scoffer dismiss the Bible as Iron Age fiction.  Doesn't it have the same pizzazz?  "Bronze Age" seems to have caught on among village atheists like a radioactive virus. 

Naturally, I spend more time correcting factual errors from Christians under these videos.  Many of them like to invoke what they call "Biblical facts," which also isn't the win they think it is.  Biblical facts are like, say, Tolkien facts, or Harry Potter facts.  If someone were to say that Frodo Baggins is an elf, or that Harry Potter was assigned by the Sorting Hat to Ravensclaw house, it would not be factual within those imaginary worlds, but it would still not be factual outside of the books. Recently I got into a little scrap on Twitter with someone who jeered at fundamentalist for thinking that the Bible is real -- but they announced in their profile that they were in Hufflepuff.  No, they aren't, and claiming that they are isn't a Potter-universe fact.

Monday, April 3, 2023

You're All F***ing Peasants As Far As I Can See: Rock Theology

I'm surprised that I never posted this here until now.  It originally ran in the Indiana University student newspaper as a letter to the editor, sometime in the 1990s, responding to a friend's careless remarks in his opinion column about John Mellencamp.  Now, I've never been a fan of Mellencamp, but I find his music inoffensive, and my friend's comments reflected a kind of snobbery that I've been guilty of too, but have tried to outgrow.  Still, this piece wasn't an attack on him, though he took it as one and was afraid that it would upset his editor.  It didn't, but it bothered my friend.

As I hope my readers will see, this piece is meant playfully.  I think it describes tendencies in pop music that are real enough, but it was fun to write and I hope it's fun to read.  The musical references are dated, but most of them will be recognizable even to younger readers. Their recordings are still in print, and many get regular reissues to commemorate the anniversaries of their original releases.  That's one reason to post it now: these musicians are now saints, if not Elder Gods.  As for newer musicians, classifying them and their work can be left as an exercise for the reader.


I was extremely annoyed by Scott Smith's elitist remarks on Hoosier rock in Thursday's ids until, like a bolt from Heaven, I realized that his objections to John Mellencamp were not musical but religious.  Sectarian and theological, to be exact, not spiritual.

Scott is a gnostic; he believes, that is, that there is one true spirit of rock & roll, which ought not to be polluted by sharing it with the masses.  For they are iron, and rock & roll is gold.  Gnosticism has universalist pretensions, for it speaks of the spark of divinity in all human beings, whom rock & roll will save from the darkness in which they are kept by the record industry.  But in practice it holds that the masses love their darkness, preferring the path that is wide and easy, and leads to Paula Abdul.  The upshot of this is that any music which becomes too popular will be denounced by gnostics automatically.  Gnosticism is also distinguished by its dismissal, indeed hatred of the flesh -- sex and women are evil – and of fun.  Sexual references for shock value are gnostic, since they buy into the idea that sex is nasty.  Punk is not always gnostic, but it has strong gnostic tendencies.  Johnny Rotten/John Lydon is a prime example of gnosticism in punk and postpunk.  Metal is often strongly gnostic, though this loses credibility when it plays to arena-sized audiences.  Frank Zappa is a gnostic, as are Ian Anderson, George Harrison, rockabilly revivalists, and purists of all kinds.

From this you can see that the theological positions I'm sketching out transcend musical genre.  George Harrison, for instance, has access to a mass audience by virtue of his having been a Beatle; this enabled him to make the great gnostic album All Things Must Pass -- austere, inhuman, boring -- with expensive production that few gnostics could afford.  (The other post-Beatle gnostic album, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, was also produced by Phil Spector.)  Zappa's probably the only other gnostic in the same league, though Yes' Tales of Topographic Oceans, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Tull's Passion Play, and certain other British art-rock bands approach it.  It's not so much the kind of music you make or listen to that counts, but your attitude to the audience.  Is Prince gnostic?  No, but he'd like you to think he is.

Like any musician who embraces (or at least seeks) a mass audience, John Mellencamp is catholic.  Rock and pop catholicism is, in the original sense of the word 'catholic', all-embracing.  It's also capital-intensive (lots of expensive, fancy equipment), oriented to spectacle, and professional, like High Mass in St. Peter's with vestments and incense.  It has in common with gnosticism ambivalence about the flesh, and a distrust of women and sex, but as an institution which intends to last awhile, it makes uneasy provision for human love and marriage, and even for pleasure -- as long as it can charge you for it.  Popular catholicism tends to the veneration of relics, tacky but innocent vulgarity: Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never" being the paradigm case, Graceland Inc. its logical outcome.

Unfortunately, catholicism also encourages distance between the performers and the laity, I mean audience.  This can lead to cynicism on both sides: the record companies and performers may come to regard the faceless masses as manipulable sheep to fleece, while the audience despise the clergy as venal, hypocritical, soulless hacks.  This much is hardly news; it's the collegiate-rock-critic snottiness which animates Scott's column.  But the music-business hierarchy isn't nearly as smart as it and its gnostic critics would like you to believe: if they could really manipulate and control consumers, the major labels wouldn't lose money on 90% of their releases.  And a lot of rock catholics believe in what they're doing, like a humble parish priest who really tries to serve his congregation, and some manage to keep their integrity as they rise in the hierarchy. They believe that the forms of commercial music are a viable a medium for serious work as the avant-garde, and they want to address a mass audience, giving them accessible music with honest content.  

It's surely a purely dogmatic question whether this is a valid position; I happen to share it.  The Beatles are of course the prime example of a band who managed to be enormously popular without selling out, though there are others. (Is it a coincidence, do you think, that Beatlemania, Vatican II, and the Kennedy myth of Camelot were roughly contemporaneous?  Now, there's a conspiracy theory for someone -- not Oliver Stone, please! -- to develop.)  Other examples, lesser perhaps, include Motown, the Rolling Stones, Mellencamp, Springsteen, and Peter Gabriel (a gnostic art-rocker who became a Liberation-theology catholic rocker); it's almost redundant to mention Madonna.  Of the Beatles, Paul MaCartney was the most purely catholic.  Major-label metal is of course catholic, despite its pretensions, and "Satanism" in music as in religion is basically just catholicism turned upside down.

I don't see rock protestantism anywhere.  The remaining trend I see in pop and rock is paganism.  Paganism is grass-roots music, with as little distance between performer and audience as possible: amateurish, sloppy, often anti-intellectual, ecstatic.  Though sometimes it only seems so: Elvis Presley's Sun sessions are pagan, though Presley later became catholic.  The Beatles began as a skiffle band, a pagan English form.  Garage bands are pagan.  The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" is pagan.  Ringo Starr is the pagan Beatle.  The Grateful Dead are pagan, partly because of their intimacy with the grassroots movement of Deadheads and partly because of their ability to sound sloppy despite their technical ability.  But paganism isn't all sweetness and sunshine; Sid Vicious represents the downside of Paganism, mindlessly self-destructive.  Punk -- British punk, anyway -- was largely a pagan movement, despite its tendency to slide into gnosticism.  Jello Biafra is a catholic (or maybe a gnostic) pretending to be pagan, with some success.  Bob Dylan is a sort of pagan gnostic.  At their best the Butthole Surfers are pagan, at their worst they're gnostic.  Sometimes it's hard to tell whether you have a gnostic or a pagan on your hands: paganism can be as inaccessible as gnosticism, vide early Meat Puppets.

Please note that there are no bad guys or good guys in my scheme of things: I enjoy music from all three categories, each on its own terms and for its own virtues.  When gnosticism earns its elitism, when catholicism earnestly seeks to serve and entertain, when paganism achieves true ecstatic union among the performer, the audience, and the cosmos, they are at their best.   On the other hand, the puritan snob in me enjoys gnosticism's shock tactics, the tacky Hoosier in me enjoys Madonna, and the five-year-old in me enjoys making doo-doo mudpies with the Butthole Surfers.  Nor are the three tendencies mutually exclusive, as I've suggested already.  The Beatles probably came as close as anyone has to embodying all three.  It may be that there's no way to keep the devotees of each sect from sneering at the others, unfortunately.