An Obligatory Anti-Trump Comment

by Sam Buntz

There is a definite irony involved in writing an anti-Trump essay: it’s a piece that should be persuasive—yet, if one hasn’t been persuaded to oppose Trump by listening to his fragmentary speeches, in which clauses and phrases are tossed up like confetti, never to be joined into a single coherent utterance as they scatter over an energy-drink-stoked crowd, one likely will not be convinced by an essay containing a sentence as long as this one.

Against this crisis of purpose, I nevertheless proceed, preaching to whatever choirs may gather. How are we to explain the Trump phenomenon? More laptop keys have been worn of their letters in answering this tired question than any other (at least, in the history of laptops). Does he represent the honest grievances of a betrayed and harried working class, the latent racism of middle-America, a resurgence of populist Huey-Long-style fascism, the failure of traditional religion to yoke its adherents to a philosophically consistent mode of being, the modern Gospel of Wealth, the Freudian Death-Instinct otherwise known as Thanatos, a response to the anomie and entropy bred by modernity, or reality television’s triumphant conversion of American political life into its own medium?

Doubtless he represents all of these things—and more besides. One thing he doesn’t represent is an articulate narrative about American life. He has a narrative, of course, familiar now to everyone—concisely summarized, it reads, “Stupid people lead America, which makes America lose. I’m not stupid, and thus will make a great president who can make America great again.” We all already know this, and my recapitulation of its bold theme is purely rhetorical and pointless—it’s extremely simple, and therefore popular. (True, it doesn’t have the brilliant, clarifying immediacy of an aphorism from Epictetus, but it apparently gets the job done for some people.)

The thing that most amazes me about Trump’s success is that we live in a nation in which embracing cosmopolitanism has never been easier or more practical. In all of our major cities, Sikhs rub elbows with Tibetans who rub elbows with Nigerians who rub elbows with people from Moldova and Azerbaijan. Virtually all cultures converge in America, nestled under the overarching principles of liberal democracy—which should be exciting and should feel like the fulfillment of something…like, perhaps, the promise of America in its deepest and truest sense? The world is open. If that sounds trite and like something Thomas Friedman would say—well, maybe that’s because it is. It shouldn’t sound that way—not if we were having a conversation in some lofty realm of the Ideal, wearing togas among the clouds. But, unfortunately, we inhabit modern chaos, and that’s all there is to it.

As studies have shown, when presented with the vast marketplace of ideas ostensibly existing on the Internet, people narrow their views. The public recoils from too much information into an extreme selectivity—they edit out the voices that are confusing or that they don’t want to hear. The task of thinking seems not invigorating, but tiring—so much material to wade through, as though we were called upon to play existentialist versions of Woodward and Bernstein. It’s best you don’t get started… Hence, any mildly conscious person who uses social media is aware that, in their political dimensions, Facebook and Twitter resemble a large number of padded cells, with loud and decidedly one-sided conversations taking place in each one.

Trump’s voice is certainly the loudest and happens to be located in one of the most populous cells. He offers his devotees the ultimate negative reaction to the complexity of globalization and modernity—a full-on rejection. No Mexicans, no Muslims, no pesky thoughts. While the best guess anyone can make right now is that Hillary beats him in November, I wonder what the future of Trumpian discontent is, beyond the election. To what extent can America—or for that matter, Europe, or The West in general—learn how to assimilate and adjust to the fusion and mingling necessitated by globalization, that cultural exchange which is both its glory and severest challenge? Is the retreat into a narrow perspective inevitable?

I originally wrote an optimistic ending to this column, but it drifted into vagueness. I didn’t actually put it this way, yet it sounded a bit like I was saying, “Maybe all the people can just come together, and learn from each other.” It was, underneath the verbiage, very Woodstock.

Ultimately, I have no idea how the American people can salvage their battered attention spans from the gutter. Maybe some catastrophe will prod us out of our unreflective rages and stupors, or maybe nothing will happen at all, and we’ll just senesce over time, until something in the system fails, things start to unravel, Vandals and Visigoths show up on the stoop… But is it possible we’re leaving something out of our calculations?

The logical thing to do would be to propose an alternative. I can do that—but I’m merely “ready” for Hillary (Sanders being semi-officially dead in the water), not enthusiastic. By all means, vote for her—I will.  While I can’t quite summon the apparition of a brave new future to attend her passage into office, I can mention the happy fact that she is not, in fact, a raving maniac.  So, yeah—vote.

Yet, before you vote, I would urge you to drop out. Definitely don’t “turn on,” probably don’t “tune in” (unless that means something deeper than drug use), but drop out. Cast your ballot into the void, and then hurry home to your own private corner of the abyss. Turn inward—create something in private. Spread kindness, but don’t preach socialism or libertarianism or any of that stuffing. “Tap inside”—as Emerson put it. Yield to charity, but don’t listen to the cacophony telling you how specifically you should be socially concerned or charitable. Ignore all voices but the still, small voice that visits you at three in the morning. Marinate inwardly. Ferment. Retreat into darkness and chisel for gold.

And then, maybe, in the future—four or eight or twenty years from now—you’ll be able to emerge from your period of seclusion and use whatever you’ve created to capture someone’s attention in a way that isn’t completely sordid. And if you can do that—in the words of Dave Chapelle, “Congratulations, bill: you’re a law.”

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Prince: Genius of the Sacred and Profane

by Sam Buntz

I discovered Prince in the Paddock Music Library at Dartmouth College in 2010. Of course, I’d heard of Prince before then, and am sure I’d listened to “When Doves Cry” and “Little Red Corvette,” but for some reason, I hadn’t experienced any albums in full, nor had I granted his music my complete or even mostly undivided attention. I don’t know why I was so late to the game—I suppose I’d received, somewhere along the line, the severely misguided impression that Prince was a very poppy pop star. I didn’t even realize that he wrote his own songs, let alone that he was essentially a Mozartian prodigy. My illusions, however, were ripe for puncturing.

The librarians and student workers at Paddock greeted my selection of Purple Rain with extreme and enthusiastic approval. Expectations ran high, and the atmosphere sizzled. Across the greater Upper Valley, dogs perked up their ears, startled by a sudden change in the earth’s electromagnetic fields.

They knew that someone’s mind was about to be blown.

Back at my dorm room—breath bated, hands clammy—I inserted Purple Rain into my laptop and adjusted the speakers. In the understated words of T.S. Eliot describing the birth of the Christ child, “It was (you may say) satisfactory.”

Of course, it was more than “satisfactory.” For some reason, the first song I listened to was “Take Me with U,” and its orchestral fullness immediately grabbed me. (I don’t know why I didn’t listen from the beginning: “Let’s Go Crazy,” the opening track, might be my favorite Prince song, and some critics consider “Take Me with U” the album’s weakest track—not me, though). It conveyed a sense of movement, of someone actually taking someone else with them. Now, I know that sounds stupid, but if you’ve heard the song you’ll realize how precisely accurate it is. (I liked the breakdown with the toms too.)

A few months later, I was immersed in Prince’s music. I had a particular affection for Dirty Mind—it seemed to be the necessary dash of Yang in my Yin-overloaded life—but Purple Rain still remains, for me, at the canonical center of his output. I love Sign o’ the Times almost equally, and am more than willing to admit it might be his masterpiece, but find myself continually returning to the concentrated power of the earlier work.

Now, Prince has passed from our shadow-lands to a realm of eternal day—voyaging across some metaphysical gulf to “the afterworld” where “you can always see the sun, day or night”—in the words of “Let’s Go Crazy.”

He was a figure who managed to incarnate numerous contradictory impulses and divergent cultural tendencies—harmonizing, synthesizing, unifying, reconciling. The most obvious duality is that of his blatant sexuality and earnest religiosity, two pieces of the psyche that many people would consider to be totally opposed. But this is deep, deep in the American grain—what is it but an extension of the blues man’s love for the Blues and for Gospel, for the Sacred and the Profane, for the tension necessary to add adequate seasoning to life? Prince’s compulsive horniness routinely baited him into an awareness of something greater than himself; it’s an essential aspect of his project.

Indeed, there was a wholeness to Prince’s music; black and white, Bible and Kama Sutra, masculine and feminine, rock and pop—the double-consciousness of American experience was fully present within him. He would sing about a girl named Nikki who “you could say […] was a sex fiend,” before asking us if we could “bear the Cross,” in the same concert. He’d swing between the tender, balladic, avant-pop anthemics of “Purple Rain” to the graphic sex-funk of “Head” with no real feeling of radical disruption, because he was expressing the swirl of feelings that quarry in almost every human breast—raw lust, true love, spiritual longing, the concoction of all of these and more. And he expressed those varied feelings with an unbelievable array of talents: he could play guitar as well as Hendrix, compose melodies like McCartney, and funk-it-up with the attitude of George Clinton.

In our current age of hits written by twenty or more people, simply observe the songwriting credits to Sign o’ the Times: out of sixteen tracks, thirteen were written and composed entirely by Prince himself (he played a ton of the instruments to boot). On a double-album that renowned, this is a level of individual accomplishment perhaps akin only to Stevie Wonder’s on Songs in the Key of Life.

A kind of Tantric Christian, Prince combined the sex god deification of early MTV with a spiritual journey, a quest that led him from his childhood as a Seventh Day Adventist to a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both of those denominations, fittingly, began here—like their illustrious adherent, they’re American Originals, manifestations of the way the Holy Spirit comes to dance in the New World. While expressing the religiosity of our own climate, nothing remained foreign to Prince—he was “at play in the fields of the Lord,” bounding across the full terrain of musical experience, from hip-hop to the Beatles-esque melodies of tunes like “Raspberry Beret.”

Considering his career’s trajectory, you can draw an insane parallel between Prince and the poet William Wordsworth—they both had a great decade (in Prince’s case, that basically means the ’80s, including a few years prior and after) before gradually becoming less radical and less artistically successful, with Wordsworth converting to orthodox Anglicanism and Prince to the Witnesses. But this is not to say that Prince either burned out or faded away. He continued to express his social conscience—consider his Baltimore Concert after Freddie Gray’s death. Additionally, his impact on contemporary music is impossible to overstate: plenty of last year’s biggest hits, like “Uptown Funk” and The Weeknd’s chart-topping songs, owe a major debt to His Royal Badness.

In an era of cheap satisfactions and empty calories, Prince reminds us that transformative musical genius is a real thing, and it can’t help asserting itself through all the white noise that regularly assails us. After all, that’s what Prince evidently was—a genius—and in the wake of his passing, it’s what we’ll be remembering and celebrating.