Moby Dickering

MobyOK, I was bored. Really bored.

I rarely read print media any longer. Gone is the day when I used to devour every issue of Time or Newsweek, or the local paper. Even my Wall Street Journal tends to pile up, undisturbed, ready for recycling to save the Planet. Life is short, the news cycle on the net runs at hyperspeed, and there are too many drop-dead talented writers and reporters on the web — from all over the political spectrum — to spend much time on a quaint anachronism like a weekly news mag. And besides, life is decidedly Blue out here in Washington state, so the local rags are, well, predictable Pravda affiliates.

But trapped in the OR lounge between surgeries — where time between cases passes like a slug on quaaludes — I grabbed a section of one of my local papers, the Morning News Tribune. And there it was — below the fold in the Soundlife section — postmodern journalism and politics in all its glory.

Soundlife is the local interest section of the Tribune — every paper has one — teaming with lightweight articles on events of interest, the arts, gardening, and music. This is where expectations of good writing are low, and local journalists get to pad their resumes a bit while waiting for their employment call from the NY Times. Or not.

First to catch my eye — framed between two color pictures — was a pull quote, with a close-cropped head shot of a bald bespeckled pundit:


Why did half the country respond with outrage when Janet Jackson showed her nipple on the Super Bowl? Why didn’t they respond with outrage when American foreign policy results in the death of 200,000 Iraqis? … I have to ask myself: Would God be more offended by a bare breast on the Super Bowl, or 200,000 dead Iraqis? It’s a simple question. And I think the answer would be pretty clear.

MOBY, a proud Blue State voter, on American politics.

Ahh, deep thoughts, music superstar, pop theology, all wrapped up in one — gotta love it. Where to start? Such a rich target in so little space.

Yawn — another pop star or Hollywood celeb treating us to to their deep analysis of the world, perched high in their pulpit of short-lived fame and easy money. I’m an avid music fan, but the name Moby barely registers – a quick Googling unveils an aging techno-rocker with ten-plus years of striving to release The Big Album, sadly to no avail. His fawning critics shower him with praise:

Not unlike the hotel metaphor he uses, Moby checks in and checks out of public recognition with frightening momentum, inhabiting one musical habitat after another and leaving only his hair-shavings by way of a mark. Nobody quite cares who he is and nobody quite remembers him. It \'s a condition compounded perhaps by his awkward intellectualism. “Why hotel?” his sleeve notes begin. But nobody asked him in the first place. Moby courts expectations of Moby more meticulously than we court those of him and it \'s this freakish self-propulsion that keeps him from achieving orbit. Moby is too busy orbiting himself and his own mobiness.

Ouch. And this guy likes Moby! With friends like that…

The Moby pull-quote in the News Tribune is classic postmodern political discourse, in so many ways. Postmodernism is a nebulous non-philosophy which few admit to, but seemingly everyone espouses. Rejecting all absolute truth, it replaces fact and history with “narratives” created by culture and language, specifically by those in power. The postmodernist’s mission in life is to “deconstruct”, to show the hidden agenda — typically racism, imperialism, oppression, intolerance (you know the litany) — behind each and every construct of Western civilization, and to “speak Truth to power” (a curious disconnect there, no? What truth??). It has spread like a viral epidemic through the crowded confines and stagnant, overheated air of academia, raging through the intellectual elitism of the left, where compromised immunity against frivolous idealogy is endemic.

An odd analogy, this: the connection between Janet Jackson’s breast and the war in Iraq admittedly eludes this mere mortal — both are getting really old ? Their flaws are clearly revealed? Tune in, turn on, drop out? Oh, now I get it: hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the postmodernist’s religion — not that they are hypocrites, mind you, (you cannot be a hypocrite when there are no absolutes) — but rather that everyone with whom you disagree is a hypocrite. And no one is more hypocritical than right-wing, Red State, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, intolerant, war-mongering, neoconservative Fox News-watching, tongue-speakin’ theocrats .

The formula is perfect. When you’re making a political statement in the postmodern world, you must start with a really, really big number: say, 200,000. No matter that the number is a complete fabrication. Even the controversial Lancet article (original requires registration and is no longer linked) — which extrapolates from a small sample in the Sunni triangle to all of Iraq, fails to distinguish between innocent civilians and insurgent combatants or those killed by them, whose lead researcher was against the war and insisted that the study be rushed to print before the U.S. election — quotes only 100,000 civilian deaths, likely a vastly overstated figure at that. So where does this 200,000 figure come from? Who knows? Who cares? The point is that it’s a Really Big Number — shocking! even — and will get repeated, incessantly, until it becomes as close to fact as a postmodernist can get.

This kind of statistical hyperplasia is pandemic in postmodern political strategy. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of the pro-choice N.A.R.A.L. organization, in his revelatory book Aborting America (p. 193), tells of the origin of the oft-cited figure of 5,000-10,000 abortion-related deaths prior to legalization:

How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L., we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.” I confess that I knew the figures were totally false … But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? … In the last year before the Blackmun era [Roe v. Wade] began, in 1972, the total [abortion-related fatalities] was only 39 deaths.

The point is not to argue abortion, but to demonstrate a central tenet of postmodern political discourse: Statistics needn’t be true, just powerful, repeatable, and serve “the revolution.” Cite early, cite often, and your narrative becomes Truth.

But enough digression — back to Moby: he talks about God. God?? Why bring God into it? Postmodernism despises religion, with its foundation in absolute truth and moral certainty. But God can be useful, even to the postmodernist, as long as he is judging the hypocrites. God’s OK with Janet’s breast, but not OK with dead Iraqis, because Moby’s OK with Janet’s breast, and not OK with Iraq. Change the rules — suggest that God might be OK with liberating folks from tyranny and torture — and watch God get thrown overboard like yesterday’s lunch meat.

The last issue — the issue that really got me going on this rail — has nothing to do with Moby, and everything to do with the old-line media: context. There isn’t any. None. Nada. I checked the entire Soundlife section, and there’s not one word written about Moby anywhere else. Nor anywhere else in the paper. No concert in the area, no discourse about his musical evolution from rave to techno to crunch metal to ambient, no byline revealing who thought this quote worthy of citing — no nothing. The quote just sits there, a gratuitous sop to latte liberals, reinforcing their smug assuredness that All The Right People think just as they do. This is what passes for journalism when their are no facts, no truth, no certainty other than my own opinion and the will to power.

I remember hearing an NPR interview on some abortion controversy — perhaps a court ruling — a few years back. In a 60-second spot, Maura Liasson — or was it Cokie Roberts? — sympathetically interviewed a pro-choice spokeswoman, who gave her pitch about how reasonable it was, how woman’s rights and fairness were preserved, and so forth. All very smooth and polished, taking up nearly 40 seconds of the spot. Then, to “balance” the report, the interviewer read a quote from a pro-life spokesman — a man, by contrast — which sounded shrill and judgmental. No conclusions were drawn, of course: none were necessary.

Context. It’s everything. Stripped of context, vacuous words and self-important foolishness take on a gravity and value not inherently theirs: the frivolous becomes profound. Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message, and the medium is lost, hopelessly so. When truth is discarded, the vehicle drives the driver, and what’s to keep you out of the ditch? As Moby would say, “It’s a simple question. And I think the answer would be pretty clear.”

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9 thoughts on “Moby Dickering

  1. Actually, Moby was quite big in 1999-2000, when he put out an album Play that went platinum, spawning many songs that found their way into commercials all over the place.

  2. Ah! Moby writes music for commercials. Ok, he must be something really special; he must know all about world politics so we should listen to him. He writes music for commercials.

  3. So where does this 200,000 figure come from?

    If I remember the details of the Lancet article, the authors offered 95% confidence that the number of “excess deaths” was between 8000 and 192,000 – 100,000 being in the middle. So I suppose 200,000 is, roughly, just as likely as 100,000 based on this study. And it’s that bit more outrageous-sounding, so why not use it?


  4. No, Moby does not write “music for commercials.” His music has been used in commercials. There’s a difference. After all, the Rolling Stones, The Who, and even Led Zeppelin have had their musing used in commercials, but you don’t make such snarky comments about them. And no I’m not claiming Moby is on the level of those classic artists, merely pointing out the mistake in Bruce’s comment.

    As for the article on the 200,000 figure, I’ll post a link to a site that’s extensively analyzed the study later. Right now I have to run.

  5. Orac,

    Thanks for the correction — I’ll have to check out Moby’s Play on iTunes. Perhaps I have underestimated his musical abilities — there’s a ton of artists I enjoy who are still dimwits when they move out of their musical expertise into politics and social issues. Maybe I’ll add him to that list…

    Looking forward to your link on the Lancet article as well.

  6. As promised, here is a blog that has extensivly analyzed the Lancet study and the critiques of it. The link to his posts on the Lancet study is here. Another good summary is here.

  7. Just wanted to point out that Moby actually does invoke God quite regularly and considers himself a Christian. He even samples quite a bit of gospel vocals into his songs. As with practically every musician I like, his politics are diametrically opposed to mine.

    However, I’m used to that and will continue to expect it since I can bring myself to listen to country music and watch NASCAR (where the politics would be more agreeable). However, the larger issue is that I’m noticing a great many of the Christians I know are very liberal. I really think you’ve highlighted the source of this situation which is post-modern relativism which is so prevalent and has now seeped into Christian culture as well.

  8. Let’s reconstruct your argument:

    P1: People that make debatable factual claims don’t care about the truth of those claims.
    P2: People that don’t care about the truth of claims are invested in the effect of those claims.
    P3: People that care only about the social effects of truth claims are post-modernists.
    P4: Moby made a debatable factual claim.

    Conclusion: Moby is a post-modernist.

    This is a pretty dubious syllogism. It’s interesting that each of your premises is pretty debatable. Clearly, you “despise God.”

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