I always find it entertaining to watch a movie at home with a Millennial or GenZ. (What’s not to like about the term “Generation Z” and its variants for the latest wave of HS students and younger, by the way? It sounds like the zombie apocalypse.) There are at least three electronic devices competing for their attention: the TV, an open laptop with a game in progress, and a smart phone open to the net and continually buzzing as new texts arrive. There might even be music-emitting earphones around the neck that slide up onto the ears for any dull spots in film, game, or text.
I don’t multitask as well as that. I like to think I “focus better than that,” but in truth it’s a mix of both. Some of this is generational, but a lot of it is surely a personal trait: I just am distracted easily. I don’t even like the car radio to play when I’m coping with heavy traffic, though the radio is enjoyable on an open road. In high school and college I sometimes read and studied with the stereo playing, but not loudly and not any old record. I could deal with the Grateful Dead as background music, for example, but not Jimi Hendrix. Jimi would pull my attention away from the books. Nowadays I generally prefer full quiet when reading, but there are rare exceptions. The exceptions usually are an accident.
A recent exception involved thumbing through David Hume’s Essays while Garbage played on the stereo. I meant no commentary by that particular combination. The Garbage CD just happened to be playing when I picked up the book, got caught up in it, and then was too lazy to walk across the room to turn off the music. (Laziness has had a profound impact on my life in ways both large and small.) On this occasion the effect was pleasant.
After the bromidic Seneca (See earlier blog Polonius on the Tiber), the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was a refreshing breath of breezy 18th century air. Hume is fashionable in philosophic circles at the moment, probably because of his religious skepticism. Yet his more important message was religious toleration – and political toleration. Hume lived in fractious times, as we do today, and his assessment of political factions sounds all too modern:
“Those who either attack or defend a minister in such a government as ours, where the utmost liberty is allowed, always carry matters to an extreme, and exaggerate his merit or demerit with regard to the public. His enemies are sure to charge him with the greatest enormities, both in domestic and foreign management; and there is no meanness or crime, of which, in their account, he is not capable… On the other hand, the partizans of the minister make his panegyric run as high as the accusation against him, and celebrate his wise, steady, and moderate conduct in every part of his administration.”
The source of his tolerance (other than his personal disposition) was his belief in the limits of reason. Unlike Descartes and most of the ancient philosophers who insisted on the primacy of reason, Hume regarded reason as more of a tool than an answer. He saw all too clearly that people – especially in political, religious, and moral matters – believe something first and then employ reason to justify their belief. When negative proofs are impossible – as they usually are – most people are impervious to reasoned arguments. They can rationalize right back at you. They must be persuaded, if at all, by appealing to their sympathies – to their emotions. They will see logic in a new belief only afterwards. Recognition of this human foible made Hume a skeptic with regard to all beliefs including his own. It’s hard to be both a self-skeptic and a zealot.
As for popular music, the sounds from one’s youth are notoriously dear to the heart, which in my case primarily means basic blues-based rock-and-roll and its variants. Rarely do the five receptacles in my CD tray not contain at least one disc that meets the description, whether a classic band such as the Animals or a contemporary one such as Dorothy. But I do play other artists and genres originating both before and after my teen years. Bands from the ‘90s (high tide for GenXers) in particular occupy an outsized quantity of space on my CD shelf: Offspring, Radiohead, Guns’n’Roses, Soundgarden, etc. One experimental band I liked at the time was Garbage, which deliberately mixed genres so thoroughly that it really couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Lead singer (and Hume’s fellow Scot) Shirley Manson once called it sci-fi pop, but she didn’t stick with the description. Whatever it is, it combines ‘50s Beat coffee house-style lyrics with synthetic sounds and traditional instruments to interesting effect.
Garbage has disbanded and reformed several times over the years, but is currently together and performing. Their most recent album, the 2016 Strange Little Birds, is worth a listen (one track posted below) and served as the background music mentioned above.
Thumbs up to book and band. Though the two worked well together for me on this occasion, I think that is because neither was new to me. If encountering either for the first time, I recommend them in sequence, not in concert.
Garbage – Magnetized