Listening In: Version and Inversion
"Now, fellow rude-boys,
Stand fast and let us unite
And deal with 100 or 1000 years"
- "Dreader than Dread," Honey Boy Martin
We were warned. In fact, we knew. We knew that infectious diseases were breaking out all over the world with greater frequency, that our gains in medical understanding were offset by the speed of global transmission, driven by our insatiable desire/ability to travel/exploit the world. We knew that cheap goods cost a lot more than their sticker prices, that the conditions in which they were manufactured were inhumane. We knew—we know—that climate change and species loss are irreversible, that there is no other place for our garbage. Alas, as Malcolm X warned, the chickens are coming home to roost—and this time they likely have been prepared for the slaughter in pathogen-spreading packed barns.
There is nowhere else to turn. It’s just us. And we don't seem to know what to do about it. We’re still racing toward disaster.
What is true in the natural world is true in the social sphere. We knew that the Black community has been consistently traumatized, not just from the original crime of slavery, but because of a de facto caste system perpetuated for the (only) 160 years since then. We knew that radically cash-starved public school systems lead to limited economic opportunity. We knew that a for-profit jail-building criminal justice system is fed by law enforcement with nearly unlimited power to brutalize, even kill. Until this very moment, criticism of the police has barely been tolerated, shut down by the blue wall of silence. And we know our tragically insane President is just itching to crack down, to dominate—that he supports the most racist policies we have seen in decades, and an unprecedented debasement of our culture.
In this column last month, for a piece called “Vision and Revision,” I concluded with a poem by Rumi (“The Guest House”) about the inevitability of change, and the need to accept it. The story struck a fairly optimistic note. But if I am honest, my predominant feeling lately has been one of dread. To open the newspaper is to unleash a cascade of barely imaginable stories. Yet how can we be surprised when we knew? The answer: We don’t want to know.
The result is dread. It's not how we'd like to see ourselves: crouching in fear, shell-shocked. We want to believe in our better angels, but they elude us; as Beth Orton once sang, "I wanted to give, then I just couldn't take it, I wanted to love and I turned round and hated it." Now the soundtrack is nothing so sweetly rueful, more like Lou Reed quivering through the damage in “Waves of Fear”: “Waves of revulsion, sickening sights / My heart's nearly bursting, my chest's choking tight.”
Of what use is dread? At some level, it is probably an adaptive behavior, telling us that the threat is imminent, that we must remain on high alert. But it becomes a feedback loop, the same nightmare appearing to us over and over. And those negative reinforcements are often stronger than any positive energy we can throw at them.
I was trying to think of ways to break the grip of dread. One is to realize its limited imagination. T.S. Eliot wrote, “I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” In some ways, dread functions the same way as hope: we always end up dreading the wrong things. Dread is imagining only one trajectory, always downward. There are several, heading in various directions, and we are watching their intersecting storylines with our own rising and falling emotions.
This also led me to thinking about a reggae mix I once made with a friend called “Dreader than Dread.” It featured that perfect, fairly obscure title song from 1967 by Honey Boy Martin, which offers an oracular start (“Let us unite / And deal with 100 or 1000 years”), followed by a deadpan, cutting style. The singer is ruder than rude, tougher than tough, dreader than dread.
There are other Jamaican songs with the same name: a bangin’ hip-hop/reggae hybrid by French artist L’Entreloop, a recent charming one by Natanja. But the Honey Boy Martin version sets the standard for me. He tells us he will go to war to protect his turf. And he will vanquish dread by possessing it.
The original meaning of dread related to the braided dreadlocks worn by Rastafarians. Rastas were often seen as peace-loving, and distinct from the tough, criminal-minded rude boys, or rudies. But in their general badass demeanor, they acquired a rep so that dread came to acquire its later meanings; best of the best, crème de la crème.
Some cultures are resilient and adaptive. Jamaica is one of these. Even the language seizes on the most piquant, color-saturated phrases, finding power in the economy of means. Just list some artists’ names and you hear it: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sugar Minott, King Tubby, Cutty Ranks. To wring meaning out of limited means, to take culture and hammer it into something new: Jamaicans have a genius for this. They took Motown songs as a template and transformed them into reggae, and continued to perform this cultural alchemy. It is a constant recycling, repurposing. Endless versions and inversions of a song; a culture of flowering versions. And it is grounded in a resilience we are going to need to learn to face our circumstances.
The generation just entering this new world is seeing limited opportunities and a bleak landscape. I’m thinking of the generation that almost got its favored candidate, Bernie Sanders, the nomination to run against the present monster. There could have been a true sea change coming for this country; instead there is rancor, violence, and fear. How will this group fight back despair and rediscover hope?
Walt Whitman wrote in (and of) “Beginners,” “All times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward.” We are always making a bet on the next generation, and what will be important to them, and it often goes awry. When we raise them, we’re just guessing which way they might want to go. But circumstances change, and the future we planned for them and ourselves isn’t here. In its place are colder than death decisions about what fate we will accept for our country. As of this writing, it is touch and go.
Young people (and their elders) have a chance to seize this moment and make their power felt. Tens of thousands are taking to the streets all over the world to do so. It is time for them to shake off this brain-washed culture and choose our direction. It will take courage and will. And getting there will require inverting the drift toward dread. We need to discover that spirit of being dreader than dread; of insistence, of primacy, of self-assertion, of forcing ourselves to overcome a lesser fate. We have followed false gods to folly’s edge. And whether it takes 100 or 1000 years, we have no less a task than to reclaim and rebuild our world.