The word "genius" is often abused and devalued until it means little more than "someone who can think quickly and remember facts well." But there are a few people whose talents and insights transcend any simplistic analysis, and whose contributions to the world have thus been enormous and yet impossible to calculate - sometimes, ironically, to the point that their true significance is missed entirely. These are true geniuses, and they tap into something basic that most of us will barely even glimpse. Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame is such a person, through his incredible and often indescribable contributions to music - compositions and performances that somehow capture fundamental, cosmic qualities and provide them in a compelling package that leaves the audience feeling inspired and awakened rather than anesthetized like so much music today.
I can say without reservation that he is one of my personal heroes because of his ability to do this, and his willingness over two decades to show the rest of us the beauty he sees that we would otherwise only perceive in the shallowest and most fleeting terms. And it's because of this profound admiration that I feel it worthwhile to address some political comments he made a few months ago that have only come to my attention recently. These comments were not outrageous, ridiculous, or foolish - I just disagree with them, and want to sort of put my own thoughts out into the ether as a kind of tribute for what his music has added to my life.
Corgan was interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN earlier in the year, and said a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things about the state of the country. I agreed with a lot of them...
Morgan: What do you think of America right now, I know that you're a very political man......I have reservations about some of them...
Corgan: (laughs) You're starting right off there.
Morgan: Yeah. I'm interested in your view of your country.
Corgan: I'm very disappointed in my country right now. Because I think we've kind of lost our moral compass. [..] I'm disappointed, the level of political and cultural rhetoric is so low, it's kind of shocking. And everyone just seems to be okay with it, like 'Oh, that's just the way it goes.' I'm from the lower middle class, and I see the middle class hollowing out, I see my family's people and my family really struggling, I know so many people struggling, and yet we're arguing about these really stupid nuance-y things which political commentators know are BS, but they just kind of play along...
Corgan: I'm at the point now where I don't trust either political party.We hear this a lot even here on this overtly Democratic website, and as far as it's just a literal expression that one doesn't trust the party to automatically do the right thing, it's just common sense - and that appears to be Corgan's meaning. Where we get into trouble in the discussion is allowing that common sense to descend into a kind of "the parties are the same" / "Democrats will betray you" narrative that is really insulting to the millions who pour their hearts into making this a Party that works for people, as if we're either corrupt ourselves or too dumb to notice that the process dilutes, diminishes, and sometimes perverts our good intentions. So I don't trust parties either, because they're groups - but I trust the people who are members of a party that arises from noble ideas, and judge the leaders that arise in the Democratic Party as individuals.
...and this is where I just plain disagree:
Morgan: What is the kind of leader that you're craving in an American President?We hear this sometimes too, and I don't want to speculate on whether he was referring to economic policy, foreign policy, or just a general pattern that he perceives across all bases, but I've seen nothing wrong with Barack Obama's moral compass. As far as I've seen, it's the strongest we've had in the White House in generations, and there seems to be a disconnect in people's ability to understand the difference between someone who is part of the problem or ineffective vs. a good and highly effective person who volunteers to take on an impossible job with absurdly little support from the rest of the government and fickle support at best from the public.
Corgan: Moral compass. And that's where I'm disappointed in the President, is he ran on a moral compass agenda. But what happened? I'm sure there's lots of good reasons, and I'm sure they'll roll somebody out to counter thoughts like that, but I don't see it.
I don't fault Corgan for missing this perspective, since being an intelligent and thoughtful person doesn't necessarily mean one has a solid historical foundation or appreciation for what politics actually is. More basically, I would say that a moral compass tells you where you need to head, but only a terrain map tells you how to get there, and this globalized plutocracy and anesthetized public is the most hostile terrain we've ever experienced in domestic politics. As far as I've seen, President Obama has consistently shown an awareness of moral North and an overall program of building momentum in that direction, but if he just ignored the rest of the government (including the bureaucracy under his temporary 8-year purview) and acted as an individual, his Presidency would grind to a halt and end up with very little lasting legacy - the biggest failing of Jimmy Carter's otherwise highly moral administration.
That said, I think the President has also done a much better job than Bill Clinton ever did of avoiding Stockholm Syndrome, although he is indeed just one man - not some Ubermensch who can resist overwhelming force in perpetuity with often passive and unreliable public support. He had a progressive jobs bill in front of Congress, and while that fight was going on, an absurdly large proportion of the activists who consistently call for exactly that kind of thing were too busy calling him a sellout to do anything to support that bill. And it just seems to me like a sort of "conspiracy of helplessness" - like every opening this President has created for us to build on, we just pretend we don't see it and desperately change the subject to something else - or even really don't see it, because some of us really are wrapped up in their own quasi-anarchistic version of alternate reality where leadership is a betrayal by definition.
In other words, it doesn't seem to me like the game of moving goalposts and insincerity is occurring entirely in Washington - it infects us all, and we have a lot more immediate ability to correct it in grassroots movements that exhibit it than we do to reform Washington, and achieving the former would go a huge way in enabling the reformation of the latter. Everything I've seen of this President tells me he is both a moral leader and a moral person, which puts him far ahead of any President in decades in that department, and also a competent leader, which puts him far ahead of so much of our activist communities. I personally try to imagine doing a better overall job than this President, and can't - all the disagreements I have with him just add up to a sprinkling of symbolic emphases and short-term tactics that would probably just blow up in my face if I were in his shoes.
The lesson, I think, is that this is as good as the Presidency gets, and we have to start moving on to improving the other 99.9999999999999999999999% of government, however impersonal it is compared to one guy. We don't want a monarchy, and we need to start proving that by putting the emphasis where it belongs - as close to home as possible, and in deliberative/legislative bodies rather than executives. And I'm optimistic about our prospects for achieving that: We put more real progressives into the Senate and took seats in the House in an election year that was "supposed" to have Republicans gain. It can be done. We can have a Congress more liberal than a liberal President, whose progressive demands he can then negotiate with rather than with a gerrymandered right-wing circus Congress. Ditto the state legislatures and statehouses. Ditto the city councils and Mayor's offices. Ditto the PTA and other community bodies. Step 1 to making America more progressive: Be more progressive ourselves.
Everyone from Buddha to Confucius to Gandhi has screamed this message from the rooftops, and President Obama has often repeated it - let's prove we're capable of constructively using such leadership, and not just being the surly putz who sits around belittling the efforts of others because we don't want to be the ones held accountable for anything. And that brings up something Corgan said that I very much agree with, continuing from the ellipsis in the first quote:
We've turned into kind of a whining society, and listen, I've done plenty of whining in my life. But I think at some point we have to get out of this paternalistic turn we're in where we want Daddy to come and save us and the banks to come and save us, and we need to get back to a level of social responsibility that we haven't seen for a long time.I'm right there with him on that, and I take full responsibility for my share of the degradation of society. So you better believe I'll change a lot about my own behavior before I start acting morally superior to the guy who works so hard he barely sleeps and has to put blind faith in his security people to deal with the thousands of psychos threatening his children because Rush Limbaugh doesn't like his skin tone or his obstinate rationality. IMHO, Barack Obama has the same level of vertiginous insight into American politics that Billy Corgan has into music, and it doesn't surprise me at all that such dizzying talents might not understand each other's worlds.
Just speaking as a goofy fan, I'd love some day to see the two of them meet and discuss things. Here is the interview in full so that Corgan's comments can be heard in full context:
And just to proselytize the awesomeness that is Corgan's music, here is some of his less-known and new work worthy of basking, both in the Smashing Pumpkins and in solo projects: