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Perspectives on Mill

From the desk calendar version of Schott’s Original Miscellany (25th of January, in case you were wondering) comes a quote from the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill on that most divisive of subjects, war:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.

Not surprisingly, it’s a popular one on right-wing/neo-conservative websites (a quick search on Google throws up a whole slew of them) where it is oft accompanied by the following, which serves to hammer home the message:

The individual who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, whose only concern is for his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

Now I’d like to rain on everyone’s parade and ask the question: is this really how Mill should be interpreted? Because from the way I see it, Mill could have been saying the exact opposite of what the right-wingers assume.
Take the first sentence. Mill doesn’t make any bones about it: “War is an ugly thing”; it is not some glorious spectacle, as many right-wing ‘patriots’ have romanticised. Yet Mill explains that in his view there is something even worse than war, that being “the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war.” The far right has taken this to be a criticism of anyone who should oppose military action on the part of their country — in other words, that those who think nothing is worth fighting a war over are fools at best, cowards at worst.
But what if Mill is actually saying the opposite — that believing nothing could be worth quite the same as the ‘glory’ of war is worse than the act of war itself? Obviously war, though ugly, is sometimes necessary, but that is no reason to glorify it. If we do, like the proprietors of those right-wing websites appear to, then we shall become all the uglier for it.
The second quote can be interpreted similarly. The individual “whose only concern is for his own personal safety” — doesn’t that sound a lot like a personification of American foreign policy to you? That whole ‘don’t give a darn about the rest of the world as long as they’re not threatening my turf’ attitude? There’s a slogan that encapsulates this mindset: “Don’t tread on me.” (‘Me’ being, sadly, the operative word.)
According to Mill, this individual is “a miserable creature who has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself”; or, the individual is imprisoned by his own ignorance of the world around him, his ignorance of the condition of those who exist beyond his limited horizons, and only by the intellectual toil and activistic perspiration of the liberal-minded can he be freed from this self-imposed oppression.
Now of course, I’m likely completely wrong about Mill — he was, remember, one of the main proponents of utilitarianism — however he was a philosopher, and like all philosophers there’s a lot more going on under the surface as might appear at first glance.
Then again, I could be double-bluffing you right now, and this whole piece has just been an exercise in bullshit, riddled with innaccuracies. But maybe, just maybe, that’s the whole point. After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, right?
I’ll leave the final word to another formidable 19th century mind, Henry David Thoreau; a man who truly understood what freedom means. I doubt that this brief quote — from Walden; 1854 — is open to any misinterpretation:

What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study.


Friday Five #59

*At this moment, what is your favorite…*
*1. …song?*
At this very moment it’s Pretend I’m Sleeping by The Sick Lipstick, from their unbelievable debut album Sting Sting Sting. Ask me this same question a few hours from now, however, and you’ll most likely get a different answer.
*2. …food?*
None right now, since I’ve had a cold all week and have therefore lost the ability to even _taste_ food, let alone enjoy it.
*3. …tv show?*
The Mark Steel Lectures are bloomin’ marvellous. They’re like the best lectures you’ve ever been to, but better.
*4. …scent?*
My girlfriend. (I know what you’re thinking — “How cheesy is this guy?” — but guess what? I don’t care what you think.)
*5. …quote?*
I’m quite partial to this juicy one right now, which has been attributed to William Shakespeare:

Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind.

And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so.

How do I know?

For this is what I have done.

And I am Caesar.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Just a shame that it’s not an actual quote from the Bard.


The Sheffield-born, London-based electronic music label Warp Records (home to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, et al) has recently, after much anticipation, launched its Bleep.com music download service. Essentially, the label has provided virtually its entire back catalogue — over 10 years worth of music — as high-quality mp3 files for download at a reasonable price: �1.35 per track, or �9.99 per album. Even considering the loss of a tangible object (jewel case, cover art, liner notes, etc.) that’s pretty good value.
But what marks Bleep.com as different from the majority of music downloading services on the web is not just the sheer breadth of the content available, but the fact that it is available without restrictions: when you download the music, you can burn it onto as many CDs as you like; store it on multiple computers and portable devices; whatever takes your fancy. As the label states itself: “We believe that most people like to be treated as customers and not potential criminals.”
And it works. This morning I gave the new service a test drive, downloading Boards Of Canada‘s brilliant debut album Music Has The Right to Children. The site is fast, instructions are clear, payment was simple (I paid via Paypal, but the site also accepts major credit cards and even, for those dwelling in the UK, the option to pay by SMS from your mobile phone) and downloading was a painless process (at least on broadband – the large file size of a full album download would pose problems for those still on a dial-up connection). Less than half an hour after logging onto the site, I had my computer’s music player fired up with the sweet sounds of BOC. (No, not _that_ BOC!) A few minutes later, a burned CD version was spinning on my hi-fi. Very impressive, I must say. Not that it’s going to change my music-buying habits, mind you — despite the cost and convenience factors, I like my music with artwork and packaging, thank you very much — but it’s bloody amazing, really.
While we Europeans await the arrival of Apple‘s runaway success story, the iTunes Music Store, this is the most comprehensive and sincere dedication to the medium of digital music that we’ve witnessed to date. It may not be the first, but it is the first to execute the idea on such a scale. Take for instance AudioLunchbox.com: launched in April 2003, this American site has a pricing structure akin to that of Bleep.com, is similarly free of technical and copyright restrictions and hosts music from a pleasingly wide variety of US independent labels, yet unlike Warp’s service the choice therein is confined to more recent recordings. Surely the web is the perfect medium for making available older material that isn’t so easily available, without the costs and hassle involved in keeping it in print? Warp can’t have been the first to realise this, but seem to be the first to have actually implemented it.
Much has been made, it seems, of this action on Warp’s part as some giant leap forward in the way the music industry deals with the Internet, that somehow Bleep.com is proof that record labels are finally coming to terms with the habits of young computer users and the �rip/mix/burn� culture. But that’s not going to happen, at least not just yet. Remember, this is Warp Records we’re talking about here; a perfectly-formed yet small — in the scheme of things, very, very small — independent label with an inarguably niche audience. Its artists, predominantly of the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) variety, use computers to make their music, and presumably also to promote and/or disseminate it — it follows, surely, that they would be more savvy than most musicians when it comes to conceiving of the issues surrounding music file sharing on the web, and all that entails.
And even more importantly, Warp has done without a second thought what previous music download schemes have consistently failed to do: they have given the public what they want. They didn�t cherry-pick from their back catalogue to give a few bits and pieces like the end of the Christmas sale at HMV — they�ve given us the whole lot. Eschewing the duplicity of the major labels and the lack of commitment of the indies when it comes to this issue, Warp have refused to patronise their customers. This might not even be an issue for the guys in the Warp office, but it seems too distantly out of reach for other companies to grasp.
So the model at present seems appears to be working for Warp. The next question is, will it work for other similarly-sized labels dealing with potentially more profitable genres? Just imagine if Sub Pop provided its entire catalogue for download – I could finally get my hands on those Tad albums they deleted years ago! Electronic music is one thing, but rock music where the bread’n’butter is, and that will be the real test.
But all the same, this is still an unbelievably generous gesture on the part of Warp Records which should bring some, even if only a little, clout to the medium of digital music, and should with hope provoke serious discussion amonsgt the big-wigs in major label land. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what happens.

Hot Sauce

My second contribution to Omnivore is now online, entitled Hot Sauce; a cautionary tale regarding the perils of condiment overconsumption. I hope that you might find it quite galvanic.
As was the case previously, any mistakes in spelling, grammar and/or formatting (for example, _Hot Damn!_ should read _Hot Damn!_) are entirely my own. I should pay more attention before I send things off.

The Boss: dead

I had the strangest dream last night.

I am in an undisclosed location reading a tabloid, not paying much attention to the text, when all of a sudden a photograph catches my eye.

It’s a small thumbnail image, heading an inch-wide side column, of Bruce Springsteen. It’s not the greatest picture, hampered by its size and poor resolution, but it’s recognisably him, in his younger days.

Suitably distracted (yeah, it doesn’t take much to distract me) I focus on the accompanying text, immediately drawn to the curt caption directly below the image. It reads:

The Boss: Dead

I am taken aback. (Strangely stunned, since I’m not even a fan. I don’t even bother to scan the subsequent text to confirm it.) I ask myself: Can it be? Is Bruce Springsteen dead? I had no idea! Why didn’t anyone tell me?!?

It’s only a moment or two later when I begin to wonder: Hang on a minute, this is the Boss! Doesn’t he deserve more than a single column inch in the middle of a tabloid?

Then I woke up.