Friday, March 27, 2015

Moral syndromes, country music, 9/11 and Ted Cruz

We most often use the word "syndrome" to refer to symptoms of diseases. It has a broader meaning, however, and that meaning is worth recovering. A syndrome is a collection of things that tend to go together. It's never absolute. It just means that we tend to find them together. On the other hand, it has to happen that we find them together pretty often before we'd want to call it a syndrome.

That's why the word is so useful in medicine. When a new disease appears, we first become aware of it as a collection of outward signs that we don't know the causes of. If the same set of symptoms shows up in patient after patient, we know to start looking for a cause. The cause may be a germ, a genetic defect or a shared activity (they all work in the same building or they all play tennis). Or it may be multiple things that create a similar syndrome but the underlying causes are quite different. Or it may be that some thing in the syndrome doesn't actually fit with the others after all. It's a flexible notion and that makes it a useful starting point.

I find it's also useful in making assessments about how to live our lives. Which brings me to Ted Cruz.
"Music is interesting," he said. "I grew up listening to classic rock, and I'll tell you sort of an odd story: My music taste changed on 9/11. And it's very strange. I actually intellectually find this very curious. But on 9/11, I didn't like how rock music responded. And country music collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me. 
"And I have to say, it just is a gut-level. I had an emotional reaction that says, these are my people," Cruz said of country artists. "So ever since 2001, I listen to country music. But I'm an odd country music fan, because I didn't listen to it prior to 2001."
I picked this up from Ann Althouse who was puzzled and put off by what Cruz said:
What's Ted talking about? I think he uses words carefully — he's a languagemaster — so I'm taking his language seriously. I'm making it my business to understand the "Ted talk" (to coin a phrase). 
I'm queasy about his "these are my people." Cruz is a politician, so who's he trying to get in good with? And what exactly did he hear in country music that made him suddenly see himself belonging in that aural milieu? I'm thinking he's just posing for us on the theory that we're conned by that loves-country-music bullshit. He's one of the salt-of-the-earth folks. You know, the kind who actually intellectually find their own music taste very curious. The real America. 
This makes me think of that old line: "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made" (Jean Giraudoux).
I think that Cruz is actually being charmingly straightforward, almost to the point of naiveté, here. Someone faking sincerity would insist that they'd always listened to country music and claim deep knowledge of and affection for the genre. Cruz tells us that he doesn't, in fact, know much about the music having only listened to it since 2001.

Think of a woman trying to convince her suspicious boyfriend that her love for him is sincere. She wouldn't say, "I used to like hard-partying types like Brian until 9/11 and then I realized I only wanted you because I noticed that serious math geeks like you had a more mature reaction to the events than my old buddies who were hitting the beer bong and partying as the towers went down." This may, in fact, be real the reason she dumped Brian but it's not what you say to someone you are, in Althouse's words, "trying to get in good with."

People who are keen on establishing their sincerity, thump their chests and bare their emotions. If anything, this is the opposite of that. Cruz is telling us that music isn't anything more than wallpaper in his life. Before 9/11 he didn't think much about the values that went with the music he listened to, he just listened to it the way someone who buys a car just as a way to get around doesn't much care about the colour and design. After 9/11, he became painfully aware that the moral syndrome that goes with rock wasn't him. Until 2001, there was no particular reason to care one way or another.

After 9/11, it was appropriate to reassess our values and the syndromes they fall into. I think Althouse is being disingenuous when she later goes on to say that she can't figure out what rock musicians did to put Cruz off. If anything, it was what they didn't do that probably triggered his reassessment. But the assessment was based on a larger set of considerations than just the reactions after 9/11. It's rather that he thought about sex and drugs and rock and roll and the syndrome of moral and political values that goes with that and asked himself did this fit into his life anymore.

Here's an analogy. Imagine Jimmy Buffet comes to your town and someone gives you tickets to the show. You've never cared one way or another about him but you like the song about the pencil-thin moustache and you don't mind Margaritaville so long as you don't hear it too often. In any case, your open to a little fun and you go. You get there and you see that there is an entire set of values that go with being a Jimmy Buffet fan, that they call themselves parrotheads and that the band is called The Coral Reefer Band and the drug reference in that isn't accidental. You might not care. But then a friend of yours might quit his job and smoke dope and drink Margaritas all day. And you might think, this isn't so harmless anymore. By doing that, you would have noticed that there is a value syndrome that goes with this music and that it doesn't fit your value set.

One of the things that really troubles me about baby boomers, and I am one, is that we have tended to do it the other way around. We settled on the cool music that we liked and then adopted the moral and political values that went with that music. And we taught the next generations to do the same. Too many adults still worry about being one of the cool kids and, therefore, assume the moral and political values that they think will get them membership in that club. Ted Cruz is a refreshing break from that.

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