DJs and their silly, pretentious egos

Pretentiousness is a vice that receives relatively little attention in the press and in popular literature.  Perhaps because it is seen as a relatively harmless foible, and causes no direct harm, academics and intellectuals mostly bypass it to focus more on greed, wrath, and lust. The dictionary defines pretentious as ‘ characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved.’

One of the few writers who  tackled the subject and wrote about it eloquently was the late mystic and philosopher Alan Watts. In the classic, Does It Matter? , Watts deftly demonstrated how the European/American  aristocracy, along with the military and political establishment, wallowed in self-importance and pretentiousness, highlighted by their absurd uniforms. The epitome of this particular form of pomposity is the military general with his epaulettes, ribbons, medals, shiny boots, and so on.

But pretentiousness is not limited to politicians, millionaires, generals, and movie stars. If only that were true! One of the biggest groups suffering from the disease of pretentiousness is disc jockeys.

Recently I came across a promo ad for an ‘internationally renowned’ DJ who is scheduled to ‘perform’ next month in Ho Chi Minh City. The prominently placed ad was found in a glossy ‘zine marketed to wealthy expats here. The zine is called ‘Word’ and as you may have noticed from some of my previous posts, it is not a rag I am fond of or have any respect for.

First of all, isn’t it interesting that almost every promo for a DJ advertises him or her as being ‘internationally renowned’?  Is there some official sanctioning agency for DJs which confers this title and honor ? I don’t think so. And even if there were, would anyone take it seriously or mention it without laughing? No. The whole thing is a charade. Any DJ can put ‘internationally renowned’ after his name, make up cards and flyers, and nobody will call him on it.

A couple of years ago, ‘Word’ magazine did an entire spread on a DJ who was doing a gig here. The tone of the article was akin to the coverage given to visiting royalty. The sycophantic writer gushed about how this dweeb was the greatest DJ in the WORLD!! and how fortunate we were that he had decided to visit this backwater. The DJ had the classic rich Eurotrash look, with the open shirt, gold chains, swept-back hair,  and bored expression. The writer advised us to ‘get our tickets quickly’ as they were sure to sell out…

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against DJs, per se. A good DJ can liven up a party and get people dancing so they have a useful role. I just don’t like what the job (please don’t call it a profession) has evolved into over the past twenty years. I’m old enough to remember what DJs used to be. In the 1980s when I first started going to nightclubs, DJs were just above janitors on the status pole. They were far below bartenders and even a few notches below the waiters. The disc jockey was the guy up in the dark booth, spinning  records and earning, if he was lucky, minimum wage. He was usually anonymous and had little hope of getting laid. How times have changed.

The change-over into the modern day celebrity DJ occurred in the early- to mid-90s, along with the rise of rave culture. Initially, I was very enthusiastic about the rave scene. The focus was shifting away from watching the guy in spandex on the stage and toward dancing and communal experience. The scene began almost exclusively as an underground phenomenon, with parties happening in  abandoned warehouses, secluded beaches, basements, and basically any venue that could be temporarily taken over for the night. However, during the meteoric rise of the rave phenomenon, something unfortunate happened: the partygoers transferred their adulation of the band to their adulation of the DJ. Instead of remaining in the background, where he should be, the DJ vaulted himself to front and center, and even onto the stage itself, spotlights and all. The formerly anonymous nobody suddenly became a rock star.

I remember when it happened. In the mid 90s, I started noticing flyers and ads with ‘DJ so-and-so’ in flashy colorful graphics. “There’s gonna be a party and DJ pretentious is spinning. Awesome!”

I blinked and said, “Huh? Since when did DJs become rock stars?”  That was twenty years ago and the DJ is still holding onto his undeserved status as ‘artist.’ In fact, he is not an artist, a musician, or an innovator. He is simply a poseur and an opportunist. Magazine reviewers, club owners and festival organizers all play their assigned roles in this elaborate game, meant to fool gullible hipsters and kids into giving up their money to see the DJ ‘perform.’ I actually saw an advertisement not long ago that said a DJ would be PERFORMING LIVE.  I guffawed when I saw that. A band can ‘perform live.’ A DJ cannot. The guy is playing with his computer, not performing live. What a surreal world we live in.

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You don’t need much to get into the world of disc jockeying. Certainly, you don’t need talent, music or otherwise. What you need is attitude, lots of tattoos, an ability to frequently make (satanic) hand gestures, a baseball cap, and the vocal chords to frequently shout, “How’s everybody feeling tonight? Are you ready to party?”

Fifteen years ago, I went to a concert in San Francisco at the Fillmore. I arrived early enough to see the opening act, which was…a DJ. Some joker walked onto the stage, set up his computer on a small table, lit a cigarette, and started doing his schtick. The thing about DJs is that 99 percent of what they do is look busy. You gotta have those headphones on and fiddle with the switches and make it look like you’re doing something incredibly intricate and complicated, something almost..magical.  A few people in the audience started to sway a bit back and forth and a few more made a half-hearted effort to dance. The rest of the audience appeared confused and not knowing what else to do, watched the guy on stage staring at his computer and smoking a Marlboro. I stood in disbelief, wondering how the Fillmore, the band, and the promoter couldn’t manage to get a real band to open the performance.

When I watch Henry Rollins’ spoken word performances, I sometimes think, ‘Wow, he’s really sounding like an embittered, middle-aged man.” But hey, sometimes I sound like an embittered, middle-aged man too, so it’s ok. Plus, Henry and I grew up in the same neighborhood, and I like his take on a number of subjects, including DJs. He has nothing but contempt for them, especially the pretentious European variety, and I love it when he fixes his gaze at an imaginary DJ and says, “Hey dude, you’re a record- player, player. Get over yourself. You’re not a musician. You simply borrowed someone else’s music (and sweat), sampled it on your macintosh and then got up on stage.” Those aren’t his exact words, but it’s close enough. Right on, Henry.

 

 

 

Buddhism is lost and hopelessly corrupt

If you go to the bookstore and browse through the section on Buddhism, you will find numerous books discussing the Buddha’s teachings, or the ‘dharma.’ You will see commentaries on the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and other famous Buddhist works. You will also notice  various histories of Buddhism and its spread through Asia and now through the West. But you probably won’t find any books discussing Buddhism today; you won’t come across any books written about how Buddhism functions in day- to- day life in Asia.

I find that interesting and the subject is one that should be investigated by someone with knowledge of Buddhism,  East Asian cultures, history, and language. I’ve been living in Southeast Asia for almost three years now and Buddhism is in the news frequently, though not for good reasons. Indeed, whenever I see a story in the local news with the word ‘monk’ or ‘temple’ in the headline, I know I am going to be reading about a scandal.

The scandals usually involve a monk being caught doing something not very ‘monk-like’, such as being the first in line to buy a new Iphone,  driving around in fancy cars with 300 dollar sunglasses or having sex with students.  In the age of the smartphone camera and youtube, monks are being caught doing this stuff with more and more regularity. In the old days, they didn’t have to worry as much about being exposed.

Growing up in the West and being reared in a Christian household, I developed a rather cynical attitude toward religion at a young age. As I got older and read more deeply into the history of the Catholic Church with the Inquisition, the witch burnings, the genocide of Native Americans and the rest, my cynicism only grew. Like many young spiritual seekers, I imagined Eastern religions to be somehow less tainted than Christianity. Certainly, there are no comparable stories of Buddhists burning ‘heretics’ at the stake, or Hindus marching across foreign lands with invading armies trying to convert  non-believers.

Yet, the longer I am in Asia, the less pronounced the differences appear to me between Eastern and Western religions and Buddhism is just as tainted with corruption as any other organization, religious or otherwise. Despite their obvious doctrinal differences, all religions appear to function at a basic level of control. In the West, Christianity has always been used to control and manipulate the masses. In the East, Buddhism performs that role.

Buddhism is classified as  a ‘religion.’ It is considered one of the world’s ‘major religions.’ When people fill out census forms, they are given the choice to check the ‘Buddhist’ box under religion. Yet, any Buddhist monk, religious studies professor or anyone who has simply studied Buddhism for just a few hours will tell you that it is most definitely NOT a religion, at least not in the way scholars have typically defined the term. There are no gods or goddesses to worship, no elaborate rituals, no angels. Buddhism is a way of understanding the world and human suffering. It offers a precise psychological method and system for training the mind through meditation to escape suffering. So, Buddhism has been around for 2,500 years and its practitioners are still calling it a ‘religion’ when they know better. What’s the reason?  Here’s my guess: a religion attracts adherents and followers. A ‘meditative system’ or a ‘teaching of the causes of human suffering’ doesn’t sound as important. People need  a religion. It makes them feel good.

Classifying your organization as a religion also has numerous other benefits, mostly financial. Churches pay NO taxes. I am not as familiar with how Buddhist temples operate in Asian countries, but I strongly suspect they play the religion card to avoid taxes and raise money in the same way that Christian churches do in the West.

Well, the temples must be doing something right in the money game they are playing because they are indeed rich. Don’t be fooled by the shaven-headed monk in orange robes you see on the street with his begging bowl. That’s just for show. He is not an accurate representation of how much money these temples really have. How do the temples get the money to buy so much valuable real estate on which to construct their ostentatious structures? Where does the money to build solid gold Buddhas and golden domes come from? Where did that monk get the money to buy a brand new iPhone 5? The answer is, of course, from the poor people who willingly donate their hard-earned money to the temples, in exchange for ‘blessings’ from the monks. It’s a scam.

Buddhism is a huge business in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia. There are hundreds of thousands of temples sitting on prime land and collecting money to build ever grander Buddhist statues and domes. Many of the temples simply whore themselves out to tourists, selling tacky souvenirs and allowing vendors within the temple walls. Many have neon lights, fluorescent lights and televisions. They resemble amusement parks more than they do temples.

I wonder how many Buddhist statues are made in factories every year and sold to tourists? Millions? If all that is not vulgar enough, what’s really depressing is that the Buddha shouldn’t even be worshipped. Buddhists should not be placing Buddha statues on their altars to pray to. The Buddha stated clearly, “I am not a god. I’m just a normal man like yourselves  who discovered some fundamental truths about the human condition.” However, so strong is the human disposition to deify our heroes that we’ve made him into a god. Again, the abbots and monks know this, yet they allow the commoners to come to their temples, prostrate themselves, burn incense, and pray to the Buddha. I’ve read a number of interviews with monks who try to explain away why they allow this, and it’s hilarious to see the logical  and verbal contortions they wrap themselves in to justify their actions. If you read carefully between the lines, what they’re really saying is this: ‘the poor and the peasants  are simpletons. They don’t know any better. They either can’t or don’t read and will never understand the inner, deeper teachings of Buddhism. So, we give them something to worship, tell them to lead a pure life and send them on their way. ‘ But not before taking some of their money, of course. It’s a rather cynical stance, would’t you say?

The fact that Buddhism has been able to penetrate so deeply into so many different Asian cultures shows that it has great flexibility and adaptability. But I submit that while many will say this is one of its strengths, it  really demonstrates that Buddhism has a weak foundation. Notice how easily Buddhism has rolled with modernity. Smart phones and other electronic gizmos, neon lights, television, whatever. Buddhism absorbs it all and tells its followers that they can be a consumerist, a capitalist, a communist -even a Christian or Muslim!- and still be a Buddhist. In reality, it demands little from its adherents. In contrast to this, we can point to Islam where the imams at least  have strong criticisms of modernity and urge their followers to hold onto tradition.

I was in Singapore recently and I bumped into a young monk at a museum. He was strolling around taking selfies with his nice camera and selfie stick. Huh? What do they teach in the temples these days? Isn’t there anything about letting go of the ego and moving our concentration away from egoic concerns?

Buddhism has also tried to attach itself to various movements over the years in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. For example, in the  1990s, there was a push by various Buddhist leaders to claim that Buddhism was really a ‘nature religion.’ You know, eco-groovy. They found some obscure quotations by the Buddha saying we should all love the animals or something, and voila! Seriously. Go back and look through back issues of Tricycle magazine from the 1990s.

Some might say that countries with a strong Buddhist influence are more peaceful and the people more gentle. Is that really the case? Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist and many young boys go through a period of training in temples. Are the Thai people generally more honest, moral, and peaceful than anyone else? Look at the amount of corruption and criminal gang activity throughout the country and you will have your answer. Thailand is currently being ruled by a military junta. The Buddhist leaders in Thailand don’t seem to have a problem with that. Of course they don’t want to step on many toes, as they might have some privileges stripped.

Some argue that Buddhism, with its emphasis on the acceptance of suffering, is a perfect religion to keep the poor and downtrodden in their place and was set up for just that purpose. I don’t know. It’s possible. The Buddha said, “Life is Suffering.” If you take that to heart and don’t go beyond it to analyze the subtleties of the teachings, you might interpret it to mean, ‘Don’t protest. Accept my oppression.’

The bottom line is that you don’t need the ‘religion’ of Buddhism to study the dharma. All you need is a copy of the Diamond Sutra, some determination, and perhaps a few companions to share your discoveries with when you practice meditation. The monks don’t have any magical powers. Many are outright charlatans are many more are corrupt.

 

Dissecting more techno cheerleaders in the media. Case study: the iPad in classrooms

For writers, bloggers  and so-called journalists working in the media today, playing to the prejudices of their readers is part of their job. This is especially true for journalists and columnists who write about technology. When your readership consists of people who own a smartphone (or two), a tablet, and a laptop, reminding them that they are ‘cool,’  and ‘cutting edge’ will earn you a loyal following.

Let’s examine a recent article from the same glossy magazine which we looked at in my previous article. The author is a grade 2 homeroom teacher at a well-known international school in Ho Chi Minh City. The article is only six paragraphs long. The editors could have made it longer but chose to use one third of the page to post a color photo of a seven-year-old girl with a huge smile on her face holding an Ipad. We haven’t even gotten to the first sentence and already we know what direction the article is going to take. The upper right hand corner of the page has a professional photo of the author, an attractive woman in her 20s with perfect teeth who is smiling broadly. We, the readers, have been set up nicely to drink the  kool-aid which is being served.

The title of the article is “Techie Students- How tablets have enhanced learning.” The author wastes no time establishing her thesis which she posits clearly in the first sentence, stating…”using iPads in the classroom has been ideal for promoting new ways of learning.” Hmm,’promoting new ways of learning.’ That’s a big statement. She claims that the iPad is not just a tool which can be used in addition to books, but that it helps us learn in new ways.  If she means that all the lessons can now be given on the computer with bright flashing graphics, cartoon characters, and games, than I guess that qualifies.

The following sentence reads like an advertisement from Apple: “The iPad is a perfect digital tool for our young learners because it’s small, portable, visual, and hands-on..” Hey, this woman could be a sales rep. The author goes on to say that she avoids using it as a form of entertainment but rather as a way to empower her students to channel their interests and for ‘discovery, creation and collaborative learning.’ That’s wonderful, but can’t all of those things be done just as well without iPads or computers? Can’t you ‘discover’ things in books? Do you need a computer to create something beautiful and meaningful? All you need to create is a pencil and piece of paper. Or a canvas and paintbrushes. Or an instrument.

It gets worse. The author claims that ‘the tablets are excellent for developing research skills.’ No, they aren’t. Tablets do not develop research skills. I also work with ‘young learners’ and I can tell you that their research skills are generally very deficient, in spite of the fact that they spend hours per day on computers. Punching in a search term on google does not qualify as ‘research skills.’ Here’s how most students today do ‘research’ : They enter a term on google. They quickly choose either the first or second entry that appears on the screen, rarely even scrolling to the bottom of the page and practically never going beyond page one of search results. They don’t know how to distinguish between different sources and none of them understand that wikipedia is  fallible and biased.

Checking their Facebook in lecture hall:

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I’m only on the third paragraph but the writer’s insipid line of reasoning and her ‘rah-rah’ cheerleading for the the techno-school has left me somewhere between complete boredom and frustration. Check out this line: “Less cumbersome and more effective than dictionaries, we often use google translate or google images when coming across unknown words or concepts.” Is she kidding? A dictionary is ‘cumbersome?’ Actually, looking up words in dictionaries utilizes ancillary skills and often will lead students to other unfamiliar words as they are flipping through the pages. Punching in a word on google requires you to use far less of your brain  than looking it up in a dictionary, but this clueless teacher is so caught up in her flashing lights of her screens that she can’t see that. And Google Translate? If this teacher has really  used it, then she must know that the translations between languages are often horribly wrong. She’s teaching her students that google is God. She claims that she is ’empowering’ them, when what she is really doing is making them into little robotic consumers of digital garbage.

The author claims her grade 2 students are becoming ‘independent in their learning.’ Wow. I’ve read somewhere that Mozart was independent in his learning when he was seven years old, but that’s the only example I can think of. What does this woman think her students are going to do when teacher is not around? Do research on the causes of the French Revolution? No. They will play computer games or go into Facebook. Surely she knows that and we the readers know that, but she thinks her audience is so stupid that she can throw out this drivel and nobody will call her on it.

Who needs books?

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Techno teacher then tells us that she has her students make movies during class time using iMovie. The students even made a zombie movie! Yippee! After hyping iMovie, she then goes on to hype another app, this one called ‘Comic Life.’ You can guess where this is all leading.

This article is about as one-sided as you can get. It, and so many similar articles in the media, pitch the argument that ‘technology is great.’ Also, ‘technology enhances learning.’ And most of all, ‘technology empowers people.’

Since most parents today buy their young children smart phones and tablets by the time they are able to walk, the author is simply cozying up to them and telling them that they are doing the right thing. Furthermore, the school is staying at the cutting edge by ‘utilizing the latest technology in the classroom.’  Digital content and techno learning has not made us any smarter and never will. I suggest the author obtain a copy of “The Dumbest Generation” by  Mark Bauerlein and carefully read it before she writes any more articles.