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Zappa!

Frank Zappa was a controversial figure, both because of his sometimes odd behaviour, and because of his counterculture ideas. I have never been a fan of his music (I have nothing of his in my collection) but – as often happens on the internet – I recently came across some quotes of his and was quite impressed with them.

As I often say, quotes don’t really mean a lot because they generally just represent an opinion a person holds. But they are a useful starting point for a discussion of the subject of the quote. Also, even though I often start with this warning about not taking quotes too seriously, I also use them in many blog posts and enjoy discussing them. And this post is no exception…

Quote number one: “Without deviation progress is not possible.”

Few people would debate this idea. In this context progress is defined as “development towards an improved or more advanced condition” (Oxford British English Dictionary). Clearly a prerequisite for improvement is change. Of course change doesn’t guarantee improvement because it could just as easily lead in the opposite direction, but without it nothing can get better.

That is why I find conservatives so annoying. They might be afraid of change leading to a situation which is worse (for them in particular) in future, but without change everything stagnates, and to allow for things getting better we must be prepared to take risks.

Of course this concept of an “improved or advanced condition” is a difficult one. There is clearly an element of subjectivity here, and someone dedicated to the political, religious, or social status quo will see any change as the opposite of improvement. On the other hand, few people would suggest that things are perfect the way they are and nothing can get better without deviation from the current norms.

Quote number two: “The whole foundation of Christianity is based on the idea that intellectualism is the work of the Devil. Remember the apple on the tree? Okay, it was the Tree of Knowledge. You eat this apple, you’re going to be as smart as God. We can’t have that.”

While it is always dangerous to stereotype any group and to criticise all members equally I think there is a clear tendency towards this in Christianity. I see it in both the Bible itself, in other religious texts, and in the attitude of many Christians.

I think that the core value of faith as the ultimate manifestation of valuing ignorance. Faith is celebrated in most religions yet essentially it is believing something without any real understanding or critical examination of the phenomenon.

As the quote says, they Garden of Eden myth is an obvious example of the how religions tend to warn against the dangers of knowledge, and there are many others. In reality it is not usually the individual who is in danger after gaining too much knowledge, it is the religion which is threatened. It is no coincidence that as education and knowledge levels increase, religiosity decreases.

I often see in the debates I have with religious people that when I destroy their arguments I am accused of spreading dangerous rhetoric, inspired by the devil, and the conversation is shut down on that basis. Or the person simply says they will keep their current beliefs even though they aren’t true, because they have “strong faith” (as if this was a good thing).

It seems that Zappa has truly discovered the essence of religion with this one!

Quote number 3: “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read.”

I think it’s rather harsh to say that the inevitable outcome of exposure to our education system is “mind rot” because I think it has a place in teaching the basics. But the vast majority of time people spend in education is a total waste and I think that, after learning good reading skills, basic math, and how to research new information, there is probably little further point in education for the majority.

The more significant point is that traditional education most often doesn’t encourage a genuine search for knowledge and inhibits original thought and optimal use of a person’s talents.

And it is also a way to encourage people into adhering to societal norms, which brings me to the next quote…

Quote number 4: “The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”

Yes, we are all slaves of our current politico-economic system and the claim of freedom is largely an illusion. Of course, things have been a lot worse in the past and at least there are certain freedoms available to us now. Freedom isn’t a true or false thing. There are different extents to individual freedoms.

A person with counter-establishment views like mine would not be able to express them at some points in the past for example, but there are numerous informal systems in place to make sure that no one with those sorts of views ever gets into a position where they can have any real influence.

Quote number 5: “Government is the Entertainment division of the military-industrial complex.”

The claim that government is just a facade and that corporations and other powerful groups are really in charge is another one which can’t be evaluated as simply true or false. There would be few people who would say that big business doesn’t have an influence which seems counter-democratic, but the idea that elected governments have no control is far too conspirational.

Finally, quote 6: “One of my favorite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people’s minds.”

So if you started off thinking these quotes are nonsense, chances are you still will, even after I have tried to justify them. But I always look at my efforts to change people’s minds as a long term effort of gentle persuasion rather than an attempt to elicit a sudden revelation. After all, when I debate religious people it’s usually revelation I am arguing against!

I think that every little effort at chipping away at people’s irrational beliefs might lead to change in the long run. At least it would be nice if it did, but even if it didn’t, discussing ideas and representing opinions is always fun in itself.

OK, I can’t help it. One last quote (from the song “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”): “Those Jesus-freaks, well, they’re friendly, but, the shit they believe has got their minds all shut. An’ they don’t even care when the church takes a cut! (ain’t it bleak when you’ve got so much nothin’?)”

Yes, it seems bleak to me.

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