Friday, September 10, 2010

Assitance for Terry Jones

Wanting to do my part to rid the world of outdated religious mysticism, fanaticism and hypocrisy, not to mention help heat the atmosphere with some badly needed carbon, I thought I'd perhaps consider a few bibles to burn while Rev. Terry Jones rounds up Qu'rans in Florida. (Please take the time to click on that link, where you can see how many people "like" this hate page.) After a quick 'Net search I came up with several bibles that the world could surely do without:

1. The Shooter's Bible: "Stoeger Publishing has released the 97th Edition of the Shooter's Bible, a 578-page reference volume featuring contributions from GUNS Magazine contributing field editor Sam Fadala." Then again, maybe burning is the wrong way for this book to meet it's maker. Perhaps death by firing squad would be more appropriate?

2. The Bootstrapper's Bible: "Available to you once again! There's never been a better time to start a business with no money. This manifesto will show you how." A financial suicide manual by any other name is still a financial suicide manual, right? Let's burn the damn thing and get it over with!

3. The Idiot's Bible: Hey, if the Wall Street Journal says it's the idiot's bible it can't be all bad. Or can it? According to pundit Mary Anastasia O'Grady, this is the name given "in free-market circles" to a book by "Uruguayan Marxist Eduardo Galeano" entitled Open Veins, which dares to blame the developed countries and multinational corporations for plundering resources in Latin America and contributing to the economic underdevelopment of the region. An unthinkable proposition, which has nevertheless been thought and documented in thick volumes by several authors since the 1970's. Commit it to the flames, as Hume said, for it contains nothing but lies, distortions, and unpleasant claims about the primary audience for the WSJ.

4. The Swing Trader's Bible: And I never even realized that Wall Street was so enamored of bibles! Here's a Wiley publication by Matthew McCall and Mark Whistler, which putatively "provides traders with different strategies to capitalize on market fluctuations". Funny, I always heard that market timing was a sure path to self-destruction - sort of on a par with starting an uncapitalized business. Somebody tell these guys about dollar cost averaging, and let's send up some smoke signals with this tome.

5. The American Patriot's Bible: Here's a book for all patriotic Americans who would like to replace the current, outdated Constitution with one that discards the principle of separating Church and State. All in favor say "Oy!" Not that the book says explicitly to dump the old James Madison text, as far as I can tell from perusing the web site, but since its premise is that "It's impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible" one is hard-pressed to put any other interpretation on it. Perhaps Rev. Jones would agree. But I thought the biggest issue with Islamic culture was its tendency to do exactly what this book counsels, albeit with the Qu'ran rather than the Bible itself: Shari'ah law is precisely a religious foundation for criminal law based on the Holy Qu'ran and the alleged sayings and doings of Mohammed. If you're going to burn Qu'rans, certainly you'd want to throw a few of these into the bonfire.

Now I know that some of you will be disappointed at the absence of a particular bible that is a bit more like the Qu'ran than those I've mentioned. The problem is, they're not flamable. Don't believe me? Open up one of them and read about Shadrack, Mishack and Abednego and then tell me you can just throw gasoline on a stack of Bibles and watch 'em burn. Ain't gonna happen. Wait, isn't that story in the Qu'ran too? I think it involves the prophet Abraham there. Oh, Rev. Jones, you'd better think twice about this. God might just take it the wrong way!

P.S. - L'Shanah Tovah, Rev. Jones. Er, ‘Eid Mubārak.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mosques, Communities, Domes and Minarets

This letter was sent via carrier parrot to the NY Times following the Imam's Op-Ed piece on Wednesday:

In his Op-Ed column "Building on Faith" (9/5/10) Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf repeatedly refers to Cordoba House as a "community center", referring to "a swimming pool, classrooms and a play space for children." Thus he avoids characterizing it as a mosque.
But the term "community center" seems far more neutral than is justified. It was earlier reported that Imam Feisal is already holding worship services at the site; and one rationale offered by Cordoba House proponents is that the existing mosques in downtown Manhattan are overcrowded. Cordoba House will now have a "separate prayer space" for Muslims; presumably it will continue to feature services led by the Imam. It is not clear how this would differ from a mosque, albeit with various secular spaces attached.
There is another reason to be skeptical about the inclusiveness of Cordoba's "community". One of the "two fundamental commandments" that Cordoba House will be built on is "to love the Lord our creator with all of our hearts, minds and souls". Imam Feisal more than once appeals to "our fellow Muslims, fellow Christians, and fellow Jews". Indeed he now refers to "separate prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians, Jews and men and women of other faiths", though he previously spoke only of a "meditation room, where people of any faith can pray or meditate" ( The building sounds increasingly like a religious institution, with a clear bias toward specific faiths and an overall Islamic function. It is not like the 92nd Street Y, which has no specifically religious spaces or functions at all.
Whether or not you believe that Cordoba House should be built at a greater distance from the site of the 9/11 attacks, the issue should not be decided by misrepresentations regarding the nature of the project.

Probably too long for their sound-bite aesthetic, but who knows.

I do have a word on one other looming issue, of perhaps more obvious aesthetic import than some others I've discussed in previous posts on the mosque issue. It has been vociferously denied that the non-mosque-to-be would have any cupola domes or minarets, thus attracting attention to its Islamic function. But I want to propose that it also should not have a prayer hall facing Mecca, or be constructed on the symmetircal model, or use any ceramic tiles, or indeed stones or other building materials typical of Islamic architecture. In fact, I think Park51, the developer, should be required to go to the Wikipedia page on Islamic Architeecture, page down to the section on "Elements of Islamic Style", and make a checklist of all the features to avoid so as to make the building look pretty much like a New York office building, or, say, a Burlington Coat Factory store. That would take care of the problem.

Or, alternatively, they could do what I suggested before: build a secular building with no religious function at all, make it a strictly educational shrine to the more historical, humanistic and inclusive features of Islamic culture, serve some of that great middle eastern cuisine in their restaurant, set their beautifully tiled pool in a typical mosaic pattern, and build all the minarets and cupolas they want.

As I've said before, Osama bin Laden is a despicable human being, but a great architecture critic. Nothing Park51 could build could possibly be more offensive to the eye than those two featureless obelisks that ruined the NY skyline. As far as I'm concerned they can build cupolas and minarets into the design of the new WTC as long as it's appealing and blends well enough with the environment. 

All of which is to say: neither the presence nor the absence of Islamic architectural features moves this issue one way or another. It is an aesthetic issue, but not primarily that kind of aesthetic issue. It is a matter of the feeling associated with knowing the function of a building. It could apply to building a new British Petroleum office tower on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, which would be pretty offensive even if it didn't look like... hmmmm... Salisbury Cathedral? (Well, there is no British architectural style, so there goes that analogy!)

BTW - Please try to ignore the ridiculous Google ads at the left. The idea of Google's AdSense software is to automatically match the ad to the content of your blog. But it is so far from doing that that I expect to remove it shortly. Meanwhile, try to pretend it's not there.

(Update 12:03 a.m. 9/10/10: Removed link to NY Times article from title link and put it in the post; minor text change.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Twin Mosques Take (Away?) Two

I leave for one week and the dung hits the proverbial fan - all because of my Parrot's Lamp post. Or so in my delusions of avian grandeur I would like to believe.

What happened? President Obama inserted himself into the mélée, striking another blow for a "right" to practice religion that was not being challenged, at least not by any of the respectable voices in the debate. Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin count as "respectable" for these purposes insofar as they do not propose that no mosques should be built anywhere or declare that Islam is a "gutter religion" (does that phrase ring a bell?). But Obama had clearly not read The Parrot's Lamppost until after he was attacked for his stand, or he would have been clear from the beginning about the distinction between "right" and "ought" on which we harped at some length. Instead, he pontificated à la Bloomberg to the effect that "I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country" (NY Times 8/14/10 A1). As the Times correctly interpreted it, the comment was a defense of "the right of a Muslim community group to build a mosque and Islamic center two blocks north of ground zero in Lower Manhattan" (8/17/10 A26).

What if nobody was actually saying they don't have that (legal, constitutional) "right" to build the mosque there? (In a building which has now apparently grown to 15 stories, replacing three older buildings?) No matter; interpreting his own phrasing literally, rather than the way he actually meant it, was a sufficient dodge to get him out of hot water. Thus Obama backtracked the next day with the claim that he "was not commenting... on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there"; i.e., more or less what the controversy was actually about; but was rather "commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding"(NY Times 8/15/10); i.e., on what was never at issue in the first place. An astutely imprecise formulation, "the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there" avoids referring directly to putting a mosque there, and restates the issue as one of making a decision to put a mosque there. No matter, after finally having read our Why Not Twin Mosques? post, and having fully grasped the distinction we drew attention to, Obama took the opportunity to pretend that he himself was making this very distinction betwen what one has a right to do and what one ought to do. Better late than never.

On the other hand, a far less distinguished voice - the blog/online press which calls itself GetReligion.Org put the point succinctly: "...ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right." I have some reservations about this formulation, but I will get to that later; substitute "mosque" for "Islamic Center" and it makes exactly the point I made at the beginning of the previous post.

Meanwhile, the political fray expanded, with light and dark being shed on both sides. Rick Lazio, in a memorable fit of opportunism, stated (alone among major public figures) that the issue is "one of safety and security" (NY Times 8/14/10 A15). What planet is he from, exactly? Oh, Long Island that explains it! (LOL) Perhaps he thinks a group of bearded Muslims are planning to march in their bathing suits from the pool directly to the new WTC in a suicide attack? Maybe they'll be storing dirty bombs in the cafeteria? (Not in a Halal cafeteria they won't!) For the substantial majority of people who oppose the idea of building a major mosque there, losing the love of Lazio and his ilk would be about the best thing that could happen.

Newt Gingrich, not satisfied with the reasonably moderate comment I quoted in my previous post, blurted out that "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington"; though he might have actually said "a site", as in the next brilliancy prize: "We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl harbor." (NY Times 8/17/10 A12). 'Scuse me? First of all, does anyone have the "right" to put up a sign, or a site, next to either of these places? If he is talking about the moral right to create provocations near national memorials, obviously no one has the right to do it, whether they are Japanese, Nazis, or anyone else. If he is talking about the legal right (the illustrious former history professor is no clearer about this distinction than the general run of political windbags) then again, rights are governed by the laws and Constitution and in the same sense that Muslims have the right to build a towering mosque near the WTC site, others have the right to build things that we might consider provocative. Second, is the Holocaust Museum the site of a terrorist attack on Jews, or is it, as I suspect, an arbitrarily located building? Newt's analogy seems to be completely off. Third, by "the Japanese" does he mean Japanese-Americans, the appropriate analogy to the Muslim-Americans who want to build Cordoba House (CH)? Because if he is suggesting that Japanese-Americans have any different rights regarding the Pearl Harbor site than the rest of us that is beyond the pale of legitimate democratic discourse in this day and age; just as it is beyond the pale to suggest that Muslims because they are Muslims have less rights than the rest of us. Obviously Mr. G. has resumed his role as chief demagogue and is unable to back up his opinions with anything like a reasonable argument.

Unfortunately, such bottom-feeders are drawn to any populist cause that thrives partly on narrow prejudices; and there are plenty of those in the air around the mosque issue. We must therefore follow the advice of Benjamin Constant on having unwanted political allies: "If I happen to agree with them on a single point I grow suspicious of myself; and in order to console myself for having seemed to be of their opinion... I feel I must disavow and keep these false friends away from me as much as I can." (Cited by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958, p.79.)

Of less my less comtemptible, if not always commendable, political allies, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, Gov. Basil Paterson, Rabbi Meyer May of the Wiesenthal Center, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan have all put in a plug for moving the center to another site that would not raise so many hackles, and Paterson and Dolan have offered to mediate the issue. Unfortunately, to date, the CH backers have not given anything like a positive response, even when Paterson said he would help locate a new site. This is rather troubling; the more Imam Rauf and his backers insist on a defiant stance in the face of overwhelming national opposition, the more their own stated ideals of reconciliation and interfaith harmony are compromised. There is a point at which you must say: "I still think you are wrong and we are right, but for the sake of compromise, to avoid ongoing discord, and in consideration of the feelings of those who were directly affected by the attacks, we will move it to a more neutral location - especially since it does no harm to the purpose of our mission." Still waiting to hear that sort of sentiment emerge from the builders and backers.

Be that as it may, other things have come to my attention since I wrote my first post, and I think they deserve more of a focus than they have been getting. In my previous post I cast aspersions on the claim by Imam Rauf that the Cordoba House "is not a mosque". A building devoted to Islamic worship is a mosque, by definition, and mosques have always had a community function as well, as do many Jewish and Christian places of worship. So I suggested that Rauf was just dissembling about the building.

Since then I have read some Muslim blogs which suggest otherwise. For example, the Cordoba Initiative (CI) itself maintain a blog which includes two posts about the status of the building. In these posts they describe the building as being, by religious as well as practical standards, unqualified to count as a mosque, pointing for example to spaces for musical performance and a restaurant. In addition, they assert that there will be an ecumenical "prayer space", though it is not completely clear whether the "prayer space" for Muslims is to be separate from this or if this is the only prayer space. Even so, I think I underplayed the fact that a "prayer space" to a Muslim need not be in a mosque; and therefore, a building containing a prayer space for Muslims is not necessarily a mosque. The question is actually quite open, I think. Is the center going to be a space for religious sermons by the Imam, or other Islamic leaders? Will religious services of any sort be held at CH? The fact that it is led by an Imam and not, say, by a professor of Islamic history or (imagine...) someone with experience running Islamic cultural centers suggests that its overall guidance is religious, and that it will support more religious functions than prayer alone. That in turn suggests that it is, after all, a mosque of some sort; and the report that he is already holding "services" of some sort in the building lends more weight to the idea that it is in fact intended to be a mosque, with the usual functions of one. "Come to hear my sermon on Sufi Islam" is a quite different invitation from "Go pray to whomever you want in room 1241b". Furthermore, the rationale that the center is needed because the downtown mosques are overcrowded pretty much undermines the argument that it is not really going to be a mosque.

But it is worth inviting Rauf and the CI to answer these questions before we decide. Of course, if he is as cagey about this as he has been about other things, the likelihood of that happening is slim. But he should seriously consider it. I stated pretty plainly that I had no objection to an Islamic cultural center near the WTC, and that the significance of a mosque is very different from that of a purely educational and cultural institution. And even if politicians of various stripes are not as impressed with the distinction as I am, I think it would be far less comfortable for most of them to oppose it than to a oppose a mosque. Islamic culture has a lot more to it than religious worship or proselytizing, and if you take the latter out of the mix, it is hard to see anything objectionable about putting such a center anywhere at all. The 9/11 attacks, and all the other manifestations of Islamic radicalism that I discussed, are defended by radicals based on concepts that are part of religious instruction, debate and training. It may not be the interpretation of Islamic law and religion that is most widely supported, but it is pretty hard to write it out of Islamic religious doctrine altogether (see below). That is why building a mosque, whoever may currently be its guiding light, is the wrong signal to send at "ground zero". But no such argument attaches to an institution devoid of explicit religious doctrine, and dedicated solely to entertainment, education, and dialogue.

Thus it seems to me that the author of another Muslim blog has a valid point in suggesting that much of the current debate may be attributable to Rauf, the CI and their associates missing opportunities to get their message out in the strongest way possible. (Indeed I want to refer readers to this post as one of the most intelligent things I have read in this entire debate.) If so, then not only did I underestimate the significance of this question, but the entire national debate has been completely skewed.

In any case, I really don't see why the "community center" must have the function of providing even a "prayer space", much less expanding the mosque acreage of downtown Manhattan. Granted the existing mosques in the downtown areas are insufficient; but why does this space next to the WTC have to be the particular site on which additional "prayer space" is to be located? Build the community center, exactly where they want to build it, and move the divisive "prayer space", which is the reason the project has been branded as a mosque in the first place, to another location. Then the CI gets everything it allegedly wants: an impressive new community center, and a nearby mosque that expands the available space for Muslim worship and services. Frankly I can see nothing wrong with this alternative from any reasonable ideological or emotional perspective.

But I still maintain that building an Islamic religious institution there is morally problematic, and that you cannot reasonably expect people to completely dissociate the 9/11 attacks from Islam in general. There is an understandable desire of reasonable, democratic and humane Muslims not to be associated with the acts and religious views of those who are called "radical". But this is made difficult by the fact that the radicals claim to have as much textual support for their views as the moderates. Like those who argue for a "strict interpretation" of the U.S. Consitutition, they often take intolerably reactionary positions. But one cannot say that strict constructionists therefore fail to uphold Constitutional principles, nor that Islamic "extremists" fail to be Muslims. To uphold the principles of Islamic texts is to be a Muslim, so there is no room for a distinction between "real Muslims" and those who hold strict interpretations of Islamic texts.

The following post at is a good example. While virtually all scholars agree that whipping is specifically sanctioned by the Qu'ran (80 lashes for a married man committing adultery, 100 lashes for an unmarried man), the practice of stoning is said to be sanctioned by the Sunnah, in which the actual day to day practices of the prophet Mohammed are (allegedly) recorded. Those who say that stoning has no textual basis in the Qu'ran are either reinterpreting, revising or disregarding the Sunnah. Since we cannot, unfortunately, form our opinion of Islam on the basis of taking sides in scholarly debates among its proponents, we cannot really decide whether Osama bin Laden is more or less representative of Islamic thought than Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. All we can say is that we'd rather the latter prevailed than the former.

You can see here just how fine-grained the debate is. But the important point for us is not whether the Sunnah are an authoritative basis for Islamic law or not. Public whipping, a primitive, brutal and perverse form of punishment last used here in the slave system, is carried out in countries not known for their radicalism (e.g., Singapore). It is explicitly condoned in Islamic texts, and is barbaric enough to put in question whether strict Islamic law is within the bounds of civilized practice. And this carries over into concepts like Jihad, which in one interpretation justifies acts like 9/11, and on another is supposed to indicate a purely ideological struggle. Maybe both interpretations are possible, and the real issue is, which do you want to prevail? We cannot simply claim the mantle of Islamic scholarship and insist that what millions of Muslim people and thousands of clerics believe is not representative of Islam. And members of the Muslim faith cannot expect us to do that, either. We can say whose views and practices we prefer, who makes more sense to us from a modern point of view, but not who is right. No one is right. But some very scary forces have been gaining the upper hand over the last few decades and putting an indelible stamp on the religion.

The only alternative for contemporary religious practice is to reject the idea that modern legal, social, criminal, international or any other system should be based on what the Qu'ran, the Bible, the Talmud or any other ancient religious text has to say. But this is not what most moderate Islamic voices are saying. They believe that the rules and practices in the Qu'ran, Sunnah and Aditha have some validity just by virtue of being in the Qu'ran, Sunnah or Aditha; anything else is heresy. But I think that the price you pay for looking to ancient texts as a guide to how we should live today is to either buy into absurd anachronisms or become a hypocrite who picks and chooses but pretends to respect the texts.

In any case, "radical" or not by textual standards, the so-called radicals are anything but an isolated group of extremists. The recent NY Times articles on the Taliban-organized stoning to death of a young couple in Afghanistan and the suicide bombings in the Muslim-dominated Russian republics are only the latest reminders of this. According the Times, though the stoning was organized by the Taliban, more than 200 villagers took part in this barbaric act, including the father of the male victim. Moreover, the action was approved ex post facto by the head of the local Ulema (clerical) council; and the national council, which consists of 350 clerics from across the country, recently called for a strict implementation of Shariah law. The Times reminded us of another gruesome case of a widowed Afghan woman who got pregnant and was then given 200 lashes and shot to death. The Time magazine story on a woman whose nose and ears were sliced off as punishment was another reminder. Then came the story of a request to Saudi hospitals to damage the spinal cord of a man who had caused the paralysis of another man in an attack. The reminders of barabaric practices by Islamic authorities, done in the name of Islam and given textual support in Islamic law, could be offered on a daily basis if the media had nothing else to write about.

Neither non-Muslims nor moderate Muslims should kid themelves about the influence of radical Islam or its claim to represent the true Islam. Stonings, whippings and maimings are of a piece with suicide bombings and Fatwas calling for the death of novelists. The connections are deep and ineradicable: in essence, the refusal to endorse the separation of church and state (or even church and judicial process), the attempt to legislate personal morality, a theory of punishment that takes the body as an object for the infliction of pain and disfigurement, and a belief that the most brazen acts of terror, murder and torture are justified if given a religious gloss. This entire ideology has to be disowned, and only the spiritual, cultural and humanistic aspects of Islam preserved. Otherwise we can never really separate Islam-in-general from radical Islam. It is no dullminded bigot who sees a connection between the version of Shariah law implemented by the Taliban, the Iranians, and the Saudis, and the willingness to carry out suicide attacks in the name of Allah. Therefore, no mosque at the site desecrated by one such attack.

In spite of all this, there is a ray of hope, and this leads me to another point regarding the CI's sales job on its center. A NY Times op-ed piece by William Dalrymple drew attention to the particular situation of Sufi Islam, its antagonistic relationship to the radical trends, and its generally liberal and ascetic and universalist outlook. Though I am no expert in comparative religion, it sounds like Sufism is roughly analogous to Kabbalistic Judaism, early Christian mysiticism, and Zen Buiddhism. The interesting point, and one that has hardly even been mentioned, is that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is an exponent of Sufism, and the CI is positioning itself and its Sufi outlook as just the voice of reason and moderation that the U.S. needs to communicate with Islamic regimes and organizations throughout the world. Thus they have formed ties with the State Department, and Rauf is now embarking on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East on their behalf - as he has previously done for the Bush administration. (It is interesting, to say the least, that Bush sent off a diplomat who had previously stated that U.S. policy was "an accomplice" to the 9/11 attacks, but no one ever convicted Bush or his cronies of either intelligence or consistency.)

Whether or not Sufism is a natural choice for Islamic diplomacy, it does seem to be the case, from what I can gather, that Sufism represents a form of Islamic belief that is open to liberal, democratic, humanitarian values, and has no interest in the extremism that has proliferated throughout much of the Arab world (and some of the non-Arab world - Iranians, Malasian and Indonesians are not Arabs). There does not seem to be much hope right now that Sufism will become the dominant trend, or even a particularly strong one, in international Islam. But the fact that it is the guiding ideology behind CH has been heavily underplayed, to the point of making one wonder if some of the project's more acerbic critics are either ignorant or trying to suppress it. And Rauf has typically been nothing if not ascetic himself, failing to reframe the issues in this light, or to divulge any details of his current diplomatic trip, just as he felt he did not have to discuss the funding sources for CH or engage with criticism of his comments after 9/11. Too bad - there could be a lot to say on behalf of supporting moderate Islamic voices. Explaining Sufism to the public and saying why it stands diametrically opposed to acts of violence in all forms would go a long way to calming the waters around the CH issue. It could at least show that an Islamic cultural center near the WTC site is unobjectionable and perhaps even a bulwark against the likes of Al Qaeda.

Although I have surely tested my readers' concentration (as usual) I cannot help adding one last comment. On Friday the Times published an article containing interviews with Muslims living in New York City (some of whom I probably stand in line with at the local fruit and vegetable markets). I am not going to characterize any of them as wholeheartedly agreeing with my position. But many of the comments suggest that there is a more sober, practical and non-ideological attitude toward the project in the Muslim community than there is among the more bellicose white liberal voices in favor of it. A typical comment: "If they want to put it 10 blocks away, that's fine; I believe in compromise, too." (NY Times 8/20/10 A1) Can somebody please hold community board elections so I can vote for this guy - or others who expressed similar views? It is a typical foible of the left that when abstract principle clashes with personal sensitivity, the latter loses every time. This is one reason why ideologues of any stripe are dangerous when they obtain a platform and a little bit of power. I have taken many hours out of my days for the last few weeks defending the idea that rights are a red herring here, and the real issue is one of sensitivity and sensibility.

This, in the last analysis, is a question of the aesthetics of architecture. Every new building is in a public space; every new construction project is conceived and realized in a political environment. The aesthetics and politics of architecture are always interwoven; you cannot appreciate a building that has damaged your sense of the proper use of space, that is out of proportion to its perceived legitimate purpose, that mocks the social ecology of the neighborhood. These are the things we need to consider in approving or disapproving a piece of architecture. The "right" to build doesn't even enter the picture, and had no place in this picture from the beginning.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Not Twin Mosques?

The subject of this blog is culture and the public function of art, and I generally focus on the New York scene and riff off what's going on here. We've been pretty quiet for awhile, but what better opportunity to get back in the swing of things than a a national debate on a Mosque to be built near the former site of the Twin Towers. A work of architecture devoted to a branch of culture, with a distinct political twist: that is our very bread and butter here at the PL. We always have some political twist as well; in this case, it is safe to say that the political is going to be more primary than in other discussions.

To the enormous consternation of some of my close family and acquaintances, I have said that the mosque should not be built. In that very phrase, and what it means, resides the crux of at least one major misunderstanding that has guided the entire debate. A sad spectacle for a philosopher: two sides, intending to engage one another, and each missing the target through the utter confusion of concepts. What to do, except, we pray, show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

Issue #1: Right and Ought Are Two Different Concepts! Let us begin, then, with the following utterance of the illustrious Mayor Bloomberg, who was said to be on the verge of tears, so ardently did he support the plan to build the Mosque: "We do not honor [the first responders to 9/11's] lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting." So strong, indeed, are the emotions around this issue that my argument may at times devolve into certain tangential points, such as the fact that the "first responders" died trying to put out a fire and rescue people, partly as a result of a badly inadequate communications system; they did not die defending anyone's "rights". Be that as it may... Here in a nutshell is what has caused perhaps 75% of the hysteria and misunderstanding in the debate. To wit: neither I nor anyone I have heard or read about denies that the Cordoba Initiative has the RIGHT to build a mosque on the site in question. "Right" is a legal and constitutional concept, which inscribes in the law certain basic protections that are said to be inherent in the person. Rights protect minorities from majorities, individuals from higher powers, when the majority or power might otherwise ride roughshod over the rest. One of those rights is religious freedom, which by any reasonable interpretation includes the right to build houses of worship. There are limitations to every right, of course, but only an extremely narrow conception of Islam would hold that that religion, practiced by well over a billion people and in nearly every country in the world, stands outside the realm of legitimate religions. Muslims have a right to build houses of worship wherever anyone else has a right to build them, period. Anyone who denies that is a scoundrel and no pal of mine.

"Ought" is not a synonym for "right". "Ought" is concerned with what people should do, not with what they have a right to do. At almost any moment of the day, in the life of almost any human being (or organization), there exist inumerable possible actions that one might take, and has a right to take, but that one should not do because they are morally wrong. I might attempt to seduce my best friend's wife later today; or find a complete stranger in the street and tell him that his house is on fire and his children are dead. I might promise to mow my neighbor's lawn if he lends me his car when I have a flat, and then returning from the garage, I might thumb my nose at him, laugh at what a sucker he is and walk away. To my knowledge, I have a clear constitutional and legal right to do these things; and just as clearly I should not do any of them. Equally, if you were aware that I intended to commit such acts, you would have no legal obligation to stop me; but you might well have a moral obligation to do so, or at least try to dissuade me.

The problem is that rights are laid out in very broad strokes - they have to be, or they could not have the force of constitutional mandates. Morality, on the other hand, speaks to what we should or should not do in any particular situation. It does not necessarily provide us principles in advance; it is rather an obligation we have to consider the justice of our actions in each and every case where matters of justice might enter into the picture. Right does not track morality; it only determines at a very general level what permissions are granted to us. Should those permissions conflict with other things we want to preserve, a decision must be made. The right then no longer holds complete sway, and we have to figure out how to proceed.

This distinction has sadly been lost throughout the debate. It surfaced, however, in a letter to the Times today in which the Anit-Defamation League defended its position against a Times editorial supporting the mosque: "We have not denied the right to build the mosque on the site. We simply appealed to the initiators to consider the sensitivities of the victims and find another location." Therein lies the whole of the legitimate opposition: to make a moral appeal to the Cordoba Initiative and its leaders not to build a mosque in that location.

Issue #2: Radical Islam is not a negligible fringe movement but a substantial international trend within Islam. Supposing ourselves to have established that one can make a legitimate moral appeal on an issue without suggesting that anyone's rights be violated, the argument then changes direction. Fine, some say, you can ask that, but why should anyone grant it? We know that the 9/11 attack was a heinous act from which the victims and their families have suffered greatly; but, to quote the Times editorial, "The attacks of September 11 were not a religious event. They were mass murder. The American response... was not a war against Islam."

The right/ought confusion is perhaps a subtle one; but the confusions here are not subtle, and it is hard to see them as innocent. The attacks were indeed not "a religious event" if by that we mean something like the the Jewish Day of Atonement, or perhaps the suppression of the Albigensian heresy; but they were events done in the name of religion. Indeed, outside of major territorial conflicts (and even in some cases including them) there is more mass murder committed in the name of religion than for any other reason, by far. So the meaning of "not a religious event" is a bit too refined to have any real substance. "Religious events", sadly and to the great detriment of humanity, include an untold number of acts of mass murder, not to mention every other form of abuse. Acts undertaken in the name of religion, by members of a single faith, with the explicit or tacit approval of leaders of that faith, are religious acts, like it or not.

The point here does not depend on Osama bin Laden personally representing Islam, or his explicitly tying the attacks to Islam, or to the great battle against Western corruption of the Islamic world (though he certainly has made such claims on more than one occasion). It does not depend on 9/11 being a legitimate expression of Jihad, or on the meaning of Jihad being a literally physical fight against all non-Muslim societies. (Not that the history of Islam lacks evidence to support that contention.) There are a great many Muslims who deny that bin Laden has any particular expertise with regard to Jihad or Islam in general, and who say that on their understanding of Islam such acts would never be condoned. (There are passages in the Hadith, for example, which suggest that Mohammed counseled his followers not to deal with people harshly. Of course, their is also an evident and widespread practice of doing just that in countries which implement strict versions of Shariah law.) But bin Laden did not come from nowhere; he is not a single, isolated, extremist voice within a placid Islamic world. He was supported by Saudi Arabia. He and Al Qaeda were harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were tolerated by Pakistan, Yemen and other Islamic nations. They have found supporters all over the world. And their stated political goals are shared by many Muslim groups (and only by Muslim groups) throughout the Middle East: by Hezbollah and Hamas, by factions in Yemen, by the ruling party in Iran, and in many other places. (Oddly enough, Iraq is
probably one of the places they are least welcome.) Not coincidentally, many of these same groups espouse a particularly conservative brand of Islam. There is, in other words, an undeniable link between the source and inspiration for the 9/11 attacks and the espousal of radical Islamic ideas. Anyone who defends Islam by writing off bin Laden as a crank with no real base is not being honest. It is like saying that Jerry Falwell is not a real Christian. He may not be the voice of Christianity you would like, but he is the voice of Christianity we got. Ditto for radical anti-abortionists: to deny that they are acting in the name of Christianity when one of them murders an abortion provider is ridiculous. To deny that they represent Christianity when the Pope belches anti-abortionist propaganda across the world, equating it with murder, is almost as absurd. We cannot whitewash Islam by hauling out scholarly works and showing that bin Laden doesn't know his Qu'ran. He a big part of what Islam is in the world; and it's the world we are primarily concerned with, not the word.

In light of this - a great deal of which everyone knows, not least the Times and Michael Bloomberg - to argue that the 9/11 attacks were just a random act of mass murder, or, slightly more coherently, an act of pure politics with no reigious component at all, is just sheer deception and demagoguery. It is one thing to remind people that such radical ideologies are not expressive of all versions of Islam, nor even, most likely, of a majority version of Islam. But to say it simply has no relationship to Islam, or is a fringe movement with no base of popular support, is just wrong; indeed, almost willfully blind. Who is bin Laden, and who were his 19 henchmen, anyway - members of the Palestinian forces carrying out an official military mission? Emissaries of the Palestinian Resistance? What were these people doing, thinking they could intervene in this conflict in this way? Were they like the lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, selflessly helping out a just cause in the face of overwhelming force? Nobody hired them or asked them to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian cause. What were they driven by if not religious solidarity? And weren't they promised a bevy of vestal virgins in heaven for their service to Allah? Sometimes I really do wonder about people on the left, and their ability to bury their heads in the sand in support of an ideological view about tolerance and rights. There can be absolutely no doubt that the destruction of the Twin Towers was intimately and inextricably tied to one very strong conception of what Islam is and what it ought to be doing in the world today, and no amount of scholarship or empty phrasemongering is going to change that.

To hold, therepore, that building a large mosque right next to the site known as "Ground Zero" (a slightly bizarre appelation) is not offensive because the attacks had nothing to do with Islam, is nothing more than a rhetorical sweep of the hand, an attempt to befriend a certain (hopefully dominant) trend within Islam by denying that Islam is anything else than this more humane, tolerant ideology. You can't change the world, unfortunately, by wishing away the parts you don't want to see.

One further point must be made here. People who see the 9/11 attacks as connected with Islam are not simply reacting to verbal statements made by the perpetrators. They are seeing it on a continuum with a practice of suicide attacks that are endemic and almost unique to the Islamic world. The attacks are launched in and around Israel, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union, and in many other Islamic areas, always by people inspired by Islamic leaders and told that they woud be rewarded by Allah for their acts. Other than the Japanese kamikazi attacks in WW II, it is hard to think of another example of such tactics. To say that suicide attacks by a group of all Muslim individuals has nothing to do with Islam or religion is not even a comprehensible position, much less a correct one.

Furthermore, all these acts are seen as being on a continuum with a broad lack of respect for human life and for the bodily integrity of individuals. Thus you see in various places throughout the Islamic world the practice of beheading enemies, severing limbs as punishment, stoning people to death in public, brutally whipping people (including women) in public, and other such acts that are shocking and abhorrent to the moral conscience of the modern world. This is not to deny that at one time, similarly brutal acts were committed in Western societies too, and may still be by isolated individuals and even covertly by arms of the government. We cannot forget that Hitler committed far worse terrors than any Islamic leaders, that forms of torture are practiced behind closed doors in U.S. police stations, that waterboarding is part of the legacy of the worst President in recent U.S. history. The difference is that such things, when they come to light, are considered deviant. The response in the U.S. to discovery of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib was one of almost universal condemnation. Whereas one sees government-sponsored public torture as a matter of course in a number of Islamic nations or territories (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, etc.).

So I think the effort to dissociate Islam from the terrorist attacks fails. There is a multifaceted association between the 9/11 attacks and Islam, the Islamic world, and Islamic culture. Those who are trying to paint a rosy picture in order to deny the association of Islam with the attacks will fail to win over the U.S. public, who have seen or read about enough of what I have just described to know what is going on. We must avoid using this against the more humane, wordly, pious and beneficent currents in Islam -which, once again, may still be the majority, and which deserve our tolerance and indeed support. But to deny it outright is an enormous mistake.

Issue #3: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
Lining up against the mosque are a list of Republican ideologues, from Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin to Rick Lazio, as well as various opportunistic Republicans who have a campaign axe to grind. Whereas all the sane and lovely people who favor building it are Democrats or liberals of one stripe or another (Bloomberg, the Mayor by, of and for the rich, has been perversely canonized as a liberal for the purposes of this discussion). Opposing the mosque is therefore reactionary and wrong, Q.E.D. Similarly, the community board that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the mosque, and the Landmarks Commission that has approved it, are said to represent the true voice of the people and of the democratic spirit.

But I have to politely demur from all this. Even a paranoid has enemies. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. A lot of these Republicans are pretty much stopped clocks, in my view; there ain't much going on upstairs except kneejerk opposition to all perceived enemies from without and within. That their ideological blinders should occasionally intersect with a political truth only shows that one might occasionally have the right position for the wrong reasons. And what I would less enthusiastically call "kneejerk liberalism" might have a much more benign internal logic, that of defending basic democratic rights, which occasionally intersects with an incorrect and pollyannaish line. The conservatives also have a not-very-well-hidden agenda in arrousing anti-Muslim sentiment: not just rally-round-the-flag patriotism but using Islamic terrorism as a wedge
to undermine privacy and civil rights. It's not like someone just alerted us to this yesterday, thanks. But I have never, will never, adjust my views to espouse something false because someone else who espouses something true is a reactionary jerk with an immoral agenda. That would be unphilosophical; it is also spineless and thoughtless. We need to uphold the truth and do it for correct reasons, not phony reactionary reasons like pushing through the next version of some anti-immigration law or preparing the ground for the next federal attack on privacy. (Unfortunately that may well come from Obama and not the Republicans, but that's another story.)

As for the execrable, racist, bigoted trash that has been quoted from various mosque-opponents around the country, to the effect that we should oppose the building of any mosque, anywhere in the U.S., that all Muslims are terrorists and that they should be swept into the sea (as unfortunately the PLO at one time suggested should happen to the Israelis) I have only the utmost contempt. If anyone suggests that opposing the construction of a major Islamic house of worship right next to the World Trade Center site somehow leads inexorably to, or is on a continuum with, extremist views like that, I can only say that I fail to see how it does, and that I am extremely comfortable taking the one position and rejecting the other outright. The burden of proof is on them to show how these apparently quite distinct views are actually the same, or brands of the same thing.

Issue #4: A mosque is a mosque is a mosque. Or to put it in a perhaps more enlightening way, a mosque is an Islamic place of worhsip, by defnition. Any place that is set aside as an Islamic place of worship is a mosque, and by Islamic law, once it is a mosque, it is always a mosque and cannot be any other kind of space. Non-Muslims may be invited into the mosque; they are, however, guests, and have no inherent right to enter it. It is true that the traditional function of the mosque has always been to function as a community center; it is said that Mohammed condoned the use of the mosque as a treasury, as a place to give shelter, as a place to mete out punishment, and perhaps other uses. But all those things are peripheral to its function as place of worship.

Now it seems to me that there are various levels of dissembling going on at the Cordoba Initiative and among their supports. First and foremost, the leader of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has stated in a public speech, broadcast in video on the CI's home page, that the building they plan to build "is not a mosque, this is a cultural center". This claim casts serious doubt on the integrity of Imam Rauf, because he knows better than anyone that the intention is that the building will contain a place of worship, and that it is not a matter of how many square feet are devoted to worship; it will be understood and seen as a mosque with the traditional peripheral functions of a mosque. Indeed, one argument that has been offered for building it (I can't locate the source for this right now - possibly the community board hearings) is that the Muslim population in downtown Manhattan has outgrown the existing mosques there. Indeed, it was reported a few days ago that the Imam is already holding services in the new building, which means, technically, that it already is a mosque, and is to become an elaborate and impressive one.

It is disappointing to hear those who point to the Qu'ran to defend moderate versions of Islam nevertheless ignore the fact that a mosque which also functions as "a cultural center" is a mosque in Islamic law, and in fact, is as traditional conception of a mosque as there is. I cannot therefore abide the mendacity of stating that because it is also a community center, it is not really a mosque. That is pure rubbish, and the comparisons to the 92nd Street Y, which Rauf has used to defend the conception and location of the mosque, are also dishonest: there is no place of worship at the 92nd Street Y; it is a not a synagogue, by any definition. Now, it may be true that some Jewish and Christian representatives are to be on the board of Cordoba House. The only person currently listed on the board of the CI is Rauf himself. Randy Benn, identified as an Elder of the Presbyterian Church of Northern Virginia, is listed as a policy advisor. No Jews are listed as belonging to the CI in any capacity, and no board is listed on the page for Cordoba House, though apparently some rabbis have been approached.

The idea of including Jews and Christians in the project may seem extraordinarily liberal, but only to those who do not understand that Islam has always seen Judaism and Christianity as kindred religions; the Qu'ran itself contains retellings of numerous stories from the Old and New testaments, while rejecting Christian idolatry and some other aspects of the older religions. The fact that CH would include Jews and Christians in leadership is interesting, but not startling. What would be startling is if they put some Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and other pagans up there too; but I don't think you are about to see a "community center" quite so inclusive. It is a mosque, with the traditional function and ideology of a mosque, and others are invited to participate (even to swim in their pool? wow!) at the discretion of the Imam.

If the Cordoba Initiative wants to build a real cultural center, a secular institution without a place of worship, nothing and no one is stopping them. Remove the place of worship and I withdraw my opposition instantly. A mosque and a cultural center are totally different kinds of symbols. The latter is not a monument and factory of Islamic belief but an invitation to explore a people's history. The former is an arena of contention for any faction whatever, a forum for all elements however radical. It is like the difference between a sword and its sheath. The fact that the CI insists on building a mosque in spite of the obvious symbolic value of a building on that site, and refuses to build a true cultural center while saying that they are, is a sign that they are not dealing honestly with the public.

Issue #5: Try a little tenderness. Why, after all, is there a legitimate, non-bigoted, politically neutral position opposing the building of the mosque? Tying together what we have said above, a criminal act of terrorism with an unmistakable Islamic component was committed on 9/11, It was an enormous, if temporary, victory for the most radical brand of Islam; it destroyed, in a dramatic way, a complex that was in many ways a symbol of the West and what it represents to the backward, hateful, intolerant elements in the Muslim world. It was not primarily an act of defense of Palestinian interests; it was a statement that the U.S> and the West should get out of the Middle East altogether and let the radicals continue their frightening expansion of influence, along the lines of the Iranian Revolution. This in-your-face attack on Western values and influence is indelibly stamped with the thumbprint of Islam. Erecting a mosque - one that will be notable for its size - directly at the site of the attack has enormous sybolic value, and has the effect of gloating - a sentiment that has been expressed from time to time by the most radical Islamic opponents of the U.S.

That Americans should be sensitive to this is not surprising. But there are still thousands of people who were directly affected by the attacks, either through having lost someone, or having been injured, or having lived in the neighborhood, or like myself, having simply been on the way to work and seen the buildings burning and the human bodies falling from the windows and having swallowed the blackened air. (There are a great many other stories of exposure of one sort or another - too many to go into here.) It is not an exercise in community-building or reconciliation to sweep aside the feelings of these people and erect a mosque in a building that was actually part of the damaged site (the landing gear of one of the planes went through the roof, shutting the Burlington Coat Factory store that was there before.)

It is of no help that as a matter of historical record, Muslims have previously built large mosques on the site of military victories. This effort smacks of a kind of stealth "victory mosque", whether or not that is the intention of Imam Rauf and his supporters. It is additionally of little comfort that the Imam has refused to quell suspicions that the funding for the mosque is coming from radical Islamic governments, such as Saudi Arabia. This only adds to the sense that there is an agenda other than bridge-building here.

If the Islamic community wants to build bridges, the right way to go about it would have been to make their contacts first, and determine a neutral and convenient place to site the mosque. And even if that moment had passed, they should have responded immediately to the discomfort in New York City and across the world and offered to locate it elsewhere, rather than standing on ceremony about their rights and attempting to paint the mosque as a not-mosque. They should have done this even if they thought the opposition to the location was wrongheaded or discriminatory, if for no other reason than that conceding on this point would have demonstrated beyond all doubt that their agenda was solely one of improving mutual understanding. That would have shown a true intention to go down the path of reconciliation and enlightenment. Instead, they have chosen to fight. That is very unfortunate. This particular location has no inherent importance for the community center, while it has tremendous importance for the victims of 9/11. The harder the CI fights to locate it there, the less reason there is to trust their stated intentions. In fact, I wonder if having one mosque there is really enough. Perhaps they should build another one right next to it. Why not the Twin Mosques, I mean cultural centers? In fact, maybe that should be the 9/11 memorial, and we don't need that below-ground pit they are planning to install? I don't know why any of the proponents of the mosque should have a problem with this. After all, if you like the idea in the first place, then two mosques are better than one.

(Please note: I am leaving on vacation and will not have internet access for a few days. I have not had time to do as much fact-checking and editing as I normally would for a post this long and controversial. I regret any factual errors or typos that may exist above, and will correct them when I return. Also, I encourage your comments, but it may take a couple of extra days to read and post them. Thanks for your patience.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

ABBA Daba Doo: A Hard Look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

So where has the great green ornithological wonder been hiding all this time? Flying north to avoid global warming? Apparently our Brooklyn parrots are smarter than the average bird. Of course there are a few other reasons, like building my own web sites, which will eventually house this and my other blogs, independent of Googleplex, which is looking more like the ("Don't-be") Evil Empire with every new privacy invasion and copyright issue. (Plus I hate their crappy editor, which manages to screw up font selections constantly; and the fact that I have to sign in with an email address I haven't used in years. On the other hand I give them some credit for standing up to the Chinese censors - a calculated business decision not without some moral weight.) I've also been writing a bit of fiction, with a view to not only becoming the new Hemingway (or should I say Flaubird - didn't he have a parrot anyway?) but possibly making some actual money from my enormous literary talents, though those two goals are to some degree in tension. But before I get into what brings me back to this fabled forum, let me just deal with one practical note.

Due to a rash of the most execrable spam directed at this and some of my other blogs, I have had to move them all to a "moderated comments" policy. I consider this less
obnoxious than the little box with the warped and partially obscured random words for you to attempt to decipher. But it may take some time for me to discover your comments and publish them. My policy here, as elsewhere, is to publish every relevant comment, regardless of point of view, unless it descends into vitriolic personal attacks, racist remarks, threats and the like. So please continue to contribute to discussions here, only try to be a little patient as I sort through the dross of autogenerated idiocy to get to your remarks.

So what am I doing fluttering around this blog again? Well, right now, I'm listening to a two-volume collection of ABBA's greatest hits. Does that give you a hint? Anyone who knows my taste in rock from previous PL posts might be a bit surprised. But don't worry - I didn't pay for it, at least. Nor did I pirate or bitstream it; it's all legit, thanks to, which I figure I'd better get the most out of before Apple sinks their claws into it. And why exactly would listening to these palindromatic popsters constitute getting the most out of anything? Because they're now one of the benighted members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that well-known bestower of historical significance in the realm of popular music, and I am (or thought I was) woefully ignorant of their artistic accomplishments. As you probably know, the fabled Swedish blondes and their ex-husbands have landed the high honor of a plaque on the wall, and a bio on the RRHOF web site. Worldwide recognition was not exctly something they lacked before (unlike some of this year's other inductees) having long since inundated every disco from Brooklyn to Byelorussia with their, um, infectious melodies. So it must be the plaque, the renewed publicity, the... approval of Jann Wenner? We'll get to that.

My first reaction to hearing of ABBA's induction was probably similar to yours: Squawck! I mean, Yauwnnn.... But feeling the mantle of responsibility land once again on my shoulders as I began to write, I thought to myself: what if these people are actually right? I mean, what if for all these years I have simply refused to recognize the importance of ABBA, their great contribution to Western popular music? Indeed, do I even know enough of their songs to pass a judgment? Just because they did "Dancing Queen" doesn't mean they're all bad! So I listened, and found to my surprise that I actually know many more of their songs than I knew I knew. I know "Waterloo", though I could not have named it if my avian life depended on it. I didn't know it won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest until I read it in the RRHOF bio; this, in the Parrot's pecking order,
is actually a more significant recommendation that inclusion in the infamous Hall. The chorus is more than a distant echo of the verses of The Foundations' 1968 hit "Build Me Up, Buttercup" (it's the harmony to it, basically) but let's not pretend it isn't catchy. I also know "Fernando", and can't even imagine where I might have been exposed to it so often as to remember it after all these years. I have to admit I actually kind of like it. I know "Take a Chance on Me" and a couple of other bits of trite dance hall trash. I know "The Winner Takes It All", or at least, it sounds a lot like three or four songs I know. In general, though, I must admit that I don't even know most of ABBA's numerous top five UK hits. Or I didn't. Now I do. And sad to say, my impression is now confirmed that in spite of a couple of decent early singles, they are a veritable demiurge of formulaic pop tunes, with vapid lyrics and minimal harmonic interest. Their singing seems to disdain real emotion, their production qualities come down to a guy with a sequencer and their instrumental capabilities are all but nonexistent.

So can 50 million ABBA fans be wrong? Oh, I think there are probably a lot more than that out there. (Including some very big ones over at
Rolling Stone magazine; but as I said, we'll get to that later.) So who am I to say they're wrong? They're right, after all; just as the Mozart freaks are right. If you want something to flow in one ear and out the other without requiring much processing inside, a steady diet of ABBA and Mozart is just what you should be taking. (Don't get me wrong, please - archaeologists exploring my desert island are going to dig up quite a few late Mozart CD's; but they'll be digging a long time before they find any ABBA.) But this is not mainly about ABBA; it's about what ABBA represents as an inductee into the Hall - the closest thing we have to a standard of significance for rock music.

To see what I men, compare the following news: just a few days after ABBA was iducted, who suddenly passed away at age 59? Alex Chilton, leader of The Boxtops and longtime vocalist, whose influence and artistry were attested to by many later and more famous rock stars. Chilton will never experience the belated recognition that Iggy Pop has just received. But he arguably should have been honored long before the idea of inducting ABBA had even entered anyone's head. Though well known for only two early hit singles - "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby" - those recordings are for many people much more what rock is about than all of ABBA's million-sellers put together. "The Letter" came out in 1967; Chilton was 16 years old, and had a number 1 hit in the greatest year ever for rock music. (The year of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Surrealistic Pillow, Disraeli Gears, and a whole lot more.) The song must be one of the most memorable recordings in all of rock; endlessly covered by later artists, it seems to have lost little or nothing after 43 years on the rock circuit, and a good deal of the credit for that goes to Chilton's gripping vocals. Chilton went on to become an influential guitar player as well, and, with or without his later band Big Star, is usually counted as an important influence and early practitioner of both punk rock and alt-country. That looks to me like one guy who was a big force in three major developments in rock music; an accomplishment that has "hall of fame" written across it in gold letters.

Just weeks before "The Letter" started climbing the U.S. charts, across the Atlantic the new group Procol Harum had released "A Whiter Shade of Pale". How do you
capture the importance of a 4-minute single on pop radio that was #1 for six weeks on the UK charts in a year that was almost unbelievably loaded with brilliant examples of rock music? One fan has tracked down 900 cover versions of "Whiter Shade of Pale". A Procol Harum fan site cites an article stating that the song is the most played single ever in the UK. (The source for this is British "performing rights group" Phonographic Performance Ltd, which is actually an industry group, so I'm not sure how objective this claim is.) If Procol Harum had done nothing else, they would have earned a key place in the history of rock and roll for this song. Interestingly, though, the importance of the song is not merely in the sales it generated, but in other groundbreaking features: its Bach-like organ introduction, the interestingly obscure but poetic lyrics, the slow, dreamy, almost drunken vocals, and the fact that other than The Doors' "Light My Fire" it was about the longest single released at that time. These qualities can each be traced to important developments in rock. (To name one less obvious one, it was the first of a slew of extremely popular slow, moody tunes that topped the popularity charts in spite of more upbeat competitors - think "Color My World", "Let It Be", "Candle in the Wind", "Free Bird", many others). But Procol Harum, in the course of things, did much more than that: pioneering the use of a full orchestral sound, with Robin Trower taking the possibilities opened up by Hendrix's guitar style in new directions, they helped lay the foundations for the era of progressive rock that dominated the early 1970's. Procol Harum never achieved the level of popularity of groups like the Rolling Stones or even The Doors, but anyone who understands a bit about the history of rock and roll should know that their importance far surpasses their record sales. (For my two cents on the royalties dispute over AWSOP see my earlier post on this subject. In spite of the Parrot's loud squawking, this absurd decision has been upheld by the highest British court.)

Neither Alex Chilton nor Procol Harum have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nothing in that fact says much about Chilton or Procol Harum. But it says everything about the RRHOF. The choices have not been made on the basis of influence or historical importance in any sense; or perhaps the better way of putting it is that to the extent that these factors have played a role, it has more often led to serious errors of judgment than to something that might help the public appreciate under-recognized figures, or less understood lines of development.

Take for example the inclusion of Jelly Roll Morton. He was an early jazz influence - but certainly not an early rock influence
. Every form of African-American music from the mid-19th century on was an influence to some extent in every form of popular music in the 20th century. But no rock artist was particularly influenced by Jelly Roll Morton, nor even the early urban blues artists. I have two histories of rock and roll (including the Rolling Stone history!) which do not so much as mention his name, and three histories of the blues, none of which considers him particularly important. He was an early transitional figure between blues and jazz and not particularly relevant to rock and roll. The
RRHOF bio even overstates the general consensus on his influence on jazz, and makes no attempt to link him directly to rock. There are quite a few other jazz figures in their list, on very lame logic. Billie Holiday's "exquisite phrasing and tough-tender persona influenced the likes of Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, among others". Excuse me? I find it a bit difficult to come up with one vocal quality in common between Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, but these folks are telling me that Billie Holiday influenced both of them? In any case, it doesn't really matter if she did or not: merely having an influence on someone's vocal style is not enough of a connection to put someone in the RRHOF, otherwise there could be hundreds of unrelated artists equally worthy of inclusion.

Speaking of which, Frank Sinatra is not in the Hall. He actually had several major hits on rock radio, and it's hard to believe his style didn't influence numerous later artists who are in it. He was still a force in popular music when rock was the music of the day, unlike Billie Holiday; and he was more revered by many rock fans than a host of lesser singers who were getting AM-radio play and were offered up as rock artists, from Englebert Humperdink to Burt Bachrach. Frank Sinatra is not in the RRHOF; but Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey and Miles Davis are. Hmmmm... Maybe Chuck Berry belongs in the jazz HOF?
Chubby Checker, who popularized the dance most closely associated with R&R, is not in the HOF. The Weavers, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Kingston Trio, The Lettermen - those folk groups were the immediate predecessors of the American rock group; not one of them is in. Yet Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers were admitted on their own. The idea seems to be: let's recognize every major American music trend in the first half of the 20th century, and then later on maybe we'll recognize the people who all those rock musicians actually knew and heard before they became rock musicians.

So where is the logic, oh tastemakers of the Great Hall? There is none. Though if we look the ABBA choice right in the face, along with others included for nothing more than having a lot of hit records (Billy Joel, Bob Seger, Madonna and AC/DC for instance) we may just have to admit that the one criterion that plays an outsized role is record sales. I can't honestly say that it is the only or even the main criterion. After all, Frank Sinatra did sell quite a few records. Celine Dion has sold about 200 million records, but she's not there. Oops, wait a few years please. She has technically been eligible for four years, since her first recording came out 29 years ago, in 1981. But she didn't release a record in English until 1990. There are no inductees in the RRHOF who did not record primarily in English. So give her a few years and I suspect she will be in like Flynn. ABBA, on the other hand, has been charting since the 70's, and occupies the noble position of being just behind The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson in total sales
. Now, I'm not saying that sales are not a legitimate criterion to consider. Sales indicate popularity; popularity is sometimes an indicator of quality; though often not. It does suggest a high level of exposure and recognition, which may indicate influence and importance. On the other hand, it may not. It's hard to know what ABBA's influence might be, but I suspect it is less than that of The 1910 Fruitgum Company, pioneers of bublegum rock. Along with The Archies (actually just a bunch of studio musicians), The Jackson Five, The Cowsills, The Osmonds and various other "family" groups who were knocking on ceilings in the late sixties and early seventies, these fruitie types offered a watered down version of what had mainly been gritty, black and white working class music. IMHO, ABBA, in spite of a few catchy tunes (or because they were nothing but catchy tunes) contributed very little other than to take this trend and offer it up as discotheque fare. Not that it was actually disco in its classic form, but it was danceable and bouncy even when the subject was not exactly uplifting ("The WInner Takes It All"). They did not start or significantly expand anything I consider to be of much value in rock, they merely plied the lighter side of pop tastes for a string of hits.

The artists who precede them on the album sales list clearly did something important; many of the artists who follow them clearly did. Queen is next, and though they may not be my favorite group (love Sheer Heart Attack, other than that they're not my taste), they obviously took rock vocals to a level that has rarely if ever been equaled, and they helped make the extended composition a standard of FM radio fare. Someone please tell me about ABBA's similar accomplishments. They were not exceptionally good singers, their instrumentals were forgettable, their songs not pathbreaking in any sense I can think of. For light rock I'll take The Carpenters or Hall and Oates any day. Neither of them have made it in, and I doubt it would look quite as bizarre if they did. ABBA simply represents the dumbing down of taste to the lowest common denominator, diminishing everything that was vibrant, experimental, original or challenging in 1970's rock. They were about as responsible for this as their RRHOF mates Fleetwood Mac, a group that at least had earlier (pre-Buckingham/Nicks) incarnations which would never have gotten in on the basis of album sales, but perhaps deserved to be there for one reason or another. But for ABBA, sales and Top 5 hits are the beginning and the end of what anyone can say about their place in the history of R&R.

Although record sales are clearly a major consideration for entry into the Hallowed Hall, the bigger impression is that the criteria are just haphazard and arbitrary, putting in question whether there are any criteria at all. Consider the Hall's own description of their decision process: "Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll." So, that is about as vague as you can get, and gives the nominating committee the flexibility to pick just about anyone they like, and ignore anybody they don't like. As a result, you've got a lot of tangential "early influence" type inductees who really had very little to do with rock; lots of sidemen, blues players, impressarios, gospel singers, and country influences, and yawning gaps in actual rock and roll. Bill Monroe is considered a rock influence in this ever so vaguely delineated hagiography, whereas in fact it is not likely that bluegrass had very much influence even in country rock, as it was quite a while before it even had much influence in country music. Charles Brown was a great blues pianist; I was fortunate enough to see him perform live, a treat I picked for my 40th birthday; but he had almost nothing at all to do with rock and roll. On the other hand, the Rev. Gary Davis, a player who directly influenced numerous major R&R artists (a short list would include Jerry Garcia, David Bromberg, and Jorma Kaukonen) has unaccountably been overlooked. A less obvious, but extremely interesting early urban blues figure would be Tampa Red, who not only inspired some of the bluesmen who inspired rock (including Muddy Waters and Elmore James), but played a style that is oddly modern and upbeat in a way that clearly anticipates rock and roll. Yet he is missing.

So, for that matter, is Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, whose songs provided early material for Elvis Presley, as well as influencing a number of important urban blues artists. While we're on the subject of important early performers who also wrote hits for major rock artists, Arthur Alexander has not even gotten his due in the arbitrary and capricious Hall. Early pop/rock artists who did no more for the medium than 100 artists who are not in have apprently been inducted on no other grounds that that they happened to be early. Thus, I don't need to question the contributions of Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield or Ricky Nelson to raise an eyebrow that they, and quite a few others like them, are in the RRHOF, when a large number of later artists who were more influential are not in. Ricky Nelson, but not Lou Reed? (To pick a name out of a hat.) Be serious. Better yet, Dusty Springfield but not Neal Sedaka? He not only contributed to her career but had a major, lengthy career of his own, involving artists from The Monkees to 10CC and many more.

The early influences also seem to be more like obvious names to drop than interesting connections. Everyone who had one or two memorable early hits - Frankie Lyman, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Richie Valens - has been duly voted in. Perhaps one or two memorable hits in the 50's is sufficient to claim importance. But if so, why not one or two hits in the 60's? That's when rock really took off and became a major cultural force. There were lots of two-hit wonders then, and some of their songs are as memorable as "Rock Around the Clock" and "Teenager in Love". I've already mentioned The Boxtops, but I could name dozens more. Rather than that, why not pick three: Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Left Banke, and The Foundations. Each, to my recollections had two major hits. Those hits were not just good songs but sounds that we will never forget; and I'll bet a whole lot of people a generation or more younger than me know the bands and would recognize the songs they are famous for. Why are they any less worthy of commemoration than the 50's groups?

Then again, there are groups that had a hell of a lot more hits than that, and were inlutential in some notable way, who are still not in RRHOF.
I mean, how can you not have Gerry and the Pacemakers in the RRHOF? They should have been among the first ones, one of the most important Mersey Beat groups, a movement that changed R&R history. Tommy James and the Shondells practically defined sixties acid pop, and to my mind did a lot to make new kinds of sounds acceptable to a wide audience, moving the whole mainstream forward. Almost every one of their hits contained prominent, interesting new uses of keyboards, reverb, rhythm, drums, etc. Where's The Association, with their harmonies second only to The Beach Boys in the 1960's, not to mention several of the most frequently played singles in the history of rock? The Monkees were the first group to use a Moog synthesizer on an album, among other things. Their history alone, from a manufactured t.v. pop group to an independent progressive pop quartet on Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, is enough to mark them as significant - at least since Ricky Nelson's trajectory seems to make him worthy of HOF immortality (read his bio on the RRHOF web site). Paul Revere and the Raiders wore outrageous costumes long before David Bowie or Kiss; they also had five Billboard Top 10 and thirteen Top 25 hits, and 4 Gold albums, and were Columbia's top selling artist for a while (I imagine Dylan has long since surpassed them). More interesting is that they were hard rock pioneers, spinning serious guitar solos as early as 1965 and later becoming a kind of retro icon for punk rockers. Next up: I'm not sure what's the best way to defend the view that Steppenwolf should be a first round pick for the rock HOF; maybe because "Born to Be Wild" is a strong contender for the anthem of a generation; because "Monster" was rock music's most powerful indictment of the political direction of the country; because they have one of the four or five best live albums ever; or because they too were a group whose style looked forward to the hard rock of the 70's. Whatever, it seems pretty obvious to me that Steppenwolf means every bit as much to rock history as many rock artists of the 50's, and much more than most of those "early influences".

But at least quite a few 60's bands are duly represented: just look at the "B" list - The Band, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Buffalo Springfied. Entire trends, however, are barely represented if at all. It's nice that Iggy Pop and the Stooges finally got in; they were a key source for the punk movement. But even before them there were historically important artists who deserve recognition in this regard, e.g., The Troggs, Marc Bolan (T Rex), and Père Ubu. Early eighties post-punk groups are eligible, but all I see in the Hall are a few of the big hitmakers (The Police, U2). The highly influential Joy Division is MIA, and so are The Alarm, The Jam, Joe Jackson, The Psychedeic Furs, The Cars, The Knack - not to mention all the 2 Tone and Ska bands (The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat), Rock Against Racism (TRB and others)... the point is, this is a very important era, a turning point in the history of rock with a variety of manifestations, none of which are represented, just the hitmakers. British folk-rock - Donovan, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Renaissance, etc - is not represented at all, in spite of influencing so many major 70's bands, including Led Zep and Yes. Does this make any sense? Influential guitarists like Roy Harper and Bert Jansch have been passed over, but Leadbelly and John Lee Hooker are there. I think the Hall managers have their priorities completely skewed; you should recognize the people who directly influenced and played rock first, then go and collect the distant cousins who neither knew or cared much about R&R.

I could go on. In fact I will. Let's talk about some of the most influential trends in the history of rock - trends which I will quite frankly say that I don't personally like very much, but whose importance is hard to deny (a hell of a lot harder than that of ABBA). No one person ever invented any form of music, but Barry White came darn close to inventing disco. In any case his influence is undeniable. But as another hugely influential unrecognized group once sang, "he's not there". You won't find Gloria Gaynor, The Hues Corporation, or Diana Ross (as a solo act) in the RRHOF. The Jacksons are in there only insofar as they extend the biography of The Jackson Five. Donna Summer has been denied entry several times. No sunshine for KC and his band either. Forget about The Tavares or the Pointer Sisters. Funk, somehow, is worthy of respect - not only James Brown but Parliament-Funkadelic squeezed in. Marvin Gaye was thankfully worthy of admission. So it is clearly not a matter of excluding artists on the notion that later R&B is not rock. I was never a big disco fan, but to deny that it was a major force in the broader concept of rock music that includes soul, funk, and hip hop is just nuts. I thought I was an ideologue, but if I were in charge of a public-facing institution like the RRHOF I like to think I'd try to be objective. The razor-like excision of disco is just vindictive, whether you were ever a fan or not.

On the other end of the spectrum, let's talk "heavy metal". AC/DC happens to be in the Hall; by no surprise, they are something like 7th or 8th in the list of best selling groups of all time. But they have no other business in the HOF. They were not one of the pioneers of heavy metal, and I doubt anyone could show that they influenced other heavy metal bands more than Kiss or Aerosmith, both of whom were founded the same time as AC/DC but released albums earlier. (AC/DC did not release any notable albums until several years after they were founded.) Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple, MC5, Grand Funk - they belong in the HOF as the early explorers of what became heavy metal. Of course Led Zeppelin is in; who would pay any attention to this museum if they weren't? But they should not be there for their illustrious place in album sales, nor for the popularity of "Stairway to Heaven", but for their virtually reinventing hard rock in 1969 and leading the way into the next decade; for expanding the instrumental sound and introducing radical new techniques on both guitar and drums; and for many other qualities. What similar contributions has AC/DC made? I know - they pioneered a new vocal sound in which the human voice is made to sound like a parrot struggling to escape the talons of a hawk? Sorry, that doesn't strike me as a significant accomplishment. The RRHOF bio of Metallica has one thing more or less right: Black Sabbath "invented" heavy metal (not quite, but close) and Metallica "redefined it in the Eighties". So what exactly did AC/DC do besides sell a lot of records? Probably less than Ozzy did in his solo career. "Huh?" you say, Ozzy's not there? Sacrilege, to an awful lot of rock fans. But neither are Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, or Motley Crue (sorry, metalheads, for dropping the cute little umlauts over some of those names) - all of them eligible for many years. Guns 'N Roses? You'll have to wait a couple of years, their first album came out in 1987. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them get in: they're just behind AC/DC and Metallica in heavy metal album sales. (Discounting Zep and Deep Purple as not "pure" metal.) So what will that prove; that the rulers of HOF have carefully considered the merits of any of these bands? Doesn't look that way to me.

More than anything, I am shocked at the total lack of respect for progressive rock in the inductee list. Sure Pink Floyd is there, but not for Atom Heart Mother, I suspect. Genesis has just been admitted; again, I suspect that Phil Collins's contributions have more to do with that than Peter Gabriel's. Just guessing. But to me, a Rock Hall of Fame without the Moody Blues, Yes, King Crimson or Jethro Tull is a complete joke - and all of them have been eligible for more than 15 years. (I could shorten that and say that a Rock Hall of Fame without Jethro Tull is a complete joke, even if progressive rock never existed - since I consider Tull to be far from a pure prog band. But I digress.) That says to me that there is an ideology keeping these bands out. And I can go a bit deeper, because I think prog is so important that I'm not sure some lesser-known prog groups shouldn't be in there. If popularity and album sales are the criteria, then perhaps a group like Gentle Giant does not belong in the Hallowed Hall. But there's a long list of prog rock artists doing highly technical, rhythmically and harmonically complex songs, and I'll bet nearly all of them have been influenced to one degree or another by GG, who did it before any of them. (Not that I'm ignoring Zappa's role here.) I'm not so sure that even groups like Rush didn't get something from them. Can't prove it without a lot of research but my ears tell me so.

Last and certainly least, I hate to mention this, but there's a slew of late 70's groups that I can't stand, and I'd be happy to hear that the guardians of rock's kingdom can't stand them either. But again, if there's a reason for keeping out the likes of Rush, Styx, Journey, Toto, Foreigner, Boston, Kansas, Steve Miller and a crapload of other late 70's/early 80's pseudo-progressive pop, I'd like to see the criteria. Arguably, those groups defined everything in rock and roll in that era that was not punk or "new wave". There are some dim signs that taste has at least some influence in the choice of inductees, e.g., the fact that Steely Dan has been inducted and Rush has not. Then again, Bob Seger has been inducted and 10CC has not; there goes that theory. Anyway, I'm not in favor of a rushed journey down the Styx, but if we're talking about impact, we will be forced to admit that those groups more or less absconded with the FM airwaves for a decade or so.

I'm going to stop, eventually. In fact, I'm not even going to mention several other important trends in rock, all pre-1985 and therefore eligible, which are pretty much unrepresented in the RRHOF, such as glam (Roxy, Bolan, Dolls) or jazz rock (BS&T, Chicago, Soft Machine) or fusion (McLaughlin, Corea, Coryell) or euro (Kraftwerk, Focus, The Fixx) or... Well, either I'm going to stop, or perhaps the RRHOF team should start - recognizing that they have managed to ignore most of what is really significant in rock, while compiling a list of distant predecessors and pop stars. No, they have not ignored history altogether; they have made their motions in the directions of The Clash, David Bowie, and other artists who are not simply popular but seminal. But they have turned their backs on so much else, while digging into the jazz and blues archives and the interesting sidemen and the gurus of one sort or another, then adding numerous artists whose contributions are little more than a list of hits.

Now why is all this? A friend of mine has a simple answer: "Jann's club", he calls it - a short way of saying that Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, controls the Hall's membership list according to his own personal taste. Is it true? Hmmmm.... Take a look at Roger Friedman's critique of the 2007 nominee list, if you have the patience to read any more HOF critiques after my longwinded diatribe. (Okay, it's on Fox. If it makes you feel any better, Friedman was fired soon afterward for reviewing a pirated copy of the film Wolverine, and pointing out to readers how easy it was to get hold of. Wonder why Fox might have cared so much about this...) If you don't like that, take a look at some of the comments about Wenner to the same effect on his Wikipedia page.

One comment there, cited from a
New York Post interview with Peter Tork, is worth noting: Tork says explicitly that Wenner has personally kept The Monkees out of the RRHOF over the worn-out criticism that they didn't play the instruments on their first two albums. On the first album, that was by understanding with producer Don Kirshner. The second, however, was released without The Monkees' prior consent to this arrangement. In any case, the criticism is not only unfair but ignorant. It's unfair because any number of Motown groups and quite a few rock bands who are in the RRHOF (e.g., The Beach Boys) did not play many (or in some cases any) of the instruments on some of their albums; the use of anonymous studio musicians backing major rock groups on albums was extremely common in those days. And it's ignorant because in fact, The Monkees did play their own instruments in concert, on Headquarters, and to a large extent on Pisces Aquarius Capricorn & Jones and their later albums; because Peter Tork is widely known to be a top notch musician who could have played any instrument in the band and then some (and in fact did play a guitar part on their first album, alongside James Burton); and because Nesmith was not only a competent guitarist but an excellent songwriter with a career that dated from before The Monkees existed. What Dolenz lacked in drumming ability he made up in unique vocal qualities that created the sound of some of the most memorable hits of the 60's. The Monkees may have suffered from the discrepancy between their t.v. show personas as rock stars and their early acceptance of studio backing on the albums; certainly to hold this against them at a time when we have a much broader perspective on the whole era is ridiculous and vindictive.

Wenner's Wikipedia page contains another paragraph with a list of groups he is said to be responsible for keeping out on the basis of personal taste. According to Friedman, "
Wenner’s nominating committee consists largely of his current and former employees from Rolling Stone (Nathan Brackett, David Fricke, Jim Henke, Joe Levy, Brian Keizer, Toure, and Anthony DeCurtis). But they have little say over who really is inducted." There are lots of people questioning the objectivity of the Hall's criteria. The Hall's Wikipedia page has more examples of the criticism of Wenner et al., and this Rush fan site has a page of quotes from a variety of rock legends doubting the value of its choices. When The Sex Pistols were inducted, Johnny Rotten wrote a letter calling the Hall "a piss stain" and "urine in wine" and refusing to attend the ceremony. Complaints about RRHOF are usually paired with complaints about Wenner, and often target the overdependence on record sales as a criterion; here's another example. Dig around, you'll find comments like this for most bands that have been snubbed, with especially heavy emphasis from progressive rock and heavy metal fans, who know from the pages of Rolling Stone how much Wenner dislikes those trends. It's hard to find an authoritative source to confirm Wenner's autocratic control of the nominating process, and there certainly are counterexamples to the influence of record sales (another: Chicago has never gotten in) but I have not been able to find anything, by Wenner or anyone else, providing evidence of the diversity or objectivity of opinion among the RRHOF crowd.

And what none of the comments about Wenner point out (which it is therefore my duty as a blogger to do) is that if he has any influence there, much less controlling influence, it is a depressing comment on this personality cult that he has managed to have himself elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Yes, shocking though it may seem after what we have just said, the ever opportunistic Wenner, with the help of colleagues who "have little say over who really is inducted", has granted himself not only rock immortality but a glowing biography, in which the only thing that is understated is his role in the RRHOF itself: "
He was in on the ground floor with a small group - which would become its board of directors - that began planning the institution back in 1983, and he remains vitally active in its operation to this day." Vitally active indeed!

In short, the RRHOF is not really the generally recognized standard of excellence, influence, or importance in rock. Though it may have begun with a variety of industry heavyweights counterbalancing each other (Ahmet Ertegun was part of the lineup at first, and one source says that his departure was the beginning of Wenner's total reign) it is widely believed to have long since become a personal playground for one outsized personality and a number of his sycophants. And that is a shame, because so many of us believe that rock is one of the most important musical art forms in history, with tremendous variety and vitality, and no sign of its diminishing after half a century (indeed I see signs that it is once again in a phase of expansion and new forms of expression). It deserves a serious institutional standard for its history and iconography, not a cabal of self-indulgent arbiters whose criteria for admission are fuzzy at best and seriously flawed at worst.

So, how could we fix the Hall of Errors? Well, clearly I think there are certain inductees who should not be there at all right now: virtually all the jazz artists, some of the blues, folk and country artists, all rock stars whose sole contribution is a lot of hit singles, possibly some of the less important divas and crooners from the 50's and early 60's. The problem in a nutshell is that there are certain artists whose absence virtually leaps out at you, having been eligible in some cases for as long as 15 years or more, and without any rational explanation of why ABBA or Bob Seger should be there and not them, it puts the whole project in question.

So here, then, is a LIST: call it the NPRRHOFM! (For the acronmyically challenged among you, that would be "Neglected Potential RRHOF Members".) Now, please note: this is not a list of my personal favorites. Far from it: anybody who knows my tastes knows that I can't even listen to half the groups on the following list. Never particularly liked The Strawbs, Roxy Music, or Mott the Hoople. Hate Kiss; not a Sabbath fan. Grand Funk and Queen each have one great album (Closer to Home and Sheer Heart Attack), the rest of both is almost unbearable.
Chicago, Alice Cooper - a few songs here and there that I can get into, that's all. I could also offer you a list of favorites who I would not include at this point: Nektar, The Fixx, The Parachute Club and the Gang of Four, for instance. In short, I'm wearing my objectivity hat here (clearly an unknown piece of haberdashery at Rolling Stone) and trying to identify groups I think are important enough in some way to be clear choices for the Hall. My choices are all made on mainly historical grounds, which I would define as:

(a) Influence: artists who were widely admired, imitated or looked to for inspiration among other important artists who came later. (Examples: Alex Chilton, Iron Butterfly, Laura Nyro, The Flying Burrito Brothers)
(b) Defining role for an era, sound or trend: artists whose overall style or sound, or some aspect thereof, is a touchstone for what became a recognized rock trend or genre. (Examples: Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Moody Blues, Blood Sweat and Tears)
(c) Important representative of sub-genre: artists who may not have been the first or only examples of their particular form of rock, but who are widely considered one of the most important representatives of that form (Examples: The Replacements, Tommy James and the Shondells, Boston)
(d) Originality: artists who stood out as unique in some generally admired way. (Examples: Tim Buckley, Jimmy Buffet, XTC, The Smiths)
(e) Key contributions: artists who don't fall into any of the first four categories, but who either took some critical step that expanded the horizons of rock, or created tracks of extraordinary quality (whether or not recognized in popularity or sales), or made very admirable technical innovations, or some similar important contribution. (Examples: King Crimson, 10CC)

I think most of the groups on my list actually have a foot in more than one of these categories. If this or some similar list of criteria were used, I suspect that a lot of the members of RRHOF would not be there, and a lot of others would. But let me say this, by way of charity: I am not against adding a category "(f): Major hitmakers", and bringing in some of those groups at a later time. It is the vindictive excising of really obvious choices like Jethro Tull and the casual inclusion of popular but otherwise unremarkable groups that exercises me. After due recognition has been given to the people who are actually important to the history of rock, let us open the gates to the people who merely wrote some catchy tunes with good hooks and made million$ from them.

Here, then, is the list. I could entertain the thought of removing some of them after hearing arguments from the field, but I'm putting in bold the artists I think it is really bordering on the absurd to keep out at this point.
Add your own in the Comments section, and try to observe the criterion of 25 years since their first released recording, as I have:

A - Arthur Alexander, The Association
B - The Boxtops, Blood Sweat and Tears, Tim Buckley, Bad Company, Blue Oyster Cult, Jimmy Buffet, B-52's, Boston
C - Alex Chilton, Chicago, Canned Heat, Alice Cooper

D - Rev. Gary Davis, Neil Diamond, Donovan (Leitch), Deep Purple
E - (Empty for now)
F - The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Foundations
G - Grand Funk,
Gentle Giant, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Guess Who
H - Roy Harper, Herman's Hermits
I - Iron Butterfly

J -
Jethro Tull, Joe Jackson, Judas Priest
K -
King Crimson, Kiss
L - Love

M -
The Monkees, The Moody Blues, John McLaughlin, Mott the Hoople, Motorhead
N - Laura Nyro
O - (Oops, can't think of any)
P -
Procol Harum, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Psychedelic Furs
Q - (?)
R -
Tampa Red, Mitch Ryder, Todd Rundgren, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, The Replacements
S - Neal Sedaka, Steppenwolf, Sonny and Cher, The Strawbs, The Specials, The Smiths, Donna Summer
T - Tommy James and the Shondells, The Turtles, 10CC, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

U - UB40

V - (Vote for your favorite)

W - Johnny Winter
, Barry White
X -
Y - Yes
Z - The Zombies, Warren Zevon