#CatalanReferendum: democracy dies in chaos

The brutality being meted out by Spanish riot police today is sickening and potentially deadly. There are countless videos on my Twitter feed of defenceless elderly people, young students, and even dogs being treated with inhuman violence by agents of the state.

This must be condemned unequivocally, if belatedly, by the Spanish government, which must realise that far from aiding their cause, this violence is doing nothing but strengthening a narrative that has surely already overcome its own political mandate.

With every blow of a club or swing of a riot shield, the fact that this referendum is nothing of the sort – that it is against the constitution, and illegitimate – recedes further into the ether. What is being attempted is unprecedented, and has parallels not with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 – which was entirely legal and done with the full consent of the UK government – but with attempts by Milorad Dodik’s corrupt regime to wrench the Republika Srpska out of Bosnia and Herzegovina and shatter the fragile peace that still clings on through the increasingly threadbare Dayton Agreement which ended the war.

It is also clear that this is part of a larger geopolitical movement. The insidious veneration of ‘self-determination’ at all costs is not designed to empower, but to fragment. It is not surprising to read that Julian Assange and Edward Snowden contribute nearly a third of all traffic on the Twitter hashtag #Catalonia, with Wikileaks and Putin’s mouth-organ RT also highly active. (RT has also published plenty of pro-Dodik material, condemning the recently imposed US sanctions against him.) It is also notable that Twitter has made sure Assange is the beneficiary of an extra 140 characters, so that he can spew skewed, unconstitutional, a-legal nonsense like this:

This kind of influence pops up wherever there is a chance to break apart the delicate structures that protect democracy and citizens. Wherever you look around the world at secessionist movements, Russian influence is growing. I have spent a lot of time in California this year, and people there are always shocked to hear that one of the prominent proponents of so-called #Calexit lives in Yekaterinburg. Let’s be clear: it’s not that these movements were started by the Reds under the Bed – they’re real, and have real support – but they are certainly supported, often with large sums of money and substantial political and media backing.

There’s also a clear link between such movements and the rise of other fringe nationalist groups – often manifesting through extreme conservatism, anti-LGBT campaigns, white supremacist groups, and more.

The breakdown of order in Catalonia is instructive. The masthead of the Washington Post claims that “democracy dies in darkness”. Rather, the massing examples of failed democracy – Brexit, Trump, and now Catalonia – show us that democracy dies in chaos. Media outlets such as the Guardian, which in its live reportage understandably takes the side of the protesters, describing their ‘peaceful defiance‘, are nonetheless failing to give this wider context. It is that failure that bolsters the kind of narrative Assange and his ilk want to spread.

This is a desperately difficult situation. It’s clear that state-sanctioned violence must be stopped. It’s clear that illegal attempts to wrench regions unilaterally out of constitutions must also be stopped. And it’s clear that insidious foreign influence to undermine democracy must be flagged appropriately and held accountable.

The naive belief that democracy can ever stand still – that it’s ever stable – is being ripped apart by huge shifts in the world’s political landscape. Democracy is really fragile, and people have really short memories. The only way to protect it is to constantly reform it, and by doing so, enable government that acts in the best interests of as many of its people as possible.

And if California slides into the ocean…

My working and thinking year has begun¬†in the state of California, which has been racked by stormy rains since before I arrived. Here is a place that has been suffering a five-year drought made worse by its status as a farmers’ bastion, where agriculture pumps more water than falls from the sky, creating subsidence and sinkholes and shortages.

When you’re in California, you have to listen to the right music. This is surely a uniquely creative stretch of land even by the standards of 20th century pop culture. And there was a particular stretch of time – say, 1968-1977 – when it may have been the most important contributor of lasting, living cultural artefacts, at least in the so-called “West”.

Warren Zevon began his career in that period. Son of a Jewish Russian immigrant, he was born in Chicago but the family soon moved to the West Coast (Fresno, to be exact). While there, he had the chance to chill with Igor Stravinsky, before quitting high school and high-tailing it to New York City to begin a career as a folk singer.

He wrote what on any given day might be my favourite song, the one I come back to every time I’m here. Desperados Under the Eaves manages in just four minutes, forty-seven seconds to capture the heart of lost humanity.¬†It is one of Zevon’s most personal songs, written from a real situation in the so-called “Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel”. Its short lyric, with five distinct sections – they aren’t really verses per se – is densely packed with allusion and literary technique and a hundred listens won’t¬†plumb their depths.

On the surface it’s about alcoholism. There are references speckled throughout: empty coffee cups, shaking hands, and pledges to drink all the margaritas in Los Angeles. But¬†that isn’t the heart of the¬†song; it’s merely¬†a feint, a way of entering a rabbit warren (no pun intended) of multiplying topics through an¬†easy access entrance.

Instead this is about nothing less than the fear of death and the fear of life, the weirdness of being in a place where you feel misunderstood but cannot find another place that offers you a home. It’s a 20th century Californian’s¬†riff on Shakespeare’s song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun“. That¬†lovely song is¬†an epitaph of sorts. This is altogether more¬†in medias res as Zevon ponders on his state of mind: “So sick I am not, yet I am not well” as Imogen¬†puts it prior to her seeming death.

Zevon literally fears the heat of the sun: the first climax of the lyric and music comes with a sudden burst of orchestral fear, and the line “Don’t the sun look angry at me?” He’s suddenly alluding to Christ on the cross: “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?”

The irony is that that burst of feeling comes after one of the driest stanzas on potential apocalypse ever written. He imagines the state of California sliding into the ocean “like the mystics and statistics say it will”, but reduces that monumental tragedy into amusement by suggesting that the hotel he’s in will remain standing, “until I pay my bill”.

He knows all this is going to hell, maybe sooner than we all think. But at the same time he can’t see a way out that isn’t worse. “Heaven help the one who leaves”, he says, and I fancifully read across – a desperado caught between staying and leaving – to the wider cultural atmosphere of the time, one in which the Eagles, that same year, would try to capture the mystical Hotel California.

Zevon is no mystic though and writes achingly about the real. The vignette that comes next sums up the pain, perhaps physical as well as emotional, of his situation:

Still waking up in the morning with shaking hands

And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me

But except in dreams you’re never really free

Don’t the sun look angry at me?

And then comes a most peculiar kind of redemption.¬†Whenever I play the ending of this song to people, the invariable response is initially amusement. The idea of an air conditioner humming a hymn is inherently risible. But equally invariably, a deeper understanding eventuates as the coda rises and grows in strength. The warmth and depth of the strings building under Zevon’s layered choir, and eventually taking him over, is desperately moving, and movingly desperate.

“Look away down Gower Avenue.” I’ve never been to LA, but from all I can read of Gower Avenue – or, actually, Gower Street – it’s the most mundane of streets. But maybe it’s that quality of the mundane that qualifies it to be elevated into this most gorgeous of melodies. The normality of Gower is what is being venerated.

It’s a song that I’ll never fathom, and a song I’ll always feel could have come from my own heart.

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The late, great Warren Zevon. Copyright Neal Preston/CORBIS.