Culture People

In memoriam: Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

There are already hundreds of tributes to Prince out there, with many more to come as people hear of his death, yesterday. I heard about it last night at dinner with friends, and was, for a long moment, rather inconsolable.

He was a musician that provided a fair chunk of the soundtrack to my life, and that of many others. I was a fan pretty much from the beginning – other Capetonians will remember those very expensive import LP’s we bought from that place in the Golden Acre whose name I can’t remember, and it was there that I found a copy of “Dirty Mind” in 1980, before Tipper Gore had an “explicit lyrics” warning pasted on to it.

I quickly filled the back-catalogue of his first two albums, and then bought everything else for a decade or two, until his output became too voluminous (and, to be honest, inconsistent) to keep up with.

In 1990, I was coaching tennis to bratty American kids (including one of GW Bush’s grandsons!) in upstate New York, and remember one night when some of the camp counselors and coaches were persuaded that it was a good idea to go and see Bryan Adams perform in Canada.

I stayed behind, because Bryan Adams, and because the rest of us had planned a party. We went to Forest Lake, smoked a joint, drank too much beer, and lay on the shore while a friend played Purple Rain at an absurd volume through his car speakers.

I did so last night also, but without the joint or the beer, although the whisky was good and plentiful. We played “Darling Nikki” too, at my wife’s suggestion, even though that’s the name of an adolescent crush that she doesn’t like being reminded of.

That’s a signal of how much his music means to many folk. And rightly so – younger readers and those who don’t know his music might not appreciate just how damn good he was.

All the early albums had liner notes that read “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”. He did everything, in other words. The legend had it that he could play 20 instruments by the time he was in his late teens.

He turned other people into stars too, or gave them some of their most memorable songs – Sinead O’Connor, with Prince’s song “Nothing Compares to U”, written for a band called The Family. The Bangles, with “Manic Monday”, Chaka Khan, with “I Feel For You”. “The Glamorous Life” for Sheila E. And there are plenty more.

Few other people would be able to maintain the falsetto he does in this performance of Purple Rain while simultaneously playing a ridiculously good guitar solo. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just today – but it feels like nobody else could.

We’ll miss you.

Morality Religion

God bless you, Rest in Peace – on secular versus religious language

Andre P. BrinkWhen South African author Andre P. Brink died on February 6, I was one of the many who extended my condolences to his family and friends. I didn’t use the phrase “rest in peace” or its acronym “RIP”, because after death, there’s no agent capable of “resting”. That’s what death means, for those of us who subscribe to a naturalist ontology.

But that’s not all that “RIP” means – it’s a shorthand for extending commiserations, for demonstrating shared membership of a community of caring, and for marking the passing of someone who was considered valuable to that community.

To use – or exploit – the grief or sadness at the death of such a person to score political points for atheism is crude, unnecessary, and unfeeling.

Yet that’s exactly what I saw on some South African atheist online communities, and this is again an elegant example of why atheists need to be more concerned about their own PR, in that if you’re trying to argue – as we do – that gods aren’t necessary for being good people, it helps to behave like good people in the absence of gods.

The objections from atheists were the usual – focusing only on the fact that there’s no soul or spirit, they claimed that the words were meaningless, or even worse, that they demean the living by assuming that there’s more to life than just the here and now.

As I said above, there is more to the here and now, but in the limited sense of there being a social context in which words function, and what you signal when you reject that.

There is a time, and a value, to trying to get people to strip their language and their mental furniture of various metaphysical concepts. But that time – at least if you care about getting your point across, rather than scoring points – is when the matter can be considered in the abstract, rather than coming across as an insult to people who are grieving.

“Bless you” is a similar example, but different in a crucial way, in that you can easily poke fun at people who say “bless you” without poking at their open sores. The examples are different in degree, if not in kind.

“Merry Christmas” is another, and similar to “bless you” – it’s laughably precious to object to this in anything but the mildest of terms, and especially ridiculous to object so strongly that you get yourself thrown off a plane, as an American (presumably) atheist recently did.

Despite their religious origins, the point is that these phrases are now largely secular in usage. We know that they operate as shorthand for recognising a common humanity, and for reinforcing social bonds. No offence is intended by them, and our reactions need to be proportionate to the triviality of the “crime” committed.

Yes, I’d prefer for us to use alternatives. But for any alternatives to gain traction takes time. And motivating for them, and gaining consensus for their usage, won’t be easy if you approach that task by being an ass.

But for those of you who want to be offended, and treat any word or phrase with a religious origin as an insult, here’s your challenge: stop saying “goodbye” to people.

“Goodbye” is, after all, is a contraction of “God be with you”, and is thus surely pretty damn offensive.