The City of Blinding Lights

One of the songs most consistently played at Obama rallies has been U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” which I believe is one of the best tracks from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The song captures Obama’s core message: a turning away from cynicism and irony back to authentic and hopeful engagement with the world. Here’s what I wrote about the song’s meaning when I first heard it in 2004:

This is a beautiful song with only one musical misstep, IMHO (the awkward bridge of “Time… time won’t leave me as I am…”). It takes the classic circular structure that I particularly love, starting with a three-line stanza beginning with “The more you see the less you know” and ending with a three-line stanza beginning with “The more you know the less you feel.”

The final message is classic U2 in both its religious and ecumenical thrust, reminding us that God loves us all, even the unfaithful. It’s also classic U2 in its earnestness, emerging from faith that love and reason will see us through troubled times.

Many of the reviews of this album dwelled on U2’s era of irony / self-awareness / self-indulgence (Achtung-Pop). If this song is indeed a paean to NYC, it’s also a word of encouragement and advice to not let self-awareness become self-doubt, as these critical lines tell: “Don’t look before you laugh / Look ugly in a photograph.” These words are painful, evocative of a teenager whose sudden realization of identity leads her to mug for the camera to avoid the reality of her true beauty. If, like that girl we all know, NYC is waking up to itself, it needs the reassurance that “Oh you look so beautiful tonight.” Audaciously, unashamedly, U2 offers it that assurance.

Those same lyrics also evoke — and exorcise — U2’s era of pretentious facadism. In confessing “All that you can’t leave behind,” U2 acknowledged that the act of remaking yourself is both impossible and inherently self-indulgent. Personally I feel like they are coming to peace with the realization, “The more you know / The less you feel.”

the flood next time

January thaw
awakens foolish flies
But over the lake
a cold wind blows.

Fire but scorches the earth:
rain snuffs reckless flames
Rivers carve running
seeking rest.

The sea’s breezes
chastise intemperate land.

the earth trembles
placid no more the ocean rises
and the tidal wave

BSG:Razor cuts sharp and deep

In case the political themes of the regular-season episodes of Battlestar Galactica aren’t clear enough, BSG:Razor provides a mini-case study of the dangers of unbridled militarism. I was very lucky to have seen this movie on the big screen Monday night thanks to my friend Matt’s quick-fingered grabbing of the free offer. (Possible spoilers ahead, natch).

The “present day” of the film is set in the latter half of Season Two — after the death of Admiral Cain and before the settlement of New Caprica — but most of it takes place in flashback to the early days of the current Cylon-human war (probably about the time of the original mini-series). The film does nothing to redeem Cain, although it does provide some explanation for the things she does. Indeed, because we’re on the brink of Season 4, nothing in the plot can be all that surprising, so the story turns on character, specifically Lt. Kendra Shaw, invented just for Razor.

Razor portrays a military leadership gone mad with the need for vengeance (for crimes societal and personal) and parallels to the current war are, perhaps, inevitable (especially for those who believe we’re in Iraq to avenge George H.W. Bush). Yet despite any differences of personality between Cain and Adama, at the very end of the film Adama recognizes that what sets him apart from his tormented superior officer is not a stronger will or deeper compassion, but rather institutional safeguards in the form of civilian checks on his authority and a much more personal accountability to his own son. It’s an interesting recognition of the fallibility of humans that we rarely see in culture today. At the same time it’s also an expression of faith in the power of institutions to hold our foibles in check — the very combination of optimism and pessimism that’s the foundation of the American Constitution and that Battlestar Galactica seems to be able to get just right.