Sleigh Lady Sleigh

Bob Dylan's Christmas album is probably a (good) joke

"Does anybody recognise this painting? Any theories as to what it means?" Rolling Stone's Andy Greene is looking at a picture of a middle-aged couple on a sleigh. It's snowy and old-fashioned, like a church basement greeting card priced at 25p. Perhaps it's a passive-aggressive warning to climate-change deniers of the catastrophic consequences of polluting the world: ice caps will melt, global temperatures will rise, and good ol' fashioned scenes like this will cease to be. Or maybe it signifies the post-apocalyptic winter that awaits us all, should war ever go nuclear. My "theory", though, is that this "painting" -- the cover image of Bob Dylan's forthcoming charity album, Christmas in the Heart -- just means "Christmas".

The bookies at Ladbrokes reckon that Dylan has a 25/1 chance of winning this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. With Grammies, an Oscar and even an honorary Pulitzer Prize under his belt, Zimmy (as he suggested we call him in "Gotta Serve Somebody") is one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. And with good reason, too, in my book. When he's on form, he writes lines like: "It's a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey,/A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet." His output may be inconsistent, but his influence on culture is undeniable, with even the Beatles placing him on a pedestal at the height of their success.

Some people however take him too seriously. A few days ago (23 September), the second annual Uncut Music Award announced its longlist of the year's best albums. It's a predictable bunch -- new records by Wilco, Arctic Monkeys and Smog's Bill Callahan -- but perhaps the most obvious inclusion of all was Dylan's Together Through Life, which received a five-star review at the time of its release. The second collaboration between Dylan and the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter (the first was 1988's dubious Down in the Groove), it's a solid set that sits comfortably among the roots-revival records Dylan has been knocking out since 1992's Good As I Been to You. Songs like the Tex-Mex ballad "This Dream of You" and the optimistic "I Feel a Change Comin' On" are some of his best in recent years. But five stars? Together Through Life is the sound of Dylan in the rec room, letting his frizzy hair down. Over half the album -- knocked out loaded, partly at the request of the film-maker Olivier Dahan for use on a soundtrack -- is little more than filler, enjoyable though it is.

This year, CUP published The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. With the annual calls for the Nobel Prize to be awarded to Dylan, the tome's publication marked yet another attempt by learned Bob fans to give their hero some kind of high-culture legitimacy, above and beyond the respect he already has as a rock star.

But I'm curious how future academics will fit Christmas in the Heart into their critical discourse. The album, all profits of which will go to the World Food Programme, is an old-timey collection of festive songs like "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Beyond the curious fact that Dylan has managed to announce a record featuring Jesus in every song without the critics batting an eyelid (as they did during his notorious, though underrated, gospel period), it's a straightforward feast of harmony vocals and lush, brassy arrangements. From the audio samples I've heard, it sounds like a glorious mess, though many fans are evidently appalled. On the Expecting Rain web forum, Bennyboy describes it as "pure evil in sound form". Nehemiah thinks it's "hilariously awful", asking: "How can this not be a joke?" Isa, meanwhile, is more despondent: "God, now I feel the shame."

I think Nehemiah has the right attitude. I'll probably enjoy the album, but then again, I like Self Portrait, Shot of Love and even Dylan, often described as his career nadir. Even in Dylan's best songs, it's not hard to find a few bad lines, and this lack of consistency is partly what has kept him so interesting over many decades. Some of his albums are great, others are terrible, but even his worst recordings contain flashes of brilliance. So how does the committed fan cope with such ups and downs? By asking, in the truly bad times, "How can this not be a joke?" At least then you get to laugh along.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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