Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)"

It's very easy--and entirely justified--to write A Flock of Seagulls off has a band who only manged to break out in the early days of MTV because of singer Mike Score's ridiculous hair...but keep an ear and an eye out for Paul Reynolds, the lead guitarist, probably no more than 19 years old when this gig took place, hiding in the background behind his fellow bandmates, who were sweating and humping and posing for all they were worth, while Paul just focuses on producing his multi-layered echo effects. He bailed on the band early, saying the rock and roll lifestyle wasn't something he could handle. But he kept on playing, and produces some wonderful folk and world music to this day. You can barely see the quiet teen-ager of AFOS, turtled up behind those oversize glasses, in those later clips--but he's in there.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I'm Pretty Certain Week Two is Actually the Name of a Band

Stolen without apology from the Twitter feed of Kieran Healy, one of the greatest (and wisest) academic wits of the whole blogosphere. As he introduces it, "If my imaginary Soc 101 is not to your taste, consider taking Soc 710: Social Theory Through Complaining, instead."



Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Ghost in You"

Some might say the reverb on the lead guitar is too loud and fuzzy, but I think it excellently counterpoints Richard Butler's voice, grown husky with age, but still carrying that Psychedelic Furs magic.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Five Favorite Stories from the Life of Jim Henson

I received a copy of Brian Jay Jones's wonderful, if somewhat workman-like, biography of Jim Henson for my birthday last December, and I've only just finally gotten around to finishing it. It's a fine work--not terribly insightful as a whole, but filled with an immense amount of research and some pretty incisive comments about Henson as an artist, a businessman, a father, a friend (apparently, and perhaps surprisingly, especially to the ladies), and more. He was a brilliant, hilariously funny, fantastically hard-working, supremely self-confident but never arrogant, deeply peaceful and spiritual (though never religious), intensely private, amazingly (though not very conscientiously) generous, somewhat oblivious, and ultimately self-contained man: he always knew that he'd be able to make things that were wonderful and worth watching all on his own, and so inviting other people to build Muppets and television shows and movies along with him was never about his goals, but rather about getting them to do great things alongside him. What more could anyone want to know about one of the greatest and most inspiring story-tellers, entertainers, and media pioneers of the 20th century than that?

So, rater than a detailed review (which is months late for the book, anyway), here are five wonderful little bits about Henson's life and career which I gleamed from Jones's biography:

1) Designing puppets was just something Henson got into while going to the University of Maryland as a means to breaking into the local television market in Washington DC. At any point, different television offers--behind the scenes camera-work, set design, anything--could have pulled him away from the means that would make him famous. It wasn't until he traveled to Europe in 1958 as a 21-year-old, bouncing his way through museums and hostels and bars, that he realized that puppetry was a serious art, one with a deep history and one that he could build a career around.

2) Henson initially didn't take Sesame Street terribly seriously as a show, and he never did devote more than just a couple of weeks a year to shooting the Muppet skit inserts (the Muppet operation at Sesame Street was always kept somewhat separate from the rest of Henson's work), but he was ferociously defensive of his Muppet creations for the show, setting up very tight reviews of all and any merchandising involving Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, and all the rest, and at one point almost shutting down an important deal with Disney because he wasn't positive that the Children's Television Workshop would be sufficiently protected from The Mouse.

3) The Muppet skits in the first season of Saturday Night Live were unloved by everyone involved (except, perhaps, Henson himself), and their separation from the show on NBC was entirely mutual...yet Henson took great, snarky pleasure, once The Muppet Show became an enormous, world-wide hit, in showing up John Belushi's mean dismissal of the "mucking fuppets" by showing off his creations' huge success.

4) Of all the guests that could-have-but-didn't-happen on The Muppet Show, the most astonishing (though perhaps not surprising, given that it was the first truly global television phenomenon, watched everywhere from South America to the Soviet Union) was a Beatles reunion. Ringo Starr was in talks and McCartney was interested; Lennon and Harrison weren't responding, but with a little more effort, it just might have been one of the Greatest Events in all Pop History. Certainly better than the Liberace episode ("a surprisingly bad pianist," Henson noted in his diary).

5) Henson was determined to get Sting to play Jareth in Labyrinth; his son Brian, however, told him that Sting would be a terrible choice, and that he needed someone with more rock and roll cred: David Bowie. Whom they got. And it's a good thing--can you imagine the long-haired, jazzy, deep-thinking Sting circa 1986 doing the Magic Dance?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Any Dream Will Do"

I've embarked on a project to read the entire Old Testament (using the Revised English Bible and Robert Alter's translations and commentary, if you must know), and for the past week or so I've been working through the story of Joseph. So this song has been on my mind, of course. Cheesy, yes, but getting three decades' worth of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat leads on stage at once? Not bad, says I. (Princess Kate at 2:08 looks to be enjoying herself too.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Libertarianism, Paternalism, and Pot


[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

From 2003 to 2005, we lived in Craighead County, Arkansas, while I taught at Arkansas State University. Craighead was a dry county, having voted many years ago to prohibit the sale of alcohol in its borders. Despite numerous efforts by restaurant owners and others over the years, that public decision remains in place today.

As a bunch of Mormon teetotalers, this instance of prohibition didn't bother my family and I at all, not did it appear impact our social circle in any noticeable way. (At faculty get-togethers, it was common for one or another graduate student, having received prior assignment, to show up at some point during the festivities with a duffel bag full of wine and beer for those who chose to imbibe.) I'm grateful for it all the same, though. Primarily because it gave me an up-close chance to talk to people about, and think about, what it means when one segment of the general population--a population that is, despite what some may think of rural northeastern Arkansas, every bit as affected by the larger commercial and pluralistic world as any distinct group of 100,000 people (70,000 of whom live in the city of Jonesboro, where ASU is located) anywhere in the USA is likely to be--comes to a collective judgment which effects the whole population. In other words, when a local majority (in this case, a union of white and African-American conservative Baptist church-goers) democratically turn their moral and religious judgments into law.

This issue is back on my mind this week, because of a couple of recent events. One took place this past Tuesday here in Wichita, when the backers of a petition (one of whom was me) to greatly reduce the criminal penalties attached to the possession of small amounts of marijuana gathered during a meeting of our city council to urge them to put the issue on the ballot, despite having fallen a few dozen signatures short in our initiative effort, and despite concerns over state and federal authority and the wording of the resolution. The other took place online, when my old friend Damon Linker published a challenging article which argued that the success which libertarianism has enjoyed in the United States is almost entirely the result solely of a rise of non-judgmental moral "libertinism":

Americans now inhabit a world in which increasing numbers of individuals find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine submitting to rule by any authority higher than themselves on moral and religious matters. Sure, people continue to accept that one will be judged harshly and punished for violating another individual's consent (the only libertarian moral consideration). But beyond that? Don't be ridiculous. Who are you--who is anyone--to judge my behavior?

Damon used as an example in his piece the case of a young woman at Duke University who has achieved some small  fame for performing in pornographic films as a way to pay for her education, a career which she has defended in part in libertarian language. This in turn prompted a long online debate between Damon and various libertarian interlocutors, revolving around the frustration one libertarian writer felt at being put into a position of not only not judging, but in fact embracing as a positive act of liberty, something that she considered deeply unwise:

As a libertarian, I want pornography and even prostitution to be legal, if reasonably regulated. But as a survivor of hookup culture, I can’t even implicitly condone rampant, publicized promiscuity (which even on camera and for money constitutes rampant promiscuity nonetheless). Keeping your experiments in sexual growth small and private helps to limit their potential to damage both yourself and our normative socio-sexual frameworks. I want to live in a community where people understand and respect that we are all sexual creatures, enjoy their sexuality in pro-social or at least benign ways, and limit it otherwise. Such a hypothetical community does not treat the decision to perform in pornography (and then talk about it all over the internet) as just one unimpeachably empowering life choice among many.

The heart of the argument which followed was basically this: does standing for the principle of individual pluralism and freedom (which is, however you justify it, the position shared by all varieties of libertarianism) necessarily make it inconsistent to refuse to endorse, or in fact to judge negatively and wish to oppose, various choices that people make with their liberty? In other words, can supporting libertarianism as a political ideology be separated from supporting the choice to be a moral libertine?

This argument might not appear to have anything to do with our argument over the decriminalization of marijuana here in Wichita, but in my mind the two issues were connected. There are, of course, a large range of legal and political issues at play in our local debate (all of which influenced the ultimate decision of the city council--which was to instruct a member of their staff to work with the petition-gatherers to re-write the proposed ordinance and seek to obtain enough signatures to try again on a later ballot--much more than I think the should have). You have the question of state and federal jurisdictions over drug laws, the precedents established (or have they been?) by Colorado and Washington, debates over recreational vs. medicinal marijuana use, disputes over the rules which govern citizen petitions, etc. But hidden within all that is a familiar question (one which I've staked out a position on before): when you are dealing with an issue or a matter which involves consequences that would be experienced solely by the individual making the choice (and yes, despite the talk one often hears about marijuana being a "gateway drug," the real costs of decriminalization, or even legalization, are widely recognized to be simply a--possibly minimal--increase of marijuana usage, with attendant effects upon vulnerable users...but not a crime wave or social breakdown), then on what basis, if ever, should judgments be allowed to turn into prohibitions? Most libertarians allow that, of course, you ought to be able to organize and express yourself in which ever way you want--but can that organizing, and judging, turn paternal?

Something I wrote in the aforementioned discussion may be helpful here. One could say that there are at least two, overlapping but non-identical, ways in which the refusal to exercise prohibitive judgment over another person's choices could be formulated along libertarian lines, theoretically speaking. In one case, it's for Hayekian reasons: generally speaking, you should refrain from developing one's judgments in the direction of paternal action because you just don't know enough to be able to speak knowledgeably about another person's choices (particularly their moral, personal, religious, or sexual ones). That's a powerful argument, one which I've taken more and more seriously as I've worked through the pseudo-anarchic positions developed by the scholar James C. Scott. However, I don't see this as necessarily requiring that those in the libertarian camp have to support libertinism, because strictly speaking it leaves open the sort of local, contextual possibility that, in this particular case, at this particular time, some hypothetical person actually might know enough to be able to speak authoritatively about what another person is doing with their life. In the other case, though, the connection is strong, because you're thinking in Lockean terms, not ones of epistemology but of property. Here, the demand that one not act paternally towards another arises not from the fact that you don't know enough to judge another's choices, but from the belief that you have no right to do so, because they own themselves (their rights, their conscience, their sense of self), and you don't. This is a pretty reductive analysis, I know, but I think it perhaps helps explain why, given our rights-obsessed culture and Lockean intellectual inheritance here in the USA, we so often see a cross-over from a concern with personal liberty, to a refusal to countenance any negative judgments of, much less prohibitions regarding, behaviors or choices which some segment of the population (even a local majority) considers bad or wrong.

As someone who philosophically favors communitarian accounts of our actions, values, and needs much more than individualist ones, the question of prohibition comes easier for me. I don't think there are, or at least don't think their necessarily ought to be, any near-absolute philosophical roadblocks in the way of local communities democratically trying to define themselves, at least as regards matters which don't come close to broadly accepted fundamental liberties. Buying a beer or smoking a joint don't qualify in either case. So why is it that I am basically supportive of what the church-goers in Craighead County are trying to maintain, while in the case of Wichita I'm actively involved in trying to gain signatures and drum up support for a possible effort to challenge state and federal laws in regards to cannabis?

It's in part because I've learned from Hayek, as well as from Scott; I've learned that large bureaucracies and entrenched laws too often stifle the sort of exploratory action which might enable people to understand better their own needs, to say nothing of the fact that such institutional structures too often punish, at great personal and social costs, all sorts of individuals who have worked out what their own needs are, and who attempt to get around those structures. Of course, that's just a highfalutin' and theoretical way of talking about those who find themselves robbed of the ability to find a job or participate in society because of stupid choice made when they were young, or those who are convinced (rightly or wrongly) that cannabis is something they desperately need for medical reasons. In other words, I've read their stories (probably most particularly here), learned about their situations, and come to greater appreciation of how this prohibition, at this time, is doing more harm than good. As always with me, it's a context thing.

I'm still willing to defend particular paternalisms; I think any healthy community should, for the sake of preserving social norms and preventing the (I think) ultimately damaging (in both a personal and civic sense) glorification of ever-multiplying, never-judged choices. Defending one's collective moral and cultural identity, and what it can achieve, is too important to be sacrificed to the cult of individual liberty. But if my communitarian ideas have changed at all over the past several years (and they have), it is that I know understand that a defense of norms and traditions--especially prohibitory, paternal ones--has to be able to constantly respond to the changing, pluralistic flow of information all around us. In this case, well, marijuana isn't a drug I have any interest in, or would ever want any of my kids to use. But it isn't, by any means, the worst thing they could do to their bodies (plastic surgery very like would be worse!), and if there people in my community that are being unnecessarily harmed by this prohibition, then I ought to recognize that the judgment I make as parent, in this case at least, is probably as far as I ought to allow my paternalism to go.

Two Comments on Last Night In Ferguson, Missouri

Last night my wife's Twitter feed went nuts, and we ended up--like thousands of other Americans, I'm sure--opening up the laptop and watching, stunned, the images of violence coming out of Ferguson, MO. Tear gas and rubber bullets tearing into protesters, journalists arrested, vicious words. Scary, scary stuff.

So this morning I've been reading the news--about the death at the hands of police of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen-ager, about the stunning overflow of intimidating force shown by the local police department, about the thinking of the protesters and where this all might be leading. I'm no expert on any of these matters, and I'm certainly without any local knowledge--but it doesn't seem hard to me to put two and two together. Or more specifically, to put together 1) the heavy-duty military equipment readily available to local police departments, thanks to federal government give-aways (better to cheaply off-load army surplus to those involved in law enforcement than destroy it or sell it on the international market, right?), and 2) the genuine paranoia that predominantly African-American populations and communities feel when confronted with yet another ambiguous incident which ends with the police closing ranks, the law privileging the shooter, and an unarmed teen-ager dead. The result is a script which almost writes itself, isn't it? Still, my main reaction is simply, again, feeling stunned.

But there are people putting together thoughtful observations nonetheless, trying to tease out how fear, the militarization of the police, racial division, a culture of violence and distrust, and the electronic enablers of all of the above, come together. So as I did over two years ago, when Trayvon Martin was killed, here are two thoughts, from a couple of smart people. First, Alan Jacobs, focusing on how there is a frighteningly easy unreality to what many police officers apparently think is obvious when faced with civil unrest:

Because [first-shooter] computer games are so popular and are so utterly central to the experience of above all males under forty, we should probably spend more time than we do thinking about how immersion in those visual worlds shapes people’s everyday phenomenology. We do talk about this, but in limited ways, primarily in order to ask whether playing violent games makes people more violent. That’s a key question, but it needs to be broadened. Ian Bogost wants us to ask what it’s like to be a thing, but maybe we need also to ask: What is it like to be a shooter? What is it like to have your spatial, visual orientation to the world shaped by thousands of hours in shooter mode?
I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces--the "warrior cops” that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about. Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances--but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games. Consider all the forest-colored camouflage, for instance....It’s a color scheme that is completely useless on city streets--and indeed in any other environment in which any of these cops will ever work. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay. It’s as close as they can come to Modern Warfare 3.


The whole display would be ludicrous--boys with toys--except the ammunition is real. The guns are loaded, even if some of them have only rubber bullets, and the tear gas truly burns. And so play-acted immersion in a dystopian future gradually yields a dystopian present. 

What is is like to be a first-person shooter? It’s awesome, dude. 

I will add at this point that a friend of mine, who works for the Navy, relates this anecdote: "The military recently had a scandal where each of the services was paying independently for research into camouflage patterns. Even the Navy got into the act; we developed a blue camouflage pattern, which is not only completely pointless but actually counterproductive, because the very last thing a sailor who has fallen into the water wants to be is invisible. The reason for all of this was termed the 'CDI factor': Chicks Dig It."

Second, Timothy Burke, who actually strongly disagrees with the way Alan chooses to focus on computer games and our violent social imaginary in contrast to the whole tangled web of feedback loops (most of which ultimately revolve around race) which have brought up to our present moment. Picking up on a recent incident where a mall cop, responding to a disturbance involving a shirtless, raving white man, targeted and maced a by-standing and entirely innocent black man who was standing nearby, he writes:

So this is just pepper spray in the face compared to being shot dead and left to lie in the street. But if we're going to get anywhere as a society with this, we have to see that the same infrastructure of violence, injustice and inequality is in play in both cases and many more. It's a mistake to focus on the individuals who shot or sprayed, to make them out to be unusual, "bad apples". Or to say, "Oh, that's inadequate training", to turn to a technocratic solution: oh, just change the training methods! This is something deeper, harder, worse.

The mall cop was facing a tense, tricky situation, but he had people all around him guiding him, telling him where the problem was coming from, telling him what peace he'd been summoned to keep. He got a call that told him what the problem was. But he couldn't--not wouldn't, really couldn't--see it. Because the problem was a shirtless white guy who'd been causing trouble for a while, and there he was next to an African-American man. So he saw what he is predetermined to see: a black threat.

We've militarized police (private and public), we've protected them from oversight, and we've built a society that for thirty years has been fed on ever-escalating fear: fear of crime (even as it drops precipitously), fear of difference (even as we become more richly diverse in our real sociologies), fear of a world that we can't control. FDR was right, but we lost that fight: fear itself is our national anthem now. So what happens when you create an army that is both fed by and shielded by fear and tell them they can do as they will, so long as they do it just to people whom history has named as scapegoats and victims, so long as they are guided by a racial unconscious?

Americans--white Americans in particular--shouldn't have to be brought so unwillingly to the understanding of what's happening now. The country's deep political DNA is fundamentally suspicious of unaccountable power, power that doesn't answer to the same law that the people have to answer to, power over citizens rather than power from citizens. But down there in the depths is another principle: that race, and blackness most of all, is the exception. Nothing of anything in all of those principles means a damn thing until that stops, until it's liberty and justice for all.


Well said, indeed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"The Other Times You're Just a Stinker."



I don't remember when I first saw To Have and To Have Not, but I suppose it was probably during my frustrated early college years--which might explain why, to this day, I think that movie is probably the most erotic, most sexual performance I've ever seen in my life. Two people, falling crazily in love with each other, literally while acting in front of the camera. This famous scene in particular, I can remember actually feeling a little embarrassed watching it, like I was peeping in on a private moment between two lovebirds. Which, of course, I was--we all were.

Bacall was more than Bogart-and-Bacall, of course....but she never denied that the romantic magic of her 12-year marriage to him defined her for the rest of her long life. There are far worse legacies than that, methinks. RIP.

Five Favorite Comedy Concerts

Last night, Melissa and I went back and (like probably many thousands of people) watched again Robin Williams's classic comedy concert, "A Night at the Met" (watch parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 right here). It just cracked us up, as well as making us nostalgic--Melissa hadn't remembered where the London cop joke ("Stop! Or I'll say 'stop' again!") had come from, and I was delighted to be reminded of the similarity between Caspar Weinberger and Bela Lugosi. Everyone admits--as I said in my post yesterday--that Williams at his best had something on stage, doing stand-up comedy, that was only rarely realized through all his other acting roles. I think that's true of many other performers as well--whether they succeeded or not in finding a way to turn their comedy into something that worked in other media (as an actor, a talking head, or whatever), their live, on-stage shows are where their brilliance is most easily viewed.

So, with that, because everyone loves lists, five comedy concerts that I truly love. (This was a hard choice, actually. Besides "Night at the Met," there's so much good stuff from Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Steven Wright, and many more. On a different day, I might choose other concerts. But for today, I'll stand by these.)

Steve Martin, "Live at the Universal Amphitheater" (1979): Only available on a rare video put out in 1984--or, fortunately, on YouTube. Martin's full, mature, final stand-up set, before he gave up live comedy entirely. (Watch both parts, and forgive the occasional lapses in transfer quality.)





Bill Cosby, "Himself" (1983): Stop lying to yourself. You had this album, or your parents did (probably on tape cassette), and you listened to it in the car, and it made you laugh like crazy. The bits about talking to the toilet bowl still do, today.



Eddie Izzard, "Dressed to Kill" (1998): I show the bit about the Church of England in my classes occasionally. It works.



Robin Williams, "Live on Broadway" (2002): I actually think this show, his big return to stand-up after having taken a break from it some 15 years earlier, is even better than "A Night at the Met." He seemed more in control of his demons, more able to use his desperation, somehow. And besides, it has the bit on golf, which ought to go down somewhere as one of the funniest five minutes in all human history.



Ellen DeGeneres, "Here and Now" (2003): Ellen DeGeneres isn't everyone's cup of tea--not dangerous enough, too bourgeois!--but I remember watching this show with Melissa, and we marveled at just how smart it was. Everyone on this list was, in their day, capable of writing really smart jokes, but here her entire set of Seinfeld-ish observational comedy is revealed at the end as a set-up for a final punch line, and that's just brilliant.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin William's Five Best (Live) Film Performances

Damn, damn, damn, damn. Depression. Suicide. What a terrible, terrible loss.

Of course, I can be critical. Robin Williams manic, surreal, free-associating, vulgar-yet-somehow-never-truly-"dirty" comedy, as hilarious as it was, had a limited cross-over to electronic media. Unlike Steve Martin, he was pretty inconsistent, I think, in the ways he tried (and the energy and wit he invested in trying) to translate his particular performing style into something that worked in front of the camera. And unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's pretty much indisputable that Robin Williams's best film and television work was more than 20 years in his past (in contrast to his ground-breaking stand-up routines, which he wonderfully returned to over the past decade). Still, none of that takes away the essential truth: Robin Williams was, at his best, a screamingly funny and profoundly insightful actor, an insane, improvisational, and insatiable fountain of mockery, emotion, and joy. And thanks to YouTube, posterity will be able to enjoy what he left us with. As always, in chronological order:

Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Williams loved to play weirdly ethnic characters, particularly Eastern Europeans and Russians, because somehow he knew how to plug his always-burning anger into those accents, and bring out something believable and wise. This movie, one of his first, was been unduly forgotten by most--but if you remember the 1980s, then you know that Williams played twice the Russian Yakov Smirnoff ever was.



Good Morning, Vietnam! (1987): Playing a highly fictionalized--and wonderfully so!--version of legendary Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer was probably the closest Williams's stand-up ever got to being translated to the silver screen.



Dead Poets Society (1989): For all its many faults academics like me love this film, as does anyone who wants to imagine themselves as somehow caught up in that moment of enlightenment, rebellion, and discovery which our highest myths of education all revolve around (whether we admit to it or not). In plunging headfirst into this myth, in an unpologetically manipulative and sentimental way, the movie needed as a central figure someone who could be profoundly normal while radiating a controlled madness all the same. In Williams, they found just what they needed.



The Fisher King (1991): Surely one the reasons why Williams did so well in Dead Poets Society is because he knew how to lecture--or, at least, when given lecture-type exposition, how to convey it like the best kind of teachers. I wish I could speak to my students in as captivating a way as he does multiple times in this wonderful Terry Gilliam film.



Toys (1992): Another unjustly forgotten, Gilliam-esque film, here Williams pulled off something actually quite remarkable: he plays another one of his pleasantly innocent crazies, yet his role, essentially, is that of the straight man, surrounded with much greater weirdness on all sides. A fine, fun film (with a great, early 90s pop soundtrack, by the way).



What am I missing? Well, I did say "live" performances, didn't I?