Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Memories from Korea

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Despite recent (and ongoing) changes to the Mormon missionary program, the majority of those charged with traveling the world and evangelizing on behalf of the LDS Church are (and will likely remain for a good while yet) young white men from supportive Mormon families in the western United States. Being young, usually not very worldly-wise, usually not very experienced in dealing with foreign cultures or differing sensibilities, and usually carrying around with them expectations shaped by growing up in a family- and tradition-centered church, the Christmas holidays can be a rough time. Twenty-five years ago I was one of them, going through my second Christmas as a Mormon missionary in South Korea. My second Christmas in the country was better than my first. Why? Well, let me explain.

South Korea has more Christians than any other East Asian nation, but that still doesn't make Christmas a major event there, or at least it didn't back in 1988 and 1989. Some stores would put up decorations, and some families would have trees, but overwhelmingly the feeling was that of a borrowed holiday, something that was being embraced (when it was) for reasons that, however deeply felt, weren't at all organic. (Though Christmas is actually a national holiday in South Korea, unlike any other Asian country.) Mormon wards and branches would, like other Christian churches, make mention of the day in talks and songs, but there was little, if any, real cultural spirit behind the celebrations, at least none that I--a 19 and 20-year-old pretentious-and-never-particularly-comfortable white kid from an overdose-on-Christmas upper-middle class family in the western United States (let me tell you about the time Dad brought home an 18ft. pine for our Christmas tree...)--could discern. And I wasn't alone in feeling that way, which at least partially explains the way we American missionaries would go out of our way to create some kind of connection to the holiday (and here I'm speaking overwhelmingly of the elders; the sister missionaries, far more than us males, seemed to be able to integrate into the rhythms of Korean life, perhaps simply because they were such a minority, whereas amongst the male missionaries, Americans dominated).

In December 1988, my first Christmas in the country, that connection was seemingly furnished for us from above. The mission--like the country--was feeling pretty good, I suppose. The Seoul Olympics had been a great success (or at least the Koreans thought so). The country was a year into the presidency of Roh Tae Woo (노태우), and while there were protests aplenty (and would continue to be throughout my time there), the scandals of his presidency hadn't happened yet. (For that matter, neither had the Tiananmen Massacre next door.) Back in those days--at least in our mission--we missionaries had to buy Books of Mormon to sell or give away in our proselyting, and the costs of a Korean mission being pretty high anyway, there was always a grumbling about money, and a great deal of rejoicing when news of some new generous subsidy being bestowed from the mission office, which happened, it must be said, not infrequently. It was in the midst of this that the news came forth: the Korea Seoul West Mission was going to throw a huge mission-wide American-syle Christmas party, at none other location than the 63 Building (육삼 빌딩), which was then the tallest building outside of North America. (As you can see, it kind of dominated Seoul's skyline back then.)

It was a strange couple of days, rest assured. Missionaries gathered from all over; we crashed at each others' apartments, and those elders and sisters who had been around for a while made plans for a mostly unsupervised day in Seoul, while we newbies (I'd only been in the country for a few months by then) listened in, intimidated and scandalized and envious. The party took place in the banquet room, where we were fed not just fine Korean fare, but oysters, fresh roast beef, salmon, and lobster. Missionaries wandered throughout the building, up to the observatory deck, trading war stories and jokes and (no doubt) outright lies. There was a talent show which got completely out of hand, with different groups of elders and sisters competing with each other to win prizes (a competition which got fierce enough that when one group of sisters, decked out in black ninja outfits, took to the stage to perform a rather impressive choreographed dance to some K-Pop hit of the day, another group of American elders rushed on to the stage and promptly broke out in all sorts of--in retrospect, rather pathetic--break dance moves, thus disrupting their act), all of which came to a rousing end with U2's "Desire" blasting over the loudspeakers. (That was the choice of the American zone leader who'd somehow ended up in charge.) Truly, it was a bit crazy. I mean, there was an ice sculpture of the Korean Temple, for heaven's sake. I have no idea how much the whole thing cost (the long-time financial secretary to the mission was released soon afterward and, the rumors flew, sworn to secrecy), but it was a small touch Reagan's bull-market America, right there in Korea. I've often shared stories of this party with other missionaries, and when I think about how outrageous it all was, even I have a hard time believing it happened. Thank goodness I had my camera and, thus, hard evidence.

A week after than party I was transferred to Ansan (안산)--or "Banwol" as some of the older locals who had been shaped by the Japanese occupation more than four decades earlier still referred to it. Today Ansan is part of the greater Seoul megapolis, but a quarter-century ago it was coastal town whose connection to the big city was a single (admittedly busy) train route. There was a small Mormon branch there, which met in an upstairs office space, where we'd huddle around a single coal stove for protection from the cold winds coming off the sea that would pass through the thin walls and windows with ease. It was, for me, a lonely and dispiriting place to spend the holiday, made worse, I suppose, by my constant berating of myself for feeling that way. I found myself listening to my homemade cassette tape recording of the Osmond Christmas album (the original double album, with the solo number by Merrill which never made it on to either of the cd releases) constantly, though the song I most associate with that Christmas was a ridiculously maudlin cover of Wham's "Last Christmas" by Lee Sun Hee (이선희) which I seemed to hear everywhere and which brought me to the brink of tears almost every time. (In the decades since, it has apparently become a bit of a seasonal K-Pop stable, though usually shorn of the aching earnestness of the 80s version.)

There was a genuine attempt to bring some Christmas spirit into our shared drab space that holiday, with a Christmas Eve social during which a group of Primary-aged children sang some songs and a short nativity was acted out. Unfortunately, we American elders decided once again to engage in our usual indefensible antics, and elected, as our contribution to the branch's entertainment, to track down a copy of Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" (I remember traveling solo outside of my assigned district to record a copy of it which was in the possession of another elder), put on blackface, and proceed to act out the song in most predictably insultingly and racist way you can imagine. (Why did we do this? Because we were bored and stupid and young and utterly oblivious to what our own unthinking, self-pitying silliness represented. In our defense: at least we didn't do anything to get ourselves arrested. Also, while it provides no justification whatsoever, it can't be denied that the branch absolutely loved our fake-rap routine; it brought the whole house down.) An embarrasingly entertaining capstone to my first Christmas in Korea when the story is related to others, perhaps, but it did little to change what was a pretty morose holiday for me.

Christmas in 1989 was different, perhaps because I'd matured, and got some of the self-pity and self-aggrandizement (yes, those two emotions can go together) out of my system, or perhaps because the odd go-for-broke sentiment that characterized so much of my first year or so in the mission seemed to have dissipated. I still wasn't at peace with missionary work (that actually wouldn't come until many years after I came home), but I'd been assigned to a large ward in Suwon (수원), where I ended up spending the final year of my mission, something I am profoundly grateful for. There was a feeling of genuine community in that ward, or at least I could feel that the community was there, and draw some strength from that, outsider though I was.

The mission had another Christmas party, though this one was far less extravagant. Talent shows and silliness abounded, as always, but I think this time around there was less pretension, less of a "what can we get away with this time" sensibility, and more honest fun. A bunch of us got together, ostensibly to do a scene from The Pirates of Penzance, but actually singing Ray Stevens's "The Pirate Song," and it was a blast (though, perhaps predictably, given my general shamelessness, I was chosen to play lead, and I have to tragically admit that my sensitivity to the way unintended disrespect for marginalized segments of the population could be expressed through stylized self-mockery hadn't at all improved in a year's time: I went out on that stage, and I was flaming.) Christmas Eve itself was spent at the home of generous, older American Mormon, a man who was a veritable Santa Claus/Father Confessor to lonely and struggling missionaries far from home, on Osan Air Base, Songtan Station, which was near Suwon. I spent much of the evening attempting to explain, in whatever level of ridiculous detail my broken Korean allowed, the plot and significance of "Miracle on 34th Street" (the original, being shown that night on the Armed Forces Korean Network!) to the lone Korean member of our party. The snow fell heavily that night as we took a late bus back to our apartment, and a reflective, simple song "또다시 크리스마스" ("Again Christmas"), from the second (and last, and not as good) album by the 80s K-Pop masters Deul Guk Hwa (들국화) was playing from an intercom outside a store near the bus stop. The brassy, yet humble tune and lyrics ("어디에나 소리 없이 사랑은 내리네"--"Love is falling everywhere without a sound") fit my mood perfectly.

My favorite memory from that holiday season, 1989, was traveling with a large number of young people from our ward far outside out proselyting area--outside our mission boundaries, in fact, though I suspect no one remembered to inform the mission leadership, thank goodness--to climb Mt. Soyo (소요산), north of the city of Seoul. It was a huge event, planned for weeks and involving close to 30 people. It was bitterly cold day, enough to make one want to bail on the 4am start time, but in the end it was a trip filled with camaraderie and good humor. We packed in our meals and had a glorious cookout in near-freezing temperatures. We explored Buddhist shrines and talked about religion and nature and fate. We challenged each other--missionaries and Korean members alike--to rock climbing contests and snow ball fights. We missionaries swapped stories, sure, but I thought there was a little more openness, a little more receptivity, in what I heard--at least, I hope there was more of than in what came out of my mouth. We made it all the way to peak, and--as was (and I hope still is) typical of the Korean people--we sang songs and gave each one of ourselves a little bit of alone time. I had my Walkman with me, and a tape that I'd picked up at a music shop somewhere in Suwon, a tape which I still have today: a Korean production (hopefully legally obtained, but quite possibly not) of George Winston's December. I can remember sitting near the top of the mountain, listening to his rendition of "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head" three or four times over. (Obviously, much of my pretension remained, but still: it was a wonderful moment, one which impressed upon me a sense of quiet majesty and grace and simplicity which I found beautiful. However much growing and maturing my mind and soul still needed and still had awaiting them in the months to come, that Christmas moment was one worth treasuring.)

I've not saved my missionary journal, not any of the letters I sent or received from my 22 months in South Korea. That's a loss, I recognize, especially when it comes to writing down memories like these: there's so much that I need to reconstruct, so many disconnected pieces of evidence--a photograph here, an odd note there--that's it hard to avoid accepting that I might have all sorts of essentials wrong, or might be including the accidental inventions of two decades' worth of oral story-telling in my account. But then honestly, just how distant is anyone's memory from myth? I'd love to return to South Korea someday, and travel back to Ansan, and Suwon, and Mr. Soyo, and Osan Air Base, and see if there was anything I remembered, anything I could connect with. Maybe there would be; I'd love to believe that all the good things--the language, the friendships, the positive lessons--would come flooding back. But maybe they wouldn't. And in which case...well, isn't that what invented memorializations like holidays (like everything we manufacture and make our own, again and again, out of our own subjective acts of cultural retrieval and interpretation) are for? So that we can reconnect with ourselves, set apart and see those moments of foolishness and joy and despair and grace for what they are. I had many such moments in Korea. Some, clearly, were better than others. But still, this Christmas, I'm grateful for them all.

Local Dynasties Only, Please

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

With former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's announcement on Tuesday that he's "actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States"--a move which, it should be noted, has been predicted by many for a long while now--we've now officially entered The Great Dynasty Debate. If a Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton contest comes to pass in 2016, then one way or another, two families will have controlled the White House for at least 24 of the previous 32 years. Of course, there's no guarantee that Bush will win the Republican party's presidential nomination, or even that Clinton will win on the Democratic side...but establishment politics, the worried second-guessing of party elites, and most of all the huge advantage that prior fund-raising networks provide all being what they are, you now right now that the odds favor just such a match-up. And as a result, as Noah Millman succinctly puts it, the next "general election will be the most depressing of our lifetimes."

There are many reasons why I agree with Noah, and I say that as someone who--while I'm deeply dissatisfied with the state-and-Wall-Street-centered, corporate-wealth-and-national-security liberalism which both these individuals will likely always ultimately side with--doesn't necessarily have much reason to dislike either of them. (Bush used to be a fairly sane moderate on immigration issues, after all, and I'm even willing to give Clinton's It Takes a Village a second chance.) My primary beef with this potential presidential election is the obvious one: dynasties are, nominally at least, supposed to be incompatible with republican self-government. The perpetuation of offices within particular families invites corruption and collusion, and fosters a distrust in the political process, a suspicion towards ones fellow citizens (because who is to say who might be able to find for themselves an inside track to power?), and thus ultimately generates anti-democratic and irresponsible resentment towards any kind of civic obligation. And all of that is not to mention that dynasties, historically, have a pretty terrible track record in terms of being able to weed out those--a foolish cousin, a vindictive daughter, a crazy uncle--who should not be trusted with powerful offices.

It is to the credit of these two likely presidential candidates that they are reportedly aware of this perception, and to small degree at least seem to be bothered by it. But only a small degree. And at least part of the reason for that smallness--besides such obvious factors as ideological ambition, family pride, and personal vanity, of course--is that there are people willing to make apologies for dynastic politics in a presidential system. Ross Douthat, though he admits that this potential presidential contest reflects "stratification and elite consolidation and other non-ideal patterns in American life generally," basically gives away the game up front by admitting that "[i]n principle, I am not against [dynasties]...[a]ny political system, however formally democratic, is going to feature powerful families that pass influence and connections (and hopefully talent!) to their heirs." And Will Wilkinson goes even further, pointing out that "the president is nominally in charge of the entire, vast bureaucracy of the American state, including the military and the various spy shops," and as a result there is a positive good to be had in electing a president who "will [have] strong preexisting networks within the bureaucracies willing to circumvent the de facto power structure and independently transmit reliable information straight to the White House." In other words, however offensive the idea of tacitly allowing the advantages of position to accumulate in a few, well-connected and insular hands may appear to the more populist or democratic among us, it will 1) always happen anyway, and 2) result in the empowering of individuals already prepared to manipulate the vast apparatus of the state, instead of those who would find themselves overwhelmed by it.

This is hardly a new insight, both in the great sweep of political life (weak monarchs or chieftains or generals being dominated by their own ministers or by the bureaucracy has been staple of all story-telling about leaders for as long as governments have existed) and in our own recent history (consider how often Presidents Carter or Reagan or Bush II or Obama were criticized at different times by different clans of Washington DC insiders for failing to "connect with the culture of the capital" or "work with the establishment" or some such thing). If we're going to have chief executives in our constitutional system, don't we want them to be good at their jobs? And if being good at such reflects a lifetime of elite preparation, why look askance that those families wealthy and well-positioned enough to be able to make it happen amongst themselves?

John Adams, in the midst a revolution (and, soon, a revolutionary culture) which quickly became much more democratic than he'd either anticipated or wanted, insisted that there was a place for dynasties in a free society. Not that he defended what he elsewhere labeled "artificial aristocracies," but in a letter to his cousin Samuel Adams, he didn't look away from the possibility that it is often families who--through their control of education, property, and opportunity--generate governing elites, and that a good system of government should make a place for them:

[T]he nobles have been essential parties in the preservation of liberty, whenever and wherever it has existed. In Europe, they alone have preserved it against kings and people, wherever it has been preserved; or, at least, with very little assistance from the people. One hideous despotism, as horrid as that of Turkey, would have been the lot of every nation of Europe, if the nobles had not made stands. By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind. The existence of this you will not deny. You and I have seen four noble families rise up in Boston,--the Crafts, Gores, Dawes, and Austins. These are as really a nobility in our town, as the Howards, Somersets, Berties, &c., in England. Blind, undistinguishing reproaches against the aristocratical part of mankind, a division which nature has made, and we cannot abolish, are neither pious nor benevolent. They are as pernicious as they are false. They serve only to foment prejudice, jealousy, envy, animosity, and malevolence. They serve no ends but those of sophistry, fraud, and the spirit of party. It would not be true, but it would not be more egregiously false, to say that the people have waged everlasting war against the rights of men.

Adams's argument is, I think, a not unreasonable one. Should we then set aside our reservations and recognize that, as discomforting as it may seem, somewhere in the rise of Jeb Bush (as in his older brother George W., and his father George H.W.), as well as in the enduring influence of Hillary Clinton, there is a legitimate aristocratic principle at work?

I say no, and I think my reasons for doing so are on solid theoretical ground, completely aside from either the many outlandish fulminations one could launch against the Bush family (oil money! Skull and Bones! the CIA! Enron!) or the Clintons (Rose Law firm! Whitewater! drug smuggling! Benghazi!), or my aforementioned distaste for the sort of American exceptionalism they'll both build their campaigns upon. Nor is my strong qualification of Adams's argument--and my disputing of its applicability to mapping out the putative skill at managing the executive powers of our government which the wife of a president or the son and brother of two presidents may have--related to the plain truth that the republican presumptions which gave shape to many elements of our original constitutional order have long since been wiped away. No, the real problem is that any defensible argument for the compatibility (or at least acceptability) of dynastic elites amongst a self-governing people depends upon those dynasties having a locality. That is, whatever benefits or harms which the perhaps inevitable concentration of influence and training and access in a family line may present to a free society, the dynasty in question needs to be understood as one that is local enough, implicated and involved in community life enough, to be trusted by the people in its employ (however driven by ambition) of that very influence, training, and access.

This is reflected plainly in Adams's own argument to his cousin: the elite families he calls out are Boston families--families who parents and children and relatives and careers and background and travails and stories were known to and interwoven into the lives of the people of Boston. He didn't need to do any explaining: Samuel knew exactly who "the Daweses" were, because they lived right there; he'd seen them, knew them, and consequently could trust in them. Thinkers from Wendell Berry to Friedrich Hayek, from Michel Foucault to James Scott have all insisted, despite their many methodological differences, that to have routine, ordinary, daily, experiential familiarity with a particular set facts (or with a particular set of relationships with a particular set of people) is to be in possession of an awareness upon which one can build dependency, intimacy and, hence, civic trust. The republicanism which developed in the southern American colonies through the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took very seriously the rudimentary populist presumption that power was vested in the sovereign people of Virginia, but it made place for the noblesse oblige of the Tidewater plantation aristocracy--George Washington, Richard Henry Less, John Dickenson, and others, who were expected to serve by governing over the needs of the community as a whole with classic, republican disinterestedness. Those families represented dynastic power, to be sure, but it was locally circumscribed, and thus relatable power; the people good identify with those leaders, because they knew them.

That more homogeneous and more civic-minded (though also far more unequal) world is now gone. The elitism which remains, such as may be realized through the sort of family connections which Adams laid out, really can only be defended for what it is if we can know these dynasties, locally. If we can't know them, they are simply figures of power, advertising their advantaged births and relations, as if that provides them with some virtuous route to better government. Allowing ourselves to be carried away by their supposed skill and nominal connections and seeming inborn privilege only shows the degree to which we don't take democratic governance seriously ourselves. The Bushes have their family estates in Maine and Texas, and the Clintons have their Ivy League degrees, and the media is quick to use the immense privilege and respect associated with climbing economic and academic ladders as demonstrating meritocratic achievement such that we can all relate to. But of course, the truth is that 1) the American meritocracy is anything but truly meritocratic, and 2) the talents and insights which measurable "merit" supposedly captures usually reflects, more than anything else, an ideological, almost slavish loyalty to the systems and processes and institutions which have supposedly enabled the "best and the brightest" to rise to the top. No matter how many times the Clintons or the Bushes have appeared on the covers or news magazines or pop up in our RSS feeds, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not and cannot know them--they aren't local. If we are to have a federal system of subsidiarian states, then obviously some government will stand at the top of that arrangement, and it is equally obvious that those who dominate that government will likely be strangers to the bulk of the people. To pretend, through the orchestration of family connections and mediated familiarity, that the distance isn't there or ought to be elided for the sake of a well-known name, is simply anti-democratic foolishness.

I'm not ignorant of the unfortunate reality that the present American state is huge, powerful entity, with innumerable sub-interests and factions contained within its bowels, and that such a situation may well demand that those we elect to manage it bring with them resources and preparation which which likely will often track with family connections. Nor am I unaware that, given our hideous, post-Buckey v. Valeo, post-Citizens United campaign finance swamp, one might well argue that worrying about dynasties in office is a ridiculous distraction, since it is highly likely that real influence in our country is already wielded by a spectacularly tiny and elite group of super-wealthy individuals, many of whom are already related to one another. All worthy points. But given that we will be able to govern ourselves through this ramshackle government only so well as we set the best rules we can conceive for ourselves, this is a rule--or a norm, at least--which is not at all pointless. It is, rather, a line in the sand which needs to be drawn, and redrawn again and again.

If our electoral and party arrangements are such that fully capable women and men are not entering politics, or can't get nominated or elected when they do, then that says something about our electoral health which giving the reification of dynastic practices a pass wouldn't influence for the better anyway. In the meantime, we do what we can to keep whatever spirit of a genuinely civic and popular civil society alive. There are, after all, party tools to bring a knowledge of, and a trust in, distant office-holders into voter calculations, and ruefully applauding (with some kind of latent Machiavellianism, I suppose) the ability of the well-connected to dominate those tools so early on is to be resisted. I've got no problem with supporting the daughter or brother of some locally powerful individual for office, assuming I am able to judge for myself how much of their family's or relative's talent or commitment or good sense they have within them, thus showing their capacity to respond to my trust. But to give a Hillary a fair shake, simply because her husband claimed to have felt my pain? To allow that Jeb ought to be taken seriously, because, well, after all, it's his turn? No, I'm sorry, but when it comes to allowing dynastic offices to form around our distant capital, count me (and my vote, for whatever it's worth) out.

The Christmas Truce

Yes, it's an advertisement. What can I say? Sometimes, capitalism does well.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Snoopy's Christmas"

Another original. Were the Royal Guardsmen singing live on this old television show? Almost certainly not. Does it matter? Almost certainly not.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Don't Get Essayists Angry!

Regarding the collapse of The New Republic, of which much has been said, Cynthia Ozick (whose wit is legendary), takes the cake:

The Siliconian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in wireless gold,
Crying Media Company Vertically Integrated!
As all before them they willfully extirpated:
The Back of the Book and the Front and the Middle,
Until all that was left was digital piddle,
And Thought and Word lay dead and cold.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Ten Least Successful Christmas Specials of All Time

Has it really been exactly six years since I last shared this, one of the greatest holiday creations of All Internet History? Apparently so! Well, fine, here it is again, an oldie-but-goodie from John Scalzi, who wrote it ages ago (like a whole decade ago, or even earlier). In times past I saw it regularly on the internets (that itself is an old in-joke, everyone, remember?), but it's been a while, and something this good shouldn't stay buried forever. Enjoy.

An Algonquin Round Table Christmas (1927)
Alexander Woolcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, George Kaufman, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker were the stars of this 1927 NBC Red radio network special, one of the earliest Christmas specials ever performed. Unfortunately the principals, lured to the table for an unusual evening gathering by the promise of free drinks and pirogies, appeared unaware they were live and on the air, avoiding witty seasonal banter to concentrate on trashing absent Round Tabler Edna Ferber’s latest novel, Mother Knows Best, and complaining, in progressively drunken fashion, about their lack of sex lives. Seasonal material of a sort finally appears in the 23rd minute when Dorothy Parker, already on her fifth drink, can be heard to remark, “one more of these and I’ll be sliding down Santa’s chimney.” The feed was cut shortly thereafter. NBC Red’s 1928 holiday special “Christmas with the Fitzgeralds” was similarly unsuccessful.

The Mercury Theater of the Air Presents the Assassination of Saint Nicholas (1939)
Listeners of radio’s Columbia Broadcasting System who tuned in to hear a Christmas Eve rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were shocked when they heard what appeared to be a newscast from the north pole, reporting that Santa’s Workshop had been overrun in a blitzkrieg by Finnish proxies of the Nazi German government. The newscast, a hoax created by 20-something wunderkind Orson Wells as a seasonal allegory about the spread of fascism in Europe, was so successful that few listeners stayed to listen until the end, when St. Nick emerged from the smoking ruins of his workshop to deliver a rousing call to action against the authoritarian tide and to urge peace on Earth, good will toward men, and expound on the joys of a hot cup of Mercury Theater of Air’s sponsor Campbell’s soup. Instead, tens of thousands of New York City children mobbed the Macy’s Department Store on 34th, long presumed to be Santa’s New York embassy, and sang Christmas carols in wee, sobbing tones. Only a midnight appearance of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in full Santa getup quelled the agitated tykes. Welles, now a hunted man on the Eastern seaboard, decamped for Hollywood shortly thereafter.

Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)
In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts--and therefore Christmas--possible. Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as “anti-life.”

The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: “A Most Illogical Holiday” (1968)
Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears, is hailed as a messiah on a wintry world where elves toil for a mysterious master, revealed to be Santa just prior to the first commercial break. Santa, enraged, kills Ensign Jones and attacks the Enterprise in his sleigh. As Scotty works to keep the power flowing to the shields, Kirk and Bones infiltrate Santa’s headquarters. With the help of the comely and lonely Mrs. Claus, Kirk is led to the heart of the workshop, where he learns the truth: Santa is himself a pawn to a master computer, whose initial program is based on an ancient book of children’s Christmas tales. Kirk engages the master computer in a battle of wits, demanding the computer explain how it is physically possible for Santa to deliver gifts to all the children in the universe in a single night. The master computer, confronted with this computational anomaly, self-destructs; Santa, freed from mental enslavement, releases the elves and begins a new, democratic society. Back on the ship, Bones and Spock bicker about the meaning of Christmas, an argument which ends when Scotty appears on the bridge with egg nog made with Romulan Ale.

Filmed during the series’ run, this episode was never shown on network television and was offered in syndication only once, in 1975. Star Trek fans hint the episode was later personally destroyed by Gene Roddenberry. Rumor suggests Harlan Ellison may have written the original script; asked about the episode at 1978’s IgunaCon II science fiction convention, however, Ellison described the episode as “a quiescently glistening cherem of pus.”

Bob & Carol & Ted & Santa (1973)
This ABC Christmas special featured Santa as a happy-go-lucky swinger who comically wades into the marital bed of two neurotic 70s couples, and also the music of the Carpenters. It was screened for television critics but shelved by the network when the critics, assembled at ABC’s New York offices, rose as one to strangle the producers at the post-viewing interview. Joel Siegel would later write, “When Santa did his striptease for Carol while Karen Carpenter sang ‘Top of the World’ and peered through an open window, we all looked at each other and knew that we television critics, of all people, had been called upon to defend Western Civilization. We dared not fail.”

A Muppet Christmas with Zbigniew Brzezinski (1978)
A year before their rather more successful Christmas pairing with John Denver, the Muppets joined Carter Administration National Security Advisor Brezezinski for an evening of fun, song, and anticommunist rhetoric. While those who remember the show recall the pairing of Brzezinki and Miss Piggy for a duet of “Winter Wonderland” as winsomely enchanting, the scenes where the NSA head explains the true meaning of Christmas to an assemblage of Muppets dressed as Afghan mujahideen was incongruous and disturbing even then. Washington rumor, unsupported by any Carter administration member, suggests that President Carter had this Christmas special on a repeating loop while he drafted his infamous “Malaise” speech.

The Village People in Can’t Stop the Christmas Music--On Ice! (1980)
Undeterred by the miserable flop of the movie Can’t Stop the Music!, last place television network NBC aired this special, in which music group the Village People mobilize to save Christmas after Santa Claus (Paul Lynde) experiences a hernia. Thus follows several musical sequences--on ice!--where the Village People move Santa’s Workshop to Christopher Street, enlist their friends to become elves with an adapted version of their hit “In The Navy,” and draft film co-star Bruce Jenner to become the new Santa in a sequence which involves stripping the 1976 gold medal decathlon winner to his shorts, shaving and oiling his chest, and outfitting him in fur-trimmed red briefs and crimson leathers to a disco version of “Come O Ye Faithful.” Peggy Fleming, Shields and Yarnell, and Lorna Luft co-star.

Interestingly, there is no reliable data regarding the ratings for this show, as the Nielsen diaries for this week were accidentally consumed by fire. Show producers estimate that one in ten Americans tuned in to at least part of the show, but more conservative estimates place the audience at no more than two or three percent, tops.

A Canadian Christmas with David Cronenberg (1986)
Faced with Canadian content requirements but no new programming, the Canadian Broadcasting Company turned to Canadian director David Cronenberg, hot off his success with Scanners and The Fly, to fill the seasonal gap. In this 90-minute event, Santa (Michael Ironside) makes an emergency landing in the Northwest Territories, where he is exposed to a previously unknown virus after being attacked by a violent moose. The virus causes Santa to develop both a large, tooth-bearing orifice in his belly and a lustful hunger for human flesh, which he sates by graphically devouring Canadian celebrities Bryan Adams, Dan Ackroyd, and Gordie Howe on national television. Music by Neil Young.

Noam Chomsky: Deconstructing Christmas (1998)
This PBS/WGBH special featured linguist and social commentator Chomsky sitting at a desk, explaining how the development of the commercial Christmas season directly relates to the loss of individual freedoms in the United States and the subjugation of indigenous people in southeast Asia. Despite a rave review by Z magazine, musical guest Zach de la Rocha, and the concession by Chomsky to wear a seasonal hat for a younger demographic appeal, this is known to be the least requested Christmas special ever made.

Christmas with the Nuge (2002)
Spurred by the success of The Osbournes on sister network MTV, cable network VH1 contracted zany hard rocker Ted Nugent to help create a “reality” Christmas special. Nugent responded with a special that features the Motor City Madman bowhunting, and then making jerky from, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree, all specially flown in to Nugent’s Michigan compound for the occasion. In the second half of the hour-long special, Nugent heckles vegetarian Night Ranger/Damn Yankees bassist Jack Blades into consuming three strips of dove jerky. Fearing the inevitable PETA protest, and boycotts from Moby and Pam Anderson, VH1 never aired the special, which is available solely by special order at the Nuge Store on

I swear, something like ten years on, that line about "the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers" still cracks me up.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Jimmy Durante, New Deal Economist

Via Erik Loomis on Lawyers, Guns & Money, who is always (re)discovering new and wonderful evidences of the way a very different (and, from my point of view, in many ways entirely better) sort of politics once co-existed with popular culture. (Here's another great one, if the foregoing wasn't enough.)

Monday, December 08, 2014

Why This Socialist Likes Stegall

On Friday, Caleb Stegall--lawyer, farmer, family man, rabble-rouser, and long-time Front Porcher--was appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court by Governor Sam Brownback. The criticisms of Stegall's appointment are many--he's been called a crony, been called unqualified, been called an extremist. I can't speak for the first two--though my familiarity with his writings and his personality lead me to sincerely doubt their truth--but I'm fairly certain the third is true. And I have to say, that's partly why I consider his appointment good news.

Of course, to be honest, if my electoral wishes had come true Stegall's appointment would never have happened. I spent much of the past six months hoping that--and knocking doors and contributing money so that--Brownback (a decent man who, to my mind, foolishly embraces many profoundly bad, simply incoherent, or just plain irresponsible ideas) would lose his re-election race. The fact that he won is, I'm quite convinced, bad news for Caleb's and my state. Caleb no doubt disagrees with me on this point--which is, itself, kind of the point as well. Caleb and I have been disagreeing for a long time, and the level and form of those disagreements have sometimes been, well, extreme. And to be able to civilly discuss and disagree about such fundamentally important things means something rather crucial: that you both see what the fundamental grounds upon which and over which one must struggle really are. To be able to fight intellectually with someone who shares your passion for the essential things is a far more rewarding experience, I think, than happening to learn that some stock figure from Republican or Democratic Central Casting overlaps with your opinions occasionally. (No doubt I agree with President Obama more often than Caleb does, and he agrees more often with Senator Mitch McConnell than I do. Oooh, yee-haw.)

Caleb and I, honestly, haven't done much fighting lately; since moving into the Brownback administration as an in-house counsel in 2011, he's kept a low profile when it comes to online debates. And between us, it's always been online; we've only met once, when we hung out and talked late at a restaurant here in Wichita one night way back in 2008. But from 2005 until 2010, Caleb and I--beginning when I stumbled upon his fine, much-missed publication The New Pantagruel, and then continuing through Front Porch Republic--found ourselves somewhat regularly arguing about what localism and populism can possibly mean. We fought over shopping at Wal-Mart, buying local food, health care reform, farm policy, the meaning of liberty, and much more. I'm sure I wasn't anywhere near Caleb's most frequent or fond antagonist, and he wasn't mine, but speaking just for myself I valued those arguments deeply, because I learned from them. While his local populism--which might be best described as a kind of Jeffersonian individualism--never converted me, his ideas were essential to getting me to think more carefully about my communitarian convictions, helping me to see both the conservative and the Laschian elements which have to be a part of any effort to bring both populist egalitarianism and local community together. And you can't have such an thoughtful, demanding, but also civil relationship with someone, and not wish them well. (Given that Caleb actually complimented me when I finally stopped playing the ivory tower socialist on the sidelines and started indulging in activism, how could not?) The bottom line is this: if I'm going to have to deal with a governor who clearly wishes to remake the judicial branch entirely, how can I object to him making a prominent part of that branch an extremist whom I happen to trust?

There are, of course, good extremisms and bad, and part of the whole reason of a free society is so that clashes of extremism can be expressed without trashing everything both interlocutors hold dear. And that's the key point with Caleb--while I have plenty of reason to assume that I will generally dislike whatever judicial opinions he hands down, as he would very likely generally dislike mine if we traded places, we both hold the same thing dear: Kansas. Our place, our community, our peoplehood, our demos. There are many lawyers who get sucked into a kind of romance of the law: maybe they see it as some kind of  Platonic-constitutional philosophical ideal, or as an aristocratic necessity to hold in the unwashed masses, or as embodying a serene technocratic-pragmatism, but however they view it "THE LAW" becomes their paean to something higher than, or better than, the people themselves and the cultures they build. The man that I interacted with, the man that helped to build Front Porch Republic, whatever else he believed, could never, I think, see the law as anything other than just one other attempt among many to organize and protect the manifold possibilities and struggles of human existence. That is, Caleb, as a member of the Kansas Supreme Court, may not be able to--and may not want to--engage in deep, revolutionary thoughts about building local communities and conservative Christian polities, but I can't believe he would forget the very human thrill of trying to figure out how such a thing might be done, or if one might even want to. That's a profound humility, a dispositional--if not philosophical--liberality which will keep him, I hope and I trust, far from the temptation to see the law as a sovereign foundation for his (or my!) preferred political project.

Of course, power corrupts; Caleb would be one of the first to remind me of that as well, I suspect. So we here in Kansas will have to watch him, as we need to watch all our top judges, because fortunately, we voters here are Jeffersonian enough that we retain the power to kick them out (though not, perhaps unfortunately, so Jeffersonian that we can elect them in the first place). Party politics being what they are, though, I suspect his position is secure. And while politically I'd much rather a state government in Topeka quite different than the one we have, given what we do have I really can't disagree with this turn of events one bit. Kudos, Caleb!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Friday, December 05, 2014

Four Wieseltier Favorites

Lots of commentary last night and this morning about the shake-up (or stake-through-the-heart, if you prefer) at The New Republic. My favorite comments--which range from deeply mournful to vicious condemnation to a sad but informed shrug about the inevitable changes taking place in the business of opinion journalism--include thoughts from Nathan Pippenger, Alan Jacobs, Jonathan Chait, Noah Millman, and Ezra Klein, but you can find your own favorites if you like. I can't add much to it, unfortunately, as I have no particular anecdotes about TNR to share.

Well, that's not quite true; I have one. Long ago, in the very, very early days of the 21st century, John Tambornino--hi John!--and I were having lunch at some DuPont Circle deli in Washington DC, back when were both graduate students, him at Johns Hopkins, and me at Catholic University. I don't recall what we were talking about, but in all likelihood, since we were both budding political theorists, we were arguing about some issue in public policy and philosophy. Anyway, as we talked, we kept noticing a tall, white-haired gentleman at an adjacent table occasionally glancing over at us, clearly listening in on what we were saying. After we'd finished lunch and finally made our way back to the street, John suddenly stopped in his tracks. "You know," he said, glancing back at the still-occupied table, "I think that's Leon Wieseltier!" So there you go: my single brush with TNR greatness. Sadly, the esteemed literary editor and ferociously opinionated writer didn't run up to me to solicit my commentary on anything in particular, and so the opportunity passed.

The firing of Franklin Foer as TNR's editor doesn't mean much to me; he was a solid and thoughtful writer and editor in TNR's typically contrarian Jewish Ivy League neoliberal mold, but in elite journalism as it has come to operate over the past 20 years or so editors come and go with so much rapidity that it's hard to keep track. But Wieseltier was different. He'd been in charge of TNR's justly celebrated "back of the book" for more than 30 years, and thus had managed to develop a distinct editorial approach to those careful, lengthy, implacable reviews of books, culture, and ideas which--to someone like me anyway--long defined the very apex of public-intellectualdom. Aside from Richard Neuhaus at First Things (about whose tenure and arguments Wieseltier guided my friend Damon Linker to one of his, in my opinion, very best pieces of writing), I can't think of another editor whose instincts in approaching a topic I found more consistently challenging, engaging, and thought-provoking. Alan Jacobs expresses my feelings well: "Those long essay-reviews that Wieseltier ran [were] a model for much of my own periodical writing. Even when they were wrong, or widely considered wrong, they were confident, expansive, audacious in the scope of their claims....These lengthy essays, and many like them, generated important conversations, and I don’t know whether there are many periodicals in America who still publish reflections on books that are so ambitious. Probably the New York Review of Books comes closest, though with some exceptions the NYRB reviews are more strictly 'reviews,' less bold in their claims, more politely muted....I’m sad, and I hope that I can find elsewhere some of the things that, to me, made TNR special." To the extent that Wieseltier's departure means the loss of a place that I can regularly check to find long, reflective, serious intellectual engagements with politics, science, literature, foreign affairs, and more, then I'm sad too.

Because that's the sort of obsessive pack-rat I am, this morning I spent more than an hour going through hundreds of old clippings of mine, rediscovering dozens of great TNR reviews from the past 20 years (I've read TNR fairly consistently ever since the early 90s). Again and again, what I found was evidence of a guiding mind who turned someone with real expertise on a subject towards larger implications, and enabled them to make strong, publicly needed connections, commendations, and condemnations, but without ever losing their specialized grounding, thus saving the reviews from becoming...well, like one of my own blog posts, I suppose. There was Sean Wilentz's wonderfully broad review and exchange over the latest scholarship on Abraham Lincoln; David Rieff's fantastic evisceration of the Robert Kaplan's unknowingly condescending idolization of America's empire and its soldiers; Richard Just's infuriatingly patient and troubling case for intervention in Darfur; Jackson Lear's neat distinctions between different types of environmental radicalism; and more. But all of those have one thing in common though: they're available online, having escaped what Jacob Levy (traces of whose involvement in TNR can be found by those who Google carefully) once referred to as "the great TNR archive apocalypse," the details of which are apparently lost in the mists of time. But such electronic archive catastrophes have no effect on pieces of magazine paper kept in filing cabinets. And so, in honor of Wieseltier's departure, here are five great, mostly lost slivers from his long reign in the back of TNR's book:

"Tiananmen and the Cosmos," Andrew J. Nathan, July 29, 1991. For someone only recently back from two years in South Korea, struggling to process my own ideas about East Asian culture and politics, years away from beginning any serious engagement with China or Confucian ideas, this review was terrific eye-opener. "Shortly after his flight from China, Yan predicted that the regime of Li and Deng would fall within two years. His optimism was widely shared among his colleagues. But today the exile movement is at a low point. Membership has eroded, funding is hard to find, the movement is fragmented into scores of organizations. The younger leaders are learning English and entering graduate school, while many of the older ones are living from year to year on fellowships. Many in the overseas community criticize the movement as divided, demoralized, rudderless, even corrupt. But his harshness is misplaced. The democracy movement abroad needs to be evaluated for what it really is: not a political party with a program to hasten the fall of the Deng regime, but a community of intellectuals who are suffering the personal frustrations of exile yet also taking advantage of the opportunity to rethink. They are not the ones who will overthrow the regime, but they will be prepared with new ideas when it finally falls."

"Suffer the Little Children," Jean Bethke Elshtain, March 4, 1996. I've mentioned this piece before, and how much it endeared me to Elshtain's writings, with its wonderfully unsympathetic examination of the harsh judgment which meritocratic neoliberalism inevitably, however confusedly, carries in its heart. "Like Clinton, I recoil when I hear a parent shout at a child. I, too, cringe when a parent is curt, abrupt and dismissive. But I recognize that this is not the same thing as neglect, not the same thing as abuse. Perhaps, as the late Christopher Lasch insisted, the working-class or lower-middle-class style aims to instill in children a tough, early recognition that life is not a bowl of cherries, not a world in which everyone is telling you how great you are; that their lives will be carried out in a world in which they tasks they are suited for, the jobs they do, the lives they live, and even the way they talk (or do not talk) will be scrutinized and found wanting by their "betters." I know that Clinton would argue, in response, that she means no invidious comparison. But the comparison is there and it is invidious. According to her book, the higher the income and education, the better the parenting, all other things being equal."

"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Thomas Jefferson," Sean Wilentz, March 10, 1997. Another Wilentz contribution, and one I like even better than his later one on Lincoln: "Jefferson's fate has paralleled that of twentieth-century American liberalism. There was always something absurd about describing Jefferson, the agrarian anti-statist, as one of the forerunners of Progressive reform and New Deal reform. Jefferson's writings on religious liberty gave the argument a certain plausibility in the 1920s, amid the Scopes trial and a revival of anti-Catholic nativism. A decade later, New Deal Democrats pointed with pride to their party's distant genealogical connections to the Jeffersonians. Much more influential, though, was the notion, first popularized by Herbert Croly back in 1909, that modern reformers were trying to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. (That is, it was Jefferson who inspired latter-day government efforts to rein in the malefactors of great wealth.) With the presumption, the reputations of Jefferson and modern liberalism crested at about the same time, in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet as the century has dragged on, and as American liberalism has suffered through its own intellectual and political crises, it has become harder to sustain Jefferson's reputation as any kind of liberal fore-runner."

"Axle of Evil," Gregg Easterbrook, January 20, 2003. An absolutely ferocious review, which uses a book on sports-utility vehicles as an opportunity to given a shuddering smack-down to the American auto industry and the American automobile driver alike. "The SUVs combination of sociopathy and fantasy has reached its preposterous culmination in [the Hummer], which is based on the military Humvee, originally designed to carry infantry and machine  guns. The Hummer gets ten miles per gallon, meaning that its annual  greenhouse-gas emissions triple those of a car, and it weighs nearly three tons. (Still another loophole: if an SUV grows heavy enough, like the Hummer, the manufacturer does not have to report its fuel mileage to the EPA.) Hummers are even longer and higher  than standard large SUVs, but Consumer Guide recently warned of the vehicle's 'limited cargo room' and 'cramped' seats, evidence of poor design. (The mid-size Nissan Maxima, which weighs less than  half as much as a Hummer, has more front legroom.) The Hummer cannot park without straddling spaces. Its owner would be out of his or her mind to take this $52,000 bauble off the interstate, though of course the advertising features the usual postcard scenes of the  noble outdoors. (In my favorite, a Hummer is racing across a  glacier.) Do I need to tell you that Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded General Motors to offer the civilian Hummer, endorsed it, and purchased the first one? The Hummer screams to the world the words that stand as one of Schwarzenegger's signature achievements  as an actor: 'Fuck you, asshole!' Maybe this class of vehicles should be called FUVs."

Maybe Wieseltier will fire off a firm FU to the new regime at TNR? We can only hope.