This is a classic, obviously, and Peter Gabriel has included it in innumerable shows he has done. But love this camp-revival version best, off the "Secret World" tour, complete with jazz piano and violin.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
This is a classic, obviously, and Peter Gabriel has included it in innumerable shows he has done. But love this camp-revival version best, off the "Secret World" tour, complete with jazz piano and violin.
Friday, May 17, 2013
That's Wichita, KS, right there, the city which has been our family's home since 2006 and will, quite possibly, remain our home until Melissa and I shuffle off to a better world. It's a nice picture (overlooking Central Riverside Park in the bend of the Arkansas River) of a nice city. It has many qualities that we like very much (as well as more than a few that we don't). My question: does it have a political theory? Or, really, can it?
I've lately been fascinated by the "City Meditations" which Alan Jacobs has been posting on his blog, especially the most recent one. He talks about the move his family will soon be making, leaving Wheaton, IL, a 50,000-person town which is, as he admits, "just part of the great conurbation of Chicagoland," and moving to Waco, TX, a city of 125,000 people (around 235,000 in the whole metro area) that is, because of it's location in south-central Texas, truly a "stand-alone" ccity. For Alan, this is an invitation to continue to reflect upon why people move to cities, and why they move away from them; what cities have meant throughout history, particularly Christian history; and in what way our concerns about freedom, virtue, opportunity, and community are shaped by our urban (and rural, and suburban) landscapes--and soundscapes too. I hope he continues his reflections throughout the move this summer and beyond, because lately I've been wondering about such issues as well, particularly in regards to how they intersect with the lived reality of places like Waco. Or, for that matter, with places like Wichita--population 380,000 (630,000 in the metro area), and hours away from any remotely comparable cities in Oklahoma or on the Kansas/Missouri border. Or how about the city I grew up in--Spokane, WA, population 209,000, 474,000 metro (though I grew up primarily on a quasi-ranch/farm on the rural-suburban outskirts of the city), and similarly a long drive away from any other sizable metro unit? I was trained in political theory and philosophy, and while I've long since branched out into general political science and American government and constitutional law and everything else, simply due to the realities of teaching at Friends University, when I look forward to some kind of serious research project that I could work on and which might genuinely add something to the unaccountably vast and varied body of knowledge out there I think in terms of theory. And given my political and psychological predilections for thinking about communitarianism, localism, socialism, populism, and democracy, it was perhaps inevitable that after a while I began to ask to myself--what can I say, really, in a theoretical and normative sense, about where I live?
This isn't, I think, a purely academic question. The literature on cities as the vanguards or birthplaces of basic liberal and cosmopolitan insights and practices--pluralism, tolerance, individual rights, civil society, economic specialization, political freedom, trade--is vast. But so is the literature on the qualities and virtues of rural and small town life--participatory democracy, communitarian solidarity, self-governance, authenticity, agrarianism, long-term sustainability. It really isn't at all difficult to express cities and country life, with their various marginal cases, by way of a couple of broad types: city life is liberal and individualistic and fast-paced and consumption-based and filled with opportunity and risk; country life is conservative and socially restrictive and leisurely-paced and land-based and filled with attachment and "satisficing." Neither type is fully accurate, of course, but they have their theoretical uses. Do mid-sized cities have a similar use? If only to help us think about environmental and economic and civic and moral problems, so as to give us as human beings--social creatures that we are--a handle on the difficult problem of tipping points: when is a city too small, or too large, to be able to legitimately associate itself with this or that particular end? I don't know. I don't know if it might be that, throughout history, the mid-sized city (which, in my mind, is some combination of: 1) geographic isolation (which itself is a technology-dependent judgment), and 2) a population from 100,000 to 500,000 people--but what do I really know about it?) has actually filled some important, unstated, conceptual hole in our social imagination. Then again, maybe there isn't anything at all unique or worth particular respect when it comes to the mid-sized city--maybe, in terms of their public amenities and urban problems and environmental costs and economic opportunities, they're just communities stuck midway between either growing/bloating to some sufficient/too-big size, or shrinking/reducing to a more-reasonable/less-productive scale. And, of course, constitutional matters--local empowerment, federal arrangements, and all the rest, come into play here as well. Perhaps a mid-sized city, unlike huge metropolises, can be managed in a way so as to cultivate the sort of practices associated with small town environments, or perhaps they can be developed so as to attract, unlike rural areas, the sort of investments and opportunities that normally require a significant critical mass of people. Or perhaps both such possibilities are pointless goals, utterly inappropriate to the average city which is neither large nor small enough.
So as this summer finally and truly begins for me--my last, thank goodness, faculty meeting of the semester was yesterday--my thoughts are turning to what I might be able to learn over the next couple of months. I've been promoted to full professor, and can apply for a sabbatical now. Lacking the sort of international connections or high-profile academic cred which might get me invites to one university or another, my most likely candidate for a sabbatical project is something I can do right here, in places like Wichita (or Waco, which I could visit, or Spokane, where my parents will still provide me with a place to sleep). I have a stack of books on my desk--Jane Jacobs, Alan Ehrenhalt, Edward Glaeser, Robert Wuthnow, and many others--who I hope might be able to give me the intellectual tools to begin to ask the sort of research questions which could get this project off the ground (and convince the sabbatical committee that it's a project worth giving me time off for). Maybe nothing will come of it, or maybe some other research opportunity will turn out to be more plausible and appealing. But for now, along with all my other reading, and being out and a part of Wichita this summer (go Wichita River Festival!) I think I'm going to keep reading Alan closely, and see what I can learn from him. Hopefully, his meditations will help along my own.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 12:16 PM
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
I'm not going try to compete with Matthew Yglesias's tremendous survey the whole Star Trek mythos. (Well, actually, as he admits right at the beginning, it's not the whole mythos--he looks at only the canonical stuff, the television shows and the movies, ignoring millions of pages of novels and comic books and fan art and fiction, which is an entirely reasonable decision, despite the fact that it's arguable that much of the canonical stuff has been influenced and shaped by the fan stuff.) I can claim some cred for having come from an extended family of Star Trek-loving nerds, I've made it clear that at least two shows from the Star Trek franchise (the original Star Trek series and Deep Space Nine were hugely important to me, and I had many concerns with the grand J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot which parallel those that Yglesias mentions. But ultimately, he's watched all this stuff, and I haven't. (I bailed on Voyager after only one season, and on Enterprise after only one episode.) So I'm going to take his views seriously, especially since he gets one of the very most important things right:
Even if commercially successful films saved the franchise, Trek’s true home has always been television. The cinema demands what Abrams has delivered: action, suspense, drama. But it’s less well-suited to the signature thematic project of the franchise: to depict, in a sustained way, life in a better tomorrow. Utopia requires moments of peace and quiet. Random episodes about an android bonding with his cat, say, or a bartender’s schemes to increase his profits. You can’t make a lucrative sci-fi flick about people sitting around in a conference room debating options for resolving the situation peacefully--but something that can be accurately teased as primarily consisting of thrilling space battles is not the real Star Trek. A bunch of friendly folks using advanced technology to help people? That can only be profitable, I suspect, on the small screen.
Exactly true--Star Trek, for all the ways it evolved and experimented in its various presentations over a 35-year period, was always fundamentally a progressive, organization-minded, deeply and complicatedly human vision of the future, and the sort of summer movies which the reboot are apparently content in delivering to us can't possibly capture that kind of developmental, essentially liberal attitude. Just the same, I wouldn't call what the television versions of Star Trek gave us "utopian" exactly, because I think Yglesias is using that term in a somewhat limited and banal sense, communicating only the idea of a society that has achieved equality, justice, and peace. The appeal of utopia is--and, I think, this is even the case deep within the liberal heart of the Star Trek ideal--more than that; it is the idea of achieving or experiencing something which is truly alien, truly other, truly beyond, truly different. (It's for this reason that "utopia" is so often a mocking insult, or that those who are really grappling with genuine socialist and communitarian alternatives insist that they are looking for "realistic utopias.") The usual geek classification is that Star Wars is the mythos with a sense of myth, of transcendence or mysticism, whereas Star Trek is for those for those earth-bound liberals who just want to see the Department of Health and Human Services extended infinitely into outer space--but that geek classification is wrong, and Yglesias does the Star Trek mythos a (slight) disservice by somewhat buying into it. Because he's not recognizing that Star Trek, above and beyond the 60s-style-New-Frontier-Cold-War liberalism which it so obviously reflected, was a work of science fiction--and, even more than that, had some of the finest science-fiction authors of the day pen its best, earliest episodes.
To downplay the human-science-meets-the-infinite, I-put-on-my-space-suit-and-plug-in-my-time-machine-and-touch-the-face-of-God, character of the Original Series (and the echoes of it which continued with decreasing frequency through The Next Generation, going through a slight revival in Deep Space Nine, but disappearing almost entirely thereafter) leads Yglesias to miss noting probably the greatest accomplishment of the whole mythos: it was a way of telling stories cinematically in which ordinary human organizations and bureaucracies interact with and are challenged by the unknown, and those challenges--even when they are tragic and chastening, are ultimately positive. (The spirit of Arthur C. Clarke looms over the best of Star Trek's science fiction; Ray Bradbury might be more of Star Wars guy.) Yglesias, to be sure, isn't the only person to be more engaged by complicated, well-plotted soap operas and political dramas in outer space than by real science fiction; it's this sort of thing which leads him, like so many others, to consider The Next Generation "in most respects the 'real' Star Trek"; or to rank the original series (which, yes, sure, had some atrocious episodes, but which also have us the best, purest science fiction which any Star Trek franchise ever produced) even lower than Voyager; or--and this is one of my greatest peeves with all Star Trek fandom--to have so little respect for the Star Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was probably the purest realization of the whole mythos's attempt to put entirely human organizations and technology and bureaucracy up against (indeed, even connect it to!) the ultimately unknowable, that he ranks it lower than a genuine piece of crap like Star Trek: Nemesis. Fine, I will grant that there are all sorts of visuals in ST:TMP which just plain drag, but really, if there is a purer expression of what Star Trek purports to be about than the climactic reveal in the final minutes of that movie, than I don't know what is:
A small complaint, maybe--and if Ygelsias wants to stand by his judgment, I'm not likely to watch a hundred or so additional hours of television to attempt prove him wrong. And as I said above, he gets the most important stuff right, and so let's just argue with him about whether we think Khan or Gul Dukat was the better villain, or whether our favorite crew members were Worf or Spock, as we wait for the opening of Star Trek: Into Darkness tonight. But let me just insist: the utopia which the Star Trek mythos represents may be a liberal socialist one, but beneath that it is a science fiction one, with all the sense of wonder which that conveys. Miss that, and you may miss the core truth of the mythos altogether.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 12:41 PM
Monday, May 13, 2013
Saturday, May 11, 2013
I know I did an Elvis Costello number recently, but I have to put up this one as well: a fine, smooth take on this classic Nick Lowe tune, which Costello had recorded and made famous as a blast of punk anger, but which was played on this tour (from Japan, over 25 years ago) with some great, reflective rockabilly twang:
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Behold, Star Trek friends: the greatest ever Greatest Thing Ever:
If you didn't watch it until the very end, you missed the best joke. Go back, watch it again.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 11:49 AM
Saturday, May 04, 2013
Monday, April 29, 2013
Saturday, April 27, 2013
One of the greatest songs from the whole Beatles catalog, of course, and perhaps George Harrison's greatest composition (though I'm quite fond of "That's What it Takes" as well). This is a song that lends itself to some awesome jams, and this past week some friends on FB started comparing versions. There is this great performance by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison, and Steve Winwood , with Prince channeling Jimi Hendrix at the end, from 2004's induction of Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and there's this haunting and stately take, with Eric Clapton taking the lead vocals, Paul McCartney on the piano, Ringo Starr (among others) on the drums, and Dhani and a bunch of friends backing them up, from 2003's tribute film, Concert for George. But I have to say my favorite is this one, from the 1987 Prince's Trust Concert. Harrison himself, in full mullet mode, sharp and brilliant and in control; Ringo (definitely not phoning it in) on the drums, joined by Phil Collins; Mark King of Level 42 slapping out Paul's bass line; freaking Elton John the piano; and Clapton--newly cleaned up from his late 70s-early 80s addictions--playing his own original lead, trading riffs and glances with George, remembering old times (all while Lynne provides backup). Simply transcendent.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
That's a terrible title for this post, I know. But hopefully it'll make sense, if you actually make it to the end.
First of all, if any reader of this blog has missed out on my praise of Rod Dreher's new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern, A Small Town, and the Secret of the Good Life, well, let me repeat myself: it's a great book, and I'm far from the only one to think so. It's a powerful portrait and memoir, of a person and a place and the relationships which those two things both test and lend a kind of grace to; it's a book that everyone ought to read and think about.
Now, having done my due diligence in urging you once again to read it, this post is about the thinking the book inspires. Specifically, I want to respond to, and add a couple of ideas to, Damon Linker's thoughts about Dreher's book. Damon thought the book was wonderful too; he calls Dreher's depiction of his sister Ruthie's life and death at age 42 from cancer "an emotionally gripping story," but one that includes "bracing reflections on place and community, ambition and happiness that transform the book into something far more than a tragic autobiography." It becomes "a powerful statement about how we live today--and more importantly, about how we should live."
That "should" there is the rub. Because if you're making any kind of normative argument--that is, if you're making any kind of substantive case for a particular norm or principle, presenting it as something which ought to have an effect which is persuasive, if not conclusive, in our lives--then you're going to have to make, well, just that: an argument, one which has substance to it. And Dreher's book, very pointedly, does not do that. Instead it tells a story--which of course, through the way in which we can read, identify with, and be affectively moved by them, have their own persuasive power as well. In a long and powerful post on his blog, Dreher takes American conservativism to task for relying too much on arguments and not doing enough witnessing--as he connects it to a set of reflections he's written about his return to Louisiana, his own conservative side of our national conversations has been too committed to libraries, and not enough to parades. That is, it's been too interested in figuring out and advancing the best arguments, and not with tending to the humble everyday pleasures of community life, and letting that tending be an argument in itself.
This is, I should emphasize, something I am entirely in sympathy with--that is, with the idea that the communitarian principles which Dreher recognizes that his sister Ruthie Leming took as simply the default setting for a decent life are a superior way of talking about culture and how we should live. There is stronger and more persuasive witnessing in telling stories about the communities we have and build and leave and return to and change and keep the same than anything which the best libraries of policy or philosophy can offer. When he concludes that those who are concerned about preserving the cultural and civic and moral goods of community, "need fewer think tanks and more front porches," I couldn't agree more.
But let's be clear about the consequences of that point of Dreher's, and in a sense the point of his whole book: it robs him of the ability of the ability to say, in any kind of substantive way, that some should live in some particular way. He's set aside his normative claim, in other words--all he can do is say that this is a way of living that he has found to be admirable and fulfilling, and perhaps you, the reader, ought to take it seriously. And, if you've followed Dreher's book tour, then you know that many, many people have responded seriously to his story. But their response is propelled by their own affective interactions with the story he has told, not, or at least not necessarily, because he has shown them that he has a normative point.
Now presumably, Dreher wouldn't dispute that--he'd agree that the story he tells, the story of Ruthie Leming, isn't a normative argument. And yet, smart people like Damon Linker see his book doing so nonetheless, if in a confused way. He wrote that Dreher's book left:
a pervasive confusion about what readers (or at least some readers) are supposed to do in response. If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you're one of the tens of millions of people who can't stay in or go home to the heartland because your home--your roots--are in the BosWash corridor of the Northeast or the urbanized areas of the West Coast?...If he's a consistent localist, he should tell me to put down roots and immerse myself in community where I am--or perhaps in my "hometowns" of New York City and Fairfield County, Conn. But is this even possible in a place where paying my mortgage and other bills requires that my wife and I--like my equally striving neighbors--devote ourselves to high-stress work during nearly every waking hour of our days?....Things are different in rural Louisiana. And that's why I can't help but conclude that Dreher and his fellow Porchers must be advocating an anti-urban ideology of ruralism. If you live in a coastal city or suburb, the supremely unconservative message appears to be: Pull up your shallow roots and relocate to a region of the country where you can start over with a simpler, more humane, and happier life.
Dreher's response to this observation of Damon's is telling, I think:
As I’ve tried to make clear to audiences on this book tour, I don’t think everybody should move back to the small towns from which they come....Rather, my advice would be to do your very best to root yourself in the community where you do live, and to do your best to stay there--achieving “stability” in the Benedictine sense....But what do you do if you’re like Damon and his wife, and live in a place where just keeping up requires you to work crazy-long hours, and leaves little time for community life?....Maybe the lesson is that the good life is not possible in the Philadelphia suburbs, or any place where in order to keep your head above water, your job has to own you and your wife, and it keeps you from building relationships. There are trade-offs in all things, and no perfect solution, geographical or otherwise. Thing is, life is short, and choices have to be made. It’s not that people living in these workaholic suburbs are bad, not at all; it’s that the culture they (we) live in defines the Good in such a way that choosing to “do the right thing” ends up hollowing out your life.
Now what just happened there is obvious: Dreher has made a normative argument--a "should" claim. He starts out by saying that he thinks people just need to develop stable roots wherever they are; to attend to the parades in their own particular places, as it were. But immediately following that he takes Damon's point: the living and working in some places makes the time and money and opportunity to seek out parades, much less actively tend to them pretty hard to pull off. He calls that a "trade-off," but obviously is pretty convinced--and presumably wants his readers to be convinced too--that it's a lousy one. And why wouldn't it be, seeing as it leaves your life hollowed out?
Damon calls this an "anti-urban ideology," and I'm not sure it's exactly that. An "anti-suburban ideology" might be closer, but still isn't quite right, I think. What Dreher is dancing around here is a humbler, more local, more contained, less frantic, less ambitious, simpler way of life. Can that be described ideologically? Not if you just tell stories about it, it can't, not really. Those stories can work on people affectively and imaginatively, and by doing so might persuade them to see the value in such. But of course, not everyone will be moved by the stories, and thus won't be able to see why Dreher speaks of "trade-offs." Isn't it, in the end, just another manifestation of individualistic, consumer choice? So first Dreher rejected his hometown, because he preferred something different than what his hometown offered; then later he went back to it to stay, because at that point in his life he preferred that which his hometown offered. (I owe this observation to David Watkins of the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money.) Dreher--and those of us who are in agreement with his communitarian sensibilities--will almost certainly what to challenge this formulation: after all, isn't the entire point of embracing stability and putting down roots and learning to live within limits exactly to deny that we our entirely a product of our own preference maximization? Yes, says I! But if I want to say that "yes," then I have to move beyond stories--I have to give an argument as to why the trade-offs which we face are (sometimes, anyway) bad ones, with one choice--the simpler, more local, more rural one--being obviously better. Why. Maybe because it connects us with deeper virtues, or maybe because it is more environmentally sustainable, or maybe because it better reflects our basic anthropology of being, or maybe all of the above, or maybe some other reason entirely? Whatever argument I make, it will be just that--an argument, a normative claim. And that means that I will have to be saying something that can be expressed theoretically, or ideologically.
In the case of the theory hidden within Dreher's story, the one from which his argument for just what does constitute "the good life" emerges, I'd say the agrarian label fits best. This is somewhat of an odd fit for Dreher, since he confesses in his book, and has long reminded us on his blog, that he's not the outdoor type. But, as someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking and writing about these issues (too much time in the library, I know!), I'm relatively convinced that the only way all of this emphasis upon simplicity and locality and community can hold together is when you're operating within a set of assumptions which privilege rural environments, producer-based economies, and agricultural work. And this, of course, invites in the whole tradition of agrarian and classical republican thought--about how to respond to the lure of consumerism, or the role of technology, or the threat of economic specialization and outsourcing, or the challenge to civic virtue and building a common morality. These are, to say the least, deep and complication philosophical issues--none of which Dreher's book, or its powerful story about Ruthie Leming's life and death, spend any time dwelling upon at all. And yet, those issues are there. They are significantly undertheorized, to use academic jargon, but they are absolutely present, as they are present in Dreher's call for conservatives to care more about the routines of community life. Because, after all, you can't really care about parades and the routines of community life if your job, and your immediate living environment, and the whole socio-economic world you move through is so characterizes by the transitory nature of liberal capitalism that no real rooted culture is even there to be tended to.
I just reviewed a smart book about conservative political ideas and theory by Mark T. Mitchell, and there was much in there which I found insightful. But even that book, aimed as it was towards the development of a theoretical language of politics that would bring back into our national conversations the sort of things Dreher and I both value, though in different ways--namely, a substantive defense of community, limits, and stability--was nonetheless (on my reading anyway) haunted by an untheorized yet recurring agrarian norm. Getting back to the garden, getting into the outdoors, getting away from technology, getting back to putting food we'd grown ourselves into our bodies--all of that and more was really the unstated assumption which enabled his calls for "gratitude" and "place" to hold together. And unfortunately, in that book, as in Dreher's, as wise and as thoughtful as their insights are, I just don't think they fully come together as a "should," as much as they both obviously believe that the stories they tell and the observations they make really should add up to something. But to put such a substantive claim about local communities together, you need a theory, you need an argument (and that, not incidentally, means you'll need a library).
And if you lack that? Well, that's certainly no loss to the stories which localists like Dreher and Mitchell (and sometimes me) tell, or to the observations they (and I) make. That sort of testifying to the importance of community and simplicity (and parades) is vital. But it also won't be able to escape the suspicion that it's just a lifestyle choice--one that substantively isn't much different from anyone else's (after all, we can find community on Facebook, right? or with our grad student cohort? or with all our friends on the 16th floor?) unless it can be connected to a larger argument. Damon is right that there is an ideology at work here, one that deserves to be fleshed out. I suspect that, deep down, it's an agrarian one, but perhaps I'm wrong. The story of Ruthie Leming, which matters more than any normative argument (that's something Dreher is definitely right about!), unfortunately won't tell me one way or another. And so long as there is a need to do more than witness to and tend to our experiences, so long as there is a need to, well, really try to figure out what we should do, then library work will be necessary too.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 10:54 PM