Thursday, August 29, 2013

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 4: 1993

And so, 1993: twenty years ago, the year I turned 25, graduated from BYU, started graduate school, and married Melissa. And also, to a great extent, stopped being interested in radio, at least to the degree I had before. What happened? And if not the radio, what was I listening to then?

After my mission to South Korea, I return to BYU and Provo, UT, and for a while I could pick up where I'd left off two years before. But there were changes afoot; through a variety of back-room deals and bankruptcies, KJQ changed ownership, most of its staff were either fired or quit, some of whom then organized a takeover of KZOL 96.1 FM, which was promptly re-branded KXRK or "X96," with eventually most of the old modern rock/college/alternative music DJs from KJQ showing up under X96's banner. Dom Casual, Kerry Jackson, Bill Allred: it was "Radio from Hell" back again, only under a new call sign. The transitions didn't change much about the music they played, but it may have signaled a change in attitude towards it--or maybe it was just that grunge was increasingly dominant, and so "New Wave" rather abruptly became something about which snide jokes could be made. Didn't matter to me; I still listened. I may have missed things when grunge first broke, but it was nice to be listening as it as it reached an apotheosis of sorts (see, for example, Nirvana's "All Apologies"). And besides, the grunge sensibility lent itself to more acoustic and less refined, more worldly and unconventional pop music; hence, Björk's album Debut...

...the same trends which made her possible also influencing former mainstays of alternative radio in Utah to respond in different ways. U2's Zooropa was an embrace of electronic dance rhythms, for example...

...while Depeche Mode, on their 1993 album Songs of Faith and Devotion, we actually heard the band members playing guitars...

...but for all that, to an ever-increasing extent, my attention was being drawn elsewhere.

Was it the widespread arrival of the internet (or the "World Wide Web," as we tended to call it back then), the rise of file-sharing, the emerging realization that MTV wasn't going to play music videos any more? Some of that, I suppose. Maybe it was just the general sense that radio, the mainstay of my youth, was being forced to treat its primary good--pop music--as increasingly disposable and dispensable. It would be just as easy to see in this a triumph, with a once-predictable media platform being forced to diversify in line with changing technology and segmentation: so this was the era when shock jocks and talk radio went huge, becoming a national commercial (and political) force, crowding out pop stations or forcing them to adapt and/or narrow-cast their programming along the way. I suppose it's silly to see the rapid conquest of so much of the radio dial by the forces of ideological and aesthetic Balkinization as a loss for our common pop culture; I can look at my previous entries in this series, and imagine someone who was of my age and cohort growing up Spokane, WA--only perhaps a Spanish-speaker, or an African-American, or an evangelical Christian--who might look at my list of tunes and conclude that I'd left them out of pop culture entirely. And they'd have a point: maybe radio as the dispenser of a common pop music foundation was always a fiction, and it only took me until I was in my early to mid-twenties to realize it.

Except: no, I don't really believe that, not entirely anyway, if only because I lived through the emergence of the structural forces that propelled all these changes, and at some point I could turn around and notice the difference. With radio increasingly no longer serving as a common reference to what's popular, musicians turned to other media--like advertising. The dinosaurs of the 60s and 70s led the way--but many others followed:

Oh, and about those "dinosaurs"--thanks to my years in Korea, I was finally listening to them. Deep in my memory, no doubt due to KJRB, a lot of classic rock was already there, but as a missionary I interacted with others who got me curious about, thinking about, and ultimately really listening to the true canon of post-WWII pop and rock music in a way I never had before. It started with James Taylor, and a revival of my memories of Al Stewart's and Gerry Rafferty's 70s folk-rock, which led me in turn back to the Grateful Dead, The Byrds, and eventually Bob Dylan. And the Beatles, of course: I bought their "Red" and "Blue" collections in Korea, and when I came back home I started building my collection of their albums and their many, many descendents properly. It didn't hurt that MTV Unplugged was going through its hey-day at this moment (Eric Clapton's monster Unplugged came out a year earlier, in 1992), and that The Rolling Stones released Voodoo Lounge and the Eagles released Hell Freezes Over just a year later, in 1994. Artists that I, in my 25th year, thought were ridiculously old (in their 40s and 50s!) were selling out huge concert halls...but not, perhaps unsurprisingly, filling up the airwaves that used to track what was popular. Casey Kasem and "American Top 40," I suddenly realized one day, were irrelevant, at least to the music industry that I saw around me. No wonder classic rock, by the late 1990s, occupied a larger portion of the total radio market share than any other format.

Well, all these concerns didn't stop me from paying attention to current pop; I just wasn't paying attention in the same way. As time went by, I was reaching out into folk and the blues and jazz, and benefiting from it all the while. Still, my pop heart kept on beating. My favorite album of the year was Sting's Ten Summoner's Tales, and for the life of me, I couldn't tell you how I first heard about it--but it wasn't from the radio, that's sure. Still, Melissa and I played our tape cassette of it to death. ("St. Augustine in Hell" was Melissa's favorite track, because she really like the line about music critics.)

Billy Joel's River of Dreams was huge too--and yet,while I'm pretty certain I heard one or two songs from it on pop radio, Joel was obviously banking on a different approach to the media to move his CDs. It worked; like half the people I knew, I watched David Letterman's new program on CBS too, and Joel managed to land right in front of our eyebrows and earlobes. (Sting managed this on Saturday Night Live too.)

Getting pop culture from not just radio, but from the internet, from television, from advertisements, and of course from movie soundtracks (like the awesome What's Love Got to Do With It?) that ended up on the radio only after finding their way to the popular consciousness through award shows and word of mouth--that was radio looked (sounded) like to me in 1993. Not that music was different, but the framing of it, the estimation of it, the--let me get really pretentious here--social position of it was different. Not lesser, perhaps, but different.

And today? Well, while I've continued, over the last 20 years, to turn on the radio whenever I'm making short trips in the car (particularly our local BOB FM station), I almost never listen to it for music anymore; at home, the radio is for NPR, and that's about it. At work, it's scads of old tape cassettes I have--Robert Johnson recordings! Midnight Oil's Earth and Sun and Moon (also from 1993, by the way)! The Beatles at the BBC!--plus CDs, plus, of course, Pandora. I suppose on some level I'm kind of sad about that; after all, would I have written this series of posts if I wasn't? But see here--I'm fully aware that maybe all I've done with this walk down memory lane is talk about the sort of transitions and technological relationships that every person who grows up goes through. I mean, radio is still around, and while my oldest daughter has never seen any need for it, Caitlyn, our second daughter (right now 13 and half years old, so coming up on where I was in 1983), listens to Wichita's 105.3 FM "The Buzz" religiously. So maybe, in the end, pop radio is just a platform for young people. When you stop being young, you go on to over things. Thank goodness the music is still there, if you know how to look for it, and even if it doesn't quite mean the same thing.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What Lincoln Saw (50 Years Ago Today, August 28, 1963)

What Lincoln saw. (James K. W. Atherton / UPI)

(Hat tip: Ezra Klein.)

Come, Listen to a Prophet's Voice

Exactly 50 years ago today, on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--an evangelical Southern Baptist, a democratic socialist, a troublemaker, an agitator, an idealist, a patriot, a sinner, a saint, and, in the words of the announcer, "the moral leader of our nation"--gave the climactic address to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people who had marched on Washington DC to demand the end to all those obstacles which stood in the way of both the equal rights and the full employment of African-Americans. Like all prophets, his voice that day was only heard and heeded partially. Thankfully, that doesn't stop us from hearing and reading his words again today, his words which call us again to equality and forgiveness and justice and community and peace, and honoring them: honoring them with our hearts and our minds and our votes and our taxes and our democratic activities. That's the good thing about dreams.

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 3: 1988

By 1988, the year I turned 20 years old, I'd left Spokane, WA, never (yet) to return with any kind of permanence. Instead, for half of the year I lived in Provo, UT, attending Brigham Young University, and for the other half I was in South Korea, beginning my two-year service (1988-1990) as a proselyting mission for the Mormon church. (Another long story in itself.) You might think that meant I was removed from the radio, and you'd be party right--I couldn't take American pop radio with me on my mission to Korea (though, in the form of tapes, I smuggled a fair amount of it with me). But for the first half of the year, I was exposed to the radio environment of Utah, and that changed everything.

Forget your association of Mormonism with restricted, traditionalist sects that exist in opposition to contemporary American pluralism; modern institutional American Mormonism--or at least the culture it creates--is, in fact, for better or worse, pretty much entirely at peace with American pluralism: so long as they, like any good capitalist body, can pick and choose and buy whatever parts of it, and leave the rest alone. It's for this reason, among others, that the large number of Mormons couldn't stop Salt Lake City and Provo some developing a musical culture along the same sociological lines you saw everywhere else in America where you had major university centers and lots of young single people: a thriving club and local music scene, creating a market which is hungry for the latest thing. That's what radio at BYU was like. My roommate had a boombox, so I could play all the tapes I'd made of songs I'd recorded off the radio at home, but mostly we just listened to the tunes coming out of SLC and Ogden, UT, a little further north.

The station we listened to was KJQ (or KJQN; part of the history here is disputed) 95.5 on the FM, particularly "Radio from Hell" in the morning. (And yes, we did enjoy the immature feeling of transgression listening to that show provided.) It was on this station that I heard, to my knowledge, my first Depeche Mode song (I ended up writing a paper for a philosophy class on "Blasphemous Rumors," which didn't go down well with my very pious professor) and my first Dead or Alive song (the album version of "Brand New Lover" is much better than the single version); it was this station that enabled me to finally correct my most embarrassing instance of lyrical mis-hearing (I had somehow decided that "keep it down now / voices carry" from the 'Til Tuesday hit was actually "let's go downtown / it's so scary"--and no, that doesn't make any sense to me either); this was the station which gave me my sole touch of radio glory (I called up and won some contest--I think it involved a question from George Harrison's Cloud Nine album--and received $100, which I spent on pizza for all the guys on the 4th floor of V Hall there in the BYU dorms); and this was the station that helped me realize that there actually weren't two bands from Australia, one named "I-N-X-S" and the other named "In Excess," but actually just one band. Man, was I glad I got that figured out, just in time for their smash album, Kick.

And there was U2's Rattle and Hum, of course, an album that long divided their fans but which I adore to this day. (A friend of mine from BYU, back in the day, once told me how he saw the concert film at the local theater five times in a single week, and came away determined that, no matter what the cost in time or money, someday he would have hair just like Bono's.)

And what else? The Psychedelic Furs, The Church, Gene Loves Jezebel, and of course Depeche Mode, and even more Depeche Mode, particularly all the songs from the Music for the Masses album. Plus every band that could plausibly be connected to Depeche Mode, include Yaz or Erasure. It was, in retrospect, rather funny and even somewhat comforting to realize back then that I wasn't the only pop music obsessive in the world, particularly not the only Mormon one, and thus didn't have to be the only idiot who would, back in those naive and ill-informed days, feel compelled to explain to anyone who wanted to listen why The Innocents was an awesome album and "A Little Respect" an awesome song much worth dancing too, even if the whole thing is essentially one big gay anthem.

I could go on. Suffice to say that it was thanks to KJQ and the Provo and SLC dance scene that I learned who the B-52s were, and The Replacements, and The Cure, and Bronski Beat, and more. Collectively, being overwhelmed by the New Wave all at once didn't completely erase Hall and Oates and Bruce Springsteen from my memory, but it definitely complemented them. Besides there was plenty of mainstream, R&B-inspired pop in 1988 that still registered. Of that stuff, Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" was pretty easy to justify....

...while Terrence Trent D-Arby's and George Michael's stuff was, er, less so. (Though I can remember more than one earnest rationalizer at a church dance insisting that the song "I Want Your Sex" was actually a morally sophisticated defense of heterosexual monogamy.)

In the mission field, you're not supposed to listen to pop music. I broke that rule--I couldn't make it without the stuff. Though the slim pickings available in South Korea had some interesting consequences. For one thing, I ended up spending a fair amount of time and money familiarizing myself with Korean pop music from the 1980s. Secondly, the stuff I was able to get a hold of (through contraband tapes which the missionaries would share with each other, or just stuff we would sneak off and buy on American military bases), prompted incredibly strong reactions from me. I remember that I would almost break down and cry, listening to tape of Cheap Trick's Lap of Luxury over and over again, late at night in some missionary apartment west of Seoul...

...while Bobby McFerrin's utterly innocuous and infectious "Don't Worry, Be Happy" somehow absolutely infuriated me. I suppose it was because I was unhappy and confused and stressed, and he wasn't: how dare he!! Yes, I've since recovered; thanks for asking.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 2: 1983

So, 1983, the year I turned 15, my last year in junior high (in Spokane, WA, at that time they divided up the grades K-6, 7-9, and 10-12) and the first and only year during my youth which I spent outside the public school system (my parents thought I needed a different kind of educational experience, and sent me to a private school for a year--but whatever it was supposed to help with really didn't take). I learned to drive an old pick-up truck, and I started to develop some new talents and bad habits. And, well, I listened to the radio.

By 1983, the old KREM 92.9 FM station had been sold off by its partner television station, and its new owners had christened it KZZU "The Zoo"--and it would be difficult to over-estimate the impact that station had on my particular youth cohort. I'm sure there were people in jr. high and high school who somehow found out about and listened to that elusive "college music" or "New Wave" that I was hearing about, and no doubt there were people around me listening to rap and the beginnings of hip-hop, and for that matter certainly there was plenty of country music and the burgeoning genre of Christian pop and rock to be heard as well...but for me and so many others, The Zoo was it. We listened to Don and Ken, "The Breakfast Boys," in the morning while we waited for the bus, and sometimes the bus driver would even tune into that station for us, or those who drove would listen on their car radios, and we all traded their jokes with each other and with whomever may have missed them. One time, I even recall some on-air gag they pulled, which supposedly resulted in their being fired from their jobs, and someone in one of my classes actually started a petition to get them re-hired--and by the time it reached me, over half on my fellow ninth graders at Greenacres Jr. High had signed it. It was that big.

So what music were they shoving at us? Mainstream, MOR pop music mostly, with only occasional dips into something more dangerous or alternative. I was aware of what I was missing, by now; Friday Night Videos started showing in 1983, and I quickly became an addict (at least as often as I could sneak downstairs late at night on a Friday and watch it with the volume turned way down; I wouldn't get a television of my own in my bedroom until we got one to serve as the monitor for my Commodore 64 a year or two later). But on the radio, we weren't getting the Violent Femmes's "Blister in the Sun" or the Smiths's "This Charming Man" (though my older sister definitely knew about U2 and War by then). For us younger pop-radio-listening kids, when it wasn't Michael Jackson's continuing dominance of the charts, it was MJ teaming up with someone else (I'd figured out who Paul McCartney was by this point) for "Say Say Say"...

...or else we were doing a little bit of (appropriately moderated) head-banging with any number of cuts off Def Leppard's Pyromania.

I feel like I should say something about myself and rock at this point in time. A couple of years before this point--probably around 1981--this pinhead named Lynn Bryson, who was I suppose what you'd have to call a Mormon televangelist/huckster/shake-down artist, visited the churches in our area and promptly scared the shit out of me and probably hundreds of other moderately culturally adventuresome Mormon youth. He told us all about the backmasking on "Stairway to Heaven" and what KISS and RUSH stood for ("Knights in Satan's Service" and "Raised Under Satan's Hand," respectively) and how John Lennon was a witch, etc., etc. (He also spent a long time attacking Dungeons and Dragons, but that's another topic.) I eventually got over the terror he'd afflicted upon our community, but I suspect a lot of it stayed with me for years, on some level or another; I always felt vaguely bad about liking Def Leppard, because, obviously, how can you trust a band which can't spell its own name right? Anyway, this is probably the main reason I never drifted towards anything harder that what KZZU offered, despite the fact that there were hard rock stations aplenty and more Mötley Crüe fans talking about Shout at the Devil around me at school than I could shake a stick at.

Besides, Michael Jackson was unavoidable that year; Thriller, though released the year before, was on the charts for pretty much all of 1983, with one song after another going to the top of Casey Kasem's weekly list.  Honestly, the man had us in the palm of his hand, never more so than when he showed off his dance moves...

...which I suppose should have been a harbinger of things to come: not just the displacement of radio by video, but more generally, the diversification of media, making it possible for an artist who achieves success in one format to be able to play that off against, or use it as leverage towards, or just ignore, other formats. (MJ's whole successful struggle against MTV is this story in microcosm, I guess.)

Anyway, so obviously I listened to Thriller (I confess that "P.Y.T.," possibly the stupidest song on the whole album, was my favorite) and watched all the videos. But what else was radio in Spokane giving us? Well, Genesis's move into radio-friendly pop (it would be years before I knew anything about their progressive rock history; I'd never heard any of their stuff on old KJRB), with "Taking it All Too Hard" and "That's All" of the Genesis album:

On the bubble-gum side, there was of course the arrival of Madonna with her self-titled debut album:

And on the rougher side, there was ZZ Top--though again, this was a case of diversifying media platforms driving each other. While no doubt Eliminator would have caught a lot of ears on its own, it can't be disputed that it was videos like the one for "Legs" which, um, really got a huge number of us teenage male radio listeners interested:

And then, of course, there was Huey Lewis and the News's Sports: 30 years old this year, and still sounding great.

Mainstream pop radio in Spokane wasn't completely impervious to the "second British Invasion" going on elsewhere, of course; even those of us who were listening to MOR (however putatively "edgy") rock stations like The Zoo were familiar with Boy George and the Culture Club, The Human League, the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Naked Eyes (which I can remember my older sister being surprised and complimentary at my knowing their name), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and some others. (Personally, I was particularly fond of Spandau Ballet, though most of my friends dismissed them as Duran Duran knock-offs.) But, as I said before, the real range of pop music's synth- and post-punk explosion was centered in radio markets where there was a significant number of young adults hitting the clubs and building a mutually supportive musical culture. That wasn't Spokane, at least not for this teen-age Mormon living on a farm and attending suburban schools. No Echo and the Bunnymen's Porcupine, no R.E.M.'s Murmur. But at least we had David Bowie's accidental-indulgence-in-the-modern-music-mainstream, Let's Dance...

..and most of all, The Police's masterpiece, Synchronicity...

...which so captivated us that at least one person, long before he'd ever heard of "fan fiction," proceeded to spin out this long, complicated, faux-James Bond tale which centered around some arch-villain encoding a murderous secret message on the tracks of the album, the solution to which could only be found by decoding the lyrics, and then elaborating at length about this story in the lunch room at school. (That wasn't me, by the way. Absolutely was not me.)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 1: 1978

Last week, Matt Yglesias asked why people don't remember the 1990s more fondly. (This isn't the first time he's blogged nostalgically for his Clinton-era youth.) Noah Millman and Jacob T. Levy provided some context for his reminiscences, but I wasn't having any of it: the simple--and, I think, incontrovertible--fact is that, while much which has replaced it has great merit, what used to be called "pop culture," and particularly pop music, finally tottered off and died in the early 90s, and that's something to mourn, not something to look back on fondly. In an ensuing Facebook discussion, it was made clear to me that my problem--a problem which is probably common to many American 40-somethings--is that for years and years I listened to the radio to learn about and participate in pop culture, and when the old world of radio at last collapsed (some fifteen years after the Buggles predicted it), only to be mostly replaced by something which sounded like pop radio, worked like pop radio, but quite obviously wasn't....well, let's just say it's a transition which marked a major cultural turning point in my life. The fact that other turning points (like my marriage) coincided with that moment in time are relevant, but they don't tell the whole story. The story is one of my no longer listening to the radio, and/or the radio no longer holding on to listeners like me.

I suppose, in response, I could write a long essay explaining my views about the long, slow, decline and transformation of pop radio. That would be typical of me, I know. But instead--forget that. It's the end of summer, and everyone is already waking up from vacation and getting back to work (fall semester started for us last week here at Friends); no time or desire to engage in serious introspection. So instead, I'll just follow Matt's lead, and get nostalgic. Before the Labor Day holiday closes out the frivolous summer entirely, here's some random memories, in four parts, of the decade and a half during which pop radio ruled my mind. I'm sure my reliable eight readers will be delighted.


1978, thirty-five years ago, the year I turned 10 years old. I'm pretty certain that was the year that I discovered pop radio. It's not like I wasn't already the sort of kid to play recorded music loud and dance around the living room to LPs that I played on the massive living room stereo; thanks to my mom I was, at the very least, getting pretty familiar with Broadway tunes and musical soundtracks. But I really don't think I'd paid much attention at all to pop music before then--I mean, I'm sure I picked up on this thing called "disco" from my older siblings or the television (I did watch American Bandstand on occasion, once Saturday morning cartoons had ended), but I just don't think it penetrated my thinking.

It was a cousin of mine, I believe, a kid a couple of years older than me, who turned me on. He had a radio in his bedroom, and he told me about Casey Kasem's show "American Top 40." Was I merely curious? Did I think that knowing what the best-selling records were would make me more popular at school? Was it just something that appealed to my (still abiding) desire for pointless trivia? Who knows--all I can say is that I was hooked. I somehow got a hold of an old radio and put it in my bedroom, and started listening in. I made some great discoveries--like E.G. Marshall's "CBS Radio Mystery Theater" late on Sunday nights, which I'd listen to with the sound turned way down. Mostly, though, I discovered rock and roll, though I didn't know what I was listening to at the time. The station which I gravitated to was KJRB 790, a great old AM rock (later oldies, after that sports, and now apparently all news and talk) station in Spokane, WA, that for some reason I can still remember so much about. It was, I think, the only station in the Spokane that was really playing serious rock, and while I had no idea who The Rolling Stones were, and couldn't begin to figure out the lyrics The Who were singing, I nonetheless managed to get a solid education in the harder edge of mainstream pop radio, circa 1978. Stuff like The Stones's "Beast of Burden"...

and Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"...

and The Who's "Who Are You?"...

...were what I started out with. Cuts off of Boston's Don't Look Back and Journey's Infinity were probably in there too.

But I have to be honest: radio didn't turn me into a rocker. Partly because, I suppose, I had some vague religious suspicion about the stuff I was listening to (though the real anti-rock and roll hammer wouldn't fall in our church community for a couple more years), but mostly, I think, just because at age 9 and 10, I simply couldn't make sense of a lot of it. I suppose that if KJRB was all there had been, I might have burned out on pop music entirely. But Casey Kasem and AT40 made sure I was aware of other stuff, and some of that sunk in a little deeper. There was another station, KREM 92.9, an FM station that had what I've since realized had what is called an "adult album" format, meaning that it would play a much broader range of music and had DJs that had a little more time to play around on air. Dork that I was, this was the station I would call up, asking that they play some song or another (which I did while possessing, as I said, my nerdy childhood ignorance of what I was talking about; I recall one time I requested they play the then-new Chicago tune "No Tell Lover," which I'd thought was "Hotel Lover"--I'm sure the DJs must have cracked up over the pipsqueak voice on the receiver getting the name of the song wrong). But I'm grateful for them, because it was they which gave me my two favorite songs of my early youth, and thus accidentally planted seeds for a subsequent appreciation of R&B and folk. First was the very first 45 single record I ever bought, the Spinners's cover of "Working My Way Back to You"....

...which I think I actually first heard on the radio at our local Schwinn store while I was looking for a new bike that my parents had promised to buy for me, and just thought was the grooviest damn thing I'd ever heard (assuming I even knew the word "groovy" back then). And then there was the song which led me to buy my very first commercial tape cassette, which I dearly wish I still possessed: Al Stewart's Time Passages. I had to steal a tape recorder from my parents to play it, and I ruined it by listening, then rewinding, then listening, again and again to just the title track:

Why did this song resonate with me? I have no idea. Maybe even as a child I was longing to, somehow, be what I imagined to be an older, worldy-wise person, with adult responsibilities and desires and regrets. Maybe I was just always a fogey in some manner or another, or a sucker for nostalgia. Or maybe I loved it just because it was so utterly anti-disco. (It's probably the same reason why I couldn't get enough, in 1978, of "With a Little Luck" or "Right Down the Line," even though I wouldn't learn who Paul McCartney or Gerry Rafferty were for years.) Anyway, it's clear that KREM's pop ethos had planted it's roots deep in my pop music soul. (Though why and how I also ended memorizing--accurately this time--the complete lyrics of Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler," also released in 1978, I have no idea.) 

Of course, I was missing so much. No Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, no The Scream by Siouxsie and the Banshees, no Todd Rundgren or Peter Garbiel or Squeeze. Spokane wasn't offering much in terms of what I guess at the time was probably called "college radio." That would bother me, later. But that's another part of the story.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Orson Scott Card, Unoriginal Fantasist

So, I see exploding all over the internet the news that science-fiction author Orson Scott Card has waxed lyrical (at nearly 3000 words) about a "silly thought experiment" in which President Obama--who is a vicious and contemptuous tyrant at heart--uses his backroom Machiavellian flunkies to destroy Hillary Clinton's incipient candidacy for the 2016 Democratic nomination by pinning the Benghazi on her, after which he orchestrates Michelle Obama's election to the presidency, effectively allowing him to maintain power behind the scenes. So far, so typical, insofar as far right-wing fantasies go. But Card (who I will still defend as having once been one of the greatest science-fiction short-story writers of all time) isn't stupid. He knows that if he wants his "game of Unlikely Events" to actually have the sort of rhetorical legs he obviously wishes it to, then he's got to do more:

As a student of history, allow me to spin a plausible scenario about how, like Augustus Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolph Hitler, and Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama could become lifetime dictator without any serious internal opposition...Obama needs to have a source of military power that is under his direct control. Like Hitler, he needs a powerful domestic army to terrify any opposition that might arise....He needs Brown Shirts -- thugs who will do his bidding without any reference to law. So, Obama will claim we need a national police force in order to fight terrorism and crime. The Boston bombing is a useful start, especially when combined with random shootings by crazy people. Where will he get his "national police"? The NaPo will be recruited from "young out-of-work urban men" and it will be hailed as a cure for the economic malaise of the inner cities. In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama's enemies.

This is the passage everyone is--rightly--focusing on, because this is where the crazy gets serious. And that's all fine and good; no doubt Glenn Beck is kicking himself for not having latched onto this little bit of anti-Obama fictionalizing already. But while everyone rolls their eyeballs (or, I suppose, gobbles it all up as The Honest Truth), no one seems to have pointed out that someone has already told this exact same story. That, in short, Card, once a tremendous fantasist, is trotting out some fairly lame and well-worn paranoia here. How well-worn? Well, how about the fact that this plot twist was the climax to a popular British television program, also a story of a chief executive's grasp of completely power, twenty years ago? Behold:

So, this is what I think. Card, stewing about the collapse of Western civilization and American power and traditional marriage from his home in North Carolina as he is apparently somewhat want to do, was playing around on Netflix, and stumbled on to To Play the King. "Oh my gosh," he thinks to himself, "this is it! Obama is actually Francis Urquhart! I've got to get this in print--no one has imagined this parallel before!!" And so off he goes, spinning out his tale. The problem, of course, is that every minimally literate Tea Partier, whether or not they ever watch the BBC (and I guess, why would they? it's socialist, after all!), has long since imagined this and numerous other lurid scenarios, the stories which lay out such political fantasies having been long since absorbed into the popular imagination. Which, in the end, is my only real beef here. Look, if you're the sort of person who believes that an unfortunately moderate-progressive liberal president who is manifestly friendly to Wall Street and the corporate powers that be is actually a charming, faux-patriotic secret fascist who is plotting the overthrow of the United States of America--or at least the sort of person who enjoys entertaining such notions to keep you fired up during the day--more power to you. But if you're Orson Scott Card, professional writer, couldn't you at least come up with something a little more original? I mean, honestly.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kristin Chenoweth Ought To Sue

Not because this performance does her any disservice, but because Christina Biaco just did Chenoweth's own shtick better than she ever has.

Thoughts on Elshtain

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a profound and important political theorist and ethicist, died yesterday I was lucky enough to have met her perhaps a handful of times, being able to ask her a question or two about this or that work of hers, at various conferences and dinners over the years. I wish I could have known her better, and learned from her more, because far more than any of the other philosophers and theologians I've felt inspired to write encomiums to before, Elshtain's work mixed theory, politics, history, and faith together in a way which mattered to me deeply. Save perhaps Charles Taylor or G.A. Cohen or Fred Dallmayr, I can't think of another scholar whose intellectual work overlapped with my own professional life that mattered to me more.

The surprising part of that claim, as I acknowledged it to myself yesterday, is that its heart is not to be found in Elshtain's major works of scholarship. Her work on Jane Addams is an important addition to her many writings on democracy and civil society over the years; her book on Augustine was hugely influential to my thinking about Christian realism; and her earlier writings on women in the context of both war and public life, most crucially her twin essays "Antigone's Daughters" and "Antigone's Daughters Reconsidered," are essential texts in second-wave "difference feminism." All that I know (and I haven't even mentioned her final major work, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, based on her Gifford Lectures, mainly because I haven't gotten around to reading it yet)...and yet, that's not the stuff which made her voice so vital to my own reflections. No, the Elshtain that mattered to me was the public intellectual of the mid-1990s, the author of numerous essays and reviews for First Things (which posted a fine, brief tribute to her yesterday) and The New Republic, and of a short, wonderful book (a revision of her Massey Lectures), Democracy on Trial, which I have used multiple times in my classes over the years. The voice Elshtain used in those comparatively short writings was a kind but trenchantly common-sensical one, the voice of someone of genuinely conservative cultural and religious sensibilities who was dealing honestly and straightforwardly with the manner in which social and economic changes--many of which she openly acknowledged to be positive--were obliging those in her camp to be clear and uncompromising on just what they wished to conserve, and why. For Elshtain, the what was, primarily, a well-marked out public space, one which separated the public from the private (a distinction which she saw grounded significantly in the real, bodily, natural characteristics and rhythms of men and women and children and family life), and which thereby opened up a space for open-minded (but never abstract or theory-driven) education and debate and compromise. The why of such a space was very simple: the possibility of genuine democracy, and the civic virtues which popular self-government make possible. Hence, Elshtain was a conservative defender of culture, community, manners, and tradition for the sake of good democratic government and civil society--which meant that those trends and ideas which she challenged, while often overlapping which those whom conservative Republicans throughout the Clinton years already regularly and gleefully attacked, were approached in a manner that made her words stand out. Certainly, at the very least, they stood out for me.

At the time, I considered Elshtain's arguments to be of a piece with those of various communitarian writers, both left and right: William Galston, Michael Sandel, Amitai Etzioni, and others. There's a good deal of truth in that association. Like Alan Wolfe or Mary Ann Glendon, she saw the language of rights as being "increasingly [expressed] in individualistic terms as their civic dimensions withered on the vine"; like Robert Putnam, she was very concerned with social capital, and wrote persuasively about how the "black and white, winner-take-all" model of juridical politics "preempts democratic contestation and a politics of respect and melioration"; and like Sheldon Wolin, she feared that the "new ideology of difference" represented a kind of "exclusionist sameness," one that would dissolve the more important category of "citizen," within which, by contrast, a "broad measure of[s] a notion of membership that entails equality of rights, responsibilities, and treatment" (Democracy on Trial [1995], 14-15, 27, 74-75). To this day, I am comfortable describing Elshtain as part of that post-Reagan movement to dig deeper into and do more with the explosive transformation of American (and international) liberalism following the end of the Cold War, to add civic republicanism and participatory democracy--or, in other words, to add Alexis Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt--to American political discourse. In the years before 9/11--after which Elshtain's own political sympathies and her deep connection to the Augustianian/Niebuhrian tradition of realism led her (like many others, unfortunately) to mostly accept without much dispute Bush's War on Terror--her arguments stood as a powerful conservative complement to what might be seen as a broad work of vital communitarian renewal.

But now, in retrospect, I wonder if it might not be more accurate to describe her voice during those years as one that played a part--perhaps a small one, but perhaps not--in laying the groundwork for a different, more localist and more realistic, conservatism. The kind of conservatism I have in mind here was, of course, pretty much completely foreign to the Reagan years, and during the Bush years it took refuge in various libertarian, traditionalist, and/or paleoconservative corners....but which today, in our moment of technological and financial overreach and social and sexual transformation, it has found itself, I think, echoed (if not strongly affirmed) by certain mainstream voices in surprising ways. I go back to her review-essay "Suffer the Little Children," a harsh--but with a tragic, rather than a vindictive or mean tone--takedown of Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village (and book which, I should note, I like and am willing to defend), published in The New Republic on March 4, 1996, and I see in it not just a sharp democratic and civic rejection of the cult of expertise, but an insistence on putting modernity's cultural costs to the family (particularly those costs which flow from educational attainments, economic diversification, and the general suburbanization and professionalization of American society) front and center:

I am no a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshhold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it anyway? Here Clinton makes one of the more lamentable moves in her book. She is dead-on about the importance of being attuned to the needs of infants, feeding them, cuddling them, holding them, but in a discussion of the fact that there is not "substitute for regular, undivided attention from parents" we learn that the "biggest difference" that emerged from a study she cites and endorses, was "in the sheer amount of talking that occurred" in various households. It is no surprise that Clinton favors the chattering classes, but she proceeds to malign poor and working-class parents because they interact less with their children....

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....Don't get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn't have to...[suffer]. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything and tell people struggling against enormous odds that they are doing a crummy job. Sometimes Clinton understands this, sometimes she doesn't ("Suffer the Little Children," 36, 38).

Harsh, as I said. But then Elshtain turns that same analysis on herself:

Those of us who have departed our villages and taken up residence in more complicated places should, in an unblinkered way, face the fact that we are not doing exactly what are parents and grandparents did. Some things were lost; something we gave up. This hit me with great force when, with my husband and children, I drove out of my grandmother's yard about twenty years ago. She was by then utterly bowed over--the years of stoop labor [Elshtain's family, as she explains in this essay, had come to northern Colorado in her grandparents' time as immigrant labor, working the beet fields] had taken their toll--but she came out to the car for a last goodbye, thrusting into my arms more homemade noodles, another loaf of rye bread, freshly gathered eggs, a new apron, another remarkable quilt. What would I had to my own grandchildren, I wondered, as they lingered in the yard with their own families? Will I give them offprints of articles? Copies of my latest books? I suppose I will. But I will not comfort myself with the notion that this is the same as rye bread and quilts. It isn't. I made a choice. That is sometimes called growing up ("Suffer the Little Children," 38).

Elshtain does not condemn herself for her choices, nor does she condemn (at least not whole-heartedly) the Baby Boomer mentality that she was born only a few years in advance of--on the contrary, as those who knew her and know her writings well can attest, she had no interest whatsoever in defending those whose conservatism would lead them to reject the progress which the social and economic choices of women like Jane Addams had pointed towards. Ever the Augustinian, she just wanted to insist that the conservative agenda she supported never reduce itself to a Panglossian best-of-both-worlds utopianism. Conserving certain things did not mean being able to graft those things without change on the present situation. Instead, her conservatism was of an Oakshottian sensibility. She wished to conserve the traditional family--just like she wanted to conserve the simple, direct, communal (and non technologically mediated) public space--because she thought those to be the best possible arenas for people to learn how to work out, and live with, the limitations and tragic compromises which attend all our lives. That's a powerful claim, one rooted in an (I think, at least) essentially incontestable, deeply Aristotelian, philosophical anthropology. We really are, I believe, creatures of community, beings whose language and whole ability to interpret and interact with the given world simply reveals how much our mutual belonging conditions us, intellectually and otherwise. Even if--as I strongly suspect would have been the case between Elshtain and I, if we'd somehow have been able to have a conversation about same-sex marriage or some similar topic--we would have come out on different sides of any given argument over what all that natural and social belonging obliges us recognize and what it obliges us to reject, we nonetheless would have shared enough fundamentals regarding our limits and our place as human beings to be able to productively talk about it. And, ultimately, keeping such democratic conversations going--conserving their basic moral and civic requirements, as it were--was, from all of what I read by her, her most important intellectual goal. That's the sort of conservatism that I want be a part of, and I am in Elshtain's debt for having helped me see, a little bit better, just what it entailed.

I would have liked it if Elshtain's communitarian and democratic sensibilities had directed her to think more about economic matters as opposed to cultural ones, and while I value her culturally-attuned engagements in foreign policy, I think ultimately she made the same mistake many others of us did: allowed her own theory (in her case, a putatively hard-headed "realism") to guide her thinking about the actual people and actual institutions conducting this actual war. But for now, I'm not thinking about where I believe she went wrong; I'm thinking about how often her arguments, even when they didn't persuade me, pointed me in the right direction. There won't be any more of that now from her, which is our loss. Jean Bethke Elshtain, requiescat in pace.

The Big Two-Oh.

On a Friday the 13th, twenty years ago today--or twenty years ago, less about six hours from now--Melissa Madsen and I were married in Salt Lake City, Utah. I've commemorated our anniversary as the years have gone by several times here on the blog, so there's probably not much more worth saying on this particular occasion. Twenty years is a pretty momentous anniversary, though, so I suppose I ought to try to come up with something. Let me keep it brief:

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say,
"I love her for her smile--her look--her way
Of speaking gently,--for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day"--
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee--and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry:
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity.

Except my own expressions to Melissa don't fit Browning's recommendations here at all; I'm constantly coming up with reasons for why I find her so funny, so attractive, so intelligent, so supportive, so sexy, so forgiving, etc. Maybe I can try again?

"You're the best friend / that I ever had / I've been with you such a long time / You're my sunshine"--yeah, that works pretty well. But how about just this? As I put it exactly ten years ago:

I think that perhaps the most important reason we had a good beginning was the fact that we were both ready to begin. We were in love, yes; we had our families behind us, true; we had some good plans and goals and some sense of how to achieve them, absolutely. But I think, most crucially, we were settled on what we were doing. Forget about this single life stuff. A pox on the dating scene. To hell with being at loose ends. We wanted to be committed, stuck together, sealed, put on the path and pushed out the door. And we were.

Happy anniversary, Melissa. See you here in 2033, deal?

Friday, August 02, 2013

Home Improvement

Well, it's Friday, August 2--which means I only have about ten days left before all the meetings and the mad preparations for fall semester begin. Time to take some stock about what I've been doing for the past two and a half months. Clearly, the big theme this summer for the Fox family has been the dumping of time and effort--and money--into our home. Some of this was the result of events outside of our control, some was stuff that we just couldn't wait on any longer, and some of it was the execution of some plans long in the making. So, to run down the list chronologically:

1) Ever since we lost our flowering pear in the front yard to a windstorm two years ago, we've been intending to build a strawberry and flower patch in its place. Early this summer, after finally being able to budget for the bricks, after finally trucking in the dirt and laying the foundation, we spent an afternoon getting it all set up. Front yard, check.

2) Not long after that, as the first wave's of Kansas's usual summer heat it, our home's ancient air conditioner went kaput. The last time this had happened, a friend of ours from church had managed to score us some R-22 freon, which at that time was already becoming rare, so as to nurse the old machine along, along with repairing various leaks. This year, though, the same friend said it was hopeless; with R-22 being fazed out in place of R-410, repairing the old unit would both be ridiculously expensive, and wouldn't last long anyway. The result? A brand new air conditioner, which works splendidly--and began our summer-long retreat from our brief, glorious positive credit card balance.

3) Perhaps ironically (or is it, actually? English majors or Alanis Morissette, help me out here), this summer has been a great deal cooler and wetter than the last couple. This has had some interesting consequences for choices we'd made for around the house. Example number one: we had some ideas about low-impact gardening this year: no tilling, minimal weeding, etc. The idea, in part, was to accommodate our expectations to what we assumed would be a typical hot, dry Kansas summer. It started out exactly as I hoped, and then...well, the rain started in earnest. I'm not complaining about the results, mind you; the cucumbers have done crazy. And Kristen and I have had some fun mornings out weeding, trying to keep things at least somewhat under control. But laying down grass clippings and other ground cover haven't kept the garden nearly as "low-impact" as I thought might be the case.

Example number two: we'd been talking for years about how we need to install at least a couple of rain barrels at corners of our house, as a water-saving measure. And this year, we finally got those barrels installed--taking advantage of, it must be admitted, a city rebate program to try to encourage Wichitans to conserve water. Which is a great idea, and the barrels look great....though, thanks to all the rain, we actually haven't used their water storage for irrigation purposes even once.

4) While it wasn't an outside improvement, which is what this post is focusing on, I suppose I should mention that both our dishwasher and laptops went kaput this summer as well. The cost of replacing the latter was just an outright loss, but as for the former, at least we could still make use of the aforementioned rebate....

5) The story of this summer's--still incomplete!--tale of home improvements wouldn't be finished without mentioning the wind storm which took out our power for three days and did all sorts of damage to our property. For the first time, after seven years in this house, we took out an insurance claim. The roof suffered enough damage that it needed replacing (actually, both the house and the shed roof were included in the claim, but as we're someday just going to knock the whole shed down and build another, we've not bothering with using any insurance money there), and we've got that set up to be taken care of in a couple of weeks. But what about our fence? Well, it was just wood panels, and once you factor in the depreciation, our insurance policy wasn't offering us nearly enough to replace all of it, as we'd hoped. So what did we do? Hire some students of mine, of course!

Josh Hicks, Jake Allan, and Karl Watson had, between the three of them, more than enough muscle-power and know-how and tools to get it all done (even though it involved Josh taking time off from finish his summer course, Jake taking time off from work, and Karl hobbling around our muddy yard with a broken foot in a cast). We did try to make it worth their while by providing them with food....

...and the younger kids insisting on helping me and my students out some of the time...

...but the result was pretty sweet, if I say so myself.

So, overall, an expensive but productive summer around the house. Now, to just figure out a way to pay for it all....