Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Songs of '78: "Fire"

Last time, talking about Chic's awesome disco tune "Le Freak," I confessed that as, a not-quite-10-year-old listening to rock music on my radio in Spokane, WA, I hardly received a thorough introduction to the world of pop music. Lots of bluesy, folky, proggy, and/or just plain hard pop-rock, yes, and lots of soulful white-boy soft rock too. But the African-American side of things--the R&B and funk roots of disco? Nope, not much. Hopefully I've repaired my less than perfect launch into the world of pop in the decades sense, though I don't repent of my love for Warren Zevon, The Cars, Al Stewart, Van Halen, The Who, Jackson Browne, or the Rolling Stones for anything. Still, looking back on it all, the skewing of my 1978-radio ear is really pronounced.

Anyway, this is another song that breaks the pattern. Yes, it's a Bruce Springsteen song. And yes, by this point The Pointer Sisters had left their early years in jazz, gospel, and R&B behind, just going wherever their vocal muses carried them ("Fire" was the lead single off their album Energy, which also featured songs written by Loggins and Messina and Steely Dan). But none of that matters; the Sisters brought both torch-song heat and some wicked slow-burning fun to this tune--check out the video below, in which Ruth keeps playing the air guitar or the air keyboards while providing backing vocals--and, frankly, it's ten times more memorable of Springsteen's own rather desultory recording of the song, released nearly ten years after this gem. 40 years after the day of its release, The Pointer Sister's "Fire" still burns.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Songs of '78: "Le Freak"

Considering how dominant disco was in 1978--as I noted way back in February, it was unavoidable that year--not a lot of disco stands out in my memories, whether real or reconstructed, of what I was listening to on the radio that year. Some of that has to do with the stations I was listening to, of course, and probably some of it had to do with the thoroughly white, partly rural, partly suburban, and entirely nerdy person that my post-pubescent self was turning into. From loud pop-rock to introspective soft-rock, I drank it in--but dance music? The Bee Gees, of course, and I suppose Barry Manilow if you squint--and if you accept David Byrne's word for it, disco was always lurking around his post-punk Talking Heads stuff as well. But generally speaking, my appreciation of everything that disco was a part of then and what it has become since--soul, funk, R&B, and more--was still some years off back in 1978.

With one exception: Chic's "Le Freak." I never owned the album this came off--looking at the track listing, I've probably never listened to the whole thing through--and it wasn't until I was an adult and started paying closer attention to the producers and session musicians on the recordings I liked that I realized what a musical genius Niles Rodgers is. So how is it that this particular disco song, released forty years ago today, made it into my head? I think, in retrospect, it has to be Bernie Edwards's bass line. I mean, just listen. Isn't just the best you've ever heard? I kind of think so.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Songs of '78: "Beast of Burden"

Twice before I've showcased my love for Some Girls. There are songs that came out in 1978--whether I remember listening to them on the radio 40 years ago, or have built them retroactively into my memories of that year--while I love more than any of these Rolling Stones tunes, that's for certain. But the album as a whole holds, nonetheless, an untouchable mystique too it, I think. In fact, Some Girls embodies my Platonic vision of the Stones--Mick, Keith, Ron, Bill, and Charlie, having survived the 1970s (almost!), all of them still standing, still in possession of that bluesy energy, that sexual power, that rock and roll groove, that English naughtiness which launched them into the stratosphere with their great albums of the late 1960s. I will respectfully listen to and often really like just about any recordings by the Stones, from the mid-1960s up through the mid-1990s--but it is this album, which Jagger mainly conceived and orchestrated alone (Richards was dealing with the fall-out of his arrest for drug possession in Canada), reflecting influences of punk and funk and the times in general, that I think represents their peak. And "Beast of Burden," released as a single 40 years ago today, just might be its peak track.

It's interesting that "Beast" was mainly written by Richards, though Jagger played with the lyrics and the tempo, turning it into the slow, almost-but-never-quite punky jam which we know and love. It was certainly the first Rolling Stones song I memorized, and I make no apologies to singing it, shamelessly and at great volume along with the song as it came off my precious Some Girls tape as I drove Melissa somewhere on a date way back in 1993. She married me, so it must work at least a little bit. So Mick, Keith, and everyone else--thanks!

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Songs of '78: "Time Passages"

"Time Passages," the first song released from--and the first song in the track listing of--Al Stewart's album of the same name, is probably responsible, more than any other single song, for this list's existence and my constant return to pop music and the radio for four decades of life (so far). It was the first piece of music I ever purchased (a tape cassette, the other songs on which I can barely remember, but which I destroyed from years of listening to this one song and then rewinding and listening to it again, probably hundreds of times over the years), and no other song from my early radio-listening years has stayed with me so constantly, being renewed in my memory in association with dozens of particular moments. I can remember thinking about "Time Passages" while watching clouds drop lower along the Wasatch Mountains just east of BYU's campus in Provo, UT, while I was there as an undergraduate. I can remember thinking about it while driving a moving truck along a mostly empty Ohio interstate, late in the afternoon, with my then-new wife and an old friend asleep in the front seat beside me. I can remember thinking about it while holding Melissa's and my first child--Megan, then about 10 days old and asleep in my arms--as I sat on the futon in our second apartment in Washington DC while I was in graduate school, and wondered: what the hell have we gotten ourselves into? I remember this song so damn much.

Why? What is it about this jazzy, lyrically folky, smooth piece of 70s soft rock that enabled it to send roots deeper into my musical consciousness than probably any other song I have ever heard? Hard to say. Maybe it was because, on some level, even as a 9 and 10-year-old, my consciousness was tuned to reflection and regret. Even as a little kid I was weirdly conscious of the passage of time--not in a morbid way, but one that left me thinking about how all was transitory; that there was always going to be another thing after this one. I suppose the mature Christian belief I hold to today, the faith that there is a God who is the Author of our existence--and that, as such, everything I say or do is secondary, an addendum, to the real business of my being here, which is by no means tied to any particular work I may do--was perhaps fated. Maybe I was bound to end up thinking this way, because I was the sort of person who, as a child, could hear a simple romantic lyric of longing like "The things you lean on are the things that don't last," and think to myself: oh yeah, that's the truth.

Oh well. Who knows? Forty years ago on this day, Al Stewart released a song, and it's a beautiful one, whether it makes your mind run deep or not. There was no video for it, but this live concert footage is wonderful. The fact that Stewart, at the conclusion of this passionate rendition of his humble little song, promises to be back in 20 minutes and then just causally walks off the stage fills me with a kind of bittersweet delight. Just about a perfect exit, says I. Would that we all could do the same.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Songs of '78: "Lights"

"Lights" was the final single released off of Journey's wonderful album Infinity, which had already produced two earlier--and, musically speaking, probably better--hit singles in 1978: "Wheel in the Sky" and "Feeling That Way." "Wheel," in particular, was a much bigger hit that "Lights"; I can't think of when I first heard this particular song, though it probably wasn't in 1978 (I didn't listen to the whole album through until years after it was released). But still, I've waited until August, when this single was released 40 years ago, to flag Journey and this album, because "Lights" has become, for me and for so many people, a simply iconic representation of Steve Perry's sound and overall sensibility. It's a song with a deep, driving longing to it, but also a kindness too (Perry astonishing natural alto--a pretty rare voice--was often heavy with emotion, but was never threatening, I think). Originally written about Los Angeles, he and the band realized that making it about their real home base, San Francisco, made the lyrics scan so much better. They were right.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Five Essential Aretha Franklin Performances (R.I.P.)

The Queen of Soul is dead. Except--scratch that. Yes, she absolutely was the dominant female soul, R&aB, and gospel singer of her (and our) time--but she was more than that. I'm hardly capable of exercising any musical authority here, but for whatever my poor opinion is worth, she was one of the dozen or so simply untouchable giants of female vocal performance in the entire history of recorded music, period. Karen Carpenter, Tina Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Dolly Parton, Sarah Vaughn, Annie Lennox, Mahalia Jackson, Eva Cassidy, Dusty Springfield, Gladys Knight, Etta James, Barbara Streisand--I think she stood with or surpassed them all.

Five performances, out of hundreds that could have been chosen. Pay tribute, y'all.

"Chain of Fools," winning her first Grammy in 1967:

"Amazing Grace," from 1972. The song was written for her, I think:

"Think," from The Blues Brothers, 1980. Perfection:

"Freeway of Love," 1985. Yes, she did pop music too. Better than you.

Finally, throwing it all on the floor with "Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. If we take this as her final great performance--well, what an exit:

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Thoughts on the Evolution of Mormon Political Engagement

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University put up on their website today a forum in which different scholars were invited to opine on "The Evolution of Mormon Political Engagement." It includes contributions from Kathleen Flake, Nate Oman, Patrick Mason, Gregory Prince, Luke Perry, and myself. I'm including below the fold my original, pre-edited piece for the Berkley Center; hopefully it will encourage readers to check out all of the contributions. As the election season comes upon us once again, while the "Mormon Moment" may be over (for now), the question of American Mormons think and act politically remains as interesting--at least to people like me--as ever.

For many observers, American Mormons are best summed up politically by describing them as a white conservative Republican voting-bloc in the American West. Given that Utah, the home of the faith’s headquarters and a state whose population is over 55% Mormon, consistently elects Republican majorities to the state legislature and hasn’t given a majority of its votes in a presidential contest to a Democrat since 1964–just to pick two examples–this simple summary may seem accurate.

And yet, it isn’t entirely. While more American Mormons have expressed support for President Trump than have members of any other Christian group in America, Utah has at the same time shown one of the highest levels of support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws of any state in the country, and American Mormons have expressed greater support for providing illegal immigrants with a straightforward path to citizenship than have any other Republican-friendly Protestant group. How to explain these seeming inconsistencies?

To answer this question requires understanding the comprehensiveness of Mormon life. While the Mormons are hardly Amish, the faith’s strongly communitarian past–a result of its 19th-century history, including both its experiences with persecution and its struggles to build radically egalitarian communities across the American West–set a tone that, in a very different context, is to a degree still perpetuated to this day. In addition, Mormonism’s leadership structure is profoundly hierarchical, and has established, through the design and administration of Mormonism’s congregations, a self-reinforcing culture of usually insular norms and practices. Many of these are often joyful to members, but they are also time-consuming and presume obedience to both local and general church leaders. Thus, when all is said and done, most American Mormons tend to be rather collective in their actions and opinions–and that crosses over to politics.

Of course, much of this could be said to one degree or another about the political socialization of other regional, religious, or racial grouping. But it is also clear that Mormons–in comparison to historically Protestant white America, anyway–stand out as a uniquely disciplined bunch. Different scholars have studied the dynamics of this unity, which is always challenged by America’s broader culture of diversity and individual choice. David Campbell and J. Quin Monson, in particular, have discussed Mormons’ tendency to create a norm-strengthening “sacred tabernacle” wherever the go, and how, within such collectivities, Mormons are a “dry kindling,” ready to quickly respond to whatever political threat or priority that church leaders impress upon the community. (Of course, kindling burns hot but is quickly exhausted–a point these scholars have made in observing that Utah’s population, most of whom were Mormon, went directly against the statements of church leaders in voting to overturn Prohibition by ratifying the 21st Amendment in 1933.)

Does that mean the secret of the Mormon/Republican alignment today is entirely a function of the church’s (overwhelmingly white, Intermountain Western, and male) leadership? Mostly, yes. It’s unclear how far church leaders could carry that alignment in 2018, but given that they have, over the past century–and particularly ever since the anti-Prohibition debacle–consciously limited any political intersections with the church’s religious mission, such a prospect is unlikely to be tested in the near future. LDS Church leaders have, in contrast to the 19th and early 20th century, steadfastly refused to associate church teachings with ordinary political matters, instead reserving their limited yet potent influence over their flock to explicitly “moral” issues. And since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the Mormon position on those issues have ended up grounding generations of American Mormons in the Republican party.

The fact that most American Mormons have been led, to a great degree, to the Republican party through religious-cultural authority and family and congregational tradition, means that their commitment to that party does not consistently follow the same ideological justifications employed by other conservative voters. So, for example, Mormons were one of the primary forces behind the last-ditch effort to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage, because church leaders called for them to so act. But they have similarly seen it is as their Christian duty to provide even those many regard as sinful with the full protection of the law. Similarly, the deep commitment the church has to missionary work and building Zion communities has resulted in huge numbers of Mormon missionaries spreading from the Intermountain West around the world, and many of those they convert to the church coming to Mormon concentrations in America–with the result that protecting the flock and avoiding cultural conflict has mandated that American Mormons moderate whatever conservative beliefs about illegal immigration they may have held in the name of compassion and forgiveness. And so on.

On any particular political issue, Mormons may not be, when one isolates all other variables, any more consistent in their opinions than any other group of mostly white, mostly western, religiously observant Americans. But make that issue something whose moral significance has inspired statements one way or another from church leaders in Salt Lake City, and the group as a whole will usually express themselves with pronounced uniformity and effectiveness–whether against abortion or pornography or underage drinking, or in favor of loosening adoption restrictions or protecting the civil rights of religious believers, of whatever faith. The fact that such policies, and thus most American Mormons, have generally found a home in the Republican party is the result of a confluence of cultural factors and political habits that have a history more than a half-century old by now, rather than the result of a Mormon-Republican conspiracy.

As for the future, there is little reason to expect much change in these collective dynamics–but there could be much change in the parties that have, in part, shaped themselves in response to millions of mostly regionally concentrated voters. Donald Trump may have the political support of the majority of American Mormons, but their opinion of him–of his dishonesty, his adulteries, and his crudity–remains very low. Evan McMullin, a third-party candidate who explicitly presented himself as a conservative alternative to Trump, captured over 20% of the vote in Utah in 2016. If Trump continues to remake the Republican party in his image, it’s quite possible that eventually some critical mass of American Mormons will discover another partisan home for following through on church leaders’ priorities. But given the in-group tendencies at work here, it is unlikely that such a possibility will unfold without some church leaders making a move first.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Twenty-Five Years

We married on Friday, August 13, 1993--but we first met in a college newsroom. And really, shouldn't everyone?

Happy anniversary, Melissa. Love you!

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

What's the Matter with Kris Kobach?

[I put some thoughts about last night's Kansas primary election results up on Facebook this morning, and Chris Suellentrop, an editor at Politico, asked if I'd like to expand on one of my arguments for the magazine. The result--edited, polished, and punched-up--is here. Below is the original, slightly longer, and hopefully a little more nuanced version. Enjoy.]

As I write this, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach leads Governor Jeff Colyer by fewer than 200 votes in our state's Republican primary. Neither has conceded, and even the least contentious possible outcome will inevitably involve further delays, possible recounts, and bad feelings. A divisive Republican primary is obviously hardly bad news for local Democrats--but I'm confident that a win by Colyer, rather than Kobach, would have been the best news of all.

Nationally, this may strike some as surprising. Wouldn't the Democratic candidate (long-time state senator Laura Kelly, an old and close friend of former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius and a politician well-connected to the state's Democratic power base in the northeast corner of the state) naturally prefer to run against a polarizing and unpopular figure like Kobach? After all, this is a man who has barnstormed across the country, selling barely-hidden nativism and immigrant-bashing, involving himself in failed lawsuits and political crusades that have left cities with legal bills in the millions and personal contempt charges which he's been able to foist upon Kansas taxpayers to pay in his behalf. He embraced President Trump's completely groundless claims about "millions" of undocumented residents voting in American elections, was appointed by Trump himself to lead an panel determined to expose this scandal, which of course ignominiously disbanded when no evidence could be found, and accusations about the false information Kobach's peddled through that panel are plentiful. (Kobach's own personal crusade to find illegal voting has resulted, in nearly eight years in office, all of nine convictions.) On top of all this, he simply hasn't done a very good job as Secretary of State; despite all his Fox News-broadcast concern about stamping out voter irregularities, technological glitches and confused instructions--many of them  related to Kobach's own legally blocked crusade to change citizenship requirements for voting and create new rules for purging the voter rolls in the state of Kansas--continue to be endemic. So what Democrat wouldn't want to run against a target like that, especially in a conservative state like Kansas where Democrats need to divide the opposition and recruit moderate Republicans to their cause?

The problem with this analysis isn't that it's wrong; it's that it's incomplete. A deeper appreciation of the current context in Kansas, of the history of the state Democratic and Republican parties, and of the unique challenges which Kobach may bring to this race is necessary.

First, it's not enough to say that Kansas is a conservative state. It is, of course, for a host of demographic and cultural reasons. But it is also a profoundly Republican state, with the close association between that political party and the attitudes and perspectives of the majority of the states (white) citizens extending back practically to the moment of state's entrance to the union on the brink of the Civil War. The Republican lock on state politics and its federal representatives isn't absolute--but it's pretty close. (Kansas hasn't elected a non-Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1939, and the last time Republicans lost control of the state senate was 1917.) Kansas was more riled by the Populist insurgency of the 1890s and early 1900s than any other state, but unlike elsewhere in America, the Democrats were not able to build on that insurgency, and Republican dominance returned in force.

The result of this long-time party dominance has meant, of course, that factions within that dominant party became more entrenched and, sometimes, combative. By the 1950s and 1960s, it was simply an accepted fact in Kansas politics that policy would always be determined by the relative, shifting, factional strength of three groups: conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, and--always in third place--the Democrats. Over the last four decades of the 20th century though, that triangulation enabled Kansas's political class to maintain fairly stable, and relatively sustainable, fiscal policies, not to mention generally only moderately conservative cultural policies, with Democrats occupying the governor's mansion for 28 of the past 60 years, with Sebelius (and her Lt. Governor, Mark Parkinson, who took her place for the final two years of her terms when she left to become President Obama's director of Department of Health and Human Services in 2008) being the most recent. It is Sebelius herself (who had built up an very effective--if unfortunately very personal and region-specific--network of Democratic fundraisers and activists within Kansas through the 1980s and 1990s) who is frequently credited with a common adage in Kansas politics: "Democrats don't win in Kansas; Republicans lose." That is, when the Republican party can't unify its factions, or when they are burdened with a candidate that various intra-party factions dislike, Democrats have a window of opportunity.

This is what Democrats--and really, everyone on the left in Kansas--have been anticipating ever since the 2016 election. While nationwide the election of Trump left millions of liberals, progressives, socialists, and just plain ordinary Democrats feeling shellacked, here in Kansas those of us on the left could console ourselves with results that showed the "Brownback Revolution" finally coming apart. As is well known to anyone who ever Googled "Kansas" or "Brownback" or "tax experiment" anytime in the past six years, Sam Brownback, elected governor in 2010, brought with him into the legislature a core group of passionate, deluded believers in the old supply-side economic gospel; in 2012 he orchestrated successful primary challenges against multiple moderate Republicans, which when all was said and done effectively put one conservative faction entirely in charge of the state Republican party. The result was a "march to zero" plan to turn Kansas into a no-income-tax state, a plan that flew in the face of fiscal reality and had devastating consequences for Kansas's education funding, roads, and social services, to say nothing of the state's credit rating and overall socio-economic health. The dispiriting nadir for Kansas Democrats was Brownback's re-election in 2014; since then, through the 2016 primaries and elections where Republican moderates and Democrats finally started to push back, through Brownback's departure for a diplomatic post in January 2018 with a miserable approval rating, we have been watching the window for Democrats to make a showing in the state capital of Topeka only widen.

Jeff Coyler, the current governor, has barely had six months to build up any kind of momentum, and as Brownback's Lt. Governor, he has a near-impossible tightrope to walk. He has been obliged, by fiscal reality, legislative action, and state supreme court decisions, to acquiesce to dialing back Brownback's irresponsible vision and moving back towards more sustainable approaches to taxation and school funding, meaning he found himself occupying a "moderate" position in the state Republican constellation. Yet he couldn't easily own that position, rejecting Brownback's legacy and casting himself on the side of those who always fought against Brownback and his majority...because, of course, he was central to that very movement. Which means that the script which a Democratic opponent to Coyler would follow writes itself: emphasize his central position in what is widely regarded throughout Kansas--even by many members of his own party--as a failed Republican administration, watch him contort in his efforts to distinguish himself from his disliked predecessor while not alienating the true-believing base which forms the conservative faction in the party, and reap the benefits.

I've no doubt that Laura Kelly will follow essentially the same playbook in running against Kris Kobach, should he come the nominee. But I fear it won't work as well, simply because Kobach will carry so much national baggage into the campaign along with him that, even without making any claims in association with it--which would be completely out of character for Kobach; his ideological ambitions and national aspirations are plain to anyone who has followed his career at all--Kelly would find any laser-like focus on campaigning against the Brownback legacy complicated. This is not to deny that she couldn't find good, electorally salient arguments against all that baggage; frankly, anyone who doesn't accept the idea that state election offices all across the country must all be lying about or hopelessly confused about the supposedly massive problem of voter fraud in America (an idea whose level of acceptance outside of the White House is, to be generous, extremely small) could come up with good lines of attack against Kobach. But will such salient arguments actually be politically effective, in a state where being Republican is such a deeply engrained default for so many? I wonder. To point to an unpopular Republican governor, tie his former lieutenant governor to him, and say "Republicans need to get their house to order; time to send a Democrat in to fix things," is a message that has actually worked in Kansas's past. To do the same in the midst of Fox News-amplified noise about citizenship, immigration, race relations, and President Trump's tweets (and visits--if Kobach is the nominee, I suspect the question won't be whether Trump will come to campaign for his protégé, but whether he will come twice) will be most difficult, with less of a precedent to fall back on.

In the midst of all this, we also have Greg Orman--a wealthy, smart, relatively young and attractive, socially liberal, business friendly independent from the Kansas City area running for governor. With a socially conservative state politician as his running mate, one can't help but suspect that Orman has designed his campaign in anticipation of Kobach winning the nomination: he has checked all the boxes that would be necessary for him to be appealing to moderate Republicans who can't stand Kobach as their party leader and are frightened of the prospect of him becoming governor. With a less polarizing figure leading the Republican race, the appeal of Orman's proclaimed independence would be lessened somewhat; since part of his whole argument for himself is to be outside the familiar battles between conservatives, moderates, and Democrats from Kansas history, a race that was essentially a referendum of Sam Brownback, a referendum that could borrow from patterns familiar with Kansas voters--an unbalanced Republican party in need of correction!--might arguably give his pox-on-both-houses rhetoric less purchase. But with Kobach as the nominee, Orman will definitely be in the hunt--and the likely effects a serious independent candidacy will have on the Democrats in this Republican state are easy to guess.

None of this is to say that Kelly (and her running mate, Lynn Rogers) wouldn't have a chance against both Kobach and Orman, if that's what the final ballot ends up looking like. After all, the Brownback stink can easily be associated with Kobach as well (perhaps even better than with Colyer; unlike the current governor, who has been obliged to deal with the real world for at least a few months, Kobach aggressively embraces the Brownback tax legacy, promising to double-down on it). The key will be to keep the race as Kansas-specific as possible. But with the national attention and money which follows Kobach everywhere he goes, preventing him from transforming the race into a referendum on Trump and the future of America's civilization, as opposed to on a particular Republican governor's legacy, will be difficult. Every one of us the left here in Kansas should be hoping, I think, for absentee ballots or some other unanticipated event to swing the Republican nomination back in Colyer's direction. Either way, though, our work is cut out for us. (But of course, that's nothing new.)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Songs of '78: "The Load-Out/Stay"

If Joe Walsh's rock and roll song about the rock and roll life was bleary and crashing and awesome, this epic by Jackson Browne is earnest and reflective and equally awesome. (Between these two self-referential pop masterpieces, I'm not sure there's much left to explore about the rock and roll life--though Robyn Hitchcock's Soft Boys tune, "Mr. Kennedy," which has haunted me for years, might challenge that.) The fact that "The Load-Out" (a Jackson Browne original) and "Stay" (a doo-wop and R&B standard by Maurice Williams) merged so well to express an artist's ambiguous understanding of her own audience, to say nothing to finding such a solid place in my memory of 1978, is entirely due to Browne's wonderful alignment of them in the live concerts which he recorded for his 1977 album Running on Empty.

At a concert in Maryland in 1977, Browne ended with "The Load-Out," then used "Stay" to segue in the encores. Two musicians on that tour, Rosemary Butler and David Lindley, carried "Stay" to tremendous heights--and that's what ended up on the album. Those album versions of both "Stay" and "The Load-Out" were released as a single (with "The Load-Out" as the B-side; talk about getting things backwards!), but eventually, on August 5, 1978, 40 years ago today, the studio released them as they were heard by the crowds and by fans of the album, as a promotional single, and the radio stations--and listeners like me--at it up. And why wouldn't we? This is genius music, folks.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Songs of '78: "Don't Look Back"

Ah, Boston. The aspirations of progressive rock, the volume of heavy metal, with a huge guitar presence and huge hair. Similar to Kansas (which has already had its moment in this 1978 radio retrospective), for all their pomposity Boston was actually a serious, introspective bunch of studio geeks, who loved playing around with whatever counted as cutting-edge recording technology in the late 1970s, finding ways to layer their sound and then reproduce that on stage. Don't Look Back, their second album, was probably their greatest example of this--musically, the whole thing is a massive, driving, wall of melody--and the album's self-titled lead single, released 40 years ago today, was filled with that furious guitar buzz. I had a college roommate who thought Boston was one of the greatest, most talented and important rock and roll bands ever. (Our feminist friends at the time, on the other hand, made snarky--and probably accurate--comments about all those guitars strutting around on stage.) That wasn't my opinion, but who could deny that this sort of loud-but-never-angry, aggressive-but-never-dangerous, rock and roll was a huge part of 1978 radio, at least the non-punk and non-disco parts of it? I certainly can't. I never saw them live, but I wish I had; it would have been a trip.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Songs of '78: "Badlands"

I didn't situate what is one of Bruce Springsteen's greatest songs with my memories of 1978--in fact, I almost certainly didn't even know it was a Springsteen song--until nearly a decade after it was released. I'd heard "Badlands" occasionally on the radio, and thought it was a cool and strong rock and roll tune, but I didn't have the language or musical knowledge to appreciate it beyond that, certainly not enough to want to track down the musician behind it, especially when I heard it so rarely (it wasn't much of a hit). Once Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. album became a massive pop juggernaut six years later, we all became fans, of course--but still, it wasn't until a few years after that, when he released the moody, folky, brilliant Tunnel of Love (another one of those wonderful albums of 1987 which I still listen to today) that I became a real, dedicated listener to the Boss. And that meant going back and listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as much else he wrote, which was a fun, surprising journey of discovery all its own. (Wait, Bruce wrote the Manfred Mann song "Blinded By the Light"? And the Patti Smith song "Because the Night" (which I've already paid tribute to as part of the class 1978 here)? And the Pointer Sisters song "Fire"(which, don't worry, will get it's 1978 tribute soon)? Plus he wrote "Hungry Heart" for The Ramones but then stole it back? Etc., etc., etc.)

Anyway, point it, nearly a decade after the song entered my consciousness, "Badlands"--probably the closest Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band ever came to punk rock--found its home in my oft-reconstructed memories of that important radio year, 1978, and became a belated part of my appreciation of this wonderful pop and rock artist. It's not my favorite Springsteen tune by a long-shot, but this song, the lead single off Darkness, released 40 years ago this month, is pretty awesome all the same.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Of Parties, Primaries, and (Gubernatorial) Endorsements

It's 15 days until the August 7 primaries here in the state of Kansas, and early voting begins today. I'm a vote on the day-of person myself (I just like the vibe of going into my designated polling place on election day), so I still have two weeks to change my mind about which Democratic candidates I'm going to support--but given all the thought I've already put into it, the odds of anything happening that could make me rethink things some more is unlikely. So, as a few people have asked me which Democratic candidate for governor I'm supporting, I'm giving a follow-up to my post from months ago here--but you're going have to wade through all my usual pedantic ruminations first. Sorry, that's just the way I blog. (Hint #1: just go to the fifth paragraph if you can't wait. And if you absolutely can't put off the announcement even that long, Hint #2: it's the one from Wichita who has graduated from high school.)

1) I know party primaries are a problem. Primaries emerged onto the scene of American politics more or less a century ago, in conjunction with a large number of other Progressive reforms on the local, state, and national level, with the aim of taking power away from party bosses and the plutocrats who supported their positions and giving it to party members instead. Today, though, thanks to changes in campaign finance laws, communication technologies, and the internal rules of parties themselves, primaries don't do a particularly good job at preventing those candidates with large pockets and/or the explicit support of other wealth donors from quickly dominating the nominating process. And along the way, primaries bring their own pathologies with them: low voter turn-out makes it ease for well-organized extremists to dominate the intra-party debate, and the competition between even narrowly divided candidates can create narratives and animosities that end up driving media dynamics and funding pitches for the remainder of the campaign. So, yeah, primaries often create more problems than they're worth.

2) That said, I have no confidence whatsoever that the participatory genie could ever be put back into the bottle. Even if it were legally, organizationally, and politically possible to get us back to state of affairs where either of our two mass political parties were able to effectively choose, groom, and present candidates to voters (and doing so would, in my judgment, at the very least require the Supreme Court to overturn multiple precedents laid down over the past 40 years), I am highly doubtful that voters of either party would accept such a state of affairs--I strongly suspect I wouldn't, and I say that as someone fully aware of all the above-mentioned problems. And moreover, it's not like resurrecting that level of party control would somehow prevent all the corruptions that primary elections were originally designed to combat from flooding back.

3) So is the problem political parties entirely? Possibly, but I know of no other mechanism whereby a mass liberal democracy can be operated so as to actually respect the freedom of citizens to organize themselves around and in support of distinct causes and candidates except through some kind of party structure. The people who wrote the Constitution didn't really give that possibility much thought, but within a few election cycles the democratic need for parties was blindingly obvious. General plebiscitarian contests simply won't do it, despite being pushed by vaguely (but rarely actually) populist dreamers for decades. This year we have Greg Orman running as an independent candidate for governor, and he's an impressive guy, with a smart grasp of both the fiscal and the electoral realities facing our state. I like Orman, and have a lot of respect for his Lt. Governor pick, John Doll. Ultimately, though, Orman's whole drive remains deeply self-referential, insisting that he represents nothing more or less than independent, practical, business-minded thinking, as opposed to any particular set of beliefs. And human beings, being the communal animals we are, generally both want and need to be part of set.

4) Why is the Democratic party my set? Well, it's not my only set, nor the one I'm most attached to, either politically or in terms of time or money. But yes, here in Kansas in 2018, in the long wake of Governor Brownback's still-mostly-unchallenged transformation of the state Republican party into a vehicle for economic individualism as a religious conviction, the state Democratic party, for all its flaws (and heaven knows it has plenty), is the only place that folks who are committed to promoting egalitarian economic policies and expanding civil rights have to organize themselves electorally, at least practically speaking. So while the idea of switching to the Republican party so as cast a vote for a responsible conservative as opposed to an actually dangerous one had some appeal for my wife and I, ultimately we decided to stick with this particular set to see what we could do to help their candidates across the finish line in November.

5) Which brings the rubber to the road: what mix of strategy, symbolism, and substance is leading me to endorse one candidate over another? Well, like every other voter in every other primary contest everywhere in the United States, I'm thinking about what ideas best represent my wishes, thinking about what different candidates reflect in terms of different factions within the party, and thinking about what are the relative odds for any candidate to win in the general election. For Democrats (and liberals, progressives, socialists, etc., whatever your preferred handle) in Kansas, given that we're significantly outnumbered, yet have a genuine window of opportunity in 2018 thanks to the Brownback stink, that last component--a kind of second- or third-level chess, trying to figure out who has the greatest likelihood of winning one contest while still keeping themselves in contention for the next--is even more important, even though it becomes more and more of a crapshoot the further you attempt to extend your analysis forward. In any case, here's why I've come down on Brewer's side.

(Wait!, you're saying; there will be more on your ballot than just the Democratic primary for governor! True, but I'm not going to weigh in on the Laura Lombard-James Thompson race to be the Democratic candidate to run against Republican Ron Estes to be the congressional representative for Kansas's 4th district. I like and respect both of those candidates, do not see any major political differences between them, have known and supported one of them for a long time, and plan on continuing to do so. For better or worse, I don't see a need for a lot of thinking there.)

5a) First, I like all three of serious candidates (yes, I'm dismissing without comment both Jack Bergeson, the Wichita high school student, and Arden Andersen, the cool but slightly whakadoodle doctor from Olathe). Senator Laura Kelly is a smart, savvy, experienced poll, who almost certainly is the best positioned of these three--in terms of finances and in terms of party support--to run a traditional state-wide campaign for Governor. The criticisms which have been lobbed against her regarding a procedural vote of hers on the proposed expansion of Medicaid, or regarding connections between her campaign and interest groups opposed to expanding Medicaid, are, in my view, cheap and silly, reflecting no real knowledge of how legislation needs to be positioned for votes in the long term. And her Lt. Governor pick, the flat-out brilliant Lynn Rogers, is one of my favorite people in all of Kansas politics. I also like Joshua Svaty, in part because he and his Lt. Governor pick, Katrina Lewison, absolutely do represent something desperately needed in the state party: generational change. I like Svaty's practical yet unconventionally progressive opinions about the future of agriculture, and I like the fact that he was the only gubernatorial candidate sufficiently unconcerned about the "progressive" label as to make the time to get out to the Bernie Sanders rally here in Wichita. Most of all, as a religious believer with more than a couple conservative streaks in me, I like the fact that he hasn't tried to deny or repent of past votes he's taken but instead allows himself to argued about right in the middle of messy debates over abortion, faith, and much more.

5b) Still, for me, for now, it's former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, who is almost certainly the least well-funded and the least organized of the big three. Though my contacts with Carl have been minimal over the years, I've long admired him, and have supported him since he first declared his candidacy. Why, especially given that the political ends I value most--economic egalitarianism and democracy--he's quite possibly the least progressive of the three? It comes down to substance, symbolism, structure, and--yes--strategy.

5c) On the level of substance, Carl's stated goals as governor aren't significantly different from any of the other two. He will govern with Democratic party priorities in mind, and for all their limitations (and again, I can think of many!) those priorities--pushing Medicaid expansion, loosening the penalties on marijuana usage, reforming Kansas's criminal justice and child welfare services, and most importantly, working to overturn the legacy of Brownback's tax experiment--are ones I support. On the level of symbolism, it's obvious: there have only ever been two African-Americans elected governor anywhere in the U.S., and Kansas, so far as I have been able to discover, has never had an African-American serve in any statewide elected position. Carl almost never makes reference to racial symbolism in his campaign (though it comes out occasionally; in a recent debate, after another candidate talked about his grandfather's impressive political history, Carl started his reply with the quiet snark "of course, my grandfather wasn't able to hold political office..."), but obviously, to even be able to vote for a black candidate for governor is, to my mind, a huge step forward. On the level of structure, I plead my own personal affections and interest. While there is a lot of movement between the state and the national level in American politics, there isn't nearly enough movement between the local level and the state level--and in an era when the continued urban concentration of people are making the governance of cities more and more crucial to whatever the next steps in American democracy will be, bringing the sort of real, tactile knowledge which being a longtime city leader teaches into the realm of state governance is, I think, of major theoretical and even constitutional importance. (Besides, it's been a century since a committed Wichitan, someone from the Kansas's largest city, became governor; it's time for that to happen again.) And as for strategy? Frankly, Carl doesn't have the baggage that the other candidates have, which may mean he could hold together the state Democratic coalition better than the other candidates could. Am I certain of that? Not at all. Does Carl seem able to inspire new, progressive voters? The jury is out. Will racism doom his candidacy in the general election anyway? Quite possibly. All these, and others, are legitimate strategic concerns that Democrats have to ask themselves. But to my mind, above and beyond all the aforementioned rationales, in a year when Orman will be looking to poach Democratic voters, a thoughtful, mild-mannered, quiet candidate, one who doesn't offend any particular group of Democrats and thus could be acceptable to just about all of them, is nothing to sneeze at.

6) Let me make it clear; I will strongly support, both with time and money as well as my vote, whomever wins this primary (unless something truly nuts happens, and the high school student wins, and the Republicans choose a moderate like Jim Barnett as their candidate--then all bets are off). But primaries are what we have, and so primary calculations we must make. These are mine.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Songs of '78: "Take Me To the River"

There is some confusion on when, exactly, the Talking Heads's cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" was released. It was the only single released off their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Wikipedia can't agree on when that album officially hit: either July 14, 1978, or July 21, 1978, forty years ago today. And was the single released before the album was, or along with it, or long after? Since the song didn't hit its peak on the pop charts until 1979, it might have been the latter. But lacking any better information, and given that me memories of 1978, dim as they are, claim this song for this year, I'm just going to go with the latter date and call it good.

It's such a wonderful recording of such a wonderful song--Talking Heads (and Brian Eno!) gave it their patented spare yet funky, post-punk, not-quite-techno treatment, without losing the elemental piety and sensuality of the Al Green original. That, actually, is the reason why I think "Take Me to the River" is the only song played during their famed concert film, Stop Making Sense, that isn't an improvement; the concert version is such a wild, art-house rave that the slow-burning, soulful element of the song is lost. See the movie, of course--but for this song, stick to what hit the airwaves, four decades ago.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Catastrophe, Technology, Limits, and Localism

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Charles C. Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet, published earlier this year, is a fabulous book. Not a perfect book; sometimes, in order to bulk up this two-pronged thesis, he will throw in supplementary material that threatens to bog down his central investigation. But that investigation comes through loud and clear all the same, and it is one worth looking at closely.

Basically, Mann invites us to contemplate the (supposedly) inevitable end of the human species, and whether there is a way to escape that (possibly) biologically determined fate. He posits two alternatives, and picks representative champions of both. In the corner of scaling back and adopting smaller, more sustainable ways of living on the planet, so as to avoid ecological catastrophe, he chooses William Vogt, a little-known and often controversial but nonetheless pioneering figure in modern environmentalism. In the corner of science and technology, and the vision of ever expanding and improving our opportunities, he chooses Norman Borlaug, the somewhat better-known but still oft-overlooked (primarily because he wrote so little) partial father of the Green Revolution, and therefore the industrial agricultural system that today enables this planet's resources to feed more than 7 billion people. It may not seem like a fair fight, and it's pretty clear that Mann is on the side of Borlaug and technology (the "Wizards"). But he does a fine job laying out the warnings of those (the "Prophets") dubious of humanity's ability to always and everywhere grow more food, burn more fuel, build new things, and create new markets. For people who take the promise, or even the necessity, of localism seriously, whether for political or moral or environmental reasons (or all three), Mann gives us something vital to chew upon. Despite our collective affection for Wendell Berry (who is never mentioned in the book) and his warnings about how the promise of the new--new technologies, new jobs, new ideas--invariably causes people to lose touch with the wisdom of their limited, particular, embedded places, maybe localists in 2018 need Borlaug's wizardly to pull off something like our hopes? Or do localists need to content themselves with standing with the prophets, all the way down?

Mann introduces us to his investigation in light of the work of Lynn Margulis, a biologist whom he knew and respected greatly, and who pithily described human beings as "an unusually successful species." Unfortunately, in her view--and Mann basically accepts this, as a conclusion avoidable to anyone who takes seriously what the scientific method has allowed biologists to be basically certain about--successful species always end up in the same place: destroying themselves by exceeding the capacity and resources of their environment (which, in the case of human beings, is the whole planet). As Mann put it:

To avoid destroying itself, the human race would have to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or ever could do: constrain its own growth....To a biologist like Margulis, who spent her career arguing that humans are simply part of evolution's handiwork, the answer should be clear....All species seek to make more of themselves--that is their [biological] goal. By multiplying until we reach our maximum possible numbers, we are following the laws of biology, even as we take out much of the planet. Eventually, in accordance with those same laws, the human enterprise will wipe itself out. Shouting from the edge of the petri dish, Borlaug and Vogt might has well be trying to hold back the tide (pp. 35-36).

To people of a religious bent, who disagree that evolution's logic fully imprisons human beings (even if they generally acknowledge the validity of the science which underlies it), this sort of talk often closes ears to the questions being asked. This is unfortunate, particularly in this case. While Mann never betrays any interest in non-scientific challenges to the laws and theories he is working with, he actually does to a much better job than most science journalists keep his readers aware of the conceptual limitations of the claims being made (he even has two whole appendices attached to the book, specifically considering all the problems with climate change research, though he himself completely accepts that global warming is both real, man-made, and a terrible threat). And more importantly, one has to get into a scientific frame of mind to understand the way in which the alternative paths that, as Mann presents it, Vogt and Borlaug sketched out shaped so many of the socio-economic and political debates over our day. So even if that isn't the way you see the world, try to see it for the duration of this book; you'll be rewarded, I think.

Along the way, you'll learn about these two fascinating men. Both, in their own ways, were profound outsiders to their respective disciplines and intellectual cultures. Both, despite their respective educations, were significantly self-taught. Both were mostly men of action, rather than theory. Both were radical thinkers who were captivated by paradigm-shifting scientific visions (the catastrophic environmental consequences of unregulated industrial consumption and unlimited population growth, in Vogt's case; the enormous agricultural possibilities of capital-intensive, industrially fertilized, genetically developed food resources, in Borlaug's), and both of them came to these insights through endeavors that were ridiculously underfunded, mostly unnoticed, and utterly orthogonal to where the disciplines they came to shape were focusing (in Borlaug's case, studying plant diseases in a generally ignored Mexican experimental station; counting guano-producing birds in total solitude on islands off the coast of Chile, for Vogt). They only met once, in an unproductive wheat and maize field east of Mexico City in 1946, where Borlaug was slowly hatching ideas about how the proper technology could make even that dusty, parched farmland productive, and Vogt was growing horrified at the idea that human beings never retreated before the kind of obvious environmental limitations he saw in front of him, but instead insisted on finding was to change or transcend them. They are almost certainly not the best possible examples of "apocalyptic environmentalism" or "techno-optimism," but they were fascinating shapers of those movements nonetheless.

After sketching out their lives and insights, Mann applies their perspectives to four environmental limitations which our species--which most demographers currently think is on track to top out at around 10 billion people by 2050--faces: food, fresh water, fuel, and the climate consequences of pursuing growth in all of the latter. The observations and conclusions of these chapters--though often thick with scientific jargon--are sometimes surprising. (Mann, for example, comes to the conclusion, after running through the long history of always-disproven oil shocks and panics, as well as the endlessly inventive ways humans have developed to find, retrieve, use, and restore oil, coal, and natural gas resources, that as a practical matter, "fossil-fuel supplies have no known bounds," thus dismissing peak oil in a sentence--p. 282.) They are mostly important, though, to show the breadth of the implications of committing to either the Vogtian or Borlaugian path--and for localists like myself, it is the former that seems the incumbent, rather than the latter. The one passage from the chapter on food captures the distinction between the two visions particularly well:

Which [type of farm] is more productive? Wizards and Prophets would disagree about the answer, because they disagree about the question. To Wizards, the question means: which farm creates more calories--more usable energy--per acre?....Every attempt to sum up the data that I know of has shown that in side-by-side comparisons, [small-scale, sustainable farms] grow less food per acre overall than [industrial-style, monocultural] farms--sometimes a little bit less, sometimes quite a lot. The implications for the world of 2050 are obvious, Wizards say....Prophets smite their brows in exasperation at this logic. To their minds, evaluating farming systems wholly in terms of calories produced....[ignores] the costs of overfertilization, habitat loss, watershed degradation, soil erosion and compaction, and pesticide and antibiotic overuse...[and] doesn't account for the destruction of rural communities....

The difficulty is that both arguments are correct on their own terms. At bottom, the disagreement is about the nature of agriculture--and with it, the best form of society. To Borlaugians, farming is a species of drudgery that should be eased and reduced as much as possible to maximize individual liberty....The farm is a springboard, essential as a base, but also a trap. [Small-scale, sustainable] farms may mimic natural ecosystems, but they are also ensnared in them, unable to rise above their limits. To Vogtians, by contrast, agriculture is about maintaining a set of communities, ecological and human....It can be drudgery, but it is also work that reinforces the human connection to the earth. The two arguments are like skew lines, not on the same plane
(pp. 209-210).

Anyone who has ever engaged in arguments with friends or foes (or family!) over anything pertaining to limits has probably felt the reality of those diverting skew lines. You argue about whether you should shop at Walmart or the local farmers market; the evidence on one side is about personal affordability and convenience, the other is about community health and ecological diversity. You argue about whether you should help your son buy his first car or insist he continue to be use his bicycle; while he talks about personal freedom and opportunity, you're talking about environmental impacts and long-term costs. You argue about how you should vote regarding a proposed cutback in city funding or regulations regarding bicycle paths; the supporters are focused on everything that you can choose to do with the tax money you save, whereas the opponents speak of civic pride and future generations. And so it goes. Shopping local (and thus missing out of cheap deals), mending your own clothes (thus failing to impress the visiting corporate bigwig), staying close to home (thus losing out on the job opportunities in the next city over)--these and thousands of other arguments, even when they have nothing to do with anything that specifically relates to our use of the natural environment, can be productively understood, I think, in light of the skewed perspectives of Vogt ("Cut back! Cut back! was his perspective. Otherwise, everyone will lose!") and Borlaug ("Innovate! Innovate! was his cry. Only in that way can everyone win!"--p. 6)

As one might guess, in a world where capitalist expansion and technological innovation is almost always celebrated (and industrial costs almost always either apologized for or shoved off for our children and grandchildren to deal with), Borlaug, in the due course of time, was celebrated, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and being praised around the world, while Vogt's later years consisted mostly of frustrated in-fighting among small organizations for often smaller stakes. But I should rein in my grousing, no matter how deep my Vogtian, "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" sympathies. After all, Borlaug's vision, and the whole panoply of efforts and ideas that have filled grain elevators and food pantries around the world, has resulted in tens of millions of people being alive today that almost certainly wouldn't have been otherwise. And isn't it likely that those tens of millions of lives have meant--often, anyway--tens of thousands of families, villages, and communities, creating their own cultural forms which have added to the excellence of human life, completely aside from the obvious moral imperative to help people live rather than suffer and die? While a more complete picture of Vogt's aims (which Mann provides in detail) would include not only how he became entangled with--and partially agreed with--some of the worst advocates of population control and enforced sterilization later in his life, but also how his vision aligned some aspects of environmentalism with the old, often racist, aristocratic and anti-industrial "alt-right," if you will: those members of the political and business elite who have never seen any good reason to pollute the world and break up established traditions in name of lifting up (or even just properly feeding) the masses, since most of those masses are probably uncivilized, un-Christian idiots, anyway.

But no--even with all those caveats, even while acknowledging all the ways that the technological empowerment of the individual and the spread of industrial solutions have saved lives and made the world a better place for hundreds of millions, I remain Vogtian at heart--my vision of the good life values "a kind of community" over "a kind of liberty," and is much more amenable to the notion that we have to be "tied to the land" than to the belief that progress will always leave us "free to roam the skies" (pp. 250, 362). The differences between Berry's agrarianism and Vogt's conservationism are deep, though; the Vogtian perspective is one that is filled with solar panels, crop diversification, reforestation, graywater reuse, drip irrigation--much that goes far beyond Berry's insistence on "local knowledge." (Though, to be fair, most of the sustainability-minded approaches to feeding and fueling billions of people are far more ground-level and participatory than the Borlaugian "hard path" of massive desalinization plants and deep-water oil wells.) Embracing the gospel of less, of the small and local and communal, need not oblige one to deny the talents and blessings that specialization has brought.

As with all hypothesized dyads, practical wisdom necessitates that even creatures of limits recognize the openings which science have brought us, how those have changed our daily lives, and think responsible about how to sustainably make use of them. Perhaps Vogtian localism would find a perfect match in the "do-it-yourself futurism" that characterizes the work of economists like Juliet Schor. Perhaps a half-century of growth in statist and capitalist Borlaugian systems--the top-down impositions of industrial agriculture and wireless networks and interstate highways and the global marketplace--has by now reached far enough that individuals and communities really can use them to create, in their own particular places, specific and sustainable paths towards the good life. I'd like to think so. If we are to escape the species extinction that Mann assumes would normally be our biological destiny, then I would like our escape route to look more like one of Vogt's envisioned patchwork of communes, than one Borlaug's endless rows of nutritious, delicious, genetically modified corn. (Though I'll still eat the latter, sometimes, same as all of you.)

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Songs of '78: "Who Are You?"

The single "Who Are You" was released 40 years ago today; it was the lead song off of The Who's album of the same title, which would get its full release in August. There are, to be sure, multiple other songs by The Who which might even better reflect their brash, undisciplined, whip-smart excellence: "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes," and, of course, "My Generation." But this song has become, I think, simply iconic in its association with the band, far beyond any of the others (personally, I'd attribute a lot of this to CSI, but maybe that's because my wife and I were addicted to the original version of the show for several seasons, and thus had this song hammered into our skulls weekly.) But regardless of how the song gets into your head, you can't deny: it's their to stay. Keith Moon's drug addiction and alcoholism was killing him, but he could still smash those cymbals; Pete Townshend's guitar was echoing all over the room; Jon Entwistle's bass was steady and pulsing throughout; and, of course, Roger Daltrey was screeching and preaching (from a chair!) like nobody's business. Forty years on, it still rocks.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Songs of '78: "Fool (If You Think It's Over)"

Chris Rea, an English musician who has had a long and productive career in the United Kingdom and throughout western Europe, released his debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?, 40 years ago this month, and this sweet bit of heart-break poetry was its lead single. It was the only song of his to receive anything like significant radio-play in the United States, thus earning this talented, idiosyncratic, introspective artist the "one-hit wonder" label, which is really disrespectful to a guy who has had multiple hit albums in his home country. Still, that's what I thought of him for decades--he was the writer of that cool, sly, surprisingly deep little soft-rock number, the one that crept around the corners of my consciousness, catching me unawares and throwing me back to my childhood when I'd hear it on the radio. Rea himself apparently is ambivalent about the song--it's nothing like the sort of music he's mostly committed himself to over the years, but then, how can you distance yourself from the one song much of your English-speaking audience knows you best for? Of course, given the subject matter of the song, maybe such ambivalence is appropriate. The past is the past--except when it isn't, right?

Friday, July 06, 2018

What Do Farmers Want?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The obvious response to the title of this post is: I don't know; why don't you ask one? Well, Robert Wuthnow and his researches did, at great length. The result is In The Blood: Understanding America's Farm Families, the last (it was published in 2015) of a list of books which Wuthnow's extended sociological study of America's small, rural, mostly agricultural, mostly Midwestern places, and the people who live there, has produced. Earlier this year, while thinking about Wuthnow's latest book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, I ended up exploring this series by Wuthnow to learn what it can tell us about how those of us who are part of, or next door to, or have memories of, or are in other ways dependent upon, the productive world of those who work the land think about the changing world around them. In The Blood didn't change my mind about that analysis, but it did deepen it quite a bit.

The clearest point which comes through Wuthnow's thoughtful engagement with the dozens of farmers he and his assistants interviewed, and with the reams of data about rural populations, farm economics, and more that they assessed, is simply this: most American farmers, most of the time, are not agrarians. This is hardly news to anyone who takes conversations about localism and sustainability at all seriously--but still, for people like me, for whom the appeal of agrarian thinking is strong, such reminders are necessary. When Rod Dreher quotes, as he did just recently, Wendell Berry's "The Work of Local Culture," with its determined placing of hope in the few surviving rural places in America--because "rural people...see all around them, every day, the marks and scars of an exploitive national economy....and in rural communities there are still farms and small businesses that can be changed according to the will and the desire of individual people"--he adds mournfully "Berry published that thirty years ago. I don’t know how true any of it still is. Very little, perhaps." He was right to say so. Wuthnow isn't focused on the farming families of the 1970s and 1980s, much less on the farming families of the 1870s and 1880s (even assuming the more community-oriented, nature-connected, and self-sufficient world which agrarianism holds as an ideal was achievable then, which is doubtful). Rather, he's focused on those farmers who still live today in small towns or on isolated plots throughout the American South, Midwest, and Great Plains, farming families and individuals who have survived multiple financial crises and technological transformations and found a way to survive in the 21st century. That survival has required huge changes in how farmers think, and what they hope for.

I recently finished a beautiful little book, Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of the Visionary Farmer, a collection of writings by and a brief biography of a man named Philip Britts, an Englishman born in 1917 who became a pacifist, joined the Brudehof community, relocated with that group to Paraguay in the early days of World War II, and spent the rest of his short life (he died in 1949) farming, writing poetry, and preaching to his fellows. There is much beauty in his thoughts, and a quiet radicalism too; in a 1946 essay, "How Shall We Farm?," Britts urged caution in regards to post-WWII trends in agriculture science; while he said there was no reason to reject all technical achievements--"we still believe in 'the useful plow'"--he warned that the worst possibility of progress would be to lose the organic connection with and intimate, tactile knowledge of the land: unlike "that indescribable sensation that comes, perhaps rarely, when one walks through a field of alfalfa in the morning sun, when one smells earth after rain, or when one watches the ripples on a field of wheat." That is the agrarian spirit, the spirit of Wendell Berry and so many localists everywhere. It is a spirit, unfortunately, which Wuthnow's respectful engagement with the rural world of today reveals to be mainly quaint, and little more. True, there are farmers whom Wuthnow interviewed that shared that kind of immediate connection with their land (he writes about a wheat farmer who likes to drive out to one of his fields in the evening. "I just listen to the crops grow...listen to nature, take time to meditate, soak it all in")--but more of them were quick to downplay any view of the land that was "too pretty and romantic." Instead, they conveyed--insisted, really--that the "real business of farming" today is "managing information" (pp. 127, 132, 134). As Wuthnow summarizes:

Among farmers whose relationship to the land was becoming more distant...an important result was that their understanding of the land was less visceral and more conceptual. The land was still a matter of bodily experience to the extent that it felt a certain way when walking across it and looked and smelled in familiar wars after a warm spring rain or during harvest. The embodied relationship to the land, though, was less prominent in farmers' descriptions than accounts of its size, history, ownership, and use....Acreage that used to be measured by walking a field in yard-length steps was now measured by satellite imagery. An experienced farmer could still guess the approximate yield by walking into a field of wheat or cotton, but computerized information could now tell the exact yield for each part of the field. Seeds were distinguished by the numbers assigned to them by agribusiness companies rather than by feel. There was no regret in farmers' descriptions of these changes, only an awareness that the meanings of farmland were shifting as a result (pp. 132-34).

In other words, what is found in the rural parts of America today, and the probably fewer than 3 millions people total engaged in agricultural work there (in an age of concentrated animal feeding operations and global seed and fertilizer corporations, definitions of "agricultural worker" can get a little vague), isn't, by and large, clones of Wendell Berry, Philip Britts, and others who have articulated a vision of the good life intimately connected to the land. But to decide that I, therefore, don't have anything to learn from what the farmers of today hope for would not only make my localism even more hypocritical than it already is, but would out me as, in Rod's words, one of those "educated elites who read Wendell Berry sympathetically but have no use for actual rural white people who aren’t Wendell Berry." I don't want that. So....what else does Wuthnow's research reveal about those who occupy that place which Jefferson once imagined to be the heart of a pastoral nation, but which today--at least if economic power and cultural authority is taken to be the measure of where a nation's heart is to be found--is anything but? Well, of the many points the book makes about family, faith, and farming in rural America, here are a few take-aways:

--Economics and social patterns and history and race all play into the political conservatism of nearly all of white rural America, but that shouldn't eclipse the fundamental dispositional conservatism of those who choose to farm, or choose to stick with it. Generational continuity and "being significantly connected to the past" is central to "the mentality of farming," in Wuthnow's judgment. Some of the farmers he interviewed make statements about family traditions and the legacy of the dead which sound straight out of out of Edmund Burke or Alasdair MacIntyre: "this experience of intergenerational continuity," Wuthnow observes, is what farmers mean when they say that farming is in their blood" (p. 14). Unlike the great bulk of professions in America today, the few farmers which remain regularly see their work as an inherited vocation, and a meaningful one at that.

--Farmers are deeply aware of how the community consciousness which shaped the world they inherited from their parents has been weakened by the reach of modern technology (more here), the demands of commodity agriculture (more here), the abandonment of controls which once privileged sustainability over profit (more here), and the competitive mindset which all three have exacerbated. Distances are greater, towns have emptied, fields have grown larger, and the farmers which manage to hold on economically are obliged/encouraged/pushed to pick up distant plots that keep them even further away from one another. "Mr Hebner...said the farmers in his community simply are less visibly present than they were when he started farming. He thinks about this when he cuts wheat at night. There used to be a kind of togetherness from seeing a neighboring farmer's combine lights in an adjacent field. Now those lights are much further away, if they are still visible at all" (p. 53).

--If there is one political commonality which has likely been continuous with the majority of the whole history of farming in America, it is that farmers understand themselves to be, and insist upon the right to be, their own bosses. At times this really did present itself in Jeffersonian terms (such as the one farmer who commented that there were "two classes of people...there were people in business for themselves....and there were those who worked for wages: they were in second place"--p. 103). It affects the way those committed to farming think about authenticity, responsibility, accomplishment, and knowledge: real independence means being true to one's own fundamental character, accepting responsibility for one's own mistakes and not hiding the value of one's own work, and prioritizing that which is learned through and is specific to particular experiences. Hence there was, again and again in the farmers' comments, a strong defense of property rights, a skepticism towards (or, just as often, a worried concern about) abstract, non-contextualized knowledge claims, and an emphasis upon practical education and respecting the rules (pp. 111, 115, 155).

--That commonality, though, is exactly what leaves so many of the farmers Wuthnow and his team interviewed feeling such ambivalence about matters of technology and trade. No serious, non-intentional-community-dwelling (e.g., non-Amish), full-time commodity farmer or rancher in America today fails to understand themselves as businesspeople, and that means they are always conscious of how using advanced technologies and expanding into new trading markets can increase their revenue and provide them with more financial security. But that financial security, many of them seem to think, comes with the price of reduced independence. The development of new breeds of crops has been going on "since the dawn of time," according to one farmer--but now genetically modified seeds and grains "all are copyrighted and owned by agribusinesses somewhere," forcing farmers to accept legal consequences if they don't follow specific instructions while using the seed. The ability of large agricultural corporations to dominate trade opportunities are seen as only speeding the destruction of rural communities--as another farmer put it, Monsanto, Tysons, and Archer-Daniels-Midlands may "have a community outreach program, but it ain't nothing compared to what the family farmer can do." Hence, even the most independent-minded farmer Wuthnow spoke with still insisted, like everyone else, that farming subsidies from the federal government were essential: "If you want the government out of it, then you get the Rockerfellers in there....and it'll be one big guy who will dictate things" (pp. 161, 179-181).

It may be that ultimately we won't be able to avoid that end; the constant drumbeat of production, production, production ("if we want to avoid mass malnutrition, we're going to have to up our food production by 70 percent by 2050"!) makes it almost impossible to contemplate turning American farmers in a more organic and localized direction, even if there was either the will or a strategy for doing so, which there isn't. What that will mean for the ways of life and particular virtues (admirable if, unfortunately, not necessarily agrarian ones) of America's farming population? Little good, perhaps. Depression and suicide in farming communities is a huge and growing problem social problem. The trade wars which President Trump seems determined to wage divide one group of farmers and ranchers from another, along partisan and regional lines. Perhaps the future envisioned by some farmers, of "robotic-driven machinery that would permit farmers to avoid fieldwork altogether and genetically engineered seed that would dramatically increase yields and render irrigation unnecessary," a future where family farming would still exist for only for ever "fewer and fewer families" (p. 161), is the best that can be hoped for.

Wuthnow though, for his part, doesn't think so. He is not a critical or comprehensive thinker; rather, he reports on what he sees and hears, and puts it together as best he can. He feels no loss for the mostly mythical agrarian worlds of the past, nor (unfortunately, in my view) for the various intentional agrarian communities and programs that have, on occasion, managed to allow the visions of people like Britts and Berry to flourish. He does note, that, that human beings are inventive, changing definitions and narratives of meaning and schemes of valuation as their contexts change as well. He concludes:

Whether the deep meanings inherent in farming are sufficiently robust to withstand contemporary challenges remains to the be seen. It worries farmers that neighbors behave like sharks in the water and that more of these neighbors are investors who have little understanding of farm life or are corporations....[But] farming is fundamentally local and thus inherently diverse. If there is a subculture shared to an extent by farmers in different parts of the country, it is a pattern of meanings and values that is also refracted through the local adaptations that each family has made. It reflects the distinctive opportunities and constraints that the land provides (p. 189).

Here in Kansas, where nearly 90% of the total land area is given over to industrial agriculture, such adaptations and opportunities are hard to find. But nonetheless they exist--as local co-ops, entrepreneurial experiments, small-scale grants, and more. My father, born in 1943, was convinced that by the time his children were grown, we'd all be living off vitamin pills, and that the feed mill he took over from his father would go the way of all the earth. But that hasn't happened (yet); some kind of real work with plants and animals and the land, corporatized and industrialized as so much of it is, yet remains. My father is gone now, and the agricultural world he knew and brought us kids up in--milking cows by hand, cutting alfalfa, bailing hay, etc.--is gone for the majority of those who had access to it a half-century ago as well. Hence, I can sympathize with Rod, once again, when speaking of his own father: "People of my generation and younger don’t know the land like they did, because we didn’t live on it, and with it, like they did....There’s so much we don’t know, and never will know, because they are gone, and there aren’t enough of us to carry on their work." All true...and yet, the families and towns--some of them, anyway--are still there. They have a greater understanding of their ambivalent situation, and greater energy to engage its challenges on the local level, than simple-minded red-blue, Republican-Democrat readings of rural America allow. What do farmers want? For help and assistance in rethinking and thereby preserving their livelihood, one place at a time. It's a good work to be called to, I think.