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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Wise Words from Damon

If, in these troubled times, you're not reading my friend Damon Linker's blog, well, you should be. Not that I'd expect the majority of you readers out there to necessarily agree with everything--or even most things--that he says (I don't; his insistence on taking swipes at populism almost every chance he gets is fairly annoying), but just the same, sometimes, I think everyone (including me) needs the dash of cold water that only a smart, secular, pragmatic, sometimes cynical voice like his can provide. Here's a bit of his latest:

Has a week passed in the last nine months when we haven't been confronting a "crisis"? Last summer, there was the "peak-oil crisis." Then there was the banking and stock-market crises of the fall. In his February 24 address to Congress, President Obama spoke of numerous crises facing the country. "The economy is in crisis," he declared, and the crisis had several dimensions. There was the "credit crisis" and the "housing crisis" and the "financial crisis"--all of them leading ours to be a generalized "time of crisis." And now, of course, there's the swine-flu crisis. On top of the ongoing climate-change crisis. And so on and so forth.

Never mind that the peak-oil crisis seems to have vanished overnight. Or that the economy may have already turned a corner before reaching the severity of the 1981-82 recession, let alone the Great Depression's catastrophic levels of unemployment and human suffering. Or that roughly 36,000 Americans die of influenza every year without it being dubbed a public-health crisis. None of this matters, finally, because when it comes to hysteria, reality is beside the point. Whether or not the source of this season's anxieties fade, cable news and Internet prognosticators are sure to hype some new issue or event or problem into the next national Crisis.

Why will the pattern almost certainly continue? Because the rewards that come from magnifying the significance of and threat posed by every event and trend are too enticing to resist. Alarmist headlines generate an agitated buzz, which spreads through the culture like a contagion, driving people to seek out information to allay their fears, which in turn generates ratings and boosts page views (and rates of presidential approval) into the stratosphere, with the most hyperbolic headlines and rhetoric often grabbing the most attention of all.

Of course he's not saying anything new here. And he's not saying it as humorously as, say, Jon Stewart can (and does, with great regularity)...

Snoutbreak '09 - The Last 100 Days

...but still, the wisdom holds. Calm down, people! Yes, there are genuine crises and controversies and concerns that plague us, and some of them need to be taken with the utmost seriousness (for example, peak-oil; unlike Damon, I suspect that the slow collapse of the world's oil economy is inevitable, if it hasn't begun already). But that hardly warrants the constant bleating of "crisis!" which the mass media delights in giving us, and which we so often reward them for by echoing every item on their agenda. Blow it off! Turn off the tube, log off the internet, and go read a good book or work in your garden or play with your kids or listen to some good music. The odds are very, very good that swine flu, like nine out of every ten crises, will be yesterday's news by, well, tomorrow (or the end of the month at the latest).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walking to School, Slackerdom, and Other Revolutionary Acts

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

It's been a while since I've written one of my genuine, quasi-Luddist, slacker-in-the-face-of-modern-technology-and-the-pace-of-modern-life posts. But since the semester winding down and another disorganized summer is awaiting me, it seems like a good time for another.

I was born in 1968, and my childhood was the 1970s. My family lived, during those years, in five different homes (all in the same county, though, so it's not like we were moving great distances...just trying to find a place to stick my parents' growing brood), and I attended, by my count, five different elementary schools in two different school districts. When the time came for me be sent to our local junior high school, I usually rode the bus there and back; and when the time came for me to attend high school, I was catching rides with my older siblings or driving myself. But elementary school? I walked or rode my bike to school--which was sometimes less than a half-mile away, sometimes two, and for a couple of years about five miles away--just about every single day when the weather permitted...and sometimes even when it didn't.

I happen to think that there is something important to that, something that might even be considered a little revolutionary today. Years ago I was drawn into a discussion of just this topic, a discussion that involved a couple of other blogs as well, and what I found is that how one answers this simple question--"why don't kids walk to school anymore?"--opens up any number of cans of worms: family size, socio-economic status, public school funding, zoning laws, parenting styles, the rural-urban divide, and on and on. This is how I put it back then:

The responses [of those attempting to answer the above question] are numerous and revealing: fear of crime (real, sometimes, but mostly imagined), poorly designed neighborhoods without sidewalks, loss of cross-walk guards and other services, heavy backpacks, addiction to driving, overprotectiveness, insanely busy schedules, obesity and laziness, two-career families for whom the drive to school is the only real opportunity for parents to interact with their children one-on-one, etc. What I personally found most interesting was the flavor of many of the comments....if you read them closely, you can see language straight out of the conservative playbook: "times have changed," "kids today don't know how to play," "things really were different back then," etc., etc. Some of the commentators try to tie this into their general anti-Republican political orientation, but most just let their complaints stand alone mournfully.

I can sympathize, but I also wonder at the sociodemographics at play here....[T]here was a time when I fiddled with the idea of writing an essay titled "When Generation X Sends its Kids to School." Not surprisingly, I started thinking about this when our oldest daughter started kindergarten, and Melissa and I felt ourselves surrounded, overwhelmed, by advice and strategy and counsel about how best to educate our little girl, and how to keep her productive and safe, and which schools would offer what and how much, and what we should fear and how we could be ready to overcome or circumvent it. We felt baffled and distracted. A lot of it was our own doing, of course--first child going off to school and all that. There was a fair amount of class and regional anxiety involved too (lower-middle-class family, breadwinner just out of graduate school, leaving the big city for a for a one-year position at a university in a poor part of the deep South). But above and beyond it all, there was something down deep that Melissa and I both felt: that the education of children in America--both in and out of school--has become in the public mind a very big, very important, very delicate, very nerve-wracking affair, when really, it probably shouldn't be. This is not to ignore the very real problem of failing schools or dangerous neighborhoods or anything else; we we're fully aware of that. But the high-pressure, time-sensitive, goal-oriented world of today's public schools felt very odd to us, and not a little bit wrong.

I realize that this is much too heavy-handed a generational stereotype, but maybe those in their 30s today remember a time when neighborhoods were (more or less) intact enough, and teachers were (more or less) trusted enough, and the streets were (more or less) safe enough, and families were (more or less) stable enough, to allow children--namely, us--larger amounts of time, space, and responsibility. Bike to school. Be home by dark. Catch the bus downtown. Climb a tree. And so forth. This sensibility does solidify, for many of us anyway, a real discontent we have with a social world that (for economic and cultural reasons) has been so mercilessly measured and surveyed and risk-assessed. Not long before our experience with Megan, I'd read David Brooks's extremely depressing (for me) article on "The Organization Kid"--the child of baby boomers who has been prepped and watched over and groomed to excel. Heavy backpacks and programmed time with the parents forms the basis of this type of person's interaction with the world. The parents of my generation, on the other hand--the older siblings, perhaps, of those who rebelled (my dad listened to Elvis in high school, not the Beatles)--somehow missed out on the need to change the world, and the micromanagement it (not doubt unintentionally) entails. And they raised us to be slackers. A bad thing? In some ways. But if I can somehow make sure my daughters have the power and opportunity to slack off--to find their own way, make their own mistakes, develop their own little world, perhaps all while taking the time to walk to school--in the midst of this high-pressure, paranoid world, I'll feel that I've done some good.

Walking to school sounds like, well, work, especially if one can catch a ride. But actually, walking to school--and the temporal, social, cultural, economic environment is presumes and contributes to--is in a very real sense lazy, at least in a world of organization, because it requires no organization: just two working legs and the basic knowledge required to cross on the green light. There is a real and significant theoretical point to "slacking off" in the face of meritocratic, organized, time-sensitive world, to refusing to carry a Blackberry (as Laura McKenna wisely put it in one of her rants (and which I further commented on): "corporate life is the enemy of the modern family") and insisting that whatever work you do, whatever deadline you have to make, whatever seasonal imperative you're committed to, your family and your life as an human being is not something that belongs, in a fundamental sense, on the clock. Take the time to walk; it's a form of dissent.

Of course, by dissenting you're also engaging yourself in larger questions, questions that need to be a part of ordinary individual, family, and community life, but which so often we moderns fail to engage in, leaving such issues to be addressed those with vested (usually business) interests. Questions about collective action, neighborhood government, and public goods. Why aren't there sidewalks along our street? Where does the spill-over parking from the new Wal-Mart really go? Who decided on these speed limits? Pausing for a moment--or just giving it some thought as you walk to your next destination, rather than going on the usual brain-dead automatic as you fight traffic and Tweet someone on your cell phone--leads to the realization that the assumption that everyone drives everywhere is going to affect the homes available to buyers, the parks and open spaces available to take your family to play in, the friends that your daughters will be able to make at school. And as for those friends...as the father of four girls, with the aforementioned oldest daughter now on the cusp of teen-agerhood, I'm getting it all the time. We're slowing her down, that's what folks say: she doesn't have a cell phone, we make her walk to school, we've got to pick up the pace! Do we want her to "fall behind"?

Well, no...and yes. I'm enough of a modern American to embrace the idea of pursuing opportunities when they present themselves to you, and if said opportunities might involve extra time and effort and attention on my part, as a loving father I'm going to provide those for my children; I won't slack off in that regard. But once again, I think there needs to be some limits, and a lot of those limits are best realized by way of simply thinking of what a normal human being can do, in a normal day, without attending to the hyped-up, commercialized, technologically enabled, impatient, entitlement-oriented speed which surrounds us. Maybe we won't drive our daughters all over town to every party and every lesson and every tutor available to her, simply for the sake or organizing her life around fun and accomplishment. Maybe--as I said in another one of those wonderful discussions which Laura keeps hosting, this one dealing with cell phones and teenagers--my wife and I have come to the unspoken agreement that for as long as possible, as much as possible, we are going to instruct our kids in the value of just plodding along and dealing with the inconveniences and limits of human life as they come, rather than looking for ways or for tools which will hasten their ways around or beyond them (and, too often, at too young an age, beyond us, the parents who, "slackers" though we may be, are hopefully not slacking off on our responsibilities). It's a form of Luddism, I know, but we tend think that too much ordinary common sense--the sort of bourgeois stuff that comes from slowly accumulating life skills and lessons--can potentially be lost if young people are, on the one hand, fast-tracked into worlds of high-tech meritocratic accomplishment, while on the other hand, still feel themselves tethered to parents to deal with real world problems (like when the computer crashes). Cutting down on the former--by, for example, doing all you can to be able to make the choice to buy a home in a neighborhood where they can walk to school and church, and then expecting them to do so--can, coincidentally, teach them a little bit of real responsibility and self-reliance, and thus increase their ability to deal with the latter on their own.

What's that--the hypocrisy accusation? Well, it is true we own a cell phone--one; my wife carries it. Perhaps we'll get another, family phone for latter on, once our oldest learns how to drive. But that's a few years away yet. Take it slow for now, is what I say. Slack off, dissent, turn off the tv, and walk to the park (or ride your bike; in truth, that's my preferred method of travel). Sure, it's a whole mile away. But it's not raining...and the time away from the beeps and whistles of modern life may do you a world of good.

Monday, April 27, 2009

It's Funny, Because It's True

I've written before, at length, on the ambiguous situation of being a teacher in our late capitalist, late modern wold. And I've written before, also at length, on the conflicted anguish which the month of April so often brings to academics. But now I realize that all of that was wasted space, because Terry Pratchett has already described the character of teaching--our intellectual pretensions, our relationship to our students and those who pay our students' bills, our funny hats--as well as anyone probably ever will:

Bands of [teachers] wandered through the mountains, along with the tinkers, portable blacksmiths, miracle medicine men, cloth peddlers, fortune-tellers, and all the other travelers who sold things the people didn't need every day but occasionally found useful. They went from village to village teaching on many subjects. They kept apart from the other travelers and were quite mysterious in their ragged robes and strange square hats. They used long words, like "corrugated iron." They lived rough lives, surviving on what food they could earn from giving lessons to anyone who would listen. When no one would listen, they lived on baked hedgehog. They went to sleep under the stars, which the math teachers would count, the astronomy teachers would measure, and the literature teachers would name. The geography teachers got lost in the woods and fell into bear traps. People were usually quite pleased to see them. They taught children enough to shut them up, which was the main thing, after all. But they always had to be driven out of the village by nightfall in case they stole chickens. (Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men, HarperTempest 2003, pgs. 21-22)

Yes, in case you're asking, I've only just discovered Terry Pratchett; I have no one to blame for this except myself. Specifically, I've discovered the Discworld books. Even more specifically, I've discovered Pratchett's wonderful heroine, Tiffany Aching. But all of that is besides the point; one I read the above passage, I was hooked. I think I'm going to have to put it up on my sideblog.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"

They weren't truly part of the synthpop crowd--or at the very least, very quickly transcended it--but how could I not include the Eurythmics as part of any survey of British New Wave? I couldn't, that's all.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"A Left Conservatism" Gets Revisted

If my involvement over at Front Porch Republic has done anything for me, it has introduced me to enough thinking-outside-the-box conservatives--or so-called conservatives--to realize that some of my previous judgments as to the unlikelihood of religious, left-leaning, localist/socialist/populist like myself making common cause with any of them was perhaps premature. Or at the very least, I was premature in making my oft-stated claim that people like myself, who are convinced that often the best way to achieve and maintain conservative values is though progressive politics, our vanishingly rare. Case in point: the wonderful commenter E.D. Kain, whose re-examination of my old, beloved "A Left Conservatism" post gets some serious consideration at his group blog, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. As for who Mr. Kain is, well, I'll let him describe himself:

I listen to NPR; watch Colbert and Jon Stewart; loathe Fox News; voted for Obama; am critical of Big Business and the military; opposed torture; support gay rights but understand the complexity of the debate over gay marriage; support legalizing marijuana; can’t stand conservative talk radio; often agree with Andrew Sullivan...and the list goes on and on. I’m pro-life but I’m not ready to ban abortion outright because I don’t think that’s the right way forward…and on top of that I’m pro-contraception. I’m in favor of a progressive tax system because of my belief in a broad middle class which, in a capitalist economy, sometimes requires that most dreaded of sins--redistribution of wealth! (I suppose the Catholic Church and its social teachings make it, too, a socialist organization - one place where the Obama administration and the Church can find common cause in the fairy tale land of Glenn Beck et al) I think the history of Western Civilization is vital to our understanding of the present and future. I think the arts should be preserved. I think our childrens’ education is more important than almost anything else. I think commercialism is more of a threat to our children than rock and roll....I am critical of free trade and capitalism. I’m critical of a lot of things that get too big or too opaque, be they governments or businesses or religious organizations. I’m wary of globalism because it seems destined to sacrifice the "little platoons" in favor of the generals with the biggest regiments.

And I suppose this is where I begin to truly identify as conservative....What we have is a sort of web of considerations about modernity, economics, social stability, centralization (of capital and power), localism, and so forth. Now, I would argue that both liberals (or progressives) and conservatives and the non-denominational can all find common cause in this arena....I believe in "family values" as it were, but I believe that they are best preserved by building pro-family communities; by maintaining such antiquated things as aesthetic beauty, walkability, and the environment. I am certainly not a proponent of sexual licentiousness or pornography, and I have deep, deep reservations about cloning, assisted suicide, etc. but my social critiques tend to focus on social harm and not abstractions like the "sanctity of marriage" which was, in all honesty, watered down long ago by cohabitation sans stigma and lax divorce laws.

Wow. Clearly, I have found a soul-mate, or he has found me. (Hope you don't find that an offensive or troubling prospect, E.D.)

I actually do have a reason for posting this besides gushing. At one point in his post, E.D. quotes my statement that "[t]raditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self." In response to this, Nob Akimoto writes:

I think rather we’re approaching an era of social fluidity, democracy and technology (particularly in communication) where such things have a net positive to what would be described as "community" and "tradition" vis-a-vis mass communication/media, marketing and manufacturing techniques which made these things so ephemeral and weak in the last 50 or so years. Centralized, top-down capitalism to me always seems to be more of a factor in undermining traditional interconnections between people, rather than permissive mores about types of moral behavior. (Whether sexual, religious or some other form) Consumerism writ large tends to I think atomize people and make them generic units of consumption rather than individuals, and there’s a pervasive top-down mentality to culture that’s produced in the same way. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that online communication and the way social groups form might actually help reinforce traditional diaspora communities. (There’s a few studies of this sort and online ethnic identification for example, in more political theory literature) I think it’s helpful in fact to think of the dichotomy more in terms of power structures. Are things flowing unidirectionally top to bottom? Or are they more something that’s created bottom-up?

Nob makes some good points here, ones that I wouldn't want to disagree with necessarily, but which I do think need to be stated more clearly. "Social fluidity, democracy and technology" do obviously have communitarian potentials to them; this is the sort of thing Camassia commented on in response to my recent "geek post", suggesting that the technologically enabled social fluidity which allows idiosyncratic fan communities to form is a kind of collective empowerment, something which turns "isolated consumers [into] collective producers." But this is one area of our lives as social animals that where distinctions are important; purely chosen communities, the communities that arise from the proliferation of choices, often lack inculcative power, lack the discipline that comes along with knowing that one essentially belongs for whatever historical or religious or spatial reason. This goes to the heart of an old and important dispute in communitarian reflection: as the philosopher Charles Taylor put it years ago, in response to the culturally-sensitive-but-still-fundamentally-individualistic-arguments of his fellow Canadian Will Kymlicka, "can liberalism be communitarian?" His response was, put simply, no: the democratizing and expansion and transformation of cultural resources though fluid interactions have many positive effects, but one thing they cannot do--because they are beginning with the agenda of the participating individuals, not with the survival of the culture as a collective good in itself--is preserve the authority of such communities, including authority over their own identity. "Cultures are, indeed, plastic and multifaceted things," Taylor wrote. "But that does not mean that any one of them will allow anything. If this were so, they would be indistinguishable and uninteresting. The question is still open whether certain cultures, even at the widest stretch of their plasticity, are not committed to certain goods that are incompatible with neutral liberalism. Since even such a common aspiration as survivance nationalism is incompatible with liberalism [here Taylor is referring to the continuing debate over language and identity and community in Quebec], the answer to this question is almost certainly affirmative." (Criticial Review, Spring 1994, pg. 261)

Now I'm enough of a Marxist (or, at least, democratic socialist) to agree with Nob that "[c]entralized, top-down capitalism" is the primary threat out there to "traditional interconnections," and--religious traditionalist though I may be--I'm also enough of a modern liberal to recognize that much of the hand-wringing out there over social permissiveness is a little overwrought. And moreover, Nob is absolutely correct that modern technologies and in particular online tools have been, and will no doubt continue to be, great boons to the ability of members of conservative communities to network with and build up one another. But I would not want to go so far as to close my eyes to what I think is the fundamental issue here, and indeed, perhaps the fundamental issue to "left conservatism" itself: that the reason why all sort of modern or progressive tools sometimes may be or need to be used to conserve local communities of belief and culture and practice is because said communities offer something different than what any empowered individual is ever likely to be able to put together on their own. In the "civilizational tango" of progress and tradition which E.D. mentions, let's never forget which partner is which.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Modernity, Fecudity, and Being a Competent Geek

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Not too long ago, I asked all you readers just what sort of geek I should be. (The answer, in case it wasn't apparent at the time, is looking very likely to be Star Trek, but that's besides the point.) Soon after that, I read this post by one of my favorite bloggers, Tim Burke, and as I thought about it as the weeks went by, it occurred to me: can I defend my being a geek? Is it something I can justify, or is there even any need to do that? Let me explain.

Tim and I have gone back and forth over some pretty heavy issues for a long time, and I've learned a great deal from him. The heart of our engagement with each others' ideas, however, cannot be mapped onto any partisan political map; rather, it boils down to this: we're both geeks--that is, we both have deep affection for all sorts of disparate elements of pop culture, with its comic books and movies and music and cartoons and so much more--and as such, we both are obliged to have (as all true geeks are obliged to have, whether they realize it or not) an opinion about the modern world, and more particularly about its forms of production and consumption. Our opinions about all that differ, and therein, I think, lays the source of most of our mutual challenges to each other.

Is "geekery" modern? Depending on how one uses the word, not necessarily: in the same way that one can argue that there were styles of music as far back as the 18th century that were clearly composed and performed in such a way as to qualify as "pop(ular) music" (Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, after all, is every bit as much a wonderfully catchy "pop" tune as anything the mid-period Beatles produced, the real only difference being that it was composed for a chamber ensemble rather than two guitars, a bass and some drums), one can similarly claim that the basic elements of geek-obsessions--the passionate devotion to the minutiae of some certain craft or sport or skill or work of art--have always been with us. But of course, that's probably pushing the word too far. For decades, until the postwar generation needed some new words to help establish social hierarchies in America's high schools, the only real use the term had was in conjunction with carnival freak shows. So mostly I would say it is late-modern capitalism, mass production and mass consumerism, the commodification and global diversification of the manufacturing of culture, that has enabled geekery--the word and the idea--to go mainstream, for ordinary people in their innumerable places to share in the obsessive pursuit of some idiosyncratic knowledge or experience. (Daniel Stern's character Laurence "Shrevie" Schreiber, in Barry Levison's wonderful film Diner, couldn't have become the compulsive memorizer of pop music that he was absent the invention of AM radio, the 45 record, and mass distribution of both.) Hence, geeks of all sorts today--and that certainly includes both Tim and I, and probably a good number of the readers of this post as well--are implicated in the modern world.

Tim mostly rejoices in that implication, and his mostly skeptical of the attempts to impose (from without or within) standards, limits, or controls (whether cultural, political, or moral) over the overflowing materiality of modernity. I'm more troubled by it, and much more anxious to see our thoroughly commodified, corporate-driven capitalist world brought back down to a place and a pace where terms like "local" and "authentic" cannot be so easily or so cynically merchandised. This doesn't mean that I'm distrustful of all the goods the market can bring us, not any more than it means that Tim rejects the idea of austerity and conservation and community outright. It's just that we see them quite differently. Here, allow me to quote from the post I mentioned above:

[The idea that] the material world around us is dense in objects and spectacle, that we have a sense of what I've called fecundity, is important to middle-class well-being....So much cultural creation in the 20th Century has come from a sense that the world around us is materially and socially crackling with possibility, even from a sense of its excess and superabundance, and of course also the starkness of the absence of abundance and wealth from so much of the global life of humanity in the same time....

Middle-class well-being in the United States in the last ten years has been increased far more by social production than it has the addition of new material goods. Wikipedia, for all its faults, makes life better and easier....[A]s social production rises, it supplements that sense that the world is fecund, full of wealth and possibility, it provides some of the well-being that material commodities also provide, and adds new kinds of well-being at the same time. In Norman Rockwell’s "Freedom From Want", it matters that the table is well-provided with silverware, that the home is safe and clean, and that there’s a big turkey on the platter, but at least some of the comfort and well-being in that scene is social and relational. Not everything that makes us feel wealthy and happy needs to involve the conversion of material resources into material objects.

At the same time, let’s not go skipping down the kumbaya path too far. It’s one thing...to look forward to an economy that aligns social production, creativity, knowledge creation, innovation and a leaner, more coherent vision of productivity. It’s another thing to think that this gets us to a mash-up Sunday-school/countercultural version of the thrifty good life where we all live in 9-foot square houses, wear burlap bags, eat Soylent Green supplemented by the modest vegetable garden on the roof of our huts, live in communitarian happiness with our neighbors while flitting about the virtual global village on our netbooks, while producing homebrewed mash-up music videos of our cats for posting to YouTube. At least some of the material culture that both attracts and vexes us is also a part of the Good Life and needs to remain so. It will and should continue to produce difference as well as connection, be haunted by inequality and attended by pleasure....

The prophets of thrift throughout the 20th Century were also always preachers on behalf of the intense disciplining of human subjectivity, to the management of time and the control of sensation and the rationalization of beauty, to a Taylorism of the soul. That we've given those thrifty, controlled disciplinarians up for their opposite numbers, a crazed frenzy of Dionysian racketeers who pretended to rationality while they engorged themselves, is a good sign that it’s time to rethink how and when we desire, to recognize the ways that social production enabled by innovative technologies have enriched us far more than SUVs or 4-bathroom suburban mansions. But it’s not a reason to stop wanting.

Anyone that can come up with a line like "a crazed frenzy of Dionysian racketeers who pretended to rationality while they engorged themselves" can't be too much of an opponent of an ethos of localism and limits, such as those good folks I blog along with at Front Porch Republic. But still, an opponent he is, because as much as he rightly observes that there has come along with late modernity a myriad of technologically-enabled forms of social production--Front Porch Republic itself, and the friendships and insights which the exchanges which it hosts makes possible, is certainly one such--that can and often do enrich and ground our lives in our diverse places, and thus make our local worlds better places to be, in the end he cannot separate one of the great socio-economic accomplishment of 20th-century America--"middle-class well-being," as he puts it--from a more general, more crass, more material fecundity. Moreover, he associates that particular kind of well-being with an individual liberty that--I think, at least--is actually counter-productive to the kind of supports and arrangements and associations that truly contribute to the sort of happiness (or the sort of bourgeois virtues, if you prefer) he celebrates. "Thrift," in his view, is haunted by a kind of rationalization and disciplinarianism, a conforming of human existence to the most easily mocked sort of vegetarian eco-conscious pious communalism. True, some of it has been. But most of it, I would insist, has not.

Perhaps the key dividing point here is Tim's tendency to look at the amply-provided table in the Norman Rockwell painting--and, by extension, though it is something he hints at only obliquely in this post, I would say also his own many and varied geek interests, his fascination and learned appreciation for the popular as a source of entertainment and diversion and wonder--I see it as a representation of "luxury." That food--and probably also his various idiosyncratic and obsessive delights, so many of which I share--are sumptuous and ephemeral; they partake, in the oldest meaning of the word "luxury," of something lustful, something that gratifies but does not satisfy, something that you fancy but which does not fulfill. And here, at this very deep level, perhaps we see the essential connection between the "deadly vices," between consumption both sexual and economic, which Patrick Deneen wrote wisely about a few weeks ago. If one allows that the pursuit of self-interest and gratification as probably an acceptable--indeed, depending on how one reads The Federalist Papers, perhaps even a politically necessary--element of modern life, and if you understand those interests and those gratifying pleasures to be, in essence, a species of lust...well then, surely, the voice that calls for limits and local restrictions and standards of appropriateness is only echoing Dana Carvey's old Church Lady routine, right?

Perhaps I exaggerate; very likely Tim could respond that I am conflating too many categories here, and that defending an interest in, say, Star Trek is not the same as defending an interest in fine dining (and the occasional overeating which goes with it), and that neither is the same as defending rampant economic expansion and sexual experimentation. And, of course, he's correct: those aren't at all the same. But if they aren't, why associate "middle class well-being" and "the Good Life" with an image of luxurious fecundity, a conception of materiality that involves "difference as well as connection," one that is "haunted by inequality" as well as "attended by pleasure," at all? Perhaps because we're fallen creatures, and that any attempt build something lasting in this mortal sphere will invariably also produce byproducts and excess? That would be a good answer, but it's a religious one, and generally defenders of liberal modern materiality don't care much to go there. So I have a better answer: maybe the diversions and excellencies of modern productivity need not have anything to do with actual luxury at all: maybe they should be distinguished from such, and instead be labeled what Christopher Lasch called them: "competencies." As he put it towards the end of The True and Only Heaven:

Those who believed in progress were impressed by the technological conquest of scarcity and the collective control over nature that seemed to be inherent in the productive machinery of modern societies. Abundance, they believed, would eventually give everyone access to leisure, cultivation, refinement--advantages formerly restricted to the wealthy. Luxury for all: such was the noble dream of progress. Populists, on the other hand, regarded a competence, as they would have called it--a piece of earth, a small shop, a useful calling--as a more reasonable as well as a more worthy ambition. "Competence" had rich moral overtones; it referred to the livelihood conferred by property but also to the skills required to maintain it. The ideal of universal proprietorship embodied a humbler set of expectations than the ideal of universal consumption, universal access to a proliferating supply of goods. At the same time, it embodied a more strenuous and morally demanding definition of the good life. The progressive conception of history implied a society of supremely cultivated consumers; the populist conception, a whole world of heroes. (Norton 1991, pgs. 530-531)

Might it be that the grandfatherly figure looking down at the bounty which his wife is placing before the hungry and happy ones assembled around the table is not ruminating upon the luxury that is theirs, but rather upon the competency--the work, the stewardship, the regular attending to daily life--which allowed that bounty to be present in the first place? Such competency could have been honed and expressed on the farm, but perhaps it was found in the office building, on the construction site, in the classroom and teachers' lounge, at the power plant, in a hundred other places. Such competency--and the "middle-class well-being" that it sustains--would not, above all, have necessarily depended, even in an abstract and unconscious way, upon an assumption of limitless fecundity, the "sense of [modernity's] excess and superabundance"; rather, it could just as easily--and probably much more likely--had arisen through an engagement with a vocation, the enjoyment of the responsibilities of proprietorship. That engagement and enjoyment is the heart of the Good Life, a good life which makes room for innumerable little pleasures along the way.

The notion of being a "competent" geek is on its face silly, of course; almost by definition, the sort of practices and skills and arenas of knowledge upon which someone can build a "competence" that will sustain and satisfy them will almost never include those collectible, popular, ephemeral, idiosyncratic things (television shows, baseball scores, radio programs, Boy Scout merit badges, train schedules, comparative marginal tax rates, etc.) upon which modern life allows one to specialize. And yet, perhaps it would be better for geeks such as myself to think about just such questions of competency. All story-telling, all appreciation of good work, all acts of world-creation and social interaction, are forms of "production" that are blessings which modern freedoms and modern opportunities make available to us: Tim certainly has that much correct. Maybe it would be better to not give him any more ground than that, however; maybe it would be well to eschew any unintentional and however reluctant acceptance of my creative life as a participant in the self-interested pursuit of luxury, and instead see how many of my own passions expand and contribute to--or at least reflect back--an authentic competency, a study and work that I and others are a part of.

Modernity has had consequences good and bad, and some upon which the judgment is not yet final. The fecundity and diversity and complexity of modern life is one of those. For the most part, I find it worth retreating from, or at least seeking ways to make it more simple. But simplicity need not be a denial of opportunity; it may merely be an insistence upon seeing it with different eyes, seeing it first in light of the many communities of production and exchange (often local, often specialized, and almost always--at least if my experience of attending fan conventions are any indication--rather humble in their understanding of the ground upon which they necessarily stand) which it adds to and rebounds from, and not first and foremost as a possession of the individual who buys and consumes it. Or at least so I think, as I work on my garden, grade end-of-semester papers, teach my Sunday School class, and wait for May 7th to arrive.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Tainted Love"

Sorry I missed a week there. But now I'm back...and what do I have for you? Ah yes, Soft Cell's cover of "Tainted Love." As my friend Nick put it: "Emphasis on the synth, poppish beats and infectious hook, soft punk vocals, heartbreak lyrics, homo-erotic video--truly, the choice of an emo generation."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Empire of the Sun: Spielberg's Masterpiece

I have a constantly edited and updated list, about three pages long (and yes, if you're asking, I still write and save everything as Word Perfect files; sue me), of movies that I want or need to see. I put new stuff on there that seems interesting, add old films which I haven't yet got around the watching, and then, as I make my way through the list, delete them one by one. Sometimes I'll put a film on there because, though I've seen it before, I can't remember it as well as I think I ought to, or because somebody suggested something about the movie which I'd missed. I can't remember which one of these, if either, caused me to put Stephen Spielberg's 1987 epic, Empire of the Sun, a film I hadn't watched in probably close to 20 years, on there, but whatever the reason, I'm glad I did. I just slipped that dvd back into its Netflix sleeve, and I have to say: I'm blown away. Was this Spielberg's greatest film ever? It just may be.

I was never much of a Spielberg basher--I mean, sure, just about anyone who took films seriously in the 1980s and 90s occasionally partook in grousing about the way the man would join his terrific storytelling and efficient use of the camera to sometimes impossibly maudlin and manipulative scenes (E.T., I'm looking at you), and I probably wasn't above that. But to this day, I stand by my fondness for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Color Purple, and Jurassic Park as entertainments that were in turn intense, dramatic, and sometimes hilarious, and which made good use of those sometimes predictable "Spielberg" moments, or at least didn't allow them to break up the film. I haven't seen some of his more recent work (Munich is on my list to see one of these days, but the reviews for Indiana Jones and the Impossibly Long Subtitle kept me away), so I don't know to what degree he may have left those tendencies behind him: Schindler's List and War of the Worlds were both, appropriately, mostly brutal and unsentimental and free of narrative slickness, while Catch Me If You Can was so smart, frothy, and adult that it seemed to have been made by a different director entirely. Anyway, my point is, wherever Spielberg's has gone as a director over the past twenty years, Empire of the Sun is very much part of his 80s oeuvre: the Spielberg touches--the sunsets, the close-ups, the cute reveals, the sudden tears--abound. But here's the thing: it holds together brilliantly--maybe more brilliantly than anything else the man has ever done.

Upon watching it, I was reminded that it really was an epic film: a huge, two-and-a-half hour, panoramic retelling of the Japanese invasion and occupation of China, somehow all encapsulated in the story and the point-of-view of one character, Jamie Graham, the privileged, high-church educated son of a wealthy British expatriate family, who find their enclave on Englishness in Shanghai shut down by the Japanese occupation. Spielberg had two tremendous resources to work with in making this film, and the first was the brilliant performance by Christian Bale as Jamie. His many subsequent film projects have demonstrated a lot of range and talent, but I'm not sure I've seen him do anything in any other film yet that Spielberg didn't enable him to do, and do superbly well, in this movie when he was only twelve years old.

The demands of a true film epic are, I think, different from any other kind of cinematic story-telling; the main character has to be in every scene, has to be able to pull those scenes together through their own expressions and dialogue and actions, and yet not become some sort of passive synecdoche that supposedly "represents" the whole tale. Few ostensibly "epic" films really pull off this kind of story-telling: David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia certainly did, because Lean knew how to present the alternately expansive and intensely contained emotionality of Peter O'Toole's performance on the screen. Spielberg did the same with Bale. Go watch (or re-watch) the film, and look at how Bale's eyes skittishly (and sometimes shrewdly) jump from character to character during the chaos and violence of those opening scenes, as the Japanese soldiers, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, march into the Shanghai International Settlement and cart everyone off to civilian internment camps. You've got panic there; you've got desperation, hunger, delirium, but also thought. I can count on one hand the number of movie actors and actresses that can, when the scene is set up right, really communicate thinking to me in the audience; most of the time, we're just told that characters are smart, and that's it, or else their "thinking" about their situation is announced by lame shots of brows furrowed or whatever. But Spielberg saw in Bale someone who could express--or be taught to express; it was only Bale's second feature film--a boy who was using, or who would use, the same imaginative power that led him to idolize Japanese pilots and run about with toy airplanes to, when the time came, convince some layabout merchant marines to take him in and feed him, or to make himself essential to the smooth operating of the prison camp, or pick up some essential (and ultimately life-saving) Japanese phrases and rituals, or to sneak through barbed wire literally under the guns of the Japanese guards. I just sat their watching, thinking: "This kid is so damn smart!" I bought it completely; it worked, and because it worked, all the other hokey flourishes Spielberg used to translate the whole tale into one child's visionary experience--Jamie saluting some Japanese soldiers, and them solemnly standing at attention and saluting back; Jamie being made an honorary American in the camp, and walking about with aviator glasses and a cigar in his mouth; or, most outrageously (or triumphantly?), in the scene below, Jamie hysterically celebrating an American bombing run on the camp and watching a pilot wave to him in slow motion as he flies by, before collapsing in exhaustion...well, it all worked to, coming together into one sprawling, sometimes surreal, sometimes scary, consistently astonishing story-telling whole.

The look of the film is tremendous, which almost goes without saying: Spielberg has always known how to work with people to create beautiful, haunting, terrific sets. Beyond Bale, he had a great cast to work with, none more important to the story than John Malkovich as Basie, the American ship steward that becomes a cynical alter ego/father figure to Jamie throughout the film. He provides a fabulous antipode to Bale's Jamie, with his always-thinking earnestness: Malkovich plays Basie as calm, purposefully and even pretentiously undramatic, lethargic and cool. He comes to understand Jamie's energy, defends it, trusts in it, and is willing to abuse it (such as when he undramatically lies to send Jamie on a mission under the wires which ring the camp, just to find out if there on any mines planted out of sight). Basie is never Jamie's friend--he could never be a friend to a teen-age boy; that is clear from just watching him--but it's marvellous to see Malkovich present us with an adult who is tempted by Jamie's energy, who is almost willing to make the way and the starvation and horror which attends it into an enveloping playground the way this boy did. After Basie is beaten by a camp commander (his second ugly beating of the movie) and is taken to the camp hospital, Jamie visits him, and they come very close to a real heart-to-heart talk about their hopes...and then Basie suddenly stops and stares at Jamie, hard and curious, like the boy is a strange bug he'd just picked up off the floor. He pulls himself back, asks him brusquely why isn't Jamie watching his stuff, making sure it isn't stolen. From a possible confident to a tool, in a short brutal scene; I'm not sure anything else Spielberg has filmed has been as efficient at laying open the neediness and exploitation that come with deprivation. Jamie's last words to Basie? "You taught me that people will do anything for a potato." The words of boy who had spent years fighting the intrusion of reality into his well-tended, excitable dreams. Again, I bought it completely; I felt like I was quite accurately hearing what every and any civilian survivor of World War II would have said...if there happened to be someone as skilled as Spielberg (and the movie's screenwriters, of course!) to get those words voiced.

I'm leaving out a lot (like Jamie's final moments in the abandoned camp, bicycling like mad through the dusty, empty hovels, laughing crazily, the camera circling him wildly, then all of sudden stopping dead on a troop of solid American soldiers, the adult world finally putting a stop to Jamie's desperation once and for all). All I can say is what I said above: I really think this may be the greatest Spielberg film of them all, his true masterpiece. Maybe not his single greatest cinematic achievement (I would give that to the stunning, horrifying, first twenty minutes or so of Saving Private Ryan; look here if you don't remember), but as a complete package? I can't think of anything The Beard has done which beats what he and his team put together, more than 20 years ago. Give Empire a look, whether or not you have before. Maybe you'll be blown away, like me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sometimes, People are Awesome

For the moment, this morning, my faith (or at least my delight) in humanity has been restored:

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sniffles on Easter

Friends University, like all truly worthwhile institutions, honors Good Friday--and by extension the whole Easter week--by closing for the day. I'd like to say that I used the free time to go with the family out to Good Friday services somewhere, but 1) the Mormon church doesn't do much at all with the traditional Christian calendar, and so it would have been a matter of finding some other service to attend (as we do every Christmas Eve), and 2) I've been sick, as have at least half the family, and so our collective desire to get dressed up and take the kids to church on a weekday was pretty minimal. It's particularly frustrating to me, because it's as if my pride has been wounded: I have allergies, and I have had a couple of freaky health scares before, but by and large, when the flu makes it occasional march through the Fox household, I'm usually the one well who stays well. All around me, females with ear infections, hacking coughs, high fevers, and I stand undisturbed. I am invincible!, my mind indulgently cries out. Well, not this time. Running nose, constant headache, can't sleep. Blah. I think I'm finally shaking it, as is everyone else, but man has it been a miserable week.

Anyway, that's why I haven't posted anything; my apologies. I did re-post a couple of old Easter-related posts of mine, over at By Common Consent, where I do some occasional Mormon blogging these days. The first is the text of an old story about Jesus I read to the girls every Good Friday, "The Three Trees"; the second, much longer post, is a series of excerpts from a personal essay published over twenty years, title "Easter Weekend." The author was Gene England, who died a few years ago; I had known him a little bit while a young student at BYU, way back when. Gene was a professor of English, but more importantly he was beautiful writer, a Mormon essayist without peer. The honesty and humility he expresses in that essay conveys the spirit, pain, and promise of the Easter story as well as anything I've ever read.

Anyway, happy Easter, one and all. I'll be back next week.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "(Keep Feeling) Fascination"

I know what you're all thinking. You're thinking "Okay, Russell, sure, Metallica, U2, rock and roll, we get it. But is that really what Friday Morning Videos is all about? What about all those perfectly plastic, neon-bright, gloriously artificial moments in early 80s pop music? What about the synthesizers, the electronic reverb, the deep Goth stares into the cameras, the so-vapid-it's-ironically-meaningful expressions of love and sorrow? In other words, what about New Wave?"

Well, after some recent, idiosyncratic, highly unscientific polling of some random friends of mine, I'm ready to deliver. You want British synthpop? I'll give you British synthpop. And who better to start which than Human League? Nobody, that's who.

(Someone tell me--are they even pretending to play those guitars?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Joining the Party, For Reals

Back in 2006, as the midterm elections came upon us, I realized that I was rooting pretty much all the way for the Democrats. I found this odd, when I stood back and thought about it--not just that I was voting Democratic, but that I was turning into a party-line voter at all. As I wrote then:

[L]ike most Americans these days, I'm not registered with any particular political party. There was a time when this didn't bother me; I liked to style myself an "independent" who voted on the basis of issues and candidates, not the party, and I took that as a sign of political maturity....I thought politics and political ideas were important, of course (I mean, I've studied them them whole life!), but I didn't see them as so serious as to mandate the kind of desperate, ethically compromising shenanigans that parties give rise to. So better to downplay that aspect of the political game as much as possible, I thought....[But] I've become a lot more democratic, a lot more populist, and a lot more expressive in my political outlook over the years, and that means I've become a lot more sympathetic to parties....My understanding of democracy follows participatory and developmental models; I think elections are about governing, yes, but are also--and more importantly--about creating and maintaining those assumptions and perspectives within which we recognize good government. Voting alone can't do that, of course--there are a hundred important ways in which citizens can participate in the generation of potential political worldviews. But contributing to, supporting, and voting for parties is perhaps the most time-tested and important of all those ways....Hence, I've found myself becoming a party person--sometimes even complete with the buttons and funny hats. Democratic politics is about building a party through your vote and other efforts which carry and thereby refine your ideas, not waiting for the perfect vehicle which can express those which you've refined all on your own.

Pretty good words, if I may say so myself, and I stand by them. Except that I didn't really follow through on them: my voting, and my thinking, may have become more aligned with the populist prospect of organizing and expressing my democratic, participatory wishes through a party, but I still didn't actually join. I never registered as a Democrat, I didn't send in contributions, and aside from some fairly intense activity around the elections in 2006 and 2008, I even did my best to keep myself off various e-mail lists. Why? Two reasons, I think. First, I may have talked about getting beyond the notion of "waiting for the perfect vehicle" for expressing my ideas, but I didn't; not really. I still wanted--and indeed, I still want today--to discover a genuine, politically viable (if only for purposes of expression!) Christian socialist or Red Tory or Populist party on my ballot. Second, there's that thing about taking official independence to be a sign of "maturity." It's a seductive--because, perhaps, accurate, or at least rather self-honest--way of thinking, though as Tim Burke observes in a couple of (to my mind anyway) mildly depressing comments over at Laura's place: "[T]he flip side of being mature is being convinced that nothing can change, life is what it is, you can't beat City Hall....Modernity is in a kind of midlife doldrum, where you want something better, want some change, but can't really make yourself believe that it could happen, and you've been hurt too many times before to take a chance anyway....[M]aybe we don't protest because we're more mature, more cynical, and don't expect that much. We'll be happy with a tinkering there and a reform here, we'll settle for things being not-so-good as long as they're not apocalyptic." Who wants to be apocalyptic? Not me: I mean, I've got my daughter's jazz concert coming up, and church potluck this Friday--who has the time to get all invested in big plans and angry protests and earnest organization? Not me, or at least so I'm tempted to think. Plus, overlaying all that, is my membership in our society's critical elite: I can always spot (or at least think I can) the compromises, the inconsistencies, the salesmanship that goes into every recruiting slogan, and who wants to deal with such constant dissonance? Again, not me. So overall, passive maturity seems the best bet.

Except that such an approach is wrong. It's wrong for all sorts of civic reasons, as Laura lays out in her main post. It's wrong because it excuses us from feeling anger, from feeling passion, from being caught up in the affect of public life, and when we view politics without any sense of affect, we have that much less reason to enter into exchanges and associations with our fellow citizens, which are exactly the sort of civic practices which make democracy strong. But it's also wrong because, well, let's just let Whittaker Chambers spell it out (in a passage that Caleb Stegall brought to my attention, in another one of his typically brilliant, outrageous, take-no-prisoners posts):

I hurried up to Columbia University to inform my friends on the campus that I had located the Communist Party, had made contact with it, and was, in fact, a registered member. By chance, the first man I met as I crossed the campus was one of my literary friends. I told him the news. As usual, he squinted one eye and lifted the eyebrow of the other, so that he looked as if he were peering through a monocle. “Do you drill in a cellar with machine guns?” he asked airily. It was he who, when I was first seeking enlightenment about Communism, had given me The Communist Manifesto to read. Now I saw that Communism as an idea was diverting. Communism as an idea to do something about was amusing. I turned away. I looked up another friend who was later with the Theatre Guild. More than any other individual, he had been directly responsible for swinging me toward Marxism. Now that I was a Communist, I explained, I would be able to bring him into the party at once. There were some moments of painful embarrassment. He was delighted at my political enterprise, but he had no intention of joining the Communist Party. Nevertheless, his position was awkward and he felt obliged to put me off without actually saying no. The same pattern was repeated with others. For the first time, I understood the contempt with which Communists pronounced the word "Intellectuals." I thought: “That miscellaneous mob in the English speaking branch may not know the English language, but they know a good deal about history. They are not as intelligent as my college friends, but they do not think that ideas are ping-pong balls. They believe that ideas are important as a guide to coherent action. They have purpose and they have courage. They are grown men and women, and these are children.” I felt a sudden warmth for my shabby, quarrelsome comrades and a readiness to overlook their failings in the name of their faith and purpose. I began to see less and less of my college friends.

If my populism, and my religion, means anything, it means that I ought to be comfortable with belief--belief in change, belief in ideas--and not use my own class- and profession-shaped position to separate myself out from those other folk who, not having the luxury (and the security?) to treat ideas merely as diverting, want to use them to effect change. Of course, lots of change is bad and many ideas are terrible; Chambers himself could certainly speak to that. But that doesn't, I think excuse me from being willing to join up with some other believers...maybe not my perfect match of believers, but for the moment, the best believers I can find.

And that, to bring this around at last to the point of the title, is why last night I found myself sitting in the basement of Watermark Books, looking around a table at about a dozen other people--college students, unions veterans, city employees, a Disciples of Christ minister, an aerospace engineer, a lawyer, a peace activist--and signed up to form a Wichita chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. As we shared stories and motivations, I didn't have much to say (my protest days are long behind me, though the fact I once was arrested for demonstrating at a nuclear weapons testing range in Nevada turned a few heads); in fact, it was a learning evening for me: learning about efforts to get our national politicians to think seriously about bank nationalization, to renegotiate NAFTA, to push state politicians to close the deal on a long-awaited and much-needed raise in Kansas's atrocious minimum wage. I signed forms, paid dues, put my address down on petitions. I was, for reals, joined up. And by the end of the night, I felt...well, not a lot a fury, but some good, productive, populist anger coming on.

Obviously, I'm not a great fit for the party. The odds of finding anyone through the DSA who agrees with my complicated views on abortion or same-sex marriage or any number of other socially conservative or culturally localist issues are probably pretty low (though it'd be a pleasant surprise all the same). But I can deal with that. In the end, I figured it was about time I signed up with something, and since I'm always calling myself a Christian socialist anyway, this party looks be a good place to start.