Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Wichita Lineman"

One of the truly great songs, done solidly and well by Michael Stipe. Just wish all the drunk New Year's revelers could have quieted down a little.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Back When Men Wore Hats

'Twas a different world, then. (Full details here)

Just imagine--somewhere in there could be the young Alfred Hitchcock, out wandering the streets of London, scouting out scenes for his next silent feature.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "In Your Eyes"

This is a classic, obviously, and Peter Gabriel has included it in innumerable shows he has done. But love this camp-revival version best, off the "Secret World" tour, complete with jazz piano and violin.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Some Summertime (and Hopefully Sabbatical-Worthy) Speculations on Cities

That's Wichita, KS, right there, the city which has been our family's home since 2006 and will, quite possibly, remain our home until Melissa and I shuffle off to a better world. It's a nice picture (overlooking Central Riverside Park in the bend of the Arkansas River) of a nice city. It has many qualities that we like very much (as well as more than a few that we don't). My question: does it have a political theory? Or, really, can it?

I've lately been fascinated by the "City Meditations" which Alan Jacobs has been posting on his blog, especially the most recent one. He talks about the move his family will soon be making, leaving Wheaton, IL, a 50,000-person town which is, as he admits, "just part of the great conurbation of Chicagoland," and moving to Waco, TX, a city of 125,000 people (around 235,000 in the whole metro area) that is, because of its location in south-central Texas, truly a "stand-alone" city. For Alan, this is an invitation to continue to reflect upon why people move to cities, and why they move away from them; what cities have meant throughout history, particularly Christian history; and in what way our concerns about freedom, virtue, opportunity, and community are shaped by our urban (and rural, and suburban) landscapes--and soundscapes too. I hope he continues his reflections throughout the move this summer and beyond, because lately I've been wondering about such issues as well, particularly in regards to how they intersect with the lived reality of places like Waco. Or, for that matter, with places like Wichita--population 380,000 (630,000 in the metro area), and hours away from any remotely comparable cities in Oklahoma or on the Kansas/Missouri border. Or how about the city I grew up in--Spokane, WA, population 209,000, 474,000 metro (though I grew up primarily on a quasi-ranch/farm on the rural-suburban outskirts of the city), and similarly a long drive away from any other sizable metro unit? I was trained in political theory and philosophy, and while I've long since branched out into general political science and American government and constitutional law and everything else, simply due to the realities of teaching at Friends University, when I look forward to some kind of serious research project that I could work on and which might genuinely add something to the unaccountably vast and varied body of knowledge out there I think in terms of theory. And given my political and psychological predilections for thinking about communitarianism, localism, socialism, populism, and democracy, it was perhaps inevitable that after a while I began to ask to myself--what can I say, really, in a theoretical and normative sense, about where I live?

This isn't, I think, a purely academic question. The literature on cities as the vanguards or birthplaces of basic liberal and cosmopolitan insights and practices--pluralism, tolerance, individual rights, civil society, economic specialization, political freedom, trade--is vast. But so is the literature on the qualities and virtues of rural and small town life--participatory democracy, communitarian solidarity, self-governance, authenticity, agrarianism, long-term sustainability. It really isn't at all difficult to express cities and country life, with their various marginal cases, by way of a couple of broad types: city life is liberal and individualistic and fast-paced and consumption-based and filled with opportunity and risk; country life is conservative and socially restrictive and leisurely-paced and land-based and filled with attachment and "satisficing." Neither type is fully accurate, of course, but they have their theoretical uses. Do mid-sized cities have a similar use? If only to help us think about environmental and economic and civic and moral problems, so as to give us as human beings--social creatures that we are--a handle on the difficult problem of tipping points: when is a city too small, or too large, to be able to legitimately associate itself with this or that particular end? I don't know. I don't know if it might be that, throughout history, the mid-sized city (which, in my mind, is some combination of: 1) geographic isolation (which itself is a technology-dependent judgment), and 2) a population from 100,000 to 500,000 people--but what do I really know about it?) has actually filled some important, unstated, conceptual hole in our social imagination. Then again, maybe there isn't anything at all unique or worth particular respect when it comes to the mid-sized city--maybe, in terms of their public amenities and urban problems and environmental costs and economic opportunities, they're just communities stuck midway between either growing/bloating to some sufficient/too-big size, or shrinking/reducing to a more-reasonable/less-productive scale. And, of course, constitutional matters--local empowerment, federal arrangements, and all the rest, come into play here as well. Perhaps a mid-sized city, unlike huge metropolises, can be managed in a way so as to cultivate the sort of practices associated with small town environments, or perhaps they can be developed so as to attract, unlike rural areas, the sort of investments and opportunities that normally require a significant critical mass of people. Or perhaps both such possibilities are pointless goals, utterly inappropriate to the average city which is neither large nor small enough.

So as this summer finally and truly begins for me--my last, thank goodness, faculty meeting  of the semester was yesterday--my thoughts are turning to what I might be able to learn over the next couple of months. I've been promoted to full professor, and can apply for a sabbatical now. Lacking the sort of international connections or high-profile academic cred which might get me invites to one university or another, my most likely candidate for a sabbatical project is something I can do right here, in places like Wichita (or Waco, which I could visit, or Spokane, where my parents will still provide me with a place to sleep). I have a stack of books on my desk--Jane Jacobs, Alan Ehrenhalt, Edward Glaeser, Robert Wuthnow, and many others--who I hope might be able to give me the intellectual tools to begin to ask the sort of research questions which could get this project off the ground (and convince the sabbatical committee that it's a project worth giving me time off for). Maybe nothing will come of it, or maybe some other research opportunity will turn out to be more plausible and appealing. But for now, along with all my other reading, and being out and a part of Wichita this summer (go Wichita River Festival!) I think I'm going to keep reading Alan closely, and see what I can learn from him. Hopefully, his meditations will help along my own.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Getting Star Trek Mostly Right

I'm not going try to compete with Matthew Yglesias's tremendous survey the whole Star Trek mythos. (Well, actually, as he admits right at the beginning, it's not the whole mythos--he looks at only the canonical stuff, the television shows and the movies, ignoring millions of pages of novels and comic books and fan art and fiction, which is an entirely reasonable decision, despite the fact that it's arguable that much of the canonical stuff has been influenced and shaped by the fan stuff.) I can claim some cred for having come from an extended family of Star Trek-loving nerds, I've made it clear that at least two shows from the Star Trek franchise (the original Star Trek series and Deep Space Nine were hugely important to me, and I had many concerns with the grand J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot which parallel those that Yglesias mentions. But ultimately, he's watched all this stuff, and I haven't. (I bailed on Voyager after only one season, and on Enterprise after only one episode.) So I'm going to take his views seriously, especially since he gets one of the very most important things right:

Even if commercially successful films saved the franchise, Trek’s true home has always been television. The cinema demands what Abrams has delivered: action, suspense, drama. But it’s less well-suited to the signature thematic project of the franchise: to depict, in a sustained way, life in a better tomorrow. Utopia requires moments of peace and quiet. Random episodes about an android bonding with his cat, say, or a bartender’s schemes to increase his profits. You can’t make a lucrative sci-fi flick about people sitting around in a conference room debating options for resolving the situation peacefully--but something that can be accurately teased as primarily consisting of thrilling space battles is not the real Star Trek. A bunch of friendly folks using advanced technology to help people? That can only be profitable, I suspect, on the small screen.

Exactly true--Star Trek, for all the ways it evolved and experimented in its various presentations over a 35-year period, was always fundamentally a progressive, organization-minded, deeply and complicatedly human vision of the future, and the sort of summer movies which the reboot are apparently content in delivering to us can't possibly capture that kind of developmental, essentially liberal attitude. Just the same, I wouldn't call what the television versions of Star Trek gave us "utopian" exactly, because I think Yglesias is using that term in a somewhat limited and banal sense, communicating only the idea of a society that has achieved equality, justice, and peace. The appeal of utopia is--and, I think, this is even the case deep within the liberal heart of the Star Trek ideal--more than that; it is the idea of achieving or experiencing something which is truly alien, truly other, truly beyond, truly different. (It's for this reason that "utopia" is so often a mocking insult, or that those who are really grappling with genuine socialist and communitarian alternatives insist that they are looking for "realistic utopias.") The usual geek classification is that Star Wars is the mythos with a sense of myth, of transcendence or mysticism, whereas Star Trek is for those for those earth-bound liberals who just want to see the Department of Health and Human Services extended infinitely into outer space--but that geek classification is wrong, and Yglesias does the Star Trek mythos a (slight) disservice by somewhat buying into it. Because he's not recognizing that Star Trek, above and beyond the 60s-style-New-Frontier-Cold-War liberalism which it so obviously reflected, was a work of science fiction--and, even more than that, had some of the finest science-fiction authors of the day pen its best, earliest episodes.

To downplay the human-science-meets-the-infinite, I-put-on-my-space-suit-and-plug-in-my-time-machine-and-touch-the-face-of-God, character of the Original Series (and the echoes of it which continued with decreasing frequency through The Next Generation, going through a slight revival in Deep Space Nine, but disappearing almost entirely thereafter) leads Yglesias to miss noting probably the greatest accomplishment of the whole mythos: it was a way of telling stories cinematically in which ordinary human organizations and bureaucracies interact with and are challenged by the unknown, and those challenges--even when they are tragic and chastening, are ultimately positive. (The spirit of Arthur C. Clarke looms over the best of Star Trek's science fiction; Ray Bradbury might be more of Star Wars guy.) Yglesias, to be sure, isn't the only person to be more engaged by complicated, well-plotted soap operas and political dramas in outer space than by real science fiction; it's this sort of thing which leads him, like so many others, to consider The Next Generation "in most respects the 'real' Star Trek"; or to rank the original series (which, yes, sure, had some atrocious episodes, but which also have us the best, purest science fiction which any Star Trek franchise ever produced) even lower than Voyager; or--and this is one of my greatest peeves with all Star Trek fandom--to have so little respect for the Star Trek movie,  Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was probably the purest realization of the whole mythos's attempt to put entirely human organizations and technology and bureaucracy up against (indeed, even connect it to!) the ultimately unknowable, that he ranks it lower than a genuine piece of crap like Star Trek: Nemesis. Fine, I will grant that there are all sorts of visuals in ST:TMP which just plain drag, but really, if there is a purer expression of what Star Trek purports to be about than the climactic reveal in the final minutes of that movie, than I don't know what is:

A small complaint, maybe--and if Ygelsias wants to stand by his judgment, I'm not likely to watch a hundred or so additional hours of television to attempt prove him wrong. And as I said above, he gets the most important stuff right, and so let's just argue with him about whether we think Khan or Gul Dukat was the better villain, or whether our favorite crew members were Worf or Spock, as we wait for the opening of Star Trek: Into Darkness tonight. But let me just insist: the utopia which the Star Trek mythos represents may be a liberal socialist one, but beneath that it is a science fiction one, with all the sense of wonder which that conveys. Miss that, and you may miss the core truth of the mythos altogether.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?"

I know I did an Elvis Costello number recently, but I have to put up this one as well: a fine, smooth take on this classic Nick Lowe tune, which Costello had recorded and made famous as a blast of punk anger, but which was played on this tour (from Japan, over 25 years ago) with some great, reflective rockabilly twang:

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

This ALMOST Makes Consumer Capitalism Entirely Worth It

Behold, Star Trek friends: the greatest ever Greatest Thing Ever:

If you didn't watch it until the very end, you missed the best joke. Go back, watch it again.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Babe"

Go ahead, call it cheesy, disposable pop; call it overwrought sentimentality; call it late 70s soft-rock sludge. I don't care. This is one of the great pop ballads here.