Featured Post


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

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.