Monday, January 19, 2009

Jazz, Race, Punk, and Electronicizing the Eschaton


Yesterday, I corrected a typo that I noticed in one of this blog’s first entries, from two years ago (a review of a book by Brian Doherty, who also wrote one of last week’s Book Selections), and that typo led me free-associatively to ten musings that warrant a book-length explanation. I’m slowly working on that book-length explanation, as it happens, but for now this one blog entry will have to suffice.

1. The typo in question was my misspelling the name of Leonard Read, gallant founder of the first thinktank dedicated to promoting property rights and markets, New York’s still-active Foundation for Economic Education. I accidentally referred to him in one spot as Leonard “Reed,” but Leonard Reed, as some of you may know, was the jazz tapdancer and songwriter responsible for co-inventing the Shim Sham Shimmy, a tapdance technique that began as a flashy finale and is also known as the Goofus.

So to summarize: Leonard Read, gallant; Leonard Reed, Goofus. We are lucky to have had them both.

2. Leonard Reed was also a mix of black, white, and Choctaw (and passed away nearly five years ago, after a long and productive life), and this being Martin Luther King Day, and the day before our first black president is inaugurated, it might be worth pausing to reflect upon jazz as an important step toward racial integration, a generation before the Civil Rights movement milestones of which we normally think. I wrote for (with the help of the Phillips Foundation) immediately after Hurricane Katrina about meeting jazz musician Jack Fine, who said he was old enough to remember thinking that the obvious lesson of jazz, that good things can come from breaking down ethnic barriers and creating hybrid art, will not be lost on the public. He expected things to change faster than they did, powered by that music.

3. On a Louisiana musical note of a different sort, Lesley Kane (wife of Kevin Kane, founder of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, which I hope will provide plenty of market-oriented ideas to my fellow 90s Brown graduate, Gov. Bobby Jindal) alerted me to this song by the band the Times about Patrick McGoohan, whose death I noted last week (and who was also admired by Jacob Levy, the fellow nerd about whom I wrote two days later). It is amazing the lengths the band went to to recreate the show.

4. I always thought Lesley looked a lot like my friend who sometimes comments here under the handle Xine — and who most recently did so to explain why girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer and I might have somewhat opposing yet equally positive views of punk. This has prompted Helen to reply with an entry on her blog called “‘Conservatism for Punks’ for Punks,” defending her brutal, tribalistic view of the musical genre (as opposed to my individualistic one). I wonder, sometimes, if the sorts of things that typically cause Helen to declare something conservative — such as embracing suffering, violence, and intense rule-adherence — would even be recognizable as conservatism by most conservatives. I can’t picture Buckley in a mosh pit. (If Helen weren’t so lovely, I’d be scared sometimes. But she also makes brilliant suggestions like us being Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi from Ghost World the next time we have a costume party to go to.)

Perhaps America has lost so much social cohesion in recent decades, though, that the twentysomethings now sense a bit of conservatism in anything that reasserts strong group identity — admittedly not my first concern when I was a TV-watching, mall-going, comic-book-reading semi-loner and loving it.

5. On a strange related note, it was twelve long years ago, while doing research for the same Phillips Foundation project that sent me to New Orleans, that I phone-interviewed a smart seventeen-year-old “straightedge” punk from New Brunswick, NJ (straightedge being a subculture that avoids excesses such as alcohol, drugs, and sex) and asked him whether he thought he might actually turn into a conservative someday. He sounded a bit skeptical.

About a decade later, I met a bespectacled, elbow-patches-bearing Ph.D. student interested in political philosophy named Sam Goldman, who now blogs at the conservative site Culture11’s Postmodern Conservative blog, along with Helen. Only after Sam and I had contact numerous times (via theatre guy Richard Ryan) did I hear one of Sam’s friends refer to their punk days back in New Brunswick, leading to the revelation that, yes, my interviewee had grown into a serious scholar, full of talk about Rousseau, Leo Strauss, Kant, and the like. Shortly after I informed Sam that we’d had contact during his previous incarnation and that re-meeting him today I’d never have imagined he’d once been a punk, let alone the punk I spoke to, I saw him and his friend, reminiscing, bump fists and utter the slogan “No gods, no masters.” Huh. Small world.

6. He is no relation to Jasmine Goldman, whose birthday gathering I mentioned in the more recent of the Book Selections entries linked above, but I’d like to take this opportunity to mention that another reveler that night, Lisa Speer, looks a bit like Molly Ringwald, and this was confirmed once in the best way possible: not by one more person coming up to Lisa and telling her she looks like Ringwald but by friends of Lisa who accidentally walked up to Ringwald on the street once and started talking to her, thinking it was Lisa. That has to be disorienting for a celebrity.

7. I will think of both Lisa and Molly while watching Pretty in Pink, one of the old VHS tapes I bought cheap from the library across the street a few days ago, along with the Paul Verhoeven classics RoboCop and Total Recall, plus Drunken Master, Fight Club, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Jerk, and, speaking of birthdays, the suicidally-dark Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. And that’s right, despite having been a teen in the 80s and proud of it, I have never seen Pretty in Pink. Nor St. Elmo’s Fire, Top Gun, Karate Kid, Flashdance, Fame, or any of the six Rocky films — and there are indeed six of them. Oddly, though, the names of Rocky’s opponents are burned into my brain.

8. The editor of the aforementioned PomoCon blog is James Poulos, and though he’s plainly very intelligent, I’m often amused by how abstract the issues that move him are, especially anytime Kant comes up, which always means a journey through engagement with manifolds of consciousness instantiated by our mediation of material social contexts and so forth.

Hitting slightly closer to home for those with my relatively earthy, pragmatic interests, PomoCon bloggers Hancock and Poulos have both been denouncing as naive efforts to render politics culturally “neutral” — to which I’ll just say briefly that neutrality, like perfect objectivity, may be impossible, but intellectually honest people know when they’re dealing with partisans who aren’t even trying.

The idea behind the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution (one of the documents I hope people calling themselves conservatives these days are still keen to conserve) or simple, dry, consistently-enforced rules like property — or for that matter democratic voting — is to avoid one cultural faction getting a big, arbitrary leg up over others. It’s not perfect, but surely, for example, even non-liberal people who sneer at the idea of neutrality can spot one item in this list of hypothetical laws that doesn’t belong here or is at least markedly different:

–Theft will be punished.
–Assault will be punished.
–Roads will be maintained.
–No one will be allowed to starve.
–A democratic legislature will settle outstanding disputes.
–Eighteen shall be considered the age of majority.
–French-descended people will be forced to dance in the public square and to explain to all who gather why the French are filthy and impure, unless the French renounce their gods, whereas Italian-Americans shall get free beer.

9. And though Poulos’s arguments about Kant have little to do with music, years ago I met Joel Krueger, who reviewed techno music, likening the trance effects of one album to reading Kant — tempting me and then-co-worker Ted Balaker, Joel’s friend, to consider sending Joel a recording of the rhythmic, mechanical sound of the office photocopier, to see if it at least evoked reading Hume or something. (Techno is wrong.)

10. But tomorrow, Inauguration Day, the only music that matters is “Yes We Can,” by which I mean, of course, the single by that title by the currently incarcerated Boy George, a song which his Wikipedia entry says reached #1 in Slovenia. And so the world gets still smaller.


Jacob T. Levy said...

“us being Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi from Ghost World the next time we have a costume party to go to”

This must happen, and pictures won’t be enough–I want video, and audio, of Todd doing that character.

“I have never seen Pretty in Pink. Nor St. Elmo’s Fire, Top Gun, Karate Kid, Flashdance, Fame, or any of the six Rocky films ”

It’s like I don’t even know who you are anymore.

Actually, I’ve never seen St Elmo’s Fire, Top Gun, or Flashdance, and have never seen Fame all at once. But I’m still utterly shocked that you’ve never seen Pretty in Pink.

Jacob T. Levy said...

“If your traditionalism makes you comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

I like her!

I also think she’s right about punk– at least, I recognize punk more easily in her account than I ever have in yours.

Todd Seavey said...

Because most punks endure such sacrifice and hardship for the artform, clearly.

Todd Seavey said...

And speaking of _Karate Kid_, some good and bad film news noted by DarkHorizons:

–likely Mr. Miyagi in the impending _Karate Kid_ remake: Jackie Chan (good)

–director of the _John Carter of Mars_ movie: the guy who did _Wall-E_ (good)

–likely director of the Asimov-based _Foundation_ movie: Roland Emmerich (uh-oh — but at least this makes it less likely to be talky and overly cerebral)

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Forget “conservatism,” please. It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

“[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

John Lofton, Editor,

Recovering Republican