Tag Archives: Society

Bob Dylan, ‘The Atlantic’ and — me?


music_rock_roll_bob_dylan_bands_band_desktop_1024x768_free-wallpaper-29003The other week, I wrote a little piece for USA TODAY about Bob Dylan being charged in France for statements that authorities there construed as hate speech. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic used it as a jumping-off point for a remix-style riff on the free-speech issues raised in the story.

Interesting, entertaining and flattering all at once.

Here’s more of my writing for USA TODAY. 

The Web politicizes everything


People love to leap into political debates and disputes from the safety of their computers.

And why not? The anonymity, immediacy and reach of the Internet fires people up about politics. That’s good, in a way. We’re probably more informed about issues, and more engaged as voters, than at any time in our history.

But there’s a downside. Because the Web is such a polarizing, self-selecting information filter, and because we live more of our lives on it and through it, people politicize every aspect of life, even trivial ones like fast food or comic books  or coffee.

One of my favorite Twitter comedians, Uncle Dynamite, posted a fantastic essay on his Tumblr page about this disturbing trend a few months ago. Here’s a sample:

I don’t unfollow people for their politics because I understand that this really is who people are now. I don’t think they realize that because of this politicization, they’ve become greatly diminished. Boring, hectoring, supercilious, condescending, self-important and taken up with politics for much of the day. And YES, caring. Caring, caring, caring. We all care. I care. You care. Everybody cares. You don’t care that I care and I don’t care that you care. What’s important, everyone thinks, is that I myself care. You? You’re another story. (i.e. not as important as *my* story).

And more:

It’s important, in politicization, to never see the other’s point of view as even sometimes workable. Politics is a zero-sum game, unlike most of reality. “The other person’s view can only be stupid and evil. It’s motivated by money, by a desire to enslave people, or simply by wrong thinking made manifest. The candidate from the other party is not even human, could never be human, and therefore we are allowed to say the vilest things about him and do the internet equivalent of repeatedly poking him in the eye with a sharp stick. 

In that same vein, Sonny Bunch, a writer for the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon, wrote this recently:

This may sound odd coming from someone who has spent his life working in political reporting, but I find it extremely sad when people can’t separate politics from the rest of their lives. I’m not talking about people getting worked up about politicians; we live in divided times, so things are bound to get heated when talking about elected officials. I’m talking about people who say “I want nothing to do with [Person X] because he is a conservative/liberal/ Republican/ Democrat in his personal life.” …

I’d like to think I’m more tolerant about this sort of thing because I’m a conservative who loves pop culture. If I had to boycott every artist I disagreed with, well, my iPod would be pretty empty and my DVD shelves would be bare. Being tolerant of differing opinions is a defense mechanism, in a way: without tolerance for those I disagree with, I’d go nuts.

If you disagree with that last sentence, you’re stupid and evil and should be banned from typing on the Internet.

‘It is an immense human idea’


Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul on the pursuit of happiness:

So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

More wisdom here.

Johnny Otis, an all-American original


With the passing of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Johnny Otis, who died last week at the age of 90, America lost a musical creator and curator who, in his own way, did as much as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry to shape the soundtrack of the modern world. This San Francisco Chronicle appreciation story makes that clear:

He discovered Little Richard and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He produced their song “Hound Dog” with Big Mama Thornton when Elvis Presley was still at Humes High. He met 14-year-old Etta James backstage at a concert at the long-gone Primalon Ballroom on Fillmore Street and, that very night, whisked her to Los Angeles to make her first record the next day.

Otis’ musical contributions were rich and varied, and his 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was greatly deserved. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Otis was the brave way he lived his life, and what it says about the complexity of race and culture in America.

Here’s something a lot of people didn’t know: Johnny Otis was not a black man. He was the child of Greek immigrants, and his real name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. He grew up in a largely black neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., where he developed his love and affinity for African-American culture.

But Otis didn’t just immerse himself in the all-American culture of black people in this country — he consciously reinvented himself as “black” (or “black by persuasion,” as he called it). His remarkable musical dexterity flowed from that deep well of cultural understanding and allowed him to communicate with all Americans in the national language of the blues, which Ralph Ellison described as “an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances.”

In the wake of his death, some have framed Otis’ life as an expression of “anti-racism.”  It’s true that he arrived at a deeply segregated time in our history, and the arc of his life proves that racial categories are meaningless. It’s also true that the rock ‘n’ roll music he pioneered has done more on a human level to shatter those rigid categories than any legislation could.  But anti-racism is too simple an evaluation of his importance.

At his core, Otis is an extravagant example of the subtly multiracial society that Albert Murray revealed in The Omni-Americans:

“American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

Greek immigrant child Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, who became black musical impresario Johnny Otis, helped point America back to its miscegenated heart. For that, we should all be thankful.

Is survivalism really anti-humanism?


Virginia Postrel, in her final Commerce & Culture column for The Wall Street Journal, explodes some of the assumptions behind survivalism and what drives it in these deeply uncertain times. Along the way, she reveals how trade and the specialization of labor have benefited civilization:

Here we get a hint of the survivalist instinct’s fundamental error. In focusing on extreme situations, it forgets about the capacities built up during less-stressful times. Self-sufficiency limits knowledge and productive skills to whatever a single individual or locality can comprehend. Specialization and trade allow the system to expand those capabilities almost without limit. What looks like ignorance permits the growth of knowledge.

Carried to their logical conclusions, survivalist arguments would sever the very connections that make modern societies like Japan prosperous and resilient. If Japan were an isolationist nation of rice farmers, its suffering would indeed have fewer effects on our distant shores. We wouldn’t notice the absence of its people or what they produce, because we would have never gained from their efforts nor they from ours.

Read the whole thing.

Welcome to the United States of Umbrage, LLC


Americans can certainly be touchy about our perceived differences.

It’s understandable, given our history. “All men are created equal” has been a point of noisy, bloody contention from the beginning.

But in an America that’s radically different from the slave-holding, immigrant-bashing nation of the past, is constant vigilance against ethnic offense always a good thing?

As this classic 2002 article from Reason‘s Tim Cavanaugh points out, our  industriousness extends beyond cars, steel or hamburgers. We’re also pretty good at manufacturing bad feelings toward each other under the well-intentioned rubric of “anti-discrimination.”

Some good points from the article:

  • “Call it the anti-defamation industry, the anti-discrimination lobby, or maybe the umbrage market.”
  • “An anti-discrimination group has little motive to report improvement, or even stasis, in cultural relations, because that would lessen the perceived need for the group.”
  • “This may explain why anti-discrimination is a growth industry even — or especially — while identity politics fades into history, more Americans decline to identify themselves by ethnicity, and actual discrimination is, by virtually all measures, at historically low levels.”

The piece is long, but well worth your time.

Densely populated cities: Not so great after all


Urbanization enthusiasts gush about the benefits of dense development, or about the remarkable, low-carbon-footprint survival skills of the citizens of megacities like Lagos.

However, urban theorist Joel Kotkin makes the case that many people who live in those places would rather be living somewhere else:

But essentially megacities in developing countries should be seen for what they are: a tragic replaying of the worst aspects of the mass urbanization that occurred earlier in the West. They play to the nostalgic tendency among urbanists to look back with fondness on the crowded cities of early 20th Century North America and Europe.

Kotkin points out that during the past 50 years, Americans have steadily moved away from heavily populated urban cores to more manageable, human-scaled suburban areas. Why, he wonders, do the experts think things should go differently in the developing world?

If you like urbanism — and contrarian thinking — give Kotkin’s piece a read.