Tag Archives: Culture

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. 

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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.

‘Plenitude’ and American politics


I’d never encountered the word “plenitude” until a recent post at Reason pointed me to this fantastic 1998 essay, “The Politics of Plenitude,” by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken.

What is plenitude? For McCracken, it’s “a matter of lifestyle, belief, behavior, and an ever-increasing variety of observable ways of living and being that are continually coming into existence. Plenitude is everywhere among us, especially in our culture and our politics, where it is the source of gross misunderstanding and profound conflict.”  So it’s “diversity,” if you like, though that useful word has been twisted beyond its original meaning in the public’s mind. (McCracken touches on why.)

The problem with plentitude from the right:

The right acts as if the many groups thrown off by plenitude harbor an anarchic tendency, that people have become gays, feminists, or Deadheads in order to escape morality. This is not the logic of plenitude. These people have reinvented themselves merely to escape amorality, not all morality. New communities set to work immediately in the creation of new moralities. Chaos does not ensue; convention, even orthodoxy, returns. Liminality is the slingshot that allows new groups to free themselves from the gravitational field of the old moralities they must escape. But liminality is almost never the condition that prevails once this liberation has been accomplished.

And the problem with plentitude from the left:

The only real plenitude that counts in the left’s scheme is that which has an explicitly oppositional quality. Thus, women’s groups are “diversity,” but country and western line dancing groups are not. Both of these groups may equally engage the individuals within them, both may represent a very substantial shift in cultural categories and social rules, both may mark differences that will continually breed differences, but it is only when the group is explicitly at odds with the mainstream that it qualifies as interesting. …

There is a deliberate narrowness to the left’s definition of plenitude. It is interesting to observe, for example, that the “Diversity Librarian” at the University of Michigan is responsible for collecting only in the following areas: minority studies, sexual orientation studies, and multicultural studies. This so diminishes the scope of the problem as to invite astonishment. Diversity overflows these categories. Real diversity happens everywhere–outside the designated political categories of the left, and its intellectual categories as well.

Much like Brink Lindsey’s excellent book The Age of Abundance, McCracken’s essay pinpoints how  the cheerleaders of America’s deeply flawed red vs. blue political system always miss the forest for the trees. Read the whole thing.

A gentle reminder for Richard Ford


Acclaimed American author Richard Ford, the man behind such classic novels as The Sportswriter and Independence Daygives an interview to the U.K.’s  Guardian about his new novel, Canada, and he has some fascinating things to say about the country that has showered him with fame, riches and literary accolades (hint — it’s not Canada):

America beats on you so hard the whole time. You are constantly being pummelled by other people’s rights and their sense of patriotism. So the American’s experience of going to Canada, or at least my experience, is that you throw all that clamour off. Which is a relief sometimes. … There is this very strong “If you are not for us, you are against us” feeling in America just now. Perhaps there always has been. You are not allowed to complain. Or even have a dialogue. But if a novel is there for anything I believe that is what it has to induce.

To which commenter Bix2bop responded:

Yeah, it’s a real drag to live in an multiracial democracy when you’re a Mississippian born in 1944 and your books are reviewed in the NY Times by fellow writers who happen to be female or African American.

When Alice Hoffman gave The Sportswriter a bad review in the Times, he took one of her books out in the yard and shot it with his gun.

After Colson Whitehead gave A Multitude of Sins a negative review in the New York Times, Ford spat on him at a Poets & Writers party.(read about both altercations here — ed.)

I have read Ford’s Wildlife and I’ve been meaning to read his Frank Bascombe novels, but the idea that Richard Ford, of all people, has been “pummelled” by the American experience … (the rest of Bix2bop’s comment calling Ford out for his hypocrisy is not to be missed — ed.)

And some people say anonymous commenters don’t bring anything of value to the online conversation.

‘A dangerous belief that everything is relative’


Salman Rushdie from Reason in 2005:

The idea of universal rights–the idea of rights that are universal to all people because they correspond to our natures as human beings, not to where we live or what our cultural background is–is an incredibly important one. This belief is being challenged by apostles of cultural relativism who refuse to accept that such rights exist. If you look at those who employ this idea, it turns out to be Robert Mugabe, the leaders of China, the leaders of Singapore, the Taliban, Ayatollah Khomeini. It is a dangerous belief that everything is relative and therefore these people should be allowed to kill because it’s their culture to kill.

I think we live in a bad age for the free speech argument. Many of us have internalized the censorship argument, which is that it is better to shut people up than to let them say things that we don’t like. This is a dangerous slippery slope, because people of good intentions and high principles can see censorship as a way of advancing their cause and not as a terrible mistake. Yet bad ideas don’t cease to exist by not being expressed. They fester and become more powerful.

Read the whole thing.

Barney Rosset: A free-speech warrior passes away


It’s always sad to be introduced to a remarkable life through an obituary. This week, it happened again.

Book publisher Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press pushed the limits of free expression by giving a home to controversial works of literature by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and William Burroughs, died on Tuesday. He was 89.

I had never heard of him until USA TODAY published the extensive, well-written AP obituary, which revealed how important Rosset was to the First Amendment:

Rosset waged a long and costly war on behalf of free expression. When he started Grove, his wish list included two erotic books, both decades old, that had never been distributed unexpurgated in the United States: Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

In 1954 a copy of Chatterley was mailed from Paris to New York. Officials seized it and charged Rosset with promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts,” a policy that dated back to obscenity legislation passed in the 1870s. Rosset sued the U.S. Post Office in 1959 and his attorney, Charles Rembar, crafted a defense based on a Supreme Court decision written two years earlier by Justice William Brennan that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guarantees.”

A federal judge, Frederick van Pelt Bryan, ruled in Rosset’s favor. An appeals court upheld Judge Bryan and the government declined to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Post Office’s ability to declare a work obscene had effectively been ended.

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie also reminds us that beyond his efforts on behalf of free speech, Rosset also broadened America’s literary palate:

If you grew up interested in literature and writing and a world bigger than the one you were immediately born into, you owe a debt to Rossett and people like him …  In a pre-Internet, pre-everything-at-your-fingertips-world, books weren’t just frigates (as Emily Dickinson would have it), they were battleships and aircraft carriers, capable of completely rescuing you from whatever isolated bunker you called home.

Very true. Thanks again, Barney.

‘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.