Saturday, May 30, 2009

What I Learned from Talk Radio

Yesterday I found myself in an undesirable situation. For a little over one hour, I had to drive a car which had no satellite radio and no capability to project music from a CD player or an iPod. This left me with no choice but to listen to talk radio (I can't stand playlists on FM music stations, and I'm burned out on sports talk radio after having worked in the industry).

So I tuned into the biggest news/talk station in the state of Wisconsin, and heard discussion on primarily two topics:

1. The attempt by a Wisconsin atheist group to force a public high school to move their graduation from a megachurch (despite a lack of viable alternatives for the high school and the absence of any religious component to the graduation ceremony).
2. The attempt by a homeowner's group in Texas to force a disabled Vietnam vet to remove Marine bumper stickers from his automobile (under the provision in the homeowner's contract that barred vehicles that display advertising, and despite the fact that all other bumper stickers are tacitly permitted).

The host of this show was not at all stupid. These are what I referred to a couple weeks ago as "hot topics." The phone lines were jammed, to the point where he had to apologize to and disconnect callers on hold, informing them that time was up. This was probably not a great loss, since the callers were pretty much of the same mind and had probably exhausted the number of ways of saying the same thing. The consensus was that A) the atheist group is ridiculous B) the homeowner organization is ridiculous.

And another observation I made: despite the fact that none of the callers were personally affected in either of these situations, many of them spoke as if they were. Many spoke passionately of religious heritage, while in the latter segment more than one caller observed that the homeowner's organization would not exist were it not for the military. And these are variations of assertions you are guaranteed to hear whenever any issue about "church and state" or the relationship between the military and civilian society arises.

The explanation for this phenomenon is not all that complicated: these are elements of identity, both personal and national. It's not really about theology, and it's not even (at the core) about politics. These responses are a reaction to a real or perceived threat--a threat not necessarily to how we live, but about how life is defined, or what it means to be alive. This is why many people may go days or weeks without thinking about "God and country," but will emotionally recoil at the suggestion that a nativity scene be taken down or a military recruiter not be allowed on a college campus.

A conclusion to be drawn from listening to this radio show is that direct attacks on identity are doomed to failure. Even if the atheist group succeeds in its lawsuit, it will be a Pyrrhic victory; they will have succeeded in re-entrenching those who seek to blur the boundaries between church and state, and in all likelihood they may alienate many who otherwise would be sympathetic to their general cause. If one is committed to decreasing influence of religious institutions in the public sphere, an attempt to unilaterally impose public policy seems counterproductive.

And this got me thinking about what they could have been talking about on this talk show: foreign policy. They could have been talking about North Korea, and how hard it is to convince a poor country to give up its weapons program when it serves as a point of pride in building a national identity. They also could have been talking about the resurgent Taliban, who are now wreaking havoc in Pakistan, and how hard it is to defeat enemies who believe they are fighting a jihad.

Perhaps if this had been the conversation, a caller might have suggested the Achaean method of warfare. Maybe the Taliban or the North Koreans could be vulnerable to a Trojan horse. And just maybe, the callers who are so passionate in their derision of homeowners associations and obscure atheist groups would be more on guard against more subtle (and more potent) threats to their identity.

Monday, May 25, 2009

21st Century Breakdown

"Green Day Lashes Out at Wal-Mart Policy"

The above was a headline to a recent news story. Before I even read the story, I chuckled in amusement. I like how utterly timeless the headline is; it could easily be from 1995. Against all odds, of all the bands that rose to prominence in the 1990s, Green Day is probably the most relevant today. Meanwhile, musicians have been "lashing out" at Wal-Mart since before anyone had ever heard the word "Dookie." How many people remember the 1996 controversy when Wal-Mart refused to stock a Cheryl Crow album because it contained lyrics alleging that children could buy guns at Wal-Mart? (Probably about as many people who will remember the Green Day story 13 years from now when another story will surface about Wal-Mart refusing to stock some band's mp8 multi-media package).

But by the time I finished reading the article, my smile had faded, and I was left with a sense of discontentment. Something wasn't quite right here. The basic story is that Wal-Mart has a (longstanding) policy of not selling CDs with parental advisory stickers. Bands have the option of cutting a "clean version," which Wal-Mart dutifully stocks. Apparently the band now feels that they have enough clout to force a reversal of this policy (they don't), or perhaps they were just (successfully) exploiting a PR opportunity.

The article quoted two of the three band members (apparently Tre Cool was unavailable at press time). Bassist Mike Dirnt went on the record with this assertion: "As the biggest record store in the America, they should probably have an obligation to sell people the correct art." One doesn't need to be a lover of Wal-Mart to nonetheless take issue with the suggestion that a private retailer has any "obligation" to stock particular merchandise. There's obviously a chilling slippery slope here. If it's not the retailer, who makes the decisions about what should be sold? And again, one doesn't need to be a fan of Wal-Mart practices to acknowledge that if they are the biggest record store in America, they to some extent understand the record-buying marketplace, and they give people the kind of "art" that they want to buy.

Obviously, beneath the veneer of this rhetoric is an obvious tension point in the "culture wars." We have a rigidly conservative corporate giant who arbitrates matters of propriety and taste. We have a rock band with their own ideas of what is proper and tasteful. And this is probably how it should be; out of the resultant dynamic we can get a dominant and an alternative vision of culture, with both informing and shaping the other. Each side is useful to the other in forging identity and values.

But what is problematic for me is that the rock band might be closer to the corporate giant than they would admit. Consider the reaction of Green Day singer and songwriter Billy Joe Armstrong: "If you think about bands that are struggling or smaller than Green Day ... to think that to get your record out in places like that, but they won't carry it because of the content and you have to censor yourself...I mean, what does that say to a young kid who's trying to speak his mind making a record for the first time?"

In other words, never mind any personal agenda the band has here to sell product. What this is really about is the kids-- those poor kids who will now be forced to learn how to express themselves in their own words without falling back on lowest-common denominator schoolyard vernacular. Of course, the irony here is that "the kids" are the very reason why Wal-Mart will claim that they can't stock Green Day's CD.

But what perhaps bothers me the most of all here is another implicit message for the kids in Billy Joe's quote. Since when did getting stocked in a Wal-Mart become the objective for a "young kid who's trying to speak his mind"? Lest we forget, Green Day has their roots in the punk community. At one time, any punk band who would sign with a major label was considered to be a "sell out." Now, not only do these bands want to sign with big business, they actually want their merchandise to be available at Wal-Mart, to the very mainstream culture that they eschew in their lyrics. Now that's what I call a 21st Century Breakdown.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dreams From Our Fathers

Last week I spoke about the frequent re-occurence of the term and the concept of the "hot topic" in standardized essays. One of the methods through which these essay writers seek to arbitrate "hot topics" is invariably to invoke the "founding fathers" or the Constitution (specifically the First Amendment, though usually the favored term is simply "The Constitution"). Like we see in the federal courts, interpretation of the Constitution varies widely. Some argue that the nation was "founded on Christian principles," while others assert that the nation was "founded on separation of church and state." But everyone seems to agree that the founding fathers themselves are above reproach (though in death they apparently do a lot of turning over in their graves).

Still, for such a universally respected entity, these founding fathers seem to lack a concrete presence in our culture. That may seem odd to say, given that we have monuments, our capital is named after one of them (among other cities and schools), and their visages adorn our monetary units. But as a point of comparison with other notable historical figures, they suffer from lack of exposure. Of course, those who existed after the advent of film will always have a leg up on those who perished before they could be committed to celluloid. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy are safely enshrined as cultural icons.

But despite lacking stock footage, Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, and heroes and figures from the Bible, ancient Greece, and ancient Egypt continue to be resurrected and portrayed in pop culture. At least John Hancock has a financial services company named after him, and Paul Revere (if he even counts as a founding father) had a '60s pop band named after him (though they did have an organist who was actually named Paul Revere). And oh yeah, Ben Franklin lends his name to a discount store chain and Sam Adams is a beer. But more to the point, in the 1950s golden age of the Hollywood historical epic, the character who ended up becoming the embodiement of the Revolutionary War era was the fictional Johnny Tremain.

So why don't we have more cultural productions and portrayals of these men? Part of might be that there are so many of them. When one person emerges as the face of a movement, that person will naturally step to the forefront. And while George Washington might be the face of the founding fathers, he has enough competition that his personal Q rating is diminished. But I think it goes a little bit deeper than that. First, by refusing to concretely define the membership of this fraternity (does Paul Revere count as a founding father? John Jay? Billy Dawes?) we are left to project our own idealized abstract entity of a generic "founding father". From there, we are left to further project our own concepts of what they wanted this country to be. If we had a true understanding of who these people were and what they thought about politics, we might lose our ability to invoke them to support whatever position we seek to explicate. So they end up signifying so much to so many that they end up signifying nothing. And that probably makes them turn over in their graves.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Cold Topic

Over the last couple of years, I have literally read thousands of what can be termed "standardized essays," the writing portions of standardized tests that are otherwise comprised of multiple-choice answers bubbled in with #2 pencils. In general, the essays are generated in response to specific prompts in which writers are asked to explore the pros and cons of an issue, or agree or disagree with a quotation. One interesting (and somewhat amusing) trend I've observed is an effort by test takers in introductory paragraphs to establish the given issue as a raging public debate. For example: "The issue of whether the penny should be discontinued in America is a huge controversy confronting our country. Many people strongly believe that it should be eliminated, while others firmly argue that it should be kept. Both sides offer valid points..." A common phrase used in these essays is "hot topic," such as in "The role of computers in society today is a hot topic." Despite these writers collective willingness to designate virtually anything as a "hot topic," and in spite of the possible influence of a clothing store in the pervasive usage of the phrase, I find myself intrigued by its applications.

We certainly do have a lot of "hot topics" in society today. Given the economic climate, all the difficult decisions that both government and private industries are being forced to make give rise to "hot topics." And since our new president is of a different political persuasion from the old one, many dormant issues (such as stem cell research) rise once again to join the realm of "hot topics." And then there are the issues that are always hot topics (I think I'll drop the quotes from here on out), regardless of the vicissitudes of the news cycle: abortion, guns, and more recently gay rights and counter-terrorism efforts.

But what of issues that were once hot topics, now gone cold? When passion subsides, when the air is let of a balloon, it can indicate a paradigm shift. I'd say that gambling in America is not a hot topic, at least not anymore. As scholar Alan Wolfe writes: "The growth in gaming has not produced an anti-gambling movement...observing gambling in America is like listening to one hand clapping; there is no right and left." The cooling of the topic indicates a general acceptance of social gambling, just like social drinking is acceptable in America, despite the very legality of alcohol itself once being a very hot topic.

And another issue strikes me as, if not a cold topic, at least a cooling topic. The now apparent inevitability of a ban on public smoking in Wisconsin, and the public reaction to the proposed ban, show the makings of a paradigm shift. In cases where a topic is a hot topic, the existence or implementation of a law doesn't necessarily mean the end of the controversy. Indeed, the anti-abortion movement didn't really exist before abortion was legalized. The fact that two separate constitutional amendments were passed in regards to alcohol prohibition (the second repealing the first) indicates that that topic remained hot.

Yet, with smoking bans, though there does continue to be a vocal opposition from some libertarians and smokers themselves, I get a sense of resignation. There is a vibe of inevitability, that no matter what leaders we elect in the future, this ban is here to stay for all time. The powerful Wisconsin Tavern League lobby, once entrenched against the ban, conceded to inevitability by choosing to negotiate instead for a one-year delay in the ban for taverns. I got a similar sense a few years ago while living in Kentucky, a state much more historically aligned with the tobacco industry than Wisconsin. There was vehement opposition to the many municipal bans that were enacted in the mid-2000s, but once the bans went into effect, the vocalness of the opposition dropped off the radar.

What this all indicates to me is that we now live in a post-smoking nation. While people will continue to smoke and some will start smoking for some time, the paradigm has shifted. C. Everett Koop was a little optimistic when he predicted, in 1988, a "smoke free class of 2000," but I don't think it's out of the realm of the possibility that the class of 2000 will still be living when a truly smoke-free class graduates.

On the other hand, I have little hope that this future smoke-free class will approach their standardized essays any differently than today's crop of test takers.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Social Networking for Dead People

I've long been intrigued by the concept that walking among us are descendants of famous historical figures. For example, Ulysses S. Grant had four kids. It stands to reason that those kids had kids, and therefore somewhere in this country it is highly probable that direct descendants of Ulysses S. Grant are walking around, presumably living normal lives. They probably go to McDonalds. Maybe they are even on Facebook, and they list Miley Cyrus under favorite music. And one has to think that they know they are descendants of a guy everyone has heard of, but that and a couple bucks and change will get them a gallon of gas.

So I find myself interested whenever progeny of the deceased elite publicly surface. Thomas Jefferson's descendants were briefly in the news when they grappled with whether to invite Sally Hemings' descendants to family reunions (and they were also hit up for DNA samples). More recently, I'm intrigued to learn that the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker (who died in 1912), is prepping a Dracula sequel, which obviously is in no way an attempt to cash in on the vampire craze.

But I'm starting to think that the resurfacing of famous names is going to become a more common occurrence. And I see a possible development that will also serve to have applications for those of us who descended from agrarians rather than statesmen or artists.

Last week, I wrote about aspects of the World Wide Web which we take for granted now, which didn't exist a decade ago. I see the seeds for a potential synthesis of a couple of those concepts. Facebook has more or less given us a national directory, a chance to track down and contact random people we once knew, however fleetingly. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has blown the lid off the notion that information is at a premium, that facts and data are a commodity, that access to them must be negotiated.

One area in which information is still at a premium is in the field of genealogy. There are data hubs one can tap into on the world wide web in order to learn about their lineage, but these are for-profit ventures. I think a natural evolution of Web 2.0 is to blow the lock off of this box, to eventually allow free and unfettered access to family trees.

The effect of this might be a kind of Facebook for dead people. Everyone who ever existed in the United States (or the last couple centuries in the rest of the world) might have a page, with links to ancestors and descendants. There would probably be some who would object to such a venture on the grounds of privacy, but I don't see much harm in it, and it is well-documented the degree to which we are redefining the concept of "privacy."

And I see some advantage to my proposal beyond merely enabling satisfaction of curiosity. I'm guessing we'd be surprised at the connections that emerge, and the concept of "brotherhood (and sisterhood) of humankind" would be more concrete. Also, (and I suppose whether this is an advantage is debatable) it would allow a re-emergence into prominence for the descendants of the historically noteworthy. I wonder what Arthur Conan Doyle's great-grandnephew is up to these days.