Thursday, November 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Nothing Like the Sun and "Straight to My Heart"

Coming almost to the end here of my series of great albums that I still listen to, 30 years on. I started with U2 in March, then there was Prince in April, Suzanne Vega in May, Level 42 in June, The Grateful Dead in July, Def Leppard in August, INXS in September, and Bruce Springsteen in October. And what now, on the 30th of November, as winter finally begins to really set in here in Kansas? Sting's majesterial Nothing Like the Sun.

Yes, that's right, Gordon Sumner himself: Sting. You liked him, once. Oh, I know, you don't believe you ever did; you've forgotten, or you might even actively insist that you remember hating the man. Especially late 1980s Sting, with his seemingly aristocratic flirtations with Latin American and North African rhythms and jazz instrumentation, with his oh-so-enlightened devotion to protecting the rain forests, with his casual referencing of how his records were banned in Chile by Augusto Pinochet, and most of with his long hair, right? I swear, Sting probably even beats out U2's Bono for the title of major recording star whom everyone insists they never liked these days.

Well, anyway, the point is, you're delusional. You may not have been the man's greatest fan ever, you may have never really forgiven him for breaking up The Police, but you bought his albums, and put up with his world-beat noodling and mediocre poetry and jazz affectations because the results were so much more than the sum of their parts. This album, in particular, was fantastic, filled with clever, engaging, challenging, fun, moving, thoughtful music. Everyone was listening to it, myself included, and we kept on doing so, even as tastes changed, because some of its tracks were just so infectious. And then, I guess sometime around 1995 or so, everyone suddenly decided Sting was a pretentious hack, and had always been a pretentious hack, and the love we all had for this album dropped out of sight. (The only time I saw Sting was when he was on tour for his later album, Mercury Falling, in 1996, when we were living in Washington DC, and I can still remember the gleeful, vicious snark that the Washington City Paper employed in talking about his show. Which was awesome, by the way. Natalie Merchant opened.)

Anyway, here we are, 30 years on, and I love this album still. What track to choose? My favorite (or, at least, my favorite original composition from the album; I confess I really adore Sting's cover of "Little Wing" on Nothing Like the Sun, as overplayed as it definitely became), "Straight to My Heart." Something about this tune just grabbed the college-freshman me: it was a goofy paean to a surprisingly ordinary romance ("Come into my door / Be the light of my life / Come into my door / You'll never have to sweep the floor"), and yes, sure, it made me feel sophisticated and worldly and fine. Watch Sting sing it live from 1988 in Verona; maybe all the annoyance will come rushing back--but the coolness of the song will too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sure He's Heavy, But Still: He's My Brother


Hey everyone! No, no, calm down, it's just me, your Uncle Russell. Don't freak out; here, let me close the window behind me. Is everyone here? Great!

Now, I know your mom and dad are out, and you're planning a special surprise party for Daniel's 50th birthday when they return--what do you mean, how do I know? Well, I'm the author here so, duh: I'm omniscient. No, that does not mean I've been spying on you. Please, put down your phones. Look, I just figured this would be a good time to let you in on some secrets about your dad.

Yeah, that's right: secrets. What kind of secrets, you ask? That's a good question, actually. I mean, I haven't lived with your father for more than 30 years--though there was that time he lived with Melissa and I on and off for several months, but I'll get to that later. Oh wait, you already knew about that? Hmm. Well, the truth is you all know much more about Daniel than I do. As do your uncles, our Utah brothers who have worked and played and worshiped and vacationed alongside you all for decades. And then there's all their wives and children, all your aunts and cousins; they also all have far more immediate knowledge of Daniel than I. And then there's all his business partners and neighbors and fellow ward members from over the years. And then there's your grandmother, of course; our Mom knows us all very well, better than mere brothers ever could. And finally your mom, Lori--well, she knows Daniel the very best of all (she ought to, after 22 years!). So what do I think I'm doing here, anyway? I live in Kansas, and before that was Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi, Washington DC--all of them far away from you all. Months go by without my so much as talking to Daniel on the phone; sometimes years have gone by without me seeing him in the flesh. Given all that, what kind of secret knowledge could I be talking about?

(Stop recording me. Yes, I know this sounds like a speech. Didn't you know I talk this way? Don't you read my blog? No, I said "blog." It's short for "weblog," and--oh, forget it, never mind, just sit down, I'm getting to the point.)

Thing is, there's something special, or at least potentially so, about the early years of sibling-hood. Yes, I know that sounds pretentious and romantic, but it's the truth, and your dad and I are evidence of it. We're only 13 months apart in age, and we were usually inseparable for our first 15 or 16 years or so. Sure, we always had our own interests and our own private lives--no one really ever knows another person, not totally--but still, you can pack an awful lot of memorable experience into that kind of intense time. Camp-outs and Scouting together, Dungeons & Dragons games together, milking cows and bailing hay together, movies together, Especially For Youth and other church conferences together, and more. Believe or not, that sort of stuff stays with you, coming back to your mind when you least expect it, even 30-plus years of adult life later. And some of it, well, is kind of secret. As in, never before shared. Oh, you don't think that's likely? Maybe so, but let's see. You all just sit there, while I, in honor of his 50th birthday, lay on you all some heavy stuff about your dad.

(Someone give me a had with this slide projector, would you? Don't worry how it works, just plug it in. No, not to the USB port, to the wall outlet. It's over there. Thanks.)

Daniel Fox, Defender of Nerds and Children
First off, keep in mind that while only 13 calendar months separated us, physically Daniel and I were seemingly many years apart while we were young. Your dad went through puberty early, I went through it late. (How early? Um, maybe age nine? Something like that. And me? Oh, that's easy: twenty-three.) But even before puberty and young adulthood changed us, when we lived in our prepubescent and adolescent worlds, Daniel was still big, strong, skilled, talented at sports, unafraid of risk and danger (has he told you about the time he dove headfirst off the barn roof into a huge tumbleweed? he got a branch stuck in the back of his throat), the sort of kid that teachers pushed into football, wrestling, anything physical--in other words, everything that I wasn't. And bless his soul, as nerdy and incompetent and embarrassing as I was on the schoolyard during recess, he protected me. Sometimes physically, like the time a bunch of older kids thought it would be fun to terrorize me because I was this weird shrimp who would wander around the playground equipment, day-dreaming and picking my nose, and they wanted to force me to eat my boogers. (Daniel and I both got wedgies that time, because he couldn't fight all those fifth graders off.) More often, he would protect me simply by being, for a little kid, amazingly loyal and decent and sacrificing, like another time one of the teachers organized a big kickball tournament during recess, with Daniel (of course) and another kid being assigned as team captains, everyone else lining up to be chosen, and when it literally came down to me and one of the aforementioned tough fifth-grade bullies as the only choices left, and Daniel's turn to choose was up, he chose me, which led the other team to whoop in celebration as the other guy ran over to their side. (They slaughtered our team, as I recall.)

Why did he spend so much time with his scrawny, sarcastic, whiny little brother? Maybe it was self-interested: I was the Dungeon Master after all, and I was happy to read big, thick, fantasy books out loud to him all the way through elementary school and beyond (Watership Down was one that took us a good long time). But no, mostly it was genuine friendship. As much as we sometimes clashed, we truly loved each other's singular companionship: getting away from the noisy house and all our immature brothers (yes, that's right, I mean your uncles: they were all so small and annoying) and developing our exclusive dream worlds: Star Trek, Tolkien, and making plans to fight the Russians when they invaded Spokane, WA, Red Dawn-style. (We wanted to believe we were Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, but I think we both kind of knew that, at best, I'd probably lose it and go out like C. Thomas Howell. What's that? Oh, they were actors; one's dead now, and another has gone crazy. Just Google them; I don't have time to explain.) On camp-outs--both with the Boy Scouts and sometimes just on our own somewhere out in the woods around our house--we'd use a little two-man tent, and stay up all night talking--mostly Daniel asking some question or throwing out some idea, and me spinning some elaborate fantasy or detailed pseudo-scientific BS to complement it. It was great, geeky, embarrassing fun. Dad was my giant, that's for certain, but it was Daniel's shadow that I most often sought shelter in. He was the reliable one, the older brother everyone ought to have, the force of nature that, I knew, would always be on my side.

Daniel Fox, Guilt-Ridden Destroyer of Worlds
And I'm glad he was on my side, because as gentle a soul as Daniel truly was, there was a good stretch of time there where it was pretty clear, in the context of the desperate hierarchy that emerges among young people everywhere, that you didn't want to be on any side opposing him. Sometimes this was pretty obvious, like the time when, in the midst of one more of the innumerable fights all us brothers got into all the time, Daniel was locked out of the front door, and he promptly smashed open the front door window. Or the time Daniel sneaked out late at night, against Dad's orders, to hang with some kids that were staying with us during a church conference, and in response to his grounding he literally tore his bedroom apart in anger. He even ripped apart our copies of The Lord of the Rings; that really ticked me off. And I haven't even touched on the holes punched in walls or the time he accidentally broke my collarbone. (What do you mean, "Did all that really happen?" Of course it really happened! For the purposes of this essay, I have a photographic memory and am a perfectly reliable narrator. What? Oh, just shut up and keep listening.)

Sometimes the physical menace Daniel embodied was more subtle, though: like the way he treasured his .22 rifle and hunting gophers for Grandpa Bill (25 cents for every tail he brought in!), or his bow and arrow set and the hay bales he set up for targets in the back yard (we had a fun time imagining various different identities for those targets...), or the working--and, frankly, pretty spooky--crossbow that he build in shop class in junior high. (No kids, I am not kidding; he made a genuine recurve crossbow, with a draw weight of probably 200 lbs. I could barely pull it; it was a monster. No, I don't think he ever killed anything it. He just liked it hanging there on his bedroom wall. Right beside his 18-inch machete. Yeah, he just liked that too.) Just about everything about Daniel, for a good long while, anyway, all through years of junior high sports and general rough-housing, suggested toughness, aggression, and a don't-mess-with-me attitude.

But I, you see, also knew the other Daniel. The Daniel who felt so guilty about shooting a pigeon with his rifle one winter that we brought it back to the house, bandaged its wing, put it in a cage, and tried to keep alive feeding it corn kernels and grain. The Daniel who felt bad about slamming his opponents to the mat during a wrestling match, or knocking a less-heavy kid to the ground during football practice. The Daniel that I'd join in long lines with other fellow nerds to watch Return of the Jedi or The Search for Spock on opening night (there was a fight which broke out at the latter, so remember: don't mess with ushers!), or, conversely, spent afternoons with nearly getting thrown out of mostly empty theaters for manically laughing and hooting during matinees of dreck like Young Sherlock Holmes or King Solomon's Mines (though, truth be told, that movie has the funniest quicksand joke ever). This Daniel was really a quiet, simple, non-violent soul on the inside, your classic gentle bruiser. Good thing he discovered dance, something that turned his physicality into something he could embrace fully, though also something a nerdy kid like me couldn't follow.

Daniel Fox, Dancer and Lady's Man
So here's something only someone like me who lived through it all can really honestly speak to: your father, Daniel, the BYU accounting major, the businessman and house-flipper and debt-spinner and real estate maven, was probably the Fox child that came closest to an actual artistic career. No, really! Forget about Stuart's piano-playing or Marjorie's theater experience or Baden short-lived emo band; through his high school years, your dad traveled around the United States and Canada in a semi-professional dance troupe that he'd auditioned for and ended up dominating, performing folk dances and all sorts of choreographed routines for other high school audiences and senior citizens and who knows who else. They loved Daniel; he was strong and could lift up the ballerinas and other female dancers the way a proper danseur should. He absolutely could have turned that into his professional focus: he had the strength, grace, rhythm, and sense of style to pull it off. (You've heard about Grandma's many stake musical theater productions, from way back when? Your father was the lead dancer in and did the choreography for Fiddler on the Roof and Oklahoma. What about me? Don't worry: Mom made me the geek "Harvey Johnson" in Bye Bye Birdie. Oh yeah, she knew my quality.)

Thing is, as this all comes down to me through decades of memories, this was also Daniel's entrance into the dating world, and it was a world into which I couldn't follow him. Did I resent the fact that, when we went to BYU together to attend EFY, or spent a weekend together in Idaho for some regional youth church conference, that your dad concentrated so much on the nightly dances and hanging out at the girls' dorms that he basically forgot I was even there? Maybe. On the one hand, no: that space allowed me to polish up my loner/intellectual/misplaced-liberal/malcontented-high-school-debater shtick, after all. (Hey, forget all those social activities; I could spend hours hanging out at the BYU Bookstore or the stake center's library.) But at the same time, maybe yes? Time changes everything, as Climie Fisher once sang. (What? They were a band. Just Google it. What do you mean I got the title wrong? Sorry, but in this essay, I'm right, and Wikipedia's not, okay? Fine.) I mean, we weren't going to stay 8 or 11 or 14-years-old forever, were we? There was probably real envy and resentment mixed in with admiration and bemusement as the 17-year-old Daniel emerged as both a lady-killer and an independent adult, while I, deep within myself, knew I was probably just going to go to college and then never, ever leave. (Which is what happened, mostly.)

I have no idea what Daniel felt as he left childhood behind. My self-indulgent narrative was always: thank goodness I'm finally growing older, thank goodness I'm finally getting away from bullies and losers, thank goodness I'm walking away from childish things. But that narrative of distance and separation carried within it real pain. I was evolving away from my best friend, my only friend, my brother. (Yes, I know I had other brothers, but cut me some slack here. I mean, they didn't have the dialogue from whole episodes of the original series of Star Trek memorized, and they didn't help us build forts out of hay bales in grandpa's grey barn. Why didn't they? Because they were tiny, that's why.) Did he feel the same way? I don't know; the kind of conversations we'd had as 12 and 13-year-olds, milking cows by hand across from each other in a cold barn on a dark winter's morning, just weren't happening when both of us knew how to drive, Daniel was practicing clogging, and I was listening to Casey Kasem while reading George F. Will. Anyway, it was complicated, it was the 1980s, there was going to be a nuclear war, our Dad was reading Cleon Skousen and storing silver ingots in the basement in preparation for the End Times (don't worry, he got over it), and both your father and I, at one point, got our hair permed with frothy curls like Michael Jackson. It was a different country, the world of my youthful memories with Daniel. I didn't know how much I missed it until it was gone for good.

Daniel and Russell: The Return
You know, I wrote one of these essays for your father ten years ago, when he turned forty. (You should read it. Yes, right now; I gave you the link, didn't I? Hey, I'm a college professor, kids; believe me, I can stare you down silently far better and for far longer than you can stare blankly at me in return.) I talked in there about how, post-mission, your Dad and I really became very, very different people, with very different psychological and philosophical trajectories in our lives, though how much of that was a function of any actual mental state we possessed and how much was just a handy intellectual demarcation on my part as I did my usual deconstruction-and-reconstruction thing in the face of my own bad behavior is impossible to say. (Yes, even for me. Even authors have limits, you know.) Some of what came to fruition during our college years was probably just what had always been there, only now exacerbated by living on our own and the pressures and temptations and goals and failures of adult life. But part of it, surely, was also new: we were, for the first time really equals, in the sense in which Daniel's achievements and my resentments (or, rarely, the other way around) couldn't immediately be plugged into a hulking-older-brother-wise-cracking-younger-brother trope. We became, through our missions, through our educational journeys, and especially through our marriages--and particularly through Daniel's first failed one, after which he ended up living with the newly-wedded Melissa and I for a while--our own distinct, broken-yet-still-standing, still-striving, sovereign selves.

Does that mean your Dad and I are now better friends than ever, separate but stronger? Perhaps not. Life's a long time, kids; a half-century doesn't just happen without lots of other stuff--secret stuff, heavy stuff, stuff that even a personal essayist imagining an impromptu presentation in his brother's living room can't describe--happening along the way. And while some of that stuff lightens your load, some of it doesn't. Thankfully, the shared context of sibling-hood, of the ties bound up in all these secret and not-so-secret memories from 30 and 40 and more years past, outweighs everything else. As I wrote a decade ago, "the weight of brotherhood is great, giving force to the decisions one makes (both the good ones, and the ones you need to repent of)." There is probably still stuff I ought to repent of when it comes to my brother Daniel. But 50 years into this brotherhood thing, from across a thousand miles of mountains and prairie, I have to say: there's a lot more to celebrate than regret.

Yeah, I'm done. Cripes, would someone wake up Jadan, please? How long have you been asleep? Whatever. I'll let myself out. Give Daniel and Lori my best, would you? And thanks for listening! Seriously, you kids are great. No, don't worry, you don't need to save me any cake.

Monday, October 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Tunnel of Love and "Tougher Than the Rest"

The year so far (with apologies for having missed the first couple of months) in my list of 30 year-old albums I still listen to: The Joshua Tree (March);  Sign 'o the Times (April); Solitude Standing (May); Running in the Family (June); In the Dark (July); Hysteria (August); Kick (September). And October? Bruce Springsteen's somber, beautiful Tunnel of Love.

I was in my first year at BYU, leaving on my own for the first time, experiencing at least a small dose of adult independence for the first time as well. And if you know anything at all about BYU's Mormon-marriage-happy social culture, it shouldn't be hard to figure out that dating and romance was both strongly expected of everyone but also fraught with all sorts of weirdness. No doubt many tens of the thousands of students over the years--mostly my co-religionists, but one old good friend of mine, a man who was at the time completely irreligious, attended BYU, with a dorm room right next to mine our freshman year, and he had a grand time dating all the Mormon girls--have enjoyed themselves immensely in that environment, but I didn't. Almost from the start, I found myself vaguely confused and disturbed by the mix of romantic motivations all around me--and, of course, being a mixed-up not-quite-20 year-old myself, I could hardly be expected to make any sense of it anyway.

But I could spot good music--and when Springsteen's latest album hit the airwaves in the fall of 1987, and I borrowed a copy from another student who worked out BYU's student newspaper (which I volunteered at that first year, later worked for, and then was fired from, but that's another story) and listened to the whole thing through, I knew I'd found some. I hadn't been a huge Springsteen fan before, though it's probably just about impossible to be a white American male in the 1980s and not have at least enjoyed some of the cuts off his monster success, Born in the U.S.A. Tunnel of Love, though, convinced me in way the previous album hadn't that Springsteen was a tremendous talent, a man who could plaintively sing one sad, defiant, humble, dark, yet powerful even perversely hopeful love song after another, the whole album through. It spoke to me. I think the whole thing is brilliant; in my opinion, there isn't a single weak track on it, which Springsteen hasn't ever accomplished, I'd argue, on any other album he's ever released. Does that mean I think this is his masterpiece? Kind of, yeah.

What track to choose? Any of them, of course. But how about this?



Saturday, September 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Kick and "Need You Tonight/Mediate"

Six months now of 30-year-old albums that, I think at least, are still worth listening to--and that I still do: U2's The Joshua Tree; Prince's Sign o' the Times; Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing; Level 42's Running in the Family; The Grateful Dead's In The Dark; Def Leppard's Hysteria. And for September? Another great rocker that stands the test of time: INXS's Kick.

The half-dozen people or so who still read this blog probably already know the story, but just in case, here it is one more time. In the fall of 1987 I was a freshman at BYU, and one of the many things I found I loved about college life (yes, even in Provo, UT), was the music. Specifically I loved college radio stations, and even more specifically the groups of people who listened to them, and who thus were able, through their enthusiasm, to inculcate into newbies like myself the ways of a wider world of music. I've detailed this at greater length elsewhere, but suffice to say, the only problem with my musical horizons opening was that, having grown up with a passion for pop music but without any real knowledge of where its various 1980s currents--whether New Wave or synthpop or post-punk--began or ended, lots of this new stuff I was hearing at dances and from roommates, even the stuff that was cracking Top 40 radio (as Kick definitely did!), kind of left me confused. Who played that? They're from where? I was drinking from a fire hose, and there was no internet in those days to help me straighten out the streams. So, to cut to the chase: I knew about this terrific Australian band called "In Excess," and I also knew about--because I'd seen their albums on sale at the BYU Bookstore--another Australian band, that was apparently doing really well, called "Inks," which the weirdly spelled "I-N-X-S." Cool, huh?

I'm pretty sure it wasn't until months after Kick was released, maybe not even until the summer of 1988, when someone finally took pity on me and explained my mistake.

Oh well. It was, and is, an awesome album, one that induces in me no embarrassing flashbacks whatsoever besides this one, and considering that most of my freshman year was just one long embarrassment, that's saying something. Enjoy this live performance; these guys were certainly something, back in the day.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

We Were Eight Years in Power, and Other Thoughts from Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi was on NPR this morning, talking about his latest Atlantic essay, "The First White President," as well as his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, and President Trump, and many other sundry things. It was a good interview--but the book, the epilogue for which is a version of the just published Atlantic essay, was even better. It's the best thing I've ever read from Coates, in fact, despite the fact that the bulk of the book is a collection of eight major essays by Coates written during the eight years of Obama's presidency.

What makes the book so good is not just the mostly excellent, well-sourced but always introspective journalism those pieces provide (including reflections on the achievements, limitations, and legacy of such individuals as Bill Cosby, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Malcolm X, as well as Barack and Michelle Obama), but also the fact that he has strung these articles together with multiple, context-and-reflections-providing mini-autobiographical essays. The book, then, is a record of a writer finding himself, struggling, through his engagement with his subjects (the endurance of black conservatism, the question of reparations, the legacy of the Civil War, the costs of mass incarceration, the cultural impact of the Obamas, and more), to interrogate and understand his own hopes, ambitions, and limitations in turn. It is a great record of a public intellectual at work, and much worth your time.

But what about the epilogue, that Atlantic essay? Coates is harsh in his judgment of both the president and the country which elected him, but that harshness is earned, backed up as it is by a strongly constructed historical argument, on that moves from immediate post-Civil war America (the title of the book--"we were eight years in power"--was taken from an 1895 speech by Thomas Miller, a bi-racial South Carolinian who identified as African-American and was able to build a brief political career for himself in the Reconstruction-era Republican Party) all the way up to the endless--and, I think, mostly, if not entirely, fruitless--arguments over the role of the white working class in the 2016 election. (I think they're mostly fruitless because what those arguments are fighting over is understanding the actions of fewer than 80,000 voters in three states, and as Jacob Levy put it, "an 80,000 vote margin in a 137 million vote election, about .05%, is susceptible of almost endless plausible explanations.") Coates sees the Obama administration has having accomplished the one thing American adherents to white supremacy (here he quotes W.E.B. Du Bois) fear even more than being subject to what they imagine to be the irresponsibility and corruption of "bad Negro government"--namely, "good Negro government." The fact that Obama conducted himself--by the admittedly corrupting standards of the office of the presidency in an era of state violence, bureaucratic overreach, and imperial economics--in a basically responsible and moderate way was, in Coates's view, unacceptable to a critical mass of white voters. That, and only that, in his view, was enough to make a ridiculous man like Trump a viable presidential candidate:

It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint....

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy--to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible....

Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new--the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific--America’s first white president.


Do I think Coates's race-centric interpretation of Donald Trump's rise to power is correct? If by "correct" you mean "the entire story," then no. Obviously I don't carry with me the burden of the exploitative, oppressive, and violent racial history Coates knows and weaves into his journalism so well; there are things which I simply don't see, and whose significance I don't automatically incorporate into my judgments. Reading people like Coates is an important way of compensating for that. But similarly, anyone schooled in the history of American political parties, the construction of our political culture, and the institutional structures which politically motivated individuals both perpetuate and are shaped by in turn can recognize patterns of interest which others may not notice. The Republican party in the U.S. is, indisputably, a party, in part, of white identity politics. It is also many other things--some of which, most particular the upper-class-multiculturalism-friendly globalist capitalism which more than a few of its most powerful corporate and Wall Street donors accept as essential to modern life--are hardly friendly to the interests of white people qua white people.

And yet, that itself is part of the argument, isn't it? Regarding the mostly fruitless arguments I mentioned above--the part of them that are not fruitless is the fact that they oblige us to struggle with the way class is interpolated with race throughout American history; the way lower-income and working-class white people are the recipients of a kind of capitalist valorization, accepted as carriers of authentic labor, while lower-income and working-class people of color by and large do not receive the same sort of cultural construction. (One of the reasons Coates, despite his suspicions about and disagreements with Cosby, couldn't help but write, back in 2008, somewhat sympathetically about the man is because he understood his career as involving, at least in part, an effort to provide black people in America some portion of this myth of American capitalist authenticity.) The whole visible structure of Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign revolved around working-class job-providing factories, businesses, and towns which had suffered from globalization, with globalization being coded as "those things which Wall Street elites do too you." There's no actual economic reason why that kind of argument couldn't have been equally persuasively embodied through campaign events in majority African-American communities and job sites. Coates is relentless on this point:

It’s worth asking why the country has not been treated to a raft of sympathetic portraits of this “forgotten” young black electorate, forsaken by a Washington bought off by Davos elites and special interests. The unemployment rate for young blacks (20.6 percent) in July 2016 was double that of young whites (9.9 percent). And since the late 1970s, William Julius Wilson and other social scientists following in his wake have noted the disproportionate effect that the decline in manufacturing jobs has had on African American communities. If anyone should be angered by the devastation wreaked by the financial sector and a government that declined to prosecute the perpetrators, it is African Americans—the housing crisis was one of the primary drivers in the past 20 years of the wealth gap between black families and the rest of the country. But the cultural condescension toward and economic anxiety of black people is not news. Toiling blacks are in their proper state; toiling whites raise the specter of white slavery.

The long and the short of it is simply this: Coates's journalistic achievements, highlights of which are organized and presented in this book as if a single argument, climaxing in a ferocious attack on President Trump and those who voted for him, are making me reflect deeper upon, and change some of my thinking about, how I put race and class together in my head and in my political preferences. Does that mean I'm taking a position on (the latest round of) arguments about identity politics on the left today? Coates definitely has his opinions--mostly very negative--about the liberals (Mark Lilla, George Packer) and leftists (Bernie Sanders) that have stirred up the most animosity in suggesting that the actions of Black Lives Matter, or the idea of transgender rights, or the defense of President Obama's DACA order, or simply a lack of rural small-town or mid-sized-city respect, have all conspired to deprive Democrats of (white) votes that they needed to win. I'm not sure his opinion are my own (and I don't know how much his opinion guides his own political actions; if you read his book, you'll see three times as many criticism of Hillary Clinton and "Clintonism" in general as you will of Sanders--who, please note, Coates voted for in the Democratic primary). This is partly because I think there is probably something to the complicated rural-urban divide in the U.S. which cannot be entirely reduced to race, and partly because--as I alluded to above--I am unconvinced that this is actually a politically meaningful fight to have anyway. And even if it is a meaningful argument, it is, I suspect, an argument that has far less to do with the evolution (or deformation!) of the liberal tradition of equality, and far more to do with the structural causes of party polarization in America today. After all, in an environment where political elites usually find rewards in sticking as close as possible to their respective ideologically (and, yes, racially, ethnically, and economically) pure electoral bases, and usually find failure when they attempt to employ a language or advance an agenda which is nominally designed to appeal across all those ideological (as well as racial, ethnic, and class) groupings, then why wouldn't we expect tall those same groupings to go all in finding argument to advance their specific identitarian interests? (What do we think the Tea Party was doing with the Constitution, anyway?)

In the end, I think that in so many ways these arguments, whatever their intellectual merit, are incidental ones, retroactive arguments over strategy and intention, which arose almost solely because of the larger phenomenon that Coates is a superb chronicler of: namely, the many social and cultural questions which the eight-year administration of President Obama over a (still, for now!) majority white country gave impetus to, and the big historical question of how much President's Trump's administration should be understood as a bitter response to those eight years. His detailing of those questions, the small ones and the big one, make me, I believe, a better thinker about class and race, about economics and culture, and for that I'm grateful. Coates himself is obviously thinking about them too, so I'm in good company. I finish with a quote from the epilogue, which didn't make it into the Atlantic version:

There can be no conflict between the naming of whiteness and the naming of the degradation brought about by an unrestrained capitalism, by the privileging of greed and by the legal encouragement to hoarding and more elegant plunder. I have never seen a contradiction between calling for reparations and calling for a living wage, on calling for legitimate law enforcement and calling for single-payer health care. They are related--but solving for one does not automatically solve for the other. I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and so on finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal--a world more humane.


Me too, Mr. Coates; me too.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Hysteria and "Animal"

My Remembering 30-Year-Old Albums on the 30th Tribute List:

March: U2, The Joshua Tree.
April: Prince, Sign o' the Times
May: Suzanne Vega, Solitude Standing
June: Level 42, Running in the Family
July: The Grateful Dead, In The Dark

And now, August? It was the end of summer, 1987, and what did I do? I drove our family's brand-new (or almost new; I can't quite remember) pick-up truck all around Spokane as fast as I could, listening to my tape cassette of Def Leppard's latest collection of head-banging pop, Hysteria, as loud as I could. And what was my favorite track? The one that sums up exactly what that kind of loud rock is all about, of course: young men fantasizing about sex with girls. The summer before I left for college, that seemed like a fine use of my time. And it still is, sometimes, though my fantasies are somewhat different these days. (Hey, it's long drive to Kansas City; you need something to help the miles go by.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

"The Golden Age of Kid's TV": A Poll


A couple of weeks ago I picked up Meddling Kids--which I thought a ton of fun, but not quite the Scooby-Doo-inspired adventure I wanted it to be. A Facebook friend suggested I check out Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, which I did--and it completely blew me away. Easily the best cartoon I'd watched in years, it was funny, surprising, wickedly smart, and--especially towards the end--genuinely frightening, all while never ceasing to be, structurally, the same sort of classic Saturday-morning Scooby-Doo show that all us Gen Xers grew up with. As I thanked him and raved on FB about the show, he responded "we live in a Golden Age of kid's television." And that got me thinking: do I agree? Well, maybe. Hence, this blog post.

So here are five cartoons that I have watched--all of them, except one, as an adult with children of my own--and loved. I've loved them because they were never anything other than a cartoon made for kids...while simultaneously being far more narratively sophisticated, artistically accomplished, and emotionally rich than you might expect. So this list excludes cartoon programs that always assumed a primarily teen-age or adult audience (of which there have always been a lot: The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, Archer, heck, all the way back to The Flintstones), as well as winking, Adult-Swim-style cartoons that make like they're for kids, but of course aren't anything of the sort (The Ren & Stimpy Show or Animaniacs). I'll defend these five kids cartoons as being some of the best ever made, and as all but one of them are products of the past ten years or so, maybe that supports my friend's contention. I know I've missed out on good stuff here (I've only watched a few episodes of the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, for example, though some of our girls have adored it, and I've completely missed Adventure Time and Gravity Falls), but I'm more interested in great cartoon programs of the past that could compete with these (for example, our foster daughter insists that the fact our other kids missed out on SpongeBob SquarePants means they missed out on something essential in their education). Is today a "golden age of kid's television"? What say you all?

In alphabetical order:

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a huge success in our family ("everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked!" became a common slogan around the Fox household for a while), and we were hardly alone; this cartoon's smooth, faux-anime art style, its vocal work, its complicated (but never too complicated to follow or believe) characterizations of a cast of dozens, and its respectful (though always fun) employment of various fantasy and ethnic tropes, all in the service of an epic story of war, sacrifice, and personal discovery--deservedly made it the huge hit it was. Multiple people have told me that its sequel series, The Legend of Korra, was in some ways its superior, but having watched it a bit, I just don't see it. Favorite episode: "Nightmares and Daydreams," not only because it's a thoughtful and funny "getting ready for the final battle" episode, but it also was the one time Appa, Ang's flying bison, talked, and I'd wanted him to talk (like Falkor, preferably) throughout the whole series.

Probably at least some who read this would wonder about the inclusion of The Backyardigans on this list--"that's a show for pre-schoolers!," they might say--but I'm sorry, forget all that. While not employing any real narrative continuity, the self-contained worlds that the creators came up with for this show, episode after episode, were pure genius. Most particularly in the music; every single show featured multiple original songs that made use of a different musical genre: from opera to Memphis soul to swing to Zydeco and everything in between. The stories were gentle and inventive, but it was the tunes that kept me watching along with our younger kids. Favorite episode: "A Giant Problem," because "Nothing's Bigger Than a Giant" is the sort of pop song that most bands would kill to write.

Phineas and Ferb is an obvious choice: terrifically funny, with endless jokes arising from its mix of surreal story-telling, goofball plotting, and frequent excursions to meta-land. But mostly, this is another cartoon series that is built more on its tremendous music than anything else. And not just the music--the vocal cues and references built into how they set up and animated their songs were themselves often drop-dead hilarious. And through it all, there were great moments of genuine emotion (anyone who didn't shed a tear or two at the marvelously upbeat and entirely earned final episode, which brought the gang's summer to its inevitable end, just wasn't paying attention). Favorite episode: really hard to choose, but I'm going to go with "Brain Drain," because of the song "There's a Platypus Controlling Me" is more important than ever during the Trump era, and besides, the brief scene-changing narration "Doofenshmirtz's Ex-Wife's Sports Sedan!" actually put me on the floor laughing.

Checking out The Real Ghostbusters on Saturday mornings 30 years ago--even though I was as a high school senior by then--was revelatory. I mean, sure, I'd seen cartoons that mixed adult plotting with kids-appropriate material before (Johnny Quest, anyone?), but this confounded me. The very conceit of the show--that these were the "real" Ghostbusters, whose lives were then the basis for the fictitious movie made about them--itself cracked me up. More importantly though, the writers of this show (most particularly the famed comic-book and Babylon 5 scribe J. Michael Straczynski, and most particularly for the first couple of seasons) told stories that were often truly, flat-out frightening, employing all sorts of mythology and fairy tales that I recognized from playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading classic literature to create compelling, occasionally actually kind of terrifying, ghosts and monsters. But the wit and the personal dynamics of the five (six, if you count Slimer) characters kept it grounded in cartoon-land, which is a pretty great feat. Favorite episode: "Take Two," a hilarious two-part episode where the Ghostbusters are brought to Hollywood for the premier of the Ghostbusters movie, and they're all pissed to realize that they're being played by comedians.

I'm going to say it: Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is the best of this whole lot. Until the final episodes of the second season, it never fails to follow the classic Scooby-Doo formula: weird monster, strange clues, convoluted trap, successful reveal. But all while doing so, this show sets up, episode after episode, an ongoing story about people manipulating the gang from behind the scenes, all while their own relationships grow, change, and ultimately become stronger. This is the first Scooby-Doo incarnation that has an actual body count, and villains that are complicated in their motivation and genuinely frightening. But the wacky humor of the franchise remains consistent all the way through...at least until the final, rather desperate episodes, and by that time, you're too hooked to care. Favorite episode: "Come Undone." It's no often that the final episode of a series is actually its best, but the pay-off here--from the Dune reference in the first scene to the twist ending (and the guest-star) that completely took me by surprise--is worth every episode that came before it.

Okay anyone, so what did I miss?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Crossing Cultures and Making Connections in Singapore (and Elsewhere)


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Singapore to participate in conference dedicated to a topic I can't claim to be anything like fully informed about, much less an expert in: "Chinese Philosophy in a Multicultural World." Why was I there, then? Because of a marvelous and challenging book published by a scholar and friend, Leigh Jenco, Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West. I and a couple of other folks interested in the question of how one actually does comparative or cross-cultural philosophy or political thought have been trying to put together a panel discussion on her book for more than a year; after many ups and downs, a panel finally came together the morning of July 7, with: (from left to right) Ranjoo Herr, a Korean feminist scholar who teaches in the U.S., me, the guy from Kansas, Goh Beng Lan, a Malaysian anthropologist who teaches there in Singapore, and Carl K.Y. Shaw, a Taiwanese political scientist, all providing comments on the book. Leigh herself, who is currently at the London School of Economics, had to Skype in at 2am, her time, to give her responses. Our many different disciplinary takes on Leigh's books turned out to be extremely fruitful, to say nothing of the fact that it was, bar none, the single most multicultural academic forum I'd ever been a part of, and a bit of a small miracle it came together as well as it did.

A few people have since asked me what was worth flying halfway around the globe to talk about, and it's a little hard to explain. Leigh's book, besides being (for me, anyway) a wonderful, eye-opening introduction to and theoretical argument built upon a too-little studied period of Chinese intellectual history--specifically, the revolutionary late Qing and early Republic era of the 1860s through the 1920s--is also a methodological broadside, taking a strong stand against the dominant hermeneutic and dialogic approaches to thinking through encounters between distinct cultures in the English-speaking Western academy, and insisting that a distinct philosophical alternative is available--all of which requires an understanding of debates within the sub-discipline of comparative political theory to fully follow. Speaking as one who has kept up with those debates, I have to say that whether Leigh really does outline such an alternative is an open question; at least three of the four commenters (myself, Ranjoo, and Carl) thought her understanding of what does--and doesn't--happen in a hermeneutical encounter is flawed. But my assessment doesn't mean that there weren't many ways her book called me up short, and made me re-think. So, for whomever is interested, here is a slightly modified version of the comments I prepared for the panel in Singapore. Enjoy!




Leigh Jenco is a brilliant and, sometimes, infuriating scholar. For over ten years, her work--including her first book, Making the Political, and numerous academic articles and reviews along the way--has challenged the still-young subfield of comparative political theory, particularly that variant which looks to Chinese and Confucian philosophical traditions, with a single question, articulated in multiple ways but always making the same point: why do the comparisons which cross-cultural studies make always seem to result in theoretical conclusions that may be (to quote from a 2007 review essay of hers) “usefully employed not by ‘us,’ but only by ‘them’”? In other words, aren’t Western students of East Asian philosophy and comparative political thought implicitly setting the terms of debate, introducing questions and categories which Chinese thinkers complement, but never supplant, implicitly reducing the thinking of hundreds of people over thousands of years to a secondary role, one that allows Westerners to bring themselves into Chinese struggles over various philosophical quandaries, but never actually be confronted by what was learned from those struggles themselves? Elaborating upon this charge has led Leigh to write a great deal about, and sometimes dispute a great deal about, the methodological and analytical norms that have emerged over the past 20 years in comparative political theory. In my view, Changing Referents is Jenco’s strongest and fullest elaboration of her challenge yet, and as such is a kind of culmination of more than a decade’s worth of argument.

It has been sometimes a contentious argument, because it is certainly not the case that the early advocates of comparative philosophy and the incorporation of non-Western thinkers into debates about political theory (and here I am thinking of individuals like Raimon Pannikar, Roxanne Euben, Hwa Yol Jung, Fred Dallmayr, Anthony Parel, and many others) were unaware of the exclusionary possibilities of their undertaking. On the contrary, the impetus behind comparative political theory has been, from its formal beginnings in the early 1990s until today, to challenge the implicit (and sometimes explicit!) colonialism, the condescending exclusion, which characterized so much of the Western academy throughout the majority of its existence. Comparative political thought, when done well, has always carried with it a deep awareness of the basic philosophical and ethical problems which a too easy universalism invites. Thus has it become normative for Western students of non-Western bodies of thought to incorporate into their approach a self-reflexive, dialogic, interrogative humility. As a result, as Jenco nicely puts it on the first page of Changing Referents, “our existing forms of knowledge are not transformed by this encounter with otherness so much as their limitations and possibilities are considered in a more self-reflexive light” (1). While not attacking humility, Leigh wants something more: she wants, I believe, to insist upon the possibility of the kind of direct encounters with a distinct philosophical perspective and a distinct linguistic world which alone would make, in her view, real transformative learning possible.

Jenco uses the term “culturalist” to describe her position, contrasting it to both the ethnocentric universalism of the bad old days, and what she calls the “particularist” account of various thinkers, all of whom, in her view, “affirm the inevitable embeddedness of our knowledge in cultural or historical background conditions over which we have little immediate control” (8). This is an interesting usage on her part, and one that points directly towards what I believe to be an important way of assessing Leigh’s methodological challenge. “Culturalism” was the term that Canadian theorist Will Kymlicka used--during an early iteration of the endless theoretical debate over community, identity, culture, and authenticity–-to distinguish his position from that of nationalists and, implicitly, what he saw as the assumptions of communitarian thinkers in general. For the culturalist, as Kymlicka presented it, “membership [in distinct historical, religious, ethnic, linguistic, or culture groups]...must not be imposed by the state, but rather be [must be recognized as] a matter of self-identity....[C]ulturalists support politics which make it possible for members of ethnic and national groups to express and promote their culture and identity, but reject any policies which impose a duty on people to do so.” (See Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship [OUP, 2001], 42.) He believed that in making this argument he was distinguishing himself from thinkers like Charles Taylor and others who, in his view, treated linguistic and cultural communities as having their own non-subjective (or at least not entirely subjective) continuity, and thus were conceived as something insufficiently subject to individual choice.

This point is worth dwelling upon, because it is one Leigh is fully aware of. In her view, though, “the differences between Kymlicka and the communitarians...are not as consequential as they appear.” In her reading, they are all one or another variety of “particularist,” in that they accept that there are particular “‘societal cultures’...determined by claims about history: presumably self-evident past sociological associations among groups of people are treated not only as constitutive of their given self-identity but as so important and (in the short term) inescapable that they define boundaries between their way of life and that of others” (41-42). The kind of comparative theorizing which cross-cultural encounters allow under this framework, then, whether nominally liberal or otherwise, can only be Gadamerian in character, referring here to the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer on the constitutive functions of language and culture. The upshot for Leigh is that particularists presumably accept that the problem of cultural incommensurability can only be elided through a dialogic evolution, through the emergence of a "third space" wherein, via long and evolutionary and often quotidian encounters with the cultural and linguistic other, a fusion of horizons becomes possible, the context of which allows for a reflexive, collective rethinking on the part of all involved.

Leigh is critical of the limitations which she sees baked into the presumptions of this hermeneutic negotiation of differences--and the way in which she presents her criticism gets at, as I alluded to above, something potentially rather important. Let me quote two (I think revealing) passages from her book. First:

Although intended to do justice to the particularity of diverse cultures, this (what I call) “particularist” account elides the extent to which many cultural practices, particularly those associated with knowledge-production, are not automatically historically and sociologically imparted, but rather are deliberately acquired by individuals and groups over time. As such this account provides no method by which other ways of thinking or organizing knowledge might become ours, in the sense of not simply enhancing our self-reflexivity but also of displacing existing modes of inquiry across communities and over generations (9, emphasis added).

And second:

Particularist arguments...are often advanced out of humility and respect for the unfamiliar. But they also entail ironically constrictive and underwhelming consequences for engagement with knowledge outside of the contexts in which one finds oneself. In drawing attention to the varied ways in which cultural and historical contexts influence what we take to be knowledge and how we produce it, cross-cultural engagement becomes constructed not in terms of political or social, but epistemological strategies....This emphasis is often applied self-reflexively, to draw attention to the variegation and partiality even of knowledge taken to be “our own” as well as to query the assumption of radical epistemological distance between “them” and “us.” Despite such affirmations, however, particularists inadvertently...draw a line between knowledge that “we” produce as theorists, and knowledge “they” furnish as objects of inquiry....This self-positioning effectively (if not intentionally) rigidifies the relationship of individuals to the particular contexts believed to structure their pursuit of knowledge (44-45, emphasis added).

There are, I think, multiple ways to engage with, and criticize, Leigh’s description of the hermeneutic approach here. Her notion that the interpretation of texts or ideas or practices which is the fruit of a dialogic fusion of conceptual horizons must involve no alteration or personalization of the concepts in question, but rather assumes such concepts to be historically or sociologically “intractable” (31), is, I think, one that seriously misunderstands what people working in philosophical hermeneutics assume dialogue actually consists of. One can accept the existence of limitations in one’s received horizons of understanding without thinking that, therefore, all received horizons are equally and in every way static and unshakable. They are, after all, constructed over time through the same participatory linguistic and mutually reflexive processes which dialogic encounters themselves always involve. And the movement inherent to such processes, I think, necessarily means for a change of position: a seeing of the other from a different perspective or point of view, which often includes seeing the other in oneself. (Gadamer himself described the “highest and most elevated aim” of working through the hermeneutic circle as that of “shar[ing] the other’s alterity,” and being changed thereby. See Fred Dallmayr, “Hermeneutics and Cross-Cultural Encounters: Integral Pluralism in Action,” in Integral Pluralism: Beyond Culture Wars [The University Press of Kentucky, 2010], 115.) Hence, Jenco’s insistence, when drawing upon the example of May Fourth leaders and intellectuals who truly did find their horizons of understanding shaken to the core by various events, that “incommensurability may not necessarily be....paradigmatic for all instances of cross-cultural engagement,” and that it is in fact “a synchronic rather than a diachronic phenomenon,” proves, I believe, much less than she may think it does (17). New communities do form, and old communities do change, even as the pre-understandings which constitute their conceptual horizons differently endure and find themselves reworked in multiple ways. The hermeneutic circle may not be a self-constituted one, but that does not mean the selves who encounter one another through it are not capable of experiencing through it their own disparate constitutions.

That being said, what stands out, on my reading at least, in Leigh’s discontent with both universalism and (her version of) particularism is the lurking sense that both fail to give full credit to the determined, self-motivated, intentional, border-crossing individual. And that is certainly true. There is an abiding communitarian sensibility behind any discussion of cultural authenticity and the need to recognize, in a sense, one's unavoidable submission to the historical and linguistic pre-understandings by which one approaches cultural discussions in the first place. You didn’t decide what you believe, this sensibility points out, and you didn’t determine the perspective by which you interrogate your own beliefs. The humble self-reflexivity which all this presumes connects very well, I think, with the tradition-, culture-, and community-sensitive side of phenomenological thinking. But it also probably does fail, at least a little bit, as an explanatory framework when one encounters the heroic individual thinkers that Leigh’s analysis depends upon. I choose that word purposefully: reading her wonderful book, and being introduced to the intellectual arguments of late 19th-century and early 20th-century reformers and radicals like Yan Fu, Liang Qichou, or Tan Sitong, provides strong evidence that conservative readings of the possibilities of knowledge within a framework of received constitutive understandings are arguably limited in their applicability when one looks at the actual record of this transformative, revolutionary historical moment, and the adventuresome individuals it includes. Leigh is respectful of Gadamer’s insights into “the prejudicial process of all knowledge-formation,” but it is very likely that China’s past simply didn't universally play a prejudicial role in the thinking of many Chinese activists and thinkers during the decades between the 1860s and the 1920s. As she observes, speaking specifically of the conversations in 19th and early 20th-century China over “Western Learning” (bianfa or xixue): “At no point did the ‘past,’ or even some self-conscious Chinese Confucian ‘tradition’ in [Alsadair] MacIntyre’s sense of the term, present itself as an obvious and clearly demarcated context for action or understanding” (134, 63). Leigh is, I think, obviously fascinated by the specifics of these debates, but also wants to strike a blow for the free individual against the tyranny of culture, language, and time.

This is why–again, on my reading–Jenco’s criticisms of the oppressive essentialism and the exclusion of subaltern voices which cultural particularity and the presumption of a received tradition has unfortunately sometimes involves (99-110), while strong, are not nearly as strong as her insistence upon culturalism as a specific, narrow, keyed-to-the-individual kind of universalism: “it assumes the general applicability of...cultural norms; this lies behind the claim that ‘anyone’ can become Chinese” (47). I did a double-take at that claim, as I’m sure others would as well (though, apparently, not Daniel Bell!), but again, she makes her case. Consider:

[C]ultural otherness may be better understood as one of the many kinds of otherness (such as the historical or idiosyncratic) that make learning of any type possible. It therefore may not require special techniques of assuagement, such as self-reflexive dialogue between presumably embedded interlocutors, but it may demand more of us in the way of self-transformative, disciplinary commitment to the standards and languages of a particular knowledge community--even as our own participation in that community shapes, in an ongoing and dialectical way, its distinctive features (23, emphasis added).

And:

Recognition of oneself as “Chinese” by others is authorized by one’s felicitous connection to particular pasts texts, practices, or events, even as those connections are necessarily reproduced and transformed as each new individual acquires them. New individuals join these communities of knowledge not automatically through birth but through gaining familiarity with their standards of intelligibility. Chinese culturalism can therefore be distinguished from universalist ideologies such as liberalism, in that the success of culturalism turns on acquired practices whose transmission and mobility are contingent and fragile--not secured in perpetuity through a priori assumptions about essential human attributes that are putatively universal (61, emphasis added).

As one who has always been interested in and has occasionally published on topics relevant to the Confucian philosophical tradition, and yet cannot read or speak Chinese, and thus is entirely dependent upon translators, this is a discomfortingly powerful argument. Might it be that I, and multiple other students of cross-cultural scholarship, are accepting of the conceptual limitations presumed by the dialogic model simply because we have not been successful, or simply haven’t been willing, to buckle down and do the damn work of learning the language in question? Quite possibly! (This is essentially Bell's argument which I linked to above: "Chinese-ness" is most fundamentally, in his view, a linguistically communicated cultural sensibility--defined, one might say, to borrow from Leigh's own argument, by its own particular "standards of intelligibility"--so given that he is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has lived in China and built a family in China over the past 20 years, why shouldn't he be considered Chinese?) Leigh herself points to claims made by Chen Yuan, a historian from the 1930s, who advanced the claim that “literary production by non-Han peoples under the Yuan dynasty...expanded and enriched [the cultural property of the Han] in ways irreducible to, but still recognizable within, [the] past forms that others affirmed as part of a literary tradition they shared with them.” The argument, in short, was that these “‘sinified’ Yuan poets of Mongol ethnicity advanced Chinese literature” in as direct a manner as could anyone who received that cultural property as a part of their linguistic and cultural patrimony (59-60). If the perspective of these thinkers is such that becoming “sinified” really can make one Chinese, perhaps it is arguable that the sense of collective humility and the dialogic respect for difference which characterizes much comparative political theory may be taking things unnecessarily far in the direction of incommunsurability.

I am not wholly opposed to this idea, as much as it may indict my own failure in cross-cultural knowledge production; while I have written occasionally in ways which insist upon recognizing the anti-individualistic character of Confucian thought, I'm not unaware of the ways in which it also allows that the localization of meaning in particular places doesn't prevent such produced knowledge from serving broad, even cosmopolitan, civic purposes. And from that perspective, I can see the point of Leigh's argument. It's not, after all, that she insists everyone "will" be able to make themselves Chinese; only that they "could." Leigh turns to the writings of Qing-era reformer Tan Sitong to elaborate upon the dividing line here. Tan employed the ideas of the late-Ming philosopher Wang Fuzhi, whose interpretation of the Book of Changes emphasized the interdependence of the dao, or “the way,” and qi, or “vessel.” Quoting Tan’s observations, Leigh writes: “There is no dao without qi. Without a bow and arrow there is no dao of archery; without horses and vehicles there is no dao of driving....If we believe these words, the dao must rely on qi before you can have practical use; it is not the case that dao exists in some empty objectless space” (129). And remember, the qi are portable, not sociologically, historically, or even linguistically grounded in particular cultural communities--they are things, subject to individual intentionality, assuming they show sufficient discipline to master them:

Tan insists that culture--constituted by complex and dynamic daos whose true scope is essentially unknowable to any one human--necessarily is grasped and embodied only in qi (material objects, institutions, texts, and so on). But [it does not follow]...to conclude that at best a “fusion of horizons” will be forged to create a kind of third cultural space or understanding....Rather, the very replicability of qi enables the portability of culture....The portability of meaning here wrestles directly with the difficulties of social and not just individual self-transformation....Although these transformation will likely be beset by issues of translation and commensurability best handled in a “conversational” or dialogic way, to leave the issue of borrowing there would be to ignore the very real need to frame (and borrow) cultural forms in a set of institutions that can support a broad range of personal interests, needs, talents, and certainly interpretations (137-138, emphasis added).

Ultimately, then, Jenco is not wholly opposed to the humbling, collective character of the dialogic assessment of the cross-cultural project; she simply, on my reading, wants to insist that the writings of multiple scholars from these crucial decades in China’s history demonstrate that it is possible for understanding across otherness to be sometimes directly achievable in contexts where both personal engagement and an individual's disciplined mastery of the vessels of communication are present. Incommsurability, for Jenco, is therefore not an inevitable and necessarily negotiated consequence of cultural difference; while it sometimes may be, certain variables can make a major difference. And for Jenco, the key variable, I think, is often going to be the willingness and ability of the person encountering the other--whether Daniel Bell or Leigh herself--to make the vessel of understanding their own.

All well and good, yes? Probably. And yet...there is still something which sits badly with me, with all Leigh's (usually implied, but nonetheless, on my reading, constantly present) talk of individuals taking ownership of knowledge, of making it their own. Once again, the communitarian arguments which haunt any close consideration of the cultural work accomplished by language--the primary vessel that Leigh's examination of these thinkers who achieved so much in terms of bianfa focuses upon--comes into play. Here, the names which most readily come to mind are the philosopher Charles Taylor and the early Romantic translator and critic whose ideas about the constitutive role a spoken language plays in community-formation which he relied heavily upon, Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder's insights here are crucial, in that he developed a philosophical anthropology which allowed numerous counter-Enlightenment thinkers who came after him--Humboldt, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Polanyi, Heidegger, and many others, whether they acknowledged or even recognized the influence of Herder or not--to talk normatively about the interdependence of our identity and the received cultural structures and traditions which surround us, and how the realization of meaning depends upon that interdependence. Taylor's elaboration upon these Herderian themes has been hugely influential in arguments over philosophical hermeneutics...but of course, to start talking about how our knowledge of the meaningfulness of one thing as opposed to some other "depends" upon something "received" takes us right back to the kind of anti-individual conservatism or hesitancy which I think Leigh's sees as a problem in the dialogic approach to comparative political theory and cross-cultural thinking in the first place...and thus it's not surprising that, while she never mentions Herder, Taylor makes frequent appearances in Changing Referents--nearly always negatively.

Of particular concern to Leigh is an early essay of Taylor's, "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man," which argues, on Leigh's reading that knowledge has a "diffuse...social character," demanding a recognition of the particularity of each utterance, which in turn strengthens the assumption that, as Leigh puts it, "actos/interpreters in the present [necessarily produce knowledge in terms of] a certain degree of continuity with the past precedent of community of interpreters to which....they belong" (see 42-43, 122, 207). The idea that there are historical contexts which serve as "boundaries to the present scope and future malleability of culture" is one which Leigh, as should be clear by this point, strongly dissents from, insisting instead that, given that one can--assuming sufficient time and training and education--linguistically penetrate other culture contexts, why must there be any obviously boundary upon the audience most authentically served by the understandings which follow?

Taylor's response--and Herder's, and Gadamer's, and that of many other hermeneutic thinkers as well--might involve looking at Leigh's thoughtful claim (or at Bell's much more simplistic one), and observing that a language is more than words. It is a way of living a life, and of constituting a perspective on that life. In a response Taylor wrote to Kymlicka more than 25 years ago, he laid out this idea--in the context of the then-furious liberal-communitarian debates--quite succinctly:

The liberal accords a culture value as the only common resource of its kind available for the group in question. It is the only available medium for its members to become aware of their options. If these same individuals could dispose of another such medium, then the case for defending the culture would evaporate. For the people concerned, their way of life is a good worth preserving; indeed, it is something invaluable and irreplaceable, not just in the absence of an alternative, but even if alternatives are available....People who have lived in or near French Canada know the resonance of this goal of survivance. For the neutral liberal, the reasoning starts from the fact that certain already-existing people lack a crucial resource. For the community, the goal extend beyond serving the existing members to the continuance of the community through future generations. The goal that unborn people, say, my great-grandchildren, should speak Cree or French or Athbaskan, is not one that Kymlicka's liberalism can endorse...(Taylor, "Can Liberalism Be Communitarian?," Critical Review, Spring 1994, 259-260).

So the boundaries in question, and hence the need to prioritize the humility of the self-reflexive, dialogic approach to making connections across diverse cultures, has a deeply ethical component: it is about respecting the integrity of the culture one is trying to learn from.

I would never want to suggest that Leigh has anything but tremendous respect and ethical concern for the language and history and culture she has developed such a great mastery of. I can only say this: I see in Changing Referents a determination to show, through historical example as well as philosophical argument, that self-reflexivity and humility can be overdone in our thinking about comparative political theory; that there have been, and always will be, individuals who are not intellectually defined by their cultural inheritance and linguistic framework; and that as such the conservatism of dominant, dialogically-constructed comparative philosophical enterprise should be rethought. This is, I think, not wholly wrong...but it does fail to recognize the real, ethically and conceptually complicated target of the hermeneutic approach to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. And it also fails to appreciate that Romantic and hermeneutic thinkers over the centuries have never fully sublimated the idea of individuality to one's received tradition. Consider the words Goethe put into the mouth of Dr. Faustus: “What from your fathers you received as heir, / Acquire [anew] if you would possess it. / What is not used is but a load to bear; / But if today creates it, we can use and bless it.” There always is, and always will be I think, a space for individual action and interpretation in any cross-cultural encounter, there is no need to insist that language really is "merely" a vessel capable of being mastered, and there is no need to dialogic approaches to knowledge-production as limiting willful action of those capable of crossing cultural divides.

In any case, this philosophical back-and-forth is hardly going to come to an end with this blog post, or with her book. Whatever else I think, I will remain troubled by the possibility Leigh's argument just might be right: that maybe Western comparative political theory, particularly in regards to learning from Chinese sources, really may have taken so seriously the reflexive, mutually inward, mutually cultivating, communitarian attitude which has been ascribed to Confucian thought that it has ended up working against recognizing the individual voices behind these sources...and thus also implicitly excused engaged individuals from mastering those voices so as to be able to fully learn from them. Leigh’s book invites us to not only rethink these Chinese thinkers and how we understand them, but also how we understand the relationship between culture and individuality itself. Leigh has opened up a large field of (again, rather challenging) study here, and for that I, at least, am grateful.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: In the Dark and "My Brother Esau"

Continuing my year-long (or nearly so) journey through albums from 1987 that I still listen to and enjoy today, following The Joshua Tree, Sign o' the Times, Solitude Standing, and Running in the Family: before July finishes up, let's salute the Grateful Dead's unexpected pop gem, In the Dark.

I'm cheating a little with this one, as I did with Level 42's small masterpiece last month--while I was familiar with their (first ever!) pop radio hit, "Touch of Grey," I wasn't by any stretch a Dead-head when this album hit during my senior year. And I never really became one, even after--once again!--someone I knew on my mission to South Korea a year or two later, a cool guy who had brought his guitar with him and would spend evenings playing James Taylor, Rolling Stones, and Grateful Dead tunes to a lot of us in the apartment, got me thinking about who these odd folk-rocking guys were. But he did at least convince me to give them a try, and first chance I got after returning to the U.S., I picked up a couple of Dead cassette tapes: the compilation album Skeletons from the Closet and this one. And fell in love.

I wasn't alone; there was a small, dedicated group of Dead-lovers at BYU back in the early 1990s, and anytime anyone in Provo, UT, aspiring to pretend that the city was a "real" college town like we imagined, scheduled some live music on campus or off, and an acoustic guitar was involved, you could be sure that "Friend of the Devil" or "Uncle John's Band" would make an appearance. Some of these folks were more devoted than me; they made the road-trips to Las Vegas or San Francisco, and became fully initiated into the Grateful Dead's happy cult. But I just listened--so much that my original cassette eventually died. Which was a terrible loss, because one of my favorite Dead songs, "My Brother Esau," was for some reason left off the CD version of the album. It's such a strange, wonderful, peppy, Old-Testament rock-and-roll tune, with Bob Weir's refrain "shadow-boxing the Apocalypse / wandering the land" haunting the whole number. Watch this live video, and you get the whole range of mid-late-stage Dead: Weir in his short shorts, the Mick Jagger-esque frontman (even though he doesn't dance); Jerry Garcia, wearing his sweats and flannel shirt, looking at his friend and the world in general with curiosity and bemusement; Brent Mydland hyped up, jamming out on the keyboards; Phil Lesh, playing his bass from some other planet entirely. That's all you need to know, right there.