Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Culture of Get A Life

Thank God our vacation coincided with much of the Terri Schiavo hoopla, so I was away mostly from TV and entirely from the Internet. All I have to contribute to the discussion is the nifty title of this post, and this link to a St. Petersburg Times editorial column.

"I wish the line wasn't so long"

We took the kids to Disney World during their spring break last week.

Opinions about Disney World are rather sharply divided, even among my little circle of friends, by and large a liberal and well-educated lot, if I may say so. Pro-Disney people are delighted to hear your post-vacation story, and might even want to share tips: how to move around the Disney properties, minimize long lines, get reservations to the character breakfasts. (Don't scoff, there are entire Fodor's-type guide books on how to navigate Disney World. It's a veritable field of study, it is.) Other friends smile politely but with a look in their eyes that says, "Why in the hell...?"

Everyone is right. It's fun, it's grueling, it's magical, it's gauche. The rides are huge advertisements for the movies, and the movies are advertisements for the rides, and we consumers chase our own tails in ever decreasing circles, eating $8 ice cream cones, wearing $30 souvenir t-shirts. It's the most cosmopolitan crowd I've been in in a long time; there are loads of people from Europe and Latin America. I had a nice chat with a man from Guadalajara while we sat on the asphalt in the middle of the world's largest parking lot, awaiting our shuttle bus. We observed German parenting styles up close and personal in our hotel swimming pool. (Teutonic discipline and efficiency? ha!)

I was struck anew by the fact that Disney refers to all park employees who work in the public eye as cast members. Having had a little exposure to the ego-negating ideology of customer service, I have to give a certain grudging respect to Disney workers, who maintain high levels of courtesy and good humor, while handling the relentless flow of irritable tourists about as well as humanly possible. Here was a high point: At the height of the lunch rush, they were holding people at the door of this burgers-and-fries place. As one Disney cast member stood aside and let me enter the building, another one ushered me to the shortest cashier lane. He looked me in the eye and said, "I wish the line wasn't so long... but I picked the best spot in line for you." And we shared a chuckle, admiring an exquisitely polished bit of bullshit.

The darker side is the extreme secrecy Disney requires of employees. I got just a taste of this when as a teenager I was in a choir that got to sing a brief concert at Disney. We had to pass through some of the "Cast Members Only" areas, and we damn near had to sign waivers and give DNA samples as part of our promise to never, ever take photos or otherwise divulge anything we saw or heard behind the scenes.

I dragged the family into the Hall of Presidents show; I actually had fond memories of it and wanted to see it, and it being Disney Day 5, the others were happy for an air-conditioned place to sit down for awhile. But wow, was I unprepared for the sight and sound of an animatronic Gee Dubya Bush being the master of ceremonies. A whole generation of youngsters will come away believing that Adams and Madison and FDR were non-speaking extras, while President Bush the Younger is one of the leading players in the great American drama. Clearly, Bush sat for Disney and recorded the voiceover narration his own self (to be fair, I'm sure Bill Clinton did as well). I guess the most disturbing thing was how much more believable and confidence-inspiring the animatronic Shrub is compared to the real article.

New wrinkles since I was last at Disney World seven years ago: The army of middle-aged guys who search your bag for weapons or contraband before you enter the park. The Fast Pass system that lets you skip to the front of the line of the most popular rides, as long as you come back at the time--maybe an hour later, maybe six hours later--that the computer algorithm tells you to. (I felt guilty about using the Fast Passes at first, but they're actually a pretty great idea for balancing the traffic.)

I was interested and a teeny bit perturbed to read that for their upcoming film version of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Disney hired a Christian marketing firm that Mel Gibson used with The Passion. But on the whole, one can make a case for Disney as a good guy in the culture wars. I believe they still follow gay-friendly policies, despite protests from conservative Christian groups. (I think in trying to mount a boycott against Disney, the Southern Baptists picked a battle they couldn't win.) Okay, Walt was a sentimental sap, and Disney hopelessly anthropomorphizes nature, and Epcot permanently enshrines a hokey obsolescent George Jetson vision of "the future." But by gosh, the technology shows honor Charles Darwin where appropriate, and the Epcot international pavilion still honors France, and the Uncle Remus ride was dismantled a number of years ago, and it IS a small world after all.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Book of the Week

This time round it was The Franchise by Michael MacCambridge, a really well reported history of Sports Illustrated magazine. My father is a charter subscriber to SI--has been taking it almost continuously for 50 years. I've been reading it since about age nine and have never really stopped. Paging through The Franchise, I felt something like a fish reading about water for the first time. That's a bit hyperbolic, but I've been immersed in it too much to be very critical. I might've liked or disliked a certain writer, thought a certain period was better or worse than another, but never stopped to think about the magazine as an institution.

The biggest lesson I took away from MacCambridge was something I should've realized long ago but didn't: When SI began publishing in 1954, there was no consensus that sports was a coherent or pervasive, let alone important, theme in American culture. SI's parent publisher, Time-Life, was run by Ivy League types who, though they might enjoy tennis or golf, bore an attitude of apathy if not distaste toward dirtier, sweatier sports. There was no certainty that sports fans were an audience that advertisers would covet, nor any confidence that, say, readers in California were the least bit interested in Big Ten football. The first few years of the magazine's life, it spent fumbling painfully in search of an identity, running pieces about fly fishing and other stuff that today would be classified as Travel & Leisure.

One of the keys of SI's eventual success was an influx of writers from Texas, most notably Dan Jenkins. These guys knew golf not as a gentleman's verdant pastime but as a blood sport played on arid dog tracks. They knew high school and college football as the pulse of entire communities, states, regions. I may be guilty of seeing Red and Blue America everywhere I look nowadays, but this is an interesting manifestation of that dynamic, and a victory for down-home red-state wisdom.

The book is also worthy as a case study in business culture: the give and take between the editorial and corporate sides, the struggles for succession each time the Managing Editor post came open. MacCambridge did a lucid and thorough job; he seems to have interviewed just about every living writer, editor, photographer, and designer of note in the magazine's history (the book came out in 1997).

Thanks again to Phil of Here Be Monsters, who reminded me of this book's existence and gave it a good review over at Peoplesforum. MacCambridge has a new book out, a history of the National Football League, which I am sorely tempted to shell out for.

Brackets Update: In the Blogger Bracket at Yocohoops, I'm doing respectably well. I won't win it, but I'm in the top 10 or 15 percent of about 300 entries. It seems that for a guy who writes about sports, I know a lot about politics, and vice versa.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Don't Let Them Make A Monkey Out of You

One of my invisible friends tipped me to this story about the nationwide movement to promote intelligent design theory, or "intelligent" "design" "theory." Wouldn't you know it, the land of Dorothy, Toto, and Tom Frank figures prominently.

Nothing in here surprises me a great deal, but the article synthesizes some things helpfully. And the reporter. Peter Slevin, makes it unmistakably clear that intelligent design is a P.R. slogan, the sugar coating on a pill intended to purge the culture of Enlightenment rationalism.

This is important to understand, because when I first heard it, I thought intelligent design was a nice phrase. See, to me, Charles Darwin was divinely inspired. All great writers and thinkers are. The theory of evolution is a partial description of the divine intelligence. To my mind (semi-educated as it is), the interplay in nature between order (that science can describe) and randomness (some of which is permanently beyond science's potential to describe) is intellectually pleasing. I conceive of a divinity that takes similar satisfaction.

But I think humankind should follow scientific inquiry as far as it will take us. And I'll never enter a church that requires me to check my rational mind at the door. The people who employ the phrase I.D. do it with sinister and deceptive purpose. In the end they want to deny our intelligence and ignore nature's design.

In this interview I cited elsewhere, Dave Durenberger paraphrases Garrison Keillor, suggesting that when conservatives rail against liberalism, they ought to pause to consider everything liberalism has done for them. We wouldn't have child labor laws. We wouldn't be able to dial 911 in an emergency. We wouldn't have interstate highways (hell, Eisenhower got the idea from the damn Nazis!). This is not an appeal to ideology, but to proportionality.

Now think of the advances in technology since Darwin's time. We've eradicated many deadly diseases. Air travel has shrunken the world to a friendlier scale. Computers have enhanced our productivity. A thousand other technologies have eased and enriched our lives. Renouncing evolution is a kind of renunciation of telephones, television, antibiotics. All of them are part of the same fabric. I don't expect anti-Darwin conservatives to stop using technology. I expect them to keep using it, and to be used by it, and to surrender the notion that they can master it.

Willful ignorance is people's right, I suppose. The jarring thing to me, the moment when I slam up against cognitive dissonance, is when I read of someone who wants to insist on the literal truth of Genesis AND wants to become a doctor. Look, viruses mutate. Homo sapiens adapts gradually to environmental demands. Medical technologies develop through the use of scientific method and rules of evidence. If you're a Biblical fundamentalist, then by definition, you have a huge hole in your training and acculturation to the practice of medicine.

I'm not arguing absolutes. If you believe God created the universe in six days and that settles it for you, fine. But consider all the ramifications of that worldview. Modern life rests on the scientific approach. Somebody is going to keep developing and applying technology, and it won't be you.

Fresh Air? Times Square!

This post will be more rambling than usual. It germinated over last weekend, when Atrios was leading a discussion of city living, suburban living, and why people with children are so averse to the idea of raising them in a big city. By "people" he is, and I am, probably thinking of Atrios's readership: Bobos, Yuppies, strivers, Merlot moms, Dickel dads.

What I'm talking about is my sense that there are large numbers of people who would consider someone who chose to raise their kids in an urban environment to be, well, out of their minds. And, that would be the case even if you took the top two "why I love the suburbs" reasons off the table - schools and crime. If you provided more decent school opportunities in urban areas and substantially reduced crime, they would still consider it nuts to raise your kids in the city.

My first thought was that he was describing a caricature of an urban-phobic parent. Turning the tables rhetorically, I'm sure there were a few rural-phobes who thought that "Deliverance" was a documentary, but only a very few. So I posted a comment at Atrios about public schools, which was a little wonky, and ignored the part where he explicitly took schools off the table.

Then darned if a couple of commenters didn't live up to the caricature. One guy wrote that he had to protect his kids from gang culture. Damn, buddy, we weren't suggesting you move to Cabrini Green, just to a decent townhouse near the city bus line.

I don't know what type of circles Atrios runs in, but I for one don't know a lot of people who are explicitly mulling a choice between, for instance, Philadelphia proper or one of the Main Line suburbs. (Fill in the metro area of your choice. Atrios lives in Philly.) But I do know a lot of folks who have followed this general migratory pattern of (1) city living when young, just out of college, single or newly married, then (2) buy a house in a suburban setting when the baby arrives. I once read an article in the Raleigh paper that referred directly to a (supposedly) common flight path in which young professional types graduate from UNC, go to Atlanta for a few years to have fun and add heft to the resume`, then come back to Raleigh or Greensboro or where have you to settle down. But generally, people don't talk about it as a deliberate plan, they do it semi-instinctively. My family and I moved four years ago, more or less following this pattern. Not the Atlanta part, we moved within the city of Raleigh, but the urban to suburban part. Heading for greener acres.

I don't hear people in real life articulate the thought, it's nuts to raise your child in the city. One is either a city person or one is not. And though this wasn't exactly the question the class was given, Atrios seems to posit the existence of an adult who sincerely loves city life for himself but decides he must leave the city for the sake of his offspring. I think such an adult is a mythical creature. We want to form our children in our own likeness. Cost of living or schools or other factors may play a part, but odds are, if a couple settles in the 'burbs, it's because their heart is in the 'burbs. Period. Becoming parents may be a handy excuse or a catalyst.

Here's what I do observe in real life. (My real life these days is largely suburban, some rural, not too much urban.) Lots of people love their cars. Personally, I consider the things an often-necessary evil, and I'm attracted by the idea, hypothetical though it is in my case, of living day-to-day without an automobile, relying on public transit. I hope to live that way at some future stage. But a lot of Americans have a horror of that. They love their cars--the bigger, the better. They want to come and go on their precise timeframe, in comfort and solitude.

Also, I've been struck by how many of my friends and relatives have bought a big parcel of land and built a brand new house. Maybe nothing fancy or distinctive, but brand new. Lots of space inside and out. Clean, convenient, anesthetic. Never been lived in. No history, no mystery.

Via Tapped I came across this interview with David Durenberger, Republican former U.S. Senator from Minnesota. As one who remembers when the GOP really was a big tent, Durenberger bemoans the current state of his party and the coarsening of political culture, and he reminds us to celebrate American diversity at the same we celebrate freedom. These are some of the terms he put it in:

David Brooks writes about exurbanites, the people beyond the suburbs, using the analogy of golf. Their life needs to be like a golf course, where all the grass is clean, and cut to the same size, and the sand traps are all edged appropriately. That's the way they live, that's the way of a growing number of Americans. They want to go to churches where people are just like them, and go to malls that serve people and lifestyles just like them. This is Brooks's characterization, not mine. Increasingly, people want to vote for people who look like them, talk like them, and think like them. They go to church on Sunday, and they want to vote for somebody who talks to them the way the preacher does.

And what [Garrison] Keillor is saying is, "You know, you guys wouldn't have those opportunities. Your girls wouldn't be playing for national basketball championships and things like that. You wouldn't have 911 to call to save your kids' life or your own life, if there hadn't been Democrats or liberals fighting for those things." Those are some of the examples he uses. And he's right.

... And there's a value in universities, there is a value to big old cities. There's a value to the Hmong or whomever. Here they are. And there's a value in that that doesn't exist in the golf course community, where everybody is the same. You can't possibly say you can represent everybody in your district, everybody in your state, everybody in your nation if you have this golf course community mentality.

The suburbs are typified by people who want things cut to their specifications. They don't want to wait. They don't want to share. They don't want to think. They don't want to be surprised or confronted with other-ness or challenged in their worldview. And if that correlates to people who are likely to have children, it's a sad commentary. It points to a rather cramped and narcissistic mode of parenthood.

Monday, March 14, 2005


I remember hearing my high school French teacher remark that the economy of France suffers hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of lost productivity each year due to work slowdowns during the Tour de France. Billions by now, I'm sure. A strong case could be made that it's a good trade-off, a few points of GDP in exchange for a folk-culture tradition that people feel passionately about. I think about my French teacher every year at this time, as I spend a few prime work hours puzzling over the NCAA men's basketball tournament brackets. (Actually, between the NCAAs and fantasy baseball draft season, mid-March is a doubly unproductive time.)

I won the office pool once, several years ago. (Cue Springsteen's "Glory Days" in the background.) There were quite a few foreigners in my former office, ignorant of basketball, yet enthusiastic about tossing $5 into the kitty. They were eager to take part in this American workplace ritual; they had something to prove; they wanted to fit in. They were pigeons.

Unfortunately, I'm not as up to date as I used to be, and my current workplace has a core of people who know their basketball. But the memory of my past triumph lingers. Moreover, the whole NCAA tournament pool phenomenon aggravates one of my less attractive personality traits: the love of being proved right, of showing my expertise, no matter how trivial the topic. Not only will I spend more time filling out the bracket than any adult should, wanting to win more than any adult should. I also have a paradoxical urge to predict stunning upsets. Alabama's sneakers are ill-suited for the court surface in Cleveland! The clever student-athletes of Bucknell will build a dossier on Kansas's star player's mother, making for devastatingly effective trash talk! This sort of thing.

My research today yielded the following information. West Virginia plays Creighton in Round One on Thursday. West Virginia's best players are named Johannes Herder and Kevin Pittsnogle. Creighton's best player is named Nate Funk. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

What Made You

What made you turn out to be a liberal or a conservative? No doubt, it's an identity question, a matter of finding which side makes you feel better about yourself.

Personally, looking at my parents and my childhood environment, I think I could've gone either way. Somehow, even when I was a little kid living in severely unhip West Virginia, hippie culture had an allure. Things I remember: I had an uncle who at least looked the part of a hippie: wore his hair long, partied, didn't finish college and enter a nice profession like the family wanted him to. He was the most fun of my relatives, and seemed (to me, at the time) to be living his life in a brave way. This uncle had stacks of Mad magazines, which I devoured and which taught me more about what was hip, what was square, and about a few things like Vietnam and Watergate that resisted satire, that were serious matters, and seriously screwed up. He also had stacks of Playboys, which taught me plenty, but besides the obvious taught me a respect for the concept of two-consenting-adults.

Later I became a fan of Doonesbury comics, and followed Trudeau's band of flower children as they grew up and their politics matured. I was a big fan of the TV series M*A*S*H. I watched the mini-series Roots and Holocaust. Saturday Night Live came along. I got hold of a Richard Pryor album, a Cheech and Chong album, and some underground comics, notably the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Watergate happened, and I drew a hopeful lesson from it. Our system of government worked; a corrupt leader was peacefully removed from office. In junior high school my class went to see a play called "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," about the McCarthy era. I didn't make any Nixon connections, but the play made an impression.

My mother followed feminist yearnings and social justice impulses. She was active in the church and drew me into it as well. In 11th grade, thanks to the fact that we were attending a tiny church with too few adults to fill all the leadership slots, I got elected to represent our parish at the annual (Episcopal) diocesan convention. I got to hear a passionate and eloquent debate on the subject of abortion, which completely turned my view of it around. (The diocese passed a resolution in favor of abortion rights.)

I have forgotten my motivation, I don't think it was a school assignment, but in 11th or 12th grade I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That stands out as a mind-expanding event. For a little while at least, I entertained the thought that the white man is the devil. By contrast, Tom Frank and the news media furnish multiple examples of conservatives who refuse to hear anything about themselves that doesn't flatter them. I think about the experience of reading Malcolm X fairly often.

Return from Oz

This week's book is What's The Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won The Heart of America, by Thomas Frank. Sorry about the photo, but be thankful I didn't attempt a "Dust in the Wind" joke.

Every comment I read on this book when it came out last year, and there were a lot of them, seemed to boil it down to two words: economic populism. Of course, at that time people were preoccupied with the election, and every new piece of political writing was being evaluated as campaign advice. Since I didn't think economic populism was especially good campaign advice for the Dems in 2004, I was prepared to dislike the book, but boiling it down to a slogan misses the point. Late in the book Frank does fault the Democratic Party for shirking its responsibility to educate voters about economic progressivism. But he's talking about a long-term project. George W. Bush is not a major presence in this book, and Frank literally does not mention John Kerry.

Frank inparts some valuable history lessons about his home state: its anti-slavery heritage, the rise of prairie ie populism, the oddball preachers and politicians that Kansas has produced. He mixes in some autobiographical musings about his childhood, the changes he has seen in his hometown, the experiences, particularly at the state university in Lawrence, that led him to a liberal perspective. He also does a neat thing: he interviews some actual conservatives, and treats them with respect and understanding and even a little admiration. The most vivid figures in the book include Tim Gruba, "an upside-down Cesar Chavez" who for years has been a driving force behind Kansas's grassroots pro-life movement--all the while holding a job as a line worker in a soda bottling plant. And there's Kay O'Connor, who refinances her house and sinks the proceeds into her pet cause, the school vouchers movement.

The main thrust of the book is the conservative backlash, the inversion of populism into a force for conservatism, the right-wing "Plen-T-Plaint" that features a lot of anger and venting but precious little analysis. I think my favorite line from the book is "[E]very one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking." Ain't that the truth. But the most important passage may be near the end:

[In People magazine] liberalism is a matter of shallow
appearances; it is arrogant and condescending... In an America
where the chief sources of one's ideas about life's possibilities are TV and the
movies, it's not hard to be convinced that we inhabit a liberal-dominated

Like any industry, though, the culture business exists
primarily to advance its own fortunes, not those of the Democratic Party.
Winning an audience of teenagers, for example, is the goal that has made the
dick joke into a sort of gold standard, not winning elections for liberals.
Encouraging demographic self-recognition and self-expression through products
is, similarly, the bread and butter not of leftist ideology but of consumerism.
These things are part of the culture industry's very DNA. They are as subject to
change by an offended American electorate as is the occupant of the Danish

Never understanding this is a source of strength for the
backlash. Its leaders rage against the liberalism of Hollywood. Its voters toss
a few liberals out of office and are surprised to see that Hollywood doesn't
care. They toss out more liberals and still nothing changes. They return an
entire phalanx of pro-business blowhards to Washington, and still the culture
industry goes on its merry way. But at least those backlash politicians that
they elect are willing to do one thing differently: they stand there on the
floor of the U.S. Senate and shout no to it all. And this is
the critical point: in a media world where what people shout overshadows what
they actually do, the backlash sometimes appears to be the only dissenter out
there, the only movement that has a place for the uncool and the funny-looking
and the pious, for all the stock buffoons that our mainstream culture glories in
lampooning. In this sense the backlash is becoming a perpetual alter-ego to the
culture industry, a feature of American life as permanent and as strange as
Hollywood itself.

If I could only read one book to gain an understanding of the contemporary American polity, it would be What's The Matter With Kansas?