Friday, May 27, 2005

Review of Reviews (RevRev)

Well, here was the thing: In the same weekend, the same two books about stock car racing were reviewed in the New York Times and in the Raleigh News & Observer. The reviews contrasted in ways that were not terribly surprising yet irresistable to my neurotic Flyover State self, hence this post. The NYT review by Jonathan Miles irritated the conservative Tennessee blogger Instapundit, and while I hate siding with Instapundit on anything, it IS curious that before undertaking to write about NASCAR, Mr. Miles is at such pains over whether NASCAR is fit (as in, not too distasteful) to write about:

For a certain segment of the population, Nascar's raid on American culture... triggers the kind of fearful trembling the citizens of Gaul felt as the Huns came thundering over the hills. To these people, stock-car racing represents all that's unsavory about red-state America: fossil-fuel bingeing; lust for violence; racial segregation; run-away Republicanism; anti-intellectualism (how much brain matter is required to go fast and turn left, ad infinitum?); the corn-pone memes of God and guns and guts; crass corporatization; Toby Keith anthems; and, of course, exquisitely bad fashion sense. What's more, they simply don't get it... Cover your ears, blue America. The Huns are revving their engines.

The Raleigh N&O review is by Scott Huler, a good feature writer and former N&O staffer, who has written a book about NASCAR himself, and in the Raleigh paper could confidently assume that his reader needs no introduction to the subject. Huler gives thumbs up to Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner, but a mild pan to Sunday Money, an account by Sports Illustrated writer Jeff MacGregor of a year on the NASCAR circuit.

The problem is, at the end I don't really know the subject of MacGregor's book. MacGregor practices what might be called the American Magazine Style, in which every object is worthy of comment, the comment often more important than the object.

Mr. Miles in the NYT likes Sunday Money (the one NASCAR book a non-Hun might want to read) and compares MacGregor's approach to Tom Wolfe, Mr. American Magazine Style himself--which is apt, considering Wolfe's Esquire profile of Junior Johnson is still probably the pinnacle of NASCAR lit. MacGregor's sojourn with the ballcap wearers of NASCAR Nation is a 21st century counterpart to Wolfe's long strange trip with the Merry Pranksters--calculated to scare and titillate the Eastern establishment.

As I blogged once before, NASCAR tries to have it two ways: honoring its disreputable Appalachian roots, yet aspiring to be the perfect modern marketing vehicle, sleek and squeaky clean, high-tech and family friendly all at once. Personally, I'm turned off by the marketing side of it but am fond of the scruffy side, represented by Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson. My regard for NASCAR got a big boost when I learned that Junior Johnson (a superstar of the sport) had to take a year's hiatus at the height of his career to serve federal prison time for bootlegging. My affection wanes, though, as NASCAR adds races in Dallas and Miami and Los Angeles, leaving behind historic small tracks like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.

I think Jonathan Miles is right to say that NASCAR has a looming identity crisis, an "Elvis-comes-out-of-the-Army moment." NASCAR is in the process of establishing a Hall of Fame, and I heard somebody on the news the other day, probably Bill France, arguing that the Hall needs to be located in North Carolina because of NASCAR's roots here. Well, Bill, you sure didn't bat an eye when you abandoned Rockingham.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

"Shut Up and Get On the Plane"

Sorry for the lack of blog lately. I made a few false starts at posting, but life has just been damn busy.

I bought myself a couple of CD's last weekend at Nice Price Books. One was an old familiar one, Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps. The other was a newish one I've been wanting to hear for a while, the Drive-By Truckers's Southern Rock Opera. I had no idea that the DBT album makes direct reference to Neil Young (by way of Young's relationship with Lynyrd Skynyrd).

I listened to Southern Rock Opera, read Gary Mairs's thoughts about it, and now need to give it another listen. For one thing, I'm slightly hung up on the paradox that the Drive-By Truckers may simply be better than Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band they are paying tribute to. For another thing, while I share the Truckers' dismay at the knee-jerk political demonization of the South, the kneejerk response to demonization, i.e. that Southerners are good folks albeit misunderstood, leaves me cold as well. Maybe the lyrics of a rock song just aren't going to resolve this one for me.

The album appeals to me most as a meditation on manhood, duty, and violent death. There was a New York Times piece the other day about NASCAR (this may be the subject of another post soon) and one of its arguments is that death on the highway is a more major feature of life in the South than in other parts of the country. This album certainly is haunted by vehicular mayhem, routine car wrecks as well as Skynyrd's fatal plane crash. Good-hearted duty-driven traveling men who meet their fate stoically.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Basic Cable

For an evening spent vegging out watching broadcast TV, yesterday evening was pretty good. Three shows in a row touched me for different reasons.

My kids like Nanny 911--my four-year-old says we need the Nannies to come to our house: "I'm out of control!" Try harder, kid. I normally just tolerate the show. But last night, instead of the usual spoiled-rotten kids and insipid parents, they featured a couple who (I think I have the numbers right) have adopted 32 children. Nine have grown up and moved away, leaving 23 boys living in this house. Some of the kids have been adopted from abroad, where they faced neglect or abuse in nightmarish orphanages. Some of the kids are disabled, with problems ranging from ADHD to cerebral palsy. What's more, the dad himself is disabled (wheelchair-bound), so the mother is an absolute workhorse. The whole nanny squad goes to the house, not to correct the boys' behavior but just to give this mother a few days' break.

They were plucking the heartstrings for all they were worth: handicapped kids and refugee kids, making a mural for their mother, writing and performing a song for their nannies... Did I get choked up? What, am I made of stone? Let's just say something got in my eye. My wife was out of the house--if she'd been watching she'd have been a puddle. One mitigating element in the schmaltzfest was contemplating what kind of person adopts dozens of children. On some levels, this mother was pathological--it damn near took a whip and a chair to get her to leave the house, and in a creepy way she seemed to enjoy the rest of the family being dependent on her. In the end, though, I see that household teeming with life--lots of chaos and some frustration, sure, but plenty of happiness. And it's easy to imagine those boys in bleak and isolated situations if not for that half-crazy mother. And when the Nannies are at their breaking point but the teenager with cerebral palsy steps up to his Big Brother role... something got in my eye.

(Next week Nanny 911 will feature a household where the kids are acting out after the death of their father. I wonder if the charm of run-of-the-mill bratty kids has been exhausted, and now the show is going for kids who due to melodramatic circumstances are bratty-for-a-reason. Some of the air must be coming out of the reality TV balloon. The home-makeover shows seem to be making a similar move: nowadays only people who've been struck by tragedy are eligible.)

Then my kids went to bed, and I switched over to public TV, where the American Experience had an hour-long doc about the Carter Family. I knew the broad outlines of their story, but really want to read and learn more now. It's just heart-rending, the clash between the magic the Carters had together as a musical group, and the marital discord, eventually rupture, between A.P. and Sara Carter. They made world-changing music against a background of profound unhappiness. A.P. was the engine of ambition that drove them; he was combing the mountains for new songs, drumming up record dates, etc. Sara, the possessor of a one-in-a-million singing voice, really got no satisfaction from public performance, and would have preferred to stay home on Clinch Mountain. She did it for the money, and out of a sense of duty, until she couldn't stand to do it any longer. The program really brought the Carters to life, and showed them as rural but modern people grappling with momentous changes, in history and in their own lives, in a courageous way.

After that, a re-run of a Johnny Cash retrospective interspersing TV clips of Johnny's performances with commentary from people who knew him: some contemporaries of Johnny's, some younger followers like Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart. God, do I love Johnny Cash. The show contains a late-50s Cash performance of "Big River" that's just indelible, and Marty Stuart has a great spoken-word essay about it, where he classes Johnny with Hank Williams: singers with whom we can "hear every cigarette in their voice." The performances of "Man in Black" and "A Boy Named Sue" (Johnny bellows at the camera, "Now you're gon' die"--I've seen it before and I still almost wet my pants) have got to be some of the most spine-tingling minutes in television history.

Friday, May 06, 2005

If it's Friday, must be Culture Wars

Actually, I don't know if it's just me, but the debate over religion-in-politics seems to be coming to a head recently, so I have a number of things to comment on.

David Brooks's latest strawman argument is that liberals are up in arms (or would be if they only knew) that Abraham Lincoln prayed and tried to discern God's will before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The NYT letters page is full of great dope-slap replies, all to similar effect: political leaders are welcome to pray privately on a decision. They just can't express or justify or limit discussion of the decision on grounds that it's "God's will." I don't mind that Bush prayed before deciding to take us to war. But when he (to Ariel Sharon) or his military officers claim that our invasion is divinely sanctioned, I mind.

Two other things. One, if there was ever a decision to pray over, Emancipation was it: a momentous, unprecedented moral course correction. A "no atheists in foxholes" kind of thing. Lincoln, as Brooks knows but won't say clearly, wasn't particularly pious--if HE prayed over it, it was big. Brooks is asking us to equate freeing the slaves with appointing a judge to the Third Circuit Court. Two, Lincoln's choice was defined for him in political terms, by events and by economic and religious pressure groups on both sides He saw a course of action, he felt it was right but knew it would be hugely difficult, and he prayed for resolve. And of course, there was plenty that was practical, not absolute, about the Proclamation. It freed only slaves in the South, not the North; it was timed right after a midterm election; etc. If it was a prayerful decision, it was only in a very narrow sense.

With a spate of op-eds in March and April warning of a "Christian jihad," John McCandlish Phillips (who was an evangelical in the New York Times newsroom, a thing rarer than an albino alligator) protests that evangelicals are being unfairly caricatured by the liberal punditocracy. His case would be stronger if he even mentioned Terri Schiavo or the nuclear option or anti-abortion legislation, instead of leaving us to think that this anti-Christian sentiment came out of nowhere. He finishes with a tangent about religious language in government--"ceremonial deism," in the Bush Justice Department's phrase--that's rather disingenuous. Issues like right-to-life are about a lot more than that. Also, while I'm ambivalent about stuff like the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, things were a lot different in 1789, when the spectrum ran from Anabaptist to Anglican and "God" pretty much covered everyone equally, than today, when Americans include Muslims and Hindus and believers and non-believers of many stripes.

Phillips also completely misrepresents Paul Krugman's views of suposed liberal bias in academia. Krugman, in Phillips's account, says that belief in God makes one unable to do valid scholarly work. I read that Krugman column, and that's not what it said at all. It pointed out, rightly, that the GOP leadership is hostile to academic freedom, to scholarly work that reached conclusions that were politically incorrect for GOP ideology. If you have a scholarly bent, and academic freedom is a priority for you, conservatism is announcing that it doesn't want you.


We got into a discussion of religious fundamentalism vs. the science of evolution over at PeoplesForum yesterday, and I found myself in the position of the beleaguered conservative in the discussion, which I hate. Let me expand here. Yesterday's chat focused on a recent Salon interview with Richard Dawkins. I posted a while back about Kenneth Miller of Brown University. Miller is one of the leading authors of high-school biology textbooks in the US, so his interest in the evolution-creationism debate is pretty damn concrete. Unlike Dawkins, sitiing in a hotel suite in his "crisp white shirt and soft blazer," uttering provocative bon mots to the delight of Salon readers, Miller goes to lobby the Kansas State Legislature, he goes to offer expert testimony in Georgia, and he speaks to audiences of divinity students in North Carolina. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak. He's not a bomb thrower, he's an infantryman. Miller is no less committed to the struggle over creationism than Dawkins, and he will get a lot more accomplished. For what it's worth, Miller was very much on my mind when I was criticizing Dawkins.

My beef with Dawkins, in sum, was that he lumps all religious folks together under the most unflattering label. The funny thing is, in some of his comments Dawkins comes so close to what I believe. Dawkins describes the wonder that scientists take in the natural processes that they understand so well, with terms like "almost transcendental" and "quasi-religious." Well, take off the weaselly modifiers and you have my view. I think Dawkins's problem with religion boils down to (1) the idea of divine intervention in nature or history, and (2) the notion of an afterlife. Well, I'm an agnostic on those things myself, yet I identify (a little uncomfortably) as a Christian. Religious categories are not as simple as a checklist of doctrines one affirms or denies. These are culture groups, somewhat fluid but somewhat persistent, which is why it's easier to speak of a Catholic child than it is to speak of a Keynesian child.

The Ludic Kid had a post yesterday about Dawkins, and I'm guessing that I'm one of the Dawkins "revilers" he's picturing. I didn't mean to come off that way. I'm no expert on the history of American evangelicals, but I'm pretty sure the Kid is leaving out some things in his analysis. The 1960s, Billy Graham, the shrinking economic pie, the fraying Protestant consensus--I suspect those things deserve a mention.

This shit makes me angry, too, this rampant yahooism. For one thing, I worry for my kids and the kind of education, the kind of economy, the kind of country they're going to grow up to. But I'd like to invoke the spirit on Tom Frank and say, progressives are not going to get far treating our opponents as idiots or children. I agree, Ted Haggard is not persuadable, but Ted Haggard's (the megachurch movement's) power is organizational. He's got 10,000 worshippers (or whatever, maybe more). You suppose 10% of them are persuadable?

The answer to so much about the predicament of the American left, I'm more and more convinced, is to organize. Nothing is going to change quickly. The great successes of liberalism in this country, like civil rights and the labor movement, took decades to build. That's got to be our time frame.

In general, there are quite a few voices on the left whom I respect, but who are pretty clueless about religion, particularly as it's actually practiced. I read Atrios, uh, every day like clockwork, but every time he comments on religion I want to throttle him. He just gets things wrong, and while he's usually humble in the face of a subject outside his expertise, he'll mouth off about religion with no compunction. He's done it recently, about Barbara Bradley Hagerty of NPR (not as bad as Atrios says) and this Baptist church that expelled members for voting for Kerry (well, that's bad, but there must be a whole lot more going on there than we can learn in a 40-second TV news clip, plus there is already some backlash against that church and there may be more to come).

I'm still working my way through the issue of Harper's that Ludic and Mr. Obscurity have been praising. The Gordon Bigelow piece was very enlightening, and all new to me. (That old crone Cora Nelson, who taught me Econ 101 freshman year--probably a Baptist! No wonder I got a C-minus!) The piece on the Colorado Springs megachurch is by Jeff Sharlet, whom I read regularly at The Revealer, and I think I can say something about his account compared to my own reading and experience. More later.

Speaking of Jeff Sharlet, here is a review he wrote of a new biography of Jonathan Edwards, that sheds a little light on the history of evangelicals in this country.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Private Geography

Dorothea Dix Hospital is a state-run inpatient mental health facility in Raleigh. Founded in 1856, its several red brick buildings sit on top of a hill. Over the years, many a North Carolina child has been threatened with being "sent to Dix Hill" if he couldn't regulate his behavior.

For ten years I lived within a stone's throw of Dix Hill, in the Boylan Heights neighborhood adjacent to the hospital grounds. In the early and mid-1900s, Boylan Heights was rather intimately connected with Dix Hospital. Dix nurses and orderlies were likely to live in the neighborhood. Halfway houses and other, less formal assisted-living arrangements eased some patients' re-entry into the community. As Boylan Heights gentrifies, the relationship becomes less intertwined. But Boylan residents value the Dix campus greatly, as nearby green space and for recreation value. A city greenway with a hiking/biking path runs along the near side of Dix Hill. I went running or dog-walking there regularly. During the summers my wife and I picked blackberries there. There is an open grassy area with a picnic shelter, and behind the shelter the hillside rises with a stand of oak trees, some of the biggest old trees in the city. On snowy days, rare though they are, people would come from far and wide to sled on Dix Hill. My children were introduced to sledding there.

It sounds awful to say your neighborhood is bordered on one side by the state mental hospital, and on another by the maximum security prison--which Boylan Heights is: Central Prison, kitty-corner from Dix Hill, is the Big House, home to North Carolina's Death Row. But I found it was no problem living next door to these places. Central Prison's security was formidable, as you'd expect, and if not for the faint sound of loudspeakers (announcing Lights Out or whatever; I could never make out any words), you could forget the prison was there. With Dix, you occasionally read of security lapses, patients wandering off, but I never worried, since the few times I'd encountered patients (supervised, out for a walk usually) they weren't threatening: quite the contrary, they tended to be blissed out of their gourds on meds.

I was very fond of the neighborhood, still sort of grieve having to move away, and I have nothing but good memories of Dix Hill. It's a significant and distinctive landmark in my adopted home city, and I'm amused by the irony of the Bedlam associations, the boogeyman function Dix Hill has for native Tar Heels. So I claimed its name for my blog.

Dorothea Dix Hospital is scheduled to be closed in two years. in 1856 Dix Hill was a good out-of-the-way site for a sanitarium. Today it is a prime piece of real estate, 300 acres with a view of the Raleigh skyline, and there is intense interest in how it's going to be developed. Dix Hill has resonance for students of public policy as well: for changes (not necessarily for the better) in mental health treatment, and as a major crossroads in Raleigh's city planning. I may have more to say about those public developments, but I wanted to write up what Dix Hill means for me.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

She Used to Do the Pony, She Used to Do the Stroll

Here Be Monsters has an excellent post on the story (cough) of Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride in Duluth, Georgia. What a country! What a news industry! Those were minutes and brain cells that we'll never get back.

According to HBM, one of the New York City tabloids says that in the South, an unmarried woman of Wilbanks's age is presumed to be "insane, in prison, or gay." I laughed out loud to read this. Ms. Wilbanks didn't sound desperate for a husband, from what I could tell. The wedding was going to be pretty lavish, the groom is from a prominent family in that town. Everybody around her was so happy FOR her, they just took for granted that she was happy herself. Wrong-o. Personally, I find pre-wedding jitters to be a believable and serious thing. The couple of people I've known who have honorably backed out of a church wedding after the invitations have been mailed, I rank as some of the bravest people around. I would sooner bolt at that point rather than face the music. I was sure all along that Ms. Wilbanks had bolted; it was the likeliest explanation.

What I don't quite understand is why the families were so publicity-hungry, even after the whole emergency turned out to be a big misunderstanding (to be charitable--"hoax" would be uncharitable). Why is the groom appearing on Sean Hannity, of all shows? Why is the father of the groom "forgiving" Wilbanks on ABC, NBC, and CBS simultaneously the other morning (separate taped interviews, but his face was on three channels at the same instant)? Why is the bride's uncle standing up in front of the TV cameras saying that Jennifer had some issues the family wasn't aware of? No shit, Uncle Sherlock. I think, if not shame, at least reticence is called for by the principals in this situation. Just go inside and pull the shades. The cameras will go away pretty soon.

The groom is willing to give her another chance. That doesn't make him a saint; it's what he should have done. They'll go through worse things in the course of a marriage. I hope it works out for them in the end, but in any case, the family should just make a brief written statement to the Duluth paper. Remember when we and the TV networks made utter fools out of ourselves over a jittery bride? Well, briefly, here's how that turned out...

Final thought on the subject: You know why the Duluth authorities are pissed and considering throwing the book at the bride? Not because of wasted manpower, not because she's trashy. They're embarrassed because they treated the groom, who was decent and blameless through the whole thing, as a murder suspect.

a Frank bulletin

When I posted about Tom Frank a while back (here), I remarked that Kansas didn’t really deal with electoral strategy per se. Well, Frank makes up for that deficit in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books. I don’t think he breaks any new ground in NYRB (and was Zell Miller’s conversion really much of a net gain for Bush?) but he can be forgiven for saying I told you so, because Kansas foreshadowed a lot of what happened in the ’04 presidential race.

Incidentally, Bernard Henri-Levy had an interesting take on Tom Frank (either summing Frank up or explaining him away) in an interview at the Atlantic Monthly’s website:

[Frank] wondered whether it was a surprise that so many Americans were ready to vote against their economic interests. To vote against one's economic interests means ideology—-means politics. It is the very definition of politics. If people voted only for their economic interests there would not be politics. What [Frank] was surprised by, and in a way discovered, is that America is becoming a place of strong political debate.