Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Disunity in South Africa (Self Indulgence Edition)

The Foreign Policy Association recently published my latest opinion piece, "Disunity in South Africa." It explores one of my evergreen topics, the possibility that the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) will break away from the African National Congress' (ANC) Tripartite Alliance.

[Cross-posted at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog.]

In the Changer: New(ish, Mostly) Stuff Edition

It has been quite a while since I imposed my musical tastes on you for one of my "in the changer" posts. The title itself is anachronistic in many ways. Yes, I still buy cd's, though my music listening is becoming increasingly digital even if I have not been able to make the transition to actually buying my music digitally. I like the idea of having hard copies of music, and someday when my iTunes crashes and my iPod dies or it all mysteriously gets erased I'll be thankful for being the guy who still has my music in some tangible configuration.

This is all stuff that I've listened to a lot in the second half or so of 2009. I imagine this will be a multi-post edition. (And just a reminder: for those of you wondering why the grades end up being so high, these are filtered reviews of music I've been listening to. When people start sending me music indiscriminantly to review, I'll be able to bear fangs. Until then, this is generally stuff I liked over the last few months, even if all of it did not come out this year). Without further ado, here is the first batch:

Amadou & Mariam -- Welcome to Mali: This is my favorite West African music produced by a blind married couple since at least their last album. And it should be yours too. What the hell is it with Mali? Per capita that vast but sparsely populated West African country must produce more great music per capita than any country on earth. A polyrhythmic confluence of blues and pop and jazz and highlife and rock and a melange of African styles, Welcome to Mali continues the run this duo has had over the last decade or so when they first exploded into public consciousness (they have been recording together since the mid-1970s). Use this as your introduction to them and work backward. Grade: A

Arctic Monkeys -- 'Humbug': I think it is a law that all writers who tackle the Arctic Monkeys must refer to them as "lads from Sheffield," so consider that requirement fulfilled. This is their third album and it's good. It also represents a modest but clear attempt at departure. Arctic Monkeys have done well with snide and cynical postpunk-pop songs about suburban pub life and poseurs and the various dipshits one runs across in daily life, especially in suburban pubs. And there is still more than a hint of that here. But 'Humbug' feels a bit brooding, a bit down tempo, a bit sludgy, all of which can probably at least in part be attributed to the production of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. And given that the lads from Sheffield are no longer really lads and they have moved their worldview from Sheffield, change was to be expected. Lead singer Alex Turner writes his own lyrics and he knows his way around a clever phrase. ("What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?" is intended to be rhetorical. I think.) The question becomes whether this will remain a very good little band or whether it will grow to the scale that they promise. 'Humbug' tells me that this is a band in the process of becoming. The question remains: What will they become? Grade: B+

Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago: I have one question for Bon Iver and Damian Rice and Cat Power and to a lesser extent Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective and their ilk (Grizzly Bear, eg.) and a whole host of other bands and artists I really do like: What the fuck's up with recording in a whisper? I'll get three minutes into a Damian Rice song before I realize: This shit isn't going to get any louder; it's not all part of a languid introduction that's going to go somewhere. So, Bon, maybe Emma left (I'm assuming she did -- why else would you devote such a mopey effort to her?) because you wouldn't fucking speak up. It's ok to be both introspective and audible. If I want to fall asleep to you or have you as background music, I know how to turn the volume knob (they still have those, right?) down. But now if I put in an AC/DC album, which I am wont to do, glass in my home will shatter when I turn it on because I had to have your damned music cranked up just to hear it at all over the dryer whirring away in the other room. So: Good songs? Check. Nifty instrumentation and interesting vocals? Yep. Folk-indie rock hybrid? Oh yes. A few glorious moments? Yessir. But given that any ambient noise whatsoever makes this album nearly unlistenable, please, pal, next time turn it up just a little? You can be bummed out. Just do it a little louder. Grade: B

Jeff Buckley -- Grace: It's hard to believe that it has been more than 15 years since Buckley's lone studio album in his lifetime came out, scoring tail for a million savvy guys who could get this onto their stereo when they got a girl back to their rooms. The story is familiar: Buckley, the insanely talented progeny of the insanely talented Tim Buckley, revealed his endless promise with this album, only to die tragically swimming in a chennel near the Mississippi, eerily reminiscent of his father's own equally mysterious passing (well, dad died of a drug overdose, but give me some narrative license here). I did not really arrive at this album until about 1999 when I had a girlfriend who was in love with it introduced me to it (thus turning the table on the savvy guys). My thoughts now are just about what my thoughts were then: This guy is insanely talented and the music is in some ways uncategorizable. But it does not quite have the songs. It has moments that are quite sublime within what are supposed to be the songs, and the sings, such as they are, are geared toward these moments of sublime talent. But the whole does not quite cohere. But then came track #6. Hellelujah. You probably know the Leonard Cohen original. The Jeff Buckley version brings tears to my eyes every time. It is one of my single favorite renderings of any kind of music ever. It is nearly perfect, and in the light of what would later transpire, heartbreaking. Grade: B+, Hallelujah: A+

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone: Neko Case is like the super-cool, super-hot chick in your favorite bar, the place where all of the indie bands play when they come into town. Just when you muster up the courage to say something to her, the break between bands is done and she steps on stage as the lead singer of the second band, the one that comes on before the headlining act, a band whose music, but obviously not the personnel, you know. Middle Cyclone is her sixth solo album, something all the more shocking when you realize that she also is part of the glorious collective that is The New Pornographers (and in fact the quality of a New Pornographers album is directly related to the amount of Neko Case contained therein). There was a time when case could easily be slotted into the alt-country/y'alternative category, but Middle Cyclone transcends that limiting category, much as does Wilco's career trajectory after their first album. And like Wilco, Neko Case produces guitar-and-singer-driven rock and pop, in the best traditions of both rock and pop music. She has a clear, strong voice that sings clear, strong songs. But don't kid yourself -- she's going home with someone else tonight, unless she chooses to go home alone. Grade: B+

Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca: How you feel about this album will be directly related to how you feel about "complicated" or "experimental" music. Because Dirty Projectors is a pretty self-consciously difficult band. I am fine with complicated, or at least complex, but "experimental" oftentimes ain't my bag and so I shied away from this album, recommended to me all over the place, for much of the year. This is a band, after all, whose last full-length album recreated a Black Flag album from memory, which strikes me as a bit too meet-cute. Nonetheless, I succumbed, and while the album has not blown my mind it is one that improves on multiple listenings. I could still do without some of the atonality. And sometimes the playing around with key signatures comes across as a bit gratuitous. And in the end I suspect that a lot of people who like this album actually like people knowing they like this album more than they actually like this album. Grade: C+

At the FPA Blogs (Semi-Self Indulgence Alert)

There are a great deal of changes under way at the Foreign Policy Association Blogs. We are consolidating the largest network of global affairs-related blogs into a series of categores. My Africa Blog will now be in the category of "Africa and the Middle East" and will include Africa, Egypt (not up yet), Iraq, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and Middle East. I will be serving as both Senior Blogger and the Senior Editor for this category. I hope you'll continue to check out my Africa blog, the blogs in my category, and the network as a whole.

The newest addition to these blogs is Reza Akhlaghi, the first addition under my watch. He is our new blogger on Iran and his first post is must-read stuff. Here is my introduction of Reza at the Iran Blog.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, and a happy holiday season. If it's your thing, I hope that Santa Claus brings you everything that you asked for and a few things that you did not.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Taking on the Dumb Jock Stereotype (Again)

At Critical Mass, the blog for the National Book Critics Circle's Board of Directors, Deirdra McAfee has a post with which I take issue. I responded in the comments with the following:

I want to take issue with the following assertion in this post:

“A culture that idolizes physical skill (sports of all kinds) and has no use for intellectual skill (the smart or knowledgeable stigmatized as nerds), that places physical passion above all possible other passions, except perhaps that for winning, is not one that believes books are important.”

This is just plain silly. It is possible, just possible, that millions of Americans can value both sports and books. Folks like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and George Plimpton and John Updike and Doris Kearns Goodwin (the list could go on for pages) all managed to value (and write about) sports and yet still somehow also to care about books. The creation of false dichotomies and strawpersons in a post that would seem to celebrate the intellectual life is ironic, because it shows poor analytical skills and sloppy argumentation, the opposite of what intellectuals are supposed to value.

There are lots of problems with our culture with regard to books. But a passion for sports has nothing to do with it. Blaming jocks is commonplace amongst too many intellectuals, which does not make it any less dumb.

I want to augment this a little bit here. When I was in grad school there were lots of social divisions. One of the more pernicious ones came between jocks (which included former athletes but also simply fans of sports) and non-jocks. And of course the non-jocks possessed that air of superiority that McAfee reveals in her post. Which was somewhat problematic since almost universally the jocks were also the better graduate students in our program. But the very stereotype allowed the non-jocks to feel superior despite the fact thet their superiority was unearned and undeserved. There is something bizarre about certain circles in intellectual life that allows being anti-athlete to be not only acceptable, but to be heralded.

When I wrote that the list of intellectuals who demonstrably care about sports could go on for pages, I was not kidding. Stephen Jay Gould and Gay Talese. David Halberstam and George Will. Michael Lewis and David Foster Wallace. Stewart O'Nan and Frederick Exley. Not to mention those academics who write about sports -- Chuck Korr and Charlie Alexander and James Carroll and Amy Bass and dozens of others spring to mind. And the ranks of those who are predominantly sportswriters yet who write well enough to transcend the stereotypes of that genre warrants more than scorn -- Bill Simmons and Sally Jenkins and Bob Ryan and Bud Collins and John Feinstein and Dick Schaap and Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon and Rick Telander and John Ed Bradley and myriad others. (Unless I am misreading McAfee's website and Amazon and Worldcat, she has not ever actually published a book, unlike all of these people, with their crazy sports affinities.)

The idea that sports is the enemy of books or the intellectual life is a muddleheaded argument put forward by people who have decided they are the enemy of sports and who have elevated their prejudice to the realm of virtue. But it's not virtue. It's ignorance. And it is not to be lauded. It is to be scorned.

As a perhaps relevant aside, or at least for the sake of full disclosure, I am a member of the National Book Critics Circle. I also have written a couple of scholarly journal articles on sports, have written at least a dozen reviews of books on sports, am working on a project that may become a book on sports, and have published a book on a sports-related topic. I was one of the jocks in my graduate program, and in some circles of detractors was seen as the jock ringleader. I also care deeply for books, for book culture, and for American intellectual life. False dichotomies and strawmen are dumb. They are also deeply intellectually dishonest and indeed are anti-intellectual.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

6 in 10 for 3

Bob Ryan reminds us all that the decade now concluding has been a damned fine one for Boston sports. Three championships for the Patriots, two for the Red Sox, and one for the Celtics is a good run. Not many cities have won six titles in a decade, never mind having three teams win rings in an (admittedly arbitrary) ten-year span.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Patricia Marx is an Ass

You want to know why a lot of people think the east coast (read: New York) intellectual class are effete assholes? How about these opening two sentences from Patricia Marx's brief "On and Off the Avenue" piece in The New Yorker on the arts and crafts store Michael's:

New York is rich in culture, cuisine, and commerce. The suburbs have parking spots and fast food, and they also have Michael’s, the largest arts-and-crafts supply chain in North America.

I love cities. I love the east coast. Outside of its sports teams (and fans) I love New York. I live in West Texas, decidedly not an enclave of the east coast elites. But I am associated with of those folks by background, by politics, by temperament and by preference. Patricia Marx, you are the reason why a mendacious drizzlewit like Sarah Palin can plausibly differentiate "real America" from her stereotype of a segment of the east coast. I hope you drown in a yachting accident. I hate nothing more than when my own side frags me with their idiocy.

Pre-Holiday Links

Super-duper pre-holiday quick hits from things that have caught my eye of late:

I'm very much interested in reading John Milton Cooper's massive new biography of Woodrow Wilson.

If you want to get stuff you almost always have to pay for it. Taxes are not a form of creeping socialism. They are a sign of a responsible society. There is a huge difference.

Spin has a slideshow of its 40 Best Albums of 2009. Begin debating now. (I must be getting old. I sort of miss the days when reading a simple list, preferably with annotations forming some sort of argument, was enough to kickstart a debate. The slideshow googaw takles a lot of time, is inconvenient, does not actually facilitate anything, but it does have images. And it takes up more bandwidth. So that's something.)

Most of the climate change doubters are basically fools. But you knew that already. I hope.

The quality of Cornel West's work has, in the minds of many, gone seriously downhill. The trajectory pretty much is in direct negative relationship with his public fame.

Invictus was very good and reasonably historically accurate. I'm working on an essay on the movie, the book on which it is based, and another book on South African sport. Hopefully I'll have good news on that front down the road.

A Nation Forged in War, The Cover

I've been remiss in not posting this until now:

Freakin' Awesome. It'll be out in spring 2010. Congratulations, Tom.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Ready For My Close Up! (Self Indulgence For Something I Did Not Really Accomplish Edition!)

A few weeks back I flew out to LA to play the role of talking head for a documentary on the Freedom Rides that The American Experience is producing with respected director Stanley Nelson at the helm. It was quite the opportunity, they treated me well, I got some good stories, and I hoped that it went well enough for me to get some face time for what was scheduled to be the 2011 release marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. I was pleased to hear at the Southern Historical Association's annual meeting in Louisville that the rough cut of the documentary looks great and that as it stood at that point, a month or so ago, I will indeed get a little screen time.

I got even better news last week. Freedom Riders will be one of 16 documentaries (out of more than 860 submitted) and will makes its World Premiere in the US Documentaries Competition at next year's Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 21-31, 2010 in Park City, Utah. Obviously my participation has zero role in Freedom Riders being accepted for Sundance I (and may have been a detriment). Still, it's a nifty little thrill even to be associated with something like this. I guess it's time for me to get some head shots!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Mega Self-Indulgence Alert

There has been no lack of analysis of the state of the Republican Party by fairly prominent folks. In my latest History News Service op-ed (which has not yet gone up on the "Recent Articles" page for some reason) I weigh in on the state of the GOP. I try looking back to another era of deep divide within the Republican Party and show how the lessons the far right needs to learn from Ronald Reagan seem not to be the ones they are learning. So far it has been picked up by the Durham (NC) Herald Sun, the Albany (NY) Times Union, and the LA Progressive.

It has also appeared on websites ranging from History News Network to The Dallas Morning News to USA Today to (Knoxville, TN), to Florida Today.

As long as I'm cranking up the self indulgence, I also may as well mention that on Friday, April 23, 2010 I'll be giving a talk at the Newberry Library's Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture as part of the 2009-2010 Chicago Seminar on Sport and Culture. The title of my talk, part of a larger project on sports, race, and politics in South Africa since 1994, is "Stopped at the Try Line?: Rugby, Race, and Nationalism in Post-Apartheid South Africa." I have an article with a similar title coming out in the next couple of months.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Herf v. Wolin: Heavyweights Square Off

This article on "the long, toxic afterlife of Nazi propaganda in the Arab world" by my friend and former professor Jeffrey Herf in The Chronicle of Higher Education prompted a, let's say "spirited" rejoinder from the historian Richard Wolin. The Chronicle then brought the two together, in a manner of speaking, for an "exchange." Read it all.

The State of State Universities

The New York Times recently conducted a discussion between a number of prominent academics on the state of public universities. The jumping-off point was the state of California's public universities and starts with the following question: "As they deal with tighter budgets, what should public universities do to balance fiscal responsibility and equal opportunity?"

Among the participants was Richard Vedder, an economist and economic historian from Ohio University where I received my PhD. I know Professor Vedder but never took a class with him at the Contemporary History Institute, with which he is affiliated as a professor and I was affiliated as a student. I disagree with much that he says but I am always glad to see OU folks getting such attention.