Thursday, December 30, 2010

Off to NYE Shenanigans

Over at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog I have posted my annual "Year in Review."

I am traveling to New England today for eleven days of the Boston-New Hampshire access punctuated by New Year's shenanigans in Boston, a few days in the old hometown, and the American Historical Association annual meeting in Boston, where I am on a panel on the Freedom Rides that will take place before a showing of Freedom Riders. If you're in the Boston area, do swing on by. I'll even sign this if you have a copy. (Prediction: My shamelessness will extend into 2011!)

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, What Have You

Merry Christmas from dcat. Over at Ephblog I have my annotated list of the best and worst holiday stuff.

A taste:

#1 from my "Best" list:

1. White Christmases, the Smell of Evergreens, and the Idea of Tradition: I grew up in New Hampshire. So for me Christmas is supposed to be white, the house is supposed to smell of a real evergreen tree, needles are supposed to be everywhere, and someone is supposed to say something horrible to someone else at one of the family Christmas events, causing a death spiral of recrimination. I am in San Antonio as I write this. It’s 71 degrees — down from 84 earlier in the week in Odessa. A real Christmas tree would cost more than my car and so we have a fake tree (as does everyone whose house I’ve been in this month), which my 18-year-old self would recoil from in disgust (I’m with ya, you dorky little shit.) The only smell of evergreen comes from candles Mrs. dcat found at some overpriced shop. And it’s highly unlikely that anyone in my Mexican American wife’s family will say something horribly racist tomorrow. Sigh.

#1 from my "Worst" list:

1. The “Controversy” over “The War on Christmas”: Ok, let’s get it straight: Christians, this is not just your time of year. Hell, you appropriated it from the pagans, moving your holiday (Christ was born in March or April or something) in order to co-opt theirs. For ages the end of the year has been a time of celebration and commemoration. Kwanzaa is “made up”? Well so is every goddamned holiday that ever existed. Hannukah isn’t actually that important a holiday on the Jewish calendar? Why do you care? I say “Happy Holidays” rather than Merry Christmas? Where to begin with this one. For one thing, the root words of “Holidays” are, guess what you ignorant troglodyte, “holy days”. And I don’t know the religious or cultural background of everyone I run into. Maybe they are Jewish. Or Muslim. Or Wiccan. Or British (they say “Happy Christmas” — why is Fox News declaring war on happiness?) . Or maybe they worship the trees. Or maybe they know that even in the 1950s people said “happy holidays” because it’s not some liberal neologism. Or maybe I also want you to have a Happy New Year and a glorious Boxing Day. Or maybe there are a million different reasons why I say “happy holidays” and none of them have anything to do with waging war on Christmas. Now give me my damned presents, hand me that eggnog (hey, is that brandy?), turn up “Christmastime is Here,” and give me a minute, because I want to call my Mom to wish her, yes, a Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

FML in "A Merry Claremont Christmas" (Self Indulgence Alert)

I was touched to discover recently that my former Ph.D. advisor and my friend Alonzo Hamby recently included Freedom's Main Line in his contribution to the Claremont Review of Books' annual "A Merry Claremont Christmas" holiday book recommendations.

A Tale of Two Elections

ISN Insights has published my latest piece, "A Tale of Two Elections," which looks at the crisis averted in Guinea and the one broiling in Ivory Coast.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Good Old Days

Are you raising an unbearable child? Probably.

When I was a kid I split time between my Mom's house in the woods and my Dad's farm just down the road. From relatively early on we had pretty much full independence. On a nice day we'd be sent out in the morning to find our own fun. I cannot tell you the number of hours I spent up in the hayloft (which was literally suspended from the second-floor barn ceiling some 20 feet above the floor) or amidst the shards of metal and glass all over the place. Barbed wire was just another impediment -- or better yet an addition -- to the forts and tunnels we created. We'd climb the machinery and dangle from beams. We'd run around like we owned the place and I don't remember my grandmother helicoptering even though she was always in the house and occasionally would pop out and give us a shout offering a popsicle. We'd run down the hill behind the barn (the one that was perfect for sledding in the winter) at full speed to see who could get the furthest before wiping out.

In the woods we'd climb trees and jump from the branches. Or in the nearby fields we'd play tackle football, or baseball complete with hit pitches and in one-on-one or two-on-two games it counted as an out if you threw the ball and nailed a runner between bases. We had boxing matches with winter mittens as gloves. No one chased us around to make sure we drank enough water (we ran into the house when we were thirsty) or had enough to eat ("your arms ain't broke" is something I heard on more than one occasion when I whined about wanting a snack.) We'd chuck iceballs at one another in the winter and attach little sour apples to sticks and whip them at one another in the fall. We'd fight when angry.

And mine wasn't some sort of antiquated, mythological childhood. Everybody I knew did this stuff. And I'd bet anyone in my age range has similar stories, catered to the suburbs or the city or what have you. I probably sound like an old man romanticizing the good old days, and I never want to be that guy, so I suppose that there are things I missed that I didn't even realize. When you grow up poor or working class there are all sorts of disadvantages that you internalize, and my kids (touch wood) will have all sorts of advantages including me probably helping them to schedule them beyond free time while I hover and coach and beam. It's a different world now just as it was a different world then from what my parents knew, a world they always put up as being somehow tougher and more authentic just as their parents surely did for them.

Nonetheless, I know that my kids (again, assuming it happens) will never run on the farm or get to enjoy seemingly endless expanses of woods to explore. And so I'll tell them stories, about the time I tried to jump from a tree onto the back of a friend's speeding minibike, or about taking an iceball square in the nose (my first broken bone!), or about jumping from the neighbor's roof into a pile of leaves that proved insufficient to cushion the fall, or about that time we . . .

Fathers With Daughters Nod, Other Men Cringe

If you are a father of a girl I suppose this story falls into the "Tough, But Fair" category: "Dad hacks off penis of daughter’s boyfriend." But even a father has been a boyfriend . . .

Monday, December 13, 2010

In the Changer: Catching Up Edition

It's been ages since I wrote anything about music. I call this series "In the Changer" even though as much of my music listening happens through the algorithm-fueled magic of my iTunes random shuffle as by cd. Indeed, what usually happens is I'll get a cd, burn it onto my laptop and onto my office computer and will put it in a pile of cds in my car, which is likely the last time I'll actually pull out that cd because between iTunes on my computer and my iPod, let's face it: The cd is an anachronism, despite the fact that the compressed digital sound is far inferior in quality.

All that said, I still believe in the idea of the album. And I still consume music by the album, whether on cd or through the magic of downloading (and I still have the tendency to transfer music onto a backup cd -- keep in mind that problem some time ago when Amazon pulled books people had bought directly from peoples' Kindles.

Anyhow, I've tons of catching up to do, so there might be a lot of writing about music in the next few weeks.

Antony and the Johnsons -- The Crying Light: I was introduced to Antony (real name) and the Johnsons (not) by my friend Dan, who was one of my professors at UNCC. We have always shared music with one another and there is enough mutual benefit that we both introduce one another to lots of new stuff. If I were to characterize Antony's voice I would say that it evokes a more operatically inclined Jeff Buckley. This is what I would call "time and place" music inasmuch as it won't fit every occasion. I can listen to, say, U2 or Radiohead just about any time and anywhere. This is better as Sunday brunch or writing or bedtime music. It might not represent the best playlist to pull out at a party. Grade: B

Arcade Fire -- "The Suburbs": This is the It Band of 2010. And in reality Arcade Fire have been the It Band for quite a while now (Funeral in 2004 and Neon Bible in 2007 were arguably the best albums of their respective years). And why not? The shit-to-quality ratio in music -- and not just in this era -- is always gallingly disappointing. Yet there is always good stuff to listen to, and the best stuff in any given generation is as good as that in every given generation. Most people get frozen in time when it comes to music, and that time tends to be in those years between 16 and 22, high school and college, a phenomenon that I have always found sad, especially since these are the sorts of people always most inclined to make declarations about rock being dead and music was better when, and all of the grand pronouncements that can only be made when one adopts a pose of defiant ignorance and gauzy nostalgia. For the rest of us who care about music, however, time marches on. There are those for whom music ended when the Beatles broke up or when Kurt Cobain gave up on this mortal coil. That's too bad. They are missing out on Arcade Fire, and they are missing out on what will likely be the album of the year in the mind of a lot of critics and fans, some of whom will someday insist that music died when Arcade Fire broke up in 2016. Grade: A

Belle and Sebastian -- Belle and Sebastian Write About Love: The most endearingly twee band of all is, endearingly, somewhat less twee on their latest offering. But the essentials are the same -- catchy melodies with a sweet sadness, lush musicianship and production, boy-girl vocals, pure pop sounds with clever lyrics. If you like Belle and Sebastian you'll like this album. If you don't like Belle and Sebastian you'll reject my opening premise in this paragraph. I like Belle and Sebastian. Grade: B+

BLK JKS -- After Robots: Languages: English, Xhosa, Pedi, Zulu, and Tswana; Musical strands: Township jazz, mbqanga, rock, and Kwaito: These are the influences of BLK JKS, a South African export that carries with it a melange of post-Apartheid influences and that continues to stand on the cusp of being South Africa's breakthrough hipster export. Think TV on the Radio and you have a pretty good sense of the polyglot, complex, and occasionally frustrating sound BLK JKS (pronounced "Black Jacks") brings to the table. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed with my first exposure to BLK JKS, a group I had actually never even heard referenced in South Africa at the time they started getting modest amounts of exposure in the sorts of circles where modest amounts of exposure equal massive amounts of buzz. But something keeps bringing me back to these guys, and I suspect it's that they produce a daring, epic sound that challenges and engages. In that sense too they are much like TV on the Radio. At a certain point promise has to reach fruition and the whole has to start adding up to something approximating the sum of its parts. BLK JKS isn't there yet, but they keep knocking on the door, and for me that's enough to keep me coming back. Grade: B

The Corin Tucker Band -- 1,000 Years: The starting point for this album will always have to be Sleater-Kinney, one of my favorite bands of all time, the apogee of all of the Riot Grrrl sturm und flannely drang of the post-Nirvana 90s. Corin Tucker was part of that power trio, a band I saw close the Olympia Theater and who had at least two albums that changed my life (Dig Me Out, The Hot Rock; run, don't walk; order them now, thank me later). Tucker's voice was one of the key reasons for SK's sublime power, a weapon that was all the more potent because it was not always fully unleashed. But when it was, oh, what a weapon. And so naturally the expectation that many fans had of this album was that it would be all about unleashing. As a result there is a hint of lamentation in the reviews. I can see that, but it is beside the point. We always expect our favorite artists to release a slightly different version of their last album, which is why it takes more than one listen to get a sense of just about any new album, but especially from a familiar artist, and why the first impression is almost always naive disappointment. The same can be said of solo releases -- we expect them to take on the character of the artist, to be sure, but mostly just to take on that character while giving us a stripped down version of their original band. With Sleater-Kinney on indefinite hiatus (and fans hang on to that label because the idea of a complete breakup is simply too much to bear) that yearning for the familiar was all the more trenchant. Tucker fully unloads in one song, "Doubt." This song has it all. Vertiginous guitar, drums getting the piss pounded out of them, and that voice. Holy fucking shit, that voice. She completely unloads at the 45 second mark, only briefly, and you're hanging on the very edge of the world during that entire time. There is a dopey 16-measure interregnum in the middle of the song that makes no sense whatsoever, just crashing waves and silence, but then they seem to use that as an excuse to drumkick a watusi beat out of nowhere, and why the fuck not? 3:22 of almost perfection, and almost perfection is usually better than perfection. Grade: A

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Civil War Was About Slavery

In my research for Freedom's Main Line and for another project on which I am currently working I have come across a great deal of material on the centennial commemorations of the Civil War. But in the South during that era, the era of massive resistance to civil rights and heightened regional sensitivities (and thus whistling past the graveyard chauvinism) they were less commemorations that celebrations.

We are fast approaching the 150th anniversary. And while much has changed much remains the same. (Yes, it is confusing that the Times uses the same photo for two different stories.)

Look, the Civil War was about slavery. The South fought the Civil War to preserve slavery and we know this because the states told us as much in the secession documents and in their conversations with one another. Sure, they had other complaints with the North, but none would have risen to a level anything beyond harsh words had the South's oligarchs not been insistent on maintaining their peculiar institution.

This is a message we need to pound down peoples' throats as the sesquicentennial approaches because there will be a serious rearguard attempt to revive States' Rights arguments about the war. the rejoinder to the assertion of States' Rights is always: The States' Rights to do what?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Christmas Books (Self Indulgence Alert!)

The newest issue of the Claremont Review of Books has just been published. Scroll down and notice that heavy-hitter Michael Barone has reviewed Tom Bruscino's A Nation Forged In War. The review rightfully raves. It is hidden behind the subscriber firewall, hopefully just for the time being, but if there is one conservative publication you should be reading it's the Claremont Review. Its claptrap-to-seriousness rating passes muster and as far as I am concerned, the more places that take books seriously, the better.

Tom's book would make an excellent Christmas gift. And while we're at it, since 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides I hope you'll consider giving Freedom's Main Line as a gift (or buying it for yourself if you have not yet done so.) It's even available on Kindle.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Anderson, Apathy, and Inanity

The latest media-created non-story story has to do with Arizona Cardinals Quarterback Derek Anderson being caught laughing on the sideline during a game in which his team was getting hammered largely because of his offense's ineffectiveness. It became a massive story (sorry -- "story") when Anderson lost his shit after being asked and re-asked and generally harangued during the press conference after the game.

Thankfully there are voices of sanity out there, and one of them is former NFL player Nate Jackson, who is also a pretty good writer. He holds back very few punches in this piece for Deadspin. Here is the glorious closing paragraph to give you just a taste:
Instead, a grown man was provoked into losing his cool and dropping shitbombs all over the airwaves. So now the manufactured perception is that the quarterback not only doesn't give a fuck about his team losing, but that he can't keep his cool either. So let's run his ass out of town because a couple of emotionally stunted football pedants can't relax and laugh it off. Meanwhile, in his second year as head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs, frequent laugher Raheem Morris has his team playing better than any Gruden-coached team has in years. Now that's funny.
The reality is that Anderson could have been laughing for any reason -- my assumption was gallows humor of the "if I did not laugh I'd cry" type. We all want our teams to win games. But it gets awfully tiring to hear fans and talking heads try to insert themselves in the minds of players and accuse them of not taking the games -- and thus their livelihoods and reputations -- seriously enough. Derek Anderson may or may not suck ("suck" being a relative term, of course -- empirically he is better at his job than you are at yours unless you too are in the top 30 in your field in the country, and if you are reading dcat almost by definition you are not) but if he sucks it has literally nothing to do with whether he is "serious" enough during games.

UPDATE: Charles Pierce's take is equally worth reading.