Category Archive 'Popular Culture'

03 Apr 2016

Donald Trump: Symptom of the Failure of Democracy

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Martin Gurri analyses brilliantly the peculiar character of the Trump candidacy phenomenon.

In American politics, Trump is a peacock among dull buzzards. That should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see. The one discernible theme of his life has been the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there. He has clearly succeeded. The data above speaks to a world-class talent for self-promotion. The media noticed, and just kept the cameras aimed at the extravagant performance – allowing Trump to represent himself to the public, a rare commodity for a politician. And the public, in its mood of negation, its hostility to the established order, also noticed. Trump lacked a political past. He was glamorous and a winner – he looked different and acted different.

He also sounded different from other politicians. The most significant factor separating Trump from the pack, I believe, is rhetorical. Trump is a master of the nihilist style of the web. His competitors speak in political jargon and soaring generalities. He speaks in rant. He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes. Everyone he dislikes is a liar, “a bimbo,” “bought and paid for.” Without batting an eyelash, he will compare an opponent to a child molester. Such rhetorical aggression is shocking in mainstream American politics but an everyday occurrence on the political web, where death threats and rape threats against a writer are a measure of the potency of the message.

The “angry voter” Trump supposedly has connected with is really an avatar of the mutinous public: and this is its language. It too speaks in rant, inchoate expression of a desire to remake the world by smashing at it, common parlance of the political war-bands that populate Tumblr, Gawker, reddit, and so many other online platforms. By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the US electoral process.

I’m amazed by the rapidity with which this moment has arrived: that we have come to it, however, will surprise no one who has been paying attention. …

Put differently, the Trump candidacy is a test of democracy in America in 2016. The public is agitated and willing to vote for this strange and formless man. It is not directly engaged. The structures of democracy, on the flip side, appear to be near collapse. What should have been a brutal collision against unyielding institutions has turned into a strut over a landscape darkened by colossal ruins. The news business is dying and desperate. The primary elections are a crazy quilt of contradictory rules. The Republican Party, by all appearances, is more of a historical memory than a living organization.

Donald Trump, anti-establishment wrecker, has been fortunate in his moment. In 1960, 1980, even 2000, there would have been an establishment to oppose him. In 2015, the putative establishment champion was Jeb Bush. He had been away from elected office for nine years, “a longer downtime than any president elected since 1852 (and any candidate since 1924).” The Republican worthies who endorsed and promoted him had been out of office for an average of 11 years. If this once was the party’s establishment, it’s now a claque of political corpses. The Bush candidacy, in brief, was a dance of the dead, and the Republican Party, at the national level at least, stands revealed as a ruinous graveyard over which nearly anyone, fitting any description, can lay claim.

The Revolt of the Public has been accused, with uncertain justice, of advancing a bleak vision of our political reality. In that spirit, I want to conclude with a dismal observation. At present, the leading candidates for the presidency are Trump and Hillary Clinton. One is a reckless smasher of institutions. The other is a fossilized specimen of the remote and protected elites. Both are creatures of the society of distrust, divisive to an extreme degree.

So my observation is this: regardless of who wins, the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be just another episode in the grinding social conflict and disintegration of industrial forms that have defined our age. Nothing much, I fear, will be decided.

Read the whole thing.

09 Sep 2015

The Culture and the Monsters

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Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, British Library.

The Book section of the Economist describes the curious journey of a Dark Age epic to a firm position in the literary canon and in popular culture as well.

Few works of literature have intimidated readers as much as “Beowulf”, and few have been the cause of such obsession. The Anglo-Saxon epic of a mythic Scandinavian warrior and his monstrous foes is generally seen as the first great work in the English canon. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least accessible. These three thousand lines of dense, alliterative Old English are utterly incomprehensible to speakers of the modern variety, and even in translation the obscure Norse mythology is about as hospitable to the uninitiated reader as an axe to the skull. For most of its history, the poem has behaved like one of the monsters within it, scattering almost everyone in its path, to be confronted only by a handful of compulsive souls.

The poem’s history in the popular imagination is surprisingly short, given that it is set in sixth-century Scandinavia, and may have been composed around that time: it was published just 200 years ago this year. Though the oral folktale passed for generations from bard to bard, and was written down by two unknown scribes at the dawn of the last millennium, it vanished as the Dark Ages receded. The sole surviving manuscript reappeared in the 1500s, and circulated among private collectors before finding its way into the extensive archives of Sir Robert Cotton. These were damaged by a fire at the ominously named Ashburnham House in 1731. Two decades later, in 1753, the flame-singed codex was stowed in the bowels of the British Museum, lost and long forgotten. In all this time a tiny snippet of the poem appeared only once in print.

That “Beowulf” was ever brought to public attention at all was thanks to its chance rediscovery by Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin—an Icelandic antiquarian who stumbled upon it in 1786, and devoted 29 painful years to rendering it in Latin. The tale of Thorkelin (and his ill-fated edition) has something of a Dark Ages quest about it. Having been promised the prestigious role of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives in Copenhagen, he set sail for Britain in the hope of finding Norse fragments, and chanced upon the “Beowulf” manuscript while scouting in London. As he set about dissecting the muscular Anglo-Saxon verse, he might have chuckled at the parallel with the warrior prince Beowulf, who had also travelled far from his Geatland home in search of glory—albeit of the sort gained by protecting the king of Denmark from man-eating foes.

12 Jul 2015

U Mass Amherst Prof Wants Displaying the Confederate Flag Punished as a Hate Crime

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Three Confederate Prisoners at Gettysburg

The Confederate Flag is a popular graphic icon in America, North and South, East and West. It is historically associated with the Civil War, of course, being the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and all that, but actually its contemporary display usually has only the dimmest possible connection to the War for Southern Independence.

The Confederate flag has genuine Confederate associations when used to decorate graves in Civil War cemeteries or when displayed at war memorials, but such cases represent only a tiny minority of instances of its appearance.

One sees the Confederate flag much more commonly on cars, pick-up trucks, tractors, ATVs, and motorcycles, on key-rings, sports team mascots, lunchboxes, and on souvenir coffee cups, and every variety of tourist kitsch.

Left-wing hysterics are presently screaming that Confederate flag must be taken to symbolize the “malignant spirit” of slavery and white supremacy, but this is all a bunch of entirely subjective nonsense really represent their own personal demons, hatreds, and obsessions.

The Confederate flag is almost always seen today simply as an attractive graphic device taken by popular culture as a symbolic expression of a generalized Southern or Appalachian, or even merely rural, regional identity, or as a symbol of some kind of elusive and indefinable spirit of masculine rebelliousness. The Confederate flag is about as popular in rural Oregon and Pennsylvania as it is in Alabama. West Virginia came into being as separate state because the residents of Virginia’s Western mountains were Unionist and against Secession, but West Virginians happily display Confederate flags as regional (and class) identity symbols.

The Confederate flag, as near as I can tell, has today far more intense and intimate associations with a passion for the internal combustion engine than it does with States’ Rights. All the talk about black people recoiling from Confederate flags, like vampires from crucifixes, is simply a very recent activist invention.

If you want to read a bunch of complete malarkey and poppycock served up as agitprop by a hate-filled American Studies professor from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, try this bunch of dreck out of Salon. Its author, Nick Bromell, wants to repeal the First Amendment and make any display whatever punishable as a hate crime.

These people like playing a seriously nasty game. The way it works is your race-baiting agitator, democrat pol, or radical leftist prof gets to define what you mean when you display a symbol. His interpretation is lurid, colorful, and spectacularly uncomplimentary. When you put that Confederate flag on the side of your Harley, you meant to say that you are some kind of a rebel. But Professor Bromell and Congressman John Lewis and Al Sharpton will jump in, and put words in your mouth for you. According to them, you are saying: “I hate black people. I want to restore Slavery.”

These left-wing troublemakers are not just having fun at your expense either. Their game is serious. They are angling for power. If they can define what you mean by your symbols, then they hope they can ban them, and along with them any and all of your beliefs and ideas that they don’t like.

04 Aug 2014

Discount Offers

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Discount offers in chalk art by Lila Roux for Not a Burger Stand in Beautiful Downtown Burbank, California.

Even more here.

06 Dec 2012


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Leonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah” was written in 1984 for the back side of an album ultimately rejected by that performer’s label.

“Hallelujah” began being covered in early 1990s by Jeff Buckley, a young singer-songwriter performing in the East Village, who recorded it on his only album in 1994, three years before he drowned, getting caught in a boat wake, in a river in Tennessee. Buckley’s version was considerably more emotional and his voice more sympathetic than Cohen’s. Buckley’s early and romantic death brought attention to the song, and one thing led to another.

Today, “Hallelujah” is one of the most-frequently-performed rock songs and a staple routinely used elegiacally in movies and television shows. It has been covered by large numbers of renowned performers, including Bono, Bob Dylan, U2, Justin Timberlake, Rufus Wainwright, and k.d. lang, and is used as a kind of secular funeral hymn around the world.

The song’s phenomenal rise to popularity has even resulted in a book study by Allen Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”


The Jeff Buckley version.

28 Nov 2009

Mocking “Twilight”

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You are rich, immortal, a century old vampire who has all the learning and experience of very long human lifetime, the opportunity to live anywhere you choose and do anything you like, but a personal need for privacy, anonymity, and –of course– routine access to prey.

Naturally, you select the rural, 3,000 population town of Forks, Washington over Paris, London, Shanghai, and New York, attend high school and become romantically (and non-predaciously) involved with a 17 year old girl, and you dine on deer.

It was the high school part that gave Karen and myself the most serious problem. We both felt strongly that, were we vampires ourselves, we would consider high school in the upper rank of the same category of undesirable things as garlic, stakes, and crucifixes.

Karen and I actually read several volumes of the Twilight young adult series a few years ago when it began attracting wide attention. We found the novels readable enough, at least in the early portion of the series. The energy and marginal plausibility of character motivation and behavior seemed to weaken significantly in later volumes, and we quit reading before the series reached its conclusion.

As everyone knows, vampires have become a favorite theme in popular culture, offering the female audience male leads combining power and sophistication with melancholy complexity. The vampire is, of course, the bad boy par excellence offering an otherwise unequaled opportunity for any girl to give him the special understanding he needs and then to redeem him by her love.

We’ve been too busy hunting to be going to movies these days. I’ll have to wait to see Twilight (2008) and The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) when they appear on cable, but I was familiar enough with all this to enjoy the major mockfest of 20 Unfortunate Lessons Girls Learn From Twilight.

The 9:58 Rifftrax video is also quite amusing.

08 Jul 2008

Who Wants Gnomes?

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Flamingos. or even blue glass balls, when you can have your own personal zombie, clawing his way out of your lawn in search of… fresh, warm brains. And only $89.95, too!


Hat tip to John Brownlee via Cory Doctorow.

29 Jun 2008

If It Dances, Regulate It

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France is just a little further along the same path of progressive statism we ourselves are headed down.

Dominique Poirier (our European correspondent) forwards a recent item from the London Times demonstrating that the ambitions and the potential scope of a state regulatory regime are limitless, as well as humorless.

Country and western has become so big in France that the country’s bureaucrats have decided to bring the craze under state control.

The French administration has moved to create an official country dancing diploma as part of a drive to regulate the fad. Authorised instructors who have been on publicly funded training courses will be put in charge of line dancing lessons and balls.

The rules, which come into force next year, come after the rapid spread of country and western in France, where an estimated 100,000 people line dance several times a week. Jean Chauveau, the chairman of the country section of the French Dance Federation, said: “It’s growing at a crazy rate. There are thousands of clubs and more are springing up all the time.”

He said the French shunned the square dancing that is popular among country and western fans in the United States because it involved physical contact. “They don’t want to take anyone by the hand or anything like that,” he said. But they were passionate about line dancing, where participants follow the steps without touching anyone else. “I think this corresponds to the individualism of our times,” Mr Chauveau said.

Village associations boast dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of members; competitions are flourishing, and a country music festival is expected to draw 150,000 people this summer, he said. “Britain caught the line dancing bug a long time before us, but now we are really going for it,” Mr Chauveau said. “It’s complete madness here.” …

In a peculiarly Gallic approach to the phenomenon, French civil servants say line dancing should be submitted to the same rules as sports such as football and rugby. This means imposing training courses for line dancing teachers and a state-approved diploma for anyone who wants to give lessons or run clubs.

Amateur instructors will have to take 200 hours of training under the new rules. Professionals will get 600 hours, including such subjects as line dancing techniques, “the mechanics of the human body” and the English (or at least Texan) language. They will also learn how to teach line dancing to the elderly.

The cost of the courses, about €2,000 (£1,570) for the professionals and €500 for the amateurs, will be largely met by taxpayers. Mr Chauveau said the regulations highlighted the French state’s obsessive desire to organise all public activity. “France is the only country in Europe apart from Greece where sport is controlled through the state,” he said. “Line dancing is now considered a sport, so it is being controlled, too.”

13 Apr 2008

Fashion Critiquing General Petraeus

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General Petraeus
has received a lot of the sort of service awards which senior officers accumulate simply as a result of having occupied important posts, but he has also been awarded the Bronze Star (with “V” device signifying it was awarded for valor), presumably in connection with his leading the 101st Airborne in the 2003 drive on Baghdad.

Members of the United States Marine Corps are wont to comment negatively on the abundance of badges and awards displayed by US Army personnel. References to alleged prizes for spelling and deportment are not unusual. But when the kind of badinage normally occurring in the context of interservice rivalries starts coming out of the mouths of liberal sissies who probably flunked their physicals for the local cub scout pack, it is time to be outraged.

First, Matthew DeBord, best-known as a wine writer, in the LA Times, has the temerity to offer General Petraeus fashion advice on how to wear the uniform when delivering testimony to Congress:

Gen. David H. Petraeus may be as impressive a military professional as the United States has developed in recent years, but he could use some strategic advice on how to manage his sartorial PR. Witness his congressional testimony on the state of the war in Iraq. There he sits in elaborate Army regalia, four stars glistening on each shoulder, nine rows of colorful ribbons on his left breast, and various other medallions, brooches and patches scattered across the rest of the available real estate on his uniform. He even wears his name tag, a lone and incongruous hunk of cheap plastic in a region of pristine gilt, just in case the politicians aren’t sure who he is.

That’s a lot of martial bling, especially for an officer who hadn’t seen combat until five years ago. Unfortunately, brazen preening and “ribbon creep” among the Army’s modern-day upper crust have trumped the time-honored military virtues of humility, duty and personal reserve.

This civilian wine expert is obviously unacquainted (probably because the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was too upsetting) with the fact that the correct uniform and the display of medals and decorations for various occasions are prescribed. Soldiers do not, in fact, while dressing in the morning, get to reflect, “I’m a bit out-of-sorts today, and don’t feel like getting all dressed up. I think I’ll just wear my fatigues.”

Superannuated television personality Dick Cavett (famous back when the Beatles were the coming thing) emerges from the assisted-living home to bring his 1960s perspective to the matter.

I can’t look at Petraeus — his uniform ornamented like a Christmas tree with honors, medals and ribbons — without thinking of the great Mort Sahl at the peak of his brilliance. He talked about meeting General Westmoreland in the Vietnam days. Mort, in a virtuoso display of his uncanny detailed knowledge — and memory — of such things, recited the lengthy list (”Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre with Chevron, Bronze Star, Pacific Campaign” and on and on), naming each of the half-acre of decorations, medals, ornaments, campaign ribbons and other fripperies festooning the general’s sternum in gaudy display. Finishing the detailed list, Mort observed, “Very impressive!” Adding, “If you’re twelve.”

There are regrettably some people in this country, so self-obsessed and so utterly removed from reality, that they are able to believe that their own third-rate careers in the entertainment industry place them in a position to sneer at men who have devoted their careers to defending their country, and who have on occasion placed their lives in hazard to preserve this country’s freedom and institutions. If military service and its symbols fail to impress the likes of Mort Sahl and Dick Cavett, that is a reflection on them and not upon the soldiers they have the unmitigated indecency to mock.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.


14 May 2007

Presidential Candidates and Popular Culture

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Dean Barnett, in the Weekly Standard, notes that John Kerry did himself a lot of political harm with Packer fans when he spoke of “Lambert Field.”

Barnett clearly thinks that Howard Dean should have identified Stairway to Heaven as his favorite song, instead of Jaspora, an esoteric piece of Haitian reggae by Jean Wyclif.

Imagine what a candidate could get done if he achieved fluency in pop culture. Picture a candidate who could effortlessly segue from paying homage to Dale Earnhardt’s #3 to saying how much High Noon has always meant to him. Conjure up a contender who could unashamedly admit that if owning every George Strait record makes him a square, so be it, and then quickly pivot to the many times tears welled in his eyes when sports heroes like Curt Schilling or Willis Reed rose above pain to perform in an almost super-human fashion.

That guy wouldn’t just have a lot of admirers who wanted to have a beer with him. He’d also eventually be known as Mr. President.

But Professor Bainbridge rejects the proposed Barnett test.

That’s not pop culture. That’s rural Southern culture. Nascar. The opiate of the good ol’ boy masses. Gary Cooper. A great movie, but hardly au courant. George Strait, gawd help us.

Between Clinton and Bush 43 we’ve been ruled by Southerners for the last 4 presidential terms and Barnett wants to foist yet another good ol’ boy on us. Not that there’s anything wrong with Southerners, per se, of course. But maybe it’s time to let a Yankee city boy have a chance?

Personally, if I wanted to choose a President based on his or her fluency with pop culture (which is about the dumbest criteria I’ve ever seen anyway), I’d look for somebody who:

Can effortlessly segue from paying homage to Merlot Clone #3 to saying how much The Matrix has always meant to him. Conjure up a contender who could unashamedly admit that if owning every Bruce Springsteen record makes him a left-leaning pinko, so be it, and then quickly pivot to the many times tears welled in his eyes during the second quarter of Super Bowl XLI.

And proposes the following instead:

Knows which wine to match with the foie gras-stuffed quail being served at a state dinner

Won’t wink at the Queen

Doesn’t hunt, fish, or go with girls who do

Smokes cigars

Is sometimes accused of having a metrosexual streak

Only drinks beer with foods that would score at least 10,000 on the Scoville scale

Can credibly debate the relative claims of The Matrix, Star Wars, Bladerunner, and Star Trek II to be the greatest science fiction movie of all time

Can credibly debate the relative claims of The Who and Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band to be the world’s greatest rock and roll band

Came from a state that didn’t secede

Can recite at least one Monty Python skit from memory

Can credibly debate the relative claims of Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein to be Mel Brook’s best movie, while explaining why Spaceballs is a candidate for the worst movie ever

Has never sat through an entire Woody Allen movie, an entire Nascar race, or an entire Dixie Chicks concert

Wouldn’t camp out 5 days to get Garth Brooks tickets even if s/he was camping at the time

Went to Germany on vacation because s/he couldn’t find a highway with high enough speed limits in the US

Prefers football to basketball to baseball to soccer

Doesn’t play golf

Doesn’t bowl

Has no kids to foist subsequent generations of politicians on us

Has a spouse with no political ambitions

Lives with at least one golden retriever

08 Feb 2007


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Tim Cavanaugh, at Reason magazine, reviews three titles discussing Zombie cinema and the role of zombies as political metaphors.

The conservative blogger Tim Hulsey sees the undead as a Randian nightmare vision, a mobocracy in which “weak and incompetent corpses band together and achieve a dominance over the living minority that they could not otherwise attain.” For Hulsey, “when the zombies attack, their arms are outstretched toward the victim, as if they were begging for something. Which, in a manner of speaking, they are.…The idea of being overwhelmed by stinking masses, of being forced into a way of life (or death) we would not choose for ourselves, lies at the maggot-infested heart of the original Dead trilogy.”

Hat tip to Karen Myers.

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