Published: Tue, 28 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400
Last Build Date: Tue, 28 Mar 2017 02:38:12 -0400
Tue, 21 Mar 2017 10:30:00 -0400
"We're using the rhetoric of cuts, and fiscal responsibility, and Republicans pairing things down to the bone for a budget that's not actually smaller than its predecessors," says Reason magazine Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward.
And thus we lose.
On our latest Reason podcast, Mangu-Ward, Matt Welch, and Nick Gillespie discuss a preliminary federal budget that "takes the things that lefties like and dumps it in to the things that righties like;" the "strangulation of Big Bird in his nest;" the existential despair at three-year-old birthday parties in Washington, D.C.; Jeff Bezos and the coming of the robot overlords; Chuck Berry as our cultural Apollo project (or is it Wikipedia?); the coming, extended, nauseating theater of the Gorsuch hearing; and the greatness of pop music as "an endless parade of freaks differentiating themselves."
Click below to listen to the conversation—or subscribe to our podcast at iTunes and never miss an episode.
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Fri, 24 Feb 2017 09:30:00 -0500
(image) These days the internet is littered with political remix videos, but they were still novel when Don Was made "Read My Lips" in 1992. So PBS aired the item—which dinged President George H.W. Bush for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, among other complaints—and then invited a pair of eminences to discuss this strange new thing they'd just witnessed.
The video itself is only mildly interesting—it may be an early political remix, but it wasn't the first and it's far from the best. But the roundtable is pretty amazing to watch today. Bill Moyers opens, in his TV-for-people-who-say-they-hate-TV way, by asking what "happens to the political sensibilities of young people watching a political discourse like that." The publisher of The Hotline replies that the video "debases the process"; the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication calls it an "invitation to cynicism that I think is very unhealthy." And they both go on from there, condemning in advance the entire media landscape of 2017. I'm not sure 1992 has ever felt as distant as it does while I'm watching this:
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(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)
Mon, 20 Feb 2017 09:40:00 -0500Usually we mark Presidents' Day here with some sort of quiz or game, but this year I thought I'd play DJ instead. Below you'll find some songs about our nation's chief execs, from Washington to Trump. Needless to say, this just scratches the surface of all the presidentially themed music out there; you are encouraged to recommend more tracks in the comments. George Washington Cox and Combes, "Washington" Not safe for work. Possibly not historically accurate in every respect either. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/sbRom1Rz8OA" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Abraham Lincoln Camper Van Beethoven, "(I Don't Wanna Go to the) Lincoln Shrine" An ode to a boring field trip. src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/308614650&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Franklin Pierce The Two Man Gentlemen Band, "Franklin Pierce" The saddest song on the list, but only if you listen to the words. The same duo did a ditty about Taft too. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/BV_ByY7O9yE" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> James Garfield Johnny Cash, "Mr. Garfield" An assassination ballad. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/rJbTkiYpszs" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> William McKinley Bill Monroe, "White House Blues" Another assassination ballad. Vassar Clements later revamped it for the presidents of the 1970s; to hear that version, go here and jump to the 5:00 mark. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QqrN9TBmfZQ" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> John F. Kennedy Steinski & the Mass Media, "The Motorcade Sped On" Yet another assassination. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/JjyFwbSNh4o" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Richard Nixon Margo Guryan, "The Hum" From Dallas to Watergate. This was the first of Guryan's trilogy of songs inspired by the Nixon scandals; you can hear her whole trio here. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/V0HrmaeiP8c" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Gerald Ford James Brown, "Funky President" The lyrics defy interpretation, but Brown insists that the song's about Ford. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/MivxFXsJyx4" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Jimmy Carter Blue Mountain, "Jimmy Carter" Carter gets the heroic-ballad treatment. Strangely catchy. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/OVFuyehlLlQ" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Ronald Reagan MDC, "Bye Bye Ronnie" Reagan has gotten the heroic-ballad treatment too—check this out—but the guy inspired something like 60 percent of the punk records of the '80s; it seems wrong to go with any other genre here. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/lmCgd5k6SzU" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Barack Obama Mariachi Aguilas de Mexico, "Viva Obama!" A bid for the Latino vote. This musical ad from the 2008 Texas primary fascinated me so much that I interviewed an anthropologist about it. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/0fd-MVU4vtU" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Donald Trump Ice-T featuring Rhyme Syndicate, "My Word Is Bond" I'm wrapping up with this one because of the lyric at the 3:39 mark: "Yo Ice, I did a concert in the White House/And after that me and Donald Trump hung out." This record is from 1989, people. The signs were all there; we just weren't prepared to understand them. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/cOmBTX076M4" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500The Good Fight. CBS. Sunday, February 19, 8 p.m. Sun Records. CMT. Thursday, February 23, 10 p.m. "All rock 'n' roll came out of Sun Records!" declares Jerry Lee Lewis in the opening moments of CMT's bopping new miniseries. Like a lot of things in Sun Records, it's not quite true, but you'll be too busy dancing to care. Sun Records rocks! Filling out the early-1950s birth certificate of rock 'n' roll is no easy task. Did the water break in Chicago, where Chuck Berry was underlining his tone poems about the lives of an emerging demographic, the teenagers, with a jangling guitar? Or Philadelphia, where Bill Haley was punching up western swing music with machine-gun saxophone lines? Or West Texas, where Buddy Holly's nerd glasses distracted parents from his ragged cries to their kids to rave on? Memphis, perched just above the Mississippi Delta at a strategic spot where icy bluesmen and hillbilly shouters were bound to collide, has as good a claim as any of them. And Sam Phillips, owner of the corner-store Sun Records, if not the father of rock 'n' roll, was surely its midwife. Phillips in 1951 cut what is perhaps the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (though fans of Wynonie Harris' 1949 Good Rockin' Tonight will argue the point unto death and beyond). He discovered and signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, then eventually lost them all because his mom-and-pop business instincts never rose to the epic level of his artistic vision. Three generations past the rise of rock 'n' roll, the thrill of its rise—the most exciting cultural revolution in American history—is in danger of being forgotten in an age of fans who don't know who Paul McCartney or Wings are, much less that he was in a band before that. But Sun Records is more than up to the task of its tale. The 10-episode miniseries starts out in 1951, just as Phillips is turning away from a successful career as a radio-station engineer to concentrate on his bandbox recording studio. Moving away from his bread-and-butter business of taping funerals and weddings, Phillips starts encouraging musical acts he spots in the down-and-dirty clubs along Beale Street, the main artery of Memphis' black nightlife. But his efforts are met with relentless hostility by record distributors, radio stations, parents and even his own wife. "I swear I heard the heavens open up," he exclaims as he plays his newest record for his wife. Sniffs she: "Sounds like the gate to Hell to me." Intercut with Phillips' story in Memphis are scenes of simmering discontent from a restless post-war generation. In rural Arkansas, a teenage Johnny Cash is trying to escape not only the fields where his parents sharecrop, but the dead-end schools where the three R's are reading, writing and the road to Detroit in hopes of a job on an automobile assembly line. In Louisiana, an adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis and his priapic-TV-evangelist-to-be cousin Jimmy Swaggart are sneaking into whorehouses to ogle the girls and, in the process, inadvertently picking up a thing or two about jump-blues piano. Back in a public-housing project, shy high-school kid Elvis Presley's cultural tourism is taking the opposite direction: He's slipping away from sermons at his own church to listen to the gospel singing at a black congregation on the other side of town. And in Nashville, Presley's soon-to-be manager, carny barker Tom Parker, has hustled his way from a gig with nickel-a-peek dancing ducks ("You shoot 'em! You eat 'em! You chase 'em around the yard! You see 'em in the pool! But you ain't never seen 'em dance!") to promoting country crooner Eddy Arnold. The backdrops to the inexorable march of these characters toward a rendezvous with musical destiny are the racially constricted South, still strictly segregated right down to the water-fountain level, and the music industry, locked in its own straitjacket of Perry Como pop, busted-luck hillbilly ballads and monotonous cottonfield blue[...]
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 06:00:00 -0500Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 322 pages, $30 At the 1996 Republican convention, Newt Gingrich gave what the editors of The Weekly Standard condemned as "the worst and most embarrassing speech of his career." Pulling Olympic gold medalist Kent Steffes up on stage, the speaker of the House and leader of the Republican Revolution sang the praises of the unplanned creativity that had produced…beach volleyball. "There's a whole new world of opportunity opening up that didn't exist 30 or 50 years ago—and no bureaucrat would have invented it," he said. "That's what freedom is all about." Yikes. Newt obviously didn't get the memo. Conservatives weren't supposed to celebrate beach volleyball. They were supposed to be serious, to praise hard work, self-restraint, and small-town virtues—"God, family, honor, duty, country," as nominee Bob Dole said in his convention speech. Not fun in the sun. Or anything else spontaneous and creative, especially if it came out of California. "Locating the spirit of American freedom in Olympic beach volleyball," the Standard said, was completely off-message. (Never mind that the convention crowd cheered.) I highlighted this strange political moment in my book The Future and Its Enemies, published two years later, because it captured an important clash of worldviews. On one side were those who celebrated entrepreneurship, spontaneity, innovation, and the market's ability to produce new pleasures. On the other were those who believed that prosperity flowed from diligence, thrift, and self-denial, and worried that too much fun threatened to destroy culture, markets, government, and all things good and true. The latter view, particularly dear to neoconservatives, I dubbed the "repression theory of progress." Best articulated in Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which built on Max Weber's idea of the Protestant ethic, the repression theory predicted that consumer culture's emphasis on "play, fun, display, and pleasure" would ultimately undermine the whole system. Capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. Steven Johnson does not buy the repression theory of progress. Nor does he accept its counterpart on the left, where technology and markets equal oppression and drudgery. A man of the center-left, he is a classic dynamist: a genuine liberal who appreciates the power of inventions and institutions that emerge from the bottom up. In Wonderland, Johnson, whose previous works include How We Got to Now (the basis for a PBS series) and Where Good Ideas Come From, explores the playful sources of innovation. "When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze," he writes, "they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns. We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes." Johnson is not a theorist. He never attempts to define play or to clarify why he highlights some experiences designed to delight or amaze rather than others. (Why so little on sports in a chapter on games? Why so down on the automobile? Why spices rather than, say, dyes and pigments? In a resolutely global and multicultural work, why so little on China?) He doesn't separate playful forms of consumption from playful forms of production, nor does he try to explain why some types of play lead to bigger things while others are simply ephemeral fun. He mines the scholarly literature efficiently but superficially, telling enjoyable stories without worrying about debates over, say, exactly when and how Indian cotton prints spread through the West. Wonderland isn't building[...]
Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:05:00 -0500There is precedent for this president. There was another man who leapt directly from pop culture into politics, using showmanship and populist rhetoric to draw huge crowds to his rallies while the pundits pooh-poohed his chances of winning. He was a businessman and radio star named Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, and he was elected governor of Texas in that state's bizarre election of 1938. I wrote about O'Daniel in a Reason story about a year ago. With Donald Trump now assuming the presidency, it's a good moment to remember a man whose rise looks a lot like Trump's: When it became clear that something big was afoot, [newspaper writers] argued that no one could tell whether the crowds consisted of supporters or just gawkers. Did those mobs actually agree with O'Daniel's vague platform? the pundits asked. Or were they only there to enjoy, in the words of the syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, "a mellifluous radio voice that women gush over and a hill-billy band that delights both young and old"? When the Star-Telegram finally acknowledged that Pappy was attracting "larger and more enthusiastic crowds than any other candidate," it added that many members of those audiences were nonvoters and wondered whether the movement was a "bubble." ...and whose reign may well turn out to look like Trump's as well: When re-election time rolled around in 1940...he hadn't gotten much done at all other than alienate a great deal of Austin. That and start a newspaper. Declaring that "no recent governor has been so unfairly dealt with as the press has dealt with me," he launched The W. Lee O'Daniel News. There and on his radio show, he blamed his failures on evil outside forces—and not just the big failures. When two musicians quit his band, Pappy informed his listeners that "the gang of professional politicians" had "struck another blow at your governor." The sunny side of Pappy's populism was starting to give way to something darker. There are some notable differences as well, starting with the contrast between O'Daniel's moralistic persona and Trump's hedonism. It's hard to imagine Pappy bragging that he grabbed anyone "by the pussy." (O'Daniel's original band, the Light Crust Doughboys, did record a double-entendre song called "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy." But that was after the group and the governor had parted ways.) Still, the parallels are pretty strong, and I've just scratched the surface of them here. To see more of them, you can read my article. In the meantime, since it's Inauguration Day, here is O'Daniel's radio broadcast from August 3, 1941. The governor had just won a special election to the U.S. Senate, and this show went out the day before he took his oath of office: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/inJQ7swZxuw" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And here, along with a nice collection of photos from O'Daniel's career, is Pappy's band playing his theme song, "Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy": src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/w2RlFA8tSq0" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> One more tidbit for you, though this one isn't a parallel so much as it's a strange coincidence. When O'Daniel's band recorded "Please Pass the Biscuits," the singer on the record was named Leon Huff. Many years later, another musician named Leon Huff co-wrote a tune called "For the Love of Money"; and many years after that, "For the Love of Money" became the theme song for a show called The Apprentice, hosted by one Donald Trump. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]
Thu, 19 Jan 2017 09:15:00 -0500Comments during yesterday's oral argument in Lee v. Tam, a First Amendment case in which an Asian-American dance rock band called The Slants is challenging the federal ban on registration of "disparaging" trademarks, suggest a majority of the Supreme Court is inclined to overturn the 71-year-old rule. In addition to skeptical questions from three conservative justices, Deputy Solicitor General Malcom Stewart's defense of the trademark policy faced strong challenges from two left-leaning justices that he had trouble countering. Justice Stephen Breyer asked Stewart to identify a legitimate government interest served by the Lanham Act clause barring registration of trademarks that "may disparage...persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols." Stewart said the rule is aimed at avoiding terms that "distract the consumer from the intended purpose of the trademark qua trademark, which is to identify [the] source" of the product or service. Breyer was clearly not satisfied by that response, saying he could come up with "perhaps 50,000 examples of instances where the space the trademark provides is used for very distracting messages, probably as much [as] or more so than the one at issue." Later Breyer repeatedly summarized Stewart's position in a way that suggested he did not think much of it. Justice Elena Kagan emphasized that the disparagement clause draws a distinction based on viewpoint, since it allows positive messages but prohibits negative ones. "I always thought that government programs were subject to one extremely important constraint, which is that they can't make distinctions based on viewpoint," she said. Under the ban challenged by The Slants, she noted, "you can say good things about some person or group, but you can't say bad things about some person or group....I would have thought that that was a fairly classic case of viewpoint discrimination." Stewart conceded that a trademark restriction approving praise of politicians but forbidding criticism of them would constitute viewpoint-based discrimination. But he argued that the breadth of the disparagement rule, which applies to all groups of people, makes it less problematic because it means the government is not trying to suppress specific messages. "That's like saying it does so much viewpoint-based discrimination that it becomes all right," a skeptical Kagan replied. The point is crucial because viewpoint-based speech regulation is subject to "strict scrutiny," which makes it presumptively unconstitutional. It can pass muster only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. Even if we assume that preventing consumer distraction "from the intended purpose of the trademark qua trademark" is a compelling government interest, a rule that applies only to disparagement is clearly not narrowly tailored. Stewart himself conceded that the disparagement rule cannot survive strict scrutiny, meaning it will be upheld only if the Court decides it is not a viewpoint-based speech regulation. The government maintains that the disparagement clause is not really a speech regulation because it merely sets a requirement for obtaining benefits the government has no obligation to provide. Chief Justice John Roberts was unpersuaded. "I'm concerned that your government program argument is circular," he said. "The claim is you're not registering...my mark because it's disparaging, and your answer is, 'Well, we run a program that doesn't include disparaging trademarks, so that's why you're excluded.'" Pressed by Justice Samuel Alito, Stewart admitted that "it would be unconstitutional to deny copyright protection" for a book that was deemed disparaging. But he argued that copyright "is much more tied to First Amendment values" than trademark because "the incentivization of free expression" is one of its main functions. By contrast, he said, "trademarks generally have not hi[...]
Wed, 18 Jan 2017 16:16:00 -0500
Can the U.S. Patent Office deny trademark requests it deems disparaging or offensive, or is that a violation of the First Amendment? The Supreme Court will decide in the case of Lee v. Tam, which began oral arguments today.
The case, which Jacob Sullum wrote about earlier today, centers around an Asian-American rock group called "The Slants," which attempted to trademark its name in 2011 but was denied on the grounds that it was offensive.
"When I first heard about this," the band's founder and bassist Simon Tam told Reason's Meredith Bragg, "I though it was a practical joke."
Ironically, Tam says, the name was intended "to flip the slur around" and convey a "positive, self-empowering" message to fans.
Interview by Meredith Bragg. Cameras by Joshua Swain and Mark McDaniel, who also edited the video. Music by The Slants.
Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:01:00 -0500In 2004 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office agreed to register Heeb as the name of a magazine covering Jewish culture. Four years later, the PTO refused to register Heeb as the name of a clothing line conceived by the magazine's publishers, because the term is "a highly disparaging reference to the Jewish people." Such puzzling inconsistency is par for the course at the PTO, which since 1946 has been charged with blocking registration of trademarks that "may disparage...persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute." A case the Supreme Court will hear today could put an end to that vain, vague, and highly subjective enterprise, which sacrifices freedom of speech on the altar of political correctness. The case involves an Asian-American dance rock band called The Slants, a name that self-consciously repurposes a racial slur. In 2011 the band's founder, Simon Tam, tried to register the name but was rejected by a PTO examiner who deemed it disparaging to "persons of Asian descent." An administrative appeals board affirmed that decision, even while conceding that the band's name was "an attempt not to disparage, but rather to wrest 'ownership' of the term from those who might use it with the intent to disparage." The board said "the fact that applicant has good intentions underlying the use of the term does not obviate the fact that a substantial composite of the referenced group find the term objectionable." In 2015 a federal appeals court agreed that Tam "may offend members of his community with his use of the mark" but noted that "the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech." The court ruled that the ban on registration of disparaging trademarks amounts to viewpoint-based speech regulation, which the Supreme Court has said is constitutional only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. The interest in this case—protecting the feelings of people who might be offended by an outré trademark—does not even qualify as legitimate, let alone compelling. The PTO maintains that it's not really regulating speech, since Tam is free to call his band whatever he wants. But denying him the trademark-protecting benefits of registration clearly imposes a burden on his speech, analogous to denying copyright registration for a book that bothers a bureaucrat. The PTO also argues that trademark registration should be viewed as government speech, similar to messages on license plates. But as the Cato Institute notes in a friend-of-the-court brief (which was joined by the Reason Foundation, publisher of this website), that contention is pretty implausible when the list of registered trademarks "includes such hallowed brands as 'Capitalism Sucks Donkey Balls' and 'Take Yo Panties Off.'" Those examples also appear in a brief filed by the corporate owner of the Washington Redskins, which is engaged in its own legal battle over an allegedly disparaging trademark. The brief lists hundreds of arguably disparaging registered trademarks, including band names such as N.W.A., White Trash Cowboys, Whores From Hell, Cholos on Acid, The Pricks, Barenaked Ladies, and The Roast Beef Curtains. Since disparagement is in the eye of the beholder, registration decisions vary with the moods and sensibilities of the PTO's examiners. It is therefore not surprising that "the PTO's record of trademark registrations and denials often appears arbitrary and is rife with inconsistency," as the appeals court found. Among other examples, the court noted that "the PTO denied the mark HAVE YOU HEARD SATAN IS A REPUBLICAN because it disparaged the Republican Party…but did not find the mark THE DEVIL IS A DEMOCRAT disparaging." The PTO "registered the mark FAGDOG three times and refused it twice." Uncertainty about the PTO's decisions has a chilling effect on[...]
Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:59:00 -0500Nat Hentoff, the prolific critic, journalist, and civil libertarian, passed away yesterday at age 91. His son Nick reports that he "died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday," which I suspect is exactly how he wanted to go. Hentoff wrote many things, from young adult novels to the sleeve notes of an early Bob Dylan album. But he was most famous for two great passions: his defenses of the Bill of Rights, especially Amendment One, and his enthusiastic writing about music, especially jazz. When people talk about old-school liberals who'd defend to the death your right to say anything you want, chances are good that Hentoff is the fellow they've got in mind. In his columns for The Village Voice and The Washington Post and in articles for countless other venues (including Reason), he pounded away at the evils of censorship, and he didn't care if the censor had a left-wing agenda or a right-wing one. If anything, he seemed especially perturbed when people he expected to share his values started stomping on individual liberties. Hentoff was less likely to be called a liberal later in life. That's partly because his brand of free-speech absolutism was growing less common on the left, and it's partly because of his heterodoxy on abortion. (Hentoff was pro-life, arguing against abortion on the same grounds that he argued against capital punishment and war. Or, at least, against some wars—he eventually rended his seamless garment to support interventions in Rwanda and Iraq.) But you couldn't really cast him as a man of the right either: Besides his intense distrust for the police agencies that conservatives tend to revere, he was a longtime democratic socialist who held onto a lot of his leftist economic ideas in old age. It's not even quite right to call him an ACLU liberal, because he kept butting heads with the ACLU. (The nation's most prominent civil libertarian organization wasn't always civil libertarian enough for him.) Best to think of him as his own man, with at least a couple of views to offend pretty much anyone. He would have left a substantial legacy even if he had never written about politics at all, thanks to his work in the music world. His criticism covered several genres—one of my favorite articles of his was an appreciation of the country singer Merle Haggard—but his great love was jazz, a topic on which he wrote whole volumes. He produced several jazz albums too, by artists ranging from Max Roach to Cecil Taylor, and he had a hand in the great 1957 TV special The Sound of Jazz, which my colleague Kurt Loder once called "a landmark of televised jazz that has never been surpassed." (Watch it here.) But it was his political writing that left its biggest mark on me. I grew up reading Hentoff's attacks on censorship and surveillance, and whatever disagreements I sometimes had with him on other topics I learned a lot from his uncompromising consistency on those issues. For a taste of just how committed to free speech he was, I'll wrap up this obit with a video of him attacking the existence of libel laws, a hardcore position that even some of the fiercest civil libertarians aren't willing to accept. (For the record: I think he's right.) The video, shot in 1986, shows him debating the Objectivist philosopher David Kelley, who argues that we need libel suits to protect our "right to a reputation." When it came to regulations on speech, Nat Hentoff could make even a Randian look like a big-government guy by comparison: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ge57bIoTXoY" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]
Fri, 06 Jan 2017 12:18:00 -0500
When states started enacting general sales taxes in the 1930s, it wasn't long before there were songs complaining about the new levies. In 1934, the Mississippi Sheiks recorded "Sales Tax," which starts with a spoken skit in which the band is alarmed to learn that they now need to pay three cents more for their cigarettes.
"They say that's the government's rule," one of the Sheiks explains.
"The government's rule?" another replies. "Well, there's lots of things sold that the government knows anything about." And then the bluesmen break into a song where even the bootleggers and prostitutes are now charging extra for their services:
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You might be curious why anyone would still be buying liquor from a bootlegger in 1934, a year after the Prohibition Amendment was repealed. Answer: These were the Mississippi Sheiks, and Prohibition in Mississippi lasted a lot longer than Prohibition nationwide. It was the last place to keep a statewide alcohol ban on the books, eliminating it not in 1933 but in 1966:
Thu, 22 Dec 2016 08:15:00 -0500As the year drew to a close, we asked Reason's staff to select some of the best books, movies, and other media released in 2016. Our picks range from a novel about economic apocalypse to a sitcom about aliens, from a book about cocktails to a film about Hannah Arendt. Dig in. —Jesse Walker Eric Boehm, reporter With Painkillers, former Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon leaves his Springsteen-meets-the-Replacements roots for a folksy-rock exploration of failed relationships, nostalgic romances, and the freedom that comes from letting go of the past, even if you'll never be rid of it. "You can't make me whole, I have to do that on my own," Fallon sings on the album's introspective closing number, a reference in equal parts to his recent divorce and to the breakup of his band. The simple Americana arrangements here put Fallon's skills as a songwriter—and he's one of the best out there right now—in the spotlight, particularly on "Rosemary," "Among Other Foolish Things," and "Smoke." He may be going in a new direction, but Fallon spends most of Painkillers looking back, examining hazy memories or half-remembered dreams of what might have been. There's borrowed cars, girls who love whiskey, and Rites of Spring. The good times, Fallon sings, are "lost in the songs they don't write anymore." Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a documentary by the Israeli director Ada Ushpiz, may not be the best offering of 2016, but it is arguably the most relevant. The West is experiencing a rise of demagogues, fuelled partly by right-wing populist movements. It is possible that in resisting them, Western liberalism will strengthen itself. It could also collapse into something horrible, as Weimar Germany did. The film, which hit select American theaters this year, offers a glimpse into the mass psychology that would allow that to happen. Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, fled to America from Nazi Germany. The documentary delves into her thought to understand how the land that produced the greatest minds in philosophy, literature, and music collapsed into the barbarism of Auschwitz. It excavates rare footage of Germany during Hitler's rule to show the campaign to dehumanize Jews that preceded the Holocaust. But the more crucial step, per Arendt, was the triumph of what Frankfurt School philosophers call instrumental or technocratic rationality over critical rationality. The film depicts Arendt's 1961 journey to Israel for The New Yorker to cover the famous trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi accused of war crimes. After observing months of testimony, Arendt coined her phrase "banality of evil" to convey that Eichmann, a diminutive and soft-spoken man, wasn't motivated so much by hatred of Jews. Rather, he believed that his job was to find the most efficient way to execute his assigned tasks, not raise big questions. Arendt was condemned for soft-peddling the Satanic nature of the Nazi regime. But the documentary shows that she was laying bare something still more horrible: how ordinary people can stumble into unspeakable evil when they let their civilizational guard down. Anthony Fisher, associate editor Louis CK blew up the concept of the 30-minute sitcom with his FX show Louie, where the main character's backstory would change without explanation and where excruciatingly painful situations could be both hilarious and cathartic. Now he may have blown up the episodic television show itself with the eight-part miniseries Horace and Pete, originally released on his own website but now available on Hulu. Though occasionally funny, this is no comedy—in fact, it's as much of a horror show as a drama. Set in the hellscape of a 100-year-old Irish bar in Brooklyn, the show's depiction of boredom, dumb arguments, sexism, [...]
Mon, 19 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500Before they took a turn toward the psychedelic in the mid-1960s, the Beach Boys were about as uncontroversial as you could get in American pop music. But what was acceptable for teenyboppers in the early '60s may be too sexually taboo for today's college campuses. University of Kentucky (UK) journalism professor Buck Ryan claims he was sanctioned for singing the Beach Boys' 1965 single "California Girls" while in his official capacity as a UK representative. The university's Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity found Ryan violated federal Title IX guidelines against sex-based discrimination and harassment by using "language of a sexual nature." "If my case is any indication, then everyone concerned about discrimination and sexual harassment should be alarmed," wrote Ryan in a letter to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Ryan also pointed out that he has never, in a teaching career spanning more than 30 years, "faced a complaint of sexual misconduct from a student." Ryan, a tenured associate professor with an impressive resume—including an array of international awards, eight years as director of the UK School of Journalism and Telecommunications (from 1994 to 2002), and the 2003 recipient of UK's Provost's Award for Outstanding Teaching—said he was reported to Title IX officials for conduct that occurred while he was a visiting professor at China's Jilin University. Ryan claims it was singing the Beach Boys song at a closing ceremony that got him reported by fellow UK faculty on the trip. But the school disputes Ryan's characterization of the complaint against him. "In short, Professor Ryan's account is manipulative of the facts and, unfortunately, not based in reality," says UK spokesman Jay Blanton. "Faculty who accompanied him on the trip in question were deeply concerned about his conduct." An October 2015 letter from Patty Bender, UK's vice president for equal opportunity, to the dean of the communications school states that "more than a preponderance of the evidence" revealed Ryan to be "in violation of the discrimination and harassment policy prohibiting inappropriate touching and language of a sexual nature." The Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity reccommended that Ryan "not be funded by the University of Kentucky to represent UK in any travel abroad," that a recent award which would require overseas travel be forfeited, and that Ryan be required to attend equality training. According to the letter, Ryan's transgressions did include causing "concern and embarassment" amongst his colleagues by singing a modified version of "California Girls" at a closing cermony while "inserting the names of Chinese cities" into the lyrics. He is also accused of having an "inappropriate," albeit non-sexual, relationship with a Chinese student. Evidence of this inappropriate relationship includes the fact that the student was seen wearing one of Ryan's sweatshirts as they were walking together and that he spent time in the student's suite. Ryan allegedly responded that he was helping the student with her English, that there were always other students coming and going from the suite, and that he didn't see anything inappropriate about the relationship. The heavily redacted letter does not say how old the student was, nor whether she was in Ryan's classes, though it does make clear that it was UK faculty who complained about Ryan's relationship with the student, not the young woman herself. Blanton says the school offered Monday to make all documents related to Ryan's case public if he would permit it, a move Ryan declined. The University of Kentucky is currently involved in a legal battle with student newspaper the Kentucky Kernel related to Title IX records, specifically those [...]
Fri, 02 Dec 2016 14:30:00 -0500
(image) Ever since word went out that Robert Ford shot Jesse James, there have been legends that the dead man was really someone else and that the outlaw secretly survived. Alan Lomax ran into one of those tales when he toured the South with a tape recorder in 1959. Neal Morris (*), an Arkansas banjo player, told Lomax that the James brothers had often hid out at his grandfather's place ("because nobody expected them down in Arkansas, don't you see") and that grandpa had given him the scoop on the robber's alleged death. Jesse James wasn't even in that part of the country when Bob Ford supposedly shot him, Morris claims; instead, "Quantrill was the man that the Ford boys killed."
Morris presumably means the Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, who had fought alongside James in the Civil War. Historians say Quantrill died at the end of the war, but there were rumors that he survived his reported demise too. So Morris has managed to combine two secret-history stories into one: Quantrill didn't die in 1865, and then in 1882 he died in Jesse James' place.
Morris wraps up his account by singing the ballad "Jesse James," which presents the more familiar tale of Ford blasting James in the back. "That's the story that's been told, don't you see," he says at the end, "but us people, a lot of these people in the mountains, don't believe it."
I'd call this "fake news," but the whole thing is so wonderfully strange that I'd like to hold out a tiny smidge of hope that against all odds it's true:
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In 1948, an Oklahoma man called J. Frank Dalton claimed that he was really Jesse James and that the fellow killed by Robert Ford had been a Pinkerton named Charles Bigelow. You can read all about that here. The body of the man shot by Robert Ford was exhumed for DNA tests in 1995; you can read about that here. To listen to Woody Guthrie turning that "Jesse James" ballad into a song about Jesus, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.
(* It's spelled "Neal" on the Association for Cultural Equity's online archive of the Lomax recordings. When Atlantic Records released a selection of those tapes as an anthology called The Sounds of the South, they spelled it "Neil." I have no idea how Mr. Morris himself spelled it, or if he cared.)
Thu, 17 Nov 2016 12:15:00 -0500
(image) Ever tried to bring attention to an issue close to your heart, but didn't quite have the star power to do it? Well fret no more because rap supergroup Run the Jewels is here to help.
Through the music website Daylight Curfew, the famed duo of Killer Mike and El-P are offering an exclusive "Self-Righteousness for Sale" package, where for the price of $350,000, the two artists promise to spend six months "pretending to care about whatever you care about."
This pretending to care will include "eloquent and timely speeches," a co-authored info packet, a "heartfelt" video about the purchaser's cause, and travel to a maximum of three events. As if all of this weren't enough for any cash-laden social justice warrior, Run the Jewels will even compose an original song entitled "WE'VE GOT TO BRING _______ TO AN END" as part of the package.
Some terms and conditions do apply. The offer is apparently not available to "terrorists or cops" (sorry, #bluelivesmatter). Run the Jewels also reserves the right to "not fulfill any of its obligations as outlined in any package priced at 35k or more" which would, of course, include the self-righteousness package.
Run the Jewels' offer to basically be a super PAC for hire, even if not actually redeemable, is patently hilariously and an excellent send-up of so much of today's celebrity activism.
It's also a little bit ironic given that Killer Mike was a vocal supporter of former presidential candidate and vociferous super PAC critic Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.). If Sanders had his druthers when it came to campaign finance restrictions, Run the Jewels' self-righteousness package might be illegal as well as phony.
Update 11/17/16: This article originally listed Sanders as a Democrat. He is apparently still an Independent.