too much typing—since 2003


three books with one footnote

Three book recommendations:

First, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? A bit obvious, perhaps...but I think Frank nails the way the cultural divide in the US plays out politically, including its roots in our national aversion to economic and class issues. Read carefully, also, Frank demonstrates that the somewhat overstated "moral values" factor in the last election is intrinsically linked to social conservatives' views on security and the war: essentially, the great crime of "Liberals" in this view is that they have neither understanding nor respect for social conservatives' conception of the world, and social conservatives see that both in the sex, drugs, rock'n'abortion lifestyle of "Hollywood liberals" and in those liberals' supposed willingness to abandon "American" values to the moral haze of decadent, European cosmopolitanism. And it's the supposedly effete nature of those values (Rumsfeld's infamous "old Europe") that, in their view, led to the lax security and vigilance that allowed 9-11. Liberals, in other words, are too morally lazy to recognize evil, and therefore cannot protect America from the evils that threaten it. (That history doesn't bear this out, at all, is irrelevant: social conservatives tend to value "the heart" and decisiveness over endless intellectualizing, theorizing, and nuance-mongering. The latest issue of Left Business Observer points out that at least some evidence suggests that Democrats have done much better with the economy than Republicans have; and historically, conservative isolationism has meant that the Democrats were believed to be the stronger party on foreign policy and security.)

A particular strength of Frank's book is the way he grounds the current power of social conservatives in time and place: Kansas (Frank's home state) serves as a microcosm of the changes whereby the rural poor have ended up largely going for Republicans. He does this in part by providing essentially a miniature lesson in Kansas history, but more importantly by letting many social conservatives speak. And in doing so, he also shows that they're right about one thing: the powers-that-be in American culture really don't think much of them, despite their blathering about NASCAR and Jesus. They only pretend to care about them - evidently, since their policies continue to impoverish and destroy the lives of the working poor who are Frank's subject. The problem, though, is that the Democrats have all but abandoned economic issues, leaving social conservatives with no real home. And it's been the Republicans' genius to use the erasure of economics, and the phantom of liberal cultural dominance and depravity, to win over those folks on social issues, even though economically the party's policies are far worse for them than those of the Dems.

I do wish Frank had spent more time pointing out a certain obvious hypocrisy in the social conservative worldview. If it's "Hollywood liberals" who are forcefeeding good, decent Americans their diet of sleaze, how does that reconcile with a belief in the free market? Or to put it another way: given the numbers of social conservatives, and given the popularity of "sleaze," who's buying? Pretty clearly, a lot of social conservatives protest the adult bookstore publicly but sneak in the back door with porn videos privately. Or do they think it's only latte-sipping "liberals" who watch Jerry Springer?


When I first heard about Kevin Murphy's A Year at the Movies, I figured, okay, should be funny: Murphy was, of course, one of the writers for the late, beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000 - so I expected a bunch of cutting remarks on a series of lame movies, this time rooted in Murphy's shtick that he would see at least one movie (not on TV) per day for an entire year.

And indeed, the book is funny...but it's much more than that. In the end, it's a love letter to movies; a love letter written trying to patch up a relationship that had grown a bit stale, tired, and taken for granted. So yeah, funny - but also heartfelt, witty, intelligent, charming, and even occasionally, wise. Murphy's clearly a thoughtful man, and while one wouldn't really expect the guy who voiced Tom Servo to approach profundity, at times - through the unexpected vehicle of, say, the consequences of dressing like Santa to see a movie - he comes quite close.


Finally, a book I'm not yet finished with: Scott Huler's Defining the Wind. I've written before about my fascination with the Beaufort Scale, so when this book came out, of course I had to read it. Huler begins by exploring the origins of the wind scale...but along the way, following where those explorations lead, he ends up having quite a bit to say about fascinating arcana as mapmaking and nineteenth-century naval navigational devices. What makes these explorations more than just idle wonderings is Huler's capacity to make us realize how these things worked for actual people. For example: the sheer ingenuity of navigation, and of the devices created to assist it, as well as the underappreciated magnitude of seafaring's importance to history. Aside from the poetry of the Beaufort Scale, none of these things were of particular interest to me before reading this book. I count that a triumph for Huler: that he's able to draw me in despite my lack of readymade enthusiasm for his subjects.


Finally, an update to one of my earlier musings: Turns out the "remove glasses to change tone" gesture is much older than I'd thought. We'd rented the DVD of Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner - and two minutes into the bonus feature (a 1940 documentary called "A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound"), "Douglas Shearer, sound engineer of the MGM Studio," stands up from his desk, removes his glasses, and launches into his narration on the history of movie sound - exactly in the way in which a contemporary pitchman might do to ask whether you, the viewer, know that there's something you can do to solve the problem of male endurance issues.

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