Levon Helm

“And the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows when I go away“:

Growing up my brother and I listened often to our dad’s Band CDs (at some point, it being the nineties, our dad had started replicating his record collection in CD format) so I knew Levon Helm’s songs before I knew he was the one singing. In college I wrote a lot of papers with “King Harvest” on repeat. In 2009, I saw the Levon Helm Band at the Austin City Limits festival. Though it was September in central Texas, there’d been relentless rain all weekend, rain better suited to a dismal April in New Jersey. Perhaps that was someone’s way of ensuring we’d notice when, for Levon Helm’s set, the sky was suddenly dry and clear. As for life advice one could do worse than what Bob Dylan instructed The Band before their first show together: “Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.”

Well, This Isn’t Going to Work

The Arizona Legislature is apparently considering a bill that would sanction schoolteachers for “engag[ing] in speech or conduct that would violate [FCC standards] concerning obscenity, indecency, and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio.” Most commentators have fixated upon the many constitutional and pedagogical problems raised by the law’s end — policing teacher language and conduct — and rightly so.

Still, I must admit that I’m far more befuddled by the law’s means. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there might be some valid reason to regulate teachers’ speech and conduct. Upon a modicum of reflection it’s pretty obvious that importing FCC standards could never be a remotely sensible or even possible way of achieving this regulatory goal. Broadcast standards are literally not applicable without reference to an actual broadcast.  Continue reading Well, This Isn’t Going to Work

When Illegal Immigration Was European

I don’t usually follow politics closely, but I do have a great fondness for weekly elimination reality TV shows like “American Idol,” “Top Chef,” and “The Voice.” Since the GOP primary has basically turned into one of those shows, whatwith its regularly scheduled on-stage performances and someone voted off by the viewers each week, I’ve started watching.

And I’ve noticed some confusion, among the candidates, about the history of immigration law.

At tonight’s debate, Rick Santorum presented the following account of his family to explain why he opposes “a pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants:  Continue reading When Illegal Immigration Was European

The Right to Risk Your Life

In the 1870s and 1880s, Americans kept dying, or losing limbs, because they were getting hit by trains. Now, you might say, who cares? It’s people’s own fault if they are stupid enough to walk onto a train track. That’s not, it turns out, how Americans and their governments reacted at the time. As the casualties mounted, the state railroad commissions — relatively new agencies set up to monitor and regulate railroad safety — “conclud[ed] that enough was enough; no man had a right to willfully risk his life.”

So writes Barbara Young Welke in her fascinating work of legal and cultural history, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920. When I heard about the other night’s GOP primary debate, in which Dr. Ron Paul emphasized the need for “personal responsibility” and audience members cheered the notion that a man who decides not to purchase health insurance should be allowed to die, I immediately thought of Recasting American Liberty. Continue reading The Right to Risk Your Life

“The Help,” Housewives, and HOPE

Valerie Boyd dismisses “The Help” as “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation,” which portrays its most openly racist character as a “cartoonish” “walking stereotype” whom viewers will find it all too easy “to distance themselves from.” By the same token, Anne Helen Petersen — while finding some redeeming qualities in the film — has criticized the novel it’s based on for presenting a fairy-tale heroine who’s unbelievably “altruistic and likable,” as though racism were “something that you just decide you’re not going to acquire, even though all of your friends, family, and townspeople espouse it,” or “something that goes away just because you love your maid.” (More critiques of the film are rounded up here.)

Not every thoughtful viewer who’s seen the film has reacted so negatively. Via Twitter, I came across this blog post from Detroit writer Desiree Cooper, who found the film more nuanced than Boyd suggests, and writes:

Continue reading “The Help,” Housewives, and HOPE

Everyone a Virtuoso

Anthony Tommasini observes that technical skill once considered extraordinary is now the norm:

A new level of technical excellence is expected of emerging pianists. I see it not just on the concert circuit but also at conservatories and colleges. In recent years, at recitals and chamber music programs at the Juilliard School and elsewhere, particularly with contemporary-music ensembles, I have repeatedly been struck by the sheer level of instrumental expertise that seems a given.

The pianist Jerome Lowenthal, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard, said in a recent telephone interview from California that a phenomenon is absolutely taking place. He observes it in his own studio.

When the 1996 movie “Shine,” about the mentally ill pianist David Helfgott, raised curiosity about Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Mr. Lowenthal was asked by reporters whether this piece was as formidably difficult as the movie had suggested. He said that he had two answers: “One was that this piece truly is terribly hard. Two was that all my 16-year-old students were playing it.”

There are all these interesting questions about history and progress (or declension?) and the meaning of art, I think, embedded in narratives like these. Throughout the piece, Tommasini hints that he doesn’t really know what kind of story he’s telling. Classical music is everywhere in decline, classical musicians are everywhere more formidable.

Virtual Representation

Representation is an odd thing. As a professor of mine once hinted, it’s as much an aesthetic as a political concept. Why does red represent anger? Why does a triangle atop a square represent a house? Why do lines criss-crossing one way represent Christianity, lines criss-crossing another way represent the Nazi regime? Why does Anna Eshoo, a person whom I have never met, and whose political views I could not tell you, represent me in Washington, D.C.? (I just Googled Anna Eshoo so as to provide a link, and as a result, for the first time, I now know what she looks like. I pass by her local office on the way to the grocery store, though, and I’ve voted for her.)  Continue reading Virtual Representation

This Would Be Interesting

Adrian Vermeule summarizes John McCormick’s proposal for reforming America:

He proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would establish a People’s Tribunate—a randomly selected group of common citizens whose income or wealth may not be too high and who have not made a career of holding public office, and who assemble for a one-year non-renewable term. Omitting the intricate details of the scheme, the main powers of the Tribunate during its annual term would be to veto one congressional enactment, one executive order, and one Supreme Court decision, to initiate one national referendum whose product if approved by the voters would have the force of a federal statute, and to initiate impeachment proceedings against one federal official from each branch of government.


Are popular music makers — and their fans — more enthralled to the past than any other group in America? That’s the argument of Simon Reynolds, as filtered through this review by Nicholas Carr. I would be curious to know what others think. My inclination is to say, No — “retromaniacal” though it may indeed be, today’s pop music is not unique along that dimension. I would agree with Carr that what we are witnessing, when we see The Beatles top the charts again 50 years later, or visit a bar where the DJ is playing vintage Motown vinyl, is not quite nostalgia: “Whereas nostalgia is rooted in a sense of the past as past,” Carr writes, “retromania stems from a sense of the past as present.” I would disagree that this curious “sense of the past as present” is peculiar to music. After all, what motivates the dominant mode of legal analysis today, originalism, but a “sense of the past as present”? What else, if not that, motivates the self-anointed Tea Party’s ready invocation of the struggles of the 1770s, or, at the other end of the spectrum, accounts of racial grievance built around “anachronistic allusion“?  Continue reading Retromania