On Monday, Frank Bruni examined the most recent example of the yawning gap between the institutional Church and professed Catholics. His column takes the candidacy of Rick Santorum as a kind of touchstone for adherence to Catholic orthodoxy. He points out the many ways that Santorum’s campaign is a megaphone for the Church’s various positions on social (read: sexual) issues. That this campaign consistently lags far behind the candidacy of the Mormon Mitt Romney among Catholic voters is, Bruni argues, indicative of just how unwilling American Catholics are to endorse the teachings of their Church.
Two-thirds of the way through, Bruni makes a key point: “Catholicism is as much ethnicity as dogma.” Continue Reading →
This picture comes from a Birmingham News report on an Alabama-Florida game. Notice the face of the kid in the stands (click the image for a larger version if you can’t see it here). He’s making the same face as the larger version of his head he’s holding.
There’s something to be said here about the reproducibility of our personalities and images, about how the digital age abstracts and commodifies our bodies in the service of late capitalism. These dehumanizing processes become all the more insidious when internalized and re-presented in the performance of the athletic spectacle. We must “make faces” thrice over (when taking the picture, when holding the head, when performing the face live) to have our “selves” seen. Maintaining the self, then, is an increasingly labor-intensive practice.
But seriously, just look at this doofus. He’s awesome.
To be charitable to Brooks, the first half of the sentence is not entirely incorrect. Between 1912 and 1962, there were many great wars and much economic tumult. That much is pretty indisputable and not at all stupid. “But also of impressive social cohesion” — woo, boy, is that a howler. I thought of making a list of all the things you’d have to ignore to think that claim is true. Then I remembered I have other things to do today. So I’ll stick to two:
I might be whiter than David Brooks, but even I know that Jim Crow was a pretty freaking huge impediment to social cohesion in the early decades of the 20th century. Kinda hard to ignore that one.
Religious discrimination that saw Catholics (and immigrants from Catholic countries) legally prohibited from equal protection resulted in the Catholic ghettos of urban centers and the popular suspicions of Catholic politicians (Al Smith, JFK, anybody opposing Prohibition). There was social cohesion as long as you went to the right church.
The periodization is, of course, also very interesting. Why Brooks chooses to date the end of social cohesion at the beginning of various important social movements would be curious if his motivations weren’t so transparent. Why does this matter, anyway?
Proof that some of the best humanities research is taking place outside the cushy confines of academe: this simple tumblr post.
Poster Donovan Strain set out to figure out when, precisely, was the nominal good day in Ice Cube’s 1993 hit “It Was a Good Day.” He uses specific references in the song’s lyrics (e.g. “the Lakers beat the SuperSonics”) to work out that the song must be referencing January 20, 1992.
That’s how this article from The Dallas Observer describes college football’s bowl system. The point of the article, believe it or not, is not that the BCS is a terrible way to decide a champion or that the bowl system is a diluted shell of what it traditionally has been. Instead, it makes a very cogent argument that the entire bowl system constitutes a giant transfer of funds from university budgets to marginally non-profit entities paying exorbitant salaries to a handful of executives.
As an academic and a college football fan, I’m obviously conflicted. This is one more arrow in the quiver of those who despise the emphasis on athletics in higher education, particularly at large state-funded institutions. Now, I’ve always found those arguments to be premised on ludicrous assumptions about the role of the academy. However, a situation like this one shows certain institutions actually losing money on the pursuit of nominal athletic glory, inevitably (although no one will admit it) at the expense of more worthy pursuits. I think college athletics – even big time, big money college athletics – have a place in the life of the university. I am finding it harder and harder to justify the financial sinkhole that constitutes the traditions of my favorite sport at the same time tenure-lines are being cut and tuitions are skyrocketing. Eventually, something’s going to have to give.
Also, Nebraska has lost its last two bowl games. That makes me dislike the system, too.
There is something of a cottage industry in publishing tracts on the “crisis in the humanities,” usually as a smaller but more fervent sub-crisis of the “decline of higher education.” Often in apocalyptic tones and always accompanied by disturbing charts – oh, those charts! – these essays and books point to the ascendance of corporate values in the governance and teaching of institutions of higher learning, ideals that devalue and ultimately displace traditional teaching in the humanities. Enrollments of English and history majors decline as students look to paths that lead more directly to post-graduate employment. This becomes especially true, as David Brooks points out, during periods of economic turmoil (like, you know, now). Lower demand for humanistic education leads to budget stresses in humanities departments, stresses inevitably rectified by swelling the numbers of contingent faculty and the cheap labor of graduate students. As any newly-minted humanities PhD can tell you, the greatest casualty of this crisis is career opportunity for young humanists.
Paul Rhoads is the coach of the Iowa State Cyclones. This past Friday, his team beat Oklahoma State, the second ranked team in the country at the time. This was his speech to his team after the game. Coaching is about teaching. Coaching is about modelling. Paul Rhoads can coach my team any time.
More than six years ago, John Parles penned “The Case Against Coldplay” for the New York Times. I don’t disagree with anything he says. In the intervening half-decade of music-for-moms-who-shop-at-Target, Coldplay has only grown more into the band whose sound is bigger than its ideas.
But I think Parles takes Coldplay too seriously, even on the terms the band establishes for itself. There has always been a characteristically English schoolboy cheekiness to Coldplay that its claimed ancestors (U2 most obviously, but also Wings, REM, Oasis, even a-ha) never really had. Make Trade Fair advocacy aside, Chris Martin isn’t self-serious in the way Bono and Noel Gallagher are. So it strikes me as a misstep to criticize his band by those standards.
That’s why my preferred landmarks in cultural criticism are Sasha Frere-Jones’s self-aware list of Cold play pros and cons and Amanda Dobbins’s fanciful imagining of the narrative spanning the band’s latest album, Mylo Xyloto. Both cover the same terrain as Parles – the distance between Coldplay’s “bigness” (in both sound and sales) and its inability to fill the stage it sets for itself – without resorting to the standards of “very serious rock criticism” for what is essentially a band your mom likes.
What both highlight is Martin’s fundamentally poor songwriting. The big sound of the opening arpeggios of “Clocks” is wonderful; the lines that follow (“Tides that I tried to swim against / Brought me down to my knees”) are trite and non-specific. They apply to everyone and no one at the same time. They wouldn’t sound out of place in a high school poetry class. The best pop songwriting – the best writing in general – takes the specific and expands it. “Where the Streets Have No Name” makes Belfast an existential battleground. “Nightswimming” makes a teenage vignette into a mournful lament. Even something as Top-40 friendly as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is rooted in a concrete, almost tactile sensibility. Chris Martin’s lyrics go the opposite way, trying to begin with the abstractions and cram them into whatever vessels will fit them. It’s why they always sound better when recontextualized, whether by a choir of schoolkids or an old man on a respirator. New voices make the music about something in a way the lyrics themselves are not.
That’s why Dobbins’s imagined narrative is so wonderful. Given the insistent vagueness of Martin’s writing, her story is almost plausible. Frere-Jones gets at the same idea when he refers to “Coldplay’s inability to inhabit their time in any convincing way.” They’re the band that wants to capture the zeitgeist without watching the news or talking to people on the street.
Frere-Jones ends by saying Coldplay just love a parade, even when its confetti is unearned. I’m not sure that’s the right tack. Pop music is nothing if not the respite of confetti for confetti’s sake. Coldplay fails because they want to spend an album telling you how great the party was without ever saying who was there or what happened.