The afterlife of a moment’s monument: MoPOP Pop Conference 2019

Anticipating my first home-mixed martini with a trembling wonder akin to watching the sun rise over an eastern beach, I sat in my Lyft car a few minutes before seven this morning wondering if this year was the best #PopCon or the benign conflation of meeting new friends and deepening ties with older one. Both? Sure. I’ve written often how MoPOP Pop Conference works as both professional development and mass therapy: a refreshening of the spirit against twelve months of frontal assault from trends in late phase capitalism. Continue reading

The ‘sex recession’ and how to deal with it

W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone of the Institute for Family Studies posit in this Atlantic article that adults 18 to 34 are less happy than their predecessors. They link the erosion of happiness to a waning sex drive. This generation couples less frequently, abjures church going, and values friendship above all else. The result? A “sex recession.

Nowhere has this sex recession proved more consequential than among young adults, especially young men. Some academics and journalists have now begun grumbling about what they are calling a “moral panic” about the decline in young-adult sex. Before the 2018 data came out, the Daily suggested that the decline in sex was modest, and the sociologist Daniel Carlson claimed that the amount of sex one has “is a weak predictor of how satisfied you are with your sex life.” More important than frequency, the argument went, is the quality of your sexual relationship.

In other words, Wilcox and Stone conclude that frequency of sex is a key indicator of happiness. This inspired David French, considered a reasonable conservative, to write a response to “The Happiness Recession,” to which I won’t link. The article delighted him. At last – proof that falling birth rates and secularism are anathema to a healthy society.

But French and social media commentators mistake cause for effect. To imagine that happier people are likelier to find solid spouses requires no cogitative strain. Sad people may not go to church if they believe God has it in for them. More importantly, how do these articles define the happy/sad binary? Chronically sad people may suffer from depression, and while God and church and spouses have palliating effects it’s a chronic disease.

Finally, the emphasis on relationships and sex reflects our continued obsession with the home, the product of our labor and the stage where we play the roles for which our parents and teachers trained us. Evidence suggests that for many adults the Great Recession affected, in ways that we’re beginning to understand, the age at which they leave home, marry, and have children – if they choose to have children. Besides my reading habits, bachelorhood constitutes my essential queerness. I prefer to sleep alone in my bed. Developing friendships – for their own sweet sake – and tending to existing ones gives me a resounding pleasure. A couple times a quarter I’ll arrange a tryst. A Stephen Dedalus type until my junior year of high school, I cheerfully bade farewell to God while understanding the communal ties that bind even doubters to church; the shrewder among them recognize that church going exists to remind them of the sublimity against which friendship often brushes.

Aloneness defies the expectations of a culture that despite expanding the membership of who belongs still disdains the cultivation of interiority.

Reviewing ‘Leaving Neverland’

When Pitchfork approached me last week about reviewing Leaving Neverland, I worried about accuracy. Fortunately for accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, so much of what they share is already in the public record. Dan Reed’s four-hour documentary offers detail, forensic in its specificity, about what these men said Michael Jackson did to them as elementary school-aged boys. Jackson’s most fevered supporters use Robson and Safechuck’s testimony under oath that Jackson never touched them. However, there’s no way the most fair-minded watcher can endure Leaving Neverland without concluding that the men told the truth now. Continue reading

In praise of demerits: Ross Douthat

In today’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat pecked characters on a keyboard that after hours of cogitation first turned into sentences then cohered into paragraphs. Someone called it “Why We Miss the WASPs.” Let’s look at it together.

The nostalgia flowing since the passing of George H.W. Bush has many wellsprings: admiration for the World War II generation and its dying breed of warrior-politicians, the usual belated media affection for moderate Republicans, the contrast between the elder Bush’s foreign policy successes and the failures of his son, and the contrast between any honorable politician and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The only people from whom nostalgia is flowing are the permanent occupiers of seats in cable talk show green rooms. The rest of us wondered why the hell a war with Iraq over Kuwait mattered and loathed George Bush’s AIDS policy, a generous word for an irritated improvisation. 

Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

Ah, the nut graf. We live in an America increasingly dominated by minorities and one of Douthat’s paladin acquaintances implicitly admits he wishes it ain’t so.

Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

“What IS it about social media, the Freedom of Information Act, and Afghanistan and Iraq that makes these brown people so pushy?”

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

“We in Washington hate you.”

However, one of the lessons of the age of meritocracy is that building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms. You can get rid of the social registers and let women into your secret societies and privilege SATs over recommendations from the rector of Justin and the headmaster of Saint Grottlesex … and you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions.

In the previous paragraph, he quotes Foer on Henry Adams, whom I suspect Foer has read and Douthat has not; in this one, he alludes to the late minor novelist Louis Auchincloss, who spent a half century painstakingly writing about the incestuous stupidity of the WASP culture revered by Douthat. At any rate, his insight: put women, blacks, gays, and your Mexican housekeeper in Andover and they might be as nearsighted as the Bushes.

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.” At the same time it would have retained both its historic religious faith (instead of exchanging Protestant rigor for a post-Christian Social Gospel and a soft pantheism) and its more self-denying culture (instead of letting all that wash away in the flood of boomer-era emotivism).

Something something hippies, something something unwashed atheists, mmm delicious word stew.

It’s de rigueur for liberals to lament the decline of the Rockefeller Republicans, or the compromises that a moderate northeastern WASP like George H.W. Bush made with Sunbelt populism.

De rigeur yourself, pal.

But a WASP establishment that couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard was never likely to maintain its hold on a mass political organization like the G.O.P. Whereas an establishment that still believed in its mission within its own ivied bastions might have been seen as more politically imposing in the wider world — instead of seeing its last paladin, a war hero and statesman in a grand American tradition, dismissed in the boomer era as a “wimp.”

Cogitation, words, sentences, paragraphs.

The point of this counterfactual is not to just join the nostalgic chorus around Bush’s departure for the Great Kennebunkport in the Skies. Rather it’s to look forward, and to suggest that our current elite might someday be reformed — or simply replaced — through the imitation of the old establishment’s more pious and aristocratic spirit.

Imitating a pious and aristocratic spirit that hid essential truths from the American public and ruled as if, to cite a forgotten WASP scion, “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law.”

An excerpt from a boring defense of meritocracy follows. I can quote too, from P.G. Wodehouse’s The Imitable Jeeves: “You must meet old Rowbotham, Bertie. A delightful chap. Wants to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy. Well, nothing could be fairer than that, what?”

Axios: make people dumber faster

A few weeks ago I shared with students a couple of journal articles published in the 1980s lamenting the damage that USA Today would cause to journalism. Its sharp cheerful primary colors, reliance on graphics, and avoidance of long articles represented a bowdlerization of news — a rebuke to the intelligence of readers, according to these Serious Men. Continue reading

2018’s first worst political clichés

The ending of a political cycle doesn’t mean that reporters and pundits have retired the old clothes they’ve worn for two years and longer. At the cost of my health I exposed myself to four hours straight of cable news television because I’m compulsive about blogging as MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki is about correctly pronouncing county names.

Here are five of the worst political clichés this season:

1. Soccer moms

2. “Alienating women.” Because women get alienated. Men get…angry?

3. “Not appealing to the middle.” Voters’ positions are a sour mishmash because unlike politicians they can’t pay the rent and for a focus group out of one check.

4. “Race to the bottom”

5. The quiet mourning of pundits, mostly white, for the death of the rural white Democratic voter. White voters will not leave Trump, and we should stop hoping so because they’re racists and our coalition doesn’t need them. Plus, they’re old and will die of emphysema and eating processed cheese. Fuck’em. I mean, why on earth would you want them leaving Trump? You think the separation will stop their racism? Many those racists voted for Obama. They were still racists.

Length /= Proof

So, I’m a partisan, but I’m trying to figure out what crime Andrew Gillum committed by accepting Hamilton tickets from an FBI agent other than possibly lying about where he got them? What quid pro quo happened? The POLITICO story, naturally, buries the lead twenty-five paragraphs down with a quote from a federal prosecutor:

Zimet said the acceptance of gifts by Gillum is “probably not” a federal “theft of honest services” crime “if there’s not some quid pro quo attached to it,” and a quid pro quo can either be a vote “or a promise to do something that gets you closer to criminality.”

The Tallahassee Democrat‘s story, detailing evenings of booze, trips to Costa Rica, and rooms at the Millennium Hotel, is more thorough, but all I get from this document dump is how, to quote the story, lobbyist Adam Corey, under FBI investigation, “assisted Gillum in positioning himself for a run at statewide office.” The story’s length adduces its seriousness.

It’s the kind of political reporting that drives me bonkers: narrative without analysis, reminiscent of the direst of 2016 coverage.

Rashod Ollison — RIP

Doing research for my 2018 MoPOP Pop Conference paper on Angela Winbush, I found the following bit published two years earlier:

It’s a shame the St. Louis native, who’s a successful producer, arranger, songwriter and musician in addition to being a powerhouse vocalist with a five-octave range, isn’t more well-known outside of R&B. But some of the fault lies with Winbush. Steeped in the holy waters of gospel, like many soul sisters who preceded her, her style was perhaps too black. And given the culture erasure of the Reagan era, that was too much.

“The cultural erasure of the Reagan era” — a phrase fraught with significance. So vehemently do we despise the GOP and Donald Trump that we have allowed media elites on cable shows to use Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of John Winthrop’s figure the city on a hill as an example of What We Have Lost; so swiftly do we mythologize our presidents that the evil is oft interred with their bones. To millions of gay men and black Americans, the white straight dudes who endorsed an assault on state and federal power lived in a beautiful city on a hill; the rest of us were condemned to shacks at the foot of the hill.

Not until a week before the conference did I understand that the author of this Winbush piece would sit on my panel — beside me. This intimidated me. Reading a paper on the power of Chaka Khan, Rashod Ollison seduced the crowd from the moment he played a clip of her marvelous hit with Rufus, “You Got the Love”; he held their attention with the precision of his insights, read in a silken purr that rumbled when confronted by an obscenity. Black and gay, Rashod Ollison, the columnist and reporter who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma two days ago, could not be bullshitted. I sensed he would not bullshit me either. After my presentation, he looked me in the eye, nodded, and mumbled, “Thank you.” I demurred. He said, “Now I’m goin’ back to my room to blast me some Angela.”

Other tributes have praised Rashod’s warmth and the depths of his commitment to music as soul power. Because she gave us permission to “dream and build,” Aretha Franklin “will always be a revolutionary act,” he wrote two months ago about the R&B and gospel singer-pianist. A life like Rashod Ollison’s was also a revolutionary act. Men like Rashod don’t wear out their recti muscles looking for cities on a hill — they make do with what they have, describing it as ruthlessly as their imaginations allow.