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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Kids These Days, #976 in a Series

There's been a lot said about the utter lack of originality in the music industry recently, by "Charles Dodgson" and Ted Barlow among others. (Barlow also links this piece by Steve Albini about the moral bankruptcy of the industry, which is worth a look.) There's nothing to really get the point across like listening to Top 40 radio for a little while.

I've been subjected to one of the dire local Top 40 stations while working out for the last several weeks, and have heard the dance re-make of the Bryan Adams shmaltz-o-rama "Heaven" more times than I care to remember (it's the Bryan Adams song sung by a woman, more or less straight up, over Generic Pounding Dance Beat #5). It's fairly bad, but I never much cared for the original, so it's not anything I can get all that worked up about. It's a little depressing to think that they need to mine the 80's for dippy lyrics, but maybe they couldn't get the rights to the Frank Sinatra catalogue, or something.

This evening, though, I heard an even worse travesty. The exact same treatment, down to the same rhythm-section-by-computer beat, applied to Don Henley's "Boys of Summer." Now, I'm not going to claim that Building the Perfect Beast was an immortal album, but God damn it, I like that song. It brings back warm fuzzy memories of those halcyon days when MTV actually played music videos, and CD's were a novelty, and I don't appreciate having my nostalgia trip crushed by some talentless bint with a Casio keyboard and the Totally 80's Song Book. It's not even a dance-pop sort of song, as would have been obvious if the people behind this musical assault had taken the trouble to have somebody explain the lyrics to them.

The sooner file-swapping takes down the whole creaking edifice of brainless RIAA drones pumping out unoriginal crap, the better.

Posted at 8:43 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Words, Words, Words

On the general topic of words and writing and so on, I should not that this is the one-year anniversary of my starting The Library of Babel, due to a question from Teresa Nielsen Hayden. The book log eventually led to this weblog.

A few anniversary comments have been added, and there are a couple of new entries since the last time I shamelessly plugged it. Check it out. Or don't.

Posted at 12:51 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Video Killed the Rhetoric Star

Matthew Yglesias notes that the one-year-later Sept. 11 memorial will feature a reading of the Gettysburg Address (and also the Declaration of Independence, which is sort of an odd choice, as after the ringing "we hold these truths" preamble, it's mostly a laundry list of grievances, and hardly the stuff of inspiring oratory). Matthew asks:

Of course, not every speech can be the Gettysburg Address, but is it really too much to ask that we not just totally give up an America as a possible source of great oratory? Don't we have a duty to add to the total stock of commemorative words? Was 9/11 not a big enough deal to be worth the effort of someone trying to come up with some new text? I say give it a shot.

The problem is that oratory pretty much is dead, and has been for many years now.

When I was in grad school, just outside Washington, DC, we used to get a lot of foreign post-docs in the lab, and at some point, they always got a tour of the big memorials downtown. There's nothing to drive home the mealy-mouthed inadequacy of modern political rhetoric like standing in the middle of the Jefferson Memorial and looking up at the words that ring the dome:

I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

If there's a sentence that better deserves to be carved in marble, I can't think of it. Granted, that's from a letter, not a speech, and Jefferson was a bit of a nut, but has there been any statement from an American President in the last three or four decades a tenth as ringing and unequivocal?

Then there's the Lincoln Memorial, whose walls are covered with text from great speeches, most prominently the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Again, this is brilliant stuff:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

(This bit would be at least as appropriate for the 9/11 memorial as the Gettysburg Address, by the way...)

No President in the television era has managed anything to match this. Part of the problem is that television itself changes the game-- there are things you do when speaking to a large crowd that just don't work on tv. You can see a little of it in the annual Kabuki drama of the State of the Union address-- frequent pauses for applause, etc.-- but even there, it's played for the camera.

When people are going to hear the words once, and maybe see them written down, you need to work hard on crafting the phrases to be especially memorable, so that they roll off the tongue and stick in the mind when spoken, but also look good on the printed page. (Or even when it's incompetently read-- I've heard more stammering high school students mumble through the Gettysburg Address than I care to remember, but even haltingly read with no flair at all, there's an undeniable power to the words.) The appearance of the speaker is completely unimportant, since very few people will see him during the speech.

On tv, traditional oratory takes on a certain William Shatner quality. When the speech is broadcast to a nation on television, it's important to look sincere, and not as critical to orate in a classical sense-- indeed, it's better to avoid the suspenseful pauses and other tricks that good speakers use, as they look overdone, and overly ornate phrases sound stiff and theatrical. The lack of memorable phrasing can be made up in smarmy delivery and sheer repetition, as clips get played over and over.

This is why Clinton was effective as a speaker. His words were nothing all that special, but he had a certain oily charm, and could carry off mediocre material through his huge repertoire of (often parodied) gestures and facial expressions. His speeches were deadly dull to read, chock-full of policy-wonk material as they were, but nobody read the speeches, they watched them on tv, and the combination of phony sincerity and folksy Ol' Bubba was a killer.

Reagan's another example. For my money, the most memorable thing he ever aid was the opening to a campaign stop in Binghamton, NY in 1984, when he began with the immortal words:

It's good to be here in Bimmington, Bingington, Binhampton-- It's good to be here!

He was no great orator, though there were occasional flashes of good stuff, but he worked very well on tv. In person, on a distant stage, you couldn't escape his occasional tendency to mumble, and the occasional lapse into complete incoherence, but on tv, he came across as America's Grandpa-- a kindly old gent, maybe not all there, but if you're nice to him, he'll give you candy. People ate that up, the same way they ate up Clinton's Bubba routine.

The other problem crippling oratory in the television era is the sheer frequency of broadcasts. You can already see a bit of this in the FDR memorial, where there are at least twice as many quotes cut into the walls as for any of the other greats. He did stump speeches, he did addresses to Congress, he did "fireside chats," he did addresses to the nation via radio, and all of it was recorded for posterity. When you're giving only a couple of major speeches in a year, you need to make them count. When your every word, and every gesture is picked up for broadcast, you make it up on volume. You don't need to hit a home run every time you get up to bat, but in rhetoric, unlike baseball, the occasional homer is lost in a sea of singles and sacrifice flies. FDR was very good, but even he was starting to suffer a sort of dilution of rhetoric.

Kennedy is the ragged edge of political oratory. He figured out most of the tricks to be effective on television, but tv hadn't yet come to completely dominate the political landscape. He had some pretty good moments-- "Ask not what your country can do for you" is smarmy but effective, and the "Ich bin ein jelly doughnut" speech is cornball in the very best way. After Kennedy, it's pretty much a desert, oratory-wise. Good speakers still come along, but they tend to be fringe figures-- Jesse Jackson is the best example. The man's a nut, in political terms, but man, can he give a speech. There's nothing to beat that preacher-man routine in terms of giving a stirring speech, these days, but it's a mixed bag on tv. Still, I'd pay to hear Jesse Jackson read Green Eggs and Ham before I'd take money to listen to Bill Clinton read the Gettysburg Address.

It's been a long time since we had good political oratory with any regularity. The only post-Kennedy speech that really stands out in my mind as deserving to be carved in marble is King's "I Have a Dream" speech (feel free to suggest others in the comments section). You just don't get lines like:

I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man

from politicians any more. Some humorless atheist would take offense at the "altar of God" bit, and a foreign policy advisor would object that the Saudis might be offended at the "every form of tyranny" bit, so couldn't we water it down a bit, and a political consultant would point out that there's nothing there for the swing states, and... And Jefferson would bludgeon the lot of them with a copy of the collected works of John Locke.

Returning to Matthew's original point, though, does the death of political oratory excuse the lack of an attempt to "add to the total stock of commemorative words?" No, not at all. The occasion deserves at least an attempt at rhetorical grandeur (though given the list of politicians who will be involved, it's hard to imagine that nobody will give it a go). I just wouldn't hold out any hope for a success to compare to the Gettysburg Address.

Posted at 11:41 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Free Ice Cream Downsizing

Kate and I got married on June 1st, and moved up to Schenectady, where I returned to work for the last week of classes, and Kate started Bar Review classes. The Thursday (June 6) after the wedding, I found a note on the stairs from my landlord informing me that he wouldn't renew the lease when it runs out on August 15th (next Thursday). When asked why, he rattled off a litany of complaints ranging from the halfway reasonable (I often left the windows open when it rained) to the stupid ("You never put a rug down in the hallway." "You never told me you wanted me to put a rug down in the hallway. I happen to like wood floors, but if you had told me to put a rug down, I would've.") to the insultingly stupid ("You never put curtains in the windows." "And what does that have to do with anything?"). I suspect he has a friend or relative he'd rather be renting to, but whatever the real reason, we're out.

Ultimately, this is for the best, since the landlord lives on the first floor and chain-smokes cheap cigars (hence the windows left open). Even in high summer, with all the windows open and fans on, the kitchen smells like an ashtray when he's home (which, thankfully, is rare-- he and his wife have a camp on a lake somewhere where they spend most of the summer)-- in winter, it's almost unbearable. Still, we had hoped to be able to avoid the hassle of moving twice, and stay in the current place until we could find and buy a house.

Instead, I'm spending my evenings packing up books to be moved into storage, and renting a truck on Friday to move my larger furniture from the current apartment to new digs on the far side of Albany. A colleague was pushing the idea of hiring some local group of short-distance movers to move my stuff, but I'm opting for the time-honored college tactic of bribing a bunch of undergrads with pizza to get them to help with the heavier stuff, and moving the smaller stuff a bit at a time over the next several days.

This is basically a long-winded (surprise!) way of saying that blogging will be light to nonexistent until the middle of next week. I may post some stuff from work, as I'm doing now, but the move is going to louse up my home internet access over the weekend, and the chaos associated with moving will probably rule out blogging for the next few days.

(Of course, there's a non-zero chance that my Captain Procrastinator personality will take over, and I'll post eighty-seven short articles in lieu of doing the actual work of packing and moving. You never can tell.)

Posted at 3:23 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Monday, August 05, 2002

Not the Kid in the Hall, Alas

More McKinney. I'll try to move on to more pleasant topics soon, but I want to address one more point.

Reid "PhotoDude" Stott leaps to the barricades to help defend Scott Koenig's earlier remarks, by means of a strategic withdrawal to the new position that it's not the nationality but the Zip code of the contributors that matters-- namely, that the real issue is the large fraction of McKinney's support that comes from outside the district.

To which the only sensible response is "So?" There's nothing illegal there. There's not even anything unethical there. Plenty of representatives draw funding from outside their districts, including Republicans-- to choose an example more or less at random, at least 63% of J.C. Watt's contributors come from outside his district (249 of 400 contributors listed on OpenSecrets were from states other than Oklahoma; I didn't tally the money, nor do I have the patience to attempt to figure out whether the Oklahoma contributions were all from his district). Stripped of the loathsome fear-mongering about "Arab names" and the 9/11 donations, there's just nothing to this. It may be of interest to her constituents, depending on how parochial they feel, but this is hardly a scandal deserving of splashy national coverage.

Stott goes this one better by attempting to bolster his case with quotes from various sources. Sadly, these are badly marred by selective editing. His quote from the Washington Post, for example:

At least three-quarters of the $234,299 that McKinney has raised from individuals this year is from donors with Muslim or Arab American surnames, the great majority of whom live outside her district.

seems to imply that the Post finds this scandalous in some manner, while the actual article has a much different tone, better represented by the opening paragraph:

Members of the Muslim American community are providing extensive support for Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), defending the five-term incumbent against a challenge financed in part by Jewish leaders critical of her stand on Israel.

I'm still not happy to see this garbage picked up by major media outlets, but their approach of viewing the McKinney-Majette race as some sort of proxy fight between Israel and the Palestinians, while vacuous, is a far cry from the deeply offensive "McKinney's in the pay of America's enemies" line taken by the "blogosphere."

Better yet, he quotes this bit from Neal Boortz:

McKinney has only the smallest amount of campaign financial support from Georgia, let alone her own district. My guess is that she’ll probably be reelected anyway. Most of the voters in her district who are actually bright enough to see what is going on here will be playing tennis or golf on primary day.

while being careful to leave out the preceding paragraph (quoted by Koenig):

The law says that a campaign must report a donation showing a date that donation was received. Do you care to make a guess as to when “most” of Cynthia’s donations from people with Arabic names – and who live outside of Georgia – were received? That day would be September 11, 2001. Yup, THAT day. On the very day that Arabs are flying airplanes into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, Arabs are pouring campaign cash into the coffers of Cynthia McKinney.

presumably because it exposes Boortz as the odious, fear-mongering gasbag that he is. (Though, to be fair, the "tennis or golf" line does a pretty good job of that as it is...)

As for my statement that "[t]he people crowing about this on the Indepundit site and elsewhere are lower than the slime that pond scum scrapes off its shoes?" From the comments section in the original post, we have this gem (among others):

And yes, the FBI needs to get busy in Las Vegas, which is obviously a hot bed of them (Why would Arabs in Nevada give to a heretofore obcure Georgia Congresswoman?) and yes, why is one of them a pilot for Southwest Airlines??? "This is your Captain speaking, [Arabic name deleted]"?! I don't think so! Who are these people????

If anyone should be insulted by my statement, I think it's the pond scum.

Posted at 6:07 PM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Way Better Than Pond Scum

In the comments thread following yesterday's rant, Patrick Nielsen Hayden rightly points out that I was too harsh to Jim Henley, lumping him in with the lower-than-pond-scum folks at the In*Pundit sites. I didn't actually intend to do that, but I was a little upset, and didn't edit carefully enough-- Jim's post wasn't "crowing" about the finding, but was actually as reasonable and responsible a take on the matter as is possible within the constraints of the hobbyist-blogger mode of operation.

I do find Jim's post regrettable, though, in that the necessarily incomplete nature of his coverage helps give legs to a story that, ultimately, is little more than an especially hateful political smear. (Worse yet, Rep. McKinney's crack public relations team sprang into action and threw out some idiotic comments about Jews, to make sure that neither side in this mess is able to see the slightest scrap of the up-slope to the foothills of the Moral High Ground...) In email on the topic, Jim refers to the journalistic contrast between the "WashPost get bits of the story out and correct as you go approach favorably with the LAT keep it under wraps until you're sure it's right approach," coming down on the side of the former. I can't agree with that, for the simple fact that the inevitable correction will be less "newsworthy" than the initial screaming allegations. "Georgia Democrat Cleared of All Charges" will be in small type below the fold, and the finest hackers in the world would be unable to make such a link appear on InstaPundit or "Best of the Web," while the original loathsome smear will linger forever.

McKinney's a nutcase, and obviously employs cranks, but her worst crime is nothing more than speaking her mind in public without adequately thinking things through. This is hardly a sin for which the "blogosphere" (your humble correspondent included) can start queuing up to cast the first stone. It certainly doesn't deserve to be met with the implication that she's been bought by America's enemies (Mr. Koenig later claimed he only meant to imply that "her objectivity may have been compromised," which is the sort of close parsing that would be met by withering scorn were it to emerge from the mouth of a Clinton appointee), simply because she happened to take money from people with Muslim-sounding names.

More may follow when I get back to my own computer (I'm writing this from Boston, where we're visiting the in-laws), but I wanted to correct my comments about Jim. (Especially since he was good enough to link to my post anyway...)

Posted at 12:07 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

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