Watching the above parody, I thought about about an NPR story from about a month ago about “retro-acculturation,” in which musician Marco Polo Santiago went back to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents were born to learn “cumbia,” an Afro-Columbian hybrid music they once listened to:
Santiago, 36, was born in Los Angeles and is also a native English speaker. He grew up playing hip-hop and heavy metal. But now, he leads a band in Oakland that plays an Afro-Colombian style called “cumbia.” Santiago’s journey from hip-hop to cumbia began a couple of years ago, when he took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents were born. He came across a woman playing a quijada — that’s the skeleton of a donkey jaw.
“It was my first time witnessing that,” Santiago said. “You’ve got a piece of carcass on stage that you are using as a musical instrument, and I was just fascinated by that, you know?”
… Santiago is a textbook example of what Jackie Hernandez calls “retro-acculturation.” Puerto Rican and raised in Manhattan, Hernandez is the chief operating officer of the Spanish-language Telemundo television network, which has made it a point to reach retro-acculturated Latinos.
It turns out the term has been in use for some time now, but my only encounter with some variation of it before hearing it on the radio had been this 2007 essay from TAC, by Paul Weyrich and Bill Lind:
One of conservatism’s most fundamental impulses, and one of its most valuable in a time when history is neglected or forgotten, is to recover good things from the past. Traditional cities and towns, passenger trains and streetcars, are examples of this tendency, which we label retroculture. The next conservatism should incorporate retroculture as one of its guiding themes, a basis for its actions beyond politics. Want to fix the public schools? How about Schools 1950? We already have retro cars such as Volkswagen’s New Beetle and the Mini. Why not retro manners and retro dress? It would be nice to see men’s and ladies’ hats again instead of kids’ underwear. By making old things new, retroculture might offer a counterweight to the endless spiral downward that pop culture decrees in everything. If fire is needed to fight fire, perhaps fashion should be used to fight fashion.
So what does this have to do with Mumford and Sons? Well, for starters it seems obvious that they tap into some sort of retrocultural impulse, but they also illustrate its limits in an important way. Just as investments in trains and streetcars Lind and Weyrich cite as the embodiment of retrocultural transportation often end up as public sector boondoggles or payoffs to monopolistic companies, much modern retro-sounding music ends up as upper-middle brow emotional validation in service of big entertainment. Besides, it’s not exactly clear what they’re recovering.
That wasn’t always the case, but we’ve (arguably) lost the participatory musical culture on which particular genres–such as cumbia, or American folk music–depend. I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done about that, and that dissolution itself has given rise to interesting new forms, as I wrote in a recent essay for the Umlaut, but it ensures the permanent retro-ness of the retrocultural project.
Sweden has the reputation of being a placid, comfortable place, where the contradictions of capitalism have been softened into irrelevance. That reputation is now very much out date. For the last four nights, mobs of young men have run riot through the suburbs of Stockholm. No deaths have been reported, but windows have been smashed, cars burnt, and police attacked with stones and other weapons.
The riots were set off by the police shooting an old man who threatened them with a machete. In light of yesterday’s atrocity in London, that decision looks eminently reasonable. But allegations of police brutality are really just a pretext. The rioters, most of whom seem to be Somali immigrants or their children, are angry at what they see as economic and social marginalization.
This attitude is particuarly disturbing because Sweden has invested more energy and money to integrating immigrants than any other European country. It’s also reliably prosperous: there’s no mass unemployment, as in France or Spain. What’s happening around Stockholm, then, can’t be explained away as a reaction to official neglect or poverty. Rather, it’s a predictable consequence of mass immigration from the Third World into a small, ethnically and culturally homogeneous society.
Immigration critics on this site and elsewhere worry that the United States is failing to assimilate the millions who have come here, legally and illegally, since the 1960s. I think those fears are mostly exaggerated. Although fashionable multiculturalism can inhibit assimilation, American life has proven to be an reliable solvent of foreign identities. As Christopher Caldwell has argued, however, the classic nation-states of Europe lack the cultural resources to absorb an influx of population from some of the poorest and most backward societies in the world. I’m glad I don’t live in Stockholm tonight.
“Mud,” now making the rounds of movie theaters in a limited release, was a hit at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Rotten Tomatoes says that 98% of 122 film critics have given it a thumbs-up.
Glory be. Who would have thought that a conservative movie could receive such an enthusiastic reception?
Skeptic that I am, I believe that’s because nobody but me realizes it’s a conservative movie. It does not touch on the political, and it doesn’t preach. The focus is kept on culture, and it communicates its politics in a very personal way, letting the script and acting (both excellent) make its points so effectively that the audience is unaware of the larger implications.
“Mud” is a coming-of-age story about two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, growing up in an Arkansas town on the Mississippi River.
Ellis is distraught because his parents are separating and plan on getting a divorce. The boys find refuge from the world on an island in the Mississippi, where they stumble upon a fugitive from the law who calls himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). Mud is madly in love with beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is supposed to meet him in their town. Mud’s crime is that he killed the man who impregnated Juniper and who threw her down the stairs to abort the baby. We know nothing else about the circumstances of that fight and why it resulted in the death.
The problem is a lynch mob organized by the victim’s father and other son. They are not legal bounty hunters. They plan to kill Mud in revenge, not bring him back to justice in Texas, where the murder took place. And they have paid off the local police to let them do it. Read More…
Whether the persistence of hipster eulogies is a sign of the West’s cultural stagnation or merely the slipperiness of the term, I couldn’t tell you. What’s incontrovertible is the hipster has been dying for about five years now. It’s true because sensitive, trend-spotting journalists have said so. But as far as I know this is the first time its death has been studied gromatically by political scientists:
Just 16% of Americans have a favorable opinion of hipsters, a new PPP poll on the much-discussed subculture shows. 42% have an unfavorable opinion of hipsters, and 43% aren’t sure. Democrats (18% favorable, 34% unfav) are twice as likely as Republicans (9% fav, 48% unfav) to have a favorable opinion. Voters age 18-29 have a favorable opinion of them (43% fav-29% unfav), but very few voters over age 65 do (6% fav -37% unfav).
Just 10% of voters say they consider themselves to be hipsters – and almost all of those are younger voters. Half of all voters aged 18-29 consider themselves hipsters; every other age group is 5% or less. … 27% of voters said they thought hipsters should be subjected to a special tax for being so annoying, while 73% did not think so. About one in five voters (21%) said they thought Pabst Blue Ribbon, commonly associated with hipsters, was a good beer. Democrats (29%) were more likely than Republicans (23%) to think so, while independents (11%) were least likely.
Almost a majority (46 percent) think they’re soulless cultural appropriators.
My favorite hipster eulogy is still this Adbusters—yes, I know it’s left-wing—piece, for the sheer hopelessness of it, and that it comes from their same political/philosophical position as most of the people we would describe as such. It quotes TakiMag contributor and Vice founding editor Gavin McInnes:
“I’ve always found that word ["hipster"] is used with such disdain, like it’s always used by chubby bloggers who aren’t getting laid anymore and are bored, and they’re just so mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable,” he says. “I’m dubious of these hypotheses because they always smell of an agenda.”
In other words, people use the word like they use the word “yuppie”—pejoratively. Since this isn’t something PPP regularly measures, we can’t be sure if opinion has soured, but I suspect not. My guess is the public at large always hated them.
At least now we know what polling firms do when there’s not a big election coming up.
Last night was another glorious success for the art auction house Sotheby’s, taking in $230 million from 60 lots sold. Best selling was Cezanne’s still life, Les Pommes, pictured above, which went for $41.6 million including the buyers premium, $10 million higher than the estimated price. French impressionist art is trending again, after a few years where the market has been dominated by post-war and contemporary works.
In 2004, the late Robert Hughes wrote,
When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological. As Picasso’s biographer John Richardson said to a reporter on that night of embarrassment at Sotheby’s, no painting is worth a hundred million dollars.
The price of these most expensive paintings is a matching up of the buyer’s subjective appreciation and the size of his wallet. Since the spiritual moral and aesthetic value of art is strictly speaking incalculable, and since a unique and beautiful work of art only ever exists once, the mistake is to treat them in these auctions as effectively infinite in value. That is where the pathology comes in—the object is treated as capable of absorbing infinite desire, the consumer is consumed by the object he desires, and that consumption is marketed as a model of artistic appreciation.
Still, individual buyers may be free from such pathology, though it inflames the art market. And Picasso is the world’s favorite status commodity for more than superficial reasons; his paintings represent the world’s vision of its ideal self: egotistical, erotic, enacting messianic compassion, and wrestling like Jacob with the limits of space and time.
Noah Millman takes issue with some of the excerpts I’ve given from Schumpeter. But Schumpeter’s full view of the relationship between family, individualism, and capitalism can’t be captured in a brief quotation. If I had to give a close approximation of it, though, this is probably the most apt passage from Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy:
In the preceding chapter it was observed that the capitalist order entrusts the long-run interests of society to the upper strata of the bourgeoisie. They are really entrusted to the family motive operative in those strata. The bourgeoisie worked primarily in order to invest, and it was not so much a standard of consumption as a standard of accumulation that the bourgeoisie struggled for and tried to defend against governments that took the short-run view. With the decline of the driving power supplied by the family motive, the businessman’s time-horizon shrinks, roughly, to his life expectation. And he might now be less willing than he was to fulfill that function of earning, saving and investing even if he saw no reason to fear that the results would but swell his tax bills. He drifts into an anti-saving frame of mind and accepts with an increasing readiness anti-saving theories that are indicative of a short-run philosophy.
People once accumulated capital largely for the sake of their progeny. Now that they are less inclined to think about progeny, that is one more reason (among others Schumpeter gives in his book) for greater concern with immediate satisfactions rather than long-term capital development. The motive for defending accumulation against redistribution by the state has also been weakened. These are not only changes that affect actual economic practices, but they also condition the public’s receptivity to ideas that promise to solve short-run problems such as, say, unemployment by means of some sacrifice of capital. (To what extent unemployment actually is a short-run problem is something to think about, but this is where Schumpeter is coming from.) Read More…
In conjunction with his appearance on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list, Sen. Rand Paul attended a gala sponsored by the magazine, where he toasted Henry David Thoreau—“just a guy,” Paul explained, who “wanted to live by himself,” but “society wouldn’t leave him alone.”
Obviously, the Kentucky senator, and possible 2016 presidential contender, chose to highlight Thoreau not just because he was an idealistic, contemplative loner. In the broader context of the liberty movement’s desire to see the Republican party reclaim the mantle of individual rights, it makes perfect sense that Paul would cheer Thoreau’s legacy of civil disobedience in the face of slavery and imperialism.
More, one can imagine Paul approvingly quoting Thoreau’s paean to trade and “commerce”—“its enterprise and bravery”:
Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied. It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments, and hence its singular success. I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes. I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla hemp and cocoanut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails …
Yet the pairing, however brief, of Paul and Thoreau had me stewing this past weekend. I was thinking about the desire to “be left alone.” Laissez-faire. Liberty defined as the absence of restraint. In order to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” Thoreau withdrew from the community, from the polis. Read More…
On a slow day several months ago, I wrote a post describing my love of traditional American clothing. Although it attracted some criticism for being pretentious, the post was intended to be gently self-mocking. I’d be delighted to see more of the Ivy League Look on the streets. But I don’t really think it matters to the fate of civilization.
But the horror in Bangladesh reminds me that there are moral reasons to prefer clothes manufactured using traditional methods in America or Western Europe to trash shipped in from low-wage countries. No one gets rich sewing jackets or cutting leather. But workers in what remains of the American garment industry are far more likely to earn a living wage in safe conditions than their competitors abroad.
That’s one of the reasons I like to buy from makers like Mercer and Sons, Alden, and Southwick, among others. Considerations of taste aside, I value the fact that their products are made by craftsmen in factories that have been located in the same New England towns for years, and sometimes generations.
I realize that these companies sell luxury products whose prices are out of reach for many. But the same is true of goods offered by big chains that rely on foreign sweatshops like the one that collapsed this week in Dhaka. So if you have the option (which is more likely when it comes to tailored clothing than basics like T-shirts) and can afford to spend a few more dollars, wouldn’t you rather buy something made in America? The Bangladesh disaster reminds me how much I would.
About a third of the way through The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher paints a moving portrait of a community tending to one of its own:
The news hit the West Feliciana community like a cyclone. As the day wore on a hundred or more friends mobbed the hospital. Some offered to move in with the Lemings to care for the children while Ruthie fought [her cancer]. John Bickham told Paw that he would sell everything he had to pay for Ruthie’s medical bills if it came to that. At the middle school the teachers did their best to get through the day, but kept breaking down. All over town people prepared food and took it by the Leming house, which, this being Starhill, sat unlocked.
“We were surrounded by so much love,” Mam recalls. “It was the most horrible day of our lives, but we could feel the love of all these good people. There was nothing we could have wanted or needed that wasn’t done before we asked. And they were there. Do you know what that means? People were there.”
The inspiring collective response of this small Louisiana town seems to me a paradigmatic real-life example of the kind of civil society that Yuval Levin (as well as TAC’s Samuel Goldman) champions here as a Burkean rebuke to harsh conservative rhetoric about the “culture of dependency”:
We are all dependent on others. The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.
I don’t want to speak for Rod here. Nor do I want to superimpose on The Little Way, a deeply personal meditation on social and family bonds, a polemical or partisan quality that it in fact mercifully avoids. But I don’t think I’m misreading Rod at all in saying that technocracy is not what enabled his particular illusion of independence. That illusion stemmed from the desires of his own heart: a desire to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural America and discover the wider world; to pursue a life of the mind; to experience, as the British playwright David Hare put it in his screenplay for The Hours, the “violent jolt” of life in the metropolis.
Our culture stokes this desire, and in no small way our economy depends on it. When politicians tirelessly invoke the “American Dream,” when we celebrate social mobility and “churn,” we are encouraging millions of young Rod Drehers to leave their Starhills and become “boomers,” as the poet Wendell Berry (via Wallace Stegner) describes those whose ambition compels them to leave home.
To make the point in the context of our ongoing clash over immigration, do we not at least unwittingly celebrate the dilution of communities when we hold up as heroes those who leave behind their friends and extended families to pursue employment in America? To borrow the simple phraseology of Rod’s mother, a young man who leaves a village in Latin America or South Asia is no longer there. Read More…
Critical thinking has so thoroughly colonized our idea of education that we tend to think it’s the only kind of thinking. Tests try to measure it, and ritzy private schools all claim to teach it. Critical thinking–analysis, not mere acceptance–is a skill we can all learn. And we’ve learned it too well. We’ve learned only critical thinking skills, and not the equally challenging skills of prudent acceptance: We don’t even realize that we need to learn when to say yes, and to what.