Saturday, 21 August 2010

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"This is nothing like it was in my room." That I love The National should surprise no one, but that's not why I'm being frivolous on a Friday night and linking to their recent performance of "Mr. November" at Lollapalooza. I link because of the incidental jollity contained within and created by this unspectacular performance of a weaker track off their last album. The performance is captured from the crowd by R. Todd Morason: The first memorable moment occurs at the 1:29 mark, when lead singer Matt Berninger drunkenly staggers over and begins to serenade a young girl seated on the left stage terrace. As soon as he notices her, he cleans up the lyric "I won't fuck you over, I'm Mr. November" for her delicate ears. Her mother snaps a picture and writes up the experience. Having two bits of demonstrable proof of so unlikely event means we are living in the future. Berninger then ambles off the stage entirely and into the crowd (2:10), at which point Morason loses him. He turns his phone to the large screens flanking the stage in an attempt to find him but fails (2:25), then pans right to survey the crowd again only to discover Berninger's about to run into him (2:33). The whole scene seems choreographed, right down to the crowd becoming a communal road crew and passing Berninger's wire above their heads.* What began as a slightly off-key performance of a mediocre song becomes the sort of spectacle we all wish every concert will be as the lights dim and the first note sounds. *Videos like this make me think the shaky cam's days as a hallmark of televisual realism are numbered. The autocorrection function in cheap new cameras steadies all hands to the point where, in ten years, people will wonder why they let cinematographers continue rolling while in the midst of epileptic fits.
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History is what you make of it? Johann Hari's review of Wolf: The Lives of Jack London suggests that its author, James Haley, says nothing about its subject that has not been long known.* The only people who would be surprised by the facts of Jack London's life and life of mind, then, are those who know nothing about him, like Ilya Somin, who uses the occasion of Hari's review to condemn the group he describes as "early 20th century Progressives," claiming London’s simultaneous advocacy of racism and socialism was no anomaly among early 20th century Progressives. Was London a racist and a socialist? Absolutely. Did he believe in progress? He did. Did he align himself with the Progressives? He absolutely did not.** Not only did he despise the lukewarm commitment of populists like Williams Jenning Bryan to the socialist cause, he publicly quarreled with the Progressive Party's one and only Presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, five years earlier, when the then President declared him a "nature fakir" after reading his account of a lynx killing a dog-wolf. Far from being a Progressive standard-bearer, London couldn't even agree with this lot about the finer points of dog psychology. The first problem with Somin's argument, then, is that he applies the term "Progressive" to someone who was an avowed "Socialist." London was a capital-S Socialist who believed in lowercase-p progress, but he was not a capital-P Progressive. Teddy Roosevelt was a capital-P Progressive, but he didn't believe in progress and was neither a socialist nor a Socialist. These are distinctions with difference to everyone who cares more about history than contemporary politics. They must be made to obtain. The second problem with Somin's argument is that its logic lacks logic. Smudging your greasy fingers on the glasses of history only obscures your view of its record: The racist elements of Progressive ideology don’t prove that economic interventionism is racist by nature, or that the policies Progressives defended in large part on racist grounds can’t be justified in other ways. Still less do they prove that modern left-wingers are necessarily racist as well. But they do undercut claims that racism is primarily a product of the “right” and that economic leftism and racial progress necessarily go together. Proving that Jack London was a racist only proves that Jack London was a racist. It weakly suggests, and then only by extension, that those who shared his ideological commitment to socialism—which, it bears repeating, is only the same thing as Progressivism if you consider Teddy Roosevelt a socialist—might be racist. What it does not and can never prove is anything at all about people who were not London and did not share his beliefs. Anyone who thinks otherwise was likely also impressed by Jonah Goldberg's masterful Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next To Each Other, and deserves to be taken about as a seriously. *Part of the reason that the details of London's life are already familiar is that, as he wrote S.S. McClure at the beginning of his career, “[he] took the...

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