Friday, December 30, 2011

      2011 Year in Pop Culture

      Doing the end-of-the-year Pop Culture list is definitely something that I look forward to each December. I was worried that last year's list was going to be hard to top-- what with 2010's introduction of the Facebook "like" button, the Jersey Shore "GTL" mantra, the iPad and the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear-- but 2011 had enough of the awesome and the awful to give 2010 a run for its money. Some of the headlines that made my earlier lists (2011 Year in Music, 2011 Year in Sports and 2011 Year in Politics) could have easily made this list as well, but I'm trying not to repeat stories on multiple lists. So, unfortunately, the pop-culture trend of "Tebowing" got bumped.

      "Pop culture" is a funny and fuzzy category and it's difficult every year to determine what really counts as a popular or a cultural phenomenon. For the most part, I use this list as a kind of catch-all for the things that I can't list under music, politics or sports... but that means that there's a lot left to cover. So, below you'll find a little bit of celebrity news, a little bit of science, a little bit of literature, a little bit of television news, and a whole lot of other cultural detritus. Before we commence, I do want to point you to Buzzfeed's amazing collection of "The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011," which is a really striking way to capture the past year. I think next year I'm going to try to give arresting images like those a bit more attention on this blog.

      But without further ado, here's the 2011 Year in Pop Culture:

      "Winning" with Charlie Sheen
      It was just so awful that you couldn't help but watch when Charlie Sheen went completely off the rails earlier this year. The star of Two and a Half Men, one of the highest paid television actors and member of the iconic 1980's "Brat Pack," Charlie Sheen had a lot going for him... but he also, unfortunately, had a weakness for prostitutes, pills, booze and blow. In a series of interviews he gave obviously under the influence, Sheen described himself as being infused with "tiger blood," as having "a 10,000 year-old brain and the boogers of a 7 year-old," and as "not being bi-polar but bi-winning." (Jimmy Kimmel runs down several of his other bon mots here.) Earlier this year, it was pretty much impossible to turn on a television without hearing Sheen say something that would make you cringe with excitement, embarrassment, or fear that you may really have just been transported through a wormhole to a compossible world of insanity. Sheen got fired from his longtime gig on Two and a Half Men, but shortly thereafter seemed to find his way back to the world the the rest of us inhabit. That recovery is surely a good thing for him and his family, though it's probably a major disappointment to the staff at TMZ.

      Man vs. Machine on "Jeopardy"
      Back in February, a computer program named "Watson" (developed by IBM) competed on the television quiz show "Jeopardy" against that show's most celebrated contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The showdown was described as the "natural language processing" equivalent of the 1997 chess match between IBM's Deep Blue and world chess champion Gary Kasparov. It was also, in a way, a version of the Turing Test (or the Loebner Prize Competition), both of which are meant to measure how close computer programmers have come to creating "artificial intelligence." Earlier this year, I read Brian Christian's very excellent book The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive, which deals with (among other things) the complicated process of trying to train computers to master "natural" human language. Of course, we all know that computers can think faster than us, can calculate in a more complex and sophisticated way than we can, and can store far more information than our little brains can hold. But what computers don't do very well is what we do best, namely, "understanding" the nuances of natural language. And that's what Watson needed to to better than any other computer before it in order to be successful on "Jeopardy." If you're interested in understanding how Watson works, you can read the interview with programmers from NPR, but it suffices to say here that Watson did work. Watson beat both Jennings and Rutter on "Jeopardy," though Watson's errors and mistakes were as interesting as it's win. It was the first ever Man vs. Machine showdown on "Jeopardy," and even though Man lost, he looked pretty strong.

      You know, sometimes the kids come up with really cool things to do outside, like parkour, and other times they decide they're just going to stiffen their bodies and lay any-old-place like pieces of wood. The latter is called "planking," and it was all the rage this year for reasons that I still don't quite understand. According to Wikipedia, planking originally went by the (incredibly creative) name "The Laying Down Game." It also has several variations, which include Teapotting, Owling, Horsemaning, Batmanning, Tebowing and Plumbking. No, I'm not kidding. Other than faithfully imitating a wooden plank, it appears that the only other "rules" to the Laying Down Game are that you have to have someone take a picture of you and post it on the internet. Like many other stupid ideas, this one has been taken up by a few less-stupid people, producing what are actually pretty cool images like this one and this one. I don't know, maybe I'm getting old, but I just don't get planking. On the other hand, if I am in fact getting old, planking looks like a fairly decent hobby to take up.

      Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
      This was a pretty exciting year for Mac-users, what with the introduction of the iPhone 4S (and its talking Siri app) and the iPad 2, but the excitement generated by those new tech toys was far overshadowed by the passing of their creator, Steve Jobs in October. According to his sister, Jobs last words before he passed were: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." That seems fitting, not only because those words demonstrate the instinct for wonder that drove Jobs' professional career, but also because they're the same words that he inspired in millions of people who bought his products. It's really hard to capture how important Steve Jobs was for my generation. He was like our Willy Wonka, only instead of making chocolate, he was our generation's greatest maker of toys. President Obama perhaps said it best, when he noted: "The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented." Thank you, Steve Jobs, for making technology beautiful, easy to use, exciting and innovative. And thanks for thinking differently.

      No More Food "Pyramid"
      Remember the food pyramid we all learned in grade school? Exactly how was that organized? What was on the bottom? Were we supposed to eat more of the stuff at the bottom or the stuff at the top? Honestly, do you remember much more about it than that it was a pyramid? Yeah, I don't either. The FDA and the USDA decided that not many of us really understood the food pyramid, so they ditched it this year in favor of a food "plate" that they're now calling MyPlate. The new food plate emphasizes smaller portions, and encourages eaters to dedicate half their plates to fruits and vegetables. First Lady Michelle Obama is a big supporter of MyPlate, which she says goes hand-in-hand with her national exercise campaign to combat childhood obesity called Let's Move. Obesity is not just a problem for children in our country; according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one-third (33.8%) of American adults are obese. In 2008, the medical costs associated with obesity hovered somewhere around $147 billion. The USDA thinks that the simplified MyPlate should help Americans make wiser food choices. Let's hope they're right.

      Oprah Winfrey's Farewell Spectacular
      After a quarter-century of daytime television reign, Oprah signed off for a final time from The Oprah Winfrey Show in May. The two-part "surprise" extravaganza was a star-studded homage to Oprah, featuring Tom Hanks, Beyonce Knowles, Josh Grobin, Tom Cruise, Patti LaBelle, Madonna, John Legend, Diane Sawyer, Rascal Flatts, Halle Barry, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Jordan, Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, Stevie Wonder, Simon Cowell, Rosie O'Donnell, Dr. Phil, Queen Latifah, Maria Shriver, Tyler Perry, Maya Angelou, Alicia Keyes and Aretha Franklin. (I probably left some out, but you get the idea.) Watching the show-- which I did-- it was hard not to think that Oprah is something like The Godfather of the celebrity world. Everyone who is anyone came by to pay their respects to Oprah, fawning and shrieking and cooing and crying in the affective manner that most befits The Queen of Daytime Television. I've never been a fan of Oprah's-- I really can't stand the self-righteous, self-help, quasi-spirituality that she doses out like Ambien-- but even I can't deny that she is a cultural force of a singularly unique kind. I mean, of course she's singularly unique. She's freakin' Oprah. Her "retirement" from the show is anything but, though, as she's simply moved her Empire over to her own network (called OWN, or the Oprah Winfrey Network). Starting in January, Oprah begins what she's calling Oprah's Next Chapter. Meh.

      Homeless Guy With "Golden Voice"
      At the beginning of 2011, a video of Ted Williams (pictured left) went viral. Williams' was homeless and jobless at the time, begging on the streets for money in Columbus, Ohio. He carried a sign that read: "I have a God-given gift of voice. I'm an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times. Any help would be greatfully [sic] appreciated. Thank you and God bless you. Happy Holidays." As it turns out, Williams' did have a God-given gift of voice and was quickly dubbed the man with the "golden voice." After being discovered by a local reporter, Williams' life took a dramatic turn for the better. He made appearances on several television shows (including Today, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Early Show) telling his story, and he was offered several hig-profile jobs. Then, his life took a turn for the worse, as the rapid launch into celebrity caused the recovering alcoholic Williams to relapse. Several stints in rehab resulted in dwindling job prospects for Williams, but he eventually evened out and is now clean, sober and employed with New England Cable News.

      American President Proves He's American
      The "Birther" movement, driven by a bunch of lunatics who don't believe that President Barack Obama is really American, received its greatest support back in March when Donald Trump jumped on the Birther bandwagon. For weeks, Trump endlessly demanded that President Obama produce his birth certificate. He threatened to send an investigative team to Hawaii to "prove" that Obama's claims to have been born there were false. He even produced his own birth certificate. After nearly six-weeks of Trump's annoyance, the White House finally conceded and released Obama's long-form birth certificate. (Yes, Obama is American.) Despite having his conspiratorial madness debunked, Trump still declared victory, claiming "I am very proud of myself because I have accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish." Our President, unimpressed, issued one of the best rejoinders of his career, when he said: ""No one is prouder to put this birth certificate to rest than The Donald. Now he can get to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?" Game, set, match to the Hawaiian.

      Humanity Reaches 7 Billion
      Speaking of births, sometime around the end of October, somewhere in the world, the 7 billionth human was born. The United Nations released a document entitled The State of the World Population 2011 that offers a truly fascinating glimpse of the promises and problems tied up with this milestone. The world population has almost doubled just within the span of my lifetime, and it is projected to reach the 8 billion mark before 2030. The "demographic transition" is the name given to the process, occurring during the past century, which lead to a stabilization of population growth in the more highly developed countries. Because more developed countries have stabilized in terms of population growth, this means that most of the future growth will happen in developing countries that are still struggling to undergo a demographic transition of their own, which would bring birth and death rates in greater equilibrium. Of course, we know that the most challenging economic, social, political and environmental problems that plague humanity are concentrated in the developing world, so we're really going to have to work together over the next 50 years or so to assuage the impact of their population growth. To get a picture of what the impact of 7 billion people is on our shared world, take a look at the excellent slideshow published on The Huffington Post. It's time to start thinking about ourselves as a single human community, for sure.

      Harold Camping Predicts World Will End on May 21...
      No, Wait, He Meant October 21...
      Maybe Sometime in 2012...
      End of times predictions are always good fun. This year's celebrity doomsayer was (conservative Christian) Family Radio station President and Biblical numerologist, Harold Camping. Camping originally predicted that on May 21, 2011, Jesus Christ would return to earth, the Christian faithful would fly up to heaven (in the Rapture), and five months of fire and brimstone would follow, with millions dying every day, culminating on October 21, 2011, with the end of the world. When May 21 passed without incident earlier this year, Camping declared that a "spiritual judgment" had happened that day, but that the physical Rapture wouldn't occur until October 21. And when October 21 passed without incident... well, let's just say that it was a little AWK-WARD for poor prophet Camping. For the most part, Camping retired from public view (and from Apocalyptic predictions) after the October disappointment. But, this is AMERICA, and we never want for some loony-tune to step up and take the place of a debunked zealot. The new target date for eschatalogical events is December 21, 2012. The so-called "2012 Phenomenon" is based in part on the Mayan calendar, in part on pseudo-scientific astronomy, and mostly confirmed by a quick glance at the Republican Presidential primary candidates. Time to get right with God, folks.

      On Second Thought, Mass Fish and Bird Deaths DID Look Kind of Apocalyptic
      I had almost forgotten about this until I started to put together my end-of-year lists, but 2011 had a rather inauspicious start when reports of mass animal deaths were turning up everywhere. First, blackbirds literally fell out of the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, followed a few days later by the same phenomenon in Louisiana, and later the same thing in Sweden. (Those deaths were unconvincingly explained as the result of "blunt force trauma" to the birds. To which all the rest of us replied: Whaaaa???) Then, over a hundred pelicans dropped dead in North Carolina. Almost 2 million fish in the Chesapeake Bay died. Then 40,000 crabs in Britain and 150 tons of tilapia in Vietnam. SOMEBODY GET HAROLD CAMPING ON THE PHONE 'CAUSE WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON?! As it turns out, there was no reason to be alarmed. Eminently reasonable biologist E.O. Wilson stepped in with words of comfort for the nonscientific hoi polloi, explaining that mass animal deaths happen all the time. The real problem is that we know about it now because we all have smart phones and the Interwebs. (Wilson: "This instant and global communication, it's just a human instinct to read mystery and portents of dangers and wondrous things in events that are unusual... Not to worry, these are not portents that the world is about to come to an end.") Oh, okay. That makes me feel a lot better. But, seriously, blunt force trauma?

      Scientists (Maybe) Locate the God Particle!
      I love it when science makes it's way into pop culture. Probably not as much as scientists do, but I'm nerdy enough to have been totally fascinated when various news outlets began reporting that science may have found the "God particle." What's that you say? There's a GOD PARTICLE? That's awesome. Turns out they were talking about the Higgs boson, which is crucial to understanding the origin of mass. Shortly after the Big Bang, it is thought that many particles had no mass, but became heavy later thanks to the Higgs field. The Higgs field is a theoretical, invisible energy field that stretches throughout the universe. It clings to fundamental particles wherever they are, dragging on them and making them heavy. So, in theory, particles can weigh nothing, but as soon as the field switched on shortly after the big bang, they got their mass. The so-called "God particle," the Higgs boson, is the signature particle of the field. Finding the Higgs boson would vindicate the so-called Standard Model of physics, which envisages that the universe is made from 12 basic building blocks called fundamental particles and governed by four fundamental forces. The existence of the Higgs boson is predicted by the Standard Model but it has yet to be found by experiments. The celebrity researchers in this story are at CERN and they're using something called a Large Hadron Collider (pictured above) which is just badass.

      People Still Care Too Much About Other People's Weddings
      If there's one thing the American public can't stop obsessing over, it's other people's marriages. So, this was a banner year for Nuptialphiliacs as Prince William married Catherine Middleton in a bona fide Royal Wedding AND Kim Kardashian married-- uh, what's his name again?-- Kris-with-a-K Humphries in a American version of a Royal Wedding. The Prince and Princess seem to be enjoying newlywed life quite well, while things went bad quickly for the other Kouple. Kardashian and Humphries split after only 72 days. Because their wedding was a televised media event of the first order, it is speculated that the Kouple earned something like the equivalent of $250K for every day they were married. I suppose it's still possible to believe in the "sanctity" of the institution of marriage, but it gets more and more difficult every year to do so. In a hilariously ironic turn of events this year, Minnesota gays issued an formal apology to Minnesota conservative politician Amy Koch, expressing their regret for threatening traditional marriage and causing Koch to engage in the scandalous infidelities that ended hers. I predict that in 2012 the importance of the institution of marriage will only more closely approximate the importance of the Royal Family. Snore.

      Big Writers Pen FAT Books in 2011
      Two of the biggest novels released this year-- Haruki Murakami's IQ84 and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom-- were also two of the BIGGEST novels released this year. Although neither of them are quite the mammoth that David Foster Wallace's (1000+ page) Infinite Jest was, Murakami IQ84 weighs in at a hefty 944 pages and Franzen's Freedom is an impressive 608 pages. (For perspective, Roberto Bolano's 2666 sits somewhere between them in terms of length.) I haven't read either, though I did get Freedom for a Christmas gift and plan to dig in soon. In the circle of my bookish friends, Franzen and Murakumi are both favorites, so let me just go ahead and extend my congratulations to all of my friends who have already made it through these mammoths. I didn't get to do nearly enough "pleasure" reading this year. I'm resolving to fix that for 2012, but I have to say that the increasing size of my favorite authors' products are causing me considerable concern. I mean, these aren't books you can just leave in the bathroom without looking like you've got a real problem. On the other hand, my guess is that they make really good doorstops or bookends when you're done!

      Bruno Mars Swears He's Not Doing Anything
      Last year, my favorite viral video was "Jessica's Daily Affirmation." Rivaling Jessica for pure feel-goodness is one of my favorite viral videos of 2011, which came courtesy of Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song" (below). First, it's just a damn catchy song. Second, those monkeys are adorable. Third, the lyrics are hilarious. But most impressive of all, I think, is the fact that this entire video was done in a single camera shot. No cuts, no editing. Who knows how long it took them to get it all down, but the final product is super impressive. Fair warning before you watch: this is definitely an "earworm." You'll be humming it for the rest of the day.

      And finally, what would a 2011 Year in Pop Culture be without...

      2011 Was the Year of the Honey Badger, Stupid
      Ah, the honey badger. Watch it run in slow motion. It's pretty badass. The honey badger has been referred to by Guinness Book of World Records as the most fearless animal in all of the Animal Kingdom. It takes what it wants. And for many people in 2011, the honey badger became our spirit animal. It said what we won't, or don't, or can't say. Namely, we don't give a sh*t. The honey badger video that went viral this year was narrated by the fey and foul-mouthed "Randall," much to the delight of us all. It quickly spread through the pop culture undercurrent like a... well, like a virus. Thanks for the metaphor, stupid. Lousiana State University football player Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mattheiu finally broke through the NSFW restrictions on public honey badger talk when his nickname forced sports announcers to stumble all over themselves trying to explain the honey badger without using profanity on national television. Honey badger would've just said what he wanted. Honey badger doesn't give a sh*t. If you didn't see the video, you definitely missed out on one of the best "inside" jokes of 2011. And if you saw it and didn't find it hilarious, you probably have no sense of humor at all.

      So, that's the end of the year-end lists for 2011. Here's hoping you all have a safe and happy New Year's Eve celebration. See you all on the flipside.

      Thursday, December 29, 2011

      2011 Year in Dr. J

      Before I drop the 2011 Year in Pop Culture, which will be the last of my year-end lists, I thought I'd do one recounting my own year. 2011 began for me with a bit of a rough transition, as I was returning from a semester-long sabbatical, but things eventually smoothed out and stayed running smoothly (for the most part) for the duration. I had some great classroom experiences with my students this year, I met a couple of my musical and academic heroes, I spent a lot of Saturday nights having incredible fun at Wild Bill's, the traffic on this blog got a couple of major boosts from national media outlets, and I even made my first foray into the "art" world with the American Values Project. To top it all off, my hometown Memphis, a city that I love as much as I love bacon, also had a pretty great year. So, all in all, I figured that Memphis and I deserve to record our own 2011 list for posterity.

      So, here it is, the 2011 Year in Dr. J (in roughly chronological order):

      "Why I Chose Memphis" Series Featured in The Memphis Flyer
      Near the end of 2010, I started a series on this blog called "Why I Chose Memphis," where I asked people to tell the stories of how they ended up living in Memphis. We got stories from an economist, a filmmaker, a local news broadcaster, a Bulgarian ex-pat, and even a sommelier! I got the idea for the series from one of my ex-students, Jessica Lotz, who had decided that she was sick and tired of all of the bad press Memphis had been getting in 2010. The stories I featured in the "Why I Chose Memphis" series accomplished what Jessica and I had hoped: they debunked the myth that Memphis is a miserable city, devoid of intelligence and attractiveness. Instead, our stories showed the warmth and resilience of Memphis and Memphians, as well as the love that both have and deserve. Then, in January of this year, I was contacted by a reporter from our local alternative weekly newspaper, The Memphis Flyer, who wanted to run a short story about the series. My interview with the Flyer is here. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the first of what would be several times in 2011 that other news outlets linked to this blog. For the record, I'm still taking "Why I Chose Memphis" stories, so send yours in!

      American Values Project Spro
      uts Wings
      In February of 2011, I had a half-baked idea to make a video, which I imagined would be a collage of photographs of people naming something that they value. So, I put out a (not very well designed) call on my blog for photos... and that, my dear readers, was the beginning of what is now the American Values Project. People from all over the United States responded to my call and sent in photos of themselves holding a handwritten sign naming something that they valued. I made the short video that I had originally planned, but very soon afterwards I realized that the project had taken on a life of its own. Photos just kept coming in, and at some point I was going to have to figure out how to keep the project going. So, I set up a Facebook page for what I was now calling the "American Values Project." And the photos just kept coming in. Then, in April, the American Values Project got another big boost, when curator Tally Beck (of Tally Beck Contemporary) in New York City invited us to exhibit a portion of our photos in his gallery as a part of the Festival of Ideas for a New City. (That exhibit happened in May and was a great success!) Not long after the New York exhibit, Rhodes College featured the project on its website, and decided to give me an assistant for the Fall semester. Now, American Values Project has its own website and Twitter feed, and we're in the process of trying to fund another gallery exhibit in the Spring. It's only as I write this now that I'm realizing just how far this project has come in less that one year. If you haven't taken a minute to watch the slideshow of images from the AVP, you really should. It's moving, funny, inspirational, sometimes even curious. And it's one of the best things I've "created" in my whole life. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself!

      Memphis Believes In "All Heart, Grit, Grind"... And I Do, Too!
      In April, the whole city of Memphis was on fire with Grizz fever, as our NBA team (the Memphis Grizzlies) made an improbably fantastic run in the playoffs. Memphis was in the middle of a historic flood and a tragic foreclosure crisis, and the all heart, grit and grind of the Grizzlies was just what we needed to bring us together. (There's nothing like sports fandom for galvanizing civic pride!) Grizz strongman Zach Randolph summed it up best when he said that one of the reasons the Grizz thrived in Memphis was because they were a working-class team and Memphis was a working-class town. So true. I was lucky enough to be at the FedEx Forum (aka, the Grindhouse) for the Grizzlies' series-clinching win over the San Antonio Spurs, which also happened to be the same night as the Memphis in May Music Festival. Downtown was downright electric. People were honking and high-fiving and hugging and shouting "BELIEVE MEMPHIS!" I don't think I've ever loved my town as much as I did that night. Perhaps best of all, the Grindhouse theme song "All I Do Is Win" became a Memphis theme song. Now every time Memphians walk into the building everybody's hands go UP. And they stay there.

      30 Day Song Challenge Reminds Me That I Love Writing

      In June, as regular readers of this blog will know, I participated in the Facebook meme "30 Day Song Challenge." (You can read all of my entries here.) The Challenge gave me a musical prompt for every day-- a "song that makes you happy," a "song that you want played at your wedding," a "song you used to love but now hate," etc-- and I chose to write a blog post for each selection. I can say, without any reservations at all, that the whole month of June constituted the most purely enjoyable 30 days of writing I've ever done. I don't think I realized how much I love music, or how central it is to how I understand my life and my world, until I did the Challenge. Even better, my posts during the Challenge sparked a lot of really interesting conversations with my friends, some strangers, and some strangers that became friends. Just a few days ago, at Christmas dinner, I learned that even my mom read all my posts for the 30 Day Song Challenge! (My mom and I had a brief disagreement about my Day 16 disparaging of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," but it's all good.) In July, I briefly attempted-- and then gave up on-- my ridiculously self-designed 31 Days in Seuss, realizing in the process that I am most definitely not a poet. Honestly, if you want to know all there is to know of significance about Dr. J, you can find it in the blog posts from the 30 Day Song Challenge. F'realz.

      Anthony Appiah visits Rhodes and The Honor Code

      In September, Rhodes had the good fortune of hosting eminent philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. He came to campus to discuss his NYT bestseller The Honor Code, and as one of the (only four) philosophers in residence at Rhodes, I got to spend quite a bit of time talking to him about it. The basic premise of Appiah's book is that there are certain extra-moral codes (like codes of "honor," for example) that often shape what we end up calling "moral revolutions." Appiah's book poses the rather perplexing question: why, when all of the rational arguments against things like slavery, foot-binding, and dueling are already in place, do those practices continue to persist as acceptable? What exactly is it that prompts moral revolutions? Appiah's public lecture was as erudite and compelling as I anticipated, but it was really in our more intimate conversations over lunch and dinner that I found myself utterly impressed with his quite natural philosophical skill and cosmopolitanism. Almost every year, I teach Appiah's famous essay "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race" in my Philosophy of Race class, but I had always been suspect of some of the philosophical assumptions that underpinned his wok in critical race theory. I'm so glad I had the chance to sit and chat with him at length during his visit to Rhodes. He is, without question, a scholar and a gentleman... and I say that with absolutely no irony. He's also quite funny, which is always a plus in my book.

      Hanging Out With Lucinda Williams

      In October, I was getting ready for school one morning when the local NPR station announced that they had 2 tickets remaining to give away for Lucinda Williams' concert the next evening. They said anyone who wanted the tickets should just email the radio station. So I did. Now, let me just say that I've never won anything in my life... but at the end of the day, I checked my email and I HAD WON THE TICKETS!! The only thing more exciting than winning concert tickets was winning tickets to Lucinda Williams, who is one of my musical idols. I asked my good friend and fellow Lucinda-superfan, Kelly (who writes the very excellent blog, A Certain Solitary Pleasure), to go with me. We had a great time and it was an amazing show. We were right on the front row, less than 5 feet from Lucinda, singing along at the top of our lungs the whole time. After it was over, I asked one of her road crew if there was any way I could meet her. (Kelly said I was being "pushy" but, hey, the worst they can say is "no," right?) The roadie looked a little skeptical, so I started to tell him about my American Values Project, since Lucinda had spoken quite a bit about #OWS during her show and I thought she might be sympathetic to a project like ours. As it turns out, she was. My friend and I got invited onto Lucinda's tour bus, where we spent about an hour talking, laughing, and taking photos (of her and her whole band) for the American Values Project. Lucinda was warm and funny and smart and committed to good politics, just as I hoped she would be in "real" life. Along with my night with Kermit Ruffins in New Orleans last year, and my getting to sing onstage at B.B. Kings on Beale Street the year before, this will go down as one of the most memorable music moments of my life!

      Talking Truth and Reconciliation with Antjie Krog

      In another getting-to-meet-my-idols story, I had the good fortune to meet and serve on a panel with Antjie Krog, South African poet, journalist and author. Krog was one of the reporters who covered the proceedings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and wrote Country of My Skull recounting that experience. She came to Rhodes in November to deliver a lecture and poetry reading, both of which drew an overflowing audience. Thanks to my good friend, Mark Behr (who organized Krog's visit), I got to spend a lot of time with Krog. She is, in almost every conceivable way, the very model of an engaged intellectual. I don't think there's been any academic, other than Derrida, who has had me so star-struck upon meeting him or her. Krog not only has a very powerful presence about her, she IS a presence-- a soft-spoken, slight, mild-looking woman who commands attention and respect with the power of her words alone. Greatest moment: getting to discuss my weak humanism ideas with her, outside on a deck, smoking an after-dinner cigarette.

      Rhodes College Gets Occupied
      Well, kind of. My college attracts a lot of socially- and politically-engaged students, but the nature of their engagement, on the whole, is more service-oriented than it is activism-oriented. So, although our campus hasn't really seen a homegrown contingent of Occupiers just yet, a significant group of students were moved enough by the events at UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis in November to organize a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the students at those schools. They had a great turnout and a really inspiring and mature open discussion at the vigil. What's more, it looks like the Rhodes Solidarity Vigil might have been the first seed planted in a burgeoning "consciousness-raising" movement at Rhodes. There's a core group of students, staff and faculty (myself included) who have committed to keeping the Occupy Movement at the fore, and there's now a Facebook group to keep everyone informed and connected. (If you're a Rhodes alum, you can join the group, too!) I attended the Rhodes Vigil and wrote a short essay on Why I Stood With The Students for this blog. I have high hopes that this might be the beginning of something really great at Rhodes. Our new Wilson Chair of the Humanities, Jonathan Judaken, has arranged to bring Noam Chomsky to campus during the first week of classes and also to organize an ongoing Communities in Conversation series throughout the Spring semester. Small liberal arts colleges like Rhodes are the perfect places to imagine different and better futures. Here's to seeing what our community can imagine!

      The New York Tim
      es Opinionator (Finally) Recognizes the Awesomeness of Dr. J's Blog
      Okay, that may be overstating the matter a bit, but this blog did enjoy a brief moment in the spotlight a few weeks ago after the New York Times linked to my post on "The Philosophy Smoker Controversy" in their Opinionator section. Then, the same post was linked on InsideHigherEd and Jezebel and Gavagi. I really have no idea how in the world my $0.02 got moved up the ranks on this issue, but the viral storm sure was a boon for my blog traffic. And it was my first (and probably last) appearance in the NYT. For what it's worth, I largely disagree with the vitriolic opprobrium directed at Philosophy's so-called "Smoker," though I think it definitely has some fix-able problems, and I outlined as much in my original post. This has been a pretty rough year for professional Philosophy. Not only are we still suffering a truly soul-crushing job market and a tragic under-representation of women and minorities among our ranks, but many of the intra-family fights got downright ugly this year. I suppose there's some good to be found in the momentary distraction that was the Philosophy Smoker Controversy, if only because it gave us a brief reprise from the tired old "who's really doing REAL philosophy?" arguments that plague our profession. That, and I got mentioned in the New York Times. FTW!

      Trial Run for Amazing New Music Venue in Memphis
      Last Monday night, I went down to visit a new studio that my good friend Ronnie Wright has been building for the last couple of years. It's downtown at 508 S. Main, right on the trolley line and just across the street from the famous Arcade Restaurant and the infamous Ernestine & Hazel's bar. Ronnie has built a state-of-the-art recording studio and intimate performance space, which will host live webcasts on a site called Dittytv. He hosted a laid-back night for musicians and singers on Monday, so I grabbed my friend Chris Pitts (guitarist at Wild Bill's) and we went down to see what there was to see. It was A-MAZ-ING. Chris and I got to do a couple of numbers together (that's us in the picture here). It was one of those nights that I imagine can't happen in many cities other than Memphis. The room was filled with professional and amateur musicians, and everyone was happy to grab an instrument and join in with whatever anyone else wanted to play. True music, true people, true fun and utterly, absolutely, truly Memphis. I don't think you can spit in Memphis without hitting more talent that you would in any other place in the world.

      Saying Goodbye To 2011
      As I am every Saturday night, I will be at Wild Bill's this coming Saturday night, New Year's Eve, to say goodbye to 2011 and hello to 2012 with good friends, good food, good music and a lot of drinks. (That's me and one of my closest friends in the world, Chris Pitts, performing at Bill's to the left.) I really can't exaggerate how much of a central place this place is to me. When I think back over the best moments I had in 2011-- or any other year I've been in Memphis, for that matter-- the vast majority of them have occurred in the reddish, rocking, drunken glow of Wild Bill's. I'm not at all looking forward to 2012-- I'll be undergoing tenure review next Fall-- so I'm sure I'll be counting on Wild Bill's to deliver the spiritual sustenance that I need to make it through. And I know, without a doubt, that it will deliver. There's going to be a rocking good NYE party at Bill's on Saturday night, so if you happen to be in the River City, stop by and say hello. If you come down to the river, you betcha gonna find some people who live. You don't have to worry 'cause you got no money. People on the river are happy to give.

      That's it for the 2011 Year in Dr. J. The next, and final, list is coming shortly: 2011 Year in Pop Culture. Stay tuned.

      Finally, for my friends who read this blog, please take the opportunity to say hello and let me know you're still here in the comments. I thank you all for staying with me and this blog. Happy New Year!

      Monday, December 26, 2011

      2011 Year in Politics

      I don't think I'm going out on a limb here to say that 2011 will likely go down as the most significant Year in Politics in my lifetime. Time magazine named "The Protester" as the 2011 Person of the Year. It was an interesting selection, since Time couldn't actually photograph The Protester for their cover. They opted for an imaginative artistic mash-up of many types of protesters' faces instead, because the 2011 Protester was not a person, but rather The People. From Bahrain to Manhattan to Algeria to Wisconsin to Chile to Egypt to UC-Davis to Tunisia, the Protester was legion. Even on my own campus, a small, mostly wealthy and historically apolitical liberal-arts college in Tennessee, I could tell that revolution and solidarity were in the air.

      This really was a monumental year. Wars were started and ended. Old leaders fell and new ones arose. The world began conversing in different political vocabularies, imagining different political futures, listening to different political constituents voicing different political concerns. And thanks to Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and a thousand blogs, we could see every exciting and tragic and inspirational and heartbreaking moment happening in every corner of the globe. Even North Korea's corner.

      On the other hand, 2011 delivered plenty of garden-variety political shenanigans and buffoonery as well. This year's ridiculous answer to last year's The Rent Is Too Damn High Party is The Taxes Are Too Damn High Party, a.k.a. the Republican Party, which seemed even more hypocritical, culturally tone-deaf, anti-science and "oops"-inclined. In fact, it wouldn't be too difficult to do a whole list of 2011 Year in Politics just focusing on GOP debate gaffes. Alas, these lists are never long enough, never complete or comprehensive, but here's a go at some of the biggest headlines from the 2011 Year in Politics:

      Arab Spring

      One could make a convincing argument for the claim that most of the other significant political events of 2011 would not have happened if the Arab Spring had not sprung. Protests that began with the cry "Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām!" in Tunisia last December eventually spawned a great Awakening that spread across countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Morocco. Of course, one can't reduce the initiation of a movement of this far-reaching to a single event, but if one could, it would have to be the tragic self-immolation of Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010. Harassed and humiliated by local police, Bouazizi took his own life in protest of Tunisia's autocratic regime headed by now-ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bouazizi's bravery emboldened his fellow Tunisians, those Tunisians' bravery emboldened a region, and that region's bravery emboldened a world.

      War Without End, "Ends"
      The nearly nine-year U.S. occupation of Iraq came to an end on December 15 with a flag-lowering ceremony. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in attendance, said that a free and democratic Iraq was worth the cost-- "in blood and treasures"-- that the U.S. paid, though that's hardly a consolation to the families of almost 5,000 servicemen and -women who lost their lives in the Iraq War. Nor is it a consolation to those suffering the brunt of our devastated economy, which hemorrhaged an estimated 3-4 trillion dollars as a result of this war. The last of the troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by December 31, leaving behind what is without doubt an unrecognizable country to most Iraqis. This past semester, I realized that many of my students (ages 18-22) have lived with the U.S. in a state of war with Iraq for over half their lives. They were children when it began; they're adults now. They likely don't remember that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was initiated under a cover of lies. Then-President George W. Bush declared Iraq "the central front in the War on Terror" after manufacturing false-links between al Qaeda, 9/11 and Iraq. The Iraq War may be over, but the larger War on Terror of which it was a part still looks to be a war without end.

      Osama bin Laden Assassinated
      "Justice has been done." Those were President Obama's words, part of the dramatic address he delivered to the nation late in the evening on Sunday, May 1, announcing the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after a Navy SEAL team raided his compound, assassinating him. Obama's announcement was just short of ten years after the attacks bin Laden helped orchestrate on September 11, 2001. It had been a hawkish decade of war and fear, which had traumatized and refashioned the American psyche surely as much as the events of 9/11. Despite the fact that almost every news outlet repeated, over and over again, that Obama's announcement was "the most significant," "the most awaited," "the most desired" news story for our country, the on-the-ground reactions were not unanimously in agreement with those evaluations. For some, Osama bin Laden's death represented both justice and closure; for others, it was only a reminder of how costly ("in blood and treasures," to use Panetta's formulation) justice and closure can be. Without question, Osama bin Laden was cruel and murderous, an ideologue whose impact was as far-reaching as it was devastating. But our final treatment of bin Laden-- like our treatment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, like our treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, like our treatment of Uday and Qusay Hussein, like our treatment of Yaser Esam Hamdi and like our treatment of Guantanamo bay detainees-- the decision on the part of our President to execute justice outside of the constraints of the rule of law complicates and compromises any satisfaction we might feel in the justice that was done.

      G.O.P. Primary Debates Offer a Masterclass in CUH-Razy
      I try on this blog, as best as I am able, to not over-inject my analyses with partisan prejudice. But when I look at the Republican Party's 2012 Presidential primary candidates, I can't help but think that they're taking a few of Jesus' beatitudes a bit too literally. (I'm thinking of the fourth, the sixth and the eighth in particular.) Waving the banner of Christian (read: Protestant-capitalist) righteousness, the GOP seems to have dug up every last loony-tune in their ranks and designated him or her a "strong" candidate for President of the United States. It's a good thing that they control the House (though not the Senate) right now, because otherwise there might not be enough Republican politicos in power to pepper-spray the little kid crying that their Emperors are butt-naked. It's really difficult to pick the highlights (or lowlights) from this year's GOP primary debates, they're just too numerous and ridiculous and hilarious and frightening to narrow down. It's also a good thing for Republicans that Obama hasn't brought about enough change people can believe in over the last four years, because even the least of the GOP looks a helluva lot better as a consequence of Obama's underperformance. I won't lie, I'm kind of looking forward to seeing what other madness this group is going to roll out over the next several months. It's like a rubbernecker's dream.

      North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-il, Dies
      Just last week, the International Cult of Bad Guys took another hit when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack. It's hard to underestimate the repressiveness of Kim Jong-il's regime. He has been almost single-handedly responsible for sealing his country off from the rest of the world for the last three decades. According to Human Rights Watch, North Korea was one of the world's "most oppressive governments," holding up to 200,000 people in brutal prison camps and concentration camps. Under Kim Jong-il's rule, North Koreans were allowed no freedom of press or religion, no representation for political opposition, and no equal education. Because he was also the supreme commander of the fourth-largest standing army in the world (the Korean People's Army), his overthrow has been all but impossible, despite the fact that all reports indicate that South Koreans living under his rule are "some of the world's most brutalized people." Nevertheless, Kim Jong-il's people publicly and dramatically mourned his passing in Pyongyang, though it's unclear how much of their grief was coerced. Kim Jong-il will be succeeded by his third (and favorite) son, Kim Jong-un, while the rest of the world continues to hope that some of the revolutionary spirit that has swept across the Arab world will find its way onto the Korean Peninsula.

      Go Ahead! Ask! Tell!
      After many years of lobbying, LGBT advocates finally won their fight to repeal the military's longstanding "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which forbade gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. Armed Forces. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney notwithstanding, almost everyone else has realized for a long time that this policy was ignorant, prejudicial, unconstitutional and grossly disrespectful to the brave men and women who serve our country. I hate to be cynical about what is definitely a huge step forward for the LGBT movement, but I can't help but think that this particular step was motivated in large part by our country's increasingly desperate need for soldiers. Even still, gay and lesbian soldiers who have been forced to hide (or lie about) their lives and loves deserve this victory, and it's at least one confirmation that Obama really does believe in LGBT equality. (There haven't been many of those confirmations.) Last week, a really heartwarming video went viral of a Navy Second Class Sergeant giving her girlfriend a kiss after returning home. They probably still can't get married, but one step at a time.

      Supercommittee Fails To Avert Debt Ceiling Debacle
      For most Americans, the real-- perhaps the only-- news story of 2011 was the continuing decline of the U.S. economy. There were several flashpoints in this story over the course of 2011, but those flashes seemed to concentrate in a paparazzi light-show near the end of the year. Back in March, President Obama, Democrats and Republicans came to blows over the 2011 budget. Congress was sharply divided along political lines, and the division of those lines was exacerbated by several freshman Congressional members who had come to office on the back of Tea Party support. They forged a tentative deal in the Spring, but only after severely rattling the stock market and consumer confidence. A few months later, animus flared again--this time on the issue of whether to raise the debt ceiling. Conservatives, including Tea Partiers, argued that Congress should not raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling even if it meant the U.S. defaults on its debt. In November, a bipartisan subcommittee (dubbed the Congressional Supercommittee) was charged with getting the long-term federal deficit under control. Instead of a deal, they delivered an EPIC FAIL, demonstrating the inability to compromise that has characterized so much of the work of the 112th U.S. Congress. Lawmakers eventually reached a stopgap deal and averted what many economists said would have propelled another economic crisis. (Republicans agreed to raise the debt limit by up to $2.4 trillion through 2013, in exchange for $1 trillion in spending cuts in 10 years.) But this 13th hour deal was, again, only a temporary fix. Next round coming to a theater near you in February.

      99% #Occupy

      If 2010 was the year of the Tea Party, 2011 is the year of the Occupy Movement. On September 17, a group of disgruntled New Yorkers set up camp in Zuccotti Park (also called Liberty Park) in the financial district and commenced protesting the gross economic inequality of our nation and our world. The self-described "culturejamming" internet company AdBusters quickly hashtagged the protest #Occupy Wall Street, and most of the major media news outlets began ridiculing them as a bunch of unemployed, dirty hippies. But they stayed, they kept camping, and they grew in number. By early October, #OWS had became a nationwide-- and then a worldwide-- movement, with similar Occupy campsites springing up in almost every major metropolitan area. (As of December, the Occupy Together site lists Occupy sites in over 2500 cities worldwide.) They called themselves the 99%, and they set themselves against the 1%, indicating the concentration of wealth in a sliver of the population. By November, it had become increasingly difficult to dismiss the Occupiers as a fringe movement, as it was beginning to resonate with the millions of Americans put out of their homes by foreclosures or otherwise struggling with inescapable debt. Then, the Occupy Movement moved onto college campuses and captured the imagination of debt-laden and debt-increasing students. When Occupying students at UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis were beaten and pepper-sprayed by police, it seemed that the police/State crackdown on the Occupy Movement had finally, violently, begun. Shortly thereafter, the evictions of OccupyOakland, OccupyPhiladelphia, OccupySanFrancisco and other sites demonstrated for the nation that the full force of the State and the police were decidedly in the service of the 1%. OccupyWallStreet, the original Occupy site and the home base for the movement, temporarily avoided eviction in a standoff with New York Mayor Bloomberg, but were themselves evicted from Zuccotti Park in the wee hours of the morning on November 15. The evictions and police violence have failed to deter the Occupiers, though, and the attention it has brought to the Movement seems to be galvanizing a whole new set of the American public. The class war has begun. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

      Those are the highlights for 2011 Year in Politics. Next up is my favorite of the year-end lists: the 2011 Year in Pop Culture!

      Saturday, December 17, 2011

      Good Guy, Bad Guy

      George Clooney's 2011 political film The Ides of March is based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play "Farragut North," which is itself based on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean. That is to say, The Ides of March is a political drama situated squarely in the "now." It's story is post-9/11, post-Iraq and -Afghanistan wars, post Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It's not post-Obama, nor is it post-economic crisis, but the valence of those events is palpable and all the film's characters are recognizable ones of our time: the idealistic liberal, the libertarian conservative, the cynical behind-the-scenes politicos, the suspicious journalists, the naive volunteers and interns, the disillusioned electorate. The film follows Pennsylvania Senator Henry Morris (played by George Clooney) on his Presidential election campaign. Morris' campaign is run by a pair of smart and savvy advisers, who operate with and against each other like a Janus head. There's the irascible, slightly paranoid, obsessive journeyman Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the brilliant, driven, disciplined, but tragically idealistic wunderkind Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). The plot turns as much on the relationship between Zara and Meyers as it does on the deeds/misdeeds of Morris.

      [Spoiler alert! Skip this paragraph if you don't want plot details revealed.]
      In fact, the title of the film "the Ides of March"-- a reference to the day that Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman senate by a group of friends and conspirators-- seems to describe best the downfall of Zara at the hands of Meyers. Meyers is a True Believer for most of the film; he works tirelessly on behalf of Senator Morris because he believes in the person and the character of Morris. Meyers has good reason for that belief. Morris is the model of a "principled" candidate: he's boldly and straightforwardly atheist (arguing in campaign debates that "the Constitutions is [his] religion"), he's anti-war, he's an environmentalist, he's for the working class, he's pro-technology, he's cosmopolitan. Meyers' believes that Morris is the one who should be President, the one who's different, the change he can believe in. So, Meyers does not find himself sullied or soiled by the dirtiness of politics that is his business. He believes he is backing the best candidate,and he says as much several times in the film. Meyers' talent, intellect and dedication do not go unnoticed by the opposition, however. When the campaign manager (played by Paul Giamatti) for Morris' Republican opponent tries to lure Meyers over to the other side, Meyers rejects the offer, but he suffers a guilty conscience for entertaining the idea of jumping ship, which he sees as an implicit betrayal of his mentor Zara. No sooner does Meyer get a chance to smooth out the wrinkles of his minor indiscretion than he is met with the cold, hard, ugly truth of Senator Morris' major indiscretions. Meyers learns of Morris' illicit affair with a young campaign intern (resulting in a pregnancy, an abortion, and a suicide) and Meyers' disillusionment is devastating. Alas, he's a True Believer by constitution, so instead of turning on his candidate, he turns on Zara instead and uses his knowledge of Morris' affair to oust his mentor. The twist of The Ideas of March is that the audience is led all along to believe that Morris is the "Caesar" of the film, that he will be betrayed by those he trusts, and that that trust will be as much his undoing as his actual misdeeds. Morris is not undone in this film, though. Everyone else is.
      [Spoilers over]

      Pace the NYT review, I thought The Ides of March was a solid film. My favor is largely based in Clooney's performance as the good guy/bad guy Morris. Clooney is one of the few actors, in my view, who can so effortlessly, seamlessly and believably manage complex characters who are equal parts good and bad. Clooney played a similar good guy/bad guy in the 2009 Reitman film Up In The Air, a remarkable film that I reviewed here. The only other actors with this skill that come to mind are Clint Eastwood (for example, in Unforgiven) and Jeff Bridges (most impressively, in Crazy Heart and True Grit), though The Ides of March co-stars Ryan Gosling and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are pretty adept in this area as well (see their performances in Half Nelson and Capote, respectively). The trick about playing the good guy/bad guy (hereafter GG/BG) is that both the goodness of the character and the badness of the character has to be maintained with integrity, and simultaneously. It can't be the case that the GG/BG turns from good to bad, or from bad to good, as happens with both Gosling's character and Hoffman's character in The Ides of March. (That's just peripeteia, a device we're all accustomed to seeing in tragedies.) Rather, the GG/BG has to maintain a tension, an undecidability, that makes it impossible to issue judgments about his or her character with any kind of resolve.

      No doubt, the reason Clooney's character in The Ides of March resonates so deeply with me is because he reminds me of President Obama (and more than a little bit like President Bill Clinton). I was a True Believer in Obama back during the 2008 campaign season. I thought he was the one. Then, he got elected and he didn't end the wars, he didn't help the gays, he didn't close Guantanamo Bay, he didn't reverse the Patriot Act, he didn't deliver the change I believed in and voted for. Like Meyers believed of Morris in The Ides of March, I believe-- despite all the evidence to the contrary-- that Obama is still a man of principle. Principles that I share. So, the disillusionment that I feel when recognizing that Obama is just a man like any other, perhaps even just a politician like any other, is truly disheartening. It's disheartening because he hasn't become a Bad Guy. (Obama, for all his faults, is not Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld.) He's just weak and mortal and imperfect and a whole host of other vices that we don't permit in our heroes. Obama is a GG/BG, which makes it impossible for us True Believers to stop loving him, but also to start hating him.

      Maybe Zara isn't really the Caesar-character in The Ides of March. Maybe Meyers is. Meyers stands in for all of us True Believers whose "et tu?" cries are the dominant, and unfortunate, civic sound of the new millennium.