Category Archives: Culture

New C4SS Article on Dialectics

Today, Center for a Stateless Society published my newest essay: “It Really Does Depend on the Context: Ben Burgis and the Analytical Marxist Critique of Dialectics.” As I write:

The title of this essay recalls the Congressional hearing that took place on December 5, 2023, in which Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University, seemed to dodge difficult questions by uttering the phrase “it depends on the context.” The phrase immediately became meme-able, even the butt of an opening “Saturday Night Live” skit. New York Times journalist A. O. Scott (2024) wrote that more than any other word, be it “plagiarism” or “genocide,” “Gay’s fate was sealed by a single word. … The word was ‘context’.” Scott’s larger point, of course, was that throughout the heated controversy, there was, in fact, a “rigorous avoidance of context” — the context of election-year politics, unending global conflicts, the crises in higher education, and so forth.

My purpose in this essay is not to relitigate that Congressional hearing. Rather, it is to focus on the method for which keeping context is primary. That method — dialectics — addresses societal problems by exploring their many overlapping and shifting contexts in a dynamic world.

Check out the “full context” here!

For discussion, see here, here, and here.

Song of the Day #2098

Song of the Day: Cinderella (“So This is Love”), words and music by Al Hoffman, Mack David, and Jerry Livingston, is featured in the 1950 animated flick. Ilene Woods and Mike Douglas provide the vocals for this lovely duet in the original Disney film [YouTube link]. Check out another sweet rendition by James Ingram and an instrumental jazz version by the Dave Brubeck Quartet [YouTube links]. A Happy Valentine’s Day, with love to my family and friends! The Daffodils are already in full bloom in Brooklyn! (And yes, I decorated!)

When I was 21 …

I just learned from my pal Aeon J. Skoble that, apparently trending on Instagram, people are posting pics of when they were 21. I couldn’t be absolutely certain, so I scanned my 1981 NYU undergraduate NYU yearbook pic. “When I was 21, it was a very good year …”

Grammy Awards 2024

The Grammy Awards show is always a mixed bag. So many of the Awards are presented in the pre-show that you’d better have access to Wikipedia to get the full list of nominees and winners—though the Grammy site was streaming the pre-show on its platform. I was happy to see that among those pre-show winners was composer John Williams. Yesterday, I highlighted “Helena’s Theme” in the first of a multiday tribute to the maestro, part of my 20th Annual Film Music February Festival. And last night, he took home his twenty-sixth Grammy Award for that selection, which won for “Best Instrumental Composition”.

Long gone are the days when the show would feature classical or jazz artists to exhibit the breadth of the categories honored. But still, there were many entertaining performances—from Dua Lipa’s energetic opening medley and Miley Cyrus’s “Flowers” mic drop to Billie Eilish’s Song of the Year rendering of “What Was I Made For?” from the “Barbie” soundtrack.

Still, I’ve gotta give props to the veterans, who gave us the most riveting moments in the show. Tracy Chapman teaming up with Luke Combs for “Fast Car” was a surprise duet. Especially touching was the “In Memoriam” segment, in which the late Tony Bennett was honored with two songs sung by Stevie Wonder: “For Once in My Life” (in which Stevie dueted with a clip from Bennett’s live performance of it in the Grammy tribute to “Songs in the Key of Life”) and “The Best is Yet to Come”. That was followed by Annie Lennox’s emotionally stirring rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U”, in tribute to the late Sinead O’Connor and Jon Batiste’s tribute to music executive Clarence Avant. The segment concluded with Fantasia Barrino’s rousing cover of “Proud Mary” in tribute to the late Tina Turner.

Billy Joel’s return to the Grammy stage with his first new song (“Turn the Lights Back On”) in thirty years along with his closing rendition of “You May Be Right” was a treat. And seeing an ailing Celine Dion emerge on the Grammy stage to a standing ovation to present the Album of the Year Award was quite moving. Taylor Swift made history by winning that award—the fourth time she has done so, outdistancing Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon, all of whom had three Album of the Year Grammy Awards to their credit. (Yes, yes, of course, this is only the first half of a psyop in which Taylor Swift takes Album of the Year and her boyfriend Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl before endorsing Joe Biden for President. If you can’t keep up with conspiracy theory nowadays, get with the program!)

Still, for me, the most poignant moment had to be Joni Mitchell’s performance of “Both Sides, Now” from her 1969 album, “Clouds”. At 80 years old, having had a lifetime of health challenges, this was Mitchell’s first live Grammy performance. The jazz-infused arrangement included accompaniment from Brandi Carlile, Jacob Collier, Lucius, Blake Mills, Allison Russell and SistaStrings. She also took home the Grammy prize for Best Folk Album (“Joni Mitchell at Newport”).

Congratulations to all the winners at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards!

Song of the Day #2087

Song of the Day: Gunga Din (“Across the Bridge / Battle at Tantrapur”) [YouTube link], composed by Alfred Newman, is from the 1939 George Stevens-directed adventure film, starring Sam Jaffe in the title role, along with Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen. Loosely based on the 1890 Rudyard Kipling poem, the film concludes with the same classic line: “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” But the movie offers up quite an adventure, both comedic and tragic, before we get to that conclusion. There’s been a long debate over the film’s legacy, its British colonialist and racist subtext, and the controversial use of dark make-up in Hollywood. That said, this cue from the score by Alfred Newman is one of his most stirring, a highlight from Hollywood’s Golden Year of 1939. The movie’s adventurous scenes influenced Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, and Alfred Newman had a significant impact on Spielberg’s musical comrade, John Williams, to whom our attention turns tomorrow.

Me in 1966! Baffled by Batman in Bellmore!

On Thursday, August 25, 1966, I was among the estimated 3,000 people who gathered on Bedford Avenue in Bellmore, Long Island to see Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) from the TV series that brought “POW!”, “BAM!”, and “ZONK” into our living rooms each week.

Going through some old files, I just discovered the cover story in “Bellmore Life” (August 31, 1966)* and there we were! I put a little yellow arrow to point out what was most assuredly my debut in print media—at the age of six-and-a-half!

The paper reported: “A ‘see’ of people drowns Batman in Bellmore … some with gay signs, pro and con.” That’s a quote folks. And I can state for the record I was very pro!

Sadly, I remember that Batman and Robin never got out of their Bat Bus, but “it was the people’s own fault for not cooperating. It was said that Batman was wearing his fourth suit that day, the previous three having been ripped apart by overeager admirers at earlier stops at Huntington and Massapequa.”

No matter! I was there! And I saw them! Behold!

__

* Today, it’s known as the “Bellmore Herald Life” (though it ran from 1964-2013 under the original title). It says online: “Richner Communications, the Herald’s parent company, recently acquired Bellmore Life. Bringing the two newspapers and their respective staffs together will allow us to build a better, stronger paper whose guiding mission will be serving our readers’ best interests.”

Here’s a link to the original paper from August 31, 1966 in the archives. The photos there are even clearer (see below). I distinctly remember that Batman was positioned (as in the photo) looking out the side front window of the bus. And Robin was looking out the rear windshield of the bus. He didn’t look thrilled, as I recall.

Song of the Day #2086

Song of the Day: Three Little Pigs (“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”), words and music by Frank Churchill and Ann Ronell, made its screen debut in the 1933 Disney short, “Three Little Pigs“, which won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Check out the original version from the short, as well as very different renditions by Barbra Streisand and LL Cool J [YouTube links]. Though neither a pig nor a wolf, Punxsutawney Phil, the famous Groundhog, has predicted an early spring. His prediction has been confirmed by Staten Island Chuck, who has the added virtue of having scuffled with a couple of New York Mayors. Chuck also boasts an 80% accuracy rate, compared to Punxsutawney Phil’s 39% accuracy rate. Either way, in two weeks, pitchers and catchers report to Spring training, and that’s as sure a sign as any that the Vernal Equinox is just around the corner!

Jonathan Rauch on the History of LGBTQ Erasure

Over the years, Jonathan Rauch’s prolific work has delved into many provocative political and cultural topics. The openly gay author, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been a strong proponent of same-sex marriage and a gallant critic of attacks on free thought.  His newest contribution to The Atlantic, “The U.S. Should Apologize to Gay People” (26 January 2024), is a riveting piece of journalistic research, exploring the ways in which the U.S. government led a campaign to erase LGBTQ people from public life.  

Rauch’s investigation exemplifies a genuinely dialectical approach to the study of history. By that I mean, Rauch is concerned with exploring the full context that shaped and was shaped by political, cultural, economic, psychiatric, and social institutions, all working in tandem toward the oppression of LGBTQ people in the United States. He traces the ways in which these institutions became reciprocally reinforcing preconditions and effects of one another, leaving a tragic wreckage of individual lives in their wake.

The author reminds us of a time when “the U.S. government fired homosexuals, the military discharged them, and police arrested them.” But this well-known history sheds little light on the systemic policies that “were not discrimination of any ordinary sort.” Rauch admits that even he had “not fully appreciated” the full historical scope involved. He’s very clear that “[b]ecause society targeted what it identified as ‘homosexuality,’” he uses that term throughout his essay, even though it applies broadly to “[p]eople who today would identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender-nonconforming,” all of whom were targeted. He writes:

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing for more than six decades, the United States waged a campaign of legal, social, and psychological obliteration against its homosexual population. … The campaign was initiated by the federal government but recruited all of society. The pressure could be felt everywhere. It found you not only at work, where you could be fired, or in bars and clubs, where you could be arrested, but also on the street and in public spaces, where you could be harassed or assaulted; in a doctor’s care, where you might be deemed mentally ill; at home, where you saw gay people ridiculed and pathologized on TV. …

The goal … was not merely to disadvantage homosexual people; it was to erase homosexuality from every corner of public life. … Some of what America did to its LGBTQ citizens would have been right at home in places such as prewar Germany, Communist East Germany, and any number of repressive states today. … The campaign stands, at its peak, as America’s purest national experiment with totalitarianism. Although not the cruelest or deadliest of America’s historical oppressions—no populations were decimated or relocated; no people were enslaved—it stands apart in its use of every governmental and social channel to eliminate the very thought of “deviance.”

Whereas totalitarianism is typically thought of as “centrally planned and imposed,” in the United States, “a decentralized system of mutually reinforcing repressions” had much the same totalizing effect. Rauch recognizes how various structures, institutions, and practices across American society fortified one another. “Official acts of persecution, executed loudly over many years, could not fail to echo in the culture at large; and indeed, they created a permission structure for blatant prejudice. Mass media amplified the message that homosexuality was disgusting and terrifying.” This “entire system of erasure was backed by violence,” as LGBTQ people were all too often singled out for street bullying, threats, and assaults. Moreover, the psychiatric profession provided “both legitimacy and impetus for the eradication of homosexuality,” becoming “the most soul-crushing cog in the repressive machine.” The psychiatric use of electroshock therapy, lobotomization, and other gruesome techniques to tame sexuality were matched by coerced resignations and blackmail in the private sector and interrogations, arrests, and prosecutions in the public sector.

Rauch continues:

The arrests, the raids, the firings, the networks of informants, the coercive investigations, the surveillance, the obliteration of privacy, the abuse of medicine, the drumbeat of street violence, the disruptions of social gatherings and family life—each element of the regime supported and amplified the others. Only by standing back and seeing the regime whole does one appreciate how all of society was bent toward repressing every aspect of homosexual life, wherever it might appear. The goal was to suppress not just deviant activity but deviant expression and even deviant thought. That was what made it literally totalitarian.

Rauch’s investigation in this remarkable essay is staggering in its scale. He examines how interlocking structures of oppression amounted to a virtual “declaration of war” on homosexuality. Some of the battlegrounds in this war could be found in the actions of various commissions, Congressional and Senate hearings, agencies as diverse as the Foreign Service, Civil Service, and FBI, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and State. It extended even into the Oval Office, when, “in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued his infamous Executive Order 10450, one of America’s most grotesque civil-rights violations, declaring ‘sexual perversion’ to be a security threat. The effect was to authorize all federal departments and agencies to root out and terminate sexual deviants. … [H]omosexuals were fired automatically, without excuse or exception.”

This federal effort was met by state and local “enforcement of anti-homosexual measures,” which involved systematic “surveilling, entrapping, arresting, harassing, exposing, and prosecuting homosexuals at previously unknown rates.” Targeted by laws prohibiting “solicitation, indecency, lewdness, loitering, and obscenity effectively criminalized the mere act of flirting, socializing, or hanging out.”

In 1973, even after the American Psychiatric Association had “removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, … the damage lingered for decades.” In that very same year, Rauch explains,

Farrall Instrument Co. of Grand Island, Nebraska, proudly advertised a line of devices for home-psychiatric treatment of male homosexuality. The ‘Visually Keyed Shocker’ showed alternating slides depicting conventionally attractive women and men (‘stimulus scenes’). The latter were accompanied by an electric shock. If you were a latent homosexual and desperate for a ‘cure,’ you could buy one for $600 or more.

In a moment of poignant self-reflection, Rauch, who was 13 in that year, tells us:

This was the world I grew up in … Everything I saw and heard conveyed that something was wrong with me, and that I must keep it secret, especially from the people I loved and depended on. So warped was my inner world that, until I was 25, I could not bear to face the blatant truth about myself and managed to believe that I was asexual, some kind of freak who could never love anyone (a story I told in my 2013 book, Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul). In that respect, though I never owned a “Visually Keyed Shocker,” I administered a full course of self-erasure in the privacy of my mind.

Many years later, on January 9, 2017, Secretary of State John Kerry posted an official apology on the State Department’s website, “for the department’s relentless, decades-long persecution of homosexuals. By January 23, the page was gone, removed in one of the first acts of the incoming Trump administration. The government was sorry for two weeks.”

That such acts of erasure continue prompts Rauch to call on the United States to join the governments of the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and others, which have apologized for “past abuses of homosexuals.” He further demands “restitution to living victims of government arrest, firing, or military discharge.” This is most assuredly not “pandering to modern grievance culture.” In Rauch’s view, it is the righting of a systemic injustice in accordance with American ideals.

The author warns us that as today’s “conservative activists crisscross the country seeking to wipe homosexuality and transgenderism from school libraries, from history classes, and from other curricula,” there is an eerie similarity to the campaigns of yore. His words are timelier than ever as illiberal assaults on LGBTQ people are heightened throughout this nation’s increasingly toxic culture wars.

My discussion here, which quotes liberally from Rauch’s important essay, offers only a fraction of its unsettling contents. I urge folks to read every single word of this raw historical reckoning.

You can access the article on the site of The Atlantic. It is also archived here.

Some Facebook discussion of this entry can be found here.

Happy New Year: Holiday Vids!

Happy New Year 2024!

On Facebook, I’ve posted a total of nine Holiday Videos. Here, for Notablog readers, are my own site links to each of these videos.

Holiday Vid #1: Charlie Brown & Snoopy (Jingle Bells)

Holiday Vid #2: The Christmas Song Music Box

Holiday Vid #3: Peanuts Christmas (Charlie Brown Theme)

Holiday Vid #4: Christmas Carousel (Joy to the World)

Holiday Vid #5: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Tribute

Holiday Vid #6: Snow Man & Dog Duet (Jingle Bells)

Holiday Vid #7: Christmas at Home (The Christmas Song)

Holiday Vid #8: Happy Solstice! (Let it Snow!)

Holiday Vid #9: Singing Mice (“… and a Happy New Year”)

A Happy & Healthy New Year from All of Us to All of You!

Song of the Day #2080

Song of the Day: The Secret of Christmas, words and music by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen, was written for Bing Crosby, who performed this song in the 1959 film, “Say One for Me“. Check out the film’s rendition, by Bing, with assistance from Debbie Reynolds and Robert Wagner [YouTube link]. The song has been covered by many artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews, and violinist Joshua Bell, whose recording with singer Michael Feinstein is lovely. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, especially among my friends and family. The spirit of the holiday, however, is universal, with its message of “Peace on earth, Goodwill toward all.”