All posts filed under: culture

Beating Up Boomer

Reviews of A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America by Bruce Cannon Gibney, Hachette, 465 pages (March 2018) OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind by Jill Filipovic, Atria/One Signal, 336 pages (August 2020) Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster by Helen Andrews, Sentinel, 256 pages (January 2021). Beating up on Baby Boomers is rapidly becoming the favorite sport of Gen-Xers and Millennials eager to deflect attention from their own privilege. Whether they are leftwing BLM sympathizers, card-carrying libertarians, or rightwing NRA members, there is one thing about which every American under 56 seems to agree: the Boomers are horrible. This month brings us the latest anti-Boomer manifesto, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster by Helen Andrews, a senior editor at the American Conservative. Her book is among the smartest and most intelligent of the lot, but before we delve into its contents let’s take a look at some of the previous highlights of the genre. In 2017 Bruce …

Why We Should Read Martin Amis

Written after his father’s passing, Martin Amis’s memoir Experience highlighted my project in the first chapter in the second footnote: When you review a film, or appraise a film-director, you do not make a ten-minute short about it or him (or her). When you write about a painter, you do not produce a sketch. When you write about a composer, you do not reach for your violin. And even when a poet is under consideration, the reviewer or profilist does not (unless deeply committed to presumption and tedium) produce a poem. But when you write about a novelist, an exponent of prose narrative, then you write a prose narrative. So, when a reviewer drafts a poor review, he or she is subject to the following question, “And was that the extent of your hopes for your prose—bookchat, interviews, gossip?” Answering his own question, Amis writes, “Valued reader, it is not for me to say this is envy. It is for you to say that this is envy.” Amis is a British novelist and essayist, who, …

Ray Russell’s Incubus: A Lost Gem from America’s Twentieth Decade

Hard as it might be to believe, the years that stretched from roughly 1967 through the bicentennial year of 1976 brought even more foment, outrage, unrest, and upheaval to America than the most recent decade has managed. The escalation of the Vietnam War, the student protests against that war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., psychedelia and the sexual revolution, Woodstock, the political resurrection of Richard Nixon, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the moon landings, the Manson murders, second-wave feminism, the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State, Watergate, the fall of Nixon, the rise of the summer blockbuster film—it was an era of almost unprecedented social and cultural turmoil. Perhaps that explains why so many remain fascinated by that era today. All sorts of recent cultural properties have revisited it: the 2020 Amazon Prime TV series Hunters (set in 1970s New York City and starring 1970s icon Al Pacino), How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (the recent HBO documentary about the Bee Gees), Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The …

The Death of Political Cartooning—And Why It Matters

Six years ago, on January 7th, 2015, two brothers armed with Kalashnikov rifles assaulted a building on Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris, where they killed a maintenance man named Frédéric Boisseau and forced their way into the second-floor offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They asked for four cartoonists, by name, and executed each of them. They also killed four other journalists, a bodyguard assigned to protect one of the cartoonists in the event of just such an attack, police officer Ahmed Merabet, and a friend of one of the cartoonists. Following a nihilistic two-day crime spree, the brothers were killed in a hail of police bullets outside a printworks north-east of Paris. The ghastly murders at Charlie Hebdo shocked the world. Yet while the scale and violence of the incident were unprecedented, such attacks against cartoonists are hardly unknown. Throughout history, cartoonists have been jailed, kidnapped, tortured, exiled, and murdered. Ostensibly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed for drawing pictures of the prophet Muhammad. (Two days after the murders, an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen …

Wide As the Sky and Deep As the Ocean

When Don Van Vliet—the painter and musician better known as Captain Beefheart—died 10 years ago today, the obituary in the New York Times described him as “an artist of protean creativity” whose 1969 avant garde rock masterwork Trout Mask Replica paved the way for the post-punk experimentation of Devo, The Fall, Pere Ubu, and The Residents. “If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of pop music,” the British DJ John Peel had once famously remarked, “it’s Beefheart.” My own introduction to the world of Captain Beefheart came, like many lasting and influential encounters, by chance. I was 13 and out shopping for records, and having bought a couple, I found myself with a pound to spare. Rifling through the bargain rack past the Top of the Pops compilations, I came across an intriguing-looking album called Dropout Boogie. There was no information on the sleeve besides the name of the band and a fish-eye lens photo on the front and back of four serious men in suits who looked more …

Against Cultural Protectionism

Like most of my generation, I was introduced to Leonard Cohen’s hymn to heartbreak, ‘Hallelujah,’ via its perfected version by Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s incredible voice echoed and shone through the haunting atmospherics of his sparse guitar, like a lonely angel fallen from the heavenly choir. It was the kind of song that would stop a conversation, stop your train of thought—something sacred. Its meditation on the beautiful melancholy of human life was only accentuated by Buckley’s untimely death, and passing into legend, soon after its release. Like Buckley, the song sat in the subcultural collective consciousness, something those of us at the tail end of Generation X would add to mix-tapes for our crushes, or learn to sing around the fire. Perhaps it was one of us who, having grown up and gone into film, suggested Rufus Wainwright’s version of the song for the soundtrack to Shrek. But however it happened, the song soon exploded into mainstream millennial consciousness. It became a fixture of talent shows and reality TV—not to mention the buskers. Oh, the …

A Defense of Offensive Jokes

In a paper published in 1940, anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown theorized something that he called the “joking relationship”: a relationship “between two persons in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instances required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offense.” As anthropology in the early 20th century was primarily a comparative social science, Radcliffe-Brown noted the existence of this relationship in a variety of cultures around the world, from the Dogon people in Mali to the North American Ojibwe. Even though Radcliffe-Brown’s article is 80 years old, and describes relationships in non-Western societies, it still has much to tell us about why we engage in offensive humour, and how we can perhaps do it better. Rather than the simple justification that “jokes are meant to be funny and edgy, get over it,” Radcliffe-Brown treats the joking relationship as one of many relationships that tie people together. In other words, he analyses the joking relationship like an anthropologist. Like the early anthropologist Marcel Mauss understood …

The Hustler and the Queen

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. The surprise success of the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has brought me a great deal of delight—I’m a longtime fan of both the novel and its author, Walter Tevis. Just this summer, I wrote an essay about all the great American popular novels I wish I’d written myself, and the first book I mentioned was Tevis’s 1959 masterpiece The Hustler. But while The Hustler may be Tevis’s best book, The Queen’s Gambit has always been my favorite. I’ve never been anything but an incompetent at the pool table, but for a brief shining hour I was a chess prodigy. In July of 1968, a few weeks before my 10th birthday, I competed in a state chess tournament at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and won the prize for Best Fourth-Grade Boy. This triumph—my first and only triumph at anything—survives online in the archives of Northwest Chess magazine. Usually when a high-profile film or TV series is adapted from the work of …

Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?

In the mid-1980s, when I taught a Physics for Poets class at Yale University, I was dumbstruck when I gave the students a quiz problem to estimate the total amount of water flushed in all the toilets in the US in one 24-hour period and I started to grade the quiz. In order to estimate this, you have to first estimate the population of the US. I discovered that 35 percent of my Yale students, many of whom were history or American studies majors, thought the population of the US was less than 10 million! I went around campus interrogating students I met, asking them what they thought the population of the US was. Again, about one-third of the students thought it was less than 10 million and a few even thought it was greater than a few billion. How was such ignorance so common in a community commonly felt to contain the cream of the crop of young US college students? Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that these students were ignorant about …

Commemorating Mary

I’ve seen several interesting discussions about the controversial new Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture recently unveiled at Newington Green, the London community where the pioneering feminist briefly operated a school for girls. On the whole, I have seen more criticism than praise. Rachel Cooke of the Guardian called the little female figure at the top of the sculpture, “A Pippa doll with pubic hair.” A few reviewers have praised the sculpture and taken a faintly condescending tone toward philistines like me who don’t “get” it. “[M]ight [the nudity] be understood as a metaphor for Wollstonecraft’s vision of personal authenticity?” asks Eleanor Nairne in the New York Times. She describes the controversy as a “fuss,” and points out that there is a full-length statue of Wollstonecraft’s son-in-law, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Oxford, which leaves nothing to the imagination. Nudity in pubic—pardon me, public art—is part of our Western cultural tradition, surely. An article by scholar Vic Clarke posted on the History Workshop website at least corrects the common misconception that the little naked woman emerging out of the …