Note: This post originally ran on MerrySwankster.

Everyone’s favorite rock music revisionist, John J. Miller of the usually-respectable National Review Online, is at it again with the list makin’ and the tellin’ everybody how the world is. Miller is pertinent to this and other music-interested outlets mainly because hes the talking head who tried to appropriate a bunch of your favorite rock songs and recodify them as “conservative”, all in an easy-to-read list format. You know “Sympathy for the Devil”? It’s totally about preventing gay couples from having hospital visitation rights. (Or something.)

Miller’s original post was so popular/notorious/mind-numbingly ill-conceived, that it spawned the obligatory sequel. (The rationale being, I suppose, that like Hollywood blockbusters, every loathsome, under-calculated piece of crap that gets any attention at all deserves a second act.) In his most recent incarnation, Miller went to criticizing the unwanted fruits of his own labor, manifested in a recent article in the Journal of Popular Culture by Michigan State’s Michael T. Spencer. If you thought Miller was out over his head when writing about music, you should just see this guy take on academia!

Miller began by attacking the journal itself, pointing to a few article titles he clearly does not understand as proof of the inherent wrongness of “liberal-arts scholarship”. Take it from someone who’s actually read more than just a few titles: the Journal of Popular Culture is fun, interesting and without a doubt, academically thorough. It gives attention to matters that the academy traditionally ignores, and provides a platform for up-and-coming academics. Of course, phrases like the one’s I’ve just used all translate into “not conservative”, so it’s no surprise that JPC doesn’t fall into favor with Miller. It should be likewise unsurprising, then, that Miller misconstrues the bulk of Spencer’s article.

“Yes, it’s about me”, Miller asserted early on, which proves that someone told Miller what the title of Spencer’s article was. Had Miller actual read the article, he would maybe have picked up on Spencer’s actual intentions, such as questioning Miller’s “methods of analysis” (pg. 601) and understanding conservative reappropriation as “terms of authority and control over popular culture” (pg. 602). Stepping back, it is revealed that Spencer was concerned with how, “new conservatives are now producing ’scholarly’ work that attempts to blur the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’” (pg. 608). Furthermore, it should be noted that when Spencer argued that new conservatives have been, “investing meaning in rock music through a dialectical process of negotiated use”, he was absolutely on the money (pg. 603). The appearance that Miller only understood how (maybe) seven of those quoted words were employed does not mitigate the accuracy of Spencer’s claim.

But figuring all that out that would require actual reading, and reading’s an old man’s waste of time when all you want to do is rawk. Spencer investigated Miller insofar as the latter was the creator of a specific artifact that fell within the larger scope of the former’s interests. Or, allowing me an out-of-context misappropriation of popular culture that would make John J. blush, Miller is not a unique and beautiful snowflake.

This is not to say that Spencer’s article should be free from all dissent, and given that it was published in a reputable academic journal, I expect that the author would welcome warranted and well-though critique. For instance, I would have appreciated a greater emphasis on the role that contextualization plays when interpreting or critiquing artifacts of popular culture. Further, Spencer could have given Miller some benefit of the doubt. Surely he never expected his original list to be much more than a tongue-in-cheek attempt at rallying the base, right?

But Miller’s criticism offered nothing approaching these, and by attacking the academic-ness of Spencer’s writing, he ventured into a discourse community that he’s willing to chastise but not understand. (I’ll spare the reader the details of the academic journal process, but rest assured that Spencer’s article was vetted more thoroughly and with greater purpose than any of Miller’s posts, and to be fair, the post you are presently reading.) Towards the end of his rant, Miller lulls into a tired lament for the students who just want to rowk if not for nerds like Spencer assigning too much homework. He suggested that the increased amount of content published on behalf of academic study over the past sixty years or so is proof of the whole system being watered down and less effectual, and not, you know, a good thing that more people are presently permitted to engage in academic discoucrse.

Another ironically-funny school yard jab offered up by Miller was the claim that Spencer didn’t “add much to the conversation”, which can best be understood as another attempt by Miller to posit himself as the authoritative voice on everything: he decides what rock songs are about, and he decides who’s opinions on the issue matter. But his most egregious erring is the implication that it is he, not the people actually working at schools, that knows what’s best for academia. It’d call this another example of Miller’s hubris, but that this point, wouldn’t that be redundant?


Book Review: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

Note: This post ran concurrently at Beer Journal 

Daniel Okrent

I'm not expert in the field, but it seems to me that a good history book will accurately report on past events. A very good history book will accurately report while shining new light and by providing new insights. And a great history book will do those things, plus provide a lens for readers to use past events to interpret their modern worlds. Last Call, a singularly-focused tome by Daniel Okrent (Slate interview), former public editor of the New York Times and inventor of Rotisserie Baseball, falls into that last category.

In roughly 400 digestible pages, Okrent intricately detailed an era that school children across the nation can name, without focusing on the main points that most readers would already expect going in. Sure, Al Capone, Andrew Volstead and William Jennings Bryan get their due attention, but so do lesser-known noteworthy characters (in every sense of the term) Carry Nation, Al Smith, Billy Sunday and Sam Bronfman, none of whom are unjustly deified of damned. Places, such as the French-owned (and thus, prohibition-free) islands off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, are rightly treated as potential protagonists.

Perhaps just as important in this reviewer's estimation is the overall non-judgmental tone of Okrent's narrative, which does not fall into the predictable pratfalls of stereotyping the different people or events as simply "good" or "bad", but instead focuses on which were more effective and/or lasting.Okrent leaves it up to the reader to apply the lessons of prohibition to modern contexts. And there are many opportunities to do so. How you interpret these lessons is largely likely determined upon your present ideological slant.

For instance, modern day conservative talking heads like to remind everybody within earshot that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and that it was his party that freed the slaves. However, it is rarely mentioned that they are also the party the that installed big government Prohibition and, as a result, the federal income tax, two aspects of modern society that conservatives like to rail against. Furthermore, during the Prohibition era, Prohibitionist politicians aligned themselves with the KKK and had their campaigns supported by mobster and bootleggers, all groups that where able to make hay (and money) once alcohol was outlawed. Liberals might appreciate the way progressive politicians and privative citizens worked together to pass the 21st Amendment, but the good vibe can only last so long before remembering that modern day Democrats are too impotent to get Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed, let alone an entire Constitutional Amendment. What's more, the repeal itself took the flip-flopping of 17 senatorial votes, a prospect that should frighten any political party in the majority.

According to the sticker on the book cover, Ken Burns is working on turning Last Call into a PBS documentary chock-full of cameras panning over still photographs (it already has a Facebook page). That program is already listed as a must-see not just because of Burns's involvement, but because Daniel Okrent provided source material that is both thorough and vivid enough to provide surprises for history buffs that thought they already knew everything there was to know about the largest restriction of personal freedom in recent memory.

Orkent, Daniel. (2010). Last Call: The rise and fall of prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner.

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