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In the Age of Whatever Works

Latin America faces a crucial choice between liberty and tyranny, as always, just like the rest of us, and the President of the United States’ advice is that it go with “whatever works.” Barack Obama actually said that nonsense in a speech to the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative while on his recent south-of-the-border tour, and although that also included him doing the wave at a baseball game with the communist dictator of Cuba and embarrassingly doing the tango for his Peronista variety of fascist hosts in Argentina while the capital of the European Union reeled from yet another terror attack it was probably the low point of that disastrous vacation.
Any President of the United States worthy of that once-august office would be making the plain case that liberty is the only thing that has ever worked in the entire history of organized humankind, and that tyranny has never worked out, but these days that is apparently too much to ask for. The runaway winner of five of the last six state contests in the Democratic nominating process is the self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who worries that there are too many kinds of deodorants on America’s supermarket shelves and prescribes the same solutions that have resulted in toilet paper shortages in Venezuela, and the party’s putative front-runner struggles to explain why she’s not a socialist. Meanwhile, the putative Republican front-runner is issuing threats that his press critics will “have problems, such problems” and “tweeting” like a South American caudillo and promising nothing but “better deals” with all these pesky foreigners, which sounds to us like pretty much like the equivalent of “whatever works.”
The sole remaining long-shot possibility for the leadership of what was once called the free world is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose much criticized father endured the tortures of the same communist Cuban dictatorship that the “whatever works” president was doing the wave with, and went on to a formidable career and as a legal and Senatorial advocate for the conservative cause, and he strikes us as a full-throated advocate of liberty and the Judeo-Christian tradition and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and other higher values than whatever might work. He’s bogged down with a report in the front-runner’s buddy’s National Enquirer, though, and is just within the margin-of-error in the polls in the important states of Wisconsin and California. We’d love to see a match-up of Cruz’ hard-edged advocacy of capitalism and constitutionalism against Sanders’ unabashed socialism and whatever works, but such stark choices are perhaps too much to wish for in an age when people are more concerned with whatever works for them, if not necessarily everyone else.

— Bud Norman

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Two Hot Fiddlers, RIP

One of the many crises America faces in this period of cultural decline is a severe shortage of first-rate fiddle players, and the problem was greatly worsened over the past few weeks by the deaths of Benjamin “Tex” Logan on April 24 and and then Johnny Gimble on Saturday. One can hope that we’ll hear their likes again, and that the quintessentially American traditions they came from will be revived, but the way things are going we can’t help but worry that it will be a long while.
Gimble’s name is the more familiar of the two, at least to those music lovers fortunate enough have to lived on the plains for a sufficient number of years to be familiar with the ineffable wonders of western swing. Born in 1926 to a  musically gifted family in sparsely populated west Texas, Gimble was reared in the Scots-Irish tradition of fiddling but also absorbed the blues of his black neighbors and fellow cotton-patch pickers, the sophisticated jazz music that was making its way through the radio waves to even the remote regions of the country, from such far-away sources as the New York City Onyx Club where Stuff Smith was fiddlin’ hokum and even from as far away as Sweden’s unaccountably jazzy Svend Asmussen, and especially the strange hybrid of those three styles that The Light Crust Doughboys and Milton Brown and his Brownies and other bands were gradually developing in the southwestern states. By his early teens Gimble was making such a professional splash that he was playing with and learning from the likes of the great J.R. Chatwell of Adolph Hofner’s Texans, which was understandably re-dubbed “Tex” Hoffner’s Texans around the time of America’s entry into World War II, the great Cliff Bruner of Texas Wanderer’s fame, and the great Huggins Williams of Prince Albert Hunt and his East Texas Serenaders, who had started the western swing ball rolling with its stone age recordings of rural white string-based ragtime. By his late teens Gimble had so successfully melded these disparate styles, and with such an astounding degree of virtuosity, that he landed a gig at the very top of the western swing heap with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
By that time the Playboys had been dominating the music scene in the southwest quadrant of the United States for two decades, and had featured such formidable fiddlers as Jesse Ashlock, who laid down some sizzling jazz, and Wills himself, who as good as anybody in the old-fashioned Scots-Irish style, but Gimble’s few years with the band were among its very best. In the mid-’50s rockabilly and the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution at last overwhelmed western swing even in its native region, and Gimble was forced to retreat to Nashville and earn a good living and a stellar reputation playing more straitlaced country music in Nashville’s still-lucrative studios. You can hear his perfectly appropriate playing on a number of hits by the most popular country musicians of the era, including George Jones and Roy Clark, but Gimble inevitably grew bored and returned to his beloved plains to play for the aging aficionados who still flocked to the dance halls of Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas and the western swinging region for the real deal prairie stuff, although he still continued to make classic recordings.
When Merle Haggard went to cut his epic rendition of “Brain Cloudy Blues” he insisted on Gimble providing the fiddle, and the result is a masterpiece of American music. A few notes into Gimble’s solo Haggard urges him to “get it low, man, get it low,” and Gimble gets right down into that loamy dirt from whence America’s best music has always come. He showed the same knack with a younger generation of talented performers such as Mark O’Connor and Asleep at the Wheel who were eager to learn what he had gleamed from Chatwell and Bruner and Wills and Asmussen and all the rest of that great line of fiddling. Our hope is that they picked something up, and will somehow be able to pass it along.
There’s also a lot to be learned from both Benjamin F. Logan Jr. and his alter-ego, “Tex” Logan, but the former will probably more influential than the latter. “Tex” Logan was an awe-inspiring bluegrass fiddler, who mastered the technically demanding style with such virtuosity that he was frequently invited to play along with none other than Bill Monroe, the acknowledged original master of the genre, and although his fame never spread far beyond the elite circles of bluegrass musicians he was highly regarded within them. Emmylou Harris and Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan and the “newgrass” generation of players that kept the style alive frequently recorded his tunes and employed his playing, but he always took the stage with the same corny cowboy-hatted persona that he had learned in his tiny Texas hometown of Coahoma. The music was always rural and rough-edged, too, with a high-lonesome hillbilly sound so many city-slickers associate with that oddly-shaped banjo player in “Deliverance,” but a more careful listening to “Tex” Logan and the other virtuosos of this ancient and intricate music will reveal a remarkable level of intellectual sophistication.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Benjamin F. Logan Jr. was also one of the most remarkable scientific thinkers of his generation. A graduate of the electrical engineering school at Texas Tech, with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from Columbia University, Logan became well-known within engineering circles as a research mathematician at Bell Laboratories from 1956 to 1993. He wrote a dissertation on high-pass signals in the mid-’60s, did groundbreaking work in computer-generated reverberation of sound, which unfortunately led to all those kids downloading his songs off the internet instead of buying them on records, and along the way he threw in such innovations as colorless artificial reverb and an echo canceller for satellite communications and some big thoughts about the “Shepp-Logan Phantom” which helped doctors to render potentially life-saving images in cranial scans. We’re confident that a lot of bright young men and women are following up on all these ideas, this being a very high-tech age, but we’d like to thank that some of “Tex” Logan’s low-down fiddlin’ will also echo through the internet and the ages.
In Tom Wolfe’s intriguing history of the technological revolution of the past decades, “Robert Noyce and His Congregation,” he notes how many of the era’s greatest scientific minds seemed to come from tiny little towns on the windswept plains and deserts. He attributes this partly to the egalitarian-by-default nature of the educational systems that provided learning to both the rich and poor seated together in those hardscrabble places, and to the strange snobbishness about engineering and other technical professionals among the educated upper-classes of the east, but we believe that the freedom of that time and place also played a role. The bright young men and women of that time and place were free to let their imaginations soar over the vast landscape, rooted in the traditions of their upbringing but open to the intuitive brilliance of their supposedly unsophisticated neighbors and fellow cotton-pickers, inspired by the sounds pouring through the modern age of radio, ready to encode those sounds on to something so far-fetched as internet, unrestrained by the prejudices of the past or the fads of the moment, well educated by home-grown, human-to-human cultural institutions safely outside the official academy, and always able to take it low, man, low with the highest level of soulful craftsmanship, which is pretty much America at its best. You can still hear an inspiring few notes of that freedom and excellence in the recordings of Gimble and Logan, and we hope that a few generations from now they’ll still be able to hear live in some low-down beer joint and not just on whatever newfangled gizmos they’ve come up with to play the old stuff.

— Bud Norman

Football and Freedom

The high secular holiday of Super Bowl Sunday is approaching, and in accordance with our contentious times it has already been preceded by the perennial Super Bowl controversy. These obligatory annual brouhahas usually involve the exhibitionist tendencies of the half-time performers or some slightly politically incorrect aspect of one of the commercials or the pre-game felonies of one of the players, but this year all the scolds are in a huff about the very existence of the sport of football.
Any sensitive and well-read football fans have surely noticed that their favorite sport has lately been blitzed with criticism. The courts have sided with a class action of brain-damaged ex-players in a lawsuit against the National Football League, the president has declared he would not allow his hypothetical son to play the game, such elite corners of the press as The New York Times are wondering if it is “Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl,” while everywhere the anti-football folks are getting their kicks in. There’s even talk of banning the game altogether, and anyone who thinks that football’s longstanding place of honor in American culture and its multi-billion dollar standing in the business community makes this idea far-fetched should try exercising such once-sacred rights as lighting up a cigarette in a barroom or installing an incandescent light bulb in a living room lamp. Despite the massive ratings that Sunday’s contest will surely generate, the combined power of the liability lawyers, the prudish pundits, and the easy gullibility of public opinion will be hard for even the most barrel-chested linemen to resist.
This time around the anti-football faction is citing some admittedly believable and alarming statistics about concussions, but we suspect they have other reasons for their opposition. Football is ruthlessly meritocratic, a last redoubt of exclusive and unapologetic masculinity, draws its best players from that remote region of flyover country which persists in voting for Republican candidates, provides an analogy to both warfare and capitalism, uses racially insensitive team names, and is in almost every other regard an affront to progressive sensibilities. At all levels of competition the sport is impeccably proletarian and multi-racial, with an abundance of tattoos and dance moves and other fashionable accoutrements, but even these culturally-sanctioned saving graces cannot rescue football from the damnation of a modern liberal. The modern liberal envisions a world where cooperation replaces competition, where multi-cultural commingling replaces physical contact, girls rule, and a mean old game like football has no place.
Football is a mean old game, and there’s no use denying it. The sport has slowly evolved from the “mob games” played in vacant lots of slum neighborhoods by New England ruffians, which were of course decried by the sophisticated inhabitants of that region, by the 1904 college season it racked up an impressive 18 fatalities, which of course provoked an intervention by the progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, and its toll of seriously injured players has steadily increased ever since. The undeniably macho Roosevelt’s sensible reforms spread out the offensive to end the Greek phalanx “Flying V” offensive formation that once trampled over defenders, effectively ending the fatal era of football, and all the endless rules changes that have followed have also been intended to make the game safer, but nothing the rules committees have devised eliminated the risk inherent in the nature of the game. Like the regulatory agencies struggling to keep up with an ever-innovating economy, the game has always lagged behind the rapid pace of improvement in the speed and size and injurious strength of the players.
That squeamish editorialist at The New York Times who wonders about the immortality of watching the Super Bowls describes the queasy feeling he gets watching the bone-crunching hits that occur in every game, and we have to admit that we can empathize. Our own football-playing was limited to neighborhood bouts in the backyard and a nearby cow pasture, but it provided enough hard hits that we can extrapolate that skinny wide receiver must be feeling after 270 pounds of pure linebacking muscle puts a sudden stop to his seven-yard gain. Nor can we fault the president for advising his hypothetical son against playing organized football, even if his hypothetical son looked just like a young thug who was seen slamming creepy-ass cracker’s head against the pavement of a Florida suburb, as we reached the same decision even without his wise fatherly counsel. For all we know of corporate liability law the courts might even have reason to order the NFL to pay some compensation to the leather-helmet era players who had their bells rung once too often, and as far as we’re concerned anyone who will forgo the Super Bowl on moral grounds is wished a nice afternoon at the art museum or drum circle.
For those who prefer to watch the two best in teams in football fight it out for sporting immortality, we wish you a well-played contest. For those gladiators who take that frost-bitten arena in New Jersey, we wish you good health and the God-given right to test your God-given talents in a championship game. Should the effort to ride the world of football be successful the effort to rid it of roughness, risk, and Republicanism would be furthered, and that would be a shame.

— Bud Norman

Regulating Our Way to Utopia

Those of a certain ripe old age might recall a comic strip called “There Oughta Be a Law.” It ran for many years in all the newspapers, a once-popular form of mass communication which those of a certain ripe old age might also recall, and each installment featured an earnestly stylized illustration of a reader’s complaint about some minor annoyance or another which the reader deemed worthy of government-imposed punishment. The title became a popular catchphrase that outlasted the comic strip by many years, reflecting a widespread belief that a sufficient amount of law-making would be able to rid the world of all unpleasantness.
The strip’s disgruntled readers, and anyone else who has ever griped that “there oughta be a law,” will be happy to know that the United States of America will soon arrive at a point when there will at last be a law for every little thing. That’s the conclusion we’re reached, at any rate, upon reading that over the past three months the federal government has been generating new regulations at a brisk pace of 68 per day. According to the fine folks at the CNSnews.com, the past 90 days have brought new rules regarding everything from volatile organic compound emissions from architectural coatings to “enforcement criteria for canned ackee, frozen ackee, and other ackee products that contain hypoglycin A.”
Liberals who would scoff at the report because the web site’s “C” stands for conservative should note that they provide a handy link to the federal government’s own regulations.gov web site, which provides the same information with obvious pride in their industrious attempts to set everything right. There’s a listing there of the number of new regulations that have been added over different amounts of time, and although there’s a link to President Obama’s executive order for a thorough review of existing regulations there’s no tally of the regulations that have been done away with.
This proliferation of regulation will likely increase at a quickening rate for at least the next four years. The Obamacare bill and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law both weighed in with around 2,000 pages of new regulations, but those who perused those acts — nobody actually read them, of course — noticed that most of those pages were devoted to creating new agencies empowered to write even more regulations. The Obamacare bill created 159 of them, and Dodd-Frank established agencies ranging from a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to a Financial Stability Oversight Council to an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion. Each of these new agencies will soon be generating hundreds and hundreds of new regulations, and because every regulation usually creates some problem that necessitates scores of new regulations the creation of new rules will increase exponentially until every possible outcome in life has been regulated. If perfect bliss does not result, the public will conclude that there simply haven’t been enough rules passed and that still more are required.
Any conservatives inclined to worry about the effect of so many rules on the ordinary American’s liberty should take some consolation in the notion that the law of averages dictates that least some of these thousands of regulations make some sense. For all we know the federal government has spared us some ackee-related calamity, and for that we should be grateful. All this regulating should have a salutary effect on the paper industry, too, and once we’ve reached that nearby point when every citizen of the republic is required to engage the services of a compliance officer or two just to avoid running afoul of the regulators we will at last achieve full employment.
In the unlikely event that the growing army of wizards in Washington, D.C., overlook some small annoyance that continues to afflict you, be assured that they’re eager to hear about. The regulations.gov web site invites all suggestions about new rules, just as the authors of the “There Oughta Be a Law” comic strip did, but in their case they can actually make it a law. We have lots of ideas, ranging from those droopy trousers that the young folks favor to brain-dead behavior of fast food servers, but we’re only going to recommend a regulation that there be a lot fewer rules.

— Bud Norman