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Smarter Phones, Dumber People

The news was slow and the weather stormy over most of the weekend, which gave us a chance to ponder some of the big-picture think pieces in the high-brow media. For the past 160 years Atlantic Magazine has been among the most high-brow of them, as well as one of the most reliable sources of ponderable big-picture think pieces, and they offered up an excellent essay about the modern age of the “smart phone” and its dire effects on its youngest generation.
It’s a lengthy and complicated article, but even if you’re not rained in and there’s another bombshell Russian story on the front page we highly recommend it. The author has been spent the past 25 years studying how Americans differ from generation to generation, with his research stretching from the 1930s to the present, and he reports on an anomalous change in the usual ebb-and-flow of cultural shifts that have occurred since 2012. That was the first year that a majority of Americans owned “smart phones,” the author notes, and when “I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.”
The author also posits there’s a causal connection between these two things, and based on our more anecdotal evidence we think he’s on to something. He briefly and glumly summarizes all the widely-observed ways that “smart phones” have altered the daily lives of all generations — a more complete assessment would require shelves of upcoming social science dissertations and satirical novels — but finds his most alarming data among the youngest generation that never knew what life was like before the damned things. What the author calls the “Gen-I” generation reports markedly higher levels of lack of social interaction, loneliness, depression, and suicide, and links these to hours spent on texting, social media, and other time “on screen.” We’re short at the moment on very young friends, as all of our friends’ kids are all grown up but haven’t yet had kids that are even old enough for “smart phones,” and we’re proudly among the dwindling minority of Americans who still don’t own one of the damned things, but we’re not surprised by the author’s findings.
At this point we’re tempted to take some time off and write a satirical novel of our own about “smart phones,” so outraged are we with the way the damned things have made people so damned dumb. When we’re out arguing politics with our friends at the local hipster dives we always notice the attractive young couples sitting across a booth from one another and staring into their “smart phones” rather than into the other’s eyes. A conspicuous number of our similarly-aged friends lately seem frustratingly forgetful, and instead of an unexercised and flabby memory rely on their “smart phones” to tell them the name of the guy that they’re talking about. By now all of the great adventures tales would have to be re-written if they were up-dated to an age when the hero could ask the palm-sized device in his pocket for an answer, we have friends who can’t get from one place in Wichita, Kansas, to another without help from a “smart phone” global positioning system, and we don’t count it all as progress.
Shudder to think, then, what it’s like for those poor kids who can’t remember the good old analog age of actual rather than virtual reality. The Atlantic’s highbrow correspondent also provides the unsurprising and commonsensical data that children who spend less time “on screen” and more time social interactions with other children in extra-curricular activities and religious services and sports and local playgrounds, and spent their other hours with either family or books, were less likely to be lonely, depressed, or suicidal. The real world is a daunting place, but people there seem happier than the ones in the virtual world.
All the data shows the younger folks tend not to date, in the traditional sense of the term, and although that’s had a salutary effect on the teen pregnancy rates we think it’s a mixed blessing. The Atlantic reports that teens are also postponing getting a driver’s license, which would have been unimaginable to our teenaged selves, or any previous generation of red-blooded Americans, and spending way too much time in their bedrooms and worrying that the picture they posted on Instragam won’t get a self-affirming number of “likes.” The youngest of them are now tethered by a global positioning system every hour of the day and every day of the week to their parents, too, and we shudder again to think of what that must be like. We were blessed with diligently watchful parents, but we’re sure they won’t mind us saying that we’re also grateful that the technology of the time didn’t preclude those occasional moments when we were blissfully free to act according to our own better judgement. Every previous generation, after all, had those moments.
This might seem yet another old folks’ rant against modernity, but we’ve got some state-of-the-art social science data from such a highbrow publication as Atlantic to back it up, and we think there’s something afoot that’s even more significant than the next presidential “tweet.” We finally got an old-fashioned “flip phone” a while back to be constant communication with our still-watchful folks, who are now old enough to require our watchfulness, and we have to admit we’re taking up some of your own “on-screen” time, so we can’t deny that some progress has been made. Every generation has also lost something dear to every technological revolution, though, and we hope that the next one will still know something of a real-life and primal childhood.

— Bud Norman

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The Wrecking Ball and the Press

Our local newspaper’s longtime headquarters is slated for demolition this week, so on Saturday they invited all the former employees to drop by for a last look at the place. The event offered an opportunity to see some cherished friends and respected colleagues we haven’t seen in a long while, and some of the conversations were quite convivial, but there was a funereal feel to it that lingered through the weekend.
The paper isn’t going out of business, and the reunion also included a tour of the swank new digs located nearby in the trendy Old Town drinking and dining district right next to the ritzy Warren Theater, where you can watch movies in an easy chair and have waitresses bring you cocktails, but the whole affair was nonetheless a frank acknowledgement of an institution in decline. Although it has ultra-modern and remarkably comfy chairs and two computer screens at every desk and all the steel pipes and chrome doors and sharp angles you’d find in some cutting-edge start-up venture, the most conspicuous thing about the new place is that it’s a whole lot smaller than the last one, and by far the smallest building the paper has occupied since Civil War veteran and founding father Col. Marshall Murdoch moved out of the clapboard printing shop that’s still lovingly preserved at the old-west reenactment Cowtown Museum over in Riverside.
There wasn’t any sense of a cutting edge start-up to the new place, despite all the up-to-date accoutrements, and neither did it suggest a more venerable enterprise. As we walked from the new office to a nearby after-party on top of some young people’s bar, a good friend who used to be a very good aviation reporter for the paper and now gets by on free-lance work remarked that it didn’t seem at all like a newspaper office, as it didn’t have the smell of hot lead and photographic chemicals and cigarette smoke, or the sound of clacking typewriters and telephones ringing rather than warbling, or that big imposing block-long presence that a city’s newspaper is supposed to have, and we couldn’t argue.
The old building was an architectural monstrosity, a concrete and feces-brown blob typical of what was being built for expanding businesses back in 1961, when the paper moved from a smaller but much more elegant building nearby, but you used to be able to walk in from Douglas Avenue and be transported back to a more pungent and noisy and vibrant era of American journalism. Our first visit was on a school field trip, where they took us down to the printing presses and let us watch the typesetters do their Ed Sullivan-worthy legerdemain and see actual reporters shouting into telephones while pounding out the next days stories on typewriters, and it seemed way cooler than the field trips to the Steffen’s Dairy or or the Kansas Gas and Electric Company or the Coleman factory or any of the other very important and now long-gone  local institutions. The folks had already inculcated in us their daily habit of reading pretty much the entirety of both the morning and afternoon papers, and the old black-and-white movies on the late with the fedora-topped reporters shouting “get me re-write” into candlestick phones fascinated us, and we also started noticing that Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Jim Thompson and Tom Wolfe and most of our favorite writers had worked on newspapers.
And so it was that we walked into the local paper as a newly-hired 20-year-old with all sorts of literary ambitions and romantic notions, way back in the white-hot summer of ’80. We’d dropped out of college and fallen in with the local punk rock crowd, which included a most delightful fellow who’d written for the paper some years before, and he suggested we apply for a newsroom opening he knew of, telling us which people to drop his name to and which not to, and because we could type fast and had a couple of relatively impressive jobs on the resume and seemed very enthusiastic about the newspaper we became “editorial clerks.” That’s a rather fancy term for what the old-timers called a “copy boy,” and although it was hard work it was often fun and a better education than what we’d been getting in college.
We typed up enough obits to fill several cemeteries, answered phone calls from angry readers and people trying to get in touch some reporter who wasn’t around, copied and distributed the daily budgets to all the departments, sorted mail, ran errands, listened to the police scanners and alerted the crime desk to the latest atrocities, watched the local news broadcasts just in case they might have something the newsroom didn’t know about, took dictation from reporters in the field, and reveled in the frantic atmosphere. They were still typing on typewriters back then, with a conveyor belt sending hard copy from the copy desk to those typesetting magicians downstairs, and although the state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics didn’t make quite the right clickety-clack sound it was still pretty noisy, and there was this great old guy developing all the pictures in photographic chemicals back in the dark room, and not only could you smoke cigarettes in the newsroom, pretty much everyone did. It looked and sounded and smelled and had a feeling right down to your bones of a real newspaper, just like in the movies.
Nearly all of the then-numerous reporters and editors and everyone else outranking us on the staff had been more inspired to enter the newspaper racket by “All the President’s Men” than by “His Girl Friday,” and when we all watched Ronald Reagan being elected and started getting the headlines downstairs we were the only ones celebrating, but for the most part they were a good bunch. There was still a lot of the wise-cracking and banter we’d come to expect from the old movies, and some of the same instinctive anti-authoriatian streak, and several of them took a liking to a punk college drop-out and generously shared their considerable knowledge with us. Although we’re still pure-bred prairie Republican goyim our most influential mentors about the craft turned out to be Jewish Democrats from Back East, who really were so common in the press back then they even wound up in such remote places as our hometown, and we also lament that the latest iteration of the hometown newsroom lacks a certain Jewish favor.
We literally fell in love with one of those mentors, a wise-cracking and rule-breaking and very tall woman who reminded us of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” and when she split town for a job at the bigger paper in Kansas City we followed her there. Our title at that paper was “dethwriter,” the abbreviated journalese for the guys who wrote death notices and the local’s out-of-town traffic fatalities and the murders too petty for the crime reporters to bother with, and as gruesome as it was it provided enough oft-told stories to make for a novel we hope to write someday, tentatively titled “Dethwriter Takes a Holiday.” The newsroom had these pneumatic tubes that brought clips down from the library upstairs, which usually included some fishy news about the many Italian businessmen in Kansas City whose jukeboxes unexpectedly exploded, and there were a couple of very sound and educational friends on the “dethwriter” desk, but all the reporters seemed kind of snooty, and although we still miss her we had reasons to break off the relationship with the witty and rule-breaking and very tall woman, and we wanted to be back at the hometown paper.
After a short stint of cleaning houses we were back at clerking at the paper, doing a very fine job of it if we do say so ourselves, and angling at that up-from-copy-boy story we’d seen in all those late night movies. Eventually we’d done enough favors to the editors and cleaned up so many of those stories the college kids were phoning in to earn a byline, and then a column about the local music scene, and despite the newspaper’s recent fetish about college credentials we eventually wound up with “Staff Writer” under the daily bylines. We like to think of ourselves as the last of the up-from-copy-boy breed, but it also had to do with the fact that newspapers were so big at the time they could afford to take a chance on a punk kid.
This was at a time when almost every city in America was becoming a one-newspaper town, talk radio and cable and the internet didn’t yet threaten the local newspaper monopoly, and the business of printing all those papers and all that money took up an imposing square block and the building was bustling to the seams. Our paper could be purchased for a quarter in racks everywhere from Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill to Mount Sunflower on the Colorado border, with bureaus across the state providing locals news for the trucks that sped out as we walked home from day. The paper had reporters snooping around every office in City Hall and County Hall and the statehouse, the fashion reporter and the drama critic were flying off to New York City for the latest shows, the aviation reporter was at the Paris Air Show, and several we times found ourselves flying on chartered plains through scary thunderstorms to far-flung stories as we rose through the ranks.
We were there when they started bringing the computers in, which at first were shared by every two reporters. The bosses promised these devices would herald a new gold age of the American newspaper, but the time we left after 25 years it didn’t turn out that way. All those magical typesetters were the first round of layoffs, and then a lot of those deaf pressmen who were hired because they communicate over all the news were laid off, and eventually they figured out how to do a lot of the work we’d done as a clerk, which saved the company a lot of the money that was still coming in. Then the computers started letting people buy classified ads on Craigslist, though, and all sorts of internet news sites were popping up that allowed advertisers to buy more specifically-targeted ads, and then the money started going away.
More lay-offs followed, of course, first in the no-longer viable classified ad departments, and the circulation area was limited to the metro area, which allowed all the statewide bureau staffs to be laid-off, and the cuts eventually reached the metro newsroom. The paper has less than a third the number of reporters and photographers snooping around the city as it did back in our good old days, and a big share of that is devoted to local sports, and they laid off all the pressmen when they outsourced the printing of the relatively few on-paper copies they sell these days to that former rival in Kansas City, which also provides the bulk of the state political news, and even in its shiny new but conspicuously small building the old gray mare clearly ain’t she used to be.
Still, it was nice to see all those old friends and respected colleagues we hadn’t seen in years. Several people we would have loved to have seen weren’t there because there because they’re dead, others had their own good reasons, but one formerly helpful editor came all the way from Florida and a guy we kind of like came in Minnesota, and there were some great stories about all the scandals and screw-ups and general editorial ineptitude at the paper at the over years, as well as a few political scoops and astute theater reviews and off-beat feature stories that did the public a full quarter’s worth of good. There are still a few folks at the hanging on the paper the worked with, some of whom we well regard, especially a couple of photographers and a savvy second-generation editor, and it felt good to offer them our best wishes. After all the fond farewells we walked by the cranes and the wrecking balls that are going to tear down that ugly old building, though, and happy ending somewhere out there on the internet seemed far less tangible.

— Bud Norman

Technical Difficulties

We’re writing this in a booth at The Vagabond, a friendly little hipster dive in the historic Delano neighborhood just across the Arkansas River from our even friendlier home office in the picturesque Riverside neighborhood. because our got-darned internet service went down. All the hipster dives have wi-fi these days, as we’ve long noticed from all the bearded hipsters we see staring into their machines instead of talking with one another and sharing dirty jokes and hitting on the hipster women the way human beings used to do in a bar, so for tonight we’ve reluctantly taken the old laptop on a rare trip out of the house and joined those lonely hipsters in their solitary musings.
It’s an infuriating inconvenience, and although we’re doing our best to be cordial to the pretty and pleasant young barmaid who generously shared the wi-fi password we’re starting to run out of patience with our internet provider. We’ll not mention any names, but it’s a long established company that was once so beloved that Americans called it “Ma,” and until very recently they had provided us many decades of reliable landline phone service, but we’ve recently cancelled the landline and had the number transferred to one of those newfangled cellular phones that everybody uses these days, which took way too many hours of bureaucratic hassles and time on hold to accomplish, and given that the switch-over happened at approximately the same time the internet went down we suspect that has something do with the problem. Several hours on the phone with people speaking hard-to-understand accents and quite a bit of time on on hold failed to rectify the problem, and they’re promising to send someone by between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to solve a problem that we’re sure could have addressed without that hassle, and we’re not at all confident it will be resolved even by a real live human being in the flesh, but at this point we’re drinking one of the $2 beer specials and hoping for the best.
Back in the good old days before all this technological progress we were somehow content without any internet at all, but these days we seem somehow estranged from the entire world without it. We were reading up on the latest news from a variety of old and new sources, and contemplating the witty and sophisticated response to it all that we would send out to entire world, but that got-darned red light that started flashing on the modem wound up reconfiguring the whole got-darned day. Thanks to the The Vagabond’s wi-fi and the password that pretty and pleasant barmaid shared we’ll get something out to you, and with some hope that a real live human being in the flesh will be able to set things straight we plan another post for tomorrow, hopefully having something to do with the rest of the world, and w’ll try to restrain our temper in the meantime.

— Bud Norman

A Friendly Evening With the Last of the Media

Several of the last remaining members of the local news media got together Monday night at a friend’s nearby house, and as you might expect it was a rather glum affair. The ostensible purpose of the gathering was to plan for the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter’s annual fund-raising satirical revue, so there was plenty of wine and beer and wise-cracking to go with the chicken tacos, and everyone seemed glad see one another, but the free-flowing jokes kept taking a dark turn. No one was happy about the winner of the presidential race, not even the one or two of them we suspect share our equal or greater disdain for the losing candidate, and everyone had to admit that business hasn’t been great lately.
There were a couple of relative youngsters in attendance who still work at the local newspaper, and another five of us relative oldsters once who toiled there, and we all tried to laugh about what has become of it. These days it’s an undersized and over-priced publication, full of wire stories and copy from the chain’s other papers and plenty of locally-produced fluff pieces. The paper devotes much of its remaining resources to covering local high sports, which is among the only news you can’t get quicker and for free on the internet, and seems less interested in what’s going on with the city and county and state governments, news which is also hard to come by on the internet and arguably more important. Those relative youngsters seemed an earnest pair, to the point they struck us as lacking in the requisite cynicism for the job, but they got all the morbid jokes the relative oldsters were telling.
We signed on to the paper as a copy boy with the glorified title of “editorial assistant” a few months before President Ronald Reagan won election, and although we were the only ones in the newsroom who were happy about that at least business was going great. This was shortly after pretty much every city in the country had become a one-newspaper town, just before Reagan repealed the “Fairness Doctrine” and unleashed talk radio on the nation, well before Al Gore invented the internet, and for a while there our monopoly newspaper was not only printing copies that were shipped from one end of the state to another but also seemed to be printing money. Some J-school-educated rabble rousers kept threatening to unionize and management quelled every rebellion with a generous raise, new hires were being added to crowded and still smoke-filled newsroom and given generous expense accounts to spread out across the state and muck rake or fly to New York to cover the Broadway openings or fashion shows, by the time we worked our way up to a byline in every public office lived in fear of a reporter knocking on the door or ringing their phone, and we were a pretty cocky bunch.
By the time we left after a quarter of a century in a fit of depression it was hard to get gas money to travel into the three other counties where the paper was still distributed, bureaucrats and politicians would scoff at any pesky questions they were asked if they even bothered to return a call, and the charts at the every month-or-so staff meetings kept showing a downward trend in readership and ad revenues. A big part of the problem was technological progress, which had suddenly allowed stock investors access to up-to-minute quotes and rendered our day day-after information obsolete, and provided crossword puzzles and comic strips and major league baseball standings and five-day weather forecasts at a moment’s notice and a 100 percent discount, and worse yet created Craigslist and other more desirable alternatives to the classified ads that were once the bread-and-butter of ink-on-print media, but we must admit the desultory quality of the product was also largely to blame. Despite our up-from-copy efforts the paper reflected the condescending attitudes of the corporate headquarters and the J-schools from which it sprung far more than the diners and factory break rooms where the paper was read, its crusades against nuclear energy and in favor of subprime loans are ridiculous in retrospect, it’s easily detectable bias against Republicans was not a sensible business policy in a red state such as Kansas, and we’re not surprised by what’s happening to it now.
The presses stopped rolling at the local newspaper building some time ago, with the few copies required to sate local demand being printed at the former bitter rival and now corporate sister newspaper in Kansas City, and soon the paper will be leaving it altogether. One of the big agribusiness conglomerates has bought the building for some purpose or another, we can’t really say since we’re reliant on the local media for such information, and the paper has announced will be moving elsewhere, possibly somewhere in the Old Town portion of downtown but by all accounts in someplace much smaller. Within a few years our local newspaper will likely be peddling its undersized fare at overpriced fees via only the internet, so there’s no need for the extra room those delightful deaf printers with their hand signals that could be heard over the din and those scraggly inserters recruited from the nearby skid row used to take up. There’s talk that the big agribusiness conglomerate will tear the building down, and we can’t say we’d miss it much, as it’s a garishly ugly old concrete example of modernism.
Monday’s party also allowed us to catch up with some local radio and television journalists, all of whom are fine people who come up with some important stories now and then, especially when there’s a tornado or some other local event that the internet hasn’t caught up to, but as much as enjoyed seeing them they didn’t have much good news to tell. Ratings are down everywhere, also a clear result of technological progress and professional ineptitude, and as night follows day so are the ad revenues, so all the talk was of budget cuts and skeletal crews and the inevitable resulting screw-ups. A few of us in attendance at the gathering are practitioners of the “alternative media” that have also done so much to undermine the ancien regime of media, but we certainly weren’t any more bullish about the business. The funds that our annual amateur theatrics raise are for journalism scholarships, and after a couple of beers or glasses of wine everyone in the show laughingly agreed that it was a hopelessly lost cause.
We can attest that everyone at the gathering had pursued a journalism career with good intentions, and assume the same thing about most people who pursue such a low-paying and thankless occupation, although in some in cases we’re reminded of that old adage about the road to hell, and we sensed a certain sadness about how it seems to have all come to naught. The blame for this desultory election can be widely spread, across both parties and the entirety of a declining American culture, from the hedonistic groves of Hollywood that promoted one tawdry candidate to the hypocritical evangelicals who made excuses for the tawdry other, but surely some of it goes to the remnants of the news media. Trump voters must admit that the mainstream media ran plenty of stories about Clinton’s probably felonious e-mails and other assorted scandals, even if they didn’t get as prominent a placement on the front page as Trump’s latest idiotic “tweet,” and Clinton voters are all the more obliged to admit that Trump’s countless appalling scandals were more breathlessly covered, even if the networks did devote a lot more time to him than all of his more respectable Republican primary challengers combined, but such even-handedness couldn’t avert this awful election.
By now no individual medium has any noticeable effect on events. Technological progress has brought us to a time when people can choose only new sources that confirm what they already believe, and most choose to do so. Our liberal friends challenge any uncomfortable fact by saying “Where did you hear that, on Faux News,” our conservative friends dismiss anything that’s been reported in “The New York Slimes” or “The Washington Compost,” with the damning italics sneeringly implied, and almost everyone gets their news from Facebook or some slightly dubious-sounding e-mail from a friend of family member. We regard it all with a hard-earned suspicion, and an equally hard-earned understanding that it might just be true, and do our best to make discerning judgments after further digging into more definitive sources, but these days that’s no way to make a living.
Our show will go on, we suppose, and so will the ancien regime media and its many alternatives, and we hope that the First Amendment and the rest of our republic will as well. Still, it seems a rather glum affair at this point.

— Bud Norman

The Strange Matter of the Rent Boy Investigation

At the risk of sounding not only straight but also square we will admit that we had never heard of Rentboy.com until the Department of Homeland Security raided its offices and arrested its chief executive and several other employees on charges of prostitution. According to the ensuing news reports Rentboy.com is a nearly twenty-year-old web site where homosexual “escorts” advertise their services, which made the news of legal difficulties seem peculiar.
Although we’re in favor of strict enforcement of any laws against prostitution, whether of the heterosexual or homosexual or variety, or some other variety we’re not yet aware of, it’s hard for us to see why this is a matter of concern to the Department of Homeland Security rather than the police in the alleged perpetrator’s jurisdiction. A spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which was also somehow involved the arrests, explained that “As the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE is responsible for the enforcement of laws that promote the legitimate movement of people, goods and currency in domestic and foreign transactions,” but he didn’t explain why a prostitution ring is not a matter better left to the local or state authorities. The charged company is apparently located in a prime part of New York City, in a state and locality that probably have more pressing problems for their law enforcement agencies to deal with than a web site advertising the services of homosexual “escorts,” and given the political influence that homosexuals have in those areas it’s all the more unlikely that the cops would ever get around to raiding the joint, but this only raises the question of whether this is really something that threatens the homeland’s security.
What seems most peculiar, though, is that the federal government, of all people, have apparently picked a fight with the homosexual portion of the country. We guess that most of our homosexual friends share our distaste for prostitution, but an organized segment of the homosexual rights movement seems to believe that the right to rent a boy, or at least a boyish young man, is surely embedded somewhere in all those penumbras of the Constitution, and lately the federal government and the culture at large has been inclined to go along with whatever such organized segments of the homosexual rights movement insist upon. Same-sex marriage has not only been legally enshroud but rigorously imposed on even the most recalcitrant County Clerks and old-fashioned bakers and wedding photographers, the surgical mutilation of human genitals is celebrated on magazine covers and sports network shows, and the White House has been bathed in the pastel colors of the rainbow flag. An odd time, then, for the same federal government to crack down on a web site that facilitates consensual homosexual activity.
These days an observant news-reader will naturally go in search of some political explanation for what the federal government is doing, but in this case there doesn’t seem to be one, which is also peculiar. Given that heterosexual men on the whole are every bit as libidinously irresponsible as homosexual men we assume there are numerous similar web sites advertising the services of female “escorts,” and they still have a broader potential audience than a similar homosexual site, so of all the possible targets it’s hard to see why the feds would want to pick on Rentboy.com. Every time some bureaucrat does something we assume that it’s so he can proclaim that he is, indeed, doing something, but we can’t think of any reason that an executive branch bureaucrat ultimately responsible to President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party would be annoying libidinously irresponsible homosexuals.

The folks at Rentboy.com are arguing in the press that they only advertised their clients’ “time,” and not anything that might reasonably construed as sexual, and this might or might not prove a persuasive argument in a court of law, so we’ll keep on an eye on the outcome. Our interest in homosexual escorts is nil, but we can’t quell our curiosity about why the federal government is taking such an interest in the matter.

— Bud Norman

Free Speech and Racist Frat Rats

The latest battle against censorship on campus is being fought at the University of Oklahoma, just a few hours drive down I-35 from us, and it’s an ugly affair. Modern academia and its censorious impulses provide free speech advocates with plenty of opportunities to stand up for reasonable opinions that somehow offend liberal sensibilities, but in this case we are obliged to defend the right to some unabashedly old-fashioned racist boorishness.
It all started when the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers chartered a party bus and decided to celebrate the occasion with a boastful chant about their racially exclusive admission policies, replete with frequent use of a certain notorious fighting word and a jocular reference to lynching, and not in the ironically anti-racist manner of the more up-to-date nightclub comedians. Somebody recorded the event with a cellular phone’s video camera, of course, and it wound up on the internet, of course, and of course much offense was taken. The outrage was such that hundreds of OU students and faculty staged a protest, the national fraternity revoked the offending chapter’s charter, and the university’s president summarily expelled the two students who had been identified as leading the chant.
As free speech advocates we have no quarrel with the peaceful protests, and acknowledge the national fraternity’s right to restrict its membership however it chooses, but the expulsions are another matter. The courts have long held that public universities are bound by the First Amendment and cannot punish students for their speech, no matter how offensive, and for a variety of good reasons. Aside from the plain language of the Constitution, any restriction on free speech will inevitably lead to another, important ideas will be squelched because some well-organized group or another will find them offensive, and given how very touchy academia is these days there’s no telling where it all might end. Already America’s universities are restricting debate on a variety of issues, from the global warming issue to Israel to the “culture of rape” that is said to pervade the modern campus, but the dialogue about race is especially constrained. Anyone challenging liberal orthodoxy on matters of race is routinely branded a racist, even if they are trying to address the frequently disastrous results of liberal orthodoxy for black America, and any effort to ban racism, no matter how well-intentioned, will allow the keepers of the faith to shut down debate completely. Given how many well-organized groups are taking offense at the slightest provocation these days, placating them all would require limiting scholarly discourse to quiet, guilty shrugs and sympathetic nods.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t be offended by those boorish frat boys and their witless chant, or that you shouldn’t avail yourself of a heaping portion of free speech to express your offense, or that widespread public scorn isn’t an appropriate way of dealing with such unambiguously racist sentiments. In fact, we note that such stigmatizing has rather effectively made the public expression of such racist sentiments rare, and improved race relations to the point that a bunch of drunk frats joking about lynching seems to be a more pressing problem than actual lynchings. Similar results might be achieved if society were to once again attach a stigma to deliberately vulgar language and contraceptive abortion and unwed parenthood and a host of other social ills that the left doesn’t seem to find offensive, but even in these cases we would prefer social persuasion to governmental coercion.
The president of OU might soon find himself in one of those courts that have long held that public universities are bound by the First Amendment, and we won’t mind seeing him lose this one. He was formerly a governor and senator for Oklahoma, back when then state used to elect Democrats to such high offices, and was known for his occasional liberalism and constant devotion to state’s oil and gas industries, so we suspect the same political instincts led him to expel those two students. The controversy caused OU to lose a potential football recruit to the University of Alabama, after all, so the students had not only offended liberal sensibilities but also posed a threat to a crucial business interest. This will only exacerbate the public’s scorn for the two students, and further deter future racist chants on campus, but we’re not so concerned. If that potential football recruit truly believes he won’t encounter any racist frat boys at the University of Alabama he won’t be able to comprehend a playbook, much less an American history textbook, so he probably wouldn’t have done the Sooners any good even if those racist frat boys hadn’t been too stupid to know that there are cell phone video cameras everywhere these days and everything winds up on the internet.

— Bud Norman

The Modern World and Its Discontents

As regular readers of this publication have no doubt already noticed, even on a ordinary day we have no affinity for this modern world. This has been no ordinary day, however, and we are more fed up than usual.
It all started a week or so ago when we noticed that our connection to the internet, one of the few saving graces of modernity, had somehow gone awry. According to one of those little boxes that appear on a computer screen when investigating such matters our cable was unplugged, despite our slightly less reliable real world observation that our cable was indeed plugged, and after some time-consuming difficulty in getting in telephonic touch with a representative of our internet provider, and much time-consuming difficulty in running through his incomprehensible internet-testing drills, we were advised that there must be something wrong with the cable connecting our modern to our computer. The cable looked much as it always had, leading us to suspect that it had something to do with an update our computer-maker had offered offered around the same time, which upon being downloaded turned out to have pretty much re-configured the whole machine, but we were advised by the people on the telephone, who presumably knew what they were talking about, that we’d have to purchase a new cable from one of their local stores.
We won’t mention the name of the internet provider, lest they retaliate with further complications, but suffice to say it is a major telecommunications company that once enjoyed a legally-protected monopoly on its industry. Despite the company’s prominence, however, its closest store was clear over at 21st and Maize. The internet was still coming in and our dispatches were still going out due to some strange metaphysical force called “wi-fi,” albeit at a frustratingly slow pace, and there was a daunting amount of snow on the ground, which we can’t really blame on modernity, although the global warming crowd will probably try to find some post-industrial explanation for it, so we procrastinated on our purchase of the cable for a week or so.
For those of you unfamiliar with the cartography of Wichita, Kansas, 21st and Maize is so far on the west side of the city that you can almost see the Rocky Mountains from there, and beyond where any of you have any reason for Wichita to exist, and the journey seemed daunting. It’s a spot we can fondly recall from our boyhoods as an antique gas station where Ma and Pa Kettle used to do business surrounded by scenic wheat fields, but is now on that densely populated west-of-the-Big-Ditch part of town where the traffic is tortuous and the stoplights take forever, and all the businesses are links on national chains and the architecture is unimpressively upscale and everything seems less like Wichita, Kansas, than Anywhere, USA. Our own residence is a few blocks west of the Arkansas River and therefore technically west side, even if it is in the fashionable Riverside neighborhood, so we can’t be snobby about such things, and it’s not as if the oh-so-chic 21st and Rock Road traffic jam out on the far east side is any less offensive to our old-part-of-town sensibilities, but we do dread a drive to 21st and Maize even in the recently inclement weather.
Of course the store did not have the promised cable, but of course there was a large electronics chain right across the street, and it had a cable we thought might be worth betting a rather small amount of dollars on. We figured we’d also wager the meager price of one of those thingamajigs that plugs the cable with the square plastic prongs with the little plastic peg into those one of those cables with the rectangular metallic prongs that actually plugs into our new computer, just on the off chance that the old one was the problem, and then we spent interminable minutes at incessant stoplights on the way on home with our newly purchased gear. The thingamajig that plugs the cable with the square plastic prong with the little plastic peg into the one of those cables with the rectangular metallic prongs required that we download a compact disc onto computer, which also proved to be time-consuming and difficult, and then another one of those little boxes on the computer screen indicated that it had created a new portal to the internet, and when we clicked on the magic icons that bring us the internet we we were met with more boxes offering instructions to log on. This proved easy enough until a password was requested, at which point we realized we had long forgotten which of the innumerable “open sesame” incantations was requested, and after several futile guesses we wound up consuming more time and encountering more difficulty getting an actual human from that big inhuman telecommunications company on the telephone.
She was quite nice and helpful, we must say, but her help was time-consuming and difficult. It involved much typing and clicking, including some code numbers listed on tiny script on our modem, and we kept typing “7” instead of “?” because the type was so small and our brains are accustomed to seeing numbers rather than punctuation marks in code numbers, so much re-typing and re-clicking was required, but we eventually worked it all out. We were soon plugged into the internet by wire rather than “wi-fi,” as God and Thomas Edison intended, and suddenly everything was going so fast that you’re probably speed-reading through this posting. In short order the Drudge Report and the rest of the right-wing media had caught us up on the day’s news, but alas, it did little to improve our opinion of the modern world.
At least the forecast for our formerly small and pleasant prairie city is calling for clear skies and gradually increasing temperatures through the next week, to an extent that we might even be able to have the top down on our next drive across our unnecessarily enlarged town, and if that’s a result of the modern world’s carbon emissions we’re still glad of it. Early Sunday morning we’ll spring forward to another hour of daylight, too, another modern innovation that doesn’t actually extend the extent of daylight but at least pushes into the evening where it belongs, and we’re also glad of that, even if it means the preacher at out our old west side church won’t get our usual alert attention during his Sunday morning sermon. We expect the days will grow warmer and longer yet, no matter what the modern world might contrive, so we will be hopeful and continue to air our gripes about the modern world on this newfangled internet machine.

— Bud Norman

The Unbearable Opaqueness of Transparency

Secretary of State John Kerry recently told Congress “don’t believe what you read” about his negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons, which is reassuring given what we’ve been reading from such news sources as the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal about the deal he is offering, but he also told them that “I’m not going in to what is or isn’t the situation,” which is not at all reassuring. The Obama administration promised to be “the most transparent” in history, but prefers that the public not bother itself with any details about what is or isn’t the situation.
There’s much the public needs to know about the “net neutrality” regulations that the Federal Communications Commissions is cooking up for the internet, and a congressional hearing would be a good place to have the public’s representatives ask of some of the many pertinent questions, but the FCC’s chairman has declined an invitation to provide any answers in advance of today’s vote by his agency. The administration has been similarly reluctant to divulge information on scandals ranging from the Fast and Furious gun-running scheme to the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative non-profit groups, or even such seemingly inconsequential matters of interest as the president’s educational and medical and travel records, and it seems quite confident that the public would rather not know what is or isn’t the situation. This confidence may well be justified, based on the past many years of incurious press coverage, but we are the nosy sorts who would rather know what’s going on no matter how grim it might be.
Those numerous press reports that the administration is offering Iran nuclear weapons after ten years of phased-out sanctions seem unsettlingly plausible, given the administration’s past foreign policy, and if they are entirely untrue we’d be delighted to hear someone in a position of authority at the Department of State come right out and say so. Some reassurance that the administration remains committed to its stated goal of denying Iran nuclear weapons would be nice, too, but apparently we’ll have to assume the best about whether that is or isn’t the situation. The right is concerned that the “net neutrality” rules will hand over the internet to international control and beyond the protections of First Amendment, the more principled and practical elements of the left are worried about what a Republican administration might do with the power being claimed by the federal government, and it would also be good to hear someone in a position of responsibility at the FCC put those concerns convincingly to rest, but once again we’ll have to take it on faith. Our faith would be bolstered by some believable answers about Fast and Furious and the IRS and the mysteriously missing chapters of the president’s biography, but by now we sadly accept that too much of the rest of the public is uninterested.
Iranian bombs and the internet and the Internal Revenue Service are not matters inconsequential the public’s interest, however, and sooner or later some attention will be paid. We hope its not when the Iranian bomb goes off in Tel Aviv or some European or North American capital, and that we’ll still be able to register our disapproval on the internet, and that our opinions won’t run afoul of the IRS, but that might or might not be the situation.

— Bud Norman

When the Music Stopped

A television was on Sunday evening at one of the locally owned stores we frequent, and as we made our purchase we caught a glance of what looked like Madonna cavorting in a skimpy outfit among a chorus line of beefy fellows in what looked like minotaur costumes. We momentarily assumed it was a Super Bowl half-time show before recalling that a Super Bowl had recently been played, with some other scantily-clad chanteuse doing the half-time honors, and we figured there probably wouldn’t be another one until next winter, so we asked the clerk and he explained that it was the annual Grammy awards ceremony honoring the best of the recording industry. That was all we saw of the show, and the snippet of the forgettable song being performed was the most we’d heard of the recording industry’s latest offerings in a long while, and we didn’t worry that we’ve been missing out on anything.
The next day’s news was full of stories about the event, however, with some of them spilling over into the political pages that usually command our attention. This led us to wonder if we were blissfully ignorant of some important cultural phenomenon blasting through everyone else’s car stereos while we’re listening to the monophonic sounds of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee on the old folks’ station, and if we might soon arrive at some social event and find ourselves in the embarrassing position of being the only ones there not wearing a minotaur costume. Then we headed out to a writer’s meeting for the upcoming Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch fund-raiser that is our annual amateur theatric experience, and were confounded by all the unfamiliar titles of songs that the younger members of the ensemble wanted to parody. We had thought that popular music was no longer a significant influence on the broader culture, not like in the days when shaggy-haired, shirtless rockers were exhorting the youth of America to burn to their draft cards and speak truth to power and do it in the road and all the rest of that youthful rebellion schtick, but apparently one is still expected to have some familiarity with the sort of music that is being played on those newfangled FM stations and performed at the Grammy’s.
Judging by the breathless coverage of that extravaganza, studded with stars whose names we vaguely recognize, it hardly seems worth the effort. The big brouhaha of the evening involved someone named Kanye West interrupting one of the winner’s acceptance speeches to protest that the award should have gone to someone named Beyonce, which is apparently his habitual practice at these sorts of affairs, although there was also scandalized talk of the outfit Madonna wore off-stage that revealed her 56-years-old but still shapely buttocks. At the edges of the conservative media there was worry that prominent Democrats Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz were in attendance and might have been there on the taxpayers’ dime, and others were mocking the president’s video-taped statement made the dubious claim that one-in-five American women have been raped and urged the audience to knock it off, but at this point it hardly anyone seems to find it worth mentioning that the entirety of the recording industry except for a few studios in Nashville is outspokenly associated with the Democratic party. If these people do exert an influence on the broader culture, all the more reason they should be ignored. This Kanye West fellow strikes us as merely rude rather than revolutionary, even the most callipygian fifty-something should have acquired some sense of dignity and decorum, and with no draft cards left to burn and speaking truth to power no longer required during a Democratic administration all that seems to be left of the youthful rebellion schtick is doing it in the road, which seemed to be the Big Profound Message of that Madonna number we happened to catch at the store, and so far as we’re concerned the Democrats are welcome to it.
We console ourselves with the belief that the popular culture isn’t so popular as it used to be, and that the recording industry’s influence in particular has waned along with its rapidly declining sales. That’s largely because the music streaming freely through the internet has dismantled the industry’s old model of pitching music through a limited number of radio stations and then selling it on long-playing albums or cassette tapes or compact discs or MP3 downloads or whatever the tech guys have lately come up with, but we suspect it’s also because no one thinks it is worth paying money to have the music permanently. The plethora of terrestrial and satellite and internet radio stations has fragmented the market, which happily allows listeners to indulge a taste for doo-wop or Dixieland or polka or Hawaiian slack key guitar or techno-house whatever other obscure genre they might prefer, and no one seems to have a truly mass appeal even if the marketing schemes for them existed. A handful of highly publicized acts still dominate free streaming audience at sites such as YouTube, and cash in with concerts full of elaborate choreography and high-tech stagecraft that fill huge arenas at exorbitant ticket prices, but none are nearly so ubiquitous as Glenn Miller in ’41 or Elvis Presley in ’56 or The Beatles in ’64, and even the most hyped of them will likely have little effect on the sizable chunk of the country that won’t shell out for the over-priced shows.
Although we’re heartened that the likes of Kanye West aren’t a particularly pressing problem, it’s kind of a drag that there isn’t a popular American musical culture. In a golden age that ran from about the early ’20s to the early ’70s there was a flood of great of music pouring out of America’s radio speakers, from low down blues to up-tompo swing to rough-hewn country laments and sophisticated pop standards to fervent gospel and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll straight from the garages, and sharing the experience of the best of it with everyone else was one of the cultural advantages of being an American. We’d love to see that old American musical inventiveness revived, and a new generation of performers emerge who will cover up their buttocks and ditch the elaborate showmanship and share some lovingly hand-made music at reasonable ticket prices, and we’d even shell out for a vinyl record or compact disc or whatever else it takes to put it permanently on our shelves to share with posterity. In the meantime, we’ll be tuned into the old folks’ station.

— Bud Norman

Nudes in the News

Perhaps it’s just a prurient interest on our part that has led us to notice, but there seems to be an awful lot of nudity in the news lately. None of it is nearly so significant as all that economics and foreign affairs and the rest of the world’s crises, but it makes for an interesting diversion.
Most of the headlines have been about that anonymous computer hacker who somehow got hold of a large cache of naked pictures of prominent movie actresses and put them out on the internet, but we’ve paid only scant attention. We don’t keep abreast of the contemporary cinema, so to speak, and it’s hard to work up any voyeuristic interest in people we’ve never heard. There’s been quite a bit of feminist outrage generated, what with the invasion of women’s privacy and the objectification of their bodies and all that, but we’re also finding it hard to work up any indignation. So many people have an all-too-natural curiosity about the people who move around in such meticulously objectified bodies that whenever we type the name of almost any movie star into our favorite search engine a window pops up with suggested searches that always include “nude.” It pops up even with the antique movie stars from the black-and-white that we’re most likely to be investigating, and so far as we can tell nude pictures of screen sirens go back all the way to the beginning of motion pictures. Back in our more avid movie-going days in the ’70s almost all the flicks would throw in at least one nude scene, probably on the longstanding Hollywood theory that you have to give the audiences something they couldn’t see on television, but now that you can get bare bodies on the boob tube, so to speak, it’s all computer generated images and shoot-’em-ups, and it doesn’t represent an improvement. We feel a bit badly for the women who had their nude pictures taken with the assurance they would remain private, and worry if anything can remain private these days, but can’t help wondering what they did intend.
Another story at Cosmopolitan, which we assume is a reliable source for this sort information, suggests that posing for naked pictures is a surprisingly popular pastime these days even for people who aren’t movie stars. The famously risqué women’s magazine took a survey of “millennial women” and found that a whopping nine out of 10 had been photographed nude and that only 14 percent regretted it while 82 percent said they would do it again. The survey doesn’t delve into motives, leaving us to speculate why so many young women want their nudity photographed. For the benefit of boyfriends, perhaps, but modern relationships being so fleeting it hard’s to imagine that there wouldn’t be more widespread regrets if that were case. We suspect that the narcissism that is also so common of the younger generation is a more likely explanation.
Oddly enough, this widespread naked photography seems to be breaking out at the same time jurisdictions around the world are banishing public nudity. According to the New York Post even the famously free-minded French Riviera has ceased the topless sunbathing that formerly did so much for France’s tourism industry. Apparently the practice hasn’t been officially banned but merely become passé, in part because of the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the potential that the bared breasts will turn up on that darned internet. The article lists several other exotic locations that have recently banned public nudity, including Hainan Beach in China, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Barcelona in Spain, all before we even realized there were naked people there. In most cases it’s because the locals have grown weary of naked tourists, who probably aren’t walking around unclothed in their own home towns, and it seems a reasonable request.
Getting far less attention is a minor nudity problem just up the turnpike Topeka. The city had apparently never gotten around to passing a law requiring clothing in public, which is the sort of thing a city really shouldn’t have to pass a law about, and until recently Topekans had always extended this courtesy to one another without legal coercion, but apparently one fellow has recently taken to nude strolls around the town. We’re not sure why, although the weather here in Kansas has been just beautiful lately, and it might well be the economy, or maybe global warming, but in any case he’s forced the city council take up the issue. Even in such a staid town as Topeka, it seems, the modern tendency to bare it all has become sadly literal.

— Bud Norman