Road Songs: Is Life a Highway?

How could a cover of a 1991 song from a Canadian stadium rocker end up as America’s top country music single in 2006?

Simple, actually. It’s a road song. The country trio Rascal Flatts‘ 2006 version of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway” has capitalized on the magical attraction for country fans (and other listeners) of songs about the open road. It didn’t hurt that the song appeared on the soundtrack of Disney’s popular film Cars.

A catchy hook drives the song (and pulls listeners along):

Life is a highway
I want to ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I want to drive it all night long

It’s not the first re-make of the song: Tom Petty has also recorded it, and the late Chris LeDoux, rodeo champion and country singer, included it on his 1998 One Road Man album (LeDoux’s is my favorite version of the song, along with his zany and somewhat frenetic “Life Is a Highway” video).

Surprisingly, there’s a global angle to Cochrane’s song. Cochrane says “Life is a Highway” was inspired by a fact-finding mission to West Africa that he made for the famine relief organization World Vision. The original lyrics, consequently, carry a more international flavor:

This is the road and these are the hands
From Mozambique to those Memphis nights
The Khyber Pass to Vancouver’s lights

Rascal Flatts sings Cochrane’s words without alteration; in LeDoux’s cowboy version they become “from Tennessee to those L.A. nights/San Antone to the Vegas’ lights.”

Country road songs

Americans do like their cars and highways; Nashville’s Music Row favors songs about cars and highways. Country music’s dominance of the genre is clear when you read through the neat list of road songs compiled by Richard F. Weingroff of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on the Highway History section of its website.

Country road songs often become cross-over hits: for example, Willie Nelson’s “ On the Road Again,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” (best known through Janis Joplin’s gritty rendition, but also covered by Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, and the Grateful Dead, among others) and Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain” (written by Eddie Rabbit and Dick Heard).

Nearly every country singer of any prominence has recorded a road song (sometimes several), from George Strait (“Amarillo By Morning,” “Carry Your Love With Me,” “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”) to Trisha Yearwood (“You Can Sleep While I Drive”) to Suzy Bogguss (“Drive South”) to Hank Williams (“Lost Highway”).

One of the classic road songs, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” is actually a train song (“I know every engineer on every train/ All of their children, and all of their names”), and includes one of the more memorable, and sweetly ironic, refrains in country music: “I’m a man of means by no means/ King of the Road.”

For whatever reason, rock, soul, R&B, jazz, and other American musical traditions haven’t been as road obsessed. Country-rockers, like the Allman Brothers (“Ramblin Man”) and The Eagles (“Take it Easy”) do pay allegiance to the highway, and two legendary rock musicians with numerous highway/road songs are Bob Dylan (who has his “Nashville Skyline” country side) and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is—you can argue—perhaps the most popular road song ever recorded (and, for what it is worth, sits at #21 on the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time).

Escapes

What’s behind the enduring attraction of the road, and the songs about it? The open road conjures up freedom. Escape. Steppenwolf captures that in its hit “Born to be Wild”: “Head out on the highway/ Lookin’ for adventure/ And whatever comes our way.”

The highway represents a new start. It beckons to the restless, and the rebellious and those, usually young men, looking to find themselves (think Easy Rider and Jack Kerouac and “Then Came Bronson‘). In a country founded by pioneers, men and women on the move, the road always seems an option. And American drivers, especially in the West, are blessed with wide open spaces and a vast highway network (thank you, Dwight David Eisenhower).

The secret of road songs is that they don’t have to be profound. Life may or may not be a highway, but it’s hard to resist Tom Cochrane’s song—like the other great road songs—and not put the pedal to the metal.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (January 26th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With full attribution to Jimmy Cannon, New York newspaperman who popularized the phrase: nobody asked me, but…

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR’S CNN REPORT, “THE WAR WITHIN,” looks at the radicalization of Moslem young men in Great Britain and the rise of Islamic extremism. Amanpour is clearly troubled by what she has found, and blames the Iraq war for much of the anger and for the growing appeal of fundamentalist ideology. In a side-bar column on CNN.com, Amanpour writes about the response of some Britons to the jihadist movement:

While Britain’s Scotland Yard and MI5 intelligence service regularly warn of Islamist cells plotting violence — some 30 potential plots have been identified — some Muslim preachers, activists and ordinary people are beginning to see that they have to take the responsibility of seizing back their religion from the small band of extremists who have hijacked it.

Amanpour fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem, however, when she talks about a “hijacking” of Islam. The extremists in London, and in the Middle East, do not stray very far from mainstream interpretations of the Koran in their calls for violence against the infidels. Author and military historian Caleb Carr, for one, amply documents this theological foundation for warfare against the West in his “The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians,” published in 2002, and argues: ”Islam must finally reinterpret those contextual, anachronistic passages of the Koran that were so necessary to the survival of the faith in seventh- and eighth-century Arabia but that now propel men to self-defeating acts of terror against civilians.” (It is true that South Asian Moslems practice a more moderate and tolerant Islam, but—broadly speaking— that is not the case in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and the Arab states).

The notion that there is a political solution to this challenge is misguided. A reformed Islamic theology must come first—an antidote to the virulent fundamentalism preached by Sunni followers of Wahhabism.

WONDERING WHAT FORMER EAGLES’ SINGER DON HENLEY is up to these days? He has been nominated for a Grammy for his 2006 country duet with Kenny Rogers, “Calling Me.” Rogers and Henley share a long history: in 1968 Rogers backed Henley and his Texas band, Shiloh, in Henley’s first West Coast foray into the industry.

NOW THAT THE FOOTBALL SEASON IS OVER (more or less), how about a change in the way interceptions are recorded? Whenever a pass bounces off a receiver and is intercepted, why not treat it as a TINT (“Tip interception”), recognizing that the quarterback isn’t at fault. Yes, I’m from the school of thought that if you touch it, you should catch it. Why should QBs be statistically punished for butterfingers or shaky catching skills on the part of ends and backs?

SENATOR CHUCK HAGEL had the right rejoinder to Vice President Dick Cheney’s comment that American public may not have the “stomach for the fight” in Iraq.

On PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, Hagel had the following to say:

Oh, I’m so sorry the vice president so underestimates the people of this country. He has so little faith in this country to say something like that. That’s an astounding statement from the vice president of the United States.

You’re telling me — or maybe more directly, maybe the vice president should tell the families of those who have lost their lives, over 3,000, and over 23,000 wounded, some very seriously for life, that they don’t have the stomach?

Some context: Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, is a Vietnam War combat veteran. Cheney asked for and received five deferments from military service during that conflict, later explaining “”I had other priorities in the 60’s than military service.”

THE CONCERNS OVER GAY SHEEP RESEARCH raised by PETA and gay activists, worried by the prospects of future genetic engineering for humans, have focused attention on the question. They are right to be concerned. Count on this—if there is a prenatal genetic “fix” for homosexuality, or deafness, or dwarfism, there are parents who will want it, and doctors who will offer it. A troubling question: what are the unintended consequences of selecting out given genetic profiles? Should we so directly intervene? Or should such tampering be legally constrained?

FORMER NEW YORK GOVERNOR MARIO CUMUO once observed that: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” He made that observation in 1985, well before the first three national campaigns of the 21st century (2000, 2004 and 2006), where poetry of any sort was noticeably absent. The new permanent (and costly) Presidential campaigns shaping up—with candidates rushing to announce 22 months before the election—means we are likely to experience premature posturing instead of soaring poetry.

I GIVE NEW CRITERION EXECUTIVE EDITOR DAVID YEZZI FULL CREDIT: his Wall Street Journal review of a new biography by Scott Donaldson of American poet Edward Arlington Robinson was intriguing enough to send me in pursuit of the New England poet’s work. (That’s high praise for a book review). A few interesting facts from the review (drawn from the book): Robinson, who died in 1935, worked as a New York subway construction inspector; his brother married a woman that he also loved; he won three Pulitzer Prizes for is verse; and he explained his multiple rejections earlier in his career by saying: “My poetry is rat-poison to editors.”

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE comes from one of Don Henley’s favorites, naturalist and explorer John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club: “Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (January 19th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the Loden Hut to Jimmy Cannon, New York newspaperman who popularized the phrase: Nobody asked me, but…

IT HAS BEEN A WARM WINTER in Northern Europe, so much so that our taxi driver called it a “second summer for Bavaria,” an observation offered as we zoom-zoom-zoomed (at 180 kilometers per hour) along the autobahn outside Munich earlier this week. Perhaps Al Gore should consider his political prospects in the European Union. (Some cited a major winter storm that hit the day after we left as an example of the weather extremes that climate change has provoked.)

Speaking of European attitudes, while it may be true that opinion polls show a consistent rejection of the Bush Doctrine and the Administration’s decision to wage the Iraq War, the Dutch and Germans we encountered in our brief trip were decidedly not anti-American.

Fears of any long-term divide between the EU and the United States on significant security issues are overblown: while debate over tactics and approach will continue, there’s no denying the challenge of what Christopher Hitchens (among others) has dubbed “Islamofascism,” or the potential for damage by Iranian muscle-flexing in the Middle East.

INTERNATIONAL TRAVELERS IN EUROPE ARE GREETED BY THE “THEATER OF SECURITY,” although the measures employed are meant as much to assuage anxiety as to actually prevent terrorist attacks.

Case in point: our erstwhile Homeland Security watchdogs insist on shoes being x-rayed before boarding one’s plane—not so in the two European airports I passed through this week. So are EU security types less worried about shoe bombs?

At Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, tardy passengers are chastised with the following sort of public announcement in several languages: “Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bergstrom traveling to Copenhagen, Flight 123. You are delaying the flight. Immediately board, please. We will proceed to offload your luggage.” Of course if Mr. A and Mr. B are terrorists who scoff at death they will happily board the plane even if their checked-in luggage—which most likely has not been scanned—contains an explosive.

DUTCH DIRECTOR PAUL VERHOEVEN’S LATEST FILM, ZWARTBOEK (BLACK BOOK) offers a darkly mature look at the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II. The Oscar-nominated film drops the heroic frame of Verhoeven’s earlier treatment of the War, Soldier of Orange. Verhoeven, best known in the U.S. for Stormship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Total Recall (and the execrable Showgirls) plumbs the hard moral choices those confronting totalitarianism are forced to make.

Through the story of Rachel Steinn, a fictional Dutch-Jewish singer who becomes an underground resistance fighter (played by Carice van Houten), we see that some survive by resisting, others by collaborating, some by betrayal, and some by hedging their bets. What Vorhoeven captures so well are those sudden moments of moral decision-making when lives hang in the balance—and the deep emotions these moments provoke.

IF YOU WANT TO ASSESS THE RELATIVE SECURITY of an embattled place, sadly there may be no better measure than the market price of an AK-47, the Russian-designed assault weapon. According to press reports from Baghdad the price has risen in concert with the level of sectarian strife. In Mogadishu, the price of the weapon has risen as residents worry that the recent defeat of the Islamists may herald the return of warlordism.

I’d wager that the “Kalashnikov Index” could prove to be the most accurate gauge of the success of peacekeeping efforts in any hot-spot. (There’s an economics dissertation about this tragic phenomenon begging to be written).

MANY TRADITIONAL MEDIA TYPES will watching with heightened interest Politico.com (www.politico.com), the new narrow-cast website focused on American politics, due to launch January 23rd.

The site, which is funded by Robert L. Allbritton and staffed by some mainstream journalists (including Jim Vandehei and John Harris of the Washington Post) drawn by the prospects of reinventing their craft in the Internet Age, may become a test case for journalistic entrepreneurship.

Will the economics of this non-partisan effort work? Will the site draw enough eyeballs to attract advertisers? Could it be a way to finance quality journalism in the future?

A RIVETING STORY OF BRITISH MILITARY HEROISM in Afghanistan, vividly portrayed in The Guardian (of all publications, one not one known for cheerleading for the lads in uniform): British marines strapped to the wings of an Apache helicopter, recovering the body of a downed comrade despite heavy fire from a Taliban stronghold.

WHAT HAPPENS THE FIRST TIME a dogged, but not particularly skilled, Major League Soccer defender (say, a journeyman like Rusty Pierce) clobbers the league’s new multi-million dollar Golden Boy, David Beckham? Bet that referees will look to protect Beckham at all costs. (Never thought it would be possible to mention Rusty Pierce and David Beckham in the same sentence.)

Count me among those doubtful that importing Beckham, or other big-name foreign stars, represents the way for MLS to grow and prosper—it’s a strategy the North American Soccer League tried with the Cosmos, and the cost of those aging stars never paid off in TV contracts.

The previous MLS patient approach of internally developing American players (think Clint Dempsey, Brian Ching, Landon Donovan), building cozy soccer-only stadiums, and avoiding huge payrolls seemed to be working, albeit more gradually than some in executive suites would prefer. But for the long haul, it’s a better ticket than importing long-in-the-tooth talent.

WILL SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON’S OPERATIVES now try to cast the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign as “Snow White and the (many) dwarves” as candidates continue to announce? So far, the announced or close-to-announced “dwarves” include Iowa’s Tom Vilsack, Sen. Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Christopher Dodd, and—Clinton supporters would argue—John Kerry, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. Come to think of it, besides Mrs. Clinton that would be seven other candidates…and Al Gore would make eight.

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE comes from German theologian and Resistance figure Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (January 12th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

As New York’s man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say: Nobody asked me, but…

DISTRICT ATTORNEY MIKE NIFONG’s request for a special prosecutor to take over the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case is long overdue. Nifong faces ethics charges over his handling of the controversial case—which centers on shifting allegations by an African-American exotic dancer that three white Duke lacrosse players assaulted her at a team party last March. The special prosecutor would be able to review the evidence (which appears increasingly weak) and decide whether to move forward with the case, or to drop it.

Since last March, the Duke case has attracted national attention, as I have noted before, “because it raises submerged questions of race, class disparity, campus cultural and sexual mores, and the workings of our criminal justice system” and “the sensationalizing role of the 24×7 media.”

As the case has unfolded, it has become clear that perhaps only a novelist like Tom Wolfe could do full justice to the bizarre situation, an observer, like Wolfe, “keenly sensitive to the social and cultural context, and the ironies, of the sordid episode.”

No matter how the case is legally resolved, there will be no winners. The Durham District Attorney’s office and the city’s police will, no doubt, face scrutiny for their flawed handling of the case; the embattled Nifong may lose his job and/or his license to practice law.

The accuser is reported to have battled depression and other mental health issues: her behavior to-date has suggested that she is deeply troubled. What will the future hold for her?

The three accused men, even if exonerated, will struggle to repair their reputations. There will be emotional scars left, no doubt, by their brush with national infamy (Newsweek magazine ran mugshots of the three on its front cover).

Duke has been damaged as well. There are questions yet to be answered about the way Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead, reacted to the crisis; many Duke faculty members, eager to draw political conclusions from the scandal, did not grant the accused students the presumption of innocence. What does that say about divisions in the Duke community? There should be soul-searching aplenty on campus in the months ahead.

FORMER ORIOLES GREAT CAL RIPKEN JR. will now join baseball’s Hall of Fame; he’s a player whose sportsmanship on the field and personal conduct off it would make him a marvelous choice even if he hadn’t been one of the best shortstops in history. Hitter Tony Gwynn was also honored by election to the Hall of Fame; slugger Mark McGwire, dogged by suspicions of steroid use during his home-run hitting career, was not.

COMEDIAN DENNIS MILLER recently explained his changing politics: “Do you know why I’m no longer liberal? Because I wanted to stop my sentences one word short of the word ‘but.’” Miller will host his own three-hour radio talk show beginning in March.

DID SENATOR JOE BIDEN of Delaware actually say the following on “Meet the Press” in discussing his 2008 presidential candidacy: “I’m going to be Joe Biden, and I’m going to try to be the best Biden I can be. If I can, I got a shot. If I can’t, I lose.”? Yes, he did.

The best Biden he can be? Does the good Senator suffer from multiple personality disorder? Is there a bad Biden lurking inside? Or is he suggesting that he has a choice—to be, or not to be, Joe Biden?

The mind boggles. Fortunately the Republic is safe from the threat of the best, or worst, Biden occupying the White House.

AMERICAN RAUNCH CULTURE HAS REACHED even England’s institutions of higher education, according to The First Post, which reports: “Pole-dancing exercise clubs, ‘frat-house’ sex games and ‘Pimp and Whore’ themed parties – washed down with gallons of discount lager – are all the rage.” The late New York senator and public intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan had it right about the dangers of “Defining Deviancy Down,” and that slippage appears now to be a global phenomenon.

Not well done, as the British would say (and traditionalists would echo), not well done at all. On this very subject, Kay. S. Hymowitz has an interesting Wall Street Journal column bemoaning the wave of female celebrity exhibitionism and noting the merits of modesty and “the logic of privacy.”

POLITICAL ANALYST STUART ROTHENBERG argues “it’s pretty clear that the 2008 presidential election is the Democrats’ to lose” and makes a convincing case at RealClear Politics that “given the closeness of the past two presidential contests, the difficulty of one party winning three consecutive elections and Bush’s poll numbers, the Democratic nominee ought to have a small but clear advantage.”

But, Rothenberg concedes, events can change that calculus. Much depends on how the Democrats handle control of Congress, and, I would argue, on whether the race for the Democratic presidential nomination remains civil or not. For example, should elements of the hard Left and their netroots allies launch heavily negative attacks against frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton they may damage her for the general election.

One positive sign for Mrs. Clinton, however, is the potential for numerous “lower tier” candidates (Biden, Tom Vilsack, Al Sharpton, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich) who may siphon left-of-center primary votes from John Edwards and Barack Obama.

THE QUOTE FOR THE WEEK, from Iroquois lacrosse legend Oren Lyons: “Life will go on as long as there is someone to sing, to dance, to tell stories and to listen.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Postapocalypse now: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Cormac McCarthy
The Road (2006)

Dystopian visions appear to be all the rage these days. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s just-released Children of Men, a film set in 2027 London, imagines a dying world where humans can not reproduce; on television, CBS is airing the series Jericho, a futuristic drama about life in a small Kansas town after an atomic attack on Denver; and Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, “The Road,” traces the journey of a father and son through a lawless America in the aftermath of a fiery (nuclear?) apocalypse.

What lies behind these harrowing scenarios? A delayed reaction to 9/11, or to the dangers of genetic engineering, or to global warming? Fears triggered by North Korean nuclear tests, or the threat of terrorists acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction?

While the Doomsday Clock, a measure of the “global level of nuclear danger” kept by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reflects worrisome trends (it reached seven minutes to midnight in 2002, much narrower than 1991’s 17-minute gap), we are relatively safer than we were during the brinkmanship years of the Cold War. In 1953, for example, after the U.S. and Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear devices the clock moved to two minutes from Armageddon; in 1962 the Cuban missile crisis nearly escalated into all-out war.

Perhaps today’s artistic anxiety stems from the greater potential for random acts of destruction. The Cold War superpower standoff was based on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, the assumption that rational leaders would be deterred from using atomic weapons knowing that there could no winners. In contrast, many of today’s terrorists have embraced suicide as a religious act, and Iranian leaders have mused aloud about acceptable population losses in a nuclear exchange with Israel. Rationality is no check. The fear and trepidation that these works of science fiction tap into is very real.

“The Road” captures that anxiety. McCarthy has been in a grim mood of late; his 2005 novel, “No Country for Old Men,” explored the disturbing impact of drugs, easy money and anarchic violence on Texas small towns along the Mexican border. McCarthy (through the character of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a traditionalist) clearly longs for a return to older values and virtues, such as family and faith, which have been challenged by a brutal, criminal amorality.

A Hobbesian America

That longing for a baseline morality again surfaces in “The Road.” McCarthy sketches an anarchic America, still smoldering from the war, where the few survivors confront a Hobbesian nightmare, scavenging for food and shelter in a burned-over landscape, evading the roaming bands of predators who have descended into barbarism.

There are echoes here of Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” with his hero’s Homeric journey through the back-roads of a Civil War South where the social order has collapsed. The protagonist in “The Road” hopes that by travelling south to the coast through a “barren, silent, godless” landscape he and his ten-year-old son can find sanctuary from the coming harsh winter. All the while he fights his own growing “dull despair” and clings to a preapocalyptic morality—telling his son that they are the “good guys” and promising they will never resort to the savagery, including cannibalism, that they see around them.

Fire dominates this book: it has scorched the ruined America the two travelers encounter (“Sketched upon the pall of soot downstream the outline of a burnt city like a black paper scrim”); yet building a fire is also necessary to keep the man and boy alive in a post-nuclear winter climate. And “carrying the fire” is the reason the man gives his son for persevering despite their nearly hopeless situation; that fire is a metaphor for keeping alive the internal spark of humanity.

McCarthy is known for his spare, poetic prose—it is on full display in “The Road.” His stripped down language (with its Hemingwayesque use of conjunctions) matches the stark environment he limns:

It was as long a night as he could remember out of a great plenty of such nights. They lay on the wet ground by the side of the road under the blankets with the rain rattling on the tarp and he held the boy and after a while the boy stopped shaking and after a while he slept.

There are hints of Biblical judgment (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), and of more recent horrific images (the “Highway of Death” from Kuwait to Baghdad where Iraqi solders were incinerated during the first Gulf War). McCarthy couples his description of the radically altered physical landscape with a portrait of a father’s redemptive love for his son and his growing desperation as he realizes that he is dying and may not find a safe harbor in time for his boy.

There is much to admire in “The Road,” and yet McCarthy’s imagery and lyric Celtic prose don’t elevate the novel into something first-rate; in the end the book disappoints. It feels derivative, borrowing (intentionally or not) from the popular-culture dystopias we’ve encountered in the Mad Max and Terminator films (and perhaps even from futuristic clunkers like The Postman and Waterworld). There’s nothing particularly fresh, or different, in McCarthy’s somewhat baroque postapocalytic take. (I would argue that Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” remains the scariest, and most haunting, vision of what might happen after a nuclear war, as the surviving remnants of humanity await the radioactive winds that doom the species, “not with a bang but a whimper.”)

Recognizing the future

The most fascinating science fictions these days—in print and on screen—are those that provide us a glimpse of a plausible, but deeply disturbing future, one that is familiar and that we recognize with a bit of a shudder. Michael Winterbottom’s 2003 film Code 46 does just that, imagining how globalization, environmental stress and genetic engineering might lead to a society divided by wealth and “breeding.” We encounter a pampered, urban technocratic overclass and an impoverished, “genetically inferior” underclass, oppressed and isolated from First World civilization, restricted by a series of codes and laws. The film hits close to home in a way “The Road” does not. (Screenwriter and director Andrew Niccol explored somewhat similar, and uncomfortable, themes of genetic privilege in his 1997 movie Gattaca.)

Storytellers are as much drawn to the future–its mystery, its plasticity, its mythic potential–as they are to the present or the past. Yet innovative science fiction is harder to create than it appears. McCarthy’s comfort with the themes and tropes of the Western—another distinctly American genre–are evident in his “Border Trilogy,” but his foray into science fiction isn’t nearly as successful.

He’s not alone: since George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the challenge for mainstream writers to imagine the society of the future has proven irresistible and enduring. Sometimes they hit—witness “A Clockwork Orange” (Anthony Burgess), “Planet of the Apes” (Pierre Boule) and “Never Let Me Go” (Kazuo Ishiguro)—and sometimes they miss the mark (vide: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Caleb Carr’s “Killing Time”).

They will—we can safely predict—keeping trying.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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seems

The week (January 5th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

As newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say: Nobody asked me, but…

KUDOS TO WALDO PROFFITT, former editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, still sharp as a tack entering (by my rough-and-ready count) his sixth decade of newspapering; his column on the upcoming Florida-Ohio State national championship football game showcases his uncommon sense, while including a few zingers about the state of collegiate athletics:

…when watching college football, I sometimes recall the remark by a president of the University of Oklahoma, a perennial powerhouse. He said something like this: “I am pleased to be able to report we have a university of which our football team can be justly proud.”

And I ponder the idea that if university presidents, and boards of trustees and state legislators seriously wanted to end the hypocrisy, they could establish within the college an academic department of athletics in which students could spend the whole academic year playing their favorite sport, with classes in sports finance, sports language, sports ethics, sports history, sports medicine and other aspects of the sports world, and maybe graduate in four years with a degree indicating they had learned something useful for their future careers.

Proffitt is no killjoy, however, closing his Sunday Herald Tribune column with: “Go Gators!!!!” (That’s four exclamation points, for those counting).

JOHN NEGROPONTE’S SUDDEN DEPARTURE as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) proves, among other things, that bureaucratic insiders make unlikely reformers. While we are told that there is now more collaboration among the agencies, Negroponte’s chief accomplishment appears to be the rapid construction of another centralized bureaucracy, more than 1,000 strong, if we believe published reports, centered in Washington!

The DNI position was, according to the 9/11 Commission, meant to oversee and improve intelligence integration. Instead, it has meant centralization for centralization’s sake. For the Washington Establishment there’s something very comforting about the idea of a Big Daddy (remember that a Drug Czar was going to win the War on Drugs?).

The problem, of course, is that American intelligence failures can be attributed as much to centralized groupthink as to the problem of feuding agencies. The much-maligned ex-director of CIA, Porter Goss, had identified overdue reforms in other areas: an expansion of human intelligence (humint), more Arabic speakers, more feet on the ground in the Middle East and South Asia. Goss argued, correctly I think, for a more flexible, decentralized and networked approach to assessing the intentions of our 21st century adversaries.

Adding thousands of analysts in Washington—and additional layers of oversight—may be comforting to Beltway types (and raise real estate prices in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs), but it fails to address these key needs.

Negroponte, and his hand-picked CIA director, Michael V. Hayden, have worked the media assiduously (this fawning profile of Hayden by the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus is a prime example), but they haven’t addressed these structural issues. Hayden has apparently thrown in his lot with the CIA’s permanent bureaucracy—sidestepping any institutional reform.

And Negroponte’s move to the State Department, and the appointment of his successor, retired Navy Admiral Mike McConnell, means that former military men now run the three top American intelligence agencies (DCI, CIA, and NSA). Groupthink, anyone?

TWO CHEERS FOR MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATORS for voting on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—as they were constitutionally-bound to do—but only two cheers, because they avoided voting on a universal health care amendment that required the same legislative consideration. The marriage amendment received 62 votes (more than the 50 needed to keep the ballot initiative alive until the next session), and could reach the ballot in 2008.

Some same-sex marriage defenders have argued that any popular vote on the “civil rights of a minority” is not only wrong, but immoral.

Yet all societies legislate “civil rights” when it comes to marriage—whether it is setting an age of consent, or limiting the number people you can marry, or establishing guidelines for divorce or separation. Letting voters decide on these matters is just as legitimate as having judges make the call.

My guess is that if it reaches the ballot, Massachusetts voters will vote down the amendment—accurately reflecting the attitudes of the majority towards same-sex marriage in the Commonwealth. And as the New Republic‘s Benjamin Wittes points out: “supporters of gay marriage have no choice in the long run but to persuade their fellow citizens. At some point, in other words, they have to start winning referenda. One of the country’s most liberal states, having had the benefit of several years of marriage equality to raise public comfort with it, is a good place to start.”

SHAWN MACOMBER’S AMERICAN SPECTATOR PIECE ON JOHN EDWARDS, Democratic presidential hopeful, notes some contradictions in Edwards’ foreign policy pronouncements: the former North Carolina Senator calls for American intervention in the Sudan and tough action on North Korea and Iran, but backs a retreat from Iraq. Macomber comments: “Principled military isolationism is fine, admirable, even. Attempting to build both national security and anti-war credentials simultaneously by abandoning one partisan intervention for another is grossly inhumane.”

IT SEEMS FITTING TO CLOSE THIS FIRST COLUMN of the New Year with Nelson Algren’s timeless advice: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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