All posts filed under: Culture

Decadence and Depravity in Louisville, Kentucky

Fifty years ago today, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman drunkenly negotiated the pitfalls of Louisville’s Churchill Downs, home of the world-famous Kentucky Derby. At the time, Thompson was a moderately successful writer who had published an acclaimed book a few years earlier about his time among the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. Steadman was a talented young artist from Wales who had traveled to the United States in search of work. For Steadman and Thompson, it would be their first meeting, but it was hardly Thompson’s first derby. He had grown up in Louisville’s Cherokee Park area and was familiar with the whisky gentry who would be in attendance. As a teenager, Thompson’s wit, charm, intellect, and surly insubordination had made him popular among the city’s wealthy young men and women. However, he had never felt fully accepted and, when he was arrested along with a couple of classmates for holding up a car just shy of his graduation, his rich friends abandoned him to his fate—two months in prison. After 10 years of surviving …

Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America—A Review

A review of Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America by Steven Bingen, Lyons Press (November 2019) 200 pages. It was the 1990 comedy Flashback that sparked my interest in Easy Rider (1969) when I was eight or nine years old. In the former, Dennis Hopper plays an aging 60s dissident, busted after 20 years on the lam, who gets taken cross-country by a no-nonsense FBI agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Naturally, the straight-laced fed can’t keep his laces very straight after Hopper doses him (or pretends to dose him) with LSD, releasing the young Republican’s inner hippie. At one point, Hopper declares, “It takes more than going down to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to be a rebel.” For some odd reason lost on me now, I liked this airy nothing of a movie and so, of course, insisted that my family rent Easy Rider the next time we visited our local video store. Strangely, I liked that too, though, again, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it was the music—all …

Scandinavian Airlines: Get Woke, Cry Wolf

What is truly Scandinavian? Absolutely nothing. Everything is copied.  This was the slogan contained in a bizarre ad campaign broadcast earlier this month by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), the largest airline in Scandinavia and the flag carrier of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The ad was posted on YouTube, but was quickly edited and reposted after being flooded with bad reviews. The message, in short: Nothing is genuinely Scandinavian. Be it meatballs or paternity leave, everything comes from other countries. While the Dutch, Germans and Americans have all made innovations, ours is “nada, niente,” the ad emphasizes. Then follows the unobjectionable cliché message that Scandinavian culture has been enriched by travel and cross-cultural influences. The edited ad. The original version is no longer available online.  For the past two weeks, SAS has faced a wave of criticism, ranging from ordinary Twitter users and opinion writers to leading politicians. Social media has been full of comments from people who vow never to fly with the company again—their own flag-carrier, 29 percent of which is owned by the Danish …

The Balkanization of Art

Art is primal. Necessary. Emerging from some deep, ineradicable human need, art has been an integral part of human society from the time humans sought shelter in caves. And since that time, art has been a means of exerting social control in ways both subtle and bold. In ancient Egypt the architecturally marvellous pyramids were designed to strike awe in the hearts of the slaves lugging the bricks, thereby reinforcing their lowly place in the universe and making them more tractable in the process. The Renaissance popes conscripted into their service anyone who knew how to wield a paintbrush and put them to work exalting Christian cosmology. As for Stalin, he corralled every writer (a notoriously cantankerous group) who wanted to earn a living by the pen into the Soviet Writers Union, where their raison d’être became the glorification of the state. America was meant to be different, a beacon for people fleeing from dogma, a place where the collective project was that of creating a society where everyone could be an individual—nirvana for artists. …

On the Study of Great Books

Anyone familiar with Australian universities will recognize the opportunistic hype produced by their marketing departments and distilled in titillating slogans like: “Create Change,” “Life Impact,” “Research with Impact,” “Make Change—Change Your Life, Change the World,”  “A University for the 21st Century,” “The University that Makes a Difference.” The problem with this is not just the fatuous hubris, it is the open betrayal of the ideals of liberal education. Compare the slogans listed above with the proverbs that still adorn the archaic coats-of-arms of some of the nation’s universities. Another representative sample: Sub Cruce Lumen (“Light Under the Cross”), Scientia Manu et Mente (“Knowledge by Hand and Mind”), Sidere Mens Eadem Mutate (“The Stars Change, The Mind Remains the Same”), Ancora Imparo (“I am Still Learning”). Where the new slogans are dominated by the images of change and impact, generating a sensation of hectic and thrilling novelty, the older proverbs are sober and modest, emphasising the patient and hard-won acquisition of learning and enlightenment, and suggest that a university education is more concerned with what endures than …

Protecting Our Cultural Commons from Opportunism

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote a famous essay titled The Tragedy of the Commons. Borrowing from an example first employed by William Forster Lloyd in 1883, Hardin explained why a common pasture is prone to being ruined from overgrazing. His goal was to lay out the basic logic of what is now known in game theory as the commons dilemma. In doing so, he hoped to demonstrate why the problem of overpopulation is so daunting and would therefore likely require the exercise of government power to solve it. These kinds of problems are prevalent in large societies and they are hard to solve. They are not the result of stupidity or irrationality. Most cannot be solved by creating rules against socially ruinous behavior even if everyone endorses the rules and agrees to obey them. The reason why commons-dilemma problems are so hard to solve is that they are the result of perfectly rational behavior. A central tenet of economics is that individually rational behavior is normally consistent with promoting the common good. But when …

So Here’s to You, Buck Henry

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I did not know who Buck Henry was. On the evening of his death on January 8, 2020, I had to Google his name (which sounds vaguely like the musky fragrance of an aging leather briefcase discolored by cigarette ash). According to his many admirers, Henry was the first writer to fashionize wearing a floppy baseball hat over round tortoiseshell spectacles. This is probably not true, but the residue of his mythology appears in the uniform of every New Yorker who writes about comedy; from David Letterman’s casual streetwear to the SNL writer taking their dog for a morning stroll in Central Park. You can still see this look in urban coffeehouses, where writers in colorful New Balance sneakers scribble jokes into moleskin notebooks. It’s almost certain that these twenty-something Buck Henry facsimiles associate the name with a woodsy-scented organic soap or fashionable strain of weed, or a dead Negro League ball player. I am not making fun of them. I am one of them. And they, like …