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27 May 2009

Conservatives and Country Music

Hi again. I apologize for the delay between posts, but the last few weeks have been absolute murder. The school where I teach is finally in exam week, but I had a glut of papers to grade last week. Now I find myself with an abundance of free time, and that means another blog entry from your favorite chubby pal.

I am an avid fan of talk radio. Therefore, I am a fan of conservative talk radio. When one speaks of talk radio, it's pretty much understood that one is speaking of conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Neal Boortz, etc. Despite their best efforts, liberals have never been able to establish much of a foothold on the radio, although Alan Colmes does have a show that airs pretty late at night on 560 AM in Columbia. Air America, the one serious attempt at a talk radio network with a stable of liberal hosts, has filed for bankruptcy at least once, if not more, and I have honestly never heard an original Air America broadcast.

Of course, I could go off on a whole discussion of the ridiculous Fairness Doctrine and the recent attempts to get it reinstated (for the unfamiliar, the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC abolished in 1987, stated that those holding broadcast licenses were required to give contrasting views of controversial issues), but I won't. It's painfully obvious that liberals want the Fairness Doctrine back because they aren't being heard anymore because, for whatever reason, most listeners don't want to hear what they have to say. In fact, since the Fairness Doctrine was abolished the spirit of the doctrine--to engender open debate--has been fulfilled in a way it never was while the doctrine was in effect. Whether we want to admit it or not, the mainstream news media is basically left-leaning and pro-Obama, and talk radio is basically right-leaning and pro-limited government. The left-leaning news media reports on events with its bias built-in, and right-leaning talk radio hosts ferret out the liberal bullcrap.

I'm not interested in any of this debate, however, at least not for this discussion. Suffice it to say, I know talk radio, and there's something that has struck me as rather odd: conservative hosts love country music. They absolutely adore it, and I don't know why.

Well, that's a lie. I have some theories and, naturally, I'm going to offer them up for your consumption. But first let's take a look at some talk radio hosts. Sean Hannity is probably the most obvious example. While taking a class in Columbia this past semester, I listened to Sean on 970 AM in Florence on my weekly drive down, and at the top of every hour his show would lead in with Martina McBride's "Independence Day," a soaring, super-patriotic ode to the American way of life. Okay, one song, no big deal. Then, about a week ago, Sean started promoting a series of pro-American, pro-limited government concerts that he has helped to organize, featuring, among others, Billy Ray Cyrus and Charlie Daniels. Add to that the occasional visit by a country music artist, and The Sean Hannity Show is a veritable hee-haw of country music royalty.

One show doesn't say much, though. Maybe Sean Hannity, a New Yorker, just loves country music. I'll even admit that I'm biased in thinking that Northerners aren't country music lovers, and that Sean has proven me wrong.

Then something happened that made me rethink this whole issue. This week the students at the school where I teach are taking their final exams, and so teachers are permitted to leave school early if they have nothing to do. I finished up my various tasks and hit the road around 11 this morning, and so I tuned in to 970 AM as always. At this time Laura Ingraham broadcasts her show, which I had never heard before because I'm usually knee-deep in lesson plans at 11 in the morning. So I'm listening to Laura when, all of a sudden, she starts talking about how much she loves country music. Can't get enough of it.

Sean Hannity was a hardworking construction worker in a former life. I can completely buy Hannity standing over his sledgehammer, wiping the sweat from off his brow, and listening to Garth Brooks. But Laura Ingraham? Besides the fact that she's a woman--and chicks love country music, for whatever reason--it makes no sense. The name "Ingraham" is probably the least countrified name in the world.

Now, I'll admit that I don't know much about Laura Ingraham and that I'm probably being a little sexist when I write things like "chicks love country music," but there is an undeniable trend on the right toward country music. In fact, there's a corresponding trend on the left toward rock music. How else can you explain this sudden glut of conservatives espousing their love of country music? At the same time, observe all of the activist, left-wing rockers out there: U2, The Clash, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, etc.

This is not an original revelation. South Park did an entire episode on pro-war country music lovers and anti-war rock 'n' roll protesters. I mention it because I find it all a bit disturbing--and, in a way, potentially dangerous. First of all, I really don't like country music. There are always the obvious exceptions, and I should probably qualify that by saying that I don't like new country music, but generally speaking I can't stand it (the odd thing is, most of it is just classic rock with banjos and twangy vocals).

Secondly, why should conservatives give up rock music? Chuck Klosterman, author of Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey of Rural North Dakota,argues that glam metal in the 1980s "latently adopted the Republican persona of the 1980s," which was "an incredibly popular way of thinking, especially (and surprisingly) among young males" who made up the bulk of heavy metal's listeners. Heavy metal in its biggest, glammiest, most capitalistic form has fallen by the wayside, but for its time it was a musical movement that, according to Klosterman, was completely in-tune with the prevailing conservative sentiments of the Reagan era. Sure, heavy metal was an exaggeration of the already-exaggerated excesses of the 1980s, but it was the popular music of the time and reflected the mood of the nation and the political establishment, something that is pretty rare as far as pop music goes. Just look at the pop music of the 1960s and 1970s, which cast itself in a light that was decidedly anti-establishment.

So, why is this dangerous? Because I get the impression that most conservative talk show hosts are being a tad disingenuous when they talk about their love of country music. They're playing to their audience--or so they think--which they assume is made up largely of pro-war, pro-limited government, anti-Obama listeners, which is true. However, they're making the assumption that most of those listeners love country music because those are the things they believe, and I don't think that's the case. I believe in all of those things and I much prefer rock--even crappy modern rock--to country music.

The danger also comes in the increasing fragmentation of American political life geographically and culturally. I think it's safe to assume that most fans of country music are, well, those who live in the country (although every good ol' boy I've ever known has been a fan of country and rap simultaneously). But when country music becomes synonymous with one political ideology and rock music with the other, it serves to intensify political fragmentation. Suddenly, McBride's "Independence Day" becomes a post-9/11 rallying cry for anti-Obama revolutionaries instead of a genuine appreciation for the United States and its freedoms.

Instead of looking at genres of music as inherently politicized, we should be using music as a way to bridge the ever-widening gap between different ideologies. I love my talk show hosts, but if I'm right, I have to fault them on their constant peddling of country as some kind of conservative alternative to mainstream music. At the same time, liberals deserve much more of my ire, as they've effectively hijacked rock music and have been using music politically for much, much longer than conservative radio personalities. Woodstock, anyone?

08 May 2009

Fatherhood and the African-American Community

NOTE: I apologize for the lateness of this posting. I have been working diligently this past week to finish a paper for a graduate course in which I was enrolled; now that that is done, I should have more time to come up with article ideas and to post to the blog.

Tonight, for the first time, I watched the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, starring Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding, Jr., among others. The movie, for those of you that might not know, is essentially the story of three young men living in South Central Los Angeles during the early nineties and how their lives are different. One is a promising football star, while his best friend is a hardworking student and his brother is the leader of a local gang. Through a great deal of loss and tragedy, the viewer gets an honest depiction of the gangland violence and unfortunate despair that grips many of America's urban centers.

It also addresses an important issue facing Americans today: fatherhood, or, more accurately, the absence of it. Gooding's character, Tre Styles, is the only character in the movie who is raised by his father. His father, Furious Styles, is a stern disciplinarian who seeks to keep his son off the streets and out of the gangs of his neighborhood. It is no coincidence, then, that at the end of the movie Tre makes it to college, whereas both of his friends have been murdered, one unjustly, the other as part of a gang vendetta.

Strong parenting is something that is sorely missing in the African-American community. Several months ago a student of mine gave a presentation on this very same issue, and his classmates responded with a firestorm of denunciations. He very simply pointed out the number of African-American men in prison, as well as the number of single African-American mothers, and drew the conclusion that many of the problems African Americans wrestle with stem from the absence of strong fathers or father figures in their lives.

His fellow students reacted immediately and violently to his conclusions--and they made some good points. Yes, the lack of strong father figures alone does not account for the vicious cycle of violence and crime that traps so many young black men in a life of gang warfare and murder. There are some deep economic and social problems facing the African-American community today, and to say that a dearth of fathers is the root of the problem is overly simplistic at best and, at worst, draws attention away from other, more sinister factors.

The students, however, were ultimately more concerned about not appearing racist than they were about making these points. This fear is one of the central problems of any discussion of race in America today: it has become virtually impossible to talk about rationally. And this was in a classroom full of white, upper-middle class private school students.

That is an entirely different issue, though, and one that will have to be addressed later. While this young man was probably oversimplifying the broad range of issues that have created such unfortunate conditions within segments of the black community, he still had a compelling point. And this point is not just one that affects black families in inner city areas. Strong parenting is facing changes in all parts of society, regardless of race, socio-economic condition, or any other inherited or ascribed condition. Fatherhood especially has come under blows in recent years, Bill Cosby's excellent book notwithstanding.

This crisis of fatherhood is felt most strongly, however, within the African-American community. African-American culture--to the extent that one can discuss something as broad and protean as "African-American culture", which is by no means monolithic or uniform--has minimized the role of the responsible father. This situation is due largely to circumstance, as the economic conditions facing many young black men offers them the choice between glory in athletics or (false) security in gangs. Also, certain segments of African-American culture have adopted an unfortunate anti-intellectual attitude that discourages learning or any attempts at bettering one's condition. Add to these problems a hypermasculinization and the glorification of violence and money in hip-hop and rap today, and conditions are ripe for a culture that denounces responsibility, encourages quick financial gain through illegal means, and disrespects women. (I should note that old school rappers like Ice Cube and N.W.A. were not glorifying South Central L.A.--they were actually talking about how bad it was.)

Ultimately, however, parts of African-American culture ignore or even denounce fatherhood because the role of parent has been assumed by the federal government. If we look back through history, every major gain on behalf of African-American rights and liberties has been bestowed on behalf of the federal government. The Emancipation Proclamation; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; various pieces of civil rights legislation; affirmative action: these were all spearheaded and enforced by the federal government.

And, certainly, many of these had to be enforced by the federal government. It took a war to end slavery in the South. National Guardsmen, under the orders from U.S. presidents, had to escort little black children to school to make desegregation work. I do not mean to downplay the important role of activists, both black and white, in the Civil Rights Movement, but even their efforts eventually led to action on behalf of the federal government.

Therefore, all throughout African-American history major support for blacks has come almost exclusively from the federal government, which, on the whole, has treated African-Americans very paternally. Who needs a strong father figure when Uncle Sam is there to feed your children?

Regardless of why it is absent--and I will admit that my theory is a bit of stretch--the presence of strong, authoritative, and supportive fathers could profoundly benefit young African-American men and women and could help to improve the state of many African Americans today. This improvement would come not from a paternal federal government but from individual incentive and action. Blacks would still face many problems, but with strong fathers--and mothers--they could approach those deeper issues with confidence, intelligence, and vigor.

And I'll be there to help, even if I am as white as a reflective road marker.