Editor's Choice

New frugality as old cultural war

I was thinking more about a line in the last paragraph of James Surowiecki's New Yorker column about consumer spending.

But the evidence for a radical shift in the way we consume seems more like the product of wishful thinking (there’s a palpable longing among pundits for Americans to become more frugal) than anything else.

It's what is in the parenthesis that interests me, that "palpable longing" that most likely refers to David Brooks, who pined for "economic self-restraint" in this recent New York Timesop-ed. Since I tend to think of cheerleaders for the consumer society as being situated ideologically on the pro-business right, I regarded this kind of rhetoric as a move by Brooks toward the crunchy left, with its preoccupation with environmental responsibility and conservation and recycling and the like. But an old Joan Didion piece about the Washington press corps during the Clinton years (aptly titled "Vichy Washington"), reminded me of the obvious point that Brooks is reaching back to an older tradition of conservative intolerance personified back then by Robert Bork:

Bork is worth some study, since it is to him that we owe the most forthright statements of what might be required to effect "a moral and spiritual regeneration," the necessity for which has since entered the talk show and op-ed ether. Such a regeneration, Bork speculated in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, by one of four events: "a religious revival, the revival of public discourse about morality, a cataclysmic war, or a deep economic depression."

This puts a religious-bigot spin on the The Shock Doctrine thesis: rather than use crisis to implement a neoliberal program of economic deregulation, conservatives should seize the opportunity presented by widespread economic misery to push through a variety of behavioral proscriptions. Didion quotes Bork's outrageous dictum that "moral outrage is a sufficient ground for prohibitory legislation. Knowledge that an activity is taking place is a harm to those who find it profoundly immoral."

This tradition makes it more understandable why pundits are "palpably longing" for a more frugal America and why they overlook the evidence that Americans have been spending more largely because the cost of housing, medical care and education have risen precipitously (thanks in part to the flood of credit inflating asset values). The new frugality seems malleable enough a concept to serve as fresh code for an old battle, that of restricting individual freedoms to preserve religious authority in society. Religious institutions once had a monopoly on meaning and doled it out in return for obedience. Consumerism, and the identity fashioning it enabled at the individual rather than community level, usurped that power, demanding only an obedience that often felt like liberty -- the restriction of self-expression to choosing among a plethora of goods in the consumer marketplace. The longing for a more frugal America is one of way of renewing the call for a more "spiritual" America, which is a way of demanding the legislation of morality in the name of values presumed to be universal and incontestable.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

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Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

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