Whatever Happened to American Idealism?

Young Radicals reminds us that idealism and progressive radicalism are not terms of insult; they are core American values that America needs desperately to rediscover.

Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals

Publisher: Random House
Length: 400 pages
Author: Jeremy McCarter
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-06

For much of the 21st century -- like the decades preceding it -- idealism has seemed in short supply in America. As the country lurches from dubious democracy to outright oligarchy, and the fledgling achievements of the Civil Rights era are back-pedaled into barely veiled disenfranchisement and targeted violence against black Americans and other minorities, idealism has seemed the scarcest resource in a country where hope itself has inexorably dwindled. Even the country’s dissenters --

those pundits and politicians who challenge whatever status quo holds sway in the halls of Washington and board rooms of Wall Street -- seem more intent on proving the legitimacy of their own voices than proving the legitimacy of any high ideals.

However, suggests Jeremy McCarter, the spirit of radicalism and idealism may be returning to America. As his book went to print in early 2017 he witnessed the march of a nation against the president it found itself saddled with; a president who seemed to embody all of the country’s most terrible qualities.

Perhaps he’s right, and something is awakening in the American soul. Perhaps it requires great struggle against the most formidable and despicable of foes to break through the collective cynicism of a country disillusioned with its ideals; to quicken a people’s heart and enable them to believe in the potential for progress once again.

Driven in part by the hope this might be the case, McCarter looks back to a former century for inspiration. Young Radicals might appear on the surface to be a group biography, but its subject is actually the spirit of an age. McCarter explores the progressive-minded radical idealism of the 1910s, an era which produced some of the century's greatest hopes and greatest horrors. In America: socialism and suffrage. Internationally: world war and the Russian Revolution.

Behind the fury of events and ideas were vibrant, living people, and McCarter weaves his narrative primarily around the stories and struggles of five of them. Walter Lippmann starts off the tale as an employee of the newly elected Socialist mayor of Schenectady, New York; he quickly grows disgusted with the municipal administration’s failure to implement serious socialism and embarks on his own career as a writer and journalist, helping to found The New Republic magazine and eventually serving as advisor to presidents.

Alice Paul: the Quaker who learned militant resistance from the suffragettes in Britain and brought it back to America where she fought for women’s right to vote, and broader equality, until her death in 1977. John Reed, swashbuckling journalist, poet, and playwright who produced the most famous chronicle of the Russian Revolution, tried to kickstart communism in America, and died as a member of the fledgling Soviet government in 1920, the only American to be honoured with burial at the Kremlin. Max Eastman, editor of the radical journal The Masses. And Randolph Bourne, radical writer and essayist whose refusal to commit himself to any ideological stricture was no doubt aided in part by his tragically early death.

The five core characters, and the many others who came into their orbits, were united by more than just their radical organizations, journals, and Greenwich Village roots. There was a spirit in the air. America was idealistic. People believed they could identify the country’s problems, and by thinking about them, solve them. There was a deep-seated faith that the answers were out there; a faith that coincided with the birth or maturing of doctrines that would go on to play an important role in 20th century history: feminism, socialism, communism, internationalism, transnationalism. There was a concomitant belief in the power of art to change the world -- non-commercial; radical; political art -- art for and by artists, not for or by corporate profit or state-sponsored regimes.

There was a purity to the struggle and idealism of the era, or at least McCarter helps it to appear that way in hindsight.

Of course, he handles his characters with passion, but also integrity. He knows they weren’t perfect. Alice Paul’s suffrage militancy collaborates with white supremacists. John Reed and Max Eastman both wind up disillusioned after their first-hand experiences as part of the Russian revolutionary regime. Walter Lippmann becomes an apologist for America’s involvement in World War I, lured in by the prospect of influence at the highest levels of power in Washington.

But the gradual evolution of these characters is at least as instructive, and important, as the genesis of their radical idealism.

Biography of an Era

McCarter’s subjects at first appear to be a disparate, random grouping of intellectuals and activists, waging their own struggles and lives, linked here and there by common causes and employers. But what gradually emerges -- and McCarter does a consummate job in breathing it slowly into life -- is a common spirit of idealism and radicalism that animates not only this core of characters but also the movements and people around them. From the arts to politics to journalism and more, every field of endeavor seems infused by this sense of grappling with big ideas. No matter where the characters turn their energy, their projects take on a sense of fundamental radical importance.

During a summer break, John Reed, Louise Bryant and several others form what would become the famous Provincetown Players, at first just for a lark but they take it so seriously it develops a life of its own (in the process they accidentally discover and recruit Eugene O’Neill, who would go on to become what many consider America’s greatest playwright). The theatre troupe’s constitution, drafted during an intense 24-hour writing session by Eastman, Reed, and a couple of others, deeply resembles the manifesto for their radical journal The Masses, grappling with issues of democratic and artistic control by the artists themselves, and dedicated to presenting the sorts of things capitalism would not be interested in. The two projects -- and countless others during these few years -- are really one and the same.

The same radicals, pursuing the same dreams, facing the same problems: The Masses and the Provincetown Players are, at heart, twin children of the zeitgeist. Both explicitly reject the limiting, falsifying effects of commercial production. Both see a true and honest reckoning with the facts of American life as a step toward liberation. Both proceed not with doggedness, but with a light heart. There is, in both, a lively spirit of play.

The First World War is a constant backdrop to the throbbing beat of this zeitgeist, both tempering and quickening it. America watches in horror as Europe -- heretofore considered by many the apex of the civilized world -- descends into barbarous, self-destructive bloodshed. President Woodrow Wilson is initially determined to keep America out of the war, and public sentiment (along with the radicals) are on his side. Yet as the war drags on, so do the cries for America to do something, especially when growing numbers of American vessels and passengers wind up as unintended casualties of German U-Boats in the Atlantic.

Yet for the time being America rests atop its moral high ground, preaching peace to both sides, ready and waiting to help the world rebuild whenever the war ends. Wilson’s administration sends a moralizing message to both sides: no matter who wins, the war will have been a setback for human civilization, and whatever settlement ends the war must not be grounded in vengeance but in ensuring that new systems are put in place to prevent war from ever erupting again. The government itself seems tinged with the idealism of the era. ‘Peace without victory’ is the call coming from the White House; it is, perhaps, the last stand of institutionalized American idealism and morality.

When more American casualties pile up, and when the Germans not only refuse to rein in their U-Boats but are caught trying to provoke Mexico into a war with the United States, Wilson’s administration finally opts for war (they weren’t entirely hapless victims: militarists and would-be war profiteers at high levels had been advocating for participation in the war for years). But even then, they attempt to varnish it with a moralistic sheen. Granted, war-making American administrations have always claimed they were fighting for some high ideal, but Wilson gives his vision a bit more substance: not only a war for democracy, but he suddenly injects the new vision of a League of Nations, a super-governing global body with the power to prevent future wars, into the mix. It’s a fitting capstone to this radical moment that even the most institutionalized ‘Establishment’ figure, the president, clings on to a radical idea as well.

In many ways, Young Radicals is an innovative history of the First World War. While it engages a broader range of subject matter than just the war, it also offers an important history of the war from the perspective of how it impacted progressive and radical socio-political movements in America. When America finally enters the war it signals a crack in American utopianism and idealism. From the dubious idealism of President Wilson’s administration and its efforts to stay out of the war, to the split in the left caused by America’s eventual entry, the war impacted American progressivism just as powerfully as these young radicals impacted the war. And impact it they did, by challenging its repressive anti-sedition and anti-espionage legislation, which wound up shutting down radical papers like The Masses and eventually deporting hundreds of radicals to Russia after the war. Yet amidst these defeats, the radicals had victories, too, defending themselves from prison and worse in passionately argued court cases. Much of our popular ideals of free speech were shaped in pivotal ways during this period.

One major impact the war had on the radicals was in splitting their ranks, between those (like Lippmann) who bought the government’s claim that it was fighting for democracy, peace and other high ideals; and those who saw America’s entry into the war as treachery and imperialism. These latter included not only radical socialists like Eastman and Reed but also Paul and her suffrage movement, which rightly pointed to the hypocrisy of a government that claimed it was going to war for democracy while it denied democracy to tens of millions of women voters at home.

Lippmann himself became an ideologue for the President’s war-making, narcissistically convinced he would help craft the post-war new world order. When finally faced with the fact of both his exclusion from decision making and the failure of America to achieve the idealistic post-war treaty it sought, he seeks redemption by working to scuttle the fatally flawed treaty. Interestingly, President Wilson himself becomes almost a sixth core character, ostensibly the farthest thing from a radical (as President) yet almost helplessly sharing in the radical and idealistic spirit of the age despite himself.

Young Radicals is a beautiful book; a desperately-needed book for the present era. The prose is passionate and poetic; the narrative is fast-moving, riveting and resonates with the very idealism that its author seeks to explore. McCarter writes with passion and integrity. It’s a book that renders hope real again, and reminds us that idealism and progressive radicalism are not terms of insult; they are core American values that America needs desperately to rediscover. It's only ever idealism that has driven America forward, notes McCarter in closing. In a dark era like the present, it's more vital than ever to (re)discover and cling to the most audacious ideals, for they are the only bulwark against the destructive power of cynicism.

Whatever happens, we ought to be braced by the example of the young radicals: how they discovered their ideals, made a decision to fight for them, and went on fighting even when the battle turned against them. Their defeats were painful, but not final. Battles for ideals never are. Ruins stop being ruins when you build with them.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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