Friday, January 29, 2010

The Aughts – Desomethinged, Defrosted

I am a sucker for decadism - the fetish for arbitrarily assigning a certain personality to each decade after it has passed. The top ten lists, the gadgets, the horrible fads and fashion trends that supposedly make the Seventies the Seventies or the Eighties the Eighties. I have often tried to figure out how people would memorialize this decade, to size up the zeitgeist and determine which trends and tendencies would be remembered as quintessentially 2000s.

This is a risky business. In 1995 a magazine had a contest for its readers to define what the Nineties were all about, and the winner came up with "the Whiny Nineties." The memory of grunge and the recession and Thirtysomething was still painfully fresh at the time. But then everyone took Prozac and got into ska and stock options and things were fine.

To a certain extent, the cultural cues of the 2000s haven't been hard to find. The iPod. Texting. Crocs. Trucker hats and ridiculous sunglasses. These are the embarrassing bric-a-brac of material culture. But was it a conservative era? The Republican Party had an almost unprecedented lock on the White House, the judiciary, and Congress for a significant part of the decade, and for a time the evangelical political movement seemed unstoppable. In the wake of the 2004 election, The Economist wryly quoted Ignatius J. Reilly to describe the results: “Now, it seems, the conservative rural red-neck Calvinist vote has captured America.”

Fey, flimsy liberals appeared helpless in the face of tax cuts, militarism, and family values. One of my worst memories of the decade involved watching Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi deliver the rejoinder to a Bush State of the Union address; they sat in soft lighting and spoke with even softer voices, as if they were trapped in a gauzy round of couples counseling. Needless to say, this was not enough to stop the war machine.

Despite the iron political orthodoxy that seemed to govern the country from 2000 to 2006, the culture as a whole did not feel stiff and conservative to me. If anything, people seemed to be growing more open-minded about sexuality, race, technology, and the wider world. This was the era when music became free, much to the chagrin of Metallica. In the age of Harold and Kumar and Lost, Asian and Arab characters finally moved from the sidelines into prominent roles in pop culture. The success of programs from Will and Grace to Modern Family suggests that a gay or lesbian couple has become an unremarkable concept for many Americans.

Of course, the anti-Muslim animus that flared after 9/11, and which reappeared with the rise of Barack Obama, showed how uneasy some Americans felt about a multicultural world. And the passage of anti-gay referenda throughout the country, from Ohio to California to Maine, remains a disgrace of our time. Some folks feel fine laughing at a gay character on TV but will happily deny their neighbors civil rights at the ballot box.

Despite these disappointments, I think the arc of this decade has been toward justice. It is easy to forget that civil unions for same-sex couples were an invention of the Aughts, at least in the US. One of Howard Dean’s liberal bonafides when he ran for president was the fact that he signed the nation’s first-ever civil unions bill as Vermont governor in 2000. Numerous other states have followed suit, in one form or another.

True marriage will have to wait in many states, but the polling in recent referenda indicates the shape of things to come: younger voters have voiced much greater support for equality than the older generation. These attempts to inscribe homophobia into the law are tokens of our moment – the last-ditch efforts of an aging, shrinking contingent of traditionalists – and the passage of time is their greatest enemy.

Perhaps there is a time lag in the logic of culture and politics. Historians are fond of pointing out that conservative eras were less conservative than they seemed, and the same for the great periods of liberalism. The people who set the New Deal in motion were there all the while in the 1920s, before they got to take their ideas into the mainstream. The 1950s gave you the Beats, rock and roll, and the rise of the modern civil rights movement, while the supposedly radical 1960s might be best known for giving the world Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Liberalism made an unexpected comeback in the late 2000s, after having been pronounced dead and useless over and over again in the 1990s. The sprouts of this seemingly sudden shift were growing in the shadow of the conservative juggernaut all along.

In this decade, we felt the despair of watching a demagogic cult drag the country into a pointless invasion, cheered on by a feckless press corps despite a total lack of any security threat. Five years later, we witnessed the euphoria that surrounded the election of an optimistic leader from the Left, who was lifted to the heights of power by the youth, the labor movement, the netroots. One day, capitalism was flawless and Alan Greenspan was a minor deity; and the next thing you knew people feared for the survival of the world financial system and pointed fingers at the free-market gurus who deregulated us nearly into oblivion.

I don't know how you characterize a decade like this. We may yet lurch back into the dogma of fear and free markets for all I know. This long, strange period, without a music to define it (ringtones? reggaeton? Autotune?), or a politics to unify it, is very nearly over. The Dow is about where it was ten years ago, as if the financial whirring of the whole decade never happened.

Perhaps today's young people will be so spooked by the catastrophic economy that they will, like the Silent Generation of the early 1950s, seek the security and comfort of a quiet, conformist life, clinging to any sort of stable job. Perhaps the culture will continue to fracture along microtargeted lines, and we will have no shared experiences except for watching a cat flush a toilet.

Despite the inherent diversity within any culture, and the artificial limits of the decade as a unit of time, each period gets characterized in one way or another. The 1990s, more for the go-go capitalist optimism of its later years than for the gloomy counterculture of its early years. From today's vantage point it is hard to tell whether we are leaving the age of George Walker Bush or George Michael Bluth. It was, of course, both.

Alex Cummings

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Finally, a Stimulus with Promise

A year into his presidency, US President Barack Obama is set to announce spending that actually has a chance of creating long term economic health and may also create a realistic way of fighting the current “war on terror.” During his State of the Union this evening, President Obama is set to announce an increase in spending on education of nearly $4 billion. That’s roughly 2% of the money spent to bailout the insurance giant AIG and merely a 6.2% increase in spending on education. While it fits with the promises Mr. Obama made on the campaign trail about strengthening America’s educational opportunities, it is perhaps a tale of too little, too late, despite the administration’s assertion that this spending “will improve outcomes for students at every point along the educational pipeline.” In examining this educational spending “boom” it is important to consider three things: what the money is earmarked for, who it will benefit and what the overall prospects are for a more educated American populace.

Of the $4 billion in dollars Mr. Obama plans on spending, $1.35 billion is earmarked for spending on his educational innovation program, known as “Race to the Top.” This program will provide grants to educational programs that are innovative. Sometimes innovation can be a wonderful thing and, in truth, the American educational system is much the same as it was when the first free public school was founded in Dedham, MA on Jan. 1, 1643. Grade promotion, reliance on the same texts year after year, and a system that has stifled teacher activism in favor of laissez faire recitation programs have limited the American school. There have been changes: integration, public schools with indoor toilets, co-operational schooling to incorporate members of the community and their experience with education, multi-age classrooms, block scheduling, charter schools, schools which focus on the arts or science from a very young age – all have met with some degree of success.

Despite these innovations, and the rather heroic work done by many of America’s public school teachers, the system is broken. It lacks funds (so it’s hard to introduce new books), it lacks any reward system for educators (so it’s hard to maintain a class of employees who are striving to innovate), and its general attitude of tradition over innovation has stifled both teacher and student. American students are still taught from the very earliest through high school with the Cold War mentality that America is the best nation in the world (as if there is even a way to quantify that) and that the actions we have taken as a nation are correct (again, not really quantifiable, but the failure to show that national pride should be tempered with real consequence has led to a non-thinking populace). The system has been in need of a great overhaul for some time. Even the previous administration saw that, though their leadership probably did more damage than good in the form of No Child Left Behind. Mr. Obama’s second $1 billion will be spent in an effort to overhaul this.

No Child Left Behind, while well meaning, had the effect of tying educators’ hands behind their backs and telling them that they will lose funding if test scores do not reach a certain level. So a rational person might say, “Hey wait, you are telling me that the schools that are already struggling the most, because of poverty or crime or language barriers or a combination of all three, are going to lose money because they don’t meet some test score? That’s foolish.” The Bush administration, of course, did not see it this way. Teaching to the test is not just a crime against the kids living in difficult circumstances; it in no way teaches children to learn, which should be the goal of education. Mathematics and science at the base level can be a tested enterprise – there is general agreement that 1 + 1 = 2 – but history and language are fluid enterprises. No student should be told that because white people founded the system the only authors worth reading are Shakespeare or Milton. While Shakespeare has appeal that exists beyond barriers, it may be more difficult for students who immigrate or who already feel disconnected from the educational system to identify. It’s not that they wouldn’t, but the teacher who is teaching a different group of forty students every hour, five or six hours a day, doesn’t have the time to innovate and really, that expectation is unfair. The first $1 billion of this plan seems doomed. Instead of correcting a broken system, it should be abandoned in favor of one that works. While we are on the topic of the most desperate schools, does the Administration (or even do you) believe that the most successful innovations will come from the schools most in need? How will that be accomplished exactly?

Some American children attend schools in well-maintained, modern, clean and healthy buildings; others attend schools that, at best, would be called dilapidated. If you were a teacher in a building with no heat or a leaky roof or just teaching in overcrowded classrooms every day, would you find it very possible to develop a new way of reaching students? This is not just about urban or rural poor schools and their daily hardships; this is about reasonable expectations. Students who have more access under the current system will benefit. Of course the possibility exists that someone from outside a community can come in with new ideas and win a grant. Then the issue becomes, how does one get a community and group of teachers to follow a person they do not know and who does not know the daily hardship of their jobs? I love a long shot, and I love the idea that one person, one teacher can change things for the better, but in terms of long term success or even the more remote possibility of replicating it in different communities, color me completely pessimistic. Of the $4 billion of new education money, we’ve now spent $2.35 billion – how much change can we expect?

For you or me (unless the reader happens to be one of the wealthier citizens of the world), $1.65 billion is a lot of money, which could be used to do a lot of good. Consider this: in the year 2000, there were roughly 60 million students in publicly funded schools in America. There are more now, but using those numbers that means that you have $27.50 to spend per student. That would barely (and in most cases fail to) cover the cost of one new textbook per student. So where exactly are these students and teachers supposed to reap the benefits along the educational pipeline? I love that finally an administration is talking about serious money to help revitalize a system which has fallen into disrepair, but if you want to change something, the money we need to talk about should be greater than .11% of the national budget. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama talked a lot of about getting out and speaking to those who have bad or nonexistent relationships with the United States: Cuba, Iran, etc. While it’s a good idea to do so, students who cannot find nations on a map are unlikely to support understanding among nations. Nations without understanding have little chance of living peacefully. The economic disasters which have plagued the world’s economies for the past years will have no chance of real recovery. (Yes, I know Goldman Sachs is doing well and the UK has declared their recession over, but recovery for every day people is how we should judge this – not by the fortunes of billion dollar enterprises or a government that props up its economy as the largest mortgage holding enterprise.) If America wants to find a brighter future with an educated population, then we must be willing to spend more on education and less on other things. Humans left the trees some 150,000 years ago – isn’t it time we put our brains before the fist (or, perhaps, the smart weapon)?

Christopher O'Connor

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Barack Obama, Jurgen Habermas and You

The Dangers of Counterpublics

In recent weeks, nay months, many on the left have expressed dismay at the apparent failings of the Obama administration, regarding numerous topics but most prominently among them health care. He’s “caved” on the public option, failed to lead his party legislatively, spoken eloquently but delivered little. To some extent, these criticisms ring true. However, when discussing the developing health care bill, one must acknowledge the affect the media plays in the current narrative forming around this issue. The eternal horse race style coverage, head exploding political pundits of numerous ideological backgrounds, the braying on and on about Obama failing or somehow “blowing it” continues to provide additional sharp jags of irrationality into the general discourse regarding the Obama Presidency.

In 1962, Jurgen Habermas articulated his vision of a “public sphere” that had emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which served to “connect the state with the needs of the society” while preventing encroachment by the state into the private sphere. Dominated by middle class merchants and “men of letters”, Habermas’ public sphere created a universally accessible civil society which by definition could not exclude groups, “a public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all.” Yet, we know that many were excluded. Additionally, Habermas wanted to explore the transformation of this sphere under expansive capitalism. Big business and the like dominated this new public sphere leaving citizens as postmodern consumers. Without descending into academic knifefights concerning interiority and other words that no one ever uses, one can acknowledge that the modern media monster consists not of a unified whole but a constellation of voices connected through a public sphere but not necessarily the public sphere.

If Habermas articulated a vision of a single public sphere, others suggest the existence of multiple political spheres that some observers call counterpublics. The fragmentation of television news on cable and the internet serves as a superficial but useful conceptualization. Habermas could not have for seen these divisions upon divisions. One could argue the incoherence of these publics makes domination easier, since no way to engage society broadly seems to exist. Unfortunately, in recent years the viewing public tends to gravitate toward the counterpublic that most clearly speaks for them. Regrettably it would seem that rather than acting to centralize debate in a community of ideas [I think we’ve heard enough about the marketplace variant], they instead behave like atoms bounding off one another, creating a heated environment in which real discussion fails to unfold. Of course, the point here is not that counterpublics are inherently negative, they aren't. They can be incredibly liberating, but counterpublics when amplified unevenly in a fractured public sphere, can distort. For example, just because someone shouts the loudest in an argument doesn't mean they win or were somehow right, it just means they were the loudest. In terms of historical precedents, one might look to the rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. Print and television media broadcast the voices of specific individuals in various movements, mostly on the left, whose personal views were then imposed upon the movements/organizations they were associated with. Columbia sociologist Todd Gitlin explored this in The Whole World is Watching. The leaders shouting the most radical politics the loudest garnered more attention than other leaders. This process has accelerated under the new media conditions.

So what does Habermas have to do with Obama's health care reform? Much of the narrative emerging around the health care debacle appears driven by these counterpublics’ ability to harness widespread free media coverage. The convergence of reality tv, infotainment, and the ravenous 24 hour news cycle serve as an unholy albatross around Barack Obama’s neck. No sitting President has had to endure the questioning of his citizenship so publicly and brazenly, while a prominent and powerful opposition network throws the equivalent of media Molotov cocktails.[note, this is not to say there are not principled reasons to oppose Obama and his policies, there are, some republicans have done that but at least one prominent media outlet has not] Additionally, though many of his critics have legitimate concerns about debt and overregulation, others, granted a minority but a sizable one, have not so subtly invoked racial and racist arguments and images in attempt to debunk his presidency. The teabag protests, the town hall meetings, Joe Wilson, all simply function as sounding boards for an inchoate anger, but the rise of new media and media channels allows for their broadcast such that they become the normative.

What do most people think of the current health care bill? Many are wildly ambivalent [yes I realize the oddity of such a statement] since few know what’s even in it. Even the protests and townhall meetings exhibited a grab bag of complaints that often had no relation to health care. Yet, the media covered them as a populist rage over one issue with each protester as legitimate as the next. One might ask, as so many already have, how can he be both a fascist and a communist? Conversely, as already noted, supporters aren’t quite foaming at the mouth.No real “populist” pro-Obama counterpublic exists. Instead, much of the visible support for the bill comes from academics, technocrats, politicians and others, which only reinforces the elitist perception some citizens already have of the President.

Much of the anger finding its way into the narrative is as much about what we don’t know as what we do. Confusion over the issue and the complexity of health care itself means passionate rage over the unknown by opponents, and a shrug of the shoulders from those who want it, but have no idea what that “it” consists of. No doubt, the framing of Obama as a lackey for the banks is aided in no small part by the fact that NO ONE understands the financial complexities that sunk our economies. Rolling Stone journalist Matthew Talibi acknowledged as much in a 2009 podcast admitting that for the first couple months everyone was just trying to UNDERSTAND what had happened. If professionals struggle to grasp the byzantine nature of the recession, what hope did the broader public have? The bailout has been widely credited for staving off even worse, but certainly the behavior of banks since their recovery has been questionable at best. The future unknown in regards to the economy and health care combined with an existential current unknown of the past, i.e. “what the hell happened to our economy and whose responsible?” intersect to create a lot of uncertainty which tends to make people angry, rational or not. Fear of the unknown sure isn’t original but it’s real.

There is no middle ground in today's public sphere, you either are or you aren’t. In this light, health care shines like no other issue as Obama’s. The two wars, not really his. The economy is his now but really wasn’t for much of his first year. The financial meltdown not his, though he’s taken it on the nose for the bailout.[though on Friday, the President announced a Paul Volker endorsed plan to crack down on the banks but as with many issues, we’ll have to wait and see ….] Health care is his … and the Clinton’s. Oops did I happen to mention, Obama’s pathological reticence towards nearly all things Clinton? Remember this is the same man who modeled his transition into office on Reagan while rejecting the admittedly unorganized Clintonian example. Don’t underestimate the influence Clinton’s debacle had on the Obama team’s flawed health care approach. The reason Obama didn’t lead out of the gate was because he and his advisors clearly feared a reprisal of Hilary and Bill’s tortured attempt at reform. Cited as perhaps the greatest policy failure of the Clinton presidency, the media and others can’t help but conflate the two, but remember the Clintons’ got nothing. Even the center right Economist drew a similar comparison week ago, “More generally, Mr. Obama has run a competent, disciplined yet heterodox administration, with few of the snafus that characterized Bill Clinton’s first year.” (Economist, Time to Get Tough, 16 January 2010)

Obama will get something, we just have no idea what it is yet. And those who suggest we should must not understand the incompetency of Congress, Republican and Democrat. Anyway, not everyone sees doom and gloom. The same issue of the Economist suggested Obama “is on the point of bringing affordable health care to virtually every American citizen ….” Granted this evaluation exudes too much optimism, but we should ask ourselves how quickly and thoroughly change comes in this nation. The 1965 Immigration Act under LBJ took three years before its final details were hammered out and its changes implemented yet it drastically altered America’s body public. Moreover, not to be a positivist here, but the 1957 Civil Rights Act lacked teeth, spine, or grit to any degree, yet seven years later, LBJ signed an imperfect but significant civil right act into law, and one year after that a voting rights act which greatly altered the electorate. Both of these only came into being as result of perhaps the most important amendment of the 20th century, the 14th which for decades, historians have lamented took nearly 100 years before its application even began to approach the kind of equality it promised. In the middle of two wars, a crippling recession, drooping labor and housing markets, and in the face of wide scale lobbyist resistance from insurance to pharmaceuticals , a foothold is being secured. No one should settle for less, but an understanding of historical context and real world conditions might be useful. After all, sometimes a foot in the door is a foot in the door.

Ryan Reft

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New on Videri

  • Luis Alvarez, The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II
  • Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico
  • Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression
  • Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976

Monday, January 18, 2010

What the Fuck Is Barack Obama Doing?

In 2004, when Obama made his debut at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, many liberals were stunned by what seemed like something new under the sun: a politician who could actually communicate their values in a powerful way. After suffering through the message-massaged, tone-deaf monologues of John Kerry and Al Gore, as well as the cynical triangulations of Bill Clinton, Obama seemed like a dream.

In 2008 he seemed like a dream come true. How nice it was to hear someone speak of social welfare, protecting the environment, and defending the rights of working people in the soaring tones of liberal optimism. And people were actually listening! 53% of voters got the idea – the biggest vote-share taken by a Democrat since LBJ.

With big margins in Congress, and a clever and agile – yes, articulate – leader, Democrats seemed sure to get something accomplished.

What happened?

There have been many successes, to be honest. The Lily Ledbetter fair pay act, the stimulus bill that saved thousands of teachers and cops from losing their jobs, preventing the economy from skidding straight off the cliff.

Throughout, though, Obama stayed back at a distance. He did not campaign for his party’s legislation. He did not try to frame the debate. He left Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who were too busy herding the cats of their caucuses, to make the case for the Democratic agenda. Reid is known to be a legendary communicator, as his recent comments about “Negro dialect” reconfirmed.

The president’s reticence was most glaring on healthcare, the party’s signature issue. Apart from a few speeches, and a perfunctory endorsement of the public option to soothe his base, Obama was silent. He had broad guidelines for what he wanted Congress to achieve – expanding coverage, lowering cost – but he was not going to get involved, publicly at least, in the skirmishes of legislative politics.

Broad guidelines do not move public opinion, as Obama of all people should know. Where was the moral case? Where was the framing? The president has taken his cues from the Clintons’ failure at health reform in 1994, when Bill and Hillary were accused of micromanaging the process and insisting that Congress pass the White House’s plan.
Obama decided to let the legislative sausage factory produce a bill, and then take ownership of it when it passes, rather than risk tying his own fortunes to any particular plan.

We have now seen the farce that resulted from this strategy; the Right got to freakishly mischaracterize the bill as all about death panels, and every prima donna in the Democratic caucus got to dictate the contours of reform.

In the capstone to this fiasco, a pathetic campaign in Massachusetts might deliver Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to a right-wing Republican, meaning that even a healthcare bill that has been compromised nearly to death cannot pass.

Obama decided not to get involved in the Massachusetts campaign until the last minute. Why? The only answer seems to be a curious idea of political capital. The White House did not want to put its credibility on the line for any particular health bill. It did not want to get involved in Massachusetts unless absolutely necessary. The idea seems to be to keep your powder dry, and only “spend” capital when you have to.

In other words, the man who espoused the “audacity of hope,” and who undertook the unlikeliest presidential campaign since Victoria Woodhull ran on a platform of free love in 1872 – this man has been crippled by an epidemic of overcautiousness.

Where has he been? What has Obama been doing for the last year? Playing with the celebrated Portuguese water hound?

Political capital is not something that can be squirreled away for the winter. It is more like momentum. You have to use it to sustain it. As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

Does that sound like Obama?

There are plenty of models for successful presidential leadership, and not all fit the manic model of TR. (After all, one of Teddy’s adviser once warned a colleague, “You must remember that the president is six years old.”) If anything, Obama’s seems closest to Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was perhaps most successful for what he did not do, not what he did; he did not try to dismantle the welfare state set up by FDR and Truman, and he resisted the temptation to get the US enmeshed in conflicts in East Asia. He tried to steer the nation toward a middle course and attempted to work with the other side, as Obama has so fruitlessly done.

The 1950s were a different time, though. Ike was not trying to get the economy out of a deep ditch, and the opposing party was actually open to compromise in those days. Obama seems to have consciously chosen to be somber, even-handed, and above-the-fray – “presidential,” in some sense – rather than rally and exhort and campaign for his agenda. Perhaps he believed that this dignified posture would reassure a troubled nation.
A year ago, when the economy was still in free fall, his steadiness was reassuring. But what the Democrats, and the country, need right now is someone who is willing to fight for something. George W. Bush never hesitated to brawl, to run the so-called permanent campaign. If Dubya's political cunning had been married to less disastrous policies, the GOP would still have a lock on every power center in Washington.

Obama needs to realize that he does not have much political capital left to protect. If the Democratic agenda, and his presidency, are to have any hope of survival, we need to see the audacious, inspiring communicator of 2008 come out of the mothballs and rejoin the arena.

Alex Cummings

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Our first project

Videri is a wiki about history and historiography. It consists of summaries of historical and theoretical works, along with interpretive essays that provide overviews of important issues in history. It also includes an Orals Survival Guide to help graduate students prepare for their exams. There is already some great content on Videri, and we hope that readers will contribute their own their notes and essays to the site for the benefit of the public at large. To learn more about the project, visit

Digital music and the benefits of abundance

I sympathize with Steve Almond’s reflection in the Boston Globe ("From vinyl to digital, my obsession lives on") on the pleasures of music as a physical object. I sometimes wonder if my students can appreciate the beauty of an album, when their iTunes libraries are stuffed with hundreds of playlists and thousands of tracks by a hodgepodge of artists. Is it possible for them to care about the subtleties of an album’s sequence of songs, or the mysteries of cover art and liner notes? Or is music just a matter of immaterial mp3s floating in the electronic ether?
The generation gap in music appreciation really comes down to the difference between the joys constraint and choice. When music was material, finite, and scarce, one could enjoy the thrill of hunting for a record, finding it and possessing it.

I grew up in the age of cassettes and compact discs, and I recall the excitement of running to the record store to buy a new album as soon as it hit the shelves. In those days, one could not find the music leaked online a month before its release. But the advent of Napster was just as exciting for me as finding that long-desired B-side buried in the racks of an indie record shop. For the first time, I could download those individual tracks I had always liked, but which had only been available on albums full of filler.

The same applied to emerging artists who sparked my curiosity. One always had to ask if it were worth risking fifteen bucks on an intriguing but untried musician. File-sharing made it possible to sample new music that would never appear on the radio or MTV, and then decide about whether to buy the CD.

Jeff Tweedy of the rock band Wilco, which was dumped from its major label for being insufficiently commercial, understands the advantages of file-sharing. The Internet has become an outlet for music otherwise muted by the mainstream media. “I look at it as a library,” Tweedy says. “I look at it as our version of the radio.” Indeed, digital music has opened up access to those who never had access before. For years, small town listeners had to depend on the narrow choices at the local Wal-Mart, or drive to a big city to find a store that might offer the work of independent artists.

Now one rarely hurts for lack of music, indie or otherwise. It is abundant and immediate. If anything, there is so much available that listeners scarcely know how to sort through it all.

Does this lead to a devaluing of music? Perhaps. Twelve songs on a playlist do not mean the same thing to me as twelve songs in a CD case with a unique design, but that may be a function of my age. I trust that the younger generation will love music no less than past generations – including those who lived before the age of sound recording. They will simply love it and value it in different ways. They will mash it up and share it with their friends. Perhaps their playlists will someday evoke a time and a place in much the same way as an earlier generation’s lovesick, teenage mixtapes.

The band Radiohead has already pointed the way to a new musical future that is thoroughly defined by choice. They surprised the industry in 2007 by letting fans pay whatever they want to download the album In Rainbows from their website. Some chose to give nothing, while others ponied up more than the ordinary price of a CD. The album was also released as a regular disc. And the band offered its hardcore fans a deluxe box set complete with two 45s, a bonus CD, and extra artwork for a cool $80. There was something for those who wanted only the mp3s, as well as those who wanted something they could touch and treasure.

In this age of choice, the material and immaterial are not mutually exclusive. Although formats come and go – and sometimes come back, like the newly hip vinyl record of recent years – the joys of feeling and touching music live on.

Alex Cummings
THIS lecture, which I give at your request, will necessarily disappoint you in a number of ways. You will naturally expect me to take a position on actual problems of the day. But that will be the case only in a purely formal way and toward the end, when I shall raise certain questions concerning the significance of political action in the whole way of life. In today's lecture, all questions that refer to what policy and what content one should give one's political activity must be eliminated. For such questions have nothing to do with the general question of what politics as a vocation means and what it can mean. Now to our subject matter.