Apr 19, 2008
Hair vs No Hair
So, name the top five most legendary Americans of the latter half of the 19th century. I'll give you a minute.

So who'd you come up with?

It's kind of slim pickings, actually. Lincoln, obviously. Then maybe Thomas Edison, who gets entirely too much credit (seriously, if this blog were entitled "Inventors and Soul" the first entry would undoubtedly be about how Nikola Tesla and Otis Redding are the least fortunate people in American history). Perhaps you'd throw in John Rockefeller and Mark Twain, depending on your leanings. One could make more in-depth arguments for other characters - Booker T? Louis Sullivan? Grover F. Cleveland? - based on whatever perspective you want to take on the era. The last one should be, for all intensive purposes, be Ulysses S. Grant.

The list would be longer if I asked you to do the same for the period between World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Almost every president, with the exception of Ford and Carter, could have a case made, for better or for worse. You could get into the technological moguls, the media icons, the scientists and the civic leaders and still end up with a list from which you'd like to cut no one. Unlike the corruption and general grime of the late 19th century, the Pax Americana produced more notables than any period since the founding fathers.

I suddenly would like to play a video game that pits Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, and Ben Franklin against FDR, JFK, LBJ, MLK, IKE and... Truman. There could be racing and perhaps baseball. I am convinced that these are the two toughest groups of motherfuckers in our national consciousness, even if the latter group had two sickly, sickly men (JFK would have snapped like a twig). It is obvious that I have been playing a lot of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Shit's ridiculous.

But whatever.

Point is, Eisenhower would be somewhere among that list. If you were to list the top military minds of our nation's history, the top three would include Grant, Eisenhower, and Washington. Washington is an interesting enough guy - probably one of the most low-key guys to ever occupy the White House, but I'd instead like to compare Ike and Grant. Eisenhower was a president, and Grant was a general. How did that happen?

I believe it was Richard Neustadt who once said that in the history books, one-term presidents get paragraphs, and two-term presidents get chapters. There are a few exceptions to the rule - for instance, one-termer James K. Polk is certainly more influential than most of the two-termers that followed him. Conversely, Grant is a two-term president who didn't make much of a splash in the history books - he's routinely cast aside amongst the Hardings, Pierces and Buchanans in the lowest tier of presidents.

Grant and Ike were relatively similar presidents - both were relatively nonaligned, politically, and both were military geniuses presiding during peacetime. Both had some significant domestic accomplishments, as well - Eisenhower presided over a long period of economic prosperity and, while largely putting his faith in the free market, put fiscal responsibility in front of tax cuts, refusing to lower taxes without a balanced budget. Likewise, Grant reduced the federal debt enormously and vastly improved the nation's credit. Eisenhower championed the Interstate Highway System, Grant oversaw the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Grant was a strong supporter of Civil Rights and attempted to annex the largely black Santo Domingo not only for militarily strategic reasons but also in an attempt to push Cuba to abandon slavery and to provide a place for former slaves to escape southern whites (thereby reminding southern whites how important former slaves are to the economy and de-racisting them). Likewise, Eisenhower used the National Guard to forcibly integrate an Arkansas school.

Eisenhower did have some seriously mixed legacies - the Interstate Highway System is generally hailed as a great civic infrastructure project, but one might wonder whether it'll be viewed as such as the climate change movement kicks up. The highways certainly made longer trips a lot more convenient, and that's doing CO2 emissions some favors. Eisenhower was a bit passive in his dealings with McCarthy, as well, and perhaps most damningly, allowed construction of nuclear weapons to skyrocket far beyond reasonable levels. While I understand the need for a sizable nuclear arsenal - MAD and all - it got a little crazy under Eisenhower. During his presidency, the number of nuclear weapons skyrocketed from under 1000 to over 20,000, a trend that continued until Lyndon Johnson was president and the number began to fall. If anyone can think of a scenario where we'd have any use for nuclear weapons after the first 500 were launched, you're a more brilliant political mind than I.

Grant, in his own right, had some other similarly poor showings - much like Harding, he was a trusting man whose faith in the inherent good nature of the human race was upset by his staff, as scandal after scandal interrupted his administration. Crédit Mobilier, the Whiskey Ring, the Sanborn Incident, Black Friday. Grant was largely uninvolved in all the scandals - he himself wrote to congress, "Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."

Grant and Eisenhower were actually pretty similar in this respect too - where Grant's largest failure was that he couldn't make the political alliances necessary to combat the scandals and didn't take a stand against the bad elements in his administration, Eisenhower was also limited in his effectiveness because he didn't want to take any political positions that might make him unpopular and avoided making a public stand against McCarthy. Neither of these men were politicians.

So why was Eisenhower such a rollicking success and Grant such a dismal failure?

There are a couple things you can point to. For one, it's a consequence of the era in which they lived. The Interstate system was championed primarily as a system of national defense for quick movement of supplies and troops in the event of an emergency - an eventuality that thankfully never has tested the highways. And until very recently, the boon to interstate commerce has far outweighed any carbon emissions downsides. Similarly, there hasn't yet been a nuclear attack anywhere - so for now, Mutual Assured Destruction succeeded and nuclear proliferation is a reluctant success. Ike presided over an era where the United States was increasingly prosperous (average family income rose by 20% during his presidency), mostly at peace, and globally dominant. Politically, he aimed low and hit.

Most of Grant's accomplishments, on the other hand, are regarded as eventual failures. Reconstruction was perhaps too heady a task for an inexperienced politician - he had to help defeat the secessionist sentiment of the South and prevent the inevitable postwar resentment while simultaneously trying to minimize the KKK and ensure civil rights. While Eisenhower had a few recessions in his term, Grant had two full-fledged panics - the Fisk-Gould scandal and the Panic of 1873. In the former, Fisk and Gould recruited Grant's brother in law and they successfully conned the executive branch; in the latter, Grant simply neglected to react effectively.

In the end, Grant and Eisenhower had very similar governing styles - few risky political strategies and an aim of postwar normalization. Both were noble men to different ends - Grant was honest and trusting enough that he was taken advantage of, Eisenhower was humble enough about his accomplishments that he sometimes appeared to be a do-nothing president. But Grant inherited a divided and unstable nation in crisis, while Eisenhower inherited a postwar boom in the world's most powerful nation. This isn't to say that Grant was unjustly screwed - just that the crises and tough decisions that Grant faced were more suited for a professional politician who could build coalitions and make compromises, while the opportunities presented to Eisenhower were perfectly suited to a military man concerned with getting things done.

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Apr 1, 2008
The Video
I'd like to start with a proposition that you must accept in order to continue with this entry (I mean, you can continue if you don't accept it, but that makes it all relatively hypothetical).

Popular media, with a few exceptions, is becoming hilariously decentralized.

It's easier to see in some media more than others. The movie industry is built on familiar franchises and require massive budgets to make a profit - although the only two sure things in the movies are Will Smith and Pixar. The music industry profits greatly from the internet - the wealth is spread around to more bands, but there's a grand shortage of megastars who go platinum in one day. Television, for all its faults, is going through a golden age of drama and comedy is back on the rise - thanks in no small part to cable and DVD (Shit, in an era where fans can revive Jericho, Firefly, Futurama, Family Guy and maybe even Arrested Development fingers crossed, you know that a network of niches is doing its thing).

All three media, for better or for worse, have become relatively decentralized by technology, and the trickle-down effect will be hitting more and more facets of the industry soon enough (How many 90s alt-rock headliners do we have to keep our destination festivals afloat? We're going to run out someday).

The one medium that's dying a slow, tragic death from the leveling of the music industry, though, is the music video. Once, the medium flourished as MTV was the most effective tastemaker in the industry. Now, the network has been supplanted by the internet. Solid videos, while they might make a splash on Stereogum or the part of Pitchfork nobody looks at, are becoming rarer and rarer - probably just for financial reasons, as unless your video is truly viral (think OK Go or Snoop Dogg) it's unlikely to make much of a splash. Would you invest millions in that?

Another big cause for the death of the video is something people have been talking about for ages - that we don't listen to our music actively anymore. Music is cheap, so we hoard it and devalue it. And maybe we do value our favorite artists as much as ever - but putting Winamp on shuffle or sitting with our iPods on the train are a much more efficient way to experience music than sitting around watching videos - especially given that there's no good way to watch videos anymore. You can click around YouTube, but you'd think that someone would come up with a good way to create a last.fm-esque video network that just plays a constant stream consistent with your tastes (actually, wasn't last.fm supposed to do that? when CBS bought them?). The death of the video is as much a symptom of how we listen to our music as it is a result of the lower amount of money a label might be willing to throw around.

The video, as much as it is a medium I've always appreciated, is simply a by-product of the corporate excess that used to define mainstream music. Unless something really revolutionary happens with it in the next few years, it's likely headed toward history's dustbin.

The direction I was heading, though, was rap. As far as I'm concerned, the last great moment the medium will ever have is this one:

But what's most prescient about that video is that the only artist left who seems to dedicate as much effort to the videos as he does to the songs is Kanye West. I know, I've slathered all over Kanye a few times over, most likely because we are perfect for each other, but beyond that. He's worked with Spike Jonze, So Me, Hype Williams four times over, Michel Gondry, Bill Plympton - he's got all the really big ones covered. Sure, most of it is where he comes from, that he's got a more middle-class background - but look at what he has going for him. He's got cred among people who don't listen to hip hop, he's got an enormous budget for whatever he wants to do, and he's got impeccable taste. I can't come up with another rapper who's got all three of those - Snoop Dogg comes close, but Kanye remains the man.

If you don't want to bother going through his videos, easily locatable on YouTube, let's compare his influences to any other rapper.

Another RapperKanye West
The hoodJapan
Shooting peopleRiding a motorcycle over a canyon
Video girlsPin-up girls
LiquorPolaroid photographs
Being fantastically wealthyChild labor
Smoking a lot of weed and phoning in your entire performancePop-up video! (This one doesn't count as much because it's The Game and Kanye together)

My take? As the rap industry struggles out of adolescence, its expanding range of interests might catch up to its propensity for fantastic wealth. The last great video genre.

Now watch this retardedly good new Kanye video.

HOMECOMING from kwest on Vimeo.

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