Saturday, February 10, 2007

My Nominee for Best Super Bowl Ad: Chevrolet "Ain't We Got Love"

I have been surprised in the post-mortem on the Super Bowl commercials that my favorite has been so little mentioned: the Chevrolet "Ain't We Got Love" ad. This one is a compendium of forty years of pop songs mentioning Chevrolets. Some of the songs are performed by the original singers, some by regular people (ok, actors playing regular people).

Advertising is designed not just to sell a product once, but again and again. The other ads are trying to insinuate their product into the popular consciousness. This one proves it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Raspberry Worries that Black Marriage Past the Tipping Point

Longtime Washington Post columnist William Raspberry was at Centre College last night. In his public lecture he talked about the efforts he has made to promote strong homes to help children learn. He has started a program called Baby Steps in his home town of Okalona, MS, and he promotes the idea elsewhere. He did not elaborate in his talk on what he means by strong homes, so I asked him afterwards. In particular, I wondered what he thought about the extraordinarily low African-American marriage rate today.

Raspberry shared my concern that there is a crisis today in black marriages. In fact, he went further than I would. Raspberry fears that there are not enough African Americans in the younger generation who have made strong marriages like his. He says it appears that black America may have gone past the point of no return on establishing a strong marriage culture.

The two main points that he main in his public lecture were (1) we all partly agree with the positions we oppose, and (2) people who disagree with us are not necessarily knaves or fools. With that wisdom in mind, it would be proper humility, I suppose, to think that perhaps the black marriage pattern is not all that bad. Maybe, contrary to what I think, the low black marriage rate is not as bad for African Americans as a similar rate would be for other ethnic groups. And maybe, contrary to William Raspberry's fears, young African Americans have not gone past the tipping point, but will create a revival of marriage.

I wish that prominent African Americans who have made strong marriages would go on the stump to promote such a revival. I have applauded Bill Cosby for doing so in the past, for which he has taken much heat.

I think it would help if Bill Raspberry himself took a leading role in the movement.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Darwin Says " Marry, Marry, Marry Q.E.D."

When Darwin was 29 he had returned from his voyage on the Beagle. He wanted to get on with the ambitious career of natural science that he had set for himself. But first, he must answer a much bigger question than the origin of species: should he marry? Being of an analytic turn of mind, Darwin drew up a pro and con list. (I have highlighted a few choice considerations):

Marry

Children (if it Please God)
Constant companion (and friend in old age) who will feel interested in one
Object to be beloved and played with. Better than a dog anyhow
Home, & someone to take care of house
Charms of music and female chit-chat
These things good for one’s health—but terrible loss of time
My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, and nothing after all—No, no, won’t do
Imagine living all one’s day solitary in smoky dirty London House
Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire and books and music perhaps
Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Great Marlboro Street, London

Not Marry

Freedom to go where one liked
Choice of Society and little of it
Conversation of clever men at clubs
Not forced to visit relatives and bend in every trifle
Expense and anxiety of children
Perhaps quarrelling
Loss of Time
Cannot read in the evenings
Fatness and idleness
Anxiety and responsibility
Less money for books etc.
If many children forced to gain one’s bread (But then it is very bad for one’s health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment and degradation into indolent, idle fool

Marry, Marry, Marry Q.E.D.

Darwin promptly married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood, and they had a long fruitful, and notably happy marriage.

This whole story is charming. "Better than a dog anyhow" may enter the family lexicon.

I was struck by two particular lines. The great London clubs, the successors to the coffee houses that I have written about often, were truly attractive for the conversation of clever men. They were not quite third places, because of their exclusive membership, but they did offer varied conversation of a large enough group of informed men. The downside for me, and other "clever men" today, is that the clubs did not include the conversation of clever women.

In contrast to the clubs, Darwin draws a picture of the ideal type of the home scene of a knowledge class man of the Victorian era: " a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire and books and music perhaps." We know that the Darwins did have much intelligent conversation at home, and the Charles Darwin respected Emma Darwin's opinion. He loved playing with his children, too. Darwin is a model for an engaged husband and father who sustained his prodigious schedule of work and thought.

Marry, Marry, Marry; Converse, Converse, Converse; Work, Work, Work. Q.E.D.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The College and the Coffee Shop

The New York Times has a story dear to my heart: "Rural Colleges Seek New Edge and Urbanize." They tell of rural colleges and universities adding urban amenities, including denser adjacent housing. Their aim is not just to serve students, but to turn the college town into "a small city in the country that is not reserved for only the young." Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, a partner in Centre's consortium, is featured. When I visited Hendrix I found the coffee house on the edge of campus. It is a fine one, but at that time it was the only thing like it anywhere near campus.

Danville, Kentucky, where I live, is a wonderful Norman Rockwellesque small town with a fine little college in it. It does not think of itself, though, as a college town. Town/gown relations have long been friendly and respectful, but not, I would say, intimate. The college had its life and amenities, and the town had a different set. Lately, though, the two have been moving together, in just the way envisioned in this article. The college moved its bookstore into an empty downtown department store. The college worked together with a local entrepreneur to build a new coffee house attached to the bookstore. This coffee house, the Hub, is named for the old department store. I spend hours in the Hub each day. I hold office hours there, and talk to students, colleagues, and friends and neighbors from town.

When my wife sent me this article, she entitled her message "Read it. Read it now." The dessert, she promised, is at the end. And indeed it was. The article ends with John Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall in lovely Lancaster, PA, describing the serendipitous ideal of liberal arts college life in the new kind of college town: “You’re in the coffee shop on a Saturday morning sipping a cup of coffee and you run into a professor, and two hours later you’ve had one of those transformative moments.”

Amen.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Republican Third Place?

In teaching a course about coffee houses, we went to lots of independent coffee houses, and a few chains. The independents were overwhelmingly – no, uniformly – left of center in their feel. The corporate ones were more politically neutral, but even Starbucks feels more Democratic than Republican. I have taken to asking people if they have ever been to a Republican coffee house. So far, no examples. It seems possible that there are some evangelical Christian coffee house ministries that might serve GOP lattes, but I haven't met one yet.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine what, exactly, a Republican "third place" would be like. I know about some redneck bars that have a right-wing stance, but I don't think they are really for party regulars and primary voters. And I suppose the average country club restaurant is more R than D. Still, it is hard to think of the kind of place where Republicans would normally go to hang out and talk about the world with strangers who gradually become acquaintances.

Any ideas?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Gay Fathers Should Breastfeed

Men can breastfeed. Manual stimulation, especially with a breast pump, can stimulate lactation. Men's milk is pretty much as good as women's milk. Breastfeeding builds a bond between mother and child – I think it should have a similar effect for father and child, in the absence of a mother.

Anyone see a downside?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why Is Super Bowl Sunday a High Holy Day in the Civil Religion?

When I made my civil religion calendar last year the holiday of Super Bowl Commercial Sunday came before Rodent Shadow Day. Such have been the rapid advances in our civilization that in only one year the movable feast of the Super Bowl has gone beyond the day of the ground hog, and is heading toward Forced Romance Day.

Someday, perhaps, it can make it all the way to Fireworks Day on July fourth, a holiday clearly in need of revitalization.

But what is the Super Bowl for? The game is usually not interesting, the commercials have been pawed over before they are even shown, the half-time show is bloated beyond parody. The most memorable moment in recent Super Bowls concerned a “wardrobe malfunction.”

We make a big deal of the Super Bowl because we need what the great sociologist Emile Durkheim called a “collective effervescence.” Every social group, large and small, periodically needs a shared emotional experience to renew our bond with one another. The larger and more spread out the group, the more it needs a collective effervescence. 9/11 clearly was a genuine collective effervescence for the United States.

The Super Bowl is an attempt to manufacture an annual collective effervescence. It is successful in that in creates a common topic of conversation among, say, half the nation. And it does provide an excuse in the new year to get together with friends and do something social for the purpose of doing something social. In Kentucky we spend a week celebrating a two-minute horse race for the same purpose.

Despite being mostly scripted, though, the Super Bowl can work as a collective effervescence for two reasons peculiar to itself. First, there is an actual unscripted football game buried underneath, which carries the possibility of being interesting. And, because it is just a football game, people can get themselves worked up into ritual emotions, without actually caring about the outcome. Indeed, I think the point of spectator sports is to create a bond that is purely social because it is not, in the end, about anything that really matters. And the bond of sports watchers is not only among fans of the same team, but even with fans of opposing teams. The ritual of opposition creates a bond when the thing we are “fighting” about doesn’t really matter.

The Super Bowl, despite being mostly ridiculous, earns its place in our civil religion calendar.