Quick Review: Can’t Get You Out of My Head

The six part documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World captures well the foreboding and confusion of our current moment at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Here are a few thoughts on what I found to be a thought-provoking and interesting watch:

  1. The general premise is that the freedom, prosperity, and joy that was supposed to come with the ascension of liberal democracy and individualism at the end of the twentieth century did not come. Indeed, it may have led to new and more troubling questions. The sweep of history is limited to roughly the last 100 years but there is a lot to consider over the six episodes. Even if you do not agree with the argument, there are a number of threads and points of information that may be new and/or have not always been put together in such ways.
  2. The construction of the documentary adds to the foreboding as its intersperses multiple threads across different countries, montages of images set to generally upbeat pop music, and a dark instrumental soundtrack.
  3. That this work is not from an American point of view and includes important actors from around the globe is very important. There were things I had not known before. I know the American perspective on the world is very biased and yet my daily reading is almost exclusively in this realm. At the same time, the documentary is still from an Anglo perspective and it would be worthwhile to hear form voices elsewhere on what is chooses to say and show and what it does not address.
  4. Just as an example of one of the important questions raised: what happens if a democratic people elect or support an undemocratic leader? More specifically, what do the cultural and political elites do in such a moment? In the current populist period, this is a real conundrum.
  5. One thing I appreciate is the interest in thinking across contexts and time. I would argue we need more work that tries to pull together multiple strands from around the globe across big chunks of time. Put this documentary series next to Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything and there may be some patterns worth considering.

While I finished watching this several months ago, the title is correct: I cannot get some of the ideas and images out of my head.

Large disparities in risk of death across American transportation modes

Here is the risk of dying in a vehicle compared to other modes of transportation:

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Northwestern University economics professor Ian Savage examined American crash data over a decade, concluding that 7.3 people died in a car or truck for every billion passenger miles, 30 times the risk on urban rail and 66 times the risk aboard a bus. (If you’re wondering, motorcycles are by far the riskiest vehicles of all, while airplane travel is the safest.)

Even with these numbers, there are multiple reasons why many continue to prefer to drive:

Studies show that people typically feel safer in vehicles they control compared to those they cannot (i.e., a car compared to a bus or train). Worse, the rare transit crash is often a top media story, while daily car collisions barely register. “It’s baked into how we talk about crashes,” says Millar, of Washington State. “We had an Amtrak train crash here, three people died, and it was international news. That same week 10 people died on highways in this state—and it was the same the week before that, and the week before that.”

According to psychology’s “availability heuristic,” the intense attention paid to exceedingly rare plane or train crashes can lead us to unconsciously exaggerate their frequency, while the media’s shrug at car crashes causes us to discount the dangers of driving. One extreme example: A study found that the shift away from flying toward driving in the aftermath of 9/11 led to over 2,000 additional traffic deaths in the United States.

Lots of interesting factors to consider here. Do the perceived advantages of driving block out any consideration of the risk? Even if people had these numbers at their fingertips, would they consider risks or numbers?

I have argued before that the preference for driving is strong. If people in the United States have the resources and opportunity, they will pick driving over mass transit. Of course, the system is set up to make this choice for driving easier with an emphasis on roads and linking important cultural values and driving (such as individualism, taking road trips, suburban life, etc.).

This may be a prime case where making an argument from the numbers simply will not get far given the cultural narratives and social systems already in place. Perhaps the numbers could be paired with a compelling story or narrative? Even then, it could take a long time to convince Americans that because driving is more dangerous than other options they need to switch to other modes of transportation.

Familiar story: suburb that looks like paradise but is not, The Villages edition

The Florida community The Villages has roughly 80,000 residents living northeast of Orlando. Is it paradise or a sinister place?

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For the residents, it’s one of the most successful experiments ever undertaken in creating a community from scratch…

But critics say there’s something not quite right about The Villages, a sprawling suburb an hour’s drive north of Orlando in Florida…

She likened The Villages to Jim Carrey film The Truman Show about a flawless but ultimately fake town.

The filmmaker has now produced a documentary about the world of The Villages called The Bubble which has its Australian premiere at this month’s Sydney Antenna documentary film festival

Days for its residents are crammed with exhausting rounds of golf, cardio drumming, belly dancing and cheerleading lessons, even synchronised golf cart displays. And day drinking – lots and lots of day drinking…

The company that runs The Villages were none too keen on Ms Blankenbyl and her film crew’s presence.

On one hand, this is a familiar suburban story told for decades: the suburbs present themselves as the place for happy and successful family life. They aim to be green, quiet, and friendly. But, are they really? When a crime is committed, this might be a crack in the facade. Or, family life is not what it seems. Or, the community is built on the basis of exclusion and who is not welcome and/or present. There are plenty of real-life examples of this plus numerous films, novels, and stories that explore these themes.

On the other hand, The Villages appears to have some unique features that might set it apart from typical suburban experiences. It is a 55+ community which changes the entire social structure. The American suburbs broadly are built around protecting children and providing them room to thrive and succeed. It is in Florida so there is warmth and sun in levels that many suburbs cannot match. It is relatively new with a limited history and set of traditions and practices plus a particular architectural and natural approach that still looks new.

Is it a bubble? Many middle to upper-class suburbs might be accused of this. Is it different than many suburbs? Just by its population composition, yes. I look forward to seeing this documentary and thinking about it more.

Alternative cultural histories, Dvořák and American music

I have always enjoyed the music of composer Antonín Dvořák. I am familiar with most of his compositions, starting as a kid listening to Symphony #9 over and over to finding many favorites later.

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What if American music had followed his lead in weaving American songs, particularly Black music, into classical compositions? I am finishing up the recent book Dvorak’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. The publisher’s description:

In 1893 the composer Antonin Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble” school of American classical music based on the searing “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would found popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall.

Joseph Horowitz ranges throughout American cultural history, from Frederick Douglass and Huckleberry Finn to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the work of Ralph Ellison, searching for explanations. Challenging the standard narrative for American classical music fashioned by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, he looks back to literary figures—Emerson, Melville, and Twain—to ponder how American music can connect with a “usable past.” The result is a “new paradigm” that makes room for Black composers including Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, and Florence Price to redefine the classical canon.

Horowitz argues American classical music ignored and sidelined Black composers and music. Is there an alternative history that could have occurred?

While this falls out of bounds of typical academic research, it can be useful at times to think about ways events and narratives could have gone. In “”Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy,” Max Weber said sociology is interested in “on the one hand the relationships and the cultural significance of individual events in their contemporary manifestations and on the other the causes of their being historically so and not otherwise.

Horowitz hints at least three ways an alternative timeline could have gone: (1) more classical musicians attuned to American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism; (1) more recognition and knowledge about Black composers; (2) the inclusion of jazz in classical music and American culture more broadly; and (3) more classical music attuned to and drawing on American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism.

If these things had happened, what might be different? As a big fan of the Beatles, I think of ways that their music was directly influenced by numerous American Black rock ‘n’ roll artists. And they were not alone; so did Elvis and the Rolling Stones and others. Yet, when they presented their music as white artists, would the reception have been different if Black music had a more prominent role in the classical world starting in the late 1800s?

There is a lot to consider here and I look forward to finishing the book and exploring more of the music Horowitz write about.

You can find great restaurants in the suburbs?!?

The New York Times reports on good restaurants in unexpected locations:

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Jalea’s owners, the siblings Mimi and Andrew Cisneros, recognized the risk in choosing this quaint street over a city known for its vibrant restaurant scene. But they saw opportunities in the suburbs that they wouldn’t find in St. Louis. Yes, the rent was lower. And St. Charles, where the Cisneroses spent their teenage years, is also one of the fastest-growing counties in Missouri…

There is also less competition than in the city, they said. Because St. Charles is a small community, the two believe they can make a bigger impact here. With the lower overhead costs, Mr. Cisneros, 29, said he felt much freer to experiment with flavors. (He runs the kitchen, and Ms. Cisneros, 30, oversees operations.) Since the restaurant opened in December, they have been encouraged to see that locals are eager to try Peruvian food.

Media coverage of restaurants in the United States has long centered on cities, while suburbs are most often associated with restaurant chains. But Jalea is one of many independent restaurants — including Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch, Texas; Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale, Minn.; and Noto in St. Peters, Mo. — that are raising the collective aspirations of the local culinary culture and turning suburbs into dining destinations…

While not all suburbs are alike, in general, suburban planners are not well versed in how best to support independent restaurants, said Dr. Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo.Because they don’t understand that these businesses often have a shorter financial runway than large restaurant groups or chains, the planners are less likely to provide economic development grants or loosen zoning restrictions.

So suburban eating is not all Olive Garden and Chik-Fil-A and whatever other chain restaurant, fast causal, or fast food place is on the nearest main road?

This article attributes much of the change to what the suburbs have become in recent decades: complex suburbia with more diversity, more cultural and entertainment options, and growing populations. And there are concerns about whether suburbs are well-suited for fine dining in terms of regulations and

My biggest question upon reading this story is how long it might take to develop new narratives about where great restaurants are located. If there are indeed fine dining establishments in suburbs across the United States, does this become recognized or are city restaurants still drawing the bulk of attention? This could depend on a lot of factors – where are restaurant critics based, stereotypes about cities and suburbs, the number of independent restaurants per capita in different locations, etc. – but I imagine it would take some time to shift. Even as the article recognizes significant shifts in suburbs that mean they are no longer just retreats of white and wealthy people, is this widely known and told?

Celebrities as symbols for different social and political positions

There is a new cultural history of Johnny Cash out this week and I quickly read several reviews. Reading this review, it struck me that one of the important roles celebrities play in American society is they become symbols for particular causes, positions, and groups. But, what exactly they stand for or represent might be hard to pin down as Johnny Cash exemplified:

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In a sense, the paradox lives to see yet another day in Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash, which sets Cash’s contrariness in a new light. Cash, the cultural historian Michael Stewart Foley argues, was not just a country-music icon, but a rare kind of political figure. He was seldom a partisan in any traditional sense, and unlike Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he rarely aligned his music with a progressive agenda. Nonetheless, “Cash, without really intending it, fashioned a new model of public citizenship, based on a politics of empathy.”…

Some readers may walk away convinced that Cash was a Whitmanesque giant, containing multitudes. I often found myself wondering if he wasn’t a two-faced equivocator. The book is a welcome corrective to the tendency to treat the man as so internally contrary as to be a complete enigma. But the cost of rescuing Cash from the metaphysical fog has been to turn him into a plaster saint. Neither does justice to the actual extent of his weirdness…

Drawing on his own experience, Cash might have broken up the central falsity of the archipelago of glass and steel known as the New South: its equation of whiteness with self-sufficiency and Blackness with dependency. What did he do instead? He smiled grimly and talked out of both sides of his mouth. When Nixon asked Cash to play the White House, he accepted the invite, but politely refused the White House’s request to cover “Welfare Cadillac,” a racist novelty song…

Thanks in no small part to Rubin, Cash has been a blue-state hero ever since. Citizen Cash pulls, in a salutary way, a reverse Rubin and reminds us that the hipster-acceptable Cash, who hung with Bono and premiered his American Recordings songs at the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, represents less than half the man. But Foley amasses exactly the right facts, only to draw exactly the wrong conclusion.

Who was Johnny Cash? There are multiple ways to approach this but since he was a celebrity, a well-known figure for decades, it may not matter who he really was but rather what the larger public made him to be and continues to make him to be. The celebrities have agency and can make particular decisions but to be famous or well-known means that narrative might be out of their hands. Any new commentary or writing about Cash contributes to an ongoing narrative that could continue to change.

More broadly, celebrities can become representations of particular points of view or experiences. Whether in music, sports, entertainment, politics, or other arenas, the celebrities can have individual experiences – and this is part of why they are intriguing to the celebrity industry and the public as they follow their latest moves – but they also connect to larger patterns of interest in society. Where do celebrities fall in terms of COVID-19 and vaccines? Which celebrities align with which political parties and candidates? What do they think about the latest hot topic?

This often means that celebrities become part of ongoing political and cultural struggles because they represent something. They become proxy figures for larger societal questions. Who was Johnny Cash? We are still figuring that out and the social forces and conditions around the conversation influence our answer to this question.

9/11 occurred during a different era

As the United States marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, it also provides a reminder that the events happened a while ago. American society and the world were different then. Here are a few scattered thoughts on how this passage of time influences how Americans view that day.

The Ground Zero Memorial in July 2012

-I saw a statistic that roughly 1/4 of Americans alive today were not alive on September 11, 2001. I have been aware of this for at least a few years as the college students I teach were either very young or not yet alive then. To a significant number of Americans, 9/11 is history.

-So much has happened since then that makes it all seem like a different era. The response to the attacks kicked off the War on Terror and the consequences are still being felt (see recent events in Afghanistan). Political polarization increased. The housing bubble burst and more economic instability seems present. Two presidents served their time in office and did so in very different ways.

-The commemorations often stress the quick coming together for rescue and cleanup efforts alongside the expressions of unity among members of Congress and Americans. This did not last long.

-We now have official memorials in numerous locations, including at the sites of the attacks and in communities around the country. Will these be altered or viewed differently as years go by?

Future commemorations will face these issues even more. The United States is not new to such change – how D-Day and Pearl Harbor are marked differs with the increasing age of those alive at the time and World War II might seem like eons ago, the memory of the Civil War has been a conflict for over a century – but subsequent decisions and events could solidify or change 9/11 narratives in ways that might be hard to predict.

Some evidence Americans are returning to cities in early 2021

Some Americans left cities during COVID-19. New data suggests some people are returning to those cities:

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Some data suggest a return is already underway. Cellphone tracking firm Unacast had earlier noted that phone users were shifting their overnight locations out of New York, but now sees them coming back.

“New York is growing again,” with the city adding a net 1,900 people in the first two months of 2021 versus a loss of 7,100 in the same two months of 2019 and the 110,000 estimated by the company to have left the city throughout 2020…

Similarly, Bank of America economists wrote last week that they “don’t see evidence of a broad urban exodus,” a conclusion that combined analysis of the company’s own card spending data as well as a survey of other reports…

“Out-migration did increase in many urban neighborhoods, but the magnitudes probably would not fit most definitions of an exodus,” he wrote. “What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of people who would have moved into an urban neighborhood in a typical year were unwilling or unable to do so in 2020.”

Stay tuned for years to come: untangling these numbers and what it means for the long-term health of cities will take time as scholars and leaders collect, analyze, and interpret patterns. Was COVID-19 a blip on the long history of American cities? Will they signal a resurgence of urban life or exacerbate the issues many face in moving to major and expensive cities?

One problem in the meantime is that there are plenty of people who want to declare an answer to these questions. For those who dislike cities, the move of residents in 2020 to suburbs and other locations is evidence of the downsides of dense cities. For those who like cities, the numbers can suggest a few people left but city life continued strong and will bounce back. And because either narrative is highly politicized and connected to numerous long-standing American issues like race (example from then President Trump in summer 2020), these are not just speculations; there are people with interests who want to settle the debate over cultural narratives before the data is in.

Cities that rise from the dead

With Easter today and Atlanta in the news, I was thinking of American cities that claim to have risen from the dead. The phoenix has been the symbol for Atlanta for over a century:

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Like the Phoenix, Atlanta had risen from its own ashes following its destruction in 1864. Many times during the city’s history, Atlanta has redefined and reinvented itself, rising again as the city slogan, Resurgens, suggests. The “Atlanta Spirit” is another oft-referenced slogan describing an entrepreneurial and ambitious attitude that has shaped the city’s historical identity.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, boosters and others were eager to rebuild:

On October 11, 1871, three days after the fire started that devastated the city, Bross’s Tribune proclaimed, “CHEER UP. In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”

Bross, who was an avid promoter of the city, predicted that Chicago would be rebuilt in five years and would reach a population of 1 million by the turn of the century, as Donald Miller reports in City of the Century.

There is an accepted narrative that the fire created a blank slate upon which Chicago was quickly rebuilt. That blank slate allowed it to become a dynamic city of innovative architecture with a fresh skyline dotted with a brand-new building called the skyscraper.

“The great legend of Chicago is that it’s a ‘phoenix city’ – it almost instantly rebuilt itself bigger and better from the ashes. And to a certain and significant extent, that’s true,” said Carl Smith, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and author of Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.

And the city of Phoenix draws on the presence of people hundreds of years before:

Those former residents were industrious, enterprising and imaginative. They built an irrigation system, consisting mostly of some 135 miles of canals, and the land became fertile. The ultimate fate of this ancient society, however, is a mystery. The accepted belief is that it was destroyed by a prolonged drought. Roving Indians, observing the Pueblo Grande ruins and the vast canal system these people left behind, gave them the name “Ho Ho Kam” — the people who have gone…

By 1868, a small colony had formed approximately four miles east of the present city. Swilling’s Mill became the new name of the area. It was then changed to Helling Mill, after which it became Mill City, and years later, East Phoenix. Swilling, having been a confederate soldier, wanted to name the new settlement Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name Salina, but neither name suited the inhabitants. It was Darrell Duppa who suggested the name Phoenix, inasmuch as the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization. That is the accepted derivation of our name.

Many cities have faced crises, disasters, or unusual starts. Local histories and narratives can also emphasize positive moments (and downplay negative moments). The rising from the ashes, overcoming great obstacles, coming back to life, these are all powerful narratives for big cities. They imply success, progress, and hopefully growth.

What these narratives mean now may be harder to ascertain. What does the aftermath of the Chicago Fire mean for Chicago today? Is Phoenix still rebuilding a great civilization? More than 150 years after the Civil War, is Atlanta continuing to reinvent itself? A city rising from the dead once is impressive but it may be harder to pull off over decades of change.

Evidence that some have done well during COVID-19, many others have struggled

Socioeconomic data released recently highlights the ongoing bifurcated effects of COVID-19. Start with increasing levels of inequality as the wealthiest did well:

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According to a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation, billionaires including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla founder Elon Musk have seen their wealth soar during the COVID-19 pandemic while the world’s poor face years of hardship, charity Oxfam said on Monday as it demanded steps to tackle inequality…

It could take more than a decade to reduce the number of people living in poverty back to pre-crisis levels, Oxfam said. Meanwhile, the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires rose $3.9 trillion between March and December 2020 to reach $11.95 trillion, the report calculated. The 10 richest men saw their net worth increase by $540 billion in the same period, Oxfam said.

The poverty rate in the United States had its highest annual increase with some groups more affected than others:

Economists Bruce Meyer, from the University of Chicago, and James Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame found that the poverty rate increased by 2.4 percentage points during the latter half of 2020 as the U.S. continued to suffer the economic impacts from Covid-19.

That percentage-point rise is nearly double the largest annual increase in poverty since the 1960s. This means an additional 8 million people nationwide are now considered poor. Moreover, the poverty rate for Black Americans is estimated to have jumped by 5.4 percentage points, or by 2.4 million individuals.

The impact of jobs lost globally during COVID-19 go far beyond the economic crisis of the late 2000s:

Four times as many jobs were lost last year due to the coronavirus pandemic as during the worst part of the global financial crisis in 2009, a U.N. report said Monday.

The International Labor Organization estimated that the restrictions on businesses and public life destroyed 8.8% of all work hours around the world last year. That is equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs – quadruple the impact of the financial crisis over a decade ago…

The drop in work translates to a loss of $3.7 trillion in income globally — what Ryder called an “extraordinary figure” — with women and young people taking the biggest hits.

And this is on top of the differential health impact of COVID-19.

It will both take some time to fully assess the effects of COVID-19 and then some time to interpret and act on the findings. As data and studies are released, as various parts of society reckon with the fallout, and people respond, themes and narratives will develop as to what happened and what it means.

Getting back to “normal” or pre-COVID conditions will surely be a goal. Yet, if COVID-19 did significantly alter economic and social conditions, will returning to “normal” be acceptable or will there be calls for a bigger response? It is not as if inequality was a non-issue before COVID-19.

All of this highlights that even with all the advances of the modern world, it is a struggle to keep up with the rapid social change and think about the future. This hints at the problems of complex systems and the ongoing human experience of living through difficult experiences.