Friday, October 28, 2005

So many thoughts about the church, communism, consumerism, Joe McCarthy and suburban America.

It All Starts With Pledges

1954 Congress passed legislation adding the phrase "one nation under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance." Before that, apparently, we were just "indivisible" for purely secular reasons. That is, until the communists started infiltrating every sphere of public life.

At the time, America was at the height of Joseph McCarthy's "Red Scare," and that very same scare is what supposedly prompted Congress to add the phrase.

Here's the official line: Public servants were stuck in a game of one-upmanship, trying to outdo each other in their fidelity to God and country in the wake of McCarthy's attacks on the Godless communists. J. Edgar Hoover encouraged parents to make sure their children were active church-goers, "since communists are anti-God." President Eisenhower described himself as the "most intensely religious man I know," and declared: "Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, most basic, expression of Americanism." The very next year, not to be outdone, Congress added the phrase "In God We Trust" to all American currency.

Or Maybe It All Starts With Churches

During the 1950s church membership soared. Less than half of the adult population in the U.S. belonged to churches before WWII. By the end of 1959, some 65% held church memberships. It's easy to make the popular connection that strong anti-communist sentiments by a few public figures led to an upsurge in church membership. Just as political figures were trying to prove their "Americanism" by putting God at the forefront, Americans were proving their patriotism by joining churches in startling numbers.

Religious conviction was nothing new to most Americans, but in an era where McCarthy was "outing" public figures like John Steinbeck and General George Marshall as communists, it seemed like public church membership was the only way to "prove" private religious beliefs. Joining a church was really about the only way to say, "Hey, I'm no Communist."

But hold on a minute. While it's easy to say that the Red Scare led to a post-war surge in public church attendance, other factors ought to be taken into consideration.

While McCarthy's witch-hunt lasted for roughly four years (from early 1950 until December of 1954 when he was cited for contempt by the Senate), the church boom found its start in the immediate events following World War II.

Or Maybe What It Really Starts With Is Housing Booms

After the war, over 20 percent of the population moved to a new residence each year. Soldiers back from the front used their popularity and prestige to secure new jobs and promotions, many using the new GI Bill to go back to school and earn degrees on the government's tab. Large corporations, which had been heavily regulated before and during the war, used their newfound freedoms by moving jobs across the country at a dizzying rate.

At the same time, Americans witnessed the invention of the suburb. WWII saw an influx of African-Americans moving to the city looking for work, mostly in the booming defense-industries of the North and West. When GI's came back from the war, some found their old neighborhoods completely changed. The suburban phenomenon created a new neighborhood for Anglo-GIs to settle: the Crab-Grass Frontier.

Early suburbs were attractive to GIs because already affordable prices were made even more attractive by low-interest home loans to WWII vets per the GI Bill. Access to jobs in the city was made possible when the federal government invested millions of dollars on 75,000 miles worth of new highways. Car production soared from 2 million in 1946 to 8 million in 1955. Suddenly, suburbs sprang up everyone, attracting even more young families away from the changing urban landscape.

Mass migrations made it difficult for middle-class Americans to find a sense of place and set down permanent roots. A post-WWII quest for community ensued. These new suburban families were more likely than other American to be "joiners," finding community in civic organizations, gardening clubs, bridge clubs, athletic associations and so on.

But most importantly, they flocked to churches. Which brings us back to the beginning. Remember, less than half of the adult population in the U.S. belonged to churches before WWII. By the end of 1959, some 65% held church memberships.

Fittingly, It Really Starts With Buying Tons Of Worthless Crap

WWII also saw Americans on the homefront ration common goods in order to strengthen the war effort. American industry reached new levels of productivity, hiring millions of women and minorities to keep pace with war-time demand. The U.S. came out of WWII the strongest and most efficient industrial nation in the world. The wars in Europe and Asia had devastated those countries' economies, leaving America's industries to fill the post-war void.

With so much capital flowing through the country in the immediate years following the war, and with an American society that had finally found its way out of the Great Depression and a war of self-sacrifice, Americans were ready to spend. And boy did they ever spend. New homes, cars, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, etc., etc., etc.

Marketers, ever watchful of consumer tastes, created the modern advertising culture in order to tap into the spending spree. Instead of simply marketing products people needed, they created a new consumer demand for products that had once been available only for the affluent. Keeping up with the Jones' was now an essential component of the American Dream. By 1970, with only 6 percent of the world's population, Americans produced and consumed 2/3 of the world's goods.

And It Starts With Churches Trying To Get In On The Action

Churches applied the same marketing techniques to bring in new parishioners. Billboards, print media, television and radio advertised upbeat, optimistic messages for an upbeat, optimistic era. The Protestant Council of New York City urged its members to "project" messages of "love, joy, courage, hope, faith, trust in God, goodwill. Generally avoid condemnation, criticism, controversy. In a very real sense, we are 'selling' religion, the good news of the Gospel."

Chief progenitor of this message was the popular minister Norman Vincent Peale, author of the widely popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking.

"Flush out all depressing, negative, and tired thoughts," Peale wrote. "Start thinking faith, enthusiasm and joy." As long as one followed this advice, you could become "a more popular, esteemed, and well-liked individual." Just the kind of person who would thrive in the new corporate world and suburban community!

Where Does It Start Again? Oh, That's Right! Evangelicalism!!!

It's fitting that modern evangelical theology found its birth in the setting of the 1950s. C.F. Henry's rise to fame came during the late 40s and early 50s, capped off by being named founding editor of Christianity Today (the flagship publication of the new evangelicalism) in 1956.

This new evangelicalism was fundamentalist in theology, but with a greater appreciation for social and cultural dimensions of the Gospel than the old fundamentalists had been. As suburban churches were booming, the new evangelical theology was as well. By no coincidence, many of those new churches happened to be ones founded by evangelicals. And these new evangelicals, with a passion for Christianizing the social order, eventually saw an opportunity to do so through politics. So even though it would take some 40 odd years for evangelicals to coalesce around the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, the Red Scare was most likely the first great "social movement" of the new evangelicalism.

America in the 50s was on the fast track towards being dominated by a new, optimistic, conservative evangelical culture. It just didn't know it yet.

So for modern evangelicals (who have only historically existed since the years following WWII), phrases like "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God" are foundational to American principles -- because for them, "American principles" were only set forth about 50 years ago, in their initial rise to political power during the great Red Scare. McCarthy's witch-hunt wasn't what put butts in the pews, those butts were there just in time to egg McCarthy on.

That McCarthy went too far denouncing one freedom-loving-American-too-many might have set the new movement back before it even got started. But by 1968, this "Silent Majority" sent the hard-nosed conservative Richard Nixon to the White House for two consecutive terms. And by 1980, they were silent no longer after finding public figures, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who could voice their concerns.

What Was I Talking About? Oh, Who Cares....

Today, with the absence of a communist party to oppose (and a Joe McCarthy to wage war on their behalf), evangelicals mostly just sneer at the far left and bicker amongst themselves. Bringing us to this past week, when evangelical infighting forced one of their own to remove her name for consideration to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Welcome to the top of the food chain, where most of the time, we just feed on ourselves.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Tom Delay Goes To Jail

But he was out in 30 minutes, no sweat.

In case you missed the hoo-ha, Delay had been indicted on conspiracy and money laundering charges, for taking $190,000 in corporate campaign contributions and doling it out to Republicans running for the Texas state legislature.

The reason corporations couldn't just give it right to the Republicans is because Texas campaign finance laws prohibit direct corporate contributions to candidates. Delay is accused of taking the money, "cleaning it up," then handing it around to his friends in Texas.

Delay's indictment in Texas on September 28th caused him to step down as majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, but for now, he still holds his seat in Washington. He'll make his court appearance today in Austin.

Oh, politics...I'm back!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Old blogs, new blogs, borrowed blogs, blue blogs!

In the spirit of reprints, here is the mother of them all. My Wal-Mart blog. In case you missed it, from fall 2004 to spring 2005 I worked at Wal-Mart for a while. The blog had remained a secret until now. So without further ado, here is an account of my travels.

I even have a fan!

Oh, Wal-Mart....

Friday, October 14, 2005

The one that should have led to rumors about me going crazy, but didn't.

Written with much frustration, after deciding I couldn't be the moral conscious of anyone -- specifically my college. Also, one of the first times I started sounding like Anne Lamott. The Dave Eggers bits would come later.

How am I not myself?


I've decided that enough is enough. You don't need me to lend what little wisdom I have, bleeding from the ears as it were, as if I had anything of great importance to say. You don't need me to coax, yell or cajole you into action. You don't need my cynicism, my optimism, my witty rejoinders on faith and culture. What you really need, I can't give.

So I give what I can -- namely whatever I have left over at the end of the day. Banging my head against metaphorical walls (and occasionally quite solid ones); clinging tight as to cut off the blood to my fingers, keeping hold of all my best and guilt-ridden secrets. Splicing together hackneyed sentence fragments as if I could actually create something worth your five minutes. It’s Sunday night at the Rice family household. And that means break out the leftovers.

There is something that I am proud of. Over the last year or so I have finally become comfortable with my neuroses. I can finally rejoice in the fact that I am messed up. That I don't have it all together.

That I love Jesus. This is true, true, true. But that I say quite the nastiest things to him in my most vulnerable moments. That I directed words to the face of Christ that I would never imagine uttering to another human being. These things make me shudder.

I can't imagine how he feels when I do this. So of course, I don't. Ignorance is....well, ignorance. Instead I direct these terrible thoughts at my subconscious -- which eerily looks, acts and sounds like Burt Reynolds. Hint for life: It's much easier to direct God-related anger at Burt Reynolds. And sometimes, I convince myself that I don't even have to feel guilty about it.

I really don't want to have it all together. At least, not anytime soon. Granted. St. Paul calls us out and challenges us to strive for holiness; that is, living as Christ lived. And I want that. But sometimes it's amusing to find great satisfaction in brilliant fake conversations that I hold only in my mind; or screaming at stray cats as if they were actually there; or praying to God at least once a month that when I wake up in the morning I have the uncanny ability to pick up any musical instrument by ear in a matter of seconds. These things are important – let’s not kid ourselves.

I can’t get over the fact that even though life refuses to let me in on even a glimpse at my future [Would one little peek do so much damage? I've seen Back to the Future. I know how to handle these things], I keep on trudging. With big boots on. Ones that keep me firmly anchored in the muck and mire of my own shortcomings, yes. But it's through those shortcomings and neuroses that I see Jesus work the most. And I’ll never really go nuts, because God gives gifts. And such wonderful, wonderful gifts.

Like I passion to write. I need to write. And write and write and write. Books for kids. Books about kids. Books for kids about kids. Books for grownups. Books about grownups (but never just about grownups). Books about faith. And grace. And discipleship. And ducks and trees and night skies and Monte Rivero and Phil Simms and Jackson Browne and peanut butter pie. Most definitely peanut butter pie.

And those moments when reality collapses on itself and transcends itself for just a moment. And you know you can do anything. And fight for what is just. And love those who seem unlovable. And take the world by the wrist and drag it kicking and screaming all the way to its room. And slam the door and say, “World, until you calm down, and apologize to your sister, you will not leave this house. Do you hear me?”

Oh good golly. That’s what I want to write about.

And I think I can do these things only because I don’t understand why I act like I act. Or why I love like I love (or most often, fail to love). Or why I just cannot develop an appetite for mushrooms. Or why I can’t seem to get over this incredible crush I had Shannon Brindley the summer before fifth grade. (I don’t think you realize how perfect this girl was for me....)

The romantic in me knows there’s such a thing as kismet. But that stronger empiricist occasionally beats him to a bloddy pulp with a baseball bat. Yes, it would be nice if my mind were prettier. But it would also be nice if Bon Jovi perished with much pain and screaming in a horrendous fireworks accident. Deal with it.

So I tend to wallow sometimes. “Woe is me! Why can’t things just fall into place?” I read Carl Sandburg. I feel better. I watch romantic comedies. I feel worse. Sometimes laughing helps. Sometimes screaming helps more. It depends.

We argue. We fume. We let pride get its way. We imagine. We dream. We fail as often as we succeed. We say wonderful things. We say vicious things. We can’t seem to hold life together as it bursts at the seams from so much stress and pressure.

"It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born." I know it was dark that night. There was oppression and tears and tax collectors and cheap whores for miles around in Judea. And then a miracle happened. And wherever there is oppression and tears, madmen with bombs, and seemingly sane men who feel indestructible because they have even more bombs, Jesus is born.

So we digress. We click our heels. And when that fails to work, we swear at the stars, sigh impatiently, cluck at the neighbors, reach for friends, pray prayers of "help" and "please", shudder at the thought that there might never be a response, wipe the crumbs from our mouths, and listen to the hum of streetlight, thinking, “Tomorrow, I think I may walk to the grocery store.”


p.s. This was printed not long before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and might contain my first subtle swipe of dissatisfaction with G.W. Bush. Did you spot it? It's like a game! But with no prizes....only an awesome war that everybody wants to just go away!

Shoo, war! Shoo!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Michael Moore and Immediate Thoughts Following His Films

So many things to write about in the here and now, yet I'm still posting reprints? What a jackass, I know. But just a couple more, I promise. This one was written in a Borders in Billings, MT, just a few minutes after I saw Fahrenheit 911. So oooooold. But I wanted it up here again. Because it was a turning point for this blog, when I decided that important things were worth writing about; even if my friends, scattered here and there and everywhere, didn't agree with me.


Back to the Future III was on TBS the other day, and while cleaning the house, I caught the last half an hour or so. I joined in right before Doc takes his one shot of Whiskey and passes out on the bar room floor. My favorite line from the movie comes later in the scene: "Joey, let's make some wake-up juice!" (Side-note: I did a Google search on the line, because I'm a geek, and only found one hit for the line. That's kind of sad [in more ways than one].) Anyways, the "juice" does the trick, and Doc sobers up right quick.

Confession: I'm a wuss, and I've never been real drunk. For the most part, I don't like alcohol much. Red wine tastes a bit like vinegar poured through dirty socks, and most beer smells like urine, and tastes like armpit sweat. These are just my opinions, so you don't have to agree. So even though I've never been a raging alcoholic, today I learned what it feels like to sober up. Just about fifteen minutes ago, I got done watching Fahrenheit 911, Michael Moore's documentary about September 11, homeland security, and the war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq and abroad. And all I can say at this point is that it was, if nothing else, sobering.

Let's get the BS out of the way upfront. Moore's documentary is not journalism (it barely even pretends to be objective). It's incredibly biased, narrated by the author -- rather than a detached, observant third party; and Moore leans heavily on emotional pathos rather than argumentative, persuasive fact telling in order to make his case. His documentaries are more left-leaning propaganda than reasoned, articulate accounts of the state of affairs in Flint, Columbine, Iraq, or wherever else he might be shooting. They have to be consumed with discernment and judged only after a thorough examination of the facts in question. But damn if this guy isn't persuasive.

I don't want to talk too much about the content of the documentary. Just to say that Fahrenheit 911 has high points and low points, moments where I wanted to yell obscenities at Moore for distorting facts, and moments where I almost stood up and shouted, "Amen!" If anything, this film has gumption. It also has courage, and it intentions are pure. If it screws things up, it s because its director is just another messed up human. Moore might be totally off base at times, and he might beat certain things to death that should never have been beaten in the first place. But it cannot be said that Moore is not passionate, and it cannot be argued the he is not righteous in his cause. Because, completely factual or not, his cause is righteous. Fahrenheit 9/11 is about many things, but its mostly about patriotism. Maybe not my brand of patriotism, and maybe not yours, but it is about patriotism nonetheless.

If you have friends or relatives in the armed services, whether in Iraq or anywhere else around the world, please go see this film. If you care about the world community's view of Western Christianity, as our soldiers (whether Christian or not) represent the American church to countries who have zero contact with your little country parish, please, go see this film. If you plan to cast a vote, ever again, at any point in the rest of your life, for any publicly held position of government authority, please, [here is where I beg] please go see this film. You don't have to agree with Moore; you can even hate and taunt him with belittling names, drawing malicious little doodles on his face in print adds, mocking his every word. But you at least have to hear what he has to say before you can begin to criticize. Because what he has to say is sobering, and it is just.

I could be writing about Back to the Future III right now, because, to be honest, I really love it. It takes me back to 4th grade, when things were simpler because Iraq was invading other countries for oil, and Don Mattingly was the greatest baseball player God had ever breathed into existence. But I can't just write about the exploits of Doc Brown and Marty McFly all the time, because it wouldn't be right. We've got to talk about what's important sometimes, and we've got to figure out what's best for our nation, simply put because we're called to: "And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindly, and to walk humbly with your God?"

"Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work." That last verse from Titus is especially poignant, because things have changed since Paul's day. The People are the rulers now, and the public servants we elect answer to us. We're the boss, and it's up to us to exercise an informed opinion. And if our servants in public office fail to submit to the will of the People, it's up to the People to set things straight. It's what we're called to.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Pop Music Manifesto

This one was my very first livejournal entry, posted about a year ago now. Initially, I had hoped to make my LJ a music-only blog. That lasted maybe two weeks, until I realized I couldn't really write about music. What follows was my opening salvo in a very short war. It's still real fun to read though.


Modern pop music is in a state of disarray. Between MTV fashion-is-music flavor-of-the-week; VH1 safe-house of the over-the-hill major-label-elite; freeware file-sharing distribution debates, corporately-funded across-the-board uninspired-monotony, and underground hyper-nostalgic hearken-back to days of hipster yore; I have nothing left. I can't stand Clear Channel's rape of the airwaves, can't stand the elitist attitudes of the indie rock/underground scene, can't find an artist that doesn't just rip off someone else who came before them (and probably did it ten times better).

This unregulated music media industry where bigger-than-life corporations monopolize record labels, radio stations, music venues and distribution centers, makes for one sorry state of pop music. Even in the Information Age, new and exciting stuff gets harder to find, and stands little chance of continued existence if artists fail to bow to the pressure of their own commercial interests. In order to live (and oftentimes live comfortably), commerce supercedes art. And good music dies with it.

I hate the scene. If you don't know what I'm talking about, please, go back to your Nickleback-utopia and thank your lucky stars. If you do, I don't need to really explain it. What good is a subculture if it's just as homogeneous as pop culture? What good are those fucking retarded wallet-chains, black t-shirts, studded belts, and buddy holly glasses when you can't pick out one scenster from another? Why wear the Che Guevara shirt when you don't have a clue who the man actually was? And don't you dare have that vintage Clash poster hanging up in your room if you're just another run-of-the-mill Hot Topic capitalist-consumer. A good friend of mine once told me that he thought it impossible to truly be a Buddhist and live in America. I think the same idea could apply to punk rock. I hate the scene.

Why do I like Denison Witmer so much? Because Jacksone Browne has sucked since 1976. Why can't I get enough of the current garage rock revival? Because popular rock'n'roll has pretty much sucked in recent years, and I can't time travel back to the 60s and see the Rolling Stones before they imploded, churning out faux-disco hits and continuing to tour even though they haven't had an original thought since Richard Nixon was president. The only genre to truly have broken any ground in the last ten years is the rap scene, yet as we speak the hip-hop generation grows stale due to over-exposed crass-commercialization (reference retread rhymes from 50-Cent and the recent precipitous decline of the fabulous Roots band). As soon as executives get ahold of something, it crumbles to dust under the weight of its own marketing strategy -- which in general, is to flood the market with whatever pap it is they're peddling (until the market gets sick of it), making as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. Then rinse, repeat, and the cycle begins again.

I am the industry's bitch, and am as much to blame for the sorry state of affairs as they are. Music as art, music as newness and innovation, music as rebellion, is going extinct because of me.

The last album I heard that made me want to weep in public by just thinking about it was the Ágætis Byrjun. And even then, it was only new because of my general lack of knowledge concerning 20th Century avant-garde. Can we even create new things anymore? Will there ever be another Ray Charles, another Little Richard, another Lennon/McCartney or Lou Reed? Not if things keep to the course they seem to be following.

Stop whining about it. What you say doesn't matter. What you download doesn't matter. What you fucking write on the fucking internet does not matter one fucking iota. The revolution will not be blogged. It will be bought. What matters is what you purchase, or what you refuse to purchase. But alone, even that doesn't matter. Revolution cannot happen when a half-dozen people boycott the local Sam Goody. What we need is an army.

So I give up. I can't continue buying modern pop music, grumbling half-heartedly about all this crap until the day I die. I want to be moved. I want pop music to matter. I want it to influence public policy, not in a "oh-yeah-Sheryl-Crow-is-against-human-rights-violitions-in-Bosnia" kind of way, but in a "Woody Guthrie brought to light the plight of 1930s Dust-Bowl refugees with just a voice and a guitar" kind of way. Modern pop music is in a state of disarray. Let's just cut our losses and let it die. In the meantime, I'm going to advocate a return to pop music's roots. Even though my money will still find it's way to EMI, BMG, or Sony Music, I won't be spending it on new releases. I'm gonna buy, beg, borrow, and steal the old stuff. And find out what used to matter. What still matters. What might matter in years to come.

So let's go back to the beginning, when rock music meant rebellion. When good music was popular because it was different and revolutionary, not because MTV, Clear Channel, Pitchfork and Paste say it's good. The following is an account of one spoiled American's travels into rock-n-roll's rich, dynamic past. I might still be a consumer, but I refuse to buy like a typical 24-year-old. Pete Seeger and Bo Diddley can be the shit again. Not because Rolling Stone tells me so, but because I say so. Because we say so.

It begins.