Friday, January 25, 2013


           In his concluding comments in Walden, Henry Thoreau famously wrote:  "If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."  The rugged individualism so nicely captured in Thoreau's eloquence has long been a hallmark of the historical American character.
          But in 2013, large elements of America's population seem more attuned to a mentality like that embodied in  the totalitarian Borg collective portrayed in Startrek science fiction than to the individualism of Thoreau. 

           As the Borg drones directed their  hapless interstellar captives in menacing monotones, "We are Borg.  You will be assimilated.  Resistance is futile."  In the Borg universe, there is no individualism, no resistance to the conformity of the collective, and no diversity of thought.  All march with the crowd, to the same tune, in perfect lockstep.  The different drummers have all been silenced.

     Sadly, like a pale imitation of an ominous original, a creeping, Borg-like conformity has infected millions of Americans who have been assimilated into patterns of political, social and cultural conformity that they do not even recognize, let alone resist.

            The television news shows that provide much of the nation with what little information they receive on public affairs are both an example and a source of this condition.  As though controlled by a central script written by the Borg Queen herself, every night they present the same stories, in the same sequence, with the same leftist political bias, and exactly the same expressions of woe when reporting on the disaster of the day.  This is hardly surprising, however, since the journalistic drones who write and deliver the news for the mainstream media are all subject to the same controlling objective, namely, the unwavering support and defense of the Obama regime and its leftist policies.  And the unquestioning millions who absorb this spoonfed propaganda become infected with a monolithic political mindset which the nanoprobes of the Borg central neural system would be hard-pressed to surpass.
            Then there are the odious TV advertisements which are sandwiched between the mindless programs.  They relentlessly conform to a rigid template that could have been designed by some simpering, fully assimilated, latte-sipping metrosexual at Borg Central:  a blundering, overweight, unattractive white male stumbles stupidly through a politically correct script in which he is humiliated, in service of the product advertised, by slim and intelligent blacks or Hispanics, clever and condescending women, or savvy and smarmy little kids who shake their heads and roll their eyes incredulously at the hapless white guy.  And the same callow scenario is repeated in ad after ad, again and again.  And, except for the occasional eccentric dissenter, everyone laughs along with the stale and insidious joke, as though it were a perfectly sensible portrayal of every day life in America.

            Then there are the feckless crowds of students who enthusiastically and obediently provide rowdy props for the networks' weekly college football promotions and games.  Like so many trained seals, they bellow, grunt, shake their fists, and raise their index fingers in brainless "Number 1" gestures on the producer's command, while a certain portion of the males invariably doff their shirts to reveal fat painted bellies that were much better left covered.  It doesn't matter whether the game is in Florida, Oklahoma, or California, the staged antics are always exactly the same, with only the colors and the mascots changing.  Somewhere along the line, this perfectly patterned behavior has been programmed into the neural systems of students from coast to coast.  The student body that will call a halt to this uncouth programmed stupidity has yet to be discovered.  Somewhere along the line, I suppose, they too decided that resistance is futile.

            A similar version of the trained seals motif can be found in the studio audiences of the various television talk shows, like that of the insufferably cloying Ellen Degeneres.  Ellen traipses onto the stage doing a ludicrous bugaloo, so everyone in the audience stands up and does an even more ludicrous bugaloo.  Ellen's eyes tear up at the heroic struggle of yet another maudlin tale of politically correct self-discovery or redemption, and the audience collectively tears up on cue.  If Ellen invited the audience to join her in picking their noses, it would immediately comply.
           If some manifestations of the conformity culture may seem trivial, others are deeply disturbing.  In several sectors of the population, monolithic voting patterns underscore the scarcity of individual thought and judgment and the triumph of collectivist politics.  For example, no less than 93% of blacks voted for Obama, and in some Philadelphia precincts, not a single vote was cast for Governor Romney.  Given the extreme levels of unemployment and other economic hardship experienced by millions of blacks during Obama's first term, the absence of any significant black vote against his re-election appears to be firmly grounded upon the predominance of race-based political conformity.  The same can be said, albeit to a lesser degree, of the Hispanic vote, which reportedly went 71% for Obama, despite his divergence from many  Catholic Latinos on social issues like abortion and homosexual marriage.

        Of course, drone-like conformity of opinion among the American majority does not occur overnight, particularly on matters of long- or deeply-held conviction.  Sometimes assimilation of the populace into the collective mentality takes time.  That seems to be the case with regard to the biological oxymoron of marriage between two males or two females, the functional equivalent of a hydrogen atom composed of two protons or two electrons, instead of one of each.  Fifty years ago, the question of whether one approved of such a marriage would have been met with the nearly unanimous response that the questioner was either joking or crazy.  That general understanding, held for millenia among civilizations across the globe, was no more an example of mindless conformity than the present understanding that a hydrogen atom consists of one proton and one electron.  It was simply recognition of reality.

     But the powerful pull of social and political conformity in today's America appears to be gradually assimilating the populace into acceptance and endorsement of the concept of same-sex marriage, despite its blatant conflict with simple biological reality and basic religous and moral standards that have provided the essential framework for civilized society.  Among all Americans, polls show that in 1996, 68% disapproved and only 27 approved of same-sex marriage, whereas today, a significant 53% reportedly approve and only 46% disapprove.  Even more startling is the recent poll indicating that a strong plurality  of Catholics approve of same-sex marriage, by 49% to 43%.  Considering that gay sex -- let alone its institutionalization in a parody of the sacrament of matrimony -- is a mortal sin as a matter of core Catholic doctrine, stronger evidence of the strength of the conformity culture would be difficult to find.  When even Catholics are marching with the crowd against the core principles of their own religion, a Borg-like culture of conformity may soon prove more than a mere pessimist's nightmare.

     It is almost enough to make one long for the good old days of 1984.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


              On dark and depressing days, such as the one following the re-inauguration of an annoying and overbearing president, one grasps at straws for distraction from the grim realities of the times.  One avenue of escape is to consider the great novels of history, and to compile one's opinion as to which rank as the very greatest, which I have done below, with my personal Top Ten (presented in alphabetical order).
                Needless to say, any such list is inherently flawed by the limitations of the lister's own language and the scope of his reading.  This list is mostly confined to English language novels, but only because the inability to read in, for example, Japanese, Norwegian, or French, prevents proper appreciation of novels by the likes of Yasunari Kawabata, Sigrid Undset, or Gustave Flaubert.  But the translations of some great works, such as Tolstoy's Russian masterpieces, are so effective and natural that those works can be properly appreciated by English language readers.  Some might find the list biased towards English novels of the 19th Century, but no apologies will be made for that, since it really was the Golden Age of the novel.

                Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  Probably the only thing Oprah Winfrey and I agree upon is the greatness of Tolstoy's masterpiece of romantic obsession and societal complexity.  Among the many features that set A.K. apart from other superior novels is the enlightening counterpoint between the story's two central relationships – the destructive attraction between Anna and Vronsky, versus the uplifting and redeeming effect of Princess Kitty's moral purity upon Levin.
            Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  Magnetically despicable villains; an irresistible central heroin; incisive and legitimate social commentary that blends seamlessly with a fantastic plot; amusing exposition of the excesses of Victorian class rigidity; these and other attractions combine to make Bleak House perhaps the greatest of 19th Century English novels.  Above all, Dickens' ruthless yet entertaining skewering of the grotesque perversities of the legal profession, as exemplified by the eternal case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, remains as valid and amusing today as it did in the heyday of British Chancery excess.
            Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh.  At least one of the novels of the 20th Century's greatest satirist is a must in a best novels list.  A novel that begins with a sly depiction of "the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass" cannot go wrong, and it proceeds to become even more morbidly yet tastefully amusing as it reduces the British upper class to ridiculous rubble.  Waugh's rapier-like precision and wit are unmatched, and such other of his works as the similar Vile Bodies might well be substituted on this list.

            Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  Pasternak's depiction of an idealist physician's struggles with the relentless inhumanity of Russia's Communist Revolution ranks among the great not only because of its compelling moral qualities, but also because it so effectively enlists the reader's concern with the fate of the diverse characters caught up in the turmoil of the revolution.  The novel also presents an especially magnetic and original heroine in Laura Antipov, and the fates of the three competing male characters – Zhivago, the enigmatic General Strelnikov, and the corrupt lawyer Komarovsky – are successively shaped, for better and for worse, by her powerful appeal.
            Great Expectations by Dickens.  The demands of diversity would preclude a double entry for one author, but on the other hand, the best writers simply produce more of the best novels.  Regardless, Dickens' searing depiction of a boy's progress from terrified little urchin to pampered protégé to snobbish ingrate, and, finally, to courageous redemption in his attempts to save Abel Magwich from his convict's fate demands inclusion among the great works.  And hovering enticingly in the background is Estella Havisham, that beautiful boy-trap who was raised from childhood for the express purpose of driving British lads to distraction.

            Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  Many who have plodded through this novel's hundreds of pages of seemingly extraneous whaling lore may well dissent from its inclusion on a list like this.  But it remains not only one of the greatest adventure stories ever, but also one of the greatest moral novels, in its profound depiction of the struggle between good and evil within different kinds of men – Ahab, Ishmael, Starbuck, and Queequeg.  Also, the exotic and colorful cast of characters on the crew of the Pequod present one of the most fascinating and memorable ensembles in literature.
            Shogun by James Clavell.  The distinction is often made between great literature and novels of entertainment, but the distinction is often (but not always) overdrawn.  This terrific historical novel may be close to that line, but the fidelity of much of its historical portrait, its impressive character drawing, and Clavell's amazingly effective presentation of Japanese idioms in English dialogue persuade me that it qualifies as a truly great novel.  If nothing else, Shogun's portrait of the imposing founder of Japan's Tokugawa dynasty, Tokugawa Ieyasu, is one of the great accomplishments of historical fiction.  Not only a riveting read, but a highly educational one.

            Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.  How can a murderess and a domesticated adulteress elicit the reader's unreserved affection and sympathy as one of literature's most attractive and beloved heroines?  Only when she is Tess Durbeyfield, the innocent rustic beauty who was repeatedly injured and abused both by the men who loved her and the "Immortals" of Fate, who cruelly sported with her as she wandered the landscape of rural England.  Although this writer is generally a hard-line conservative on criminal justice, and regards the insanity defense as riddled with flaws, I would have invoked it without a second's hesitation to acquit the irresistible Tess had I sat on the jury in her murder trial; unfortunately, Hardy's jury convicted her, but she faced her fate with unforgettably beautiful bravery.
            Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackeray.  This undisputed masterpiece combines telling social commentary, riveting historical depiction of the Napoleonic era in Britain and the Battle of Waterloo, and an irresistible portrait of one of literature's most fascinating vixen's, the ever-calculating Becky Sharpe.  Through every possible social disaster and financial difficulty, Miss Sharpe's shrewd wits, elfin charm, and ruthless drive enable her to emerge as a genuine Survivor in a very challenging world.

            The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  One of the first and greatest novels centered around the unraveling of a criminal mystery – although the "detectives" are a civilian man and woman on a personal rather than official quest – the greatness of this work goes well beyond its riveting and suspenseful plot.  Collins was a colleague of Dickens, and the remarkable characters he weaves in this masterpiece are worthy of his mentor.  Like Thomas Hardy, Collins was also a pioneer in depicting the Victorian suppression of women, and the calculated abuse of the novel's two "women in white" is only rectified by the relentless drive and courage of the central heroine, the combative Marion Halcombe.  Fans of the zombie-centric TV series, The Walking Dead, may be amused to find that the male hero of that program plays the male hero who assists Miss Halcombe in the very excellent TV dramatization of TWIW produced by Masterpiece Theater some 10 years ago.  Among the great novels, this is probably the most enjoyable read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Maobama and the Cult of Personality

             All who have studied modern Chinese history – and many who merely have a passing acquaintance with it – are familiar with the extraordinary cult of personality that surrounded Mao Zedong, the leader of China’s communist revolution and the Great Helmsman of the totalitarian Chinese Nation that emerged from it.  With due allowance for deep differences in national culture and history, ominous parallels to the Mao cult have begun to surface in the slavish homage paid to the current American president by the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and disturbingly large portions of the citizenry.  Fortunately, the intensity of the other portion's complete rejection of this apotheosis should suffice to prevent an American version of the political lunacy that enveloped China during Mao's heyday.

             Although other 20th Century tyrants like Hitler and Stalin exercised similar (and in some respects greater) totalitarian power over their nations, the sheer perversity, the bizarre extremes, and the remarkable persistence of Mao’s personal dominance over the billion-person Chinese nation is unique in many respects.  While Hitler achieved the height of his dark power and popularity only after Nazi Germany had achieved extraordinary industrial and economic expansion and breathtaking military success, the apex of Mao’s personal dominance in China followed in the wake of abject national failures that were largely attributable to Mao’s own mistakes and perversity. 

            Most notable of these failures was the notoriously misnamed Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, Mao’s addle-brained scheme to transform China overnight from a backward agrarian economy to a modern industrial state.  Mao ordered rapid and radical agricultural collectivization and, among other ill-conceived projects, directed that millions of Chinese construct makeshift backyard furnaces in the hopes of rapidly expanding China’s steel production.  The result, instead, was catastrophe.  Rather than a positive transformation of the Chinese economy, the Great Leap Forward resulted in deaths estimated in the range of 18 to 30 or 40 million from famine, mass killings, and other associated disasters.

             Although this dire catastrophe resulted in a temporary setback for Mao and the short-lived rise to power of more pragmatic leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Mao returned to achieve his most radical extremes of cult-like power during the notorious Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that he inspired in 1966 and which lasted for some ten years.  Nearly the entire Chinese nation either went completely berserk in support of Mao's warped notion of continuing radical revolution, or pretended to endorse the madness in a desperate attempt merely to survive the upheaval.  Mao's vanguard in the GPCR were the youthful cadres of Red Guards, who roamed the country at will, spreading political terror and reducing the nation's economic, educational, and cultural institutions to revolutionary rubble.  Failure to adhere to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao in any respect was likely to result in public disgrace or banishment to re-education camps or worse, and woe to any Chinese who failed to carry, study, and obey the maxims of Mao's Little Red Book.  Neither the highest Party apparatchik nor the lowest worker or peasant was safe from the arbitrary attacks of the Red Guards and other GPCR cadres.  Not even revolutionary heroes who had been with Mao throughout the legendary Long March were spared, and pragmatic party leaders like Deng and Liu Shao-chi (who died in a detention camp) were not only removed from power, but forced to march through the streets wearing humiliating dunce caps and signs proclaiming them Running Dogs of Imperialism and Capitalist Roaders.

             Mao died in 1976, but both during and after his reign of arbitrary terror the emblems of his national cult were ubiquitous.  Gigantic portraits of the Great Helmsman, and statuary depicting Mao in various attitudes of revolutionary heroism, loomed over the squares of cities throughout China.  Mao-thought permeated every form of endeavor, from science to art to athletics.  Ridiculous myths were created to embellish Mao's status as a god-like figure, such as the report that in 1966, at the age of 72, he swam 10 miles across the Yangtze River at a barracuda-like pace that would put the fastest Olympic swimmers to shame.  Throughout the madness, such Chinese media as existed (primarily the People's Daily newspaper) were employed as merely another component of the Maoist propaganda juggernaut.
            Circumstances peculiar to mid-20th century China made it a particularly fertile ground for the monolithic cult of personality that arose around Chairman Mao.  The Chinese people had been subjected to oppressive control by successive imperial dynasties for millennia, and had little to no experience of anything approaching freedom or independent political behavior.  And Mao had personally led a successful revolution the sheer scope of which was unmatched in history.  Moreover, there was little ethnic or political diversity in Mao's China.  Roughly 95% of the population at that time was of the Han race.  Most of those of a republican political persuasion had either been eliminated by the Red Army's triumph in 1949 or driven to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek. The national profile was relatively monolithic and homogeneous.  So when Maoism took hold as the dominant ideology in Beijing and other centers of influence, there was little prospect of effective non-conformity, let alone resistance.  Such unique national conditions seem to preclude the prospect that a Mao-like leadership cult could arise in other countries today, let alone in a Western democracy.

            Nonetheless, at a time when an arguably charismatic and inarguably self-absorbed leader has been ensconced in the U.S. Presidency by a docile and subservient majority of the electorate, it is not surprising that ominous parallels are drawn to the cult of personality typified by Maoism.  Indeed, other commentators have already invoked that comparison, with particular reference to Mao, in noting the signs of a "creepy" cult-like elevation of Obama's image that has surfaced in America. .

             Such signs are not hard to find.  The startlingly creepy cover of a current edition of the increasingly absurd Newsweek online magazine lauds the "Second Coming" of Obama, with no apparent misgivings as to the blasphemous implications.  But such blasphemous homage to Obama is hardly novel among the obsequious courtiers in the media and the entertainment industry.  A prominent black actor, whose name does not warrant mention, actually referred to the totalitarian president as "our lord and savior" in a speech at another of those increasingly odious entertainment awards shows that infest the television schedule.  Obama's appearances on TV talk shows, and even in his rare televised press conferences, elicit only fawning servitude rather than the adversarial confrontation that invariably greeted recent Republican Presidents.  As with Mao's Great Leap Forward, Obama's massive policy failures, such as the Health Care Reform fiasco and the wretchedly dysfunctional stimulus package, only seem to reinforce the mindless subservience of his minions in the universities, the unions, the government classes, and the media.

            Indeed, the rock-solid support of a fawning and complicit media presents one of the most striking similarities between Mao's China and Obama's America.  The only sharp distinction is that the government's ownership and control of the People's Daily, and its devotion to the Maoist cause, was explicit, whereas the mainstream American media's subservience and service to the programs of the Obama Administration is unacknowledged.

            Despite the disturbing parallels, however, any closer duplication of a genuine cult of personality in America is prevented by (among other things) the very fortuitous political reality that is relentlessly condemned by the dominant liberal political class.  That reality is the intense partisanship that persists among the electorate, despite the mindless uniformity of the media and its surrounding culture.  Although Obama was re-elected, most of the 47% of the electorate (61 million voters) who voted against him did so with intense and passionate opposition to his policies and programs.  On the very eve of his second inauguration – a time when a President's popularity often peaks – Obama's approval rating is only 48% in the Gallup poll.  Given the relentless and maudlin adulation of Obama that the complicit media imposes daily on the American public, the rejection of Obamaism among nearly half of the population appears to be deeply rooted.  As long as that resistance holds firm, Obama's cult should remain confined to the feckless liberal herd that has blindly followed him from one policy fiasco to another.

             Or, to paraphrase that famous resister Benjamin Franklin, we still have a Republic, if we can keep it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


          In 1588, the ferocious Japanese military dictator, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ordered the notorious Sword Hunt.  Throughout Japan, all swords and other weapons were confiscated from the entire population – except for the samurai warrior class that was under Hideyoshi’s iron control.  The purpose of the Sword Hunt was to render the citizenry completely defenseless against Hideyoshi’s totalitarian power as enforced by the armed samurai and, in consequence, to reduce the populace to hopeless impotence against the government’s harsh impositions.

             Hideyoshi’s weapons control program was extremely effective, not merely during his reign, but through succeeding eras thereafter.  It reduced the non-samurai Japanese populace to a depth of abject servility and docility that can only be described as grotesque.  When samurai and their daimyo overlords passed through a town or village, everyone was required to fall to their knees and bow their heads to the ground until they had passed.  The samurai were entitled to slay on the spot any citizen who failed to comply.  James Clavell’s brilliant novel Shogun faithfully, and disturbingly, depicts this dark reality of Japanese history.

            The historical precedent of the Sword Hunt provides an ominous lesson for contemporary America.  In the wake of the recent appalling murder of children in Connecticut,  gun control advocates have seized on that incident as an emotional pretext to justify sweeping  restrictions on the citizen’s primal and natural right of self-defense.  Believing that merely invoking the horror of that atrocity gives them an unchallengeable high ground, these advocates have cast restraint to the winds, and have expanded their usual calls for restrictions on sales of so-called assault weapons to include impassioned demands for actual confiscation of firearms presently possessed by many millions of law-abiding citizens.

            A more outrageous threat to the right to keep and bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution would be difficult to contemplate.  And a more menacing parallel to Hideyoshi’s totalitarian Sword Hunt would be hard to draw.  But confiscation advocates would be well advised to consider that freedom-loving gun-owners from Virginia to Texas to Pennsylvania, and indeed throughout American, bear little resemblance to the submissive Japanese peasants who bowed to Hideyoshi’s samurai.  Even if the government could somehow locate the multi-millions of firearms stocked in American homes – and their attempt to do so would be hindered by the Fourth Amendment, as well as the Second – many gun owners would only surrender their arms when, and if, they could be pried “from their cold, dead hands.”

             This is not to suggest that American gun-owners are inclined to engage in some form of  unrealistic resort to armed resistance.  But even acknowledging that reality, the bedrock principle underlying the Second Amendment remains true, and is not to be dismissed as a mere abstraction:  an armed citizenry is the best guarantee against the kind of tyranny that enabled Hideyoshi and his successors to reduce the disarmed Japanese populace to a state of abject and hapless subservience.  If and when government dragoons – controlled by those who possess political power at the time -- hold a complete monopoly on firearms in America, not even theoretical or potential citizen resistance will provide any deterrence against totalitarian excesses. 

Cautionary tales are not always mere fiction; sometimes they point to hard truth.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Too Polite and Too White

                In a period when our economy and politics teeter on the brink of disaster, the recently announced selection of new entrants to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may seem a trivial matter.  But the persistent and perverse exclusion of the most popular American recording group of the 1970’s from consideration for that honor actually speaks volumes about the dubious state of American culture.

             That group was the hyper-talented brother-sister duo known as the Carpenters.  Richard Carpenter was a piano and keyboard prodigy who possessed an extraordinary talent for musical composition and arrangement.  Karen was the lead vocalist, and her warm and mellifluous voice has come to be recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest pop contraltos.  She was also the first and foremost female drummer to achieve prominence in the known music world.

            Starting with two enduring classics in 1970 – “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” – the Carpenters’ unique sound of multi-layered harmonies achieved stunning worldwide popularity despite its deviation from the era’s prevailing ethos of hard and acid rock.  During the decade of the 70’s, they topped all American recording artists as hit-makers on the Billboard Hot 100, exceeded only by a trio of legendary non-Americans:  Elton John, Paul McCartney, and the Beegees.  During their prime years of 1970-75, moreover, their recording popularity was surpassed by no artist or group in the world.  They sold-out to packed arenas on four continents, ranging from London’s Royal Albert Hall to Tokyo’s Budokan.   


                                       Richard and Karen Carpenter between sets in the TV studio

            But the Carpenters’ recording success in America sharply diminished after 1975 for several disturbing reasons.  Their fluid, melodic sound, which smacked of romantic innocence, was sharply out of touch with the raunchy and raucous tenor of the times.  Even worse, they were polite, clean-cut, and modest, and they lacked any “attitude” other than forthright friendliness.  The critics and cultural cognoscenti pounced ruthlessly on these glaring deviations, and were even more appalled when the Carpenters gracefully performed for President Nixon at a White House state dinner just as Watergate was gaining momentum.  The earthy singer Bette Midler, who enjoyed savaging the prim and ladylike Karen in her satiric routines, even taunted her for being too “white.”

            The stinging criticism, coupled with a grueling touring schedule, eventually took an emotional and physical toll, especially on Karen.  Puzzled and frustrated, she sought refuge in an obsessive quest for perfection in performance and appearance.  Equating extreme slenderness with beauty, she descended into severe anorexia, which gradually diminished the Carpenters’ capacity to perform and eventually led to her stunning death in 1983 at the age of 32.

            The curiously divergent treatment of the Carpenters in the U.S. and abroad, starting around 1975 and especially after Karen’s death, is highly revealing. It helps explain the obstinate exclusion of the Carpenters from America’s R&R Hall of Fame, even while they are still revered internationally as legends by millions in diverse foreign countries.

            In the U.S., the critics’ relentless mockery of the duo for the allegedly bland and “vanilla” qualities of their music and their personalities gradually assumed the status of an accepted canard.  It is well documented that even fans who loved the Carpenters were often ashamed to admit it for fear of being deemed “uncool.”  Eventually, the Carpenters’ status on the American music scene assumed an eerie resemblance to that of disfavored officials who were declared “nonpersons,” and then disappeared, in the former Soviet Union.  It reached the ridiculous point that even many radio stations that feature “oldies” from the 70’s studiously refrained from playing the most popular and best-selling American recording group of that very era.

            But fortunately the fads and prejudices that have suppressed  the Carpenters’ gorgeous music at home have somehow been “lost in translation” abroad. 

For example, while their superb album “Horizon” stalled at no. 13 on the U.S. charts in 1975, it reached No. 1 in both the UK and Japan.  After Karen’s death, moreover, the Carpenters’ recordings achieved stunning levels of popularity not only in those top two foreign markets, but especially throughout East Asia and, most remarkably, in the People’s Republic of China.  In 1990, a Carpenters compilation album held the No. 1 spot on the British charts for nine weeks and hit 5-times Platinum in sales.  In 1995, Carpenters songs formed the centerpiece of a hit Japanese television series, Miseinen, stimulating the release of a best-selling Carpenters retrospective album that became the most successful foreign album in Japan ever, until surpassed by Mariah Carey.  As recently as 2009, another Carpenters’ album (“40/40”) again topped the Japanese charts.  And it was only several months ago that the Carpenters were finally supplanted (by a Korean K-pop group) as the all-time leading foreign singles recording group in Japan.

Meanwhile, when China gradually opened the door to foreign music following the death of Chairman Mao, the universal appeal of Karen’s warmly engaging voice crossed all cultural barriers and the Carpenters’ recordings (often bootlegged) became the most popular in China, and remained so for decades.   The Internet abounds with stories relating the ubiquity of Carpenters music, especially the perennially popular “Yesterday Once More,” in Chinese restaurants, karaoke bars, hotel lounges, and CD shops.  So great is the Carpenters' continued popularity in China that even an imitative tribute group (strategically dubbed the Karpenters) has been able to draw packed audiences to their concerts in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.  Reporting on the remarkable success of that tribute group's shows in China, one Chinese reporter observed:  "If Lady Gaga is the new favorite this season in China, the Carpenters must be the the all-time favorites and someone, somewhere in the country is always singing along with the Carpenters."  Hu Bei, Back on Stage Live and Close to You, Global Times (Oct. 9, 2010).

                 The friendly young faces of the Carpenters when they first rose to stardom         
             All of this is lost on the philistine gatekeepers of the R&R Hall of Fame.  While grating rap groups like Public Enemy are eagerly welcomed with slavish adulation, the duo whose lush romantic harmonies have mesmerized listeners from Downey, California, to London, Tokyo, and Shanghai for over 40 years is studiously ignored and excluded.   The very musical and personal qualities that endeared the Carpenters to American audiences in the 1970’s, and to British and East Asian listeners for decades later, have effectively rendered them persona non grata to the politically correct cognoscenti who decide what is musically acceptable in America today .  The only thing to be said for this sad state of affairs is that it pretty accurately reflects the distorted values that have come to govern much of our contemporary culture.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Opening Splash: East Asia and the Carpenters

Opening Splash

             The title “Splashing Rocks” derives from a song by my favorite group, the Carpenters, and their unforgettable lead singer, Karen Carpenter.  The song was “Maybe It’s You” (R. Carpenter and J. Bettis), which was on their first hit album “Close to You,” and the lines in question are:

                         Couldn’t we stay, or must we go?
                        Couldn’t we stay and watch the splashing rocks we throw?

 The lines are especially poignant when one recalls that the angelic young lady who sung them died so early, at only 32 years old.  Sadly, she could not “stay” on this earth any longer, and she had “to go” so soon, due to the life-emaciating effects of anorexia nervosa.  But the incomparable music left behind by Karen and her brother Richard will provide enjoyment and edification as long as it can be heard.  It also provides considerable inspiration for this blog.

             I hope that some of these splashing posts will create brain ripples that some readers may find informative, appealing, or thought-provoking.  They will generally focus upon the writer’s eclectic areas of interest:  culture, policy and politics, law, and themes and developments related to East Asia, especially Japan and China.  Ensuing posts will show the linkage between these seemingly disparate subjects.

                                      Who Throws the Splashing Rocks?

                                                Smith During H.S. Basketball Days

             Splashing Rocks (hereafter “SR” for short) is the blog of G.C. Smith, whose motley history includes the following distinctions or infamies, depending upon one’s perspective:  High school basketball ace in the Philadelphia city leagues, circa 1962-63; Corporal and Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1964-68, where he received  the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and Navy Unit Commendation medal; steelworker in Coatesville, Pa.; B.A.(magna cum laude) from Penn State, and J.D. from Duke Law School, where he was Articles Editor of the Duke Law Journal; and a wildly varied legal career, where he litigated for both a prominent D.C./NYC law firm and a conservative public interest legal foundation, appeared in numerous TV and radio shows in debates with liberal adversaries, served as Counsel  to a Republican Senator and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and finally practiced constitutional law while serving as Senior Counsel at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.  In his more activist years, he published many columns in newspapers and articles/chapters in journals and books, mostly on law and political issues.

                    Holding Boxing Smoker Trophy with Platoon 297 grads, Parris Island, 1965
              In view of his profound incompatibility with the policies and politics of the incoming Obama Administration, Smith retired from the Department of Justice in 2008.  He is now primarily preoccupied with a relentless physical fitness program, bicycling, hiking, bird-viewing at the seashore and wetland areas (not  “bird watching”), various activities in Virginia Republican politics, absorbing the Nineteenth Century literary classics, traveling America with his wonderful wife, and lamenting the decline of Western Civilization.

                                   First Post:  East Asia and the Carpenters

             Some may find SR inordinately fond of the Carpenters (and similar cultural exemplars to be discussed in later posts), but there is good cause.  In the depraved and distorted culture that prevails in much of today’s America, sane and civilized persons need some form of cultural refuge.  In the musical world, few vocalists can equal the mellifluous, soothing, and intimate delivery of the legendary Miss Carpenter, and few groups provide a more refreshing and purifying escape from the raucous cacophony of contemporary rock and rap than the Carpenters.  Moreover, Karen is a refreshing and beautiful symbol of class, decency, modesty, and diligence – a shining image of excellence and innocence to turn to in dark times.  Judging from the sustained popularity of Carpenters videos on YouTube, SR is not alone in this admiration.

             But like the proverbial prophet who is not recognized in his own country, the Carpenters’ music has enjoyed far more enduring popularity abroad than in the United States. 

           Although the Carpenters were  indisputably the best-selling American musical group in their heyday of 1970-75, their popularity in the U.S. tailed off considerably thereafter (although they continued to top the Billboard Easy Listening, or Adult Contemporary, chart for several years more).  This decline was attributable both to mean-spirited critical attacks on their clean-cut suburban  image and style – the self-appointed cognoscenti considered them "too polite and too white" – as well as Karen’s debilitating anorexic condition.  It is highly probable, moreover, that the nasty critical attacks helped exacerbate Karen’s descent into anorexia.  Her response to unfair criticism was the pursuit of perfection, in both performance and appearance, and she perversely equated extreme slenderness with optimal good looks.

 But while the Carpenters popularity declined at home, it prospered in the two leading foreign markets, the UK and Japan.  Their remarkably beautiful 1975 album, Horizon, for example, reached No. 1 in both of those countries, while it stalled at only No. 13 in the U.S.  Even more telling has been the Carpenter’s persistent extreme popularity in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia (especially China) following Karen’s death in 1983.

Carpenters music had already established a strong foothold in Japan, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, and (oddly) Malaysia, in the early 70’s, with numerous chart-topping hits in each of those markets.  In 1974, the Carpenters’ highly anticipated arrival at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport for their sold-out Japan concert tour was greeted by a mob scene of fans, reporters, and cameramen reminiscent of the Beatles’ arrival scenes in the U.S.  

                                    Carpenters in their kimonos, Tokyo, 1974

 But it was in 1995 that the Carpenters’ sales in Japan reached extraordinary levels.  After several Carpenters songs were used as the musical centerpiece of a hit television series about Japanese teenagers (Miseinen), they released a compilation album called 22 Hits of the Carpenters (called Seishun no Kagayaki in Japan).  It became the largest-selling foreign-artist album in Japanese history, until supplanted several years later by Mariah Carey.  As recently as 2009, another Carpenters retro album (40/40) reached No. 3 on Japan’s overall charts, and No. 1 on the foreign albums chart.  The Carpenters also reigned as the all-time top-selling foreign singles artists in Japan – followed by the Bee Gees, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Beatles -- until supplanted in July 2012 by the South Korean K-pop group, Tohoshinki.  Ever since Karen Carpenter posed prettily in a gift kimono for the Japanese photographers in 1974, and then completely charmed audiences at the Budokan by singing portions of the hit record Sing in flawless Japanese with a chorus of cherubic little Japanese girls, the Carpenters have maintained a very special popularity in Japan that endures to this day.

         Perhaps even more remarkable has been the Carpenters’ extreme popularity in, of all places, the People’s Republic of China.  Towards the end of the 1970’s, the xenophobia of Mao’s Cultural Revolution had been supplanted by more pragmatic policies, and a slight crack was left open in the Great Wall for the entry of the less abrasive forms of Western music.  A Newsweek article published in 1998 related a Chinese journalist named Yu Lei’s explanation of the Carpenters prominent early role in this liberating development.  After explaining how one of his teachers had recorded an American song off the shortwave radio and then surreptitiously played it for his students, the story continued:

 But what struck Yu the most was the sweetness of the melody,
             the purity of the singer’s voice.  The singer was Karen Carpenter,
            who shortly became one of the first Western performers 
            sanctioned in China.  Years later, . . . Yu can still hear the sweet 
            strains of revolution.  Karen Carpenter, he declares, “was the 
            beginning of the opening of China.”

Leland and Esaki-Smith, The Rebirth of Shanghai, Newsweek (1998).

            As evidenced by countless Internet stories and blogs, the Carpenters’ (and especially Karen’s) popularity in China has remained astonishingly strong, from the infancy of China’s cultural awakening to the present.  In particular, their 1973 hit Yesterday Once More has acquired iconic popularity in China, and is played and heard everywhere from karaoke bars to hotel lounges to school recitals.  Even writers who are personally skeptical about the Carpenters acknowledge this special fondness.  As once such blogger declared in 2009:  “If there is something about mainland China which I never expected before, and absolutely amazes me now, it is the connection the citizens have with the music of the Carpenters. . . .  [I] encounter evidence almost every day that mainland Chinese have a special place in their minds and in their hearts for Richard and Karen Carpenter.”  A.E. Perkins, China and the Carpenters, Internet Blog (Oct. 15, 2009). 

Another western skeptic was so astonished by the Carpenters’ widespread popularity in China that he asked Kaiser Kuo, a hip Chinese-American musician and reporter with special expertise on the Chinese music scene, for his insights on this inexplicable phenomenom.  Rather than endorse the skeptic’s scorn for the Carpenters’ music, Mr. Kuo confirmed that not only did the Carpenters continue to exceed even the Beatles in general popularity in China, but that even Kuo’s hip friends who like heavy metal and hip-hop also love and appreciate the Carpenters “and can’t imagine that they’re a sort of a joke to most young Westerners.”  Kuo added that “people in China uniformly love Karen’s deep, sultry voice.”   Justin Mitchell, Every sha-la-la-la Still Grinds, Weekend Standard (China’s Business Newspaper), Nov. 6-7, 2004.

 The Carpenters’ appeal in China has remained so powerful that a British-based tribute act (subtly named the Karpenters) that earnestly mimics the duo’s sound and appearance were able to draw packed audiences at high ticket prices to their shows in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing in 2009 and 2010.  According to an Internet report, this Carpenters Tribute act drew larger crowds than even the late U.S. super-diva Whitney Houston when she appeared at the same venue in Hong Kong.  Tribute Act are big Stars in China, Internet report (March 1, 2010).

Although more difficult to document, it appears that the Carpenters’ intense and enduring popularity extends as well to other countries in East Asia, such as Thailand and the Philippines.  In 2002, for example, five popular Thai divas released a tribute album called simply “We Love Carpenters.”  In the Philippines, pop star Claire de la Fuente received a notable career boost when she was dubbed “the Karen Carpenter of the Philippines.”

So where does all this tend?  What explains the sustained popularity of a sibling musical duo from Downey, California, in countries half the world away with cultures that could hardly be more alien to that of Southern California’s in the 1970’s?  Many factors are involved – for one thing, the Japanese music market has long had a particular predilection for winsome young female singers in the same mold as Karen Carpenter in her youthful prime – but one thing seems critical:  it is the universal and timeless appeal of simply beautiful songs and melodies, gracefully and sincerely rendered by a mellifluous, pitch-perfect voice.  The prism of fads, cultural prejudice, and political correctness that distorts the contemporary American music market is “lost in translation” in these East Asian countries.  They hear only the sound of beautiful and engaging music, and are spared the grating intercession of the feckless critics and cultural arbiters who have relegated the Carpenters and other musical treasures of the same genre to relative oblivion on the current American music scene.
Next up (before moving on to less aesthetic topics):  the Splasher's views on the continued unjust omission of the Carpenters from the inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the deeper meanings behind that gross cultural miscarriage.