Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books Every Social Media Manager Should Read

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When I was young, my summer holiday usually kicked off with a visit to the local library to sign up for the summer reading program. Kids around the city would eagerly devour book after book, in the hopes of the ultimate prize—a new book of their choice. As an adult, the fact that I can go and just get a book whenever I please ranks right up there with the disbelief that I can also get candy whenever I want.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I only read marketing books. I’m not a dirty liar. But there are a select few resources that every social media manager needs to read.
While I could provide a list of the top 10 marketing books as recommended by Amazon, there is much more that goes into being a successful social media manager than simply “social media managing.” Don’t get me wrong, these books are there for a reason (and you’ll find some of them below), but a great social media manager needs a wide variety of skills.

Content Strategy for the Web

By Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach
This book has been making its way around BCG offic'ses, becoming more disheveled with each handoff. Many colleagues have been tooting the horn of authors Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach approach to content strategy.
Social media is a crucial part of content marketing, so mastering the art of content strategy is something you need to know how to do. Halvorson and Rach teach you exactly how to do this, sharing their expertise and instructions on everything from completing a content audit to leading a project. If others in your company don’t think that content strategy is important, fear not—the authors shares the perfect persuasion tactics for this situation.

Purple Cow

By Seth Godin
Described as “the godfather of marketing books”. Purple Cow has more than just an intriguing title. Author Seth Godin aims to change the way people think about marketing.
It can be difficult for social media managers to come up with original content day in and day out, so sometimes you just need a purple cow. As Godin explains, “Purple Cow describes something phenomenal, something counterintuitive and exciting and flat out unbelievable. Every day, consumers come face to face with a lot of boring stuff—a lot of brown cows—but you can bet they won’t forget a Purple Cow.”
Delight your audience and customers after you get inspired to create your own “purple cows” with your social media content.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

By Jonah Berger
A New York Times bestseller and named the Best Marketing Book of 2014 by the American Marketing Association, many members of the Hootsuite marketing department recommend this book. While ‘going viral’ might not be the best goal for a social media manager, getting your brand noticed on social is definitely a key objective.
Berger dives into six “contagious” qualities that impact everything from consumer products to media content. Learn how you can use these qualities to create your own shareable content.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman
Why do we do what we do? What drives the choices that we make? These are important things for any social media manager to think about when crafting content, and Daniel Kahneman’s work explores these ideas in-depth. A Nobel Prize winner for his work on decision-making, Kahneman is an expert in human behavior—something that any social media manager needs to understand.

Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do

By Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler
Authors and scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler explore the social networks and connections human beings have, and how these connections influence our decisions.
As a social media manager, you know that your online networks have huge power, so learning how these connections work, and how to grow them, will help inform your social strategy.

Everybody Writes

By Ann Handley
I included this irreplaceable resource in my post So You Think You Can’t Write: 8 Writing Resources for Non-Writers and it’s a definite must-read for social media managers.
Writing is a skill that all marketers need to have, and Ann Handley offers a clear and concise guide to mastering it. Handley explains that content is “everything your customer or prospect touches or interacts with—including your own online properties and web pages and the experiences they offer, but also everything on any social channel.”
If you are trying to get your audience’s attention, you’re going to need the social media content to match. This book will help you create just that.

Hug Your Haters

By Jay Baer
Social media customer service is undoubtedly an area every social media manager needs to master, and Jay Baer’s book is the perfect resource. You already know that ignoring your upset customers on social media is a poor approach, but knowing exactly how to deal with them can be a challenge. With this book, you’ll learn how to not only manage your “haters,” but turn every negative experience into a positive one that can work for you and your brand.

Likeable Social Media

By Dave Kerpen
I was crossing the border into the United States for a shopping trip recently, and the border security officer asked what I do for work. I explained that I write. When I told him “social media and content marketing” he let out a loud groan. What is it about the subject that makes some people cringe? How do you ensure that you aren’t sharing cringe-worthy content on your own channels?
Author Dave Kerpen explores how to listen to your customers so that you can deliver valuable content—and prove even the most cynical border security guards wrong.

Social IMC: Social Strategies with Bottom-Line ROI

By Randy Hlavac
Having a social media plan is all well and dandy, but do you know how your strategy actually benefits your business? Author Randy Hlavac explains “there are many books out there on the theories behind the use of social media and mobile applications in marketing—but this is not one of them.”
Instead of broad theories, Hlavac provides actionable strategies and proven tactics that can bring results. This social media how-to guide will show you how to build a strategy , with you at the helm, your brand sees profit and growth

Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World

By Gary Vaynerchuk
As a social media manager, you know that one of your biggest challenges is getting your message heard. The sheer volume of content shared every second means that you need to work extremely hard to make sure you’re creating unique and valuable content. This is where Gary Vaynerchuk’s book comes in. He shows you how to adapt your content to specific channels and how to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the social media landscape.
In order to be successful in the world of social media and content marketing, you need to stay ahead of the curve. While theory can easily become outdated, the above references are great for building a solid foundation of ideas and skills.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout

Too Many Cooks, published 1938, is the foodiest of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective stories, as far as I can determine. It's an early one: the first Nero Wolfe mystery was published in 1934. Wolfe was an experienced private detective who lived in New York. References in the book suggest that his prime of life, before he became obese, sedentary, and crochety, was some time around World War I.

The basics of the story: in April, 1937, a group of 15 international master cooks, "Les Quinze Maitres," are holding a meeting at a resort hotel in West Virginia for a weekend of cooking and discussion. Each one brings one guest. Nero Wolfe and Wolfe's assistant Archie Goodwin, the book's narrator, are both chosen guests. Nero Wolfe's role as invitee is to present a scholarly paper of interest to the chefs. His private agenda is to acquire a secret recipe for saucisse minuit.

Needless to say, Wolf's role turns out to be identifying the murderer of one of the chefs, who dies during a tasting contest with a carving knife in his back. I'll refrain from discussing the murder, and stick to the food part, with only one comment: the racism of Archie Goodwin, and the anti-racist views of his employer were very interesting and maybe, in Wolfe's case, ahead of their time.

The planned title of Wolfe's scholarly paper is Contributions Américaines à la Haute Cuisine. Throughout the book Wolfe's preoccupation with this paper advances the idea that there's a solid and very serious American cuisine beyond family cooking. Another idea ahead of its time, I think.

The first response by one of the chefs, upon hearing the title of the upcoming lecture, sets the stage for the food themes of the book. Hearing the subject of Wolfe's paper, American Contributions to Haute Cuisine, the famous European chef responds:

"Bah! ... There are none. ... I am told there is good family cooking in America; I haven't sampled it. I have heard of the New England boiled dinner and corn pone and clam chowder and milk gravy. ... Those things are to la haute cuisine what sentimental love songs are to Beethoven and Wagner."

"Indeed." Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. "Have you eaten terrapin stewed with butter and chicken broth and sherry?"


"Have you eaten a planked porterhouse steak, two inches thick, surrendering hot red juice under the knife, garnished with American parsley and slices of fresh limes, encompassed with mashed potatoes... Or the Creole Tripe of New Orleans? Or Missouri Boone County ham, baked with vinegar, molasses Worcestershire, sweet cider and herbs... Or Tennessee Opossum? ... Or Philadelphia Snapper Soup?" (page 7)
Wolfe is passionate about American food and about defending it from its European detractors. Later, during the chefs' meeting, so is the chef who presents an American banquet to his fellows. Much about the circumstances of the banquet is fascinating. In particular, the actual hands-on cooks are all black men in the resort kitchen, directed by the restaurant chef who belongs to the Quinze Maitres, but totally competent and respected.

Another interesting thing in my view is how American cuisine has changed since the book was written. Many of the examples of American food, including the menu for the banquet and material in Wolfe's lecture are essentially obsolete. His discussion of the way American farmers raise remarkably superior meat -- by feeding peanuts to pigs and blueberries to poultry -- completely surprised me.

Here is the banquet menu (copied from page 157):

Les Quinze Maitres
Kanawha Spa, West Virginia,
Thursday, April 8th, 1937

American DinnerOysters Baked in the Shell
Terrapin Maryland..........Beaten Biscuits
Pan Broiled Young Turkey
Rice Croquettes with Quince Jelly
Lima Beans in Cream..........Sally Lunn
Avocado Todhunter
Pineapple Sherbet.........Sponge Cake
Wisconsin Dairy Cheese........Black Coffee

The points the author made through Wolfe's opinions, his fictional paper, and this American menu really interested me. I've heard that the same dismissal of the idea of an American Haute Cuisine was still current among chefs and serious food scholars as late as the 1970s. Maybe even since then. I'm sure tons has been written about this book as Rex Stout has quite a following, fan clubs, and for all I know, journals dedicated to him. However, I haven't read anything except the book itself.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

This definitive collection offers a timely reminder of Shelley’s revolutionary vision
Radical Romantic … Shelley. Photograph: The Bodleian Libraries of the Un/PA

Ihave a dim memory of my undergraduate days, in which I went on a fruitless search for a good one-volume edition of Shelley’s poems. There wasn’t one; not even in the excellent Penguin Poets series, under the general editorship of Christopher Ricks.

The reason, of course, was the amount Shelley wrote, and the length at which he often wrote. Look at the index of titles in this edition: only a little more than two pages long, in an edition with 600 pages of poetry (plus 70-odd of prose, not counting the introductions and dedications to the previous poems, and more than 200 pages of notes. One can only marvel at the amount of editorial work that has gone into this volume). One poem, The Revolt of Islam, isn’t included here, and that may be because its annotated 12 cantos, or 4,818 lines, would have added another 200-odd pages to the book.

Shelley’s prolixity made me back away from him when I was a student, and I suspect I am not alone. Byron may have gone on a bit, too, but at least he made jokes; and Keats was the better poet. Indeed, in Adonais, his lengthy elegy on Keats’s death, Shelley admits as much, even if the sentiment – “I consider the fragment of Hyperion, as second to nothing that was ever produced by a writer of the same years” – is somewhat guarded. It has to be said that there is something a bit hysterical about the tone of Adonais, even making allowances for Romantic expression (“O, weep for Adonais! though our tears / Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!”). Still, those were the times and the way one expressed oneself in them.

There is a world of difference between having to read a poet as part of your studies and picking one up for pleasure later, which is why this is such an important and definitive edition. It will suit both the scholar and the general reader. The editors have managed to squeeze in some unfinished poetry and prose works – in some cases they break off poignantly mid-sentence, but they are nevertheless worthy of inclusion. Some of the poems, such as “Dirge for the Year”, are all the more effective for their unexpected endings: “January grey is here / Like a sexton by her grave – / February bears the bier – / March with grief doth howl and rave – / And April weeps – ”. And that’s how the poem ends, almost as if anticipating The Waste Land (not to mention the similarly punctuated work of Emily Dickinson), not to mention Emily Dickinson.

One of the fascinating things about Shelley is that, while the diction may now sound archaic and high-flown, his political sensibility was ahead of its time. His atheism, to take just one of his revolutionary positions, was extremely courageous for the era, and bravely expressed, too. Just look at Prometheus’s opening lines from the eponymous poem, addressed to Jupiter (very often a stand-in, at one safe remove, for the Christian God): “Regard this Earth / Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou / Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise, / And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts ... ” Once the phrase sinks in, it is difficult to get “knee‑worship” out of your head, not to mention “hecatombs of broken hearts”. He was good at invective; remember his couplet on the foreign secretary in The Mask of Anarchy: “I met Murder on the way – / He had a mask like Castlereagh –”

So this is Shelley’s triumph. He was hounded at the time for his progressive views, his overturning of the received pieties of the day; and while today the flame of progressive thought is flickering in the gales of intolerance and brute ignorance, we need Shelley’s example, and his exemplary anger, all the more.
Selected Poems and Prose by Percy Shelley (Penguin Classics

Against Everything by Mark Greif review – hipsters and how to live

These essays on life in the 21st century, which range from Occupy to fitness, are coolly stylish and drily funny
The essay “What was the hipster?” is a withering critique of “tight-knit colonies of similar-looking, slouching people” … a hipster in San Francisco. Photograph: Cultura/Rex Shutterstock

When he was a child, Mark Greif’s mother used to take him to swim at Walden Pond, near his home in Concord, Massachusetts. Walden is closely associated with Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist writer who lived there in a shack for two years, writing a classic work about his experience. Although neither Greif nor his mother had yet read Thoreau, they were aware of some phrases of his, having seen quotations on mugs, bumper stickers and T-shirts. On the way to and from the pond by car, Greif’s mother wondered aloud what Thoreau would have made of the roadside banalities of contemporary existence: the advertising hoardings, the shopping malls, the vast mansions. “It was my task to do the wondering,” he recalls.

This early acquaintance with Thoreau led Greif to believe philosophy to be “against everything, if it was corrupt, dubious, enervating, untrue to us, false to happiness”. And, in Against Everything, he’s fittingly uncompromising. Greif’s collection of essays is full of surprises, not least that it is, at least in part, concerned with that old fashioned question of how to live. “It’s a book of critique of things I do,” he writes in the preface. But instead of being the kind of self-help book that tells you “how to do the things you are supposed to do, but better,” it “asks about those things you are supposed to do”.

But this doesn’t capture everything Greif is up to in this politically engaged, coolly stylish and often drily funny book. Over the course of the essays – which were first published in n+1, the journal he co-founded in 2004 – he covers the significance of exercise, our relationship with food, the meaning of hip-hop music, Radiohead, the figure of the hipster, society’s sexualisation of children, and war. Although he’s vexed, even depressed, by many aspects of contemporary culture he analyses, he stops short of pessimism, and the essays rarely conclude without opening at least some minute window of possibility. Greif doesn’t tell you everything is great – far from it – but rather than merely sketch the bars of the prison he seems deeply concerned with how it can be escaped.

He begins in the gym, a location that, to Greif, “resembles a voluntary hospital”, where we willingly undergo self-administered treatment with the aim of improving our health. It’s also a place where formerly private activities are now carried out in public – there’s a degree of performance involved in attending. The gym is, in Greif’s estimation, a quintessentially post-industrial location where we re-enact the repetitive motions once required of us by industrial labour. “Nothing can make you believe we harbour nostalgia for factory work but a modern gym,” he writes – its pulleys, cables and bars appear to him miniature versions of factory machinery. In the process of exercising we become more aware of our own bodies as mechanisms to be fine-tuned: exercise, he writes, “makes you acknowledge the machine operating inside yourself”.

It is also an effort to confer superiority – of longevity and of sex appeal – and he returns to this quest for youth and attractiveness in the queasily but fittingly titled essay “Afternoon of the Sex Children”. Society’s obsession with sex and youth is problematically embodied in what he calls the “sex child”, a mythical image of youth and sexual freedom born from the “lure of permanent childhood” that pervades the culture of adults. Childhood, glimpsed in the rear-view mirror of adult nostalgia, appears a utopian zone of complete freedom, and the desire for a permanent childhood is in some measure a result of the “overwhelming feeling that one hasn’t achieved one’s true youth”.

By learning to rap, Greif plays on the white liberal’s guilt at cultural appropriation

The problem, he writes, is that sex and youth are zones of competition easily marketed to people – all you have to do is to tell them that they’re having the wrong kind of sex and that they’re not as young as they used to be to stir up a sense of opportunities lost. Greif suggests that, instead, we should value “age and accomplishment, not emptiness and newness”.

The unflinching intelligence of his writing can be exhilarating, but intimidating. Yet there are many moments of levity: a doctor is described as “a mechanic who wears the white robe of an angel and is as arrogant as a boss”. Of the hipster movement he writes: “It did not yield a great literature, but made good use of fonts”.

As the book progresses, the style becomes looser and more expansive. The cool, stern tone of the earlier essays gives way to a more playful approach, typified by the essay “Learning to Rap”, in which, yes, Greif decides to teach himself how to rap along to hip-hop records. His rationale is that, as a music fan in the early 90s, he chose to devote himself to American post-punk, such as Sonic Youth and Fugazi, rather than hip-hop. This was a mistake, he now thinks, as hip-hop was the birth of a “new world-historical form” while rock “had been basically exhausted by 1972”.

It’s quite the essay. By wrestling with the specifics of learning to rap, Grief plays on the white liberal’s guilt at cultural appropriation while demonstrating the complexity, difficulty and brilliance of the form. He discusses the practical challenges: trying to decipher the lyrics of Nas, Snoop Dogg and the Notorious BIG; rapping along in a low voice with the music on his headphones as he waits for the next subway. He wrestles with what to do when a song includes the word “nigga”. Sometimes, if he’s rapping in public, he substitutes “brother”, he says, often covering his mouth with his hand. He’s awake to the humour of the setup. “This is embarrassing and shameful, but so is a white person, nearing middle age, rapping.”

Greif’s essay “What was the hipster?” is a withering critique of “tight-knit colonies of similar-looking, slouching people”. Hipsterism isn’t anti-authoritarian but rather “opens up a poisonous conduit” between rebel subculture and the dominant class. He gives a potted history of the contemporary hipster while noting its mutations, including the “hipster primitive”, a fusion of pastoral innocence with the dominant ironic mode of hipsterism. “It was not unheard of to find band members wearing masks or plush animal suits,” he notes.

Greif revisits Walden Pond in the final essay. By this point he has discussed his observations of police brutality (“a surprise of being around police is how much they touch you”) and his involvement with the Occupy Wall Street movement. He compares Liberty Square, the name OWS gave their temporary home of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, “a tiny rectangle of unlovable paving”, to Walden, “a puddle in the grander scheme of things”. Each for a short while was a site of individual and collective possibility, and Greif’s incisive book is testament to their enduring influence.

• Against Everything is published by Verso.

The Code of the Woosters: PG Wodehouse's guide to fighting fascism

Forget about the author’s wartime mistakes, the way Bertie tackles Mosley-esque thug Roderick Spode is a great lesson in sending up would-be despots
‘Far from gruntled’ … John Turner as Roderick Spode and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster in ITV’s Jeeves and Wooster. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

There are many reasons to love The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse. It’s a novel by one of the finest exponents of the English language at the very top of his game. It’s one of Bertie Wooster’s funniest, silliest and most perfectly rendered adventures. It’s a book where perfect quotes fly off the page as frequently as the incomparable Aunt Dahlia smashes up mantelpiece ornaments. In fact, before I hit you with the serious political material, let’s just enjoy a few:

“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

“It’s an extraordinary thing – every time I see you, you appear to be recovering from some debauch. Don’t you ever stop drinking? How about when you are asleep?”

“She laughed – a bit louder than I could have wished in my frail state of health, but then she is always a woman who tends to bring plaster falling from the ceiling when amused.”

The book would be worth treasuring for such writing alone. But here in 2016, it seems more vital than ever. Or at least more vital than it has done since round about 1945. Because this is the book in which Bertie Wooster teaches us one of the best and most effective ways of beating fascists: you stand up to them and you point out exactly how ridiculous they are.

The crucial scene comes just over halfway through, after Bertie and his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle have endured 100 or so pages of intolerable bullying from the would-be fascist dictator Roderick Spode.

Spode is a man whom Wooster describes as appearing “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment”.

Spode, who is clearly based on Oswald Mosley, is the leader of a militaristic fascist group called the Blackshorts (shorts because all the shirt colours had already been taken) and is inordinately fond of throwing his considerable weight around:

“Here he laid a hand on my shoulder, and I can’t remember when I have experienced anything more unpleasant. Apart from what Jeeves would have called the symbolism of the action, he had a grip like the bite of a horse.”

Such menacing is brought to an end thanks to a typically clever intervention from Jeeves and in one of the most satisfying speeches in the western canon, when Bertie declares:

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’”

Confronted with evil, Wodehouse made a ghastly error

And isn’t it beautiful to see fascists being treated with exactly the contempt they deserve? This isn’t the time or the place to go into the tragedy of Wodehouse’s war record, but let’s at least grant that he showed a good way forward against home-grown fascists and Hitler alike: you send them up as the rotters they are.

One of the many tragedies of our times is that we have taken so many perfect perishers so seriously instead of laughing them off the stage. As well as a moral failure, the ascendency of cruel rightwing demagogues is a sense of humour failure. Our problem isn’t just post-truth, it’s post-irony. The pity is that people can’t see that Nigel Farage is a spivvy egg-burp despot manqué. That Putin is so clearly overcompensating. That Donald Trump is Donald Trump. That the people calling themselves the alt-right are twerps. That these are all mirthless, absurd nincompoops.

Perhaps our bigger problem is that all laughter dries in the throat. That meanness and cruelty so often accompany an inability to understand comedy. That innocent people are being attacked on our streets and our politicians have been threatened and murdered. That perfect perishers are once again disfiguring the London scene.

But the Code of the Woosters has a message for us here, too. It’s fortifying and inspiring that Bertie stands up to Spode and so thoroughly trounces him. Just as important is the fact that Spode has so outraged Bertie’s fundamental sense of decency. He has crossed a line that has to be held.

Under normal circumstances, people like the stately-home hopping Bertie Wooster may not be the most natural political allies for most Guardianistas. But we should be proud to stand alongside them when it comes to the really important stuff. We could argue all day about the shades of grey, but when the question is as black and white as the fight against fascism, I would be mighty glad to link arms with someone with such a strong sense of fair play, such generous kindness, and so much warm feeling for his fellow humans. What unites us, after all, is far greater than what divides us.

The Code of the Woosters is published by Arrow,

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu Hardcover – November 15, 2016 by neil Lochery,Bloomsbury USA

Image result for The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu Hardcover – November 15, 2016 by neill Lochery,Bloomsbury USA
Israel’s Putinisation

Ahmad Tibi, a long-standing Arab member of the Knesset, once remarked that ‘Israel is democratic towards Jews, and Jewish towards Arabs.’ For many years, that soundbite nicely captured the contradictions of ‘Jewish democracy’: fair elections, press freedom, cantankerous debate and due process for some; land theft, administrative detention, curfews, assassinations and ‘muscular interrogations’ for others. Tibi meant to call attention to the hypocrisy of Israel’s claims to be a democratic state, but as he effectively admitted, Jewish democracy did work for Jews – even Jews radically opposed to the occupation and indeed to Zionism itself. For as long as it did, liberals in Tel Aviv could tell themselves that things weren’t so bad behind the Green Line, the border between Israel and the territory it captured in the 1967 war. Indeed, the resilience of Israel’s democratic institutions helped sustain the illusion that the Green Line was still a frontier, even as it vanished under the weight of the settlement project, launched when Labor was in power and subsidised by every subsequent government.

Colonial rule, however, is corrosive in its effects. Since the Second Intifada, Palestinian citizens in Israel have been reminded at every turn that they are not welcome, from the police killing of 13 demonstrators in October 2000, to Benjamin Netanyahu’s election day warning last May: ‘Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organisations are busing them out.’ The spectre of ‘Arab voters’ was hardly new: the Israeli right has never looked fondly on Arabs exercising their voting rights, unless they can be presented as evidence of the virtues of ‘Jewish democracy’. What is novel is the intensifying campaign inside Israel against those ‘left-wing organisations’ Netanyahu mentioned: human rights NGOs and their (mostly) Jewish leaders. The campaign has been launched both in the Knesset and on the street, with an apparently high level of co-ordination between state officials and ultra-nationalist militants. Israel is increasingly ‘Jewish towards Arabs’, as Tibi said, but it’s also on its way to becoming less and less democratic for Jews.

Consider the case of Michael Sfard, one of Israel’s best-known human rights lawyers, whose work focuses on land confiscation and the separation wall. According to a report by Uri Blau for Haaretz, between 2010 and 2013 a private detective was commissioned to gather information on Sfard. This ‘investigation’ was paid for by Regavim, a group that describes itself as ‘the only organisation’ fighting an ‘illegal land grab’ by Palestinians, acting in concert with the UN, the EU, and Israeli and American NGOs. Haaretz’s investigation revealed that Regavim had received about $2.8 million from various government bodies – mostly local councils in West Bank settlements. At the time, Regavim’s legal department was run by Bezalel Smotrich, now a member of the Knesset for the right-wing Jewish Home party.

Im Tirtzu is another pro-settler group prominent in the campaign against NGOs. It emerged among ultra-nationalist university students in 2006, and made a name for itself in 2010, when it published a document linking the New Israel Fund, a liberal NGO, to the Goldstone Report, the UN fact-finding mission on the 2008-9 war in Gaza, which found Israel, as well as Palestinian fighters, to be responsible for war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity; it also put up a large billboard depicting the NIF’s chairwoman, Naomi Chazan, with a devil’s horn on her forehead. In December it released a flagrantly inflammatory video, just over a minute long, which distils the message of the assault on the NGOs: they are accomplices to murder, and traitors. A young, bearded Arab man facing the viewer raises his arm to attack, then the image freezes and a female announcer tells us:

Before the next terrorist stabs you, he already knows that Yishai Menuhin, a planted agent belonging to Holland, will make sure to protect him from a Shin Bet interrogation. The terrorist also knows that Avner Gvaryahu, a planted agent belonging to Germany, will call the soldier who tries to prevent the attack a ‘war criminal’. He also knows that Sigi Ben-Ari, a planted agent belonging to Norway, will protect him in court. Before the next terrorist stabs you, he already knows that Hagai El-Ad, a planted agent belonging to the European Union, will call Israel a ‘war criminal’. Hagai, Yishai, Avner and Sigi are Israelis. They live here with us, and are implants. While we fight terror, they fight us. The ‘Planted’ law can outlaw them. Sign it.

Yishai Menuhin heads the Public Committee against Torture in Israel. Avner Gvaryahu is the outreach director for Breaking the Silence, a group that gathers soldiers’ testimonies of their actions in the occupied territories. Hagai El-Ad and Sigi Ben-Ari work, respectively, for B’Tselem and HaMoked, human rights organisations known for exposing abuses in the occupied territories. (Their photographs all feature in the video.) The ‘Planted’ bill was recently proposed in the Knesset by Yoav Kish, a member of Likud. Under it, NGOs that receive funding from another state for allegedly ‘subversive’ activity would be defined as shtulim or ‘moles’, fined and potentially forced to dissolve.

Im Tirtzu describes itself as a ‘centrist’ group. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: the centre in Israel has radically shifted, and Im Tirtzu has friends in high places. One of them is Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s education minister and a leader of the Jewish Home party. His campaign manager, Moshe Klughaft, produced the Im Tirtzu video, and Bennett shares its loathing of human rights organisations. In December he declared that representatives of Breaking the Silence would be banned from schools. His ministry has also removed from the curriculum a novel about a love affair between a Jewish woman and an Arab man, on the grounds that ‘intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten the separate identity’: language that would not have been out of place in apartheid South Africa. Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former foreign minister, has supported similar anti-NGO legislation, and Netanyahu himself once starred in an Im Tirtzu fundraising video. In November, Netanyahu’s justice minister, Ayalet Shaked, a cofounder of Jewish Home, introduced a ‘Transparency’ bill in the Knesset. It would require NGOs that receive at least 50 per cent of their funding from foreign governments to declare themselves; their members would also have to wear name-tags if they appeared in the Knesset. The bill applies only to states and not to the far more abundant ‘foreign funding’ that right-wing groups receive from wealthy Zionists in the diaspora, such as Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who owns the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.

The current darling of Im Tirtzu, however, is Netanyahu’s culture minister, Miri Regev, a former brigadier-general in the Israel Defence Forces. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, Regev made headlines in 2012 by taking part in anti-immigration demonstrations, and describing Sudanese immigrants as ‘a cancer in our body’. On 27 January she announced a ‘No Loyalty, No Budget for the Arts’ bill, which would deny public funding to those who fail to demonstrate loyalty to the Jewish state. Hours after the bill was introduced, Im Tirtzu released a list of supposed ‘moles’, including David Grossman, Amos Oz and other members of the liberal Zionist establishment. This was too much even for Bennett, who described the list as ‘embarrassing’. But Regev is thought to be more in tune with the attacks against the old Ashkenazi elite. On the Israeli right, a lingering attachment to liberal ideas inherited from Europe is enough to mark you as a ‘mole’.

‘Mole’ is not the worst epithet being hurled at Jews whose loyalty falls under suspicion, as Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel, discovered last month at a security conference in Tel Aviv. ‘At times there seem to be two standards of adherence to rule of law, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians,’ Shapiro said – for an American official, a fairly blunt criticism. In return, in a TV interview, Avi Bushinsky, a former adviser to Netanyahu, called him a yehudoni – a Hebraisation of the derogatory Yiddish term yidele, usually translated as ‘little Jew boy’.

There has always been a deep strain of contempt in Zionism for the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe, who lacked the will, or the muscle, to defend themselves against anti-Semitic violence. The veneration of the state and the worship of force that are the pillars of Jewish identity in Israel, as much as Judaism itself, grew out of an effort to wash away the shame of having once been yidele. But the cult of state and army was always tempered – behind the Green Line at least – by a nostalgic attachment to liberal European values, an attachment that was particularly strong among Jews of German origin, the so-called yekkes. But their power, their numbers and their cultural authority have declined over the years: they are an old elite, and viewed with the disdain and resentment that old elites tend to provoke. Of Israel’s six million Jews, nearly three million are Mizrahi, from Middle Eastern countries, and about a million are Russian. A growing number of Jews are religious, and they have many more children than secular Jews. It is no wonder that, as Asher Schechter recently observed in Haaretz, ‘Israel is increasingly turning its back on Europe.’

Writing in 2003, at a time of high Euro-optimism, Tony Judt described Israel as a ‘characteristically late 19th-century separatist project’ in ‘a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law … Israel, in short, is an anachronism.’ Today, it is Judt’s cheerfully Hegelian description of ‘a world that has moved on’ that seems out of step with the neo-tribal spirit of the times. Israel does not seem like such an outlier in a world reshaped by the drive towards ethnic and religious separatism, the militarised policing of frontiers, and the emergence of authoritarian populist governments. For a country of its size, it has made a handsome contribution to the creation of this world, through its occupation and its wars – and through its high-profile involvement in the arms trade and the ‘security’ industry.

But its influence has also made itself felt by way of example. It is often argued that Israel lacks soft power in the Middle East, as a Jewish state in a predominantly Muslim region, and as an occupier of Arab land. But military and economic success create a soft power of their own, no less effective for being concealed. In 1963, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who would become one of the spiritual fathers of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, travelled to Israel for two weeks. In a book about his trip, he described Israel’s fusion of religion and state power as a potential model for Iran. After the crushing defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, many Arabs asked themselves whether the Jews had won because they remained closer to their faith, and defected from the nationalist camp to Islamism. The ethnic cleansing from which the state of Israel emerged is now being repeated, with even more horrifying consequences, in other parts of the Middle East.

Israel has often been criticised for its refusal to integrate into the region, its (racist) insistence on being a ‘villa in the jungle’. Its politicians have responded by saying, essentially, what James Baldwin said in the 1960s: ‘Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’ The regional fires have led to a certain amount of gloating in Israel, and provided a welcome distraction from the occupation, which has grown only more entrenched. But it’s not clear that Israel can remain unscathed by the flames that are consuming its neighbours.

According to some Israeli pundits, the attacks on NGOs are symptoms of a deepening Putinisation. Israeli politicians have made no secret of their admiration for Putin, a tough, ruthless leader whose resolve – and preference for military solutions – stands in sharp contrast to the caution and indecision of Barack Obama. Putin is also, in Israeli eyes, refreshingly indifferent to human rights. As relations with the Obama administration have cooled – particularly in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu did his best to torpedo – Israel has increasingly turned to Russia, as well as to China, from which it now imports more than it does from the US.

But the unbridled, insular nationalism of Netanyahu’s Israel is also reminiscent of Sisi’s Egypt and Erdoğan’s Turkey, where there is constant talk of foreign plots hatched in Washington and Brussels, and a toxic mix of resentment and entitlement vis-à-vis their Western patrons. As Diana Pinto suggests in Israel Has Moved (2013), the Jewish state has tended to see its neighbours as ‘so many vaulting poles with which to catapult itself into a peaceful because distant globalisation’. Economically, it has succeeded in escaping the region; politically, that goal has proved far more elusive. ‘Israel is now just another Arab regime,’ the Syrian poet Adunis once said to me, and the proposed legislation against ‘moles’ is scarcely different in kind, if not degree, from anti-NGO campaigns in Cairo. The repression of Jewish dissent is the latest phase of what Pinto describes as the ‘turning inward of a state in the process of its own ghettoising’. As if it preferred to remain in that ghetto, Israel has stubbornly carried on a colonial project at the risk of harming its relations with Europe and the United States, both of which are finally realising that Israel has no intention of making a genuine peace with the Palestinian people.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Testimony by Robbie Robertson Hardback,William Heinemann

Testimony by Robbie Robertson, 
William Heinemann – Bob Dylan’s buddy and the Band

Dylan’s one-time best friend and Martin Scorsese’s creative partner tells of music, drugs and self-destruction

‘Sense of adventure’ … Robbie Robertson (right) with Van Morrison and Bob Dylan in The Last Waltz. Photograph: Larry Hulst/Getty Images

In his early years, Bob Dylan always seemed to need a confidant, an accomplice, a sidekick. These semi-famous figures, silhouetted against the penumbra of his growing celebrity, included Victor Maymudes, his tour manager and protector during the rapid ascent to fame in the early 1960s, and Bob Neuwirth, a fellow graduate from the folk clubs, with whom he perfected the art of the slashing verbal putdown, as immortalised in DA Pennebaker’s documentary film of Dylan’s 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back. But when the singer returned to Britain in 1966, his new best friend was someone capable of making a serious contribution to the development of his music. In Robbie Robertson, Dylan found the perfect buddy on every level – for a while, at least.

As the guitarist with the rock’n’roll band that came out to join him for the second half of each concert during a controversial tour, Robertson provided Dylan with moral as well as musical support when the howls of outraged folkniks attempted to drown the amplified crunch of Like a Rolling Stone. Born in Toronto to a part-Mohawk mother and a Jewish father, at 22 he was two years younger than Dylan and had been on the road since leaving home in his mid-teens to audition for a job with Ronnie Hawkins, a gnarled rock’n’roll veteran, and his crack band, the Hawks. After six years of playing bars and clubs to rough, tough audiences, he was able to help Dylan navigate his way through a hostile time.

The two of them played matching black and white Fender Telecasters, and Robertson writes proudly of introducing Dylan to the Toronto tailor who made his skinny houndstooth check stage suit. Off duty in New York, they visited the folk clubs and discotheques, got high together, and hung out with the Beatles, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. Robertson was the only witness when Dylan married Sara Lownds in a Long Island courthouse. He grew accustomed to his friend’s working practices (“Of course we could have been more rehearsed,” he says of their first gig together, “but Bob only had so much patience for any of that”) and as the months went by he observed the effect of a prodigious amphetamine intake; in the hours after the final concert of 1966, at the Albert Hall in London, he rescued an insensible Dylan from drowning in his hotel bath while the Beatles waited outside, hoping for a chat.

Robertson rescued an insensible Dylan from drowning in his bath while the Beatles waited outside, hoping for a chat

It had been Robertson who persuaded the Hawks to accept the invitation to hook up with Dylan. They knew nothing of his music and were sceptical – particularly their drummer, Levon Helm, an Arkansas farm boy who was the band’s de facto leader and at the time the guitarist’s closest friend. “My personal curiosity and sense of adventure were the only things that made him give the experiment even the slightest consideration,” Robertson writes. Helm eventually gave in, as did Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, all Canadians, although the drummer left the tour early, dismayed by the nightly abuse.
The Band on stage in The Last Waltz: Richard Manuek, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Robbie Roberton and Levon Helm. Photograph: RONALD GRANT

The rest of them, held together by Robertson’s sense that something important was happening and that he wanted to be a part of it, rampaged on. When a motorcycle accident soon after the end of the tour persuaded Dylan to slow down, they hung fire before rejoining him for the informal sessions in Woodstock that became The Basement Tapes, a home-recorded outpouring of redigested Americana. And then, as their own musical perspective changed and Helm rejoined them, they became the Band, a bunch of men in backwoods preachers’ suits and beards whose 1968 album Music from Big Pink redirected the course of rock music towards a more reflective, textured, rural mode of expression. Its 1970 follow-up, The Band (or “the Brown Album”, as it is familiarly known), remains one of the perfect statements of the rock era, a work of ageless grace, subtlety, historical awareness and emotional depth.

By the time they made the cover of Time magazine in 1970, however, the process of disintegration had begun. Newly rich, the backwoods preachers had become hell-raisers. Robertson joined in but, unlike Helm, Manuel and Danko, he avoided the worst of it – specifically the heroin – and took up the slack left by their reduced ability to contribute to the task of songwriting. Eight of the 12 songs on The Bandwere composed by him, and the remainder co-written with Manuel or Danko, with the consequent effect on the division of the copyright royalties.

An ambitious autodidact, Robertson forged bonds with powerful men. When Albert Grossman, Dylan’s formidable manager, took over the Band’s affairs, Robertson slipped easily into the role of spokesman for the others in their negotiations. After he assigned the Band’s song copyrights to Dylan’s publishing company in 1968, however, his bandmates believed he had tilted the financial scales in his own favour. He explains the decision smoothly, but it opened a wound that would never heal – particularly with Helm, whose own autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, published in 1993, was merciless in its judgment of Robertson’s ethics.

The next power relationship was with the impresario David Geffen, who cosied up to Robertson in order to get close to Dylan, who signed with his record label in 1974. It was Geffen who persuaded Robertson to move from Woodstock to Malibu, and the rest of the Band were easily convinced to follow him to a place where the sun shone all the time and drugs were even easier to find
 Inseparable … Robertson with Martin Scorsese. Photograph: AP

Then came Martin Scorsese. In 1976, Robertson announced that the Band would give their final performance at a specially arranged and lavishly staged all-star concert in San Francisco, called The Last Waltz, and engaged the young director to film it. The two became inseparable and Scorsese’s focus on the guitarist in the final edit severely unbalanced the cinematic portrait of what had originally been a cooperative group (Helm was particularly scornful of the heavy makeup that Robertson claims was dabbed on by his wife to disguise a pallor caused by exhaustion). None of the other members of the Band had wanted to call it a day, but they were powerless to deny Robertson his folie de grandeur. The resentment, like that of his share of the songwriting proceeds, would linger and fester.

'Self-destructiveness had become the power that ruled us,' Robertson observes

Wisely, Robertson ends his story there (he has since released several solo albums and composed film scores). His memoir has a discreetly self-admiring tone – the good ideas seem invariably to have been his – but in its early passages it provides an entertaining and valuable description of a rock’n’roll apprenticeship punctuated by encounters with such historic figures as Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. He casts light on a vital phase of Dylan’s career and, of course, on the history of the Band, which had passed through its time of wealth-fuelled excess by the time a ravaged Manuel hanged himself in a hotel room 10 years after The Last Waltz (Danko’s long-abused body gave out in 1999, and Helm died of cancer in 2012). “Self-destructiveness had become the power that ruled us,” Robertson observes as the book reaches its climax.

When Dylan celebrated the 30th anniversary of his recording career in 1992 with a New York concert that featured virtually every significant participant in his musical odyssey, Robertson was a notable absentee. The other surviving members of the Band took the stage at Madison Square Garden without him. Even seen through Robertson’s eyes, and even taking into account the glorious work they did together half a century ago, the tale is a kind of tragedy, in terms of lives damaged and music lost.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday 1st Edition by Gerry Bowler Oxford University Press

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Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday 1st Edition by Gerry Bowler Oxford University Press

Idon’t know if you’ve heard, but the real meaning of Christmas has been sadly overtaken by wanton capitalism in recent years. “This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy,” as one critic put it. “The tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.”

The year was 400, and the anxious writer was the Cappadocian Bishop Asterius of Amasea. Asterius’ pious fretting is quoted in Canadian historian Gerry Bowler’s Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, which makes clear that hand-wringing over the correct way to celebrate the Christ child started practically before the kid left the manger.

The refreshing takeaway of Christmas in the Crosshairs is that most contemporary agita about Christmas’ supposed decline is misplaced. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t a recent development; St. Augustine was pleading with people to give alms instead of holiday gifts in the early fifth century. The supposed erasure of Christ from Christmas isn’t new, either; devout killjoys have forever lamented the season’s secular revelry. And the “war on Christmas” has been enlisting troops for centuries; in Communist Russia, Christmas trees were banned, and children were told their gifts came from Stalin, not Santa. Despite all these obstacles, Christmas is now, Bowler announces, “the biggest single event on the planet.”

The one moment in history that Christmas seemed truly imperiled was the early 19th century, when celebrations in the United States and parts of Europe had become rowdy, violent affairs. Yuletide wildness distasteful to the upper classes was an old phenomenon. But now gangs of men and boys would roam the streets drinking, vandalizing property, throwing firecrackers, and even invading homes. In New York in 1828, soon after Andrew Jackson’s election had prompted fears of “mobocracy,” lower-class revelers wassailed their way down the Bowery with drums and whistles, shouted outside a fancy-dress ball, and ended the evening by smashing up a black church and chasing worshipers through the streets. It took mythologizers such as Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, to drag Christmas from the streets into the parlor. In the late 19th century, the holiday began to take on its contemporary shape as an idealized season of family warmth rather than one of drunken partying.

Today, Christmas’ status as both a religious holiday and a time for private gift-giving and merriment is more than secure. Once again the question is what the holiday should look like in the public square. Bowler traces the modern American “war” on Christmas to 1905, when a group of Jewish Brooklynites became exasperated with yuletide evangelizing in a public school. When the principal told students at a December assembly to be “more Christlike,” the fed-up parents called for his ouster. The Board of Education refused, and dissenters spent the next year agitating for their cause, including the removal of the Christmas tree. The next year, many removed their children from participating in holiday ceremonies, and school authorities agreed to forgo explicitly religious celebrations. The parents won the battle, but the war had just begun. By midcentury, disputes about how schools and local governments should mark the holiday increasingly took place in the courtroom and from there became fodder for the culture wars.

Social histories of Christmas are a well-worn genre, but Bowler, previously the author of Santa Claus: A Biography, is a lively guide. His focus on combat gives his account narrative zip, and it doesn’t hurt that he covers two millennia in fewer than 250 pages. But as Christmas in the Crosshairs marches forward to the modern era, it becomes clear that Bowler is not just a war correspondent but a combatant. He puts “progressive” in scare quotes and sneers at the “delicacy towards the feelings of others” that has led to minor local disputes over, say, distributing “Merry Christmas” goodie bags at a veterans hospital. Occasionally his scorn is well-placed—he correctly pegs many New Atheist diatribes as humorless—but elsewhere he wastes time shooting at small targets. “Snowmen have long been deemed to be part of the holiday season, but have you considered their contribution to the sum total of racism and sexism in the world?” he jeers. “Professor Patricia Cusack, an art historian of Birmingham University, has.” (It’s Tricia Cusack, it’s the University of Birmingham, and the paper Bowler goes on to mock seems admittedly silly but hardly worth the firepower.)

It’s worth slogging through Bowler’s sarcasm and disdain, however, to get to anecdotes like the one about Nazi schoolchildren singing a version of “Silent Night” that included these lyrics:

Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Adolf Hitler is Germany’s star
Showing us greatness and glory afar
Bringing us Germans the might.

But a more serious problem is that Bowler misses an opportunity to look critically at contemporary conservative paranoia about the war on Christmas. By the time the reader gets to the present day, she is trudging through pages upon pages in which almost the only sources cited are Fox News, National Review, and other noble muckrakers. But it would be nice to see deeper analysis of why reporting on local officials who dare to call a tinsel-decked fir in the town square a “holiday tree” resonates with news consumers.

Fox’s Bill O’Reilly declared victory in the war on Christmas in 2014, noting that for the first time in recent memory, no stores had instructed their employees not to say “Merry Christmas” to customers. Phew! But just as hostilities seemed to be dying down, Donald Trump revived them. “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store,” he told Iowans last year. “You can leave ‘happy holidays’ at the corner.” The promise became a staple of his stump speech. It all seemed so harmless for a while, didn’t it? But Bowler’s book is a timely reminder that progressives should be paying more attention to the fear many conservatives feel that their culture is slipping away from them. As frivolous as the war on Christmas may seem, once in a while it has casualties.

BORN TO RUN By Bruce Springsteen Illustrated. 510 pp. Simon & Schuster. $32.50

.Image result for BORN TO RUN By Bruce Springsteen Illustrated. 510 pp. Simon & Schuster. $32.50

For most of us nine jillion Bruce Springsteen fans who’ve stood through years of his barn-burning, bombs-dropping, ceiling-­cracking, ozone-splitting three-hour mega-­extravaganza concerts, in all manner of nasty weather and good, who’ve bought and rebought album after album, who’ve pored over lyrics, mused over his complex musical and band life, as well as his privacy-shrouded marital, familial and psychic forays, and who’ve demarked sovereign occasions in our own lives with the strains of “No Surrender” running through our hectic brains — for all of us in his global audience — the perpetual fascination of Bruce (I’ve never, I give you my word, shouted that out at a performance) is simply: How the hell do you get from Freehold, N.J., to this in only 50 short years? It’s reminiscent of the old Maine farmer who, when asked directions to the next town over the hill, allows that you can’t get there from here. Really, in Springsteen’s or anybody’s life, you can’t get there from here. But, well . . . here he is. Are we not all present to testify?

The Boss’s new autobiography, “Born to Run,” ought at its heart to penetrate and lay bare this mystery housed in a paradox. And to a great extent it nicely does.

Pretty much everybody who encountered Bruce Springsteen over the many years, from the proprietors of the gritty Upstage in ’69 Asbury Park, to the iconic Columbia hitmakers John Hammond and Clive Davis, to his ever-loyal, ever-­querulous, suffering but indispensable E Street sidemen, to Ronald Reagan, to Pete Seeger, all the way to Barack Obama, has recognized Springsteen as somebody way special — somebody who proved it all night onstage, owned major chops, was a guy you couldn’t take your eyes off, and somehow couldn’t stay mad at, even though he possessed charmingly immodest valuations of his young abilities, treated his bandmates like favored employees and could go all moody, isolated ’n’ stuff when things rubbed him the wrong way. You could say the same thing — using different words — about the Morrison brothers, Jim and Van, about Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, even about Eric Burdon and no doubt the Big Bopper. They are and were all special — in their way. But “special” doesn’t get you Bruce Springsteen in front of 90,000 people for 30-plus years in 40 different countries, and still going strong as late as last Wednesday afternoon.

People who see art from the outside — from the spectator seats where we’re intended to see it — often don’t get the making of art very right. Which is a victimless crime. But it’s partly because we don’t quite get it that hosts of fans are drawn to Springsteen. His work’s entirety — the songs, the music, the guitar, the voice, the persona, the gyrations, the recitativos, the whole artifice of “the act,” or what Springsteen calls the “sum of all my parts” — is so dense, involved and ­authentic-seeming as to all but defy what we think we know about how regular human beings make things at ground level. Having been present at many of his performances, I can attest that you’re often close to being overwhelmed by what you’re hearing and seeing. It’s an experience that draws you toward itself — to taste the best and richest stuff, but also naturally enough to find things out, such as if you’re being ­deceived.

In “Born to Run,” Springsteen seems at his most actual when he’s telling us how in fact one gets to be him. He’s preoccupied by his own and his music’s “authenticity,” even though he understands that the act is ever the act. He’s close to humble about his musician’s “journeyman” status, about how rock music is at heart “escapist entertainment,” and concedes that rock ’n’ roll itself as a vehicle for ideas (always questionable to me) is in serious decline.Photo

Bruce Springsteen, 1988.CreditBrooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images

But he’s also straight up and smart about just what the whole Springsteen enterprise requires. Talent. O.K., that’s one. A great band behind you for all the years. Two. But also alarming self-certainty at a preposterously young age (“It is ultimately my stage,” “my band,” “my will,” “my musicians”). Near-feral discipline he’s more than willing to impose on self and anybody else in earshot — especially the band. Studious and encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and rock history. An ungodly number of irreplaceable life hours spent practicing, practicing, practicing in small, ill-lit rooms. A ruthless calculation to be nothing less than great, powered by a conviction that greatness can exist and be redeeming. A willingness to imagine himself as a dutiful and grateful avatar of his own adored fan base. An ease with his influences, teachers and heroes. An uncommon awareness of his personal frailties (“About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one”). A ­Picasso-like certainty that all art comes out of a “rambunctious gang feeling” born of the neighborhood. And a complex fear of failure mingled with the understanding that success is often the enemy of the very authenticity he’s seeking — so you gotta stay on your guard 24-7. Or, at least, from 1967 to now. “If you want to burn bright, hard and long,” the Boss writes, “you will need to depend upon more than your initial instincts. You will need to develop some craft and a creative intelligence that will lead you farther when things get dicey.” And if that sounds a bit too much like the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, add this: “In the beginning I knew I wanted something more than a solo act and less than a one-man-one-vote democratic band. I’d been there and it didn’t fit me. Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb. . . . A moderate in most other aspects of my life, here I was extreme.”

So much for a band of brothers in that shining rock ’n’ roll mansion on the hill. “We all grow up,” Springsteen later adds, “and we know ‘it’s only rock ’n’ roll’ . . . but it’s not.”

It should be said, just to keep my own credibility flickering, that all this I’ve just spun out here is long and well known (probably memorized catechistically) by the great sea of Springsteen faithful. At a recent concert at the Barclays Center — attended by me, my wife, Governor Christie, Steve Earle and 18,000 strangers — the Boss brought a 10-year-old girl up onto the stage and stood by admiringly as she sang, apparently spontaneously, all the verses to “Blinded by the Light” — 547 dizzying words. Which means it’s going to be hard for most of the insider intel in “Born to Run” not to be already long-­assimilated by the ever-vigilant and protectively gimlet-eyed “Springsteen fan.” It’s also likely that if you’ve never heard of Bruce Springsteen — in whatever dark-ops lazaretto you might’ve been held captive in for four decades — you might not pick up this book at all.

Which isn’t to say that Springsteen shouldn’t have written it — if only as a love letter to his legions; or that the publishers won’t be printing money from September on. All Springsteen fans will read this book. Though it’s fair to say that “Born to Run’s” focus audience is likely us punters in the middle; those for whom “Independence Day,” “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” “Bobby Jean,” “Nebraska,” “Streets of Philadelphia,” “Hungry Heart” and “Born in the U.S.A.” have been the emotive background music — and for some of us the foreground music — of a lifetime, but who as yet haven’t dedicated our entire lives to Bruce. We’ll feel better, though, when we learn that the Boss can’t really read music, that “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Nebraska” were recorded at the same time, that Springsteen has a daughter who’s a champion equestrian, that he’s spent years in therapy, can forgive those who’ve wronged him, thinks of his career as a “service” performed for others who’re like him, and owns a supple sense of humor capable of poking fun at himself (at least when the mood’s right).

It helps that Springsteen can write — not just life-­imprinting song lyrics but good, solid prose that travels all the way to the right margin. I mean, you’d think a guy who wrote “Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night / With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat-up old Buick . . .” could navigate his way around a complete and creditable American sentence. And you’d be right. Oh, there are a few gassy bits here and there, a jot too much couch-inspired hooey about the “terrain inside my own head.” A tad more rock ’n’ roll highfalutin than this reader really needs — though the Bruce enthusiasts down in Sea-Clift won’t agree with me. No way. But nothing in “Born to Run” rings to me as unmeant or punch-pulling. If anything, Springsteen wants credit for telling it the way it really is and was. And like a fabled Springsteen concert — always notable for its deck-clearing thoroughness — “Born to Run” achieves the sensation that all the relevant questions have been answered by the time the lights are turned out. He delivers the story of Bruce — in digestibly short chapters — via an informally steadfast Jersey plainspeak that’s worked and deftly detailed and intimate with its readers — cleareyed enough to say what it means when it has hard stories to tell, yet supple enough to rise to occasions requiring eloquence — sometimes rather pleasingly subsiding into the syntax and rhythms of a Bruce Springsteen song: “So we all made do,” he writes about his parents’ abrupt move from Freehold to California, in 1969, leaving him behind. “My sister vanished into ‘Cowtown’ — the South Jersey hinterlands — and I pretended none of it really mattered. You were on your own — now and forever. This sealed it. Plus, a part of me was truly glad for them, for my dad. Get out, Pops! Out of this [expletive] dump.”

It’s the family parts that mean most to me in “Born to Run,” the parts that add ballast to Springsteen’s claim that when audiences see him they see themselves. Just like we’re frequently wrong about how art gets made, we also often can’t reliably say where it comes from. We might not stay interested in it very long if we could. And nothing here conveys the whole secret of how you get from Freehold, 1964, strumming a $69 Kent guitar, to the Meadowlands with a Telecaster, standing in front of a multitude. But one place art can come from is a life full of forces-­difficult-to-make-fit-together, a life that finds, in art, a providential instrument for reconciling the jagged bits. Springsteen’s part Scots-Irish, part Italian family was a caldron of these bubbling forces. A silently brooding, unsuccessful, hostile, misanthropic father (“He loved me but he couldn’t stand me”), an enormously loving mother whose first loyalty, however, was to the unhappy husband. Plus, a reticulated, extended, occasionally volatile but doting family of immigrant descendants — grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, one greaser brother-in-law — some of them, Springsteen says, with serious mental illness, “a black melancholy,” to which he himself falls heir. All of these denizens encamped within a declining, postindustrial neighborhood of poor, rented, cold-water houses, in a “one-dog burg” down in that lost part of the Garden State you never thought about until you heard the words Bruce and Springsteen in that order.

You could say of course, and again you’d be right, that this is nothing very remote from a lot of lives. Mine. Yours. Mid­century American Gothic. A “crap heap of a hometown that I loved.” But therein lies at least a hint to the magic in the Springsteen mystery: the muscular rise to the small occasion, taking forceful dominion over your poky circumstance and championing your own responses to what would otherwise seem inevitable. “Those whose love we wanted but could not get,” Springsteen writes, memorably, “we emulate. It is dangerous but it makes us feel closer, gives us an illusion of the intimacy we never had. It stakes our claim upon that which was rightfully ours but denied. In my 20s, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling. It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light. I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life . . . put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.”

Seamus Heaney wrote once in a poem that the end of art is peace. But I think he’d have been willing to share the stage with Springsteen, and to admit that sometimes the end of art is also one hell of a legitimately great and soaring noise, a sound you just don’t want to end.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

100 Activities for Teaching Research Methods. Catherine Dawson. Sage. 2016.

100 Activities for Teaching Research Methods. Catherine Dawson. Sage. 2016.

Teaching research methods effectively is not easy. Methods demand a unique mix of theoretical knowledge, procedural understanding and technical skill (Kilburn, Nind and Wiles 2014). As our research methods underpin much of our knowledge-making within the social sciences, the stakes are high. Despite this, the teaching and learning of research methods remains something of a mystery.

In the educational literature there is a consensus that the ‘pedagogical culture’ of methods teaching is under-developed. This is characterised by a lack of pedagogic research, the cross-citations that might suggest a growing body of knowledge or sustained lines of argument and a systematic investigation or evaluation of current teaching and learning (Earley 2014). This lack of research is matched by a lack of teaching resources. At present, expertise tends to be built over a lifetime of teaching and research, with new entrants to methods teaching frequently relying on peers, trial and error and methodological know-how to develop their classes (Earley 2014). Fortunately, this picture is changing and, within this frame, Catherine Dawson’s new book, 100 Activities for Teaching Research Methods, represents an important and welcome addition.

Only a handful of titles currently broach the practical aspects of methods teaching. Books such as Teaching Qualitative Research: Cases and Issues (2008), Teaching Research Methods in the Social Sciences (2010) and The Teaching and Learning of Social Research Methods: Developments in Pedagogical Knowledge (2016) have each broken substantial new ground. However, these are not teaching resources per se. 100 Activities is a sourcebook. Like Beth P. Skott and Masjo Ward’s Active Learning Exercises for Research Methods in the Social Sciences (2013), 100 Activities offers exercises developed to complement and enhance existing course materials. Skott and Ward’s useful book has an easy tone and stronger quantitative elements. In comparison, I found Dawson’s activities, games, scenarios, demonstrations and role plays more pedagogically coherent (being single authored), and more accessibly structured and articulated.
Image Credit: (Steve Bowbrick CC BY 2.0)

100 Activities is powerfully organised for ‘pick and mix’ reference and use. It has two parts. The first is given to tutor notes and information about articulating the activities described. Each activity is tried and tested and speaks to Dawson’s extensive teaching experience. All are clearly labelled according to purpose, learning outcome, the materials required and so forth. The author then takes the reader through the key issues in terms of student understanding as well as potential challenges and opportunities when conducting the task in class. Dawson also clarifies the learning material for teachers who may themselves be unfamiliar with the content and task objectives. ‘Useful terms’ are highlighted alongside preparatory reading, further reading and a useful cross-reference to related activities. The second part delivers student handouts. These are eminently photocopyable thanks to the book’s A4 format (another USP), and they can also be downloaded from the companion website.

From here, the contents are thoughtfully indexed and can be traversed in three ways: thematically; by difficulty (from undergraduate/community education through to doctoral); and by activity type (e.g. role play, discussion, etc). Thematically, 100 Activities dedicates Section One to the important work of ‘Finding and Using Sources of Information’. Search, evaluation, bias and critique are all covered here. Section Two details ‘Planning a Research Project’. This mixes exercises for qualitative and quantitative understanding that cover everything from producing aims and objectives, probability samples and purposive sampling to more tacit and operational aspects of research, such as costing and working collaboratively. Section Three concerns research conduct and Section Four turns to using and analysing data. Section Five is about disseminating results. Sections Six and Seven are more reflexive in their pedagogical orientation. Section Six is given to ‘Acting Ethically’, while the final section describes ten activities that deal with ‘Developing Deeper Research Skills’ and gestures to the philosophy of social science, theory building, positionality and so on.

In terms of pedagogical substance, the majority of activities do the important work of connecting students to the research space (Kilburn, Nind and Wiles 2014). These focus on raising awareness and increasing understanding of issues and techniques. Taken cumulatively, the activities also gesture to the extended, experiential and reflexive learning valued by experts in methods teaching (Lewthwaite and Nind 2016). Whilst discussions of learning theory and pedagogy are limited by the author’s chosen format, the pedagogic decision-making, teaching strategies and in-class tactics that can be used to engage learners are available throughout. References to pedagogic literature are also made at key points for those who wish to pursue them, with explicit references to strategies for reflexive practice, deploying Socratic Method, experiential and peer learning amongst others.

A book such as this will be controversial for some. In methodology terms, with only 100 activities to play with and a generic social science audience, Dawson has opted not to include more advanced and specialised methods within this one sourcebook: for example, secondary analysis, diary method and case study are not explicitly represented. The book’s organisation (with theory discussed towards the end) may rankle with proponents of ‘thinking with theory’ (Jackson and Mazzei 2012), whilst the notion of possible template teaching will unsettle others. However, the author is at pains to argue that this is a sourcebook, not a complete methods course. Teacher interventions are essential to the appropriate use of the activities. For example, Activity 88, ‘Conducting Research with Vulnerable People’, has students developing and discussing fictional scenarios to develop ‘a deeper understanding of the issues involved’. Some understanding will be achieved, but clearly this one-hour class would not be considered sufficient to tackle this complex and challenging topic as a standalone session.

If Dawson’s writing presupposes an inexperienced reader in teaching terms, this makes sense, as methods teachers are frequently recruited from amongst methods specialists and research staff who may lack formal training or significant teaching experience. Dawson also writes for readers with potentially limited methodological knowledge. Taken together, this belt-and-braces approach makes the book highly accessible – but it also raises broader questions regarding who should teach methods and the status of methods teaching in general.

In summary, 100 Activities for Teaching Research Methods offers a great resource for early career teachers who are seeking to build their pedagogic repertoire, and it represents a substantial marker in the development of the field. It is convenient, powerfully organised and road-tested. More experienced methods teachers will have their own views on the learning design, form and salience of particular activities and how they relate to the finer points of methodology. Nonetheless, this carefully designed title will offer even the most seasoned methods teacher a useful foil, counterpoint or extension to their own strategies and in-class activities.