Atoms on the Savannah: Kari Frederickson’s Look at Cold War Dixie

University of Alabama historian Kari Frederickson’s new book offers a compelling and insightful account of the Savannah River Project, a truly epic undertaking in which the Atomic Energy Commission and the Du Pont corporation partnered to build a massive facility for producing nuclear material in the 1950s.  It offers a fascinating complement to such works as Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge and Marko Maunula’s Guten Tag Y’all, which have explored the differing paths that Southern communities took to transform their economies after World War II.  Compared to Frederickson’s earlier book on the Dixiecrat revolt, Cold War Dixie spends relatively little time on politics.  The author’s … [Read more...]

How the Labor Movement Shot Itself in the Foot: Rock Edition

“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” Thom Yorke sneered on Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer. He did not mean aesthetic ambition, of course—the band had that in spades—but the crass materialism of a yuppie careerist, the proverbial “kicking, screaming Gucci little piggy.” The next year, rapper Amil made a very different declaration on a classic Jay-Z track: “Ambition makes me so horny… My hoochie remains in a Gucci name.”  Their two perspectives on material aspiration could not be more different—the art-rocker disdains the trappings of consumerism, while Amil is totally frank about the fact that she wanted her art to succeed commercially, to bring the comforts that upward mobility … [Read more...]

Get Out: The First Great Film of the Trump Era

We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief. Suffice to say this quotation was not written by a Hollywood producer looking for the next big hit.  Driving an axe into the deepest fears and anxieties of audiences is not a recipe for success—perhaps not even in the horror genre. The words of Franz Kafka will likely provide cold comfort to those who already know and understand the black American experience firsthand—those for whom the disaster and the suicide that Kafka … [Read more...]

When Prince Met Spotify

This blog has never made a secret of its furtive love for the Purple One. He was one of the few cultural figures that we rushed an immediate retrospective about—the Beastie Boys being another, upon the death of MCA in 2012. For the Gen Xers and millennials who make up most of the writing team at Tropics of Meta, these artists meant enough to us in our formative years to merit instant assessment and reflection. Prince was also one of those unusual—and increasingly rare—characters in popular culture who boasted such universal appeal, across races, classes, and genders, that their death left a blast crater in the public consciousness, noticeable to those who hadn’t even heard the news. I … [Read more...]

An Inauguration Day Greeting from Tropics of Meta

Many years ago, I was teaching high school in Gastonia, North Carolina. The senseless, world-destroying catastrophe of the Iraq War was just breaking over the horizon at the time, and students asked me what I thought about it.  As a novice teacher, I didn't know what my proper response should be.  Personally, I was despondent.  Whether or not Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction"--we'd given them to him, after all--it seemed transparently obvious that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the United States, and the ideologues and used car salesmen in Washington were driving us into a pointless war of choice. It was a dark time, and arguably much of the horror of the twenty-first … [Read more...]

Kennan, Putin, and the Danger of Thinking Your Opponents Are Irrational

Years ago, I was in a stupid bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  We used to go there after work because they had ridiculously cheap Long Island Iced Teas during Happy Hour, which was almost always a mistake.  (Actually, not "almost"--just "always.") And one day a musclebound, intense-looking middle-aged white guy was there at the bar.  Somehow we got into a conversation.  He claimed to work for Blackwater, the mercenary company that the George W. Bush administration outsourced its foreign military misadventures to, and he said he was waiting to turn over his identity to some agent at that very bar, that very night. I would not have even given him the benefit of the doubt except that … [Read more...]

The Other Freestyle: Recovering 80s Latin Dance Music

I was wandering through a street fair off Canal Street a few years ago when I came across a stand selling bootleg CDs of hip-hop, rock, and many other genres.  The discs were mixes, rather than outright copies of already-released albums.  I had, of course, seen both in Manhattan, having picked up a $6 copy of Beck’s Guero on Varick Street and some amazing, educational anthologies of bossa nova and Americana near St. Mark’s Place in years past.  I did not know what I was in for when I visited this vendor, though. One CD was labeled Best of Freestyle.  Though I did not recognize the names – Nice N Wild, Sa Fire, Freeze – I assumed they must be old-school rappers of hip-hop’s golden age, … [Read more...]

Things We Lost in the Fire

A right-wing coup has taken hold of the United States government, or is soon to do so. If that seems outlandish, consider the following: A candidate who refused to agree to accept the results if he lost, but did promise to lock up his opponent if he won, just became president-elect while losing the popular vote by perhaps 2 million votes. He will have the opportunity to shape the balance of power on the Supreme Court, due entirely to the fact that his own party violated two centuries of tradition by refusing to even consider a replacement nominated by the sitting president—in essence, depriving the voters who reelected President Obama in 2012 of their say in the future of American law and … [Read more...]

There Is a There There: Trump Is Hardly Sui Generis

I remember almost ten years ago, the normally sagacious Economist commented on the looming 2008 race.  “The smart money is on Hillary,” they declared, remarking sarcastically on the “icy” small talk among Hillary’s lady friends at a tony fundraiser, and warning that an outbreak of Bill’s horn-dog behavior could still upset the Clintons’ especially well-constructed apple cart. [Editor’s note: we thought about going with “eruption” instead of “outbreak,” but decided that either one is queasily connotative when used in the context of William Jefferson Clinton, so… fuck it.] Of course, the good journalists and editors at the Economist could not see the unlikely figure of Barack Hussein Obama … [Read more...]

On Creativity, Knowledge, and Epistocracy

In the early 1980s, the philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller looked up “creativity” in the dictionary.  He groused that the word “had been much used and misused in recent literary and popular discussion,” but remained “vague and ill defined.”  However, to the Columbia professor’s astonishment, the word could not be found in the Oxford English Dictionary’s 1971 compact edition, nor in the fifth edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, published in 1939. If he were a linguist, Kristeller wryly noted, he would have given up at that point: there’s obviously no such thing as “creativity” in the English language. “Fortunately, I am not a linguistic analyst but an intellectual historian,” he said, … [Read more...]