The Scholars & Rogues Manifesto: what are we doing here?

It has been alleged that Scholars & Rogues is not, strictly speaking, a political blog. Sure, we write about overtly political issues and devote our share of time to things like media policy, energy and the environment, business and the economy, and international dynamics. Yes, we were credentialed to cover the DNC, but we don’t really do hard, insider, by god politics. Daily Kos is a political blog. Firedoglake is a political blog. Little Green Footballs, The Agonist, Politico, The Seminal – these are real poliblogs.

S&R, on the other hand, writes about music. About literature and poetry. About art. Education. Sports. Culture and popular culture. The Ramsey case and what it tells us about the state of media. And now that the election is over, S&R is writing about politics less than ever.

So really, what is S&R?

One response might argue that tout est politique. I’ve never been terribly comfortable with totalizing positions like this, though, because they tend to trivialize – if everything is politics, then nothing is. However, there’s no denying the fundamental truth that many things we don’t commonly associate with politics are powerfully political in their implications.

Take popular music, for instance. It’s impossible to consider the sweeping cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s without the soundtrack – Dylan, The Beatles, Woodstock…the list goes on and on. Some of those artists were quite explicitly agitating for political reform while others wove themselves into the social tapestry in less obvious ways, but the sum total of the music of that decade was inherently political.

Contrast that with the music of the Bush administration. Where was the protest, the outcry? Who was the Dylan of the 2000s? What record will we be comparing, come 2024, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?

The absence of such a voice was not an accident. Part of the grand conservative plan, the blitzkrieg that was launched upon Reagan’s inauguration, was the neutering of music’s political possibility. When Ronnie’s FCC hacks, Fowler and Brenner, decreed that “the public interest is what the public is interested in,” it did so in order to subvert, once and for all, the power of the creative social mind to the will of corporate logic. It dismantled radio ownership limits that assured a massive diversity of options for artists and audiences alike, and found its ultimate expression in Clear Channel’s pro-war, pro-Bush rallies and the banishment of those who chose to give voice to their dissent (the most notable case being the attempted silencing of The Dixie Chicks).

So when our generation needed to be marching in the streets and demanding an end to the outrage in Iraq, where was the soundtrack? Who ultimately benefited from those policies way back in the early ’80s? We’re fighting an unjust invasion and occupation and the rallies in the streets are for the war?! Corporate-sponsored pro-war rallies?!

When I’m writing a TunesDay piece on some band or another, providing a video link or encouraging you to check it out at eMusic, part of what’s going on is purely and simply about the music as art. But it’s also about the bigger picture, about the need for our culture to build a strong platform whereby artists can be heard. If they use this platform to sing silly love songs, that’s fine, so long as the platform is there when they need to sing about injustice. I recently did a piece promoting The Well Wishers, Maximo Park and The Dandy Warhols, and none of these bands may ever contribute a note to the cause of world peace. On the other hand, if I flash back to 1997 and Green Day’s Nimrod, I’m not sure I could have predicted American Idiot, a manifesto so powerful that not even the soul-deadening corporate might of Clear Channel could contain it.

What political blogs do is important, especially in a society where the legacy press has largely abdicated its responsibility to watchdog our institutions of power. Who Obama selects to run the State Department matters. His choices for Treasury and Defense and our various intelligence and military leadership posts matter tremendously.

But empires rarely rise and fall as a result of a couple close-in political knife fights. In my view, a great deal of what even the best poliblogs do is tactical, street-level and near-term. This isn’t true across the board, of course. There are outstanding thinkers and writers who are looking at the big picture and the long term. And this is where I think S&R has done and will continue to do its best work. Not in the political battle, but the culture war.

We may debate some of the nuances and specifics amongst ourselves, but in general it’s safe to say that those of us here at Scholars & Rogues have a shared vision of a more progressive society. I don’t use that word in any sort of conventional, partisan sense. By “progressive” I mean more enlightened; better educated; more appreciative of the cultural arts; better informed about the forces shaping our world; more productively spiritual (and less dogmatically sectarian) in our approach to life; more generous and charitable; more tolerant and more willing to understand the value of diversity; more committed to community and the common good; more literate; more intellectually curious and prone to critical thought; more responsive to the well-reasoned than to the passionately felt; and above all, more insistent that those we choose to represent us, to lead us and to govern us be the best America has to offer, not the worst.

Some of the solutions that get us to our destination may be “liberal” by our current reckoning, some “conservative.” The best ideas may be “idealistic” or they may be “pragmatic.” But in the end, I think most of us believe that a society that reads – in an environment uncluttered by censorship, either active or passive, governmental or cultural or corporate – is in better shape than one that doesn’t read or won’t. A society whose citizens not only have knowledge in their heads, but who have been trained to use it in innovative ways is more likely to solve more problems faster and more effectively. A country that thinks and thinks relentlessly is nearly immune to the machinations of despotism. A nation whose mythologies make clear that war is the last resort, not the first, is more likely to achieve greatness both at home and abroad. A nation whose media structures are designed to foster the best that is thought and created is one whose streets are less likely to flow with the blood of aggrieved citizens. A culture where competition aims to help people up the ladder instead of keeping them in their place is one that maximizes its collective genius. A political economy where genuine opportunity arises from a level playing field is certainly more likely to produce spectacular successes than one where the reality is that of a rigged game played beneath a banner of cynical egalitarian rhetoric.

And the most actualized of all possible societies is one where happiness and satisfaction have nothing at all to do with purchasing power.

This is what I think Scholars & Rogues is. We’ve covered a lot of ground since we launched less than two years ago, and at that point I deliberately chose not to compose a mission statement. Our philosophy was simple: invite the smartest people we could find to share their thoughts and trust the power of that intellect to start great conversations, attract more great minds and build the foundation of a thriving community. With that in place, I wanted to learn what we were rather than dictating what we would be.

Some of what we write may look trivial at first, and the occasional item may even prove trivial in the final analysis. But I think we now have a good sense of what we are and why our readers keep stopping by. We hope our political writings are worthy in the coming months and (if we’re lucky) years, and we expect that our audience will grasp the deeper political mission embedded in our far-flung musings.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to work toward a better culture, and in doing so will trust that if you enlighten the people and establish social structures that exalt the best they have to offer, the merely political will take care of itself.

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13 thoughts on “The Scholars & Rogues Manifesto: what are we doing here?”

  1. Excellent essay, Dr. Slammy.

    When i point people here, i always put political in quotes to indicate how much more there is at S&R. I generally describe this place as a meeting place of smart, articulate people with diverse interests, opinions and knowledge. You never know what you’ll find on any given day, but it will always make you think. And, for the most part, what happens here are conversations. Look at how many people use their real names and how few people caps lock their statements. I’d call it the internet equivalent of an old fashioned Salon.

    I believe that i first came here to read the Weekly Carboholic about a year ago. I’ve never left because i felt immediately at home, and surmised that this is what the internet should be…or here is potentiality actualized. (And no, i’m not just saying that because i’ve been given the opportunity to post…for those non-regulars reading this. I’m honored to have that opportunity because i feel that way about S&R.)

    Thanks for all your hard work.

  2. Thanks, Lex. I’ve said a number of times that we take great pride in our comment threads. That was actually one of our primary goals when we set out.

    Sure, we get some morons and trolls now and again, and we certainly don’t feel any need to agree with what our commenters have to say (or each other, for that matter), but seriously, compare our threads to what you find most other places and tell me what you see.

  3. Your definition of “progressive” was spot on. That’s what I enjoy about this site and the writers who post as well as my companions here in “the peanut gallery”. It’s difficult to actively seek enlightenment and yet remain unpretentious. This blog does that beautifully.

  4. Dr, Slammy, You said,
    “I don’t use that word in any sort of conventional, partisan sense. By “progressive” I mean more enlightened; better educated; more appreciative of the cultural arts; better informed about the forces shaping our world; more productively spiritual (and less dogmatically sectarian) in our approach to life; more generous and charitable; more tolerant and more willing to understand the value of diversity; more committed to community and the common good; more literate; more intellectually curious and prone to critical thought; more responsive to the well-reasoned than to the passionately felt; and above all, more insistent that those we choose to represent us, to lead us and to govern us be the best America has to offer, not the worst.”

    That sounds like me. Although I’m considered the troll, have personna non grata status around here, and am tolerantly ignored,, I am actually the embodiment of the spirit of your paragraph. That’s a good thing despite the rancor, insults and invective hurled my way, we can all come together.

    Jeff

  5. You don’t really feel that abused, do you, Jeff? When it comes to straight politics you’ve probably got a much different voting pattern than most of the regulars, but i don’t think that the idea of loyal opposition has been lost here. (Granted, sometimes discussions get heated but that’s to be expected.) On the economics front i thin that whythawk and you are probably fairly close, and even the most liberal here are smart enough to see that “free markets” are not the root of all evil. In any case, i appreciate your comments even when i don’t agree with them.

    On music: i’ve long been disturbed by the rise of Corporate Country. (Don’t get me wrong, i love old school C&W, particularly Cowboy Jazz and the “Outlaw” variety, but what floods the airwaves today is mostly crap…MTV with a twang.) I used to think that it was just part of America’s redneck fetish – and not real rednecks either, but poseur rednecks, but after reading this piece and thinking on it i’m no longer so sure.

    Was popular culture purposefully rednecktified? Were the airwaves flooded with what passes for country music today as a preemptive strike against music’s ability to unite a counter-culture? (True, pop music is often and always has been pretty shitty, and C&W is a lot like the new pop.) Was the market for Nashville organic, or was it created? Any thoughts?

  6. Created. Totally created. Like the Disney Princess phenomenon. Twenty-year-old bottle blondes (ahem) and pseudo-homegrown, metrosexual cowboys. Please.

    Bob Wills to Lyle Lovett. Patsy Cline to Lucinda Williams. Jerry Jeff Walker to Robert Earl Keen. k d lang, may she live forever. That’s the organic evolution of country music. I grew up forced to listen to Gary Stewart, Lacy J. Dalton, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash… and now Red-Headed Stranger never leaves my car’s CD player, and Teatro soothes me when nothing else can, and I am proud of having known the lyrics to “I Can Get Off on You” before I even knew what weed and cocaine were…

    Yes. Manufactured. Pap for the masses.

  7. Lex,

    I agree with you about the state of country music. That being said, I’ve found that even today’s faux country stars really like to take care of their fans. They’re much more accessible than their pop/rock counterparts, despite the corporate bullshit. I will go to see a country show when someone good is in town, and am usually never disappointed.

  8. Sadly the closest thing to protest music nowadays is bands like Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against (Songs like “The First Drop” in particular). Hardly the stuff of the 60s and 70s, though I listen to both from time to time.
    You kinda get the feeling RAtM gets pissed off when the sun rises. Anger for anger’s sake, instead of being angry about a specific thing. And then the people that cheered the songs of protest go home and do what they do every single other night without giving it another thought. It’s depressing, but it almost seems like society in general has lost its ability to be moved by music.

  9. That doesn’t excuse their inability to change the feel of the music. I don’t mean the lyrics, lyrics are fine, but RATM definitely suffers from “you’ve heard one song, you’ve heard them all.”

    JT, if I recall, Neil Young recently expressed his disappointment, claiming he’s lost faith in the ability of one song to change the world. The malaise isn’t just yours.

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