The Urge and Their Charming Song “Bit By Bit”

Bit By Bit - The UrgeIn the early 1980s, I was in a band Otherwise Nice Guys with my current business partner Will. At the time, he introduced me to this 45 rpm single of this band, The Urge. The single had two songs: “Bit By Bit” and “Baby Talk.” I don’t really remember “Baby Talk,” but Will tells me it was really good. I immediately fell in love with “Bit By Bit” and I think we started using the song in our band. It couldn’t be simpler: A-D-E. It’s “Wild Thing” but a bit more modern. Very Modern Lovers if you know what I mean.

It turned out that Will knew of the band because of a family connection. The band was fronted by Mary and Julie Lawler. Will’s mother was friends of their mother. As I recalled, a tape of our band was sent to them and they thought it sounded like The Cars. That still stings. But over the last three decades, the song has never left me. It’s one of those songs I often find myself singing like, “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Strangely, it is really hard to find out anything about the band or their music. There is this page where you can currently purchase the single for forty bucks, Discogs. And they are listed on a great archive at Mind Spring, Women in Punk 1975-1980. But otherwise, I haven’t been able to find anything.

If I had to sum up the band, it would be that they are the girl-group equivalent of the Ramones. They are the very definition of punk. There isn’t anything especially fast or loud about their music. It is just simple rock and roll played with conviction. It is above all fun. And the Lawlers were really good songwriters. And charming as anything.

Because I could not find the song anywhere on the internet, I decided to perform it myself and put it on YouTube. It’s my hope that it might turn up some people who know more about the band than I do, or perhaps one of the Lawlers still cares about this stuff enough to notice. It is a great pleasure of mine to introduce others to great works of art. Unfortunately in this case, all I can provide is my own rather bad performance and not The Urge’s — which makes what is already a great song all the greater.

So here is “Bit By Bit,” performed by me with all necessary apologies to well trained ears everywhere. I would love it if someone with some real talent would pick up the song and perform it. I think it might work really well with an acoustic guitar with a simple finger picking pattern. Or it could be given the full The Troggs treatment. It is such a strong song that it even shines through my performance:

Feeling Sorry for Rudy Giuliani

Josh EarnestMany of you have been in the room when the president has delivered speeches where he’s talked about his love for this country, or how the United States is a force for good in the world — in fact it’s the greatest force for good that the world has ever seen — and we can cite those examples and many of you have been in the room when he’s delivered remarks like that — both in this country and around the world.

More generally, I can tell you that it’s sad to see, when someone who’s attained a certain level of public stature and even admiration, tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly. And the truth is that I don’t take any joy or vindication or satisfaction from that. Really, I think the only thing that I feel is sorry for Rudy Giuliani today.

—Josh Earnest
Press Conference

What Is This America We Are Supposed to Love?

Statue of LibertyRudy Giuliani thinks that Obama doesn’t love America. There are a lot of articles talking about it, and Giuliani himself is going everywhere to make sure no one misunderstood that he’s absolutely right and not a racist. I think Jonathan Chait has written the best summary of the whole thing, If Giuliani’s Obama Smear Wasn’t Racist, What Was It? He’s very charitable to Giuliani and does a deep dive into the former mayor’s comments. And he finds: nothing. So if Giuliani’s comments were not racist, they were nothing at all. And we all know they were something. The logic ain’t hard.

Ramona Grigg wrote, Yes, Rudy, It Was a Horrible Thing To Say. Thank You. Her point is that the comments were so over the top offensive that he’s done a great favor for Obama. Now reporters will dig up video of Obama saying things like, “I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.” Of course, Rush Limbaugh was quick to jump on board, “I’m the guy who’s been saying for six plus years now… Obama does not like this country.” Brian Powell at Media Matters pointed out, most Republicans politicians will just avoid the subject because among the base, this kind of talk is commonplace.

Rudy GiulianiI’m not especially interested in the controversy. It may be a tired cliche, but it is also a fact that at least half of the Republican popular support is based upon racism. So this kind of racism and more generally the implication that liberals are not “real” Americans is forever spilling over in conservative comments when they don’t think anyone is listening. What I’m more interested in here is how exactly it is that Obama is supposed to “love” this thing called “America.” I agree with what Rudy Giuliani said: I don’t think Obama loves America. I don’t think that Rudy Giuliani loves America. I know that I don’t love America because I don’t even know what it is I’m supposed to be loving.

Traditionally, the phrase “love of country” is just an expression of jingoism. It is the idea that country is always right, regardless of what it does. It’s the old Stephen Decatur toast, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” If we lived in a democracy, I might be tempted to go along with that. But we don’t. When we go to war, it is usually the government doing it against the wishes of the people. So what Decatur’s toast means in practice is fascism, “Right or wrong, our government!” I’ve never met a liberal or conservative who would go along with that. And given that even the most powerful person doesn’t always get what she wants, I can’t imagine anyone at all agreeing to that.

I remember Bill O’Reilly claiming, “And it is our duty as loyal Americans to shut up once the fighting begins.” But even he added “unless facts prove the operation wrong, as was the case in Vietnam.” The truth is that O’Reilly, like demagogues everywhere thinks people should shut up whenever they are saying things he disagrees with. But if he agrees, it is patriotic to protest. So it is pretty clear that when people talk about loving the country, they don’t mean the government.

But if not that, then what? Really! The people? Given that many conservatives seem to think that President Obama hates the country, I find it hard to believe that they love the American people any more than they love the government. Are we supposed to love Charles Manson? Or are we supposed to think that the American people in aggregate are somehow lovable? Or is it the geography? The climate? The economic system? None of those are specific to America.

What I think the America is that we are supposed to love is some idea of America. And this is dangerous, because none of us has the same idea of what America is. I’ve written a lot about this in the area of economics. Liberals like to complain when Republicans talk about creating jobs. The liberals rightly point out that all Republicans mean by this is, “Cut taxes on the rich! Allow more oil spills!” While it’s true that these things actually will not, in general, create jobs, this is what Republicans think they will do. So when a poll comes out that says that 90% of the American people think the government should do more to create jobs, it doesn’t mean anything.

And similarly, the fact that I love Thomas Paine’s idea of America means something to me. But John McCain’s idea of America is that we should have the biggest military and go to war at every opportunity. And with ideas as divergent as that, there is no “America” that we love. And this is why when conservatives start to talk about the issue, they always fall back on “American exceptionalism.”

But I still don’t understand what is exceptional about America. It is a country — just like 195 other countries. We are an enormously powerful country, but if the rest of the world decided to work together to take us down, it would have no problem doing it. There are great things about America. And there are awful things about America. So this whole matter of loving America is just a stupid game. It means nothing. When Rudy Giuliani and Rush Limbaugh say that Obama doesn’t love America, they are just saying that Obama is a doody pants. And that’s about as deep as American politics goes. And that, my friends, is one of the awful things about America.

What Is This “America” Conservatives Love?

Kevin D WilliamsonKevin D Williamson wrote a really pathetic apologia for Rudy Giuliani, Rudy Is Right. As I will write in a later article, I agree: Obama doesn’t not love America. But I have something actually interesting to say in that article. As far as what Giuliani meant when he talked about Obama not loving America, Williamson perfectly encapsulated it by way of refutation. You know, the way huge numbers of conservatives will believe something truly outrageous and someone who writes for National Review brushes it aside as though mentioning it means that that it isn’t a real thing.

Williamson wrote, “To ask the question is not the same as venting the familiar swamp gasses: that he’s a foreigner, at heart if not in fact; that he’s a Manchurian candidate sent to undermine the republic; that he’s a secret Marxist or secret jihadist sympathizer; etc.” Well actually, yes it is. His argument is basically that well, maybe the Fox News hicks believe that nonsense, but not a “respectable” man like Rudy Giuliani. There is no other way to put it: Giuliani doesn’t think that Obama loves America because Giuliani either believes and just wants to push the idea that Obama is some foreign other. Is it that he’s black? Yes. But not just that. Obviously, Giuliani would never say the same thing of a black conservative.

But what really blew my mind was how Williamson managed to lump all progressives into one tight knit group who, like Holden Caulfield (Really!) just hate all those phonies of American history:

For the progressive, there is very little to love about the United States. Washington, Jefferson, Madison? A bunch of rotten slaveholders, hypocrites, and cowards even when their hearts were in the right places. The Declaration of Independence? A manifesto for the propertied classes. The Constitution? An artifact of sexism and white supremacy. The sacrifices in the great wars of the 20th century? Feeding the poor and the disenfranchised into the meat-grinder of imperialism. The gifts of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Astor? Blood money from self-aggrandizing robber barons.

Now this is pretty much the way I see these discrete things. Just look at what I wrote the last three years on George Washington’s birthday. But the fact is that the Constitution was a racist document and even the Revolutionary War was largely a racist war. But we get better. America is a better place now than it was then. But what is it that America is for conservatives? As Williamson himself talks about, they aren’t without their criticisms. So the real difference is that liberals tend to be proud of America in an aspirational way, “Look how far we’ve come!” But the conservative take on America is one of decay, “Look how far we’ve gone!”

So the conservative ideal is some lost long ago. But of course they won’t tell you when that was. They won’t say the 1960s because that was probably the greatest triumph of liberalism. So they generally have to go back further. But the further you go back, the worse it gets. This leads to the kind of stuff I discussed in, More Libertarian Economic Hokum. In the article I was addressing, the writer argued that we didn’t need child labor laws because the market would take care of it. The same argument is more commonly made about how slavery was dying — if it weren’t for Lincoln and his Civil War, the free market would have ended slavery!

Thus, as I’ve discussed before, conservatives don’t believe in the America of today or the America of any given time. They believe in “America” — some mythical place that never existed. So if Williamson thinks that we liberals are all a bunch of discontented adolescents, what exactly are the conservatives? I think David Cross has it right: conservatives hate this country. They just love a myth they’ve created:

And that’s not love. I’ve had a surprising number of women who loved some idea they had about who I was. And there have been a fair share of women about whom I loved some idea rather than the actual woman. But that isn’t love. That’s the immature crap of, “I love her, but I don’t really like her.” Yeah, that means you don’t love her. It means she treats you like dirt and you “love” the idea that maybe some day she might treat you like a human being.

So it is pretty funny that Kevin D Williamson calls liberals Holden Caulfield, when the liberal approach to America is nuanced, and I dare say mature. It’s the conservative who believes in clear myths that blind her to whatever it is that “America” is. Which is what I’ll be writing about later.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster WallaceOn this day in 1962, the great writer and thinker David Foster Wallace was born. He’d be 53 today and no doubt still entertaining and enlightening us. Sadly for us, it is not the case. He’s been gone over six years now.

He still boggles my mind. His nonfiction is as brilliant as his fiction. He was a very creative thinker. It’s easy enough to be smart and knowledgeable. And certainly Wallace was both of those things. But he looked at things differently than people normally do. Just yesterday, without realizing that today would be his birthday, I mentioned Wallace in, Bravery in Art. The more that I’ve read of his work, the more clear it is that above all, his greatness is dependent upon looking at reality directly. I do not have the ability. I find myself constantly peaking around corners so I can jump back if there is something too horrific staring back. And there often is and I do jump back. In fact my second novel now uses this as a device. I hope that I render enough that the reader knows what happens next because I can’t bear to render it for them.

And I’m not talking about torture scenes. I’m talking about things like the horrible stuff we think to the awkward relationships that never gel but never separate. Most of Wallace’s work concentrates existential matters and the work that is required to live. But I was really impressed to find this quote in Wikipedia, “I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary US culture… I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule… for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems.” I’ve never read any of Wallace’s writing on the subject of writing. But that’s an idea that I probably picked up from reading him more generally. One of the great problems with much modern writing is the inability to commit — for the writer to constantly be reassuring the reader that this is all nonsense and we don’t take it seriously. But if we don’t take it serious, what is the point? The constant sarcasm of the hipster is just a cover for her cowardliness.

I don’t really know what else to say other than that everyone should read Wallace. He has much to teach and he is enormously entertaining. I’ve learned a great deal from him. That’s not something I can say for many modern writers.

Happy birthday David Foster Wallace!