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Other segments from the episode on November 29, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 29, 2001: Interview with Larry Goodson; Commentary on language; Review of the music of the band X.

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DATE November 29, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Larry Goodson, author of "Afghanistan's Endless War,"
talks about how Afghanistan came to its present state
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The UN-sponsored talks in Bonn, Germany, have brought together several Afghan
factions to arrange for a post-Taliban government. They're working out a plan
for a national council that would function as a temporary legislature and
provide some stability until long-term plans for a new government are agreed
on.

My guest, Larry Goodson, is the author of the book "Afghanistan's Endless
War." He writes about the collapse of communism in Afghanistan, the failures
of the warlords who took over, the rise of the Taliban and the ongoing
conflicts between ethnic groups. Goodson is an associate professor of
international studies at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. I asked
him to tell us more about the goals of the current talks in Bonn.

Professor LARRY GOODSON (Author, "Afghanistan's Endless War"): The goals of
the current talks in Bonn are to produce a broad-based government in
Afghanistan that will represent the different groups there, the different
ethnic groups and the different factions that have come into being over the
last 20-odd years of war in Afghanistan, and produce a government, a
transitional government--I know that no one thinks it will be the permanent
solution--but a transitional government that can go into Kabul and that the UN
can then say, `OK, this is an Afghan government, and if they invite us to do
this or that with regard to reconstruction or peacekeeping or whatever, we
will respond to that because they are the transitional government.'

And then that government would be the government that would put in place a
process that would produce a new constitution and move towards a more permanent
government for the country.

GROSS: What are the obstacles that everyone getting together in Bonn faces
now in terms of putting together a transitional government that will actually
function?

Prof. GOODSON: Well, I would say that there are several obstacles. The UN
doesn't have a very good track record in Afghanistan of producing anything,
anything political, I mean, such as a cease-fire of any meaningful length, or
a broad-based government in the past, so the UN doesn't have a lot of--there's
not a lot of confidence in this process on the part of your average Afghan or
on the part of these various warlords. You'll notice, if you look at the list
of delegates, that none of the major players have gone, for the most part, to
Bonn. All the warlords have sent someone further down their chain of command
to sort of represent them, which means that everyone will have to check, as it
were, with the home office before they can agree to anything. So that's one
problem.

The other, probably bigger, problem is that in the absence of a sort of
muscular peacekeeping force from outside, there won't be much real leverage on
the warlords, the different factions, who have heavy weapons and armed
forces--there won't be much leverage to get them to go along with anything
that they're not comfortable with, so if they feel that they didn't get enough
seats at the table, or they didn't get the ministry that they think they
should have, or whatever, then what leverage will there be to get them to
participate?

GROSS: Is it possible that the representatives of the warlords will agree on
some kind of transitional government, and then when the meetings are over,
that things will fall apart again and the warlords will take over their
territories and try to rule them and we'll see more fighting between them
again? Do you think that that's a possible scenario?

Prof. GOODSON: I'd say it's actually a likely scenario, that we will see a
revisiting of the early 1990s when Afghanistan was a patchwork of
warlord-controlled territories, some of them ruled quite well, reasonably
well, and other places where there was widespread anarchy and lawlessness and
a real fragmentation of the country, and I think that in the absence, again,
of a strong peacekeeping force and a really dynamic role for the Western
powers, to sort of lead this process, that we're likely to see that again in
Afghanistan.

GROSS: And are many of the warlords who controlled territory before the
Taliban the same people who are fighting the Taliban and who are now taking
over territories again?

Prof. GOODSON: Yes. We have seen a return of a lot of these warlords who had
been either driven into exile by the rise of the Taliban or in the case of the
Northern Alliance, driven into virtual exile, driven into the far northeastern
mountainous corner of the country, and also quite a few guys who sort of
joined with the Taliban when the Taliban were in ascendance, who have now
switched sides and are reclaiming control of their original territor--well,
not even reclaiming it; they had control of those territories under the
Taliban--so now it's a simple matter of switching sides and saying `I'm not
with the Taliban any longer, and I still control whatever my particular area
of the country is.' So yeah, right now there's 20, 25--it's hard to say,
exactly--different groups, many of them headed by older players who've been in
exile once again controlling a patch of the Afghan countryside.

GROSS: Is this a pattern in Afghanistan, of people changing sides, depending
on who's winning and which side they think will personally benefit them?

Prof. GOODSON: It is a historical pattern that we see all the time in
Afghanistan. It grows out of the inherent localism of the country, and the
fact that identity in Afghanistan is very much at the local or what is called
the `kahm'(ph) level, and that refers--it's essentially an Arabic word that
refers to localized identity formations. And in Afghanistan, what this means
in terms of fighting is that when you look at a group like the Taliban or the
Northern Alliance, and you try to understand it--you say, `OK, here's the
Northern Alliance, they have four major factions.' Or maybe you have a greater
understanding and you talk about eight factions, because you know that within
the Hazara, for example, there are three major sub-factions.

But more correctly to understand it is that really you're got hundreds of
small, localized, kahm-based groups of guys who have gotten together with
their brothers and their cousins and a few guys from the village that they're
all kind of connected, or from their valley or from their neighborhood or
whatever, and they fight together as a sort of localized militia, and they
give their loyalty, or rather, maybe they rent their loyalty--although I don't
want to imply that it's always up for sale--but they tend to give their
loyalty to a larger group whose commander can supply them with weapons and who
leads them in the way that they think is appropriate. And they can withdraw
that whenever they feel they need to. So there's a lot of chatter across
walkie-talkies in Afghanistan between opposition commanders, you know, across
the battlefield, who know each other and who from time to time fight on the
same side, and from time to time fight on the other side, and it's probably
important to keep that in mind, even if it's too complex for the average
American to really learn all those local groups.

GROSS: So what kind of problem does that pose, say, for the United States
now, the fact that there are a lot of people who are probably switching sides,
a lot of Taliban who are probably crossing over to the other side?

Prof. GOODSON: Well, it does present a problem insofar as we don't have the
depth of knowledge of Afghanistan that we need to have. This has been an area
that the US government has not paid much attention to in terms of our
intelligence gathering or our intelligence analysis over the last decade or
so. And consequently, we don't really know who all these guys are and we
don't know exactly what their relationship with each other--what those
relationships are. And so we don't have a good sense of how to, as it were,
manipulate the process so that it will produce in the end a stable situation.
I think the talks in Bonn are a case in point. I mean, we're sort of putting
great stock in this process, when it is almost certainly not going to produce
anything that is widely acceptable to the Afghans, especially those Pashtuns
who, for the last few years, have been governed by the Taliban and, for the
most part, willing to go along with that since the Taliban were Pashtuns, who
now, because they were affiliated with the Taliban, are not being really
represented in these talks and, therefore, are likely to get a temporary
transitional government that they are going to view correctly as a government
dominated by the Northern Alliance and exile groups and, therefore, not a
government that they will be pleased with.

GROSS: My guest is Larry Goodson. He's the author of the book "Afghanistan's
Endless War." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Larry Goodson. He's the author of the book "Afghanistan's
Endless War."

You describe Afghanistan as the archetype of a failed state. What do you
mean?

Prof. GOODSON: Well, my contention is that all of these problems that we have
now been affected by in the form of the terrorist attacks on the United
States, but that also prior to this, the broader region right around
Afghanistan had been affected by it more directly, such as the drug
trafficking and arms smuggling and the spread of Islamic militancy; that all
of that grows out of the fact that Afghanistan has suffered from profound
state failure. By that, I mean that the governing institutions in Afghanistan
had basically ceased to function; both during the Taliban period when the
Taliban were not a very successful governing force, except insofar as a sort
of social policy towards women and that sort of thing, and prior to that
during this warlord period that we were talking about a few moments ago.

In both of those circumstances, the long war in Afghanistan that did so much
destruction to the physical infrastructure and to the political and economic
institutions, had created circumstances where the local forces had become
resurgent and pre-eminent once again, and the government--in effect, the
central government--ceased to exist. And in that situation of state failure,
as some of my fellow political scientists call that, Afghanistan became a
place that could be a haven to people like Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda
organization, a haven to the world's largest heroin smugglers, to this large
regional arms smuggling and duty-free goods smuggling network, and the spread
of Islamic militancy in the region.

GROSS: The Bush administration has indicated that it's unlikely that the US
would be part of a formal peacekeeping or peacemaking force after they're
doing dealing with bin Laden and al-Qaeda. What are some of the pros and cons
of continued US involvement in Afghanistan?

Prof. GOODSON: The major pros are that it would give us an opportunity to
rebuild the physical destruction of Afghanistan that has itself allowed all of
these ills--the terrorism, the criminal activity, the Islamic militancy--to
come out of Afghanistan. If we don't address that, then Afghanistan will
continue to be a big problem for the world in the foreseeable future and a
problem for the United States. I think the cons are the fears that US forces
would get dragged into a sort of civil war and would become targeted. We
might see a revisiting of the Somalia situation where US forces are, you know,
killed and dragged through the streets and this sort of thing. I think those
fears are way overblown. I think there's a real hunger in Afghanistan for--in
fact, I know from my own interviews there and my recent efforts to gather
information from long distance through the Afghan community, that there's a
real hunger for US leadership and US on the ground. In fact, the Afghans view
it as really the only solution--I mean, the common Afghan. The political
leaders that currently control Kabul are telling us a different story, `No, we
can do this ourselves.' But the common Afghans know, the average Afghan knows
that there has to be an international force in Afghanistan to make all of this
happen or we will see a degeneration into civil war and warlordism again.

GROSS: Let me quote something that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz
had said. He said, "One lesson of Afghanistan that we have seen in the past
is alliances shift from month to month and year to year, and the one thing
that seems to unite Afghans over long periods of time is that they don't much
like foreigners." And that's part of the argument against the United States
remaining in Afghanistan and overseeing a new government or, you know,
participating in a peacekeeping force.

Prof. GOODSON: Correct. That is the case in Afghan history, but it is a
misapplication of a historical lesson to a current situation, with all due
respect to Mr. Wolfowitz. I would argue that there's really sort of two
points to this; one that has to do with Afghanistan and another that has to do
with the broader effort that the US has embarked on, this so-called war on
terrorism that we've, you know, heard so much about. In the first instance, I
think this fails to recognize the profundity and comprehensiveness of the
destruction that has been wrought in Afghanistan over the last almost quarter
century of war. And that you really have to look at that and say, `OK, here's
a country that is now basically destroyed.' Most of the people who are
non-combatants are completely tired of war. There has been widespread
destruction. Virtually every physical structure in the country has been hit
by weapons of one sort or another. The cities and many places have been
reduced to rubble. Most of the population has been dispersed or wounded or
killed by the war, or if they're younger, they've grown up in circumstances
where they've only known war; mines all over the countryside.

I mean, we could go on and on, but the level and the depth of this destruction
is such that at the moment, the Afghans are looking for a way to rebuild
themselves, and I think there is a window where foreign powers that wish to
help Afghanistan, not either to advance some neocolonial project, nor to
occupy the country, but to come in and provide immediate relief for the people
on the verge of starvation and longer term physical reconstruction of the
infrastructure that's been destroyed and helping the people re-establish an
economy. All of those things, things that I would think the United States
could actually do quite well, those sorts of things the Afghan people would be
completely willing to receive, at least in the short run.

The other point I wanted to make, and I'll make this one more briefly, is just
that if we're going to have a war on terror, we have to keep in mind that the
terrorists that attacked the United States, at least as best we understand it,
come from this al-Qaeda organization, and they're virtually all Arabs, and
they come from this youthful segment of the Arab population. Some 45 percent
of the population in the Middle East is under the age of the average American
college student. So you've got this large segment of sort of disenfranchised
and disenchanted youth, many of whom have great animosity toward the West, and
I think if the US policy is to say, `Well, we'll bomb Afghanistan and then
we'll go in and get bin Laden and Mullah Omar and the other leaders and we'll
kill them, and then having done that, we'll sort of step back and hope that
Lakhdar Brahimi and the UN can actually foster something that will work,'
knowing full well that it won't for the reasons that we've been talking about
already. If that's our policy, then I think we'll be sending the wrong signal
to those young people in the Middle East who have been so receptive to bin
Laden's message of anti-Western hatred and animosity.

The message that we could send if we were leading a reconstruction effort in
Afghanistan is, `Yes, we came in and did all those military things, but then
we turned around and took responsibility for being a leader and we helped to
rebuild this country, not, again, for our own purposes, except insofar that we
want it to be a stable place,' and, you know, send the message of the US as a
helper rather than a destroyer. I think we're going to make a huge mistake if
we don't do that.

GROSS: Larry Goodson is the author of the book "Afghanistan's Endless War."
He's an associate professor of international studies at Bentley College in
Waltham, Massachusetts. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, ethnic divisions in Afghanistan. We continue our
conversation with Larry Goodson. Also, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the origins
of the terms highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow. And Ken Tucker reviews
"Reissues" by the LA punk band X.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Larry Goodson, author
of "Afghanistan's Endless War." He's an associated professor of international
studies at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Four Afghanistan factions are meeting in Bonn, Germany, working out plans for
a post-Taliban government. One of the challenges in forming a new government
is representing the different ethnic groups within the country.

Why does Afghanistan have so many different ethnic groups? Does it have to do
with the way the country's borders were created?

Prof. GOODSON: In part, it has to do with the fact that Afghanistan,
although it's existed as an entity for centuries and as a state known as
Afghanistan at least since the mid-1700s, but its modern borders were
finalized in the 1890s when Afghanistan was perceived to be a buffer state
between the Russian Empire, which was expansive at that time, and the British
Empire in India, which was trying to sort of hold the line.

And, for example, when you look at a map of Afghanistan, you see that long
finger of land, the so-called Wakhan Corridor that reaches out to touch China
in just about the most mountainous place in the world. So it's a completely,
in a sense, worthless piece of land. It runs through very high mountainous
terrain. But it was drawn that way so that the Russian and the British
borders would never actually touch. I mean, those days, a century ago,
Russian and British; now, of course, these independent countries that are
there.

And--yes, some of the borders like the so-called Durand Line, which is the
Pakistani-Afghan border which Afghanistan still has never completely accepted.
It was drawn right through the middle of Pashtun territory. And so you have
about half of the world's Pashtuns living on the Afghan side and about half
living on the Pakistani side of the border.

GROSS: How did the different ethnic groups get along when there was a king in
Afghanistan?

Prof. GOODSON: Well, differently at different times. But if we go back a
hundred years ago to the period when Abdir Rakman(ph) exercised internal
imperialism, as the scholars have labeled it, to forge a stronger state in
Afghanistan, we basically see that he used his own army, which he managed to
transform into a national army and sort of Pashtun hegemony within the state,
to crack down on the ethnic groups in very hard ways.

There was a lot of executing and a lot of what we might now call ethnic
cleansing, at least in so far as displacing populations and moving them around
to different parts of the country, forcible conversion of the Nuristans to
Islam and so on; all to basically pull these ethnic groups into being more
closely controlled by the government in Kabul than they were used to. And
this was, of course, resisted, and we saw various elements of this resistance
at different points in the 20th century, especially during the revolt in the
1920s of Bocho Sical(ph), which was a sort of a Tajik brigand, or warlord, who
temporarily rested power in Kabul from the royal family.

And so there has been this history of real animosity. But at the same time,
there's also been, I think, a more significant history of the groups getting
along on a daily basis with each other. There is some intermarriage between
different groups. That's not uncommon. Traditionally, most of the groups
have been able to get along. They identify themselves separately in terms of
their different ethnicity or even their subtribe or clan status, but they
still manage to get along reasonably well, in large measure because, as I
mentioned earlier in our discussion, the government's not that strong. So the
government often sort of left the groups to rule themselves. And since for
most Afghanistan's history, the country being so rugged and so underdeveloped,
there hasn't been the means to get around very well. Most of the groups
didn't have that much contact with each other.

GROSS: Are there any ethnic groups that are particularly discriminated
against by other ethnic groups in Afghanistan?

Prof. GOODSON: Absolutely. The Hazara, the Shi'a Muslims of Mongol
extraction who live in the central part of Afghanistan, have always been the
second-class citizens of the country, and they don't really, I think, intend
to be that in a post-Taliban, postwar, reconstructed Afghanistan. But they
were always treated with sort of contempt and given the worst jobs, and so on,
during the period of Pashtun dominance during most of the 20th century. And a
lot of the other ethnic groups also had the--sort of adopted that same
attitude towards the Hazara. And you can see some of that in the ethnic
cleansing that has gone on in the last several years, where Hazara especially
have been targeted by the Taliban when their areas were overrun, or in just
the ebb and flow of fighting in the areas that they control.

GROSS: My guest is Larry Goodson, author of the book "Afghanistan's Endless
War." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Goodson. He's the author
of the new book "Afghanistan's Endless War."

The region around Afghanistan includes the republics that were formerly part
of the Soviet Union, like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. And each of
those republics border Afghanistan. They have reserves of oil and natural
gas. How do you think that's affecting the global interest in the area?

Prof. GOODSON: Well, Western oil and gas exploration deals have been struck
in the past, and there is some interest in bringing--there has been for some
time interest in bringing a gas pipeline down through western Afghanistan out
of Turkmenistan and into Pakistan. I don't see that as a motivating factor,
obviously, in light of the events of September 11th for this military action,
but it certainly is probably could be a positive byproduct from the point of
view of those companies, and perhaps from the point of view of Western
governments, of a more stable Afghanistan in the future.

GROSS: The US and Russia are more united than they've been in a very long
time over the war against terrorism. But when this phase is over, do you
think that there'll be a lot of competition between the US and the Soviet
Union for oil rights in the region around Afghanistan?

Prof. GOODSON: Absolutely. Russia wants the gas and oil to flow northward
into, or through, Russian-controlled or Russian-influenced territory. And I
suspect that we will want it to flow southward into what I anticipate will be
a Pakistan that we're going to have closer relations, or at least that we
intend to have closer relations, with for the near future. And Afghanistan
has no real economic base other than sort of subsistence agriculture. And so
it's always been what Barnett Rubin calls a rentier state. And it could
benefit by having the transfer payments for the passage of gas or oil through
its territory.

So I think that there will be a conflict of interest here. And I know it's
being portrayed as a humanitarian move, but it strikes me as somewhat ominous
that the Russians have been the first ones in to set up their embassy in
Kabul, or the first major power in to, you know, clear away the rubble and get
a functioning embassy on the ground again, while the US still dithers about
whether or not we're going to reopen the embassy there.

GROSS: And you think that relates to oil?

Prof. GOODSON: It relates to their intention to be the power that dominates
on the ground in Afghanistan. All of these regional countries--Pakistan,
Iran, Russia, to mention the major players; to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia,
Uzbekistan, India--they all have reasons for meddling in Afghanistan. Some
have to do with the various ethnic factions, but a lot of it has to do with
the geopolitics of who will be dominant, the so-called new great gain. And I
think that a lot of that does grow out of the race for the oil and gas and
mineral wealth that is perceived to exist in central Asia, and the markets
that they hope will eventually be there out of the wealth that those minerals
will create for the region. And certainly, Russia intends to--Russia sees
this area historically as its sphere of influence, and intends to be the
dominant player on the ground, in my opinion.

GROSS: You've been studying Afghanistan for about 15 years. What first drew
you to it?

Prof. GOODSON: Probably the sense of this being a really exotic, romantic
place, reading too many Kipling stories as a youth, perhaps; a place where the
people had a great nobility, where they were renowned for being hard, but at
the same time, warm and welcoming to visitors and foreigners, which they are,
and the good fortune to study with Louis Dupree, the great scholar of
Afghanistan in the West, who helped me get a fellowship and helped me get out
there and gave me so much wonderful advice about how to study and how to
interact with the population. So all of those things together.

GROSS: Does it sadden you to see what's happened to the country since you
first started studying it?

Prof. GOODSON: It's enormously saddening, and it's one of the reasons why
this interview has been so difficult, because I've been so frustrated at
recent decisions that seem to suggest to me that we are once again going to do
our business in Afghanistan, and then abandon it to its fate.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. GOODSON: You're most welcome.

GROSS: Larry Goodson is the author of the book "Afghanistan's Endless War."
He's an associate professor of international studies at Bentley College in
Waltham, Massachusetts.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Origins of terms highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow and
their use by society critics
TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the comments made by novelist Jonathan Franzen that helped get him
disinvited from appearing on Oprah's Book Club was that he saw his book as
part of the high-art literary tradition. He seemed unsure whether his book
would appeal to much of Oprah's audience. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg is
reminded of the mid-20th-century controversies over the words `highbrow,'
`middlebrow' and `lowbrow.'

GEOFF NUNBERG:

`Highbrow' and `lowbrow' started their lives as lowbrow words; popular slang
from the end of the 19th century. Novelists tended to put the words into the
mouths of vulgar or uneducated characters. Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt describes
a dinner as a `real, sure-'nuff, highbrow affair.'

But `middlebrow' had a more genteel beginning. Intellectuals invented the
word in the 1920s to disparage the tastes of middle-class consumers of culture
with their earnest efforts at self-improvement. As a 1925 article in Punch
put it, middlebrows were `people who are hoping that someday they'll get used
to the stuff they ought to like.'

`Middlebrow' had its cultural moment just after the Second World War. In
1949, Harper's editor Russell Lynes wrote an influential article called
"Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow," and a few years later, Dwight Macdonald wrote
his famous polemic, "Masscult, Midcult," a vituperative attack on middlebrow
culture.

That was all it took to set off a kind of national parlor game, as critics set
about putting everything into its appropriate pigeonhole. Highbrow was Ezra
Pound, the Berlin Philharmonic and John Dewey; lowbrow was Mickey Spillane,
Guy Lombardo and Walter Winchell; middlebrow was Edna Ferber, Andre
Kostelanetz and Walter Lippmann. The distinctions were crude and simplistic
the way they always are in these listing exercises that capture the public
fancy every so often; camp and kitsch, modern and post-modern, wired and
tired.

But there were serious issues at stake. For Macdonald, middlebrow was the
safe, smug enemy of great art. In his words, `It was the tide line where the
decisive struggles for survival take place between higher and lower
organisms.' That view appealed to many intellectuals on both the right and
the left. They made common cause against middlebrow art in America's last
great eructation of cultural snobbery.

Those were the echoes that Jonathan Franzen evoked when he demurred from
appearing on "Oprah" for fear he might compromise his status as a writer in
what he called the `high-art literary tradition.' Franzen later apologized,
but the word `high' still stuck in a lot of people's craw. High, middle, low;
those old hierarchies sound out of date these days. We may still be
interested in distinctions of taste and quality, but we aren't comfortable
about arranging them vertically anymore. The British art critic Robert
Hewison once said that when he was growing up, culture was organized like a
pyramid, but that somewhere along the way it got tipped over on its side.

One reason for this is that patterns of cultural consumption aren't as closely
linked to class as they used to be. Back in 1953, the critic Clement
Greenberg could write that middlebrow was born out of the desire of newly
ascendant social classes to rise culturally. That might have been true in an
age when people were proudly lining their shelves with the latest selections
of the Britannica Great Books or the Literary Guild. But the people who tune
in to Oprah's Book Club seem to be more interested in personal growth than
social advancement. Nowadays, after all, literary discernment doesn't give
you much of a leg up socially.

There's a passage in Martin Amis novel "The Information" where one of
the characters observes how literary taste degrades as you walk up the aisle
of an airplane. In economy, people are reading "Middlemarch"; in business,
they're reading John Grisham; and in first, they're just sleeping and eating
caviar.

Anyway, nowadays we all do our cultural shopping from the same outlets. The
New Yorker writer John Seabrook argued in a recent book that the old
distinctions of high, middle and low have been superceded by a new amalgam
that he calls `nobrow.' Nobrow is the creation of the high-powered cultural
marketing that gives us blockbuster museum shows, music megastores and
crossover best-sellers. You can hear it in the disappearance of that
condescending phrase `mass culture.' Now it's all `popular culture,' a
festival where all the seating is general admission.

The new cultural scene doesn't lend itself very well to those old categories.
You could still talk about highbrow and middlebrow if you were comparing
Elliott Carter and the Three Tenors, but how do you sort out the highbrows and
the middlebrows in the world of pop, which is where American musical culture
is really enacted now? Beck vs. Billy Joel? Bjork vs. Sarah Brightman? It
seems pretty far from what Dwight Macdonald had in mind. For that matter,
what do we make of the notion of highbrow art when there's a Norman Rockwell
show on exhibit right now at the Guggenheim? And however Franzen may think of
himself, he isn't really in what you'd think of as a highbrow tradition, no
more than novelists like Dave Eggers or Michael Sheamont(ph).

You still hear the word `middlebrow' from time to time, but it sounds
increasingly irrelevant and desperate. There was an article in The Wall
Street Journal the other day that dismissed Christiane Amanpour as a
middlebrow. That seemed a bit beside the point. I mean, what would a
highbrow war correspondent sound like, and why would anybody care?

In fact, those midcentury attacks on the middlebrow sound embarrassing now.
The fulminations about the high-art tradition, the horror of middle-class
vulgarity, the fixation on distinguishing between the great and the merely
good; in retrospect, it all smacks of the same humorless piety and cultural
insecurity that critics were assailing in the self-improving middle classes.
When you come down to it, middlebrow was always a pretty middlebrow idea.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center,
and author of the new book "The Way We Talk Now."

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews reissues by the LA punk band X. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Reissue of CDs by the 1980s LA punk band X
TERRY GROSS, host:

Rhino Records recently reissued the first three albums by the Los Angeles punk
band X. They were originally released between 1980 and '82. Rock critic Ken
Tucker lived in LA at the time the band was performing and recording these
albums. He says that hearing the band now brings back something more than
nostalgia.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. EXENE CERVENKA: (Singing) I just heard this sad song by another band,
song by another man. He gave it the once-over twice. I said, `When?' He
said, `OK, so long.' We all knew it was the endless road.

KEN TUCKER reporting:

In the late '70s and early '80s, I saw X play so many times in so many places,
ranging from a Polish meeting hall to the Sunset Strip's fabled Whiskey
A-Go-Go, that I can't remember the first time I laid eyes and ears on them.
But these reissues remind me what a thrill every performance was. At the
time, I was living in LA and hated its brand of punk rock which, unlike its
New York and London counterparts, was derivative, stupid, often racist and
misogynist, and about three years too late.

In 1981, I wrote a piece for The Village Voice about LA punk icons like The
Germs, Black Flag, Fear and the Gun Club that was even the headline: `Punk
Lives; Too Bad.' I figured I was just doing what LA punk should have been
doing: expressing contempt for the status quo. And to my ears, the only band
doing it worth a damn was X.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) I ...(unintelligible) when I had to go to sleep, but
I think that means that I really got the beat. Some people give me the
creeps.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN DOE: (Singing) I feel like I need a new address. Lay low, lay low,
lay low, pick up the mess.

Mr. DOE and Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing in unison) My whole (censored) life is a
wreck. What to do? Can you do it? ...(Unintelligible). Can you do it?
What can you do? Can you do it? What to do? Can you do it with more pills?

TUCKER: To appreciate what X's founders, the husband and wife team of Exene
Cervenka and John Doe, achieved, you have to understand their context. First
of all, they were living in the company town of showbiz, at a time when The
Eagles could still sing "Desperado" without choking on the hypocrisy of their
own words.

Second, the punk scene was nasty, brutish and out of date. Fashions the rest
of the rock world had dropped five years earlier--the dog collars, the dyed
mohawks--were still hot stuff. So were drugs, the obliterator of choice being
China White, a synthetic heroin that was reportedly what The Germs' leader
Darby Crash used to off himself in December 1980, and which was also the name
of a band, a bad one, full of yelling dolts.

In the midst of this there was X, fronted by John and Exene, two penniless
out-of-towners who'd met in a poetry class in Venice Beach. And they hooked
up with a baby-faced rockabilly guitarist with the great name Billy Zoom and a
classically trained drummer with the even greater name of D.J. Bonebrake.

(Soundbite of "The World's A Mess; It's In My Kiss")

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) No one is denied it, and all things are untied. The
rest were going over the side. ...(Unintelligible) There are no angels.
There are devils in ...(unintelligible). Take it like a man.

Ms. CERVENKA and Mr. DOE: (Singing in unison) The world's a mess; it's in
my kiss. The world's a mess; it's in my kiss. The world's a mess; it's in my
kiss. The world's a mess; it's in my kiss. Yeah!

TUCKER: In the excellent liner notes by Los Angeles Times journalist
Kristine McKenna that accompanies each of these three CDs, X co-founder John
Doe says that the first time he rehearsed that song with his band, he thought,
`This is a hit song.' The song was called "The World's A Mess; It's In My
Kiss"--the only song title in the history of rock 'n' roll, I will venture, to
contain a semicolon. The lyrics are so scatter-shot as to be abstract. And
when you combine them with the sour, off-key, yet emotionally perfect
harmonies that Doe and Cervenka made their trademark, they guaranteed them no
hits, not even any air play, except on late-night radio shows specializing in
punk.

In the crucible of the LA scene, X quickly established itself as the
exceptions to the rule. They crafted their songs, but also performed them as
if they'd just learned the chords and were improvising the words.

(Soundbite of "I'm Coming Over")

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) I'm coming over. I'm coming over. I'm coming over,
coming over. ...(Unintelligible). I'm coming over. I'm coming over. I'm
coming over. Move over. ...(Unintelligible). I'm coming over. I'm coming
over. I'm coming over, coming over. I'm ...(unintelligible), I'm American.
I'm ...(unintelligible), I'm American.

I'm coming over. I'm coming over. I'm coming over, coming over.
(Unintelligible). I'm coming over. I'm coming over. I'm coming over, coming
over. Yeah, ...(unintelligible).

TUCKER: X's first two albums were released on Slash Records, a tiny
independent label. Their third, "Under The Big Black Sun," was picked up by a
major, Elektra Records. I recommend them all without reservation.

At the time, I thought I loved X because they were expressing my own
frustration with Los Angeles. Like hundreds of others, I knowingly fooled
myself into thinking I was part of their scene, though I kept well to its
margins. I was at the Whiskey the night in 1980 when Exene's beloved sister,
Mary, was hit and killed by a car outside the club. And when the band went
back inside to finish its set, it felt also like the death of the band.
Instead, they went on to record all of these great songs which hold up as
music, as snapshots of a moment, as expressions of the exhilaration and
freedom punk rock brought to a town even so jaded as Los Angeles, even so
jaded as I might have felt.

The band broke up in the late '80s, and so did John and Exene's marriage. If
your kid watches the teen alien show "Roswell," check it out sometime. John
Doe plays the hero's father. The times move on, but X marked its spot.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Riding with Mary")

Mr. DOE: (Singing) On the dashboard rides a big dream.

Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing) It's about the sweet ...(unintelligible).

Mr. DOE and Ms. CERVENKA: (Singing in unison) So the next time you see a
statue of Mary...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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