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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 15, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Harry, Mouth Work, Socialist Utopia

Most of America first met Harry Connick, Jr., when he started mentoring American Idol contestants. He tried to get the young singers to rely on the melody and the words, rather than spending so much time fiddling with endless decorations of the notes.

I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Every singer who tries to do runs all the time sounds like every other singer who does runs, since, as Harry Connick, Jr., pointed out, all runs are built on the same five notes: the "pentatonics."

It was when all the other judges had trouble even pronouncing the word that it became very clear that while the other judges usually knew how to sing and perform well, they had no idea of musical theory.

Which makes sense. Some of them were songwriters, but you don't have to know theory to write songs. It's only when you start arranging and orchestrating music that it's essential that you understand the bones of the music, why notes in this scale sound so wrong when added into another scale -- yet other stray notes sound "blue" and fit perfectly.

Harry Connick, Jr., knows all this because not only is he a jazz-honkytonk pianist, but also he arranges and orchestrates music for his jazz band. With deep roots in New Orleans culture, Harry knows how to turn any song into any kind of music. That's why he became the best mentor and judge ever to serve on any singing-competition panel.

But before American Idol, Harry wasn't a star, not really. The contestants all knew who Keith Urban was, and they all knew Jennifer Lopez. But a lot of them couldn't even remember Harry Connick, Jr.'s, name.

I could. No problem. Because I have been listening to Harry Connick, Jr., for a long, long time. I already had all his albums. I knew of all his movies, and had seen many of them. That counts movies he acted in and movies that featured his singing and playing on the soundtrack.

So he not only played Justin opposite Sandra Bullock, in Hope Floats, he also sang "This Guy's in Love with You" on the soundtrack of One Fine Day.  Not only did he play Captain Jimmy Wilder in Independence Day, but also sang on the soundtracks of When Harry Met Sally ..., Kissing a Fool, The Mask, Sleepless in Seattle, and on and on.

It used to be that movies would feature their big theme song during the opening titles, before the action really started. So many movies I saw as a kid with my family would begin with Vic Damone (it was usually Vic Damone) or Frank Sinatra singing a song with the movie's title in the lyrics. The Bond movies still do this, most of the time.

Today, Harry Connick, Jr., is the go-to guy when a movie starts with an actual song -- you know, the kind with a tune and intelligible lyrics. He doesn't imitate Sinatra like so many other pop singers do; Harry's phrasing and interpretation are his own. He just makes a song better by singing it.

Oddly enough, though, my favorite songs aren't the ones he writes -- I much prefer listening to his arrangements of old standards. I'd like to have the entire Great American Songbook recorded by Harry Connick, Jr. But when he sets out to write songs, he slips from being a great pop singer to being an enthusiastic jazz arranger.

That means that even though his music often contains hints of Dixieland, country, and every other kind of music, at heart, Harry is a child of jazz, with a blend of cool vocal and bebop that often makes the melody sound random.

Random means forgettable, when it comes to songs. So, as with most bebop jazz, you can get caught up in the riffs and enjoy them so much you don't notice that the melody never quite gets played or sung. But it's fun to listen to, and Harry sings with such verve that you don't care that there are few opportunities to hear and learn an actual tune.

I don't hate anything he's ever sung. But I mostly love the standards when he sings them. I'm a fan of his music, but not an uncritical one.

But I'm a whole-hearted fan of Harry Connick, Jr., the human being -- at least as far as I can get to know him through the screen. He was a warm and wonderful presence, infinitely patient, on American Idol. And no matter what character he plays in movies or TV shows, there's a deep goodness that comes through.

This makes Harry the kind of human being that daytime television viewers -- mostly women -- want to spend an hour with every single day. Not every nice guy can do it, of course -- Harry is an entertainer, he's quick-witted and glib, he knows how to make a conversation happen and keep it flowing. But that skill set wouldn't amount to much if we didn't like the guy we see.

Monday of this past week (12 September) was the first episode of the TV talk show called Harry -- no exclamation mark, thank you kindly -- and I will be surprised if it isn't a hit.

Sandra Bullock was Harry's only guest, and it was clear that they actually knew and liked each other. Bullock is not always an easy interview; she gets kind of inward sometimes, and it can be hard to draw her out. But Harry had stories about her -- how they met in the process of casting Hope Floats, and then Bullock's connection with a historic old New Orleans high school that she's helping to sponsor. He got both passion and humor from her, so that we liked spending time with the two of them.

But the strength of Harry is not, and never will be, the guest list. You don't tune in day after day in order to see the guests. You tune in for the hosts of these shows, because you come to trust them, to look forward to spending time with them.

Harry began Harry by talking with the audience, giving a heartfelt tribute to his daughters and his wife. He had things to say about each of them that gave us a sense of knowing who they are -- and what they are to him. It was moving and sweet, and I daresay that any woman in the mostly-female audience who wasn't already in love with Harry Connick, Jr., fell in love right then.

There is a regular segment called "I Got This," in which Harry shows up at the workplace or home of a woman who is making a real contribution but works so hard that she needs a day off. Harry says, "You're about to go shopping now. As for all the work you've got to do ... I got this."

Then Harry spends the day -- or at least the afternoon -- doing that person's job. In the first episode, it was a woman who had grown up through a hardscrabble life and started her own nail salon called "Poochie's Pawz." Harry stepped in, not knowing diddly about how to do nails -- or, apparently, how to run a retail business.

Well, why should he know? He's a music guy, has been since early childhood. What matters for the show's purposes is this: He's game to do the work, though he knows his limitations -- he didn't work on people's actual nails. He blows things -- like forgetting to charge a guy who came in to pick up an order of manicure supplies -- but through it all, he's good company for the people in the store and the customers.

We saw clips promoting future "I Got This" installments -- there will be times when he plays with some kids while mom gets away for an afternoon, and a lot of other jobs.

But when Poochie came back to her salon, Harry wasn't done. First, he made sure that we in the audience saw examples of Poochie's really amazing nail art. There's a backdrop behind Harry on which his name is spelled out in block letters, which become screens to show whatever he wants. So with Poochie's beautiful work displayed behind him, he brought her onto the set.

Not only had she gotten her fun shopping day and then dinner out with her husband; now, on the show, Harry announced that the show had arranged to get her a booth at a really important trade show, where she would have a chance to offer her proprietary materials to big retailers. It's a genuine shot at the big time, and you can bet that plenty of those possible customers either saw or will see Poochie's appearance on Harry.

My first thought was, Oh, this is Queen for a Day ... but it isn't. Harry gets personally involved, and the "prizes" are absolutely appropriate for the person. It's not a dose of money, it's an opportunity. Poochie had already proven herself to be the kind of person who makes the most out of opportunities, so ... she's still going to earn any benefits that come.

Then the show ended with Harry performing a song from his most recent album. It was a great stage number, with some fun rapid-fire lyrics and a chorus that the audience could sing along with.

There have been some great talk- and variety-show hosts over the years that television existed. There was Oprah, of course, and it's her afternoon audience that Harry is aimed at. Ellen Degeneres is brilliant in the mornings.

I'm old enough to remember Art Linkletter, who for decades was the king of daytime chat on both radio and television, with House Party, People Are Funny, and Kids Say the Darndest Things.

It was the last of these shows -- basically the kind of cute-kid stuff that now shows up on Facebook and YouTube -- that spawned a series of books, some of which were illustrated by a new cartoonist named Charles Schulz. It was the first time I ever saw the illustrating style that became the Peanuts comic strip, which was new at the time.

My favorite -- the first time I ever remember laughing out loud at something in a book -- was the kid who said that he liked to play catch with God. What? The kid explained: "I throw the ball up, and God throws it back down." That was cute -- but it was laugh-out-loud funny because Shulz drew a boy with a baseball glove, looking straight up with disgust, saying, "Butterfingers!"

I shouldn't have enjoyed something that irreverent so much -- but that's half of why it was funny. That plus imagining the ball going on and on, upward into the atmosphere and beyond, because God just can't catch.

What I'm saying is that not every talk show host has "it" -- and even those who do can lose it. Remember Phil Donahue? For a while, he was all the rage -- but he got smug and full of himself. I remember my contempt for him when he took his show to Russia and then claimed credit for starting glasnost, the new openness in Gorbachev's Soviet Union. No, Mr. Donahue, you did not change the world. Gorbachev changed it.

I really think it was Donahue's self-righteous self-worshipping crusades that did him in. Yes, he lost badly when he went head-to-head with Oprah in Chicago, but even when he moved to New York and tried to avoid her time slot, it didn't help. We were done with Donahue. He didn't get the old ratings anymore, and he was gone.

No 25-year run of one show and nineteen years of another, the way Art Linkletter did. Just gone.

You can't predict who's going to be a hit. Well, you can, and I'm about to right now -- you just can't be sure you're right.

I think Harry will be a hit because he and his support staff are already wonderfully creative, adapting the chat show formula to fit Harry's interests and personality. And because Harry has Harry Connick, Jr., and he's the real thing -- a good man doing good work, helping us meet other people and see them at their best.

It's not just entertaining, it's encouraging, and I think that's what both Oprah and Ellen brought to daytime. Harry is worthy to take his place in that particular pantheon; I hope he's there for a long time.

*

The only reason I knew that North Carolina poet J.S. Absher had a new book of poetry was because I'm friends with his brother -- not just Facebook friends, but actual real-life share-a-house-at-the-beach friends. So I saw the notice on Facebook that J.S. Absher was having a reading and signing in Asheville, which my friend, who lives near Lawrence, Kansas, now, could not attend.

I couldn't attend either, but what I could do was find the book online. I bought it on Kindle, but I also bought a copy of the trade paperback edition.

Most people don't read poetry, mostly because our schools have done such a wretched job of teaching poetry for the past fifty years. And while I do read poetry, I'm finicky. So much poetry is like bad performance art -- self-indulgent, inscrutable, and contemptuous of the audience.

Over the years, I've come to prefer formal poetry -- when it uses the forms well. The trouble is, most poets who try to use meter and rhyme have no idea what they're doing. If they achieve something like a rhyme, they think they're done. Usually they're not even close.

So even in the free online poetry magazine I publish myself (http://www.strongverse.org/) most of what I buy and print is free verse, because it's more likely to be good than formal verse. I don't go for gush-of-emotion poems, for poems that seem to be a therapy session, for poems whose meaning might be known to God but not to any reader. If it looks or sounds like Ezra Pound, I'm gone.

I'm finicky about poetry, that's my point here. I had never read any of J.S. Absher's poems, so I had no idea what to expect.

J.S. Absher's book, Mouth Work, won the North Carolina Poetry Society's Lena Shull Book Award, "an annual contest for a full-length poetry manuscript ... written by a resident of North Carolina." So not only did Absher grow up in the mountains of North Carolina, he's still in state and, I'm happy to report, these feel like mountain country poems.

Not because Absher tries to "sound country" -- he doesn't. His tone is informal but not folksy. You have to read carefully, but the poems are mostly clear and often moving.

There are a few things I know about Absher's upbringing, but these poems are not autobiographical. In fact, they seem to focus on people from his father's generation -- the "I" in most of the poems is not Absher, but rather an imaginary character from the previous generation.

One of my favorites is "What I Knew and When." The poem begins with "I" as a sixteen-year-old, "sitting in the locked shed behind Dancy's store," playing no-limit five-card stud. "I had one eye on Stutts, easy to pull a knife, the other on Rufe Baldwin and the gun in his belt."

When Stutts "went broke," he asked around the table for a loan; it was "I" who gave him twenty. A few hands later, a fight erupts; the knife gets drawn, the gun gets aimed, and "I" prevents a murder by grabbing the shooting hand so the shot went wide.

This is not your normal fare for poetry, yet Absher handles his free-verse lines like the master he is. It always feels like a poem, rich with meaning; but it also feels like a story, strong with character and event. This poker game and its aftermath trigger the narrator's departure from town. He meets up with a girl he doesn't know, and buys tickets for both of them to ride the bus from Biloxi Mississippi to Billings Montana. Quite a bus ride.

Another quote from the poem:

She said she wanted a girl and two boys,

a car that runs, a garden with a bed

of marigolds, a clothesline bright with sheets.

Her daddy found us in the rooming house.

Get out, son, he said, cocking his forty-four.

The girl turned red. I cried and ran.

The story is simple enough; as a poem, though, it's got so much depth and weight that it feels like all of nostalgia is wrapped up in it, all the regrets for dumb decisions or bad luck, for roads not taken.

Some of Absher's poems are playful, like "We Last as Long as the Dew." Some of them are so gorgeous I want to read the whole thing to you. And what runs through the book is the relationship between father and son. Some of the jumps of thought are almost miraculous: How do you go from here to here? How did you know it would be so perfect?

If the idea of buying an actual physical book of poems feels strange and scary, then buy and download the Kindle edition. All the words are there, laid out properly upon the page. If you have ever loved poetry, this book is worth giving it a chance to get inside you.

*

Bernie Sanders isn't the only one this election year to claim that there's no reason for America not to thrive on the kind of socialism that has worked so brilliantly in the Nordic countries -- Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

(Iceland is also a Nordic country, but isn't all that socialist; we use "Nordic" instead of "Scandinavian" because Finland is definitely not Scandinavian.)

Look how equal the Nordic countries are, we're told. Free health care, free college. Look how fair they are, even with effective tax rates that are way above fifty percent. And yet they're still productive, their economies are doing well.

The syllogism seems to be: The Nordic countries are socialist; they're prosperous and fair; therefore socialism leads to societies that are prosperous and fair.

Not so fast, says Nima Sanandaji in Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism. After living in the Nordic socialist utopia for much of his life, Sanandaji loves the people and the culture, and he is delighted with many aspects of the utopian life there.

But he's too rigorous a thinker to accept the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of Leftist claims about the Nordic utopia. Wait a minute, he says. Did socialism cause these good results?

The answer, after serious research, is: No way.

How does he know this? Because socialism came to these countries fairly recently; yet before socialism was instituted, these countries already had relatively equal incomes. In fact, the good things about these countries were better before socialism than after, and most of them have backed away from their decades-long experiment with socialism because, to put it bluntly, socialism made things worse.

Why do people in the Nordic countries accept such high tax rates? In a word: trust. They have a culture of working hard -- you know, the "Protestant work ethic," a phrase invented to explain the hardworking Lutheran farmers in America. So nobody fears that people will become dependent on welfare; they would be ashamed to be. Fellow-citizens would only take welfare because they really needed it, and they'd get off welfare the moment they could.

Here's the clincher: When Sanandaji (and his brother, who also researches in this field) compared Nordic immigrants to the U.S., they found that Nordic-American people in capitalist America had exactly the same results as the people in the Nordic countries ... or better.

It's the culture of these people, which immigrants brought with them to Minnesota and the Dakotas and other regions of the U.S., which gives the utopian results that are incorrectly attributed to socialism in the old countries. Finns, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians prosper, look out for each other, trust each other, and therefore they prosper together.

It's the message Thomas Sowell has been trying to give the world, America in particular, for decades: The great determiner is not economic policy, not laws; the determiner of whether a particular group prospers is their culture.

Usually we concentrate our attention on communities that don't prosper, and then we look outside those communities for someone to blame for their poverty or welfare dependency.

But over and over again, the data shows that this is completely wrong. Yes, many of the disadvantaged groups have suffered greatly at the hands of other groups. But in most cases, the oppressed and the oppressors are all dead. Why, then, are the formerly oppressed still poor?

Maybe the culture of disappointment has its roots in the old oppression. But if our goal is to help those disadvantaged people rise out of poverty, lack of education, and other signs of despair, then it helps nobody to point to past oppression as "the cause" of these sad aspects of their lives. We can't go back in time and make bad people act better. The only era we can have any effect on is now.

So if, as the data clearly shows, the ongoing cause of community failure or success is that community's culture, then the only plausible way to improve their situation is to change the culture.

Immediately the unhelpful, dogmatic Left cries, "You're blaming the victim!"

No, we're not blaming anybody. Blame cures nothing. Is there still racism in the world? Sure. Of course. But with laws now reformed to remove extraneous barriers, many individuals in those depressed cultures have raised themselves and brought others with them. Racism -- especially past racism -- didn't keep them down. It can be done.

It's like the story of Poochie on the first episode of Harry. This young woman decided, as a child, that she was not going to fall in with the culture of the Savannah neighborhood that surrounded her. She was going to make something of her life. And she did.

Sick cultures are often sick because of awful things done to them in the past. But sick cultures can't be made healthy by doses of money, welfare, or other do-good-ism from outside. They only get healthy by change that originates inside the culture.

I'm not going to specify the changes that need to be made, because they're well-known and obvious, and many people within those cultures have already pointed them out. Nobody needs an old white guy to prescribe their medicine. And besides, while the statistics of failure in all parts of society seem to increase, the number of people who overcome and escape those cultural traps is also increasing.

Maybe it won't be some sweeping change; certainly it won't be a government program, because those programs always fail (yes, even Head Start, because within a few years, the culture overwhelms whatever temporary advantages the program caused).

Maybe it'll just be one family at a time making the right decisions and inculcating a very different, positive, optimistic culture in their children.

If you look for racism and oppression, you can always find it, whether it's there or not. If you look for opportunity and you work hard, you won't always succeed -- but you'll be your own master, responsible for your own life. That's true regardless of race. Because, despite claims of "white privilege," there are still way more white welfare recipients and drug addicts than black ones or brown ones. The road to the bottom is open to all; but so is the road to the top.

Cultures can change. After all, I've watched the strait-laced, chaperoned, hard-working, polite society of the 1950s evolve into the profligate, hedonistic, lonely, abortion-loving nightmare of today. We changed ourselves because we read a few books and acted on a few fad ideas and then looked around and found ourselves in -- or near the borders of -- hell. Even if our life choices have kept us out of hell, we can all see it from where we are, and it's bigger and closer than ever.

Enacting a socialist agenda had no good effects in the Nordic utopias, and with the exception of Denmark, they have all rolled back many of the socialist programs and laws -- and many of the taxes, both open and hidden. Socialism didn't even work in those societies that seemed best suited for it; and socialism has had far worse effects in places like France and Italy and Spain.

The laws of economics can't be repealed by governments. Debunking Utopia shows that even the shining example of ideal socialism isn't real. It was the strength of the pre-existing culture that propped up and concealed the failures of socialism.

We have problems that need addressing. ObamaCare is a cobbled-together nightmare -- but the goal of getting everyone fair access to health care, regardless of income or preexisting conditions, is the right one. Socialism across a whole economy is disastrous, as we've seen again and again. But using a largely free market to create enough surpluses that we can afford to weave a strong safety net can succeed.

We just need to have a Left that doesn't keep demanding more and more socialism regardless of outcome, and a Right that doesn't keep slamming the door in the face of the few socialist programs that make it possible to bear the capitalist system.

Socialism as a few islands in a sea of capitalism has been the American way for half a century or more. The only argument is where the islands should be, and how large, and how to pay for them.

It's worth reading Nima Sanandaji, Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism because there's a lot of excellent, reliable information in it, covering a broad array of topics.

Sanandaji is not a conservative, and he's uncomfortable, as I am, with the absolute hostility many conservatives have to any social program. (I cringe when conservative friends on Facebook speak as if all welfare recipients were freeloaders, because they should know -- most of them do know -- that this is untrue and unfair.)

But good science has no party and no ideology. He went where the data took him, as good (i.e., non-climate) scientists always do, and now he's telling us that whatever it is we're trying to accomplish, the Nordic countries are not evidence that socialism works.


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