Sunday, December 29, 2013

Author Interview: UVA's Paul A. Cantor on zombies and liberty in popular culture

Professor Paul A. Cantor
Speaking at the Mercatus Center on the Arlington campus of George Mason University last November about the topic, “The Economics of Apocalypse: Flying Saucers, Alien Invasions, and the Walking Dead,” University of Virginia English professor Paul A. Cantor drew upon his research on popular culture to discuss opposing visions of individualism and collectivism in contemporary catastrophe narratives in film and television.

Cantor, a Shakespeare scholar, is author of a recent book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV, a follow-up to Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, published in 2001.

Cantor is also co-editor, with San Diego State University professor Stephen Cox, of the 2010 volume, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. He and Cox (who is also editor of Liberty magazine, now an on-line publication) are perhaps the most prominent libertarian thinkers working in the field of English literature today.

After his lecture and a discussion moderated by Reason magazine's Jesse Walker, Cantor explained to me why he was looking into the presence of zombie themes in pop culture today.

“These zombie stories are a very interesting way of exploring questions that Americans are interested in,” he said.

What he has noticed in zombie stories, he explained, is that “almost the first thing that results from the zombie apocalypse is the collapse of the federal government. These stories explore what life would be like in a world that was more like the American western, more like the frontier, in which people are forced to rely on their own resources.”

Sometimes, he said, those situations are “frightening but for many of the characters, particularly in The Walking Dead, the experience is empowering. They develop a sense of self-reliance, they face a a challenge, and they meet it.”

In his book, Cantor traces recurring themes in film and TV since the 1950s, a time when there were just three television channels available to most viewers, compared with the hundreds available through cable and satellite services today.

The proliferation of channels, he said, “has really opened up the creativity in television.”

Citing The Simpsons and The X-Files as pertinent examples, Cantor explained that “a lot of shows almost certainly wouldn't have made it onto television in the era of the three networks. It was the Fox Network, the fourth network, that really opened things up.”

Despite the increase in the number of networks and shows, he said, “there's a lot of continuity. Again, what I'm seeing in these contemporary zombie narratives is in many ways a reconstitution of what westerns were like in the Fifties. What we certainly have now is greater variety and, frankly, greater quality because people are able to take more creative chances.”

Cantor's new book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, he said, “carries on some of the same issues” addressed in Gilligan Unbound.

One section of the more recent work “is devoted to globalization,” the primary theme of Gilligan Unbound, which was published the same week as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“This book has given me a chance to see how things have played out in popular culture” over the past decade, Cantor said.

Writing the book gave him an opportunity to ask “how shows like Fringe, V, Invasion, [and] Falling Skies have reacted to developments since 9/11 and [a] world with a threat of terrorism but also the problems created by the war on terrorism.”

He was also able to compare and contrast pop culture during the Cold War and during the post-9/11 era.

“I look at flying saucer movies in the 1950s,” he noted.

In those days, Cantor said, “the invaders are an image of real foreigners. It's Soviet Communism that's showing up in the flying saucers.”

By contrast, he pointed out, “when you look at shows like V, The Event, Invasion, [and] especially Fringe, the people invading us are us. 'We've met the enemy and he is us.' These shows explore a disturbing image of the American government as having moved in totalitarian directions.”

With so many choices of movies and TV shows to watch, Cantor sometimes relies on serendipity to find what he's looking for.

“It's chancy,” he said.

“Sometimes I just like a show, often because I like the characters or the actors in it. Sometimes I force myself to watch a show because it's obvious it's raising the kind of questions I'm interested in. For example, The Walking Dead, I really just like. It's really well-made, well-done.”

On the other hand, he watches Revolution on NBC “even though I don't think it's such a good show because it fits into my thesis and I've got to consider the evidence” as he continues exploration of libertarian and apocalyptic themes in popular culture.

(An earlier version of this interview appeared on

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'A Century of Christmas Memories' - A Book Review

A Century of Christmas Memories, 1900-1999, by the Editors of Peter Pauper Press. White Plains, N.Y.:  Peter Pauper Press, 2009. Hardcover $12.95, 120 pages.

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson lit the first national Christmas tree on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.  Ten years later, Calvin Coolidge presided over a tree-lighting ceremony on the Ellipse south of the White House, beginning a tradition that endures today.

These are two of the historical tidbits included in A Century of Christmas Memories, 1900-1999, a stocking stuffer book attributed to "nameless" editors working for the Peter Pauper Press.

While it contains more than 100 pages spanning ten decades, the book itself can be read cover to cover in less than an hour.  Each item consists of just one or two sentences, and the pages are dominated by photographs and other illustrations.

Designed more to entertain and to evoke nostalgia than to be a serious reference tool, A Century of Christmas Memories has the capacity to send readers scrambling to the encyclopedia or to the Internet to learn more about the events, trends, and commercial products it mentions.

To get a flavor of the book, check out some of the items reported every ten years ending in "3".

One might be surprised to learn, for instance, in one of the entries for 1903 that that was the year that Advent calendars were first introduced:
they are attributed to printer Gerhard Lang.  Legend has it that Lang's mother gave her son a piece of cake or biscuit on each day in December, giving him something to look forward to as he counted down to Christmas.  This inspired his creation of the calendars that offer children treats or favors for each day leading up to December 25.
Besides the debut of the first national Christmas tree, 1913 also saw the birth of the Kewpie doll and the Erector Set, as well as the Goo Goo Cluster candy, the crossword puzzle, and
On December 1, the first "drive-in" gas station opens in Pittsburgh, current home of the Gulf Oil Company.  The price for a gallon of gas?  Eight cents!
Ten years later, when Coolidge lit the Christmas tree outside the White House ("illuminated by 2,500 lights"), Paul Whiteman's orchestra had a hit with the holiday-themed "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and the Hasbro company, eventually known for producing popular toys left under the Christmas tree, was founded.

In the midst of the Depression, 1933 saw the erection of the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the first Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular (featuring the Rockettes).

During the Second World War, the U.S. government suggested giving war bonds as Christmas presents.  In 1943, Bing Crosby had a hit record with "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and -- despite otherwise suspending the expansion of the TV industry -- there was an experimental broadcast of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  (How many -- or how few -- viewers saw it is not noted.)  Overseas that year, American GIs decorated Christmas trees in Italy with the leftover foil from their C-rations and sailors on the U.S.S. North Carolina sent a large check to Macy's with instructions to provide gifts to their families across the country.

In the peace and prosperity of 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower produced the first White House Christmas cards, featuring his own artwork.   Classic holiday recordings introduced that year included Eartha Kitt's sultry "Santa Baby" and Louis Armstrong's novelty number, "Zat You, Santa Claus?"  That was also the year that Matchbox cars were first found under the tree on Christmas morning.

In the wake of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Christmas 1963 was somewhat subdued, as suggested by Roy Orbison's recording of Willie Nelson's song, "Pretty Paper," but that year in England, the Beatles sent their fans the first of several special recordings of holiday greetings and Andy Williams first recorded the now-seemingly ubiquitous "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."  Toy manufacturer Hasbro introduced the Easy-Bake Oven in 1963, selling half a million units that first year.

The OPEC oil embargo dimmed some lights for Christmas 1973, but that year saw the debut of Dungeons & Dragons and the first Hallmark collectible ornaments.  Songwriters Johnny Marks ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") and Irving Berlin ("White Christmas") received the 1973 Spirit of Christmas Award from the International Society of Santa Claus.

Today we think a 24-hour cable-TV marathon of A Christmas Story is a tradition whose origins are lost in the mists of history.  It turns out that movie premiered in 1983, as did the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd vehicle Trading Places and ABC-TV's annual Mickey Mouse Christmas parade broadcast from Disney World.

The fourth year of the last decade of the twentieth century, 1993, featured the release of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a hybrid holiday film.  Big toys that year were action figures based on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series and the biggest bubble commodity since tulips and before Bitcoin, the Beanie Babies:
this is the year the first Beanie Babies are unleashed on an unsuspecting public, creating a craze that would last for years.  The Original Nine?  Spot the Dog, Squealer the Pig, Patti the Platypus, Cubbie the Bear, Chocolate the Moose, Pinchers the Lobster, Splash the Orca, Legs the Frog, and Flash the Dolphin.
The twenty-first century is beyond the scope of A Century of Christmas Memories, but let's take a look back at what happened on December 25, 2003, just ten years ago, to continue the nostalgia,  The top three films that day (per box office receipts) were The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Paycheck.  Billboard's top single for that week was "Change Clothes" by Jay-Z.  The AP headlined a story: "‘Secret Santa’ spreads $40K worth of cheer" about a man in a Santa suit passing out $100 bills to strangers.

What will a future edition of A Century of Christmas Memories have to say about the holiday season of 2013? Perhaps we'll be remembering Pajama Boy, but only the editors of the Peter Pauper Press know for sure.