Thursday, March 15, 2018

Can It Happen Here? by Cass Sunstein - Book Review

The essays in Can it Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America (Dey Street Books, March 2018, 496 pages, $11.99/12.18) vary widely in accessibility, readability, and sense of audience. They represent a set of, largely academic papers that may raise more issues than they settle. Nevertheless, I came away, despite the pessimism of some of the essays, with the sense that if Americans act with courage and fortitude, our institutions will survive the Trump assault on them. Most of the writers, drawn from top, mostly American, universities suggest that, while there seems to be world-wide skepticism toward liberal democracy, we can weather the storm by relying on the checks and balances established in the Constitution, maintaining a free press, and the engagement of the electorate in the political process.

The title of the book is drawn from Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1936, which followed the career of a fictional governor, much like Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana, who took a run against Franklin Delano Roosevelt before his assassination in 1936. Lewis’ autocratic, totalitarian character, perhaps modeled on Adolf Hitler is elected president on a platform of populism and traditional values. Sound familiar? The title of Lewis’ book is turned into a question, which each of the writers examine in their own fashion.

The writers aredrawn almost entirely from Academia and selected from elite institutions dominated by the Ivy League and the University of Chicago. Including editor Cass Sunstein, there were nineteen writers distributed thus: Harvard – 5, Chicago – 5, Yale – 2, NYU – 2, Columbia – 1, Princeton – 1, Cornell – 1, Duke – 1, George Mason – 1. In terms of specialties, they were distributed this way: Law – 11, Economics – 2, Diplomacy – 1, varied social sciences – 5. Several were described as being multi-disciplinary. Given these distributions of institutions and specialties, it’s little wonder that many of the entries were jargon-filled and somewhat repetitive. One of the contributors, Samantha Powers, also happens to be married to editor Sunstein, although I can see no reason why she doesn’t belong in this distinguished group.

Can It Happen Here? considers whether the inclinations and indications from the Trump administration can or will lead to the loss of our democracy and the imposition/acceptance of an authoritarian form of government in the United States. While, in his preface, Sunstein suggests that this dark vision of what America might become isn’t yet happening, those who can imagine such outcomes are writing and speaking about it. They belong to a long history of those who’ve written about an apocalyptic view of democracy and freedom.

The essays range from thoughtful and insightful analyses of Donald Trump’s mind and approach to stunningly difficult to read and interpret research studies written for an academic audience. They often are much in need of interpretation for even the intelligent lay reader. As such, it seems to be a book in search of an audience who can find enough sustenance to make it worth purchasing. It contains too much jargon and too many statistics to be useful to the general reader, and too little for the specialist.

The general tenor of this collection is to suggest that while Trump, his authoritarian vision and the alignment of his appointees towards the very forces he campaigned against, while deeply upsetting and destructive, is likely to fail as other efforts to exert control over the government and people of America have failed in the past. But the ride isn’t going to be pleasant and the destruction may take years to heal. Since there are few examples of authoritarian or anti-constitutional governance in this country, several of the writers depend on authoritarian influences in Hungary and Poland, which have pulled back from democracy. They also rely on the rise to power of historical figures like Louis Bonaparte in France, Hitler, and Mussolini, all of whom overthrew representative governments to install autocratic rule before failing.

Most of the essays strike a center-left middle ground, as one might expect from a group of writers dominated by men (only two women contributed chapters) trained in law who also teach it in elite settings. There’s a strong presumption that the principles enshrined in the Constitution and embodied in the checks and balances and the Bill of Rights, with special emphasis on the role of the press, whose voice is guaranteed by the First Amendment will prevail. Meanwhile, the concerns of the unruly extremes of both parties is under-emphasized as the writers place their faith in the good sense of the center.

Cass Sunstein

According to Amazon, “Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, where he is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. He is by far the most cited law professor in the United States. From 2009 to 2012 he served in the Obama administration as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He has testified before congressional committees, appeared on national television and radio shows, been involved in constitution-making and law reform activities in a number of nations, and written many articles and books, including Simpler: The Future of Government and Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter.”

Canit Happen Here?: Authoritarianismin America (DeyStreet Boois, March 2018, 496 pages, $11.99/12.18) edited by Cass Sunstein consists of seventeen essays edited and curated by Cass Sunstein examining the rise of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States and its possible outcomes. Relying on the history of several authoritarian rises and failures in world history as well as a social psychological approach to American predictions, the book speculates about the possible continued world-wide rise of authoritarian rule and its possibilities. With regard to the U.S., the essays hold out some optimism, assuming that Americans and our institutions stand tall and act bravely. The essays are uneven, but many deserve careful, thoughtful study. They are marred by their tone and the denseness of the prose in some. The book was provided to me by the publisher as a digital download through Edelweiss, and I read it on my Amazon Fire.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Florida Bluegrass Classic 2018 - Review

Three years after moving from its former home in world-famous speed trap, Waldo, FL to its new site at the Florida Classic Part, Evans Media Source's Florida Bluegrass Classic has created a new identity and grown into an increasingly interesting and varied festival combining first rate bluegrass music with classic country with a pinch of 1970's and 80's early rock and roll harmonies from great early bands like Frankie Valli, the Drifters, BeeGees and others, which relied on close harmony singing for the popularity. The combination is proving popular and expanding the audience in both age and taste. Promoters Ernie and Debi Evans have also taken the cruise ship model, brought to land, and created a five day event with enough happening to supplement the stage shows to make their events into  nearly week-long experiences. The park opened on Monday, as campers began to roll in to participate in the activities provided by both the event staff and the campers themselves, many of whom make their own music and fun. 

Judy Peters & Greg Bird

Regular attendees at Evans Media Source festivals are familiar with the warm greetings and mellow vocals of genial host Greg Bird, who acts as emcee and general host for the early days of the events. His melodious karaoke singing of country music classics is often featured, while he also provides opportunities for those who'd like to sing along to do so. Judy Peters has been added to the cast as Activities Director, tasked with the job of broadening activities to involve more early attendees with activities and help keep things hopping during the early days and non-music periods of each event. For the Classic, she has already added campground favorite, a Corn Hole tournament to the list of activities. 

Square Dancing

Bluegrass music developed out of the mountain music that appealed to rural Appalachia communities, which often included barn dances featuring square dancing. There's a square dance group in Brooksville featuring a skilled professional caller who teaches beginners many of the moves and patterns belonging to this tradition. It's good fun and it gets people moving, as well as introducing strangers to each other.

Larry Gillis Classic Country Show

Larry Gillis has long been known in his home state of Georgia as well as in Florida for his hard driving bluegrass music. Lesser known is his singing and playing country music, which was on display on Wednesday evening, with his wife Christy on bass, JR Davis on drums,  Ernie Evans on telecaster electric and a pedal steel player to create a real country sound.

The Tuesday evening shows function as an early-bird special musical treat for those arriving early. At other festivals, they have featured singer/story teller Michael Reno Harrell and upcoming contemporary bluegrass band The Lonely Heartstring Band


During the day, Wednesday activities included Bingo in the morning and the Corn Hole tournament in the afternoon, while people spent some time preparing their favorite dishes fro the always popular Pot Luck Supper, for which the festival provides meat and drink, while campers prepare their favorite side dishes and deserts. It's always a treat for festival goers to get together to eat and greet. The evening concluded with Greg Bird's Karaoke and an open mic, where jammers can perform for the rest of the group on a stage with a microphone. Over the years, many performing bands have arisen from the jams in the field while jamming remains a major activity at bluegrass festivals.

JoBeth Bird - Staff 

Audience for Open Mic

Leslie and Don Jarrett


Excitement begins to rise on Thusday morning as craft vendors set up their varied booths and food vendors arrive to provide everything from snacks to full meals. 

Kenny Stinson & Perfect Tim'n

Kenny Stinson & Perfect Tim'n, a Kentucky-based bluegrass band, not only kicked off the festival with a bang, but proved to be a festival hero, when he returned for two sets on Friday, substituting for a performer who decided not to show up. I've written about this incident here. Stinson's performance was filled with energy, first-rate bluegrass from a number of eras, and personality. His stamina proved to be a game changer with his return on Friday. The band includes three family members and two younger, very skillful sidemen, who all acquitted themselves well. 

Kenny Stinson

Rhonda Stinson

Gavin Stinson

Daniel Norton

Sam Crabtree

Jo Odum - Emcee

Nothin' Fancy

Nothin' Fancy, based in Virginia, is one of the few bands which can present four sets over two days without repeating any songs while staying interesting and varied. We first heard them at the old YeeHaw Junction Festival about a dozen years ago. Irene noticed they weren't feeling well, so she volunteered to watch their merch table. Much to her surprise, Mike Andes handed her the cash box, told her the cost of each item, and disappeared. Since then, we've enjoyed their combination of Country Gentlemen covers, classic bluegrass, songs written by Andes, and lively comedy which often takes them out into the audience. Chris Sexton on fiddle brings his classical violin training into the mix with his fine bluegrass fiddlin'. The band has significantly added to its musical versatility with the addition of the Cox brothers, Caleb and James. Always good entertainment from this band. 

Mike Andes

Chris Sexton

Mitchell Davis

Caleb Cox

James Cox

Country Singer and star of RFD-TV's highly rated show Midwest Country, David Church, made a guest appearance with Nothin' Fancy on Saturday evening. He will appear as the featured Saturday night country singer in next year's Bluegrass Classic. 

David Church

Our Campsite in a Live Oak Grove

Guitar Workshop

Chris Paganoni, along with his band-mate John Apfelthaler, presented a well attended guitar workshop emphasizing guitar skills with a demonstration of Travis style guitar, too. Workshops are an important way at festivals for pickers and jammers to improve their knowledge of their instrument and to develop new skills for further practice.

Chris Paganoni & John Apfelthaler

Penny Creek
Susan Pounds

Under the leadership of Susan Pounds, Penny Creek has grown from being a local band playing bar gigs near Melbourne, FL into a regular at several regional festivals, with some attention from the largest single promoter of southern festivals. Each addition to the band has improved its sound and versatility. John Apfelthaler is a banjo wizard who also brings a strong baritone harmony with him. The band is just learning how to use him. He joins Chris , now the second longest tenured with the band, a fine singer/songwriter/flatpicker and mandolin player Fritz Kraemer in providing vocal variety. "You gotta have a fiddle in the band," the old song says, and Trevor Klutz fills the bill. 

Chris Paganoni

John Apfelthaler

Fritz Kraemer

Trevor Klutz

Susan Pounds

Williamson Branch

Williamson Branch is a Nashville-based bluegrass gospel band featuring high energy show-style choreography and lots of gospel music combined with fervent testimony. They were well received. 

Kevin Williamson

Debbie & Kevin Williamson

Melody Williamson

Kadence Williamson

Meldoy & Kadence Willamson

As usual, a band will only be covered once, even when it appears on multiple days. 


Much of Saturday at the Bluegrass Classic was built around memory, nostalgia, recognition, and ceremony all celebrating values and rituals which would appeal and satisfy the audience for this emerging festival. 

Classic Car Show

Roughly three times as many car collectors brought their prize possessions to the Classic grounds for the crowd to appreciate. America has been a country in love with its vehicles. I've selected pictures of several cars that happened to be there, all of which are meaningful to me, even though I only ever owned one of them. Maybe you have your favorites, too.

Early Fifties MG-TD

Late Fifties Corvette & Thunderbird

Late Fifties Pontiacs

The Atlantic City Boys

The Atlantic City Boys have become so popular with their Las Vegas style show that they perform as four separate groups of men performing in resorts, hotels, theaters, casinos, and on cruise ships with their high energy re-creation of the vocal stylings and songs of the early rock and roll vocal quartets like Franki Valli, The Drifters, The Bee Gees and the Four Seasons. As they sang, joked, and circulated in the audience, I could see the smiles on the audience faces and the words on their lips. This show hit a sweet spot in almost all the audience. And there was no complaining about "That ain't bluegrass." It was never supposed to be. It was simply nostalgic enterttainment. 

The Honor Guard & Ceremony

The ceremony opened with the presentation of the colors and the singing of the National Anthem accompanied by a solo banjo, which followed by asking veterans of each branch of the military to stand as the banjo player sent out their service hymn. It was followed by a brief appreciation of the men and women who provide emergency services locally as well as serving our country around the world in places of danger, delivered by a local high school senior. Finally, the local director of emergency services accepted the recognition with genuine thanks. It was a simple, yet moving few minutes which set a reverent, patriotic tone.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road

Lorraine Jordan, a native of North Carolina's eastern lowlands, but now located in Garner, a Raleigh suburb, where she has opened a Coffee House specializing in presenting evening performances almost every night with good coffee, sandwiches, and desserts all day long. She has styled herself in bluegrass as "The Lady of Tradition," which recently has included what she calls Country Grass, taking classic country songs played bluegrass style in recordings with the singers who originated them. 

Lorraine Jordan

Josh Goforth

Ben Greene

Tommy Long

Matt Hooper

Brad Hudson 

Phil Leadbetter & Friends

Phil Leadbetter is one of the finest Dobro players of this, or any other, generation of bluegrass artists. He has had ongoing health issues for the past decade, but has set an example of cheerful persistence in the face of illness. For this performance, as he anticipated returning home to Knoxville for a hip replacement, Phil brought together a top-notch group of young guns for two sessions of bluegrass ranging from bluegrass classics to wonderful jams from people who know how to deliver. Clay Hess has been one of the pre-eminent flat pickers for years as well as a first rate lead singer. The Walker Brothers, Cory and Tyler, are both well known in Florida, while Cory has established himself as a powerful banjo stylist forging his own way with top bands and as a fill-in for anyone seeking quality. Ashby Frank is an able mandolin player and singer. During their two sets, there were moments of sublime musicality as well as plenty of fun. 

Clay Hess

Cory Walker

Ashby Frank

Tyler Walker

TG Sheppard

TG Sheppard continues to tour after more than sixty years in the music business as a performer and promoter of country music. A look at his tour suggests that he's keeping plenty busy. He appeared at the Bluegrass Classic with his "Acoustic Show" accompanied by his long-time side-kick, Kenny McClelland on electric piano. His show, lasting about 90 minutes contained a reprise of his career, which has included 21 #1 hits. He interspersed the songs with reminiscences of his time with Elvis Presley and Elvis's effect on him, his life in Nashville, and on the road. He brought three days of music and five days of festivities to a fitting close. 

Kenny McLellen

TG Sheppard with Tommy Long & Lorraine Jordan

TG Sheppard

 The Florida Bluegrass Classic has grown with surprising speed. It's still a work in progress where Ernie Evans continues to develop a new approach to music festivals appealing to a slightly older demographic than can be found at the mega festivals, and seeking to please not only bluegrass fans, but a wider group of people who love music, but prefer to sit and listen over standing, screaming, and throwing beer. It's all coming together well, with plenty of fun, lots of music, and happy people heading home on Sunday, weary and satisfied.

See you there!