Yeah, and Johnny Cash Invented the Internet

By Richard Morin
Sunday, July 17, 2005

Henry Kissinger famously said that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

Well, maybe. Here's one recent dustup that was more fun than serious and proved that some social scientists do, too, have a sense of humor -- as well as an impressive working knowledge of country and pop music, Broadway musicals and 1960s television shows.

It began last year when Texas A&M political scientist Kenneth J. Meier published an article in the usually solemn Policy Studies Journal with a title based on a line in a John Denver song: "Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth 'Cause I'm Kissin' You Goodbye: The Politics of Ideas." (John must have come up with that one while on a Rocky Mountain High.)

In the essay, Meier offers a novel argument: that many now well-established theories of social behavior appeared first in the lyrics of country and western songs even before they were proposed by scholars or policymakers. One of his examples: country singer Hank Williams Jr.'s observation in a 1982 song that "Nobody wants to get drunk and get loud, All my rowdy friends have settled down." Meier asserts with a wink that Williams's insight clearly was "borrowed" by social theorists such as James Q. Wilson, who later suggested that the high post-1960s crime rates would decline toward the end of the 20th century as all those baby boomers grew out of their crime-prone teens and twenties.

Other scholars gleefully disagreed with Meier. Peter deLeon of the University of Colorado at Denver argued in the February issue of Policy Studies Journal that Broadway musicals, not country songs, were the real source of the freshest insights in the social sciences. His article was titled "I'm Vexed Again/Perplexed Again . . . An Alternative View of the Politics of Ideas," swiping a line from a Rodgers and Hart song.

Both are wrong, contended political scientist Richard W. Waterman of the University of Kentucky, also in Policy Studies. "It is television that provides the real wellspring of political ideas in America," he claimed. For example, Waterman suggested that "Lost in Space" must have been the inspiration for President Bush's sudden interest a few years ago in sending a manned mission to Mars. (So that's where that idea came from!)

Waterman also asserted that TV's role in celebrating the exceptional powers of animals laid the groundwork for the animal rights movement. For example, the classic show "Flipper" demonstrated that "sea-bound mammals are smarter than people." And even a casual viewer of 1960s cartoons would have to agree with Waterman that "America indeed would be a better place if it were run by Bullwinkle Moose."

Not to be outdone, Meier responded with a published salvo that borrowed the title of a tune popularized by the Austin Lounge Lizards: "Jesus Loves Me, But He Can't Stand You: A Reply to My Out-of-Tune Critics."

Stop it boys, you're killin' me! When contacted last week, Meier says he and his clever critics have declared a truce and returned to serious research -- at least for the moment.

"I think the current exchange is over," Meier said in an e-mail, adding "public policy scholarship does not need to be dull. "

The Academic Songbook

Scholars wishing to follow professor Kenneth J. Meier's lead for their next research article might consider these country and western titles:

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