Monday, December 11, 2017

West From Omaha

Yesterday my plane arrived in Omaha from New Jersey just as the sun was setting. Once I settled into the seat of my rental for the two and a half hour drive west to my hometown, I realized that this was the first time I was making this trip alone in almost ten years.

The road from Omaha to Hastings is a well-worn one for me. It was the path home after countless debate and band competitions in high school, to college and back, and then the last leg of my long sojourns home from Chicago, Champaign, and Grand Rapids. I know every road sign, every gas station, every distant grain elevator. The names of the towns are a familiar litany: Gretna, Ashland, Waverly, Seward, Friend, Beaver Crossing (one of my favorites), Aurora, Giltner, Doniphan and many more. In the last decade I've had my wife with me on this leg, and I tell her the same stories about every spot in the road and she patiently waits until about York or so to remind me that I've told all these stories before.

By myself, with no one to tell my stories to, I was struck by the forbidding nature of the drive. Once you get west of Omaha, the sky opens up, a massive sky that feels like it could crush you without a thought. In the dark it is that much more powerful. The real moment of shock, however, comes in a little bend in the road just on the west side of Lincoln. The fifty miles between Lincoln and Omaha have become ever more crowded as these sprawling and growing cities seem destined to join in one giant blob of subdivisions and strip malls. However, once you pass the last exit for Lincoln, the one for Northwest 48th Street, the interstate makes a little curve, you go over a hill, and suddenly all the lights are out. The darkness is darker than any other I've known, a darkness that makes you feel like the other cars on the road represent the only other living people left in the world.

Driving on the sparsely traveled roads of Nebraska at night can be a kind of spiritual experience, but one I took for granted as a child. I never knew that getting from here to there was not a reminder of human mortality in other parts of the country. Last night I even took a little detour, taking a two-lane road for about ten miles, a route where I did not see a single sign of another person until I hit Doniphan. It was like a trip to a distant, empty planet. Under that limitless, inky black sky I never could have imagined that I take a train to the beating heart of Manhattan's human ant swarm every work day. It's been a good respite to be west of Omaha.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Ruminations on Internal Exile

A sight from my homeland that never fails to stir my heart (or my stomach)

We tend to think of exile in terms of national boundaries, but in an America that is increasingly divided, exile can be internal, too. I live 1500 miles from my hometown in rural Nebraska, and when I am in New York City every day for work, I might as well be on a different planet. I never planned it this way, it just kind of happened.

I am going to be returning to my homeland with a heavy heart in a couple of days to attend the funeral of my aunt. I say the word "homeland" in the German sense, an analog of the German word "Heimat." This means a kind of regional home, as opposed to a national one. The region I come from certainly has its own distinct culture and ways as notable as a peasant's lederhosen or dirndl.

My relationship to it is complicated. I cannot abide its bad politics of its bad food, but when I look around the supposedly sophisticated East Coast I find it wanting. People in this part of the country are high on their own bullshit. They are much more status and wealth obsessed, and much more likely to think "rules are for suckers." Of course, I don't dare say that out loud here, where people use the term "Midwestern" as an implied insult. For that reason I can find my homeland irritating but my adopted home exasperating.

My aunt exemplified many of the aspects of my homeland that I miss. She was a gentle, kind person uninterested in material things. Her life was humble, but she was okay with that. That's a quality I find admirable when in the snake pit of Manhattan and all of its neuroses, resentments, and social hierarchy. I will admit, I get sick and tired of Manhattan's bullshit quite a lot.

I know at the same time that my homeland's knee-jerk conservatism, nativist tendencies, and fear of anything new helped drive me out of there in the first place. It is an almost impossible place to be a thoughtful young person. I enjoy visiting, but never feel much like staying. Yet when I come back to the Northeast, I feel something missing. For better or for worse, my homeland is something I still carry around in my heart, and it has placed an indelible stamp on me, even if I have broken with some of its values.

Some internal exiles I've met in these parts seem embarrassed of their origins, constantly running down the homeland of their births in order to get approval of the Northeasterners who see everything between the Hudson and the Pacific as easily dismissed "flyover country." Others seem to cling to their regional chauvinism as much as possible, constantly finding their new surroundings wanting. Despite my frustrations with not feeling comfortable in either the homeland of my birth or my adopted one, I am at least glad that I can see the good in both.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Grim Reality of Our World-Historical Moment

A lot has changed since 1989

I am at home sick today, and I am feeling energetic enough after some hours of rest to do some writing. Getting sick is something that clears my mind, mostly because it gives me a break from my commute, job, and parenting responsibilities. This has allowed me to think about our current era as it relates to larger world-historical trends, and the thoughts aren't good.

The revolutions of 1989 and the international community's response to the genocide in Bosnia made me feel for a time in the 1990s that though we had certainly not reached an "end of history" that the future of the globe was going to contain plenty of conflict, but generally be more peaceful and democratic than it had been in the past. After 9/11, it seemed that I had been very much wrong. The international policing imperative that had been used to save the people of Bosnia and Kosovo from mass murder was used to justify the disastrous war in Iraq. Likewise, I once saw anti-globalism as an important corrective from the left against the ravages of capitalism. The 1999 Seattle protests were, to me, a sign that the excesses of the post Fall of the Wall neoliberalism were about to be pushed back. Now anti-globalization is the currency of a resurgent, international neo-fascism which has captured the presidency of the United States. The 1990s held out the prospect of international agreements arresting the advance of global warming, now they seem doomed.

I have been feeling whiplash about the world historical moment since the Brexit vote last year. As I said at the time, it appears that the whole post-World War II order, which the leaders of the West tried to extend after the of the Cold War, is falling apart. International institutions of that order like the EU are shaking. The United States is abdicating its global leadership role, leaving a massive power vacuum that states like China and Russia (and now perhaps Germany) are yearning to fill. Similarly, the Middle East looks to be breaking down into a general conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nationalism and chauvinism are on the rise everywhere, bringing with them authoritarianism. On top of all of this, climate will bring greater misery and cause for conflict in a world where the possibilities of international mediation are shrinking.

Looking at the dire state of things, I am becoming more and more convinced that only revolutionary changes will be sufficient to solve the current crisis, especially in regards to climate change. However, the means for revolutionary change in many places have been broken. Take the United States, where labor unions have been broken and communal life generally is practically non-existent. Consumer capaitalism, as long as it keeps the gadgets flowing and credit available, will keep most people complacent. Independent media is being swallowed up, and ethnic and racial divisions have been doing their traditional work. Most white people still prefer "the wages of whiteness" to solidarity with people of color. Social media only reinforces these boundaries.

As much as I detest Donald Trump, he is the product of his times. After he is gone, the forces that produced him will still be here. I don't have all the answers, but I do know that any path to a more peaceful and democratic future means radically changing the fundamentals of our political-economy. I just don't see that happening, and that realization is one that fills me with dread.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Moral Rot of "Fetuses Uber Alles"

It looks as if the election in Alabama is shifting back to Roy Moore. The Republicans who had condemned him have now embraced him, with Donald Trump giving him an endorsement today. They have made their usual Leninist calculation, as with Trump's nefarious tape, that they can win the election and face zero consequences for supporting sex abusers.

In Alabama this has to do with the fact that the state is a very conservative place where a Democrat winning is seen as an impossibility. An article in the Times today discusses this, as one Democratic operative even admits "I don't think the Lord Jesus could win as a Democrat in Alabama."One of the reasons cited in this article, and one I have seen in many articles about Moore, is abortion. Many Republican voters claim they will never support a pro-choice candidate.

I have always wondered about the limits of this, since I know a lot of people who hold similar views. For them abortion is the ultimate issue, and even when they do not like the Republicans on offer (like Donald Trump), they tell themselves "at least they don't support abortion." This is the absolution that forgives all sins. A vain, bigoted, misogynist, greedy, mean-spirited, thrice divorced man like Trump, who would seem to be the opposite of Christ's example, suddenly becomes God's anointed once he appoints an anti-abortion justice to the Supreme Court.

I have long disagreed with the Fetuses Uber Alles position, but I once did give it some respect as an expression of moral righteousness. I do not accept the premise that a zygote is the equivalent to a human being, but those I know who subscribe to this position take it very seriously, contrary to the stereotypes that many pro-choice people have. (The argument that pro-lifers are merely about controlling women's bodies is a self-serving interpretation that does not tell the whole story, and part of the reason that advocates for abortion rights keep losing, since they so fundamentally misunderstand their opponents.)

Well, those days are over. Fetuses Uber Alles is nothing but a dirty cop-out. It is an easy way for religious conservatives to deny their complicity in the horrible immorality of the policies pushed by the people they vote for. After Trump and Moore I am convinced that this crowd simply likes voting for conservatives and approves of their policies, and saying they are doing it for the fetuses gives them moral cover to be immoral. "Fetuses Uber Alles" does a lot of work in our current political discourse in this regard, which is why I am skeptical the anti-abortion Democrats can somehow get votes that would normally go Republican.

Those folks will still vote Republican, and will maybe feel a little bad when their neighbors are deported, but will always be able to console themselves by saying that they are still saving the fetuses. I honestly don't know what is to be done about Fetuses Uber Alles, because no one I know who subscribes to that outlook seems capable of being shaken from their position. As Alabama shows, it is an extremely powerful wall to break down. The only real solution is to make sure that we are more organized than they are, and I fear the necessary work in that regard isn't getting done.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Right Wing Leninism Strikes Again

The vote for the tax overhaul bill in the wee hours of this morning was part of something I have been trying to say for years on this site. The Republican Party is not a party in the traditional sense, but merely a vehicle for a radical ideology. The Republicans are not conservatives, they are revolutionaries who intend to roll back the 20th century.

In this regard they have a lot in common with the Bolshevik party, which in 1917 did everything with one goal in mind: to gain power. Other revolutionary parties had moral limits on their behavior, they Bolsheviks didn't, and they won. They would do any deed and tell any lie if if helped them reach their goal. The ends justified the means if it meant getting their revolution.

The Republican Party has signed a blood pact with a lunatic, supporting his presidency as long as he he supports its revolutionary agenda. He may have collaborated with an enemy power, he may be bilking the government for personal gain, and he may even be an unhinged wacko, but the Republicans don't care as long as they get tax cuts. In the same spirit, they passed a bill that consisted largely of scribbles in the margins without any kind of public hearings, or even the ability for legislators to read it. They know the majority of the country is opposed to it, and they just don't care.

They have no qualms about using undemocratic means to hold power. They suppress the vote, they pack the courts with unqualified 36 year olds, they gerrymander, and they willingly accept assistance from a foreign dictator. They have their own television network, web sites, and radio stations to feed their lies and bullshit to their followers. The truth, the Constitution, and the law are useful only in so much as it serves their agenda.

There are no "good ones." The sentimental attachment to the likes of McCain, Murkowski, Flake, and Collins among liberals needs to stop. These supposed paragons of virtue showed their true colors at 2AM this morning. The one and only response is to drive them out, and to fight fire with fire.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

New Piece At Liberal Currents

The good folks at Liberal Currents were good enough to publish another piece of mine. In fact, the editor requested it after seeing me talk about the Gettysburg Address on my Twitter feed. Please read and share my piece, but also give Liberal Currents some love. It's pushing against some of the lazy stereotypes on the left about liberalism, and showing instead a vibrant exchange of ideas.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Old Dad's Records #22


My newest episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records, is up. I recorded it right before Thanksgiving, and talk a lot about that holiday. I start with "Country Roads" by John Denver, a song with a lot of importance for my childhood. After that I break with the format for an episode by putting a playlist on shuffle and talking about the songs that come up. In this case, keeping with the childhood theme, it's all guilty pleasure pop music from the 1980s. I hope you have as much fun listening to it as I did recording it.