Saturday, July 4, 2015

July 4th Notes From My Hometown

In the past three years the meaning of the fourth of July has changed greatly for me, since my daughters were born on that day.  Their birthday, not blowing off fireworks or engaging in nationalism, has become my main Independence Day priority.  In any case, this year I had very little July 4th spirit.  The events of the last year, from Ferguson to Charleston, have been harsh reminders of this nation's failure to live up to its promises.

This year I spent the holiday in my rural Nebraska hometown for the first time in years.  While I wrung my hands a little yesterday, I was happily surprised at what I witnessed this morning.  My wife and I went out to Allen's, the local department store, to get party supplies.  Afterwards we drove downtown to the Blue Moon, the local coffee house, and grabbed some espresso-based drinks.  It's good to see such local institutions still thriving, and that the downtown has rebounded while the mall has fallen into disrepair.  Of course, most of the commerce is going down in the metastasizing tumor of box stores and Applebee's next to the highway on the edge of the north side of town.  You can still get away with pretending that it doesn't exist.

We took our daughters to an event at a local park, which reminded me of what's good about my hometown.  There was a nice, chill atmosphere of people mingling and saying hello, and catching up with those (like me) returning from out of town.  My hometown was really built up during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, and much of the public-minded ethos of the age has still managed to survive.  Some things had changed from my childhood, such as hearing Spanish spoken on a pretty consistent basis.  Changes like that are positive in my opinion.

Something else hadn't changed, something I wonder whether it is even capable of changing.  In my overwhelmingly white hometown, expressions of patriotism are as ubiquitous as the air one breathes, and thought about just as deeply.  I wondered today if anyone in the park with me questioned this nation's ability to live up to its highest ideals.  I also got chills thinking about how many of them might sympathize with the Darren Wilsons of the world rather than the Micheal Browns.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Back Home Again

Andy the Goose, one of my hometown's biggest celebrities

Today, after a meandering, week-long trip across the upper South seeing sights and visiting friends and family, I finally arrived with my wife and kids to my hometown.  It feels good to be back, but also strange.  This morning, as I was gassing up my car at station where I could look out across the vast windswept Kansas plains, I had a strange out of body experience, thinking about those mornings frantically trying to refill my MTA card while catching the express subway train in Penn Station.  Where I live now is in many ways very alien to the place where I'm from.

My differences with the land of my upbringing have been with me for a long time, but now they seem more stark than ever.  I am not sure how much this has to do with me changing, or with my hometown changing.  I do sometimes get the feeling that life in my hometown of Hastings, Nebraska, has become coarser and meaner.  I then remind myself of my hometown's strange habit of destroying its most cherished symbols.  The town has a beautiful old chautauqua pavilion that was almost burned to the ground by vandals in the 1990s.  Fisher Fountain, which combines jets of water with alternating color projection, was long a pride of the town.  In the early 1980s someone dynamited it.  Last but not least, years ago a local man found a baby goose with malformed feet.  He helped that goose by making it shoes, and Andy the Goose quickly became a cause celebre, and soon even appeared with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  Some horrible person then went into Andy's pen at night and broke off his wings, killing him.

There is a vein of awful darkness in this town, obviously.  I just feel like it is closer to the surface than it used to be.  This town feels more and more like Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life when George sees what it would have been like had old man Potter took over.  Then again, maybe I'm wrong.  In any case, over the next few days I will be making some reports from the "heartland" and will be thinking a lot about politics and social change.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Some Thoughts On VIsiting The Clinton Presidential Library

I remember reading this issue of Rolling Stone in 1992 and getting excited about a Clinton presidency. 

I am currently on a long and extended road trip between New Jersey and Nebraska, with the ultimate goal of arriving at my parents' house in time for my daughters' birthdays on July 4th.  We decided to take a long detour through the South in order to visit friends and family, which has been a great experience.  Today we were just concerned with getting down the road, and stopped in Little Rock.  In the spirit of seeing things along the way, we decided to go down to Bill Clinton's Presidential Library.

I was more interested in examining its narratives and approach than anything, especially having visited the museums for Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, and Carter, had plenty of things to compare it to.  It was hard to do this, mostly because two toddlers are not the best people to take to a museum when you want to linger over exhibits.  It ended up not being too hard, because the narrative of the museum was about as subtle as Rip Taylor.  There was almost nothing about Clinton the person or the usual array of presidential paraphernalia, and a whole lot about his policies and legislative accomplishments.  It basically boiled down to "look what a great job Clinton did as president!" but in the kind of overly extensive, policy wonk overkill way that Clinton himself was often criticized for.

The tone was very different in the introductory film, which we saw last because, again, traveling with toddlers means having to bend a bit to their iron wills.  Clinton himself narrated a magnificently corny piece of agitprop showing leaders like King Hussein of Jordan and Nelson Mandela praising him.  Clinton himself lays it on thick, using the same effortless, charismatic appeal that allowed him to survive scandals and gain a high level of popularity by the end of his term in office.  It was the kind of thing meant to have you standing up, shouting "four more years! four more years!"

I even got enthusiastic, but just for a second or two.  I then remembered how his administration had pushed through NAFTA, cut the social safety net, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, gutted banking regulation, and supported mass incarceration policies.  Clinton's cynical triangulation strategy after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress meant that actual progressive legislation became a dead letter from that point onward.

Despite those sour feelings, I also felt a wave of nostalgia for the time between 1993 and 2001, when I went from being a high schooler to a grad student and passed through the young adulthood's ring of fire.  That kind of thing is probably inevitable with a early-middle aged guy like myself, but there was something a little deeper there, I think.  The exhibits threw me back into the world of the 1990s, and reminded me what a feeling of hope I had for the future back then.  The Cold War was over, and democracy appeared to be advancing all over the world, including the former Soviet Union.  When America exercised its power abroad, it was often in positive ways, such as ending genocide in the former Yugoslavia.  Perpetual war, as we have experienced for the past 14 years, was barely conceivable.  The economy was not showering its benefits equally, but it was growing in a big way.  Gun control was actually possible, both in the form of the Brady Bill and in the assault weapons ban.  The Oslo Accords created hope for a path to long lasting peace in Palestine.  I thought a lot about the long, post-Cold War peace that could have been, and the last fourteen years of war and paranoia.

I see little in the high political world today that gives me much hope for the future.  At least more people are taking to the streets these days, but those controlling the levers of power are deaf to their cries.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Track of the Week: Elvis Presley "Promised Land"

I am on the road right now, my family and I taking an extended road trip out to my home state of Nebraska, with several stops in between to visit friends and family and to see new things.  There is little I love more than a road trip, and I have a few songs that always find their way onto the playlists I make for my trips.

Elvis Presley's cover of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" is one of them.  It's a song written while Berry was in prison on a Mann Act charge, describing a journey from Norfolk, Virginia, to Los Angeles, with stops in Birmingham, New Orleans, and Houston.  Berry is one of the great American exponents of the open road, and this song is especially poignant considering his yearning for the freedom of travel while behind bars.  Berry's version very much fits with his usual tried and true formula and is one of the better executed examples.

Elvis, of course, never wrote his own songs, but was masterful at interpreting other people's songs, with "Promised Land" no exception.  The song came out in 1974, and the album of the same title in 1975, perhaps the last really good one that Presley made before his death in 1977.  Elvis' version is updated for the 1970s with a funky feel and wah-wah guitar effects.  The studio musicians, recording at the great Stax studios really give it their all as they drive it on home.  Elvis also bends the words in interesting ways, I can never get over his clipped drawl when pronouncing "Los Angeles."  In Presley's version, the "poor boy" of the song is calling home to Virginia with some swagger.

I used to think of Elvis in his white jumpsuit years as a complete joke, turns out I was wrong.  The man sounds like he's having a blast with good material and crack musicians, it's a shame that he spent so many prime years of his career churning out godawful film soundtracks full of tunes written by low rent hacks.  Even in the mid-70s, when his powers had dimmed, he was still capable of something like this.  I'll be sure to put it on tomorrow as we drive over the Appalachians.

Friday, June 26, 2015

So Much Depends On a Green Ice Chest

The picture above is of a retro green Coleman ice chest (this is no mere cooler, folks) that my wife and I purchased right after our wedding.  I bought it in emulation of the one my family had going back to my earliest memories, a wonder of high-quality engineering that lasted my parents from the early 1970s into the 21st century.  When my father would take it out of the garage and hose it clean in the driveway I knew we were about to take a road trip.

Those road trips and vacations were some of the biggest highlights of my childhood.  My father especially cherished them as an escape from work and a chance to enjoy the open road and great outdoors, the two places he'd most like to be.  No matter how tight money was or how many balls my dad had to juggle at work, my parents made sure that each summer we took a bona fide vacation.  Since we lived in the middle of rural Nebraska and were heading for the mountains or desert anyways, we always drove and never flew.

My parents could be called cheap, but they would prefer "thrifty."  For example, we almost never ate out for lunch on vacations, but went to a park, rest area, or picnic area and ate lunch out of the big green ice chest.  This usually meant one slice of Oscar Meyer bologna with store brand mayo on supermarket bread so thin and light you could ball of a whole loaf in your fist.  Sometimes even the evening meal would be improvised in this fashion.  One of my earliest memories is of being in a motel room in Colorado Springs with my dad using a camp stove to warm up a can of pork and beans.  (Sounds like something out of a Tom Waits song, doesn't it?)

Now that I am older I realize that cutting corners like this allowed my family to afford to go to some beautiful destinations, from the mountains of Colorado to the wide visas of the Grand Canyon to the breezy shores of Lake Winnipeg.  I'm a little freer in my spending, so we won't be staying at dingy motels with shag carpeting full of toast crumbs from 1974, nor will I bar my children from drinking anything but tap water when we eat out.  When we do eat sandwiches they'll be with bread from an Italian bakery and top shelf lunch meat.  They'll still come out of a big green ice chest, though.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Need For A Civil War Memory Offensive

New York's Soldiers and Sailors Monument back when the living memory of the Civil War could visit it

If you travel to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and stroll along the paths in Riverside Park, you might come across two massive monuments to the Civil War: the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and Grant's Tomb.  The former is a towering structure honoring the Union troops who served in the war, a Beaux Arts beauty in its time that now looks awful today with cracks, weeds, and poorly covered-up graffiti.  Grant's Tomb has been cleaned up, but this gorgeous monument (built with the help of fund raising by the grateful African American community in New York City) is barely kept open by the National Park Service.  If you travel to the South, you'll notice that similar monuments to the Confederacy are kept in gleaming shape, and even battlefields managed by the National Park Service will have museums that include varieties of reunionist and even Lost Cause ideology.  (Surprisingly enough, the museum in Vicksburg is not like this at all.)

There has been a lot of needed discussion in the aftermath of the Charleston terror attack about the Confederate battle flag.  I think that discussion needs to be converted into a Civil War memory offensive.  Ignorant people have been free to believe that the flag is a benign symbol of "southern pride" because those who sympathize with the Confederacy have had an inordinate influence on public memory of the Civil War.  Just witness Shelby Foote's heavy presence in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, where he gave great praise to slave trader, war criminal, and Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.  It has been so from the beginning, where 1915's infamous A Birth of a Nation presented a racist interpretation of the war and Reconstruction, and 1939's Gone with the Wind valorized slave-owners.

Those who rightfully sympathize with the Union cause (or more appropriately, the American cause) need to amplify their voices.  Many historians of the Civil War (rather than reenactor hobbyists) have been engaging with the public, more need to follow their example.  Teachers need to teach not just the battles, but the larger political and social aspects of the Civil War, and ground its causes without any doubt in slavery.  (Historians should assist in making materials that do this that teachers can use.)  Modern day Unionists need to do more to honor their own monuments, memorials, and heroes.  (I'm a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates for many reasons, not least of which that he uses a photo of Grant as his Twitter avatar.)  Monuments like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument need to be repaired and used ceremonially.  (New York should also more formally memorialize the Draft Riots, but that's a whole other issue.)  In general, Reconstruction needs to be made much more legible to the public.  This crucial time in American history has been largely forgotten, and the few public narratives that exist still parrot a paler version of Birth of a Nation.

More importantly, many existing memorial sites related to Reconstruction and the Civil War need to be changed, and contemporary Unionists ought to fight for those changes.  For example, a friend of mine recently visited the site of the Colfax Massacre, a horrific act of violence perpetrated in 1873 by white supremacists against former slaves to destroy their political power.  This is what the state of Louisiana's official plaque looks like:

That's right, one of the worst incidents of lawless violence in this country's history is presented as a victory against tyranny.  It is absolutely disgusting that an event like Colfax is honored in this way.  This marker is only one of many valorizing white supremacy and its accompanying violence.  Yes, take down that traitorous, blood-soaked flag and burn it.  But also rip the historical narratives rooting that flag right out of the damn ground.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Has The GOP's Deal With The Devil Come Due?

Back when the Tea Party winds stared blowing back in the early parts of this decade, I wondered whether the Republican Party had signed a devil's bargain.  It was encouraging the support of fringe elements that had long been outside of the mainstream of American politics, all in order to benefit politically from the rising feelings of resentment among white people.

One such example is the Republican eagerness to put the grievances of the "open carry" movement into law, as just recently happened in Texas.  This is a movement that worships guns and views the Second Amendment as a protection against tyranny, as if the only thing standing between the status quo and a dictatorship is a bunch of dudes carrying AR-15's into the local Chipotle.  Voters who vote on gun issues tend to be highly motivated, so the Republicans are willing to break bread with armed vigilantes if it means electoral success.

The same goes for white nationalism, although the connections have been blurred more.  The continued Republican support for the official use of the Confederate flag (which was only shaken after the terror attack in Charleston), is a case in point.  The same goes for the lip service paid by Rick Perry and others to Texas nationalism, which in my experience is an idea limited almost completely to white Texans.  The anti-immigrant rhetoric and "show me your papers" laws in states like Arizona are based in a conception of the United States as a white man's country.  Sometimes the links between the "secure our borders" rhetoric and the ugly truth beneath those words gets exposed.  For example, it came out today that that Earl Holt III, the leader of Council of Conservative Citizens, has given campaign donations to multiple Republican presidential candidates.  In case you don't know, this organization was cited directly by terrorist Dylann Roof in his manifesto as instrumental in affecting his worldview.

Now this is not necessarily a case of Republicans actively seeking out the support of extremists.  Rather, they have been more subtle, in that they will take their money and promote policy positions that make those extremists happy.  Anti-immigrant legislation, voter suppression of people of color, and slashing programs that help Latinos and African Americans in poverty might be called "securing our borders, combating voter fraud, and welfare reform" officially, but everyone with eyes who can see understands that they are all policies that further white supremacy.  (Hence their popularity in large sectors of white America.)  The horrors of the Charleston killing, as well as the almost comical responses by many conservatives that downplayed any discussion of race, have highlighted just how beholden the Republican Party is to extremist elements.  In the wake of a racist terror shooting it must figure out how to spin its long-standing policies of no gun control and defending the flying of the Confederate flag.  It was easy to court extremist elements when no one was watching, now it will be much harder to hide.  Time will tell if this will actually result in any electoral change.