Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Key Moments In My Gen X Political Awakening

I know a lot of young people taking to the streets right now and getting involved in politics for the first time to protest police violence.  This has gotten me thinking about my own adolescent political awakening.  I grew up in a conservative family in a conservative town in a conservative area of one of the most conservative states (Nebraska.)  How the hell did I embrace the political Left by the age of 17?  I've come to realize over the years that the key was in my voracious appetite for current events and political magazines, which allowed certain crucial events of my youth to sink in and change my consciousness.  I am willing to bet that these same events had a big impact on other people born in the mid-1970s.  Anyway, here they are:

The Iran-Contra Scandal

Ronald Reagan's inauguration was the first major political event that I can vividly remember, along with Hinkley's assassination attempt.  During my childhood I thought of Reagan as a gentle, avuncular leader who was doing a great job.  Although the full import of it didn't become obvious to me until a couple of years later, the Iran-Contra affair started me on the road to questioning authority.  It seemed obvious that the president had circumvented the will of Congress, and that his later "I don't recall" testimony meant that he was either a liar or totally incompetent.

ACT UP Protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral

Being a devout Catholic at the time, this protest freaked me out.  I couldn't believe that protestors would interrupt mass and even desecrate the host.  At the same time, I really began to question the church's anti-safe sex stance.  In the midst of a horrible epidemic it seemed insane to oppose condoms on narrow moral grounds.  The church's response to the AIDS crisis really disturbed me, as did the awful homophobia of people like Jesse Helms.  I was not yet too enlightened when it came to sexuality, but despite that fact I thought that hating people for who they were was appalling.  The fact that one political party accepted people who spewed such hate was not lost on me.

Gulf War

This event, perhaps more than any other, shifted my frame of reference.  When the war started I was very gung ho, and thought the kids at my high school who protested the war were ridiculous.  In the months that followed it, however, I really began to question things.  I saw articles about the "highway of death," and felt sorrow that so many people had to die, sacrificed to petro-politics.  When the US stood by while Saddam massacred the Shiites that the US president had encouraged to rise up, I knew that there was nothing behind that war except oil.  The insanely shrill nationalism unleashed in that war disturbed me as well, since it seemed to make people lose their senses.

Rodney King Beating and Trial

The video of the King beating landed like a bomb in my head.  Around that time I had been heavily listening to Public Enemy, which had me thinking about white supremacy in a serious way for the first time.  It was so completely obvious for anyone to see that Rodney King had been the victim of a horrific crime, and that the LAPD was full of violent racists.  The acquittal of the police officers at the hands of an all white jury probably did more to increase my distrust of the criminal justice system than anything else.  I was surprised at the decision, considering how obvious the crime seemed to be.  Ever since the King case I have been disheartened by similar miscarriages of justice, but never surprised by them.

Clarence Thomas Confirmation Hearings

Before these hearings I'd never really known anything about sexual harassment.  I was disturbed by Anita Hill's testimony, and wondered how many other men acted like that.  At the same time, I was less enlightened in these matters, and wondered why Hill hadn't come out with the allegations at an earlier time.  For that reason I was actually sympathetic with Thomas' comments about a "high tech lynching."


I was excited when Bill Clinton became president.  I was one of only two students in my history class to vote for him in our mock election, and proud of it.  His willingness to fight for gun control and health care made me happy, but very early on I wondered about Clinton's reliability.  The NAFTA proposal didn't seem all bad to me, except for the fact that there were few labor and environmental protections.  While I didn't care for Ross Perot, I did wonder if his prediction of job migration would be true.  In any case, the whole thing was written in a way to be beneficial to business and not for workers, but was being promoted by a man claiming to be a liberal.  It was about this time that I realized that the DLC version of liberalism was barely better than conservatism, leading me to vote for a third party candidate in 1996.  This was really the point when I lost any attachment to the Democratic Party, and started thinking of myself as Left of the party of Jackson and Jefferson.

The Contract With America

Believe it or not, I was a little happy when the Democrats got shellacked in the 1994 election.  I figured it would force them to take stronger stances and listen to their base (boy was I wrong about that.)  At the same time, the Gingrich-style conservative politics that emerged in the aftermath of that election made it obvious that as much as I disliked the Democrats, I would never, ever vote for a Republican.  This election convinced me that the two parties were not two legitimate, centrist institutions not too different from each other.  Instead one was a milquetoast arrangement of hacks with corporate ties who made promises they didn't keep to the lower and middle classes, and the other was the vehicle for an extremist Right wing political movement that would stop at nothing to force its ideology on the country.  Since that time I've wavered from calling myself a socialist to settling for social democrat, but my larger sense of the political lay of the land hasn't changed since I was 19.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Track of the Week: Rolling Stones "Can You Hear Me Knocking"

As I noted during my track of the week post last week, the great saxophonist Bobby Keys died recently.  He was a legend, both as a musician and as a hell raiser.  Like other great musicians, he made the people around him better, including The Rolling Stones.  I've long thought that the Stones put out their best stuff in the early 1970s, on the Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street albums.  It was the point at which their musical maturity had come into full flower, but before Richards' junk habit and Jagger's distracting pretensions turned them into the world's most lucrative oldies act.

Bobby Keys is all over those electric records, and there are many examples I could choose from.  However, I'll go with "Can You Hear Me Knocking" because he gets an extended sax solo, and really makes the most of it.  This is a rare Stones song, in that it is long, and also in that it contains multiple sections that act like different movements.  Despite its length, it is an immediate song that hits the listener right across the face, perhaps the reason why Martin Scorsese used it in an epic montage in Casino where Joe Pesci's character goes on a crime spree of epic proportions.

Apart from Keys' great saxophone, this song contains some of Mick Taylor's best guitar work during the long, jammy midsection.  It's a testament to the fact that the Stones aren't just Jagger and Richards, and that those two were at their best when working with others at the top of their game.  They were lucky to have Bobby Keys, who was one of the best ever.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Swords and Sandals

My cultural cravings, much like my moods, change according to the seasons.  Every year, right around this time, I like to read a work of medieval history and watch sword and sandal epics.  Perhaps it's because years and years ago I was not all that interested in modern history, and obsessed with the ancient and medieval worlds.

In terms of medieval history I tend to read things that are contemporary and on the scholarly side.  In terms of sword and sandal epics, I go to the classics, since the recent entries in the genre (Alexander, 300, Hercules Reborn, Pompeii, etc.) are pretty lame.  Many of the older movies aren't really all that good, but their sheer pagaentry and majesty is something to behold.  They make an excellent escape during this trying time of year, when the sun doesn't shine and the cold winds blow.  There is something about massive sets and casts of thousands that deeply appeals to me.  However, when the ancient world is rendered via CGI and green screen, I feel like I'm just watching an elaborate cartoon.

Here's a list of some sword and sandal epics to pop in this time of year, all of which can be enjoyed on multiple levels.

Ben Hur

Charlton Heston's acting was never more muscular.  Others may not care for it, but it is one of my great guilty pleasures to see Heston sweat as he delivers his lines with such over the top physicality.  Although the message of the film is rather heavy handed, the action sequences, such as the naval battle and chariot race, are absolutely amazing.


This was a famously troubled production, the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release.  It is an insane four hours long, and chock full of ridiculous historical inaccuracies.  In fact, on the eve of my final in one of my college Roman history classes, I sat down and watched it with two of my friends as a study session.  We spent the whole time comparing to the real events and pointing out the problems.  We all aced the test.  (My favorite part of this movie might be cranky-voiced Rex Harrison as a surly Caesar.)


This might be the least Stanley Kubrick film that Stanley Kubrick ever made.  Evidently he was brought in to replace the original director at the behest of Kirk Douglas.  The fundamental story of slaves rising up for their freedom is very powerful, as is the famous "I am Spartacus."  It also gets extra points for Laurence Olivier's racy "snails and oysters" come on, the presence of the underrated Woody Strode, and Tony Curtis' New Yawk accent in the ancient world.

The Robe

Just started rewatching this one, which I first saw eons ago as a kid.  Victor Mature can really rock a toga, and nobody can play a sneering Roman better than Richard Burton.  Like Spartacus, it also stars Jean Simmons, a great actress from this period who seems to have been too much forgotten.

Life of Brian

I know you'll say this doesn't count, but I include it since it is such a great parody of the whole sword and sandal genre, among other things.  The beginning, when the three wise men show up at the wrong manger, does a good job of throwing cold water on the reverent airs of old school biblical epics.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture Report Time Machine

Based on what happened at Abu Ghraib, as well as the definitions of "extraordinary rendition" used by the Bush administration, I expected this week's torture report to be harrowing.  It ended up being even worse than I imagined, a catalog of crimes that ought to bring lasting shame on this country.  There has been outrage, but I wonder of its limits.  President Obama has been mum, and Secretary of State Kerry had tried to prevent its release.  Most Congressional Republicans opposed its release full stop, and Fox News has claimed its release was meant to distract from Obamacare.
Why haven't tales of people tortured due to mistaken identity moved the nation's conscience?  Why is there only limited disgust at rectal feeding and sleep deprivation techniques of the kind used by Stalin's secret police?  Why is there no outcry to have the criminals responsible for these enormities clapped in irons and made to bow to justice?  You could argue that torture, like practically everything else, has been turned into a partisan issue.  Perhaps, but that does not explain why the outrage is only limited to the left of center, and the large, soft American middle appears to be almost completely unmoved.  No, there is so little outrage because this is what most Americans secretly wanted to happen.

Let's take a trip back in time, shall we?  We live in a world where everything is forgotten, where all goes down the memory hole almost as soon as it is brought into existence.  I have made it one of my personal missions to remind people of the reality of American life in the period of hysteria that lasted roughly between 9/11 and the summer of 2005.  The 9/11 attacks provoked a kind of fearsome bloodlust in the American public, only abetted by the Bush/Cheney regime's desire to funnel that hate towards military action.  Muslim Americans were physically assaulted, and their mosques attacked.  Sikh men were murdered for the crime of wearing a turban.  In 2003, most Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.  They didn't just believe it because of propaganda, they believed it because they wanted revenge, and any group of Arab Muslims would do for that purpose.

If the vast majority of Americans were willing to smite Iraq with the hard hand of war, inevitably leading the the deaths of thousands of innocents, they hardly had any qualms about shoving food up the rectums of suspected terrorists.  They were the bad guys, after all, right?  Didn't torture work when Jack Bauer used it on 24?  You don't really want to risk letting the bad guys strike again, do you?  And so the CIA, at the behest of the highest authorities in the land, tortured and tortured and tortured.  There was a momentary shock after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, but voters returned Bush and Cheney to the White House nonetheless.  

It would be easy to limit the responsibility for the crime to Cheney/Bush, their henchmen, and the everyday jingoists who bayed for Muslim blood in the aftermath of 9/11.  However, they were enabled by a scared public willing to turn the other way while unspeakable cruelties were committed in their name.  While whistleblowers like Edward Snowden fear prosecution, those responsible for systematic torture walk free, not prosecuted by president Barack Obama.  And last of all, progressives like myself have been much too tolerant of the president's unwillingness to prosecute CIA men who probably earned promotions from their heinous acts.

I repeat: the revelations of the torture report should bring lasting shame on this country.  Perhaps more shamefully, our people have been shameless in ignoring it.  If there is any righteousness in this universe we will face a terrible reckoning.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Giuliani, De Blasio, And Why Elections Matter

For someone who blogs, I took my sweet time joining Twitter.  Once I realized that some things I wrote were being discussed there, I decided to jump in, and have stayed in because it is usually the best way for me to keep up on the public discourses left out of the mainstream media.  It's also been good for connecting with what's going on in the world of the activist Left, something I had lost track with after leaving academia.

This has also been a little frustrating because of some of the tropes people I actually like have been engaging in recently.  I would often see protest movements denounced as ineffective, and elections as meaningless.  While I understand the limits of what peaceful protest can do (as someone who protested the coming war in Iraq in 2003), I also know what they can truly accomplish (as someone who engaged in protests and walkouts that led to a teaching assistant union.)  The attacks on protests seemed to be a kind of knee-jerk anti-liberalism just as annoying as that emanating from conservative circles.  Since the major protests have started in the wake of the Garner and Brown travesties, I have not been hearing much about their usefulness from those Lefty quarters, and with good reason.

The same goes for Left critiques of electoral politics.  Don't get me wrong, I barely have any love for the Democrats, and I think the two parties have a lot in common when it comes to complicity in maintaing inequality.  However, I have never been so invested in Leftist ideology to claim that elections somehow don't matter.  If you need proof that elections really do matter, and that there are real, fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats, take the case of the mayor of New York.  Bill de Blasio has fought to end the stop and frisk practice and in the wake of the Garner ruling has been openly sympathetic with protestors.  One gets the sense that he will fight to bring some real change out of this.

 Compare this to the recent, noxious pronunciations of Rudy Giuliani, who has essentially blamed the death of Garner and other black men at the hands of the police on the canards of black "dysfunction" and "black on black crime."  Lest we forget, Guiliani was twice elected mayor of New York City.  It is easy to imagine the reaction to the Garner case and ensuing protests if he were mayor today.  The NYPD would be out in full military regalia, batons cracking, tear gas launching, and pepper spray blasting in the faces of protestors.  Imagine too if someone like Ed Koch, who played a role in vilifying the innocent Central Park Five and exploiting white racial fears, were mayor again.  Based on Mayor Bloomberg's constant defense of stop and frisk and police aggression, we certainly know how he would respond to the situation.  Just ask the Occupy protestors.

The fact that de Blasio is mayor today, and that these men aren't, is truly important and significant.  It's a sign that progressives need to put resources into the local and and municipal level, where a small amount of resources can go a long way, and can certainly help reign in our out of control police departments.  Elections matter, elections have consequences, and elections have to bring change, it's just that the right people have to be elected.  If more women and men of de Blasio's stripe get voted into public office, I see a lot of good that can happen, and a lot that will be ignored or shut down if they don't.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Track of the Week: Small Faces "Itchycoo Park"

This week brought the sad news of the deaths of Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan two of my favorite rock musicians.  (Next week's track of the week will be from Keys.)  McLagan is often thought of as a Rolling Stones session musician, but true rock scholars know him for his work in the Small Faces and the Faces, two of my favorite bands of all time.  A lot of groups in the psychedelic era incorporated the organ, but few had someone with McLagan's creative touch.

There are many of songs where I could point to his genius, but I'll highlight "Itchycoo Park" because his organ is the driving force of the song.  It's a typically psychedelic tune about consuming drugs on a sunny day and going down to the park to enjoy the beauties of nature with a little chemical enhancement.  The jaunty tone is well established by McLagan's colorful organ from the first bars of the song.  There are no pyrotechnics here or virtuosic touches, and that very restraint helps sustain the desired tone of the song.  The Small Faces and Faces were great bands because they were actually bands, with each member contributing a great deal without overshadowing the others.  By all accounts of people I know who knew McLagan, he was a good guy who will very much be missed.  RIP

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Good Artists Making Terrible Christmas Music

This time of year brings with it the unbearable onset of awful holiday music blaring just about everywhere.  While there might be different performers and versions of songs, it's always the same twenty or so songs I keep hearing, over and over and over again.  Three years ago I made a list of Christmas music I actually like, and through the magic of Spotify have managed to find great country, R&B, and jazz takes on the form that can wash the taste of the crap out of my mouth.  Of course, that's not what they're playing when I stop into the Walgreen's for diapers. What amazes me is that there are often great musical artists who become the worst hacks when it comes to Christmas music.  Here's a randomly organized list of the worst offenders.

Beach Boys, "Little Saint Nick"
This may very well be the worst offender on the list.  Unlike other Beach Boys music it sounds completely joyless, as if someone had them in the studio at gun point.  The lyrics are beneath stupid, I think I lose brain cells every time I hear it.  On top of it all, Mike Love's adenoidal yelp never sounded more grating.

Bruce Springsteen, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"
I really think the Boss is capable is giving us a great Christmas song, and not of the traditional variety.  I would love to hear an acoustic weeper on the lines of the Nebraska album about a laid off worker trying to not to let on to his children how he is selling plasma to buy them presents.  Instead we get this lame take on an annoying Christmas chestnut, one that my friend (and Springsteen superfan) Debbie has called "Saint Bruce's one sin."

Paul McCartney, "Wonderful Christmastime"
Good Lord is this an annoying song.  The synthesizers are so bloody awful that they are almost (and I mean almost) transcendent in their wretchedness.  What really makes it rotten is that Macca knows how to write a catchy hook, so this song will get in my head for hours.  I honestly wonder if it was originally written to be used by the CIA in its torture chambers but rejected for humanitarian reasons.

Band Aid "Do They Know It's Christmas"
"Do They Know It's Christmas" has got to be the most patronizing, ignorant Christmas tune ever written.  Do they know it's Christmas in Ethiopia?  Well considering that Christians were there well before they were ever in England, yes.  A lot of artists I like had a hand in this mess.

Chuck Berry, "Run Run Rudolph"
Berry is really phoning it in on this one.  He goes through the motion without even a hint of passion, which makes me think this song wasn't his idea.  I would hope not.