Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Nearly Fatal Dose of Fatalism

"Calling It Quits" by Aimee Mann is on my mind right now

After the 2016 election I did some soul-searching, and realized that I had been far too willing to not engage myself directly in politics. During the Bush years I had gone to anti-war protests and was involved in a successful grad student unionization movement at my university. When I lived in Texas I contacted my representatives so that they could not pretend that all of their constituents supported their Tea Party agenda. After moving to bluer New Jersey I got apathetic, and with new family obligations, I was not staying active. The presence of the Obama administration also helped put me at ease.

Since the election I have been very involved. My Senators are basically on my speed dial. I left an angry message on the leader of the state senate's voicemail when he was talking about maintaining budget austerity. I have been involved in too many protests to count in the past year and a half. I have led teach-ins at my school. I have donated not insignificant sums of money to political candidates. 

All of a sudden this month in the dog days of summer I lost the spirit, as they say in church. For example, I did not attend any of the protests in nearby Bedminster while Trump was staying there. I had always been there during his prior stays.

Looking back on it, I think the Helsinki meeting and my visit back home set me on a path to fatalism. I think that the family separation policy is by far the most monstrous thing that the Trump administration has done (right up there with banning Syrian refugees), the Helsinki debacle was the kind of thing that was so transparent and public that the media and a good chunk of Republicans would be unable to deny that this presidency is not normal. For maybe a day or two, media figures seemed genuinely outraged, and let the bullshit "objectivity" -which is mostly cowardice- drop. Within a week, however, no member of the administration had resigned, and the press was back to covering Trump the way they always did, as if their viewing public had all gotten lobotomies. Going home was a lesson that even conservatives who do not personally like Trump will not turn on him as long as they a union-busting, anti-abortion judge. Literally nothing is ever going to change their minds, including the proverbial shooting on Fifth Avenue.

This was a fact that I had KNOWN abstractly in my head for awhile, but for the first time I truly FELT it palpably in my soul.

Earlier this week I started to wonder if I should be focused on how to survive and protect others in the inevitable autocratic oligarchy, rather than thinking that my resistance to it can matter in any meaningful way. I had hope for the election, but hearing about the extent of voter suppression and the Democrats' weak appeals has drained that hope. A friend who feels similarly came up with the word I had been searching for: fatalism.

I had three hours behind the wheel today driving alone from Baltimore to Maplewood, and that gave me the opportunity to really think about all this. I concluded that I am right to be pessimistic. I think what we are witnessing has a 50-50 chance to be like the destruction of Reconstruction after 1877, and that thought scares the hell out of me. At the same time, I think it is dangerous to let that pessimism turn into fatalism. If the stakes are truly that high, I cannot live with myself sitting on the sidelines.

I am, however, going to think long and hard about whether the kinds of political action I am taking are fruitful, and how I might use my time, money, effort, and abilities more effectively. This has included the odd thought of running for local offices controlled by the godawful New Jersey Democratic machine. As I reminded myself, I could not live with myself otherwise. Now time to go out and push that boulder. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Charlottesville One Year On

Today marks the anniversary of the murder of Heather Heyer at the hands of Nazis. I remember hearing the news right after I returned from a different protest, this one at Donald Trump's golf course in Bedminster, where he was staying at the time. As if that tragedy was not bad enough, the president's comments, which displayed sympathy towards the Nazis, showed for all the world to see that the man who was willing to venomously attack just about anybody -including gold star parents- did not want to offend violent racists.

The next day I took part in a candlelight vigil and march here in Maplewood, New Jersey. A lot of people showed up, and attendance crossed the racial and class lines that often divide this town. Trump's reaction to Heyer's death seemed at the time like it could be a kind of breaking point.

I even felt that for a minute, but that was a hopelessly naive thought. Here we are one year later, and Republicans are still just as loyal to Trump. As I have said before, they signed a blood pact with him, and in any case, the Republican party espouses a respectable, lite version of white nationalism as its official doctrine. The vast majority do not follow Trump despite his racism, they have maintained their loyalty BECAUSE of it.

Since then the outrages have only increased. This summer we have seen children kidnapped from their parents and put in cages for the crime of seeking asylum legally in the United States. There has been a wave of stories about unprecedented corruption. The president himself appeared to sell out the United States to a foreign dictator live on international television.

And yet the Democrats are in doubt over whether they will succeed in this year's elections. That might seem insane, but notice how so few people have recalibrated themselves to deal with the current situation, which is nothing less than the early stages despotic rule. Democrats still insist on playing it safe in their political strategy, just like before. Various people on the left refuse to make common cause with liberals, just like before. Most importantly, Republicans have gone all in on this.

A year after Charlottesville I want us to remember Heather Heyer, and to give thanks to those who showed up and stood up to Nazis. But I also want us to remember this event to remind ourselves of the perniciousness of what we are up against. The Moloch of Trumpism cannot be shamed. It cannot be talked to or persuaded. It cannot be expected to just go away. It can only be confronted, and once confronted, it must be destroyed. And that's going to require a lot more fight than we have been giving it so far, myself included.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Billboard Top Ten August 12, 1978

I feel the need to do another top ten. Every now and again I get obsessed with the pop music of the 1978-1981 period, which I call the Reagan Dawn. There were some amazing studio musicians back then laying down the tracks, right before the 80s and everything became computerized. This particular countdown is one chock full of smooth music played by real pros. Now on with the countdown!

10. Andy Gibb, "An Everlasting Love"

In 1978 the Bee Gees bestrode the earth like a colossus. Andy Gibb was too young to have been in the band, but he had his own career in the late 70s with songs and production by big bro Barry. At that time every he touched turned into gold, until a massive backlash suddenly made the Bee Gees persona non grata in the 1980s. The Bee Gees themselves put out a lot of great records, but Andy Gibb's stuff is a lot spottier. This song is not much to write home about, and is certainly no "Shadow Dancing."

9. Walter Egan, "Magnet and Steel"

This is the song that sent me down the late 70s rabbit hole. I think it was made for hot, dog days August evenings. It's the perfect smooth song to play while sipping a cocktail by the pool with the bugs chirping. The background vocals have always entranced me, and I recently discovered they were by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, which makes sense. It has that slinky magic of the Fleetwood Mac songs of the era, with a touch of doo-wop.

8. Barry Manilow, "Copacabana"

I am not much of a Manilow fan but this is an insanely catchy tune. It's also an example of how disco brought in lots of Latin rhythms to pop music. This song is also strange in that it puts a story song into a disco context. Most disco songs are not meant to have you care about the lyrics, but hey, Barry writes the songs.

7. Pablo Cruise, "Love Will Find A Way"

Listen to this song and snort up a pure, uncut rail of Yacht Rock. It is a shockingly indirect song for such a big hit, but the sound was perfect for the time.

6. A Taste Of Honey, "Boogie Oogie Oogie"

A Taste of Honey is often trotted out at Grammy time, just to remind folks that they were once given the Best New Artist Award. It's a good reminder that the Grammys have always been trash. HOWEVER, this song is a highlight of the disco era. The bass is classic busy disco bass, just walking all over the damn place. Disco completed the pioneering efforts of funk and reggae to liberate the bass as an instrument, and for that, I salute it.

5. Foreigner, "Hot Blooded"

This right here is the Mount Olympus of cock rock. Mainstream hard rock was self-parodying itself to Spinal Tap levels by 1978, and this song is proof. Mick Jones as always lays down a killer, catchy riff, and Lou Gramm sings like he's got his testicles in his throat. Foreigner were the ultimate avatar of mainstream rock in the late 70s, which was competent, faceless, and corporate.

4. The Rolling Stones, "Miss You"

For decades years now Stones fans have been saying their new albums are "their best since Some Girls" in an effort to convince themselves that they didn't waste thirteen bucks at Best Buy on Voodoo Lounge. That album is the benchmark because of songs like "Miss You." The Stones have always kept the roll in rock and roll, and on this song they actually went full disco with the bass and drums. Sugar Blue's harmonica also gives the song a unique sound, Mississippi by way of Studio 54. Forty years later the Stones have had some hits and misses, but no new songs this good.

3. Donna Summer, "Last Dance"

I will always love this song, since it was (by our request) the last song played at our wedding. Donna Summer has got to be one of the most important and best-selling musical artists with the least amount of critical recognition. I blame the opprobrium heaped onto disco, as well as producer Giorgio Moroder getting credit for everything. When this song starts to take off after the soft opening she really gives it wings. RIP

2. Frankie Valli, "Grease"

Jersey boy Frankie Valli had been one of the great pop stars of the pre-Beatles 60s, but had an improbable comeback in the 70s with songs like "Oh What A Night" and "Grease." The lime green suit and fly collar combo in the video clip is almost as 70s as the lite disco accompaniment. More importantly, the song was written by Barry Gibb, whose golden touch extended beyond the Bee Gees in the late 70s. It is kind of amazing how certain songwriters and producers can just nail down the sound of a particular time, then get pushed aside so soon afterward.

1. The Commodores, "Three Times A Lady"

The Commodores had once been a preposterously funky band. (Just listen to "Machine Gun" and "Brick House.") Then, at some point Lionel Richie sold his funk soul to the pop music devil. I know some people like him, but his love songs are unbearably schmaltzy, including this one. The turning away of funk for pop stardom was the ultimate Reagan Dawn move.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The White Supremacy Of Not Caring

The phrase "white supremacist" conjures up visions of Klan robes and shaved heads and swastika tattoos. These days one might also think of a Trump rally. These very obvious manifestations of white supremacy are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. White supremacy is maintained in this country less by openly expressed hate, and more by quiet, subtle, apathy.

One of America's dirty little secrets is that while white Americans by and large don't give a shit about the lives of people of color they don't talk about it much, either. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. I know a lot of quiet white supremacists who are not vocal Trump supporters, do not express open bigotry, and in some cases are not even conservative. Many of them also don't even really seem to think a whole lot about race.

It's something they'd rather not think about at all. They have internalized the racist hierarchy in their minds, and so feel no need to examine their skin privilege, or even to think that such a thing exists. Their position in society is natural, as far as they are concerned, the product of hard work. When things happen that display the massive levels of racism in this society, they just choose to ignore it and just not care about it.

When Trayvon Martin was murdered, they assumed he must have done something to deserve it. (Repeat this for every time a black person is murdered by the police.) They look at the system of mass incarceration and only think that it's a fine thing that so many criminals are off of the streets. When Flint's water was turned into poison, they just turned the page and moved on. When immigrant children were kidnapped and jailed, they told themselves "well, they were breaking the law" and maybe, just maybe, thought "it's really too bad that had to happen." They heard Trump's racist rants and maybe didn't like them, but still went in to vote for him for a tax cut or an anti-abortion judge on the Supreme Court.

The protests by NFL players are the ultimate litmus test of this phenomenon. While I support the protesting players, I can understand but not agree with those who disapprove of their methods, if and only they are also upset about the police killings inspiring those protests. The thing is, I have never met one of these unicorns. The same people made at the kneeling are, surprise surprise, the same who never said a single word when Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and so many others were murdered. Why? Because they tacitly support the racist system responsible. 

And when you meet these people, you will often find that they are "nice" people. They are friendly, respectful in their speech, and may even have close friends and family members who are not white. Some people are amazed at the stories of white Trump voters whose immigrant spouses were later deported. I am not surprised in the least. White supremacy in America is violently maintained by the state, but those who approve of that system mostly do not do so by screaming "Build the Wall!" but by hearing about immigrant children abused in custody, shrugfully saying "that's a shame," and not giving it a second thought. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

New Episode of Old Dad's Records

This week I recorded another episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records. This edition came out of my West Coast vacation, and the theme was gloomy Los Angeles music. The song this time was The Doors' "Light My Fire." It is super uncool to like The Doors these days, but I must admit they came into my life at an absolutely crucial point. After I talk perhaps too enthusiastically about The Doors, I pull The Seeds' first album off of my pile of old records. I found this gem at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, a truly wonderful store. I am a Sixties garage rock junkie, I must admit. This is despite the, shall we say, problematic nature of the genre's gender politics. There is something about the loud hum of the sound of that music that I can't resist. I end with a new song, this one by Lana Del Rey. Her character is Hollywood to the hilt, but the tragic boulevard of broken dreams Hollywood. She is the Weimar-esque cabaret torch singer our dying empire needs.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Hollowed Out (My Hometown As A Microcosm Of The "New Economy")

The Chautauqua Pavilion, a relic of my hometown's Progressive Era boom years

When I was back in my rural Nebraska hometown of Hastings last week I had the pleasure to go on a thirteen mile bike ride around the town with my dad. We went to pretty much every corner of the town of 24,000, and I was able to see more vividly than from my car window what's been happening in it.

Hastings is not typical economically, but many of the broader trends are remarkably visible there nonetheless. The town initially grew up in the Gilded Age as a railroad junction where the Burlington and Union Pacific came together. Growing up timing a trip across town had to include some extra minutes to account for waiting for a train, since there was no under or overpass on the Union Pacific as there was on the Burlington. After the economic depression of the 1890s the town boomed in the early twentieth century. It was my great fortune to have grown up in a town that had its youth in the Progressive Era, which meant the library, parks, and schools were all well-made and well-supported.

It's economic high point came in the 1940s, with the building of a massive naval ammunition plant on the edge of town for World War II. (My dad's father, too old for the draft, worked there.) The city's population increased by a third, but that would be the last major economic boost. After the war small industry assisted by proximity to the railroads remained (and still does), and the city persisted as a commercial center for the surrounding rural area.

However, when the interstate was built through the state, it went through larger Grand Island, 24 miles north. There is a line of broken down and abandoned motels on highway six in Hastings attesting to the significance of this decision. Then, in the 1980s, Nebraska's farm economy took a major hit, forcing many farmers into foreclosure. This is evident in the small towns in Hastings' orbit, which mostly look beaten down and half-abandoned. The industrial sector is still thriving (unlike elsewhere), but the commercial economy has greatly declined. The Union Pacific re-routed their tracks to bypass the town in the 1990s, which seemed to say something about its reduced place in the world.

What you see in my hometown now is something you see around the country: the squeezing out of the middle. I was lucky to be from a middle class family that stayed up during the squeeze, others were not. My old neighborhood is evidence of this. It was built in the 1960s, consisting of very small, box-shaped ranch houses. Growing up it was solidly lower-middle class and people owned their homes. Now many of the homes are rentals, as home ownership even in a market as cheap as Nebraska's is increasingly difficult.

Businesses that cater to the disappearing middle (and especially lower-middle) are also struggling. The local Perkins and Applebee's restaurants are closing, in the midst of what is supposed to be an economic boom. Allen's, the local department store with its own grocery store is now closing everything except for food. The last non-box store general clothing store (Herberger's) is closing too. (I got a couple of things there and mourned the place I bought all my school clothes as a kid.) The local men's store and tailor is still going downtown, but anyone not wanting to buy a men's suit either has to go to Wal-Mart or drive 24 miles to Grand Island. Herberger's was the last holdout in the ironically named Imperial Mall, now a giant dead rotting hulk visible from my parents' front window. Behind it are an abandoned theater, grocery store, and restaurant, likely to be ruins forever.

Many more local establishments are gone now too. A legendarily wild bar with a dance floor called the Second Street Slammer, due to the bars on its windows, is also closed. So is the local family restaurant, the OK Cafe, as well as Bernardo's, the steak house where I marked all kinds of family milestones, from my sister's wedding rehearsal dinner to my grandparents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Ponderosa Lanes is no longer setting up the bowling pins.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course. The local bookstore, Prairie Books, is still going downtown after the death of one of its owners. The beautiful historic municipal baseball park, Duncan Field, now has a summer league team. However, the places that are new and thriving are the ones catering to the affluent, rather than the middle. There are two coffee shops downtown, a new fine dining restaurant that takes reservations (!), two (!) microbreweries and old building lofts being converted into condos, including the home of an old brewery that had never been occupied by anything in my lifetime. Perhaps these innovations will attract the educated professionals who rarely come back after growing up in Hastings, and who do not stay long if they move in from away. Be that as it may, it is obvious that in Hastings, like everywhere else, those at the top are doing well for themselves.

Things are not so great for those squeezed down. For a town with a very low unemployment rate, Hastings has blocks and blocks of dilapidated housing, some of it built in a temporary, slap-dash fashion for war plant workers in the 40s. Working-class neighborhoods look worse for wear, some scruffier, some practically squalid. I got wind of the literal squeeze at the county fair, when I overheard a conversation about a factory worker experiencing wage theft. The low wages that make Hastings attractive to bosses make living tough for workers. Now even Wal-Mart might be too expensive to shop in. There are now three dollar stores in town, one in the cancerous growth of box stores on the edge of town, two others in working class areas on the other side of the tracks where other stores and restaurants lie vacant. 

That vacancy can be seen elsewhere. While associational life in Hastings might be stronger than in many other communities, it is much less pronounced than it used to be. At the county fair there were many, many, fewer civic organizations with tables than 20 years ago, and all of them had conservative religious or political (or both) orientations. A got a graphic glimpse of this when biking past what was once the Knights of Columbus Hall, which is now an auction house touting the sale of guns and ammunition. The Tribune, the Monday-Saturday daily paper, still lives but it is thinner than boarding house soup. When I attended 11 o'clock mass with my parents at one of the two Catholic churches I was shocked at how few people were there, even accounting for it being summer. (There is a megachurch in the aforementioned cancerous growth on the edge of town, so perhaps this represents more a shift than a lack of engagement.)

Associational life is a plumb necessity in an isolated Plains town like Hastings, but even there it is going the way of the dodo. While people what they call "the Heartland" often feel apart from the broader currents of American society, they are not. My hometown, like so many others, is one more atomized and divided by class than ever before. At least they have IPAs.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Political Dispatch From Rural Nebraska

Saw this at the county fair in my hometown. Evidently 2nd Amendment porn is a category

I just arrived back home in New Jersey from visiting my family in rural Nebraska, and unlike those journalists who parachute in and talk to the random cranks at the local diner, I actually know the section of "middle America" I'm writing about. Those same journalistic paratroopers also make the same mistake of seeing "between the coasts" as a giant, undifferentiated mass, as if Dallas, Chicago, rural Alabama, and the mountain west are all the same.

I can't speak for other places, I can only tell you what I saw and know from Nebraska. The main thing I noticed was that nothing has really changed from this time last year when I visited when it comes to support for Donald Trump. What I discovered then, as now, is that his support in the Cornhusker State is akin to the state's Platte River, famously described as "a mile wide and an inch deep." He has his hardcore supporters, of course, but I was surprised yet again by how little people there talk about him, when he's all people seem to talk about where I live. Trump seems to get most of his shallow yet dependable support due to the kind of identity politics that don't get discussed much in the press.

A lot of folks in what some call "the Heartland" think of themselves as Real Americans. They also think that voting Republican is a kind of membership renewal ritual for maintaining that status. In their minds liberals are bad people who come from outside and don't share their values. They would rather cut off their right arms than ever vote for a Democrat, it would be akin to them desecrating a crucifix. With that mindset in place, these same voters could find Trump personally repugnant, but at the end of the day he stands for People Like Us, aka Real Americans.

I talked to multiple people on this trip, some strangers and some not, who knowing I live in New Jersey would wrinkle their noses and say "How do you like living THERE?" Or I would get "I could NEVER live in a place like that!" The passive-aggression of those comments wore me out. They literally could not understand how I could have possibly decided to move out of Real America to the east coast. What I noticed more than anything on this trip was how embedded the politics of resentment have become in a place like rural Nebraska.

This paradigm of Real America is incredibly strong and explains a lot of behavior that outsiders don't get. For example, there all kinds of people who scratch their heads at devout Christians supporting a lying, cheating, adultering greedhead who brags about never turning the other cheek. The answer is simple: the true evil are the liberals, and anyone who stands for Real Americans can never be wrong because they are, after, the real America. The media screws this up when they keep talking about "populism" when this is really an issue of nationalism. The reporters really find it more comforting to think that these white people in the hinterlands are mad about their jobs and not animated by an exclusionary bigotry that sees those very reporters as evil people.

The biggest political attitude I seemed to get in rural Nebraska was one of avoidance. I get the feeling that I lot of people know that they signed a devil's bargain with Trump, but they could never allow themselves to question their choice. Therefore nothing seemed to register. The news of relief for farmers hurt by Trump's tariffs was out there, but no one seemed to be talking about it. The kidnapping of immigrant children and Trump publicly selling out the country to Putin might as well have never happened. The only people talking about Trump were those who despise him, who are making their voices louder against long odds.

However, they are extremely marginalized. I went to the county fair while I was back home, and in the area where civic groups have their tables I was taken aback by the lack of a Democratic Party stall. When I was a child both parties would have candidates to talk to people and plenty of swag to hand out. There were also few civic organizations that were not religious or politically religious in nature. The local Christian radio station was there, as were the Gideons and anti-abortion groups. The range of ideological diversity expressed in a public forum like that basically runs from solid conservative to Christian dominionism.

While in that section I ran into someone who was two grades behind me in school who now has seven children that she home schools. (Her new baby was really cute.) In rural Nebraska that's not looked on as being out of the ordinary (and I'm not judging btw), but moving to New Jersey is. My prediction for the political future is that rural Nebraskans will never ever abandon the Trump train, even if their support for him personally is pretty scant.

Apart from that shallow but wide river of support I have noticed an alarming rise in blatantly racist and fascist activity in my home state. I read about three of these stories in the Omaha paper on the same damn day, here's a sampler:

Fascist white supremacist posters put up in Hastings (my hometown)

20 foot swastika burned into the lawn of an Omaha park

A white bicyclist berated a black woman with a racist tirade in Omaha

Small town of Scribner considers adopting a "show your papers" law

Nazi propaganda found in "little free libraries" in Lincoln

The extreme fascist bigots are flexing their muscles. Nebraska liberals have been publicly countering this stuff, but conservatives and those in the middle really just don't seem to care. So while I have not witnessed deep enthusiasm for Trump, there is broad apathy about the worst of what he has brought.

Anyone who thinks these voters can somehow be "turned" by the right message is deluded. My great sadness is that winning is going to require getting the people who don't vote to vote, and that requires messages and imagination that are completely absent from the Democratic Party. In the meantime, the Real Americans will keep voting, and keep passively supporting this criminal administration through their apathy.