Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Things Will Continue To Get Worse Before They Get Better

Every now and then I have to check myself and look around and think really critically about what the heck is going on in this country. My assessment since the first days of the Trump administration was that things were going to get worse before they get better, and I do not think we have reached the crossover point yet. In fact, we are not even close.

The Trump administration has proven itself to be craven, incompetent, corrupt, racist, and possessing authoritarian tendencies. It is destroying America's standing in the world while perpetuating its internal inequalities. It is seductive to look at the Mueller investigation and think that justice will be done, but no president yet has been removed from office after impeachment, and Trump will not be the first. Beyond that, the two sides in Korea are longing for peace, and if that is achieved the media will bow down to Trump and credit him as a great statesman, even if the result was primarily due to the moves by North and South Korea.

The biggest problem is that the opposition is not up to the task, and Trump's supporters remain steadfast. Let's look at this from some different factions in our political landscape.

Trump Voters
The people who voted for this man in the primaries have stayed with him. They sometimes express disappointment, but that's only to get him to keep giving them what they want. He is their leader, their messiah. They will never abandon him.

Non-Trump Republicans
The people who did not vote for Trump until the general election are sticking with their party, which has signed a blood-oath with the despot. They are not proud of their vote, necessarily, but they made it, and show every sign of making it again in 2020. As long as someone screams "taxes, fetuses, guns, and gays" in their ears they will stay loyal. Fox News still has an iron grip on them.

Never Trump Republicans
They are a tiny group, mostly consisting of op-ed writers and pundits for respectable newspapers. They are few in number, and are too invested in conservatism to hold the Republican party accountable for its Trump alliance.

Middle of the Road Independents
These are the most frustrating people on earth. For the most part they aren't paying attention and are prone to saying "I don't like Trump, but I don't like liberals either." They have already slotted Trump into their fatuous "both sides" narrative.

They have been marching and making calls, but they are still weak and lack a proper perspective. They are the people who saw James Comey swing the election to Trump, but are now waiting in line to read his book and shower him with praise. They still want to believe in the system, and still want to think that conservatives are not a radical movement bent on their very destruction. So far they have been far too weak to mount a strong response.

Rank and File Democrats
This is the most promising group. These are the teachers on strike, concerned about bread and butter issues and not the symbolic politics beloved of liberals and leftists. This is, relatedly, the least white of all the factions. The problem is that these folks are getting little direction from the party.

In the face of despotism many are spending all of their time bitching about liberals. During the anti-gun violence walk-outs and marches, many say on the sidelines naysaying and acting above it all. The same people spent more time attacking the supposed offensive nature of pussy hats than engaging in protests themselves. One of the biggest problems with this group is that because of their educations they have an inflated sense of their importance, which in fact is virtually nil to people who don't have graduate degrees in the humanities.


This has not been a message of comfort, but it's one I think people ought to be listening to. We have to stop believing that things will change because they must or that Mueller will somehow stop it all. We have to fight, and to be willing to fight together, regardless of some of our differences.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Consolation of Superman

This week marked issue #1000 of Action Comics, which happened to be released quite fortuitously on the 80th anniversary of Superman's first appearance, in Action Comics #1. While I have been drawn back into comic books over the past few years after two decades aways, I have never really been a big Superman guy. Picking up Action Comics #1000 and a few other comics with Supes here and there might have me changing my mind.

As has been well-documented, the rise of "prestige television" elevated a certain kind of anti-hero. Tony Soprano and Walter White, perhaps the two most emblematic, both wanted to do right by their families as they committed heinous acts and ultimately alienated the people they thought they were protecting. We have been hit by a deluge of "dark and gritty" ever since. In the cinemas, that has also meant Superman becoming violent and unlikeable in the Zach Snyder films.

Superman is perhaps the ultimate example in our cultural heritage of the untainted, pure hero, but even he fell to the pervasive need for our heroes to be tainted. In the comics, however, he is still an embodiment of the qualities we wish to see most in ourselves. Instead of rejecting this character as corny or silly, I find myself embracing him.

We live in an era where the absolute worst kind of human being holds the highest power in the land. In a time like this, the concept of heroism needs to be redeemed. After all, Superman had his origins in the Great Depression as the world was about to go to war. In tough times we need things to rally us, to give us belief. Some of the stories in Action Comics 1000 comment on this, implicitly and explicitly. I feel my fight waning every day after over a year of both commitment and political insanity. Not a lot can snap me out of my sense of doom, but Superman does. If that's corny, well corn me up.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Track of the Week: Tears for Fears, "Mad World"

Right before my parents came to visit I suffered from a pretty intense attack of the black dog. The seasons have a big effect on my mental state, and this endless winter we are experiencing had me down, plus work stress and some bad news about the health of someone very close to me.

In times like these I tend to turn to the music I listened to in my youth when I wanted to wallow in sadness. (Sometimes the wallowing makes it better.) This meant Depeche Mode and New Order, since the cold synthy sound of those bands fits the purgatory of the late winter. While assembling a queue of songs in that vein I added Tears for Fears' "Mad World."

I soon became obsessed with it, playing it every day during my commute. Even though I am a child of the 80s, I still knew the song best in the form of Gary Jules' excellent cover, which has eclipsed the original in the collective pop cultural memory. Whereas his song is a quiet lament on a dark night of the soul, Tears for Fears give us a thumping 80s synth pop song. The synths are deep and dark however, more John Carpenter soundtrack than Duran Duran.

It's an incredibly bracing song for one that hit the top ten in the UK, where there seems to be more of a market for sad sack anthems. A line like "The dreams in which I'm dying/ Are the best I've ever had" which is a powerful yet oblique reference to being dogged by suicidal thoughts. It's generally a lament for the treadmill of life, and expresses the nagging doubt (which I often have) that nothing in this world will ever get better. It will be the eternal return of the same, forever and forever and forever. We will all just be stuck desperately plugging away until the day we die while greedheads lord their money over us.

In case you don't know, Depeche Mode is on tour and making serious bank. My fellow dark British 80s pop loving Gen Xers are in middle age, when songs like this have translated our teen angst into fortysomething sadness and fear. It's music that isn't talked about much in the rock or pop canons, but it has more than stood the test of time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Back From My Hiatus With Some Reflections

I’ve been away from the blog for the longest time in years, maybe ever. (I haven’t checked.) First off, I spent my writing energy on a piece for publication, something I had resolved to do more often. (So far, no bite.) Soon after my parents came to visit, and I see them so rarely that I resolved to give them the full measure of my time and attention.

My time away, as well as my parents’ visit, has given me some time for reflection. Some of it has been good, some has been hard. On the good side on Sunday I returned to Frank Pepe’s, the justly famous brick oven pizza place in New Haven. We were on a road trip back from Rhode Island with my parents, and made time to get some awesome pizza. It had been seven years since I had been there, and the last time was pretty significant.

I had been in New Haven for a conference. I was not totally excited by said conference, but this was back when I was still an assistant professor in East Texas. Going to New Haven gave me a chance to see my wife, who drove up from New Jersey. I’d also been encouraged to attend by a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, who was good to see again.

That weekend was a crucial one in my life, since it was on those days that I made the definitive decision to get out of academia at any cost. I knew right then and there that I was not staying in East Texas and nothing was going to stop me. The delicious meal at Frank Pepe’s capped off a weekend where I had suddenly attained clarity.

This came after months of severe anxiety and depression brought on by my career woes, illnesses in my family, living far from my wife, and being bullied and belittled at my job. Coming back to Frank Pepe’s with my wife, my parents, and my children made me realize just how much better my life is than it was seven years ago. That realization helped cut through some of the intense stress I’ve been feeling as of late.

As great as that reflection was, it came during a week of less happy thoughts about myself and my life. When I am with my parents I inevitably think about how I’ve changed since my youth. Seven years on, it’s apparent that my years as a low-level academic, first as an exploited “visitor” and then as a put-upon and bullied assistant professor, had a permanent effect on my personality.

On the positive side, that experience made me tougher. I am more of a fighter than I used to be, more confident and much more able to spot climbers, back-stabbers, and assholes before they have a chance to come at me. At the same time, I am not as nice a person as I used to be. I am much more cynical, and far, far less trusting. I am constantly thinking that someone somewhere is out to fuck me over at all times. I have no patience for other people’s bullshit, which I realize has made me an unpleasant person on things like local town Facebook group where yuppies run amok. I am as patient as I can be with my students, but that sometimes means that my patience is used up before I get home where I need to have some in reserve for my family.

I love Bernand Malamud’s The Natural because (unlike the film) it makes the point that suffering is not redemptive. I survived the worst low of my adult life, but it did not leave me unscathed. I learned some lessons, but also developed some bad habits. I can't ever be the person I used to be, but I am going to be trying hard to be a better person.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Conspiracy Theories Kill

I have long deplored conspiracy theories. It used to be it was because I thought that they misspent political energy. After all, the biggest "conspiracies" was there for all to see: the wealthy use their power to keep the state in their pocket and to do their bidding. White people use their power to perpetuate their position and to maintain a racist criminal justice system. They don't even bother to hide it!

However, that annoyance (rather than outright opposition) was back in times of more benign conspiracy theories. Now I am seeing their potential to kill, as they have often done in the past. Conspiracy theories take hate and fear and turn it into outright violence. The examples are legion. During the French Revolution, rumors of plotting by reactionaries led to the September Massacres in 1792, where thousands of prisoners were killed because they were supposedly going to be joining the nobility in an uprising against the Revolution. Most of those killed were regular criminals, not anti-Revolutionaries. In Germany the Nazi conspiracy theory that Jews and socialists had stabbed Germany in the back, leading to its loss in World War I became one of Hitler's most effective tools. Generally the history of anti-Semitism is full of conspiracy theories that lead to mob or state violence against Jews. In fact, I would say that the association between conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism is so strong that even conspiracy theories not directly connected to Jews bear marks of it. (Most JFK theories, for example, finger a dark, shadowy cabal pulling the strings.) In America conspiracy thinking has also been unleashed. In the mid-1800s "Know-Nothings" burned Catholic churches and convents to supposedly thwart a popish plot. In the present day mosques have been bombed in reaction to a supposed Muslim plot to subject America to "sharia law."

Conspiracy theories can justify state violence as well as mob violence. Just witness the ways that the current Russian autocracy has used media-circulated conspiracy theories to attack the political opposition and LGBTQ people. The kind of conspiracy theories that kill are on the rise in this country. People like Alex Jones, who treat gun violence victims as actors in a plot to take his listeners' guns. No one less that the president of the United States listens to him. The only people who listen to him on the left do it as a fun kind of joke, the deadly potential of what is pushing is usually ignored. The Pizzagate conspiracy almost led to a mass shooting.

But now people do not even have to seek out hateful conspiracy theories to be exposed to them. YouTube's autoplay feature shoves them in front of unsuspecting eyes. On Facebook conspiracy theories gain credence because if one of your trusted friends endorses something, you are much less likely to discount it. Racist billionaires like Robert Mercer not only finance Breitbart, they have used Cambridge Analytica to inflame the hatred of potential Trump supporters on social media. Many people, young as well as old, lack the capacity or experience to divine true from fake. If something confirms their preconceived notions, they will usually just buy into it, no matter how ridiculous.

We are entering darker and darker times. Things will continue to get worse before they get better, I fear. The spread of hateful conspiracy theories and those who push them has become normalized. Just witness how Roseanne Barr, someone who has disseminated conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, was feted by the media after the successful return of her eponymous show. The use of faked propaganda on social media was shocking back in late 2016, now we are used to it. The president of the United States attacking journalists has now become just another political weather event.

I used to wonder why Julius Streicher, the most egregious Nazi purveyor of anti-Semitic publications, got the death penalty at Nuremberg. After all, he had not committed war crimes and genocide like the others. (And Albert Speer SHOULD have been put to death for his own, but that's another story.) Now I understand. His efforts had made it possible for millions to be murdered.

In countering the anti-Semitic attacks on Alfred Dreyfus, Emile Zola rallied the troops by calling out "truth is on the march!" To win a victory like Zola and Dreyfus' against bigotry, we too must go on the march. We will not change the minds of those addicted to Breitbart, Fox and InfoWars, we can only marginalize and neutralized them by stripping them of their power. Time to get marching.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

REM's Life's Rich Pageant And The First Shadows Of The Reagan Dusk

We often tend to mistakenly think of the 1980s in ways that paint it as uniformly conforming to certain trends consistently throughout the decade. If you look into the cultural and political history of the 1980s, however, you will see something in the late 1980s I call "Reagan Dusk." During this period criticism of unequal social conditions became more prominent in popular culture, and there was a growing negative reaction to what neoliberalism had wrought. This coincided both with the thawing of the Cold War and the Iran-Contra Scandal, which undermined the Reaganite view of global conflict as well as trust in the Gipper, respectively. The president himself was sundowning, growing senile and more prone to health problems. Public memory of the 1980s has mish-mashed it into a big neon spandex blur, the so-called "Greed Decade" for many progressives, or a golden age overseen by Ronald the Great by conservatives.

Both interpretations are wrong. Dissent coincided with greed. Reagan's popularity waxed and waned, and his so-called "revolution" started running into its own limits.

1986 was the crucial transitional year for all of this. That was the year the Iran Contra scandal broke, hampering Reagan's popularity and bringing on talk of a second Watergate. 1986 was also saw a summit in Iceland between Gorbachev and Reagan that heralded a great lessening of tensions between the superpowers. Earlier that year the Chernobyl disaster forced the hand of glasnost in the Soviet Union. In America Reagan signed a massive tax bill that included tax increases on the wealthy from the extremely low levels he had set in 1981 and a tacit admission that supply side economics were not magic beans that could lower the deficit by cutting taxes. (Of course, that idea would soon be back.) All the while, AIDS raged, the horrible toll unacknowledged by the president. In a nation where thousands were dying of disease, there was no "Morning in America."

Popular culture, however, took longer to catch up. The ultimate expression of Reagan-era ideology on film, Top Gun, was the highest-grossing film of the year. The same year also saw Cobra, Sylvester Stallone's bluntest 80s statement on violence as will to power. (His catchphrase, "you're the disease, I'm the cure" sounds chilling post Trump.) Popular music was as big as the shoulder pads and hair so common at the time and as loud as the patterns on the shorts and dresses of Americans that summer.

At the fringes, however, the Reagan Dusk was just barely visible. It could be heard on Life's Rich Pageant, the fourth album from REM, the rock band poised to bring the sound of the underground to the mainstream. REM's first three albums are masterpieces of jangly guitar and mysteriously mumbled lyrics with an overlay of Southern Gothic on top. Your average indie rock fan today still pays homage to them. They are less likely to do so for Life's Rich Pageant, where the band took a turn that in retrospect ought to be lauded rather than disdained.

The change is obvious immediately, as "Begin the Begin" starts with a hard-edged rock riff and loud feedback beneath Stipe's voice, which is suddenly much clearer, the lyrics more legible and now, for the first time, topical. The loud snare drum reflects the times and the production of Don Gehman, who had worked on heartland rocker John Cougar Mellencamp's albums. This song is a call to arms amidst the wreckage of the Reagan Era, but the lyrics are cryptic enough not to make it a traditional "protest song." There is dark talk of "The powers/ the only vote that matters" but a cautiously optimistic cry "let's begin again" as well.

Before the listener can catch their breath, the song transitions immediately without pause into "These Days," with a fast, loud, blistering riff by Buck over muscular Berry drums. (This is the album where Bill Berry's beginnings as a metal-head are most evident.) It might be the only REM song that encourages head banging. The words are fiery too, "We are old despite the times" and "I'll rearrange your scales." The one-two punch of "Begin the Begin" and "These Days" is an announcement that REM has abandoned its Southern Gothic Folk Mystery thing and is grabbing for the crown of Band That Matters.

These days, when Bono has become kind of a joke and social media has made political activism more accessible, the significance of this move has been diluted. In the middle of the Reagan Era, when nuclear war threatened, cities rotted, and AIDS ravaged the country while the media and political figures barely seemed to care, music stepped into the breach. For someone like me, who grew up in a very rural, conservative area, it was not just a lifeline, it paved a way for my embrace of a more progressive politics. Hip hop (and especially Public Enemy) provided me with the most radical musical critiques, but REM was important too. After all, they hailed from Athens, Georgia, and were a sign that resistance to the dominant politics of the time could exist in places like the one where I lived.

The political themes continue on the first side of the album, but songs ease back into folkier territory, such as in the ringing, beautiful "Fall On Me." "Buy the sky/ And sell the sky/ And lift your arms up to the sky/ And ask the sky and ask the sky/ Don't fall on me." I remember Stipe saying it was about acid rain, but for obvious reasons it calls to mind other environmental dangers we face today. The beautiful Mike Mills background harmonies truly make this song, though. While REM might be headed in traditionally more "rawk" directions here, they are doing it their way with their own unique sound.

"Cuyahoga" continues discussion of the environment, referencing the Cleveland river that was once so polluted that it caught fire. It also discusses Native American history, and how this nation's wealth was built on the theft of others' land. Such critical re-evaluations of American history would be more commonplace during the Reagan Dusk, leading to the inevitable anti-PC backlash of the early 1990s. The sound is folkier than the album's start, but the lyrical message is unmistakable.

After those first four songs, the political elements are more subdued once the band has laid down the gauntlet. With different, less big production, "Hyena" could belong on Reckoning. Of course, lines like "The greater the weapon, the bigger the fear" seem to reference geopolitics just a little. The jaunty Latin dance-y song "Underneath The Bunker" with Stipe's unintelligibly filtered voice might be a nuclear war reference, but that's easy to ignore. It closes out side one, cheekily called the "Dinner Side."

Side two, the "Supper Side," goes into more explicitly political territory with "The Flowers of Guatemala." (On CD the transition from "Underneath the Bunker" to this more serious song is quite jarring.) The song references, of course, America's support for brutal military regimes in Guatemala, but does so in a mournful rather than rage-filled way. Stipe sings mournfully of the flowers on the graves of those murdered by the state. It is one of the most moving and powerful songs in REM's canon, and highlights issue that most people in this country, even those who are political progressives, choose to ignore. Amid the justified anger over Russian meddling in American elections, folks in America might want to take a minute and ponder what their own country has done elsewhere.

It's hard to top a side-opener like that, and REM really doesn't. A trio of solid but less evocative songs follows: "I Believe," "What If We Give It Away," and "Just A Touch." The latter is my favorite for its up-tempo punkiness and the story behind it. Evidently as a teenager Stipe witnessed an Elvis impersonator being mobbed on the day of the King's death by a group of distraught female Elvis fans, one of them saying "C'mon love, just a touch." The whole thing is just a fun rave-up and an unlikely segue into "Swan Swan H."

This acoustic song puts us back into REM's Southern Gothic mode big time. The lyrics reference the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Emancipation ("Hurrah we're all free now.") For such a politically important time in America's history, there does not seem to be much politics here, more setting a mood. That said, it's catchy as hell and in my youth I would listen to it over and over again. The album ends on an unlikely note, with a cover of an obscure 1960s song, "Superman" by The Clique. It puts on full display the band's love of psychedelic garage rock (which is all over the rest of the album), but also mirrors another aspect of the coming Reagan Dusk: 60s nostalgia. One could argue it was kicked off in 1986 when MTV ran a bunch of Monkees episodes one weekend. Nostalgia for that decade, of course, was a kind of a political statement in itself in the midst of the conservative backlash.

Life's Rich Pageant is a classic "tweener" album. REM abandoned the formula that the Pitchfork crowd still idolizes, but its new, rock oriented sound did not yet yield any hits. That would soon come with 1987's Document, once the Reagan Dusk had truly started to fall. Life's Rich Pageant is a document of the other 1980s, the 80s of dissent and protest and resistance, of ACT-UP and anti-Apartheid. In our own fraught times when we need to begin again, it is well worth another listen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

What I Saw At The March For Our Lives In Newark

Yesterday I was one of the millions who turned out for March for Our Lives events in the United States and the world. I attended the one in Newark, partly because it was the closest one, but also because I'm a former resident of Brick City, a place I hold close to my heart. (I made sure to go back to my old neighborhood afterward and get a giant plate of Portuguese food and a big bag of stuff from one of the bakeries.)

I was not anticipating a huge turnout, mostly because people around here tend to go to marches like this in New York City to be a part of the bigger, more noteworthy event. I was happily surprised to see a very large crowd at Military Park in downtown Newark when I arrived, and by the time things got kicked off, it doubled in size. The event started with a half hour of speeches and performances, then we marched over to Washington Park and snaked around it to go back to Military Park to hear speeches by the big shots in attendance. I knew we were a big congregation because I was near the front, and once we got around Washington Park we had to stop because the people in the back third were blocking our way because they were still coming.

One thing I was very glad to see that while this event drew a lot of people from suburban New Jersey, it still put a lot of focus on Newark. Students from Newark schools performed music and dance, and they gave speeches that talked about gun violence more broadly. They spoke not just about school shootings, but also of the day to day gun violence in the streets of Newark, domestic violence, and police shootings like the recent tragedy in Sacramento. I came away from the event thinking that many of the white, suburban attendees might also see the issue of gun violence with a broader lens. That's necessary, and also an important rebuttal to naysayers who refuse to participate in this movement because they think it doesn't check all of their woke checkboxes.

While the students may have stumbled a little over their speeches or not have been completely polished, those things only served to highlight their courage. I did speech and debate in high school, but I could not have imagined giving a speech in front of thousands of people with the governor and my Congressman sitting in the wings. The politicians in attendance did a good job motivating the crowd and keeping things brief, at least. My representative in the House, Donald Payne Jr, has actually been out front on this issue and has crafted a bill for gun buybacks. He kept things fiery, and connected the march with the need to vote in the upcoming election. (A lot of the people there hail from purple districts currently represented by Republicans.) New governor Phil Murphy gave a very short, to the point speech emphasizing efforts on the state level. I even cut state senator (and charter school supporter) Teresa Ruiz some slack because her comments were pretty effective.

This event gave me hope because the main reason gun control has failed to be passed at the national level has less to do with the NRA itself and more to do with the extreme pro-gun minority. These people have always cared a LOT more about guns than the people who wanted to limit them. Guns for them are closely tied to their deepest identities, and so like Prohibition gun control is really an argument over what kind of country this is. Opponents of gun control have been acting desperate and attacking teenage survivors of mass shootings because they know they have been in the minority for years and have been getting by on complacency. Will this actually lead to meaningful change? I do not know, but I get the feeling that outside of deep red areas politicians who are highly rated by the NRA are going to be forced to answer for that.

On an unrelated sidenote, I briefly talked yesterday with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo yesterday, but only realized it after he walked away. "Joe D" is one of the big political fixers in the state, with rumors of corruption swirling about him. Despite that, Chris Christie never prosecuted him during his stint as state's attorney, when he went after several corrupt politicians. Joe D paid him back by supporting Christie's re-election, despite the fact that he was a conservative Republican and DiVincenzo is a Democrat in a a county that is deep blue.Yesterday, as we were stopped on the march route, a distinguished gentleman struck up a conversation with me, and his face looked strangely familiar. I made a little friendly small talk, and when the march ended he squeezed my arm and thanked me for showing up. At that moment I realized it was indeed Joe D, but it was too late. I was going to ask him why if he cared about gun control so much he supported a governor who vetoed new gun legislation.

My hope is that Democrats like Joe D saw what was happening yesterday and got a little scared for themselves. Machines like his rely on political complacency, a complacency which has made it possible for a blue state like New Jersey has been living under austerity for the past eight years. Even if gun control does not get passed in the short term, we are perhaps seeing a political awakening from the left that will not only get Republicans tossed out of office. Just as importantly, it could also give us better Democrats. One can only hope.