Sunday, June 25, 2017

Danny and the Juniors, "Pony Express"

Lately I've fallen down into a bit of a musical rabbit hole when it comes to the R&B and rock and roll of the early 1960s. For a long time there was this narrative that both genres were moribund at the time, until Stax, Motown, and the Beatles kicked things back into gear in the mid-1960s. That interpretation, of course, only reflects the fact that those things came to dominate soul and rock. It was different than what came before, but not necessarily better.

I have especially been digging the music on Philadelphia independent labels of the time like Cameo-Parkway and Swan. It tends to be up-tempo, good time dancing music. The world being the way it is, I could use a dose of that. "Pony Express" by Danny and the Juniors is a representative example. The band is best known for the exuberant "At The Hop," but they had plenty of other hot wax singles in their prime. The song isn't about the old west, but dances where girls' ponytails (highly fashionable at the time) are swaying too and fro. There's a swinging, stomping beat and a yakety sax solo and lines like "saddle up buttercup." This year when everyone is touting the fiftieth anniversary of Sgt Pepper it's good to also remember when rock and roll was just dumb good time music, rather than trying to make an artistic statement.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Nancy MacLean's Democracy In Chains Is Required Reading

After hearing people whose opinions I trust talk breathlessly about it, I picked up Nancy MacLean's Democracy In Chains last week and quickly devoured it. It is the kind of book that shows how history can used to fight political battles in the present, and the importance of historical research as a way of uncovering hidden realities.

The book is about James Buchanan, an obscure name despite winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 1986. MacLean essentially argues that while most of us tend to see Milton Friedman as the godfather of modern day right wing (there is good reason not to use the word "conservative") political economy, it is Buchanan who has by far had the bigger impact. A good part of the reason is that Buchanan's ideas were completely embraced by the Koch brothers, who have used their wealth to spread their influence.

MacLean derives her title from one of Buchanan's central tenets, namely that democracy is inimical to freedom. Of course, it is the libertarian notion of "economic freedom," which essentially boils down to the supremacy of property rights. Because those pesky voters want to finance the social safety net with the money of the wealthy, democracy must be limited in the name of "liberty." This is why Buchanan was glad to go to Chile and assist the oppressive Pinochet regime in their neoliberal economic agenda.

Buchanan also vigorously fought against democracy in the United States. MacLean finds that it was the Brown court case that first gave Buchanan, who was Tennessee born and a professor at the University of Virginia in the 1950s, his impetus to apply his ideas to politics. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ordering schools in the South to be integrated, Buchanan argued for a voucher system, and essentially against the entire notion of public education. He approved of poll taxes and literacy tests, which were onerous in Virginia at the time, as a way to prevent the "ignorant" from voting. While he never discussed race itself as a reason to suppress the vote, if it quacks like a duck etc.

Tactically, Buchanan thought it was best not to reveal to the public the true nature of his preferred agenda. Thus attempts to cut back on Social Security would couched as attempts to "save" it. The safety net was to be gradually weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, at which time it would be easy to eliminate. At that point, according to his strict ideology, freedom and liberty would reign supreme. Notice there was no supply-side argument about boosting the economy in his thinking. Allowing the wealthy to have their money was to him a moral imperative, pure and simple.

I am sure that a lot of this is sounding familiar to you. MacLean also shows how, in the past decade, Buchanan's way of thinking has more fully taken over the Republican Party via the Koch brothers and their largesse. This book has helped me understand so much. For example, on the surface it is confusing how eager the Republicans are to slam through a hugely unpopular health care act. However, it is obvious that ideology trumps everything for these people, and that they are relying on self-consciously anti-democratic means (gerrymandering, voter suppression, propaganda) to shield themselves from the effects. Buchanan's proteges openly talked of a "shock doctrine" that would be used when opportunities presented themselves to destroy "collectivism," and the current Trump administration appears to be just one of those moments.

It is obvious from this book, if it has not been obvious already, that an extremist attempt to roll back the 20th century is at the heart of the political party that now controls all levels of government. This book makes me despair, but it does a valuable service by showing us what we are all up against, and that it is democracy itself that hangs in the balance. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose.

Footnote: I was glad to see that this book confirmed an argument of mine, that the current conservative movement is best defined as right-wing Bolshevism. Many of Buchanan's proteges explicitly called themselves Leninists in their internal documents, and deliberately copied his methods.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Bring Superheroes Back To Their Socially Conscious Roots

From the first Superman story, where he fights to save an innocent man from execution

As a lifelong nerd, there is perhaps no more surprising development in our culture than the domination of the movie box office by superheroes. I'm old enough to remember a time when Marvel films in the early 1990s were straight to video or not even released at all.

Some of the films have been great, some have been awful, and many, many of them have been merely forgettable. (The infamous 1990s Roger Corman take on The Fantastic Four is still more entertaining than the recent big budget treatments.) Be that as it may, they remain popular. And the big knock on superhero movies, which I am sure I have repeated at some point, is that they are shallow and escapist and politically problematic.

As we approach peak superhero in an era of political upheaval, I think it's time that superheroes be interpreted in the light of the first superhero comic, 1938's Action Comics #1. This of course was the debut of Superman, and it you read this issue, you might be surprised at Superman's behavior and adversaries. While we often think of him as the establishment superhero, in this book he seems more like a vigilante. He also doesn't just sock it to criminals, he also intervenes to prevent an innocent man from being executed, to protect a woman against a domestic abuser, and to punish a corrupt, war-mongering politician. Slumlords and corrupt politicos also appear in other early Superman stories. Superman was a New Deal superhero in his earliest incarnation, not merely a crime fighter. World War II changed all of that and turned the Man of Tomorrow into a patriotic mascot.

World War II made Superman an Establishment superhero

Of course, plenty of superheroes created in those heady early days lacked any socially conscious component. Just think of Batman, a billionaire playboy who busts the heads of criminals trying to steal jewels from rich people. But also take a look at Wonder Woman, created under explicitly feminist auspices by William Moulton Marston. Her revolutionary and socially critical nature would also be undermined after her more subversive early years. The process started by World War II was completed by the anti-comics scare of the 1950s, which forced comics to be drained of political content.

Flash forward to the so-called Bronze Age of the 1970s, and socially conscious superheroes returned. Silver Surfer was a kind of space hippie critical of war and oppression. In 1975, after the Fall of Saigon, Iron Man questioned his involvement in Vietnam, and remembered witnessing the deaths of civilians at the hands of the American military. After Watergate Captain America threw off his uniform in disgust, working as Nomad. In the early 70s Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil wrote a set of team up stories with Green Lantern and Green Arrow where the former was forced to see issues like poverty and racism, and to question all the work he had done on behalf of the authorities, who now appeared to be the real villains. While those books were a little heavy handed, they still make for good reading today. They feel like they actually mean something deeper than the spectacle of people in tights throwing punches.

So Hollywood, I ask you to take this strand of superhero comics into account with your new movies. The superhero bubble is bound to burst, if you want to keep that cash rolling in, you'll have to do something more meaningful to keep the audience coming. I would love to see the Green Lantern-Green Arrow series adapted for the screen or a socially-conscious Silver Surfer flick. Why not a period-piece superhero movie starring the New Deal Superman? Or how about a plot where Bruce Wayne loses everything in a stock market crash, and is forced to confront the social and economic forces that breed crime?

It would also be worthwhile to see currently existing franchises take these values to heart. Take Wonder Woman, for example. As my friend Chauncey DeVega pointed out in a recent podcast, she is a hero who is new to the world of humans, and in the film thus critical of war and gender inequality. However, when she learns of the racism faced by Sameer and Chief, members of her combat team, her response is muted, rather than enraged. Knowing Wonder Woman's background and her values, would she not be a fiery anti-racist? For that matter, if Batman is a true vigilante, why not have him crusade against corrupt and murderous cops? As a hero who is adamant about not using guns and not killing people, police killings of innocent suspects would surely enrage Batman and cause him to make war on killer cops and those who protect them.

Superhero entertainment can easily devolve into spectacle and empty escapism, but it does not have to. As Grant Morrison, one of the most interesting comics writers has argued, superheroes are modern day mythological figures, and as such their stories can carry great meaning. It's time to remember that again.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Episode 13 of Old Dad's Records: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"

In my latest episode of my podcast I discuss Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" as well as Buffalo Springfield and a mystery artist. I also talk a bit about Father's Day and my daughters' graduation from preschool.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Graduation Is The Sweetest Time For a Prof Turned Teacher

Graduation day is the day when "This Is Where I Belong" by the Kinks becomes my theme song

Today was my high school's graduation, and by that I mean the school where I teach. It is the day of the year, above all the others, that confirms my decision to leave academia to become a teacher.

When I was a professor, attending graduation was a chore mandated by the university. (We had to go to one per year.) While I was always excited to cheer on favorite students who were graduating, the event was mostly a sterile reading of names. (I learned to go to the summer graduation, because it was shorter and because the keynote speech was given by a fellow prof, meaning it was better than the others we usually got.) The last graduation I went to at my university happened right after I had accepted my job offer at a high school in New York, but before I had informed the university and my chair. (I had to wait until Monday.) At this point I was so estranged from my surroundings that I drank two stiff bloody marys for breakfast and drove to the graduation blasting early Fall singles.

Flash forward to today, when I showed up an hour early to mingle with the students before the ceremony. During that time one student tearfully told me I was the best teacher she ever had, and would miss me. Another told me I was a role model for him going forward in life. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of these students, and I almost just started breaking down and crying right there. Afterwards there were not just students but parents hugging me and wishing me well and testifying to how much they appreciated my work. Again, it was hard to keep it together. I finally broke when I got home and opened the card a student had given me expressing her gratitude. I don't want to get into the details, but it was so heartfelt and flattering that I am still shaken by it.

Until I became a teacher I never knew that I was capable of having such an effect on other people's lives. Sure, there were glimpses of this when I was a prof, but nothing approaching this level. I have never felt in my life such a sense of meaning and importance in my work. What happened today, and what I did to build those relationships is a million times more important and meaningful than any monograph I could write, any conference paper I could give, any research that I could do. The connections forged in the high school classroom are of an intensity higher than I imagined possible when I taught college students.

It is on this day when I feel that I do not deserve what I have. I went from being at a job where I was treated as an afterthought to one where my work is valued and recognized. I get a constant sense of appreciation from my students, their parents, my colleagues, and even my superiors. How did I get so lucky? This is why, when people ask me if I want to go back into academia, I just laugh and laugh and say nothing. This is why the old cycle of regret has melted away. This is why I am glad and proud, not sheepish or embarrassed, to call myself a teacher.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cranky Bear On The Current Crisis

[Editor's Note: my irate and impolitic friend has been sending me missives and manifestos from the Cranky Compound for months, but he'd been banned from the site after his last, extremely inflammatory post. I've decided, for sentimental reasons, to have him back.]

Hello there, Cranky Bear here, stone cold sober and in a fightin' mood. Today the magnolia and honeysuckle stench of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III wafted back into the Senate chambers as he obfuscated and lied yet again about his contacts with Russian government officials. This all happened while Senate Republicans were working on their version of the AHCA bill in secret, which it appears that they might put up for a vote before it can even be read.

Now the Crankster here is hardly surprised. As I have tirelessly, time and again tried to get through your thick skulls, the Republican Party is merely the vehicle for an extremist gang of right wing ideologues that will stop at nothing to make their ridiculous ideas a reality. They are right wing Bolsheviks for whom the ends always justify the means. Witness the wave of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and flood of dark money. They know it is not popular to give the rich massive tax cuts, but that's what they want, and come hell or high water, that's what they're gonna get.

Their supporters, fed on a constant diet of lying propaganda and bullshit from Fox News and talk radio, will never, ever turn on the party and its de facto leader, Donald Trump. Those in the liberal bubble have no way of comprehending just how much these people hate and define themselves against their political opposition. They think they are the "real America," and their opponents anti-American. That framework can be used to justify all manner of sins, and it certainly helps to justify breaking the law to maintain power.

There is only one thing to be done, as that is to fight like hell to win in 2018. I don't just mean Congress, I also mean state houses and governorships. In way too many "blue" states conservative radicals have instituted voter suppression, attacks on universities, and destruction of the social safety net. The only way to keep gerrymandering in check is to be in charge of the state legislatures. Those races are vital. They need our time and our money. It is blindingly obvious right now that the only forces keeping Trump in check are the courts and the people. The courts stopped his travel ban, but only after the people took to the streets. WE have it in our power to do something, but we actually have to DO SOMETHING.

So if you spend a lot of time opining on Twitter without ever calling your reps or attending a protest, you need to knock the fuck off. If you are still litigating the election of 2016, you need to knock the fuck off. If you only pay attention to presidential races, you need to knock the fuck off. If you are spending all your time and energy pining for Bernie in 2020, you really need to knock the fuck off. 2018 or bust. If enough of you won't process that essential fact then we as a nation are well and truly fucked.

Cranky Bear out!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sgt Pepper and Boomer Nostalgia

I've been kinda shocked at all the media hype over the 50th anniversary of the of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album. I first remember this nostalgia being hyped all the way back in 1987, when I was first getting into the Beatles. That was during a time of intense 1960s nostalgia. We are now three decades removed from that moment, meaning we are now much further away from 1987 than 1987 was from 1967. (I feel so old writing that.)

This has inspired some "Sgt Pepper isn't that good takes" where the writers think they're original or something. In the last thirty years the critical feeling about that album has tended to put it below other Beatles output of the era, so downgrading it is following rather than bucking the critical consensus.

For that reason I think the hype has little to do with the record itself, and more to do with it as a cultural moment when it was released, a sign of the counterculture breaking into the broader mainstream and defining generational values. It was supposedly the soundtrack to "The Summer of Love," a moment I've had to take other people's words for. (My people were on the farm, in 'Nam, or in the seminary in the summer of 1967.) That's why the Boomers -or at least those who are editors at publications- are still fawning over it.

And hey, I get it. I listened to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time in years recently and felt a chill go down my spine. For a Gen Xer like me it is not a song, it is a powerful memory. I would just like to say that my generation has not been so egregious in inflicting our nostalgia on those younger than us.

And when I get down to it, part of the reason that I resent Boomer nostalgia is that it had such a powerful effect on my own outlook at a formative moment in my life. I kept thinking that nothing in the present could ever be as good as things were in the 1960s. And honestly, hearing that message amidst the vapid cultural and political black hole that was the later Reagan years, it seemed pretty convincing. While I've mostly shaken it off, the notion that I am living in a less interesting time than my forbears will still pop in my head.

My millennial brothers and sisters appear to be much more immune to the disease of Boomer nostalgia. That at least gives me hope.

Postscript: Sgt Pepper is alright, but if you want a truly great symphonic sixties album, go with Pet Sounds.