Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Thanksgiving Table Wars

I saw this tweet yesterday and chuckled, but also thought a lot about it:

There seems to be a lot more discussion in the last few years by progressives online who write about "how to win arguments with you conservative relatives" and generally more agony that usual over the inevitable holiday fights over politics.  I think that this agony speaks to something deeper, namely the widening political divide in this country and the higher stakes involved.

I understand it, since I come from a very conservative family, as does my wife.  Luckily for us, our parents are reasonable and loving people, and so we all are pretty much party to an unspoken truce not to drag politics into our family time. With my parents the breaking point came fifteen years ago, when the 2000 election between Bush and Gore was still up in the air.  After a couple of angry disputes we pretty much decided we'd had enough of that.  For all of you out there in the same position, I would recommend a similar course of action.  I would just warn you I've had to deflect political discussions initiated by them from time to time.

Of course, relatives in our extended families are not parties to the truce, and so when they come in all bets are off.  Since my wife's extended family is so far-flung, this isn't a problem, but when my whole family gets together there will be people trying to bait me.  Since I am greatly outnumbered it's also extremely exhausted.  We will probably never have a family-wide truce, but I see my extended family so seldom that I am usually just happy to be with them and can let the political stuff slide.

This brings me back to the tweet I quoted above, though.  I've realized why in the Thanksgiving Table Wars it's progressives, specifically white progressives, who tend to get the most emotionally wound up about it. Any conservative white family is going to have its share of vocal racists.  Sometimes it's just on the level of petty resentment, sometimes on the level of "jokes," and sometimes on the level of boldly-stated bigotry.  About twenty years ago one of my cousins basically let it be known that the n-word was not be used in her presence or the presence of her children, and that toned things down, but only a little.  It's one thing to have an argument with someone over tax policy, another to talk to someone spewing hate against African Americans, immigrants, gays, and Muslims (this has been a recent favorite). One uncle of mine once made a veiled (but racist in intent) comment about my then Asian girlfriend (who wasn't present.) If we hadn't been in a public place I would have broken his jaw.

As our politics have become more heated, they have become even more racialized than before.  With a Right wing that wants to "take our country back" for the "real Americans" there's no question that the color line is a crucial element, if not the most crucial element, to the current political divide.  White progressives wringing their hands about having to deal with their white conservative relatives aren't just being effete or solipsistic, they are responding to the very real issue of the mainstreaming of racist resentment in American politics.  Like our broader politics, the Thanksgiving Table Wars have escalated. For those of you who haven't managed to broker a truce, I wish you the best of luck.

Monday, November 23, 2015

What Is Trump's Game?

I see a lot of Trump in Georges Boulanger, a French populist general of the late 1880s who was the face of broader discontent, but ultimately unable and unwilling to seize power

I have been taking a wait and see approach to Donald Trump in regards of the viability of his presidential campaign.  Yes, he has been leading the polls for months now, but this kind of polling is often inaccurate, and in the last debate he looked disinterested and tired.  I have also wondered about what kinds of ground campaigns he has in the early states, since primaries can be won and lost by doing a slightly better job than others of getting people to the polls, since the number of voters is so small.  Now that we are hitting Thanksgiving and Trump has rebounded after his lackluster debate performance, I am inclined to think, for the first time, that he stands a decent chance of being the Republican nominee.  

What I can’t figure out is what Trump’s game actually is.  Early on I didn’t think he was acting like a serious candidate. I wondered if he had in fact been aiming only for a sideline hobby, then blundered into being the front-runner of the Republican Party by accident. I’ve wondered whether he is trying to start a fascist movement, or if his hateful words are merely a cynical attempt to get support, rather than expressions of his deeply held beliefs.

In any case, Trump has benefitted by breaking a rule that Republicans have followed since the 1960s, a rule I would like to call the Atwater Directive.  As Lee Atwater famously discussed once in an interview, to whip up white resentment in the aftermath of the civil rights era politicians have to avoid racial slurs and direct racist appeals. Instead they have to use dog whistles and make it clear that they want to cut the government in ways that disproportionately hurts people of color.  Trump understands that a large portion of the conservative base has grown tired of this, and longs for racism to be expressed straight, no chaser.

Trump has given them that by breaking a taboo that appears to not apply anymore.  I’ve long thought that at least 15% of Americans are essentially fascist in their political outlook.  If the military overthrew president Obama, made Christianity the official religion, deported millions of undocumented immigrants, and banned Muslims, about that percentage of the population would rejoice. Another 15% would have misgivings, but generally prefer it over the status quo. Trump knows this, and he is exploiting it.  I am still not sure to what end.  I get the feeling that he is a man who enjoys power, and that his goal is less to be president of the United States, but to amass power and get adulation.  He does not seem interested in starting a fascist movement, but a lot of the people who listen to him seem to be.

This does make me wonder what will happen.  Here’s a list of predictions, with my current odds.  I plan on revisiting them in the future.

1. Trump flames out fast
If Trump isn’t super serious about all of this, he just might flame out, unwilling to do the hard work necessary to run for president. If this was all some kind of whim turned into reality, this is the most likely option.
Current Odds: Possible, but not likely

2. Trump wins the Republican nomination
Trump is leading the polls right now, but Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were in the lead at one time in the last election cycle as well.  I really wonder what percentage of the voters who will actually turn out for a primary vote will cast their vote for Trump.  His appeal is very broad, but is it deep? Trump has benefited thus far from a highly fragmented Republican field.  If the GOP establishment goes all in for Rubio and gives Christie, Kasich, Fiorina, et al an offer they can’t refuse, all while allowing Cruz to appeal to the bark at the moon crowd and thus steal the Donald's votes, Trump’s goose is cooked.  I could even see a brokered convention at this point, crazy as that sounds.  
Current Odds: Very possible but not likely

3. Trump loses in the primaries and runs as an independent
If Trump loses the nomination, does he make a third party run?  This would allow him to be the ultimate troll and take a dump in everybody’s punch bowl.  The Perot run in 1992 just might an inspiration for him.  This is the Republican Party’s worst nightmare, and Trump being the spiteful shit that he is just might go throw with it to give the GOP the middle finger.  On the other hand, he likes winning and hates losing, and a third party run would almost guarantee not winning.
Current odds: highly unlikely

4. Trump wins the presidency.
Of course, he would have to get the nomination first, or put together a third party run.  While Trump has a broad base of support, he also has an even bigger base of opponents.  Unless some crazy scandal would befall Hillary that would actually be true, there’s no way Trump could win a general election.  (Please let this not tempt the fates.)

Current odds: Not impossible but extremely unlikely

Basically I think Trump might win some early victories, but once the Republican establishment gets their act together, he will lose. This prediction is, of course, subject to change. And even if he loses, he has forced others to copy his nationalism and xenophobia, which will be very prominent in next year's election.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Platters "The Great Pretender"

As loyal readers know, my musical tastes range far and wide. There are some genres that I've known for longer than others, and because of my parents listening to the oldies stations, I've been listening to 50s R&B for a long, long time. While sixties soul and fifties rockabilly have more tempo and drive, listening to the Platters is like taking medicine for the soul. I get the same feeling hearing Tony Williams' voice on "The Great Pretender" as I do hearing Miles Davis' trumpet on "All Blues" or the violin in Vivaldi's "Spring": joy in simple yet deep beauty.  The backing harmonies have a minor tone them that's almost lush, and the saxophone and piano glue it all together. I could listen to this song thirty times in a row and not get tired of it.

Another reason I like this song is for its tale of vulnerability. The singer effects a confident pose in public, but beneath it lies anguish and heartbreak. That anguish pokes through in the hiccup that Williams uses as he enters the song with "O-o-oh yes, I'm the great pretender." Sure, it's a silly pop song, but one with just the right amount of emotional pain wrapped inside of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cranky Bear Has Had It With The Hate Against Refugees

[Editor's Note: My impolitic friend Cranky Bear has emerged from this week to send me a new missive about the opposition to Syrian refugees. I have held off on publishing it, but now think that his brand of profane anger is what's needed right now.]

Hello cats and kittens, Cranky Bear coming at you here with a pot of black coffee and righteous anger seeping through my pores.  I have seen a lot of awful shit in my time on this earth when it comes to this nation's politics.  I remember the Reagan years' happy face on top of human misery. I remember the hysteria after 9/11 and the calls to war by our feckless idiot of president and how people actually listened to this lobotomized manchild.  I have seen the rise of the Tea Party and have witnessed the racist backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.  Nothing could prepare me, however, for what has happened this week.

We are seeing fascism, pure fascism red in tooth and claw openly shouted from the rooftops by elected officials and contestants for the presidency.  On Monday Republican governors fell over themselves proclaiming that their states would categorically refuse Syrian refugees, with Christie taking the cake by expressing banning orphaned toddlers and babies.  They did this because they know it is a winning issue to stir up hatred against Arabs and Muslims because it appeals to their base of resentful white dipshits who don't know their own assholes from a hole in the ground.  Say what you want about the godawful Dubya years, he at least had the human decency to decry attacks on Muslims and Arabs in America.

In the last couple of days this sorry-ass situation has become positively fascistic.  Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has said he "wouldn't rule out" closing mosques and creating special identification badges for Muslims.  Other Republican elected officials have mentioned rounding up refugees and putting them into camps as a viable option.  What is especially striking is that America wasn't even attacked!  This hatred and paranoia has been building up for years, and now a convenient excuse has been found to unleash it.

Make no mistake, a large number of Americans actively hate Muslims and would like to see them eliminated from American society.  I have often thought that if Dubya had ordered all foreign-born Muslims to be sent to relocation camps in the aftermath of 9/11, the public would have gone along with it.  Hell, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, has used the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a positive example!  

These fucking people make me sick, but they aren't the worst.  No, these politicians are simply opportunistic hacks trying to appease the garden variety dumbshit fuckwits who post their godawful Facebook memes and actually fucking listen to what the pig fuckers on Fox and talk radio are telling them. These people, ordinary fucking people, are what's wrong with this country. They spend their lives in complete fear, defending the cops who shoot black people while hiding behind the gates of their lily white suburbs. They collect their Social Security checks while bitching about "welfare queens" and "takers."  They think that the very presence of Muslims in this country is some kind of affront to their Christianity, and they get super paranoid and angry about it.  A lot of these people are people I grew up with, and honestly, fuck them. They should know better.

Fascists don't fall from the sky or grow out of the ground. They are regular people who have given themselves over to a diabolical ideology. I've long thought that 15-20% of Americans are fascists in sympathy, and that if they were told that a military coup would overthrow president Obama and install Christianity as the official state religion would jump for joy. In times of strife and terror Republican politicians have learned that they can maintain their position by appealing to hate and fear.  They did this in the last presidential election they won, in 2004, by going after gays and whipping up fears about terror.  With political homophobia now unpalatable to the larger electorate, they have doubled-down on Islamophobia.  This is how they manage to add to their fascist support, by appealing to the lizard brain fears of the run of the mill fucknut crackers who think the terrorists are going to blow up the Arby's in their shit-ass cookie cutter tract housing suburb.  (They are scared to death of the Muslim boogeyman but apparently not of the Type 2 diabetes from the Big Gulp they're chugging while scarfing down fried garbage.) Once upon a time conservative pols tried to send out dog whistles, but now are just full-on, shamelessly appealing to the worst kind of hate these shitbags possess.

For years we have looked back at the refusal to accept Jewish refugees in the 1930s and the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s and thought "how on earth could people do such terrible things? I am glad we are so enlightened nowadays!" You know what, we're not.  We are a nation dominated by hateful, fearful, stupid ass bigoted morons. In the 1930s most Americans feared and hated Jews, in the 2000s, I am afraid that most Americans fear and hate Muslims.  That is the "middle America" and the "Heartland" that so many praise, which are really a massive crock of dog diarrhea. Fuck "middle America." Fuck the "Heartland." Fuck "real Americans." Fuck them all. They aren't worthy to lick a refugee's shoes. Cranky Bear out.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sadly The Hatred Against Syrian Refugees Is As American As Apple Pie

Yesterday will go down as a dark day in American history.  As the world faces one of the worst humanitarian crises yet known, several American politicians went out of their way to attack some of the world's most vulnerable people, continually competing to be the most cruel.  Chris Christie laid down the trump card (pun intended) by declaring that even orphans under the age of five would be banned from my state of New Jersey.  The spectacle of elected politicians currying favor with the bigoted masses by pissing on war orphans, the group of people in the world most in need of protection, completely sickened me.  My students often ask how American turned back Jewish refugees -even children- in the 1930s.  Now I guess they'll know.

Unfortunately, liberals have responded to this onslaught of noxious nationalism with a decent amount of naivete. They assert that the governors don't have the power to ban certain classes of immigrants, and that's true, but that's really beside the point. Also, I have heard it said many times that this state-sanctioned hatred is "un-American."

Oh, how I wish that were true. However, if you look at American history, you'll find that this kind of hatred is as American as apple pie. We have a lot of myths we tell ourselves about our country, and one of the biggest is that "America is a nation of immigrants." Never mind that most people of African descent in this country did not have ancestors who came here willingly, or that plenty of folks here are Native Americans.  And just because most people who live here are descended from immigrants doesn't mean that immigration was always welcomed, valued, or free and equal.

Just look at the Naturalization Act of 1790, one of the first important pieces of immigration legislation.  It limited citizenship to those who were "free white persons."  One year before the passage of the Bill of Rights, those vaunted rights were effectively being limited to white men.  When waves of Irish immigrants came over in the mid-1800s, they were feared and hated, commonly depicted as ape-like by native born whites.  This new surge in migrants gave birth to a nativist party, the Know-Nothings, who coincidentally were one of the elements that formed the nascent Republican party in the 1850s.  These nativists didn't just spread hate, they burned Catholic churches, and instigated anti-immigrant riots. 

Even though more immigrants followed from more places, paranoia and hatred still abounded.  The cartoon below by Thomas Nast depicts Catholicism in the form of bishops invading the nation and destroying its values. Replace the bishops with imams and you could run this cartoon today.

In the 1880s the government began draconian restrictions on Chinese immigrants, who also faced horrific violence.  In Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885 white workers torched Chinese dwellings and murdered 28 Chinese immigrants.  Depictions of the time, like the one below, show the level of racism directed at Chinese Americans.

In the 1920s restrictions on European immigration followed.  The Immigration Act of 1924 set strict quotas aimed at immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, those deemed less "white." That coincided with the high point of the KKK's power.  The Klan's slogan of "100% Americanism" reflected their emphasis on nativism and hatred towards immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews. These restrictions came after a wave of paranoia associating immigrants with violence and terrorism.  Acts of terrorism in the post-World War I period, such as the passel of bombs sent out to politicians and capitalists on May Day in 1919, were blamed on radical immigrants, without proof. Foreign-born radicals like Emma Goldman were literally shipped off to Russia without trial. The supposed threat of foreign radicalism was the excuse used to bar new immigrants from coming in, including refugees from war and revolution in Europe.  Sound familiar? (The cartoon below is typical of all this.)

When European Jews fled Nazi oppression in the late 1930s, those quotas of the 1920s were not relaxed, and those refugees were cruelly turned away.  The reasons then are pretty much the same now: many Americans hated and feared Jews, just as a great many today hate and fear Muslims and Arabs.

In the last 70 years I can certainly point to other instances of nativist hate and violence, some rather close to our own time.  Vietnamese "boat people" faced opposition to their presence in America. Remember when mobs attacked buses full of child migrants from Central America?  That was only a year ago.

So yes, we must fight the bigots who are acting so cruelly to people so desperately in need of aid. But let us not pretend that the sickness we fight is "un-American."  It is a tendency in our history that we must tear out root and branch, but before we do that, we have to realize that it's there.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nancy Sinatra "You Only Live Twice"

I am in a big Bond mood this week, perhaps due to the release of SPECTRE. I've been going back and listening to old James Bong movie themes, including some that I had never really paid attention to before.When it comes to the bombastic John Barry numbers, Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" in unimpeachable.  In terms of pop songs as Bond themes, nothing can really top Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" or Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better." I think there's a lot of general consensus out there about these points.

However, there are quite a few lesser known Bond themes deserving of recognition, perhaps none more so than Nancy Sinatra's interpretation of "You Only Live Twice."  That 1967 flick marked the end of Sean Connery's first run as Bond, and includes a now embarrassing plot element where he attempts to pass as Japanese.

Perhaps because of its Asian setting, the theme incorporates elements of Eastern music into it, but manages to do so without sounding Orientalist.  I really love it because it manages to incorporate some disparate elements together.  It starts with a beautiful string figure, reaching a high note as it crescendos, then going soft for a gorgeous, descending melody.  As Nancy Sinatra's sultry voice comes in she is accompanied now by a fuzzed out guitar mimicking the strings.  It's lush and gorgeous, evoking the same effortless cool personified by Sean Connery in his Bond films. Despite their politics and inherent silliness, I still get a kick out of them.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Nebraska November Memory

This morning as I got in the car to go to the gym and run some errands, I had such a powerful flashback that it was like some kind of out of body experience. Even though I was driving the suburban streets of New Jersey, the sky was like a Nebraska November sky.  The wind was blowing so fast that I could watch the clouds moving from horizon to horizon, like cattle ambling across the plains. I was suddenly and quite violently thrown back two years ago this month when I was back in my home state of Nebraska for my grandmother's funeral.

Although she lived the vast majority of her life on farms near Elm Creek, she was to be buried in Kearney, the place she referred to when she discussed "going to town." Every Sunday she and my grandfather used to drive 18 miles down highway 30 (never the interstate, which my grandfather abhorred), go to service at a Lutheran church, then hit the supermarket to stock up for the week.  For that reason I'd been in the church where her funeral took place on several occasions, mostly in my childhood summers where I would spend a week or two on the farm.

The day of the funeral something struck me hard that I had never really noticed before: my homeland is a strange, harsh, and forbidding place when it comes to climate and landscape.  Growing up there I assumed the insane temperature swings and endless skies were just normal.  Now it seemed that Kearney, a bustling little city of 25,000, was like a gnat on the prodigious rump of the Great Plains.  The gusting winds that morning as my wife and I went before the funeral to the Wal-Mart on the edge of town to get some baby supplies felt as if they could rip the town from its moorings and scatter its debris all over the prairie. The Wal-Mart there is on top of a hill, and I felt exposed and fearful, looking north to the barren land north of the Platte River Valley, where fields of corn give way to endless range.

A large murder of crows had made the roof of the church their home, a forbidding sight against the massive, roiling Plains sky, clouds darting across.  They crows would suddenly fly in the air, then after a flurry of hovering, rest back down on the church's roof. The church was near the edge of town, and in Nebraska towns that borderline feels creepy, making you realize that human habitation in such a place is almost an affront to nature.  On the edge of town you can feel as if the ground could open up and the earth could swallow the town whole.  When you grow up there you don't really notice it, but after spending some years in the New York area, where nature feels as if it has been wiped from existence, Nebraska in November was quite a contrast.

Nevertheless, Nebraska in November is a beautiful place, and fearsomely beautiful at that.  With the harvest in the fields are a humble stubble that allows an even more expansive view of the far-flung horizons.  Green, fragile as it is on the prairie, has drained out, but what remains is a stunning mix of hues of brown and yellow like spread Van Gogh brushstrokes across the canvas of the wide, flat plains.  The naked cottonwood trees are sublimely gnarled and twisted, like broken skeletons.  The fearsomeness comes from the feeling that the earth and sky are squashing whatever puny people happen to be stuck between them.  The sudden ice storms and blizzards don't make November's beauty feel safe or comforting.  It is more stunning and unsettling.  On this blustery New Jersey day, I am glad of the reminder of a place I see much too seldom these days.