Sunday, January 24, 2021

Staples Singers, "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall"

Sometime around the beginning of the pandemic I listened to Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" with new ears, and I could not stop playing the song. I used to think of it as a prophecy of doom for a broken and unjust society, but it's also a statement of defiance in the face of lies. It summed up so much of what I was feeling. 

Here in New Jersey, in the epicenter of the first wave, people were dying in fearsome numbers while the president was saying it was no big deal and it'd all be over by Easter. Political conservatives I knew back home expressed zero shock or alarm about me living in the worst hit area, since doing so would have forced them to acknowledge that this was a problem. As a middle class white guy it gave me a new feeling all too familiar to others: my country had abandoned me. 

Dylan's song is about exposing the reality so many refuse to see. The "damp dirty prison" the "branch with blood that kept dripping," the "pellets of poison." He proclaims at the end that he is going to speak the terrible truth others refuse to see from the mountaintops until he sinks into the ocean. I would listen to this song and sing along, drawing strength from its declarations.

My obsession drew me to covers. The first was Bryan Ferry's great up-tempo version, which I am sure inspired Dylan's similarly amped take during the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975. Even better is the 1968 cover by the Staples Singers. 

They add gospel overtones, giving the song a call and response structure that increases its emotional potency. Dylan's angry young man screed is a transformed into a church sermon. There's a great interplay of voices on the leads with the young Mavis, her voice so cutting, and older Pops, his voice wrapped in its usual warmth. The strong, repetitive beat makes the responses a sort of mantra. It best matches how I have listened to this song this year: as a prayer. 

Almost a year later it's a prayer I still feel compelled to give. The hard rain keeps falling, with another 4,000 gone every day and a fascist insurrection to boot. Here's hoping I won't feel compelled to pray it a year from now. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The American Louise Solmitz-es

When I teach my class on the history of Nazi Germany my students are always taken aback by one primary source I use to evoke the reactions to Hitlers ascension to power. It's an excerpt from a diary by a woman name Louise Solmitz, a Hamburg teacher married to a converted Jew. 

She was not a Nazi. However, as a right wing supporter of the allied German National People's Party she wrote with enthusiasm about the torch-lit parade by nationalists, brown shirts and Nazi students through the streets of Hamburg after Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor: 

"We were drunk with enthusiasm, blinded by the light of the torches right in our faces, and always enveloped in their vapor as in a cloud of sweet incense. And in front of us men, men, men, brightly colored, grey, brown, a torrent lasting an hour and 20 minutes. In the wavering light of the torches one seemed to see only a few types recurring again and again, but there were between twenty-two and twenty-five thousand different faces!"

She also noted the violent anti-Semitic slogans chanted by the marchers, apparently willing to overlook them despite the fact that her ethnically Jewish husband (and half-Jewish child) might potentially be threatened. (It reminds one of stories of Trumpers married to undocumented immigrants who are shocked by the deportation of their spouses.) 

In the moment Solmitz didn't care about that. Instead she relished how "the Reds will inevitably have to give in now." Hitler was not her first choice, but she was happy with anyone who would smite the people she disliked on the Left. 

I am thinking about the document because the last four years revealed many Louise Solmitzes in America. They were Republicans who did not vote for Trump in the primaries but were more than happy to pull the lever for him in the general election twice. They used abortion or their stock portfolio or taxes and a cover. When people took to the streets after George Floyd's murder they shook their heads at a torched Starbucks and shed not a tear for Floyd or the countless other victims of police violence. When Trump spouted his racist hatred of "shithole countries" and "build the wall" they overlooked it as much as Solmitz overlooked the brown shirts yelling "death to the Jews." Like Solmitz they themselves would never repeat such slogans, but were more than happy to stand by and cheer when others did. 

When their political allies tried to overturn an election by assaulting the Capitol they showed about as much outrage as the Solmitzes in Germany did when Hitler used the Reichstag fire to strangle democracy, which is to say none. Instead they just made excuses. Like Solmitz they enthusiastically went along with the regime even when it directly threatened their own family members. Commitment to their side and seeing the opposing factions punished mattered more than their concern for their own flesh and blood. 

With Trump leaving office, an account must be given. The militia members need to be called to account. The Ted Cruzes and Josh Hawleys need to be called to account. Fox New needs to be called to account. But especially the Louise Solmitzes are called to account. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

MLK Day Reflections

Every year I treat Martin Luther King Day as a time to reflect on the nation's path. Are we closer to or straying more from the society that he demanded that America become? It's an especially difficult evaluation this year because I have probably never seen hope and despair so mixed.

Last spring and summer saw the biggest mobilization for social justice in this country in over fifty years. While that fire has faded, it has forced multiple powerful people and institutions to critically re-examine themselves. It has also mainstreamed critiques of policing and the justice system that used to be shut out of regular American political discourse. As a teacher I can see that this cohort of youth is by far the most committed to change I have seen in my twenty years in the classroom.

At the same time, white supremacists invaded and briefly held the Capitol. In most places little to nothing was done to rein it in the police. In fact, many off-duty cops were in the fascist mob trying to overthrow the government. In terms of the pandemic, it has taken a far higher toll among Blacks and Hispanics and poor people of all races. 

The mob marched on the Capitol in order to overturn an election that they interpreted as a threat to white supremacy (and Christian and male supremacy for a lot of the people there too). It is not the first time in our country's history that such a thing has happened. At least for the first time in my adult life the head shaking of "this is not who we are" no longer dispels the notion that something deep and fundamental must be changed about this country. 

It is fitting then that one one the new Senators is Raphael Warnock, pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church where MLK and his father preached. I've been lucky enough to go to the historical church more than once and listen to recordings of sermons as I sat in the pews in the same place where they were given. There is a spirit that still hangs in the air there. Last time I visited and thought about the need to keep the faith against the powerful doubts that can drown a soul in cynicism.

I am thinking about that again today. In the time since my last visit in the summer of 2019 a lot of terrible things have happened. But as bad as the damage is, we have the capacity to recover. I look with hope to inauguration day, the spread of the vaccine, and most of all the fighting spirit in the streets back in the spring and summer of 2020. We sure are going to need it. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Trump Movement

Well here we are in the midst of a coup attempt and I can't say I'm surprised. I've been expecting this since day one. I also must admit I let my guard down a little after the election thinking the fire of insurrection wasn't getting enough oxygen to burn too hot.  

It was fated to reach this point because Trump is fascistic. In the fascist imagination laws and constitutions are only important so far as they can be bent and manipulated to gain power. Trump used the electoral college and state-level voting restrictions as best he could, but once those methods were not sufficient he had to eschew them for a putsch.

He is also fascistic in that he is less a man than a movement. For a long time I have wondered how anyone could give a man who obviously cares so little for others and the truth their trust and dedication. How could someone actually take to the streets waving a banner with his name on it when he wouldn't pee on these people if they were on fire? A couple of years into this mess it dawned on me that he is not a man, but a symbol. He is the avatar of patriarchy, of white supremacy, of nativism, of petty bourgeois resentment. When his followers chant his name they themselves do not express their love for him so much as what he stands for. They want an America where people like them are on top and he is their champion.

Sometimes when we decide on deeming things fascist we are too interested in parties and institutions and not enough in personalities and their relationship with their followers. During the time of the Nazis' rise to power, people in Germany (and many Nazis themselves) referred to the party not by name, but as "the Hitler movement." The man and not the party really mattered. This carried over into Hitler's reign, as Ian Kershaw's work has shown how many ordinary Germans despised the Nazi party but still adored Hitler, considering him above it all.

Hitler himself never talked of "party," but of "Bewegung," i.e. "movement." At times Trump has done the same, which has disturbed me far more than regular people whose ears are not attuned to such rhetoric. He talks of "our movement" so much that calling the people who stormed the Capitol "Trump supporters" instead of "Republicans" might not be the dodge some accuse it of being.

Like other fascist leaders Trump does not derive his legitimacy from the usual modes of political legitimacy. He has never gained the votes of the majority and is still trying to claim power after losing an election that any objective person deems legitimate. He like other fascists derives his legitimacy merely from what Max Weber called charisma. In his time in office Trump certainly has shown little to no knowledge or even interest in his Constitutional role, duties, and limits. 

That democracy is still hanging on is only a testament to the fact that Trump has not for one day of his political career ever had the support of the majority of people in this country. However, events last week show that support for the Trump Movement run strong in the military and law enforcement. Without their members being purged from those institutions and his civilian devotees and political allies being deplatformed, the Trump Movement will present a threat to democracy in this country long after January 20th. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Sacking of the Capitol

I have an interest in the history of the late antiquity and early middle ages ever since my childhood, especially the breaking apart of the Roman empire. While references to Rome's fall and America's situation can be tenuous and trite, I want to make a comparison that is less a one to one deal and more a way to get some perspective on the events of this week. 

The sacking of the Capitol got me thinking about the sacking of Rome in 410 by the Goths. Obviously, the two events are unlike in terms of participants and motivations, but they share a SYMBOLIC meaning. Rome being sacked showed the world that a once mighty empire was vulnerable. That empire still lasted in name for a few more decades (the exact date depends on how you want to argue what the "fall of Rome" is) but its allure was shattered.

The US Capitol being stormed by a MAGA mob containing white supremacists and literal Nazis who were then treated with kid gloves by law enforcement had a similar symbolic power. The notion that this country is some kind of democratic beacon to the world has been a useful myth for quite some time, and while it is indeed a myth it still had some staying power. Plenty of people here and in other countries wanted to believe in it. It's a myth that both Obama and Biden deployed. Seeing a bunch of red-hatted thugs literally smear their shit in the halls of Congress has broken that forever.

It is impossible to deny what everybody saw. China's government is mocking the us. A Kenyan newspaper had the headline "Who's the Banana Republic Now?" The American Empire is merely a hollow shell. This is not hyperbole or speculation, it was laid out for all the world to see on television. 

The only way to prevent the fate of Rome is stop claiming "this is not who we are." It obviously IS who we are, but we are presented with an opportunity to make things better. We cannot miss this opportunity. The perpetrators, both the ground level thugs and their politician enablers, must face consequences. They must no longer be accepted into polite society. It should be impossible for Trump administrators to ever find a job again in public life. Trump himself must be impeached and removed.

As awful as the sacking was, I know that these people do this stuff to make us feel hopeless. Without hope, you can't fight. Well I refuse to give away my hope and I will keep my shoulder at the wheel. All you fascists bound to lose. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

New Order, "Ceremony" (Track of the Week)


No music suits the dark cold post-holiday winter doldrums better than early New Order. Before their music got more of a cold, sparkly sheen in the mid-80s it was the aural equivalent of an electric blanket or space heater. It makes me want to curl up next to the speaker the way I used to do by the heat vent in my childhood bedroom. While crouching there in that little pocket of warmth the cold hand of winter could be kept at bay as long as I didn't move a single muscle.

I am leaning extra hard into that music this year. I find myself mentally curled up, my trust in others beyond my immediate circle questioned. I hate winter but this one is the worst yet. The vaccines are coming and the end is in sight but the current wave is fearsome. 

In this environment I find "Ceremony" especially comforting. Tonight before bed one of my daughters and I took turns sharing songs with each other. (She loves k pop.) I chose "Ceremony" after she played BTS's COVID comfort song, "Life Goes On." I couldn't put my finger on why, and it came to me while I told her why I like the song.

I don't really know what it's supposed to be about, it's more of a mood for me. And when I listen to it I can't help thinking about Ian Curtis and how the members of Joy Division found a way to keep going after his suicide. (All I told my daughter was that he died suddenly.) To me this song has always been about finding hope after sorrow. It's an emotional mixture I've experienced a lot recently. 

It's one of those songs that my body has to respond to. When I hear it I bang my fingers against the table in its space between the lines rhythm and nod my head along. The unspoken message courses through my body: "this too shall pass."


Thursday, December 31, 2020

My Best Writing of 2020

Another year come and gone, and as exceptional as this year has been, I am still going to give you all a year's best of my stuff. Please forward it to editors and/or eccentric millionaire patrons.

Radiohead's 21st Century Soundtrack

Maybe my favorite piece of the year. Radiohead were the prophets of our age.

How a Film Flop from 1991 Explains 2020

This piece on Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World is one I think I will keep coming back to.

John Le Carré, Patron Saint Of Disillusioned Academics

I wrote this before his death. RIP to a great one.

Hotel Floors, Truck Stop Parking Lots, Train Stations at 2AM and Other Mundane Adventures

This piece got rejected by a fancy publication but I think it's great. I miss travel so much.

Where Were You in '73?

My piece on nostalgia in the 70s for Tropics of Meta. I am also very proud of this one.

Letter on Local Housing Segregation

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests I got this letter published on the local news site calling out the resistance to denser and more affordable housing in my community.

Some Historical Metaphors for This School Year

My favorite post on teaching in the pandemic.

Embrace the Suck 

The wisdom that has allowed me to survive.

Pictures at a Cataclysm

Why Kandinsky's Improvisation 30 still moves me.

It's About More Than Just The Textbooks

I should write more about pedagogy, this is a piece I wrote about the need for a broader debate over what goes into our history classes.

Teaching High School Debate Differently

More pedagogy.

Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams"

Wow, even before this song went viral again later in the year I wrote about it back in January. I also *sob* wrote about the pleasures of bars and jukeboxes. Little did I know...

Going to the AHA as an Ex-Academic

Some tweets I wrote about my return to the AHA got some attention and new Twitter followers. I ended up enjoying the AHA experience far more with all the pressure off of me.

A Guide to Bloomberg Country

Since I work on the Upper West Side I have insight into the Bloomberg base. Remember when he ran for president?

Zen and the Art of Opening Wax Packs

Old packs of baseball cards were a needed comfort this year.

Opening Day

Speaking of baseball, here's a poem inspired by the game and the early days of the pandemic.

My Hear is Far Away

Another poem, one that I still feel.

My iPod of Hopes and Dreams

Another pandemic moment was digging out my old iPod.

The Heart of the Matter

One of my better rants.

The Speech I Want Joe Biden to Give

I'm still available, Joe.

Down By the Seaside

The first day I ventured back to the beach was an emotional one.

Why Sorcerer Is a Great Quarantine Film

My favorite classic film discovery of the year.

Give Us Social Care, Not Self Care

The call is still unheeded.

Thoughts on Reaganland

Perlstein's latest was my favorite read of the year.

America is More Wilhelmine Than Weimar

As a historian of 19th century Germany I have to prove my relevance, you know.

Why a Landslide of "Rebuke" Was Never Coming

My post-election analysis.

A Reflection on the Plague Year (Apologies to Daniel Defoe)

Well, this is where I get it all out of my system. Let's hope 2021 is better.