Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bloomberg Democrats

I am a craven addict, and as hard as I try to stay on the wagon, I just can't help myself and fall off.  My addiction is following electoral politics, especially presidential elections.  I am fully aware that the monied interest really call the tune, and that most Democrats are just softer-edged purveyors of neoliberalism, and Republicans its 180 proof version.  Perhaps it's the real life drama that draws me in, or the knowledge that despite our system's limited options, elections do indeed have consequences.

The Republican party in recent years has found itself in a bit of a paradox.  By firing up their base and spending a free flow of corporate dollars, they can handily win midterm elections, which usually have low turnouts.  They lose in presidential elections with a more moderate electorate, and are harmed by their shriller appeals to white racial resentment.  Some have wondered whether it is possible for the Republican party in its current iteration to win a presidential election.

The key for GOP success can actually be found in New York City, supposedly a liberal bastion.  While the Big Apple has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold since the party's birth, between 1994 and 2014 no Democrat held the office of mayor.  Both Giuliani (1994-2001) and Bloomberg (2002-2013) won office by emphasizing "law and order" and economic growth.  Both sought support from the gay community, and Bloomberg also became a national voice on gun control. Essentially, Bloomberg embodies the "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" consensus that I discussed awhile back.  He also illustrates some deeper and more disturbing facts.  White "liberals" will vote for a man who vigorously supports "stop and frisk" and other aggressive modes of policing that rely on racial profiling.

There are a lot of affluent (or at least middle class) Democrats who fervently believe in meritocracy and are highly skeptical of any social solution that involves helping those below them on the social ladder.  At the same time, they are cool with gay rights, pro-choice, skeptical of religion, in favor of gun control, and against strict enforcement of drug laws.  They aren't vulgar Randians who want to privatize Social Security or destroy the state university system a la Paul Ryan or Scott Walker, but nonetheless prefer lower taxes over reducing inequality, which actually threatens their position.  At the same time, they find the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to be completely unpalatable.  In the olden days, pre-Reagan and Gingrich, these people would have been liberal Republicans.

In the current climate, the GOP needs a presidential candidate who can peel off some of these voters if it wants to win.  This is difficult, because in order to get the nomination, Republican candidates have to take positions on gay rights, abortion, immigration, and guns to the right of Attila the Hun.  This, of course, is why the big money donors are going wild for Jeb, despite America's lack of enthusiasm for another Bush presidency.  As seemingly moderate as he is, Jeb is still not going to attract enough of these voters, and if Hillary gets the nomination, he will have no chance.

The Clintons are the ultimate triangulators, constantly selling progressives out if it means making a claim to be the representative of "moderation."  Bill Clinton did more to achieve a balanced budget than any other president in decades, deregulated banking, signed NAFTA, and slashed welfare.  He occasionally threw a bone to progressives with signing the Brady Bill and his failed health care proposal, but his legacy looks an awful lot more like Eisenhower than LBJ.  You can expect more of the same from HRC, which means the Democrats could keep winning electoral battles at the national level while losing the war against conservative ideology.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Track of the Week: Leonard Nimoy "Highly Illogical"

Back when I was in college a friend had a compilation album of actors attempting to sing, including Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner.  For years I gravitated towards the Shatner stuff, mostly because his performances had a kind of crazed, irony-transcending quality to them.  Nimoy's just sounded comically bad, considering that his voice had a range even less expansive than my own.  Over the years, however, I've had a strange about face in regards to some of Nimoy's songs, mostly because of his own, less over the top commitment to the material.  Case in point is something like "Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town," a grim tune sung from the perspective of a legless Vietnam vet threatening to kill his lady if she steps out on him.  Nimoy's voice strains, but there is a fascinating level of evocative emotion that can't be ignored.  I also enjoy his take on the great standard "Gentle on My Mind."  When he had more story-telling material like this his speak-singing style actually worked.

My favorite, coming before his folky, countrified albums has to be the novelty song "Highly Illogical."  Instead of singing in his earnest singing voice, Nimoy stays in character as Spock, his voice deep and stentorian.  Spock points out the illogical behavior of 1960s-era humanity, including the worship of the car and working hard to make money that will be irrelevant once death inevitably gets its due.  He's obviously having fun with the character, even if there are some serious messages about how out of whack most people's priorities are.  Nimoy crafted an unforgettable and unique character, but still obviously maintained a sense of humor, which can also be seen rather memorably in Star Trek IV, which he directed.  He used that non-human character to explore, in many ways, what it means to be human.  And for all of Spock's logical nature, Nimoy himself wasn't afraid to get emotional or silly in his music, and was seemingly fearless in exposing his lack of singing talent.  You might not like the songs, but I think they actually say something pretty profound about the man.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

All Hail Podcasts

In the last year there is perhaps no mode of popular culture that has taken up more of my time than podcasts.  I listen to them during my hour plus commute, while I walk the dog, cook dinner, mow the lawn, shovel the walk, or drive my daughters around town trying to get them to nap on the weekend.  Where I once listened exclusively to music, now I listen to podcasts.  Their number has proliferated to a point that I am sure that there are amazing podcasts out there totally in line with my sensibilities that I will never get a chance to listen to.

I've been trying to put my finger on why I like podcasts so much, and I think it's mostly because they walk a road paved by radio, but are able to do some interesting stuff that you can't do on radio.  Like radio, podcasts work exclusively with sound, and the voice of a person speaking directly to the listener.  There is something very primal and immediate about that.  Unlike radio, podcasts don't have to concern themselves with the lowest common denominator.  For example, there is a great podcast devoted entirely to Hammer horror films (which I listened to incessantly last October), which would be too obscure to make it even on the tiniest of community radio stations.  Podcasts also don't have to break as often (or not at all) for commercials, and listening to them pod-style means I get to fast forward right through them anyway (sorry, Squarespace.)

The format can let podcasters give an episode as much, or little, attention it deserves.  Radio shows have to fit certain time parameters, meaning they are often crammed with filler, or that they can't fully explore their subject matter in the time allotted.  Podcasts can be admiringly obsessive.  Case in point: the film podcast The Projection Booth just did a SEVEN HOUR podcast this week about Conan the Barbarian that included interviews with several people who worked on the film and its sequels, along with a long talk with a biographer of Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator.  To my surprise, I was actually able to listen to the whole thing over the course of a few days.  The hosts are great at translating their love of film to the listener, and at doing the kinds of in-depth interviewing that actually illuminate, rather than help promote whatever new thing the guest is doing.  After hearing it I actually want to read some of Howard's original stories, something I never would have done had I not heard this episode.

The kind of freedom podcasting affords also extends to the words that podcasters can use.  Comedy is less interesting the more it is restrained, and comedy flourishes in the podcastverse largely because comedians can pretty much say whatever they want to say.  The doesn't just make the conversations funnier, but also much more real and less studied.  On the best episodes of Chris Hardwick's Nerdist podcast I feel like I have been given an invaluable opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between interesting people.  Recently my friend Chauncey DeVega did an interview with the great author Joe Lansdale, and the result was something about ten times more compelling than what you'd hear on NPR.  There was a refreshing lack of bullshit on display that normally saturates the official media.

Like blogging, podcasting shows the democratic potential of the internet, and also exposes the emperor's lack of clothes.  Just as there are many bloggers out there writing more intelligent takes on current affairs than well-paid pundits at major newspapers and magazines, there are podcasters who are much better at telling stories and producing compelling interviews than highly paid radio hosts.   It is an exciting world using the limited yet compelling instrument of the human voice, and I hope that it continues to surprise me in good ways.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Track of the Week: Al Wilson "Show and Tell"

Working crummy jobs in my younger days inadvertently exposed me to a lot of good music I might not have otherwise heard.  The best example is a job I had shelving books at a library in Chicago.  While doing my daily rounds I would listen to my walkman, which was so old that it ate tapes.  For that reason I tuned to the radio while I worked.  This was the late 1990s, so I would have listened to the "alternative" station, except that they had a horrific morning show anchored by a right wing asshole who called himself "Mancow."  (So much for "alternative.")  I started going up the dial a little, and hit on an R&B and soul oldies station that played music from the 60s and 70s.

This was music I'd always liked when I heard it, but now I became obsessed.  I sought out Sly and the Family Stone discs and practically burned holes in them.  I learned that disco had its highpoints, and savored Donna Summer and Sylvester.  Thelma Houston's "Baby Don't Leave Me This Way" secretly became one of my favorite songs of all time.  I also learned one hit wonders of 70s soul I never knew before, and of these songs I think I loved "Show and Tell" by Al Wilson the most.

He had been a veteran of the music scene without having a hit to his credit when, in 1973, he took a song sloughed off by Johnny Mathis to the top of the charts.  "Show and Tell" benefits in the first place from the exquisite 70s soul backing, intricate and slightly mannered a la The Spinners, but with just enough of a dose of funk thrown into it.  Of course, Wilson deserves a lot of credit for his emotive performance.  He starts so subtly and restrained, then sublimely takes the "oh oh ooooohhh" into the chorus and hits the higher register with an effortless beauty.

It's a true love song, in that Wilson sings of someone who has completed his life almost beyond the capacity of words to say.  "Here is the soul/ of which you're taken control" is such a simple yet meaningful way of stating that feeling.  This is a love song for adults, not the swooning to the moon in June stuff of teen pop music.  It expresses more the adult knowledge of life's unfairness and harshness, and how lucky and important it is to have the right person in your life to help you get through it.  I'm not sure songs like this even exist anymore.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Adjunct Walk-Out, Long Overdue

The academic labor situation has been a wretched garbage fire for some time now, one of the many reasons that I got out.  Things were bad even before the crash of 2008, with departments not replacing tenure-track lines and adjuncts becoming the norm.  The crash then allowed conservatives to slash hard at higher ed budgets, and to give university leaders cover for hiring more part timers, and treating the full timers like dirt.  I went from being a "visiting assistant professor" to a tenure-track assistant professor in 2008, right at the point the crisis hit.  Suddenly professors were told they weren't getting any raises, and that we were lucky not to be furloughed, as others were in states like Georgia and Illinois.  Travel money and library funding, meager to begin with, got the axe, while enrollments increased without additional hiring, meaning bigger classes and more grading.  Adjunctification is part of this larger story, and casualizing labor and driving wages lower via adjunct labor does few favors for those on the tenure track, even if many of them cling to lifeboater status.

Of course, adjuncts are the laborers who've suffered and continue to suffer the most from the big squeeze in higher ed in the past forty years.  They work for ridiculously low pay, often sub-minimum wage if they calculate their hours, as a friend of mine once did.  They take this pay without health benefits, job security, or a place at the table when it comes to shared governance.  I once worked in a department where contingent faculty like myself taught a majority of the classes, but were barred from faculty meetings.  All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, I guess.  This happens to them despite being highly educated individuals with all kinds of talents, those talents being squandered because they are not seen as having anything to offer beyond cheap labor.  It is a disgusting, rotten, intolerable system.  When I tell people outside of academe about it, they are seriously horrified, unaware that a PhD teaching four classes of college students a semester could be getting paid less than a student work study.  (This was the experience of another friend.)

Tomorrow adjuncts at several universities will be walking off the job for National Adjunct Walkout Day, a day that is long overdue.  The only way that the current exploitative system will change is through direct action.  Politicians in both political parties have been slashing higher ed, and only care about cutting costs, while the general public is mostly unaware of the academic labor situation.  The most powerful thing a worker can do is withhold their labor, and if enough academic workers do this, the world (and their employers) will have to take notice.

It's not that far-fetched.  As a graduate student I participated in a walkout to secure a union for TAs and other graduate student workers.  We faced lengthy court battles and an intransigent administration, but once we stopped working and picketed the campus for two days, that completely changed the dynamic, and they eventually caved.  Just as with adjuncts, we did not have even close to complete solidarity, but if you get enough people out there downing tools and making noise, that doesn't matter.  My participation in that walkout thirteen years ago was probably one of the most meaningful things I ever did in my life.  It was tremendously liberating to feel like my peers and I were actually having our voices heard, and actually making the upper administration listen to us.  I wish the adjuncts who walk out tomorrow all the best, and hope that those who aren't adjuncts respect the picket lines.  The future of academic labor, and academia itself, depends upon it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Turn Of The Eighties Culture

Today I was flipping channels and landed on a documentary about the "Miracle On Ice," but from the perspective of the Soviet team.  It was all very fascinating and well done, but along with that, seeing the old footage gave me some uncanny feelings.  This was not about the hockey game itself, which wasn't on my radar, but small things, like the way people dressed, the picture quality of the television broadcasts, and the haircuts.  I was born in 1975, meaning that the period between roughly 1979 and 1982 was the first time I can properly remember.  Seeing that footage suddenly reminded me of what the world looked like when I first became aware of it.

I also think of that period of time being its own particular cultural and political moment.  The economy crashed, oil prices and inflation shot up, insanely high interest rates were the response to the inflation, Jimmy Carter's presidency floundered and Reagan came storming in to power with the backing of newly inflamed religious conservatives.  Iranian students took America hostage, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the Cold War got hot again.  The spirit of 60s appeared dead and the conservative revaluation of values in ascendancy, but still far from confirmed.

Popular culture went though some interesting convulsions as well.  Disco went from being the king of the radio to an embarrassing example of the tackiness of the 70s by 1982.  I remember a kid in the first grade who had inherited an older sibling's Bee Gees lunch box, and it seemed like something that came from another planet.  At the same time, the first rap records came out in those years, culminating in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's epochal "The Message" in 1982.

That difference between say, "Night Fever" and "The Message" speaks to a larger trend I've detected in turn of the eighties culture, namely a harder edge than what came before in the shaggy seventies and what came later in the day-glo 80s.  The original Star Wars trilogy is the case in point.  1977 brought Star Wars' inspiring tale of rebels taking down a technological terror, and 1983's Return of the Jedi ended with Ewoks yub-yubbing in triumph, while 1980's The Empire Strikes Back ended with Han frozen in carbonite, and Luke emotionally devastated and dismembered after losing a lightsaber duel to the monstrous Vader, now revealed to be his father.

Or to go back to music, look at what became of the punk movement.  The loud, brash swaggering sound of 1976-1977 had faded into brooding postpunk like Joy Division.  Their music is made for stewing at home on a rainy March day, not kicking against the pricks.  Similarly, in 1979 Elvis Costello went from his straight ahead rock sound on his first two albums to a kind of sideways, paranoid pop music on Armed Forces.  The Talking Heads, a product of CBGBs, sound claustrophobic on 1979's Fear of Music, and moved in more obscure (and even more rewarding) directions on 1980's Remain in Light.

Much the same was happening in mainstream rock music.  The bold burst of life on Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" was nowhere to be seen on 1980's "The River" or 1982's Nebraska album.  The Boss wrote songs of being crushed by working class life amidst deindustrialization, a long long way from being "sprung from cages on highway 9 chrome wheeled fuel injected and stepping out over the line."  Fleetwood Mac vacated their era-defining sound from 1977's Rumours for something more obscure and opaque on 1979's Tusk.  Pink Floyd's increasing flight from their psychedelic roots culminated in the hard-edged, socially critical Wall album.  The once fey and music-hall inflected Kinks put out hard rocking records, including a take on the current economic crisis called Low Budget. 

The advent of MTV in 1981 would soon assist in making much of this style of rock music obsolete.  Before that, the 1979-1982 period saw the end of the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin.  At the same time, what was to replace it wasn't entirely formed just yet.  If anything, the turn of the eighties is a liminal period, culturally.

The trends of edge and liminality I think can also be seen in the world of cinema, and not just in the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back.  New Hollywood's young directors were getting long in tooth and at the end of their tethers.  Robert Altman went to Malta and made the flop Popeye and spent much of the next decade well below the radar.  Coppola finally released Apocalypse Now! in 1979, years after production began, and really a product of an earlier time.  In any case, that was the last important film he ever made.  William Friedkin released Cruising in 1980, infamous for its insinuations of homophobia, and the last major film he would make in a long while.  Peter Bogdanovich continued to drop off the map.  Warren Beatty, a fellow traveler in this group, made his epic Reds in 1981, which fittingly for a film coming out in the midst of the Reagan revolution, portrayed the political radicalism of the past, perhaps implying its weakness in the presence.  Kubrick predated New Hollywood, and his 1980 horror classic The Shining had him back in a harder edged mode after the lushness of Barry Lyndon.

George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg were the two exceptions to this, of course.  In many respects Spielberg pointed to way forward into the 80s.  His 1979 flop 1941 has an air of shaggy 70s-ness about it.  Not so 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, or 1982's ET, both massive hits.  The 80s would be the decade of the well-made blockbuster, something Spielberg was showing the way to.  They would also be a time of a new kind of comedy film with jokier, raunchier attributes.  That way forward was pretty evident in 1980's Caddyshack and Airplane!

Speaking of ways forward, we can bring this full circle by talking about the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.  The massive outpouring of nationalism it occasioned displayed the deep wells of chauvinism that Reagan would profitably exploit and which would be a salient feature of the 1980s, and pretty much every era since.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Track of the Week: Rolling Stones "Before They Make Me Run"

Keith after his Toronto drug bust in 1978, when they were about to make him run

Four years ago, in the midst of a rather difficult time, I made the decision to abandon academia and strike out into the world of independent schools.  It felt like a risky decision, but being 1500 miles from my wife and working in a dysfunctional environment in an isolated, culturally bereft town was driving me nuts.  During that time, a few songs were in heavy rotation in my stereo, and "Before They Make Me Run" was one of them.  The chorus just said it all: "I'm gonna walk before they make me run."

It's a song sung by Keith, and he brings his customary tumbledown attitude and sly style, with a lot less affect than Jagger.  The character he voices appears to have stumbled in from a Tom Waits tune.  He talks of working the "sideshows and bars" of "Route 22" and saying "good-bye to another good friend" who got taken down by all the "booze and pills and powders."  Richards' voice as he relates this story can only be described as a drawling sneer, and it's perfect.  Musically it moves along well, aided by the fact that Richards, not Bill Wyman, plays bass on it.  Based on the other songs where Richards plays that instrument, I'm pretty convinced that he could have been one of rock music's greatest bass players had he not been a guitarist.  They song moves and grooves with fluidity, and Ron Wood provides some wonderful slide guitar touches.

"Before They Make Me Run" is one of the last great Stones songs before they turned into an oldies act during the great American Reagan-era cash-in.  The funkier groove that Keith and co. seemed to pick up in the polyester decade often seemed wasted on half-baked, tossed off songs, but this tune is a rare exception.  In any case, I have a soft spot in my heart for a song that gave me the strength to "find my way to heaven, 'cause I did my time in hell."