Monday, July 6, 2020

Hazy Thoughts in the Summer Malaise

Too much on my mind

Summer, true summer is here now. Those days when it's so hot that I don't want to be outside despite the sunshine and when I feel constantly uncomfortable in the outdoor heat or in the unnatural air conditioned interior. The un-cooled interiors, which become unbearably stuffy, manage to bring in the worst of both worlds. Afternoons on days like this are to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Today I had the depressing realization that I am already fantasizing about next summer, since this one is going to be a wash and the coming school year promises to be the most dangerous and difficult one yet. So much of my mental space this summer is taken up by the fall, both in terms of work I am doing for the school and in the constant churn of anxiety that dominates just about every waking hour of my day.

Even in the best of times summer brings a case of the blues. After the trench warfare of the school year, which demands every ounce of energy I can give, the indolence of summer is hard to handle. I end up with too much time on my hands and too much time spent at home. It allows my mind to wander to things I was too busy to think about during the school year. Memories of old fuckups and failures come dancing right into my consciousness, replaying humiliations and mistakes from decades ago.

This quarantine summer means being at home even more and even fewer outlets. I've tried to channel my energy into cooking, cleaning, and gardening, which has helped a little. The challenge of putting my mind at ease is harder this time around due to my constant worry about the state of the country. If I sit around long enough I just keep thinking about how the pandemic is getting worse after a hundred thousand people have died. I think about how a mass movement for racial equality has ended up with yet another culture war about statues. The economic situation is bad and I know plenty of people who have lost their jobs. At times like this I almost long to be one of those millions of vapid people so disengaged from the world to be troubled by it.

And yeah, I know it could be worse. I had a family member back home with the virus but they're fine now. As tough as my job will be next year, at least I still have one. It's been good to have all this time with my wife and kids. I was able to go out to Pennsylvania last week and see two old and very dear friends and kayak on a lake, play cards, grill meat, and drink whiskey. Music has been an important consolation, as always. It's amazing how much great new music is out there right now. Be that as it may, no song is really speaking to me as much right now as a golden chestnut by The Kinks, "Too Much On My Mind."

All I want right now is something to look forward to. I have no clue when that will ever be the case again.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The 1988 Election's Long Shadow

This Bush ad is eerily like something out of the Soviet Union, and features the worst song ever recorded

Someone younger than me on Twitter today was asking why Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election to George Bush so decisively after having a large lead in the polls after the Democratic convention. This particular election is obscure, especially to people who didn't live through it. Howeverm this was the first presidential election that I could meaningfully understand, so it has stuck in my mind pretty much ever since. I also hadn't really developed a political viewpoint of any kind yet, so I sort of watched it in a detached kind of way. (By 1992 I'd figured out that despite my conservative upbringing that I was a progressive, soon to be social democrat.)

In ensuing years I think it was an election that did a lot of damage to the Democratic Party, because the party took the exact wrong lessons from it. It's also a strange election, since it occurred in a far less partisan time when major swings could happen much easier than they do now.

When pressed for reasons why Dukakis lost, this is what I would list:

  • A lackluster campaign that failed to establish a coherent narrative, e.g. the tank photo shoot
  • The candidate's lack of charisma and passion
  • General animus against northeastern liberals with ethnic backgrounds
  • The Willie Horton ad
  • Relatedly, the context of the War on Drugs
  • Anger over Iran-Contra had faded and Reagan's approval went back up
  • Roger Ailes helping Bush become a nasty political street fighter while using rhetoric ("kinder gentler nation") softer than hardcore Reaganism
I still remember the presidential debates when Bush called Dukakis a "liberal" with a sneer in his voice. Dukakis seemed to be embarrassed by the title instead of proudly defending his record. (This brilliant SNL sketch summed up the feeling of besieged liberalism at the time.) The Willie Horton ad was an even more infamous moment where Dukakis failed to strongly fight back against a nefarious and racist attack. 

The Democrats responded to this defeat by taking away the exact wrong lessons. Instead of realizing they needed to be strong and not back down to Republican bullshit, they assumed that they needed to preempt those attacks by being more conservative. Hence Democrats decided to get "tough on crime" and pass thing like the Clinton crime bill. Bill Clinton's "triangulation" strategy in office was, in many respects, the response to 1988. 

For years and years Democrats ran away from pushing a progressive agenda, seeing that as something inherently unpopular when in fact many of these ideas have broad support. For example, voters in red states like Oklahoma and Nebraska have passed Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives. Nebraska and Arkansas voters approved increases in the minimum wage. Democrats have been so afraid of their own shadows for so long that they are failing to capitalize on things they support that are very popular because they assume people don't want them. Would you vote for someone with that little confidence in themselves? (They're worse than me trying to date in college.)

The 1988 election also set this weird precedent of trying to be the party of decency in the face of Republican chicanery, with the implicit assumption that the voting public would reward virtue. Just as Dukakis did little to push back on scurrilous attacks against him, John Kerry said little in public about the Swift Boat lies, figuring that the truth would speak for itself. (Bill Clinton was more robust in his responses, but to be fair he actually did a lot of the things he was accused of!)

The other big lesson of needing an appealing narrative didn't quite sink in. Bill Clinton and especially Obama figured that out, but Gore, HRC, and Kerry never did. One of my big fears about Biden is that he will do the same, will run on "I'm not Trump," and that won't be enough. He like others in the Democratic leadership are of an older generation formed in liberal defeat in the 70s and 80s. I really hope they still aren't fighting 1988 in their heads, unable to forget the one that got away but without truly understanding why. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Speech I Want Joe Biden To Give

[Author's Note: I'm not a speech writer by trade, but here's what I would like to hear from the Democratic nominee. Hey Biden campaign, you can call me any time.)

My fellow Americans, we are in the midst of a daunting crisis. We have faced crises this dire in America's history before, but this is like nothing we have seen in our lifetimes. A deadly pandemic is ravaging the country, our economy is in free fall, and people have taken to the streets in massive numbers to protest racism and injustice. In the midst of this our president has been a modern day Nero, tweeting while the nation burns.

His failure to provide leadership and direction on the virus has caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. In the face of mass deprivation he has rewarded large corporations while letting everyday people suffer. His flagrantly racist politics and even cheerleading for police brutality have only fanned the flames of justified discontent. In a truly wretched spectacle he had peaceful protestors gassed so he could pose for a photo opportunity.

We all know that this country cannot move forward with Donald Trump in office. However, it would be a huge mistake to think that this country's troubles only began in January of 2017. Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere, nor did the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. The past forty years have seen a fearsome rise in economic inequality. Our government has responded mostly by putting more people in prison instead of addressing the root of the problem.

It is here that I must admit that I have been part of the problem. In the 1990s I voted for crime bills motivated by the need to protect citizens, and not cognizant enough of the destructive effects of mass incarceration, especially on the Black community. At the time this approach was very popular.  All of us must admit the failures of the past, and to do better to ensure a brighter future.

We are living in difficult times, and problems such as ours demand solutions to match them. If we are to improve the lives of Americans, we must be willing to make sweeping reforms and remake many of our institutions. For example, the virus has shown that a health care system tied to employment where people lose coverage when they lose their jobs, doesn't work. Furthermore, this system is extremely costly, and leaves millions without protection. We need to have a universal health insurance system, so that every American is taken care of.

Some may argue that this will mean restrictions on freedom, but I say that universal health care will empower the people of this country. It will allow them more freedom to move jobs and switch careers, and the freedom that comes from knowing that an essential part of your life is being taken care of.

We need to expand the social safety net in other ways that will bring freedom. For example, we need to subsidize child care, which will allow more parents the ability to take the jobs they want, children of all backgrounds to be better prepared for school, and to reduce a massive fiscal burden on working families. We must provide low-cost college education so that young people may pursue a better life without being crushed by debt. An America where every citizen can pursue their dream no matter how much money they have is in our reach if we try.

This is nothing new in our history. FDR responded to the Great Depression by creating the minimum wage, social security, and farm subsidies. Abraham Lincoln supported the creation of land grant universities to broaden the reach of higher education. Both presidents understood that the best way to respond to a crisis in this country is to focus on improving the lives of regular people.

We also must listen to the voices of protest in the street. Our cities are segregated and they are policed in racist and violent ways. We must end the war on drugs by legalizing cannabis and decriminalizing other drugs so that addicts can be helped and low-level dealers rehabilitated. We must support affordable housing and not just place it in the poorest areas because that doesn't solve the problem of segregation. Housing, like health care, keeps getting more expensive, even though wages aren't going up. We must demilitarize the police, and reallocate resources from the prison-industrial complex to social welfare. Until we make a true effort for what Martin Luther King called "genuine equality," we will never be able to live up to this nation's promise.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln called the Civil War a "new birth of freedom." This moment of crisis calls for yet another that is long overdue. In addition to making sure all Americans are able to have a decent standard of living, we also must make our system democratic again. Even before Donald Trump took office, Republicans challenged the Voting Rights Act in court and got key provisions overturned. This has led to naked attempts at voter suppression across the country. The long lines we see on election day are a national disgrace. We must fight to ensure the right to vote by setting uniform voter qualifications across the entire country.

Trump promised to "drain the swamp," but instead has become the Swamp Monster in Chief. He has used the government to advance his personal wealth, but his brazen graft is sadly only an extreme version of the corruption causing our system to rot away. We need a Constitutional amendment to limit money in political campaigns so that the people and not the wealth and corporations have the ears of our leaders.

Donald Trump lost by three million votes, yet still became president. It is time to dismantle the electoral college. Due to the machinations of Mitch McConnell, Trump has packed the courts with radical conservatives. I aim to nominate additional justices to better reflect good jurisprudence and the will of the people. We cannot have a country where the person rejected by the majority still gets to be president. That is not democracy.

As my friend Barack liked to say, what is wrong with America can be fixed with what is right with America. Our nation rose to the challenge in the Civil War and Great Depression. We can do it again. I am not running for president merely to unseat an unfit, disastrous Donald Trump. I do so because I love this country and I believe in its future. This crisis presents an opportunity for a true rebirth of freedom. Let us not squander this golden opportunity. The darkest hour comes before the dawn.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

People Years, "Commonly Known"

I try to keep my resolutions humble so I don't embarrass myself. (I stopped resolving to lose weight a long time ago. Turns out the constant stress of covid and having my remote working days be a constant ball of chaos led to me eating less at last.) I resolved at the start of this year to listen to more new music. Like a lot of successful resolutions, this required active measures.

Every time I thought about putting one of my tried and true albums on or a playlist filled with old faves, I stopped myself. I was good with this until quarantine flung me back into the warm arms of the familiar. However, as New Jersey's public spaces have opened up, so has my Spotify. It was also good that I enjoyed so many of the new songs I discovered that they ended up being "old reliables" in the midst of the pandemic.

Back when I was a college professor I had a pre-lecture ritual (especially in larger intro classes where my energy was key.) I would indulge in a little caffeine or nicotine and listen to a song to get me in the mood. The song had to be propulsive and upbeat. For my first year as a prof "Omaha" by Moby Grape was my preferred warm up song.

In distance learning "Commonly Known" by People Years became my go to. I know nothing about the band, I just heard the song on a music podcast and immediately fell in love. I played it for some friends this week and they too started bobbing their heads almost immediately. It has that rare combo of push, hooks, and melody. And jangle? Oh yes it has jangle. (As an REM superfan, I am a sucker for jangle.)

These days so much amazing music is being made but the fractured nature of the musical landscape makes it so hard to find. If you find yourself thinking you don't like any new music, it might be that you just don't know where it is. Dig a little bit and be rewarded.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Letter on Local Housing Segregation

I live in a suburb of New Jersey that sees itself as a progressive paragon, but which has also been the subject of reports about its racial segregation. It's a place that has "Black Lives Matter" signs everywhere, but also resists any attempt to build denser housing. This contradiction inspired me to write a letter to the Village Green, which is the local news resource. In case you don't want to click on the link, here's what I wrote below.


Last year the New York Times stirred up the town when it published an article about segregation in Maplewood’s public schools. That article highlighted a dirty not-so-little secret about this place, which prides itself on its progressive nature. A year later, the same town maintains that self-image and is conspicuously involved in protests against racist policing. Signs reading “Black Lives Matter” can be seen all over. However, the deeper structural racism behind the town’s segregated schools has not gone away.

Maplewood’s elementary schools are segregated because Maplewood’s neighborhoods are segregated. In fact, some of the neighborhoods with the thickest presence of the aforementioned Black Lives Matter signs are almost exclusively white. At a time when so many are rightly speaking out against institutional racism, Maplewood needs to examine how its zoning and land use policies reinforce segregation. 

Like suburban New Jersey more broadly, Maplewood’s segregation is rooted in older racist policies intended to make the suburbs white. Redlining established through the post-New Deal FHA’s programs made it so any neighborhood that wasn’t exclusively white lost access to subsidized mortgages. Other policies, like exclusionary zoning, are less obvious but just as important. Whole areas are zoned exclusively for single family homes, shutting out the less affluent (who are disproportionately people of color in New Jersey) by limiting the building of more affordable apartments. These policies in Maplewood and elsewhere contribute to residential segregation. Combined with the neighborhood school model, that residential segregation has major consequences.

Tight zoning rules make it difficult for developers to build and easy for those inclined to stop multi-family dwellings. Developers thus must request variances to get things built, making it easy for all kinds of ridiculous roadblocks to be put in place. If you don’t believe me, come to a public meeting sometime to hear the often Byzantine legal challenges to proposed apartment complexes. The firepower behind these NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) challenges is stronger in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods. Good urbanist policy says that we should have dense housing near transit hubs like the train station, but every time any multi-family development is proposed in the Village, the disproportionately white residents of the neighborhood fiercely resist it. 

For that reason new multi-family dwellings are invariably built in areas of town that are less white. The challenges and hurdles to getting apartments built also ends up making them more expensive, since developers need to build luxury apartments to make up for the expense of getting something built under these circumstances. The artificial housing scarcity also drives up home values in Maplewood and New Jersey more broadly, allowing the disproportionately white group of homeowners relative to renters in this town and in this country to profit off of a racist housing system. 

This has all been going on for decades. The racial segregation that maps onto these housing disparities should be no surprise to us. Yet despite the Black Lives Matter signs on the lawns of Maplewoodians, it’s still just as hard to get multi-unit buildings constructed in the Village as it ever was. 

A great many of the people who make NIMBY arguments may see themselves as anti-racist, or think this is about preserving “neighborhood character” and not systemic racism. However, intentions have little to do with it. To be more blunt, systemic racism, like the coronavirus, doesn’t care about our feelings. 

The way forward should not just include the school district’s integration plan. It should also challenge the zoning and land use restrictions that contribute to the underlying segregation. Other cities have been putting an end to exclusionary zoning, it’s high time that Maplewood did too. The town can do more to support the building of more affordable housing, but the big change needs to happen in the mentalities of Maplewood residents. Those who genuinely care about institutional racism need to be attuned to how exclusionary zoning contributes to it, and stop resisting the building of a town that is more affordable and inclusive. If your opposition to denser housing is framed as “saving the neighborhood” take a moment to think long and hard about the deeper implications of that statement. They might not be as noble as you think. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Dispatch From A Saturday Sojourn In Trump Country

Today I took my daughters to my in-laws' house to enjoy their pool and relax. They live in Morris County in a heavily Trump area, something I never felt so palpably before today. We tend to talk of "blue states" and "red states" but that is a reductionist model because there tend to be political divides within most states. In New Jersey they are pretty stark and today was a pretty clear illustration.

As we drove from our neighborhood through Maplewood and South Orange, we spotted several Black Lives Matter signs. Once we took South Orange Avenue west over the mountain those signs disappeared, replaced by signs for Republican candidates for the upcoming primary. Soon after that it was the blue line flag. In the space of a couple of miles we traveled to two very separate realities.

I enjoyed some time in the pool and take-out pizza for lunch, then let my in-laws watch the kids while I ran some errands. My first stop was a nearby liquor store to get some local beers to take with me for a visit with old friends in Pennsylvania next week. I'd never been there before, I was only going there because it was on the way to the Italian bakery and deli I needed to go to. When I got into the store I heard the fifty-ish owner tell someone about shooting skunks from outside of his window with a .22 as a child. That seemed odd for sure. When I got to the counter I noticed a handwritten sign on the register with a quotation attributed to Maximilian Robespierre. It said something to the effect that "the power that be keep the people in ignorance to keep them down." I was struck by that, and wondered if this place was owned by a secret Jacobin. Then I looked behind the counter, and saw all the Trump ephemera, including a sign that said "make liberals cry again, vote Trump in 2020."

The owner was futzing around with something else and at that point I put my merchandise back on the shelf and walked out because that asshole was not going to get my money. I felt like asking him if his dumb ass even knew who Robespierre was, but I wasn't in the mood to start a fight with someone with a hard-on for guns.

So I went to the Italian bakery and deli. I was glad to see a lot of signage on the door saying "no mask no service." When I walked it I got a bad omen, though. There was a tatted-up rough customer ahead of me in line wearing a prison guard uniform. Another guy, straight out of Morris County middle-aged reactionary white guy central casting, started going off on a profane tirade to the guy behind the counter, who he evidently knew. He started by lamenting "it looks like things are changing." Then it got uglier, saying "if they get their way this whole fucking country will go wild" and "can you believe they are trying to make Friday a special day" with a pretty clear insinuation as to who "they" were. He also kept repeating this phrase about "people need to know their history." I am not sure which history he was referring to. The guy behind the counter did aver that the cops had been acting poorly, but the ranter wouldn't have it.

I wasn't sure how to respond, so I just started loudly chuckling to myself. It seemed to have worked because the guy shut up. I realized in that moment that the Trumpists are starting to reckon with a loss of power. The stuff about "this country is changing" came with a certain weary tone. Perhaps, at last, they are the ones on the run.

Seeing the half-empty arena in Tulsa only seems to confirm that observation to me. Of course, that doesn't mean that Trump and his crew won't try to rig the system now that it's obvious that they've lost any kind of popular mandate. My trip into Trump country also showed me that the reservoirs of white rage that propelled Trump the White House are not going away.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Life's Rough Middle Patch

"Harvest Moon" is a rare positive song about middle age and appreciating what you have

Last week I opined a little on Twitter on the emotional difficulties of middle age, and I think it actually lost me some followers. Twitter is a place slanted towards the young, so I should talk about my middle-aged angst on a blog, which is a fittingly unfashionable platform for an unfashionable topic.

I've been reading a lot recently about "deaths of despair" from suicide, alcohol-related illnesses, and drug overdoses, and how they have been spiking among the middle-aged. This full blown national midlife crisis is getting surprisingly little attention despite the fact that it has dragged down the nation's life expectancy. There are deeper causes behind this, but there's also a reason why this is manifesting among those in middle age.

It's the stage of life that's perhaps the most emotionally fraught, even more than adolescence. Once you hit middle age you suddenly realize that you've gotten to where you are going to be. There is no bright future anymore, just the present for another few decades until you die after you've hopefully had a little time to enjoy your retirement. With each passing day, I can hear a door slam. The sense of possibility that came with youth is gone.

Once you've reached this point and become cognizant of your rut, you start to think long and hard about whether it's a good rut to be in or not. A lot of what we call a "midlife crisis" is merely people realizing the die is cast and they are deeply unhappy about having to live the second half of their lifetimes in the place where they have ended up.

It hasn't been too bad for me. Quarantine has reminded me of how lucky I am to have my wife and daughters. The way my school has handled the transition to distance learning makes me happy to work for them. The appreciations I got from graduating seniors last week reminded me that my job is one that truly makes an impact on others.

However, it's becoming more and more apparent what I am not going to have and where I have failed. Being a teacher who sacrificed prime earning years to grad school means I will never have the money to travel to a lot of the places I've dreamed about since my youth. I am probably never going to get a book published. My attempts to be an "independent scholar" after leaving academia have basically failed. Name publications don't want to publish my submissions, and never will. I haven't made many new friends where I live and it's unlikely I ever will, and will spend the rest of my life hundreds of miles from my family and closest friends.

On balance things have worked out! But that doesn't mean that certain things don't get lost to the point that they can't come back. That's the bitter truth of middle age. It's little wonder that people my age far less affluent than me are dying "deaths of despair." America is a place where it is less and less likely that people can reach middle age feeling good about where they have ended up.

Yet we lack even the most basic public conversation about this. The "midlife crisis" is a stock target of derision in our popular culture. In this youth-obsessed society discussing aging is a faux pas deserving of mockery. It's high time that we reckoned with the emotional difficulties of middle age. Maybe the beginning is for us sad sack middle-aged types to just talk about it.