Monday, June 17, 2019

Uncle Tupelo, "Outdone" (Track of the Week)


I've been thinking a lot about my rural Nebraska hometown recently. Partly this was out of hearing that a bunch of businesses that were important to me there are closing, and partly this was due to finding out two priests I worked with as an altar boy were listed by the diocese as having committed sexual abuse. One of them was excommunicated 25 years ago, but this was all hushed up because I never heard about it and am finding it impossible to find information out about it.

I'll probably write more about that soon, but today I've been retreating into the music of the band that best gets at my ambivalent feelings for my homeland: Uncle Tupelo.

I first discovered them in the spring of 1994, right as I was leaving my hometown behind. Their music blew me away, a combination of punk and country roots suffused with a critical political stance and poetic words about small town Midwestern life. I felt such a kinship with Uncle Tupelo, since they seemed to be so much like me and nothing else in the pop culture universe at the time really was.

Listening to the band's compilation on Spotify while I rode the commuter train to Manhattan I was struck by "Outdone," a song that had never been a favorite before. The chorus really hit me "Now there's too many people trying to hard/ Not to be outdone/ They follow close being their proud smoking gun." Amid the thrash of the twangy punk I hear a disdain for the daily rat race, an emotion that gives my Gen X soul all the feels.

I guess the song struck me because as much as I like living in the New York City area, some parts of it will never be comfortable for me. People here are much, much more status-oriented and hierarchical than back home in the Midwest. The local bourgeoisie here just constantly walks around high on their own bullshit. When I meet someone of that class background I've learned to not trust them until they reveal to me that they're not one of these striving yuppie bores. These are the kind of people in their status obsession who are so afraid of being outdone.

I don't miss the smalltown bigoted squareheads who bitch about Muslims and immigrants and think mayo is a spice. However, I do miss the small town sages who embraced the slower pace of life but look around them with a jaundiced eye. Sadly they've been written out of the "red state" narrative.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Die Was Cast in November of 2016

The people of Hong Kong are showing us how people should act in a democracy. We are failing the test.

In recent weeks I have been increasingly angered and unnerved and the lack of political action by opponents of the current regime. Trump keeps escalating, whether it be through suppressing the Mueller Report, claiming he would accept foreign help in the election, putting immigrants in concentration camps, putting said camps under military jurisdiction, engaging in a massively destructive trade war, manipulating the census to rig elections, and engaging in naked political corruption. In response to this, Nancy Pelosi won't even begin impeachment. The massive protests of 2017 have not repeated themselves.

These last few weeks I have felt an overwhelming urge to be on the barricades, but there's no one to lead the way or even to join up with me. I have never felt more frightened or downhearted since Trump has come to power, because back during the Muslim ban and last summer's family separation, people were taking action. Nowadays they are paralyzed.

Part of this is due to the poor leadership of the Democratic Party, which has been narrowly focused on electoral politics. Once the House was taken, all the fight seems to have been gone, even though winning the House was supposed to be the beginning, not the end of the story. Another part is the fact that so much of the "Resistance" is made up of comfortably middle-class suburban whites who are too complacent, protected, and numbed to be able to engage in the direct action necessary to fight back.

I also think, however, that so many have lost faith because they now believe, quite rightly I am afraid, that the die was cast in November of 2016. The bedrock fact is that Donald Trump holds the highest office in the land and has rigged the Supreme Court in his favor. He has weaponized all of the tools of the imperial presidency granted by the Cold War. Once in power, he was never going to allow himself to lose it. The next election will not be a free and fair election, and beyond voter suppression, gerrymandering, and God knows what other tactics our social media will be flooded with disinformation both domestic and foreign.

Just the fact of him becoming president was the product of the complete failure of our Constitutional system. The electoral college, which was created partially to stop a demagogue like Trump from being president, enabled him to win despite his loss of the popular vote. The country is so divided that the system is not going to be changed, so it will now essentially be a tool to ensure minority rule through the electoral college, Senate, the now-packed courts, and its tolerance for manipulating voter qualifications. The nagging thought I keep having is that we are not in a fight against creeping autocracy, we are instead merely flailing against an autocracy that grows stronger with each passing day.

I know I can do nothing else in this situation, other than fight. I have been calling my representatives and begging them to act with the urgency the current moment demands, but they are not. They, like everyone else, are just trying to close their eyes and go on as if nothing has changed. Perhaps I'm a fool for even bothering to still fight.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Joe Biden's Vanishing Consensus

Joe Biden has been involved in public life since sideburns and wide collars were acceptable on politicians. It's time for his to get out of the way.

I am breaking my resolution to stay away from the 2020 primary because I think we are seeing a bigger story playing out here beyond the horserace. When Donald Trump was elected president it should have been clear that "politics as usual" was over. (Even before his election Mitch McConnell's blocking of a Supreme Court nomination was proof enough.) Furthermore, anyone interested in actual political change could see that promising the American people to go back to the way it was before Trump was pretty weak tea. The only way forward is, well, forward.

Enter Joe Biden, first elected to the Senate in the early 70s. Now that he has entered the presidential race, he has shown just how many Democrats have refused to accept the new reality. They really want to believe that Republicans are simply good people that they disagree a little with, not fierce advocates for right wing extremism who are willing to suppress votes and engage in racial gerrymandering. Biden's comments this week, about how Republicans would somehow come to their senses after a Trump defeat, were pretty damning in this respect.

He is still stuck in a time when there was greater comity between the political parties. This is kind of surprising given Biden's role in the Bork affair, something that conservatives have long used to blame liberals for starting our never-ending low grade civil culture war.

You can see this as well in his comments on the Hyde Amendment, which since the 1970s has prevented federal funding of abortion. For a longtime this was accepted by many Democrats as part of a consensus on abortion. The practice was legalized nationwide, but government programs would not directly fund it. With the Republican attempts to criminalize abortion nationwide having obliterated one side of the bargain, rank and file Democrats are no longer willing to cede ground on the Hyde Amendment. Once Biden quickly understood this, he changed course immediately.

This was the political equivalent of an elder parent needing a child or grandchild to set up the wifi network in their house. Like a lot of people his age, Biden is kind of confused by the way things are today, and hasn't done the work to keep up. Telling Democrats to that they will be able to be friends with Republicans again reminds me of an older relative who told me to just call up universities and see if they had jobs after I had my PhD. No amount of me telling them that this is not how things are done was capable of changing their mind.

When I see the elders in my own life struggling to keep up I am understanding and try to help them. Joe Biden is trying to be president of the United States, an entirely different scenario. We don't need to help him figure it out, he just needs to get out of the way. Unfortunately, a lot of Democratic voters, especially the older ones, are just as clueless as he is. They too are unwilling to acknowledge the new reality. It is our job to break their stranglehold on the Democratic Party.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

"Southern Cross" (Track of the Week)


I am a big believer in the notion that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, at least how the category is usually constructed. We like what we like, and should never feel bad for what we like not being hip enough. I think, however, that one can feel embarrassed. I call such things "sheepish pleasures."

One of my sheepiest pleasures is the song "Southern Cross" by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Not only are they the avatars of the Boomers turning the 60s into a lifestyle brand, this song comes from the early 80s, well after their hour had passed. Back in the 90s the underrated Request magazine had a "Geezer" category in its reviews section exactly for stuff like this. It was all treated as a kind of joke, the lamest of lame music.

Despite that stigma, I think "Southern Cross" is my favorite CSN song (when you add the Y that's another story.) Age has weathered the group's voices a little, giving their famous harmonies a little something deeper in their sound. It's also not just hippy dippy stuff in the lyrics, either. It's a song about sailing as a metaphor for searching, of hitting some rough seas in your life and getting out of it and being reading to go to new horizons.

I love this theme because it is so transparently about *gulp* middle age. In my youth I disdained this music for that very reason, but now it resonates so clearly with me. I first really started appreciating this song the summer after I moved from Texas to New Jersey to start my new life post-academia. I had survived some stormy oceans and almost got shipwrecked along the way. My new lease on life felt like a miracle.

I was remembering that feeling yesterday on the commuter train ride home. It was the last day of classes for the school year, and I was feeling that usual sense of accomplishment and exhaustion. It's a sublime emotion that I never felt before I set sail from the familiar waters of my academic training into the uncharted seas of teaching high school. A new and better world was revealed to me, as foreign to the old one as the Southern Cross for a sailor who had never crossed the equator before. I'm so glad I made that journey.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

D-Day Anniversary Thoughts



I've been seeing things about the 75th anniversary of D-Day all day today, but it's left me nothing but conflicted and sad. It's a day that marked the inevitable demise of Hitler's regime, as well as the ascendance of the United States to being a true world power. Yet here we are 75 years later, the United States ruled by perhaps the worst person our society has barfed up in the last fifty years, that same man openly supported by American Nazis who dared to yell "Hail Trump!" on the day he took office. It seems as if the victory of that glorious day was for naught.

Of course, we should not romanticize D-Day too much. After all, the American government that fought the Nazis maintained a segregated military and denied black people the right to vote. It firebombed the people of Tokyo and dropped nuclear weapons on defenseless civilians. That being true, it was still a far greater evil that was defeated. I am still proud to this day that I had a great uncle who parachuted into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne.

But I am also aware of how empty that pride is. D-Day was a long time ago now. Instead of pining for the victories of the past, we ought to be far more concerned with the fight that cries out for our blood, sweat, and tears in the present. We are living in a world where nationalism is on the rise again, and shows no signs of abating. Our memories should not make us complacent, lulling us into the false notion that all the fights happened in the past. No, our memory of D-Day ought to be preparing us for a new kind of combat, one not fought on battlefields.

In Eisenhower's famous order of the day on D-Day, he proclaimed that "The eyes of the world are upon you." Now that gaze has shifted to us living right now, trying to fight the rise of Fascism 2.0. It is up to us to take the actions that will have us remembered 75 years from now. So let's get fighting!


Sunday, June 2, 2019

Old Dad's Records 41 (Paydays and Crate Digging)


The newest episode of my podcast is all about paydays and digging for obscure records. I start with the 80s new jack swing classic "Just Got Paid" by Johnny Kemp, then dig through the records I got at a local record fair. The digging includes everything from Bowie to Porter Wagoner to a 70s album of Bob Dylan covers. I end with a rave for Frankie Rose, whose music parties like it's 1981.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Commercials From Hell: Gorbachev Sells Pizza Hut


When I taught world history to college students, I would end my class about the end of the Cold War by showing this commercial. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was reduced to shilling for a second-rate fast food pizza company. Is there anything that better sums up the victory of capitalism? Of for that matter, the utterly fatuous nature of the brand of capitalism that triumphed?

One of my favorite passages from The Communist Manifesto deals with how capitalism destroys traditional culture.

"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers."

Whatever Marx got wrong, he certainly got that right. Gorbachev turned into pizza pitchman was ultimate proof of capitalism's ability to force every single aspect of modern life to bend to its values system. Back in the 1990s it was easy to think that this was the end of history. How wrong that was.