Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Return of Nationalism and A Multi-Polar World

The past weeks have been pretty dramatic when it comes to world affairs: ISIS threatening the Iraqi government, increased bloodshed in Afghanistan, Germany catching an American spy, Ukrainian separatists shooting down a Malaysian airliner, and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  Beyond the surface headlines, there are bigger trends afoot.

One of those trends is the obvious loss of American hegemony.  Iraq and Afghanistan are American imperial adventures that have completely backfired, and there is little that can be done about it.  Despite Russia's erratic and violent behavior, the US is having a hard time convincing Europe to take action against Putin.

In fact, for the first time since the end of World War II, we are seeing the emergence of a multi-polar world.  Russia is reasserting its power, and rising China has been flexing its muscles with its southern Vietnamese neighbor and traditional rival Japan.  Ironically, this process was abetted by the administration of George W. Bush, which claimed to be making America stronger than ever before.  The failed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed America's weaknesses, damaged its credibility, and have reduced the American public's support for aggressive foreign policy.  One of the great "what ifs" that will be discussed by future historians will be "what if Al Gore had not been cheated out of the presidency," not least because he likely would have continued the safer, multilateral foreign policy of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.

While I am not a cheerleader for American hegemony, I do not look optimistically at the emerging multi-polar system either.  A multi-polar world lends itself to conflict, a fact scary to contemplate one hundred years to the month after the "July Crisis" of 1914 that led to worldwide war.  Nationalism provides the fuel for such fires, and gives the masses reason to cheer their troops on the road to the slaughterhouse.  After years of talk of globalization many observers have been acting as if nations are a thing of the past.  Russia and China put lie to that belief, as the Chinese government has whipped up anti-Japanese sentiment, and Putin is pursuing an ultra-nationalist foreign policy that calls for all Russians to be united, regardless of borders.

That kind of nationalism might seem paradoxical in a world of greater and greater global economic convergence, but it shouldn't.  After all, in 1913, on the edge of World War I, global trade reached new heights despite the rabid nationalism that would send the world into conflict.  Nationalism is an incredibly potent force, since it gives legitimacy to autocratic and undemocratic regimes, by riling up the masses and giving them a feeling of having a stake in the state.  While it is not the only game in town (just look at ISIS and its idea of Sunni state), it's still really, really important, and has been fatally ignored for too long.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Re-post in Honor of James Garner: Why I Love The Rockford Files

Editor's Note: This weekend brought the sad news of James Garner's death.  He's an actor I'd always liked, but in the last few years the magic of Netflix streaming had made me a big fan of The Rockford Files.  I even went as far to read his recent memoir, which showed him to be a remarkably grounded person.  In honor of his passing, here's something I wrote awhile back about him and his signature show.

Unlike a lot of people, I can't just sit down and burn through whole seasons of television in a day.  The repetition gets to me, plus I'd rather be reading.  However, there are some shows that I have slowly been working my way through over a matter of years, enjoying them like a fine aged whiskey rather than a case of Busch Light.  One of these shows is The Rockford Files, one I am a little embarrassed to love so much.  My requests to put an episode on usually results in a groan of pain from my wife, and my effusive praise of the show to friends and colleagues is normally met with a kind of exasperated silence.  I don't care what they say, I love it.

In case you don't know the show, it stars James Garner as Jim Rockford, a wrongly convicted ex-con who works as a private eye.  He lives in a trailer on the beach with his disapproving father Rocky, and usually ends up getting roughed up and not getting the girl or a big payday.  The supporting characters include Dennis, a grumpy cop who sometimes helps Rockford, Angel, a friend from prison with a knack for weaseling out of situations Rockford has to clean up, and Beth, his liberated woman lawyer and sometimes paramour.

As a fan of all things seventies, I love how the show (which ran from 1974 to 1980) epitomizes so much about the polyester decade.  Although Garner has a ruggedly handsome face, he is no traditional tough guy PI, and reflects the less orthodox masculinity of the time.  He keeps his revolver in the cookie jar, and rarely uses it.  He often gets beat up by roughnecks, harassed by the police, and harried by his dad.  Rockford is more likely to use his mouth and wits to get what he needs, rather than his fists or his gun.  Instead of working out of a fancy office, he takes calls in his trailer, and when he's not around, an answering machine, not a secretary, takes his calls.  The latter device is also used in the opening of every episode, where there's a different message on the machine each time, usually from a bill collector or Angel with a problem or wacky scheme.  Originally released in the midst of the mid-1970s stagflation, Rockford is a hard luck hero for people living through hard times.  Reflecting the Watergate era and general distrust in authority and elites, the villains are usually wealthy, connected types whom the police have been unable or unwilling to bust.

All in all, Rockford is just a much more human hero than we're ever allowed to see.  The shots inside his trailer home show the faded wood paneling and the stains on his pot holders.  He inhabits a very unglamorous, low budget Los Angeles, full of strip malls and industrial parks.  The opening montage shows him fishing and buying groceries, fer Chrissakes!  Unlike with modern day shows, he's not laden down with all kinds of psychological or supernatural bullshit.  He is not a serial killer, does not suffer from a mental disorder, does not have a secret family, is not involved in organized crime, etc.  He's a likable guy, what's wrong with that?  Watching all these shows where I am supposed to have ambivalent feelings about the protagonist is just getting old.  It was an interesting twist back when Tony Soprano and Don Draper first went on the air, but enough already!  Can't I just watch someone I want to root for?

Beyond all that The Rockford Files gets all the small touches right.  Rockford drives a gloriously gold Pontiac Firebird, wears open collar shirts with sports jackets (my preferred professional look), and it's got an endlessly catchy theme song.  What's not to like?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Track of the Week: Joy Division, "Day of the Lords"

This week has brought no end to heartbreaking news.  A bomb killed scores of people at an Afghani market.  A man was choked to death by the NYPD during an arrest.  Israel bombed then invaded Gaza.  Russian separatists in the Ukraine downed a passenger airliner (and the bodies have been looted).

It has been hard not to get emotionally involved in it all.  In times like these I often turn to music for solace and contemplation, and this week has been no different.  Over the past few days I've kept going back to "Day of the Lords" by Joy Division, a dark song even by their standards.  It's the second song on their first album, and one that grabbed me the very first time I listened to it.  Bernard Sumner's distorted guitar sounds absolutely sinister, and Ian Curtis' vocal more foreboding and troubled than usual, growling traumatized about "the bodies obtained."  The drums sound less played than dropped, staggering like a person stabbed in the gut.  In an oblique way, the song seems to be about wartime atrocities, and Curtis screams out in horror "where will it end?"  My thoughts exactly.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Making Of The Video" Music Videos

Since it's summertime and I'm off from school I find myself watching snatches of VH1 Classic in the mornings between playtime with the kids and episodes of Sesame Street.  I get easily transfixed by those 80s videos, which today look like strange news from another galaxy.  The look, music, and filming style appear so antiquated nowadays, along with the thought that the youth of America once used to spend hours at a time watching videos on MTV.  (I know I did.)

Rewatching these videos has reminded me of the various video genres that once dominated the airwaves.  You've got your live performance videos (like AC/DC's for "Thunderstruck"), your story videos (like A-Ha's sublime "Take On Me"), and your "life on the road is tough" videos (like Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive.")  Today I'd like to focus on that most meta video genre, the video about the making of the video.  We were so obsessed with music videos back then that we would gladly watch videos about videos getting made.  Bigger stars tended to go this route, since it tended to present them in a more humble or humorous circumstance.  (Usually these videos had farcical elements to them.)  Here are some of the most representative videos in the genre:

"Easy Lover" Philip Bailey and Phil Collins

The meeting of the two Phils is one of my favorite 80s pop guilty pleasures, as it combines for Earth, Wind and Fire member Phil Bailey's great falsetto with Phil Collins' warm, radio-friendly tenor and some kicking' guitar.  Like a wild stallion trapped in a stable, that guitar is just itching to burst out of this Top 40 number and shred.  The video shows the Phils hanging out, riding in a helicopter, and taping the video.  All in a day's work for a pop singer.

"The Flame" by Cheap Trick

This video belongs to the "earnest making of" sub-genre.  Perhaps that's because the normally raucous and funny Trick needed something a little more Serious for their power ballad aimed at the pop charts.  It's mostly a collage of shots of the band in candid moments on the set of the video, smoking aimless cigarettes, getting their hair done, etc.  It gives the song (admittedly one of the less shitty power ballads of the era) a certain vulnerability, which you need to accompany lyrics like "wherever I go I'll be with you" backed by airy synthesizers.

"Oh Sherrie" by Steve Perry

This is a fairly unique entry in the genre, in that it creates a story around the video making process, rather than being an actual, behind the scenes look at the video.  Perry storms off of the ornate, medieval castle set of his video, and starts lip-syncing to his lady love with that level of emotion we've come to expect from the King of the Power Ballad.  (Evidently his desire to leave the overblown set shows that he's down to earth and not pretentious.)  His director is pretentious (and British, of course) who pairs a New Wave skinny tie with a black leather jacket (making him suspiciously stylish.)  Perry, in classic video about making videos fashion, shows that even though he's a star, he's just a regular, nice guy.

"Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2

Leave it to Bono, of course, to make a video about making a video and turn it into mythology.  It details the band's concert on an LA rooftop for which they didn't have a permit, and which the cops eventually shut down.  Bono and the boys look charismatic and rebellious as all hell, even if they are copying from the Beatles' playbook.  It doesn't hurt that the song is one of U2's greatest, its relentless, irresistible drive still thrilling all these years later.  That's the secret of U2: their grandiosity begs to be deflated, but somehow they always make a believer out of me.

"Don't Lose My Number" by Phil Collins

Yes, it's another appearance by Phil Collins, who was the king of the making of the video music video. Part of his appeal came from his rather ordinary look.  Collins was short, a little stocky, balding, and wore pleated pants and tastefully modern patterned shirts.  He was like a regular bloke, but with a warm voice with some power to it with the perfect timbre for accompanying 80s synths and drum machines.  That trope is repeated here, with Collins having to deal with the media and comically ambitious video directors and special effects experts.  I loved this video as a kid even though I didn't care for the song, since I found it funny.  Then again, my favorite contemporary artist at the time was Weird Al Yankovic.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Return of the Know-Nothings

The recent refugee crisis of children fleeing unrest in Central America to cross the Rio Grande has occasioned the most vehement outburst of nativism I have yet witnessed, with screaming mobs of protestors hurling abuse at young immigrants.  Congress has reacted to the influx thousands of vulnerable children who have endured things that most adults in this country will never experience with a push to get those children deported as fast as possible.  This coming from a body that has repeatedly failed to pass any meaningful immigration reform policy because the House's reigning Republican Party is scared to death of alienating the nativist base of their party.

Put in historical context, these events are both predictable and surprising.  I'll start with the surprising side of the issue.  Back in 2000, George W. Bush ran as a candidate explicitly sympathetic to Hispanics and supportive of immigration reform.  When he was president he was unable to get said reform passed due to intransigence within his own party, but the GOP's leadership seemed to be embarrassed by that turn of events and maintained an interest in courting the votes of Hispanics.  Those voters rejected Mitt Romney by a historic margin, which got many pundits asking whether the Republicans would finally get behind immigration reform in order to stem the loss of votes.

Despite what the pundits predicted, the Republicans have embraced nativism whole hog.  That should have been predictable, since xenophobia has long been a potent political force in American life, along with its brother, nationalism.  Americans, of course, like to speak of "patriotism" when referring to themselves, with nationalism being a "bad" thing that "other" countries engage in.

When I hear the screaming mobs spewing hatred clothed in the fig leaf of "protecting the border" I hear the echoes of the 1850s and the Know-Nothings, the first major anti-immigrant group in American history.  It formed in response to the massive waves of migrants from Germany and Ireland, and mostly directed its ire against Irish Catholics.  It was a movement powerful enough to have its own political party (the American Party, known colloquially as "Know-Nothing" for its members' early devotion to secrecy.)  Nativists of that era burned Catholic churches and engaged in other acts of mob violence.  American nativism survived the death of the Know-Nothing Party in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924 (which set strict quotas on immigrants from outside northern Europe), and the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.  If those children in Murrieta today did not have protection I fear that the blood would flow.

Just as the Know-Nothings of yesteryear hatched theories of Catholic immigrants being part of a papal conspiracy, modern nativists claim that the president is somehow encouraging their arrival to get more voters.  They claim refugees will bring disease and will rape the women of America.  That may sound like the ravings of a street-corner railer, but they are in the Congressional record, coming from the mouth of Representative Louie Gohmert.  Granted, he is batshit crazy, but his party is not denouncing him.  In fact, Republicans have decided that they need their Tea Party base more than they need the votes of Hispanics, who they have been busy trying to disenfranchise.  While the most important GOP leaders would never use such inflammatory rhetoric, they are willing to let others do it for them, and reap the reward at the polls.

They aren't stupid.  Like I said, nationalism is a secret and very powerful force in American politics, and Republicans have benefitted by being the de facto nationalist party.  Appeals to nationalism can supersede class interests and class identity, something the modern GOP needs for its success.  Reagan used nationalism masterfully, getting many of the very people he was actively screwing over to vote for him because he had "made America strong again."  The Tea Party gets voters to the poll with the call to "take our country back."  (The "our" in that slogan is telling.)  It was probably sadly inevitable, based on our nation's history, that an influx of immigrants would be met with hatred by extreme nationalists.  However, it was not inevitable that one of our major parties would join that extremist chorus for its own greedy gain.  When and if the party decides to go back to the Bush-era policy of moderation, they cannot and should not be allowed to live down their shameless opportunism in reaping a harvest of hate at the polls.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Re-post: Suggestions For Improving the All-Star Game

Editor's Note: Here's something I wrote two years ago that seems newly relevant considering the talk of how baseball's All-Star Game, happening tonight, is much less important and interesting than it used to be.  Some of my suggestions aren't as relevant (Tim McCarver has finally retired, thank God) but I still stand by the rest.

Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, and Reggie Jackson after the epic 1971 Midsummer Classic

For a long time, major league baseball had the best all-star game of any of the professional sports.  Much of this had to do with the distinctiveness of the American and National Leagues, and the fact that apart from the World Series, players from these leagues never got to play each other.  As a young baseball game in the 1980s, I lived to see the likes of Dwight Gooden pitching to Don Mattingley, and rooted hard for the National League.  (Although I was then a Royals fan and am now a White Sox fan, I feel that the National League plays a subtler and more sophisticated version of the game.)  The coming of inter-league play in the 1990s blunted the excitement of the All-Star Game, since fans got to see the best players from each league play each other on a regular basis.  Those games were pretty exciting back then, but today even the Cubs-Sox inter-league matches have become just another set of games.  And that's one of the more compelling match ups; are baseball fans really itching to see the Mariners take on the Padres or the Astros play the Blue Jays?

Just as the enchantment of a game bringing the leagues together has faded, players seem to take the All-Star Game less seriously.  In recent years there have been many high-profile cases of players who aren't even really injured sitting the game (and the home run derby) out.  This is quite a turn of events.  As a child I never could have imagined the "Midsummer Classic" turn into the baseball equivalent of an unpopular boss's wedding shower.

As the father of two newly born children, I want them to grow up in a better world.  As part of that, wouldn't it be nice if the baseball all-star game was great again?  In that spirit, here are a few suggestions that I know will never be undertaken because baseball is run by the kind of hidebound squareheads who make the Catholic church's hierarchy look positively forward-looking.  At least I can dream.

End practice of including a player from each team
The whole point of an "all star" team is that all of its players ought to be, for lack of a better word, "stars."  Major league baseball, however, has mandated that each team be represented, which often means that many of the players are not stars, but merely above average, if that.  I guess the rationale for this policy is to attract viewers from all of the teams' fan bases, but the results are often patently ridiculous, and make a mockery of the game as an "all star" game.  Back in 2003, the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates sent their closer Mike Williams, who up to that point in the season had compiled a 6.44 ERA, which was not just below average, but abysmal.  Were Pirates fans really not going to tune in if Williams didn't play?  I also feel that players would take the game more seriously and see it as more of an honor if it was harder to get in.  To wit:

Limit the rosters to 27 players
This will make the all-star teams more exclusive and more "star" like, and will also make them more like real baseball teams playing a real baseball game.  The current rosters have ballooned to 33 players, which is just ridiculous.  I do like the recent innovation that the fans get to choose the last player in an online poll, and I would recommend letting them choose the 27th player on the roster.  However, I think it would be great for the players to have a voice in all-star selection, and they should get to vote on the 26th player.

Let the managers manage
There has been a recent tendency in the All-Star Game to give every player on both teams a chance to enter the game, which makes the games feel especially artificial and ridiculous, and the managers responsible less for winning and more for making sure everyone gets their turn.  This tendency led to the infamous 2002 game that ended in a tie when the teams ran out of players in extra innings.  Managers should not feel the need to put all the players in, but manage like a real manager and use the players accordingly.  Would a manager in a real game send in Billy Butler to bat for Prince Fielder?  (No offense to Butler, who's having a solid season for both the Royals and one of my fantasy teams.)  Do fans want to see that?  They want to see the best players in the game in a true competition with each other.  Making the all-star game for like a real game will make it more exciting for all involved.

Stop using the all-star game result to determine home field advantage in the World Series
Recently, in an effort to draw more fan attention, the MLB tried to make the all-star game "count" by using the winner to determine which league's representative gets home field advantage in the World Series.  (In previous years, it had just rotated back and forth.)  This move insultingly suggested that the game did not "count" before, and still makes home field advantage just as arbitrary as it was before.  (The all-star game used to count for a lot. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the American League was slower to integrate than the National League, the black NL players gunned to embarrass the American League, which they did on multiple occasions.  In 1970, Peter Rose risked injury by crashing hard into Ray Fosse at the plate.)   Based on the number of players bowing out of the game recently, the new "making the game count" wrinkle does not appear to have made it more competitive.  Scrap the whole thing, and shift home field advantage to the league whose teams performed best in inter-league play.  That will better reflect the strength of each league, make them more competitive against each other, and perhaps even add a little drama to those dreadful Mariners-Astros games.

Change the all-star break
A lot can be done to sculpt the days around the All-Star Game to make it more interesting and meaningful.  The NBA has done a great job of creating a whole weekend around their game, which is often the least meaningful component.  The MLB should add some things, and cut some others.  In the first place, the home run derby the day before ought to be eliminated, as many players already decline to participate, and it celebrates the narrow, power-focused version of baseball that reigned in the Steroid Era that must finally be consigned to the past.  Instead, the first round of the baseball draft should be held during the All Star break, which would generate more buzz around both the draft and the game.  I think there should also be an extra day added onto the break, giving participants an extra day of rest, which will encourage pitchers to participate more fully.  For that reason, the free day should come after the game.

Make the TV coverage more appealing
The All-Star Game ought to be a showcase for baseball, but it often takes so much time getting to the game that many at home switch channels rather than stick with it.  The pre-game hoopla seems to last forever, and extends the game past the bedtimes of younger viewers, baseball's future fan base.  Having smaller roster sizes with fewer players to announce will help with this, at least.  The first pitch must be thrown before 8Pm Eastern Time at the very latest.  Another issue is the fact that the game is on Fox, and is thus called by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, perhaps the most excruciating announcing team in all of sports.  McCarver has become even crustier and crankier over the years, and Buck's nonchalance can drain the excitement out of any major sporting event.  I watch a lot of games on mlb.com, and I have been happily surprised at the high quality of local baseball announcers across the board.  Any random team's hometown crew would be better than Buck and McCarver, but I would nominate a crew of Vin Scully and Steve Stone to handle the All-Star Game.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"I had a rough night, and I hate the f$*#ing Eagles"

I think the Dude said it best: "I had a rough night, and I hate the fucking Eagles."  Of the many baffling facts in the world, perhaps the most baffling is that the biggest-selling album in American musical history is The Eagles' Greatest Hits, 1971-1975.  In recent years it has edged out Michael Jackson's Thriller, once thought to be the undisputed champ forevermore.  That album is by no means perfect ("The Girl Is Mine" anyone?), but it is really damn good.  If you ever needed more proof of America's love of mediocrity, look no further than Jay Leno's two decade run at the Tonight Show, the success of Two and a Half Men, or an Eagles compilation outselling Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.

Over the years my once monastic rigidity when it comes to music appreciation has softened, and I have learned to love artists I used to despise, like Steely Dan, ABBA, and Fleetwood Mac.  The Eagles have not, and never will, undergo such a revision in my eyes.  It is not that they are flat-out bad, it's just that they are pretty average, and yet have achieved the absolute pinnacle of success, as clear an indictment of this nation's culture as anything.  "The Long Run" is kind of catchy, but is this a song that ever changed anyone's life?  For that matter, have any of their songs ever changed anyone's life?  "Hotel California" sets a good mood and has some great Joe Walsh guitar, but also contains some of the most ridiculous lyrics ever uttered on the radio.  For the most part the Eagles made music that inspires no one, but also is pleasant and mellow enough that it very easily becomes a kind of soothing wallpaper.

Above all, their music is completely lacking in any kind of soul or feeling.  It embodies the death of the 60s by the time of the band's mid-1970s heyday.  The Eagles epitomize how peace, love and revolution devolved into doing lines of coke backstage followed by meaningless sex with Quaaluded groupies.  The social revolution just becomes a license to "take it easy" with a "peaceful easy feeling."  The lack of inspiration can best be seen in the fact that the early, countryfied Eagles claimed to be following in the footsteps of Gram Parsons, when there is more depth of feeling and emotion in "Return of the Grievous Angel"alone than in all of The Eagles' songs put together.  Or you can take their cover of Tom Waits' "Ol' 55," which in their rendering is turned into easy listening.

Again, they're not bad, but the Eagles are not good, and in no conceivable way good enough to warrant their popularity.  It might seem strange for me to be getting uptight about a long-vanished rock band from the 1970s, but this nation's warm embrace of mediocrity needs to be unsettled from time to time.  The Eagles' popularity is once instance that particularly bugs me.  Anybody else have their own?