Saturday, January 18, 2020

The (Fourth) Winter Of Our Discontent

January and February are the nadir of the calendar year. It is dark and cold and punctuated only by the revolting holiday of vulgar American consumerism that is the Super Bowl. I am likely to fall into a depressive spiral this time of year, made worse in recent years by political events.

After coming back rested from his golf holiday, Trump likes to start the new year with his most blatant actions. In 2017 it was his post-inauguration onslaught, including the ban on travelers from majority Muslim nations. Last year it was a government shutdown over the wall. This year it is the double whammy of escalating the conflict in Iran and trying to sabotage the impeachment process.

In this fourth discontented winter of the Trump administration, which I pray will be the last, I feel like the nation is being confronted with its complete and utter loss of coherence. It is obvious for anyone to see that Trump has committed crimes. His refusal to cooperate with Congressional investigations is a crime on its face, of course. We also have clear proof that he tried to force the Ukranian government to investigate his domestic political rival, and in doing so unlawfully withheld aid to Ukraine apportioned by Congress. None of this even touches on his brazen use of his office to bring money to his properties, the many credible allegations of sexual misconduct women have leveled against him, and his campaign's links to Russian intelligence.

Despite the obvious and unambiguously clear evidence that Trump has abused his power like no president before him, we are all assuming that the Senate will not convict him. In fact, the Senate might not even allow a real trial to even take place. We are not surprised because we all know, deep down, that our institutions have completely failed. The Republican Senators don't care a whit for the law or Constitution, only for raw power. Anyone who denies this is a fool.

I don't believe we have given needed thought to the implications of this. For an openly criminal president to escape scot free with the aid of his party effectively means that we don't really have a democracy in this country. That cabal's use of gerrymandering and voter supression to win elections when they are in the minority has made this clear, but acquital will make it visible to even the most complacent person.

So what happens then? I get the feeling that the reality of the current situation will just be met with denial. I already know Republicans who never liked Trump but voted for him who have put their heads in the sand and have refused to acknowledge reality. Plenty of Democrats who want to think we can simply go back to the way things used to be, or "work with Republicans" are also willfully blind.

Like authoritarians who have toppled countless other democracies, America's conservative leaders assume that their opposition is too weak, divided and uncommited to stop them. Right now, in this fourth winter of discontent, I have to agree with them. Back in 2016 I worried that we would not learn from our mistakes, and I was right. Twitter is burning up with stupid petty arguments between partisans of different Democratic candidates while the world burns. Instead of taking to the streets we've got our heads shoved up our own asses. When the Senate refuses to convict Trump, I doubt there will be much public reaction. I think deep down most of us already know that the die was cast in November of 2016. I am going to spending this winter of discontent trying to figure out how the hell to move forward from this situation, or just giving into it myself. Maybe I'm the foolish one for believing that this country has a future.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Rush, "Spirit of Radio"

Rush is one of the most unique bands in the classic rock pantheon, and one I avoided for years. Geddy Lee's voice bugged me and I had read too many rock critics, and so I despised anything proggy. In my 30s, after taking a deep dive into jazz, I started to listen to much more complex music, and in that mood Rush started to make a lot of sense to me.

Since hearing of drummer Neil Peart's passing last Friday, I have been doing a deep dive on Rush, with a particular focus on their early 80s work. Unlike other artists of their generation, they progressed and adapted, getting better in a decade when classic rock died for the most part. It wasn't just synthesizers; Rush started using new rhythms, lyrical themes, and even vocal styles (Ged's voice finally dropped.)

Peart has to be one of the most singular figures in rock history. His drumming wasn't just stunning in its virtuosity, it was flat-out creative, too. Virtuosic drumming can come across like wanking, but Peart still always served the song (like his idol Keith Moon.) This might be because he wrote the songs, a rare thing for a drummer. If you listen to Rush's early music without Peart the lyrics are almost a parody of early 70s boogie rock. It basically boiled down to "Oh baby love me let's have a good time tonight" *guitar solo*.

Peart's drumming and lyrics turned Rush from a really good Zeppelin clone to something wild and new and impossible to immitate. While I am no fan of Peart's 70s Ayn Rand lyrical obsession, he eventually got over it. In any case the lyrics were not the usual cock-rock bullshit, even if they were overblown. I think the new direction of the band was announced in "Spirit of Radio," their first single of the 80s.

This song has one of Alex Lifeson's best bulldozer riffs, but it has to make way for several time changes and a reggae-inspired breakdown. Its subject is radio and its degeneration from an inspiration to a corporatized tool for "SALESMEN!" That was appropriate for Peart, a kind of anti-rockstar not into sexndrugs excess who'd rather be reading a book. Despite the myriad changes in this song, the professor never misses a beat. If I had to play just one song to introduce someone to Rush, this is the one I would choose. RIP

Sunday, January 12, 2020

It's About More Than Just The Textbooks

24 years later this clip from Lone Star is stil relevant

There's an excellent Times piece making the rounds where they compare history textbooks between California and Texas. As you could guess, the study reveals discrepancies driven in large part by partisan politics.

We need to talk more about how history is taught to high school students, but way too much space is taken up in the discourse by textbooks. Examining them ought to be a starting point, and they are something that only tells us so much. Students tend to read textbooks pretty indifferently, what the teachers emphasize in the classroom matters a whole lot more. I also know from my time as a student that much of what is in the textbook gets stepped over, too. I only really use textbooks as a reference guide for my students, and we do very little reading from it in my survey class.

I am sure that there are teachers in Texas who are giving their students a very bottom-up version of American History that takes a critical and honest view of the nation's past. (I should know, I taught high school students in Texas once upon a time.) I am also totally positive that there are history teachers in California giving their students a traditional top-down narrative full of "America is the greatest country on earth." I am even more sure that in both states there are football coaches teaching history classes without even a rudimentary knowledge of the subject who don't bring anything to the material.

Of course, it's hard to know what all these teachers do in the classroom without some intrusive studies or potentially inaccurate self-reporting. Getting access to the course plans, syllabi, and schedules teachers use might be possible, however, considering the number of schools that require them. Just looking at the readings that teachers assign beyond the textbook would probably tell you all you need to know about the approach being taken by the class.

Or better yet, I have often thought that a survey asking teachers what movies (or movie clips) they show in class and how they use them would perhaps tell you the most, since most teachers would find this to be an inoccuous question. I got to thinking about this when a former student of mine tweeted about her rural Texas high school teacher, who would show movies like Dances With Wolves multiple times. I've seen others mention Remember the Titans as a favorite of football coach teachers (for obvious reasons) as well.

If a teacher shows films uncritically as secondary sources, and these films tend to confirm America's goodness and downplay any problems, that will say more than what textbook they use. If a teacher uses films to teach about the time they were made in, or examines them critically to get at popular myths of American history, that would tell you something else entirely.

If we are to improve the quality of history education in our schools, we need to get beyond the textbook wars. A good teacher incorporating primary sources, deep knowledge, and a critical perspective, will more than negate a bad textbook. On the other side, a teacher with little content knowledge who does not assign readings from diverse voices from the past and takes a completely uncritical approach will turn even the best textbook into hash.

So yes, we have now unearthed the textbook discrepancies. Instead of endlessly litigating this particular point of conflict, let's bear down and get deeper. That's the only way forward.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams"

Today I went to an event after school at a local bar I had never been to before. When I got there I was happily surprised (and a little shocked) to see that this bar had a CD jukebox.

As far as I am concerned, CD jukeboxes were one the greatest human inventions, and it's a damn shame they have almost gone extinct. Their predecessor, the 45 jukebox, had a much more limited set of options, and the only songs available apart from the hits were the B-sides, usually not worth playing. The electronic jukebox that has replaced the CD version is ridiculously expensive, and often has a surprisingly limited selection. They are also very corporate and impersonal. The CD jukebox, however, was usually eclectic and reflected the tastes of the bar's owner and stuff, rather than some lame algorithm.

I fed the juke a couple of bucks, and was glad to see a Fleetwood Mac compilation. I put on "Dreams," a song tailor-made for playing on a jukebox in a quiet bar on a cold January afternoon. John McVeigh's bass never sounded more inviting, warm like the first sip of bourbon spreading through your chest. It's a song that's all mood, the bass meshing with slinky guitar textures and spooky organ, the grain in Stevie Nicks' voice adding just the right amount of grit. Like the best Mac music of the Buckingham-Nicks period it hangs in the air like a cloud of cigarette smoke in a dingy tavern, permeating everything.

Bars to me have always been places for needed escape. Under the right conditions inside those swinging doors I can feel like the rest of the world has melted away. The booze helps, but a good jukebox is absolutely essential. Especially if it has "Dreams" on it.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

On Going to The AHA as an Ex-Academic

This Friday and Saturday I went to the American Historical Association's annual conference (held this year in NYC, if you didn't know.) Many of my friends were perplexed as to why I would do such a thing. I am no longer a professor and even when I was I knew my fellow academics saw the conference as something best to be avoided.

Back then I understood, because I only went to the AHA to interview for jobs and shop my book project to university presses. I typically spent the weekend in a near constant state of crushing anxiety. My usual problems in that area went completely off the charts, and the week after I got home from the conference was usually accompanied by a horrible depression brought on by all of my emotional reserves having been drained.

When I left the profession in 2011 I assumed I would never be back, but I've managed to come back twice, mostly because I live in the New York area, so why not? I enjoyed it last time, and I enjoyed it this time, too. I got to see many dear old friends who sadly live far away from me. I got to hear scholars I admire discuss their ideas. I got a bunch of new insights into how to teach certain subjects with my students. I bought a bunch of interesting books at rock bottom prices and discovered a whole lot of stuff I did not know about before.

There are precious few times anymore that I get to be a scholar. I have a couple of projects going, but I have so little time and so few resources for research that it's next to impossible to get anything done. (That's why I write stuff for the internet instead!) In any case, I am probably a better person for spending my spare time with my children, rather than working furiously to complete a book no one will read. But I still yearn to learn new things and investigate the past, and once you strip all the bullshit away, an academic conference can be really good for that.

I also really have no shits to give anymore about the status game of academia. I gave a paper at the first conference I went to after leaving the profession (the panel had been accepted the year before) and was so worried about how people would treat me. Now I just don't care. I have a job I love living in a place I love with a family I love. That sounds like success, not "failure." Because none of the people at the conference can make or break my career anymore, my anxiety just melted away. I no longer have to fear judgement. It's been liberating. (Twitter, which is hugely democratizing and has put me in touch with fellow rats who jumped ship, has also helped.)

All that said, my feelings at the conference were not entirely positive. The decay of the historical profession was constantly on my mind. When I went to the book exhibit I talked with a friend about how many great new works were being created in the midst of the jobs crunch. This is not a sign of health, but sickness. Young contingent scholars are working harder to get their stuff out in hopes of getting a tenure track job. Most won't, and so will never have the resources to continue producing new work. All those glittering new monographs represent nothing more to me than the massive squandering of talent and potential perpetuated by the strangling of the academic humanities.

Of course, the bigshots in the profession who set the cultural tone of the AHA probably didn't notice that. Just last week the organization's new president gave an interview where she seemed to think that the problem with the job market was that candidates were being offered jobs too early in the process, not that most young scholars will never get one. As much as going to the AHA has changed for me, being confronted by a profession incapable of taking collective action on behalf of its most vulnerable members has not.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Get Ready For 2020

Are you ready for 2020?

This is going to be a crucial year. Impeachment and an election are coming, the two remaining mechanisms we have within the legal system to end Trump's neofascist reign.

But are you ready for when Mitch McConnell doesn't allow for an actual impeachment trial? Are you ready for disinformation and propaganda and lies that would make the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth blush get shared in a massive torrent on social media? Are you ready for voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the electoral college to once again rob the majority of power?  You better get ready because I am almost positive that these things are going to be happening this year.

What are you going to do about it?

I don't really have the answers. In many respects I feel like the die was cast in November of 2016, and we are just in the aftermath of the point that has already turned. Most people opposed to Donald Trump are in denial about this.

So what happens when our democracy is exposed (again) as a total sham? I am completely in earnest about this, and I honestly don't know what I should do. In the face of the massive onslaught the opposition is already tearing itself to pieces, just like back in 2016. People are fighting like blazes over their preferred nominees and not really paying much attention to get out the vote efforts. We are taking knives to a gun fight and are then just knifing each other over and over again instead of uniting against the common enemy.

I guess this myopia reflects our larger condition. Climate change has humanity at the precipice, and we are doing fuck-all about it. Maybe we all know deep down that there is no future, and we would rather pretend otherwise than face that unhappy fact. I have resolved to get out there and keep fighting, because I can do no other. I do so with zero confidence that it will matter.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

What If...Bedford Falls Was A Real Town?

[Editor's Note: It's A Wonderful Life is a holiday classic that also contains a critique of capitalism. But what if Bedford Falls was a real place? What would it look like today?]


BEDFORD FALLS, NEW YORK) Seventy-three years ago Bedford Falls became famous as the hometown of George Bailey, hero of It's A Wonderful Life. A lot has changed in this small town in upstate New York since that time.

Most notably, the Building and Loan run by the Bailey family no longer exists. Like other such institutions it went under during the savings and loans crisis of the 1980s. During the 1970s George Bailey passed the business down to his children, who took advantage of Reagan-era deregulation to engage in real estate speculation. The town's economy was not strong enough to support such risky investments, a familiar story across the country.

The Building and Loan's fate was mirrored by that of the local mill, which shut its doors in the 1990s after years of downsizing and layoffs. With the decline of local manufacturing the job opportunities available to residents of the town drastically decreased. Nowadays young people who get an education do not even have the option of choosing to stay home like George Bailey did. There simply is no work requiring their degrees. Those people end up in bigger cities in the region, often with fond memories of a place they are estranged from out of necessity, rather than choice. Those who lack education have few options in Bedford Falls as well, and what jobs do exist are mostly minimum wage work in the service sector.

Todd Bishop, whose grandfather was famed local cabbie Ernie Bishop, said "I drive Uber but there's not much business in a town this poor. Mostly getting drunk people home from bars. Apart from that I work part-time at the local gas station."

The once glittering main street has gone dark, with many storefronts having been empty for decades. Gower's Drugstore became a pawnshop before closing for good ten years ago. An empty home like the one the Bailey family took over has gone from being a rare oddity to a typical sight. The one advantage to living in Bedford Falls is the low cost of home ownership due to depopulation.

The land downtown has been passed down from Henry Potter -George Bailey's economic rival- to his descendants. All but one live outside Bedford Falls, most having moved to the New York City area. These absentee landlords see their holdings more as an heirloom or tax write-off than a viable business commodity. The one exception is Jacob Potter, a twenty-something descendent of Henry who has started a microbrewery and axe throwing club in one of the downtown buildings.

The commercial center began shifting to the highway on the edge of town in the 1980s, but the closing of the mill has meant even the absence of big box stores like Wal-Mart. Dollar stores are the only retail left in Bedford Falls. For anything else residents have to drive several miles to either Rochester or Syracuse. The one industry doing well in the region is the medical industry, which makes money from an aging population and a spike in opioid addiction.

George Bailey Jr still lives in his family's old Victorian home in Bedford Falls, even after the Savings and Loan debacle. "I know my father did a lot for this town, but keeping a town afloat isn't a one person job. An individual can't hold back a tidal wave. I have no doubt he made a difference, but I am almost glad he died thirty years ago so he didn't have to see what's happened."