Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson And Why We Need History

There's not much original or insightful I can say about the lack of an indictment yesterday.  I knew it was coming, but still felt horrible last night, similar to the horror I felt the night of George Zimmerman's acquittal.  I came to school today and thought about the young men of color in my classroom and despaired over their safety in a world where a man like Darren Wilson can kill without punishment.  Like a lot of people, I am feeling a whole welter of emotions that I am having a hard time expressing.

Instead of doing the impossible, I'd rather make an observation.  Ferguson, more than anything else in recent years, has convinced me of the importance of history.  Michael Brown's death, Darren Wilson's acquittal, and even the very residential space of Ferguson only make sense when viewed in historical context.  There is a very long, very bloody, and absolutely horrific history of men of color being killed in public by white men without punishment.  That awful history is tied to another history of turning black men into superhuman creatures in need of destruction, or "demons" in the words of Wilson.  There is a similar history, specifically, of police brutality and police violence and a jury rigged to prevent African Americans from getting justice.  There is another history, of redlining, white flight, and disenfranchisement.  There is also a history of urban unrest protesting injustice and brutality. If you try to understand Ferguson as an isolated event, detached from these histories, you will be woefully misled.

But that's what our news media and conventional wisdom does.  That fits the general tenor of white American life, which refuses to grapple with the past unless it is the usual patriotic narrative of freedom triumphant.  The main paradigm of American society sees individuals as the complete masters of their fate, never beholden to larger social and historical structures.  It is a paradigm born out of our vulgar consumer society, where we are constantly reminded of our choices.  That consumerism does political work too, in that encourages colorblind racism, and the inability for so many white people to understand where inequality comes from, among other blindnesses.  Most white Americans look at the nation's urban landscape and seem to think that the black and brown ghettoes, white subdivisions, and gentrified chic neighborhoods are somehow natural occurrences, like the hills and the rivers.

A lot of the ignorance and foolishness I have seen and heard by those unable to comprehend the reaction to Wilson's acquittal is based around seeing the events in Ferguson outside of any historical context.  "Why are "they" so angry?" is what I keep hearing.  Michael Brown's death and Darren Wilson's apparent profiting from that death with contributions and TV interviews ought to be reason enough, but context also really matters.

My fellow historians, your society needs you.  We need to go out and set things straight.  We need to go out in public and interpret the wonderful if obscure academic histories for the masses, who need to know the context of what they are seeing.  We need to do it because no one else will do it.  The price of inaction is too high.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Track of the Week: Johnny Cash "Country Trash"

This year will be yet another Thanksgiving spent away from my family back in Nebraska.  It's been a year since I've been out there (sadly, for my grandmother's funeral), and I don't know when my next trip will be.  Now that my daughters are two years old, that means two more plane tickets to pay for that I can't afford.  I will certainly enjoy myself here in New Jersey with my wife's family, but I'm still feeling a little homesick.

November is a fearsome month in Nebraska.  On the Great Plains the weather in all times of year is unpredictable and extreme, but in November it's especially so.  The ground freezes, the constant wind starts to get a barbed-wire edge, the corn fields have all been reduced to stubble, and the colors drain from the prairie, now transformed into eerie dull browns and jaundiced yellows.  Harvest has come and gone, and fearsome winter is about to strike.  Growing up it always seemed like the bitter cold and first heavy snow came right after Thanksgiving.  If not that, you could at least count on freezing rain coating everything in ice.

To live on this land, especially if you make a living from it as a farmer, you have to have a certain fatalistic streak to survive.  While I grew up in the town, my mom grew up on a farm, and my dad in a tiny village of 250 people.  They still had the hardy country attitude when confronting life's problems, and it's one I've tried to emulate, even though I live far, far away from home.  Thanksgiving is a perfect holiday for Nebraska's country folk, in that their mental outlook tends to focus on what they have, rather than on what they don't.  While this way of seeing the world can be maddeningly conservative and lacking in ambition, it does make people a lot more satisfied with their lives, no matter how simple.

That attitude really comes out in Johnny Cash's "Country Trash."  The narrator talks about his modest farm and what he's got laid up for the winter.  It isn't much, but "let the thunder roll and the lightning flash/ I'm doin' all right for country trash."  As far as resenting his place in the world, or that others have more than him, he simply remarks, "But we'll all be equal under the grass/ And God's got a heaven for country trash."  I can really hear my grandmother, who farmed almost her whole life, in those words.

I work each day in New York City, a place of constant ambition where no one is satisfied with what they have, and find themselves miserable amidst the lucre piled up by being at the heart of the world economy.  It's very easy to fall into that mentality.  That's why it's good, from time to time, to remind myself that I'm doin' alright for country trash.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

On Losing Interest In Football

This year was the year that I half-consciously made the decision to not care about football anymore.  This turn of events was not insignificant, considering that I grew up in Nebraska as a die-hard Cornhuskers fan.  At a young age I could recite the starting lineups, and the depth chart down to at least the third string for positions like running back and quarterback.  When the team had a string of embarrassing bowl losses in the late 80s and early 90s, I would depressed each January 1st, wondering if the humiliations would ever end.  When I saw the then #1 ranked Huskers lose at home to Oklahoma in 1987, it was the most devastating event in my life up to that point, besides the death of my grandfather.  When the Huskers won three championships in the 1990s, I was on cloud nine, and even the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 couldn't match the feeling I had after the 1994 season when Tom Osborne finally had a national championship.

My love of football went beyond the Huskers, though.  I played innumerable backyard touch football games during recess at school and with my friends in their backyards.  (My one disastrous season playing tackle football didn't go so well, though.  I was a meek kid and kind of spacey, so I shied away from hitting and wasn't good at knowing the playbook.)  During study hall in middle and high school I would diagram plays, and I had a real obsession with the technical, Xs and Os behind the game.  I loved computer football games where I was the coach, and couldn't control the players.  The strategic stuff interested me more than the athletic execution.

Once I left college and moved to Chicago, I became much more interested in the NFL, and became a committed Bears fan to boot.  In grad school in downstate Illinois it became a weekly ritual among some of my friends to gather on Sunday afternoon (after having spent the morning working) to pot luck some food, drink some beers, and watch NFL football.  The couple who hosted each week had NFL Sunday Ticket, so we could watch any game we wanted.  It was a nice break from the grueling grad student work schedule, and I still have many fond memories of those Sunday afternoons.

Now that I no longer have that fellowship, or the cultural ties to my home state (where football is religion), my interest in football has waned.  Much of it has to do with my years in higher education, which taught me that big time college sports are a cancer on universities and drive their leaders into decisions that harm the academic mission of their institutions.  The recent revelations in North Carolina are only the most outlandish in a long litany of such abuses.  Big time college sports do active harm, from shielding rapists to robbing athletes of a meaningful education to stealing money from classrooms. It got to the point that I felt like I was violating my moral code by maintaining any interest in college football.

The NFL is a slightly different matter.  There were moral qualms extending from the brain damage of its players, of course, but that wasn't all.  NFL football has become a crummy product.  The games take three and a half hours long, are full of interminable commercials, and are carried on by technocratic coaches and mostly faceless players.  Apart from a few players like Peyton Manning (who I can't stand, by the way), the game has overshadowed individual achievement.  That takes away one of the basic reasons to care about a sport in the first place.  I also agree with my friend Cranky Bear, when he said this:

"Last but not least, football as a sport isn't all that great.  It is a game suited for television and rather underwhelming in person, but on television there are more commercial breaks than interesting plays in a given game.  The NFL in particular has become a dry, technocratic exercise about as inspiring as an annual earnings report.  Give me basketball's free-flowing poetry, baseball's cerebral contemplation, or soccer's athletic beauty any day.  Fuck football and every inch of its turgid violence, you can have it."

So what's life like been without as much football in it?  In the first place, it's saved me the aggravation of enduring recent Bears hidings at the hands of their opponents, or of my once beloved Huskers getting shellacked by Wisconsin.  I've had the TV on a let less on the weekend, which has meant fewer hours spent watching commercials and listening to the kind of bloviating bores who are hired to announce and analyze the game.  During game time I've been out and about or doing yard work.  If I need a sports fix I watch English Premier League soccer early in the morning before my family is out the door.

I'm not judgmental or negative towards football fans, I of all people get the sport's appeal.  Perhaps I would still be following the sport, but the circumstances of my life have made me abandon many things I once cared deeply about (the Catholic Church, the historical profession, etc.), and that's made it easier to change my mind about football.  It's still America's number one spectator sport, so maybe I'm a total outlier, but I still wonder how long that will continue to be the case.

Friday, November 21, 2014

All Hail Bon Scott Era AC/DC

For years I resisted AC/DC, mostly because I grew up in a small town on the Great Plains where they were the preferred band of every dirtbag burnout cruising the main drag every Friday night in what passed for teenage culture that place.  As time went by, I soon learned the error of my ways.  In my Chicago days my dearly departed friend David cranked up Back in Black one Friday happy hour over beer and darts, and it was the perfect musical accompaniment.

That album was my gateway drug, since I soon discovered that while it was a great record, I much preferred the more raw stuff the band put out with Bon Scott, their original front man.  To this day I hold that Scott is among rock's greatest front men, in a class with Mick Jagger, Johnny Rotten, and Robert Plant.  While he was not a great singer, he was a fantastic yelper whose high-pitched calls to wanton good times perfectly complimented the band's powerful blues riffs and brutal, fill-free drums.  His leering, playful stage presence was perfect for letting the good times roll.  Only The Faces could challenge Bon Scott's AC/DC for the title of greatest bar band of all time.  Hell, the song "TNT" is basically a big brag about barroom fighting ability.  Here are some other songs that belong in the Bon Scott pantheon:

"It's A Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock and Roll"

Scott had spent years paying his dues, which accounts for his worldly-wise, knowing pose.  Every word of this song was earned.  It also has maybe the coolest use of bagpipes in a rock song, only appropriate considering that the frontman was born in Scotland.


When he takes the persona of a jailbird, you actually believe it.  The slow, ominous build is perfect, as is Scott's delivery of the line "He made it out…with a bullet in his BACK!"

"Let There Be Rock"

Angus Young just absolutely shreds on this one, proving that AC/DC can put things up tempo if they want to.  Scott's taking the preacher personae is great fun to boot.

"Sin City"

This song isn't as well, but I think it has the best riff that AC/DC ever crafted, and that's saying something.  It sounds pretty good on the studio version, but it really shows its power live.

"Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"

This song might now have some new resonance considering drummer Phil Rudd was recently arrested for trying to arrange a contract murder.  It's a testament to the band's verisimilitude that I was not totally surprised by that revelation.  This song is Scott at his salacious, satyr-like best.


Gutbucket, shot and a pint down and dirty rock music just doesn't get any better than this.  At a time when rock is either tepid (but often interesting) indie rock or godawful Nickelback-like corporate rock processed cheese, we need a dose of Bon Scott.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Ordinary Beauty of Seventies Film

I make no bones about my love of 1970s American film.  It was a short, blessed era (really over by the late 1970s, actually) where challenging, "small" films made by directors reared on world cinema got Hollywood backing. So many of these films were about regular people living in everyday, non-glamorous environments.  You can compare this to modern film, where everyone is attractive and no one is poor.  Most people's homes look spacious, stylish, and way too clean.  The exceptions, like the cluttered interiors in Nebraska, are notable for how much they stand out.  Although so many of them place in such everyday environments, seventies films are not a grim immersion in reality, but a kind of enhancement of it.  It's sad to say we live today in a world where we are afraid to have the world of our daily lives reflected back to us.  Here are some of my favorite examples of regular interiors in seventies film:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

This crime flick featuring an aging but perfect Robert Mitchum spends a lot of time in antiquated working class kitchens with outmoded appliances, dusty dive bars, and low end diners.  That last is beautifully pictured in this clip.

The King of Marvin Gardens

This great overlooked classic mostly takes place in a down at heels Atlantic City, and director Bob Rafelson wrings maximum seediness out of the scenes shot in once grand hotels.

California Split

Robert Altman's unflinching look at gambling addiction is so much more real because it goes inside of smokey, divey Reno casinos and sticky-floored racetrack bathrooms full of desperate characters in cheap clothes.

The Long Good-Bye

Here's another Altman classic, which shows us our hero in a crummy, messy apartment, then going out to a flourescent-lighted, run of the mill supermarket for cat food.

Slap Shot

This is my favorite sports movie ever, partially because it recreates the atmosphere and broken-down daily landscape of the Rust Belt, all the way from dive bars to once beautiful train stations to streets full of brick rowhouses in the first light of dawn.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The War On Thanksgiving

For years now conservative media figures like Bill O'Reilly have been driving up ratings and getting their gray haired followers agitated over a supposed "War on Christmas."  These assertions have come at a time when the Christmas shopping season creeps closer and closer to October.  The day after Halloween this year I was already having my ears assaulted by treacly holiday music.  (Of course, O'Reilly and crew are really pining for a time when Christians could dominate the public sphere with school Christmas pageants and the like, non-Christians be damned.)

There is a holiday that is having war committed upon it, and that holiday is Thanksgiving.  It is, in my opinion, our nation's greatest holiday tradition.  It is a day for family, for feasting, for reflection, and to combat the coming of fearsome winter with joy and good feeling.  It is perhaps our most bullshit-free and welcoming holiday.  While "thanksgiving" has religious roots, the holiday itself is not affiliated with a particular religion, or even theism.  All can fully take part, unlike with Christmas, Easter, Passover, Eid, etc.  There is no Thanksgiving shopping season, no twenty somethings dressed in "sexy" costumes, no people puking green beer or engaging in jingoistic nationalism.

But the war on Thanksgiving is plain to see, and that war is being waged by Black Friday, capitalism's Walpurgisnacht.  That orgy of consumerist frenzy has now invaded Thanksgiving, with several retailers opening their door and turning a day for family and reflection into a disgusting exercise of our country's least attractive values.  It is a war in that Black Friday is not only taking hours from Thanksgiving, it is undermining its very value system.  Our capitalist Moloch does not profit from family time, does not profit from a quiet day of contemplation, does not profit from the cherished stillness of that blessed day. (As a child it seemed that there was no other day of the year so peaceful as Thanksgiving.)  It profits from people trampling each other to buy Xboxes.

But where are the prophets who toss their jeremiads against the dishonor done to Christmas?  Where are these paragons of "traditional values" when the holiday that most embodies traditional values is being eviscerated?  They are nowhere to be seen, because these charlatans are actually in league with capital, the greatest enemy and destroyer of traditional society, that bloody force that seeks to turn every human interaction into a vulgar cash transaction.

I am a man of the Left, but I believe some traditions like Thanksgiving are important because they help preserve our humanity.  There is a war being fought against Thanksgiving, as there is against any human activity that is not a form of buying and selling, and it is time to realize it, and also what's really behind it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Track of the Week: The Smiths "William It Was Really Nothing"

I got really sick this week, so sick that I actually went to the doctor.  The last time I'd done that was five years ago, so this was a serious problem.  When I get sick I feel vulnerable, and I often return to the music I loved during my adolescence, during that most vulnerable period in a person's life.  As I sat in my chair tired from coughing and waiting for the meds to take effect, I put on The Smiths, the band I went to for wallowing in my emotions as a young man.  I listened to the grab bag collection Hatful of Hollow, whose eclectic nature makes it a good, basic Smiths album to listen to.

So many of the songs have resonated with me over the years, but it was "William It Was Really Nothing" that first hooked me as a sixteen year old.  I was just a smidge too young to have heard them in their 80s heyday (I didn't get into interesting music until 1990 or so), but an older kid on my high school debate team was obsessed with the Smiths and evangelized them so forthrightly that I gave them a shot.  I bought a compilation, and the second song was "William It Was Really Nothing."  The first lines hit me like laser beam "The rain falls hard on a humdrum town/ This town has dragged you down."  Living at the time in a humdrum town that had been dragging me down, I felt instant kinship with Morrissey and the Smiths.

It's not one of their greatest songs, just a short little fast-paced vignette that's gone before it starts.  Nevertheless, the music and words perfectly evoke the quotidian experience of living yet another mundanely dissatisfying day in a dreary place you want to leave but can't.  There's no one horrible thing that's happened to you here, it's just that each and every passing day chisels away part of your soul.  I am sad to say that I have lived in more than one place that did this to me, but am glad to say I broke out twice.  This song provided me a lot of comfort in both humdrum towns.