Friday, September 30, 2011
Until the recent release of Moneyball, however, literature had explored an attribute of baseball missing at the movies: the sport's inherent cruelty. For example, in Malamud's novel The Natural, Roy Hobbs is a tormented soul whose suffering does not bring redemption. He ends the book having struck out, let his team down, and disgraced himself. In the film, he overcomes his past, wins the game, saves the team, and lives happily ever after. It seems that Hollywood just can't resist the narrative of baseball's romance.
Moneyball on the other hand, perhaps because it's adapted from a true to life account rather than a novel, understands that fear of failure is the specter that haunts each moment on the baseball diamond. Hitting .300 is the gold standard of an exceptional player, which means he still fails 70% of the time. Players who make mistakes in the field are formally charged with errors, and many players with long careers have their lives defined by a single miscue. Bill Buckner was a good player for many years who managed to bravely play through incredibly painful injuries, but he will always be remembered for letting the ball go through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Even the best teams must accustom themselves to losing. The Philadelphia Phillies won a major league best 102 games this year, which meant that they still had to lose sixty times.
Moneyball's main character, Oakland As manager Billy Beane, can never forget his own failure to make it as a big league player after having such a highly touted high school career. He doesn't watch the games at the stadium because it makes him sick with anger and worry. He smashes stuff when things go wrong, and nervously chews tobacco and inhales junk food in order to balance the tension of his job. One part of his job is having to tell players that they've been traded, demoted to the minors, or cut from the team. As a scout tells him as a young man, "at some point we are all told we can no longer play the boy's game."
That sounds like a typically romantic sentiment, deeming baseball a "boy's game," but there is a profound of sadness underneath it, the knowledge that playing baseball as an adult is abnormal, that players are eventually torn from the game against their will, as we are all torn from our childhoods. Moneyball may very well be the least romantic baseball movie ever made. Not because it is cynical, but because it reveals the difficult realities behind the game, and refuses to give us a Hollywood ending. Beane and the Oakland As must resort to an unorthodox way of valuing players because the economics of the game make them incapable of signing the players considered to be the best.
Despite the wonders of sabermetrics, Bill James' ideas, and computerized scouting, Beane and the As do not win a World Series, in fact they don't even get past the first round of the playoffs. In a strange way, however, they accomplish something even greater than winning of title, they win twenty games in a row, the all time record for the American League. Over 100 teams have won a World Series, but no other has been able to do what the 2002 As managed to do. But immersed as he is in baseball's ethos of cruel failure, Beane cannot take pleasure in these victories, and can only rue the fact that until he wins a title, he will have lost.
If you need any reminder of the pain that baseball can inflict, just look at the fate of the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox this week. Both teams looked poised to go into the playoffs with ease, both collapsed and lost in dramatic fashion on the last day of the season, ending a month of slow torture for their fans. Football teams have imploded in dramatic fashion before, but in football the agony does not take place each and every day of the week, like in baseball. Norwood's wide right is a shot to the gut, an end of the season collapse, like the Sox this year and Cubs in 1969, is a crucifixion. True fans follow their teams day after day each passing year from the melting of winter's frost until the chilled winds of October blow in.
The moment in the season where the dream is dashed, which happens to rooters for 29 of 30 teams, is a cruel reckoning. I moved to Michigan in 2006, and was thrilled to vicariously experience the enthusiasm of the state's Detroit Tigers die hards, a true blue group of fans hoping for a break from the lashings of Michigan's economic crisis. I will always remember their moment of truth. I was with friends at a bar in Ann Arbor the night of the fifth game, and when the Cardinals took the title and the Tigers lost, I heard a collective cry of agony, not just in the bar, but seemingly across the long-suffering state, from Benton Harbor to Traverse City to Saginaw. It might be a child's game, but it encapsulates that most soul wrenching of adult emotions: failure.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Except for a trip to DC, where we stayed in suburban northern Virginia (which is quasi-Southern), I didn't go back below the Mason-Dixon line until grad school, where I attended the weddings of friends in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Augusta, Georgia. These were great trips, and when taking them I treated my destination like an exotic foreign land, full of positive and negative stereotypes. On the positive side, I had my formative pop culture memories of Smokey and the Bandit and the Dukes of Hazzard (regrettably, it was my favorite show in my early childhood) as well as a great love for the South's musical traditions, from New Orleans jazz to Kentucky bluegrass to Nashville country to Memphis soul. On the trip to Augusta I distinctly remember riding along the highways of northern Georgia, marveling at the Gothic beauty of overgrown kudzu while "Midnight Rider" played on the car stereo. On the negative side, I had my knowledge of the South's history of slavery and Jim Crow often on my mind. Many of my preconceptions about the South's inferior standards also found vivid confirmation. For instance, I came away from these trips appalled at the fact that just about every gas station toilet I had the misfortune to enter was a disgusting mess. (The worst instance came on a trip this summer to Atlanta where I stopped at a gas station in Alabama where the men's toilet was overflowing with shit. When I mentioned this to the cashier, he gave me a look that said he knew about it, and that I was an asshole for expecting any better.) As I made the move to East Texas, I wondered which imagined version of the South I would inhabit, the birthplace of great American food, literature, music and culture, or a racist, backwards hellhole.
From my perch in New Jersey after three years of southern living, I'm now convinced that the incessant exoticization of the South by those in the region and outside of it prevents real understanding and needs to stop. Although many Southerners claim they are sick and tired of being depicted in an exotic manner, the voices today calling most loudly for the existence of a distinctive Southern way of being reside in Dixie. And yet, as my friend J. who grew up in Alabama likes to note, the South has never been more similar to the rest of the country, and the rest of the country more similar to the South. On the one hand, every Southern town of size has the same ugly growth of the same box stores and fast food chains at its edges, except for a couple of Chic-fil-as thrown into the mix. On the other, country music has saturated the rest of America's airwaves, Southern rappers dominate hip-hop, Southern-style evangelical Christianity has gone national, Paula Deen is making Southern food accessible to the Yankee masses, NASCAR is regularly televised, Arkansas-born Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer and the traditional Southern abhorrence of the public sphere has become the dominant theme of American politics this year.
Yes, there are real differences, but they are increasingly less important, especially in the urban South. (Pockets of the rural South still remain forbiddingly set in their ways, part of the reason I had to get out.) A modern day Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor wanting a truly "Southern" setting for their literary work would have to choose Wal-Mart or a suburban subdivision rather than a general store or Greek revival mansion. In my opinion, there are two recent depictions of this New New South that actually ring true, HBO's series Eastbound and Down and the Will Ferrell vehicle Talladega Nights. While the main character of Eastbound and Down, Kenny Powers, does teach in a place called Jefferson Davis High School (it's hard to believe there are still public institutions named for this nation's greatest traitor, but there are many), he has his comeback at a suburban BMW dealership. These days folks eat their grits at a Cracker Barrel off the interstate rather than a dusty roadside diner, a fact reflected in Talladega Nights, where much of the film takes place in an Applebee's. The "baby Jesus" prayer scene from this film is about as scathing an indictment of the shallow, anti-intellectual version of Christianity common these days in both the North and South as you'll find.
It's in the best interests of those living in both the north and the south to stop fetishizing the latter's eccentricities. Folks up north have a maddening tendency to ascribe racism to the South so as to shift attention from endemic racial inequality in their own backyards. (By the way, my old university in East Texas had more interracial couples on its campus than any other that I've ever been affiliated with up north.) People in the South need to stop bristling at every criticism of their startingly hierarchical society as some kind of Yankee intrusion, or indictment of a unique and cherished "way of life." It's time for Americans all around this country to ask some hard questions about how we got here, and not to retreat into a regionalism that makes the current situation and its attendant problems the result of someone else's behavior, and not their own.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
An article in the New York Times really caught my eye this morning. Entitled "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around the Globe," it linked the Wall Street occupation, Arab Spring, anti-austerity movements in southern Europe, calls for greater equality in Israel and massive protests against corruption in India to a general lack of faith in political parties as agents for change.
It's heartening to see that with the end of the years of fat and plenty, the masses have perhaps roused themselves to denounce our global shamocracy. At least in India, the US, and Europe, post-1989 capitalist democracy promised its citizens rising prosperity and a voice in decisions, as long as the fundamentals of the global economy went unquestioned. The economy failed, and the major political parties have done little to nothing to punish the perpetrators or shield their people from the effects of this calamity.
This being said, I am afraid that much of this will end in failure, much like the political movements of 1968, and for similar reasons. Power is the lifeblood of politics, if a movement does not wield real power, the instrument needed to push leaders in the right direction, the clique at the top will simply ride out the storm. Where some people see "dynamic movements of young people using new social networking technology" I see "easily scattered association of dilettantes lacking any leverage with the global plutocracy, unable to make a lasting impact." Don't believe me? Just read the Times' description of these new, would-be revolutionaries:
Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.
In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.
The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.
“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”
Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.
I'm sure the leaders of Israel are quaking in their shoes when confronted by a disorganized random mob of people who won't show up to a protest if it doesn't have free food. The major Spanish political parties must be shivering in fear at the prospect of "discussion circles" in their midst. Sorry, I don't see much substance here. Much like the briefly lived revolutionary atmosphere of Paris in May of 1968, there's plenty of heat but little light.
Then again, the Times' depiction of the new protests may also might be reflective of the the typical trend-chasing stupidity of the global media elite overestimating the efficacy of social media as a tool for protest, much as they did with the revolution in Egypt earlier this year. As hot and trendy as it is to think of an iPhone as the new Molotov cocktail, the only way to win an economic battle from the bottom up is solidarity. As long as the labor movement remains weak, global capitalism will triumph. Scott Walker's dark genius is that he realized that labor unions are the only institutions capable of mobilizing the people and resources necessary to do battle with the corporations and have a chance of winning. The real battlefield for a more truly democratic future isn't on Facebook, it's in the workplace. It will take strong labor unions and workers willing to walk the picket line to bring real change; I admire the protestors in Wall Street, but their lack of media coverage is proof positive that when it comes to the currency of power, they and many of the new movements have already turned their pockets inside out.
Monday, September 26, 2011
We like to tell ourselves that America is a uniquely free place, but our history simply does not bear that assertion out. We have not had equal voting rights for even fifty years! (The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, for crying out loud.) We love to pride ourselves as an egalitarian society whose top echeolons represent a kind of meritocracy. Any trip to this nation's many ghettoes, barrios, Indian reservations, dying rural towns, and trailer parks ought to confirm George Carlin's immortal quip, "It's the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."
Like the masses who supported Andrew Jackson, who ethnically cleansed the Cherokee, they support government action when it benefits themselves or is used to slaughter brown people. These supposed libertarians support the maintenance of the biggest war machine in history and its war of choice in Iraq, they supported the warrantless wiretapping of the last administration, they voiciferously oppose closing down an illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, but if the government tells insurance companies to abide by new regulations, that's tyranny! They claim to be against entitlements, but see no hypocrisy in drawing Social Security, Medicare, and in having gotten their boost into the American middle class via public eduation.
So I ultimately agree with James Madison, who promoted the Constitution's ability to tamper down faction and keep the ignorance of the masses in check. I just think that the Commonwealth would have been a much more effective restraining influence on the violent populism that dares to claim the mantle of freedom. Instead of our unwieldy system, with its Senatorial "holds," the ridiculous electoral college, and a legislative body where Wyoming gets the same number of representatives as California, we might have a proper Parliament, like most of the rest of the democratic world.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Over the years I've developed a special love for British bands with a sizable following in the home isles that didn't make a splash over here in the states: Suede, The Small Faces, The Move, and now Mott the Hoople. I first got into Mott a few years ago after a record store clerk back in Illinois pushed their All the Young Dudes album on me. In the ensuing years I've picked up more albums on vinyl, and enjoyed rockers like "Roll Away the Stone" and "All the Way from Memphis."
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
The Tea Party and others on the political right are big on swearing their allegiance to the Constitution and the Founders, but are typically pretty vague when it comes to the details. The main reason, of course, it that when they say "Constitution" and "Founders" they mean faith in a political Bible and its patriarchs. They possess beliefs founded in belief itself, rather than reason or any knowledge of history. That tendency to reduce politics to religion is why Enlightenment thinkers on the order of Franklin, Madison, and Jefferson would cringe in horror at the Tea Party's illiteracy and wild-eyed evangelicalism. Franklin was famously comsopolitan, and in his later life was more at home in Paris than Philadelphia, unlike today's uber-patriots who seem proud of their provincialism. Madison warned of the dangers of political factions taking over the levers of power, and evinced a strong desire to keep populism at bay. Although modern day Tea Partiers might appreciate his small government inclinations, Jefferson advocated a wall of separation between church and state. To top it all off, George Washington was a committed Federalist who tried to increase the power of the federal government, especially in his decision, at Alexander Hamilton's prompting, to assume the debts the states incurred during the Revolution. Ron Paul he was not.
Jackson's decision helped bring on the Panic of 1837, just as the misbegotten economic religion of supply side has left us with an impoverished middle and working class unable to spend the money needed to restart the economy. Like their dark ancestor, modern Republicans replicate Jackson's provincialized nationalism, in which the only people who count are "real Americans."
And last but not least, they recall his bloody-mindedness. Jackson was famous in his day for his willingness to take lives, from those of his own soldiers to a man he shot to death in a duel to the Cherokee who perished in the ethnic cleansing known as The Trail of Tears. Recently modern day Republicans have made headlines by baying for blood at presidential debates, from the cheers for Rick Perry's bloody record of executions (including a man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was most likely innocent) and urging that those without health insurance be thrown on the dung heap to die. I'd like to think that the dark spirit of America's historical id could be exorcised, but in a culture where consumer is king and criticizing popular tastes, no matter how idiotic and debased, meets with the strictest condemnation, Jackson's ghost will remain with us. Whenever there are fearful white people who want to maintain their privileged position and beat down on others to do it, he will be there. As long as the Tea Party continues to stoke the flames of racial resentment, he will be there. Truth be told, Old Hickory's bigoted, violent, provincial, illiterate nature will always resonate with more Americans than the reasoned Enlightenment worldview of the Founders.
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Commuting to work each day in New York City, sometimes right into the World Trade Center, I have been thinking especially hard about the ten year anniversary of 9/11. Friday, right before I left home, I heard the talk of a possible attack in the city. Once I sat down on the train, I cued up Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" on my iPod, the song that I listened to the most in 9/11's aftermath, and started trying to sort out what it all means ten years later. I am only one of a great many people writing about this question, and by far not the most qualified. Instead of contemplating the horror and trauma of that day, which dominates my memories, I'd like to get deeper into how we are still living in a world shaped by that day, whether we like it or not.
One of the most powerful memories I have of the attack is that once its full enormity was revealed to me (it was a couple of hours before I saw it on TV), I told myself "Things are going to get a lot worse for a long time." I despaired for the dead, but also for the future, and the knowledge the future was going to be horrible is still one of the most painful realizations of my entire life. I knew with George W. Bush's cronies in power, the attacks would be used to unleash the worst kind of authoritarianism wrapped in the flag and abetted by a fearful populace. I knew too that this attack would lead to the deaths of many more people in the wars to follow. When I got home that day, the feeling of sickness worsened, since my roommate was watching Fox News, which kept juxtaposing the collapse of the towers with Palestinians celebrating the attacks, over and over again. Nationalism's dark side was being whipped into a frenzy without a moment to mourn, a fact that has been lost in all of the remembrances.
That blind jingoistic rage and the softer yet just as powerful fear of the time got us into two wars that are still dragging on, despite bin Laden's death. We want to remember the immediate aftermath of the attacks as a time of national cohesion and collective action, but the reality was more complex. Amongst the lines of people donating blood and the many workers who risked their health in the clean-up, one could see an ugly, unfocused desire for bloody retribution, and not just against enemies abroad. There were well-documented hate-crime murders of Sikhs and Muslims. In just the next year our virulently partisan political culture barfed up Saxby Chambliss' ads using images of bin Laden to impugn the patriotism of then Georgia senator Max Clelland, who had lost multiple limbs in Vietnam. More tellingly, the strategy worked. Remember, very quickly after the attacks president Bush told the world "you're either with us or against us." Any criticism of said president, especially in the run-up to war in Iraq, was deemed treasonous.
It was all too fitting that the dark sneering vision of his puppet master, Lord Cheney, was back again on our television sets last week, like an old wound reinjured. He and his ilk fell out of power and crept back into the shadows over two years ago, but we still suffer from their decisions. The war in Iraq, built on his deceptions and lies, was waged while simultaneously retaining low taxes for the wealthy. That bill has come due, and in the midst of an economic catastrophe, the social safety net is being gutted, teachers are being laid off, and our infrastructure left to rot to pay it off. Young Americans are still fighting and dying in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and war without end is still ravaging the lives of people in those nations. American Muslims are being villainized now more than ever, evidenced by attacks on mosque building sites and the mainstreaming of bigoted paranoia over a supposed Sharia conspiracy.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Booker T. and the MGs are the uncontested kings of instrumental music, and managed to fit their quirky masterpieces into a recording schedule that included laying down the grooves on an endless number of Stax Records tracks. I especially like their covers, where Booker T's organ provides a kind of surreal edge, most notably on "Hang 'em High."
For some reason or another, instrumentals dominated surf music, from the Ventures to "Wipeout." That stuff is just child's play next to the cinematic sweep and stately grandeur of Jack Nitzsche's "The Lonely Surfer."
Dick Dale also managed to make surf music that defied the genre's conventions, but did so via an absolutely violent guitar style. Very few songs can top "Misirlou"'s frenetic intensity, in an genre.
Speaking of Pulp Fiction, I was really irritated back in the day when the soundtrack did not include "Rumble," even though it as featured to sexy effect as Uma Thurman slinked off to the bathroom inside of Jackrabbit Slim's.
Of course, not all great instrumentals hail from the sixties. Johnny Thunders' cover of the surf-song (of course) "Pipeline" is one of the best showcases out there for his brutal punk guitar style.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
To be honest, I don't really want to go, and I wish that I had backed out. Although I will continue to write scholarship, I do not want to endure the "independent scholar" stigma at conferences, or to be subjected to their usual environment of glad-handing with the right hand while the left conceals a dagger. In sum, I am sick at heart with the academic historical profession and need a break from it. I wrote the following two years ago while I was still in the thick of it, and this letter reflects the AHA's mentality before Anthony Grafton and others started to actually care about getting junior scholars jobs.
A while back, I got a message from the president of the American Historical Association, and it read in part:
"We are writing to ask you to contribute to the AHA 125th Anniversary Fund. This new endowment fund has been established to support an expansion of the public programs and outreach efforts of the Association. Any amount is welcome, but $125 or more will significantly help us to increase our efforts. Strengthening the work of the organization will help us to serve you, your interests, and your profession better. By contributing to the Anniversary Fund, you will help to assure that these activities can continue and develop for the next generation of historians, thus supporting the work and mission of the AHA for another 125 years."
I greatly admire the historical work of AHA president Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and so I will generously assume that she has just attached her name to the usual fund raising letter and so will address my reaction to the leadership of the AHA as a whole.
During these hard times I do not have $125 to spare on an institution to which I already pay an exhorbitant membership fee. Furthermore, I just paid you a king's ransom to attend your conference a couple of months ago so I could walk away with bubkus. I currently have a tenure track job after three years of trying with a school that did not interview me at your annual conference. Most schools had me interview at the AHA, and in my three year quest this meant three road and plane trips and several nights in overpriced hotel rooms for the privilege of engaging in rushed half-hour interviews with fatigued committee members in the pit of Hell known as the job annex. I've spent three thousand dollars over the years to attend your conference in return for nothing, which is just what you will get in return.
There's a lot of boilerplate in your letter about the "next generation of historians." As a junior scholar myself, I've been long aware that the AHA is an exquisite purveyor of platitudes, but a poor advocate for my interests. The reports you publish in the Perspectives about the job market are as laughably optimistic and mendacious as an issue of Pravda. The already wretched market became a bloodbath this year in the wake of the economic downturn, yet in the midst of the shitstorm that is causing untold stress and suffering, you buried this truth in statistics purporting to show improvement.
What members of the "next generation" like me need are steady jobs, not community outreach. That's for the lucky chosen ones at the top, the rest of us subsist in adjunct and "visitor" positions with low pay, no security, and no respect. That you are not treating the current job crisis, which has been festering for years, as a dire emergency in need of attention is bad enough. To not use your resources to protest the degrading work conditions that so many of your paying members languish in is abomnidable. I'm all for protesting the reactionary political beliefs of hotel owners in San Diego, but before pointing out the faults of others you might address the unjust, hierarchical, and downright exploitative nature of your own profession. Until that day comes, you won't get a single thin dime from me.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Cranky Bear here, with a rocks glass of straight sweet brown bourbon at my side, the tangy flavors of aged Kentucky gold on my tongue and ready to shake you namby-pamby liberals up for a change. Labor Day is a special holiday in the Cranky Compound when I can celebrate a past when the Left improved the lives of the American working and middle classes rather than engaging in tedious narcissism. I do enjoy me some "slow food," especially kielbasa from the traditional Polish butcher down the road, but shopping at farmers markets and driving a Prius is not doing diddly squat to avert our slide into a fearsome Gilded Age of high unemployment and the enrichment of the robber baron class. It's just one more goddamned consumer choice that reinforces our consumerist mindset, the thing that's rotting civic duty and social justice.
Take a long hard look at the following clip, wouldja? Lord knows Ted Kennedy wasn't perfect, but unlike most supposed liberals these days, the man actually FOUGHT, and fought for the right things.
Nowadays the consensus is that his primary run in 1980 was divisive and harmed the Democratic Party. I heartily disagree. He was trying to revive the real Democratic Party, which Carter had betrayed by selling out labor, pushing deregulation, and prioritizing inflation over unemployment. The horrific spike in interest rates by the Fed under his presidency slayed inflation (but too late for Carter's 1980 campaign), but did untold economic damage to people on the margins of poverty. (It also helped get Ronald Reagan elected president and solved the inflation problem for him with the economy recovering in time for the 1984 elections, one of the lesser known of the most significant economic policy decisions in this country's history.) Ever since 1980, the voices of those who shared Kennedy's passionate dream have faded, with perhaps only Bernie Sanders left in Congress to continue it.
Thirty years later we have another Democrat in the Carter mode in the White House who is similarly straying from the urgent need to provide employment and ease the economic pain of those not lucky enough to sit at the top. Like Carter and Clinton before him, president Obama likes to present himself as above politics, and to appeal to the middle by running down his own base. Any time the president raises the issue of social inequality, the Right's propaganda organs scream "class warfare" like the braying asses that they are. Usually this leads the president to retreat rather than to double down. After all, there IS a class war going on these days, but only one side is bothering to fight it.
Let me be especially frank here. The labor movement is the backbone of the Democratic Party, and has been so since at least the New Deal. On election day nobody gets the voters to the polls like the unions, and nobody is more willing to take to the streets when necessary. Remember what happened in Wisconsin last year? Walker went after unions because he knows that they are the one group on the Left with real money, and money in our current political system is power, the only power that matters. Remember the response? These are people who fucking FIGHT. Labor's demise at the hands of globalization, job migration to the South (a phenomenon made possible by federal funding of highways), and what amounts to the legalization of union busting has gone hand in hand with the erosion of the Democratic Party's grassroots support. The nouveau Democrats at the party's levers of power since the 1970s have seen it fit to be centrist by doing the bidding of what passes for capitalism's conventional wisdom. To wit: NAFTA under Clinton, deregulation under Carter, and a health plan that is a boon to private insurance companies under Obama (a plan that is Romney's write large). Guess what assholes, you helped kill off your most vital constituency. And let me not let labor's leaders off of the hook, either. You fuckers got fat, corrupt, complacent, and removed from the concerns of the rank and file.
A goddamned economic and political hurricane is currently ravaging the working and middle classes, we are truly in the fight of our lives. Right now, the same people who scream "class warfare" then turn around and cry their eyes out about the 50% of Americans who are too poor to be able to pay federal income taxes, as if they, not the billionaires who pay a lower percentage than their secretaries, are the real cheats. And these fuckers control the public discourse. Liberals, progressives, whatever the hell you want to call yourselves, what is your fucking problem? Get off your asses! Are you irritated at the president's tendency to fold under Republican pressure? Well fight their narrative, and put some of your own pressure on him, for fuck's sake! Are you scared or something to tell people that corporate America is rogering them with the red hot poker of laissez-faire capitalism? Or are you so wrapped up in your low-impact lifestyle and lip service to the right causes that you've forgotten that politics is a street fight, not a parlor game?
People are suffering, they are frustrated and looking for answers. Democrats, now's the time to ask yourself an important question: what do you believe in, anyway? As far as I can tell, the Democratic Party has completely failed to answer that question. They won't figure a solitary thing out until those of us at the grassroots level give a swift hard kick to the party's big old DLC butt.
Let me provide one answer, just so you know what I mean. I believe that it's a disgusting travesty that people in Newark and Camden are being murdered because the authoritarian fat fuck who's the governor of New Jersey would rather grandstand for the national GOP than provide funds for local governments to provide enough police officers to keep their streets safe. People are fucking dying so that millionaires in New Jersey don't have to pay a slightly higher income tax rate. Maybe it's time to be frank about the costs of "austerity" and to end the fiction that it is any way a "shared sacrifice." Since the victims are poor and black, nobody outside of these communities seems to give a fuck. If the supposed progressives out there aren't moved by these travesties to get pissed off and push for some real change, I fear that Ted Kennedy's dream may finally be dead.
Friday, September 2, 2011
Nowadays it takes me twice as long just to walk from my apartment to Newark Penn Station, where I have to catch a train over to the city, and then take the subway to the upper west side before getting out and walking another ten minutes to work. I have to say that I do really enjoy the walking, it gets my heart beating without exhausting me in the morning, and starts the blood flowing again after sitting at my desk all day long. (No teaching yet this week, though. When classes start I might be lumbering my way home, half-fallen over.)
I've had walking commutes before, back when I was a student and when I was researching my dissertation in Germany. As in those days, I am beginning to know every single crack in the sidewalk on my morning walk, and have even started seeing some of the same faces. Since I leave about 6:30 in the Ironbound, the sidewalks are full of construction workers waiting for the van ride to the job site and domestic workers boarding the bus. There's quiet conversation, joking, and an air of taking in a little freedom before a day spent in dull, enervating labor. It's a very different street scene in the upper west side, which is crowded with women walking small, yippy dogs and men wearing tailored suits and impossibly luxurious Italian shoes, toes tipped to the sky. They walk with an air of purpose, striding down Broadway as if no one is on the sidewalk in front of them. Deep down I envy the odor of power that I get a whiff of as I pass them without even a sideways glance in my direction. I often wonder how their decisions at work in Wall Street that day will alter the lives of the builders and maids back home in the much less exalted neighborhoods of Newark.
This week I also faced the fateful decision of which train to take from Newark to New York, since I would be a sucker not to buy a monthly pass. I had a choice between the PATH (the Port Authority train, to the uninitiated) or New Jersey Transit. It was a tough decision, because the PATH is about half as expensive as NJT, but NJT is about twice as fast and five times more comfortable. The PATH train is basically a subway train between Newark and New York with a stop in Harrison and several in Jersey City. (There's another line that goes to Hoboken, which is, believe it or not, gentrified hipster haven, and not hipsters as in Frank Sinatra, the town's most famous son.) During the crowded rush hour, I usually have about as much of a chance of getting a seat on the PATH as Rick Perry does of getting the Sierra Club's endorsement in the presidential race. And let me tell you, there's nothing like being wedged jeek to jowl with complete strangers, some who have their headphones turned up so loud you are inflicted with a kind of buzzingly muted ear torture, while a creaking old train on a crowded track moves with jolts and jumps that slam you into aforementioned complete strangers. On top of all of this, the air inside, especially in the older cars, is a sooty diesel ether that reminds me a cross between Victorian London and a poorly ventilated bus terminal.
For the first few days this week, I tried to tell myself that it was worth it because it was so inexpensive, but after impulsively spending the extra money to take NJT home on Thursday and sitting in relative luxury leisurely reading a novel while being whisked along on gently rocking, smooth ride, I decided that my long-term sanity depended on having this nice little time to myself to decompress at the end of my working day. So this morning I bought my monthly pass on the NJT, and was rewarded with a comfortable seat in which to read the Times while watching the rising sun bathe Manhattan's glorious spires in a breathtaking red-orange light. In any case, I grew up in a cheapskate family where I always had to endure the shoddy, cheap version of everything, from store-brand ice cream to Go Bots instead of Transformers. It's nice to spend the extra money to get the higher-quality option for a change.
The arrival points in the city on the different trains are also pretty distinct, but I'm not sure which I prefer. The PATH drops me off at the World Trade Center, and the last part of the journey snakes right into Ground Zero. The station, still under construction in the wake of the attacks, lies very far underground, and thus means a long escalator ride to get out. The commuter is then dropped smack dab next to the site of a horrible atrocity swarming with cranes and infuriating tourists trying to look between the cracks in the canvas-covered fence. I can't count the number of times I've been there, and my heart still fills with sadness and sorrow, the dust of the dead lingering in my nostrils.
That said, lower Manhattan is my favorite part of the city, and I tend to like breathing in the vital spirit of its streets when I walk two blocks from the PATH station to the subway. The NJT train, by constrast, drops me off in Penn Station, the product of one of the heinous crimes against architecture in America's history. Penn Station had once been a marble monument to the ascendancy of the Iron Horse, the kind of building to make a beautiful ruin to be admired many centuries hence. Instead, it was the victim of the wrecking ball in the 1960s, and it effectively became the basement of Madison Square Garden, a building with all of the dead-eyed monolithic functionality of modernism and none of its daring invention. Its ceilings are quite low, making a tall person like me feel antsy and claustrophobic. It really does feel like a low-rent basement, and its full of low rent chain eateries and stores. Today I saw the K-Mart in its depths for the first time, the store that embodies my childhood spent subsisting on shitty, cheap clothes. For a functional space, it is remarkably dysfunctional. The track numbers for trains leaving the station usually aren't announced until a few minutes before they leave, which at the end of the workday means frantic, pushy crowds dashing madly once the number is called in an atmosphere of rushed nervousness.
Despite these complaints, though, there is nothing quite like train travel, the most relaxing way to get where you're going. And as much as I might moan about the pushy, rushed nature of my commute, there is nothing to compare to sitting back in a gently rocking train car, waiting to be transported on a clear morning into the beating heart and throbbing crotch of American ambition.