Sunday, October 28, 2012

Say a Little Prayer for the Jersey Shore and Asbury Park Tonight


Up here in Newark we've spent the weekend getting ready for the oncoming hurricane.  Bottled water has been purchased, home containers filled, baby formula acquired, and a stockpile of non-perishable goodies from Trader Joe's built up.  In addition, we've also got some limes, rum, and grenadine to make some hurricanes, in honor of the storm and tradition established in our household last year during hurricane Irene.  At first I thought this time around would be much easier than Irene, but now it appears that Sandy has moved out over the ocean, and will come crashing down with her full force on the Jersey shore.

This is a region that has been woefully maligned by the show of the same name.  For most New Jerseyans, the shore is not a place to get stinking drunk and play out ethnic stereotypes, but a glorious yet nearby and accessible summer escape.  I'm not a beach guy by nature, since the sun's rays do not agree with my ginger skin, and I tend to avoid shirtless macho oafs blasting horrible music as their mating call.  However, this summer, not too long before my wife gave birth, we took a trip down to Asbury Park, and I immediately fell in love with the place.

Being a big Bruce Springsteen fan, I was predisposed to liking this faded town, which was the setting for his early songs.  I am also a fan of spaces that were once grandiose but have fallen on hard times, and Asbury Park, despite its recent comeback, certainly fits the bill.


The old casino has been gutted, the beautiful sculptural details on the walls remain, with a shifting lineup of contemporary murals below.






The old carousel building, with its wrought-copper now greened, still stands, but the carousel itself was sold off to someone in the Sun Belt.  A better metaphor may not exist for the industrial decline in towns like Asbury Park.








When you go to Asbury Park, not only do you get to see beautiful ruins, you also get a gorgeous view of the ocean without the crowds, awful music, or shirtless yobbos.  (And if you do come across them, they are more likely than not to be gay.)  In this environment, without all of the distractions, the pure, awesome power of the churning ocean is revealed, an experience that this son of the plains finds alternately alien and exhilarating.

Less than a week later after our trip, my wife gave birth to our twin girls.  When we were able to take them on a road trip, our first adventure was to Asbury Park.  Sitting with them and my wife on the benches on the boardwalk, while looking out on the limitless ocean sea before us and the low-key bustle of the boardwalk behind us was one of those rare moments of complete peace and contentment that we experience so seldom in our short lives.  Tonight, as a storm fueled by the mighty ocean's wrath bears down on this special and unique place, I hope you'll say a prayer for it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Classic Music Video of the Week: Bon Jovi, "Dead or Alive"


Metal ruled the small Nebraska town where I grew up back in the 80s.  The Old Gold-smoking, mullet-sporting dead end kids wore Metallica and Slayer shirts on a nearly constant basis, blasting the strains of Judas Priest from their rusted-out Chevys and Fords as the cruised up and down the main drag.  Apart from those rough-edged future drop outs, metal meant the hair-sprayed processed cheese of the likes of Motley Crue, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi, or the psychotic crank-shot of Guns n' Roses.

I am proud to say that I liked the latter band, but totally eschewed hair metal.  Back in those days I listened to a rather odd combination of rap and oldies.  The Monkees and Beatles fought for slots in my Walkman with Young MC and Eric B and Rakim.  I made one, single song exception to my disdain for the likes of Warrant/Poison/Whitesnake: Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive."

Apart from this song I couldn't stand the group.  Their lead singer was a preening be-spandexed pretty boy, and their music overblown and lacking guts.  However, I could never resist the eerie, descending, jangly guitar that opens "Dead of Alive."  That, combined with the guitar drone in the background, sounded like driving down the interstate on a rainy day while being passed by a semi-truck.  It's full of the usual "life on the road" cliches, but elevates them to a kind of surreally ridiculous audacity.  What kind of person has the galling lack of taste/brass balls to compose a line like "I walk these streets with a loaded six string on my back" with a straight face, and sing it with complete commitment?

It's the video, however, that really elevated the song for me.  In an era of videos so sugary with bright colors that they made my teeth hurt, it was shot in stark black and white, and consisted mostly of documentary footage.  We see band members in disheveled hotel rooms, looking jet lagged, and with bags under their eyes between the shots of them rocking out on the stage and fans pledging their devotion with an almost religious fervor.  The stage scenes, full of much musical grimacing and overwrought gestures, made much less of an impact on me than one single shot (at 1:46) of one of the band members with bed head rubbing his eyes with a facial expression that says "dammit, I'm exhausted and I now have to go back to work."  It's a great little demystifying glimpse into life behind the curtain, and one that made being a rock star seem even more romantic, in a strange way, than I had ever felt it to be.  It was good to know the flip side of seeing a million faces, and rocking them all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Whatever Happened to Occupy? (Why the Radical Left Keeps Failing to Be Relevant)

A year ago, if you remember, America was abuzz with the Occupy protests, which quickly added terms like "the one percent" to the lexicon.  A year later, the long term impact of Occupy, beyond that phrase, appears to be so negligible that you'd be hard-pressed to find evidence that such a thing ever existed.  During this election talk of economic inequality has barely punctured the public sphere.  The presidential debates all approached economic issues from an inherently Rightist framework (no mention of labor right or inequality).  The pundit class is able to get away with using the phrase "job creators" ad infinitum without challenge; the notion that the wealthy are magicians who conjure up employment now appears to be the conventional wisdom of our news media.

Why did Occupy fail to have any real impact this year?  The answer lies in larger problems within the radical Left and its general approach.  I have long been influenced and inspired by many of the ideas generated by radicals, but have also been frustrated and disgusted with their political style.  All in all, Leftist radicals seem to disdain the electoral process as an agent for change, and lack any philosophy on how to grab hold of and use political power.

That tendency is revealed in the increasingly irritating Leftist cliche of the need to "speak truth to power."  That's all well and good, but what about becoming the people with the power?  What about wielding that power in an effective manner?  I knew I could not take Occupy seriously as a long-term political movement when I saw how they attempted to govern their camps through a consensus process.  Anyone who has served on an academic committee knows that rule by consensus is either impossible, or leads to short-sighted, bland groupthink.  A movement without leaders is incredibly easy to ignore, which is exactly what the media and public has done with Occupy.

The inability to construct theories of government and the use of state power has afflicted radical thought for a long time.  Most famously, Karl Marx called for a proletarian revolution, but was so convinced that this event would bring about the liberation of humanity that he never really bothered to lay out in any realistic way how the revolution would be implemented.  These days radical Leftists seem so enamored of protecting their ideological purity and claiming the moral high ground of being the virtuous critics from the margins, that they appear to lack any ambition to be the ones at the center making the decisions.

Politics is not a game for saints or those seeking to maintain purity, which is something that the radical Right figured out a long time ago.  Unlike the radical Left, the radical Right has scored major successes, and lives in the corridors of power that radical Leftists don't even seem to want to occupy.  For example, there is a Tea Party caucus in Congress, anti-eveolutionists sit on the House science committee, an Ayn Rand-loving hard Right ideologue is the GOP vice-presidential nominee, and the biggest news network in America parrots talking points from the crazy-Right blogosphere.  They are not content to play the role of moralistic critics like Leftist radicals, or disdain the electoral process as beneath them.  As long as radicals on the Left maintain this attitude, they will remain ineffectual, powerless, and have no one to blame but themselves.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Debates That Didn't Happen

There are folks out there whom I respect that are saying that these presidential debates are just a gaudy sideshow to the campaign, and are aimed not at the educated followers of politics, but to the ignorant who will hang on to images and perceptions rather than hard policies.  This may very well be true, but I do think that the debates are an important gauge of our current political discourse, and the issues that are on the table, and those that aren't.  After four debates, the following issues went undebated, despite their importance:

The Two-State Solution and Israeli Settlements in Palestine
Both candidates spent so much time bowing and scraping before the Israel lobby last night that they didn't even bother to talk about the roadmap to peace.  

Drug Laws
A substantial portion of Americans would like to see our drug laws liberalized, so many that the president might lose Colorado due to stalwarts on this issue voting Libertarian.  Our three decade war on drugs has helped build up the prison-industrial complex and has disproportionately curtailed the life chances of young men of color.  Too bad none of the moderators consider this important.

Marriage Equality
The Defense of Marriage Act was just struck down by a court, yet it just didn't come up, despite being in the headlines.  Apparently the most disputed civil rights issue of the past decade didn't merit comment.  

Labor
The forty hour work week is becoming a thing of the past as labor is being casualized in a vicious race to the bottom.  Several states have attempted to curtail labor rights, which led to massive protests and the recall election of Scott Walker.  We had plenty of talk of unemployment, but none about the increasingly cruddy conditions of the majority who have jobs.

Economic Inequality
On a related note, I seem to remember at this time last year massive public protests in cities all across the country decrying the growing gap between the rich and the poor.  This is a real and worsening problem in America, and one that has a much bigger effect on regular people's lives than the budget deficit, yet we heard nothing about it.

Global Climate Change
Climate change is a reality, and its effects have been manifest in the wretched droughts this year.  It is a problem that threatens the earth's very well-being, yet apparently the two men vying to be the leader of the free world did not need to clarify their positions on it.

Here's a bunch more I could add: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and "enhanced interrogation," the PATRIOT Act, regulations on for-profit higher education, agricultural policy/farm subsidies, and nuclear arms reduction.

****
What ought we make of presidential debates that don't actually debate many of the most important issues facing the nation or the planet?  In the first place, I think this is the consequence of having Beltway journalists moderate the debates, since they frame everything in whatever conventional wisdom has taken hold of Washington that week.  They are so wedded to the headlines that they are unable to ask about broader issues of wider import.  This is a general problem with our news media, which favors sensation over analysis and reporting "gaffes" over reporting policy.  Until we get some of these issues on the table, they will continue to get worse.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Classic Albums: Neil Young, After the Gold Rush


My emotions have long been tied to changes in the seasons, and the onset of autumn probably triggers memories and associations more intense than any other time of year.  There are certain albums that I seldom listen to outside of this time but play constantly when the leaves are falling, and one of them is Neil Young's After the Gold Rush.

I first acquired it completely by accident.  At age sixteen in the autumn of 1991 I went to the Musicland at the local mall -the only record store in my isolated home town- hoping to get a copy of Neil Young's Harvest on tape.  (At that time I bought back-catalog stuff on cassette because it was much less expensive than Musicland's CD prices, and had the added advantage that I could play it in my car's tape deck.)  I found Harvest, but it was on one of those two-for-one tapes with an album on each side.  The other album was After the Gold Rush, which I considered to be a nice bonus.

As much as I enjoyed Harvest at the time, over the years I have actually developed a closer relationship with After the Gold Rush.  To me, it's the sound of dead leaves scraped across the street by a biting autumn breeze.  It's an album that I can only play at night, perhaps sparked by an evening in the aforementioned fall of 1991 when I played the tape on a boom box while I took a leisurely bath and it sounded perfect.  Listening to music in the bath was one of my favorite ways to escape and reflect back then, and while "Don't Let It Bring You Down" played, I felt that song's bleakness in my bones.  Other songs sank their hooks into me, too.  In those days I was loner who was misanthropic even by the standards of a teenage misfit, so I took on "Lonesome Me" as a kind of anthem.  "Everybody's goin' out and havin' fun/ I'm a fool for staying home and having none" was a pretty accurate description of my life back then, as evidenced by my tendency to lock myself in the bathroom and listen to albums from the seventies.

It's hard to explain, but the whole album sounds like it's made to be played only at night, and to be listened to alone.  The album's title implies a sense of loss, and the cover image, with its use of photograph negative and the iron fence and brick wall in the background, sets a lonely mood.  The sounds themselves have a weighty darkness to them, from the stark, echoing piano lines at foundation of all the songs to the stabbing feedback on tracks like "Southern Man" and "When You Dance I Can Really Love."  The former sounds pretty dated nowadays in its over-simplified attempt at topical profundity.  However, it has an amazing electric guitar accompaniment and a torrid beat.  "When You Dance" uses similar guitar fireworks, but with a personally uplifting message, not didactic political posturing.

"Southern Man"and the title track are probably the most often-played songs from this album on classic rock radio despite their display of one of Young's major weak points: his "message" songs have corny, hippy-in-a-cannabis-fog lyrics.  The title track manages somehow to overcome references to "mother nature's silver seed" through its beautiful melody and Young's affecting alto singing.  It still pulls at my heartstrings despite my wincing at the words; there are few other songs that have that effect on me.

Over the years, I have gravitated more to the love songs on this album, which are quite beautiful.  "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" lays out a hard truth of life with a lilting melody, and "Birds" never fails to lift me up.  Best of all, in my opinion, is "I Believe in You," is the kind of honest love song you never hear on the radio.  As the penultimate song on the album it sets up the silly, hopeful "Cripple Creek Ferry," pointing to a light at the end of a dark tunnel.  It's perfectly suited for those chilly nights when the weight of the past is on my mind and I need a little misery for company but a little salve for my worried mind, too.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Warning Signs and Red Flags That Academic Job Hunters Should Know

Sometimes late at night my mind wanders back to what it was like when I still worked in the academy, and I go to the forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education's site to remember and remind myself why I got out.  One recent thread particularly sparked my interest.  A current job candidate asks what are the signs that the department you are applying to work for is a "snake pit."  That got me thinking about warning signs more broadly, and as a service to those applying for jobs this year, here are some nuggets of wisdom earned after many job searches and three years in a place where snake pit would be a polite description.

High Faculty Turnover
High turnover is the biggest and most obvious sign of dysfunction.  Sometimes this can be hard to find out, since it's awkward to ask people how many people have been jumping ship.  A good way to tell is if the department has a group of people who have been there forever, some assistant professors, but very few associate professors.  If your job is not to replace a retiring prof, chances are you will end up just being the next in a long line of junior scholars forced to escape an intolerable situation.

The Faculty's Research Agendas are Outdated, "Local" or Non-Existent
In regards to departments where no one does research, initially you might think to yourself "hey, this will be a low pressure situation, I can do my research in peace without having to compete with colleagues for resources."  Little do you know that in reality, your research accomplishments will generate massive levels of hostile resentment by some of your colleagues.  This is especially the case if you will be working as a contingent professor.

In a department like the one where I used to toil, many of those who did actually research were incredibly retrograde in their work, and so took every opportunity to slag off my research, even to my face.  (One military historian told me my new project was "stupid" at lunch one day.)  In such a place you will find your book contract or highly placed article not getting praised by your chair, who would rather send out an email of hosannas about a prof who has invited one of the mediocre professors from her no-name (yet nearby) university to campus.

Faculty and Administrators Have Been Hired From Within or Have a Personal Connection to the Institution
Did any of the deans go to your prospective university as undergrads?  Are there a lot of people who seem to have a personal connection to the school or the area?  Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!  I should have known I was getting into a bad situation at my old job when I found out that the university president had been there as an administrator since the mid-1960s, and that the student center was named after him, even though he had not yet retired!  (And it's not like this guy is Clark Kerr, or anything.)  A place like that loves people who are like them, and hates outsiders.  Guess what, unless you give yourself a lobotomy and put blinders on to block out all the dysfunction, you'll be defined as an outside agitator.

The Faculty are Homogenous Even by Academic Standards
Academia is not that diverse, especially so my very white and male field of history.  However, there are some departments whose photos look like they could have had the same cast of characters fifty years ago.  My old department had sixteen full time members and half as many adjuncts, but not one single person of color at a university where a third of the students were either African American or Latino.  It became pretty obvious pretty fast that this situation, as per usual, was not accidental.  Not only that, the university was in Texas, and out of the sixteen full time faculty, six had been born and raised in Texas, and another had gone to graduate school in the state.  All of the part-timers save one were Texans, and they all had been students at the university.  Needless to say, people like me who came from outside were treated almost like foreigners.  

They Do Not Have a Response When You Ask Them Where the Department Sees Itself in Five Years
Remember, you get to ask them questions too, and you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  Always ask where the department sees itself going, and if no one can really tell you, run to the hills.

After Your Job Talk Faculty Happily Admit Ignorance
After my job talk the self-described "Texas historian" said "I didn't understand what you were talking about, but it sounded good."  I may do German history, but my work is pretty accessible.  The fact that this guy (who is now tenured!) could be comfortable saying such things out loud if front of a room of scholars should have been a huge red flag for me.  I soon learned that most of the other people in the room actually weren't scholars at all.

The Percentage of Contingency Faculty is Very High
This is more relevant for those applying for visiting positions.  I know from my experience as a visitor that when you are just one of an army of contingent faculty, you will be treated like a peon.  Tenure track faculty in such places are always on guard for a sans-culottes uprising, and want to make sure that the grunts know their place.  I have had friends who have had very positive experiences as visitors, but they were all in departments where they were a leave replacement in a faculty with few or no contingent profs.

Faculty Don't Show Up For Talks and Meals
This is pretty self-explanatory (though not something I've experienced first hand.)  If a lot of folks don't show up to the interview events, it's obvious that they already view you as a person of no consequence.  Same goes for lack of interest in conversing with you at meals, or being made to pick up the tab for the ride to airport.  (This actually happened to a friend of mine.)

****
That's all I can think about for now.  Any of my fellow academic job market veterans out there have anything to add?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Important Thing We Learned From the Debate That No One Will Talk About

Predictably, discussion of Tuesday's presidential debate has hinged around the boxing scorecard (Obama by TKO, in my opinion) and the usual array of sound-bite spin wars.  Many on my side of things are rightfully making hay with Romney's "binders full of women" remarks and the utter cluelessness that they revealed, and the Teabagger crowd is still trying to say that the president did not immediately call the attack on the Benghazi consulate an "act of terror."

These are significant issues, but I am amazed at how little people are discussing the concrete policy ideas of the two candidates, and the degree to which they represented them faithfully.  For instance, Mitt Romney, who supports the Pell Grant-slashing budget of his dead-eyed granny killer running mate, said he supported Pell Grants just as soon as the debate began.

While that kind of lying and getting away with it disturbs me plenty, I'd like to take things from an angle that is sorely lacking in the mainstream media and the blogosphere.  On a couple of very important issues for this country, both candidates appeared to support policies that are extremely destructive, and cowardly in their deference to special interests.  I am referring to gun control and energy.

On the latter issue, Romney bizarrely tried to force Obama into a "yes or no" question on whether his administration has reduced the number of oil leases on federal lands.  While the president did a good job of defending himself, he did not once mention the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the need to protect our nation's common land from environmental devastation.  On the subject of coal, Romney proclaimed his love of that Dickensian throwback.  Obama's did not dare discuss the negative environmental effects of coal, instead he just pointed out that Romney had flip-flopped from his position when he ran for governor of Massachusetts.  We have now apparently reached a point in our national politics where supporting environmental protection is a non-starter for presidential candidates.  This at a time when global climate change threatens the well-being of billions of people around the world.  I think it's clear we can never expect any real action on that coming catastrophe from our political class.

The same goes for gun control.  After a summer of several harrowing mass shootings at the hands of psychopaths and white supremacist terrorists, the president still would not advocate for additional gun control laws.  He turned the question into a discussion of education, while Romney did him one better and spoke about the need for two-parent households.  Thousands of people die needlessly in this country every year because of our gun laws, but no one who wishes to occupy the top office in the land can even acknowledge that fact.

So yes, we did learn that the president has his fight back, and we saw him defeat Romney in an impressive fashion.  (My wife and I jumped up and hugged each other with joy when it was over.)  We saw yet more evidence of Romney's arrogant douchebaggery and lack of empathy with people who aren't wealthy white men.  However, we also witnessed how our current political system, governed by money and special interests, is completely paralyzed when it comes to dealing with crucial life or death issues.  Perhaps we as a nation ought to talk about that for once.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How to Improve the Presidential Debates

Over the years I have been continually disappointed by the way our presidential debates are organized. They really aren't debates at all, but glorified question and answer sessions lorded over by the usual Beltway media suspects or the hackneyed "town hall" format which has always seemed more like a high-stakes version of Donahue.  Candidates are allowed to interrupt and talk over each other, devolving the proceedings into a shouting match at times.  

Some of the smaller aspects and rules are just stupid.  Why can't the candidates have notes?  I'd rather hear the candidates articulate their positions more coherently than rack their brains for the right talking point.  The way the debates are televised, with the split screen, leads to way too much analysis of what the non-speaking candidate is doing with his face, and not enough on the substance of what is said.

With these deficiencies in mind, I'd like to offer my own debate format.  In this format, the moderator will be just that, a moderator, not an inquisitor.  The moderator will not be a journalist, but a prominent citizen of high character and respect.  The candidates will each begin the debate with fifteen minutes to lay out the case for why they should be elected president, with the mic of the non-speaking candidate turned off to help prevent interruptions.  After each case is presented, there will be a five minute period for the candidates to prepare rebuttals.  During that time, the cameras will not be allowed to show the candidates jotting down their thoughts.  After the preparation time ends, each candidate will get ten minutes to present a rebuttal.  Following the rebuttal, there will two minutes of preparation time for final statements.  The candidate who gave the second rebuttal will give the first closing statement, so as to not let one candidate always get the last word.  Closing statements will last five minutes.  Throughout the speeches, cameras will only be allowed to show the candidate who is speaking.  After the set times for speeches runs out, candidates will get a ten-second grace period.  Once that is over, their microphones will be cut off, and they will not be able to appeal for more time.

The advantages of this approach are many.  The candidates themselves, not journalists or undecided yahoos off the street will effectively set the agenda for the debate.  This format will also force the candidates to lay out a sustained argument for why they should be president, rather than just offering talking point answers on the usual issues presented by the questioners.  Candidates will not be able to undercut their opponent through interruptions and interjections, and will not be able to bully the moderator as Romney did so effectively in the first debate.  

I think the American public deserves a real debate on the issues, not a media circus.  Until we change the rules to be more like what I have described, we'll keep getting the usual disappointment.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Classic Music Video of the Week: Whitesnake, "Here I Go Again"


I must admit, there were many videos back in the day that I didn't really care for musically, but nevertheless did not change the channel when they came on.  This is one of those videos.

Whitesnake might be the stupidest name for a band ever.  Their music is paint-by-numbers hair metal fronted by the over-the-hill singer of the second incarnation of Deep Purple.  These things are true, but when you bring in the raw, untamed beautiful lioness Tawny Kitaen in her prime, a young adolescent boy simply cannot avert his eyes.

Like a lot of classic MTV vids, this one's pretty simple: a lot of fast cuts between the band "performing" with maximum drumstick twirling and grimacing for the camera interspersed with Tawny Kitaen's auburn locks flowing as she hangs out of moving car or, better yet, somersaults and does the splits in a flowy white dress on the hood of a car.  It makes no logical sense, but it is a heat-seeking missile straight to the crotch of teenage boys everywhere.  The images of this video have burned themselves on the back of my brain, and will probably never go away.

Back in MTV's glory days, there were several acts that had hits simply because they had put together a really cool video.  Norwegian snyth-poppers A-Ha would never have made it big in the states without their groundbreaking, tear-jerking video for "Take on Me" that ladies of a certain generation still swoon over.  Dire Straits would've stayed a mid-list act if not for "Money For Nothing" and its then revolutionary computer graphics and meta-commentary on videos themselves.  Blind Melon's "bee girl" vid for "No Rain" elevated that song out of college radio onto the charts.  Those videos had a certain level of artfulness about them, but all Whitesnake needed was Tawny Kitaen and the hood of a car.  Pretty impressive, when you think about it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Things We've Learned in the Last Month of the Election

The past month has been one of the craziest periods in an election that I can remember.  It started with Mitt Romney looking sunk, only to be followed by his campaign's improbable resurgence.  All of the craziness has revealed quite a bit.  Here's what I've seen revealed, in bullet point form:
  • With the blatant politicization of the attack on the Libyan embassy by Republicans, we now have an inkling of what it would have been like had Al Gore, and not George W. Bush, been president on 9/11.  
  • Despite the fact that Romney's willingness to use the events in Benghazi to go after the president before the dust had even settled made him look completely opportunistic and unfit to be a leader, only a month later, he is making this issue the centerpiece of his campaign, as if he previous, damning actions had never taken place.  The fact that the media is letting him get away with it is just more proof that our public discourse is built on amnesia.
  • The fact that the post-debate coverage has centered on facial expressions rather than substance, or on the lies being told repeatedly by Romney and Ryan, is just more proof that our political process is a media circus taking place in a post-factual world.
  •  The fact that conservatives were calling the vice-presidential debate a "draw" (rather than a Ryan win) and are already desperately trying to change the subject to Libya is proof that Ryan clearly lost the debate.
  • The re-release of then Senator Obama's 2007 comments at Hampton University are part of a blatant attempt to stir up white racial resentment by the right-wing press.  Such resentment is now clearly and openly a part of the conservative political mainstream.
  • Romney has not and will not be punished for his strategy of lying his ass off at every turn.
  • The fact that Romney and Ryan still have a chance at winning the White House despite their taped comments showing a complete contempt for half the country's population is just another example of how in a democracy, the people get the government that they deserve, and they get it with a vengeance.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Mitt Romney is the Republican Poster Boy for the Conservative Appropriation of Postmodernism

One of the worst things about post-modernism (which appears to be losing much of its hegemony over the academic humanities) is that it has been appropriated with a vengeance by conservatives.  For almost three hundred years, conservatives of all stripes have been attacking the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and science over tradition and belief.  Taking on a vulgar post-modernism, those on the Right can simply appeal to emotion and prejudice, facts be damned, and simply say "but this is how I feel" or "in my heart I know I'm right" when confronted by evidence disproving their assertions.

Their messiah, Ronald Reagan, perfected this belief over evidence appeal decades ago.  Back in 1986, when he fessed up to selling arms for hostages, he said that in his heart he felt he had not done such a thing, but that the facts had shown otherwise.  It was almost as if he was saying he was absolved from blame, because only what he felt really mattered in this case.  Who are we to make broad truth claims, anyway?  Isn't everything in this world (including his former disavowals of wrongdoing) a text open to multiple interpretations?

Mitt Romney has picked up this tradition with a vengeance.  I am amazed at the accolades from the press after his debate performance; the story has been him "winning" despite the gushing stream of lies and position reversals that came out of his mouth.  In a more enlightened discourse more concerned with facts and reason rather than bluster and appearances, Romney's staggering mendacity may have been the media's narrative, rather than his "strength."  If it wasn't obvious before, we live in a post-fact political forum where feelings and appearances completely trump reality.  Romney, a consumate conservative, seems to understand this, whereas Barack Obama, a liberal academic very much in the Enlightenment tradition of reasoned inquiry, appears to have treated Romney's debate lies as canards so ridiculous as to not merit a response.  This was a major mistake, since the classical liberal faith in the proposition that the truth shall set us free doesn't work in a world when nobody gives a damn whether anything is true or not, just whether it sounds good.

Don't get me wrong, I am not totally negative on post-modernism in the humanities, and I thought that it brought some necessary questioning of assumptions, which is always a good thing.  However, I always felt that it was paralyzing as a political praxis, since it denied the ability to make truth claims.  And as much as the Enlightenment needed critiquing and revision, its most ardent critics seem to have forgotten the irrational sufferings inflicted by pre-Enlightenment thinking.  We are getting plenty of reminders today from conservatives, in the form of Todd Aiken's pseudo-scientific pronouncements worthy of a medieval "natural philosopher," the quasi-religious belief in what Paul Krugman derisively calls the "confidence fairy,"the attempts to deny evolution and turn Thomas Jefferson into a Christian fundamentalist, and Michele Bachmann's witch hunt of Muslims.  It's time to stop pretending these fanciful ideas are opinions worthy of respect, but merely superstitions akin to the one that drove French peasants to ring church bells during thunderstorms to protect their crops (and inadvertently electrocute bell ringers.)  Liberals need to dump these lies into the dustbin of history, and adopt the slogan of Emile Zola in his quest to clear Alfred Dreyfus from the calumnies of anti-Semites: "truth is on the march!"


Monday, October 8, 2012

Classic Music Video of the Week: Flock of Seagulls, "I Ran"


Back in the days of my highest MTV consumption, I always looked forward to holiday weekends, since that often meant a countdown of the top 100 videos of all time.  Since I didn't have access to MTV until the mid-1980s, I had missed out on the New Wave strangeness of the channel's early days, when they would play British haircut bands ad nauseum since they had videos and other rock acts didn't.  (Little known fact: until Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," they really didn't play videos by black artists, which severely limited the pool of quality music available.)

Of all those ancient artifacts, I have always gotten a big kick out of "I Ran (So Far Away)" by Flock of Seagulls, whose lead singer Mike Score sported the kind of epically space-age hairdos that only Limahl of Kajagoogoo could compete with.  I loved, and still love, this video because it looks like they made it for about fifty bucks (or pounds, I guess) but it's more watchable than about 90 percent of the higher budget productions that have followed in its wake.

I try to imagine how the band were briefed about the video beforehand by the director.  I just imagine him saying "Alright lads, we've got a smoke machine, revolving camera, mirrors, tin foil, and two birds wearing plastic bags and barmy make-up.  Let's shoot this bastard!  Don't worry about the camera showing up in the mirror shots, I covered it with the foil, so no one's the wiser."

The New Wave-stlye airy synths and watery guitars enhance the uncanny visual feel of the images; I can't imagine this video working with a hair metal song, for example.  (We'll get to that particular genre later in this series, don't worry!)  Not having enough money to put what you want on the screen forces a certain kind of creativity, something this video and the films of George Lucas since he has had the money and independence to do as he pleases bring home pretty well.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Rust Belt versus High Finance: A Metaphor for the American League Playoffs

After the late season collapse of my beloved White Sox, I am at least now free of anxiety regarding the baseball playoffs, which I can joyfully watch as a fan of the sport, suffering the gut-churning intensity that comes with rooting for my squad in high-pressure games.  Looking at the American League playoffs from this more detached point of view, I see a clear metaphor for our increasingly unequal society.

Three of the four teams that made the playoffs in the AL -the Baltimore Orioles, Oakland As, and Detroit Tigers- hail from cities that are bywords for urban decay.  Detroit in particular has come to symbolize the slow death of America's old industrial economy, Oakland has long been the less savory side of the Bay Area and has been full of unrest, and Baltimore was the setting for The Wire, urban decline's artistic magnum opus.

The other team, the New York Yankees, represents the economic hegemony of the financial sector in more ways than one.  The team is located in the world financial economy's capital, New York City, and like that part of the economy, values money and "winning" at all costs.  Despite the fact that the Yankees were the wealthiest franchise in baseball, they still forced local authorities to pitch in public money for an unnecessary new stadium, one whose ticket prices are prohibitive for many of the people whose tax dollars built the place.  The Yanks have the most expensive payroll in baseball this year, almost $200 million, and have long been able to purchase the most prized free agents and essentially spend their way past the kinds of problems that sink most other franchises.  As with the big banks, the Yankees benefit from a system that's rigged in their favor, and they are fighting hard to keep it that way.

The As, by contrast, had the lowest payroll in the American League, only $55 million, only a little over a quarter of what the Yankees spent.  Their presence in a small media market in a less than wealthy city has forced the As (as immortalized in Moneyball) to outsmart other teams by finding the best players for the money.  The Orioles are also in the bottom half of teams in terms of spending, and have reached the post-season this year for the first time since 1997, reflecting years lost in the baseball wilderness.

Of the three possible challengers to the Yankees, my heart is most set on the Detroit Tigers.  I lived in Michigan for two years, and saw first hand both the loyalty of Tigers fans, as well as the soul-crushing economic decline of Michigan.  If there was ever a city that needed a pick-me-up, it's Detroit.  I still remember being in Ann Arbor back in 2006, the last time the Tigers were in the World Series, and the first time they'd been since 1984.  I was in a bar with a couple of friends when the Tigers lost the series, and I swear I heard a collective cry of anguish that echoed from Saginaw to Traverse City.  It was a feral scream of pain that Yankees fans, with their 27 championships, have no way of understanding.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Highlight of My Commute Home to Newark

I may complain about having to endure Penn Station's grimy claustrophobia on a daily basis, but there are parts of my daily commute that I truly cherish.  Apart from finally arriving home to my family, I look forward to the view I get when I look north out of the window as the train crosses the Passaic River into Newark.  Now that fall is here, the sun sits lower in the sky as I arrive back home in Brick City, the sunlight bathing the downtown buildings in golden light and glittering on the river's surface.

On the left side of the mighty Passaic are the shiny downtown office buildings and civic structures like the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.  On the other bank are long rows of low-slung brown brick buildings that once housed the factories that built this country, stretching as far as the eye can see.  I look at this scene, which flashes by ever so briefly, and see a city that has endured worse than just about any other in this nation, but has managed to survive and hold its head up proudly.  I see such beauty in a town that so many still stereotype as a hellacious example of urban squalor run amok, a place whose reputation is such that when people in these parts ask where I live and I tell them Newark their eyes widen and their mouths go silent.

I have a similar bodily reaction as I cross the bridge each day, but my wide eyes and quiet tongue are the result of awe in the face of true beauty.  I see it in a city that the rest of this state and this nation had stabbed in the back, thrown in the gutter, and left for dead.*  I think of my own luck as a broken-down professor defeated by his profession who was plucked off the reject pile by a wonderful high school.  One man's trash is another man's treasure, I guess, and just as I am happy to have been saved from the refuse pile, I appreciate the rough splendor of a place that so many others wish to demean.

*Little known fact: a great deal of the mayhem during the events of 1967 was perpetrated by National Guard troops, not Newarkers.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debate Questions I Would Have Asked

I won't give any sort of debate post-morten here, other than to comment on the horrible moderating job by Jim Lehrer, who allowed Romney to talk over the president at will, and who even interrupted president Obama during his speaking time to ask Mitt's opinion of something. What bugged me the most, however, were the questions, which essentially accepted the conservative rhetorical frame as a given, with subjects like "entitlements" and "role of government." These are certainly important issues, but ones that are primarily conservative stalking horses. I am amazed that I heard a conversation about the economy without the issues of inequality or labor even being mentioned. In that spirit, here are some questions I would have asked, questions that both the president and the challenger would find difficult.


  • What is your opinion of the increasing economic inequality in this country, and what (if anything) do you intend to do about it?
  • Recent studies show that when it comes to social mobility, America has fallen well behind its peer nations.  What should we do to get back on top and provide more opportunity?
  • Youth unemployment is especially high and recent graduates are struggling to find work.  What specifically will you do to help them?
  • Labor is increasingly being casualized and the forty-hour week is becoming a thing of the past.  Do you think such "flexibility" is a good thing to be encouraged, or needs to be changed?
  • College tuition is skyrocketing in price, yet the employment of disposable adjunct labor at universities is also increasing.  What should or can be done to correct these problems?
  • The current economic slump has hit urban Latino and African American communities the hardest.  What would you do specifically for people in those communities?
  • Wages for unskilled workers are so low that corporations like Wal-Mart train their employees how to apply for food stamps to supplement their income.  At the same time, the Wal-Mart heirs have as much wealth as the bottom 40% of the population combined. Is this state of affairs acceptable to you?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Classic Video of the Week: Frankie Goes to Hollywood "Two Tribes"

[Editor's note: I am about to tear into a recent oral history of MTV, and I have been remembering how central music videos once were to my life.  Growing up in rural Nebraska, MTV was one of my few conduits to a more daring world, and I cherished it.  For kicks and to motivate my writing, I will be posting an analysis of a memorable video each week.]

I did not see music videos on MTV first, because my family didn't get cable until I was in the fourth grade.  My first exposure came via a show (syndicated, I presume) called "Friday Night Videos."  I loved the Top 40 music of the time (the mid-1980s), and was blown away at how my favorite songs could be given a visual component.  Every now and then, I saw something so completely off the wall that it has stuck with me long enough for me to be able to look it up on YouTube and relive my childhood encounter with the unreal.

Case in point is the Cold War inspired video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes," anchored by a surreal sumo wrestling match between Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Konstantin Chernenko. The make-up is horrible and the production values middle of the road, but it does bring the viewer back to that edgy moment in the first half of the 80s when Reagan's overheated "evil empire" rhetoric made a nuclear war feel imminent.  And who knew Frankie, a band best known for their epochal (and divinely dirty) pop-trash classic "Relax" were full of such political consciousness?