Saturday, July 22, 2017

Preparing For The Pardons

The Poles are providing a good example of how to counter authoritarianism

I try very hard not to care about what the president tweets, but today was an exception. It is pretty obvious that he has been seriously contemplating a blanket pardon of his family members and underlings. This is not a question of if, but when. When that happens, we won't really be living in a constitutional democracy anymore, but living under the thumb of a personal ruler.

Since we know Trump is going to do this, we need to be prepared. But how? Up until now I had been looking to the 2018 elections as the remedy, but a president who is willing to make a mockery of the rule of law in the service of enriching himself and assisting a foreign nation requires a more immediate response, especially if he were to fire the special prosecutor and issue pardons.

Obviously in any healthy democracy such behavior would result in the removal of the chief executive. But this is in no way a healthy democracy. I am still firmly convinced that impeachment is impossible with a Republican congress, no matter what Trump does or what evidence exists. So where does that leave us?

We need to organize so that we are ready to act when this dreaded day comes. Imagine a general strike and a bank boycott coming right after the pardons.  That only comes from organization. While I am skeptical of the chances of something being organized on such a large scale in such a short period of time, I am also tired of the defeatism I am hearing from so many on the political left. I tire of reading folks on Twitter saying "he will get reelected." Whether that's true or not, this is not the attitude we need at this time. This is the kind of attitude that leads to detached thinking, sitting on the sidelines when everyone is needed on the field.

If we think more needs to be done, then we better start doing it, instead of cynically commenting on how nobody does anything. Once we start moving I think we will be happily surprised at what emerges. In any case, it's the only option.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Some Advice For The Democrats

Time to bring back the spirit of George Norris, my home state's greatest leader

So today there was a big kerfuffle online today after a reporter claimed to have heard the Democrats' slogan for next year, and tweeted it. (That tweet was then deleted.) Because it was retracted, I am not going to repeat it, but it does seem to imply (and I don't doubt) that the Democrats are going to 1. still hire lame people to write their slogans 2. try to run on "jobs" and 3. try to be as middle of the road as possible.

All three are massive mistakes. The Republicans have done the best job of sloganeering, since they hire the best PR people to come up with PR stuff. Just think about how "right to work" has become the brand name for union busting. In the second place, "jobs" in the abstract is Trump's issue. The first thing you should do in any debate is to force your opponent to debate you on your ground, not theirs. If you let yourself be pulled onto the ground your opponent has created, you have already lost. And last, going to the middle of the road does not work anymore. Yes, it is very tempting to go to the center if your opponent is going to the extreme, but that formula is outdated. You need to get the base out in the midterm elections. That's how you win.

So what should the Democrats do? They should focus on health care and beat that issue into the ground. The GOP has created a massive self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to exploit. They have learned the hard way that there is a new American consensus on health care: to be remotely acceptable any changes have to expand access to care, rather than restrict it. The Republicans are on record supporting cutting off tens of millions of people from health care. Make them own it, hang it around their neck like a millstone and shove them into the political sea. James Carville has become a bit of a buffoon, but his "it's the economy, stupid!" approach was a brilliant way to nail his opponent on an issue where he was weak that the public also cared about more than any other. Right now that issue is health care.

And yes, Russia should be an issue too, but weaved with health care, as in "Those Republicans are so corrupt that they are letting Trump betray the nation just so they can take away your health care and give the wealthy a tax cut!" Admittedly, it might be hard to get the whole party behind single payer, but they can still easily craft a message based around social class and inequality. The basic message of "The Republicans want you to suffer so the rich can have even more!" is a winning message. The Russia stuff might not play as well with independents, but that's fine, since it will fire up base Democratic voters. Animus against Clinton in 1994 and against Obama in 2010 by grassroots conservatives led to huge midterm wins, it can just as easily work the other way.

Last, and most importantly, Democrats need to focus on the vote. That means getting volunteers to make sure people targeted by suppression can get the help they need to register. It also means bringing all those "resistance" folks into the party. There has been an incredible mobilization by both the left and liberals since Trump's election that has been truly bottom-up. The Democrats need to get these activists coordinated and make them want to be in the tent, especially those oriented towards Sanders. That is where more forceful messaging comes in.

Activists should be taking off work on election day if they can, driving other people to the polls. (I know I want to do that.) Turnout is key in midterms, and the Democrats have a political army that they can call on to get out the vote, if only they would just do it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Television, "See No Evil"


I was thinking about the fact that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the year punk rock truly exploded. 1977 brought a ton of amazing singles and albums by the likes of the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Wire, Clash, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Suicide, Talking Heads, Television, Heartbreakers, Damned, Buzzcocks, Blondie, and more. It was an amazing explosion of music that burned brightly and remade the rules for rock music, even if the initial burst quickly dissipated into a thousand different directions.

It makes me feel old that this happened forty years ago, even though I was way too young to remember it at the time. I discovered the music in the early 1990s, when it felt like this upheaval had happened the day before yesterday. In 1993, when I bought and read and reread an account of the Sex Pistols' ill-fated 1978 tour, it was only fifteen years before. Not recent, but not ancient history. Now the music is old, older than Chuck Berry and Elvis when I was first digging punk rock.

Despite its age, it still holds up. Before punk got ossified into a rules-driven, hidebound genre of music for a very self-enclosed subculture, it had an air of true freedom. If you listen to the earliest punk records, you'll notice that they are not all three chords and a cloud of dust, at least when we are talking about the good bands.

Television are the perfect example of this. They, along with the Ramones and Suicide, were the first of the first New York punk bands. The Ramones set the template of ur-punk in the public imagination, all ripped denim and leather jackets and direct, three chord songs with distorted guitars. They sang proudly about being cretins, their lyrics matching their droogish appearance. Television, on the other hand, had an artistic sensibility. Their lead singer, Tom Verlaine, named himself after a French poet, with lyrics to match. More importantly, the band had a twin lead guitar attack and long songs, not the kind of thing punks were "supposed" to do in later times.

There's no better introduction than "See No Evil," first track on their first album. It drops right into a tight, killer riff, the edgy guitars cutting across Verlaine's oddly contoured voice. The song never fails to get the heart pumping, but when it gets to the guitar solo the song reaches heights of sublimity that fear other rock songs have ever reached. It might be my favorite guitar solo of all time, since it takes such an engaging song and knocks it straight into the stratosphere. The rest of the song afterward is merely comedown.

Is that solo "punk rock"? Not according the Pharisees of punkdom, but who the hell cares what they think anymore? Forty years later we can stop with the orthodoxy and enjoy true musical ecstasy.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pleasures and Pains of Solitude


This week I am in Atlanta at Emory University for a seminar. I basically get to take a class on 70s and 80s politics from a top scholar in the field, but my excitement is heavily tempered by having to be hundreds of miles away from my family for a week.

Moments like these bring me back to my old solitary existence. In college and grad school I mostly roomed with friends, which always kept me from feeling lonely. After that followed two years in Michigan and three years in Texas living in a one bedroom apartment. My first five months in Michigan, which were unbearably lonely, actually prompted me to get a cat. There is an art to being alone, and after awhile, I figured it out. I made sure to go out to the local diner every Wednesday for dinner, where I would sit at the counter and join the conversations. Before I made some great friends I would go to the bar on Saturday and talk with folks there too. Saturday morning also meant a trip to the diner, usually walking while I read from the Times (this was before smart phones.) I spent a lot of time at the local coffee house on the days when I didn't have to teach, and would walk instead of drive. I found these rituals fulfilling, and tried to copy them once I moved to Texas, although walking there was more difficult. Instead of walking to destinations I would take a Saturday morning stroll on a trail by a creek, enjoying the early morning silence and the beautiful East Texas trees.

In both places I had great friends to lean on, but when you live alone and your friends are married, it is not an emotionally equal exchange. You need them more than they need you, which is nothing against them, it's just the way of things. But without those friends, solitude can be really hard. I learned that during my research year abroad in Germany, where solitude was compounded by being a stranger in a strange land. That year, however, I also learned how to live with being alone, which was a great help later on. I also found my mind to be at its creative peak. There were no distractions, just myself and my research. I read more books that year than in any other year of my life, walked more steps, and exposed myself to more new things. When I came back to America I was happy to be back, but also energized by my year of solitude. Solitude can be good in isolation, but wearying as a permanent condition. It can bring almost unbearable moments of self doubt and isolation.

Nowadays these moments are rare, mostly riding the train to work. Because of my wife and daughters, I never have the feeling that I am alone in the world, and it is a comfort that I often take for granted. I was reminded of that today, walking into my absolutely bare dorm room home for this week. The sterile emptiness of this room where I am writing feels oppressive. Where are my wife, the children, the dog, the piles of clutter I normally complain about? There is nothing here but me and my thoughts. I guess the one truly great thing about spending a lot of time alone in my life is that it has trained me to face my thoughts, especially those nagging doubts that bubble up when I have the time and quiet to let them gurgle, as I am sure they do for you. I'll try to enjoy the pleasures of solitude this week, but I am glad that I already had a chance to meet up with an old friend today, and will see more this week.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 14


After a three week hiatus the Old Dad's Records Podcast is back on the air!

https://soundcloud.com/jason-tebbe/old-dads-records-14-i-only-have-eyes-for-you

This episode was inspired by a major jag of listening to doo-wop that I went on recently. I start by talking about "I Only Have Eyes For You" by The Flamingoes. My record of the fortnight is Flowers by the Rolling Stones. I thought I'd switch things up by doing a record by a big time group, but an album that's less well known. I finish up by raving about Sturgill Simpson, who I have recently been spinning quite a lot.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Political Observations After 4000 Miles Of Travel

My wonderful family road trip is now over. We went from New Jersey to Nebraska and back, with plenty of detours in both directions. Politics was one of the many things on my mind during those two weeks, and a LOT happened in Trumpworld. The president went abroad and gave a white identity speech and appeared to unite America's allies against him. The G20 summit looked like another chapter in America's fall from its perch as the "essential nation." Hardly anyone over here noticed, however, because the Russia scandal blew open even further. Junior provided the world evidence that his dad's campaign colluded with Russia. On top of all of that, Trump tweeted gross sexist stuff about Mika Brzezinski and violently threatened CNN in another tweet. He also joked with Putin about the press, the latter a man who has had journalists killed.

I have never seen a president have a two weeks like this, but as recent polling points out, a very high percentage of Republicans think Trump is doing a great job. Some people seem surprised by this, but I'm not. My trip these last two weeks has confirmed my theory that allegiance to political conservatism is primarily a matter of identity. Republicans view themselves as "real Americans," and anyone opposed to them as enemies of the state. Trump is thus ipso facto in the right, no matter what he does. It doesn't matter that he is the kind of wealthy, amoral New Yorker that these heartlanders typically profess to see as the mirror opposite of themselves. He is the chosen leader of their tribe, and as such, MUST be supported. All the talk of "Trump voters" has badly clouded the reality that after the primaries "Trump voters" are basically just Republicans.

At the same time, a lot of folks on the left make the mistake of thinking that this is the dominant identity of conservatives. I was a bit shocked, actually, at how little I heard about the president on my trip. In fact, I heard a lot about Chris Christie closing down beaches, but nothing about Trump. I get the feeling that a lot of conservatives are supporting him out of obligation, rather than enthusiasm. Nevertheless, they still and will always hate and fear liberals more than they will love and support anyone else. In any case, little of the opposing viewpoint will get past their filter. A reminder of this happened when we stopped at a roadside pizza place in rural Pennsylvania and Fox News was blasting away in the corner. This was a very common experience when I lived in rural Texas as well. Many parts of this country have public spaces dominated by what amounts to crass propaganda. Fighting that is an uphill battle, to say the least.

During the height of Jim Crow in the early 20th century any Republican trying to win over masses of white Democrats in the South would be considered a fool. Voting Democrat was a vote for the South, whomever the candidate happened to be. The dynamic today for white conservatives in large swathes of the country is pretty much the same. They might think that someone like Louie Gohmert is a dope, but they'd rather cut off their left arms than vote for a Democrat. Those who think they will get these voters to change their minds by magically making them see their "class interests" are fools. Any money spent on trying to get Republicans to vote for Democrats may as well just be set on fire.

I believe now more than ever that if the Democratic Party is going to win next year it needs to focus on getting its presidential election voters to the polls. This will mean not only a message that appeals to the base, but a massive effort to help voters targeted by suppression efforts to get registered and to get to the polls. (I am contemplating taking election day next year off of work so I can drive people to the polling places in the nearby purple districts currently represented by Republicans.) If the party wants new voters, it needs to find them in the large numbers of independent voters who do not currently vote in midterm elections, but who are not conservative. Again, the party needs to have a compelling message to get those people to want to vote, and "look how crazy those Republicans are" won't cut it.

It needs to be a message about what kind of country they want to build, not just policy wonkery. It should be a country where every person can get medical care, quality public education, and equal rights. A country that values immigrants. A country that protects its black and brown members with the same care as it protects its white members. A country where workers are fairly compensated and protected from exploitation. A country where women will not just be afforded equal rights, but provided the support needed (such as subsidized child care and birth control and protection against sexual assault) for them to lead fuller lives. A country where religion cannot be used as an excuse to persecute LGBTQ communities. A country that values schools over prisons. A country that values sharing wealth so that all may lead a life with dignity over making sure it goes into the hands of a few.

Conservatives, many of them seemingly decent people, are completely willing to support a corrupt criminal maniac in the White House because they see it as a way of asserting their identity and values. The other side needs to have its own values clarification if it wants to win. After this trip, I am more sure of that than ever.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Little Feat, "Willin'"


It's been a week since I've given y'all a post, which is the longest hiatus I've taken in quite some time. I was on the road visiting friends and family, and opted to let my thoughts percolate on the road rather than write hot takes. My more measured thoughts should be available here soon.

In the meantime, I'd like to talk about a song I found singing to myself quite a bit on this trip. Every good road trip needs a good playlist, and I made one for this trip full of country songs about roads and trucking, both venerable subgenres. While Little Feat were more of a funky Southern rock band, "Willin'" stands as one of the greatest trucker country songs ever, a field with some tough competition.

It's sung from the point of view of a tired, world-weary trucker who is nonetheless dedicated to delivering his load. He's also a kind of hippie trucker, singing that "If you give me weed, whites and wine/ And you show me a sign/ I'll be willing/ To be moving." "Whites" in this case means amphetamine pills, sometimes necessary for those overnight trips. The lines are sung with an aching tone, the words of a man who has married himself to the road and resigned himself to it.

In my younger days I often thought of making such a move. Listless and restless at age 24 I thought about spending some years long haul trucking to make some dough and get my life together. I went to get my PhD instead. I still took a lot of road trips, though. For awhile I was even making the trek from Texas to New Jersey and back once a year. I have never been able to meditate more deeply on my life than when I am behind the wheel, watching that old white line dash on by. The trip I just returned from, with my wife and two daughters, was not as meditative, but a whole lot more fulfilling. We sang along to music, played games, and awed at the many wonders outside our windows. Hearing this song along the way was a nice reminder of the pleasures the road, but also the good feeling that comes with having a true home in this world.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Political Weather Report From Nebraska

I am back in my hometown and enjoying some time with my family. I've also been gauging the political winds, curious about the reactions in this state to the president they gave 60% of their votes to. (In my home county, Adams, that number was 68%.) This is, of course, an unscientific study.

What I've found so far is a very quiet and subdued political mood. This is quite different from the hothouse atmosphere I experienced during the Obama years. Now it is to be expected that when the government is dominated by Republicans that conservatives will be satisfied with the state of things. However, I have really been struck by the lack of discussion of the president and his doings. It reminds me of the later Shrub years, when so many wanted to pretend that they were never associated with him.

I have also found it interesting to see subtle signs of critique of the president. Both my hometown paper and the Omaha World-Herald have run political cartoons critical of Trump. In the latter case, the cartoon was by an artist is usually quite conservative in the vein of The Onion's parody of political cartoonists. Also interesting is that both cartoons criticize Trump not for his failures or policies but for his lack of decorum.  Here's the one from the World-Herald for July 4th:

Trump is being unfavorably compared to Jefferson, portrayed as a kind of Dennis the Menace child next to the dignified Founder. (Of course, never mind his owning of human beings and second family mothered by one of his slaves.) While this might seem like a mild critique, it's much more pointed than what I am used to seeing from this artist in depicting a Republican president.

When it comes down to it, the people around here who voted for him were okay with his racism and misogyny, or at least willing to excuse it. In many cases, these things were prime motivators. However, his rudeness and vulgarity have worn thin with a people who are typically polite and value humility. (This is why I expected low turnout in Nebraska in the election, but the anti-Clinton animus and the genuine embrace of Trump's ideas overrode those considerations in November.) For many of these voters an undignified president is a bigger scandal than a bigoted one.

As far as I can tell, there does not seem to be much of a popular groundswell of support for the Republican health care plan, either. My hometown paper had a piece on the opinion page today basically arguing that animus against Obama was clouding the judgement of conservative politicians when it came to Obamacare.

I'd like to think that this dislike of Trump and apathy for the Republican agenda could be translated into electoral victories for Democrats, but I doubt it. Nebraska feels increasingly like a one party state. The locals may not like the way things are now, but outside of parts of Lincoln and Omaha, they'd rather cut off their left arms than vote for a Democrat. In the third district, where my hometown is located, the Democrats did not even run a candidate in the last election. The current representative, Adrian Smith, is a devotee of the Club For Growth, whose version of unshackled capitalism actually isn't all that popular around here. I wish someone would run against him and let the public know that. Then again, that candidate would probably still get clobbered.

The situation in Nebraska is repeated around the country. Party identity is now wrapped up into other identities, and thus voting for the other party is a kind of self-betrayal. I hate to say it, but I doubt that this phenomenon will be getting any weaker.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Letter To Governor Christie


I am writing this letter from a hotel room in Kansas City. I am currently on a family vacation with my wife and two daughters, on our way to visit my family in Nebraska. This is just as well, since if I was in New Jersey for the holiday I would be unable to enjoy many of the great places in the Garden State that my fellow New Jerseyans love to visit this time of year. Of course, that has not stopped you from enjoying a beach that you have effectively banned the rest of the state from due to your obnoxious stubbornness over the state budget, specifically trying to shake Horizon down for money.

My spouse is a public school teacher in New Jersey, which means we will see yet another health insurance premium burden caused directly by one of your decisions. For some reason you have vilified teachers throughout your time as governor. This obsession with attacking people who are building the future while being paid far less than the value of what they are worth has been sickening me for the last eight years. It has been personally painful to watch the woman I love work twelve-hour days trying to teach her students the best she can only to have her treated like dirt by the governor of the state she works for.

It goes beyond that, however. I have lived in many states, but never have I lived in a place where the governor had so directly and negatively impacted my life. My family now pays thousands of dollars a year more in health care premiums because of you. I commute into New York City with New Jersey Transit to work, and every time I have been stuck in yet another delay I immediately think of how you killed a second and much needed train tunnel. I use the Morris-Essex Line to get to the city, and now this summer I will have to find alternate means of transportation, because of you.
This has meant many days getting home later than planned, exhausted from a hard day of work and maddening delays on top of it. Those delays mean even less time spent with my four year old daughters. Not all of us get to take a helicopter home from work.

I have held off on telling you what I think of you because for a long time I legitimately thought that you loved the state of New Jersey, despite your misguided policies. Your behavior over the past two years has disabused me of that na├»ve notion. Instead of leaving the governorship while you ran for president you stayed in office, neglecting your duties and letting the state’s many problems fester. You did this all for a ridiculously failed campaign that did not garner a single delegate, a truly pathetic performance. After the state of New Jersey had long figured it out, the rest of the country finally caught on to what a terrible leader you are.

Of course, you ended your campaign by pulling a hit on Marco Rubio in a presidential debate on behalf of your new buddy, Donald Trump. At a time when many other Republicans were repulsed by his open calls to violence and racism, you embraced them. You and him are really two peas in a pod after all: lawbreakers with an authoritarian streak who are wholly incompetent leaders, burdened by emotional immaturity on a truly frightening scale. I have to say I had a good laugh when fellow scoundrel Jared Kushner pushed you aside because of your prosecution of his corrupt father. Karma can be tough.

So now here you are, despised in your home state, sitting there at Island Beach State Park in a spectacle of absolute contempt for the people that you are supposed to serve. You have given the people of this state the middle finger one more time.  I sure hope it is the last. I cannot wait for the day when you finally leave office and the man who has been a scourge on my state and my family finally moves aside.

That said, I am sure you will find work on Fox News or as a well-paid consultant and lobbyist. You probably will not face any real consequences for your many misdeeds. This is why I am writing you. I want you to know that you will have a legacy, and that legacy is being hated by the state of New Jersey more than any other state politician has ever been hated. Any contempt you show for us we feel for you ten fold. Despite all of your bluster, your governorship has been a complete and utter failure. If history remembers you at all, it will be as a footnote or a punch-line. If there is any justice in the universe, your name will remain spoken as a curse on the lips of the people of New Jersey for decades to come.

However, I do believe in the capacity for people to change. I do hope that in the fullness of time that you change your ways, and apologize to the people of this state for how you have grievously wronged them.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Signs Of The Times In St Louis

Today marked the biggest day of driving on our trip. We went from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to Kansas City, and after three days on the road I am pretty tired. This is fine, because we will be hitting the town in KC tomorrow, instead of hitting the road.

One of the best sights on the road today was crossing the Mississippi River, in St Louis as it perhaps flows mightiest at this point, absorbing the massive Missouri. We are hoping to get a closer look at St Louis on our way back to New Jersey, since I haven't really hit the town there since 1995. A lot of what I saw in St Louis today was a lot less inspiring than the river vistas, however.

My wife and I both like watching the signs on the highway, since they tend to reveal a lot. For example, once we saw a sign for a Joe's Crab Shack we knew that we had entered the more affluent outer suburbs, where the more upscale chain restaurants can be found. In St Louis I was taken aback by the number of aggressively Christian billboards, more than I've ever seen in an American city. In a big surprise, the Catholics seemed to be taking part as enthusiastically as the Bible thumpers, with billboards featuring the Virgin Mary mixed with those decrying evolution. It was at least interesting to see some ecumenicism when it came to simplistic billboard theology for a change.

As common as these religious messages were, they may have been outnumbered by tons of advertisements for casinos. I found all of this rather depressing, as these billboards often overlooked empty warehouses and abandoned buildings. St Louis' population loss rivals that of Detroit, and in the wreckage shysters are looking for easy marks whose despair can be manipulated into church pews or the craps table. Either way, the house always wins. It's also a sign of America writ large, where the search for easy, billboard-length answers to jarring changes has led to the current disaster in the White House.