Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Locker Room Talk

The discussion of Christine Blasey Ford's accusations against Brett Kavanaugh has brought back some buried memories of my time in high school.

I did not go to any parties in high school where drinking and drugs were present, but they were an omnipresent part of my teenage environment. Everyone knew about the "stoneys" who would get high before school. In my class there was even a group of "popular" guys who drank themselves into a stupor and called themselves the Brew Crew and even had their own t-shirts made (which they wore to football games.) In the rural Nebraska town where I grew up everybody knew teenage drinking and debauchery ran rampant.

My lack of interest in that culture was mostly due to my complete alienation from my high school's surroundings and my desire to get the hell out as soon as possible. (Once I got to college I started drinking and haven't looked back!) That was confirmed by what so many conservatives euphemistically call "locker room talk."

Most of this talk I heard in the literal locker room, after gym class, although I also heard plenty while working in the corn fields during detasseling season. Locker room talk mostly amounts to men discussing their purported sex with women, usually in a degrading and misogynistic way. What amazes me is that this has been used as a defense rather than an accusation. The president's Access Hollywood tape, for example, was written off as "locker room talk." This kind of talk is evidently the birthright of heterosexual men. If you were ever a boy in high school anywhere in America, you probably heard or engaged in your fair share of locker room talk.

It was my window into a different world, where I heard about all of the parties I wasn't attending and all of the sex I wasn't having. One consistent theme was humiliation. Girls who were willing to fuck, especially if they wanted to fuck more than one person or initiated sex, were branded sluts. The boys who fucked them, of course, were able to brag of their conquests. Sometimes this bragging was about how those girls had not only been fucked, but also demeaned in the process.

One boy who was especially awful boasted of how he had taken the panties of one girl and had put them on the antenna of his pickup truck for everyone to see. I remember another story about a boy intentionally getting his sperm in a girl's hair after a tryst a party in order to embarrass her. I heard that another girl in my class was nicknamed "blue lightning" for the veins in the very pale skin of her breasts.

When men defend their shitty behavior as "locker room talk" what they are really telling you is "I reserve the right in the company of men to demean and attack individual women in a sexual way." Anyone who uses this as a defense is telling on themselves.

Even if the allegations against Kavanaugh (which I believe) are not true, I still recognize his type from my high school days. The thought of one of those people being on the highest court in the land makes me sick with anger. The fact that one of them is in the White House is almost unbearable. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Old Dad's Records Celebrates Zepptember

I recorded a new podcast this weekend celebrating the blessed month of Zepptember. I even dared to discuss that most overplayed of songs, "Stairway to Heaven." In addition to that I dig into disc 2 of Physical Graffiti, a fascinating grab bag of Zepp styles. I end with a rave for the newest Lana Del Rey song.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Nostalgia For Other People's Nostalgia

My generation is a sucker for melted cheese-face British rock stars in dad jeans

I've got a new piece up at Tropics of Meta called "Nostalgia For Other People's Nostalgia: A Gen X Disease." I consider why it is that Gen Xers like myself are so connected to the music made before our time. I see it as a larger symptom of our lack of cultural power. I am pretty proud of it, please lemme know whatcha think.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Ben Sasse's Passive-Aggressive Conservatism

My home state, which produces corn and passive-aggressive Republican Senators

As loyal readers know, I hail from the prairies of Nebraska. While I left it 20 years ago it is still a place close to my heart, even if it becomes more foreign to me with each passing year. As a born and bred Nebraskan, I have been especially interested in the political career of Ben Sasse, the first Nebraska politician with a national profile since Bob Kerrey.

He sort of came out of nowhere on a cloud of conservative establishment and media hype, an Ivy League technocrat made Senator. The high fathers of the conservative movement positioned Sasse from the get-go as their scion. Unfortunately for him, he achieved this position right before Donald Trump captured the party's base with white nationalism. This has meant the twilight of the faux policy wonkery of "very serious people" conservatism embodied by the likes of Paul Ryan and yes, Ben Sasse. Sasse occasionally expresses alarm about this state of affairs. This week he claimed to think every day about leaving the Republican Party.

Of course, he hasn't.

Sasse wants to rip apart the social safety net, eliminate reproductive rights, and give even more power to the plutocratic overlords. That's basically the core mission of the Republican Party. He may criticize Trump every now and then, but he votes with him. Instead of using his power as a Senator to investigate the president, he attacks the protestors who dare to raise their voices against Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court. Sasse has always been much harsher in criticizing the people fighting Trump than Trump himself.

Take a look at Sasse's voting record and you'll get the real score. He has voted with Trump 86.7% of the time. Where has he deviated? Well, he voted against a relief package for Puerto Rico. He voted against a continuing resolution to fund the government. He also voted for sanctions against Russia. Sasse obviously does not favor the Trump administration's relations with Russia, but he actually wants it to be stingier with helping people in need, too. I get the feeling that this guy who wrote a book about kids these days needing to work to get character looks at old Lewis Hine pictures of barefoot children in textile mills and longs for the "good old days."

I see a lot of this in Sasse's background. Nebraska is a place where personal interactions thrive on passive-aggression. It is impolite to directly confront people or to "toot your own horn." Insults must be veiled in politeness and moralism. I told a much more blunt friend here in the NYC area that if she wanted to send a message to her departing boss that she was not sad to see him go that there was a Nebraska way to do it. Instead of ignoring him or not getting him a gift, she should get him a lame gift and give to him politely, but with little enthusiasm. That way she would maintain the moral high ground, but also make him know that she was not unhappy about his leaving. My people can be quietly cruel, and I include myself in that assessment.

Someone like Sasse dislikes Trump less for his policies than for his vulgarity. He wants Trump to beat down on immigrants (he voted against a bill that to favor immigrants also opposed by Trump) and immiserate the poor, but to do it with his hand over heart and language about "values" and "tough decisions we have to make." He wants him to Tweet Bible verses, not bravado. He wants a president who will decry abortion without assuming he paid for one.

There are plenty of conservatives out there who share Sasse's concern over Trump's ways of speaking who nonetheless endorse 90% of what he does. The one domestic policy they really and truly oppose is Trump's trade protectionism. That also happens to be a priority for the Koch brothers and other plutocrats who fund conservative politics. My bet is that Sasse is trying to get their attention, maybe for a primary campaign against Trump in 2020. I do no think he will run for re-election in Nebraska, because even his tepid criticism of Trump is going to get him getting primaried. If Trump isn't able to serve out this term, he is also putting himself in a prime position to move up in the future. Of course, he won't come out and say that himself. After all, that would be tooting his own horn.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Roxy Music, "More Than This"

The temperature dropped today in that very September way that signals the turn from summer into autumn. Autumn has always been my favorite season, and while every seasonal change dredges up memories both personal and musical, the one in September is by far the most evocative to me.

Perhaps it's because I was born in September, and my body is also aware that it has just completed another trip around the sun. It also doesn't hurt that as a teacher I am back in the classroom with a new cast of fresh faces.

Usually this time of year I bust out music that has long served as the soundtrack to this journey, like REM's Automatic for the People album. However, this year I rediscovered a song that is number one on my Top 40 autumn songs with a bullet: "More Than This" by Roxy Music.

I'd been diving back into Roxy after listening to a really good podcast episode about the making of their first record. I am a sucker for 1970s art rock and Brian Eno, so I love those first two albums before Eno split. I never really spent much time with what came after, partially because I just didn't "get" Brian Ferry's schtick. The tuxedoed crooner thing never seemed to work with the context of the music, which I felt was ill-served by the singer's approach.

I decided today to listen to the band's swan song, Avalon, an album an old girlfriend had loved but I could never give myself over to. For some reason "More Than This" really sank its teeth into me this time. It could have been the early 80s synthesizer production done right, the catchiness, or the lyrical theme of resignation, but I think it was the fall weather. It seemed to be the exact right song at the right time, a rumination on the unchanging nature of a world without redemption. As the song goes, "There's nothing more than this."

Seasonal changes are a reminder that nature and world will keep going with or without us. That can be a scary thought, but I find it comforting, even sublime. It was especially sublime to get that message from a song that truly revealed itself to me years after I first heard it. Big things rarely change, but small things can in the best ways. Here's to the small but profound changes.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Old Dad's Records (The 1975 Episode)

The newest episode of my podcast Old Dad's Records is up this week. Since yesterday was my birthday, I talk about the year I was born: 1975. I start with the Isley Brothers' "Fight The Power," which I consider to be one of the last gasps of the long 1960s. After that I dig into the Bee Gees' Main Course album, which was on the charts the month I was born. That record was a transitional one, just the like the era that produced it. I finish by lauding the most recent Guided By Voices record, proof positive that aging doesn't have to suck.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Sharp Objects And The Power Of Led Zeppelin

Prestige television has all kinds of genre conventions, from "complicated" leads to eerie opening credits. One of the more inconsistent is the use of popular music. I guess we can blame this on David Chase, who used music masterfully on The Sopranos. Few of his imitators are as good.

It'd been awhile since any TV show had used popular music in a way that excited me. Plenty, like Handmaid's Tale, were so ham-fisted and maladroit in their use of music that I had to stop watching them. However, Sharp Objects actually did something interesting.

There's a lot of Led Zeppelin, which was a shock since Page and Plant are very protective of having their music used by others. For a long time they would just not license anything. The very fact that they gave their assent was a sign that something good was happening here. After the last episode I thought that I would never be able to hear "Thank You" or "In The Evening" the same way again.

It's rare that a film or TV can alter the meaning of music that is so ingrained in the culture. Usually this happens with obscure songs that get used in things, allowing people to discover them by associating the song with the film or show. Quentin Tarantino has a strong track record of this kind of thing going back to "Stuck In The Middle With You" in Reservoir Dogs, for instance.

Jean-Marc Vallee pulled off this coup because he understands the deeper currents in Zep. On the surface level, Led Zeppelin are the avatars of cock rock, the unfortunate wellspring for every hair metal band in the 80s. (Those groups always name-checked Zeppelin in their interviews.) This is the Zeppelin of "Black Dog" and "Whole Lotta Love," a swaggering parody of male sexual desire.

However, there is another, better version of Zeppelin. Their best songs are less bombastic and more mysterious, evoking uncanny and spooky feelings. Even some of their most famous tracks, like "Kashmir," have this element. Vallee used one of their later tunes, "In The Evening," for this effect. While the lyrics are very cock rockish, the start is spooky, and the riff that comes crashing in has a loopy, disoriented quality to it. The uncannyness of Zeppelin is why I tend to listen to them the most in the spring and especially the fall, when you can feel the life of the earth draining away on a brisk October evening. This feeling is perfect for the very spooky and unsettling Sharp Objects.

Led Zeppelin had an infamous reputation in the 1970s, from the "shark incident" (look it up, if you dare) to Jimmy Page having a relationship with a teenaged girl. The misogynistic pig culture of 70s rock bands was turned up to 11 with them. However, Sharp Objects shows how the music itself is often very appealing to young women. It's a young woman who turns Camille on to their music. When I was in 10th grade it was a junior girl whose Zeppelin fandom inspired me to listen deeper than "Stairway to Heaven." The Led Zeppelin tribute album that came out in the mid-1990s had a couple of good tracks amidst the dross (as all tribute albums do), and Tori Amos' take on "Thank You" was probably the best.

That song was meant as a romantic dedication from a man to a woman, but in Sharp Objects it stands in for the relationship between Camille and the young woman who introduces her to Led Zeppelin in the mental hospital. "Thank You" probably works better as a hymn to deep friendship than romantic love, and that's how I'll hear it from now on.

That such a reinterpretation is possible is down to the depth of the source material. "Thank You" is almost fifty years old now, but hardly feels so. Sharp Objects stands as a reminder that Led Zeppelin made far more meaningful music than we often give them credit for.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Long Shadow Of The 2000 Republican Primary

With the death of John McCain everyone seems to have an opinion, but few are doing much in the way of analysis. I am not much interested in "McCain good" and "McCain bad" takes. I've been thinking of why there has been so much public discussion of a six term Senator who was a fairly conventional conservative in his ideology. He was not a Senator like Henry Clay or Ted Kennedy, responsible for driving legislation forward. It's not just his military service, either since decorated vets like Daniel Inouye served in the Senate and were mourned at their passing, but not like this.

People who spend all their time on Twitter seem to forget that most people do not engage in politics on an ideological level. If you look at ever presidential election in my lifetime, the more charismatic candidate won every single time. Personalities and symbolism are often more important. I've met Sanders supporters who were not all that far to the left, for example. Those voters responded less to "Medicare for all" and more the anti-establishment message.

In 2000, John McCain was the most charismatic of the presidential candidates, but he did not even make it to the general election. The Republican establishment got fully behind George W Bush, including spreading racist rumors about McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh. A lot of McCain's charisma came from the enthusiasm of the media, who will always give the benefit of the doubt to someone who gives good copy. (This also explains Chris Christie.) If McCain, not Bush, had secured the nomination he would have won so handily against Gore that vote counting irregularities would not have been necessary in Florida.

Regardless of how real it was, McCain's aura of "straight talk" was popular with voters who had tired of the dissembling of Clinton and Gingrich, the two dominant figures of 1990s politics. It didn't matter that McCain was pretty much a garden-variety conservative, or that he was implicated in the Savings and Loan disaster as part of the Keating Five. He communicated more directly, something voters craved. That desire for "authenticity" also had a lot to do with the appeal of a different insurgent candidate: Donald Trump.

McCain's throttling at the hands of the Republican establishment in 2000 gave him the kind of goodwill that has led to the broad outpouring of emotion in the last few days. It has also obscured the more disturbing implications of that moment. For one, once McCain decided to run for president, he started caving to the Bush administration on its failed wars. The man who seemed to be the "maverick" willing to criticize members of his party started acting lobotomized. In 2008 he unleashed Sarah Palin, the John the Baptist of the Tea Party and Donald Trump, on the country.

While McCain did a monumentally important thing be refusing to vote for the repeal of the ACA, he mostly voted with the Trump administration. After all, he is a conventional conservative, and Trumpism is merely Reaganite conservatism with the white nationalism turned up to 11. When the president would commit some awful act, McCain would express "concern." This is the most he or other supposedly "maverick" Republicans like Sasse, Flake, and Corker ever seem to manage.

That reality hasn't been much represented in the current discourse after his death. I think this has to do with the long shadow of the 2000 election, and the belief that many Americans have that it is possible for our system to have a politics above politics. That, honestly, was a big part of Barack Obama's appeal in 2008. Many will deride this kind of politics as "centrist," but I am a believer in acknowledging political realities and working within them to win. If a left or progressive agenda is going to succeed, it needs to be wedded to the right symbolism and appeal to this longing for transcendence, no matter how unrealistic it is. In this country ideological appeals will only get you so far.

Friday, August 24, 2018

New School Year's Resolutions

Time to dispense some advice to myself

I am an educator, which means that I do not measure the passage of time by the calendar year, but by the school year. On Monday I go back for my first day of pre-school year preparation at the New York City independent high school where I teach. I feel it is always good to make a list of new school year's resolutions.

I Will Read Books On The Train During My Commute

I mostly did this last year, and it was great for my mental health. Too often I would scroll through Twitter or listen to podcasts, and when I got home at the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I could not read without passing out. Reading is by far the most meaningful spare time activity for me. If I do not have time to read I may as well not be alive. I am saving the podcasts for when I am doing household chores and the like, and hoping I can keep the Twitter use to rare moments.

I Will Lean Into Parenting When I Get Home From School

This is a big one. After enduring my commute after a long day of work, I am usually ready to just collapse into my chair and zone out. During the school year it feels like I barely see my children during the week, and I need to do more to make the most of our time together. This also keeps me from scrolling through social media or reading the news and getting depressed. Plus my kids need my support as they go into the first grade this year.

I Will Not Get Sucked Into Drama and Petty Bullshit In My Workplace

I have a great job and I teach with wonderful colleagues, but even in such fortunate circumstances there's going to be drama and petty bullshit. That's something that's just endemic to the American workplace. It can be even worse in the hothouse atmosphere of schools and universities with a lot of people used to being leaders of their classroom domain. Teachers also tend to have big personalities (part of the reason I love working with them.) Of course, this can lead to personality conflicts. In life I tend now to have a practice where I assume best intentions. In the rare case after giving someone the benefit of the doubt and they turn out to have bad intentions, I do my best to disengage and not get bogged down in their negativity.

I Will Try To Get Seven Hours of Sleep A Night

I resolve this every year, and rarely go through with it. Part of the issue is that I need to get up at 5:30 AM to get to work, and the hour or two at night that I get to myself is so precious. Hopefully I do better this year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Morning After The Newsgasm

Late yesterday afternoon the Trump Era's axis seemed to tilt once again. The news of Michael Cohen's plea deal directly implicating Trump came minutes after news of Paul Manafort's conviction on eight felony counts. Soon news came of early Trump supporter Duncan Hunter's fraud.

I've started calling events like these "newsgasms." Yesterday afternoon before the news broke I had just happened to buy a bottle of ten year aged bourbon, and I cracked it open last night to watch the news shows with my wife like it was a playoff sports game. I was feeling something I had not felt in months: hope. (The toppling of the Confederate statue in Chapel Hill the day before had already lifted my spirits, so this was a rare multiple newsgasm.)

Now I am sitting in the hard bright morning light thinking about what happens next. Don't get me wrong, I do not have a hangover, either from the news or from the whiskey. Part of me is well aware that prior outrages and revelations from Trumpworld have yet to shake the Republicans' support of him. Trump's allies will follow him to the gates of hell. In regards to family separation, they already have.

Even if this seems like an insurmountable fact of political life, it still must be assailed. As I have said before, the legal system and Mueller are not going to save us. The Democratic Party is certainly not going to save us. Only we can save ourselves. This will all only mean something if we mobilize.

Certainly this means mobilizing for the election, since Trump and his criminal gang will not be held accountable until his enablers are voted out of office. An opportunity is presenting itself at the right time. The Republicans are playing defense, it is time to bring the fight to them as forcefully as possible all the way until November.

There is another and more urgent need for mobilization, however. The Kavanaugh nomination threatens to firmly put the control of the Supreme Court in the hands of people who want to take away LBTQ, civil, labor, and reproductive rights. Kavanaugh is tremendously unpopular, but conservatives have been pushing to control the court for decades and they will do seemingly anything to accomplish that goal, including following Trump to the gates of hell. However, if it is clear that Trump has been directly implicated in criminal behavior, there is a chance that the likes of Flake and McCain can be peeled off, and that's all we need. They will be less likely to chicken out if we are in the streets demanding that Trump not be able to nominate someone who will be judging his criminal behavior. The same goes for spineless Dems like Manchin and Heitkamp who somehow think supporting Kavanaugh will get them conservative voters.

I'm not saying any of this is guaranteed to work, but it beats the hell out of sitting back and watching MSNBC and praying for Mueller or Tweeting fatalistic "I told you so" snark. That will accomplish nothing.

You've probably asked yourself how you would behave in a time of political crisis. Well guess what, now's your chance to find out. Let's get to work.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Old Dad's Records 29 (Rock And Roll All Night)

Last night I recorded the most recent episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records. This time I went "live on the nines." As my Facebook friends know, I did a poll last week to determine the album to be discussed, and the winner was Cheap Trick's At Budokan. Before getting into that great record, I talk about KISS and "Rock and Roll All Night." I despise KISS for many reasons I get into, but I do love that particular song. I end the episode with an appreciation of Aretha Franklin. In particular I talk about her amazing ability when it came to reinterpreting other people's songs and making them better.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Nearly Fatal Dose of Fatalism

"Calling It Quits" by Aimee Mann is on my mind right now

After the 2016 election I did some soul-searching, and realized that I had been far too willing to not engage myself directly in politics. During the Bush years I had gone to anti-war protests and was involved in a successful grad student unionization movement at my university. When I lived in Texas I contacted my representatives so that they could not pretend that all of their constituents supported their Tea Party agenda. After moving to bluer New Jersey I got apathetic, and with new family obligations, I was not staying active. The presence of the Obama administration also helped put me at ease.

Since the election I have been very involved. My Senators are basically on my speed dial. I left an angry message on the leader of the state senate's voicemail when he was talking about maintaining budget austerity. I have been involved in too many protests to count in the past year and a half. I have led teach-ins at my school. I have donated not insignificant sums of money to political candidates. 

All of a sudden this month in the dog days of summer I lost the spirit, as they say in church. For example, I did not attend any of the protests in nearby Bedminster while Trump was staying there. I had always been there during his prior stays.

Looking back on it, I think the Helsinki meeting and my visit back home set me on a path to fatalism. I think that the family separation policy is by far the most monstrous thing that the Trump administration has done (right up there with banning Syrian refugees), the Helsinki debacle was the kind of thing that was so transparent and public that the media and a good chunk of Republicans would be unable to deny that this presidency is not normal. For maybe a day or two, media figures seemed genuinely outraged, and let the bullshit "objectivity" -which is mostly cowardice- drop. Within a week, however, no member of the administration had resigned, and the press was back to covering Trump the way they always did, as if their viewing public had all gotten lobotomies. Going home was a lesson that even conservatives who do not personally like Trump will not turn on him as long as they a union-busting, anti-abortion judge. Literally nothing is ever going to change their minds, including the proverbial shooting on Fifth Avenue.

This was a fact that I had KNOWN abstractly in my head for awhile, but for the first time I truly FELT it palpably in my soul.

Earlier this week I started to wonder if I should be focused on how to survive and protect others in the inevitable autocratic oligarchy, rather than thinking that my resistance to it can matter in any meaningful way. I had hope for the election, but hearing about the extent of voter suppression and the Democrats' weak appeals has drained that hope. A friend who feels similarly came up with the word I had been searching for: fatalism.

I had three hours behind the wheel today driving alone from Baltimore to Maplewood, and that gave me the opportunity to really think about all this. I concluded that I am right to be pessimistic. I think what we are witnessing has a 50-50 chance to be like the destruction of Reconstruction after 1877, and that thought scares the hell out of me. At the same time, I think it is dangerous to let that pessimism turn into fatalism. If the stakes are truly that high, I cannot live with myself sitting on the sidelines.

I am, however, going to think long and hard about whether the kinds of political action I am taking are fruitful, and how I might use my time, money, effort, and abilities more effectively. This has included the odd thought of running for local offices controlled by the godawful New Jersey Democratic machine. As I reminded myself, I could not live with myself otherwise. Now time to go out and push that boulder. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Charlottesville One Year On

Today marks the anniversary of the murder of Heather Heyer at the hands of Nazis. I remember hearing the news right after I returned from a different protest, this one at Donald Trump's golf course in Bedminster, where he was staying at the time. As if that tragedy was not bad enough, the president's comments, which displayed sympathy towards the Nazis, showed for all the world to see that the man who was willing to venomously attack just about anybody -including gold star parents- did not want to offend violent racists.

The next day I took part in a candlelight vigil and march here in Maplewood, New Jersey. A lot of people showed up, and attendance crossed the racial and class lines that often divide this town. Trump's reaction to Heyer's death seemed at the time like it could be a kind of breaking point.

I even felt that for a minute, but that was a hopelessly naive thought. Here we are one year later, and Republicans are still just as loyal to Trump. As I have said before, they signed a blood pact with him, and in any case, the Republican party espouses a respectable, lite version of white nationalism as its official doctrine. The vast majority do not follow Trump despite his racism, they have maintained their loyalty BECAUSE of it.

Since then the outrages have only increased. This summer we have seen children kidnapped from their parents and put in cages for the crime of seeking asylum legally in the United States. There has been a wave of stories about unprecedented corruption. The president himself appeared to sell out the United States to a foreign dictator live on international television.

And yet the Democrats are in doubt over whether they will succeed in this year's elections. That might seem insane, but notice how so few people have recalibrated themselves to deal with the current situation, which is nothing less than the early stages despotic rule. Democrats still insist on playing it safe in their political strategy, just like before. Various people on the left refuse to make common cause with liberals, just like before. Most importantly, Republicans have gone all in on this.

A year after Charlottesville I want us to remember Heather Heyer, and to give thanks to those who showed up and stood up to Nazis. But I also want us to remember this event to remind ourselves of the perniciousness of what we are up against. The Moloch of Trumpism cannot be shamed. It cannot be talked to or persuaded. It cannot be expected to just go away. It can only be confronted, and once confronted, it must be destroyed. And that's going to require a lot more fight than we have been giving it so far, myself included.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Billboard Top Ten August 12, 1978

I feel the need to do another top ten. Every now and again I get obsessed with the pop music of the 1978-1981 period, which I call the Reagan Dawn. There were some amazing studio musicians back then laying down the tracks, right before the 80s and everything became computerized. This particular countdown is one chock full of smooth music played by real pros. Now on with the countdown!

10. Andy Gibb, "An Everlasting Love"

In 1978 the Bee Gees bestrode the earth like a colossus. Andy Gibb was too young to have been in the band, but he had his own career in the late 70s with songs and production by big bro Barry. At that time every he touched turned into gold, until a massive backlash suddenly made the Bee Gees persona non grata in the 1980s. The Bee Gees themselves put out a lot of great records, but Andy Gibb's stuff is a lot spottier. This song is not much to write home about, and is certainly no "Shadow Dancing."

9. Walter Egan, "Magnet and Steel"

This is the song that sent me down the late 70s rabbit hole. I think it was made for hot, dog days August evenings. It's the perfect smooth song to play while sipping a cocktail by the pool with the bugs chirping. The background vocals have always entranced me, and I recently discovered they were by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, which makes sense. It has that slinky magic of the Fleetwood Mac songs of the era, with a touch of doo-wop.

8. Barry Manilow, "Copacabana"

I am not much of a Manilow fan but this is an insanely catchy tune. It's also an example of how disco brought in lots of Latin rhythms to pop music. This song is also strange in that it puts a story song into a disco context. Most disco songs are not meant to have you care about the lyrics, but hey, Barry writes the songs.

7. Pablo Cruise, "Love Will Find A Way"

Listen to this song and snort up a pure, uncut rail of Yacht Rock. It is a shockingly indirect song for such a big hit, but the sound was perfect for the time.

6. A Taste Of Honey, "Boogie Oogie Oogie"

A Taste of Honey is often trotted out at Grammy time, just to remind folks that they were once given the Best New Artist Award. It's a good reminder that the Grammys have always been trash. HOWEVER, this song is a highlight of the disco era. The bass is classic busy disco bass, just walking all over the damn place. Disco completed the pioneering efforts of funk and reggae to liberate the bass as an instrument, and for that, I salute it.

5. Foreigner, "Hot Blooded"

This right here is the Mount Olympus of cock rock. Mainstream hard rock was self-parodying itself to Spinal Tap levels by 1978, and this song is proof. Mick Jones as always lays down a killer, catchy riff, and Lou Gramm sings like he's got his testicles in his throat. Foreigner were the ultimate avatar of mainstream rock in the late 70s, which was competent, faceless, and corporate.

4. The Rolling Stones, "Miss You"

For decades years now Stones fans have been saying their new albums are "their best since Some Girls" in an effort to convince themselves that they didn't waste thirteen bucks at Best Buy on Voodoo Lounge. That album is the benchmark because of songs like "Miss You." The Stones have always kept the roll in rock and roll, and on this song they actually went full disco with the bass and drums. Sugar Blue's harmonica also gives the song a unique sound, Mississippi by way of Studio 54. Forty years later the Stones have had some hits and misses, but no new songs this good.

3. Donna Summer, "Last Dance"

I will always love this song, since it was (by our request) the last song played at our wedding. Donna Summer has got to be one of the most important and best-selling musical artists with the least amount of critical recognition. I blame the opprobrium heaped onto disco, as well as producer Giorgio Moroder getting credit for everything. When this song starts to take off after the soft opening she really gives it wings. RIP

2. Frankie Valli, "Grease"

Jersey boy Frankie Valli had been one of the great pop stars of the pre-Beatles 60s, but had an improbable comeback in the 70s with songs like "Oh What A Night" and "Grease." The lime green suit and fly collar combo in the video clip is almost as 70s as the lite disco accompaniment. More importantly, the song was written by Barry Gibb, whose golden touch extended beyond the Bee Gees in the late 70s. It is kind of amazing how certain songwriters and producers can just nail down the sound of a particular time, then get pushed aside so soon afterward.

1. The Commodores, "Three Times A Lady"

The Commodores had once been a preposterously funky band. (Just listen to "Machine Gun" and "Brick House.") Then, at some point Lionel Richie sold his funk soul to the pop music devil. I know some people like him, but his love songs are unbearably schmaltzy, including this one. The turning away of funk for pop stardom was the ultimate Reagan Dawn move.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The White Supremacy Of Not Caring

The phrase "white supremacist" conjures up visions of Klan robes and shaved heads and swastika tattoos. These days one might also think of a Trump rally. These very obvious manifestations of white supremacy are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. White supremacy is maintained in this country less by openly expressed hate, and more by quiet, subtle, apathy.

One of America's dirty little secrets is that while white Americans by and large don't give a shit about the lives of people of color they don't talk about it much, either. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. I know a lot of quiet white supremacists who are not vocal Trump supporters, do not express open bigotry, and in some cases are not even conservative. Many of them also don't even really seem to think a whole lot about race.

It's something they'd rather not think about at all. They have internalized the racist hierarchy in their minds, and so feel no need to examine their skin privilege, or even to think that such a thing exists. Their position in society is natural, as far as they are concerned, the product of hard work. When things happen that display the massive levels of racism in this society, they just choose to ignore it and just not care about it.

When Trayvon Martin was murdered, they assumed he must have done something to deserve it. (Repeat this for every time a black person is murdered by the police.) They look at the system of mass incarceration and only think that it's a fine thing that so many criminals are off of the streets. When Flint's water was turned into poison, they just turned the page and moved on. When immigrant children were kidnapped and jailed, they told themselves "well, they were breaking the law" and maybe, just maybe, thought "it's really too bad that had to happen." They heard Trump's racist rants and maybe didn't like them, but still went in to vote for him for a tax cut or an anti-abortion judge on the Supreme Court.

The protests by NFL players are the ultimate litmus test of this phenomenon. While I support the protesting players, I can understand but not agree with those who disapprove of their methods, if and only they are also upset about the police killings inspiring those protests. The thing is, I have never met one of these unicorns. The same people made at the kneeling are, surprise surprise, the same who never said a single word when Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and so many others were murdered. Why? Because they tacitly support the racist system responsible. 

And when you meet these people, you will often find that they are "nice" people. They are friendly, respectful in their speech, and may even have close friends and family members who are not white. Some people are amazed at the stories of white Trump voters whose immigrant spouses were later deported. I am not surprised in the least. White supremacy in America is violently maintained by the state, but those who approve of that system mostly do not do so by screaming "Build the Wall!" but by hearing about immigrant children abused in custody, shrugfully saying "that's a shame," and not giving it a second thought. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

New Episode of Old Dad's Records

This week I recorded another episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records. This edition came out of my West Coast vacation, and the theme was gloomy Los Angeles music. The song this time was The Doors' "Light My Fire." It is super uncool to like The Doors these days, but I must admit they came into my life at an absolutely crucial point. After I talk perhaps too enthusiastically about The Doors, I pull The Seeds' first album off of my pile of old records. I found this gem at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, a truly wonderful store. I am a Sixties garage rock junkie, I must admit. This is despite the, shall we say, problematic nature of the genre's gender politics. There is something about the loud hum of the sound of that music that I can't resist. I end with a new song, this one by Lana Del Rey. Her character is Hollywood to the hilt, but the tragic boulevard of broken dreams Hollywood. She is the Weimar-esque cabaret torch singer our dying empire needs.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Hollowed Out (My Hometown As A Microcosm Of The "New Economy")

The Chautauqua Pavilion, a relic of my hometown's Progressive Era boom years

When I was back in my rural Nebraska hometown of Hastings last week I had the pleasure to go on a thirteen mile bike ride around the town with my dad. We went to pretty much every corner of the town of 24,000, and I was able to see more vividly than from my car window what's been happening in it.

Hastings is not typical economically, but many of the broader trends are remarkably visible there nonetheless. The town initially grew up in the Gilded Age as a railroad junction where the Burlington and Union Pacific came together. Growing up timing a trip across town had to include some extra minutes to account for waiting for a train, since there was no under or overpass on the Union Pacific as there was on the Burlington. After the economic depression of the 1890s the town boomed in the early twentieth century. It was my great fortune to have grown up in a town that had its youth in the Progressive Era, which meant the library, parks, and schools were all well-made and well-supported.

It's economic high point came in the 1940s, with the building of a massive naval ammunition plant on the edge of town for World War II. (My dad's father, too old for the draft, worked there.) The city's population increased by a third, but that would be the last major economic boost. After the war small industry assisted by proximity to the railroads remained (and still does), and the city persisted as a commercial center for the surrounding rural area.

However, when the interstate was built through the state, it went through larger Grand Island, 24 miles north. There is a line of broken down and abandoned motels on highway six in Hastings attesting to the significance of this decision. Then, in the 1980s, Nebraska's farm economy took a major hit, forcing many farmers into foreclosure. This is evident in the small towns in Hastings' orbit, which mostly look beaten down and half-abandoned. The industrial sector is still thriving (unlike elsewhere), but the commercial economy has greatly declined. The Union Pacific re-routed their tracks to bypass the town in the 1990s, which seemed to say something about its reduced place in the world.

What you see in my hometown now is something you see around the country: the squeezing out of the middle. I was lucky to be from a middle class family that stayed up during the squeeze, others were not. My old neighborhood is evidence of this. It was built in the 1960s, consisting of very small, box-shaped ranch houses. Growing up it was solidly lower-middle class and people owned their homes. Now many of the homes are rentals, as home ownership even in a market as cheap as Nebraska's is increasingly difficult.

Businesses that cater to the disappearing middle (and especially lower-middle) are also struggling. The local Perkins and Applebee's restaurants are closing, in the midst of what is supposed to be an economic boom. Allen's, the local department store with its own grocery store is now closing everything except for food. The last non-box store general clothing store (Herberger's) is closing too. (I got a couple of things there and mourned the place I bought all my school clothes as a kid.) The local men's store and tailor is still going downtown, but anyone not wanting to buy a men's suit either has to go to Wal-Mart or drive 24 miles to Grand Island. Herberger's was the last holdout in the ironically named Imperial Mall, now a giant dead rotting hulk visible from my parents' front window. Behind it are an abandoned theater, grocery store, and restaurant, likely to be ruins forever.

Many more local establishments are gone now too. A legendarily wild bar with a dance floor called the Second Street Slammer, due to the bars on its windows, is also closed. So is the local family restaurant, the OK Cafe, as well as Bernardo's, the steak house where I marked all kinds of family milestones, from my sister's wedding rehearsal dinner to my grandparents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Ponderosa Lanes is no longer setting up the bowling pins.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course. The local bookstore, Prairie Books, is still going downtown after the death of one of its owners. The beautiful historic municipal baseball park, Duncan Field, now has a summer league team. However, the places that are new and thriving are the ones catering to the affluent, rather than the middle. There are two coffee shops downtown, a new fine dining restaurant that takes reservations (!), two (!) microbreweries and old building lofts being converted into condos, including the home of an old brewery that had never been occupied by anything in my lifetime. Perhaps these innovations will attract the educated professionals who rarely come back after growing up in Hastings, and who do not stay long if they move in from away. Be that as it may, it is obvious that in Hastings, like everywhere else, those at the top are doing well for themselves.

Things are not so great for those squeezed down. For a town with a very low unemployment rate, Hastings has blocks and blocks of dilapidated housing, some of it built in a temporary, slap-dash fashion for war plant workers in the 40s. Working-class neighborhoods look worse for wear, some scruffier, some practically squalid. I got wind of the literal squeeze at the county fair, when I overheard a conversation about a factory worker experiencing wage theft. The low wages that make Hastings attractive to bosses make living tough for workers. Now even Wal-Mart might be too expensive to shop in. There are now three dollar stores in town, one in the cancerous growth of box stores on the edge of town, two others in working class areas on the other side of the tracks where other stores and restaurants lie vacant. 

That vacancy can be seen elsewhere. While associational life in Hastings might be stronger than in many other communities, it is much less pronounced than it used to be. At the county fair there were many, many, fewer civic organizations with tables than 20 years ago, and all of them had conservative religious or political (or both) orientations. A got a graphic glimpse of this when biking past what was once the Knights of Columbus Hall, which is now an auction house touting the sale of guns and ammunition. The Tribune, the Monday-Saturday daily paper, still lives but it is thinner than boarding house soup. When I attended 11 o'clock mass with my parents at one of the two Catholic churches I was shocked at how few people were there, even accounting for it being summer. (There is a megachurch in the aforementioned cancerous growth on the edge of town, so perhaps this represents more a shift than a lack of engagement.)

Associational life is a plumb necessity in an isolated Plains town like Hastings, but even there it is going the way of the dodo. While people what they call "the Heartland" often feel apart from the broader currents of American society, they are not. My hometown, like so many others, is one more atomized and divided by class than ever before. At least they have IPAs.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Political Dispatch From Rural Nebraska

Saw this at the county fair in my hometown. Evidently 2nd Amendment porn is a category

I just arrived back home in New Jersey from visiting my family in rural Nebraska, and unlike those journalists who parachute in and talk to the random cranks at the local diner, I actually know the section of "middle America" I'm writing about. Those same journalistic paratroopers also make the same mistake of seeing "between the coasts" as a giant, undifferentiated mass, as if Dallas, Chicago, rural Alabama, and the mountain west are all the same.

I can't speak for other places, I can only tell you what I saw and know from Nebraska. The main thing I noticed was that nothing has really changed from this time last year when I visited when it comes to support for Donald Trump. What I discovered then, as now, is that his support in the Cornhusker State is akin to the state's Platte River, famously described as "a mile wide and an inch deep." He has his hardcore supporters, of course, but I was surprised yet again by how little people there talk about him, when he's all people seem to talk about where I live. Trump seems to get most of his shallow yet dependable support due to the kind of identity politics that don't get discussed much in the press.

A lot of folks in what some call "the Heartland" think of themselves as Real Americans. They also think that voting Republican is a kind of membership renewal ritual for maintaining that status. In their minds liberals are bad people who come from outside and don't share their values. They would rather cut off their right arms than ever vote for a Democrat, it would be akin to them desecrating a crucifix. With that mindset in place, these same voters could find Trump personally repugnant, but at the end of the day he stands for People Like Us, aka Real Americans.

I talked to multiple people on this trip, some strangers and some not, who knowing I live in New Jersey would wrinkle their noses and say "How do you like living THERE?" Or I would get "I could NEVER live in a place like that!" The passive-aggression of those comments wore me out. They literally could not understand how I could have possibly decided to move out of Real America to the east coast. What I noticed more than anything on this trip was how embedded the politics of resentment have become in a place like rural Nebraska.

This paradigm of Real America is incredibly strong and explains a lot of behavior that outsiders don't get. For example, there all kinds of people who scratch their heads at devout Christians supporting a lying, cheating, adultering greedhead who brags about never turning the other cheek. The answer is simple: the true evil are the liberals, and anyone who stands for Real Americans can never be wrong because they are, after, the real America. The media screws this up when they keep talking about "populism" when this is really an issue of nationalism. The reporters really find it more comforting to think that these white people in the hinterlands are mad about their jobs and not animated by an exclusionary bigotry that sees those very reporters as evil people.

The biggest political attitude I seemed to get in rural Nebraska was one of avoidance. I get the feeling that I lot of people know that they signed a devil's bargain with Trump, but they could never allow themselves to question their choice. Therefore nothing seemed to register. The news of relief for farmers hurt by Trump's tariffs was out there, but no one seemed to be talking about it. The kidnapping of immigrant children and Trump publicly selling out the country to Putin might as well have never happened. The only people talking about Trump were those who despise him, who are making their voices louder against long odds.

However, they are extremely marginalized. I went to the county fair while I was back home, and in the area where civic groups have their tables I was taken aback by the lack of a Democratic Party stall. When I was a child both parties would have candidates to talk to people and plenty of swag to hand out. There were also few civic organizations that were not religious or politically religious in nature. The local Christian radio station was there, as were the Gideons and anti-abortion groups. The range of ideological diversity expressed in a public forum like that basically runs from solid conservative to Christian dominionism.

While in that section I ran into someone who was two grades behind me in school who now has seven children that she home schools. (Her new baby was really cute.) In rural Nebraska that's not looked on as being out of the ordinary (and I'm not judging btw), but moving to New Jersey is. My prediction for the political future is that rural Nebraskans will never ever abandon the Trump train, even if their support for him personally is pretty scant.

Apart from that shallow but wide river of support I have noticed an alarming rise in blatantly racist and fascist activity in my home state. I read about three of these stories in the Omaha paper on the same damn day, here's a sampler:

Fascist white supremacist posters put up in Hastings (my hometown)

20 foot swastika burned into the lawn of an Omaha park

A white bicyclist berated a black woman with a racist tirade in Omaha

Small town of Scribner considers adopting a "show your papers" law

Nazi propaganda found in "little free libraries" in Lincoln

The extreme fascist bigots are flexing their muscles. Nebraska liberals have been publicly countering this stuff, but conservatives and those in the middle really just don't seem to care. So while I have not witnessed deep enthusiasm for Trump, there is broad apathy about the worst of what he has brought.

Anyone who thinks these voters can somehow be "turned" by the right message is deluded. My great sadness is that winning is going to require getting the people who don't vote to vote, and that requires messages and imagination that are completely absent from the Democratic Party. In the meantime, the Real Americans will keep voting, and keep passively supporting this criminal administration through their apathy.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Disney's Main Street USA and The Long Pre-History of Trumpism

Today I took my children to Disneyland. It was a lot more fun for me than I had anticipated, but I could not help but to analyze my experience through my knowledge of the park's history. We came in before opening at 7AM, which enabled us to walk into the Main Street area before the "rope drop" allowed us access to the rides in the park itself.

In the soft glow of an early California morning, the eternally scrubbed Main Street looked gorgeous. I knew that it was Walt's idealized rendering of his rural Missouri hometown in the early 20th century, an attempt for him to pretend he did not have an unhappy, disadvantaged childhood. (Disney and his works are always about fantasy as escapism.) The buildings were built smaller than a real main street of that time, which makes everything feel especially cozy.

I could not help thinking of the political meaning of this section of the park. This idealized main street does not have any saloons (as it would have had circa 1910), of course, or any traces of the immigrants who were coming to America in massive numbers at the time. Built amid the cultural reaction of the 1950s in Orange County, the very heart of the growing postwar grassroots conservative movement, Disneyland could not help but reflect its context, nor the political context Disney himself grew up in.

Main Street is supposed to represent a "simpler time," but to me it looks like what reactionaries in the 1910s and 1920s wanted America to be: white, native-born, rural, and teetotal. People of color are certainly present and otherized in the older rides, from the wild "Indians" in Peter Pan to the African "headhunters" in the Jungle Cruise.

The fact that the entrance to the park is a nostalgic tribute to an idea of America as a culturally homogenous place is very striking to me today in the age of Trump. I am not saying that Disney today is a Trumpist enterprise or that Walt Disney himself would have been a Trump supporter were he alive today, but rather that Disney's Main Street reflects an idea of America and the "good old days" that rhymes with Trumpism. In the 1950s Walt looked to the small town America of 1910 as the time to be idealized, while Trump and his supporters pine for the 1950s. The Trumpism of today, as many a historian will tell you, is rooted in a longer history of nativism and nationalism. You can find traces of it everywhere, including at Disneyland.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Feeling At Home And Uneasy In LA

I have not been writing as much because I am currently on vacation in California. I have spent the last four days in Los Angeles, a city that I have very quickly learned to like. In a weird way, I immediately felt at home here.

I grew up on the Great Plains, in Nebraska, and the sky here too is a vast, Western sky. The clouds are Western clouds. The dry, dusty air is Western air. The scrubby mountains I see in the distance are Western mountains. This is a fundamentally Western city, not oriented towards the East, but to the Pacific. Here the weather and natural elements are scary and unpredictable. The tornadoes, heat waves, and blizzards I grew up with are mirrored here by earthquakes and wildfires. In the West you can never escape the feeling that someday nature will come and just wipe you off of the map, and are reminded of the unnatural fact of your very existence in a place not fit for millions of people to live in. (Nebraska draws its life-giving water from underground, Los Angeles from rivers many miles away. Neither is ultimately sustainable.) Los Angeles is Western too in that it is a new city with people born elsewhere and a kind of haphazard construction. Nothing here feels permanent.

I have seen a lot on this trip, from the beaches of Santa Monica to the tourist traps of Hollywood to the hipster havens downtown to the rarified culture of the Getty Center. I have eaten Korean fried chicken, tacos al pastor, and a Los Feliz brunch. I've shopped at Amoeba and been to a movie at a 1920s movie palace.

As much as I have loved being here, there is something else that makes me uneasy. The contrasts between rich and poor may be even starker here than in New York, and that is saying a lot. The other day we drove through Skid Row on our way through downtown, an area of squalor so vast that it is named on the map. There were blocks of tents and people living in them. I've seen smaller tent cities all around the city in practically every neighborhood we have visited.

If the West has always symbolically represented a place of opportunity and reinvention, California is both its culmination and its dead end, since you can't pick up stakes and go further west after you've hit the ocean. In a place like this my country's failure to live up to its promises of plenty are stark. Just a few blocks from Skid Row old warehouses are being converted into microbreweries and apartments rent for astronomical prices. Come to Los Angeles, then, and see what has become of the "American Dream," both its possibilities and its limits.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

New Podcast Episode

Episode 27 of my podcast Old Dad's Records has been up for a few days, I was negligent in getting the word out on my blog. The theme of this episode is quitting. I start with "Coming Up" by Paul McCartney, a song few play today but went #1 in 1980. It was part of a change in direction from him after he dissolved Wings. I then pull Public Image Ltd's first album off of my pile of old records. That music was the product of the former Johnny Rotten becoming John Lydon and quitting both the Sex Pistols and punk. When that's done I talk the new Aussie punk band Amyl and the Sniffers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day Thoughts

I woke up this morning unnaturally early, with a sick feeling in my stomach. I went downstairs while my wife and daughters slept to make some coffee. I noticed a little pink water beneath the watermelon sitting on the counter. I picked it up, only for watermelon water and pulp to gush out all over the counter and floor. Evidently it had been bruised or something, but I took it as a kind of sign on this Independence Day in this year of nightmares, 2018.

How in the hell can people be out giving a party for this country while it jails at least 2000 children it has kidnapped from its parents for the crime of seeking asylum? How can we celebrate when we are being ruled (not governed, ruled) by a despotic kleptocratic sociopathic black hole of greed and bigotry?

This feeling is not new of course, and Frederick Douglass said it best with his famous oration "What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?":

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."

This day always makes me feel ambivalent, but this year the feeling is something deeper, and Douglass' line about a nation guilty of shocking and bloody practices that are the shame of the world feels especially resonant. Today as in Douglass' day children are being ripped from their parents, but now it is being directly carried out by the American government.

When I did my year abroad in Germany for my dissertation research I discovered that no matter how much I enjoyed my time in Germany, I was an American at heart. For all this country's faults and horrors it has a vibrancy and diversity that I missed while I lived in Germany. Fourteen years later, however, I am rethinking things. It's too late for me to leave, and I have too much invested here anyway. Sometimes, however, I think that I should be teaching my daughters German so that they will have the choice to emigrate, because the future of this nation looks incredibly bleak. Of course, there are reactionary forces on the rise in Germany, too. Nowhere may be safe from the rising tide of hate submerging the world.

I love my country, but I love it like a family member. Sometimes we love family members out of blood and a sense of obligation, even when they are cruel and treat us poorly. In that sense my love may be misplaced, but I don't think it can be destroyed. And that's why this day hurts so much. The country that I cannot stop loving and caring for is committing horrible crimes while its self-appointed "patriots" cheer on. This is not the first time, of course, but this time it is cutting me harder and deeper. So I will think this day on what needs to be done to make this country worthy of my love, but also whether my children should follow my path or not.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Works in Progress and a New Piece at Tropics of Meta

Last week the good folks at Tropics of Meta published my little essay on William F Buckley's "mission statement" for the National Review. Basically, I argued that despite what movement conservatives tell you, Trump very much exists in the version of conservatism the more erudite Buckley laid out.

I have not been blogging as much because I am working on some things I'd like to get published in more prominent locations. Here's a list, I'd appreciate any friendly help on how to make these essays better or where I should get them published.

  • The Democrats need learn from LBJ. I wrote a draft of this already, basically about how LBJ's rough way of practicing politics (which isn't that far from McConnell's) is what the party needs, not West Wing niceties
  • Ted Cruz as debater. I wrote this and it already got rejected from one place. I write about how as a former debater myself I can see how Cruz's liabilities and strengths as a politician can be traced to the weirdo world of college parliamentary debate. I also discuss how Beto could exploit the college debater approach used by Cruz.
  • Nostalgia for other people's nostalgia. I am working on something now about how many Gen Xers like me are so connected to the music of the 60s and early 70s, before we were born or really conscious of the world. I trace this to the Boomer nostalgia boom of the late 80s, and how many of us who came of age at that time found the music and culture of the past more interesting than a lot of what was happening in our times. I plan on using this as a jumping off point for discussing the cultural and political weakness of Gen Xers compared to Boomers and Millennials. 
  • From Blow-Up to Blow Out. This essay will discuss Antonioni's 1966 film and De Palma's 1981 homage. The fifteen years between the two basically mark the journey from the height of the 60s to the point where the cultural backlash against the sixties emerged victorious. Blow-Out was a huge inspiration to the "New Hollywood" directors who upended American cinema in the 1970s, and it is fitting that De Palma's film represents the end of the years when studios would give money to young directors to make artistic films. The journey between the two films tells the story of America's greatest cinematic era.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Pep Talk From Cranky Bear

[Editor's Note: I have been quite busy lately, and so I have decided to hand the reins over to my friend Cranky Bear. Warning: he is a lot less civil than I am. Right now, I think we could use that.]

Hello all, Cranky Bear here, drinking coffee and ready to give you all a taste of my mind.

A lot of you are really upset today. After all, the Supreme Court just decided to kneecap public employee unions, and Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. Yesterday they affirmed gerrymandering and the ability of crisis pregnancy centers to misrepresent themselves. Shit looks pretty bleak.

This is all coming while the government is still holding immigrant children in cages. Just a couple of weeks before, the dotard despot effectively ripped up the postwar alliance system. He is also waging a trade war that is already costing jobs in this country. We are living in dangerous dark times.

Which is why you fuckers have to get up off of your asses and FIGHT!

Yes this sucks, but translate your fear and concern into action, dammit!

When the other side loses, do they engage in fatalism and hopelessness? No, they go out there and relentlessly keep trying to push their agenda forward. After Obama won the presidency they unleashed the Tea Party. As long as we are chickenshit we will lose because we are up against awful people who will stop at nothing to win. They blocked the Garland nomination, they are suppressing votes, and they are relying on the electoral college to maintain minority rule. They have absolutely no fucking shame about going against the will of the majority because they don't give a shit about democracy.

A lot of this is down to our mistaken belief that history is on our side due to our righteousness. Sorry folks, history doesn't give a shit about morality and nothing is inevitable. The tides of history turn only when people MAKE them turn. And as a student of history, I can assure you that shit has been worse than this before. That's not an invitation to fatalism, that's an invitation to FIGHT!

The lying fuckwits and craven crony capitalists and wacko Christianist theocrats up against us are actually few in number. They derive their power and influence from filthy lucre, and also from a pervasive propaganda machine. The thing is, the level of commitment possessed by your average Limbaugh and Fox devoted chodes is pretty damn limited. They might lose their shit when they see a black athlete daring to protest police violence, but they won't do much about it rather than buy another asinine "blue lives matter sticker."

We are younger than them. We are more devoted than them. We are motived by seizing the future, they are still wedded to maintaining a non-existent past. We can win, but first we have to commit ourselves, we have to organize, and we have to stop fucking around. For liberals this means no more West Wing-inspired insipid bullshit about civility. There's no being civil with people who want to wipe you out. For Leftists this means no more purity test bullshit and especially no more standing on the sidelines and sniping rather than getting your damn hands dirty. For all y'all, remember while you are coming up with excuses to not fight, there are children being held in cages in this country every minute of every day. Your bullshit is pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

If we are going to fight to win we need to commit ourselves to being in the streets, to striking, to talking to our neighbors, to voting, to canvasing, to running for office, and above all to ORGANIZING. The Fox/Limbaugh chodes will vote for Trump no matter what. Their support of his human trafficking and hostage-taking is proof of this. Stop trying to convince these people to change their minds. They are lost. They are not to be convinced, they are to be defeated, and in that fight, no quarter should be given.

We need to get out there and tell people why they need to care. And please, no more of this "when they go low, we go high" horseshit. Fight to win or don't even bother to fucking fight at all. Times are hard and getting harder. Things will get worse before they get better, but they will only get better if we get out there and make it happen. To quote the speech in Mrs Miniver: "this is the people's war, our war! Fight it then! And may God defend the right."

I'll be in the streets on Saturday, I hope to see you there.

Cranky out

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Fear And America's Default Setting

I have a dose of the The Fear tonight like none I've ever had since perhaps the day after the 2016 election. I cannot get the knowledge that children are being ripped from their families and jailed for the crime of seeking asylum out of my head. Every single waking breathing moment I have is totally suffused with it.

It was bad enough earlier today, but then I decided to listen to that ProPublica audio and I completely lost it. My two daughters are almost six years old, and the six year old Salvadoran girl who kept repeating her aunt's phone number has a voice very much like one of my daughters. I could imagine her in that moment, confident that she could get out if she could just get the big people to understand her.

As others have pointed out, this kind of thing is not new in American life. Today's carnival of lies by DHS Secretary Nielsen reminded me of a propaganda film the government put out in 1943 to tell everyone that Japanese internment was necessary to protect the nation from saboteurs in their ranks. It also said not to worry, the internees were being treated well, as their smiling faces were supposed to attest.

Nielsen proclaimed that the kids were being treated kindly, and that this whole thing was necessary to uphold the law and to stop MS-13 and terrorists, instead of "saboteurs."

I am also reminded of many narratives by former slaves who discussed the practice of children being sold away from their mothers. Solomon Northrup's description of a boy being taken from his mother at the slave market in New Orleans brings tears to my eyes:
"The same man also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her. He would not have such work - such snivelling; and unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. Yes, he would take the nonsense out of her pretty quick - if he didn’t, might he be d—d. Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises - how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her - all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.
Freeman damned her, calling her a blubbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place, and behave herself; and be somebody. He swore he wouldn’t stand such stuff but a little longer. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful, and that she might depend upon.
The planter from Baton Rouge, with his new purchases, was ready to depart.
“Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,” said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door.
What has become of the lad, God knows. It was a mournful scene indeed. I would have cried myself if I had dared."
 This scene, of a mother crying as her child is taken away from her, is being replayed many times a day on the border as we live and breathe.

In many respects, we are seeing America return to its default setting. This nation has its origins in settler colonialism, which gave birth to a form of Herrenvolk nationalism. Until 1965, citizenship in this country was still by law dependent on race. The Voting Rights Act and Immigration Act helped change that, but that was not so long ago. Deep down, most white people (including white liberals) do not care enough about the fate of brown-skinned immigrant children to do something on their behalf. I have pledged to fight, but I am not confident that there will be victory.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Shameful Father's Day

An appropriately dark song for this Father's Day

Tomorrow is Father's Day, which is falling at an eerily appropriate moment. The nation is abuzz with the news that thousands of children have been taken from their parents at the border. On this father's day there are thousands of fathers who are living a parent's worst nightmare: to have their children stolen from them.

As a father, I can't even bear to think about this happening to me. Knowing that in my country, that this is currently being done to thousands of other fathers, is a thought that weighs on me every moment of every day. On top of that there are fathers who have been in the country for years being ripped from their families and deported.

And what exactly is happening in response? I am trying to do my part, but I am losing heart. I went to a protest last weekend, I have been calling elected officials. That's clearly not enough, but what else is to be done by someone like me?

Those of us who care are trying to fight, but the whole reason we are in this mess is that not enough people actually care. Just look at our pathetic excuse of a news media. In one of his ridiculous lies, Trump has tried to blame all this on Democrats. And the stenographers with Ivy League journalism degrees give themselves lobotomies and dutifully tell us "Trump says this, but this is what others say" as if they can't actually see the reality smacking them in the face. That kind of bothsidesism reduces the kidnapping of children to just another policy decision. I remember the run-up to the Iraq War, so this game is quite familiar to me. I am just shocked that it is still being played.

What about others? So few people have responded to the current crisis by changing their counterproductive ways. There are still the leftists sniping from the sidelines, saying "stupid liberals!" when said liberals use naive the rhetoric of "this isn't who we are" but don't bother to actually go out and do something productive. There are the nice liberals, their brains damaged by The West Wing and thinking that the system actually works and that Mueller will come on his white steed and save the day. Of course, there are the full-fledged Trump supporters who actually cheer this because they are just flat out bigoted. A less talked about group, however, are the Republicans and right-leaning independents who did not necessarily love Trump but voted for him, and who have refused to change their allegiance even after thousands of children have been kidnapped by our government. Politics has become like sports, and most people will never be able to root for the other team, even when their own is engaged in atrocities.

And the dirty little secret beneath all of this, of course, is that the vast majority of white people in this country simply do not care what happens to brown children, especially immigrant children. This goes for liberals and conservatives. Most white liberals do not approve of this policy, but neither are they willing to stick their neck out on it. Truth be told, it just doesn't matter that much to them.

As I have said many, many, times before, America is in its Brezhnev Years. Just as the Soviet Union limped on once belief in Marxism and Soviet ideology had faded before it collapsed, the United States still maintains the facade of democracy, even though a sizable number of Americans (perhaps a majority) do not really believe in it beyond lip-service. Our president certainly does not believe in it. He adores despots and attacks democratic rulers who dare to criticize him.

The only way forward that we have is to achieve what Lincoln proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address: a new birth of freedom. For this nation to survive as a democracy we need to make it truly democratic, and not simply aim to restore the status quo ante, since that's what got us here in the first place. The only way that is going to happen is that those of us who want it put our shoulders to the wheel.

If you are upset by the current situation but are not doing anything about it, I urge you, being the agnostic preacher that I am, to mend your ways and repent. On this Father's Day think of the families being ripped apart. Think of the children being jailed away from their parents. Think of the parents living with the anguish that they may never see their children ever again. Don't just tweet about it. Go out there and do something. Future generations will be judging you.

Monday, June 11, 2018

What I Saw At the "Free Pablo" Protest

You may have heard now of Pablo Villavicencio, an undocumented Ecuadoran immigrant from Long Island working in New York City for a pizzeria. While making a delivery to a military base in Brooklyn, which he had done several times, he had his papers checked and was reported to ICE and detained, then told he was to be deported. He was married with two children, all American citizens, and he himself had been applying for citizenship. Like the vast majority of people in his situation, he was working and raising a family without causing any trouble.

There have been protests in the area around this. I went to one on Saturday here in New Jersey at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, where he was being held. I got the tip from a friend of mine who is a member of the local chapter of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) and decided to go.

Just going to the location was an eye-opening experience. It is located in one of those famously ugly stretches of swamp, warehouses, and factories amid a tangle of highways one finds in the parts of New Jersey right across from New York City. Getting there meant having to avoid accidentally taking the New Jersey Turnpike or going through the Holland Tunnel. It was located off of old Highway 1, jammed between industrial parks and truck stops, a place that no one would take a second look at.

In fact, I arrived late to the protest because I had taken a wrong turn in the confusing highway maze and had to drive to other side of Highway 1 to find parking in a lot of a run-down truck stop diner that also advertised packaged liquor. At the protest itself there were maybe thirty people, a great many of them wearing DSA gear. Although they were not the only organization involved, almost everyone there seemed to be DSA.

A middle aged woman in a "I am an immigrant" t-shirt asked if I was a part of that group, and I said no, I was there merely to protest Pablo's detention. She seemed a little put off by the speeches I missed, which I can guess were full of the fire and brimstone of the old Marxist religion. I mostly talked to her and another woman there who was not part of the organization. While standing in the blazing early summer sun in a sea of asphalt, we were joined by a woman there with her mother and two children. She was trying to gain entrance to the facility to see her husband, who was detained there. She wasn't sure if she was going to be able too. One of her children was a two year old, the other a baby. One of the protestors held the baby so that the mother could talk about her situation to a couple of reporters on the scene.

I had made a sign on thick posterboard for the occasion, and I used it to shade the woman and baby from the sun, which in the late afternoon was beating into us. I stood there for several minutes looking at the little sleeping baby, remembering when my daughters were that small. It was almost too much to take, this tiny person having its father ripped away so soon after coming into the world. Having my children taken away from me is my absolute worst nightmare, nothing really compares to it. I kept thinking about that as the baby's mother talked to the reporters, I hope they did something with her story and that it gets heard.

Standing there in a space very much not intended for people to stand in, all I kept thinking was that there were many other places like this in America. At that moment and every other there are nondescript buildings in quiet industrial parks in this country where families are being ripped apart and American dreams are being shredded. These places may be in your town or close by, and their machinery operates right under your nose, every single day in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Ever since the day of the protest that thought has not left my mind. I woke up this morning with horrible vertigo and nausea, and ended up violently puking and having to take a sick day. I'm beginning to wonder if it wasn't psychosomatic.

Friday, June 8, 2018

King Trump's Pardon Power

The "deeply stupid" Edward VIII might be the model for America's newest monarch

The outrages and violations seem to come too fast for us to keep up with them. Our wannabe despot president gives us a new scandal each and every day, too much for us to resist. Some of them get lost in the shuffle, and one that has been too overlooked is Trump's use of the pardon power.

Yes, there was hue and cry after he pardoned conservative bottom-feeder Dinesh D'Souza, but that was one episode in a larger story that ought to be concerning for us. There was also Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby before him, establishing a pattern whereby conservative political figures who commit crimes get clemency. It should greatly concern us that the president would so brazenly use his powers to allow criminals to get away with it.

Even when he uses his pardon power for good, he uses it not as a carefully considered instrument of justice, but as a PERSONAL power. For instance, Kim Kardashian came to him to beg clemency for an inmate, and he granted it. Now he is asking protesting NFL players to give him names of people who ought to be pardoned. This is of course completely tone-deaf to what those players are saying, but he obviously sees his pardon power as a "deal making" opportunity. In his typically crass fashion, Trump is offering a quid pro quo.

Our institutions are not meant to be wielded in this fashion. I've said it before and smarter people than me have said time and again, Donald Trump does not know or care about the Constitution or democratic governance. He cares about nothing or no one but himself, with the possible exception of Ivanka, who he sees as an extension of himself. This is why he appears to get along better with despots like Putin and Duterte than with democratic leaders. He is one of them. He would have gone farther by now if not for institutional controls, but those are being worn down.

He has now discovered one area where he as president has a tremendous amount of latitude: the pardon. This power is so broad and expansive that many at the time of the Constitution's writing took issue with it. Trump has been wielding that power less like a president, and more like a king. He seeks to rule personally, as Trump, not impersonally, as president.

There is, of course, a remedy within the Constitution for this: impeachment. The men who wrote the Constitution fought a revolution against the abusive power of the English crown and were well aware that such abuses of power could happen in America. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 69 (nice):

"The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware."

Basically, removing a criminal president should be just as easy (or easier!) than removing a criminal governor.

If you read the Declaration of Independence, you'll notice that after the famous preamble, it is a long litany of accusations of abuse of power by the English crown. As flawed and messed up as the American Revolution was, we can still draw strength from its assertion that America is not to be ruled arbitrarily by kings.

Donald Trump is probably the closest thing to a wannabe king we have had in this country's history. He reminds me of so many addled monarchs in history. I think of Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, who when told there were not apricot dumplings at dinner because dumplings were out of season screamed "I am emperor and I demand dumplings!"He reminds me as well of George IV, the English king who was famous for his extravagant spending and womanizing. Like Trump, he did not take power until later life, after years of wastrel behavior. Or perhaps Trump is most like Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor. This ill-fated king was famously forced to abdicate the throne, partially because he was a Nazi sympathizer. Gore Vidal once described him as "deeply stupid."

It might be tempting to laugh at this, but our current mad king is possessed of much greater powers and authority than those old monarchs. He also has implements of nuclear destruction at his disposal. Yet again, things are going to get worse before they get better.