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.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Old Dad's Records 26 (Magic)


My podcast isn't dead!  After months of neglect brought on by extreme stress, I've brought it back. The theme is the onset of summer. While I usually get miserable during the dog days of July and August, the early summer of June is one of my favorite times of the year. In this episode I talk about "Magic" by The Cars, a summer song of my youth. From there I go to one of my favorite summer back porch albums, Traffic's The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. I finish up by talking about Janelle Monae's most recent, which is my summer album for this summer.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Fight Dirty Or Don't Fight At All


My recent reading has been an education in the political tactics needed to win. I am almost done with Robert Caro's books on LBJ, a man who won by pushing, needling, and taking every advantage he could. I am currently reading Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President 1968 about the media campaign behind Richard Nixon's election victory, as well as Marjorie Spruill's Divided We Stand, about the unsuccessful campaign to pass the ERA.

One theme has emerged from all of this reading: to win at politics you must devoted to winning above all. This is a lesson liberals, who have turned their brains into mush by watching The West Wing, seem to have a hard time understanding. Johnson knew this, and so did Nixon. Nixon's ads in 1968, midwifed by the infamous Roger Ailes, appealed viscerally to fear and hate. They were unlike anything before in their vitriol, and the other side's answers were weak.

In regards to the ERA, the pro side was divided into factions, while the the anti side was united behind Phyllis Schlafly. Her movement incorporated grassroots supporters but was directed from the top, much like the later (and related) Tea Party movement. When there were conventions in the states to elect delegates to the National Women's Conference sponsored by the government, Schlafly and her allies packed them with Bible thumpers from local churches. In many places Birchers got elected into an institution intended to advance the cause of women's rights. (In Mississippi, the Klan did so.)

Today's liberals, so wedded to notions of comity and fair play, are ignoring the fact that they are up against an enemy that is absolutely ruthless in its methods. McConnell scuttled a statement about Russian interference in the election and prevented Obama from nominating a successor to Scalia. His punishment? Getting to be the master of the Senate. Republican Senators used the "blue slip" to stop Obama's nomination, and have now refused to respect the rule when it comes to Trump's nominees.

They think they are playing a game against people who have accepted the same rules, when the only rule Republicans have is to do whatever it takes. I do not like fighting dirty, but when the person fighting you fights dirty, it's time to get down into the mud. If you can't do that it's time to get out of the damn way.

The film clip I attached above is from The Life and Times Of Colonel Blimp, an amazing British film made in 1943, during the heat of World War II. Clive Candy is a devoted British officer, but is friends with Theo, a German officer he dueled before World War I. Theo fled to Britain, disgusted by the Nazis. Candy thinks World War II can still be fought with gentlemanly notions of "fair play." Theo, having lived in Nazi Germany and seen what it was capable of, tells Candy that he must be willing to fight a nastier war if he wants to win. "The enemy is different, you must be different too" Theo counsels. A lot of liberal Candys need to hear this message from us Theos.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Thoughts

Will the sacrifice of the 54th Massachusetts have been in vain?

No one I know who has seen combat has much good to say about war. A Desert Storm vet friend said on Facebook today that he hopes war ends so that we won't need any more days of remembrance. My World War II vet grandfather told my cousin to not sign up for the military because they would throw his life away without a second thought.

Sometimes wars are regrettably necessary. Sometimes they are the most disgusting thing perpetuated by humanity. When I went to the Vietnam Memorial in DC I felt nothing but pure rage. None of the people named on that wall needed to die in that stupid conflict.

Even when wars are necessary, the sacrifice involved should give us pause. Today I am feeling especially sad. I am thinking of the African American soldiers who saved the Union in the Civil War and died for a country that still refuses to treat their descendants as equals. I am thinking of the thousands of immigrants who died for a country that now treats immigrants with contempt. I am thinking of the soldiers of all backgrounds who died to defeat Nazism in World War II. The country they died for now has a leader who is beloved by Nazis, and who has called them "very fine people."

Those dead should not have died in vain. To quote Lincoln at Gettysburg, our nation needs a new birth of freedom. I am beginning to think that the stakes are almost as high now as in 1863.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Reproductive Rights Dialogue

A: Women do not have a right to terminate unwanted pregnancies and abortion should be outlawed.

B: OK, so I assume you support making contraception more available to prevent unwanted pregnancies, right?

A: Oh no no no. That is also immoral and would encourage immoral behavior. I also don't want education on how to use contraception available in schools

B: Well then I guess you think women ought to remain abstinent until marriage?

A: Actually, no. I mean, if young women are not having sex with young men they might get frustrated and shoot up a school or run over people with a van or something. For the good of society women need to be fucking these men.

B: What about the children born of unwanted pregnancies? Do you support increased funding for children's health care, pre-K education, and child care subsidies?

A: Are you kidding me? That's SOCIALISM, man. No way.

B: Then I assume you support a broad range of families being able to adopt children their mothers want to give up?

A: Are you kidding me! We can't have these children raised by homosexuals or atheists.

B: Then at least shouldn't pregnant mothers be better covered by health insurance? America has horribly high rates of infant mortality and of women dying in childbirth.

A: Again, socialism. And if those women were more responsible they would not have gotten pregnant.

B: I mean, just, wow. OK then, what on earth could you call this ideology you subscribe to?

A: Pro-life, of course!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Billboard Top Ten (May 25, 1985)

Growing up in Nebraska, late May meant the end of the school year. (Here in the Northeast I've still got another month.) I have very clear memories of the end of the school year when I was in third grade, since it had been a crummy year and I was ready to be done with it. One of my third grade teachers was a martinet who made us eat all of our food before we could leave the lunchroom. I also got all As on my spelling tests, but she only gave me Bs for the course on my report card. Summer meant getting out from under her thumb. It was also a time when the big studio production sound of the 1980s was in full flower. Now on with the countdown!

10. Howard Jones, "Things Can Only Get Better"

This is a very Brit-heavy top ten. Jones is one of the great forgotten pop stars of the 80s, scoring a bunch of hits. Unfortunately for him, his sound was so clued into the times that it aged very poorly. This song's chorus still gets me, though. I hear it and I am immediately transformed to hanging out at the public pool in the summer of '85, when the PA played the local hits station all summer long.

9. Power Station, "Some Like It Hot"



Power Station were THE supergroup of the 80s, including members of Duran Duran and Robert Palmer. "Some Like It Hot" takes the big bang sound of the 80s to its furthest limits. Palmer has the salacious sweat to give this number some extra sizzle with the crack rhythm section of Chic's Tony Thompson and Duran's John Taylor behind him. I imagine this song was huge in the clubs in '85.

8. Billy Ocean, "Suddenly"

Another Brit! Billy Ocean had a huge raft of hits in the mid-1980s. This one cuts against type as a syrupy ballad. Usually his songs had a big happy sound ("When The Going Gets Tough" etc.) or a slightly dark, rain slicked streets feel ("Caribbean Queen"). The structure and melody sound straight out of the late 70s, it's a very unlikely 80s hit.

7. Murray Head, "One Night In Bangkok"



That's right, yet another Brit, performing a song from a musical co-written by Bjorn and Benny from ABBA. Nowadays the Orientalism of the lyrics bugs me, but at the time I loved this song. It has a kind of thumping, sleazy beat to it that was unlike most stuff on radio. Back then I had no clue about the musical and its commentary on the Cold War, or what a "massage parlor" was. Flute solo!

6. Madonna, "Crazy For You"

Madonna's image and presentation were revolutionary but her music has always been kinda boring and derivative. This song was hardly innovative, but was a straight up ballad, as opposed to the dancier stuff that she put on the charts. It's also the first single where I really feel like she learned to use her voice well.

5. Sade, "Smooth Operator"

And now back to the Brits! This song has a funky, skanky feel from the 70s, but a sultry sax tailor-made for the 80s. Sade really gives this song the subtle interpretation that it requires. I was getting into Bond movies when this song came out, and I always pictured the "smooth operator" to be a Bond-like character.

4. Harold Faltermeyer, "Axel F"

How much did we love synthesizers in the 80s? So much that a synthesizer instrumental made the top ten, baby. Nine year old me LOVED this song. It was freakin' ubiquitous back then, from wedding dances to the radio to the background of the hold screen for the local cable access TV station.

3. Tears for Fears, "Everybody Wants To Rule The World"

The production is peak 80s but this song still holds up. Tears for Fears were in many ways the absolute tail end of New Wave, and figured out how to blend those sensibilities with the demands of the mid-80s pop world. (And they were, of course, British.) Their lyrics were deeper than the run of the mill top 40 stuff, but the choruses were still catchy.

2. Simple Minds, "Don't You (Forget About Me)"



More Brits, by way of Scotland. Due to its inclusion in The Breakfast Club, this song has become a metonym for the 1980s. It has the exuberance of youth and that teenage feeling of emotional friction. While the production is total 80s, it still holds up because lead singer Jim Kerr puts some real feeling into and the music itself has some of that gusto in it.

1. Wham! "Everything She Wants"



This one kinda scared 9 year old me. This talk of "you're having my baby" confused and frightened me. Did people who weren't married have babies? (I was a very innocent child, which would soon lead to plenty of taunting.) Needless to say, more Brits! This song is very 80s in its tale of personal ruthlessness. Some people want to use you, some people want to be used by you.

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Requiem For The Faculty Office

I have a new piece at Tropics of Meta, which as far as I'm concerned is the little scholarly website that could. Read their stuff, it's pretty fantastic.

My latest article is a response to a piece in the Chronicle about the attempts to replace faculty offices. My piece is both a defense of faculty offices, but also a call for professors to be aware of how their privileges (like offices) will not last unless they take collective action.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Regret

This poster grabbed my imagination back in '84

[Editor's Note: I wrote this as a submission to an online film magazine asking for pieces on reconsidering films we once loved. It didn't get accepted, but I still want to share it with you, dear reader.]

I was born in 1975, meaning that I am of a certain cinematic generation that grew up repeatedly watching certain movies that were taped off of television broadcasts onto VHS. It is hard even to recall now the state of home video in the first two-thirds of the 1980s when VHS copies of movies were priced at about a hundred bucks in 1980s money. In those dark days movie studios figured most of their films were being sold to video stores, so they needed to make sure that they got their due and proper.

Being a kid at this time meant that your parents got ultimate veto power over the films rented from said video stores, and parents were not too keen on renting films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom over and over again, no matter how much the kids liked it. That’s where taping movies off television became a lifesaver. I became an expert at timing the pause button so that I could cut out the commercials while not shaving any time off of the movie. It is a now useless skill that many of my fellow Gen Xers possess.

I would watch the weekly TV listings in the local newspaper like a hawk, always ready to add a new favorite to my collection. I was especially delighted when I got to tape Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which at that time I (now embarrassingly) considered to be better than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some context is order. Temple of Doom came out in the summer of 1984, and I never got to see it in the theater. It seemed, like Ghostbusters, to stay at the mall threeplex in my rural Nebraska hometown for the entire summer. I would walk by a poster for it at the mall for weeks, tantalized by my hero Harrison Ford holding a sword and a whip, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a muscular chest. Perhaps my mom considered it too mature. After all, it is the film (along with Gremlins) credited with bringing on the PG-13 rating.

What made matters worse, when I got back to school in late August, Temple of Doom was the only thing anybody wanted to talk about. My friends talked wide-eyed with wonder about monkey brains, baby snakes, and eyeball soup. The banquet scene was the kind of epic gross-out fest that prepubescent boys find unassailably awesome. But that wasn’t all. I heard that there was a scene where the villain ripped the heart right out of someone’s chest. How could such a thing even be possible? One of my friends had a novelization of the movie (remember those?) and the color photos inside tantalized me like little else. I felt like I had missed one of the greatest events of my lifetime.

Of course, once it came out on VHS, an eternity in those days, all of my high hopes were more than fulfilled. No one had told me about the spiked floor and ceiling almost crushing Indy, or the insane shootout at the nightclub, or the river raft sledding down the Himalayas, or Indy cutting the rope bridge over the gorge with his sword. There was a little kid sidekick to identify with, and the coal car chase, one of the most thrilling things I had ever seen. Taping it off of television meant that I could watch it as many times as I wanted to, and I am still not sure of the number. In those times of langorous, long summer days full of hours waiting to be filled, there was plenty of opportunity to dive into the VHS tapes and dig out Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom soon got eclipsed by Last Crusade, which I saw in the theater on the last day of school in 1989. It was almost a religious experience, seeing an amazing Indiana Jones film with the entirety of the summer just stretched out and lying there before me. I doubt that I will ever leave a movie theater in greater ecstasy than I did that evening.

My viewings of Temple of Doom began to drop off after that point, but it still had a warm place in my heart. Years and years passed, and sometime in my early 30s, while talking with friends about ranking movies, one of them said that Temple of Doom was obviously the worst Indiana Jones movie. Could that actually be? Evidently a lot of people felt this way. Perhaps spurred by that conversation I sat down and watched the trilogy of Indiana Jones films, and realized that my friend was absolutely right.

It was a shattering experience, the adult equivalent of realizing there is no Santa Claus or that American history is a depressing litany of horror. Between my childhood and my early 30s not only had grown older, I had gone to graduate school in the humanities. There is little else that can turn someone into a hypercritical buzzkill than this life path. Watching Temple of Doom I realized that it was, in the dreaded parlance of grad school, “problematic.”

Lucas and Spielberg modeled the Indiana Jones films off of action serials that were old when they saw them re-run on TV in their youth. Those serials, which often featured sinister “oriental” villains like Fu Manchu, were super-racist. So was Gunga Din, the 1939 action hit featuring the title character played by a white guy in brown greasepaint. That tale, set in India, was supposedly one of the influences on Temple of Doom. Both films featured a bloody Kali cult, portraying Hinduism as a religion promoting ritual murder. For this reason, among others, India’s government did not grant Spielberg permission to film there.

In that context the banquet scene horrified me, but in an entirely different and not fun fashion. The monkey brains, eyeball soup, and baby snakes fit into long-standing tropes portraying Asians as barbaric, twisted, “other.” As someone who would gladly eat his weight in lamb saag and nan, I knew that this scene had nothing to do with actual Indian food. (I had regrettably never had any Indian cuisine in rural Nebraska in the 1980s.)

As in Gunga-Din, the British empire comes off as necessary and essentially benevolent. At the end of the film it is the British imperial troops and their red-coated officers who come in and help save Indy. The educated Indian official who challenges the British army officer at the banquet is ultimately weak and easily dominated by the Kali cult. The implicit support of imperialism is pretty clear, but probably so unquestioned that George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg did not really think much about it.

Beyond celebrating an empire whose policies led millions to die in multiple deadly famines in India, there are things that make watching Temple of Doom difficult that have nothing to do with its politics. There’s also the screeching. Oh the screeching! In this movie Indy has not just one, but two sidekicks, and they love to screech. There’s Short Round, the Shanghai street kid, and Willie Scott, the American nightclub singer.

Jonathan Ke Quan as Short Round must have been auditioning for his role The Goonies, which has got to be the screechiest movie of the 1980s. A lot of his response to dangerous situations is just to yell out really loud. Of course, the viewer almost forgets that when confronted by the constant, hurricane-force caterwauling from Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott. Practically every scene involves her shrieking and screaming, a walking parody of male stereotypes of femininity.

It would be easy to blame Capshaw for this performance, but I won’t. Her character was written in a two-dimensional fashion, and Capshaw is simply playing that character to the hilt. When she yells out “AND I BROKE A NAIL!” after a litany of complaints it’s effectively silly and expresses a thirteen year old boy’s understanding of women’s emotions, but she gives the line a reading with much more conviction and humor than it deserves. For that reason my sister (who also loved this movie and watched it on tape with me) would repeat it with a cackle.

In the writing of Willie Scott and Short Round and in the impossibly over-the-top moments, such as the banquet, Indy and Willie falling through several canvas overhangs in Shangai, and to somehow surviving a fall out of an airplane in an inflatable raft I see signs of Lucas and Spielberg’s problems with comedy. Spielberg had previously tried to turn complete outlandishness into jokes in 1979’s 1941, his first failure. That movie is monumentally unfunny. While Temple of Doom’s jokes have a higher batting average, the worst moments have parallels in that earlier film (which also treats women horribly.)

George Lucas’ funnybone, as we all should be well aware by now, goes in some odd directions when he is left unsupervised. Just witness Howard the Duck or the Star Wars prequels. The droid factory scene in Attack Of The Clones might be the most unwatchable snippet in all of the Star Wars films, and it was inserted late in production as comic relief. It’s less reviled than Jar Jar –himself a horrible attempt at comedy- but probably a bigger offense because at least Jar Jar is memorable in his awfulness.

In Temple of Doom, made when both Spielberg and Lucas were under the stress of divorce, some of their biggest flaws as filmmakers are exposed. A lot of the same things dragging this film down are what made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so forgettable and put “nuking the fridge” into the cinematic lexicon. No child today is craving to watch that film over and over again, VHS tape or not.

That said, Lucas and Spielberg were still young and inventive in 1984, and despite changing my mind about Temple of Doom, there’s still things I love. The coal car chase is an absolutely thrilling bit of action filmmaking, all amazingly done without the use of CGI. The very beginning, with the lush old Hollywood musical touches as Kate Capshaw sings “Anything Goes” is a wonderful Busby Berkely throwback. The shootout in Club Obi-Wan (groan) is a master class in action film-making. 

And, truth be told, when I watch it I am transformed a little into that kid who once loved Temple of Doom. For me I guess it holds the same place those old adventure serials did for Lucas and Spielberg: a trashy bit of fun wrapped in the gauze of nostalgia. Maybe that was their point all along.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Some Narratives For The Democrats (Free Of Charge)

This is the kind of messaging Democrats need to revive

Hey Democratic Party, this election is absolutely crucial. I am not talking about crucial in terms of power, but crucial in terms of the basic shape and direction of this country. We are ruled by a wannabe despot, and your brand of policy wonk centrism has been an absolute failure. Narratives and stories are what move people politically. You need to come up with some good ones, not awful weak tea like "When They Go Low, We Go High."

I am not necessarily the best wordsmith, but you can surely take these narratives and make them into snappier slogans. The underlying narratives are what matters, anyway. Here's basically the language I would use.

"Democrats Care About Your Health, Republicans Care About Making The Medical Industry Rich"

Obamacare has helped millions of people, but the Republicans want to destroy it. They don't care if you live or die or go bankrupt, they just want to make sure that the big health companies make more money, and that the rich and corporations don't have to pay taxes. Not only will Democrats fight to keep Obamacare, they will push for Medicare for All, which will mean a drastic reduction in your health care costs and money you can use for a better life. It will also give you security, and the ability to easily switch jobs without having to worry about losing health coverage for you and your family.

"Democrats Want to Rebuild Our Crumbling Infrastructure, Republicans Want To Sell The Country Off For Parts And Scrap"

Donald Trump promised money for infrastructure, and that was just a pack of lies. Instead he made sure that he and all his rich friends got a massive tax giveaway from the government. The big corporations are not using that to make more jobs, they are using it to make themselves richer. That is the only policy priority the Republicans have: make the rich richer. Democrats want to build a better country, and building infrastructure will also create jobs.

"Democrats Want To Protect Hard-Working Immigrants, Republicans Want To Hurt Them"

The president has repealed DACA, has rescinded protections for immigrants from many countries, and is now breaking up immigrant families. He has also told his ICE thugs to deport law abiding immigrants, even those married to American citizens and respected in their communities. Democrats want to pass a law to protect DACA, and to offer a path to citizenship for those immigrants who have been contributing to this country.

"Democrats Want To Protect You From The Big Banks, Republicans Want The Banks To Rip You Off"

Obama and the Democrats created the Consumer Protection Agency so that the government could protect bank customers from being exploited and ripped off. The Republicans and Trump administration have decided to destroy it, because they take money from Wall Street and they care more about their banker friends than they do about you. Democrats want to more tightly regulate banking so that you get a fair shake from lenders.

"Democrats Think Every Person Deserves Dignity and Respect, Republicans Don't"

Republicans support all kinds of hateful legislation to limit the rights of LGBT people, and use hatred of them to rile up the religious extremists in their base. Democrats think that all people deserve dignity, and that their gender identity or sexual orientation should never be used to justify any kind of discrimination. Republicans also recently got rid of regulations to stop racial discrimination in car loans. On top of that, the Trump administration has been soft on enforcing civil rights laws. Deep down they do not care about discrimination, especially if that discrimination benefits their rich friends.

"Democrats Want To Lower Gun Violence, Republicans Only Care About Appeasing the NRA"

After recent shootings millions of Americans have taken to the streets to say that enough is enough. They are tired of levels of gun violence several times higher than those in our peer countries. It just does not have to be this way. Despite the outcry for sensible gun control, nothing has happened. Why? Because Republicans are scared of the NRA, and they want their money and the money of the big gun companies. The NRA is an extremist organization that wants guns everywhere, but Republicans slavishly do their bidding. That money means more to them than dead children. Tell them that enough is enough.

"Democrats Want To Hold Donald Trump Responsible, Republicans Support His Thievery and Immorality"

The president promised to drain the swamp, but he is in fact the biggest swamp monster. He has been getting bribes through Michael Cohen by big corporations like ATT. He went from using debt to paying cash for his holdings, right around the time his relationship with Russian oligarchs was established. The president is behaving like an organized crime boss, while the Republicans are his enabling toadies. He is ripping you off and robbing the country blind and working on behalf of a hostile foreign nation and laughing in your face. Democrats will investigate and hold the president responsible and impeach him if need be.

****

Of course, a lot of this is predicated on the Democrats being a truly social democratic party. I highly suggest that they get on that.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Classic Music Videos: Sting, "Fortress Around Your Heart"


Different eras have different color palettes. I read a New Yorker article about this once, and it fascinated me. All of a sudden designers of clothing and consumer products will decide that certain colors are "in." This is what gave us that avacado green and sunflower yellow refrigerators of my early childhood memories.

After the earth tone explosion of the late 70s and early 80s, pastels came back hard, but so did gray. Don't believe me? Just check out the original NES system.


The use of neutral colors, especially gray, saturated so much at the time, from suits to appliances. It even extended to the world of music videos. The dayglo fantasia of 80s MTV coexisted with vids that were much more self-consciously "serious." These tended to be made by artists who were both popular and trying to "say something."  (Just think of the U2 video for "With Or Without You.")

Sting, of course, fit that bill perfectly. It is difficult to remember, but at this time he was one of the top pop stars, not yet an avatar for the lamest middle of the road. And to drive that point home, the video for "Fortress Around Your Heart" starts in color, but when he starts to perform, it goes to black and white. But it is a washed out, gray black and white. During the part in color he is cajoled by an oily guy in a bad suit to perform in front a video camera, perhaps Sting's commentary on MTV. Like all serious 80s artists, he must communicate that he is above the machinery of the music biz. It's a thoroughly gentrified version of punk rock values.

Now I must admit that I still like the song alright. It has a haunting feeling to it and the chorus is super catchy. This is not the joyously stupid 80s of partying while capitalism runs amok. It is a relic of the 80s of fears of nuclear war, of fretting over what is being lost in the Reagan/Thatcher onslaught. As tame as the implicit critique is, the pop music world today still mostly churns out hymns of self-affirmation or materialistic party music. The threat of annihilation persists, but now it is the earth itself we fear, and not nukes, and we all know, deep down, this time the apocalypse will not be averted.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lana Del Rey, "Brooklyn Baby"


Alex Sayf Cummings, internet buddy and proprietor of Tropics of Meta (where I often write) has made me a Lana Del Rey convert. He had talked so long with such great affection for an artist who I'd never really listened to, or just assumed was the usual vapid pop.

Oh no friends, far from it. Recently I was listening to a playlist I made of moody 90s pop songs, and was kind of shocked about how depressing so much of that era's top 40 music was. For example, Sarah McLachlan's "Adia" almost makes me cry every time I hear it, and it was the kind of mainstream "adult alternative" song you'd hear everywhere from the radio to the dentist to the bank.

So much pop music today seems like it's trying too damn hard to have fun. It's written entirely for fun loving teens, not sad sack depressives of an older vintage. It is perhaps fitting that when I sat down to listen to Lana Del Rey today, I did it while grading, a task that hardly fills my heart with happiness.

I have to admit I was transfixed by her voice, which can be both husky and fragile at the same time. It comes from a bygone world of torch singing, and reminded me of nothing less than Marlene Dietrich and Weimar Germany. This is modern day cabaret singing for a decadent society in decline. Her lyrics seem to revel in the decadence, but she also sounds like she's crying on the inside.

I often use pop music to make me feel OK about feeling bad. And these days I must admit that I am feeling bad all the time. This is not so much in my personal life, but in looking out at the hopeless situation my country is in. I have no faith in the future, and knowing that my children will have to live in that future fills me with an awful dread.

So instead I put on "Brooklyn Baby," a song about a hipster doing what hipsters do best: burying their own dread behind their tastes. This song and its torchy singer are made for these dark times. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Welcome Back To The Multipolar World (Iran and Korea in Perspective)

As I have written before, the Cold War is now finally over. After the fall of the Soviet Union it looked like America was the clear victor, and the USA maintained Cold War institutions to create a new global order. Now it is apparent that the United States also lost the Cold War, just 25 years later. Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear deal today is yet another sign that the Pax Americana is over.

After leaving the Paris Accords and now this, how will any country think the USA is bargaining in good faith with them? This might seem like an odd move, considering the upcoming summit with North Korea, but I think Trump has a bigger goal. Recent news indicates a desire to withdraw troops from Korea. And remember, during the campaign Trump basically called on Japan to nuclearize in order to counteract North Korea. He has shown contradictory desires to use military force and to reduce deployments. As far as I can tell he is against outlays of the military to preserve peace, and in favor of them to commit war.

Most importantly, he simply ignores the wishes of our allies. To Trump, these relationships mean nothing. He is a gangster who thinks that brute force and brute force only in the sole acceptable tool in international politics. This is why he has often praised dictators who wield the kind of absolute power that he wishes he had.

This means that as Pax Americana ends we will back to the multipolar world order from before World War II. That is something no one should be happy about. Even worse, the three poles appear to be the United States, Russia, and China. A tripolar world ends in conflict, because two of the powers will always join to together to beat up on the third one. The EU may emerge as another pole, but its relationship to the US has been irreparably harmed.

Barack Obama spent eight years repairing the damage to Pax Americana done by Dubya and his band of neocons. Trump has already destroyed the hallmarks of that repair, from shredding the Iran deal to poisoning the nascent relationship with Cuba. At this point I don't think we will get another chance. The landscape has been permanently altered.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Billboard Top Ten (May 6, 1978)

It's been too long since I've done a Billboard Top Ten on here. As the seasons change I find myself listening to lots of smooth music from the 1970s. It just seems to fit spring so well, and the height of 70s smoothness was probably sometime in 1978, which is the reason for me picking that year. As you'll see, this is during disco's dominance. Now, on to the countdown!

10. "Count on Me" by Jefferson Starship

Jefferson Airplane were perhaps the quintessential band of the 1960s counterculture. It is only appropriate then that they put out progressively less edgy music under the moniker Jefferson Starship in the 1970s. This song is light, but it is not smooth. In fact, it just isn't all that good. I'm kinda surprised it made the top ten.

9. "Dust In The Wind" by Kansas



This is what happens when a heavy rock band makes a song intended to be played at high school graduations. I will confess to you, dear reader, that there was a time when I found this song to be profound. I was a death obsessed teenager, so any pop song that spoke of life's ephemeral nature was always popular with me.

8. "Lay Down Sally" by Eric Clapton

It is my considered opinion that Clapton is a great supporting player in a band context, and pretty boring as a solo artist. He is a dead-eyed technician with great ability but little artistic inspiration. Hence, the Yarbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Derek and the Dominoes are far superior that anything he ever did alone. Speaking of collaborations, however, this song is livened up by Dolly Parton on background vocals.

7. "You're The One That I Want" by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John



Hoo boy. This song has been played to death at wedding dances, which has eclipsed the fact that the two singers were perhaps the two most quintessential male and female stars of their day. Travolta had multiple Zeitgeist defining performances, and Newton-John ruled the charts. This is a song that has so thoroughly become musical wallpaper that I can't really say much more about it.

6. "Too Much Too Little Too Late" by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams

Johnny Mathis was on the charts in the late 70s? Honestly I had no clue. I also never knew Deniece Williams for anything other than "Let's Hear It For The Boy." The accompaniment has the lush Philly soul sound, like something off of a Lou Rawls record. This song must've sounded something like a throwback even in 1978. At the height of disco it was an old school soul ballad. I have to admit, I really like it, but for some reason it's one of those top ten hits that did not live on in memory or oldies radio.

5. With A Little Luck" by Wings



Well, this was at the point in time that Paul McCartney could get on the charts with anything that had his name on it. I will say that London Town is an underrated album that's a nice and smooth record for a beautiful spring day such as this. This is perhaps the weakest song on it, though. This is the height of his schmaltziness, which he thankfully turned away from on records like Back to the Egg and McCartney II.

4. "The Closer I Get To You" by Roberta Flack with Donny Hathaway

Now this right here is smooooooooooth. Roberta Flack was just killing it with the ballads in the 70s, and this one also has some wonderful synth sounds. Donny Hathaway is, of course, excellent as always. The male-female duet seems to have been big in '78, and is something that is a kind of a lost pop music art.

3. "Can't Smile Without You" by Barry Manilow

This song might be the proof that the 70s were running out of gas by this point. "Can't Smile Without You" sounds like bargain basement Carpenters. The Carpenters would have sung the shit out of this, at least. Manilow's deficiencies are on full display here.

2. "If I Can't Have You" by Yvonne Elliman



Okay, stop the presses! This song is one of my favorite one hit wonders. It's got the slamming disco sound, but also those airy synths. Barry Gibb (who wrote it) was at the absolute height of his powers, to the point that he could give a little-known Broadway singer a massive worldwide hit. Plus, Elliman gives this song about romantic despair the appropriate emotion. Who hasn't felt this kind of sentiment after having their heart broken?

1. "Night Fever" by the Bee Gees



At this point the Bee Gees, that 60s baroque pop brother act from Australia, were the absolute biggest musical phenomenon in the world. The backlash would be swift, and growing up in the 80s NOTHING was considered lamer than disco and the Bee Gees. But you know what? They put out some great disco records. This one might be my favorite, mostly because Barry Gibb's trademark falsetto is just out of control here.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Pence and Trump at the NRA


Today Mike Pence and Donald Trump spoke at the NRA's convention in Dallas. Amidst the absolute shitstorm of the Trump administration it was easy to miss, but very important.

This year has seen the biggest youth-driven protests since the Vietnam War, all calling for gun control. In the face of a popular outcry that has mobilized millions, politicians who are concerned with public opinion might feel some responsibility to move away from their unpopular opinions, pay lip service to those aggrieved, or even just to keep their mouths shut on the topic. Now, in the face of protest, the president and vice-president went straight to the NRA to pledge their fealty. This would have been surprising even in normal times; the last president to address the organization was Reagan. The vice president even openly stated the NRA's most infamous talking point "the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

The president went on one of his patented rants, railing about witch hunts and attacking the justice system for daring to investigate him. He did this in front of an organization that disseminates radical right-wing propaganda through NRA TV. These were the "second amendment people" he referred to threateningly during the 2016 campaign, implying that they would do violence against Hilary Clinton. These were the people "warmed up" for the president's speech with videos played in the convention hall attacking Black Lives Matter and journalists.

Now let's play a game. Let's imagine we are behind the veil of ignorance in an unnamed country. If the leader of that country went to an organization advocating gun proliferation, whose convention attacked political dissent and the press, and that leader spent his speech ranting against his enemies, how would we view it? This certainly does not sound like the behavior of a democratic leader. It sounds like a despot. Imagine the headlines if a leader in a foreign country did this: "Embattled Leader Condemns Rule Of Law In Speech At Radical Reactionary Meeting." 

In a subtle way, Trump and Pence's trip to the NRA is a sign of our democracy's death. In a nation crying out for limitations on guns, nothing is going to happen to answer those cries. Some of this is rooted in contempt for the political opposition, but some of it comes with the knowledge that our system, as currently composed, currently allows minority rule.

Trump is president, despite losing by three million votes. The House is gerrymandered eight ways from Sunday. The Senate gives outside power to small, conservative states. The Supreme Court remains in conservative hands after the Senate refused to move Obama's nominee forward. The right is well aware that they are in the minority, but also that that doesn't matter. With the levers of government rigged, with massive infusions of Koch cash able to swing state-level elections, they know that they are not about to lose power anytime soon.

The only possible short-term solution is for those of us in the disempowered majority is to organize organize organize and flood the polls in November. I am afraid that the momentum of the gun control movement after Parkland has already been lost. The other side is organized and ruthless, and we are still, even at this late day, divided and in disarray.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Press Won't Save You

Real life ain't the movies

I don't want to add anything more to the endless talk of the White House Correspondents Dinner, but it is a remarkably revealing event. It reveals for all to see who have until now been blind to the fact that the press is not going to save us.

After being lied to, disrespected, and deemed "enemies of the people" several reporters hopped to the aid of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the administration's daily face of its contempt for the press. They showed far greater willingness to directly condemn Michelle Wolf than they ever did to defend themselves against a wannabe despot. This whole farce is completely disgusting.

We are reminded once again of how the Orange Dotard got elected in the first place. The media gave him hours of free advertising. They laughed at his antics, and refused to call his lies what they were. Like a lot of people in America today, the media has refused to take stock of the danger we are facing, and has refused to change their habits to match the danger we face. The last thing the media wants to do is to actually face up to the situation and call lies for what they are, that would force them to actually DO SOMETHING.

Yet despite all of the evidence that the media will not save us, so many liberals seem to think that the Meringue Menace will be defeated by our "institutions," or through the moral arc of the universe or some other such fantastical bullshit. These same people also think Robert Mueller is going to save them, out of their naive and false belief that the system actually works.

Guess what folks, it doesn't. This nightmare will not end until we ourselves take matters into our own hands and end it. Robert Mueller and the media are not our redeemers. We must be in the streets, we must be knocking on doors, we must be driving people to the polls. The shameful kow-towing of the media to the wannabe despot is a sign that we are out here on our own, and need to fight like our lives depend on it. Anything short of that will result in failure.

See you on the barricades.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Dawn of Spring Oldies Playlist

As I have indicated many, many times here, my emotions and consumption of music are highly molded by changes in the seasons. Some times of year certain music gets broken out to match the weather. The two most fecund moments are the start of autumn and, of course, spring. After a long, dark winter that never seemed to end spring has finally come to New Jersey. Nature is euphoric in its bursting, my barren backyard transformed itself into a blooming garden in a matter of days.

When it comes to spring I find myself listening to a lot of cheery oldies hits of the 70s AM radio gold variety. Their mellow tones and attitudes fit the excitement in my soul.  Here are a few of my favorites for this time of year.

Johnny Nash, "I Can See Clearly Now"

This is just a stunningly beautiful song, like the sun shining off the early morning dew on the grass. I've also always taken it as a metaphor for emerging from a period of depression. Their is a slight tone of relief as the clouds are being parted and the singer can finally "see clearly now." As someone whose mental state is dependent on sunshine, it certainly makes sense to me.

Glen Campbell, "Southern Nights"

The original Allen Toussaint is far trippier, this song is perfect for sipping a glass of wine on the back porch while the sun goes down. Both Toussaint and Campbell are gone, geniuses in their own fields who deserve to be remembered.

"It's A Sunshine Day," The Brady Bunch



Okay folks, let's amp up the cheese factor by several factors. Is this a dumb song? Yes. Are the Brady Bunch kids great singers. No. Is this song still a delight on a sunny May Sunday? You bet.

"Shake Your Body To The Ground," The Jacksons

This song encapsulates the exuberant blooming of spring, just as it represented Michael Jackson's flowering as a musical star in his own right. It is irresistible and I find myself playing it in my car with the windows rolled down this time of year.

"Let Your Love Flow," Bellamy Brothers

Has a funkier country song ever existed? It's got a groove reminiscent of "Southern Nights," but lyrics more specific about spring as a time for the blooming of love.

"Rock Me Gently," Andy Kim

This is the Platonic form of 70s AM radio gold. Just a little bit of funk and flash, earnest singing, spacey keyboards and lots of "baby baby" in the lyrics. It's also the best rip-off of Neil Diamond ever recorded.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Things Will Continue To Get Worse Before They Get Better


Every now and then I have to check myself and look around and think really critically about what the heck is going on in this country. My assessment since the first days of the Trump administration was that things were going to get worse before they get better, and I do not think we have reached the crossover point yet. In fact, we are not even close.

The Trump administration has proven itself to be craven, incompetent, corrupt, racist, and possessing authoritarian tendencies. It is destroying America's standing in the world while perpetuating its internal inequalities. It is seductive to look at the Mueller investigation and think that justice will be done, but no president yet has been removed from office after impeachment, and Trump will not be the first. Beyond that, the two sides in Korea are longing for peace, and if that is achieved the media will bow down to Trump and credit him as a great statesman, even if the result was primarily due to the moves by North and South Korea.

The biggest problem is that the opposition is not up to the task, and Trump's supporters remain steadfast. Let's look at this from some different factions in our political landscape.

Trump Voters
The people who voted for this man in the primaries have stayed with him. They sometimes express disappointment, but that's only to get him to keep giving them what they want. He is their leader, their messiah. They will never abandon him.

Non-Trump Republicans
The people who did not vote for Trump until the general election are sticking with their party, which has signed a blood-oath with the despot. They are not proud of their vote, necessarily, but they made it, and show every sign of making it again in 2020. As long as someone screams "taxes, fetuses, guns, and gays" in their ears they will stay loyal. Fox News still has an iron grip on them.

Never Trump Republicans
They are a tiny group, mostly consisting of op-ed writers and pundits for respectable newspapers. They are few in number, and are too invested in conservatism to hold the Republican party accountable for its Trump alliance.

Middle of the Road Independents
These are the most frustrating people on earth. For the most part they aren't paying attention and are prone to saying "I don't like Trump, but I don't like liberals either." They have already slotted Trump into their fatuous "both sides" narrative.

Liberals
They have been marching and making calls, but they are still weak and lack a proper perspective. They are the people who saw James Comey swing the election to Trump, but are now waiting in line to read his book and shower him with praise. They still want to believe in the system, and still want to think that conservatives are not a radical movement bent on their very destruction. So far they have been far too weak to mount a strong response.

Rank and File Democrats
This is the most promising group. These are the teachers on strike, concerned about bread and butter issues and not the symbolic politics beloved of liberals and leftists. This is, relatedly, the least white of all the factions. The problem is that these folks are getting little direction from the party.

Lefties
In the face of despotism many are spending all of their time bitching about liberals. During the anti-gun violence walk-outs and marches, many say on the sidelines naysaying and acting above it all. The same people spent more time attacking the supposed offensive nature of pussy hats than engaging in protests themselves. One of the biggest problems with this group is that because of their educations they have an inflated sense of their importance, which in fact is virtually nil to people who don't have graduate degrees in the humanities.

****

This has not been a message of comfort, but it's one I think people ought to be listening to. We have to stop believing that things will change because they must or that Mueller will somehow stop it all. We have to fight, and to be willing to fight together, regardless of some of our differences.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Consolation of Superman


This week marked issue #1000 of Action Comics, which happened to be released quite fortuitously on the 80th anniversary of Superman's first appearance, in Action Comics #1. While I have been drawn back into comic books over the past few years after two decades aways, I have never really been a big Superman guy. Picking up Action Comics #1000 and a few other comics with Supes here and there might have me changing my mind.

As has been well-documented, the rise of "prestige television" elevated a certain kind of anti-hero. Tony Soprano and Walter White, perhaps the two most emblematic, both wanted to do right by their families as they committed heinous acts and ultimately alienated the people they thought they were protecting. We have been hit by a deluge of "dark and gritty" ever since. In the cinemas, that has also meant Superman becoming violent and unlikeable in the Zach Snyder films.

Superman is perhaps the ultimate example in our cultural heritage of the untainted, pure hero, but even he fell to the pervasive need for our heroes to be tainted. In the comics, however, he is still an embodiment of the qualities we wish to see most in ourselves. Instead of rejecting this character as corny or silly, I find myself embracing him.

We live in an era where the absolute worst kind of human being holds the highest power in the land. In a time like this, the concept of heroism needs to be redeemed. After all, Superman had his origins in the Great Depression as the world was about to go to war. In tough times we need things to rally us, to give us belief. Some of the stories in Action Comics 1000 comment on this, implicitly and explicitly. I feel my fight waning every day after over a year of both commitment and political insanity. Not a lot can snap me out of my sense of doom, but Superman does. If that's corny, well corn me up.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Track of the Week: Tears for Fears, "Mad World"


Right before my parents came to visit I suffered from a pretty intense attack of the black dog. The seasons have a big effect on my mental state, and this endless winter we are experiencing had me down, plus work stress and some bad news about the health of someone very close to me.

In times like these I tend to turn to the music I listened to in my youth when I wanted to wallow in sadness. (Sometimes the wallowing makes it better.) This meant Depeche Mode and New Order, since the cold synthy sound of those bands fits the purgatory of the late winter. While assembling a queue of songs in that vein I added Tears for Fears' "Mad World."

I soon became obsessed with it, playing it every day during my commute. Even though I am a child of the 80s, I still knew the song best in the form of Gary Jules' excellent cover, which has eclipsed the original in the collective pop cultural memory. Whereas his song is a quiet lament on a dark night of the soul, Tears for Fears give us a thumping 80s synth pop song. The synths are deep and dark however, more John Carpenter soundtrack than Duran Duran.

It's an incredibly bracing song for one that hit the top ten in the UK, where there seems to be more of a market for sad sack anthems. A line like "The dreams in which I'm dying/ Are the best I've ever had" which is a powerful yet oblique reference to being dogged by suicidal thoughts. It's generally a lament for the treadmill of life, and expresses the nagging doubt (which I often have) that nothing in this world will ever get better. It will be the eternal return of the same, forever and forever and forever. We will all just be stuck desperately plugging away until the day we die while greedheads lord their money over us.

In case you don't know, Depeche Mode is on tour and making serious bank. My fellow dark British 80s pop loving Gen Xers are in middle age, when songs like this have translated our teen angst into fortysomething sadness and fear. It's music that isn't talked about much in the rock or pop canons, but it has more than stood the test of time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Back From My Hiatus With Some Reflections

I’ve been away from the blog for the longest time in years, maybe ever. (I haven’t checked.) First off, I spent my writing energy on a piece for publication, something I had resolved to do more often. (So far, no bite.) Soon after my parents came to visit, and I see them so rarely that I resolved to give them the full measure of my time and attention.

My time away, as well as my parents’ visit, has given me some time for reflection. Some of it has been good, some has been hard. On the good side on Sunday I returned to Frank Pepe’s, the justly famous brick oven pizza place in New Haven. We were on a road trip back from Rhode Island with my parents, and made time to get some awesome pizza. It had been seven years since I had been there, and the last time was pretty significant.

I had been in New Haven for a conference. I was not totally excited by said conference, but this was back when I was still an assistant professor in East Texas. Going to New Haven gave me a chance to see my wife, who drove up from New Jersey. I’d also been encouraged to attend by a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, who was good to see again.

That weekend was a crucial one in my life, since it was on those days that I made the definitive decision to get out of academia at any cost. I knew right then and there that I was not staying in East Texas and nothing was going to stop me. The delicious meal at Frank Pepe’s capped off a weekend where I had suddenly attained clarity.

This came after months of severe anxiety and depression brought on by my career woes, illnesses in my family, living far from my wife, and being bullied and belittled at my job. Coming back to Frank Pepe’s with my wife, my parents, and my children made me realize just how much better my life is than it was seven years ago. That realization helped cut through some of the intense stress I’ve been feeling as of late.

As great as that reflection was, it came during a week of less happy thoughts about myself and my life. When I am with my parents I inevitably think about how I’ve changed since my youth. Seven years on, it’s apparent that my years as a low-level academic, first as an exploited “visitor” and then as a put-upon and bullied assistant professor, had a permanent effect on my personality.

On the positive side, that experience made me tougher. I am more of a fighter than I used to be, more confident and much more able to spot climbers, back-stabbers, and assholes before they have a chance to come at me. At the same time, I am not as nice a person as I used to be. I am much more cynical, and far, far less trusting. I am constantly thinking that someone somewhere is out to fuck me over at all times. I have no patience for other people’s bullshit, which I realize has made me an unpleasant person on things like local town Facebook group where yuppies run amok. I am as patient as I can be with my students, but that sometimes means that my patience is used up before I get home where I need to have some in reserve for my family.

I love Bernand Malamud’s The Natural because (unlike the film) it makes the point that suffering is not redemptive. I survived the worst low of my adult life, but it did not leave me unscathed. I learned some lessons, but also developed some bad habits. I can't ever be the person I used to be, but I am going to be trying hard to be a better person.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Conspiracy Theories Kill


I have long deplored conspiracy theories. It used to be it was because I thought that they misspent political energy. After all, the biggest "conspiracies" was there for all to see: the wealthy use their power to keep the state in their pocket and to do their bidding. White people use their power to perpetuate their position and to maintain a racist criminal justice system. They don't even bother to hide it!

However, that annoyance (rather than outright opposition) was back in times of more benign conspiracy theories. Now I am seeing their potential to kill, as they have often done in the past. Conspiracy theories take hate and fear and turn it into outright violence. The examples are legion. During the French Revolution, rumors of plotting by reactionaries led to the September Massacres in 1792, where thousands of prisoners were killed because they were supposedly going to be joining the nobility in an uprising against the Revolution. Most of those killed were regular criminals, not anti-Revolutionaries. In Germany the Nazi conspiracy theory that Jews and socialists had stabbed Germany in the back, leading to its loss in World War I became one of Hitler's most effective tools. Generally the history of anti-Semitism is full of conspiracy theories that lead to mob or state violence against Jews. In fact, I would say that the association between conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism is so strong that even conspiracy theories not directly connected to Jews bear marks of it. (Most JFK theories, for example, finger a dark, shadowy cabal pulling the strings.) In America conspiracy thinking has also been unleashed. In the mid-1800s "Know-Nothings" burned Catholic churches and convents to supposedly thwart a popish plot. In the present day mosques have been bombed in reaction to a supposed Muslim plot to subject America to "sharia law."

Conspiracy theories can justify state violence as well as mob violence. Just witness the ways that the current Russian autocracy has used media-circulated conspiracy theories to attack the political opposition and LGBTQ people. The kind of conspiracy theories that kill are on the rise in this country. People like Alex Jones, who treat gun violence victims as actors in a plot to take his listeners' guns. No one less that the president of the United States listens to him. The only people who listen to him on the left do it as a fun kind of joke, the deadly potential of what is pushing is usually ignored. The Pizzagate conspiracy almost led to a mass shooting.

But now people do not even have to seek out hateful conspiracy theories to be exposed to them. YouTube's autoplay feature shoves them in front of unsuspecting eyes. On Facebook conspiracy theories gain credence because if one of your trusted friends endorses something, you are much less likely to discount it. Racist billionaires like Robert Mercer not only finance Breitbart, they have used Cambridge Analytica to inflame the hatred of potential Trump supporters on social media. Many people, young as well as old, lack the capacity or experience to divine true from fake. If something confirms their preconceived notions, they will usually just buy into it, no matter how ridiculous.

We are entering darker and darker times. Things will continue to get worse before they get better, I fear. The spread of hateful conspiracy theories and those who push them has become normalized. Just witness how Roseanne Barr, someone who has disseminated conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, was feted by the media after the successful return of her eponymous show. The use of faked propaganda on social media was shocking back in late 2016, now we are used to it. The president of the United States attacking journalists has now become just another political weather event.

I used to wonder why Julius Streicher, the most egregious Nazi purveyor of anti-Semitic publications, got the death penalty at Nuremberg. After all, he had not committed war crimes and genocide like the others. (And Albert Speer SHOULD have been put to death for his own, but that's another story.) Now I understand. His efforts had made it possible for millions to be murdered.

In countering the anti-Semitic attacks on Alfred Dreyfus, Emile Zola rallied the troops by calling out "truth is on the march!" To win a victory like Zola and Dreyfus' against bigotry, we too must go on the march. We will not change the minds of those addicted to Breitbart, Fox and InfoWars, we can only marginalize and neutralized them by stripping them of their power. Time to get marching.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

REM's Life's Rich Pageant And The First Shadows Of The Reagan Dusk


We often tend to mistakenly think of the 1980s in ways that paint it as uniformly conforming to certain trends consistently throughout the decade. If you look into the cultural and political history of the 1980s, however, you will see something in the late 1980s I call "Reagan Dusk." During this period criticism of unequal social conditions became more prominent in popular culture, and there was a growing negative reaction to what neoliberalism had wrought. This coincided both with the thawing of the Cold War and the Iran-Contra Scandal, which undermined the Reaganite view of global conflict as well as trust in the Gipper, respectively. The president himself was sundowning, growing senile and more prone to health problems. Public memory of the 1980s has mish-mashed it into a big neon spandex blur, the so-called "Greed Decade" for many progressives, or a golden age overseen by Ronald the Great by conservatives.

Both interpretations are wrong. Dissent coincided with greed. Reagan's popularity waxed and waned, and his so-called "revolution" started running into its own limits.

1986 was the crucial transitional year for all of this. That was the year the Iran Contra scandal broke, hampering Reagan's popularity and bringing on talk of a second Watergate. 1986 was also saw a summit in Iceland between Gorbachev and Reagan that heralded a great lessening of tensions between the superpowers. Earlier that year the Chernobyl disaster forced the hand of glasnost in the Soviet Union. In America Reagan signed a massive tax bill that included tax increases on the wealthy from the extremely low levels he had set in 1981 and a tacit admission that supply side economics were not magic beans that could lower the deficit by cutting taxes. (Of course, that idea would soon be back.) All the while, AIDS raged, the horrible toll unacknowledged by the president. In a nation where thousands were dying of disease, there was no "Morning in America."

Popular culture, however, took longer to catch up. The ultimate expression of Reagan-era ideology on film, Top Gun, was the highest-grossing film of the year. The same year also saw Cobra, Sylvester Stallone's bluntest 80s statement on violence as will to power. (His catchphrase, "you're the disease, I'm the cure" sounds chilling post Trump.) Popular music was as big as the shoulder pads and hair so common at the time and as loud as the patterns on the shorts and dresses of Americans that summer.

At the fringes, however, the Reagan Dusk was just barely visible. It could be heard on Life's Rich Pageant, the fourth album from REM, the rock band poised to bring the sound of the underground to the mainstream. REM's first three albums are masterpieces of jangly guitar and mysteriously mumbled lyrics with an overlay of Southern Gothic on top. Your average indie rock fan today still pays homage to them. They are less likely to do so for Life's Rich Pageant, where the band took a turn that in retrospect ought to be lauded rather than disdained.

The change is obvious immediately, as "Begin the Begin" starts with a hard-edged rock riff and loud feedback beneath Stipe's voice, which is suddenly much clearer, the lyrics more legible and now, for the first time, topical. The loud snare drum reflects the times and the production of Don Gehman, who had worked on heartland rocker John Cougar Mellencamp's albums. This song is a call to arms amidst the wreckage of the Reagan Era, but the lyrics are cryptic enough not to make it a traditional "protest song." There is dark talk of "The powers/ the only vote that matters" but a cautiously optimistic cry "let's begin again" as well.

Before the listener can catch their breath, the song transitions immediately without pause into "These Days," with a fast, loud, blistering riff by Buck over muscular Berry drums. (This is the album where Bill Berry's beginnings as a metal-head are most evident.) It might be the only REM song that encourages head banging. The words are fiery too, "We are old despite the times" and "I'll rearrange your scales." The one-two punch of "Begin the Begin" and "These Days" is an announcement that REM has abandoned its Southern Gothic Folk Mystery thing and is grabbing for the crown of Band That Matters.

These days, when Bono has become kind of a joke and social media has made political activism more accessible, the significance of this move has been diluted. In the middle of the Reagan Era, when nuclear war threatened, cities rotted, and AIDS ravaged the country while the media and political figures barely seemed to care, music stepped into the breach. For someone like me, who grew up in a very rural, conservative area, it was not just a lifeline, it paved a way for my embrace of a more progressive politics. Hip hop (and especially Public Enemy) provided me with the most radical musical critiques, but REM was important too. After all, they hailed from Athens, Georgia, and were a sign that resistance to the dominant politics of the time could exist in places like the one where I lived.

The political themes continue on the first side of the album, but songs ease back into folkier territory, such as in the ringing, beautiful "Fall On Me." "Buy the sky/ And sell the sky/ And lift your arms up to the sky/ And ask the sky and ask the sky/ Don't fall on me." I remember Stipe saying it was about acid rain, but for obvious reasons it calls to mind other environmental dangers we face today. The beautiful Mike Mills background harmonies truly make this song, though. While REM might be headed in traditionally more "rawk" directions here, they are doing it their way with their own unique sound.

"Cuyahoga" continues discussion of the environment, referencing the Cleveland river that was once so polluted that it caught fire. It also discusses Native American history, and how this nation's wealth was built on the theft of others' land. Such critical re-evaluations of American history would be more commonplace during the Reagan Dusk, leading to the inevitable anti-PC backlash of the early 1990s. The sound is folkier than the album's start, but the lyrical message is unmistakable.

After those first four songs, the political elements are more subdued once the band has laid down the gauntlet. With different, less big production, "Hyena" could belong on Reckoning. Of course, lines like "The greater the weapon, the bigger the fear" seem to reference geopolitics just a little. The jaunty Latin dance-y song "Underneath The Bunker" with Stipe's unintelligibly filtered voice might be a nuclear war reference, but that's easy to ignore. It closes out side one, cheekily called the "Dinner Side."

Side two, the "Supper Side," goes into more explicitly political territory with "The Flowers of Guatemala." (On CD the transition from "Underneath the Bunker" to this more serious song is quite jarring.) The song references, of course, America's support for brutal military regimes in Guatemala, but does so in a mournful rather than rage-filled way. Stipe sings mournfully of the flowers on the graves of those murdered by the state. It is one of the most moving and powerful songs in REM's canon, and highlights issue that most people in this country, even those who are political progressives, choose to ignore. Amid the justified anger over Russian meddling in American elections, folks in America might want to take a minute and ponder what their own country has done elsewhere.

It's hard to top a side-opener like that, and REM really doesn't. A trio of solid but less evocative songs follows: "I Believe," "What If We Give It Away," and "Just A Touch." The latter is my favorite for its up-tempo punkiness and the story behind it. Evidently as a teenager Stipe witnessed an Elvis impersonator being mobbed on the day of the King's death by a group of distraught female Elvis fans, one of them saying "C'mon love, just a touch." The whole thing is just a fun rave-up and an unlikely segue into "Swan Swan H."

This acoustic song puts us back into REM's Southern Gothic mode big time. The lyrics reference the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Emancipation ("Hurrah we're all free now.") For such a politically important time in America's history, there does not seem to be much politics here, more setting a mood. That said, it's catchy as hell and in my youth I would listen to it over and over again. The album ends on an unlikely note, with a cover of an obscure 1960s song, "Superman" by The Clique. It puts on full display the band's love of psychedelic garage rock (which is all over the rest of the album), but also mirrors another aspect of the coming Reagan Dusk: 60s nostalgia. One could argue it was kicked off in 1986 when MTV ran a bunch of Monkees episodes one weekend. Nostalgia for that decade, of course, was a kind of a political statement in itself in the midst of the conservative backlash.

Life's Rich Pageant is a classic "tweener" album. REM abandoned the formula that the Pitchfork crowd still idolizes, but its new, rock oriented sound did not yet yield any hits. That would soon come with 1987's Document, once the Reagan Dusk had truly started to fall. Life's Rich Pageant is a document of the other 1980s, the 80s of dissent and protest and resistance, of ACT-UP and anti-Apartheid. In our own fraught times when we need to begin again, it is well worth another listen.