Thursday, July 25, 2019

Failure to Reckon

Today brought yet another report about the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. I find it fascinating that this news has been met with relative silence.

I got to thinking about it, and realized the quiet is very on brand for America in 2019. We are in the midst of a situation that requires a true reckoning, something nobody really want to do. Conservatives have basically decided that anything is permissible if it keeps them in power. If that requires foreign interference, voter suppression, and losing the popular vote, so be it. The left is so heavily invested in their anti-liberalism and contrarianism that they act as if the hacking is no big deal. The center-left (there is no center-right in America) tends to care the most, but are totally unwilling to admit how rotten our entire political system has become. In their West Wing world we can somehow go back to how it used to be without making any fundamental changes.

One of the fundamental political realities today is that the Constitution, which was intended to limit the power of the masses, is being used to ensure permanent minority rule. The electoral college, state-level voter qualifications, the Senate, and the judiciary are working in concert to thwart the will of the majority. Unfortunately, in America our Constitution is treated like a sacred totem, a fundamental expression of the nation. It cannot be replaced. The country will collapse entirely before that is allowed to happen.

Of course, this is not the first time that the Constitution has been utilized in this fashion. From roughly 1877 to 1964 Jim Crow ruled the South and several national institutions like the military. This happened right after the advances of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Similarly, Trumpism is a reaction against a more diverse and less white country, an attempt to establish permanent white rule in America. When well meaning liberals call Trump's actions "un-American" they are displaying their own failure to reckon with the realities of this country's history.

In a sense I do not even know why I am talking about the current crisis on this level, since I know in my heart nothing fundamental is going to change. We might get through this and somehow manage to vote Trump out of office despite the existence of the electoral college, voter suppression, and outside interference. The underlying failure of our system of government won't be going away anytime soon, even under the best of possible outcomes. Why? Because few are willing to reckon with what is staring them straight in the face.

If only mainlanders had the spirit of Puerto Ricans. When the people of Puerto Rico took to the streets and deposed their corrupt governor, they understood that they needed to take things into their own hands, and that the system itself would not somehow right things on its own. A lot of Trump's opponents on the mainland need to get that basic understanding through their thick skulls.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

"21st Century Digital Boy" (Track of the Week)


I have been thinking a lot about 90s popular culture this week, and the few artifacts that showed an understanding of the way our society was headed. Back in 1994 the whole "pop punk" broke huge at the hands of Green Day and The Offspring. The latter band's album became the biggest selling album put out by an indie label in America. That label was Epitaph, founded by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz.

Bad Religion, birthed in the early 80s hardcore scene, even managed to get their videos on MTV and songs played on the new "alternative" radio format. While Green Day was expertly mining teen angst, Bad Religion was older and far more literate and political. Their Stranger Than Fiction album had hooks galore and came out in the only three year window in pop music history where an indie punk band could hit the mainstream.

On the surface, "21st Century Digital Boy" describes a typical suburban scene of a middle class boy "with lots of toys" seduced by consumerism and incapable of dealing with the outside world. Hearing it now, I see the first inklings of a new trend. If the character in this song were young today he'd be in GamerGate and trolling people for the lulz and egging on mass shooters on 4chan. The lost affluent suburban nerdy white boys of the 90s have become politicized these days, often drawn to the alt-right and "incel" misogyny. (I know most aren't but this nexus is pretty clear.)

Some days I think about how things would have been different for me if I grew up now rather than then. I shook off the "woe is me" bullshit, but it was easier then without social media. Now the lost 21st century digital boys are empowered in their hatred.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

An Elegiac Moon Landing Anniversary

If you watch one moon landing documentary, watch For All Mankind

Growing up in the 1980s I was obsessed with space travel. I read every book I could find on the subject, and memorized the names of astronauts from Gordon Cooper to Deke Slayton. The first space shuttle launch in 1981 happened when I was five years old, a perfect time to capture my imagination. The Challenger tragedy came at the height of my fascination, and broke my heart twice. Once for those who died, and a second time for the realization that space travel might not be the future.

Back in 1986 at the time of that disaster the last moon landing had taken place only fourteen years before. My childhood mind, which saw each week as an eternity, did not grasp that men had been sent to the moon in the very recent past. Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which feels like it took place a million years ago.

This is not merely because the vast majority of Americans do not have a living memory of the event. The very effort to go to the moon feels like something impossible accomplished by an ancient civilization, like the statues on Easter Island or the Egyptian pyramids. Men were sent to the moon and back -several times!- with computers weaker than the average pocket calculator of today. The device in my pants pocket is like a fighter jet compared to the ox carts of the massive mainframes you see in the moon landing documentaries.

It's about more than technology, however. It's about a society capable of even doing such a thing. The United States today seems incapable of even functioning. Our president is an addled television huckster yelling racist taunts at his opponents and throwing refugees in internment camps. Our bridges and roads are crumbling, people go bankrupt because they get sick, children live in fear of being shot in school, and the police are allowed to commit murder with impunity.

This is not to elevate America in 1969. The Vietnam War was raging, Richard Nixon was president, and black artists like Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron pointed out how money was being spent on rockets while America's ghettoes worsened. This country has never lived up to its promise at any time in its history, but at least in 1969, amidst the war mongering and rank inequality, it was capable of a giant leap for humanity. The plaque planted on the moon did not gloat about America or claim the land for any one country, but said the mission was done "for all mankind."

The United States of today is not capable of such flourishes. It is raising the walls and hardening the borders. It isn't building rockets, it's stringing barbed wire. Donald Trump has given up the veneer of any deeper universal moral mission for the country. His main goal with space is to militarize it with a Space Force, the polar opposite of the attempts in the 1960s to internationalize outer space.

But it's not just American history on the downslope. The moon landing in 1969 may well be seen in the future as the apex of industrialization. It happened on the eve of the understanding in the 1970s that our resources are finite, and that our addiction to fossil fuels could eventually kill us. I was watching a moon landing documentary this week, and seeing the massive fires coming from the rocket I could only think about the greenhouse effect. As a child I used to think the stars were our destiny, now I am realizing that what looked like a thrilling first step was probably the end of the line.

So I sit here on this absolutely scorching July 20th, 2019, and I wonder what the future holds. My only hope is that the stunning ability of the space program to invent new technologies and marshal resources to put someone on the moon can somehow, someway be replicated by us in the here and now to save what we have here on earth.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Cracked Windshields and Free Beer on a Bush League Nebraska Night


While baseball may not hold the preeminent place in American culture that it once did, its metaphors still permeate the American vernacular. To fail is to “strike out.” A major success is a “home run.” When making an estimate, we provide a “ballpark figure.” The president is fond of saying “big league” as a positive adjective. The opposite term, one used to connote low quality or shoddy performance, is “bush league.” While I now work in the president’s big league hometown, the biggest league city in all of America, I grew up in a literal bush league town. I have spent so much time in the big leagues of New York that while I still hold it in my heart, my hometown feels more and more distant to me.

Last July I was back in Hastings, Nebraska, a small city of 24,000 in the stereotypically flat south central part of the state, 150 long miles west of Omaha. It is the smallest of the triangle of the “tri-cities area,” completed by Grand Island and Kearney. While Hastings’ population has remained static, those other towns have been growing for the past forty years. Interstate 80, the Cornhusker State’s grand trunk road, bypassed Hastings for those other cities. The local state college in Kearney was elevated to a state university, and Grand Island has grown by 50% since I was born. With Hastings’ mall now officially dead and the local department store closing, residents of my hometown have to drive twenty four miles north to “GI” to do any shopping that can’t be done at the hulking Wal-Mart that sits like a cancerous growth on the edge of town.

There is little in the way of opportunities for those with a college education or ambition. Those like me who left town to get an education rarely come back. This is mostly down to the economic situation, but also to an insular attitude that has only worsened as the town has lost its relevance. There is a vicious feedback loop whereby young people leave for better chances, making the people left behind even more rooted in the town, which then drives more young people out, thus making the locals that much more obstinate in their dislike of the outside world. When I tell strangers I meet in Hastings that I live in New Jersey the mask of “Midwestern nice” suddenly drops. They don’t even try to hide their judgment and contempt. One total stranger I talked to after Superstorm Sandy actually told me that we were parasites on the government for asking for rebuilding money. Incidents like this have made coming home to visit feel like going to a hostile foreign country, not the place I grew up.

On my last summer visit, however, I found something that made me feel more at home in my hometown than I had felt in years: a minor league baseball game.

The wonderfully named Sodbusters are not a minor league affiliate, but a member of the Expedition League, a new wood bat summer league made up of college players trying to get noticed by scouts. Even such a lowly rung on the baseball ladder is exciting to have in a town where people are used to having to drive several miles to Grand Island or Lincoln for entertainment. My heart swelled to think that for once WE had something THEY didn’t. I also felt part of that WE for a change.

It was as if the clock had been turned back to the town’s heyday when I heard about the new team. When you drive around Hastings you notice that it must have been a real jewel in the early 1900s. The ornate fa├žade of one downtown building is a sign that it was once a department store where the well-to-do traveling by rail from Chicago to Denver got off and bought luxury items. The Dutton-Lainson Company, a manufacturer and the town’s biggest employer also owns the tallest structure in town, a warehouse called the “Victory Building” for its commemoration of the just finished World War I. The war brought prosperity to Nebraska’s farming country even as it sent doughboys back home in coffins. Hastings was a railroad junction too when the railroad was king. The railroad brought in speakers to stand on the rostrum at the town’s Chatauqua pavilion, built in 1907 for the cultural edification of the growing town’s residents. That included the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan, whose political power coincided with the Plains’ rise. Hastings had always prided itself on its more refined nature, whereas sister city Grand Island was a rough-hewn, Western cow town full of saloons and brothels.

Hastings had even played a part in one the early milestones of world baseball history. In 1888 AG Spalding took his team of all-stars on a world tour to promote the game. On the rail route to the west coast they stopped off in Hastings and played an exhibition game. Hastings fielded minor league teams in its 1910s and 1920s zenith, including one nicknamed the “Third Citys” [sic]. Despite the boosterish claim in their nickname, Grand Island was already ahead of Hastings as the third biggest city in Nebraska.

Hastings’ combination of early 20th century prosperity, boosterism, love of baseball, and civic-mindedness created the thing that made it possible for Hastings to even host a baseball team in the 21st century: Duncan Field. Completed in 1941 as a municipal project, it has a subtle grandeur from another time. The outfield wall is brick, a reminder that Hastings was once known for its multiple brickyards. Unlike Wrigley Field in Chicago, the wall is not covered with ivy and is too tall for a player to scale. Also unlike Wrigley, it is impossibly far from home plate.  The wall is 380 feet down the lines, and 405 to the “power” alleys. There’s a flagpole by the wall in dead center, but it hardly constitutes a hazard since no ball will ever get that far. A home run there is a truly notable experience, a kind of throwback to the dead ball era when John “Home Run” Baker could get that nickname after smacking only a dozen round trippers in a season.

Duncan Field once hosted regional American Legion youth baseball championships and a Hastings side in the D-level Nebraska State League. Legend has it that when a young Yogi Berra played there in an amateur playoff game that he managed to clear one over the wall. As the minors started contracting, Hastings lost its team in the late 1950s, but for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s Duncan Field hosted the American Legion baseball World Series. (Take that, Williamsport!) After that, it was home only to local Legion games. (In rural Nebraska baseball is still a club sport and high schools don’t field teams.) When I played in little league, the ultimate goal was to play for the league championship at Duncan Field. For nine year-old me Duncan Field may well have been Yankee Stadium.

So on a surprisingly temperate Nebraska July evening I went there to see a Sodbusters game with my family. I’d last been there as a young child to watch the Legion high schoolers play. Now the old metal benches had been replaced with actual seats, and the facilities updated. The wall was still there, of course. There is something about really large diamonds that I find aesthetically pleasing, that huge green jewel stretched out before my eyes. The game really seems to be being played on a field in the literal sense as opposed to a sports complex.

That 405 is not to straightaway center, but to the supposed "power alley"

While Duncan Field has an illustrious history and beauty to it combined with infinitely better bathrooms than Wrigley, it is still most definitely bush league, in both senses of the word. The Burlington Northern’s tracks run right next to the stadium, trains blowing their mournful horns all through the game. The lone parking lot sits behind the home plate grandstand, and my dad insisted on parking the car as far away as possible. The reason soon became obvious, as many foul balls left the park and made ominous thudding and cracking noises. In the kind of bush league humor I always appreciate, the announcer read off a paid advertisement for a local windshield repair shop right after the first foul ball went into the parking lot.

That was a sign that the Sodbusters, like most minor league teams, have a fan experience policy of laying it on thick. They are apostles of the great Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who when accused of sullying the game with gimmicks, wrote that “All I was saying was that a losing team, plus bread and circuses, was better than a losing team and a long, still silence.” The Sodbusters, like a lot of minor league teams, might be rightfully criticized for their hatred of silence and overabundance of bread and circuses. Every pitch and play seemed to be accompanied by some kind of sound effect or short canned movie quotation aimed at Generation X nostalgia.

I’m not going to complain, because this kind of hucksterism ended up netting me a free beer. I was pulled out of the crowd for a trivia challenge and got all three questions right, and a gratis brewski was my reward, so much more fulfilling than getting corporate swag or a gift certificate to a mediocre restaurant. The fact that I was able to get an IPA with my free beer certificate was a sign that perhaps my hometown is getting a lot hipper these days.

This made me a fan for life

In another malted barley based gimmick, a Sodbuster player was given special status for the game. If he scored a run, all Busch and Budweiser beers would be two for the price of one. When that player in fact scored, there was a roar of joy and a mass exodus from the stands to the beer concession.

Despite all the noises and gimmicks, baseball is experienced more palpably in a bush league game. For one, you are right on top of the action, and the noise of the crowd does not drown out the noise on the field. I also found myself watching it much differently than a major league game. When a player for either team muffed a routine play I felt sad, knowing that their chances of hitting the big time were on the line. I felt especially bad that the starting Sodbusters pitcher, a local boy from Grand Island, got shelled worse than the trenches at the Somme. This was not the bad feeling I get when say Zach Wheeler gets crushed against the Nationals, but a personal feeling of empathy for another human being.

This is why it was great to go to the game with my father, who probably could not name five current major league players but still knows more about baseball than I ever will. He noticed the small things that most fans at major league games miss, like the positioning of the fielders, the pitch selection, and the swings of the various batters. At a Mets game I might talk with other fans about who hits where in the lineup, the latest trade, or which relief pitchers are most effective in the eighth inning. My father is much more likely to be concerned with a pitcher’s throwing motion or the way an outfielder closes on a fly ball. That eye is especially important at a bush league game, where you are looking to spot the future big leaguers

In those moments with my father I was reminded that baseball is so much more a “game” than other popular sports. Baseball people regularly refer to it much more often as “our game” or “the game.” Notice as well that baseball was once dubbed “the national pastime” rather than “the national sport.” In fact, central Nebraska is a place where baseball as a game played locally by local teams, rather than as a major league sport, managed to hold on longer than elsewhere. In old times every town big and small had its own organized teams. That culture still existed in rural Nebraska in the 1950s, and my grandfather played on the local team for his little town of about 350 people well into his fifties.

Much of this probably has to do with the fact that Nebraska is so isolated that it does not fit naturally into any one team’s fandom. Both of my grandfathers had an affection for the Cardinals because they were the closest team and could hear their games broadcast over the radio, but neither was a Cardinals fan, per se. My mom’s father used to love to tell the story of “Pepper” Martin’s exploits in the 1931 World Series, but knew nothing of Ozzie Smith and Whitey Herzog. South Dakota is just as isolated, but it is firmly Twins country. The same goes for Kansas and the Royals. You’ll find Cardinals, Royals, Rockies, and Cubs fans in Nebraska, but no one team has any kind of hegemony.

This was kind of a gift I was given as a baseball fan in Hastings. I developed a love less for any team, but for the game of baseball itself. Some of that came from my dad’s father. Tiny Lawrence doesn’t have a hospital, and he stayed with us for awhile in Hastings while getting some treatments. During that time in 1986, almost every day I came home from school he was watching the Cubs game on WGN. It wasn’t because he was a Cubs fan, he just loved watching baseball. While I was initially miffed I couldn’t watch my GI Joe cartoons, that was the moment where baseball really put its hooks in me. My grandfather died less than two weeks after the next opening day, but by that time I was buying packs of baseball cards and poring over the box scores in the paper every day after school. My memories of him are faded, but his impact on me lives on.

So thirty-two years later I found myself at a game in my hometown, now 1500 miles away from where I live in a place so alien from rural Nebraska that it might as well be another country. In front of the massive green expanse of Duncan field beneath the impossibly large Nebraska evening sky talking baseball with my dad and trying to get my six year old daughters to share my enthusiasm. As always, my dad talked wistfully about how much his father loved baseball, and I could tell that my enthusiasm for the game was something that made him happy. That night I felt like I was still a link in a chain I feared was getting broken in my exile.

The Sodbusters got destroyed 15-4, but it didn’t matter. I felt happier leaving that game than any other I’ve been to, including seeing the Mets win in extra innings in their wild card run in 2016. The night was proof that being in the bush league doesn’t have to be bush league.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Modern Day McClellans

The vacillating spirit of McClellan is alive today in the Democratic Party's leadership

Like a lot of American boys who get into history at a young age, I immersed myself heavily in the Civil War as a child. Once I was older and became a professional historian I distanced myself from the topic, which I thought of as being overrun by hobbyists and "buffs" who were overly invested in arcane minutiae. In the past few years, however, I have found myself obsessed again, but this time with the political and social histories of the war (as well as with Reconstruction.) 

I keep finding echoes of those histories in the present day. The biggest I see is with how both leaders and common people in the North radically reframed their understanding of the war as it went along. Lincoln's first inaugural speech, coming hot on the heels of secession, promised the South that he would not interfere with slavery where it currently existed. His second inaugural, coming as victory in the war was in sight, deemed slavery a moral evil and the Civil War as God's punishment on a guilty nation. 

I see a parallel in the ways that those Americans opposed to Trump, who is a political descendant of the Confederacy, are fighting him. Some understand that this is a fight where the enemy is simply not going to give up or play fair. They also know that the only forward is not getting back to the way it used to be, but to have, in the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg, a "new birth of freedom." Politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and others seem to get this.

On the other hand, there are plenty of modern day McClellans. George McClellan was able to organize the Army of the Potomac into a disciplined fighting force, but was unwilling to actually USE that force. He was also contemptuous of the notion that the war was about anything other than restoring the Union, and when he ran for president in 1864 that included the willingness to allow the South back into the Union without the elimination of slavery. 

The parallels are not absolute, but I see a lot of McClellan in Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other Democratic Party leaders. Their current strategy is simply to wait Trump out. Like McClellan refusing to advance in the Peninsula Campaign when he had the advantage, they think by not fighting they will somehow win, and that fighting is too much of a risk. So they sit on their hands, and refuse to impeach a president who only responds with more violations of the Constitution. They attack the left wing of their own party, fearing that they will alienate a few retired white auto workers in Ohio while ignoring the masses of people of color, and youth of all races who support their policies but often feel alienated from the party. 

The Union army finally emerged victorious under the leadership of Grant, who understood that winning was going to require more sacrifice and more fighting. It meant fighting a different kind of war, one whose intensity matched what the situation demanded. When his methods came under criticism, Lincoln defended him, declaring that "he fights." Grant himself understood that the Union's fearful, defensive posture needed to stop. He famously told his generals soon after taking command that they needed to stop worrying about what Robert E Lee was going to do to them, but what THEY were going to do to Robert E Lee. 

That's something that the Democratic leadership could learn from. The Republican caucus is full of members like Gohmert and Gaetz who are FAR more outside of the political mainstream than folks like Ocasio-Cortez. Expanded health care, legal abortion, gun control, subsidized child care, and debt relief are all popular positions. Democrats need to run proudly on these positions and take the fight to the other side. If the current leadership does not understand that reality, they need to get out of the way.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Now Is The Time To Act

I am writing this at a nice coffee house in the small college town of Canyon, located in the Texas Panhandle. I am here to visit a dear friend, and later we will be driving up to Colorado for a reunion of our grad school circle. I am very excited about this, but also feeling overwhelmingly fear and sadness.

The president is expected to announce that he will add a citizenship question to the census, in direct defiance of the Supreme Court. Not only is the president declaring himself above the law, he is doing so in order to intimidate a large portions of the country to avoid the census, thus undercounting areas that oppose him so their representation in Congress can be reduced. There are also raids imminent on thousands of immigrant families. The president has also invited right wing internet trolls who spread hate to the White House.

All of this is happening on top of children being put in cages and separated from their families.

And what has the opposition party done? Jack shit, that's what they've done. I do not chalk it up to incompetence or fear, but rather that Pelosi and her ilk simply have no clue what to do. We are in uncharted territory here.

It would be easy to blame people like her, but what are the rest of us doing? Complaining about it on Twitter? Living our day to day lives like nothing has happened?

Two weeks ago I went to a protest at a detention center, and was lucky enough to see some of the activists who were willing to be arrested there days before. That is the example we must follow. Only by preventing the machine from operating, as Mario Savio famously said, will anything change.

That actually happened, not so long ago. The Trump administration's so-called "Muslim Ban" was met with massive protests at airports that directly challenged this administration, and forced it to back down. Nothing did more to undercut the new Trump administration than the first Women's March, which immediately blew apart media narratives of Trump's popularity.

A lot of that energy got put into the 2018 election. While that was successful in ending the Republican stranglehold on power, it has accomplished nothing else. In fact, it has created a deadly complacency, of people handing over the reins to those in power. This was the same mistake of the Obama years, and its being repeated again.

Remember, this is an unpopular president. He and his GOP allies are manipulating the system to maintain minority rule, but they are the minority. Stop being afraid. Stop expecting someone else to do the job. Now is the time to act, and time is running out.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

If I Were Commissioner of Baseball


The All Star Game in 1975, year of my birth, looks unrecognizable to what we have today. That is not me pining for the past, that's me admitting I am really old.

The All-Star game is this evening, which has me in the mood to revive a once annual tradition on my blog: saying what I would do if I were commissioner of baseball.

Discourses about "baseball is in trouble" are as old as the game itself, or at least as old as the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season home runs have jumped to higher than Steroid Era levels and attendance is going down. Those are two of many things baseball ought to be addressing. Here's a list of what I would do.

Stop Juicing The Ball

We all know the ball is juiced, it's the worst kept secret since ... This juicing of the ball, meant to counteract the dominance of pitching in prior years, has combined with the Moneyball approach to lead to far too many walks, strikeouts, and homers. Home runs have lost their special nature, and the long at-bats are not interesting to watch and make the games longer. Making home runs harder to hit will help with that.

Limit Defensive Shifts

Shifting, which has skyrocketed in recent seasons, also encourages swinging for the fences. It also tends to make defensive plays in the field less interesting. Baseball is exciting to watch when there's players on base, contact being made, and fielders flashing the leather. Baseball should have a rule mandating that there are two infielders on either side of second base. The NBA came up with the shot clock, three second violation, and cracked down on zone defenses to open the game up and make it more exciting. MLB could learn from that.

Limit Teams To Eleven Pitchers

Just as defense should be friendlier to hitters, there should also be some restrictions on pitchers. Teams are overloading their rosters with pitchers and using them in increasingly specialized roles. This makes games longer, and also cuts down on offense. Lowering the number of pitchers a manager can use will help cut down on pitching changes.

Award Home Field Advantage In The World Series To The League With The Better Interleague Record

Bud Selig awarding the home field advantage based on a midsummer exhibition game was stupid. He also brought us interleague play, which has gone from a cool novelty to being completely blase. Even the intracity rivalry games have lost their luster. This is a shame, since having distinctive leagues sets baseball apart from other sports, and that sense of league competition can be fun. In that vein, let's make the interleague record determine World Series home field advantage. It will at least add some excitement and stakes to a late September Rays-Pirates series.

Allow More Teams To Move
Since the Expos left Montreal for Washington in 2005 no team in baseball has switched cities. This used to be much more commonplace. With attendance down, expansion is probably not a good idea, since dilutes talent. Instead, teams should be allowed to move to new cities, which will boost attendance and bring the game to new locations. The As (a franchise that had been in two cities before Oakland) and the Rays (who have barely been around for 20 years) I think would be helped especially by moving. They both play in crummy stadiums and could establish baseball in hip, expanding cities like Portland, Austin, or Charlotte, or bring it back to Montreal.

Force The Wilpons Out

I am not just saying this as a Mets fan. The fact that one of the teams in the biggest media market is run in an uncompetitive way by a gang of incompetents implicated in a Ponzi scheme is bad for baseball.

Maintain the DH in the AL and Pitchers Batting in the NL

As I said before, the distinctiveness of the leagues is something special about baseball. It helps make the All Star Game and the World Series much more intriguing than they would be otherwise. The leagues are less distinct these days, from the umpire's gear to style of play. Getting rid of the DH distinction would just end the last vestiges of something baseball has on other sports.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

On Seeing To Kill A Mockingbird On Broadway

Yesterday an old college friend who I hadn't seen in a decade was in NYC, and he managed to score us tickets for To Kill A Mockingbird, which has been an award-winning sensation. Seeing the play, it was easy to see why. The actors were uniformly amazing. Celia Keenan-Bolger won a well-earned Tony this year for her portrayal of Scout. Jeff Daniels truly inhabited the role of Atticus Finch, LaTanya Richardson Jackson stole the show as Calpurnia, and Gideon Glick's portrayal of Dill was a delight. Gbenga Akinngabe made Tom Robinson into a fully-fleshed out person and not just a victim or symbol. Dakin Matthews wrung belly laughs as the judge.

I was not aware of how the play had altered the source novel, because one of my most embarrassing literary sins is that I have never read it. It was not assigned in my schools growing up, and afterward I never read it because I thought of it as the kind of book that gets assigned in schools. That had the benefit of making the play's plot far more dramatic to me.

My main skepticism about the play was that it was adapted by Aaron Sorkin, a writer I consider the equivalent of a hotshot prog rock guitarist. He is technically gifted and capable of flourishes as impressive as the solos on a Yes album, but rarely does his work actually move me. I can appreciate an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer record, but a one chord John Lee Hooker song does much more to hit my heart. I will say that the play moved me more than say The West Wing (which I don't care for) or The Social Network (which I think is excellent.) That's probably down to the source material and the tragedy of the story.

I came away profoundly sad, and not just because an innocent man was murdered by the judicial system. I felt like the play highlighted why the opponents of the current regime keep failing. Atticus insists that his children try to understand others and be able to walk in their skin, even noxious racists like Bob Ewell. Later in the play Calpurnia takes him to task for this, telling him that by trying to respect certain people he is deeply disrespecting those harmed by the Ewells of the world.

I wondered whether Sorkin was telling an allegory, if Atticus was supposed to represent educated liberals who want to fight with reason and logic and who think that the MAGA hordes are just good people deep down who can somehow be reached. After all, he believes in the righteousness of the justice system, but that system still convicts Tom Robinson despite overwhelming exculpatory evidence. It helps advance the allegory that Ewell and the jurors are low class white people, to be contrasted with Atticus and the judge, who are more educated and enlightened. According to certain narratives, it is working class white people who are the main drive behind Trumpism, since he speaks to their fears and frustrations. Never mind that it's wealthy white people who are more likely to vote Republican, and who give their money in abundance to that party and its leader. The educated people sitting in the audience want to flatter themselves that they are in the shoes of Atticus.

Parts of the play reinforce the "understand, don't judge" narrative, while others take Atticus to task for it. Calpurnia calls the jurors murderers in what I thought was the most powerful moment of the play. Perhaps Sorkin is not endorsing either civility or a more radical stance, but simply commenting on the clash between those approaches in the present day.

At the end of the play, however, Tom Robinson is dead and Atticus has been voted out of office. The death of Ewell in the climax is cold comfort, because the oppressive system underlying the 1930s Deep South society we are dropped into hasn't changed a whit. There's a monologue by Scout that says that it was doing the right thing that mattered, even if the goal wasn't reached. That of course ignores the murder of Tom Robinson and is an expression of the whiteness of the Finch family, who can make the whole thing an abstraction.

So while the performance of the play and its stagecraft were superlative, I was left a little cold at the end. I feel like this play reinforces some of the bad habits of mind of its audience, who are mostly educated liberals. They think of the current crisis as a moral one, not as a matter of life or death for millions of their fellow Americans. They are willing to do some things to resist, to be sure, but are incapable of taking the more radical action the current times demand. After all, the Atticuses of the world will be able to go on living comfortably, while the Tom Robinsons are sent to the grave. Until the Atticuses wed their moral duty to a greater sense of urgency, nothing is going to change.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

July 4th Podcast Special


This week, for the first time ever in my long and not so storied blogging career, something I wrote went viral. So if anyone read that piece and decided to stick around, I'd ask you to give my podcast, Old Dad's Records, a try. This time around I decided to go with an Independence Day theme and focus on country music, the style of music most invested in nationalism. I start with Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," a propaganda anthem birthed at the height of Reagan that owes its longevity to our Foreverwar. From there I pull a record from my pile of old records, and this one is a doozy. Porter Wagoner's The Cold Hard Facts of Life is full front to back with heartbreak, murder, drunkeness, and depression. Here we see the duality of country music, which often claims the mantle of "traditional values" while diving in the darker side of life. I end with a rave for Orville Peck, who has combined 80s indie British rock with country twang in a way I find very appealing. He's also gay and wears a mask, which puts him in with a long tradition of country music eccentrics, the same tradition Porter Wagoner belongs to.