Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Husker Memories

The college football season begins tonight, an event that gives me fewer good feelings with each passing year. As a lad, my life revolved around Nebraska Cornhusker football from the end of August to New Year's Day. (Remember when that day, and that day only was the only one for the big bowl games?) The older I got, especially as I entered an academic career, the more disgusted I became with the waste and corruption caused by big time college athletics. I am now firmly convinced that the NCAA ought to be disbanded and all college teams run as clubs, rather than uncompensated professional minor leagues. That said, this old believer still feels a twinge in his heart when the 'Husker fight song plays, and is still known to pace about the room wearing red on game days, hanging on every play. I just can't help it. That's why the following is one of my favorite posts from my old blog.

As many of you know, Nebraska Cornhusker football is the one abiding religion in my life, and college football is my favorite sport. With the showdown between #1 and #2 today –a rare occurrence that hasn’t happened for ten years in the regular season- I remembered my own experience at such a game. In 1987 the tender age of 12, when adolescent emotional chaos makes sports losses especially painful, I went to the Game of the Century II between #1 Nebraska and #2 Oklahoma. It was given that title in reference to the one versus two Nebraska –Oklahoma match in 1971, which Nebraska won 35-31, and many still consider the greatest game ever played. (Although last year’s Texas-USC game can rightfully challenge it.)

Before the second incarnation of the Game of the Century, I feasted on the lore of the past, and looked with unbearable anticipation towards game day. In those days, the Nebraska-Oklahoma game was a state religious holiday. It occurred on the day after Thanksgiving every year, a football counterpart to the family holiday. As long as anyone could remember, that game decided the fate of the Big Eight conference, which basically consisted of “Nebraska, Oklahoma, and everybody else” as folks used to say. For most fans, it was the only game and certainly the only rivalry that truly mattered. I even used to have a sweatshirt that said “My Two Favorite Teams Are Nebraska and Whoever’s Playing Oklahoma.” The cast of characters made it even easier to hate Oklahoma in the 80s. First off, they were coached by Barry Switzer, the embodiment of reckless disregard. He seemed to physically delight in beating Nebraska, and had some kind of voodoo curse on Tom Osborne, who had only beaten him twice in over a decade. (Osborne, a soft-spoken, humorless ramrod of a man was an extreme contrast to Switzer, the free-wheeling bootlegger’s son.) Second, 1987 was the hey-day of Brian Bosworth, the middle linebacker known as “The Boz.” Even though he was playing in the NFL at this point, Husker fans associated his obnoxiousness and lawlessness (he had tested positive for steroid the year before) with Oklahoma’s program. Of course, plenty of shady things were going on in Lincoln, too, but college football fans, being religiously devoted, tend to overlook these things.

Because the game fell so late in the season, two or three weeks after the last game before it, the entire state whipped itself into a frenzy, talk of the game permeated every household, every bar, every post-church conversation. The week before the 1987 game, one local TV station replayed the 1971 contest, a momentous occasion in the hearts of all true Nebraskans. The local video store rented and sold tapes of the game. Many a bar in the state has a picture of I-back Jeff Kinney just barely stretching the ball into the end-zone for the winning touchdown, and even though it happened before my birth, I knew well the hallowed names: Glover, Kinney, Tagge, Rodgers, Devaney. My father still talks breathlessly of Johnny Rodgers’ punt return for a touchdown in that game, and how he was so winded and nervous that he started puking in the end zone. (For a video of that score, and the great call from Lyle Bremser, go here. Just fast-forward the video to 1:10 into the highlight reel.)

1971 had been Nebraska’s last national championship, and after the excruciating loss to Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl (and four years of second-guessing Tom Osborne for going for two), the good people of Nebraska could smell the Promised Land. It didn’t hurt that in Oklahoma’s previous game their amazingly talented quarterback, Jamelle Holloway, had gone down with an injury, and they would have to play Nebraska with an inexperienced quarterback, the freshman Charles Thompson. Nebraska had the dazzling I-back Keith “End Zone” Jones who possessed magical breakaway speed, as well as Steve Taylor, an option quarterback who could actually pass (he threw a Nebraska record five touchdown passes against UCLA that year.) When I left Hastings for Lincoln the morning of the game with my father, my best friend Dan, and his father, we were all supremely confident that the Huskers’ moment had arrived. When we got to the game, I even remember talking with Dan about rushing the field after the win. (Something that would have horrified my Dad, no doubt.)

I should now note that growing up in a small town, a trip to Lincoln was a special treat, it was as close to the big city that I ever really got until I was in high school. My heart would race about ten miles away, when I could spot the tall (and VERY phallic) state capitol rising above the flat prairie. If you come into town on O street (which we usually did), you take an overpass across the massive train-yard, and suddenly the downtown –more sparkling and big than anything else I knew then- appears before you. On game days the city buzzes with excitement, the pilgrims have come to Mecca for their Hajj. The smell of tailgate chili and beer fills the air, along with a general sense of unity. Keep in mind that Memorial Stadium becomes the third largest city in the state on game-day, some of the electricity comes from people who have traveled from tiny towns, enjoying the feeling of being in a crowd, something they never get at home.

It was an overcast, cold day, typical for Nebraska in late November, but somehow a little ominous. For most of the first half, the two teams slugged it out to little result, the score 3-0 on an Oklahoma field goal. At the very end of the half, however, Keith Jones busted out one of his signature long touchdown runs, and the crowd woke up. (And released their balloons. There’s a tradition at Memorial Stadium that fans buy red balloons, and then let go when the Huskers score their first touchdown. In the Osborne years, this almost always happened in the first quarter.) Going into halftime, it seemed that our confidence had been well placed.

And yet, it was not to be so. The second half of that game is probably the harshest moment of my sport fan’s life. Oklahoma didn’t blow out Nebraska, that might have been merciful. Instead, they treated the crowd to an extended crucifixion. Switzer kept running straight at the Nebraska defense, who never allowed a big gain, but couldn’t stop Oklahoma on third down. They seemed to get five yards on every run, and even when the Blackshirts hit a back at the line, he would twist and dive forward for a couple of extra yards. If I had been an impartial observer, I might have marveled at a gutsy display of grinding, old-school football. Instead, I felt like the demonic Switzer was intentionally twisting a knife into the heart of Husker nation. They scored two touchdowns in this manner, making the score 17-7.

On the other side of the ball, the Huskers couldn’t move the ball on the ground, and it became obvious that Nebraska needed to pass to get back into the game. Keep in mind, in those days Nebraska passed the ball about as gracefully and competently as a chicken flies. Even though Taylor was better than other option quarterbacks when throwing, the Sooner defense was ready for it. I remember the anger that erupted among the fans surrounding me, who yelled loudly for Osborne to put in Blakeman, a back-up slightly more adept at passing. Being a young true believer in America, Husker football, and the Roman Catholic church, I became forlorn that our fans dared to attack Saint Tom Osborne and his boys.

The game ended 17-7, but the score made it seem close, when in fact the Huskers didn’t really come close to winning. We filed grimly out of the stadium, and I’ll never forget the moment when we were walking to downtown Lincoln for supper, and Dan suddenly and angrily threw his game program onto the sidewalk and gave it a scarily rage-filled kick down the street. Although I was too timid to do the same, his actions expressed the feelings in my own heart. My dream had been shattered, and it wouldn’t be the first time.

When I remember those feelings, I often wonder why I’m a sports fan at all. True fans often don’t even enjoy the games, we just hope not to lose. My father and sister often have to leave the room when Nebraska falls behind in a big game, I myself couldn’t bear to watch the White Sox last night, I wanted to relax for a change. I guess fandom gives meaning in world where it’s hard to find, which is why it’ll never be “just a game.”

Postscript: At the time, I had no idea that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of an era. The next year, in 1988, Nebraska would break to Switzer curse in an absolutely brutal 7-3 game in Norman. It rained heavily the whole time, and when players hit the turf they would go sliding, water spraying in the air. It was a classic Big 8-style grind out win, and it would be the last important Nebraska-Oklahoma contest until the year 2000. In the off-season Sooner quarterback Charles Thompson would be arrested for dealing coke, setting off a series of investigations into sordid behavior in Oklahoma’s football program. In the ensuing firestorm, Switzer resigned, and the team went on NCAA probation, becoming a shell of its former self. In 1989, the Colorado Buffaloes, of all teams, won the Big 8, showing that the old Husker-Sooner dominance was over. By the time Oklahoma got good again, the Big 8 was no more, and under the Big 12 Nebraska and Oklahoma no longer play each other every year. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Berlin Wall fell and Husker-Sooner reign ended in the same year.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Extremism of the GOP Presidential Field in Historical Perspective

I've been reading a lot of books recently about the rise of conservatism in the 1970s due to a possible new research project focusing on that decade, and doing so has given me a lot of perspective on our current political scene. This is especially the case when it comes to trying to explain the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, most of whom hold opinions that would make them mocked or completely unelectable in most of America's peer nations. Even some conservatives are beginning to sound the alarm. John Huntsman, the lone true moderate in the race, recently expressed consternation that his rivals expect to become the leader of the world's most powerful nation while villifying science. To get the party nomination, one must endorse the hoary creed of American exceptionalism, deny global warming, reject biological evolution, give at least lip service to Biblical literalism, and adhere strictly to supply-side orthodoxy.

Michele Bachmann has vaulted to the top tier of entrants despite claiming that the Founding Fathers had opposed slavery, that America faces a Soviet threat, and that the government should be actively rooting out "un-American" types in DC. One of her main competitors, Rick Perry, recently implied threats of physical violence against the head of the Federal Reserve if he dared stimulate the economy. Earlier, as governor of Texas he defended sodomy laws, slashed school funding in a state with an abyssmal education record, recently claimed that his cruel program of laissez-faire capitalism fulfilled Martin Luther King's dream of social justice, and most likely put an innocent man to death and then blocked an investigation into his actions. Further down on the presidential racing form, Herman Cain has said he will refuse to hire any Muslims on his staff, and Ron Paul has garnered a loyal following despite calling for an end to the Federal Reserve, as if we were living in 1811 rather than 2011.

What we are seeing isn't just the legitimation of extremism, but also, to a large degree, historical chickens coming home to roost. Even though the current crop of candidates praise Saint Ronnie Reagan with hosannas at every possible opportunity, he would not have a chance today of earning the Republican nomination. Reagan was no fool, and his ideological commitment never, ever, overwhelmed his political savvy. When he was governor of California, he raised taxes and passed the most liberal abortion law in the country. When in the White House, he raised taxes on multiple ocassions, increased deficit spending like no other president before, and gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants. In terms of foreign policy, he cut and ran in Beirut, negotiated with terrorists via Iran, and offered Mikhail Gorbachev the possibility of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Despite his lip service in the culture wars, he did not attend church and was a product of Hollywood, supposedly America's Gomorrah. While I detest most of Reagan's legacy, he was at least a statesman, willing to make compromises with his ideology when necessary.

He had a great deal of support from the right-wing populist brigades, but did a masterful job of telling them what they wanted to hear without being tied to their restrictions. Without a smooth operator like Reagan at the helm of the conservative movement, there is no way that it would have achieved the success that it did. Most Americans do not have a taste for right-wing zealots who will sacrifice basic public services and the nation's credit rating to the capitalist Moloch in order to retain their ideological purity. Just look, for example, at the public disgust with Florida governor Rick Scott, perhaps the most ideologically conservative governor in the country. Better yet, national polls show a great deal of dislike for the Tea Party, a movement purportedly made up of "we the people."

Since Reagan, radical Republicans have actually done best while not occupying the White House and using Congress to obstruct and defame Democratic presidents, taking away the messy task of actually having to run things. (The Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis is the best example yet of this zealous irresponsibility.) The nineties brought the rise of Newt Gingrich's GOP, which committed itself not to governing, but destroying Bill Clinton, most notably in the ridiculous impeachment case. Although they were not ultimately successful in that crusade, there might as well have been a Republican in the White House. As is the case today, the president triangulated, giving us legislation like the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (effectively destroying local commercial radio) and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, a major catalyst for the financial crisis ten years later.

People forget this, but George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 while touting his pragmatism, not his conservative bona fides. (In any case, he didn't really win it at the ballot box in the first place.) He also won reelection mostly by being a incumbent in wartime, effectively mobilizing his base, and facing a weak opponent, not out of great popular support for conservative ideas. His tax cuts for the wealthy were not popular, and his proposed privatization of Social Security died as soon as it was offered. At the end of his term, his administration's neo-conservative foreign policy was almost universally discredited.

Today's crop of conservative presidential aspirants have pretty much dropped the foreign policy issue entirely; they're crazy, but not entirely stupid. They have been emboldened by the current economic crisis, the type of thing that turns a lot of capable men into one term presidents. (See: Martin Van Buren, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush.) In this hothouse climate, an extremist like Perry, whose state is worst in the nation in health insurance coverage and near the bottom in education, can beat his chest about "creating jobs," as if fashioning a low-wage Third World labor market within our borders is some kind of accomplishment. (And also skips over the fact that high tax states like Massachusetts have lower unemployment along with superior public services.) Perry, however, is no Reagan. His smile is not welcoming, but an aggressive douchebag smirk. His barbed speaking style not inspiring but brimming with assholery. Instead of giving lip service to the Army of God, he openly leads a revival meeting brimming with Christian Dominionism, America's very own version of Taliban religious bigotry. And by comparison Bachmann makes Perry look by Bertrand Russell on religion.

This is why I expect Romney to be the nominee: the GOP establishment knows that the public does not want a conservative ideologue, and none of their ideologues have the Reagan charisma or political skill to overcome the smell of their extremism. If they are smart, they will do the usual gambit of putting forward the establishment candidate, who will move to the center and throw enough red meat to the zealots to keep them happy. However, I do fear that this model might not hold, and that one of real wackos (especially Perry) could make it to the White House. (I wouldn't be happy with Romney either, but he doesn't put fear in my soul like the others.) Our current situation is perhaps the kind of perfect storm needed to get one of the radical Right's true believers in. The economic crisis, combined with the racialized resentment of the president and thrown into a post Citizens United environment where the big money is free to spend at will and a cable news network acts as the conservative movement's propaganda arm makes it easier for the extreme to become mainstream. I only hope that what appears to be the current revulsion against extremism and the historical pattern of radical conservatism's inability to inspire the public holds true.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Musical Interlude: Rockpile

A little over a year ago my friend and great musician EB accosted me in a record store, put Dave Edmunds' lp Repeat When Necessary in my hands, and said "buy this" with the intense seriousness of the ancient mariner in Coleridge's poem. I obeyed, even though I knew nothing of Edmunds' work, I was soon glad for it. Without a doubt, it was two of the best bucks I ever spent.

I then found out that the killer band on that album was called Rockpile, and that they backed Nick Lowe on his first two long players (the essential Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust) and another Edmunds platter, Tracks on Wax 4, before doing one last album, Seconds of Pleasure, under their own name. Despite the official credits, I think of the first four albums as Rockpile records with different lead singers. (In case you're wondering, the group was Edmunds on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass, Billy Bremner on lead guitar, and the inestimable Terry Williams on drums.) In the short time since I've managed to acquire all of these albums (and all on wax save for Jesus of Cool) and have enjoyed them immensely. All of these albums were recorded between 1978 and 1980, a great time for left of center rock music when New Wave meant more the angular rhythms and straight-ahead songs of the likes of Elvis Costello and less Flock of Seagulls hair wrapped up in gated snares and Fairlight synthesizers. These blokes were not trendy, lacking the hair of Kajagoogoo and the clothes of Duran Duran, but an honest-to-goodness bar band with major league chops.

"Girls Talk," the first track of that fateful Dave Edmunds record, hooked me right away. I knew the tune already as a bonus track off of Elvis Costello's Get Happy!, but was really taken aback at how Rockpile made it both rocky and relaxed at the same time. Instead of EC's bitter-tinged revenge and guilt vibe, it had a great and strange feeling of resignation despite the driving beat.

Think that was catchy? Then try "Cruel to Be Kind" on for size. I swear there were about two months there where I would sing this to myself as I walked into the office each morning. The stress and insanity of my job had me singing aloud, it's a wonder I never showed up in my pajamas taking swigs of bourbon from a flask. At least some people were understanding, the work study student in the main office heard me once, and actually knew the song! Perhaps there is hope for the future.

Nick and the guys rock out a little more on "So It Goes," a tune whose repeated line, "where it's goin', no one knows" is appropriate in these days of earthquakes, hurricanes, credit downgrades, and stock market crashes.

The only Rockpile tune I really knew when I first heard it apart from "Girls Talk" was "Teacher, Teacher", which was a minor hit way back in 1980. Still holds up damn well today, though, which is a helluva lot more than be said than most other music from that year. Despite the shifting trends and changing fashions, a tight band with hummable tunes will never lose its appeal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Leaving Academia was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever do Again)

This is a repost from my old blog, but on a topic I've been thinking about with my first week at my new job looming ahead. In the months that have passed since I first wrote it, I can't say I have any regrets.


The title of this post is a play on one of my favorite Kris Kristofferson tunes, but in this case I think wistfully about the ease of leaving, rather than loving. As long-time readers well know, I have spent the last three years trapped in a dysfunctional department ensconced in a ridiculously backwards university. I was never too sad about the thought of leaving this place behind (although I am sad to be saying good-bye to many great and wonderful people), but resistant to giving up on the acadmic dream. I spent over a decade working my fingers to the bone, sacrificing the flower of my youth and spending several years in poverty that could have been used to amass a down payment on a house. Until very recently I was completely unwilling to walk away under the misbegotten notion that it would mean that all those years had meant nothing.

Over the last two months or so, that resistance and reluctance has turned into a hardened resolve to get out at all costs. Strangely enough, now that my impulse has become reality, I don't really feel like I am losing anything. I have three articles published in top journals and a book contract, I have constructed and taught thirteen(!) different courses over the last five years and have received rave reviews on my teaching from students and peers alike. These qualifications could not even get me an AHA or phone interview with a university during this job cycle. And yet at my home institution these accomplishments have been met not with praise, but with fear and loathing. Why bother sacrificing my life and, quite frankly, my will to live itself to a profession that refuses to give any reward?

I actually was able to truly vocalize my ennui during my job interview, when I was asked why I was leaving higher ed for the less rarified air of secondary education. It suddenly came to me: my work had begun to resemble the factory jobs I did during my summers in college. My students had become raw material to be processed, my job to teach them the "right" material and simplify it into little interchangable parts with an identical stamp on them. Teaching forty-eight students in one class and 165 in a semester is not education, it's intellectual Taylorism.

That thought had already been clear in my mind the previous week when I student came in to be advised. I looked at his transcript, and found that he had close to 100 hours, and had taken several upper-level history courses, earning a "D" in all of them, which was why his GPA was a meager 1.7. It appalled me that the university was still taking this guy's money; he didn't seem to have any real desire to be in school or even to raise his grades. By being expected to fill out his forms and get him signed up for classes the next semester, I felt complicit in something truly wrong. My only job, either as a teacher or as an advisor, seems to be to cycle students through the system, without any apparent concern over whether they are learning anything or growing as human beings. Given the chance to work in a place that cares about these things, even if it means a permanent departure from the ivory tower, is necessary if I want to stop doing violence to my soul.

Last of all, I look to the future of academia, and all I see is a howling wilderness. After thirty years of "efficiency," casualized labor, privatization, and the student as consumer, the rot has set in so deep that the supports are crumbling and the whole thing is about to be reduced to rubble. Don't believe me? A majority of university presidents, those overpaid toffy-nosed technocrats who run everything, now want to do away with tenure. As I have said before, higher ed is undergoing the desacrelization that occurs whenever the destructive beast of unfettered capitalism gets its bloody paws on a public institution. Almost fifty years after Mario Savio's speech, a kind of instrumentalized, unfeeling machinelike university has arisen that makes what he opposed then look positively benevolent. Yet today the voices raised in opposition are feeble and weak. The elderly are serving out their time, the young on the tenure track maintain their lifeboats, and too many contingent laborers lack a sense of class consciounsess.

I love and respect so many of y'all out there in academia, and I wish you all the best of luck and success. As for me, Moloch has fed on my hopes, dreams, and health (both mental and physical) for far too long. I love research, and I will continue to do it, but in an average semester my teaching has a greater human impact than fifty journal articles put together. With the little, precious time I have left to breathe on this earth, I'd at least like to do something meaningful, inside or outside the ivory tower.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Beauty of the Sunday Paper

It's the small pleasures of life that make it so bearable, from finding an unexpected five-dollar bill in your coat pocket to gazing upon Tom DeLay's mugshot. I have now regained one of these pleasures after too long a severance: the Sunday newspaper. Now that I live in the New York City area, I get the weekend New York Times delivered to the apartment, and get to set aside a few hours on Saturday and Sunday morning leisurely perusing its many rustling pages.

I seem to have bad taste in small pleasures, since printed newspapers, like local diners, record stores, and independent book stores are currently under threat of extinction. Even hearing of the ignominious demise of the scandal-wracked News of the World saddened me. While my feelings may in some part extend from my hopelessly old-fashioned temperment and general disdain for our modern Philistinism, they come from years of cherished experience, and the hard-won knowledge of what it means to be bereft of a true Sunday newspaper.

For a child growing up in a relatively isolated town in the middle of the Nebraska prairie in the pre-internet 1980s (and not having cable until 1985), the Sunday newspaper was an important conduit to the larger world. That's in large part because my hometown paper did not have a Sunday edition, so my family consumed the Sunday edition of the Omaha World-Herald, the biggest newspaper in Nebraska by far, and originating from a place that, in all my naive childhood ignorance, I thought of as the "big city."

Its shear size compared to our thin little local daily paper made the Sunday World-Herald both intimidating and wonderful. I used to love being the one to fetch it off the porch, rolled up thick and heavy like a fire log, smelling the acrid ink on my hands before doing the laborious task of pulling off the rubber band. When I was younger, I was interested in one thing, and one thing only: the Sunday funnies. Not yet jaded by life and still unaware that more exciting pleasures existed in the world, I felt a special kind of joy at being able to see Garfield and Peanuts -my two favorites- in the vivid, almost garish newsprint colors. I was also intrigued by comics that my local paper didn't carry, like Funky Winkerbean and Ziggy. Although my Dad usually went straight to the news section, he did and still loves newspaper comics. His favorite, probably going back to childhood, was the adventure series Prince Valiant. He also liked to clip out copies of the Lockhorns and put them on the fridge because Mrs. Lockhorn and my Mom were both named Loretta.

Once I got a little older, I let my sister, who was a Garfield fanatic in the extreme, take the comics first while I grabbed the sports section. As a certified baseball nut, during the spring and summer I would flip to the back page, which had printed on it the statistics of every major league baseball player up to that point in the season. In those days before the internet, this was pretty much my only complete source of baseball statistics, and when they published the final list at the end of the season, I would cut it out of the paper and save it to be pored over in the winter months ahead. The fall also brought forth that great religion of my home state: Cornhusker football. Since the 'Huskers played their games on Saturdays, the Sunday sports section had huge multi-page layouts of photographs, stories, and statistics. Back in those days before the expansion of cable sports beyond Australian Rules Football and monster truck rallies, I only got to see my team play on television about three or four times a season, at best. (Oklahoma, the bowl game, maybe Colorado and maybe a non-conference matchup like Washington or UCLA). That big spread of pictures in the World-Herald helped me put images to the words I had heard excitedly spoken the day before over the radio by Kent Pavelka (still a legend in my heart, even if he was unjustifiably canned in the nineties.) If the game the day before had been an absolute demolition of one the Big 8's lesser lights or one the many non-conference cupcakes scheduled by Tom Osborne (yes, I will cop to it), I loved exulting in the gaudy statistics put up even by back-ups brought in to keep from running up the score. Little in the world made me happier.

When I got older still I paid more attention to the front page, but especially to the "entertainment" section, which contained film and book reviews of stuff that might not ever make it to my home town multiplex or book store. It felt like a glimpse into a cultural world that was so tantalizingly close. Once I was in high school, I felt a special twitch of longing looking at the ads for concerts taking place in Omaha, wishing I could overcome 150 miles and overprotective parents. I distinctly remember a promo for Bob Dylan at the Orpheum Theater that made me almost sick with the knowledge that I would not get to go.

The paper also helped supply a special rhythm to my family life. We were devout Catholics who went to 11 o'clock mass each and every Sunday. The paper provided a common activity between breakfast and church, a kind of solemn, quiet ritual of relaxation. My father, who has only recently revealed to me the true extent of his job stress, absolutely cherished this time, and that is probably why we didn't go to the earlier masses.

When I flew the coop seventeen years ago I no longer got a Sunday paper delivered, and I rarely put aside time on Sunday for church. However, I still enjoyed an occasional trip down to the corner to buy a Sunday paper to relax with. Whenever I traveled, I always took the opportunity to read the local paper, since it told me more about the place I was visiting than perhaps anything else. Once out of my hometown and actually going to college in Omaha, I preferred the newly available New York Times over the World-Herald, mostly since the latter has an unapologetic right-wing agenda, and would print the worst kind of drivel in its letters to the editor. (I have vivid memories of one screed against "socialism" that singled out "mind decaying water flouridation.") In fact, I was such a dork that I would go to the library's newspaper section a couple of times a week and read international papers like the Irish Times and Guardian. (Keep in mind, newspapers were not yet readily available online in the mid-1990s.) Later, in grad school, I had the pleasure to house-sit at my advisor's swank residence, and the absolute highlight was getting to read the Times each and every morning over breakfast. After I moved to Michigan, I had a weekend ritual of buying a newspaper at the corner, then walking to a local diner to eat and have coffee while reading it. It was something I looked forward to at the end of each and every grinding week of work, because it gave me some of the peace that my father had once found.

For years, I assumed access to a substantial Sunday newspaper was a given, no matter where I lived. Once I moved to take my former job in East Texas, I knew that something was wrong when there was no place within a hundred miles where I could acquire a copy of the New York Times. In fact, for my first two years there, I couldn't even buy the Houston Chronicle! Without a real newspaper, my weekends lost some of their luster, and the world seemed further away from me, even if I could access it on my computer. For me, there is just no substitute for opening up that pungent fire log and digging in for a couple of hours in the quiet stillness of a Sunday morning. I plan to keep reliving that pleasure as long as it's still possible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Musical Interlude: Sixties Beat Boom

I made it a practice on my old blog to throw in posts based on whatever music I was listening to at the time. Initially I thought that I was not going to do that here, and stick to long form essays. I then remembered how much I enjoyed these little breaks, and so I return with the first musical interlude for Notes From the Ironbound.

I came of age musically in the second half of the 1980s, perhaps the all-time nadir of American popular culture. It was the high point of glammed-up, spandex-encased hair metal a la Poison and Bon Jovi, and overproduced saccharine pop a la Rick Astley and Whitney Houston. (At the time Bill Hicks pretty well summed up the crapitude of what was on the radio.) I found safe refuge in two vastly different genres: hip-hop (which I called "rap" back then) and sixties guitar pop.

I was reminded of this love on the road to Pittsburgh last weekend, when my iPod cued up "Heart Full of Soul" by The Yardbirds. This has led me down a rabbit-hole of sorts, blowing the dust off of discs that I haven't listened to in a long time. Most folks know the Yardbirds only as the launching pad for Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. (Little known fact: Led Zeppelin were originally called "The New Yardbirds.") While I love a lot of the subsequent stuff that this trio of guitar wizards produced, I appreciate the Yardbirds for adhering to the principles of compact songs and a strong beat. (I love the mighty Zep, but I do not want to hear a twenty minute drum solo by anyone, not even John Bonham.) "Heart Full of Soul," with its fast breaks and galloping spaghetti western theme vibe manages to bring it all on home in just two and a half minutes. I like them best, though, for their British Invasion takes on American blues. Instead of merely ripping off or weakly imitating the original blues standards, they make them something unique and different. The epochal "I'm a Man" and the absolutely propulsive "I Ain't Done Wrong" are my favorites in this regard. The former's reworking of the stellar Bo Diddley grinder into a stomping anthem followed by a feedback assisted express train was pretty much xeroxed by The Count Five on another gem of the era, "Psychotic Reaction."

The mid-sixties were just chock full of bands churning out killer tunes with three chords and a lot of moxie. Some of these groups, like the Kinks, progressed beyond the caveman riffs and thumping beats to rock operas and long careers. Others, like the Troggs, burned hot and bright with a handful of classic singles before being pushed aside by the rise of classic rock in the late sixties. Many rock and roll bands have described young lust, but none nailed it with the properly leering face and bulging crotch of Reg Presley and the Troggs. Fer cryin' out loud, they had a song called "I Can't Control Myself"! The fact that they delivered these dirty ditties in matching striped uniforms -like a gang of badass carnival barkers- made it that much more perverse.

Back on these shores suburban garages and urban neighborhoods spawned legions of young bands who may not have had long careers or great albums, but were able to put together one or even a half dozen three minute masterpieces. The Seeds had a special kind of menace on classics like "Can't Seem to Make You Mine" and "Pushin' Too Hard," a freaky song that Alice Cooper wishes he could have written. They had plenty of competition in the garage band world at the time from the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Blues Magoos, The Standells, and The Electric Prunes. They are footnotes to musical history, but a lot more interesting than plenty of what's in the canon and what gets played on oldies radio stations.

Back in the late eighties when I was starting to dig sixties music, there were two groups I loved best: the Beatles and the Monkees. In fact, it was the Monkees who were my gateway into sixties rock and roll after MTV started airing reruns of the TV show, which I watched religiously. I didn't know at the time that the Monkees were a made-for-TV attempt to cash in on the Fab Four's runaway success. It didn't matter then, and it doesn't matter now, cuz The Monkees have a lot of great songs to their credit. Hell, it doesn't matter that they didn't play their instruments on their first two albums because they had great studio musicians laying down the tracks and top songwriters penning the tunes. Case in point: the best Byrds folk-rock riff of all time is actually on "Last Train to Clarksville." Once they got more creative control they produced some far-out awesomeness, like "Randy Scouse Git" and "The Porpoise Song." It's easy to put down the Monkees, but they deserve a spot with their '66-'67 peers.

If I had any musical talent, I'd start a tribute band called The Substitutes (in reference to the Who song) to play covers of this music while being clad with sharp toed boots, tight black jeans, a houndstooth jacket, skinny tie, and dark sunglasses. I still can dream, can't I?

Monday, August 15, 2011

In Praise of Urban Neighborhoods

Years of experience and living in a variety of places, states, and countries has taught me that no matter what region or place I live in, I will be happy as long as I live in a distinct neighborhood. Living in a real neighborhood, like I do now, allows me to walk to go grocery shopping, to be a regular at local establishments, and to feel like I am a human being amongst other human beings.

The beauty and meaning of urban neighborhoods was brought home to me in two very different ways this weekend. I drove to Pittsburgh to visit some old friends, and was astounded by the city's beauty and livability. It was a city on a human scale. Built on valleys and steep hillsides of three rivers, the city naturally divides itself into unique neighborhoods. Its daunting geography may very well have saved Pittsburgh from the horrors of "urban renewal." While I was gone in Pittsburgh, I got the sad and shocking news that a building in my neighborhood burned down in a massive four alarm blaze. (Luckily, nobody died, and only a few were hurt.) The fire left fifty-eight people homeless, and in a testament to the bonds of community, money is being raised locally to help the victims. Two local businesses were consumed by the blaze, and as sad as that is, it is worth noting that people feel a loss. The same would probably not be said if it were a McDonald's that met the same fate.

The American Way of Life over the last seventy years or so has been one big massive assault on neighborhoods. The new cities that have sprung up in that time are built around the automobile, and those cities that came into maturity before the auto age have been gutted and dismembered by the mad zeal to accommodate the internal combustion engine. In the process, countless neighborhoods were demolished, and the roads helped spur the seemingly endless process of suburban sprawl. Only the recent housing collapse could stop the metastisization of the subdivisions.

Suburbanization allows for tight-knit neighborhoods only in rare cases. Usually it creates a world of people segmented into their own private little boxes, and where there aren't even sidewalks to walk on. I know from my experiences and those of others that travelling by foot or bike in America's sprawl zones isn't just difficult, it often means being heckled by assholes driving by in their cars. Increasingly, Americans are tied down to their homes and do little outside of them. To cite one striking example, kids don't play outside with other kids in their neighborhood like they used to, but are more likely to stay indoors or participate in structured activities. I will admit that there are suburban neighborhoods out there with real community, but the very geography and culture of suburbia work very hard to prevent them from blossoming.

Believe it or not, the prophets of the current American Way of Life had high ideals, rather than visions of shopping malls in their heads when they pushed the freeways and "urban renewal." One of the first advocates of the "radiant city," the Swiss modernist architect and city planner Le Corbusier, even proposed demolishing central Paris and replacing it with modern high-rises surrounded by parks and highways. (This was the so-called Voison Plan, one of the greatest assaults on humanity from where I stand.) Plans such as this were intended to liberate city-dwellers from the noise, confusion, disorganization, lack of air, and overcrowding that often accompany urban life. Who wouldn't want modern convenience in the midst of beautiful park space?

As is usually the case, it was the poor who got to be the guinea pigs in the experiment practiced via postwar public housing high rises. The people who were warehoused in these structures lost access to neighborhood living, with the inevitable alienating effects. A few patches of green were not going to make up for that. The white middle class, on the other hand, sprawled out in the ever-expanding suburban hinterlands. That phenomenon too had been predicted in advance with much fanfare and optimism. At the New York World's Fair in 1939, the most popular exhibit was Futurama, sponsored by General Motors. It predicted a future of megahighways and integration of urban and rural space. It was hardly surprising, of course, that GM portrayed the automobile as key to a liberated future. In a related fashion, the central exhibit of the entire fair was a diorama called Democracity that imagined a modern "radiant city" full of parks and bereft of neighborhoods. The imagined everyday "man" of the script worked in the center among the high rises and drove through landscaped parkways to his house at the edge. In these visions the neighborhood was absent. Like traffic, noise, and crowding, it was just another annoying and messy facet of urban life to be liberated from. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that our current American Way of Life has not brought what it promised at its birth.

I actually feel strangely liberated living in a place where I can't help walking the streets as part of my daily routine. It's much more fun walking the dog when other people are taking their children out on their post-work/pre-dinner errands and the little ones light up with delight and yell out "bow wow!" when they see my dog. (She likes kids, and sometimes allows groups of kids to pet her while she sits still for them.) If I need to grab a little something at the grocery store, there is no ordeal of driving someplace else just to get a carton of milk, I simply walk three blocks to the local supermarket.

I also get plenty of free entertainment. Due to the cosmopolitan nature of where I live, international soccer tournaments bring a lot of fun. Right after Uruguay won the Copa America, a bunch of people wearing blue and white and carrying the Uruguayan flag converged on my corner, had a little party and sang their national anthem, and quietly went home. What struck me most was that practically everyone, from the revelers to the police who showed up to the bemused bystanders, was smiling. How can you beat a totally spontaneous moment of happiness on a Sunday afternoon? I'll take that over ready access to an Appleby's every time.

Rick Perry's Texas Hustle

Some new stuff is coming soon, but until then here's a relevant piece from awhile back.

Yesterday my state's illustrious governor and defender of "states' rights" came to my campus to speak and hawk his book. Unfortunately, I was in a meeting, and so I could not ask him directly how he can claim to be against a meddling government when he opposes gay rights and abortion rights while forcing all state university professors to put their student evaluations and syllabi online and calling for predator drones to patrol the border.

In any case, in recent weeks Rick Perry has been busy taking his message outside of the Lone Star State, even to the Daily Show. I am constantly amazed at how much credibility he seems to get outside of Texas, as if he is some kind of innovator worth listening to. Perry is in fact a practiced political hustler of the smoothest and lowest sort. His state does not provide a shining example to the rest of America. In fact, it is a good example of how the hard Right's neo-Gilded Age ideas benefit the few at the expense of the many. I am getting tired of the kid-glove treatment that Perry gets fromt the national media, and the false narrative that his leadership of Texas presents some kind of success story. It's hard even to know where to begin, so here's a quick bullet-point list:

In my experience living here, I've found Texas to be like Alabama with oil and better roads. The Texan penchant for bragging and self-importance seems to have obscured that basic reality from the rest of the country.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In Defense of Teachers

Here's a topical re-run from my old blog that I'm quite fond of. Each new day brings more attacks on the teaching profession, attacks given voice by a news media that is notoriously shallow in its analysis. I am glad that Matt Damon's recent comments have been given a wide circulation, but the discourse still needs to be shifted.

The journalistic world is a highly predictable entity; some social issues have been discussed with exactly the same tropes as long as a I can remember. Case in point is education reform, which is nearly always portrayed as a battle by innovative administrators trying to change the system for the better who are arrayed against intransigent teachers and their obstructive unions. The New Yorker has published several such articles in recent months, including a profile this month on Arne "Katrina is the best thing that happened to the New Orleans school system" Duncan. According to the standard trope, our current ranks of teachers are lazy time servers who refuse to make the necessary changes to rescue the education of our children.

Today I'd like to defend teachers, and to ask the media to consider the voices of actual teachers in their reporting.

This article, like practically every other I've ever seen, does absolutely nothing to consider the thoughts of rank and file teachers. Union reps might be consulted, but they are usually speaking in their capacity as labor leaders, not classroom leaders. There's also an assumption that all teachers who support the union are goldbrickers. This is simply not true. My mother, little sister, and wife are all teachers who put in 50 hour weeks and constantly look for new ways to engage their students. They also all happen to be active in their respective unions.

According to the standard narrative, this is a gross contradiction, but it's not when the realities, rather than myths, of the classroom are considered. Rather than avoiding change, teachers are forced to change every two years or so with the pedagogical seasons and with whatever new half-baked idea that their administrators foist on them. School administration itself is a highly volatile profession whose members are constantly looking to climb up the greasy pole towards more prestigious jobs. To do so, they must burnish their resumes by applying whatever new trend happens to be in vogue at the time to their faculties. The teachers, who actually know the classroom and through years of experience have gained an idea of what works, get understandably resistant under these circumstances.

Case in point: the government and large portions of the media pushed the test-centric No Child Left Behind initiative, but at the time I did not know a single teacher who thought it was a good idea. Guess who was right?

So please, members of the journalistic profession, stop being so lazy with your reporting. Do not take the sanctimonious drivel spouted by school administrators at face value. The majority of them are careerist hacks who care much more about enlarging their power than improving education. Actually take the time to talk to career teachers, and stop assuming that they are inferior to 22 year old Ivy League graduate Teach for America types, who make up in arrogance what they lack in classroom experience. Stop treating teacher unions solely as defenders of shiftless layabouts; the NEA and AFT often deserve criticism, but hard-working teachers support these organizations because they are the only thing protecting them from capricious administrators and fickle parents. On the last point, start levelling your sights on parents, too. They block meaningful change by howling whenever their precious snowflakes are held to high standards by teachers. Perhaps worse, they are failing to get their children to read outside of school or develop any kind of respect for knowledge. When children are raised to be secure in their stupidity, there's not much a school can do for them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Using Economic History to Understand the Present

For many years I found economic history to be boring and dull, and generally avoided it as much as I could. However, ever since the crash of 2008, I have become fascinated by economic history, mostly because it provides some very useful ways of interpreting our current crisis. You hear a lot of people compare our current situation to the 1930s, but I think it is best to go back further, to the original "Great Depression" between 1873 and 1896. (The term actually dates from that period.) It was a time of extreme volatility exacerbated by the fact that both major political parties refused to break with conventional thinking that favored austerity and limited government action in the economy.

Although there was economic growth and many advances in industry in this era, the economy worldwide was put through horrible convulsions in 1873 and 1893. In America, both financial collapses were brought on by investor panics once the money-men realized that they had overvalued their stock in railroads. Substitute "railroad stock" for "mortgage financed derivatives" and voila, you have something akin to the 2008 financial collapse. If you look at the history of modern capitalism, such sudden financial collapses are quite common: 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, and most famously, 1929. They are not anomalies, but the norm.

As these events well demonstrate, when capitalism is not reigned in, it is a catastrophic force, a kind of economic hurricane, what its proponents like to call "creative destruction." One of the great stories of the twentieth century is how modern industrial societies managed to balance capitalism's economic advantages with social protections that helped shelter the masses against its worst excesses. Those generations who endured the Depression knew that the beast had to be kept under control, and heartily supported the New Deal. For that reason, in the United States there were no banking collapses from 1932 until the S&L crisis of the late 1980s, after the Depression-era restrictions were being lifted. Contrary to what the free marketeers prophesied, the economy grew at unprecedented levels in the post bank regulation period, despite these supposedly deleterious encumbrances. This growth, because of better tax and social policy, did much to benefit the middle and working classes, rather than the wealthiest (as the following graph illustrates.)

Since the Reagan era, that commitment to balancing capitalism with regulation and a solid social safety net has been abandoned. As Jefferson Cowie has shown in his brilliant work on the working class in the 1970s, Stayin' Alive, the seeds were already being planted in Carter era. When faced with the first sustained economic decline since the Depression, Carter and Congress both prioritized staunching inflation over unemployment. This ought to ring a few bells in light of our political class's obsession with deficits at a time of crushing joblessness. As Cowie also discusses, the late 70s saw new corporate attempts to break the power of organized labor, along with the latter's arrogant inability to muster a proper response. We now live in an era where unions are scarce and with the likes of Scott Walker in power, the right to bargain itself is being threatened. With the social state being gutted and workers losing union protections, we are going forward into our Gilded Age past. This has been going on for about thirty-five years, but critical mass has now recently been achieved. Corporate capitalism is the only game in town, hence the president's inability to get tax raises or even elimination of subsidies to oil companies in his recent compromise with the GOP.

In some ways, Gilded Age II could shape up to be a lot worse than the first time around. At least back then, the United States was becoming the foremost industrial nation in the world, something that is far from the case today. According to Judith Stein's recent economic history of the seventies, Pivotal Decade, national trade and economic policy encouraged the growth of the financial sector and neglected industry, which fell into permanent decline. Our economic wagon has been hitched to the lame horses of real estate and finance. The former is dead in the water at a time when there are empty homes all over suburbia, and the latter still sees plenty of profit, but contributes almost nothing to the wider prosperity of the nation outside of Wall Street. The service economy has grown in the last three decades, but now that's hard to sustain when such a large percentage of the population can no longer afford to spend money. The years of easy credit masked that problem brought on by our gross social inequality, but those days are over. Nowadays luxury stores are booming while the rest of the economy is getting whacked. With no new economic stimulus, either from the government or private sector, coming to increase demand by the real job creators in the middle and working classes, we can just expect more austerity in an attempt by corporate America and their paid political lackeys to bring globalization home. Why outsource cheap labor to foreign nations when you can have exploited, low-wage labor right here in America?

Right now I think that most people, even those worst affected by the current crisis, are too politically disengaged or justifiably disgusted with the political system to bother raising hell over any of this. Instead we have an astroturfed Church and King mob in the form of the Tea Party, taking its marching orders from the trumpet of corporate propaganda, Fox News. However, we should remember one last tidbit of economic history. The French Revolution began with a debt crisis, debts run up because of war bills and a state that did not really tax its richest subjects (sound familiar?). I don't see anything so dramatic coming soon, but the lords of finance might want take heed of history when they keep supporting our worsening social inequality.

Friday, August 5, 2011

It's A Ditch Trilogy Kinda Day

Today I got the startling and upsetting news that the publisher who I had a contract with for my book is dropping me. (I looked at the fine print, and yep, they can just cold do that.) That hurt less than the comments by one of their readers, which were painfully critical. My run of happiness since moving here to New Jersey seems to have hit the first real snag, it seems. Anyway, I thought this would be the perfect occasion to re-introduce some favorite material from my old blog related to another time I felt rotten. Enjoy.


The cold front that has struck this week couldn't have come at a worse time. I am aware that I am lucky to be living far enough south to avoid the blizzards, but I typically rely on the nice weather here in the early months of the year to counteract their inherent awfulness. January and February are by far the worst months of the year, and this year more so than usual. I'm prone to getting the blues already, and recent developments in my life have only made that tendency more pronounced.

To counteract these feelings, one can either try to feel better, or just wallow in depression in order to get through it. I find that music is a good tool for either option, and when I want to wallow, nothing beats Neil Young's so-called "ditch trilogy." This is the term for three of his mid-1970s albums: Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight's the Night. He made them all in the aftermath of his mega-successful Harvest album (which, apart from a couple of great songs, is not that all that strong), which had put him in the middle of the road. In his words, he followed it up with some time in "the ditch."

It's some harrowing stuff, reflective of the times, which today seem so much like our own. In the larger world, this was the era of Watergate, stagflation, and the death of the sixties dream. In Young's life, people close to him had died from overdosing on heroin, a drug that represented the degeneracy of hippie mind expansion into 70s numbness and self-absorbtion. It's a soundtrack of malaise, disillusionment, and bitterness, things that are all too real for me and a lot of other people in this country these days.

The first album in the trilogy, 1973's Time Fades Away, is a live album that has been out of print for decades. One of the many reasons that I love my wife is that she managed to track down and buy a vinyl copy for me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I've heard various reasons why it hasn't been re-released, from speculation that it is a document of a time Young would rather forget, that he is dissatisfied with how it sounds, or that he simply thinks it's low quality. The shows are from his post-Harvest tour. The stadium crowds probably expected a mellow-folkie experience intended to evoke a "peaceful, easy feeling." Instead, they got a ramshackle, wasted depressive performing brand new material highly unsettling in nature. The cover is almost a kind of joke: there's a long-haired bearded guy in front of the crowd flashing a peace sign, totally unaware of what he is going to have inflicted on him.

Despite the fact that his distinctive voice cracks and the band sounds stretched to the limit, the music is actually quite lovely. His solo piano rendition of "Journey Through the Past" is the kind of wistful ballad that so many other songwriters have set out and failed to write. The best might be the closer, "Last Dance," a kind of lament for the soul-crushing nature of the workaday world. In the midst of all its thrashing, there's the hope that the painfully banal quotidian rat race can actually be transcended.

No such hope is present on the next album, the harrowing Tonight's the Night. This one might be too depressing even for me to handle. Evidently ol' Neil thought so too, he recorded it in 1973, but it didn't get released until 1975. Despite the fact that it's not three chords and a cloud of dust rock'n'roll, it's one of the most punk rock records ever made before punk. Voices crack and shatter, songs limp to their finish, and all is pervaded by an air of don't-give-a-fuck ennui. ("Albuquerque" is exemplary in this regard.) The album, especially the title track, deals directly with the heroin casualities in Young's circle, roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. The only song on the album that doesn't rip into the listener's soul is the live rave-up "Come on Baby Let's Go Town," which actually becomes more depressing when you realize it's Whitten on vocals and guitar. Of all the songs on this album, "Tired Eyes" resonates with me most, especially the key lines, "he tried his best but he could not."

The last album in the trilogy, On the Beach, is actually my favorite. Of course, "favorite" is a tricky word to use with something that boasts dark stuff like "Revolution Blues" and "Ambulance Blues," both fitting eulogies to the death of the sixties with the proper level of bitterness attached. After all, the key phrase of the latter song, referring to the counterculture, is "you're all just pissing in the wind." Despite the presence of such sentiments, the listener actually gets a little hope. The opening track, "Walk On," has become a bit of a personal theme recently. Listen to it and you might figure out why, since the first lines are "I hear some people talking me down, bring up my name, pass it 'round."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On Vacation with the Civilian Conservation Corps and Captain America

I had the good fortune to be on vacation last week during the height of the Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis, and so spent much time camping, hiking, and kayaking in the plains, forests, and hills of Nebraska and South Dakota, rather than obsessively reading news off of the web and wanting to scream until my voice box shredded. Instead of following the minute-by-minute reports, my sojourn into nature prompted some deep reflection and some surprisingly relevant tourist destinations.

All along our travels, we found constant reminders of the New Deal and its legacy of public works. Our first stop was camping in the Nebraska National Forest, located near Halsey. (Yes, that's right, a national forest in the treeless Nebraska Sand Hills. It was a successful experiment in learning to grow trees on the arid plains.) Although the forest began in the Progressive Era, the Civilian Conservation Corps made a great number of improvements on it, turning it from a laboratory for forestry into a great place for camping. Growing up, my family often stopped there on our trips west, and enjoyed picnic lunches in the shade, and I never knew that the CCC had made it all possible.

Further down the road, we stopped at Fort Robinson, in northern Nebraska, another great site that benefited from CCC labor. Later on we visited the magnificent Wind Cave in the Black Hills, and found out that the cement walkway that allowed larger groups of tourists to visit had been built in the 1930s by, you guessed it, the CCC.

For those of you who don't know, the CCC was a New Deal program that hired unemployed young men to make improvements on public land. Although it is less well-known than the WPA, TVA, or PWA, it is near and dear to my heart because without the CCC, I might not be here. My grandfather lost his farm in the mid-1930s, and found work through the CCC, which may very well have saved his life. It makes me proud that he was part of something that created lasting places for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to enjoy. However, it also made me sad that in the midst of our greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression, we are not putting the unemployed to work by building up public works, we are instead putting people out of work by gutting our public institutions. Today we have the power to create a new CCC, to get the jobless back to work through public works, and to create lasting parks, pools, roads, and bridges that future generations can benefit from.

Yet such a plan isn't even being discussed in the halls of power.

In many ways, the events in Washington this last week show that the spirit of the New Deal, and any sense that public institutions and the public good are things to be cherished, may finally have been squelched by the avaricious spirit of Reagan and his disciples. I wish that all the folks who live in supposed "red states" and enjoy the parks built with CCC labor every weekend thought a little deeper about how these cherished places came to be in the first place.

It was also on vacation that my wife and I saw Captain America. We had spent a very hot and tiring day canoeing down the Niobrara River, and were in no mood to sweat and get eaten by bugs at the campground. Luckily, tiny Valentine, Nebraska, has a twin cinema, and we were able to cool off by watching one of the more adroit and entertaining superhero movies I've seen in awhile. (I must add, though, that the historical anachronisms, especially the portrayal of a racially integrated military and empowered women in WWII, are highly problematic. For more on this, read what Chauncey has to say.)

It seemed strangely appropriate to me that this film would be released when the American empire was about to die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As hokey as this sounds, I did like the fact that Steve Rogers was so willing to sacrifice himself for his country, since that sense of shared struggle and common good seem to be dead at a time when a political faction is willing to hold the nation's economic future hostage to win a presidential election. Our myths about World War II deemphasize the real divisions and fissures on the home front (Japanese Internment, Zoot Suit Riots, 1943 Detroit Riot, etc), but at least in many other times of crisis our leaders have been willing to stop acting like selfish children and work together for the common good.

Although Captain America is a product of Hollywood's globalized entertainment capitalism, it like the CCC sites was a potent reminder that things don't have to be this way. I am not confident that much will change, but the inspiration for a nation better committed to the public good, rather than the Teabagger ideology and its corporate sponsors, is waiting there for us to discover in our forests, caves, bridges, and swimming pools.