Monday, July 30, 2012

What If...Barack Obama Acted Like Mitt Romney on a Foreign Trip?

Introduction: Mitt Romney is currently traveling abroad, and has so far managed to offend his British hosts with his comments on the London Olympics, and soon after arriving in Israel, insulted Palestinians for good measure, too.  Three other aspects of his trip are getting less press but are notable: he has been engaging in major fund raisers while traveling abroad, he has essentially said that if he were president he would subsume American foreign policy to Israeli wishes, and he has praised Israel's health care system as superior to that of the United States.  I think that the lack of broad comment on these things puzzling, since the president is being accused of being "anti-American" by his opponents, but here you have his adversary dissing the United States while in a foreign location, and openly begging for money from people who do not live in the United States.  I get the feeling that there would be a quite a firestorm if Barack Obama did these same things.  Since counterfactuals are always fun, I've envisioned here what the reaction would be like.


Hannity: Welcome back to Hannity, ladies and gentlemen.  As you may have heard, Barack Obama's hatred for America reared its head yet again this week during his foreign trip.  While visiting Europe, he held multiple fundraisers with people who are technically American citizens, but who have not been living in this country for years.  As if that's not enough, while he was in France, Obama praised its socialized healthcare system during one of these fundraisers.  To talk about this, we have Jerome Corsi, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly here with us tonight.  Hello gentlemen.

Corsi, Limbaugh, and O'Reilly: Hello Sean

Hannity: What do you make of these actions by the president?

Limbaugh: For years the liberals have been whining, as they always do, that when we call Obama "anti-American" that's racism, since you know to liberals you can never criticize a black person without being a racist.  Well now it's obvious that this man hates America, something he learned from his Kenyan father.  We have the best healthcare system in the world, and yet he goes to France and tells them they're better than us.  This just goes to show that we are a nation under occupation by a foreign power.  He's also taking money from foreign sources.  I don't care if the contributors are American, I'm sure that's just a front so all of his socialist buddies in Europe can funnel money to him.

Hannity: Yes, I wonder where the FEC is in all of this.

O'Reilly: The Romney campaign has been sounding the alarm on Obama's anti-Americanism, I think they've been vindicated.  By going to a foreign nation and running down the United States, Obama is giving aid and comfort to our terrorist enemies.  Congress should draft articles of impeachment, and anyone who doesn't think so is willing to let a man who loves his foreign friends more than his own people.  I will apologize for being an idiot if he is not impeached.

Hannity: I can't think of another American political figure who has betrayed the nation like this, yet his allies on the left will just sit by and watch it happen.

Corsi: If I may cut in, I think Obama's actions reflect a foreign attitude and the inability to understand what it means to be an America.  It's high time we took another look at his birth certificate, since this seems to be the work of a foreign agent, not the president of the United States.  He is trying so hard to cover up his secret identity, but I think in his comments in France, which he thought would be private, Obama has let the mask drop a little bit.

Limbaugh: And if you can believe it, Obama's biggest contributor is a man who made his money from casinos in China.  I think we could be seeing a backdoor way for Red China to control the United States and turn it into something else.

Hannity: Well it looks like the president will be in a lot of hot water for so flagrantly disrespecting the country he is supposed to lead.  Next up on Hannity, we'll take a look at the president's gambling kingpin moneyman, and talk to Mike Huckabee about the connection between Obama's lack of values and support by those who profit from immoral activity like gambling.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Playlist: Pink Floyd After Syd Barrett and Before Dark Side of the Moon

These days I spend a lot of time feeding babies in the dead of night.  Since they were premature and are still quite young, we have to feed them every three hours, whether they ask for it or not.  My wife and I have worked out a system where I stay up until the 2AM feeding, and she gets up early for the 5AM feeding, which allows us to get 5-6 hours of solid sleep.  Our little ones really love listening to music, and I have learned that playing a record is the perfect thing to do during our feedings.  The time it takes for one side of the LP to play is about as long as I need to diaper, feed, burp, and rock a baby to sleep.

Of course, when you're dealing with babies in the dead of night, you don't want to agitate them too much, which requires records that are on the mellow side.  One old standby that I have found to work very well is Pink Floyd's Meddle, which I had used for years to relax me for sleep, never knowing I would be using it on my daughters.  Listening to it has got me thinking about that obscure period in Pink Floyd's history after original leader Syd Barrett lost his mind and was kicked out of the band in 1968, and the Floyd's triumphal launch into stardom via one of the most iconic albums of all time, The Dark Side of the Moon, in 1973.  It's not their best stretch of work, but a lot of it is fantastic, and the band is probably at their most experimental in that period.  So plug in the lava lamp, roll your smokeables, and prepare to get mellow.

This track from Meddle is one of the most beautiful songs in the whole Pink Floyd catalog, one I was lucky enough to tape off the radio during an all-day Pink Floyd marathon on the local classic rock station when I was in high school.  I have a killer 90 minute Maxell tape in the bottom of a box somewhere as the fruit of that day.  (Back in my day we didn't have illegal downloading, we had to sit next to the radio with a trigger finger to record the songs we wanted. ) This song struck me immediately, it just felt like therapy listening to it, and to this day is one I like to play on a bad day.

"Let There Be More Light"
Pink Floyd's original guitarist, lead singer, and principal song writer Syd Barrett started losing his mind after the band's amazing first album (Piper at the Gates of Dawn), and even though he's listed in the credits of the second, A Saucerful of Secrets, he didn't really contribute much beyond the epically disturbing "Jugband Blues."  (He also wrote the unhinged "Vegetable Man," which was used as a B-side.)  This song kicks off the latter album, and has a wonderfully creepy vibe.

"See Saw"
Another track from Saucer, and one that I've always loved even though others (including the band) do not.  It's also one of the few written by keyboardist Rick Wright.  It might not be a masterpiece, but I do love a little psychedelic confection, since it does wonders for the old nerves.

"Granchester Meadows"
The Pink Floyd aesthetic transformed into English folk, and absolutely lovely.

"Careful With That Axe, Eugene"
I've linked here to the version from the Live From Pompeii film, since I find it to be especially powerful with the volcanoes blowing off and such.  This sounds more like an avant-garde jazz experiment than rock and roll, and while the Floyd would go on to make better music, it would never be this daring.

"Free Four"
Roger Waters went on to take himself a little too seriously on later albums, turning his pessimism a little too loose on Animals, The Wall, and most egregiously, The Final Cut.  Before then, he was able to harness his dark outlook on life to write profound little ditties about mortality.  This song contains one of my favorite lyrics on the subject, "Life is a short warm moment/ and death is a long cold rest."

This track takes up the entire second side of Meddle, something that really intrigued me when I first heard it, since it was the only song I knew of that was longer than "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida."  (I've got that song on a Maxell tape somewhere, too.)  After all these years I don't find it ponderous or overdone, but singularly beautiful, like watching the tides roll in.  I can't think of a better song to rock my daughters to sleep to.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mitt Romney's Desperate Appeal to White Identity Politics

I've always hated the term "identity politics," since it's usually employed by conservatives to deride the efforts of any group of people who are not white or straight in their quest for rights and respect.  There are some true instances of identity politics, however, and we are seeing one right now in the case of Willard Mitt Romney, and it comes from desperation.

His now infamous warbling of songs like "America, the Beautiful" during the campaign are part of a noxious attempt to paint himself as "American" and the president as "un-American."  The worst of the insinuations have come from mouthpieces like John Sununu, who had the audacity to say "I wish this president would learn how to be an American."  Romney himself has claimed fealty to "Americanism" and has implied that his opponent does not.  Romney's campaign has recently tried to step this up a notch with claims that the president does not understand the "Anglo-Saxon" ties between the United States and Great Britain because of his heritage.  At base, this tactic is trying to president Obama into the Other, in large part due to his race and background.  The implicit message in these statements is not to say that Romney would be a better president, but that he is white (and therefore "American"), and Barack Obama is not.

Romney is doing this less to appeal to undecided voters, but to get Republicans to the polls.  Mitt is disliked by his own base, who tried out the loony likes of Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann before they realized that Mitt was the only Republican presidential candidate with a chance of appealing to the broader electorate.  Without enthusiasm among the base, Mitt can't get the vote out, and will thus lose.  Because of his moderate record in Massachusetts and his passage of a health care plan very similar to Obama's, Romney can't run on his past accomplishments, since this will inflame the anger of his base against him.  Instead, he must harness the deep and scary reservoirs of paranoid hatred against the president lurking in right wing circles, much of it motivated by the mere fact that a black man is the president of the United States.

Outside of his base, Romney's still got a lot of problems.  Unlike the president, who is tremendously charismatic, Romney lacks the common touch, and when he opens his mouth in informal situations, usually makes a complete ass out of himself.  The examples are legion, but here are just the highlights: his tendency to guess the age of people he's just met, his casual discussions of ten thousand dollar bets and his wife's Cadillacs, his admission that he knows NASCAR owners rather than fans, and finally, his rude and ill chosen remarks about the London Olympics.  To my ears he comes across like every insensitive, authoritarian, jerkward boss I've ever worked for.  Voters aren't exactly excited about having their asshole boss as their president.

Many uncharismatic candidates in the past have run on their credentials and abilities, but Romney can't do that, either.  His time as a governor is off limits for aforementioned reasons, and his record at Bain has been a millstone around his neck because of its rapacious business practices.  Romney is in a situation where he has absolutely nothing to run on, only the president to run against.  The poor economy makes the president weak, but that's not enough for Romney to run on, since he has not really offered many specifics about what he would do to fix it.  To draw a contrast between himself and the president, he is stooping to reminding voters that he is the "white" candidate, and his opponent isn't.  The sad fact is that our modern elections are won less by making broad appeals to voters than by turning out one's respective base.  (For example, back in 2004 the GOP put anti-gay marriage initiatives on several state ballots in order to drive up turnout among evangelicals.)  That's why Republican state governments are suppressing potential Democratic voters, and why Republicans are calling the president "un-American."  Even if it doesn't work, the consequences for the body politic will be dire.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoughts on Guns N' Roses

On Deadspin recently there's been a lot of stuff related to the 25th anniversary of the release of Guns N' Roses' debut album, Appetite for Destruction.  That reminded me of this piece I wrote on my old blog a couple of years ago, which I'm pretty proud of.  There are few bands out there that I was never that into that have retained their level of fascination in my mind.

The release of the long-awaited Chinese Democracy album has gotten me thinking about Guns N Roses, by which I mean the actual band, not the revolving cast of sidemen plus Axl Rose that tours today. It's easy to forget just how big they were in their time, and how much their demise symbolized.

I certainly remember G n' R at the height of their popularity between 1988 and 1991, since that period coincided exactly with my early adolescence. (They were at their biggest from the time I was 12 to the time I was 16.) They were without a doubt the biggest band of the time, with Guns N' Roses t-shirts being sported by more than just the metal kids in the hallways of my junior high. A guy I knew the grade ahead of me achieved supreme coolness for his ability to play the intro to "Sweet Child of Mine" on his guitar.

I had a pretty ambiguous relationship with Axl, Slash, and the gang. On the whole, I was not such a big fan of metal, preferring a mix of sixties rock (especially the Beatles), hip-hop (especially Public Enemy but regretably also DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), and the "alternative" music of the time (mostly REM and Depeche Mode.) On the other hand, I thought Guns N Roses was a whole helluva lot better than the likes of Poison, Trixter, and Slaughter. Unlike the other dreck of the time, the Guns sounded like a bona fide rock band, not a glammed up bunch of pretty boys recycling Jimmie Page's riffs and David Bowie's make-up.

Imbibing MTV like the Holy Sacrament, I myself had to admit that "Sweet Child of Mine," "Paradise City," and "Welcome to the Jungle" were killer. On top of that, I really liked the acoustic balladeering of "Patience." However, I didn't buy the Appetite for Destruction album because I thought its cross cover was slightly blasphemous (no lie), and I'd heard that the Lies EP was chock full of profanity, misogyny, and racism. (Yep, I was a good little boy.) Considering that MTV and radio played G n'R almost constantly, there was no need to buy the records anyway.

Being the goody-two shoes altar boy that I was at the time, their whole attitude and personality both scared and attracted me. Slash, for instance, seemed fearsome, his eyes shrouded in hair with only a lit cig poking out. Still, he exuded an air of unflappable cool and effortless talent, things lacking in the gawky, badly dressed, zit faced adolescent that I was. The one guy in the band that I found to be completely repulsive was the only one left today: Axl Rose. He had a seeming contempt for the world, inciting a riot at a concert in St. Louis and often making audiences wait hours before he would go on. He would only grant interviews if he could have a final say over what would be printed, and generally acted like a violent, solipsistic, douchebag. Only his status as one of the last old school rock frontmen redeemed him. Indie rock singers don't do big gestures without irony anymore, and those who make the rockstar poses unironically usually look ridiculous. Axl, on the other hand, was exciting and mesmerizing onstage.

Guns N Roses didn't put out their full-length follow-up to Appetite until September of 1991, with Use Your Illusion I and II. This was the music event of the year, as record stores had midnight sales of the album, and both occupied the two top spots on the chart. My high school buzzed with talk about which album was better, and a guy I knew in marching band had soon memorized the horribly antagonistic "Get in the Ring." I even got in on the act, by buying Use Your Illusion II, mostly because it had "You Could Be Mine," which had been a big hit that summer. Not wanting to get in trouble with my folks, I listened to it strictly over my headphones, impressed on the one hand by songs like "Yesterday" and "14 Years," but apalled by stuff like "Pretty Tied Up" and "Shotgun Blues," where Axl wants the listener to sympathize with his paranoid worldview. On top of that, there were failed attempts at grandeur like "Estranged," a song I will return to later. I pretty much got into a habit of programming the CD so I only listened to the songs I actually liked, which was about half of them.

If the Guns had combined the best of both albums they could have crafted a real classic, but no one talked much about that at the time. The band's inner strife and its videos provided most of the fodder for conversation. The video for "Don't Cry" did not feature rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who soon announced that he had quit the band. It also featured all kinds of bizzare images, like Axl freezing to death while holding two pistols, drowning, and at the end of the video in the grave. The song itself, a haunting little ballad, wasn't all that bad, either, if you could get past the death trip obsession of its sociopathic singer.

The follow-up, "November Rain," was absolutely huge, and for a time I think the most played video in MTV's history. It also marked a fatal departure, in that the song is a sprawling epic full of lush strings and flutes and gets away from what the Guns did best. The only bright spots in the song are two terrific Slash solos, representing the true strength and heart of the band. The video also told a tragic yet cryptic story of suicide and a wedding ending in a mysterious death. At the time there was all kinds of speculation as to its meaning and its links to the "Don't Cry" video (including by me), which is hard to believe today. In hindsight, it looks like a self-indulgent mish-mash of half-baked symbolism and warmed over symphonic goop.

And while Guns N Roses appeared to be set on a path of world domination, the seeds of their demise had already been planted. Three months after Use Your Illusion, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" exploded onto the airwaves and MTV like a bomb whose shrapnel would dismember hair metal and whose concussion would knock Guns N' Roses into the dustbin of history. The same kids at school who had once banged their heads to "Welcome to the Jungle" happily snatched up Nevermind. Next to the overblown Rose, flannel clad Cobain's pain seemed a lot more genuine. His indie sensibility and lack of macho bullshit also endeared him to people like me in the non-metal crowd.

In the meantime, Guns released "Estranged," whose video was supposed to cap off the trilogy begun with "Don't Cry" and "November Rain" and explain all the unanswered questions. Needless to say, it didn't, and the song didn't become much a hit either, despite some seering guitar lines from Slash. At the end of the day, his guitar heroics couldn't rescue the song from its own pretentions, and by the time this video came out, in a changing musical climate, people had pretty much stopped caring about the ins and outs of Axl Rose's tortured soul. Band relations soured, and after releasing a tepid album of punk covers, Guns N' Roses' days as a band, rather than an Axl Rose project, were over.

Looking back on it, the death of Guns was pretty much a harbinger of the death of American "rock" in the classical sense. (British rock music is a more complicated beast.) Grunge and its imitators, as well as indie rock, came squarely out of the punk tradition, and the new generation of rock bands after grunge sucked so bad and were so derivative that they could never inspire the excitement and following of Guns N' Roses. (I am thinking here of Creed, Puddle of Mudd, Limp Bizkit, Nickleback etc.) That rock fans have been so interested in the recent release of Chinese Democracy shows less the persistence of Guns' music than the inability of rock music to reproduce itself.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How the "I Side With" Quiz Might Reveal Big Trouble for Republicans

There's a pretty good online quiz at a site called "I Side With" that determines how much one's political beliefs match those of the various candidates for president.  I've always liked these quizzes, since they often reveal things that the people who don't take them don't realize.  For instance, I know someone who considered herself to be a moderate rather than liberal, but when she took one of these quizzes in 2008, the candidate she most resembled was Dennis Kucinich.  (For the record, when I took the quiz, the Green candidate Jill Stein barely edged out president Obama in terms of their resemblance to me on the issues.)

One thing I really like about the I Side With site is that you can see how each individual state's aggregate of responses matched the candidates.  One thing that really struck me was that reliably "blue" states very easily fit with president Obama's stances, but the "red" states of the South and West consistently did not have Mitt Romney as their best match, but Gary Johnson, the candidate for the Libertarian Party.  In many cases Romney is in third place, after Johnson and Ron Paul.

To me, it looks like we are seeing evidence that the GOP's uneasy combination of libertarians, neo-con foreign policy hawks, and religious conservatives might be too volatile to hold together.  Ever since 1980, when Jerry Falwell and others mobilized the evangelical vote for Ronald Reagan, the Christian Right has played a huge role in the Republican Party's success.  However, as times are changing.  Fewer and fewer people are against gay marriage, weekly church-goers, or supportive of the war on drugs.  The youth are significantly more liberal on social issues than their elders, and a Republican party that supports positions that look increasingly out of touch and regressive will need to either adapt or suffer the consequences.

Furthermore, with the isolationist sentiments long powerful in American history seeing a revival after the failure of the Bush administration's adventures abroad, the hawkishness of Mitt and the Republican establishment actually isn't representative of the direction the voters are headed.  Before the Cold War, conservatives tended to isolationist, and they started moving in that direction again in the 1990s once the USSR fell.  Lest we forget, before he made a name for himself through invasions of tenuous legality, George W. Bush campaigned with a promise not to engage in "nation building" abroad.

Of course, this data is all very unscientific and self-selecting, and probably skews young.  However, it does point to a Republican party that looks like a circus performer balancing spinning plates hoping to keep them from crashing to the ground.  The party has become so doctrinaire that it won't nominate a candidate for president that does not simultaneously support laissez-faire capitalism, sustained American commitment abroad, and conforms to the religious Right on issues like homosexuality and abortion.  This is why the president's people are wise to start waging the culture wars from the liberal side, since it will peel away economic conservatives who do not agree with the dominionist theology of many in the GOP.  In the near future the Republicans must decide whether they will benefit more by keeping religious conservatives happy and simultaneously alienate libertarians, or jettison "values voters" for economic conservatives in the political middle.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Countdown to (Musical) Ecstasy: Learning to Love Steely Dan

As the years go by, my musical tastes have been changing about as dramatically as my life priorities.  Around the age of 19, I had immersed myself so fully into punk rock that I despised any music that smacked of smoothness and artifice.  (That punk rock isn't completely authentic and is also full of artifice was something I was too blind to see at the time.)  Similarly, there was a time in my early thirties when I thought I was going to live the rest of my days as a bohemian bachelor a la Charles Bukowski comforted only by wine, books, and old records.  The life changes are pretty obvious, since I am now happily married with two daughters and much less prone to flights of drunken depression.  My musical tastes have seen radical changes as well, as I am now much more likely to put Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic on the turntable than Never Mind the Bollocks It's the Sex Pistols.

I'd like to think this change has to do with broadening my tastes rather than going soft.  (My 19 year old self would have thought the latter.  I still remember when I was about that age, and a friend of my mom's asked if I listened to jazz, and I said, "no, but I probably will once I get old."  Man, young people can be obnoxious.)  I first got interested in Steely Dan during the fateful year I spent working as a librarian in Chicago between my master's degree and going on to a doctoral program.  It was the summer of 2000, and a new guy working in my department shared my obsessive love of music.  We traded some mix tapes (remember those?), which he used to preach the gospel of Steely Dan.  Since this guy really seemed to have good taste in music, I decided to give the Dan another shot, and eventually picked up a used copy of one of their compilations. A lot had changed since I was 19, namely that I had dove into the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, preparing me for the jazz-soaked Dan.

I dug the music on that CD alright, but the wheels really tumbled into place sometime in the next year, when I was driving around and the local classic rock station was playing album sides.  (Remember when classic rock radio was actually interesting?)  They put on side two of Pretzel Logic, and it really blew me away.  I had made the mistake of entering Steely Dan via a compilation, which was a huge mistake because their albums are such unitary, cohesive objects that the songs lose a lot of their power when ripped from their context.  That makes them a group profoundly unsuited to listening to music on an iPod, and for a blog post such as this.  Nevertheless, I'll give a shot, and provide some tracks that might make you think twice about an unfairly maligned band.

"Reeling in the Years"
Before I started listening to their albums, this is the one song I really associated in a positive way with Steely Dan.  Considering my musical tastes at the time, it's easy to understand, since this song has got badass guitars all the place.  The lyrics also contain some acidic put-downs of that kind appreciated by a young misanthrope such as myself in my earlier days.  After years in academia, the line "The things that pass for knowledge I can't understand" resonates with me now more than ever.

"Rikki, Don't Lose That Number"
This was the second song that drew me in, mostly because it's just a perfect little pop gem.  It also makes me picture a fern bar in the 1970s with dudes sporting fly collars displaying their chest hair on the prowl for young hotties in peasant dresses and oversize sunglasses.

Here's a classic example of the seediness of Steely Dan's lyrics and the darker meanings beneath the bright surfaces.  The singer is trying to dissuade the title character from appearing in a "foreign movie," which is a euphemism for a porno.  It's hard to figure out, considering that you're probably enraptured by the outtasite jazzy guitar solo and the multi-tracking of Michael McDonald's background vocals.  (When Becker and Fagen explained how this track came together for the Classic Albums series, I was pretty floored.)

"Boston Rag"
My Platonic ideals of Rock Guitar are the intro from "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" by Jimi Hendrix and the solo on Television's "See No Evil."  Yes, they are pretty damn transcendent, but the finely textured guitar on this song throws me for a loop in a totally different way.

"My Old School"
Kiss offs don't get better than this tune, which references Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's alma mater of Bard College, and not in the kind of way that'll get mentioned in the alumni newsletter.  "When California tumbles into the sea/ that's when I'll go back to Annandale" is pretty much how I real about East Texas after leaving it.

"Any Major Dude Will Tell You"
Speaking of East Texas, it was there that I managed to find Pretzel Logic on vinyl in an antique store that had a bunch of unorganized but often fantastic records in the back.  (I guess the place wasn't all bad.)  On glum days "when the demon is at your door," of which there were many back then, I used to play this song for comfort.

"Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"
"Any world that I'm welcome to/ Is better than the one I come from."  Best description of growing up in a place you hate I've ever heard.  (More on that below.)  Or of the disgust of living in a world governed by such violence and stupidity as ours.

"Deacon Blues"
This song is by far my favorite, mostly for the lyrics.  Although I had always heard that Becker and Fagen were New York City guys who migrated to LA, I recently discovered that Fagen had been born and raised in postwar suburban New Jersey, which came as no surprise.  I know from personal experience that those who grow up in staid environments and feel like outcasts within them often go on to become fiercely bohemian in their attitude.  After a childhood of getting picked last in gym and not having friends who can appreciate avant-garde music, living an unconventional adulthood in a big city can be a very satisfying middle finger to years spent suffering in spiritual jail.  The narrator of this song is just one of these people, a jazz musician who does not cave into popular tastes but plays "just what I feel."  In a little jab to the squares who might look down on him, he says, "They got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/ They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/ Call me Deacon Blues."  It's a kind of celebration of being an outcast, an act of defiance that makes the narrator a "loser" in the eyes of others, but satisfied with the fact that he can play his music, drink his whiskey, and live an authentic life.  It's actually quite a punk rock statement, and one that my 19 year old self would have totally understood.

Friday, July 20, 2012

History Lesson: Voter Fraud vs. Voter Suppression

In case you haven't noticed, several states controlled by Republicans have been aggressively paring the voter rolls and passing laws making it much more difficult for groups that tend to support the Democrats to vote.  One official in Pennsylvania made the mistake of actually saying the real reason for these moves out loud in front of an open mic.  Those who support these laws claim they are needed to prevent "voter fraud," a crime that's about as common as shark attacks and spontaneous combustion.

Since there are so few cases out there of voters pretending to be someone they aren't, supporters of voter suppression reach back into the historical record for precedent.  One example they keep going back to is the 1960 presidential election, when JFK narrowly defeated Nixon.  It has been an article of faith in conservative circles for years that mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine stuffed the ballot boxes with the names of the dead in order to secure the state of Illinois for Kennedy, which put him over the top in the electoral college.

Leaving aside the fact that this accusation has never been proven true, it misses the real electoral manipulation in that election.  In 1960, African Americans supported Kennedy by a wide margin, but throughout the South, due to discriminatory laws and intimidation, the vast majority of African Americans did not get to vote.  Imagine such a situation today, if say in the Egyptian elections Coptic Christians were kept from voting by the Egyptian government.  International observers from the UN and elsewhere would have attacked the election as invalid for purposefully targeting a minority group for exclusion from the polls.  The American election of 1960, if held today, would not be considered legitimate in the eyes of the international community because of its overt racism.

Of course, after five years of tireless protest and sacrifice by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act would be passed in 1965, effectively destroying the old methods of official voter suppression in the South.  Those practices had a long history.  Before the Civil War, most states -North as well as South- had laws banning blacks from voting.  Afterwards, in the midst of Reconstruction, the Fifteenth Amendment banned the denial of the vote on the basis of race, color, or "prior servitude."  When the so-called "Redeemers" came to power in the South on a wave of racist vigilante violence and overturned Reconstruction, they found ways around the Constitution.  Poll taxes, violent intimidation, literacy tests, whites-only Democratic primaries, and the infamous "grandfather clause" all contributed to the suppression of the black vote.

What many people don't know is that not all of these tactics survived until 1965, and that the system of voter suppression proved itself very skilled at adapting itself to having some of its favorite mechanisms declared unconstitutional.  Way back in 1915, in a case brought through the courts by the fledgling NAACP, the Supreme Court struck down the grandfather clause, and in 1962 the Twenty-Fourth Amendment invalidated the poll tax.  Despite these changes, in 1964 only 6.7% of African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote.  Not until the Voting Rights Act, which the federal, rather than state government enforced, would real change occur.

While a lot has changed in 1965, voter suppression has not gone away.  In some cases this is the result of legislation making voting contingent on forms of ID that many Americans do not have.  In other cases, the racism of the justice system leads to voter suppression.  As Michelle Alexander has demonstrated in The New Jim Crow, the imbalanced waging of the war on drug has led to a disproportionate number of African Americans being convicted of drug felonies and then losing the right to vote.  Many states that prevent convicted felons from voting not only replicate the racism of a criminal justice system that targets blacks more than whites, but have also prevented citizens from voting who share the same name as a felon.

Beyond the legal system, there have been well-documented cases of deliberate misinformation about voting spread with the intent of suppressing the vote.  During the Wisconsin recall election of Scott Walker, people who signed the petition to get him out of office received robocalls telling them they didn't need to vote.   A similar thing happened in 2010 in Maryland.  In Massachusetts two GOP operatives put up signs in a polling place demanding photo ID to vote, even though that was not a requirement for voting in the Bay State.  It's become de rigeur for Republicans to hand out flyers intentionally misleading voters about what day the election will take place.

As you can see, this nation has a long history of suppressing the vote which continues to this day, particularly the ballots of African Americans.  Despite this obvious fact, somehow our politicians are allowed to continue this suppression in the most aggressive fashion since Jim Crow while justifying their actions as a response to chimerical "voter fraud."  It's time to change the public discourse, and part of that is using history to show that voter suppression has always been a much more significant problem in this nation's life than voter fraud.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bad Album Covers I See At Almost Every Used Record Store

One of my hobbies is buying and listening to old LPs, and over the last few years I've noticed a few albums with epically bad covers that I always seem to find at used record stores.  Some are so wretched that they have sadly been burned into my mind like my bad memories of gym class growing up.  With every hope that this will be an exorcism, now it's time to share the pain with you.

Foghat, Rock and Roll

This is one of the few album covers that can elicit the kind of groans normally associated with a joke told by Fozzy Bear.  At least Foghat managed to concoct an album cover more ridiculous than their name, which is no mean feat.

Mike Rutherford, Acting Very Strange

A middle-aged Boomer rocker wearing a straw fedora and cut-off Sumo wrestling t-shirt in front of funhouse mirrors sounds a lot more interesting than it looks.

Roger Daltrey, Ride a Rock Horse
Words fail.  Since it came out in 1975, I can only presume cocaine was involved somehow.

Fleetwood Mac, Heroes Are Hard to Find
Nobody, and I mean nobody, needs to see Mick Fleetwood in his undies holding a naked child.  The unsettling vibe is also done in by the fact that he's wearing sneakers with gym sox.

Fleetwood Mac, Mystery to Me
This cover is ugly and surreal without being interesting.  I guess before Buckingham and Nicks joined the band in 1975, they were drifting in more ways than one, based on these covers.

Black Sabbath, Sabotage
Not a bad album, but you'd never guess by the cover.  Geezer looks like a street hustler, Tony doesn't appear to want to be there, Bill's red tights make him look like a medieval page as acid casualty, and Ozzy's combo of kimono and platform boots is seventies fashion victimhood/too stoned to care at its worst.

Loggins and Messina, The Best of Friends
Were these guys aware that their picture was going to be slapped on the cover of record sleeves going to stores all across the country?  Loggins is wearing a monkey-shit brown colored sweater, and Messina looks like he just crawled out of the gutter after downing a bottle of Thunderbird.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"The Socialism of Idiots"

One of my favorite political quips of all time is "anti-Semitism is the socialism of idiots," spoken by August Bebel, the leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party in the late 1800s. What he meant was that anti-Semites were blaming economic inequality on Jews rather than on the real culprit, capitalism.  These bigots understood that they were getting shafted by the system, but their hate-filled response only made matters worse.

I think a similar phenomenon is afoot today. The financial collapse of 2008 revealed the failure of laissez-faire capitalism, but in its aftermath both politicians and the masses have spent more time attacking immigrants, teachers, the poor, and public employees unions than Wall Street and its political puppets.  Unfinanced wars and tax cuts for the rich have pushed out current deficit spending to worrisome levels, but it is those battered by the recession living on food stamps who are targeted and castigated.  Instead of calling the banksters to account, teachers and other public employees have found themselves savagely assaulted in the public sphere.  

The economic elites who shorted the market, still retain their Bush era tax cuts, and are experiencing record profits could not be more pleased.  Four years after the collapse, they are still bulletproof, even when engaging in the same reckless behavior that got us here in the first place.  Case in point: Jamie Dimon's JP Morgan chase lost billions of dollars in irresponsible trading, but he was still able to go to Capitol Hill and get elected officials to kiss his ring and ass in equal measure.  That such a thing could happen no longer ceases to surprise me.  After all, it's just been revealed that London banks fixed interest rates in the biggest case of financial fraud in history, but that fact barely entered the political conversation.  

We need to get the finger pointed in the right direction before the current crisis can be resolved.  Until then, many people who are already suffering from the immoral behavior of our economic ruling class will only be made to suffer more.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How The Dems Learned from Their Mistakes and Turned Mitt Romney Into John Kerry

In one of my favorite posts on my old blog, I once accused the Democratic Party of consistently bringing a knife to a gun fight.  Their performance in 2010, when the Republicans unleashed the Tea Party and the Democrats were always playing defense, is but the most recent example.  However, with the release of the new "Firms" ad by the Obama campaign, which explicitly lays down the gauntlet of criticizing Romney's record at Bain just a day after he demanded an apology for such attacks, it looks like the Democrats have finally learned how to incorporate the tactics Republicans have used successfully for years.

In many ways, this presidential election is a bizarro version of the 2004 contest, when a sitting president of tenuous popularity during an uncertain time faced off against a wealthy charisma-challenged Massachusetts politician.  Despite the fact that the war in Iraq had not gone as planned, despite president Bush's atrocious performance in the first debate, and despite the fact that he had not won a majority of the popular vote the first time around, Dubya managed to win reelection.

He managed to do it for a variety of reasons, not least his campaign's successful efforts to define their opponent early in the race.  Disregarding the fact that Shrub had come from as elite a background as they come, his campaign very deftly painted Kerry as a privileged, out of touch career politician with a penchant for flip flopping.  Kerry spent the whole campaign dealing with "issues" like his windsurfing hobby, preventing him from launching effective attacks of his own.

More sinisterly, ads paid for by The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth took Kerry's biggest selling point and destroyed it.  The War in Iraq dominated the 2004 election, just as the economy takes up most of the attention now.  Kerry had first achieved fame through his protests against the Vietnam War after returning from combat.  In those fevered nationalistic days of paranoia after 9/11 his courageous stand against an immoral war would interpreted as "anti-American" or undermining the United States, something that would be political poison at the height of war abroad.  Kerry decided to avoid this kryptonite by playing up his sterling record as a war hero.  He effectively dodged his political past by playing up an aspect of his personal past, or so he thought.  The Swift Boat attacks were full of lies, but some of those lies hit their mark, and with Kerry's main claim to being a wartime president sullied, his chances of winning were severely handicapped.

Much the same is happening to Mitt Romney right now, and he is at an even greater disadvantage because, unlike the Swift Boat ads, the accusations that Romney profited from outsourcing and has money stashed in offshore bank accounts happen to be true.  Like Kerry, Romney finds himself in a luckless position because he has to run away from his inconvenient political past.   As of yet he has not staked his appeal to voters on his record as the governor of Massachusetts because he passed a health care law there almost identical to the "Obamacare" so detested by his political base.  This has forced Romney to put all his eggs in one basket and run on his record at Bain Capital, and to make vague statements that his time as a businessman gives him the right understanding of how to run the economy.  (Much the same as how John Kerry tried to use his military experience to show that this would make him a more ideal wartime president.)  Now the Obama campaign is very successfully going after Romney's record at Bain and his predilection for Swiss bank accounts and offshore tax shelters in the Cayman Islands, taking Romney's purported strength as an experienced businessman and turning it into a major liability.  In order to survive the accusations in the "Firms" ad, Romney will have to give a fuller accounting of his business and financial record, and the revelations contained behind his curtain of secrecy may very well end up being more damning than what we already know.

However, before we celebrate the apparent recent success of the Obama campaign too much, we have to remember that every attack brings about a counter-attack.  As the aforementioned Swift Boat attacks and infamous Willie Horton ad illustrate, the conservatives have all kinds of unprincipled allies with lots of cash to spread the most scurrilous lies.  They have been more than willing to appeal to the ugliest impulses in this country, from white racial resentment to homophobia, if it means that they can win an election.  Hunker down folks, because the response to "Firms" and related attacks on Romney's record at Bain will be a doozy.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The REAL Job Creators (A Bastille Day Message)

Like Mike Myers from the Halloween movies, the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy -largely responsible for our current deficit- still live to strike again despite the attempts to kill them.  Yet again, we hear from the GOP that our nation dare not raise taxes on the "job creators," which is their term for the super-rich.

This phrase is one of the perfidious Orwellian slogans preferred by the Right, almost as nefarious as "right to work."  In case you haven't heard, the wealthiest one percent of American society has seen its after-tax income increase by almost three hundred percent.  Despite the economic pain being felt by most of the population, corporate profits are soaring.  It seems that the "job creators" are doing better than ever, but they still haven't waved their magic wands and created more jobs.

The reason is simple: they make money by NOT creating jobs.  Without a strong labor movement corporations are free to make workers toil harder for less money.  They ship the jobs overseas to make more loot and pocket the difference as profit.  Giving them even more money and expecting jobs to magically appear is just about as feasible as turning lead into gold.  You would think that the experience of the last thirty years in this country would have taught our politicians this, but there's no use reasoning with ideological fanatics.  In their minds taxes on the wealthy are evil, and their plutocratic benefactors bribe them with millions in campaign donations to keep it that way.

There are real job creators in this nation, and they are regular folks like you and me.  If the average member of the middle class is doing well, they can spend money on goods and services, reducing supply and driving up demand.  The corporate overlords hoarding their dough have an incentive to hire more workers if it looks like they can move more product.

When a middle class person can afford to buy a new car, they are a job creator.  When they purchase a new home, they are a job creator.  When they can go shopping more often and spend a little more money, they are a job creator.  When they can afford to take a vacation, they are a job creator.

And not only that, government can actually create jobs more efficiently than corporations.  One thing dragging down the economy is the spate of layoffs of teachers, cops, and firefighters around the nation as state and local governments cut jobs.  The scrapping of public works projects has cuts of thousands of the "private sector" jobs that conservatives are so obsessed with "creating."  To take the money that could be used to keep these jobs or even expand them, and instead hand it over to barons of capital to throw onto their growing piles of idle lucre isn't just immoral, it's downright moronic.

On this Bastille Day, let us remember the motto of the French Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."  For too long we have neglected equality, and no true democracy that does so can long survive.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, "Almost Cut My Hair"

There is very little music that sounds more dated today than post-sixties hippie rock in general, and Crobsy, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young in particular.  Don't get me wrong; I am a huge Neil Young fan, I love the Byrds, dig Buffalo Springfield, and have always enjoyed the classic pop of The Hollies.  However, when you take elements of all of these great things and form a kind of Frankenstein's monster of hubristic, narcissistic, affluent Boomer hippiedom, it adds up to a whole lot less than the sum of its parts, akin to avocado, bacon, and broccoli ice cream.  Sure, 1970's Deja Vu is a pretty good album, but I'd rather listen to Young's After the Gold Rush, (released in the same year) every time, if given the chance.

There are few groups this side of Rush who sing such daft lyrics with such unabashed conviction.  Over forty years on, a song called "Woodstock" with a refrain of "we are stardust/ we are golden/ and we've got to get ourselves/ back to the garden" seems more like a joke than a generational call to arms.  (In CSNY's defense, this song was written by Joni Mitchell, not them.)  These words seem positively level-headed compared to the David Crosby-penned "Almost Cut My Hair."  Growing up I knew a lot more about the man's epic substance abuse problems than his music, and a little of that drug casualty spirit is present in this song, which is an uproariously funny counterculture paranoid fantasy where Crosby declares "I feel like letting my freak flag fly."  That's not my favorite line of flower power doggerel, either.  Every time he says his paranoia is like "looking in the mirror/ and seeing a police car" I have a hard time not laughing audibly.

Hearing wealthy rock stars lament how hard it is to turn rebellion into money, as The Clash once said, is pretty damn chuckle worthy.  That being said, I can't stop going back to this song.  Like a prehistoric fly caught in amber, it preserves a particularly detailed relic of an interesting and increasingly incomprehensible past.  It's also one of the few times on a CSNY record that Stills and Young cut loose with their guitars with the same abandon that they showed on Buffalo Springfield chestnuts like "Mr. Soul."  With a little more dueling electric mayhem and a little less woodsy harmonizing they could've been a much cooler band.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Letter to a Prospective Grad Student

Editor's note: I recently heard from one of my favorite students from my days as a university professor.  He had performed brilliantly in our classes together, possessed an amazing depth of knowledge, and really seemed to live for studying history.  He's spent a couple of years knocking around Austin, Texas, but let me know that he wants me to write letters of recommendation for grad school.  I had discussed the issue with him before, and warned him as much as I could about the dangers involved, hoping that he would heed my warnings.  I will write recs for him but I might have to send him this letter first.


Come next year you will likely be off to graduate school, filled with the hope that you too someday might be able to emulate the professors you admire so much today. Although you won't want to hear it, you should know that the chances of that happening are pretty small. It's not that you're not intelligent and hard working, but that you have decided to embark on a journey akin to the trials of Hercules and to set yourself against unbelievable odds. The country is littered with the broken dreams of grads and even PhDs who gave it their all and still couldn't make it.

In the coming years there will be more hoops to jump though than you can possibly imagine. You will have to prove yourself in your seminars, you will have to convince your advisor that you are worth her/his attention, you will have to pass comprehensive exams, and you will need to research and write a book-length dissertation. At each step the herd will be culled mercilessly. The majority of your peers coming into graduate school with you will not make it to the doctorate. A sizable percentage of those who earn the doctorate will not find tenure-track jobs, even after years of trying. Many of those who attain tenure track jobs will have to take employment in undesirable locations and/or with ridiculously heavy workloads. Your chances of having exactly the kind of position you envision having are almost non-existent.  Certainly I know a couple of lucky people who have managed to do it, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Obviously, the increasingly grim realities of the humanities in the 21st century have not dissuaded you, so I might as well give you some tips to succeed. In the first place, you should know that ability and talent will only get you so far. If you are attending a second (or third) tier institution, or you are at a first tier institution with a no-name advisor, good luck, because you are going to need it. It's not impossible to succeed under these circumstances, but you will have to work at least twice as hard as people with the right person writing their letters of recommendation and the right institution behind their name. Trust me, I've seen deserving people struggle mightily for jobs after publishing in top journals, and I've seen others with barely half written dissertations get jobs straight out of grad school based on their advisor's name.

Go to a second-tier school for your MA if you must, but use that as a jumping off point for something better. You cannot let geography be an obstacle, no matter how much you might want to stay near where you're from. (For some reason Texans are loathe to leave the state to study elsewhere.)  If you don't get into a top PhD program, seriously think about giving up grad school unless you need the degree for a non-academic career. Otherwise you're wasting your time making yourself overqualified. I know judging people based on the schools they attend is stupid and shallow, but unfortunately, that's how things are done in this profession.  You will competing against people who have been groomed since early childhood in the "best" schools who will look down at your second-tier state university undergrad degree even though you are incredibly intelligent and full of other commendable qualities.  

You will also need to take great care with your research topic. Although I used to resist this imperative, I've come to accept the fact that certain topics are "hot" or "trendy" for good reason. You might have your heart set on writing a new diplomatic history of the Peace of Westphalia, but no one will hire you with a topic like that, and presses and journals will not publish your work. Of course, your topic should interest you, but it MUST be something relevant to the currents of contemporary scholarship.  If it's not, you are wasting your time and setting yourself up for years of frustration and heartbreak.

Think about publishing from day one. Anyone who says grads shouldn't worry about publications is stuck in the past. Also be aware of the fact that WHERE you publish matters a whole lot more than how much you publish. One article in a top journal is worth ten articles in obscure journals.

Last and most importantly, be aware that you may do all of these things and still not reach your goal. All of this might sound a wee bit pessimisstic, and it is. It's dearly bought pessimism, based on years of hard experience that I've had. Just keep in mind that academia is not the end all be all, and if you decide to do something else with your life, that doesn't make you a failure. In fact, it might make you a whole lot smarter and saner than someone like me, who took way too long to figure that out.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Some Suggestions for Improving Baseball's All Star Game

Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, and Reggie Jackson after the epic 1971 Midsummer Classic

For a long time, major league baseball had the best all-star game of any of the professional sports.  Much of this had to do with the distinctiveness of the American and National Leagues, and the fact that apart from the World Series, players from these leagues never got to play each other.  As a young baseball game in the 1980s, I lived to see the likes of Dwight Gooden pitching to Don Mattingley, and rooted hard for the National League.  (Although I was then a Royals fan and am now a White Sox fan, I feel that the National League plays a subtler and more sophisticated version of the game.)  The coming of inter-league play in the 1990s blunted the excitement of the All-Star Game, since fans got to see the best players from each league play each other on a regular basis.  Those games were pretty exciting back then, but today even the Cubs-Sox inter-league matches have become just another set of games.  And that's one of the more compelling match ups; are baseball fans really itching to see the Mariners take on the Padres or the Astros play the Blue Jays?

Just as the enchantment of a game bringing the leagues together has faded, players seem to take the All-Star Game less seriously.  In recent years there have been many high-profile cases of players who aren't even really injured sitting the game (and the home run derby) out.  This is quite a turn of events.  As a child I never could have imagined the "Midsummer Classic" turn into the baseball equivalent of an unpopular boss's wedding shower.

As the father of two newly born children, I want them to grow up in a better world.  As part of that, wouldn't it be nice if the baseball all-star game was great again?  In that spirit, here are a few suggestions that I know will never be undertaken because baseball is run by the kind of hidebound squareheads who make the Catholic church's hierarchy look positively forward-looking.  At least I can dream.

End practice of including a player from each team
The whole point of an "all star" team is that all of its players ought to be, for lack of a better word, "stars."  Major league baseball, however, has mandated that each team be represented, which often means that many of the players are not stars, but merely above average, if that.  I guess the rationale for this policy is to attract viewers from all of the teams' fan bases, but the results are often patently ridiculous, and make a mockery of the game as an "all star" game.  Back in 2003, the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates sent their closer Mike Williams, who up to that point in the season had compiled a 6.44 ERA, which was not just below average, but abysmal.  Were Pirates fans really not going to tune in if Williams didn't play?  I also feel that players would take the game more seriously and see it as more of an honor if it was harder to get in.  To wit:

Limit the rosters to 27 players
This will make the all-star teams more exclusive and more "star" like, and will also make them more like real baseball teams playing a real baseball game.  The current rosters have ballooned to 33 players, which is just ridiculous.  I do like the recent innovation that the fans get to choose the last player in an online poll, and I would recommend letting them choose the 27th player on the roster.  However, I think it would be great for the players to have a voice in all-star selection, and they should get to vote on the 26th player.

Let the managers manage
There has been a recent tendency in the All-Star Game to give every player on both teams a chance to enter the game, which makes the games feel especially artificial and ridiculous, and the managers responsible less for winning and more for making sure everyone gets their turn.  This tendency led to the infamous 2002 game that ended in a tie when the teams ran out of players in extra innings.  Managers should not feel the need to put all the players in, but manage like a real manager and use the players accordingly.  Would a manager in a real game send in Billy Butler to bat for Prince Fielder?  (No offense to Butler, who's having a solid season for both the Royals and one of my fantasy teams.)  Do fans want to see that?  They want to see the best players in the game in a true competition with each other.  Making the all-star game for like a real game will make it more exciting for all involved.

Stop using the all-star game result to determine home field advantage in the World Series
Recently, in an effort to draw more fan attention, the MLB tried to make the all-star game "count" by using the winner to determine which league's representative gets home field advantage in the World Series.  (In previous years, it had just rotated back and forth.)  This move insultingly suggested that the game did not "count" before, and still makes home field advantage just as arbitrary as it was before.  (The all-star game used to count for a lot. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the American League was slower to integrate than the National League, the black NL players gunned to embarrass the American League, which they did on multiple occasions.  In 1970, Peter Rose risked injury by crashing hard into Ray Fosse at the plate.)   Based on the number of players bowing out of the game recently, the new "making the game count" wrinkle does not appear to have made it more competitive.  Scrap the whole thing, and shift home field advantage to the league whose teams performed best in inter-league play.  That will better reflect the strength of each league, make them more competitive against each other, and perhaps even add a little drama to those dreadful Mariners-Astros games.

Change the all-star break
A lot can be done to sculpt the days around the All-Star Game to make it more interesting and meaningful.  The NBA has done a great job of creating a whole weekend around their game, which is often the least meaningful component.  The MLB should add some things, and cut some others.  In the first place, the home run derby the day before ought to be eliminated, as many players already decline to participate, and it celebrates the narrow, power-focused version of baseball that reigned in the Steroid Era that must finally be consigned to the past.  Instead, the first round of the baseball draft should be held during the All Star break, which would generate more buzz around both the draft and the game.  I think there should also be an extra day added onto the break, giving participants an extra day of rest, which will encourage pitchers to participate more fully.  For that reason, the free day should come after the game.

Make the TV coverage more appealing
The All-Star Game ought to be a showcase for baseball, but it often takes so much time getting to the game that many at home switch channels rather than stick with it.  The pre-game hoopla seems to last forever, and extends the game past the bedtimes of younger viewers, baseball's future fan base.  Having smaller roster sizes with fewer players to announce will help with this, at least.  The first pitch must be thrown before 8Pm Eastern Time at the very latest.  Another issue is the fact that the game is on Fox, and is thus called by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, perhaps the most excruciating announcing team in all of sports.  McCarver has become even crustier and crankier over the years, and Buck's nonchalance can drain the excitement out of any major sporting event.  I watch a lot of games on, and I have been happily surprised at the high quality of local baseball announcers across the board.  Any random team's hometown crew would be better than Buck and McCarver, but I would nominate a crew of Vin Scully and Steve Stone to handle the All-Star Game.

Friday, July 6, 2012

An Independence Day to Remember

On July 4th my wife and I decided to take it easy this year, mostly because she was pregnant with twins and the high temperatures were especially uncomfortable and dangerous for her.  We spent the afternoon at her parents' house, swimming in the pool and eating her dad's always delectable grilled hamburgers.  We got home in the late afternoon, and I went over to our co-op's pick up spot in the neighborhood to get our week's share of farm-fresh veggies, and shot the bull with a couple of people I knew there.  When I got home I cooked dinner while my wife rested, and right at the moment where I put the food on the table, she told me her water broke.

Needless to say, we had to leave dinner on the table, but I did manage to cram about half of it down my throat in about half a minute's time because I knew that I would not be getting a full meal for quite some time.  I drove to the hospital in a determined and nervous fashion, worried and excited in ways I'd never felt before.  We got there at seven, and finally, at about 11:30, the c-section was done and I welcomed my twin girls into the world only briefly before they were taken to the NICU (neo-natal intensive care unit, for those of you who don't know.)

It was fast and unexpected, since the official due date was a month off.  I must admit I felt a little helpless and purposeless at first, since my wife was laid up in bed attached to an IV and catheter, and my daughters were in incubators.  We had to wait for over nine hours in the post-op room after the birth before being moved to a regular room because of my wife's high blood pressure, which is now thankfully falling.  I got maybe three hours of sleep (I had to make do with a recliner), and spent the next day in a walking-dead like daze, introducing my babies to my in-laws before collapsing in a heap in the chair next to my wife's hospital bed.  She sent me home to sleep last night, and by the time I showed up this morning, she was able to walk around and I was human again.

Today I finally got to hold my daughters, which has been the thrill of my life.  One of them spat up all over my hands after I fed her, and I just laughed giddily.  They might be in the NICU for another week, it's been hard to be separated from them all this time.  I've kept my hospital bracelets wrapped around my wrist as a way to have them near me when I can't be there.  I can't wait to get up tomorrow and hold them again.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Classic Albums: Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner

This week the fact that I am about to become a father, and that my life will soon never be the same again, hit me with the full force of reality.  I feel ready for it, since my rough and rowdy days are behind me, but last night, as I put the finishing touches on transforming my office into a nursery, I sipped from a glass of wine while listening to Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner, just for old time's sake.

I may be settled down now with a wonderful wife and a secure job, but that's only been a rather recent development.  About this time six years ago I moved from Illinois, where I studied for my PhD, to western Michigan for a temporary "visiting" professor gig.  Soon after I moved I broke up with my longtime girlfriend, and while I eventually made some close and dear friends, the first few months up there were rough.  I spent a lot of time alone, and a lot more of that time alone than I should have hanging out in bars or drinking alone in my apartment.  About the same time I got into Tom Waits, and the album that set his hooks into me was Nighthawks at the Diner.

That might sound like an odd choice, but for all my avant-garde pretensions, I'd always had a hard time digesting the more challenging work he released after Heart Attack and Vine.  (Luckily, I got over it.)  On the other hand, I loved his sense of humor from the get-go, and Nighthawks might be one of the funniest non-comedy albums of all time.  (The intro where he talks about taking himself out on a date still gets me howling with laughter.)  Although it's meant to sound like a live album recorded at a club, Waits cut the record in the studio, which had been turned into an ersatz club, with some of his friends forming the audience.

As a lonely, romantic and bar-hopping young man looking for the "heart of saturday night," I saw a lot of myself in his boozehound-jazzbo persona of the 1970s.  During that period in the autumn of 2006 before I made my fateful January flight out to New Jersey to visit my now wife (we'd met the previous summer in a neutral location but hadn't yet become romantically involved), I lamented my single status and lack of a permanent job, and wondered whether I'd end up being a broken-down sad bohemian drunk like a character in a Tom Waits song.

Sometimes I felt like embracing that eventuality, especially when I listened to my favorite song on the album, "Better Off Without a Wife."  Before this song Waits spins a tale of taking himself out for a date at a "class joint" like Burrito King, and how much he gets along with himself as a partner.  (This monologue also contains one of the funniest bits about masturbation I've ever heard.)  He proudly declares his singlehood, bragging that he can "sleep until the crack of noon" and that he "don't have to ask permission if I want to go out fishin'."  Of course, there's a little melancholy beneath the song, as he's not sure if he really does prefer the single life after all, or whether he's just trying to convince himself of the fact.  After all, the first words are "all my friends are married," implying that his status makes him more than a little lonely.

In addition to spending lots of time in bars in those days, I also frequented the many diners I was lucky to have in my neighborhood.  It's only been in the last couple of years that I have been able to better manage my addiction to diner food, which I must say is especially hard to do here in New Jersey.  Like bars, these eating establishments were places where I could socialize with the strangers and staff, and feel a little less alone.  On this album, as the title would attest, Waits gives a hilarious monologue about eating at some less than savory diners where his veal cutlet jumped up on the counter and "tried to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee, but my cup of coffee wasn't strong enough to defend itself."  The following song, "Eggs and Sausage" beautifully describes the cheap pleasure of a late night diner meal. God knows I've have a few in my life.

During my months of loneliness I was, to quote the old song, looking for love in all the wrong places.  Who knew that great women don't hang around in dive bars to talk to drunken depressives?  No song better gets to the heart of that problem than the aptly named "Warm Beer and Cold Women."  Although  Waits later disowned his jazzy lounge style, I would hope that he's still proud of this song, which kept me company on many a long and lonely night.

In the end I never turned into a Tom Waits character, I was saved by the love of a wonderful woman and liberation from the vagaries of working in the academic field, which are enough to drive anyone to drink.  Even though I no longer gather dust at the corner bar and finish off my evenings with a chili dog at the local diner, I can still listen to these songs with the appreciation that they helped get me through some pretty tough times.  Hell, they're sweet sounding enough that I might just end up playing them while rocking some babies to sleep.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chris Christie's New Jersey Hustle

Back when I lived in Texas and my wife was up here in New Jersey, I often asked myself which governor I disliked more, Rick Perry or Chris Christie.  Although Perry's political actions might be more destructive, it's been made plainly obvious that he is, to use the technical term, a goddamned moron.  Christie, however, is a smart guy, and while the American public outside of Texas (even in the Republican Party) thinks Perry is a dope, Christie has taken on superstar status.  When I last visited my Nebraska homeland my relatives, apropos nothing, had lots of good words to say for him.  I had to remind them that my wife is a public high school teacher, and that we didn't really care for a man who has harmed our livelihood and turned teachers into scapegoats.

Both Perry and Christie prosper because they appeal to the worst tendencies of their state's cultures.  Perry embodies the thick-headed, religiously fanatical, violence prone, anti-modern hateful undercurrents in Texas culture, whereas Christie, who's "tough talk" amounts to douchebaggery, represents the Garden State's relative tolerance and celebration of (white) men who act like complete assholes.  Just as Perry could never get elected outside of Texas, a guy like Christie wouldn't last in my home state of Nebraska, where people expect politicians to act with civility and a lack of negativity.  However, conservatives there are more than happy to see their id being unleashed in another state.

If you look at Christie's behavior in public, it is amazing that it is being celebrated rather than excoriated.  Case in point: yesterday he was visiting storm-damaged sites in southern New Jersey, and told reporters that he only wanted to hear questions on the storm relief, not on other issues, such as the budget.  When a reporter dared to ask him a question about whether he was going to call an emergency legislative session, Christie asked the reporter "are you stupid?" called him "an idiot" and then stormed away from the news conference.  This fits in with a tendency on his part to call names and humiliate those who oppose him.  Last week he called the Democrat who heads the Senate Budget Committee an "arrogant SOB."  He also likes to have town hall meetings where he calls those who oppose him "idiots" and have them booted out, even if they are former Navy SEALs.

You can contrast this with president Obama, who was actually interrupted in the middle of a statement by a reporter who acted in an unprecedentedly rude fashion, but managed to finish the event and upbraid the reporter without resorting to name-calling or temper tantrums.  Of course, as a black man, the president would have been crucified, rather than being called "tough."  Christie is a schoolyard bully let loose in the political arena, and the news media love it so much they are like the toadies egging the bully on as he beats on other kids.  As is usually the case in bullying and mobbing situations, those who want to say something are cowed into silence lest they get targeted by the bully and his mob.  

In my case, this is personal.  When he targets my wife and her hard-working colleagues, I get positively steaming mad.  I could cite any number of instances where he has attacked teachers and insulted them, but I will refer to one of the more outlandish.  Two years ago, in the midst of local school elections, Christie accused teachers of indoctrinating students and using them as "drug mules" to pass information on to their parents to tell them how to vote.  I have been bullied a few times in my life, both as a child and as an adult, and I will be damned if I will allow it to happen again to me or another member of my family.  I have never canvassed for a political campaign in my life, but I will volunteer for whoever runs against Christie.

Christie isn't just a bully, he's a hustler.  He came into office claiming to reduce corruption, close the budget deficit, and grow the economy, but contrary to what you may have heard on Fox News, Christie has been a tremendous failure in fulfilling these promises.  Here are a few examples:

So please, American news media, stop fluffing Chris Christie, and start asking some hard questions.