Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Many Frustrations and Small Pleasures of Commuting Through Penn Station

This week my job began again after the summer break, so I have been making my morning rail commute from Newark to New York City after a long hiatus.  This means the twice daily slog through Penn Station, a place I have grown to know intimately, and to dislike with the intensity that only familiarity can understand.  

It is a perpetually busy place, the most patronized train station in the United States, servicing hundreds of thousands of passengers every day.  You wouldn't know such a thing approaching it on foot in midtown Manhattan, since the station sits underneath Madison Square Garden, like an afterthought.  The original Penn Station, built around a century ago, was a grandiose, gorgeous marble colossus, a kind of pilgrimage cathedral for those coming into New York City for the first time.  In one of the most heinous crimes against taste and historical architecture every committed, the station was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for the current multi-use site, the kind of postwar all-purpose space that manages to do several things wrong at the same time.

In the main Amtrak area they have put up photographs of the old station (like the one above) in all of its glory, which mock the modern-day traveler and commuter, surrounded as s/he is by the functionalist dystopia of the current station.

Today the most important train station in the nation's biggest city is effectively Madison Square Garden's basement.  Like a lot of basements, it's grungy and lacking in charm.  It's also laid out in a highly haphazard fashion, which I learned the hard way, since I have to get from one station to the other in order to transfer from my train from New Jersey onto the 123 subway line.  The most obvious path from one to the other is the main promenade, which is usually so crowded that it takes forever to fight through the masses on my way to the subway.  (More on the promenade in a second.)  I tried to find a different path, and soon discovered that I could avoid the crowds by winding my way through low-ceilinged corridors that run through past the Long Island Railroad terminals.  There's lots of exposed pipe and air conditioning vents with a fearsome amount of lint waving from them.  The floors in these pathways look like they haven't been cleaned since the Ford administration.  I have seen dried puke so old it was calcified on more than one occasion.  In the winter time homeless people bed down on these same floors, and I often have to be careful not to step on them.

However, once I finally complete the journey to other end of the station, I do at least get to see some surreal sites.  Sitting right next to the subway turnstiles is a fancy raw bar in what must be the most incongruous location possible.  I have long wanted to have a meal there, wondering who else would stop for fancy dining at the end of a dingy corridor that most of the shlubs who use Penn Station are unaware of.  Also, standing right there, are people hawking the local free papers (Morning Metro and AM New York), which are mostly made up of advertisements for things like treatments for vericose veins.

As much as I dislike my slog through Penn Station, I felt a little sad this morning because the guy usually handing out AM New York wasn't there today.  I loved seeing him because he really went after his job with gusto, bellowing out "AM New York, read all about it, AM New York!" in a tough Noo Yawk accent that made his words sound almost like a threat.  I don't know if he got paid extra for handing out a higher number of papers, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was the best selling vender in the city.  Hopefully he's found better employment, or gets to hawk papers in a spot with more air and light.

When I come back to Penn Station after work, I play a little game I call "Subway Olympics." I try to position myself so that I jump on the right car where I get on at 72nd street, and find a spot by the door so that when it opens I jump out first and am within steps of the stairs leading down off of the platform.  I then dash down the stairs as fast as I can, take a sharp left turn, and jet through the turnstiles like a runner hitting the finish line.  Others seem to have the same idea, I've only won gold a handful of times.

When I go home at the end of the day I usually just walk down the main tunnel of the station to the New Jersey Transit terminal, rather than negotiating the corridors, which are much more crowded in the late afternoon, making them unbearably stuffy.  Right where I get off the subway there are usually musicians playing with amps, and often surprisingly poorly for having the best busking location in the city.  I also must dodge oncoming commuters, get around slow-moving tourists, and generally hustle in order to get to my train on time.  As I do, I pass through one of the more surreal shopping and dining experiences this world has to offer.  There are several little bakeries, one of which actually sells some tasty empanadas (I was really hungry late at night one time.)  There are all manner of convenience stores, many of which have big tubs of ice out front spilling over with tall boy cans of beer.  When I look closely at my fellow passengers on a commuter train home, I will see a few of them discreetly sipping these from brown bags.

Amidst the smaller stores sits a K Mart, just the retailer you'd expect to find in a dingy underground train station.  There's also the usual and unusual fast food.  You can grab grub at McDonald's and KFC, of course, but also Nathan's Hot Dogs and Tim Horton's.  (The latter is a personal favorite of mine from my trips to Canada.)  All that food attracts more than people, of course.  I'll never forget seeing a dead rat splayed out on the steps leading from the Amtrak terminal to the main tunnel, right around the corner from the Auntie Ann's where I sometimes grab a pretzel for the ride home.

In a few weeks, once I make the commute more regularly again, I'm sure my eyes will get less sharp and my senses numb.  I might not see the dried vomit, dead rats, and brown bags anymore.  I won't smell the stale sweat of tightly packed human bodies, or the sweet scent of fresh croissants, either.  That blase insensitivity is the price Manhattan extracts for the exhilaration of its endless spectacle.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Playlist: Reagan-era Protest Music

One of my favorite songs of the moment is the devastating "Reagan" by Atlanta MC Killer Mike.  It's a searing indictment of the Gipper that ends with the words "I'm glad Reagan's dead," but it also touches on the War on Drugs, the moral emptiness of gangsta rap, and calls out Bush, Clinton, and even Obama along with Reagan for lying to the public and abusing American power abroad.  Listening to it has gotten me thinking about the critical music from Reagan's own time.  Many of these songs were part of my own political awakening, which finally broke through around 1991 (a year I tend to think of as the end to the spiritual 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.)

Grandmaster Flash, "The Message"
Hip-hop and punk rock, born in the 1970s, were the most cogent source of musical protest in the 1980s.  No early hip-hop track has the power of "The Message," which doesn't directly mention Reagan, but certainly details the consequences of the neglect bourn of contempt that his administration had for the black and brown urban poor.

Black Flag, "TV Party"
On the punk rock side, Black Flag were the Johnny Appleseeds of the 80s underground, touring the nation and inspiring DIY punk rockers in their wake.  This hilarious satire of the time's consumerism and apathy still cracks me up.

The Minutemen, "This Ain't No Picnic"
Speaking of DIY, in the glamour-obsessed hairspray decade, one could do nothing more rebellious than  living in a tour van playing for gas money at shows where you set up your own equipment.  The Minutemen were the real deal, and in the inspired video for "This Ain't No Picnic," old footage of a war film starring the Gipper himself is used to show him trying to snuff out these dissidents.

REM, "Welcome to the Occupation"
In the late 1980s, Michael Stipe stopped mumbling so much and started salting his lyrics with tart political references.  1987's Document would give REM mainstream success, but it was ironically their most political album yet.  This song referenced the American government's meddling in Central America and the war crimes of its clients.  Of all of their explicitly topical songs of this period, it's my favorite.

Neil Young, "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World"
Though technically a comment about the election of George HW Bush with lyrics like "we've got a thousand points of light for the homeless man/ we've got a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand" it savages the horrific social consequences of Reagan's policies as well.  The title and chorus are a big Bronx cheer to the self-congratulation over "winning" the Cold War at a time when homelessness was skyrocketing.

Public Enemy, "Fight the Power"
Of all the songs here, this one really meant the most to me at the time.  Just about the point when I began to question the Republican beliefs of my family I began to delve into rap music with the help of episodes of "Yo! MTV Raps" after school.  This song really knocked me upside the head with a perspective I'd never really had before.  (You mean John Wayne is one of the bad guys?)  To bring things full circle, this is the kind of hip-hop that Killer Mike derives his inspiration from, and for good reason.

Boosty Collins and Jerry Harrison, "Five Minutes"
Back in 1984 Reagan made a "joke" at a radio taping where he spoke into the mic and said "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you that I've just signed legislation outlawing Russia forever.  Bombing begins in five minutes."  Unbeknownst to him, the mic was live.  The fact that he was willing to be so non-chalant about nuclear war when tensions with the USSR were running is pretty damn scary.  Funk legend Bootsy Collins and Talking Head Jerry Harrison thought so too, and under the moniker Bonzo Goes to Washington took Reagan's quip and turned it into a song.  It sounds pretty dated today, but even so, it ought to be a riposte to the brigades of Reagan worshippers today who want to turn him into a demigod, and erase the memory of those who opposed him.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Academia's Capitalism Problem

Today I was lucky enough to spend some time with two of my former comrades from graduate school, and it's got the academic world on my mind again.  Recently there has been a great deal of public debate and much rhetorical wind spent on the issue of higher education, much of it rather overblown and fatuous. Those who believe technology is a panacea have been raving about MOCCs and the ability to have thousands of students connected by the internet taking the same class online, as if that were a path to real learning.  Others ask whether college is necessary, Academically Adrift has questioned the effectiveness of higher learning, and many politicians have started intervening in their state-level university systems. In Texas, a state I was thankfully able to escape, governor Rick Perry has been pushing a plan where professors are rated on how much money they generate. (Sadly, I am not joking.) Essentially, he wants state universities to make the bottom line the bottom line, like any other corporation.

This might sound extreme, but compared to the current state of academia, it is a difference of degree rather than kind. More and more, universities operate like businesses, with all of the negative consequences that implies. Students have become customers: passive consumers who expect a product in return for their money without actually devoting themselves to learning. Faculty labor, like labor elsewhere in the neo-liberal globalist economy, has become insecure, poorly compensated, and disposable in the form of the adjunct system. Universities spend tons of money on advertizing and bells and whistles like luxury dorms, recreation facilities, and sports teams intended not to improve education, but to bring in more customers. Upper-level administrators, like their compatriots in the corporate world, have rewarded themselves with ridiculously large salaries, even when they fail.  Now they can look over the world of online, for-profit education, where faculty have almost zero input and executives rake in the big bucks.  From what I hear from my contacts still in the academic world, administrators have been aping these trends rather than resisting them.  Universities that are not elite private schools or state flagships are increasingly engaging in a race to the bottom where their "peer institution" has become the University of Phoenix.

When people like Perry and others talk about "accountability" they are doubling-down on neo-liberal capitalism. Ironically, these greater regulations of universities are coming at a time when public colleges get less of their money than ever from tax dollars. Starving them of revenue has jacked up tuition, allowing the politicians to then complain that students aren't getting their money's worth.  Privately-owned schools have stepped into breech, as community colleges and other state institutions can no longer keep up with demand in the face of austerity.

Basically, the problems I laid out earlier are only going to get worse. Some of it has to do with the economic and political mood, which has led many politicians to villainize public workers as the root of all evil. The other is the lack of a true opposition. Contingent faculty members are so oppressed and so transitory at their institutions that they have almost zero public voice in most universities. Untenured tenure-track faculty are told that if they don't STFU, they will lose out on tenure, making them reticent to speak up. Tenured faculty are least affected by these changes, and hence do very little to protest them, even though they are the only portion of the faculty who are protected against reprisals. Against such feeble opposition, the administrative and political steamrollers cannot be stopped.  With competition from the for-profit sector looming large, traditional universities will enforce austerity and "efficiency" on their faculty until the pips squeak.

My only hope is that somehow faculty can come together with concerned students to oppose these trends. Remember, the customer is king.  Unfortunately, most students at non-elite schools approach their education with a vocational, quid pro quo mentality whereby they only want their degree with as little fuss as possible.  Hopefully the more thoughtful within their ranks can mobilize themselves to make a change.  Needless to say, I am not too confident that will happen.

Footnote: Judging scholars by how much money they generate is about the most asinine thing I've ever heard of. It would make as much sense as ranking artists on their income rather than their work. By the standard Perry wants to employ, the guy who first painted dogs playing poker is the greatest American artist of the twentieth century!

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Romney Campaign's Odd Embrace of James K. Polk

One of the strangest tendencies of conservatives in recent years has been to invoke names from the distant past of American history in order to justify retrograde policies in the present.  Often, as is the case with hacks like David Barton, these amateur historians engage in gross distortions of the historical record.  (Although progressives have a proud political past in this country, they seem less historically inclined.)  Just today I read that Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said that a Romney administration might be like that of James K. Polk, as if that was a good thing.    

For those of you who don't know, Polk served for only one term, from 1845 to 1849.  He did not run for a second, and died soon after leaving office.  In his one term he accomplished his primary goal, which was the expansion of American territory.  His presidency gave us the treaties with Great Britain giving the United States control over Oregon Territory, the annexation of Texas, and consequently war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848 that added California and the Southwest to the United States.  Rhoades compared the boldness of Polk's expansionism to the boldness of the Romney-Ryan plan to gut ("reform") the social safety net.

I tend to think that people in this country either view American history from a nationalist or a humanist perspective.  From a nationalist point of view, Polk might look pretty admirable.  He drastically expanded American territory, including some of the most economically important regions of the country today.  However, from a humanist standpoint, Polk looks more like an unscrupulous, blood-thirsty extremist whose rash actions did horrific damage.

First, let's take the annexation of Texas.  Contrary to Texan mythology, once the Republic of Texas broke away from Mexico in 1835, it did not really want independence, but to join the United States.  This was opposed by many in Congress, because Texas was a slave-holding state, and bringing in Texas would greatly expand territory where slavery held sway.  (Mexico had banned slavery after its independence, and one important reason for the Texan independence movement was to preserve slavery, something many Texans are loathe to admit today.)  There was also the question of whether annexing Texas would bring about war with Mexico, which claimed the land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces, also claimed by the Texans.  Polk pushed the addition of Texas to the union, accomplished in 1845.

He sent representatives to the Mexican government to purchase California and New Mexico, but could not get an agreement.  Instead of respecting Mexican sovereignty, he sent a military force under Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande, in what Mexico considered its territory.  He did this in order to provoke a war, and this strategy proved successful.  The anticipated short war did not pan out, and it lasted a bloody two years because the Mexican people put up a stout resistance.  Although the number of American war dead was pretty small by the standard of later wars, this war did have the highest percentage loss of life among the troops of any military conflict in American history.  In the end Mexico had to surrender and agree to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which signed over the desired land for a much lower price than Polk had offered in peacetime.  There had been talk of taking all of Mexico, but racists like John C Calhoun warned against polluting the United States with brown-skinned Catholics.  His contemptuous attitude towards the Mexican people reflected larger feelings and had some pretty negative consequences.  In the aftermath of the war, the Hispanic inhabitants of this newly Americanized territory had their lands confiscated and found themselves turned into second-class citizens.

The war with Mexico was not a necessary conflict, but a war of aggression and naked conquest on the part of the United States.  This begs the question of why Polk was so keen to expand American territory.  There were the usual nationalistic reasons, of course, but Polk was especially concerned with creating new territory for slavery.  The Missouri Compromise had limited the land available for slave states, something Southerners feared would eventually leave them outnumbered in their desire to preserve the "peculiar institution."  For that reason, he had attempted to negotiate with Spain over the sale of Cuba before talks fell through.

Many great American at the time were fully aware that Polk had intended to expand slavery, and had instigated a war to do so and then tried to cover up his machinations with lies.  Serving his only term in Congress, a young Abraham Lincoln denounced the war's illegality and assailed Polk for intentionally misleading the American public.  Henry David Thoureau went to jail after refusing to pay his taxes in support of a war for slavery.  After years of acquiescing to the "gag rule" in Congress that immediately tabled any petitions related to slavery, Northern politicians like David Wilmot put the issue on the table by demanding that slavery not be expanded into the newly acquired territory.  The fierce dispute over the expansion of slavery is what eventually brought about the Civil War.  No matter what Matt Rhoades and other conservatives might believe, I don't think that the glories of Manifest Destiny can wash the blood off of Polk's hands.

The Romney campaign's emulation of Polk reveals a lot.  He and his crew don't seem to be a very reflective bunch, and so might not even be aware of the realities of Polk's policies.  Furthermore, Mitt is so power-hungry that he will say practically anything to get elected, and strikes me as the kind of person totally willing to lie to the American public to get what he wants, much like Polk.  Just as Polk pushed American expansion in the interests of the Slave Power, Romney cares most about his friends in the corporate world, who are showering him with millions of dollars.  Come to think of it, Mitt just might have found his perfect role model.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The GOP's Devil's Bargain with the Tea Party

The recent Todd "legitimate rape" Akin debacle is just another episode in the continuing saga of the Tea Party getting its candidates nominations for important races, only to have them embarrass the Republican Party.  In 2010 there was Sharon "pay for health care with a chicken" Angle, Christine "I am not a witch" McDonnell, and Carl Paladino (who was so ridiculous that I can't use a singe phrase to define him.)  This year we have Akin and Ted "the UN wants your golf course" Cruz with Senate nominations, and Rick "man on dog" Santorum took second place in the presidential primaries.  Many of the Tea Party candidates who did win, like Florida governor Rick Scott and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, have alienated their constituencies with their radical conservative policies.

As much as this stuff hurts the Republican brand, there's no going back with their pact with the Tea Party.  The party establishment needs the support of enthusiastic foot soldiers, and in return must tolerate their extremity and nuttiness.  The Republicans might lose a couple of races they should have won due to the likes of Akin, but they will have die-hard conservatives in other positions that may have been held by moderate Republicans.  In a narrowly divided electorate such as ours, it is smart strategy to abandon appeals to the middle in favor of turning out one's base to the polls, especially if you can use the law to limit the turnout of your opponents.

Without the Tea Party, the Republicans would be in some seriously deep shit right now.  The Bush administration was such a complete catastrophe that even Republicans could not deny it.  After the election of 2008, the Democrats controlled the House and Senate by wide margins, and put the first real liberal since LBJ into the White House by a comfortable margin.  The old party leadership looked completely lost and rudderless.  Instead of trying to work within this situation, conservatives obstructed every Democratic initiative that they could and whipped their masses into a frenzy.  Aided by a cruddy economy and a young president who had not yet learned how to fight fire with fire, they stormed back into power and managed to pass extreme measures at the state level that they could not have dreamed of accomplishing even in the Bush years.

So far the alliance with the Tea Party has not sunk the GOP because most independent voters still view it as a center-right party and legitimate alternative.  In 2010 many voters in the middle went to the polls and told themselves "the economy's still bad, let's see if the Republicans can do better."  The Tea Party-GOP pact might ultimately destroy the Republicans if voters no longer see the party as a center-right alternative, but a faction of crazed wingnut wackos who hate homosexuals, want to control women, impose evangelical Christianity, and rip the social safety net to shreds in the process of redistributing money upwards to the wealthy.  A look at the Republican Party platform would go a long way to confirm this view, and it would behoove Democrats to point that out.

Like all such gambling strategies, the GOP's embrace of the Tea Party will lead to either political glory or political disaster.  In the glorious scenario, the conservative base will come out to vote in droves and will squeak Romney into the White House while securing both houses of Congress and several state houses.  The House and Senate will be full of conservative ideologues willing to push the right-wing agenda forward at all costs.  On the flip side, the extremity of the Tea Party could mean a further hemhorraging of the votes of women, people of color, and independents to the point where the Republicans only hold power in what they call "Real America."  I can only hope that the latter scenario comes about.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Toto, "Rosanna"

Back in the olden days when the wooly mammoths walked the earth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were many very successful rock groups whose use of abstract symbols on their album covers spoke of their anonymity.  Journey, Styx, Kansas, Asia and the like lacked charismatic, Jagger-like frontmen, and preferred muso chops to the kind of raw feeling spewing forth from the punk scene at the time.

No band better exemplified this brand of highly competent corporate rock than Toto, a group made up of relatively faceless LA studio musicians.  Casual music fans would know their songs, but yet would be hard-pressed to name any member of the band.  Their magnum opus came in the form of 1982's "Rosanna."

Most pop music is completely dynamically flat, with few ups and downs.  However, "Rosanna" bursts with drama, from the building up to the majestic horns that announce the "meet you all the way" chorus to the dropping out of all the instruments so that the only thing the listener hears is singer Steve Porcaro's mezzo piano voice and fingers snapping.  Throw in the most gratuitous synthesizer solo ever to grace the Top 40 balanced by some truly righteous guitar shredding, and you have a range of sounds worthy of a symphony orchestra.

And what a video to go with it!  There's a ballerina twirling amidst faux urban decay, sharks vs. jets choreographed gang fighting featuring a young Patrick Swayze, and more bad 80s aviator sunglasses than you can shake a stick at.  All in all, it's pretty damn impressive for a tune merely intended to woo Rosanna Arquette.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Apropos Elvis Death Week

I've been interested in the decline and death of Elvis Presley from a young age, mostly since it first presented the seeming paradox that a person rich and famous could also be lonely and miserable (now that I'm older that seems less mysterious.) Each August during Elvis Week (which is really Elvis Death Week, since it falls on the anniversary of his passing), my mind wanders to his untimely demise.   It's less out of respect or worship than a purely morbid fascination with the fall of a once god-like man.

When I do contemplate Elvis' fate I often check out clips from his last live performances in 1977.  When watching them I have been struck both by his starkly noticable decline, as well has his flashes of determination. For instance, he horribly flubs the lyrics "Are You Lonesome Tonight" in an apparent pill-popping haze, but also gives us a spirited, defiant rendition of "My Way." It is not pleasant to watch someone dying, especially a person who was once so vibrant and majestic. Then again, this is the way of all flesh, and I find his attempt to keep himself together in the face of the Reaper as inspiring as it is depressing.

The Glorious Naughtiness of Pre-Code Hollywood Films

My wife and I are both big lovers of classic Hollywood films, and over the last year we have been especially engrossed in the so-called "pre-Code" period of the early 1930s. At this time the Hays Code was on the books, but like Prohibition, another ridiculous restriction on personal behavior in the name of blue-nosed morality during that era, incompletely enforced. For some reason America dumped Prohibition, yet accepted stepped up enforcement of the Code in 1934.

Many pre-Code flicks dealt much more frankly with sexuality and violence than those that followed. For instance, Tarzan and Jane swam nude together! Musicals weren't sappy a la Rogers and Hammerstein, but saucy, a la Busby Berkely. Case in point: the "Pettin' in the Park" number from Gold Diggers of 1933. There's nothing like a ditty about illicit fornication in public places. Notice as well the teasing use of nude shadows.

In this film, as in others of the pre-Code era, female characters are often independent, sassy, and openly sexual. A fun example of a tough woman fighting a corrupt world is a young Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, where she takes on a pre-stardom, evil Clark Gable. It also starts with an innovative POV shot to boot.

The only truly good man in the film is a bootlegger who brings about a happy ending by killing the nurse's tormentor. Even more offensive to the Code, the film's plot opens up several opportunities for Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell to get down to their undies. Naughty!

The great Stanwyck really shines in Baby Face, playing the daughter of a cruel saloon-keeper father who prostitutes her to his patrons.  After he's killed when one of his whiskey stills explodes, she takes the opportunity to go seek her fortune in the big city.  She does so by getting office work through flirtation, and then uses her knowledge of the carnal arts to sleep her way to the top.  Absolutely filthy!  Not only that, at the end she manages to find love, and is thus not punished for her slatternly behavior, as such a character surely would after 1934.

Hey, and let's not forget the violence! According to the Code, crime could never pay, and criminals could not be shown in a positive light. This was rather important considering the context of the Depression and the fact that many folks got a great deal of satisfaction from bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger, who got revenge on the banks for them. Pre-Code gangsters were correspondingly charismatic and rough. Some of the violence was pretty shocking, even by today's jaded standards:

Finally, even though we consider ourselves more sophisticated these days, our current recession has yet to produce an indictment of the abandonment of the common people during hard times as moving as the finale from Gold Diggers of 1933. Watch it and and weep.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Party of Bad Ideas

Since Paul Ryan has entered the race as Mitt Romney's running mate, I've had to hear two long-standing tropes that just annoy the hell out of me.  The first casts Mr. Ryan as some kind of "thinker," "intellectual," and "ideas man."  The second posits that unlike the Democrats, the Republicans are the "party of ideas."  The first is pretty easy to refute: since when did espousing the half-baked economic theories of a third-rate hack novelist beloved by teenage boys make anyone an intellectual?

The oft-repeated line about the GOP being the party of ideas demands more in-depth consideration, mostly because it contains a great deal of truth.  Republican policies and initiatives are more likely to be idea-driven, it's just that those ideas are really, really bad.  Don't believe me?  For your consideration I present the following examples from the great minds at the Republican lab:

Supply Side Economics
If more money is given to the wealthy ("job creators") via tax cuts that they will then take this money and invest it into the economy, creating growth.  According to the Laffer Curve, the resulting growth will generate more tax revenues than before.  You can cut taxes and get more tax revenue, it's magic!

Of course, we all know that this isn't true at all, and we've had the deficits since the Reagan era to prove it.

Anything the government does is by nature shoddy and inefficient, unlike the omnipotent market.  Why not just give over public functions to the private sector, and let these wizards of industry sort it all out?  The incentives of the market will unleash all kinds of innovation!

Not exactly.  Not only does privatization allow politically-connected people to make huge profits off of infrastructure built by tax dollars, it allows those who profit to ignore the public good for their own bottom line.  Look no further than the for-profit college industry, which has benefited from cutbacks in community colleges and gets almost all of its money from federal student loans, and often gives their students a useless, cut-rate education.  If that doesn't convince you, take a look at the abuses and corner cutting in New Jersey's privatization of halfway houses.

Neo-conservative Foreign Policy
People in the Middle East will understand democracy when we invade their countries and give liberty to them at the point of a bayonet.  They will welcome us as liberators!

Oh, wait, how did that work out again?

2nd Amendment Solutions
Hey, if we let people carry concealed weapons, we will have all kinds of citizen heroes to stop anyone who attempts a shooting spree!

Recently in states with open conceal and carry laws like Wisconsin and Colorado (and elsewhere), it hasn't quite worked out like that.

As Adam Smith and von Hayek proved to us, regulation of the free market will put us on the road to serfdom.  We must free up the laws of supply and demand instead of shackling the economy to the authority of bureaucrats.  Rules for of the financial industry like Glass-Steagall harm innovations and hurts economic growth!  Once we allow our banks the freedom we need, prosperity for all will follow!

As hard as it is to believe, the clowns on the Right are getting their knickers in a twist over the Dodd-Frank Act, a fairly piddly response to the complete meltdown of our economy caused by shady financial dealings.  Deregulation gave us the 2008 collapse and the S&L debacle after decades of financial stability in the wake of New Deal regulation.  It's an epic fail on the scale of Mitt's trip to London, but people out there still push it with a straight face.

What have we learned here?  Perhaps that conservatives these days tend to turn their ideas into a rigid ideology that blinds them to reality, no matter how many times their theories fail.  (Back in the old days conservatives always used to level that charge at the left.)  As a proud member of what one of their number derisively called the "reality based community," I think common sense is a better guide to our politics than the flights of fancy being pushed by pseudo-"intellectuals" like Paul Ryan.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

History Lesson: The Context of "You Didn't Build That"

My friend Chauncey DeVega over at We Are Respectable Negroes commissioned me to write this piece, and I am glad for the opportunity to delve once again in the misuse of history by right-wingers.

The Romney campaign, flailing amidst their candidate's incompetence and manifest unlikeability has been resorting to misrepresenting president Obama's words, or just flat out lying about him.  At the center of all of this is the furor over the president's "you didn't build that," line.  When taken out of context, it might indeed be inflammatory, but context is everything.  Here's the whole section of the president's speech:
"There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn't -- look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the G.I. Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President -- because I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together."
What the president was essentially saying here is that the individual successes in this country have been assisted by social and governmental forces.  Apart from the uncharacteristically maladroit way that he tried to get the point across with the "you didn't build that" line, the message is pretty clear.  It's also not all that controversial, since Mitt Romney said something pretty similar to Olympic athletes ten years ago.  Those who are trying to claim that the president was saying that the hard work and effort of entrepreneurs are meaningless and that only the government creates useful things are just lying.  Their claims are so outrageous that they are beneath refutation.

However, there are some who are willing to view president Obama's comments in their proper context and still take him to task for it.  Writing recently in The Atlantic, Andrew Cline has attacked the president's words as contradicting the true nature of America's history.  As a historian, I find many of his claims to be specious, and reflective of a simplistic, blinded view of American history that is fast becoming popular on the political Right.  Invoking that idea of the past, Cline goes back to Thomas Jefferson to say that the government was created only to protect rights, nothing else, and that colonial society, without any help from governmental forces, had created the middle class, in contradiction to what the president said.  There are some problems with these claims that I will detail, but the main problem with Cline's interpretation of history is that it completely misses the reality of American life at the time of Jefferson and beyond.

Cline's blindness to the realities of the American past is actually completely betrayed by the image below the title: a painting of the building of the White House in 1792 with its architects in the foreground.  This benign-looking image masks the reality of the White House's construction, which was accomplished through the use of hired-out slave labor.  The white guys in powdered wigs in the foreground didn't "build that;" they may have drawn up the plans, but many more unfree black slaves did the hard work of actually constructing the White House.  It should be a reminder that this nation's wealth was built in large part on what Abraham Lincoln called "the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil" in his second inaugural address.  When the Civil War began, the most valuable economic asset of the United States was not its factories or railroads, but its human property.  That fact was inescapable in 1865 when Lincoln said those words, and in that speech he considered the Civil War to be a punishment from God for the sin of slavery, a sin so grievous that the hundreds of thousands of dead had yet to fully repay it.  The inseparability of American history from slavery could not be denied then, now it seems to happen all of the time.

I should also add that the relatively prosperous conditions for whites in colonial America didn't just come from their own entrepreneurial endeavors, but also from the ready available of cheap or even free land, which did not exist in Europe at the time.  Of course, Cline never thinks to ask who once lived on that land, or how it came into the possession of the colonists.  Genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans allowed colonists to take the natural resources that rightly belonged to others.  In later years, the main purpose of the United States Army would be to continue this bloody work as part of westward expansion.  Those western pioneers of the nineteenth century, always mythologized by conservatives, were only able to settle once the government moved the original inhabitants off the land, gave settlers free land via the Homestead Act, and lavished subsidies on the railroads to make western lands economically viable.

Cline's lack of vision is very evident in the way he discusses Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.  He says that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on behalf "of all Americans," and that "the people of the United States created the government for one purpose only: to secure their rights."  As with the picture of the White House's construction, he seems to act as if all of "the people" were affluent white men, and that the Founders represented the interests of all of American society.  While Jefferson's words inspired and were used to expand freedom by great Americans from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr, neither Jefferson nor the others with him in Philadelphia really thought they were securing equal rights for all Americans with the words "all men are created equal."  They had a pretty narrow definition of who "men" were: propertied white men.  Women did not factor in at all, and the Founders made sure to protect the property rights of slave owners over their human chattel.  The Constitution created eleven years later that so many today uncritically see as a perfect document had provisions for the hunting down of fugitive slaves.

Conservatives like to invoke the Founders and the earliest period of American history since it helps to obscure the historical changes that came afterward that have necessitated a much more active role for the government in the economy.  The "middle class" referred to by president Obama in his speech has nothing to do with colonial America.  He talking about the modern "middle class" of our industrialized society, one that was created by moderating the forces of extreme capitalism.  The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century created vast amounts of wealth, but that money tended to benefit a small few.  The market itself was responsible for the vast inequalities of wealth in America, which is why the government stepped in during the Progressive Era and New Deal to ensure that those who did the work actually got more of a fair share, and were provided with a protective social safety net.  Through sponsoring education, home loans, and protecting the right of workers to organize, the capitalist system was saved from its worst excesses.  Of course, there were very real issues of inequality that remained, but we have spent the last thirty-five years making them worse rather than correcting them.  Nevertheless, the more general prosperity in America helped out the wealthy, since there were more and more people able to spend money to buy more and more products.  Consumer demand, not the plutocratic class, is the real "job creator."  Is it really that extreme to ask for those with the most to contribute more to the system that sustains their wealth?

At the bottom of all of this bellyaching about president Obama's words is an ideology of individualism in this country where a lot of people -almost always white people- refuse to acknowledge that they owe a lot of what they have to others and forces beyond their control.  Those who buy into this ideology have predicated their entire identity on being "rugged individuals," and so must deny any facts that complicate their self-image.  These are the same people who say things like "get your government hands off my Medicare. " I see this in my own family quite a bit.  My mother grew up on a farm, and hence her family received a great deal of money via the government's crop subsidies.  Her father had been badly wounded in World War II, and received veteran's benefits.  After he came home from the war and it still raged, the government provided German POWs from a local prison camp to work as farm hands.  My mother attended a state university back when they were much more fully state supported, which meant that she could pay her yearly tuition out of what she made working over the summer.  She was a public school teacher for several decades, and benefited from the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by her union.  Thanks to Social Security and Medicare, my parents have been able to retire in their sixties.  Yet after all that she has gained though the government and collective action, my mother supports the Tea Party and disdains the government.

The ideology of individualism that so many use to laud themselves at the expense of others is predicated on a self-serving fiction.  That's the fundamental point that president Obama was trying to make, and it has struck a nerve because it hits very close to false image that so many people have of themselves, and of this country's history.  It's time to expose this myth for what it is.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Parsing the Paul Ryan Veep Pick

I must say I was pretty surprised when I heard the news that Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate. It's rare that members of the House get on the ticket, and there were a lot of safer choices for a candidate who always seems to take the safest option. At first I thought that Romney had massively blundered, since Ryan is a polarizing figure whose budget would mean massive cuts to popular programs such as Medicare. However, when taken in context of Romney's overall strategy, the pick makes a lot of sense. So far the Romney campaign (and Republican party generally) has stuck to the following four-pronged strategy:

  • Attack the president on the weak economy without offering specific proposals that can be counter-attacked
  • Energize the conservative base and get them to the polls 
  • Keep the Democratic base from getting optimal turnout through voter suppression campaigns in swing states
  • Rely on massive, unlimited donations from friendly plutocrats to super-PACs that will push all kinds of propaganda and misinformation to sway uninformed voters in the middle and alienate others so much from the political process that they tune out and don't vote
Romney is not really trying to reach a broad electorate or to appeal to the middle by emphasizing his moderate policies as governor of Massachusetts.  He is following the blueprint of the 2010 by-election, when Republicans won by stirring up the Tea Party's church and king mob and getting more warm bodies to the polling station than the other side.  Nominating a conservative hero like Ryan is obviously intended to get that base to the polls and dispell doubts about Romney among hyper-conservatives.  Unlike Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle, Ryan will not say or do the kinds of idiotic things that can give the man at the top of the ticket major headaches.  He is a smooth operator, and despite proposing the destruction of the social safety net, has inexplicably received fawning media coverage.

The Ryan pick also helps the Romney campaign's finances.  Of all of the possible veep candidates, I am willing to bet that Ryan is the one that would do the most to get the money flowing from the Koch brothers and their ilk to the super-PACs.  In the wake of the infamous Citizens United decision, the unofficial branch of political campaigns holds the real power, and Ryan's radically ideological, Ayn Rand inspired vision for the country makes these purported John Galts jizz in their Brooks Brothers suits.

Those are all of the upsides for Mitt.  The downside, however, is rather glaring.  Romney has labored mightily since winning the nomination to not have any real position on the issues, hoping to make the election a referendum on the president and the economy.  With Ryan at his side, he appears to endorse a radically conservative and unpopular budget policy, making a big, fat target for the Obama campaign.  Romney, with Etch-a-Sketch at the ready, has already distanced himself from the Ryan plan, which is ridiculously irresolute even by his two-faced standards.

Time will tell whether the advantages of the Ryan pick will eventually outweigh the considerable risk.  I only hope that this means that this election really is a repeat of 1996, when Bob Dole made Jack Kemp, a supply-side hero, his running mate in order to get conservative votes.  In both cases the Democratic incumbent came into the White House with a friendly Congress voted out of office in a conservative wave election.  Both incumbents faced an insanely obstructionist Republican Congress.  Both were much more likeable than their opponents who lacked the common touch.  If the current economy was doing as well as it was in 1996, this election would be a complete blowout.  In this much closer election, I fear that the decision to mobilize the base rather than playing to the middle might just actually work.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why I Like Living in the Ironbound

Editor's Note: Although my neighborhood gives its name to this blog, I really haven't written about it that much.  I figure it's time to talk about why I live here and why I think it suits me.

The fact that I live and love the Ironbound and want to stay here would seem pretty unlikely on the surface.  This is a crowded urban neighborhood in Newark where a majority of its residents are native speakers of Spanish or Portuguese, with immigrants hailing from Brazil, Portugal, Ecuador, Spain, Uruguay (I've seen them celebrating in the streets after big soccer victories), Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere.  I am a very tall, pale, red-haired guy from a small town in Nebraska.  Needless to say, I stick out a little bit.

I came to settle here because of my wife, who has been living in this neighborhood for over a decade, although she was born and grew up in other New Jersey towns.  We keep talking about places where we want to buy a home, but I just can't see myself living in another place.  This is a unique place, and one where I think we both feel at home because it is so unlike the mainstream of American life, where my wife and I feel very uncomfortable.  There's also the added bonus that since I am so unlike the vast majority of my neighbors, I never have to worry about "fitting in," because there's no way that will ever happen.  As someone who tried and failed miserably at fitting in growing up, it's wonderful to be relieved of that pressure.

The places where a person of my background is "supposed" to live have never felt right to me. I find the suburbs to be boring, culturally dead, and full of the kind of people I spent my adolescence hoping I would never have to talk to again once I left home.  On the other hand, the type of urban neighborhoods where a lot of educated folks like ourselves settle don't suit me, whether it be their ridiculous prices, unbearable pretentiousness, or gentrified artificiality.  The Ironbound has become more prosperous in the last few years, and I fear the onset of gentrification, both for the livelihoods of my neighbors, but also for my own petty tastes.  (Not very important in the grand scheme of things, I know.)

The Ironbound just suits my sensibilities more; I suspect because I grew up lower-middle class and prefer high-quality lowbrow pleasures over bourgeois luxuries.  The Ironbound compares very favorably to much trendier places.  I don't want to get pastries at a cupcake shop, I want to go to the corner Portuguese bakery.  I don't want a liquor store that has all kinds of overpriced single malt scotches, I want a place that sells inexpensive yet delectable bottles of Spanish table wine.  I don't want to eat froo-froo "fusion" food served by cooler-than-thou waiters, I want giant skewers of meat barbecued Brazilian style.  I don't want chain fast food, I want tacos wrapped in corn tortillas where you can taste the lard.  The Ironbound feels like a totally different place than either suburbia, or the many Portlandias and bobo havens sprouting in America's big cities.

The Ironbound has always been a place apart, and remains so today.  It has long been a neighborhood of immigrants, first Germans, then Italians, then Portuguese, and now from all over Latin America.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Newark grew and flourished as a city of factories, foundries, tanneries, and breweries, and the Ironbound (named for the railroad tracks that form its borders) was where many of them were located.  That's a romantic way of saying it.  Philip Roth, born and raised in the more residential Weequiac section of Newark, referred to it as an "industrial slum" in his novel Nemesis, set in his home city in the 1940s.  Located on the far side of downtown, it often seems cut off from the rest of the city, and even the world since the river, railroad tracks, and the New Jersey Turnpike all form walls like those of medieval cities of yore. The Ironbound sits on low ground next to the winding Passaic River, and still floods with regularity during rainstorms.  For that reason, Mayor Cory Booker had his headquarters at a diner down the street from me during Hurricane Irene to be closer to the worst-hit areas.

The Ironbound's isolation and industrial nature might very well have protected it, however, from the misguided urban policies of the postwar period.  It is maybe the only part of Newark to not have been subjected to the upsetting process of urban renewal.  No neighborhoods and tenements were razed to build freeways and housing projects here, and it was left pretty much as is.  In fact, the Ironbound represents everything that postwar urban planners detested.  They wanted to separate residential, commercial, and industrial parts of cities into different spaces.  Here in the Ironbound I live above a bakery and a large iron goods warehouse sits less than a block away on a residential street. The buildings are defiantly old and above the streets you see massive tangles of wires because they were never put below ground.  None of it is laid out how the experts advised, but it is so much more vibrant and alive than many urban areas in the rest of America because the streets are the people's front yards, not just something to be driven on.  My neighborhood pretty much proves the Corbusier-inspired destroyers of traditional neighborhoods wrong, just one of many reasons why I like living here.

Neighborhoods are more than masonry and asphalt, they're really a collective of people.  Since so many people here come from outside of the United States, there's less of the crass stupidity of American life on display.  Without fail, when I've been hassled by someone in the streets, it's been by a suburban soccer fan in the neighborhood before going to a game at Red Bulls Stadium across the river.  There's a real friendliness, too.  Often, when I am walking our dog, little kids will run up to pet her and ask me questions about her.  Two winters ago, after a major blizzard hit, I was trying to dig my wife's car out of a snow drift with a piddly garden shovel, since that was the only kind I could find at the corner store.  Seeing my problem, the guy who was shoveling the walk of the cafe across from where the car was parked pitched in with his snow shovel, and then let me borrow it once he was done with the walk.  That kindness reflects the true spirit of this place, a spirit I wish more of this increasingly self-centered, vulgar, and materialistic nation possessed.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Playlist: 70s AM Radio Gold

I was doing some reading the other might while listening to Pandora, and I needed some comfort music to help get in the right frame of mind.  I popped on the 70s AM Gold station, and I immediately felt a soothing, warming glow.  When it comes to Top 40 pop, I think the seventies has every other decade beat hands down. Pop got overproduced in the 80s, but in the 70s it had funk, groove, and strings instead of synths. For your listening pleasure, I offer some of my favorite songs in the genre, with commentary.

Barry White, "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Babe." Speaking of strings, the Love Unlimited Orchestra laid down the silky smooth notes that helped ease Barry's singular voice to orgasmic depths.

The Bee Gees, "Nights on Broadway." The winsome Aussie trio went from their sixties baroque Sgt. Pepper-lite pop to being the funkiest white dudes on earth. Not only does this song have some funkaliscious, back on the beat drumming, it concerns one the great pastimes of the polyester decade: hooking up for casual sex at nightclubs.

Billy Paul, "Me and Mrs. Jones."  Speaking of illicit sex, no song ever made adultery sound quite as romantic as this classic slice of Philly soul.

The Carpenters, "Rainy Days and Mondays." The seventies were a real comedown after the shocks, assassinations, and broken dreams that closed out prior decade. No song to me expresses the seventies' macramed malaise better than this one. It's also one of the first songs I can remember listening to, so it's got plenty of sentimental meaning for me.

Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Along Again Naturally."  The Carpenters were masters of pop songs with a dark, depressing edge made for dropping a few Quaaludes and passing out on the shag carpet feeling sorry for yourself.  As sad as they could be, none of their songs were as frank about this one in discussing suicide.  You'd never guess it from the jaunty tune or delivery.

Lou Rawls, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine." Seventies pop just seems so much more ADULT than most of the hit music today. Sure, there were plenty of bubblegum tunes like "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes" and "I Think I Love You," but then there's this track. I have to admit, it cuts me to the bone every time I hear it; there's so much raw feeling in it that I like to think of it as the only kiss-off song that can qualify as a masculine equivalent to "I Will Survive."

Albert Hammond, "It Never Rains in Southern California." Back in the seventies, before the state's financial collapse, Midwesterners thought of California as the great golden land of opportunity far from the sinking farm economy and rusting factory towns. Most of 'em stayed on the farm in my Nebraska community, perhaps because this song showed the disappointing underside of the Golden State.

Queen, "You're My Best Friend." Even though they're more of a rock band, Queen still managed to turn out one of the most perfect pop love songs you'll hear this side of Lennon and McCartney.

Al Wilson, "Show and Tell."  For my money this might be the best soul love ballad of the seventies, a confession of love so real and true that it hurts to come out.

Glen Campbell, "Rhinestone Cowboy." Country music gave us some great crossover tunes in the seventies, but perhaps none better than Glen Campbell's signature cri de couer. It might sound cheesy, but when I was stuck as a visiting professor working myself to the bone teaching, publishing, and applying for tenure track jobs, I found the line "there's been a load of compromisin' on the road to my horizon" to be inspiring, and still do. The video is also seventies cheese at its most Limburger.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bourgeois Parenting Gone Wild: Breast Feeding Fanaticism

As a new parent, I am amazed at how parenting expectations and parenting culture have changed since I was a child.  As far as I can tell, the changes are in the direction of enforcing a ridiculously controlling version of over-parenting that accuses those who don't follow it of utter negligence without bothering to understand their situation.  (Now I know why so many of my students are emotional cripples who text their parents repeatedly during the school day.)  Much of this I think has to do with the endemic economic uncertainty in the laissez-faire capitalist world of the last three decades.  Bourgeois parents are so scared that their children will fall in status in a fiercely competitive world, so they try to give them every "advantage" and "edge" they can, from endless after-school activities to tutoring to test prep classes.  The desire to do this has reached ridiculous proportions, with women paying to have Mozart played for their children in the womb, as if this will make them culturally refined or super intelligent while they are still in utero.

Of course, members of the bourgeois class are never content to leave their Puritanical moralizing to themselves.  Case in point is the the issue of breast feeding.  Yes, there are undeniable health benefits to mothers and children that accrue from breast feeding versus formula feeding, I will not argue against that one bit.  However, there is an increasingly powerful movement to characterize women who bottle feed into negligent monsters destroying their children's health.  Recently Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is a huge fan of moralistic crusades that don't inconvenience the racist practices of the NYPD or the economic exploitation committed by the financial industry in his city, endorsed a plan to severely limit the availability of formula to new mothers in New York hospitals.  Formula will be kept under lockdown, and those mothers who want formula will have to make a request and endure a lecture about why they shouldn't do it.  The effect of this will be to shame any woman who prefers not to breast feed, and probably make those women who are having problems breast feeding beyond their control feel even worse.

The thing that almost no one who pushes breast feeding every discusses is that it is often inadequate or doesn't work.  Many women who want to breast feed have to use formula supplements because their milk supply is too low, for a variety of reasons.  Other women have physical impediments to breast feeding.  There's also the issue that breast feeding is a lot easier the more privileged you are.  If you are a new mother who can't afford to take maternity leave in a nation that is the most parsimonious with family leave among its peers, breast feeding is pretty damn hard.  If you have low quality or no health insurance, you can't exactly afford to be going to breast feeding consultants to help you, either.  The breast feeding fanatics often act as if all new mothers are just as affluent as their peers in the bourgeois class.

While there are legitimate benefits to breast feeding -though perhaps not as tremendous as many fanatics believe- those who shame mothers who use formula are not making the world a better place.  For the most part, they seem bent on either proving their own moral superiority, or are completely blind to the dynamics of social class in this country.  Like jogging and "buying local," breast-feeding militancy is taking something good and turning it into a badge of bourgeois identity.  That's hardly something to applaud.
Note: I will be continuing this series with other installments, since I am already getting sick of the ridiculous behavioral expectations being foisted on my family and myself.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: John Denver, "Country Roads"

My parents mostly stopped listening to new music sometime in the mid to late 1970s, and for that reason I have an inordinate emotional connection to The Carpenters, Kenny Rogers, and John Denver, since I heard their music on a constant basis in my early childhood.  We didn't have a record player or stereo, but played tapes on a dinky little one-speaker tape recorder until my folks got my sisters and I a boom box for Christmas in 1984.  (I used to resent my parents for being so cheap, but now I am glad that I learned at a young age to not be wrapped up in owning material things.)  My memories of my childhood before I started going to school can be instantly conjured by playing "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "The Gambler," or by hearing the theme songs to "The Price is Right" and "The Young and the Restless."  The former was my favorite day-time game show, the latter my Mom's soap opera, the only one she watched.

Of all that music, no one song from my early years cuts right through me more than John Denver's "Country Roads."  This has less to do with hearing it on a daily basis as a five-year-old than it does with our family road trips.  Every summer we would hit the road in a Chevy van, usually driving out to Colorado and other points in the mountain West.  Many of the same tapes we listened to at home would find their way into the van's tape deck, and my Dad always relished playing this song on the way home, even if we were headed back to Nebraska, not West Virginia.  We always took a "shortcut" from I-80 to my hometown, which meant that country roads did indeed take us home.

Nothing ever made my father happier than these vacations, and his eyes still light up whenever we talk about our memories of them.  He worked a job he disliked for four decades to provide for us, and the road trips were the one time when he could put all the stress and bullshit of his work aside and be out in nature with his family, which is still the thing that makes him happiest.  Whenever I hear this song I think of hitting the home stretch on our return from vacation, a bittersweet moment of having to g back to normal life after so much fun.  As much as I love where I live now, "Country Roads" also reminds me of how far away I am from my family and my homeland, and I badly I miss them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Difficulty Maintaining Scholarship After Leaving Academia

Summer is here, and that's not always a good thing for me, since it can give me too much time alone with my thoughts.  The birth of my twin girls has been a distraction, but in the last week or so I've had some nagging episodes of self-doubt related to my scholarship.  In case you don't know, a year ago I left an assistant professorship in history in Texas for teaching at a private high school in Manhattan.  My wife and I had been separated by 1500 miles, and I was living and working in a place that I could not bear to endure any longer.  (Here are the details, if you're interested.)  When I left academia I knew I was making the right decision, but I also knew that I wanted to continue being a historian.  The director of my school (now sadly departed for a job on the West coast) had an academic background herself, and she talked of me becoming a "teacher-scholar."  That's what I came into my current position aspiring to be.

However, two things kept me from pursuing my scholarship that deeply during the last academic year.  On the negative side, last August I received a message from my publisher, with whom I had signed an advance book contract a year and a half earlier, that they were dropping me.  One of the outside reviewers of my manuscript was particularly scathing, to the point where I felt like the victim of an intellectual mugging.  That embarrassing setback killed my confidence as a scholar, since it felt like the biggest thing I had produced was now worthless.  On the positive side, once I started at my new job in September, I really threw myself into it.  This was easy, since I get to work in a uniquely wonderful environment with the kind of dedicated, creative students teachers dream of having.  At my current job, I feel like my work is being rewarded and appreciated in ways I haven't felt in years.  In many respects, the last year has felt like awakening from a long and horrible nightmare.

In the academic world, I had felt mostly rejection.  It took three years on the job market for me to get my tenure track job, and it took three more years of rejection after trying to move to a different university before I switched gears and looked for a different career.  My last year on the market I had piles of great teaching evaluations, three articles published in top journals and a book contract, and I got zero AHA interviews.  It feels good to be working in an environment where I don't feel like my best is never good enough.  That's certainly how academia felt to me.

I intended to get a lot of scholarly work done this summer, and I guess I've done a decent amount. That said, there are times when I feel a paralyzing sense of self-doubt.  For example I finished an article manuscript last summer, and sent it to a journal way out of my league that rejected it.  This article is on a topic different from my dissertation project, but related to my speciality in nineteenth-century German history.  I had thought about making it a book-length project, but since I am no longer at a university, the time and money I would need to complete it -especially to travel to Europe for archival research- are out of reach.  I need to submit the article somewhere, but I am having a hard time facing up to the prospect of yet another damning rejection.  I am also very self-conscious about the fact that since I am no longer a professor, I am wearing the infamous scarlet "I" as an independent scholar.  I often wonder if my lack of a university affiliation means that my work just won't be taken seriously.  Just the thought of it makes me not want to submit anything, since I can't bear the thought of being judged in such a fashion.

I also haven't touched my book manuscript based on my dissertation project, which I have pretty much given up for dead.  I got a couple of highly placed articles out of it, so I guess it served its purpose.  However, just thinking about it makes my chest tight with anxiety and regret.  I cannot escape a voice in the back of my head that is telling me that if I do not ever manage to publish a book, I will be an embarrassing failure.  After all, a lot of my friends in the academic world have done so, and any historian worth her/his salt has at least one book of their own.  Even worse, more and more I think deep down that I deserved the smack down I got from my publisher.  The manuscript was rushed, since I was pushing hard to get a book contract to make myself more attractive on the job market, and in a perfect world would it have had two more years to gestate and be more fully formed.  Even if it had, I had chosen a topic that I found to be particularly interesting and rich, but one that no one else has really written about, meaning that I wasted my time pouring my blood, sweat, and tears into something that hardly anybody, even in the narrow confines of Germanists who study the nineteenth century, cares about.  I am beginning to think that my specialization was a huge mistake to begin with, since I find myself much more passionate about other areas of study.  At the worst moments, I wonder whether I am like a perennial minor-league baseball player, making myself crazy by trying to be something I am just plain not good enough at to be.

Instead of trying to revive the corpse of my first project, I have been throwing myself into a different book project, one related to recent American history and which has nothing to do with nineteenth century Germany.  It has similar thematic elements as my dissertation project, but I feel much more connected to it.  Equally important, unlike my old project, it has the kind of broad popular appeal that might get me a contract amidst the publishing industry's current contractions.  I spent a lot of last summer and my breaks during the school year researching it, which has allowed me to start writing bits and pieces of what I hope will be a cohesive whole.  So far I've got about 55 pages, with thirty in a chapter I hope to be done with before the school year starts.  Yet every time I sit down to write, I get that same tightness in my chest.  I fear that I may be repeating myself by spending years of my life creating something that no one will want.  Since I do not have bona fides as an Americanist, I wonder whether anyone would even have a reason to take me seriously.  For that reason I hope to get it published by a popular, rather than academic press, but in the current economic climate that's quite a long shot.

What I increasingly tell myself is that this project allows me to continue to do the work of a historian, which I really take great pleasure from.  Even if I write a book that goes nowhere, I can at least enjoy the process of putting it together and the knowledge I will gain along the way.  But let's not kid ourselves, that's pretty thin spiritual gruel.  Sometimes I wish I could turn off the part of me that wants to be a scholar, since I could be perfectly happy in my teaching career without the added aggro.  Faced with the choice of giving up or going for broke, I've chosen the latter for the time being.  I'm not sure I'll feel the same way in a couple of years.