Saturday, June 29, 2013

Track of the Week: Fleetwood Mac, "Oh Well"

One of the many reasons I love listening to vinyl records is that some songs are so vital, so explosive, that you only feel their true power when you drop the needle on the record and feel it pulsate from the groove right into your fingertips.  I never get that feeling when I push play on the CD player, tap the screen on my iPhone, or click a link on Spotify.  I still remember hanging out with some friends before my vinyl buying days and hearing Led Zeppelin IV blasting out of their old-school hi-fi like the voice of God.  That moment sure made a believer out of me.

"Oh Well" by Fleetwood Mac is a great song that sounds absolutely sublime on record.  For those of you who don't know, Fleetwood Mac began as a blues band in the 1960s before they brought in Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham and perfected California cocaine rock in the 1970s.  Peter Green led their original incarnation, and for my money this cracked genius was the true guitar hero of his generation of British blues players, which included Clapton, Beck, and Page.  It's a shame that his mental illness took such a toll on his life and career.  Maybe because my best friend from childhood is also a schizophrenic, I have a soft spot for him.

It's not just general respect for Green's craft and ability that bring me back to his work, though.  I feel the aforementioned ZAP! from the needle on the record whenever I drop it on this song, which starts with driving acoustic guitar line that builds into an absolute blockbusting thrasher of a riff, underscored by a torrid, relentless beat.  If I owned a 1969 Camaro this is the song I would have blasting out of the 8 track player as I tore down the street.


After a mere two minutes of absolute killer riffage of the kind that Jimmy Page made famous, the song suddenly stops, shifts into slow tempo, and goes on for seven, worldless minutes.  It's one of the most stunning about-faces I've ever heard on a record, but it works.  This tune fit for a muscle car suddenly sounds like the lost soundtrack to a forgotten spaghetti western.  This too can only truly be heard on vinyl, where the spaces between the notes take on such an open quality not possible in the compressed universe of the mp3.

In our society, so obsessed with novelty and "innovation," we rarely ask ourselves about the price of progress.  Put the needle down on "Oh Well," and you'll get a taste.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Blog Post That Won My Spouse's Heart

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, this blog helped a nebbish, socially awkward dork like myself look intriguing and cool to a woman way out of my league.  Four years ago, I was lucky enough to get married to her.  In honor of that great day, here's the post I wrote on my old blog way back in June of 2006 that caught her eye.  It describes the kind of bachelor lifestyle I once enjoyed before discovering something much better.


Before getting into my praise of two of my favorite Lincoln, Nebraska institutions, I'd like to relate some news. The folks in Chicago hired someone else, which means I will be in Grand Rapids next year. I am a bit bummed out about losing a chance to fullfill my dream of an academic job in Chi-town, but at least I won't be too far away from the gang in the 'paign.

Yesterday, after eight grueling hours of grading (this is something I normally do with the stereo on, or while inhaling coffee at Aroma to make it bearable) I joined my friends James, Amy, and the Professor at O'Rourke's for the Professor's regular happy hour, called "Secret Seneca." Yes, he is a classics professor who has a Christian name, but in our crowd he is merely known as "The Professor," a jovial sixty-ish guy with an impish grin, snowy beard, lots of wit, and the youthful attitude of a man divorced late in life. He, like James, can pack away the beer like no one else I know, and keeping up with them last night on an empty stomach after walking several blocks in the hot sun almost put me down on O'Rourke's grimy floor.

Like good friends and good women, a good bar is hard to find. Like a good friend, a good bar is waiting for you when you come back to it, and it picks you up when you're down. O'Rourke's lies in the heart of Lincoln's still beating downtown (it is also the de facto campustown, and the city has restrictive zoning laws, which have kept it going) and is patronized by an odd mix of unalloyed alcoholics, slumming intellectuals, Lincoln's hipster elite, and assorted working folks. It has a really high ceiling that gives the place a certain open-ness that other bars lack, and a good selection of beers while still having PBR and High Life for $1.75 a pint ($1.25 during happy hour.) A chalkboard hangs on the men's bathroom wall that anyone can write on, today I saw many a lament about the 'Huskers' loss in the College World Series qualifiers. Despite my infrequent time in Lincoln, I must have made some impression, because bartenders today and yesterday both told me, "You look familiar," and my only explanation was that when I am in Lincoln, a high percentage of my time is spent at that particular institution.

Related to this, sign of a good bar or restaurant is low staff turnover, and tonight there was a young woman tending bar that I've seen over the last coupla years serving up suds for the drunks. She is a strikingly beautiful blonde with a enigmatic mouth and arresting eyes, but hers is the quiet, subtle, and ultimately superior beauty of the unassuming prairie woman. (Keep in mind, my thoughts on her beauty are only in a purely aesthetic sense, like admiring a work of art or natural wonder.) After she told me I looked familiar (not in any come on kind of way, but out of curiousity) I asked if she was from Hastings, she revealed her hometown to be Hartington, a small town north of Lincoln. At that moment I felt validated, I knew that something so sublime could not have been created in the suburbs or the city.

Enough of that. Yesterday, after getting good and soused at the bar (James kept pouring the pitcher into my glass after I was already wobbly), we headed to our fave Friday night eatery, The Tam o' Shanter, which we've always just called "The Tam." Its low red lighting, shag carpet, and leather upholstery gloriously show off The Tam's status as one of the few remaing steakhouse lounges left. The lounge has become a dying breed, just like telephone booths, the wishbone offense, and competent Democratic politicians. Instead of the steak I had the fish fry special, and wasn't disappointed despite my recent feasting on the real deal in Maine. If you ever go to Lincoln, you must eat there.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Today's SCOTUS Decision On The Voting Rights Act Will Live in Infamy

I have a knot in the pit of my stomach today.  I haven't felt this knot since November of 2004, when George W. Bush won re-election, and it comes from the same source: my country has upset me to the point of physical illness.  Today the Supreme Court's conservative majority, those supposed avatars of judicial restraint, effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, in my opinion the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed in this country.

After the Civil War, the white South had to live with emancipation, but it would not accept social and political equality with freedmen and freedwomen.  This necessitated the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  The latter, in 1870, banned restriction of the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or "prior servitude."  Of course, Southern governments found ways to keep blacks from voting through other means: all white primaries, the grandfather clause, literacy tests, poll taxes etc.  That, coupled with violent intimidation, suppressed the vote to the point that after 1900 there was not a single black representative left in Congress.  In the ensuing years, the courts struck down the grandfather clause and the all-white primary, but Southern states and localities were still able to restrict the vote.  The Voting Rights Act, which came only after several brave people lost their lives in order to secure it, brought in the federal government to ensure that states and counties with a history of voter suppression could not change voter requirements without federal approval.  Only when the federal government was given the power to intervene in the South did things really change.  By taking away preclearance, the SCOTUS has effectively destroyed the main tool needed to prevent a repeat of the past.  (As the last map on this link shows, the states subject to preclearance are also home to very high levels of prejudice against black people.)

The court's conservative majority claims that it is wrong to single these states out today.  There are three pretty clear responses to this.  First, there are other states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where there have been attempts to suppress the votes of blacks and Latinos.  We should make preclearance nationwide in that case, since it is necessary all over the country.  Second, it isn't the role of the Supreme Court to even act in this case.  The justices writing for the majority say that the preclearance measures were necessary in 1965, but no longer.  This sounds less like the Court ruling on the constitutionality of the law, and more on whether they like it or not.  Congress should be able to decide if the Voting Rights Act is still necessary, not the courts.  I can't think of a clearer case of "legislating from the bench," the very thing these conservatives claim to abhor.  Third, this decision is based on a ridiculous logical fallacy.  Because of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression has been greatly reduced, which the court is now using to say that the law is now no longer necessary, forgetting why the law was needed in the first place.  Let me be more direct.  When criminals commit heinous crimes, we don't take them out of prison because their being in prison has prevented them from committing more crimes.  The states and localities covered by pre-clearance were guilty of wretched crimes against democracy for a century.  It might sound unfair on the surface to hold them to a stricter standard, but murderers, whether of people or of basic human rights, should not be trusted or let off easy.

The behavior of many of the states affected by pre-clearance shows a remarkable tendency towards recidivism.  In Texas, long home to an all-white primary system in the bad old days, the legislatiure responded within hours to the decision by immediately drafting legislation that would make it more difficult to vote and redistrict in a way that diminishes the votes of blacks and Latinos.  I expect to see much of the same across the country, since the Republican Party has made voter suppression a priority. Voter ID laws are just a repeat of the old strategy where conservatives keep coming up with new devices to limit the vote (like ID) when the old ones (poll taxes and literacy tests) are banned.  The Voting Rights Act had powerful provisions to stop this, at least in selected states, and now those protections have been taken away by an out of control, partisan Supreme Court.  That is why this decision will live in infamy.

And that is why we must mobilize and fight.  Congressional Democrats need to match their Texas Republican rival and speedily draft new legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act.  We need nation-wide pre-clearance.  We at least need the bigoted bastards who want to benefit by suppressing the vote to be forced into the public eye and own up to their guilt.  Fot too long they have been allowed to hide behind the ridiculous fig leaf of "voter fraud," something that occurs about as often as Ted Cruz being polite.  Right here in New Jersey our celebrity governor vetoed early voting as "too expensive" when he set up an extra special election for a vacant Senate seat to keep Democratic turnout lower in the general election that is costing the state millions of dollars.  Conservatives have lost public trust, now they are just trying to manipulate elections to get around that fact.  We cannot, we must not allow this to happen.  The brave people who faced savage beatings and death to bring about real voting rights shall not have suffered in vain.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why am I Doing This? (and other questions)

I have been blogging now for almost nine years, and it's been so long I am beginning to wonder why I do it.  Most blogs are abandoned soon after they are started, but I have been blogging for a decade.  This isn't bragging, I legitimately wonder what the hell I've been doing all of this time, since this blog was not launched to get me a book deal or be read by a mass audience.  I know what follows is rather solipsistic, but I wonder whether any other bloggers out there have some insight for me.

I started doing it right after the election of 2004, in order to put into words that shock and frustration I felt about George W. Bush getting elected.  My friends were also probably tired of getting my long-winded emails sermonizing on this same topic.  A friend of mine had started a blog (now defunct) and it seemed like the natural thing to do.

I was not writing to get anybody's attention, but to get out my thoughts and amuse my friends.  I also just enjoy writing, and it was nice to do so without any pressure of publication and vetting, which is something that took all the joy out of my academic writing.  Back then I was pretty naive, I used my actual name (meaning that potential employers would find the blog) and I gave it the unwieldy name of "Fugitive Streets/Jackal Tombs."  The title referenced lines from Proust and Melville.  Oh yes, I was still a pretentious grad student back then.

At least my naivety paid off a little.  When I met my future wife for the first time, she googled me and found my blog.  According to her, what I had written, especially a Beatnik-y piece about hanging out in bars in Lincoln, Nebraska, made me seem interesting and intriguing.  That added intrigue that helped me find a woman far out of my league and if for no other reason, has made this blog worth it.

After about three years I decided to scrub my real name and adopt the persona of Werner Herzog's Bear, in homage to one of my favorite film-makers and as kind of a juvenile joke that you'll get if you've seen Grizzly Man.  The blog was changed to I Used to Be Disgusted, Now I Try to Be Amused, in reference to one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs.  It also fit my attitude at the time, as I was working as a low-paid, overburdened "visiting" professor.  By that point I think my writing got a lot better and I started hitting my stride.  As always, I just wrote about things that interested me most, mainly music, movies, history, politics, and baseball.

As time went on, especially after I moved to Texas to take a tenure track job that turned into a nightmare, I started writing a lot more about my frustrations with the academic profession.  This stuff seemed to get the most readers, perhaps because it came out of a place of unalloyed pain and rage inside of me.  After hesitating, I started writing about my specific job situation, which generated some of my best stuff (since it was so genuine), but put me in hot water.  A colleague at my job who I made the mistake of befriending ended up joining the mobbing gang tormenting myself and others.  I had revealed my blog to him in better times, and after our falling out, he sent a message to me expressing alarm about what I had been writing.  Scared of having my cover blown, and traumatized by my experience of bullying, I did one of the hardest things I've ever done: I killed my blog.

I was giving up academia at the time, and so it did feel fitting to start anew, to reaffirm a new chapter in my life.  I conceived Notes From the Ironbound being a little different, less full of rants and bitterness and more titled towards longer essays and deep thoughts.  A lot of it ended up being me working through the shame and bitterness of having abandoned academia after having fought so hard for my toehold in it.

My blog never turned into a "post-academic" blog, though.  I still write about the things that move me, which are pretty much the same things they've always been.  It's just me under a different name, not me "branding" myself or playing to a certain niche or popular tastes.  I've come to cherish this blog as a creative outlet, and also as a space of comfort.  I can write what I like, and don't have to worry about what an editor or peer reviewer thinks of it.  Some of my friends have commented to me about how often I am posting these days, and that's because I am writing every day.  It makes me happy, and is a better way to while away the evening hours between putting my daughters to sleep and my own bedtime than watching the television.  Those hours of the night used to be spent reading or watching arty films, but I just can't hack it anymore.  I am so exhausted at the end of the day that I can't pick up a book or play something with subtitles without passing out; I do my reading on the train during my commute and have fallen out of touch with cinema.

Occasionally I have tried to tout the blog a little; I've posted stuff on the DailyKos' diaries section and joined Twitter, which has led to some of my posts getting attention.  Despite these efforts, not a lot of folks read this blog.  Perhaps I do need to tout my blog more, find a more engaging focus, etc., but I am a plugger, and prefer to wait and see if anyone notices me.  Part of the reason is that when I look at the statistics for this blog, what I often consider to be the best-written material is often the least-viewed.  Trying to push up the pageviews will only result in compromising quality, I fear.  I also don't have any illusions about this blog being a pathway to something else.  The creative fields are being destroyed, and the way to get ahead is by knowing the right people, which I don't.  I didn't go to the right schools, and I am constitutionally incapable of "networking" and glad-handing.  It's probably held me back in life, but I'm just too goddamned old now to change, and I am comfortable with that.  The other path is to be like my friend Chauncey DeVega, and combine hard work, intentionality, and a kind of brilliance that I don't have.  I can't pretend to be able do that, so I will just be keeping on doing what I'm doing, with inspiration from the great Charles Bukowski:

I guess I have kept doing this blog because it fills a need that other things in my life don't, and that's good enough for me.  Other questions are on my mind, though.  I have thought about dumping my "Werner Herzog's Bear" persona and using my real name.  If anyone does like what I have to say here, I'd at least like to get credit for it!  I also wonder whether I should spin off my music stuff to a separate blog, where I can live out my teenage dream of being a music writer, and people who like my music writing don't have to be subjected to my post-academic rants and political screeds.  Anyway, thanks for listening, and I promise to stop navel gazing in the near future.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Track of the Week: The Four Tops, "Bernadette"

Motown had an amazing ability to put out records that were as sleek and well-constructed as a Cadillac coming off a Detroit assembly line, but which still bore the warm, organic stamp of having been recorded in the humblest of studios in Barry Gordy's garage.  Years of listening to Motown records have also taught me that individual producers put as much or even a bigger stamp on the songs as the performers themselves.  For example, when Norman Whitfield started producing the Temptations, their sound became edgy, funky, and psychedelic.  "Cloud Nine" is a million miles from "The Way You Do the Things You Do."

The production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland probably did more than any other to define the "Motown sound" via Supremes songs like "Baby Love."  Their best creations were mini-pop symphonies, but not always as bright and cheery as you might think.  Unlike the Temptations, the Four Tops' love songs produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland had an air of menace and darkness behind them.  Even a positive song like "I'll Be There" has a lot of minor-key stuff going on.

I think Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Tops reached their apex with "Bernadette."  The key is lead singer Levi Stubbs' muscular yet emotionally desperate singing style.  This song is from the point of view of a man absolutely obsessed with a woman who he tells is his "reason to live" and "you mean more to me than a woman was ever meant to be."  He reveals insecurity along with obsessiveness when he warns her that other men are after her, but do not "treasure" and "adore" her as much as he does.  This does not sound like a healthy obsession, a point underscored by the musical accompaniment.  The background singers keen in a minor key like a ship tossed at sea, and the normally bright Motown symphony keeps up a staccato beat that underscores the scary desperation and obsession of the lyrics.  You worry about what would happen to Bernadette if she decided to walk out the door.

Despite these dark overtones, the song was a hit, and how could it not be?   Pocket symphonies featuring a penetrating vital soul singer embodying the creepy side of love don't come around too often, and certainly not anymore.

Friday, June 21, 2013

More Thoughts and Observations Gleaned From My Civil War Reading

As I've mentioned a couple of times here, I have developed a renewed interest in the history of the Civil War.  Now that I am no longer paid to be an expert in 19th-century German history, a subject I don't really care that much about anymore, I am free to indulge my actual interests without feeling guilty or hurting my career.  This has meant reading way too much on the topic, to the point where my knowledge of the current historiography on the Civil War rivals that of my former specialization.  That said, I am almost exclusively interested in the social and political side of the Civil War, rather than its battlefield aspects.  It's pretty obvious to me now that the Civil War is America's true revolutionary and defining moment, not the War of Independence.  Without further ado, here are some general thoughts on the topic for my history geek friends.

Parallels With the French Revolution
As I just mentioned, the Civil War is more a revolution than anything else.  It and Reconstruction together also constitute a contested and unfinished revolution, one still being fought 150 years later.  Racial inequality is as deep ever, the scope of government power is constantly being battled over, and we still have a fundamental conflict between those who would like a society that provides general prosperity with one that values cheap labor and the aggrandizement of a small elite.  I see some interesting parallels with the French Revolution, because it to has essentially cast the mold for political divisions in France ever since.  Those who idealize the Confederacy today claim it to be a matter of "heritage," but in reality, it is the endorsement of a hierarchical, racist and sexist social order for the present.  That's the key to why many modern Northerners like Ted Nugent sport the rebel flag that their ancestors died fighting against.  And the reason why the state troopers at Selma were waving the same flag before committing brutal violence on peaceful protestors at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Secession Was a Really, Really Stupid Decision That Is Best Explained By Cultural History
I am aware that hindsight is 20/20, but even in the context of 1860-1861 secession was an incredibly stupid move by the Confederate states.  I am currently reading Bruce Levine's solid Fall of the House of Dixie which posits that Southern elites had stayed in the Union when they thought it could be used to protect slavery, and bolted to the Confederacy for the same reason.  No argument here.  (He also has some interesting things to say about how Border State slave holders perceived the Union to be a better economic bet early in the war due to geography and the belief that Lincoln would not tamper with the "peculiar institution" where it already existed.)

Of course, the agrarian South was picking a fight with the industrialized North, which had stunning advantages in population, resources, and production.  Not only that, its enslaved population was actively hostile to the war effort, as were Unionist whites in several large pockets of the South.  Texas governor Sam Houston was well aware of this, and told his Southern brethren that they were on a suicide mission.  The Confederacy's leaders figured the Yankee wouldn't fight, or that the South's cotton was so important to industrial powers like Britain and France that those nations would intervene on the Southern side.  They ended up being wrong, in large part because the South's leaders refused to acknowledge the reality that chattel slavery was dying in the Americas, and that for most Europeans had come to be seen as morally reprehensible. Especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, there was no way that the British government would be willing to wage a war to protect slavery.

The Confederate elite were trying to hold back the tides of history by preserving slavery.  The newly independent, former Spanish colonies like Mexico had banned it, as did the British and French empires.    It was a dying institution, but the South insisted on starting a destructive war against all odds to keep it going.  If the South had stayed in the Union, the eventual emancipation would have come gradually with compensation, and would have been done in a way that would have preserved the elite's monopoly on political power.  Instead, emancipation came with the sword, and slaves used the war as an opportunity to overthrow and undermine the system wherever they could.  These elites only got their local power back after the violent backlash against Reconstruction, and lost the national influence they had in the Antebellum period.

This is a case where cultural history can explain what economic history can't.  Based on the rational actor model favored by economists, the white South did something incredibly irrational.  However, when viewed from a cultural historical vantage point, it is obvious that the identity that Southern white men had as masters over slaves (even for those whites who did not own slaves) was so deeply rooted in Southern society that there was no way that the institution of slavery could be allowed to perish, even if it meant brining on a war against long odds.  That's my two cents, anyway.

There Needs to Be a Civil War Epic Movie From the Slave Perspective
There aren't a lot of great films about the Civil War.  The most recent, Lincoln, takes a top-down view and removes much of the agency slaves had in their own liberation.  The two most famous Civil War movies, The Birth of a Nation, and Gone With the Wind are massive spectacles in homage to the "Old South" and white supremacy.  This got me thinking: what if there was an epic film with the scope of those films, but told from the slaves' point of view?  A three-hour epic concentrating on the lives and fates of slaves of a particular plantation could show enslaved men and women undermining slavery by spying on their masters for the Union, fleeing to "contraband camps." and joining up to fight in the Union army.  There are all kinds of opportunities for drama and action in this scenario, if that's what Hollywood needs to get it made.  Having read so much about what slaves did to bring slavery down, I know there is all kinds of amazing material for a film version.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Kris Kobach and Glenn Beck Need a History Lesson

In case you don't know, Kris Kobach is the Secretary of State for Kansas, and the architect of the extremely harsh "show us your papers" anti-immigrant laws (that are also effectively anti-Latino, immigrant or not) that have been passed in Arizona and Alabama.  He is trying to get similar legislation passed in Kansas, and in response, a group of protestors showed up at his house, leaving black shoes on his doorstep to symbolize absent family members who have been deported from their kin in the United States.  It was probably a little annoying to have protestors on his front lawn, but you'd think that a man who spouts incendiary rhetoric and pushes draconian laws would expect a little blowback.

But no, Kobach termed these protestors a "mob" whose tactics resembled the KKK.  That's right, a man who is an unabashed nativist actually said that.  As if hearing the siren call of insane, Glenn Beck echoed Kobach in their interview.  This makes Kobach and Beck either a morons or liars of the highest order (and perhaps both.)  During the 1920s, at the height of its popularity, the Klan wedded its traditional terroristic enforcement of white supremacy with an intense nativism directed at immigrants, Catholics, and Jews.  Their slogan was "100% Americanism," which is interesting because Kobach denounced the protest on his front lawn as "anti-American."  (He also discussed using his "second amendment rights" to defend his lawn from peacefully protesting brown people, which makes me wonder who here is making the threats of violence.)  In fact, Kobach is part of a long lineage of white supremacist, nativist nationalism that dates back to at least the Know-Nothings also includes the Klan.  When Beck tries to claim that supporters of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants are "the same" as the Klan, he actually means the exact, total opposite.

I would also add that if the Klan came to visit a person they didn't like, they typically didn't have a peaceful protest.  Oftentimes, their targets ended up dead.  The protest at Kobach's house was nothing like the Klan, but a lot like the civil rights movement of the 1960s in its use of direct, non-violent action.  There was absolutely no threat of violence against him or even intimidation.  On the other hand, Kobach's implicit threat of violence against such protestors is rather reminiscent of Bull Connor or George Wallace.

The rise of the Tea Party right has brought with it many lies about the past, which are used to justify extremist policies in the present.  Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg have likened liberalism to fascism, conservatives have distorted the legacy of Martin Luther King, and Kobach has now likened peaceful immigration protestors to the Klan.  This practice is just about the most Orwellian thing I've ever seen, whereby extreme nationalist white supremacists claim the mantle of the civil rights movement and call their opponents fascists.  Up is down, black is white, lies are facts.

The Tea Party obsession with metaphors from the past has long dumbfounded me, but now I think I understand.  This is not merely a matter of legitimizing one's own perspective by recalling the past.  I think the people behind these outrageous statements are aware that their ideas are echoes of the same ones that have been defeated by history, in Kobach's case, extreme nativism based on racial hierarchy.  The only way to make these ideas palatable beyond the true believers is to distract people from reality by making the opponents of nativism into the very thing, the KKK, that modern day nativists resemble, but can't risk being compared to.  The same works for messianic nationalists like Beck, who are the closest thing to fascist agitators that exist in this country's political mainstream.  His beliefs align with historical figures like George Wallace and James Eastland, but those men are stock villains in the historical narrative nowadays.  The hard Right's war on the past is necessary, because if people are aware of the realities of American history, the Right's ideas look like warmed over versions of ideologies long repudiated.

I've said it before, and I will say it again: the abuse of the past by Kobach and others requires that historians directly refute this garbage in public, lest it be taken for truth.  My brethren, we must get out of the library and take to the streets and fight these crimes against the past.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Down Side of Breaking the Wall of Academic Shame

Around the time I was leaving my old tenure-track job, I conceptualized what I called the "wall of academic shame."  It was my way of coming to grips with the feelings of inadequacy and failure that overwhelmed me at the time.  The fact that I had not succeeded in my quest, an endeavor that lasted from the young age of 23 to the early middle-age of 35 and which had cost me my youth and years of earning power, persistently dogged me with shame.

Finally, two years later, I feel as if I have broken that wall to pieces and stomped its bricks into dust.  I have absolutely no desire to go back to academia, and I feel pride, rather than shame, at having escaped a horrible situation for a much better job and life.  Strangely enough, I have begun to see a down side of this life-affirming moment.  Whenever I contemplate the academic profession, rather than shame I feel a burning, bitter rage whose hate-filled power I can barely control.  I think academic writing is jargon-loaded sophistry and cant, professors insufferable bullshit artists, and academia itself to be ruled by confidence men and women who use blatant self promotion to turn their mediocre research into a major meal ticket.  Now that I am a teacher and surrounded by people dedicated to their craft, I feel absolute disgust with how so many in the academic world treat teaching as an inconvenience getting in the way of writing a monograph that nobody will read or care about.  Never mind that many of their students fought hard to be the first people in their families to go to college, the world must know about print culture in 18th century Leipzig!

The thought of it all fills me with hatred and revulsion.  These feelings are extremely visceral, and actually scare me, since I tend not to be like this.  These feelings are me turning the tables, rejecting a profession that made me feel such shame and worthlessness for abandoning it.  It's been helpful to unleash such anger and rage, and it has made me feel like it was academia, not me that was worthy of rejection all along.  All the same, I worry about the effect this is having on me, and on relationships I have with people I hold dear.  I will be attending the wedding of a friend this summer who has managed to land a good tenure track gig in the state where he grew up, and I am little afraid at the torrent of bitterness that might pour forth from my mouth once I get a few drinks in me.

Hopefully this anger is just one stage in the process of mourning my dead dream until I reach total acceptance.  Any other post-acs out there with similar feelings, or advice on how to handle them?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Track of the Week: Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue"

For this track of the week I thought about discussing a song that reminded me of my father, but realized I already wrote about that song awhile back, so I will late that one stand in for my maudlin Father's Day sentiments.  (If you're interested, it's "Country Roads" by John Denver.)

Instead, I'd like to discuss and entirely different, and hilarious song about fatherhood, "A Boy Named Sue."  Written by Shel Silverstein, whose poetry I loved as a child (especially Where The Sidewalk Ends), it achieved its best interpretation at the hands of Johnny Cash in front of a raucous crowd of prisoners at San Quentin.  It's a hilarious tune, and Cash gives it a sly, winking talk-singing treatment much to the delight of the cheering criminals.

This song's important for me, because it was how I managed to embrace classic country music.  Growing up in rural Nebraska meant being inundated with the lite countrypolitan of the 1980s, followed by Garth Brooks' ridiculous faux honky tonk by way of the Eagles in the early 1990s.  For that reason, I hated country music and refused to listen to it.  It began to stand in for everything I despised about the narrow horizons of my rural upbringing.  The only exception was the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, because songs like "Chickamauga" reminded me more of the Clash than Ronnie Milsap.

Johnny Cash was always the exception for me when it came to vintage country.  I liked to wear all black, and so did he, which seemed like a pretty punk rock thing to do for a country singer.  He didn't douse his songs in steel guitar, which was way over-used in the country music of 1980s and 1990s.  He also had a kind of rocker attitude, kicking out the footlights at the Grand Ole Opry, getting busted for drugs, and generally being an ornery son of a bitch.  I picked up his 1994 "comeback" album American Recordings, which was just him and his guitar.  I loved it, and finally obtained a copy of At San Quentin and was completely blown away.

I'd always been suspicious of country's claim to be the music of the flag, rural values, and the American way of life, since I didn't really care much for those things.  Instead of all that tripe, this record has Cash cussing, mocking the TV producer filming the show, playing his songs like he's hell bent for leather, and winning over a bunch of violent criminals in the process.  Instead of the usual insipid odes to family values, the narrator of "A Boy Named Sue" has set out to find and kill his absentee father.  Sure, they finally reconcile, but only after getting into a violent altercation.  I soon discovered that before country music became middle-of-the-road airbrushed junk, it was a soulful genre full of misfits, outcasts and other undesirables.  I've loved that music ever since, and I have "A Boy Named Sue" to thank for it.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

In Praise of LaTroy Hawkins

Baseball fans this season are well aware that this will be Mariano Rivera's last.  He is perhaps the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball, and along with Derek Jeter, the one constant on the Yankees going back to the 1990s.  While we are rightfully lauding Rivera for his accomplishments, there is another relief pitcher in his forties who also deserves some praise: LaTroy Hawkins.

He's not a household name and he has a losing record across his career, but there are only twenty-four other pitchers who have appeared in more games than him in the entire history of baseball.  If he appears in just nine more games this season, he'll be number 21 on the list.  This is a major accomplishment in a sport where most players who are signed to minor league contracts never play in the bigs, and most who make it to the show don't play more than a handful of seasons.  Hawkins, however, is in his nineteenth season at age forty.  To put that in perspective, he first started playing in the majors back in 1995, when the internet was for geeks, "The Rachel" dominated hair salons, and a gallon of gas cost $1.09.

Hawkins is the classic journeyman.  He has bounced from team to team, playing for the Twins, Cubs, Giants, Yankees, Astros, Orioles, Rockies, Brewers, Angels, and now the Mets.  He began his career as a starter, and the stats show a lot of struggles.  He then moved on to relief pitching as a closer for a short time, and then to middle relief, baseball's ultimate yeoman's work.  He thrived in that role, although took a lot of fan abuse during his time with the Cubs, despite being a local guy from Gary.  With the Cubs' closer Joe Borowski injured in 2004, Hawkins was tapped by manager Dusty Baker, even though he had struggled in the closing role.  Hawkins blew saves in some crucial games, which led to him getting booed and abused by Cubs fans in a way that I'd never seen before.  The Cubs faithful are notoriously laid-back and willing to accept losing, yet they jumped all over Hawkins, even accusing him of shirking.  This is odd, considering that he has appeared in so many games, season after season.  It could be argued that the intensity of the ire directed at Hawkins is par for the course for Cubs fans when comes to how they treat black baseball players.

Hawkins has pitched for almost a decade since leaving the Cubs without drawing a whole lot of attention to himself.  He's done what a journeyman does: play well enough to stay in the majors, and bounce around to whatever team needs your services.  It certainly isn't as glamorous as being an ace starter or shut-down closer, but doing it for nineteen years is just as impressive.  Let's face it, the vast majority of use are not stars, we are journeymen and journeywomen who rarely get much attention or praise for our daily toil.  We don't do our jobs for fame and recognition, but still want to do them right.  So I tip my hat to LaTroy Hawkins, from one journeyman to another.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Old Academe Stanley's Harsh Truths

I find several internet memes amusing, but I never had the chance to construct my own until Old Academe Stanley showed up, inspired by Old Economy Steve.  I was even there at Old Academe Stanley's creation and wrote some of the first quickmemes.  William Pannapacker (aka Thomas H Benton of the all-time classic "Grad School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go" fame) mentioned the idea on Twitter, constructed the template, and I very quickly jumped in.  Yes folks, this will likely be my one and only moment of internet near fame.

Like Old Economy Steve, Old Academe Stanley exposes the feelings of betrayal and anger in the younger scholarly generation over their elders' lack of empathy for, and even complicity in, their economic struggles.  In my many years in the academy, I met a lot of real Old Academe Stanley types who now provide plenty of meme ideas. I still remember the faculty meeting I attended when I was an assistant prof where a man who had been there since 1971 expressed puzzlement at how the number of classes taught by adjuncts had risen over the years, as if he hadn't been there the whole time!  Despite being clueless to the new realities of academia happening on his watch, he at least kept up on new scholarship and was well-known for teaching rigorous yet enlightening classes.  Two other elders in the department attained full prof without ever publishing a solitary thing.  In their day, they didn't even have to apply for tenure, it was just given to them!  One of the elders was such an awful teacher that his enrollments even in required surveys that students HAD to take were almost below the cut-off.  Another was known to give her ancient Egypt lecture to her modern Europe class and show up to class twenty minutes late and halfway in the bag on a consistent basis.  These folks were paid significantly more than me, and would be sitting on my tenure committee and judging my accomplishments, but would not be able to get a job in academia if they went on the market today.

I also recall a full prof with similar credentials with a campus radical twist at the school where I VAPed.  In response to a curriculum change mandated by the administration, he sent out a mass email to the whole department of Mario Savio's famous "throw yourselves on the gears" speech.  Fed up with being treated like an indentured servant by my department, I emailed him back to tell him that as an exploited visitor, I agreed with his viewpoint of the university as a capitalist machine.  His response?  He blew me off with a dismissive reply email.  That was confirmation of something I'd already seen in grad school: the "radical" politics of many professors stop at the university gates, or when it makes a dent in their pocketbooks.

A great many of these folks were actually nice people, but completely oblivious to their privilege and totally uninterested in doing anything about the horrible inequalities they benefitted from.  One exception was a guy where I VAPed who had been there since the late 1960s and actually treated us "visitors" as equals (which few did).  He even openly fought for our interests in department meetings, pushing to get us better pay and longer-term contracts.  At the same time, he was an unpublished full prof who gave his lectures without powerpoints or notes, claiming his style was "like jazz."  The students didn't seem to agree, or at least found it to be a kind of jazz as pleasing as the Albert Ayler variety.  As a VAP, my teaching evaluations were heavily scrutinized, so I did not have the luxury of being a scholarly jazz artist; I had to placate the little consumers as much as possible.  At least he was a stand-up guy and not a blatant hypocrite like the Neiman Marxists I so commonly encountered in academia.

My love of Old Academe Stanley is not necessarily indicative of hatred towards the people I've been discussing, but more anger and frustration at a system that refuses to listen to the grievances of those being destroyed by it while an older, oblivious generation glides into a retirement that people my age will never have.  It's an anger and frustration whose existence can be felt in the several quickmemes that have already been constructed.  I only hope that somehow this rage and resentment can be channeled into positive change and a better life for my academic generation.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Summer Songs

No season is so intimately connected with song as summer is.  We all have our favorite summer songs, and some summers can be instantly conjured up by certain tunes.  My father, for example, could never listen to "Monday Monday" by the Mamas and the Papas without waxing nostalgic about an epically great summer day spent canoeing the river with his buddies.  In that spirit, I'd like to offer a playlist of summer songs that resonate with me.

Wilco, "Heavy Metal Drummer"
Buried in every summer, especially as we age, are the memories of all the other summers that came before.  No song divines that nostalgia better than this one, describing past summers spent on the river landing listening to heavy metal bands.  The song's narrator obviously thinks that music's passe now, but in that knowledge he sighs that "I miss the innocence I've known."  Goddammit, I miss it too.  This song always brings me back to barbecues in grad school where we'd grill meat, drink beers, and end the night around a fire strumming guitars in sing-alongs.  Many of us were total Wilco freaks at the time, and at some point "Heavy Metal Drummer" would get played.  I was innocent back then, loving my studies despite my poverty, spending my days wrapped up in history and my nights with the best gang of people I've ever had the pleasure to know.  I wasn't thinking about the job market yet, and knew little of the travails and hardships it would bring me.  I was living in the moment and loving life, and even if my innocence then was stupid and ignorant, I would give anything to have one of those nights back.

Alice Cooper, "School's Out"
There is no moment of collective, almost orgasmic pleasure short of a sports championship that can match the last day of school.  Back in Nebraska, it always came right before Memorial Day, right at the point that the Plains winter frost had melted, but before the punishing blasts of July and August heat.  It was almost too much to experience the yearly moment of liberation at the exact time that the weather got the closest to perfect it would ever get in such a place.  This old Alice Cooper chestnut expresses the violent, insane joy of that day better than anything else.

The Cars, "Magic"
I probably associate this song with summer more than any other, and not just because the season is referenced in the lyrics.  Back before radio stations were programmed by computers, Top 40 stations often had hits that weren't new that they kept spinning with relatively high frequency for years afterward.  The pop station in my hometown played this tune pretty consistently up until the early 1990s.  While it represents the Cars' woeful transition from New Wave rockers to conventional pop act, it does provide the kind of blissful sugar high that you can only get from a pop song.

Rolling Stones, "Happy"
During my adolescent and college years, summer meant grueling summer jobs.  I detasseled corn for five summers in junior high and high school, then moved on the factory work in college.  My first factory job summer was between high school and college working swing shift at a stifling hot rubber parts factory.  When I tore outta that parking lot at 10PM covered in carbon black and three pounds of sweat lighter, I'd drop side two of Exile on Main Street in the tape deck and CRANK IT.  It starts with this tune, a rare Keith Richards vocal and an absolute barn burner about not wanting to "work for the boss every night and day."  It felt good.

Allman Brothers, "Midnight Rider"
With summer comes road trips, and I've had a few memorable ones.  During the summers I lived in Texas, I used to make the drive to Atlanta to visit my good friend Brian I, and in some cases went on to New Jersey from there.  Once I hit Georgia, I always liked to honor that state's greatest rock band with this song, which I could also use to pretend that I was an outlaw on the run.

Sam Cooke, "Summertime"
One my favorite things to do in the summer is to go to my in-laws' house, which is next to the woods.  They have a hammock set up under the tall trees, and when I lay in the shade on bright, sunny day and a soft breeze rustling the leaves, I can hear this song playing in my head.  I'm fond of telling people that anyone who doesn't like Sam Cooke has something wrong with them, his voice alone is a kind of Platonic, absolute good.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, evokes a little chillaxing in the hot months like this song.

Prince, "When Doves Cry"
The summer of 1984 comes back to me whenever I hear this song.  I liked it at the time, even though Prince's androgyny and sex obsession scared the hell out of me.  While it was a pop song, "When Doves Cried" seemed so ADULT, with all of his talk about resembling his parents' worst traits.  It was the kind of soul-baring thing rarely heard on pop radio, and I loved it.

Kenny Loggins, "Danger Zone"
This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure.  Whenever I hear it, I can only think of the summer of 1986, and more specifically, my family's trips to a local recreation area called Mormon Island, in honor of the travelers on the Mormon trail who passed through there along the Platte River in the 1840s.  Since this was Nebraska, the lake and beach there were man-made, and the water had a stagnant, unnatural quality to it.  I hated going there because I thought the water was disgustingly dirty.  (In fact, it is now closed to swimmers!)  So was the beach; one year my friends and I made a sand castle studded thickly with cigarette butts we found in the sand.  Back in '86 I was too young to stay at home alone and let the rest of my family go (which I did later), so I remember lots of afternoons at the beach with this song blasting out of a boom box on the radio.  Top Gun came out in the midst of my obsession with military aviation, so I sat in the blazing hot sand imagining myself piloting an F-14 Tomcat against the dreaded Soviets.  Little did I know that my escape from rural Nebraska would involve teaching history rather than shooting down MiGs.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why the Mets' 20 Inning Loss on Saturday Made Me a Believer

As I mentioned recently, I have decided to adopt the New York Mets as my local baseball team.  In that spirit on Saturday, after coming home from the local Portugese festival, I turned on the game to be the accompaniment of playing with my twin daughters on the carpet.  It was tied in the 8th at the time, and I hoped the Mets would pull it out.  It hit extra innings, and I kept putting off things I had to do so that I could see the end.  The innings kept passing, and the Mets kept getting runners on base, but they couldn't get their feeble bats to hit any of those runners home.  Finally, in the 19th, I had to get up and walk the dog, who was desperate to go the bathroom.  When I got home, it was all over, and the Mets had lost.  I was glad to have been spared such a frustrating moment, but strangely enough, I felt attached to my new fandom more strongly than ever.

That might sound kinda weird, considering the team I have committed myself to showed, yet again, its penchant for incompetence and futility.  There is something endearing, however, in such grandiose and extreme futility.  Any team can lose 2-1 after failing get runners home, it takes a special team to lost 2-1 in 20 innings while squandering an amazing relief pitching performance.  The Mets seem to have a real penchant for this kind of stuff.

I was recently rereading some old Roger Angell pieces (mostly because he's the best baseball writer ever), and found an amazing article he wrote in the mid-1960s comparing the Mets to the Yankees.  The Yankees were still the premier franchise in baseball, and the infant Mets were closer to their epically disastrous debut season than to their "Amazin'" World Series title in 1969.

Observing some spring training games, he heard a Yankees fan berating his team, and wrote this:

"I recognized the tone. It was knowing, cold, full of contempt that the calculator feels for those who don't play the odds. It was the voice of the Yankee fan...Over the years, many of their followers have come to watch them with the stolidity, the smugness, and the arrogance of holders of large blocks of blue-chip stocks. These fans expect no less than perfection. The cooly accept the late-inning rally, the winning homes, as their only due. They are apt to take defeat with ill grace, and they treat their stars as though they were executives hired to protect their interests."

That pretty much sums up my inability to root for the Yankees.

Angell had this to say, in turn, about the Mets and their (at the time, at least) rabid fans:

"Suddenly the Mets fans made perfect sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try -– antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me."

I heard that "foghorn" Saturday, and it agrees with me as well.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Track of the Week: Radiohead, "Pyramid Song"

The recent revelations about government surveillance of telephone and internet communications have been sending my mind reeling with memories of the Bush administration.  It is easy to forget today that such an irresponsible and palpably incompetent person was given practically untrammeled authority from September of 2001 to about the summer of 2005 (Katrina finally broke the spell after months of severe screw-ups and the deterioration of Iraq).  Hardly anyone in the mainstream media was willing to criticize him openly between 9/11 and his infamous "mission accomplished" moment.  In fact, even the more liberal news outlets seemed to be doing his bidding.  It was a reporter at the New York Times, Judith Miller, whose articles gave creedance to false claims about Saddam's nuclear ambitions.  During the invasion of Iraq, MSNBC had an American flag in the border of their screen, and actually hired the likes of Michael Savage.  When the Dixie Chicks were brave enough to criticize Bush on the eve of war, it almost destroyed their careers.

During those dark days, my already deep love for the brooding British band Radiohead intensified.  Their paranoid, skittish music, dripped with dread, and seemed to speak to the insanity of the times.  Strangely enough, the two albums I clung to most, Kid A and Amnesiac, were released in 2000 and 2001, before the towers fell.  Somehow these two albums had prophesied the world of nightmares that was to come.

On September 11th and on many days in the coming years, I found myself listening especially to "Pyramid Song" from Amnesiac.  The album is willfully difficult, and not loved by fans, but this particular song is by far the band's best.  It's based around a jazzy, minimalist piano figure and Thom Yorke's voice at its most keeningly eerie. The spare, haunting accompaniment, which is made up more of soundscapes than melodies, evokes a passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead.  The last lines, "there was nothing to fear/ nothing to doubt" make it sound like a relief to be done with the pains and deprivations of living.  I found the song strangely comforting.  When I listened to it, I could escape a world gone insane and contemplate something higher, something better, or at least something else.  A world where George W. Bush and his nefarious henchmen could be allowed to exploit tragedy and spin lies into wars seemed well-worth escaping.

Twelve years later, things do not seem to be as horrifying insane as they used to be, but the paranoia and fear that drenched that world have not left us, nor the tendency by those in positions of authority to exploit those fears to grab more power for themselves.  On a night like this, I just want to listen to "Pyramid Song" and escape.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

America's Empire is Bigger than President Obama

Today we received the news that the government has been using the Patriot Act to examine the phone records of Verizon customers.  This was upsetting, but hardly surprising.  Secret surveillance and the increasing reach of the national security state have been hallmarks of the so-called War on Terror for a dozen years now.  Although president Obama has stepped back from some of the most egregious policies of the Bush administration, such as extraordinary rendition and torture, he sends drones around the world to rain death from the sky and lets the NSA do all kinds of secret spying on American citizens.

It was not supposed to be this way.  Back in 2008 it looked to me like this former Constitutional law professor would get Guantanamo closed and pivot America away from the paranoia and destruction of civil liberties embodied by the Bush-Cheney years.  I was much too naive, and should have known better.

The one basic fact of our nation's politics during the last century has been America's status as an imperial power.  Every single president since McKinley has fought to maintain that empire, regardless of their political philosophy.  From the gunboat diplomacy of Teddy Roosevelt to the CIA's Cold War assassinations to the more recent taxis to the dark side, upholding this empire has meant abuses of power and the open flouting of the law of nations.  It has meant building up a national security state removed from political oversight and transparency, and no president, liberal or conservative, has managed to tame it, or ever will.

Imperialism is an American political fact of life.  America's empire will only cease once it collapses or is forced into retreat.  No one man, including the president of the United States, will ever have the ability to dismantle it or deny its relentless demands.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Requiem for a Dead Mall

Over the holidays, my wife and I trekked out with our daughters to my rural Nebraska homeland.  Since my spouse is a Jersey girl, and we wanted to walk a bit away from the biting plains winter wind, I took her to the local mall.

I hadn't been there in years, despite the fact that it was a major focal point of my teenage years.  I was not prepared for what I saw, although my dad warned us before going over that "you could fire a cannon there and not hit anyone."  There were only a handful of stores open, the rest just sat there empty.  The lights were dimmed, and most of the people there were folks over 50 getting in a little walking, not there to shop.

Back when I was a teenager, the mall was THE place to be.  It was always jam packed with people, making it the easiest way to come into casual contact with my acquaintances.  I spent hours in the local bookstore, bought some of the most important albums of my life at Musicland, watched some seriously formative cinematic treats at the multiplex, and plugged innumerable quarters into the machines at the video arcade.  The food court brimmed with restaurants, events were always taking place in the mall's central area, and there was always something to take in, a welcome thing in a town so isolated.  I attended baseball card shows there, broke some boards as part of a karate exhibition my dojo put on every year, and conducted demonstrations as part of the Cub Scouts.  It wasn't just commercial space, civic groups used it all the time.  In sum, the mall was our modern agora, the place where the people of my town came together as one.

Going back, I was struck by the lifelessness of it all.  The food court was barren, the promenade devoid of people, and the Kmart that anchored the mall could only be accessed from the outside, as if the rest of the mall was something to be embarrassed by.  When Kmart is afraid of being associated with you, you've really fallen as far as you can go.  Something I found especially striking was the flags lining the promenade, reflective of my hometown's reactionary, overdone patriotism that I thought could be interpreted as a subversive artistic statement.  This flag-festooned tomb of a mall might very well be a metaphor for the death of the American dream.

When I went home and talked to my parents about it, I was hardly surprised to find out that the mall was no longer locally owned, but had been bought up by a management company that obviously didn't care whether my hometown had its commercial agora or not, as long as a little rent money trickled back to the home office out of state.  Some of the stores moved back downtown, (including the bookstore), but most of the retail is out by the Wal-Mart on the edge of town.  It used to be common for cultural critics to decry malls, but at least they fostered a sense of community. My hometown mall is dead, and its citizens are much worse off for it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Fun With Old Beer Commercials

One of the best things about YouTube is the ability to look at old television advertisements. Nothing else is as good at really taking me back into the past, since I haven't seen most of these ads since when they were first aired.

As a young lad the foundations for my current love of beer were laid by commercials that made beer drinking seem to be about the coolest thing ever. My attraction to the world of these ads, along with how entranced I was at the smell of hops when my family toured the Coors brewery on a vacation should have been big warning signs for my parents. Without further ado, here are some vintage beer ads with commentary.

A decade before I had a drop of malted barley I had already considered the great taste vs. less filling debate waged in Miller Lite ads. My favorite is a bowling match between the various jocks featuring the one and only Rodney Dangerfield. It's a weird kid who adores a standup comedian whose schtick revolves around feelings of defeat that most people don't understand until they're quite a bit older.  I loved this commercial, even if I didn't recognize aging ex-sportsmen like Deacon Jones and Red Auerbach.

Much smoother than Rodney was Billy Dee Williams, especially when he shilled for Colt 45 malt liquor. Few other men could rock one of those ridiculous light-colored 80s sweaters and not look like a dork.  (Honestly, in my younger days I drank Old English and Mickey's rather than Colt 45. My grandpa preferred King Cobra, no kidding.) In my childhood I couldn't think of any greater authority on suaveness and success with the ladies than Lando Calarissian.  Someday I thought I would woo a young lady by taking her hand, giving it a kiss, and telling her "you truly belong here with us among the clouds." I also actually thought that "malt liquor" meant it was fancier than beer. After all, the badass cans of black and gold King Cobra in my grandpa's fridge looked a lot sleeker and cooler than those lame golden cans of Coors with the waterfall on them.  In the mind of a ten year old, a cobra beats a waterfall every time.  Now I know that Colt 45 "works every time" in the sense that it is guarnteed to cause a blinding hangover.

Perhaps even more misleading were the ads for Old Milwaukee, a brew I affectionately call "old swill." Their 1980s ads featured manly men conquering the great outdoors together and ending their day by drinking cans of Old Milwaukee that somehow magically appeared on the scene. The tagline was one of the most laughable ever: "It doesn't get any better than this." I beg to differ.

Like tobacco companies, brewers have never been above using animal mascots to pique the interest of children in their products. Before the Budweiser frogs, there was the original: the Hamm's Bear. Damn that's a catchy song.  For some reason in this ad, as in others, beer is associated with the great outdoors, perhaps to keep people from the knowledge that their macrobrewed swill is mass produced in a factory.  At least the Hamm's Bear is much more wholesome and less annoying than Spuds McKenzie.

Brewers also want to avoid reminding their customers of the negative effects of imbibing.  That's why it was a wee bit embarrassing in the late 1980s that Michelob had ads featuring Eric Clapton at the same time he went into rehab for boozing.  Perhaps more embarrassing, Michelob also hired Phil Collins and Genesis, not exactly a boost for the ol' hipness factor.  That said, the vintage MTV video editing style, poofy hair and t-shirts worn underneath white suite jackets does make this commercial a wonderful 80s time capsule.

And now for the just plain odd and disconcerting. A lonely biker guy combined with a classic song by Boston? Only in a Schlitz ad. (It's also another reminder that nothing was cooler in the 1980s than mirrored aviator sunglasses.)  Evidently Olympia was the beer of sixties bohemians. Last but not least, Schlitz Malt Liquor shows us that breakdancing and inebriation (with a dash of minstrelsy) are quite a mix.  It's sad to see the depths that Fred "Re-Run" Berry sank to.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Track of the Week: Traffic, "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys"

The hot sticky weather we experienced up here in the Garden State this weekend means that summer has arrived for good.  My moods and thoughts are strongly attuned to the seasons, perhaps as a consequence of having grown up on the Great Plains, where seasonal change is awesomely violent.  When the sun starts to crackle the back of my neck and the haze rises from the sidewalk, I aim to sit back in the shade with a bottle of a Belgian wheat beer (preferably Allagash) and listen to some appropriate music.

Over the years, Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" has shot to the top of the charts on my preferred summer chillaxation soundtrack.  It's a nice long tune, clocking in at over eleven minutes, and has the languid feel of a comforting summer breeze.  The low, jazzy groove slowly builds, like the condensation on my sweating bottle of beer, and the psychedelic, droning guitar is ever present like the rays of the hot sun. Just another example of why Traffic is one of the most criminally underrated bands in rock history.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Are We Witnessing the Persistence of the Southern Veto?

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am more and more convinced that regionalism has played a major part in America's history and its politics.  After all, regionalism led to this nation's most horrific and destructive war; you'd think that we would see such regional divides and divergent histories still having power after 1865.  Examples aren't hard to find.  Right now I am reading Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson, which examines the outsized influence that Southern politicians had on the New Deal.  Because FDR needed these politicians, New Deal policies often reinforced, rather than challenged white supremacy and the social hierarchy south of the Mason-Dixon line.

You could easily make a case that through most of this nation's history, the South has claimed and exercised a veto over national legislation.  It began all the way back in the drafting of the Constitution, which included a provision for the capture of fugitive slaves, as well as the 3/5s compromise.  During the 1830s, the "gag rule" in Congress kept the issue of slavery from even being discussed.  Reconstruction ended in 1877 largely due to the White South's refusal to alter the vaunted "Southern way of life."  At crucial moments, such as the Civil War and in the passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, that veto has been broken.

Of course, it wasn't for lack of trying.  Southern senators used the filibuster time and again to derail civil rights bills, or used their disproportionate seniority power on committees to prevent legislation they didn't like from even reaching the floor.  At the state level, governors like George Wallace actively resisted integration. Then as before, these politicians assumed that the federal government should not be allowed to make any laws that altered the South's social arrangement.

Although such claims are not being explicitly made today, we might well be seeing the persistence of this regional veto power.  A look at the electoral maps of the last two presidential contests shows a nation increasingly polarized on the basis of region.  Both McCain and Romney won the majority of Southern states, as well as the Great Plains and Mountain West, Colorado and New Mexico excluded.  These regions are extremely red, except for the so-called "black belt" of the South's cotton heartland, where the population is majority African American.  Based on my time in Texas and Nebraska, I can tell you that many folks there see themselves besieged by an out of control government led by a Kenyan usurper.  They see him and liberalism as threats to their way of life, and want to use any means necessary to derail president Obama's policies.

Many of the president's policies, such as gun control and expanded health insurance, go directly against accepted Southern (and to an extent, Western) social norms of an impoverished underclass willing to labor cheaply and ready access to firearms.  On the issue of gun control, support for new regulations was widespread, but the wave of filibustering and obstruction in the Senate meant that new measures required 60 votes rather than fifty. Unfortunately, the filibuster, long the weapon of choice against civil rights bills, was used quite effectively to nix gun control. In fact, traditionally the filibuster was used almost exclusively by Southerners to prevent civil rights legislation.

 Today's shenanigans not quite the same as the old regional veto, but they do  point to how badly fractured our politics are on regional lines, and how people in certain regions still feel that they have the right to veto things they don't like, even if the rest of the nation disagrees with them.  Back during the New Deal, this meant that Southern politicians bent national policy to their purposes, since they were at least in the same political party as FDR.  With the party of the South now the Republicans, the retention of regional veto power means nothing can get done.  Without meaningful reform, our political system will continue to give individual regions the power to stop the wheels of progress from moving.