Wednesday, October 30, 2013

More Evidence Of The Great Divide In Academia

I have been trying really hard not to let my old bitter, burning rage at academia ignite once again.  It had been getting so easy, I wondered whether it would ever come back, but something today changed things.  To quote Michael Corleone, just when I thought I was out, they keep pulling me back in.

I read Rebecca Schuman's most recent post which concerned a Chronicle of Higher Education columnist's recent piece on academic internet trolls.  The old bile-filled burning rage boiled up once again from my guts when I read that the columnist claimed that contingent faculty members were most to blame for the lack of civility among academics on the internet.  Her comments also seemed dismissive or just flat out ignorant of the struggles that have pushed so many contingent folks over the edge.

Reading those words in the Chronicle piece reminded me of something I wrote awhile back about the divide between those who have experienced contingent labor, and those who have not. They also reminded me more palpably of how some tenured folk treated me like a nameless peon when I was a contingent faculty member.  Many others at the same institution were nice to me and understanding, but most of those folks had done time in the contingent trenches themselves.

I am not sure what can be done to remedy this divide, because the lifeboater types, like all good Calvinists, think that they are God's elect and those drowning around them have brought their fates upon themselves.  I am reminded of a scene in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where the narrator, a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp, discusses how he tried to convince one of the foremen that it was far too cold to work that day.  The foreman refused to listen, to which the narrator responded "how can a man who is warm understand a man who is cold?"

In today's academia the only options are either to leave the rotten system, which is what I did, or start a revolution against it.  The privileged of the profession will never, ever see the light on their own.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Track of the Week: The Velvet Underground, "Rock and Roll"

I heard the news of Lou Reed's passing yesterday in the most appropriate fashion possible: on the radio.  My wife and I were driving home from a rare child-free outing, and I had WFMU and the Glen Jones Radio Program playing on the car stereo, as I do every Sunday afternoon.  He put on VU's "Black Angel's Death Song," which seemed like an odd choice, then broke the news.  Reed's passing has hit me harder than I would have thought, perhaps because death is looming over someone I love so much right now.

Part of the reason also might be that Reed and the Velvet Underground played a crucial role in my musical coming of age.  During my teenage years I kept reading about them in music magazines, and how great and influential their records were supposed to be.  Living as I did in the middle of nowhere in the pre-Internet age, I had no way accessing their music.  My first glimmer came with the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's biopic about The Doors.  I pretty much had all the songs on the album on other Doors records, but I bought it because in contained "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground.  I burned with the desire to know these legendary artists, and was not disappointed.

I had never heard anything like it before; it was like the gates of heaven opening up before me.  The drones, squalls of feedback, heartbeat drumming, and dirty subject matter were all revelations.  I knew from that moment I had to explore more.  My chance came the summer after my junior year of high school, while out on college visits.  I was with my parents in Omaha, visiting my eventual alma mater, where I made a detour to Homer's records and picked up a compilation album on cassette.  Buying it on tape might sound like an odd choice, but I had my Walkman with me, and I needed to listen to the music of the Velvet Underground immediately.

I first heard it through the headphones of my cheap Walkman as I rode in my family's car across the rolling hills of Iowa, the setting summer sun dappling the corn with orange light.  It was a scene a million miles removed from the gritty Manhattan of the songs, but a sublime accompaniment nonetheless.  The last song was "Rock and Roll," which would have been a big radio hit in a more just universe.

It's got a catchy hook and some of Reed's least monotone singing, but maintains a little of the glorious drone and repetition that VU was well known for.  The subject matter also can't be beat: someone being saved by hearing rock and roll on the radio.  Growing up as a bit of an outcast in an isolated town I can say that if it didn't save my life, it came pretty damn close.  Once I heard the Velvet Underground, though, my horizons suddenly broadened.  In just the time it took for that compilation tape to come an end with "Rock and Roll," my appreciation of music had changed.  I sought out the arty and challenging side of music, and never looked back. I've got to thank Lou Reed for that. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Scene From My Commute That Says A Lot About America's Moral Failure

My daily commute from the Ironbound in Newark to the Upper West Side of Manhattan has become so rote that I hardly notice anything along the way to work and back.  While on the train I am absorbed either in a newspaper or book, headphones firmly planted on my ears.  Once my morning train pulls into the polluted, congested rabbit-warren of Penn Station I am focused on rushing through its grimy tunnels to get to my subway train. In that state of single-minded focus, I get tunnel vision, and I don't notice a whole helluva lot.

However, on Friday, I saw something that I could not ignore.  As I bounded through the subway turnstiles and rounded the corner to the stairs to the uptown bound 3 train, I saw a homeless man (an all too common sight in Penn Station) sitting dejectedly between an incredibly gaudy poster for the reality show The Shahs of Sunset.  The whole poster was gold colored, with the titular reality tv personalities standing confidently around a pyramid of glasses brimming with champagne.  It is an image that so perfectly captures the amoral, materialistic excess that is the one value that our feckless economic elite holds scared.  That image made quite a contrast with the indigent man forced to bed down in a dirty tunnel.

I am well aware that New York City presents examples of its extremes of wealth and poverty every day, signs and signals that have become so common to me that I barely notice them anymore.  This particular sight has stuck with me because it's indicative of the ways our entertainment industry aids and abets the increasingly ironclad class system in our country.  There are so many reality television shows about wealthy bores with endless reservoirs of crass narcissism.  I know people who claim to like them who say they see them as ways to mock the wealthy, or as simple escapism.  However, the more we see such self-centered materialism on television, the more that behavior is normalized and even implicitly justified.

Not to preach too much of a jeremiad, but I really and truly think that there is a moral cancer in our society that I fear may be inoperable.  Greed and selfishness have become virtues, and the plight of those who suffer from the greed perpetuated in this country are left on the dung pile to rot.  Even worse, many more people would rather follow the lives of materialistic moral cripples on television rather than contemplate the man sleeping in a dirty subway staircase, or bother to think they are much more likely to be in his shoes than topping off a champagne pyramid.  Until there are more people who feel moral outrage at elites living to excess while others starve than there are people who follow what TMZ has to say about the Real Housewives of New Jersey, nothing is going to change.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tales of Baseball's Demise Have Been Wildly Exaggerated

Jonathan Mahler wrote a piece recently for the New York Times called "Is the Game Over?' that has received entirely way too much attention.  The article's thesis is that while baseball is profitable and its games are well-attended, it no longer occupies the primary place in American culture it once did.  Well, duh.  I've been reading statements like this for the past quarter century or so, and they are hard to deny.

It is indisputable that the NFL is now America's primary spectator sport; fifteen million people tuned in to see an abortion of a game on Monday between the Giants and Vikings.  People just don't watch the NFL draft, they will even spend some of the few precious hours they have on the earth watching the players do tests in the draft combine.  The Super Bowl is the highest rated event on television every year.

While I 've watched pro football for as long as I've been watching television, I must say I am a little flummoxed by the current level of the game's popularity.  The ball is in play for only eleven minutes of an average NFL game, and for less than the running time of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"in pigskin action fans must endure over an hour of commercials.  The games seem to last longer than ever, mostly due to the need to sell lite beer.  Great moments on the field are immediately followed by interminable instant replay challenges.  We are also more aware than ever of the human costs of pro football, and how the storied gladiators of the gridiron will often end up brain damaged, suicidal, or physically incapacitated.  The more fluid, beautiful, and exciting game of basketball is no challenge to football's supremacy, but if it hasn't eclipsed basketball in popularity yet, it likely soon will.

However, I am not here to diss pro football or praise basketball, but to point to the less obvious reasons why baseball will continue to be healthy and should not be considered a sport in decline.  In the first place, a lot of people go to the games.  No team in the majors drew fewer than 1.5 million fans this year, but thirty years ago nine teams (about a third of the majors) failed to reach that mark.  I keep hearing complaints, mainly justified, that tickets just keep getting pricier.  However, more and more folks are coming to games.  The reasons are pretty obvious.  Going to the ballpark is a great experience, one that is more enjoyable than going to a football or basketball game.  It's just a great, relaxing place to be on a summer's day, and cheaper than other pro sports.

In fact, the timing of baseball's season is one secret to its long-term health.  During the height of summer, from mid-June until early September, it's pretty much the only game in town.  It dominates the time of year when people have the most leisure time, and most desire to go out and have a good time.  Baseball and summer are practically inseparable, and as long as there are summer days in this country and a ballpark to go to, baseball will always be fine.

Fun in the summer sun will always draw in the casual fans, but as far as the more devoted fanatics go, those who care about baseball care about it more than the devotees of football and basketball.  Just look at the number of books about baseball compared to other sports, the arguments about it, the numerous analysts using their brilliant mathematical minds to compile statistics.  I do know of NFL fans who truly care about the game, its intricacies, and its history, but they are a decided minority.  Most people who watch the NFL are more interested in big hits than in x's and o's.  There are plenty of folks I know who can dissect a playbook, but there's a much bigger percentage of baseball fans who know sabremetrics.  Its language has even entered into the musty realms of the broadcast booth.

Part of why baseball matters more to the people it matters to is the sport's unmatchable historical legacy.  That legacy gives it an aura of meaning that other sports lack.  Even with the decline in baseball's importance, Barry Bonds' eclipse of Hank Aaron's home run record mattered more than any record that exists in either basketball or football.  Accusations of steroid use led to Congressional hearings, the concussion problem in football has not prompted something similar.  This is the case because baseball still has a special status, and its supposed purity is still a matter of public concern.  Nobody really cares about football records, nor do they bother to hold its behavior to a high standard.

So yes, baseball has been eclipsed by the NFL, and maybe the NBA, too.  That well-established fact should not fool us into thinking that baseball is somehow irrelevent, or entering decline.  The World Series will never get the Super Bowl's ratings, but no moment in any Super Bowl, past, present or future, will ever mean as much as Boston breaking the Curse of the Bambino, Bill Mazerowski's seventh game homer, or Bobby Thompson's "shot heard 'round the world."  That's hardly a sign of irrelevance.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ready to Go Home

I am listening to "I'm Ready to Go Home" by the Louvin Brothers tonight after talking to my grandmother, who's living and soon to be dying a half a continent away back in Nebraska.  She hadn't been doing well, but things have taken a turn for the worse.  She told my mother today that she's ready to go to heaven.  So tonight, I sit in my city apartment "back East" above a busy street, police sirens and car stereos blasting and think of the deathly quiet, Bible-black skies of my Great Plains homeland looking over my grandmother, and wish there was some way I could be there with her.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Track of the Week: The Carpenters, "We've Only Just Begun"

Back when I still thought certain things I liked were "guilty pleasures," The Carpenters were one of my guiltiest.  My abiding love came from my childhood, mostly because they were my Mom's favorite and their music was the soundtrack to my happy years pre-Kindergarten, before school and my peers made my life miserable.  On so many mornings I can remember sitting on the yellow and green linoleum floor in the kitchen with a cassette of the Carpenters' greatest hits playing while my mother went about her chores.  Once I got older and developed my own musical tastes and began to eschew anything on the Top 40, I got a little ashamed of my love of the Carpenters, even though many of my indie rock heroes had contributed to the If I Were a Carpenter tribute album.

After growing up some more, I realized that I like what I like because I like it, and there's no reason to feel guilty about it.  In any case, The Carpenters produced some gorgeous pop tunes, with "We've Only Just Begun" near the top.  Yes, this song was written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, but Karen Carpenter gives it a stunning vocal performance that is uniquely sublime.  I still get gooseflesh at the way she croons "And when the evening comes..."  Even at a young age, I thought it was a song that spoke of the joyful possibilities of life like few others.  My little four-year old soul was always lifted when I heard it.

It's an appropriate song today, when marriage equality is finally a reality in my state of New Jersey. "We've Only Just Begun" is ostensibly about a couple starting their new lives together, and I'm sure it will played at many weddings today.  As a society, we've only just begun to learn to let all people live with dignity; on this day of hope I pray that we can keep moving towards a more humane and equitable society.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Conservatives May Have Actually Won the Shutdown

Great relief resounded throughout the land this week when the GOP hardliners finally stood down.  I myself took great heart in the fact that the Republicans had demanded a stop to Obamacare, and ended up getting nothing.  I gloated with and high-fived my progressive friends, happy to see the Tea Party get its due.

After some reflection, however, I've come to realize that these feelings may have been premature.  While the Tea Party types did not get what they wanted, I doubt they will face any real consequences.  Gerrymandering makes it difficult to flip most districts, and the election won't be until next year anyway.  Our amnesiac voting public and its ever-shortening attention span will ensure that this latest episode in right-wing perfidy will slide right on into oblivion.  The US almost went to war with Syria a month ago, but nobody is even talking that conflict on these shores anymore.

Not only will Republicans not be punished, they might well be in a better place now because of the shutdown.  This does not mesh with conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom is never to be trusted.  The answer is simple: conservatives have, yet again, determined the parameters of our national political discourse.  After Sandy Hook they managed to swat away a much-desired look at gun control.  Despite the fervent hopes for immigration reform across the country, Congress hasn't even come close to passing legislation.  Now, in the aftermath of the shutdown, all talk centers around budget and taxation.

These are the bread and butter issues of modern conservatism, and the ground where conservatives would prefer to fight.  During the 2012 presidential election,  Mitt Romney took great pains to make his campaign a referendum on the budget.  He nominated Paul Ryan, the posterboy of modern-day Reaganomics, to be his running mate and lend credibility on the issue.  While most Americans don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with Republicans on this issue, the GOP gets into serious trouble with the electorate when it comes to issues like women's rights, gun control, and immigration.  If the national political conversation begins to take up these topics, the Republicans know that their goose is cooked.  Hence, they must do everything they can to prevent them from even being discussed.

The shutdown basically accomplished that.  Now in Congress there will be nothing but budget and taxation-related action, and if there is another Sandy Hook or Syria, no worries, since the deadline for another continuing resolution to fund the government is always around the corner.  The rest of us will be forced to make concessions to head off another hostage crisis, and all other issues will fall by the wayside.  It is an unfair and dangerous strategy, but will continue to happen for the simple reason that it works.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Letting Go Of My Post-Academic Rage

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure to go to Pittsburgh and hang out with two friends who I met while in the contingent faculty trenches.  Like front veterans we traded war stories over beers and remembered some of the more ridiculous indignities we've suffered.  At some point I asked my buddies, who are both regular readers of this blog, which kinds of posts they like best, since I've been unsure of which direction to go in recently.  Both of them told me that while my three foci have been politics, music, and academia, it might be time to give writing about academia a rest.

I've long thought the same thing, except that whenever I write my screeds about academia, they tend to get the most traffic.  They've also been very satisfying, a kind of exorcism of the bitterness and hate left over from my experience in higher ed.  However, I think my friends are right.  I am more than two years removed from that world, and am fast losing touch with it.  My life has gone on, and it has gone on in a much better direction than I could have possibly imagined.

I've known this over the last two years, but it was so hard to let go of the rage.  My absolute blinding anger over what I was put through has faded a bit, but I still feel a knot in the pit of my stomach over my dear friends who are still being wronged by what must be the most hypocritical and exploitative profession in America today.

Those feelings haven't gone away, but there are other people out there still in the trenches who are closer to the action and better suited to sound the alarm about academia's complete and utter moral bankruptcy.  I also know in my heart of hearts that as angry and aggrieved as I have been at my treatment, that I just can't see myself having taken another path in life as a young person.  I met the best people I've ever known along the way, expanded my mind, and rubbed shoulders with some truly fantastic scholars, my advisor included.

Then again, now that I am buying a house I sometimes think about how much easier it would be to pay for it had I not squandered my 20s in the academic monastery.  After bitterly contemplating this fact, I also tell myself that what I experienced was priceless.  My rational mind replies by telling me that thought could just be a load of bullshit, and maybe it is.  But it's what I've had to tell myself so as not to get swamped by regret, and it helps me better appreciate what I have now.  Anger and bitterness weigh down the soul, and if I am going to be a good teacher, husband, and father, it's time to stop rueing the slings and arrows of my academic past, and just let it slide into oblivion.  That chapter of my life is over and done, and I'd prefer to let its pages get a little dusty.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Conservatives Finally Have Their Rendezvous With Destiny

I recently assigned Ronald Reagan's famous speech supporting Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election to one of my classes.  This speech, known alternatively as "A Time For Choosing," "The Speech" and "Rendezvous With Destiny" suddenly struck me with its relevance.  Reagan spoke during the conservative movement's infancy, and the man he spoke for went on to take one of the worst clubbings of any presidential candidate in this nation's history.  A short sixteen years later, and Reagan would be president.  This very night the operation of the government and its ability to pay its debts are being held hostage by the political descendants and disciples of Reagan and the conservative movement.

In re-reading the speech, I noticed the extreme binaries it contained, and the assertion, made time and again, that America faced destruction if it did not deviate from the path of big government.  Responding to the New Deal and Great Society, Reagan claimed that the Democratic party had changed from the party of Jefferson and Madison to the party of Marx and Stalin.  Anything to the left of conservatism was socialism, and socialism inevitably led down the path to totalitarianism.  I hear much the same rhetoric today from the hard-liners in Congress, who consider the modest (and quite conservative) reforms of Obamacare to be a major step down the road to serfdom.

Just sample this extended section, where Reagan promotes an aggressive Cold War policy in the face of Communism, which closes the speech:

"You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin -- just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard 'round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn't die in vain....You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.  We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness."

Again, there's a binary between good and evil, and the notion that not to take extreme measures to defend conservative principles means enslavement.  Of course, when Reagan himself took power he compromised many of his principles.  He raised taxes to shore up Social Security, he left Medicare alone, and he offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants.  You can bet your bottom dollar that he would have been drummed out of today's Republican party.

As much as I dislike Reagan, I do think that at some point he realized that governing was about more than preserving ideological purity, and that it was not the all or nothing "rendezvous with destiny" he had once described.  Today's conservatives, however, really and truly still abide by this mental frame.  I think that they really do see the Affordable Care Act as a step towards a new socialist order, and that their actions are extreme, but justified to protect the nation's very soul.  I really and truly think that if the debt limit is exceeded, and the government then defaults and crashes the economy, the likes of Ted Cruz will say thirty years from now that their extreme actions saved the country, much like the patriot minutemen at Concord.  Fifty years after Goldwater, conservatives are finally getting the political Armageddon they've always wanted.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Track of the Week: The Replacements, "Bastards of Young"

This afternoon, as I usually do on a Sunday when I'm driving around the roads of the Garden State, I had WFMU on the radio.  In the midst of a typically stellar line-up of songs by famed DJ Glen Jones, he dropped "Bastards of Young" by the Replacements.  It was a reminder of the magic of radio, where a song can come out of the blue and make your day without you even being able to anticipate it.  I hadn't heard the song in awhile, but it turns out it was just what I needed.

"Bastards of Young" is one of my all-time favorite songs on one of my favorite albums by one of my favorite bands.  It's also one I associate with October, since it was way back in the autumn of my freshman year of college that I picked up a copy of Tim and proceeded to play the hell out of it.  The Minnesota based 'Mats embodied a certain kind of Midwestern drunken fatalism, one I certainly engaged in during my young bohemian years.  That attitude came out in their sound, which is unlike anything else.  They played trashy-punk rock, but threw in Kiss covers like "Black Diamond" to prove they weren't that hip after all.  They always sounded like they were about to fall apart, and on alcohol-soaked piss takes like "Treatment Bound," they did.  And yet they were capable of true greatness, somehow getting it together long enough to craft beautiful ballads like "Within Your Reach" and "Here Comes a Regular."

"Bastards of Young"would have been a big hit in an alternate, cooler universe.  It is a kind of Generation X call to arms, a commentary on young people left unclaimed by their elders.  The riff is a real blockbuster, the chorus a singalong worthy of U2's 1980s heyday.  It's an underground, snotty punk rock version of "Born in the USA," filtred through Gen X cynicism rather than Boomer anomie, and I still love it after all these years.  Hearing it come out of my car radio made me think for a moment that a cooler, alternate universe is still possible, which was maybe the most fervent hope of my own bastardized youth.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Classic Albums: The Kinks, The Kink Kronikles

Doing a profile of a compilation album seems to go against the raison d'etre of my Classic Albums series, since compilations are not usually artistic statements, but rather an agglomeration of recordings meant to make a buck or provide an easy entre for new listeners.  There are some compilations, however, that really stand up on their own, and even enhance older material by placing it in a new context.  The Kink Kronikles is just one of these albums.

The title is a bit misleading, since it does not cover the band's famous, rip-roaring early singles like "You Really Got Me," "All Day And All Of The Night," and "I Need You."  Instead, it chronicles the period between 1966 and 1970, when the Kinks made their best music while losing their stateside audience.  During this period lead singer Ray Davies' gaze turned inward, his albums becoming sociological statements on contemporary British life.  The music started borrowing heavily from English music hall traditions and referenced things like village greens and holidays in Blackpool, not exactly most accessible things for Americans.  The pictures of the royal palace guards on the front and back may thus be taken as less quaint illustrations and more a statement of purpose.

Despite focusing on such a brief, obscure (for Americans) and popularly shunned period in the band's career, The Kink Kronikles is a double album, a kind of argument to take their music of that era seriously.  It does not follow any kind of chronological order, and it does not simply collect the hits, mostly since there are so few to go around.  There are singles, both from albums and stand alones, previously unreleased tracks, and B-sides.  It misses many of the best Kinks songs of the era ("Some Mother's Son" is glaringly absent) but I can think of no better introduction to the Kinks' late sixties years.

Unlike many other compilations, great care seems to have been taken with the track sequencing.  For ecample, the rollicking "Victoria" gets things started off right, and side one of the first record ends with "Waterloo Sunset," one of the most beatifically gorgeous ballands ever written.  In between there are several previously unreleased tracks, but nothing feels forced or out of place.  Flip that record over, and the much peppier "David Watts" raises the curtain on side two, providing a new arc that ends with the bouncily whimsical "Did You See His Name," an unreleased song that closes out the first record on an appropriately abrupt note  The second record finishes with "Days," an elegiac song thankful for the days we have lived with loved ones gone, and just about the most perfect song you could ever choose to tie up a long collection of The Kinks' output.  For these reasons, the first time I heard this album, I thought it sounded nothing like a compilation at all.

I keep returning to The Kink Kronikles during this time of year because it calls forth memories of my first autumn as a PhD student living in Urbana, Illinois.  One day I went to a local, now sadly defunct bookstore, and picked the album up out of a desire to better acquaint myself with a band I'd only known from their Top 40 hits.  I was looking for a copy of Something Else, since I'd heard it was their best, but couldn't find it there, and figured that a compilation would give me more bang for my buck.  Whatever the reasons, I instantly fell in love, and listened to this album more than anything else for about a year.  It was a good year spent basking in the glow of the scholarly mission, years before I was aware of the hardships of the academic job market.  I met some wonderful friends and had some great times with them, and hearing these songs puts me back into those golden months more than anything else.  Perhaps too it's Ray Davies' nostalgic tendencies, ones I continue to increasingly indulge in myself as I get older.  Davies' waxes for the village green, I yearn for the innumerable backyard gatherings of friends, and I thank them for the days (and nights) they gave me.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Forget Ted Cruz, John Boehner Is The Real Villain

Rarely do extremists ever get a majority of the public to support their agenda.  To get power, they must attract more mainstream allies who can see a possible benefit in joining with extremists.  Historically, this has led to some pretty awful things.  For example, Italian elites were willing to support Mussolini, seeing his Fascist hordes as a bulwark against the Left.  For years northern Democrats were willing to bend over backwards to please their Dixiecrat wing, even if it meant not pushing for anti-lynching legislation.  Power is a drug, and those threatened with losing their connection to it will make all kinds of dirty deals with all kinds of unsavory characters to maintain their positions.

That is exactly what we're seeing in Washington this week.  The Tea Party extremists like Cruz, King, and Bachmann are getting the blame, but they would not have been able to shut down the government without the machinations of John Boehner.  As Speaker of the House, he has control over what legislation reaches the floor, and he has totally refused to allow a vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government.  I have no doubt that plenty of moderate Republicans would join Democrats in voting for it, which would bring a quick end to an entirely avoidable crisis.  The nation would win, but Boehner would most certainly lose.  The Tea Party base of the GOP, along with some of its hardline moneymen, would call for his orange head on a pike.

Conversely, great things are done by politicians with the courage to do the right thing, even if it means losing power.  Lyndon Johnson admitted that the Civil Rights Act would lose the South for the Democrats, but he knew it had to be done.  Back in the late 1800s, Illinois governor John Altgeld pardoned the three surviving members of the group of eight anarchists convicted of the Haymarket bombing on scant evidence.  He was rewarded with the kind of vitriol pictured below, and lost the governorship.  However, it was much more important to him that three innocent people were not put to death.  Justice trumped personal gain, as it should.

It is easy and fitting to blame ideological extremism and hyper-partisanship for our current impasse, but much of it boils down to pure venality.  That the future of this country could be hanging in the balance over such base motives might be the most depressing thing of all about this mess.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Re-post: Cranky Bear Pines For the Commonwealth

Editor's Note: My angry and impolitic friend and frequent guest poster Cranky Bear has not sent me one of his missives in quite awhile.  Perhaps he'a already in hibernation for the year, or is starting to mellow out with age.  In any case, the recent manufactured budget crisis has got me thinking about whether the United States would be better off in a parliamentary democracy.  Cranky actually wrote about this topic way back in early 2011, and it still seems all too relevant today.

Cranky Bear here, hyperactive with espresso in his veins (this machine is the best Christmas gift I could have hoped for.) I've been thinking long and hard about the horrific events in Tuscon, and in the spirit of the moment, I will tone down my normally acidic vitriol. I find that when caffeine rather than booze is my drug of choice I cuss a lot fucking less (but never give it up completely.)

I've spent two years watching the Tea Party buffoons claim the legacy of the Founders, to the point where some of them want to restrict the vote again, and crow that this country is a republic, not a democracy. (Of course, these things are not mutually exclusive, but complexity of thought has never been a teabagger attribute.) As I said in my debut post, this country has a long history of violent, racist populism. Its current practitioners like to say they are "the people," but they really mean something more to the German word "Volk" with its connotations of racial community.

Anyone with half a brain is aware of the schizoid nature of the American Revolution and its legacy. Thomas Jefferson wrote the words "all men are created equal," but he was also a slaveholder who very often proclaimed the inequality of races. Although the revolutionaries claimed to fight for freedom, they did not intend freedom for all. It was the British, not the colonists, who encouraged slaves to leave their masters and protected their freedom. (Dr. Johnson put it best at the time, "Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?") It was the British, not the colonists, who wanted to limit the slaughter of Native Americans, one reason the colonists were fighting for independence! Although modern conservatives like to claim Tocqueville as an apostle of exceptionalism, they forget his scathing critiques of America's hypocrisy in regards to the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans. These contradictions, which great people like Dr. King and others have tried to unravel, remain with us today.

If you compare the political culture and strength of mythologized nationalism of America to its wealthy peer nations, the differences are striking and alarming. For example, could you even imagine anything like the Tea Party in contemporary Canada? If a political movement in modern-day Germany used the talk radio rhetoric of insurrection, "second amendement remedies," etc., it would be anathema. Any politician spurring that movement with talk of "real Germans" or "don't retreat, reload" would become a pariah and would be kicked out of any of the four major parties (Left and Right) for saying such things. Because of their history, Germans are aware that violent rhetoric has consequences. Our history ought to teach us that lesson too, but because most of the public views our history as one long string of victories for freedom, we never will. After Vietnam there was a window of opportunity where the triumphalist narrative could have been laid low, but it passed.

This is why I now think what to most Americans is unthinkable: America would be better off if it did not achieve independence from Britain. It would have been ideal if right after Lexington and Concord the British leadership offered self-governance for America in exchange for continued loyalty to the crown. We like to think that our nation's war for independence was some kind of great blow for human liberty, making America a beacon of freedom to the world.


The American Revolution did not extend freedom, it merely formalized freedoms that already existed, and did little to challenge the racial, class, and gender inequality of colonial society. Yes, Americans got to rule themselves, but the Canadians basically managed to do the same thing after a rebellion in 1837.

I am well aware of the horrors perpetrated by the British Empire during the 19th century, but they were no worse than those committed on the American frontier. The British also happened to abolish slavery thirty years before the United States, and did it without massive bloodshed. Two court cases provide an apt comparison: those of James Somerset and Dred Scott, both enslaved men who sued for their freedom in court.

We all know what happened in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision: even though Scott had lived on free territory for much of his life, he was denied his freedom. Furthermore, the court ruled that black people simply did not have any rights vis a vis whites. Somerset's case dates all the way back to the 1770s, and his circumstances were remarkably similar. He had lived as a slave in England, and when his master tried to take him back to the Caribbean, he resisted. In Somerset's case, the court ruled that there was no precedent in English common law to uphold slavery, and all slaves in England were thus emancipated. This was in 1772, a full eighty-five years BEFORE Dred Scott. Yes, the English participated the horrific slave trade, but they did finally ban it in 1806.

We like to tell ourselves that America is a uniquely free place, but our history simply does not bear that assertion out. We have not had equal voting rights for even fifty years! (The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, for crying out loud.) We love to pride ourselves as an egalitarian society whose top echeolons represent a kind of meritocracy. Any trip to this nation's many ghettoes, barrios, Indian reservations, dying rural towns, and trailer parks ought to confirm George Carlin's immortal quip, "It's the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

And in the midst of an economic hurricane austerity is the order of the day. The investment bankers who got us into this mess are back to giving themselves record profits, but here in Texas, where 25% of the population lacks health insurance, the sate is slashing Medicaid instead of spending a single cent of its $9.4 billion "rainy day fund." I'd say the current situation qualifies as a fucking downpour.

The reasons, of course, are blindly ideological, a belief that government is somehow inherently evil. Which brings us back to the American Revolution. The Tea Party, which is merely an echo of a long-established tradition of violent, nationalistic, Herrenvolk populism, has reinterpreted the American Revolution in its favor. The radical Right sees America as a nation where "the people" must always be ready to raise arms against "tyranny," which they interpret as any government expenditure that might somehow help out somebody else.

Like the masses who supported Andrew Jackson, who ethnically cleansed the Cherokee, they support government action when it benefits themselves or is used to slaughter brown people. These supposed libertarians support the maintenance of the biggest war machine in history and its war of choice in Iraq, they supported the warrantless wiretapping of the last administration, they voiciferously oppose closing down an illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, but if the government tells insurance companies to abide by new regulations, that's tyranny! They claim to be against entitlements, but see no hypocrisy in drawing Social Security, Medicare, and in having gotten their boost into the American middle class via public education.

So I ultimately agree with James Madison, who promoted the Constitution's ability to tamper down faction and keep the ignorance of the masses in check. I just think that the Commonwealth would have been a much more effective restraining influence on the violent populism that dares to claim the mantle of freedom. Instead of our unwieldy system, with its Senatorial "holds," the ridiculous electoral college, and a legislative body where Wyoming gets the same number of representatives as California, we might have a proper Parliament, like most of the rest of the democratic world.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Track of the Week: "The Baseball Boogie"

 This weekend I had the great fortune to be in Pittsburgh, hanging out with two great friends I made during my all too brief two-year time in Michigan.  One lives on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, while the other came up from Georgia.  We all met as contingent faculty, which meant that we were all scattered to the four corners of the country within three years of us meeting.  Only one of us still remains in academia.

Last night we repeated a ritual that we had developed on long winter Saturday nights in Michigan.  After knocking back a few beers, we gathered 'round the computer and started sharing YouTube clips.  This time around we threw out some new ones, but also went back to some old reliables that still retain their power.  "The Baseball Boogie," a music video featuring the 1986 Los Angeles Dodgers, probably won the night yet again, both for its ridiculousness and for provoking memories of our fun times together.

People of a certain age may remember "The Super Bowl Shuffle," a godawful rap video featuring the 1985 Chicago Bears, who went on to back up their bragging with a 15-1 run and an NFL title.  Unfortunately, other sports teams saw this and decided to come up with their own team songs.  The Dodgers, being in LA, put out "The Baseball Boogie," which is not a boogie at all, but a lifeless 1980s R&B number with more gloss than a copy of Vogue.  Highlights include Pedro Guererro's Mr. T starter-set jewelry, Orel Hersheiser's pelvic thrusting, Steve Sax's blow-dried middle-parted 80s coif, and Jerry Reuss looking like a coked out grandpa.  Oh yeah, there's also plenty of terrible rapping and cheesy mugging for the camera.

Last night I spent the whole video laughing myself hoarse.  It wasn't just the ridiculousness of the proceedings, but sharing something with old friends who "get" me in ways that nobody here in Jersey apart from my wife can understand.  Great friends, and supremely cheesetastic videos such as these aren't easy to find, and should be cherished.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Classic Albums: Television, Marquee Moon

There is nothing like the thrill of revisiting an old favorite album after too much time apart, and realizing it was just as good, or even better than you always thought it to be.  That experience happened to me yesterday during my commute home.  I was waiting for the subway and scrolling through my old, 2007 vintage iPod, and decided to give Television's Marquee Moon a spin.  I'd been listening to a lot of Velvet Underground, so I guess I was in the mood for something New York punky.

"See No Evil" got off to its rollicking start as I hopped on the 1 train, and the combination of its exhilarating push and the subway train's rushing down the track brought the glory of this song home to me in a way I'd never felt before.  I first heard the song as part of the storied Rhino records punk compilation series (sadly out of print) as was completely floored.  I thought of punk as basic three chords heavy music, but these guys had chops, and the guitar solo that the song builds up to in a frenzied climax has got to be one of the most sublime things I've ever heard in my life.  Jimi Hendrix's epic introduction to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" is the only rock guitar moment that beats it, for my money.

Hearing that song in high school on a New York punk compilation intrigued me, but considering I lived in rural Nebraska before the internet age, I couldn't get my hands on any Television albums.  That changed on my German class trip the summer after I graduated, where I found myself buying up obscure punk records with every spare moment.  I bought Marquee Moon for 120 kroner on a day trip to Malmo, Sweden.  (I bought Jimi Hendrix's Life at Monterey the same day, so I guess I hit paydirt on that trip.)  I didn't get a chance to hear it until I got back home to the states.  After the blazing "See No Evil" finished, I didn't know what I was going to hear next.  The unexpectedly mid-tempo and gorgeous "Venus" followed, and I think that's where I really got hooked on Television.  The guitars have a wondrous, ringing tone to them, echoing the classic beauty of the Venus de Milo referenced in the song.

The third song, "Friction," goes back to the punky, nervy edginess of "See No Evil," but it's a smooth transition.  Just as Television broke from the punk pack with their guitar heroics, they also had a much more sophisticated grasp of rhythm than their CBGBs peers.  In a lot of ways, they took the good elements from prog rock (musicianship, complex rhythms) and filtered them through the gritty punk aesthetic.  Punks were supposed to hate prog rock and its frippery, but Television managed to have a touch of Genesis without losing their street cred.

And speaking of prog rock, Television followed "Friction" with an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer worthy epic, the eponymous title track.  Stretched out longer than ten minutes, it starts of sounding like the Cadillac of the lyrics, slinking through the dark city streets, before being transformed into a flying saucer soaring the stars.  There are few ten minute songs that are so intense that they sound like five minute songs, and this is among them.  It also weirdly showcases Tom Verlaine's voice, which can be described most charitably as "unorthodox."  His slightly quacking tone actually seems to work here, adding to the macabre sense of midnight dread.  Thus closes out what might be the best side one of any record in my collection.

Even if side two can't match such heights, it's still really, really damn good.  The guitars on "Elevation" end up burning like magnesium flares after beginning the song casting the subtler light of tapered candles.  "Guiding Light" breaks from the punk script with some piano at the center of a tender, lovely ballad, which still has room for an absolutely soul stirring solo at the end.  "Prove It" artfully brings back the New York nerves, and "Torn Curtain" begins with an epically sublime guitar figure that sounds, well, like the curtain guarding the holy of holies being ripped.

There just isn't much out there better than this.  Marquee Moon also has a sentimental spot in my heart, since I was listening to it intensely at a time -age eighteen- when I was finally coming into my own as a human being.  It was the start of a journey of self-understanding that led me to be standing on a subway platform in the heart of New York City, engaged in silent musical reverie with the same album almost twenty years later.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Right Wing Bolshevism

Despite their professed hatred of all things "collectivist," the recent government shutdown points out yet again the links between the Tea Party worldview and that of the Bolsheviks.  Of course, both sides would be revolted by the comparison, but I am not making it on the basis of ideology. (Ideologically they are almost polar opposites.)  I had long seen their tactics and mentalities to be similar, and just today I was validated when reading an article by Rick Perlstein, who noted that anti-tax loon Grover Norquist admires Lenin's tactical skill so much that he has a picture of him in his office.

It's not just tactics (more about that later) but also of mental habits.  The root of all evil in the world is reduced to one thing whose elimination will bring about a paradise on earth: capitalism in the case of the reds, "big government" in the case of the rightwingnuts. Whether its the revolution or the free market, both are claimed to have magical properties that will somehow solve everything from global hunger to the problems of higher education.

Like a good party apparatchik of the days of yore, your average rightwingnut sees the world through a binary prism: the good guys who are with us and the bad who are against. This I think helps explain the staggering levels of hatred being spewed forth onto public employees these days, by working for the government they are modern day kulaks. If they aren't able to get paid, all the better, they deserve it.  The same goes for those snobby college professors. (In either system intellectuals can't catch a break.) The animus against these people has nothing to do with anything they've done, and everything to do with what they represent. They are simply pure, unadulterated evil. Hence the current crop of governors can fire all kinds of state workers in the name of "job creation": those who work for the state are not considered to have "real" jobs, they are parasites.

When a narrow, fanciful ideology eventually fails catastrophically, be it Leninist or Reaganist, its adherents tend to do anything they can to blame something else. In America an unrestrained financial sector created a massive, unsustainable real-estate bubble whose bursting has destroyed our economy. That fact (and it is a fact) does not conform to the rightwingnut narrative, and so they blame government incentives for home ownership, completely passing over the fact that the banks were giving out mortages to anyone with a pulse so that they could create mortages to cut up and speculate upon under the assumption that they would always retain value. Even more glaringly, they attack taxes on the wealthy, saying that if those wonderful "job creators" get more dough, the wealth will rain down on the rest of society.  The wealthiest segment of the country now gets a bigger share of the pie than ever before, but the promised trickle down hasn't happened.  Supply side has been a thirty year failure, but their only response is more gutting of the safety net and more tax breaks for their plutocratic allies.

Likewise, in the face of the obvious and complete failure of the command economy of the Soviet bloc, one still hears Marxists who claim that it just wasn't done the right way under the right conditions. These ideologues, no matter if they carry icons of Lenin or of Reagan, are seriously deluded. (And they do mindlessly worship their heroes, don't they? So many who claim to love "The Founders" seem to have little to no idea of what they were actually like.)

Yet these ideologues get constant reaffirmation of their worldview from a propaganda machine that has an easy explanation for every complex problem, and a new set of villians to pour hatred upon each day. They are told that a snowstorm negates the scientific consensus on global warming, that union workers rather than corporations are benefiting most from our economic system, that all Muslims are supporters of terrorism, that modern-day progressives are a cancer to be expunged from the body politic, and that the current budget crisis is the responsibility of the president and him alone. They and their allies are internal enemies who threaten "real America," be it through the first lady's anti-obesity campaign or history textbooks that fail to present a triumphalist, ultra-nationalist interpretation of the American past.

Perhaps worst of all, those motivated by extremist ideology, be it on the left or on the right, tend to take an "ends justify the means" approach in order to bring about their utopia. Just witness the fillibusters, Swift Boat lies, birtherism, threats of government shutdown, "town hall" screamfests, and unilateral stripping of collective bargaining rights.  The last three years of Tea Party mobilization have made our nation almost ungovernable.  That is not an unintentional byproduct of their activities, but a wholly intentional outcome of a cynical and reckless strategy.

Obviously, I do not think that Bolsheviks and today's rightwingnuts are moral equivalents. However, I do think that our political system no longer works according to the old rules where two centrist, corporately compromised parties vie for power with some compromises along the way. Instead we have one centrist, corporately compromised party willing to work with the other side, which has been transformed into a vehicle for a messianic, nationalist, laissez-faire political movement that will stop at almost nothing to get what it wants. Historically a fight between weak centrists and strong ideologues ends badly, which is why I am glad that the president is holding the line.  Extremists cannot be allowed to win.