Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Notes From The Ironbound's Best of 2014

As the year ends, it's time to reflect.  Much has gone well in my personal life, such as moving to a new house I really like, getting to see my daughters grow up, and being honored by my students.  On the other hand, my beloved cat passed away, and the day to day stress of being a teacher along with a parent of two toddlers with a long daily commute makes workday weekdays feel like military missions more than anything else.  In broader social and political affairs, it has been very momentous.  The horrible deaths at the hands of the police by Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown have thrown the violent, institutionalized racism of American society into stark relief.  It has also sparked social movements that give me hope for change, despite the current backlash.  The Republican attempt to gain power by destroying the government's ability to work bore fruit.  At the same time, a newly emboldened President Obama has given up on appeasement, and acted decisively on immigration and Cuba.  It's been a year of contrasts, but I do think that good things may just be coming in 2015.

Here's a list of posts (in rough chronological order) that I am particularly proud of this year.

Memories of a Farm
My grandmother died last November, leading to my grandparents' farm being auctioned off.  It is a place indelibly attached to my childhood, and seeing it sold prompted lots of memories.

An Appreciation of the Star Wars Expanded Universe
With Disney and Abrams owning Star Wars and needing to plot sequels, the expanded universe has officially been jettisoned.  I wrote a fond look back at a time when it was the only outlet Star Wars nerds like I had in the late 80s and early to mid 90s.

Critics Of Academic Hiring Practices Are Not Merely Pining For A Lost Past
I have cut back on the anger about academia's injustices, mostly because I am so far removed from it and others who are closer have more important things to say.  I stand by this post, aimed at those who keep willfully misunderstanding critics of academia in order to serve their own self-interest.

Newark Is The Canary In America's Coal Mine
I miss living in Brick City, and go back when I can.  This article is about how the problems facing Newark are a taste of what the rest of America will soon be experiencing.

Stop Telling Young People to "Follow Your Dream"
My bitter old man side comes out in this one.

80s Soundtrack Music
An examination of the importance of film soundtracks to the 1980s musical landscape, and one of my better pop culture posts.

Track of the Week: Sonic Youth "Teenage Riot"
One of my better entries in this series.

12 Years A Slave And The Opportunities It Presents
This post expressed my hope that the film would open up more honest conversations and films about America's difficult history.

The Psychological Toll of Contingency
I've been writing less about academia, but seeing the struggles of people I know stuck on the contingent track reminded me of my own past, and the need to discuss the mental effects of it.

An Incomplete Guide To The Best New Jersey Hot Dog Joints
One of my really bad habits at least led to one of my favorite posts.

My Marriage of Convenience to the Democratic Party is on the Rocks
The title pretty much says it all.

The Loaded Meaning Of My Grad School Newsletter
In a nutshell, they praise those who make it, and pretend those who didn't never existed.

Ode to a Video Store and A List Of Memorable VHS Boxes
This pair of posts touches on my nostalgia for the old days of mom and pop video stores.

The Heartland Doesn't Want To Be Saved
One of my best posts this year about my Nebraska homeland, a place outsiders of all stripes fail to understand.

When Cable Sucked
More 80s nostalgia, this time for when cable was low rent.

David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Cultural Conservatism's Contradictions
This gets at the fundamental contradiction that the same people who uphold "traditional values" also cheerlead for unchained capitalism, the greatest destroyer of traditional values ever devised.

Remember: An Academic Job Is Just A Job
So many people sacrifice so much for academic jobs with low pay, insane workloads, and undesirable locations.  You don't have to do it.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Existentialist Post-Modern Hero
This one has received a lot of traffic, which kinda surprised me.

1994 In Historical Perspective
I contend that it's one of the most important years in recent history.

Academia's Teaching Problem
I discuss the paradox of a profession tasked with teaching college students while simultaneously seeing that task as something beneath them.

How Will The 2002 USMNT Go Down In History?
One of my better sports posts, and one that seems especially relevant with Landon Donovan's retirement.

A Nebraska Boy Falls In Love With The Jersey Shore
Growing up on the Plains has given me a real fascination with the ocean.  Being close the Shore is one of the best things about being in New Jersey.

The Civil Rights Act And The Birth Of The GOP
The great Rick Perlstein gave me a comment on this one, quite a thrill.

What I Learned By Taking My Dad To A Baseball Game
I learned a lot, especially about what my immersion in electronic media is doing to my brain.

On Rooting For A Losing Baseball Team
This is something I have a *lot* of experience in.

U2 Albums Explained Through Their First Tracks
This was probably my most-viewed new post this year, and one that I put a lot of time into.

Putting Ferguson In Historical Context
I probably sound like a broken record by now, but the events in Ferguson cannot be properly understood if you don't know their history.

Cinematic Subgenres: Star Wars Cash-Ins
I spent WAY too much time this summer watching B-grade sci-fi from the late 1970s, and this was the result.

We're Living In America's Brezhnev Years
I've been thinking this for about a decade now.

Geezer Rock Of The 1980s
One of the strangest and least rewarding genres of popular music.

The White Male Pathology Files: Sports Hooliganism
I wrote this in response to events in Ferguson, where many in the media act as if white dudes rioting and burning stuff over sports teams isn't something that happens all the damn time.

Cranky Bear Asks America To End Its Football Addiction
My pal Cranky didn't show up too often this year, but when he did he really gave it his all.

An Ode To Paul Konerko
A dedication to one of my favorite baseball players ever.

Classic Music Videos: Olivia Newton-John "Physical"
This cultural artifact is the Holy Grail when it comes to understanding that strange late 70s early 80s period of moral decadence and narcissism combined with resurgent political conservatism.

Suburbia Is America's Fear Factory
I wrote a lot this year about fear being a driving force in American life, this post I think is the best of the lot.

Ode To A Cat
My wonderful cat Stella died unexpectedly this year, and this is my eulogy for her.

Why Soccer Is The Sport Of The Future
Don't deny it, you know it to be true.

The "Didn't Vote" Party Wins Again
In the aftermath of the election I couldn't believe that the GOP was claiming a mandate, and that the media was letting them get away with saying that.  If anything, this election showed the total lack of confidence in the system.

Dark Thoughts On Armistice Day
My confidence in the future is slipping even further, if that's possible.

The Casino-ization Of America
This one didn't generate a lot of traffic, which bummed me out because it expresses something I've been feeling for many years now, but have been unable to express.

The War On Thanksgiving
I got into real preacher mode on this one, but seeing Thanksgiving turned into just another shopping day makes me ill.

Ferguson And Why We Need History
History matters, because without it we cannot understand the world we are living in.  Attempts to do so without historical knowledge are doomed to failure.

Giuliani, De Blasio, and Why Elections Matter
The fact that the NYPD is attacking de Blasio while Giuliani refuses to criticize it tells a lot about why it matters who we elect.

Torture Report Time Machine
This post is a reminder of the time of mass hysteria that led to the torture that has only just been made public.

Key Moments In My Gen X Political Awakening
Talkin' 'bout my generation.

On Weimar Metaphors
A lot of people critical of the NYPD's insults to the mayor occasioned lots of comparisons to the Weimar Republic, which I deal with here.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Track of the Week: Tim Curry "I Do The Rock"

Today I was listening to the film podcast The Projection Booth's episode on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it reminded me that Tim Curry had a now-forgotten pop singing career.  (They used to show music videos for his songs as a warm-up for screenings of Rocky.)  "I Do The Rock" was probably his biggest song, just barely edging into the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979. 

"I Do The Rock" was thus hardly a smash hit, and a little bit of a novelty record, but I still love it.  This is partly because I love Tim Curry, but also because this song distills a lot of elements of mainstream late 70s pop music that I still enjoy.  It starts with David Sanborn's blaring sax, has a big funky dance beat behind it, driving piano, and bright, effects-laden guitars.  You can practically hear the sound of cocaine being snorted when you listen to it.

Much of the song involves Curry name checking celebrities of the time who have, shall we say, dimmed in importance (Farrah Fawcett, Liza Minelli, etc,) so I love it as a time capsule of 1979, the first year I really became aware of popular culture.  Much of this involved getting frightened when Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk and not getting the jokes on Three's Company.  I had no clue about this song at the time, but it reminds me of dusty recollections of poop-brown carpets, console televisions, and my parents' old electric green-colored beast of a Chevy.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Interview And The Value Of Indies

The Dundee Theater in Omaha, where I first gained a love of foreign and independent cinema

As I get older I fight the urge to sentimentalize the past, since that's the most annoying thing that aging people do.  That being said, I refuse to apologize for mourning the loss of independent book stores, video rentals, record stores, and movie theaters.  Books, film, and music matter a great deal to me, and I learned to truly appreciate these things with the help of independent businesses staffed by knowledgable people who did it out of love.  As a youth I could go and spend hours in such places in an almost trancelike state, high off of the association with all kinds of culture that I was just dying to absorb.  I bounced around a lot of places in my twenties and thirties, but wherever there was an independent book or record store, I had a home.

Of course, in America under late capitalism independent distributors of culture, like everyone else, are inevitably consumed by the great bloody Moloch of large corporations.  It has gotten to the point that corporations like Blockbuster and Borders, which destroyed the mom and pop places, have now been cannibalized themselves by the likes of Netflix and Amazon.  While these companies tout their convenience and the breadth of what they offer, they also act with little respect for the cultural commodities they sell.  Take for example Amazon's feud with Hatchette, which made it difficult for readers to get the books they want because Amazon wants to squeeze publishers and bring them to their knees.  Or take Netflix, which often does not present its streaming films in the proper aspect ratio.  Regardless of these abuses, the behemoths triumph and put those who actually do care about books, film, and music out of business.

With all this in mind it was odd this week to see independent movie theaters come to the rescue of megacorporation Sony in the affair over The Interview.  Sony pulled the film once the large corporate theater chains refused to see it, evidently frightened of what could happen to their bottom lines and stock values if the threats of North Korean hackers turned out to be true.  Some indie theaters defiantly said they would show it instead, and were initially rebuffed, before being embraced by Sony.

I should preface what I am about to say by noting that I think that The Interview's portraying the assassination of Kim Jong-un is extremely wrong-headed, stupid, and tasteless.  I have also heard via the We Hate Movies podcast that the film doesn't really do anything to discuss the actual, horrific abuses of Kim's regime.  For that reason I find the notion that Seth Rogen has any real principles about taking on an autocratic, murderous regime to be specious.

All that being said, I found the decision by the theater chains not to show the film to be cowardly and setting a bad example whereby films could be stopped from distribution via hacking and violent threats.  I will not buy a ticket to see this turkey, but I am glad that people who want to see The Interview can see it, and that violent intimidation has not been allowed to win the day. If we didn't have any more independent movie theaters, then the film would have been suppressed, and the bad precedent set.

We need independent sites for culture for a variety of reasons, including things I mentioned earlier about how they foster community and deeper cultural appreciation.  Most of all, recent events have shown us that they are often willing to defend principles that corporate entities are too greedy or too chickenshit to care about.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pop Culture Ephemera To Beat Holiday Dread And The Winter Blues

This time of year fills me with conflicting emotions.  I'm actually a big fan of the holidays, and am lucky not to suffer from the holiday-induced depression that plenty of people suffer from for a variety of reasons (crummy family, bad holiday memories, sadness over those who've died who can't be there with you.)  However, I have a big tendency to over-think things, and while I am looking forward to Christmas and New Year's, I'm already dreading what comes after.  January, February, and March are the garbage months on the calendar: cold weather, lack of sunlight, no seasonal food (or beer), and no holidays to brighten things up.  Over the years these times have also been layered over with bad memories.  Lent begins in February, which as a child meant sacrifice and self-induced guilt.  The American Historical Association has its annual conference the weekend after New Year's, a place where I went for five years straight to either interview for a job or talk to university presses to get a book published to get me a better job, or both.  The next months would then be full of anxiety attacks and painful rejection.

It's going to take some Groot levels of strength to get through the year's garbage time.  I've assembled a list of stuff (mostly video clips) to cling on to.

Battle of the Network Stars: Gabe Kaplan Bests Robert Conrad

It starts with Telly Savalas in a tracksuit and shades smoking a cig, and just keeps getting better.  ("I'm from New York, I want the bread, baby.")  Robert Conrad is taking this way too seriously, and it makes my heart happy to see his macho bullshit not work.  Gabe "Mr. Kotter" Kaplan's victory in this competition (and getting a kiss from Linda "Wonder Woman" Carter) is a victory for nerds everywhere.

Stryper Promo Picture

How could you make hair metal even more ridiculous?  Throw in some old time religion and a yellownblack spandex getup.  *Shudder*

Ben Stiller Show U2 Rockumentary

Ben Stiller has become a a big time movie star, but I still fondly remember his old sketch show back in the 1990s, which also featured Andy Dick, Janine Garafolo and Bob "better call Saul" Odenkirk.  Stiller's Bono impersonation still kills me, as does the image of him playing a bar mitzvah while sharing a manager with the Partridge Family.

Ronald Reagan Gives The Gift Of Lung Cancer

This just doesn't need a comment.

Mets Banner Day, 1984

When I try hard to get my mind away from the wretchedness of winter I think about the ballpark.  I imagine myself on a mild early June afternoon drinking a tasty, crisp beer while sitting on the third base side, lost in a baseball game.  The Mets, me newly adopted local team, have a great tradition of fan banners, and "Banner Day" when fans get to parade their creations on the field.  This little video from 1984 shows young people pre-internet with the time on their hands needed to make an amusing creation on a bed-sheet so that they can step out onto the glorious hallowed green of Shea Stadium.  This video also makes me happy, since it helps me recall the ordinary, mundane fashions of the 80s.  (It wasn't all shoulder pads and Don Johnson suits, you know.)

The Cover of Mac Davis' It's Hard to Be Humble Album

Ah, the 70s, when a perm and bare hairy chest were the height of masculine allure.

William Shatner Sings "Rocket Man"

If I am in the lowest of moods, when nothing in the world can cheer me up, I turn to this.  This performance is truly amazing, in that Shatner somehow manages to transcend irony completely.  If only all tacky awards ceremonies had a moment like this to show what rubbish the rest of the proceedings are by comparison.

Monday, December 22, 2014

On Weimar Metaphors

The last few days are proof that we are often ruled by capricious events.  On Saturday the protest movements against police brutality and the legal system's failures managed to shut down the massive Mall of America in Minnesota.  Just as those movements were showing their continued strength, an unhinged assassin shot his girlfriend in Baltimore, then drove to Brooklyn and murdered two police officers in an ambush.  The forces of reaction and authority wasted no time exploiting this awful event by blaming it on protestors and mayor Bill de Blasio.  In a particularly galling display of contempt, New York police officers literally turned their back on the mayor, a man who was accused by their union to have "blood on his hands."

Soon afterward I saw people I follow on Twitter and friends on Facebook likening the current situation to Weimar Germany.  As a scholar of German history, I thought I'd talk about this.  While those invoking Weimar don't come right out and say it, I wonder if they are thinking of the exploitation of violence by the NYPD to condemn their opponents is akin to the Reichstag Fire, but don't want to reference Nazis directly because of Godwin's Law or something.  While I find that allegorical link a little much, there are some ways we can recall the history of the Weimar Republic that are fruitful for analyzing our current, tumultuous moment.

Weimar was an attempt to establish a democracy in a very new nation (united only since 1871) that had previously been an oligarchic autocracy and that had recently undergone a traumatic defeat in a war that killed two million of its young men.  This was a tall order, and the Republic barely survived a wave of crises from 1919 to 1923, including multiple Communist revolts, a military coup, hyperinflation, the occupation of the Rhineland by the French army, and Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch.  Between 1924 and 1929 it managed to attain a degree of stability and prosperity, but that came crashing down with the Great Depression.  Well before Hitler took power in 1933, Germany had already ceased being a real democracy after president Paul von Hindenburg began ruling by decree in 1930.  When people mention "Weimar" I assume they mean the late period, when Communists and Nazis fought each other in the streets.

Where I see a linkage that the non-historian might not is in the divided nature of Weimar society and American society today.  1920s Germany was a place of massive cultural changes, where young women in the cities began living more independent lives, where marriage ages rose and birth rates declined (spurring fears of the decline of family values), and old elites suddenly lost their prestige and power, among other things.  The Weimar Republic represented these changes, among others, and was thus hated and resented by those who preferred a hierarchical, traditional society.

The forces of reaction thought of the Weimar government as illegitimate, and still held plenty of power, especially in military and judiciary.  This helps explain why Hitler could attempt to overthrow the German government in the Beer Hall Putsch, but serve less than three years in prison.  The Nazis weren't the first or only group to claim Germany had only lost the war because it had been "stabbed in the back" by Leftist elements.  The adherents to the Republic were un-German traitors in the eyes of its opponents.  The Social Democrats were the political party most committed to maintaining the Republic, and thus reviled by reactionaries and nascent fascists.  They were also attacked hard by Communists, seeing Social Democrats as selling out the revolution for their part in suppressing worker revolts in the early Weimar years.  By the time the Nazis gathered a plurality of the vote in 1933, a majority of voters were casting their votes for parties committed to destroying the Republic.

I think we can all agree that the American political and cultural landscape today is as polarized as it has been in quite some time.  Politics and culture have also intertwined to the point that progressives and conservatives don't watch, read, or listen to the same things.  Conspicuous gun ownership has become a Rightist fetish, and in some corners of America Fox News is ubiquitously blared in public spaces.  Those on the Left tend to find these things abhorrent.  While there is a strong regional flavor to these deep differences, the Red State-Blue State model obscures as much as it reveals.  For example, New York City is supposed to be the bluest of blue territories, yet former mayor Guiliani has blamed African-Americans for the police violence used against them, and the NYPD has used inflammatory rhetoric against the current mayor for daring to criticize them.  They, like the Fox-devoted aging Boomers in my hometown view progressives in power as illegitimate, an abomination to be destroyed.  The unhinged manner in which the Republican Congress has dealt with Democratic presidents in recent decades (impeaching Clinton and engaging in unprecedented insults and obstruction against Obama) shows this.

There is a sense that those on the Left and Right no longer see their political opponents as people who hold different ideas, but as entirely different kinds of people completely.  The racial dynamics of political devotion today, where the Right is extremely White and engaging in White identity politics against a much less White opposition, has a lot to do with this, much more so than the pundit class would ever dare to admit.  I can certainly see in this intense division, where the side on the Right questions the very legitimacy of the government, echoes of Weimar.  Of course, such situations have appeared elsewhere in history, notably in France in the same era, when opponents of the Leftist coalition used the slogan "Better Hitler Than Blum."  Much the same could be seen in Chile in the early 1970s, too.  Things didn't end too well in any of these scenarios.  This makes me fearful, especially in a country where the police and military are two of the most trusted institutions.  It can't happen here?  Don't kid yourself.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Track of the Week: James Brown "Go Power at Christmas Time"

Christmas brings us wretchedly saccharine television programming, an orgy of wasteful consumerism, and worst of all, wave upon wave of godawful music.  Back home in Nebraska there are actually radio stations that play that crap for a month solid, making resistance futile.  Going out in public means having one's ears assaulted by tuneless rubbish, often created by people who ought to know better.  It is only in the last five years or so that I have managed to find good Christmas music, the vast majority of it hiding out in obscure corners that streaming services like Pandora and Spotify have shed new light on.

I never knew until this week that James Brown had put out quite a lot of Christmas music.  Like the best of this genre, his holiday tunes are not retreads of the same old standards, but original creations that break from the usual formulas.  "Go Power At Christmas Time" is a classic hard groove like the rest of his output in his late 60s-early 70s glory days.  The piano and bells sound a little Christmas-y, I guess, but the song is hardly drenched in the usual holiday garlands.  It's really more about the JBs getting tight and funky, and the Godfather of Soul pulling out all the vocal stops as only he can.  What I would give to hear this great slice of pure energy blasting at the mall instead of the usual limpid Christmas fare.  In any case, put this one on at your holiday party if you want to start cutting the rug.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How Bond Themes Prove the 80s Sucked

Roger Moore plays Bond playing a clown, a pretty good metaphor for the franchise in the 80s

Lately I have been on a real film music kick, which has coincided with my revisiting 1960s James Bond flicks.  (For some reason I always seem to go back to Bond this time of year.)  I've been listening to a lot of the Bond theme songs, and noticed evidence for a certain hypothesis of mine: the 80s sucked.

Of of course there was good stuff, like The Smiths, Public Enemy, Prince and the Indiana Jones movies.  However, I am of the opinion that popular culture writ large started turning into the boring, corporatized gloop that it has become today.  (This is especially the case with cinema, just compare the glory days of 1971-1977 to today.)  While Connery left the role to one timer George Lazenby and then to walking self-parody Roger Moore, the music in 70s Bond films still kept the pace.

In the sixties John Barry composed the deathless Bond theme, as well as the wonderfully bombastic "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball."  He could also take things down a notch, with the absolutely mellow, shagadelic "You Only Live Twice."  While the Bond themes of the seventies (like the movies) were mostly not of the same quality, they were still pretty damn good.  Shirley Bassey proved she could still belt it on both "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker."  Of course, that decade also brought us arguably the best Bond theme, Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" from The Spy Who Loved Me. 

And then came the 80s.

The decade began with Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only," an example of the quivery, schmaltzy easy listening shite I had to endure in every doctor's office and grocery store I ever visited in the 1980s.  It is limpid, uninteresting, and totally representative of its time.  Oh, but it gets worse, so much worse.  In 1983 Rita Coolidge's "All Time High" opened up the hilariously named Octopussy.  Kenny G-style sax? Check.  Cheesy, cliche-ridden lyrics?  Check.  Complete lack of emotional connection despite the distractedly emotive singing?  Check.  In 1985 things got (slightly) better with Duran Duran's "View to a Kill," which replaced the godawful schmaltz with a less convincing, less interesting version of their sound, which by this time was already past its expiration date.

Speaking of past its expiration date, 1987 brought Norwegian one hit wonders A-Ha's "The Living Daylights."  By this point the aging Moore had been replaced by Timothy Dalton, a man great for the role but given the unenviable task of livening up a tired franchise relying on crap scripts and ideas.  A-Ha's song is just as tired, an amalgam of overproduced 80s music cliches (obvious drum machine beats, a reverb drenching of everything, chiming synthesizers, and overall mechanical, inorganic feeling.)  In 1989, the crimped-hair apotheosis of the spandex decade, things reached an all-time low with Gladys Knight's "License to Kill."  Replacing overwrought New Wave bands with an over the hill soul singer didn't help things.  Don't get me wrong, I love Knight's early work, but this piece of crap borrows the melody from "Thunderball," but none of its immediacy.  This song is what they play in hell's dentist office.

The schmaltzy, overwrought and overproduced Bond themes of the 1980s fit that decade pretty well.  It was a time of studied artificiality like no other before or since.  Anyone who wants to engage in 80s nostalgia needs to be forced to sit down to listen to the Bond themes of the era, which I am sure can change their minds.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Key Moments In My Gen X Political Awakening

I know a lot of young people taking to the streets right now and getting involved in politics for the first time to protest police violence.  This has gotten me thinking about my own adolescent political awakening.  I grew up in a conservative family in a conservative town in a conservative area of one of the most conservative states (Nebraska.)  How the hell did I embrace the political Left by the age of 17?  I've come to realize over the years that the key was in my voracious appetite for current events and political magazines, which allowed certain crucial events of my youth to sink in and change my consciousness.  I am willing to bet that these same events had a big impact on other people born in the mid-1970s.  Anyway, here they are:

The Iran-Contra Scandal

Ronald Reagan's inauguration was the first major political event that I can vividly remember, along with Hinkley's assassination attempt.  During my childhood I thought of Reagan as a gentle, avuncular leader who was doing a great job.  Although the full import of it didn't become obvious to me until a couple of years later, the Iran-Contra affair started me on the road to questioning authority.  It seemed obvious that the president had circumvented the will of Congress, and that his later "I don't recall" testimony meant that he was either a liar or totally incompetent.

ACT UP Protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral

Being a devout Catholic at the time, this protest freaked me out.  I couldn't believe that protestors would interrupt mass and even desecrate the host.  At the same time, I really began to question the church's anti-safe sex stance.  In the midst of a horrible epidemic it seemed insane to oppose condoms on narrow moral grounds.  The church's response to the AIDS crisis really disturbed me, as did the awful homophobia of people like Jesse Helms.  I was not yet too enlightened when it came to sexuality, but despite that fact I thought that hating people for who they were was appalling.  The fact that one political party accepted people who spewed such hate was not lost on me.

Gulf War

This event, perhaps more than any other, shifted my frame of reference.  When the war started I was very gung ho, and thought the kids at my high school who protested the war were ridiculous.  In the months that followed it, however, I really began to question things.  I saw articles about the "highway of death," and felt sorrow that so many people had to die, sacrificed to petro-politics.  When the US stood by while Saddam massacred the Shiites that the US president had encouraged to rise up, I knew that there was nothing behind that war except oil.  The insanely shrill nationalism unleashed in that war disturbed me as well, since it seemed to make people lose their senses.

Rodney King Beating and Trial

The video of the King beating landed like a bomb in my head.  Around that time I had been heavily listening to Public Enemy, which had me thinking about white supremacy in a serious way for the first time.  It was so completely obvious for anyone to see that Rodney King had been the victim of a horrific crime, and that the LAPD was full of violent racists.  The acquittal of the police officers at the hands of an all white jury probably did more to increase my distrust of the criminal justice system than anything else.  I was surprised at the decision, considering how obvious the crime seemed to be.  Ever since the King case I have been disheartened by similar miscarriages of justice, but never surprised by them.

Clarence Thomas Confirmation Hearings

Before these hearings I'd never really known anything about sexual harassment.  I was disturbed by Anita Hill's testimony, and wondered how many other men acted like that.  At the same time, I was less enlightened in these matters, and wondered why Hill hadn't come out with the allegations at an earlier time.  For that reason I was actually sympathetic with Thomas' comments about a "high tech lynching."


I was excited when Bill Clinton became president.  I was one of only two students in my history class to vote for him in our mock election, and proud of it.  His willingness to fight for gun control and health care made me happy, but very early on I wondered about Clinton's reliability.  The NAFTA proposal didn't seem all bad to me, except for the fact that there were few labor and environmental protections.  While I didn't care for Ross Perot, I did wonder if his prediction of job migration would be true.  In any case, the whole thing was written in a way to be beneficial to business and not for workers, but was being promoted by a man claiming to be a liberal.  It was about this time that I realized that the DLC version of liberalism was barely better than conservatism, leading me to vote for a third party candidate in 1996.  This was really the point when I lost any attachment to the Democratic Party, and started thinking of myself as Left of the party of Jackson and Jefferson.

The Contract With America

Believe it or not, I was a little happy when the Democrats got shellacked in the 1994 election.  I figured it would force them to take stronger stances and listen to their base (boy was I wrong about that.)  At the same time, the Gingrich-style conservative politics that emerged in the aftermath of that election made it obvious that as much as I disliked the Democrats, I would never, ever vote for a Republican.  This election convinced me that the two parties were not two legitimate, centrist institutions not too different from each other.  Instead one was a milquetoast arrangement of hacks with corporate ties who made promises they didn't keep to the lower and middle classes, and the other was the vehicle for an extremist Right wing political movement that would stop at nothing to force its ideology on the country.  Since that time I've wavered from calling myself a socialist to settling for social democrat, but my larger sense of the political lay of the land hasn't changed since I was 19.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Track of the Week: Rolling Stones "Can You Hear Me Knocking"

As I noted during my track of the week post last week, the great saxophonist Bobby Keys died recently.  He was a legend, both as a musician and as a hell raiser.  Like other great musicians, he made the people around him better, including The Rolling Stones.  I've long thought that the Stones put out their best stuff in the early 1970s, on the Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street albums.  It was the point at which their musical maturity had come into full flower, but before Richards' junk habit and Jagger's distracting pretensions turned them into the world's most lucrative oldies act.

Bobby Keys is all over those electric records, and there are many examples I could choose from.  However, I'll go with "Can You Hear Me Knocking" because he gets an extended sax solo, and really makes the most of it.  This is a rare Stones song, in that it is long, and also in that it contains multiple sections that act like different movements.  Despite its length, it is an immediate song that hits the listener right across the face, perhaps the reason why Martin Scorsese used it in an epic montage in Casino where Joe Pesci's character goes on a crime spree of epic proportions.

Apart from Keys' great saxophone, this song contains some of Mick Taylor's best guitar work during the long, jammy midsection.  It's a testament to the fact that the Stones aren't just Jagger and Richards, and that those two were at their best when working with others at the top of their game.  They were lucky to have Bobby Keys, who was one of the best ever.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Swords and Sandals

My cultural cravings, much like my moods, change according to the seasons.  Every year, right around this time, I like to read a work of medieval history and watch sword and sandal epics.  Perhaps it's because years and years ago I was not all that interested in modern history, and obsessed with the ancient and medieval worlds.

In terms of medieval history I tend to read things that are contemporary and on the scholarly side.  In terms of sword and sandal epics, I go to the classics, since the recent entries in the genre (Alexander, 300, Hercules Reborn, Pompeii, etc.) are pretty lame.  Many of the older movies aren't really all that good, but their sheer pagaentry and majesty is something to behold.  They make an excellent escape during this trying time of year, when the sun doesn't shine and the cold winds blow.  There is something about massive sets and casts of thousands that deeply appeals to me.  However, when the ancient world is rendered via CGI and green screen, I feel like I'm just watching an elaborate cartoon.

Here's a list of some sword and sandal epics to pop in this time of year, all of which can be enjoyed on multiple levels.

Ben Hur

Charlton Heston's acting was never more muscular.  Others may not care for it, but it is one of my great guilty pleasures to see Heston sweat as he delivers his lines with such over the top physicality.  Although the message of the film is rather heavy handed, the action sequences, such as the naval battle and chariot race, are absolutely amazing.


This was a famously troubled production, the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release.  It is an insane four hours long, and chock full of ridiculous historical inaccuracies.  In fact, on the eve of my final in one of my college Roman history classes, I sat down and watched it with two of my friends as a study session.  We spent the whole time comparing to the real events and pointing out the problems.  We all aced the test.  (My favorite part of this movie might be cranky-voiced Rex Harrison as a surly Caesar.)


This might be the least Stanley Kubrick film that Stanley Kubrick ever made.  Evidently he was brought in to replace the original director at the behest of Kirk Douglas.  The fundamental story of slaves rising up for their freedom is very powerful, as is the famous "I am Spartacus."  It also gets extra points for Laurence Olivier's racy "snails and oysters" come on, the presence of the underrated Woody Strode, and Tony Curtis' New Yawk accent in the ancient world.

The Robe

Just started rewatching this one, which I first saw eons ago as a kid.  Victor Mature can really rock a toga, and nobody can play a sneering Roman better than Richard Burton.  Like Spartacus, it also stars Jean Simmons, a great actress from this period who seems to have been too much forgotten.

Life of Brian

I know you'll say this doesn't count, but I include it since it is such a great parody of the whole sword and sandal genre, among other things.  The beginning, when the three wise men show up at the wrong manger, does a good job of throwing cold water on the reverent airs of old school biblical epics.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture Report Time Machine

Based on what happened at Abu Ghraib, as well as the definitions of "extraordinary rendition" used by the Bush administration, I expected this week's torture report to be harrowing.  It ended up being even worse than I imagined, a catalog of crimes that ought to bring lasting shame on this country.  There has been outrage, but I wonder of its limits.  President Obama has been mum, and Secretary of State Kerry had tried to prevent its release.  Most Congressional Republicans opposed its release full stop, and Fox News has claimed its release was meant to distract from Obamacare.
Why haven't tales of people tortured due to mistaken identity moved the nation's conscience?  Why is there only limited disgust at rectal feeding and sleep deprivation techniques of the kind used by Stalin's secret police?  Why is there no outcry to have the criminals responsible for these enormities clapped in irons and made to bow to justice?  You could argue that torture, like practically everything else, has been turned into a partisan issue.  Perhaps, but that does not explain why the outrage is only limited to the left of center, and the large, soft American middle appears to be almost completely unmoved.  No, there is so little outrage because this is what most Americans secretly wanted to happen.

Let's take a trip back in time, shall we?  We live in a world where everything is forgotten, where all goes down the memory hole almost as soon as it is brought into existence.  I have made it one of my personal missions to remind people of the reality of American life in the period of hysteria that lasted roughly between 9/11 and the summer of 2005.  The 9/11 attacks provoked a kind of fearsome bloodlust in the American public, only abetted by the Bush/Cheney regime's desire to funnel that hate towards military action.  Muslim Americans were physically assaulted, and their mosques attacked.  Sikh men were murdered for the crime of wearing a turban.  In 2003, most Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.  They didn't just believe it because of propaganda, they believed it because they wanted revenge, and any group of Arab Muslims would do for that purpose.

If the vast majority of Americans were willing to smite Iraq with the hard hand of war, inevitably leading the the deaths of thousands of innocents, they hardly had any qualms about shoving food up the rectums of suspected terrorists.  They were the bad guys, after all, right?  Didn't torture work when Jack Bauer used it on 24?  You don't really want to risk letting the bad guys strike again, do you?  And so the CIA, at the behest of the highest authorities in the land, tortured and tortured and tortured.  There was a momentary shock after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, but voters returned Bush and Cheney to the White House nonetheless.  

It would be easy to limit the responsibility for the crime to Cheney/Bush, their henchmen, and the everyday jingoists who bayed for Muslim blood in the aftermath of 9/11.  However, they were enabled by a scared public willing to turn the other way while unspeakable cruelties were committed in their name.  While whistleblowers like Edward Snowden fear prosecution, those responsible for systematic torture walk free, not prosecuted by president Barack Obama.  And last of all, progressives like myself have been much too tolerant of the president's unwillingness to prosecute CIA men who probably earned promotions from their heinous acts.

I repeat: the revelations of the torture report should bring lasting shame on this country.  Perhaps more shamefully, our people have been shameless in ignoring it.  If there is any righteousness in this universe we will face a terrible reckoning.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Giuliani, De Blasio, And Why Elections Matter

For someone who blogs, I took my sweet time joining Twitter.  Once I realized that some things I wrote were being discussed there, I decided to jump in, and have stayed in because it is usually the best way for me to keep up on the public discourses left out of the mainstream media.  It's also been good for connecting with what's going on in the world of the activist Left, something I had lost track with after leaving academia.

This has also been a little frustrating because of some of the tropes people I actually like have been engaging in recently.  I would often see protest movements denounced as ineffective, and elections as meaningless.  While I understand the limits of what peaceful protest can do (as someone who protested the coming war in Iraq in 2003), I also know what they can truly accomplish (as someone who engaged in protests and walkouts that led to a teaching assistant union.)  The attacks on protests seemed to be a kind of knee-jerk anti-liberalism just as annoying as that emanating from conservative circles.  Since the major protests have started in the wake of the Garner and Brown travesties, I have not been hearing much about their usefulness from those Lefty quarters, and with good reason.

The same goes for Left critiques of electoral politics.  Don't get me wrong, I barely have any love for the Democrats, and I think the two parties have a lot in common when it comes to complicity in maintaing inequality.  However, I have never been so invested in Leftist ideology to claim that elections somehow don't matter.  If you need proof that elections really do matter, and that there are real, fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats, take the case of the mayor of New York.  Bill de Blasio has fought to end the stop and frisk practice and in the wake of the Garner ruling has been openly sympathetic with protestors.  One gets the sense that he will fight to bring some real change out of this.

 Compare this to the recent, noxious pronunciations of Rudy Giuliani, who has essentially blamed the death of Garner and other black men at the hands of the police on the canards of black "dysfunction" and "black on black crime."  Lest we forget, Guiliani was twice elected mayor of New York City.  It is easy to imagine the reaction to the Garner case and ensuing protests if he were mayor today.  The NYPD would be out in full military regalia, batons cracking, tear gas launching, and pepper spray blasting in the faces of protestors.  Imagine too if someone like Ed Koch, who played a role in vilifying the innocent Central Park Five and exploiting white racial fears, were mayor again.  Based on Mayor Bloomberg's constant defense of stop and frisk and police aggression, we certainly know how he would respond to the situation.  Just ask the Occupy protestors.

The fact that de Blasio is mayor today, and that these men aren't, is truly important and significant.  It's a sign that progressives need to put resources into the local and and municipal level, where a small amount of resources can go a long way, and can certainly help reign in our out of control police departments.  Elections matter, elections have consequences, and elections have to bring change, it's just that the right people have to be elected.  If more women and men of de Blasio's stripe get voted into public office, I see a lot of good that can happen, and a lot that will be ignored or shut down if they don't.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Track of the Week: Small Faces "Itchycoo Park"

This week brought the sad news of the deaths of Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan two of my favorite rock musicians.  (Next week's track of the week will be from Keys.)  McLagan is often thought of as a Rolling Stones session musician, but true rock scholars know him for his work in the Small Faces and the Faces, two of my favorite bands of all time.  A lot of groups in the psychedelic era incorporated the organ, but few had someone with McLagan's creative touch.

There are many of songs where I could point to his genius, but I'll highlight "Itchycoo Park" because his organ is the driving force of the song.  It's a typically psychedelic tune about consuming drugs on a sunny day and going down to the park to enjoy the beauties of nature with a little chemical enhancement.  The jaunty tone is well established by McLagan's colorful organ from the first bars of the song.  There are no pyrotechnics here or virtuosic touches, and that very restraint helps sustain the desired tone of the song.  The Small Faces and Faces were great bands because they were actually bands, with each member contributing a great deal without overshadowing the others.  By all accounts of people I know who knew McLagan, he was a good guy who will very much be missed.  RIP

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Good Artists Making Terrible Christmas Music

This time of year brings with it the unbearable onset of awful holiday music blaring just about everywhere.  While there might be different performers and versions of songs, it's always the same twenty or so songs I keep hearing, over and over and over again.  Three years ago I made a list of Christmas music I actually like, and through the magic of Spotify have managed to find great country, R&B, and jazz takes on the form that can wash the taste of the crap out of my mouth.  Of course, that's not what they're playing when I stop into the Walgreen's for diapers. What amazes me is that there are often great musical artists who become the worst hacks when it comes to Christmas music.  Here's a randomly organized list of the worst offenders.

Beach Boys, "Little Saint Nick"
This may very well be the worst offender on the list.  Unlike other Beach Boys music it sounds completely joyless, as if someone had them in the studio at gun point.  The lyrics are beneath stupid, I think I lose brain cells every time I hear it.  On top of it all, Mike Love's adenoidal yelp never sounded more grating.

Bruce Springsteen, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"
I really think the Boss is capable is giving us a great Christmas song, and not of the traditional variety.  I would love to hear an acoustic weeper on the lines of the Nebraska album about a laid off worker trying to not to let on to his children how he is selling plasma to buy them presents.  Instead we get this lame take on an annoying Christmas chestnut, one that my friend (and Springsteen superfan) Debbie has called "Saint Bruce's one sin."

Paul McCartney, "Wonderful Christmastime"
Good Lord is this an annoying song.  The synthesizers are so bloody awful that they are almost (and I mean almost) transcendent in their wretchedness.  What really makes it rotten is that Macca knows how to write a catchy hook, so this song will get in my head for hours.  I honestly wonder if it was originally written to be used by the CIA in its torture chambers but rejected for humanitarian reasons.

Band Aid "Do They Know It's Christmas"
"Do They Know It's Christmas" has got to be the most patronizing, ignorant Christmas tune ever written.  Do they know it's Christmas in Ethiopia?  Well considering that Christians were there well before they were ever in England, yes.  A lot of artists I like had a hand in this mess.

Chuck Berry, "Run Run Rudolph"
Berry is really phoning it in on this one.  He goes through the motion without even a hint of passion, which makes me think this song wasn't his idea.  I would hope not.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Classic Music Video: Van Halen "Panama"

My heart is heavy today and I can't think of anything original to say about the manifest injustice in the Eric Garner case.  I'd prefer to distract myself with a perennial topic on this blog that gives me amusement: 1980s music videos.

This week The Onion put out a hilarious article entitled "CIA Admits Role in 1985 Coup to Overthrow David Lee Roth."  It works both as a parody of the CIA's chicanery and half-hearted attempts to explain it away, as well as a funny commentary on the sorry nature of Van Halen's music after Roth left.  After reading it I popped on "Panama" on my iPhone, and suddenly images from the video started jumping through my mind's eye.  Obviously it had made an impact on me.

In a lot of ways, the song and video are Van Halen's apotheosis.  It came after "Jump," their big #1 smash, but did not contain that song's synthesizered bows to the Top 40.  In "Jump" Diamond Dave showed a little vulnerability, "standing next to the record machine" not sure if he could get the girl.  On the other hand, "Panama" is just flat out rock action, with some absolutely kickin' Eddie Van Halen guitar driving the whole thing along.  If I had to choose just one song to define DLR-era Van Halen, this would be it.

The video is just one big goofy-faced victory lap.  It starts with a biplane soaring in the sky, then suddenly we see Roth flying across the stage on wires, making swimming motions with a boom box on his shoulders, like some kind of 1980s archangel.  The band jumps off of stage risers, mugs for the camera, and does high kicks in slow motion.  There are some surreal shots interspersed, like Eddie blowing smoke rings in a white tux and Alex lip syncing beneath a leg clothed with some seriously ornate 80s black nylons.  The most memorable, and most inexplicable, is Diamond Dave sliding down a pole wearing some kind of rhinestone-encrusted stripper overcoat, then proceeding to shake his butt and show off his prodigious chest hair.  Later on he waves around one of those long ribbons used by rhythmic gymnasts, something that confused my childhood notions of masculinity.  So as not to confuse the band's fans too much, there's soon a shot of Alex chugging a beer while flying on wires across the stage.  The message of the whole thing seems to be "Damn, it's fun to be in Van Halen."

The video's silly and stupid but at least Roth never took himself too seriously, the bane of so many 80s rock stars.  Under Sammy Hagar Van Halen things got so out of hand that they put out the world's most self-serious video of all time, for "Right Now" in the early 90s.  Forget that sentimental crap, give me a fey Diamond Dave doing his transcendant clown schtick behind a monstrous riff any day of the week instead.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


I'm borrowing the title of this post from Rick Perlstein's stellar political history of America from 1965 to 1972.  He began his book about Nixon's rise to power with the 1965 unrest in Watts, and how the reaction to it helped get the likes of Ronald Reagan elected governor of California.  Perlstein deftly pointed out how Nixon used the social divisions of the 1960s, and especially white fears about newly emboldened blacks, to gain and consolidate power.  That original insight of Nixon's has been used by conservatives ever since, from Reagan's talk of "welfare queens" to the War on Drugs to George HW Bush's Willie Horton ad to Fox News' obsession with the New Black Panther Party.

Nixon's calls for "law and order" in the wake of sixties protest set the stage for a now forty-five year escalation of police force and power.  (His associating his opponents with disorder and chaos was most flagrantly expressed in his 1968 campaign's "Convention" ad.)  This escalation has led to America incarcerating its people at a higher level than any other nation in the world and police forces that have been placed above the law.  If you ask me, this is part and parcel of the neoliberal project.  Supply-side economics inevitably means misery for the poor and working class, and to prevent unrest in those quarters, its members have been thrown in jail.  Prisons are then privatized, leading to yet another boon for the wealthy.

The protests related to Ferguson are crucially important for a lot of reasons.  Ultimately, I feel that they are a true challenge to the aforementioned forty-five year counterrevolution, one whose violence has fallen hardest on African Americans.  In response to the protests, the Silent Majority has reared its ugly head yet again.  Since the Clinton era, Democrats have been trying to out-police the Republicans, hoping never again to be accused of being soft on crime.   The broad white middle class population has thus accepted the logic of the counterrevolution, regardless of political party.  Now that the four decade counterrevolution is being challenged, and policing seriously questioned on a national level, they are lashing out.  Just take a look at the anger provoked by the St. Louis Rams when they dared to quietly and peacefully acknowledge the Ferguson protests when they took the field this Sunday.

We are truly at a crossroads.  This country could finally break the spell of that old sorcerer Richard Nixon and repudiate our draconian, unjust, cruel, and racist justice system.  Or it could double down and stay on the same course.  We're still living in Nixonland, but I can only hope not for much longer, even though it looks like the Silent Majority is still alive and kicking.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Track of the Week: New Order "Everything's Gone Green"

Winter has hit hard these last few days.  The drafts are seeping into the house and walking the dog in the morning has lost its charm.  The awful weather has coincided with the rotten news from Missouri and a growing sense of despair I have been feeling about the future.  The combination of lack of sunlight and lack of justice has been a killer one.

Changes in the seasons tend to have a profound impact on me, and over the years I've developed an informal soundtrack of music that acts like a warm blanket when I'm not feeling all that great.  Over the years I've found that very early New Order, circa 1981-1982, really suits the onset of winter.  It has a kind of cold, distant feel to it and sense of mourning after the death of Ian Curtis, who had lead the band's earlier incarnation, Joy Division.

"Everything's Gone Green" is not one of the band's more famous singles, they still hadn't quite developed their sound just yet.  I still love it, not least for Peter Hook's typically hook-y, melodic bass and the way that it combines hard, metallic drum loops with floating guitar and synthesizer textures.  It's appropriate that the first words are "Help me, somebody help me."  The repeated line "It seems like I've been here before" is poignant in a song I listen to with each returning winter.  I don't know how many times during my two frigid winters in Michigan I sat listening to this song swathed in a heavy cardigan in my cold apartment with a cup of tea in my hand, looking out the window at the deep snow and wondering how the hell I was going to make it to springtime.

Friday, November 28, 2014

On My Love Of Roadshow Movies

Yesterday was a whirlwind of activity, with my wife and I making Thanksgiving dinner, wrangling our toddlers, getting the house acceptably non-slatternly for her family, hosting her family and then cleaning the whole thing up.  When it was all done, we all sort of collapsed on the coach, with our daughters thankfully exhausted after so much fun time with their grandparents and auntie.  I noticed then that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was on Turner Classic Movies, which my wife revealed to me was one of her absolute favorite childhood movies.  It was a good way to wind down with our kids after a long day.

While I am not a huge fan of late 1960s musicals, I got a kick out of enjoying a type of film that is a true relic of a bygone time: a movie in the roadshow format.  In case you aren't aware, roadshow pictures were very common in the 1950s and 1960s, getting their name from the way they were released, first in major cities, then taken "on the road" to other markets.  They were a different kind of cinematic experience intended to compete with the rise of television.  Roadshow formatted films were shown with reserved seating only, often on only three nights a week, and very often in special widescreen formats intended to emphasize the majesty of cinema as compared to TV (especially in a pre-HD era when the rabbit ears had to be adjusted for static on a constant basis.)  They began with an overture, back at a time when the movie theaters had curtains that would be drawn beforehand.  Formatted to be longer, road show films also had intermissions.  After the movie ended, there was exit music, presumably so people could linger and talk a little.

A lot of the great films of the era were shown this way, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bridge on the River KwaiSpartacus,  Lawrence of Arabia, and Ben-Hur among my favorites.  Of course, plenty of duds were too, like The Happiest Millionaire and Paint Your Wagon.  I first saw roadshow films as a child on cable television, and noticed that the TV screen was wholly inadequate to present them.  Whenever they showed Ben-Hur, the screen would shift to a heavily letterboxed format when the famous chariot race began, a sequence that can not possibly make sense in fullscreen.  The sublime scale of these films first sparked my love of cinema as cinema, and whenever I see them again, I get a little twinge of excitement.

Their demise in the early 1970s also represents the growing slobbification of American life.  Don't get me wrong, the greater informality in our social life has mostly been a good thing, and has certainly helped me do a better job of reaching my students.  On the other hand, I find that many aspects of our lives have become so informal as to be degraded.  My dad's father was a humble man who drove a truck and pumped gas for a living, but always dressed well in his off hours.  Now we live in a world where people go out in public, even at places like weddings, funerals, school, and airports, looking like absolute slobs.  No occasion is safe from cell phones, even the most grave.  (I was at a funeral of a loved one last year and could not believe the guy wearing a wrinkled, untucked golf shirt and sporting three days worth of unshaved stubble.)

Going to the movies might be the most debased social activity of them all.  As a very young child there were two movie theaters in my hometown, both located downtown and built many decades before.  They had gorgeous shining marquees, big balconies, and the feel of grandeur about them.  There were ushers to roust the idiots talking through the movie, and general sense that you were doing something special.  At the age of 7, a multiplex moved in next to the mall, and things changed.  The multiplex was clean, new, shiny and entirely without character, perfectly suited for the vapid 1980s.  (I saw a LOT of movies there but I have zero sentimental attachment to it, while every time I drive past the office building that The Strand became, I get wistful.)  Both old theaters soon closed (though one has thankfully reopened.)  In the decades that followed, multiplexes went from being inoffensively sterile to openly awful.  I don't know how many times I've had to watch a scratched print, endure a half hour of commercials, watch a film shown in the wrong aspect ratio or with the bulb on the projector turned down too low, had to go to the lobby to get someone to focus the projector, or endure loud obnoxious assholes free to carry on without anyone to shut them up.  The multiplex near my wife's house has even stopped updating its marquee, which now sports a message telling you to look up what's showing online.  Movie-going, like flying, has been made awful so that big conglomerates can wring every last dollar out of their customers.

Some days I dream of going to an old theater to see frivolous eye-candy epic like Cleopatra, sitting with anticipation in a mohair-covered seat during the overture, then drinking it in for four hours, transported into another world.  The march of time is fine, but sometimes good things get lost in the process.  Tonight I might sit down and watch something cheesy and roadshowy like The Robe, just to catch a glimpse of a lost world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson And Why We Need History

There's not much original or insightful I can say about the lack of an indictment yesterday.  I knew it was coming, but still felt horrible last night, similar to the horror I felt the night of George Zimmerman's acquittal.  I came to school today and thought about the young men of color in my classroom and despaired over their safety in a world where a man like Darren Wilson can kill without punishment.  Like a lot of people, I am feeling a whole welter of emotions that I am having a hard time expressing.

Instead of doing the impossible, I'd rather make an observation.  Ferguson, more than anything else in recent years, has convinced me of the importance of history.  Michael Brown's death, Darren Wilson's acquittal, and even the very residential space of Ferguson only make sense when viewed in historical context.  There is a very long, very bloody, and absolutely horrific history of men of color being killed in public by white men without punishment.  That awful history is tied to another history of turning black men into superhuman creatures in need of destruction, or "demons" in the words of Wilson.  There is a similar history, specifically, of police brutality and police violence and a jury rigged to prevent African Americans from getting justice.  There is another history, of redlining, white flight, and disenfranchisement.  There is also a history of urban unrest protesting injustice and brutality. If you try to understand Ferguson as an isolated event, detached from these histories, you will be woefully misled.

But that's what our news media and conventional wisdom does.  That fits the general tenor of white American life, which refuses to grapple with the past unless it is the usual patriotic narrative of freedom triumphant.  The main paradigm of American society sees individuals as the complete masters of their fate, never beholden to larger social and historical structures.  It is a paradigm born out of our vulgar consumer society, where we are constantly reminded of our choices.  That consumerism does political work too, in that encourages colorblind racism, and the inability for so many white people to understand where inequality comes from, among other blindnesses.  Most white Americans look at the nation's urban landscape and seem to think that the black and brown ghettoes, white subdivisions, and gentrified chic neighborhoods are somehow natural occurrences, like the hills and the rivers.

A lot of the ignorance and foolishness I have seen and heard by those unable to comprehend the reaction to Wilson's acquittal is based around seeing the events in Ferguson outside of any historical context.  "Why are "they" so angry?" is what I keep hearing.  Michael Brown's death and Darren Wilson's apparent profiting from that death with contributions and TV interviews ought to be reason enough, but context also really matters.

My fellow historians, your society needs you.  We need to go out and set things straight.  We need to go out in public and interpret the wonderful if obscure academic histories for the masses, who need to know the context of what they are seeing.  We need to do it because no one else will do it.  The price of inaction is too high.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Track of the Week: Johnny Cash "Country Trash"

This year will be yet another Thanksgiving spent away from my family back in Nebraska.  It's been a year since I've been out there (sadly, for my grandmother's funeral), and I don't know when my next trip will be.  Now that my daughters are two years old, that means two more plane tickets to pay for that I can't afford.  I will certainly enjoy myself here in New Jersey with my wife's family, but I'm still feeling a little homesick.

November is a fearsome month in Nebraska.  On the Great Plains the weather in all times of year is unpredictable and extreme, but in November it's especially so.  The ground freezes, the constant wind starts to get a barbed-wire edge, the corn fields have all been reduced to stubble, and the colors drain from the prairie, now transformed into eerie dull browns and jaundiced yellows.  Harvest has come and gone, and fearsome winter is about to strike.  Growing up it always seemed like the bitter cold and first heavy snow came right after Thanksgiving.  If not that, you could at least count on freezing rain coating everything in ice.

To live on this land, especially if you make a living from it as a farmer, you have to have a certain fatalistic streak to survive.  While I grew up in the town, my mom grew up on a farm, and my dad in a tiny village of 250 people.  They still had the hardy country attitude when confronting life's problems, and it's one I've tried to emulate, even though I live far, far away from home.  Thanksgiving is a perfect holiday for Nebraska's country folk, in that their mental outlook tends to focus on what they have, rather than on what they don't.  While this way of seeing the world can be maddeningly conservative and lacking in ambition, it does make people a lot more satisfied with their lives, no matter how simple.

That attitude really comes out in Johnny Cash's "Country Trash."  The narrator talks about his modest farm and what he's got laid up for the winter.  It isn't much, but "let the thunder roll and the lightning flash/ I'm doin' all right for country trash."  As far as resenting his place in the world, or that others have more than him, he simply remarks, "But we'll all be equal under the grass/ And God's got a heaven for country trash."  I can really hear my grandmother, who farmed almost her whole life, in those words.

I work each day in New York City, a place of constant ambition where no one is satisfied with what they have, and find themselves miserable amidst the lucre piled up by being at the heart of the world economy.  It's very easy to fall into that mentality.  That's why it's good, from time to time, to remind myself that I'm doin' alright for country trash.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

On Losing Interest In Football

This year was the year that I half-consciously made the decision to not care about football anymore.  This turn of events was not insignificant, considering that I grew up in Nebraska as a die-hard Cornhuskers fan.  At a young age I could recite the starting lineups, and the depth chart down to at least the third string for positions like running back and quarterback.  When the team had a string of embarrassing bowl losses in the late 80s and early 90s, I would depressed each January 1st, wondering if the humiliations would ever end.  When I saw the then #1 ranked Huskers lose at home to Oklahoma in 1987, it was the most devastating event in my life up to that point, besides the death of my grandfather.  When the Huskers won three championships in the 1990s, I was on cloud nine, and even the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 couldn't match the feeling I had after the 1994 season when Tom Osborne finally had a national championship.

My love of football went beyond the Huskers, though.  I played innumerable backyard touch football games during recess at school and with my friends in their backyards.  (My one disastrous season playing tackle football didn't go so well, though.  I was a meek kid and kind of spacey, so I shied away from hitting and wasn't good at knowing the playbook.)  During study hall in middle and high school I would diagram plays, and I had a real obsession with the technical, Xs and Os behind the game.  I loved computer football games where I was the coach, and couldn't control the players.  The strategic stuff interested me more than the athletic execution.

Once I left college and moved to Chicago, I became much more interested in the NFL, and became a committed Bears fan to boot.  In grad school in downstate Illinois it became a weekly ritual among some of my friends to gather on Sunday afternoon (after having spent the morning working) to pot luck some food, drink some beers, and watch NFL football.  The couple who hosted each week had NFL Sunday Ticket, so we could watch any game we wanted.  It was a nice break from the grueling grad student work schedule, and I still have many fond memories of those Sunday afternoons.

Now that I no longer have that fellowship, or the cultural ties to my home state (where football is religion), my interest in football has waned.  Much of it has to do with my years in higher education, which taught me that big time college sports are a cancer on universities and drive their leaders into decisions that harm the academic mission of their institutions.  The recent revelations in North Carolina are only the most outlandish in a long litany of such abuses.  Big time college sports do active harm, from shielding rapists to robbing athletes of a meaningful education to stealing money from classrooms. It got to the point that I felt like I was violating my moral code by maintaining any interest in college football.

The NFL is a slightly different matter.  There were moral qualms extending from the brain damage of its players, of course, but that wasn't all.  NFL football has become a crummy product.  The games take three and a half hours long, are full of interminable commercials, and are carried on by technocratic coaches and mostly faceless players.  Apart from a few players like Peyton Manning (who I can't stand, by the way), the game has overshadowed individual achievement.  That takes away one of the basic reasons to care about a sport in the first place.  I also agree with my friend Cranky Bear, when he said this:

"Last but not least, football as a sport isn't all that great.  It is a game suited for television and rather underwhelming in person, but on television there are more commercial breaks than interesting plays in a given game.  The NFL in particular has become a dry, technocratic exercise about as inspiring as an annual earnings report.  Give me basketball's free-flowing poetry, baseball's cerebral contemplation, or soccer's athletic beauty any day.  Fuck football and every inch of its turgid violence, you can have it."

So what's life like been without as much football in it?  In the first place, it's saved me the aggravation of enduring recent Bears hidings at the hands of their opponents, or of my once beloved Huskers getting shellacked by Wisconsin.  I've had the TV on a let less on the weekend, which has meant fewer hours spent watching commercials and listening to the kind of bloviating bores who are hired to announce and analyze the game.  During game time I've been out and about or doing yard work.  If I need a sports fix I watch English Premier League soccer early in the morning before my family is out the door.

I'm not judgmental or negative towards football fans, I of all people get the sport's appeal.  Perhaps I would still be following the sport, but the circumstances of my life have made me abandon many things I once cared deeply about (the Catholic Church, the historical profession, etc.), and that's made it easier to change my mind about football.  It's still America's number one spectator sport, so maybe I'm a total outlier, but I still wonder how long that will continue to be the case.

Friday, November 21, 2014

All Hail Bon Scott Era AC/DC

For years I resisted AC/DC, mostly because I grew up in a small town on the Great Plains where they were the preferred band of every dirtbag burnout cruising the main drag every Friday night in what passed for teenage culture that place.  As time went by, I soon learned the error of my ways.  In my Chicago days my dearly departed friend David cranked up Back in Black one Friday happy hour over beer and darts, and it was the perfect musical accompaniment.

That album was my gateway drug, since I soon discovered that while it was a great record, I much preferred the more raw stuff the band put out with Bon Scott, their original front man.  To this day I hold that Scott is among rock's greatest front men, in a class with Mick Jagger, Johnny Rotten, and Robert Plant.  While he was not a great singer, he was a fantastic yelper whose high-pitched calls to wanton good times perfectly complimented the band's powerful blues riffs and brutal, fill-free drums.  His leering, playful stage presence was perfect for letting the good times roll.  Only The Faces could challenge Bon Scott's AC/DC for the title of greatest bar band of all time.  Hell, the song "TNT" is basically a big brag about barroom fighting ability.  Here are some other songs that belong in the Bon Scott pantheon:

"It's A Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock and Roll"

Scott had spent years paying his dues, which accounts for his worldly-wise, knowing pose.  Every word of this song was earned.  It also has maybe the coolest use of bagpipes in a rock song, only appropriate considering that the frontman was born in Scotland.


When he takes the persona of a jailbird, you actually believe it.  The slow, ominous build is perfect, as is Scott's delivery of the line "He made it out…with a bullet in his BACK!"

"Let There Be Rock"

Angus Young just absolutely shreds on this one, proving that AC/DC can put things up tempo if they want to.  Scott's taking the preacher personae is great fun to boot.

"Sin City"

This song isn't as well, but I think it has the best riff that AC/DC ever crafted, and that's saying something.  It sounds pretty good on the studio version, but it really shows its power live.

"Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"

This song might now have some new resonance considering drummer Phil Rudd was recently arrested for trying to arrange a contract murder.  It's a testament to the band's verisimilitude that I was not totally surprised by that revelation.  This song is Scott at his salacious, satyr-like best.


Gutbucket, shot and a pint down and dirty rock music just doesn't get any better than this.  At a time when rock is either tepid (but often interesting) indie rock or godawful Nickelback-like corporate rock processed cheese, we need a dose of Bon Scott.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Ordinary Beauty of Seventies Film

I make no bones about my love of 1970s American film.  It was a short, blessed era (really over by the late 1970s, actually) where challenging, "small" films made by directors reared on world cinema got Hollywood backing. So many of these films were about regular people living in everyday, non-glamorous environments.  You can compare this to modern film, where everyone is attractive and no one is poor.  Most people's homes look spacious, stylish, and way too clean.  The exceptions, like the cluttered interiors in Nebraska, are notable for how much they stand out.  Although so many of them place in such everyday environments, seventies films are not a grim immersion in reality, but a kind of enhancement of it.  It's sad to say we live today in a world where we are afraid to have the world of our daily lives reflected back to us.  Here are some of my favorite examples of regular interiors in seventies film:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

This crime flick featuring an aging but perfect Robert Mitchum spends a lot of time in antiquated working class kitchens with outmoded appliances, dusty dive bars, and low end diners.  That last is beautifully pictured in this clip.

The King of Marvin Gardens

This great overlooked classic mostly takes place in a down at heels Atlantic City, and director Bob Rafelson wrings maximum seediness out of the scenes shot in once grand hotels.

California Split

Robert Altman's unflinching look at gambling addiction is so much more real because it goes inside of smokey, divey Reno casinos and sticky-floored racetrack bathrooms full of desperate characters in cheap clothes.

The Long Good-Bye

Here's another Altman classic, which shows us our hero in a crummy, messy apartment, then going out to a flourescent-lighted, run of the mill supermarket for cat food.

Slap Shot

This is my favorite sports movie ever, partially because it recreates the atmosphere and broken-down daily landscape of the Rust Belt, all the way from dive bars to once beautiful train stations to streets full of brick rowhouses in the first light of dawn.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The War On Thanksgiving

For years now conservative media figures like Bill O'Reilly have been driving up ratings and getting their gray haired followers agitated over a supposed "War on Christmas."  These assertions have come at a time when the Christmas shopping season creeps closer and closer to October.  The day after Halloween this year I was already having my ears assaulted by treacly holiday music.  (Of course, O'Reilly and crew are really pining for a time when Christians could dominate the public sphere with school Christmas pageants and the like, non-Christians be damned.)

There is a holiday that is having war committed upon it, and that holiday is Thanksgiving.  It is, in my opinion, our nation's greatest holiday tradition.  It is a day for family, for feasting, for reflection, and to combat the coming of fearsome winter with joy and good feeling.  It is perhaps our most bullshit-free and welcoming holiday.  While "thanksgiving" has religious roots, the holiday itself is not affiliated with a particular religion, or even theism.  All can fully take part, unlike with Christmas, Easter, Passover, Eid, etc.  There is no Thanksgiving shopping season, no twenty somethings dressed in "sexy" costumes, no people puking green beer or engaging in jingoistic nationalism.

But the war on Thanksgiving is plain to see, and that war is being waged by Black Friday, capitalism's Walpurgisnacht.  That orgy of consumerist frenzy has now invaded Thanksgiving, with several retailers opening their door and turning a day for family and reflection into a disgusting exercise of our country's least attractive values.  It is a war in that Black Friday is not only taking hours from Thanksgiving, it is undermining its very value system.  Our capitalist Moloch does not profit from family time, does not profit from a quiet day of contemplation, does not profit from the cherished stillness of that blessed day. (As a child it seemed that there was no other day of the year so peaceful as Thanksgiving.)  It profits from people trampling each other to buy Xboxes.

But where are the prophets who toss their jeremiads against the dishonor done to Christmas?  Where are these paragons of "traditional values" when the holiday that most embodies traditional values is being eviscerated?  They are nowhere to be seen, because these charlatans are actually in league with capital, the greatest enemy and destroyer of traditional society, that bloody force that seeks to turn every human interaction into a vulgar cash transaction.

I am a man of the Left, but I believe some traditions like Thanksgiving are important because they help preserve our humanity.  There is a war being fought against Thanksgiving, as there is against any human activity that is not a form of buying and selling, and it is time to realize it, and also what's really behind it.