Thursday, January 30, 2014

Democrats Are Taking A Knife To A Gun Fight in 2014

This year is an election year, and a crucial one.  The 2014 election will determine the Congress for Barack Obama's last years in office, and gains by Democrats could help break the logjam of Republican obstruction.  Despite this fact, the Democrats don't seem to be doing much collectively to win.  The president's state of the union address this week was a case in point, since he greatly dialed back his vision, pulling away from gun control and income inequality.  It was not a speech that rallied his base.

Contrast that with the Republicans.  While that party is having some internal convulsions (just witness the four separate responses to the state of the union speech) it is working hard to lay the groundwork for  victory.  As conservatives discovered in 2010, low turnout in mid-term elections means having a motivated base is hard to beat.  The GOP rode the Tea Party wave into major gains that year, and since then have put Capitol Hill in a filibustered lock-down.  This year they are playing the same strategy by emphasizing abortion to get conservative Christians to the polls.  The wave of voter suppression laws around the country will also heavily dilute Democratic turnout, absolutely essential when fewer voters in total will be casting ballots.  Add to that the post-Citizens' United money train flowing from the Koch brothers and the like, and the Democrats could very well be roadkill.

Of course, the Dems did better in 2012, but that's because a presidential election brings out a broader spectrum of voters, and with the Republican obsession with ideological purity, swing voters were not as willing to trust them.  Many of those voters will be staying home this year.  The Democrats have also been saved by the Republicans' manifest dysfunction.  They nominated candidates like Todd Akin, forcing them to lose Senate seats that they should have locked up.  Essentially, the Democrats have been lucky, and still seem so passive that they are just hoping the other side tears itself to pieces rather than rallying their own base or making major moves to capture the attention of other voters.

The Democrats have been a truly spineless party of late.  For evidence, just look at L'Affaire Chrisie.  The governor had been engaging in all kinds of well-known shenanigans, but many Democrats were willing to play ball with him for their own power and gain.  (Just look into the whole Belleville senior citizens' center scandal.)  During last year's election I was flabbergasted at the number of Democrats who would so willingly support a man from the opposing party, much less a man who had attacked important Democratic constituencies with his policies.  Now that the reality of Christie's corruption is being uncovered, these folks are suddenly coming out against him.  Had the bridge scandal not erupted, many of those same Democrats would still be kissing Christie's ass right now.

I am glad that the president showed some fire in his speech and is committed to using executive powers to further his policies, but he does not seem to be offering those on the Left much succor.  He has expended the most energy recently defending a health care law that progressives thought was inadequate and defending domestic spying that his base and many of his opponents are incensed about.

If Democrats don't get annihilated this fall, it won't be because of their efforts, but because of the insanity of their opponents.  The Republicans seem to be getting smarter about this, but might have an intraparty civil war on their hands over taming the Tea Party.  If that civil war doesn't break out, expect Democrats to get buried under a landslide come November.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Memories of a Farm

Today my grandparents' farm went up for auction, as per the instructions in my grandmother's will.  It has been difficult for me to contemplate, because it makes her death and the death of my grandfather seventeen years ago seem that much more final.  More than that, it seems to be a loss not only of them, but of their very memory.

That farm was the location of some of the best moments of my childhood.  A trip to see my mother's parents was always a special treat.  We drove an hour over the flat Nebraska plains, taking some family-patented short cuts on windy prairie roads before jumping on I-80 for the home stretch.  If you want to see my grandparents' farm, it's pretty easy, since it sits close to the interstate right before the Elm Creek exit heading west bound, so close in fact that it bisected my grandparents' farm when the government built it.

A trip to the farm house meant a lot of things, almost all of them good.  My grandma was a master baker, and used food to express love.  I could count on having access to home made cookies and at least two kinds of pie, not to mention the traditional dessert of vanilla ice cream with Hershey's chocolate syrup -from a tin can, not a plastic bottle- drenching it.  On the farm they called lunch "dinner," and dinner usually meant a juicy pot roast and buttery mashed potatoes that had been picked, like the cucumbers, sweet corn, and tomatoes, from my grandma's garden.

Dinner usually came after we kids had spent some time running around in the trees that surrounded the farm.  There were always plenty of yard cats to play around with who were well fed by the scraps from grandma's table.  We gave the cats eccentric names like Mischief Maker (a gregarious orange tom who was my favorite) and Oldsmobile (a calico whose name was inspired by a friend's cat named Mercedes.)  Our family's first cat, a shy grey huntress named Frisky, came from a litter born on the farm.

Better than playing with the cats was building forts.  Our first attempt was more of a grass hut built in the shelter belt of trees in back of the house next to the gravel road.  My sisters and I leaned three long logs against a tree and covered it with the long prairie grass growing the road ditch.  Later on my cousins and I constructed a fort in a small clearing in the trees using chicken wire.  Soon enough, however, we moved to a prime spot near the tall metal grain bins where we were to make use of the contents of my grandpa's junk pile.  It's a wonder none of us got tetanus, because we unspooled old barbed wire and picked up rusted-out buzz saw blades from the pile of scrap.  Occasionally my grandpa, a big man in a booming voice in overalls, would tell us sternly to be careful and not run around with sticks.  For the most part, though, our fort was the province of us kids.  When I returned to Elm Creek for my grandma's visitation, I drove out to the farm with one of my cousins.  He investigated the site of the fort, and could report that the basic structure was still there.  I only hope that the new owner doesn't molest it.

There was plenty of fun to be had inside the house too, of course.  I used to love sitting in my grandpa's huge recliner, well worn in by his massive frame.  He always liked to play around at being tough with us, even though we all knew he was a big softy underneath.  We played a game where I would sit in his chair when I knew he wanted to use it.  He would come over and give me a mock-mean face and say "get out of there!" while I would scurry away to the davenport (my grandma's word for the couch) with a laugh and he would smile, lean back, and light up a cigarette.  I always marveled at his huge hands, built from years of hard, manual work.  My grandma loved playing cards and board games with her children and grandchildren, and we spent countless hours as a highly competitive family playing pitch (a four-handed Nebraska game akin to euchre), Aggravation, Clue, and Uno.

Once every summer my sisters and I would spend a week at the farm.  I loved it, since it meant lots of quiet time for reading (I was quite the nerd) and plenty days to execute large fort-building projects.  It also meant that one of my cousins would come by and we would target tin cans with his BB gun, which I cherished because my mother did not allow my dad to buy me one of my own.  At night the low, long whine of semi-trucks on the interstate would lull me to sleep.  Still to this day it is a sound that brings me comfort.  The mornings meant a big farm breakfast with eggs and bacon, and my grandfather warming up his instant coffee in the microwave while listening to the farm report blaring out of the radio on KRVN.  It was an arcane mish-mash of words like "pork bellies" that I knew meant a lot to his livelihood, but I couldn't translate it.  It added to the mystique of being on the farm, living in a place that had its own rules and rhythms.

There was one bad thing about visiting the farm: leaving.  My mother has always been a big talker, so we never left while the sun was still up.   My grandma would usually have all kinds of goodies for us to take with, the best being big plastic bags full of kettle corn.  We walked out of the front door, to the gate of the fenced-in yard, with my grandparents behind us.  At that point my family would walk to our car ourselves, my grandma and grandpa standing at the gate waving good-bye to us until we were out of sight.  It was such a bittersweet feeling, hearing the crunch of the gravel underneath the car wheels as we drove under the impossibly massive dark sky of a rural Nebraska night, seeing the image of my grandpa and grandma fading into darkness in the rear window.  It's only now dawning on me, today, that they have faded away for good, never to return.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Track of the Week: Bee Gees "And the Sun Will Shine"

Growing up I always thought of the Bee Gees as the lycra-clad blow-dried hairy-chested flared-trousered avatars of everything that was silly about the 1970s.  When I first really got aware music (around 1983), there was nothing less cool than disco and the Bee Gees.  Some time in college I realized that disco is a lot of fun, but did not have any idea about what the Brothers Gibb had been up to beforehand until a friend made me a mix CD of their baroque 1960s pop music when I was in grad school.  I immediately fell in love, no matter how sentimental and silly their string-drenched, daftly lyricized songs of that era may be.

That music took on special resonance when I moved from grad school to my first academic job in western Michigan.  As much as I love Michigan, its winters are a true trial of the spirit.  I found the drippy melancholy of the Bee Gees' first three records to be the perfect accompaniment the endless string of cloudy days.  Humans are like plants, we need sunshine or we will wilt and die.  The lack of sunshine wore me down much more than the cold winds and constant snow, the Bee Gees helped me wallow in it.

No song spoke to my longing for a sunny day than "And the Sun Will Shine," a lovely ballad featuring some of Robin Gibb's most emotional singing.  His cracking, high voice is easy to parody, but its vulnerability makes you believe what he's saying, despite the obscurity of the lyrics.  The beginning cuts through me, the strings bitingly ominous, Robin's voice sounding like a man about to lose the will to live.  Then the song shifts gears with the words "And the sun will shine/ if just for you" offering the prospect of hope in the rising notes, before descending again into dirge territory lamenting loneliness, then shifting once again on the note of quiet hope.  The alternating poles of despair and optimism in the song mirror the experience of anyone who's ever been at the end of their emotional rope.  It's amazing to think that an 18 year old could channel such feelings.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Some Suggestions For Improving the Super Bowl

When I was a boy, I fervently looked forward to Super Sunday.  I devoured the pre-game analysis in the newspapers and magazines, watched hours of pre game television, and normally viewed the game like a scholar, by myself.  (My dad has always disliked pro football.)  My enthusiasm was likely helped along by the first two Super Bowls I watch, the hard-fought 1982 game between the Bengals and 49ers, and the next year's close contest between Miami and Washington.  The latter featured a dramatic fourth down run by John Riggins in the fourth quarter, where the big man from Kansas broke loose for a long run in the open.

The blow-outs that followed still had their moments, though, like William "Refrigerator" Perry's touchdown run in '86 or crafty, quiet veteran Doug Williams lighting up a Broncos team lead by the over-hyped John Elway in 1988.  As the years went by, I began to notice things that I'd heard others complain about, namely the ridiculous hype, rampant consumerism, and general soullessness of the game itself.  The most visceral, exciting thing that happened in last year's Super Bowl was a power outage.  The game needs changes to make it good again, and I have a few suggestions.

Stop Playing On Neutral Fields
This issue, like many that the Super Bowl, stems from the game's origins.  When the Super Bowl first began, in 1967, professional football was still a recently popular sport finding its bearings.  The Super Bowl was thus a showcase for the rising game, whereas today the NFL dominates the American sports landscape.  There is no need to give it showcase trappings, and one of the biggest is the neutral field.  Early on, the games were all in attractive, warm-weather locales guaranteed to bring in fans and fill the seats.  Since then, the NFL has used it to reward teams for building new stadiums, hence Super Bowls in non-touristy places like Jacksonville and Detroit.  Does anybody want to go to Detroit in February, or go to Jacksonville in any month, unless they can really help it?  The neutral location also has the crummy side effect of cutting down on fan participation (as does the NFL's policy of reserving tickets for corporate types rather than rooters.)

The team with the best regular-season record (computer adjusted for strength of schedule) would get to have home field advantage.  The one exception would be if the two teams played during the season, then the winner would get home turf.  Doing this will drastically amp up the atmosphere for the game.  Denver and Seattle both have notably noisy and boisterous crowds, either would make the game more interesting.  I think of other sports and their great championship moments, and many are related to their stadiums.  Carlton Fisk's famous home run in the 1975 World Series would not have been nearly as dramatic had it not kissed off of the Fenway foul pole.  Magic Johnson's mini-skyhook buzzer-beater against the Celtics in 1987 was that much more amazing in that it came in the old Boston Garden, a place where the Celtics teams of the 80s almost NEVER lost.

Get Rid of Media Week
The Super Bowl is the most hyped event on the calendar in this country, why do we need an extra week to hype it?  Again, this is a vestige of a former time, when the game had a different purpose and the NFL craved extra attention.  The additional time off between games messes with players' rhythms, and allows coaches more time to exploit their opponents' weaknesses, something that lead to the boring blowouts of the past.

Eliminate the Half Time Show
This has always been an atrocity.  Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, Up With People did many of the shows.  (Want a taste of their super-sweet saccharine smarm?  Here you go.  They make Pat Boone look edgy.)  As if that wasn't bad enough, there was the trend of hiring pop stars after Michael Jackson's 1993 performance complete with fascist dictator chic.  After that we got Britney Spears paired with Aerosmith atrocity, Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction," the Black Eyed Peas stinking up the joint, and over-the-hill rockers like the Who and Rolling Stones.  The only good half time I've seen was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band, and that was because the Boss and his pals just gave the audience a taste of their legendary stage show, and seemed to be having a blast.  Unless they have Bruce perform, skip the half time show, which will also shorten the game time, which is lengthened by having a longer half.

Bring Back the Bud Bowl
Young men of my generation fondly remember the animated game that played out between Budweiser and Bud Light during the commercial breaks in the Super Bowl.  If the game is a stinker, we can at least have the suspense of knowing whether Bud Dry's lighting passing arm can bring his team back.  The Bud Bowl may be the one positive thing that Budweiser has ever done for humanity.

Tone Down the Nationalism
The NFL has cravenly linked its brand to the US military, no more flagrantly than their exploitation of the death in combat of former player Pat Tillman, who had actually become critical of the war in Afghanistan near the end of his life.  The bombastic national anthems, jet plane flyovers, and flag waving combined with football's valorization of violence all combine to make a potent brew of militarist propaganda.  We could use a lot less of that.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

TV Shows I'd Like to See

When I have spare moments, such as on a snow day like yesterday, my mind wanders in odd directions.  I often get ideas for television shows, especially those that challenge the many ossified genres and tropes we see on TV nowadays.  Since I am not a television producer and do not have the ability or time to write scripts, I settle for writing my ideas down here.

Bridge and Tunnel
Friends and its imitators have made New York City out to be some kind of happy playground for twenty-somethings while not acknowledging its expense and inaccessibility.  Bridge and Tunnel would be a show about long term friends who work in New York City, but live in New Jersey because their unpaid internships and low paid entry-level jobs make it too expensive to live in the city.  Plenty of hilarious scenarios can ensue, such as one character trying to find dates while living in her parents' basement, or getting the goat of condescending trustafarian co-workers who live in a Manhattan apartment with the rent money provided by their parents.  The foil for the main characters will be a insufferably narcissistic Manhattanite "writer" named Vanna Vorhath.

Undercover Boss: University Edition
In this version of the reality show university presidents and chancellors would have to work as adjuncts or go through the tenure review process and all the while follow all of the nit-picky policies they helped put in place.  Somehow I think the experience still won't give them any sympathy for their employees.

Internal Affairs
On this Law and Order type show investigators in the NYPD strive to uncover corruption and police brutality while opposed by political cover-ups and the Blue Wall of Silence.  Too often the television version of the police are presented in a sanitized and propagandistic way, this show could discuss issues such as stop and frisk, kickbacks, prisoner abuse, the shooting of unarmed suspects, and coerced confessions.

Blue Guy, Red State
This is similar to Northern Exposure, but a drama, not a comedy.  The main character is "fish out of water" as a new assistant professor at a rural college in a small Great Plains town.  He soon finds that his urban background and cultural sophistication make him a feared outcast.  Each season, like the cast of Gilligan's Island, he strives to get a job elsewhere, but due to the contracting job market must stay put.  Rather than learning to love his new location over time, he develops a mean drinking habit and spends as much of his free time traveling as possible before his spirit is broken and he accepts his fate and starts conforming, Stockholm Syndrome-like, to his surroundings.

The Rices
I see this as an HBO-style series in the vein of The Sopranos, TremeDeadwood, or The Wire.  Partially inspired by the story of Spotswood Rice, the series would, over the course of several seasons, tell the story of the Rices, an enslaved family.  It would begin with the outbreak of the Civil War, and through an ensemble cast, tell the story of slaves and their struggle for freedom during that conflict.  Some members of the family manage to escape and join the Union army as contraband workers or soldiers.  Others must face being "refugeed" by their masters to Texas.  Eventually one of the soldiers in the family will return to the plantation in uniform, and personally free his family.  Once the conflict is over, they strive mightily to reconnect with family members who were sold off to other plantations.  The Rices also try to take advantage of Reconstruction, and also face the consequences of Klan violence after getting involved in politics.  The epic of the African American experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction is so vast and sweeping (and dramatic) that it could not be confined to a feature-length film, we really need a series to do it justice.

Real Reality TV
This "reality" show will put cameras in the living rooms of ordinary Americans as they sit on the couch and watch reality television.  It doesn't get any more real than that, does it?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Essential Baseball Reading For Those In Winter Withdrawal

Getting home in today's storm was a major ordeal, and I spent my time on my slow moving train staring at the swirling snow and dreaming of sitting on the third base side at Citi Field or US Cellular Field or Camden Yards (my favorite non-rooting interest ballpark) on a mild June afternoon with a beer in one hand and a kosher hot dog in the other.  That, and the Asbury Park boardwalk, is the happy place I go to when winter is at its fiercest.

If you haven't guessed yet, I love baseball.  Back when I was a child and suffering from baseball withdrawal, this time of year brought the new baseball cards.  I spent a good part of January, February, and March cracking open packs of Score, Topps, Donruss, and Fleer, poring over stats from the prior year and making my own projected standings for the coming season.  Another highlight was getting Sports Illustrated's baseball preview in the mail, which I read cover to cover at least twice before the season began.

These days I delve into baseball books during the winter months.  Most recently, I've devoured the 2014 annual of the Hardball Times, which is full of articles analyzing the last season and contemplating issues such as whether hitters do better on their birthdays, or whether the Mets' rebuilding program will succeed.  The following list is not exhaustive nor is it made up of "the best" books, just ones I'd recommend for all the folks suffering from their estrangement from the emerald diamond.

Jim Bouton, Ball Four
More than any other book, 1970s Ball Four stripped away the mythology around baseball players and showed what day to day life was like over the course of a season on a ball club.  Bouton's candor led him to be called into the office of Bowie Kuhn, who did not approve of Bouton's discussion of formerly taboo issues like Mickey Mantle's sex life and the common use of amphetamines during games.  Beyond the controversy, it is really funny, and since it is in a diary format, allows the reader to really inhabit the quotidian life of the majors.

Doug Glanville, The Game From Where I Stand
If you want something more modern, Glanville writes in a similar vein as Bouton, but about baseball in the 1990s and 2000s.  Although he is not as flip or humorous as Bouton, his writing style is much more refined and a pleasure to read.

Dirk Hayhurst, The Bullpen Gospels and Out of My League
Of course, most players don't make it to the majors.  In these two books Hayhurst details his struggles in the minors, as well as the difficulties brought on by his dysfunctional family.  These books, more than any others I've read, get at the lengths we will go to pursue our dreams, and the tremendous mental toll it takes when they don't come true.  I read Hayhurst soon after leaving academia and my own dreams behind, and it was therapeutic.

Bill Veeck, Veeck As In Wreck
Baseball owners are known to be a stodgy bunch, but Veeck enjoyed driving the stuffed shirts nuts when he owned the St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox.  Responsible for all kinds of gimmicks and hullaballoo, Veeck was famous for hiring a little person to pinch hit, exploding scoreboards, and letting fans be the manager for a day.  He's a classic raconteur and a true baseball character.

Howard Bryant, Juicing the Game
Baseball has experienced quite a Sturm und Drang over the steroids issue, but few have been able to put steroids in context of other changes in the game.  Bryant shows how the steroid problem was enabled by Bud Selig and the owners, and papered over by the news media's fawning over Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's assault on the home run record.  Of course, Selig and the baseball writers are on an anti-steroids crusade that looks mighty hypocritical.  Since this book was published in 2006, it  might seem a little dated, but nobody else has managed to write on the issue with Bryant's intelligence.

Dan Barry, Bottom of the 33rd
Baseball does not have a clock, so theoretically, a game could last forever.  One minor league game in Pawtucket in the early 80s almost did, lasting 33 innings.  Barry tells the story masterfully, and in the process gets into what makes minor league baseball so unique.

Jeff Pearlman, The Bad Guys Won
Pearlman's history of the bad boy 1986 Mets' championship run is brain candy at its best.  I remember burning through it faster than a Dwight Gooden fastball.  There's never a dull moment, unlike so many other team-profile books.

Anything by Roger Angell
From the early 1960s until very recently, Angell wrote baseball pieces for the New Yorker.  His prose is a wonder to behold and he always seemed to able to pull out fascinating observations and moments from the game.  Two of my favorites: how a spring training game displays the fundamental difference between Mets and Yankees fans, and a beautiful piece on first learning to love baseball as a child.  The Hall of Fame has finally inducted him, and it's about damn time.

John Updike, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"
Speaking of masterful prose, John Updike's essay about Ted Williams is perhaps one of the best things he ever wrote, and one of the most insightful about the fraught relationship players have with their fans.

Bette Bao Lord, In The Year Of The Boar And Jackie Robinson
Do you know a young person pining for baseball season?  Give them this book.  I read it in elementary school and absolutely loved it.  It articulates what baseball can mean from a kid's perspective better than just about anything else.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Track of the Week: The Chi-Lites "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People"

70s soul group the Chi-Lites are probably best known for their great slow ballads "Oh Girl" and "Have You Seen Her."  ("Letter to Myself" is a lesser-known stunner in the same vein.)  Until I picked up a Brunswick Records compilation a few years back, I did not know that they were also capable of a funky, rocking, stomping political call to arms.  That song is the starkly titled "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People."

The message is pretty straight-forward, but bears repeating today: those that are at the top are using their positions to hoard money and power to the immense detriment of everyone else.  The lyrics are as anti-authority as the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" but their revolutionary import is easily lost in the Chi-Lites' signature harmonizing.  But if you listen beneath the great voices, their words accuse the wealthy of being criminals, and oppression of killing the ability to love.  Pretty heady stuff for a pop song.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, a day when I try my best to remember not the non-threatening, safe symbol King has been turned into, but rather the fiery prophet decrying America's failure to live up to its creed.  Late in his too short life he was speaking in terms similar to this song, namely that for real change to occur, those with power were going to have to give it up.  These days, when the economic elite seem to have more power with each passing day, the message of Dr. King and this song are needed more than ever.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Have The Republicans Lost Nixon's "New American Majority"?

In a two party democracy, the major parties are inevitably coalitions of disparate groups, not ideologically pure or monochromatic.  From the 1930s to the 1970s Democrats dominated national politics due to the power of the so-called New Deal coalition, an unlikely combination of Southern whites, educated liberals, African-Americans, and blue collar workers.

Richard Nixon's landslide victory in 1972 pointed to the fragility of that coalition, which was definitively broken apart after Reagan's victory in 1980.  Nixon is known for his rhetoric about the "Silent Majority," which he also termed the "New American Majority."  He skillfully courted the unions, Southern whites, the suburbs, and urban white ethnics so crucial to his crushing victory in 1972.  To do so, Nixon exploited the fears of those who were confused or angry about the changes of the 1960s, and who resented the counterculture, war protestors, and growing racial equality.  Others have noted that the Republican party has increasingly become a white people's party, that trend stretched back to Nixon's "Southern Strategy" and the ways Republicans threw their doors open to the likes of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.

Back then, the racial demographics were firmly on the Republicans' side.  If they were going to win a majority of white people, they would likely win the presidential election.  Reagan knew this too, hence his defense of "states rights" in 1980 in Mississippi and constant talk of "welfare queens" driving Cadillacs during that same election.  By that time evangelicals too had entered the fray as a newly powerful force for conservatives.  Calls for low taxes, flag waving, "law and order," and "family values" combined to give conservatives at least one issue that appealed to a great number of the white voters who were once loyal Democrats who might not have bought into the supply side snake oil.

It appears nowadays that just as the Democrats lost their coalition, the Republicans are losing theirs, too.  One reason, of course, is that the country is much less white than it used to be.  This change has been used to powerful effect to whip up Tea Party resentment against president Obama, but will be a diminishing return because the audience for this rhetoric is getting older and older.  Some Republicans are smart enough to realize this, and are desperately pushing forward not ready for prime-time (but brown-skinned) pols like Jindal and Rubio, and are backing immigration reform to court the Latino vote.  Their Tea Party base, intent on xenophobia, is not letting the savvier heads get their way.  Romney won a majority of white voters (including white women), but still lost the election very definitively.

Other factors are under-cutting the old majority as well.  By obsessing over ideological purity, Republicans are making it difficult to build a broad coalition in the first place.  The GOP's need to placate its religious wing is increasingly alienating younger voters who are much more secular than their forebears.  That trend will only continue.  Many of the social issues they used to peel off Democrats in the past, such as abortion, gay rights, drugs, and narrowing the church-state separation are   no longer as potent, and actually work against conservatives.  In essence, the culture wars are backfiring on their biggest warriors.  Last, the growth of cities and decline of suburbs, as well as the changing demographics of suburbs are working against conservatives, not to mention that rural America has entered permanent decline.

The question is whether Republicans can fight a rearguard action to avoid becoming a marginal, white/rural/Christian identity-politics party buoyed by corporate dough.  One thing that now is clear is that the coalition that had been so successful for conservatives going back to Nixon is breaking apart and dwindling in number.  Maybe, just maybe, a major political sea change is in the offing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Baker Street" and Remembering My Bad Old Days

The other day I had an intense flashback to my recent past when the 70s AM radio chestnut "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty was plucked by the shuffle on my iPod and into my ears while navigating Penn Station during my morning commute.  The song almost stopped me in my tracks when I heard it, since it transported me to one the lowest moments of personal despair in my life.

It was three years ago that I was in my third year as an assistant professor behind the pine cone curtain in East Texas.  I was living over a thousand miles from my wife, and despite having three highly placed articles and book contract, I could not get a single AHA interview.  I knew it was time to quit academia and move to New Jersey, but I just didn't know how I would do it.  Feelings of failure and loneliness gripped me nightly.  I tended to respond by spending so many evenings playing old records, sipping wine, and burying my head in a book.  These three things combined distracted me enough to be able to withstand my hours alone with my dark thoughts of despair.

That didn't help me in the morning, though.  I woke up alone, living in a sterile apartment in a monotonous complex on the edge of an alien town, far far away from home.  So many mornings I walked out of bed to the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and wondered just what the hell I was doing, and whether I would ever be able to truly go home again.  To help bear the pain, I would throw a record on the turntable.  When I needed soothing, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk did the trick, but when I wanted to wallow in my homesickness, I listened to "Baker Street," a song about that feeling that chasing a dream has led to a dead end without a way back.

Sitting in my house tonight, surrounded by my family and living in a great and welcoming town, I could not be further away from where I was three years ago.  Whenever I bitch about my commute or get overwhelmed with the demands of parenthood, it helps to remember how much happier I am now.  I wrote the following post on my old blog about "Baker Street," back when I thought there was no way out of the utter desperate despair I was feeling.  If you, dear reader, happen to feel the same way, know that you can still find a happy home.  I'm proof.  (By the way, the addendum at the end of the old post was bullshit.  I wrote this on one of many dark nights of the soul I experienced that winter.)

In that last coupla years my music tastes have turned in directions I never could have anticipated. I became devoted to the punk rock of the 70s at a young age, and still love to hear it. Hell, this morning I popped "Born to Lose" by the Heartbreakers (the Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty edition) into my car stereo on my way to work. However, I've come to love some of the late seventies sophisticated pop music that was supposed to be anathema to punk rock: Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, etc.

Of this genre, there is probably no one song that I adore more than "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty. For years I'd known it merely as "that saxophone song." One night I got a wild hair and bought it on iTunes, and this last weekend I finally tracked down a vinyl copy of the City to City album, which I am currently in the process of wearing out. Like the aforementioned Supertramp's Breakfast in America album, Rafferty nails the sense of loss, confusion, and disappointment that often accompanies life after the age of thirty. As he sings, "another year and you'll be happy/ but you're crying now."

The lyrics are evidently based on Rafferty's time as a busker in London and sleeping on the floors of friends on the song's eponymous street. While he's describing life as an itinerant musician, I really empathize with the song as an itinerant academic. Even though the song never makes it clear that the main character isn't from London (and Baker Street), it's pretty well implied that he's far from home. In fact, the thought of having any real home at all in the world seems increasingly distant, despite the last verse, which promises "tomorrow is a new morning/ and you're going home." It comes off as an empty hope, a fervent wish that will inevitably dissolve in the reality of the rays of the rising sun and the cruel demands of the workaday world. The famous saxophone riff, much more so than the words, articulates that desperate longing for belonging, and an overwhelming desire for oblivion, to "drink and forget about everything."

There are plenty of songs out there about first love, sexual desire, break-ups, romance, and having a good time. However, there are a precious few about those long, dark nights of the soul when the past has led to a dead end, the future is uncertain, and home so so far away.

(For all my friends and loved ones out there, I'm just musing about this, not having one of these dark nights myself this evening.)

Monday, January 13, 2014

An Appreciation of the Star Wars Expanded Universe

I was reading today that with Disney producing the new Star Wars sequels, the "expanded universe" of novels, comic books, and TV series in the Star Wars world has been declared non-canonical.  The new church hierarchy has spoken, and the likes of the Zahn novels and the Ewok Adventure are now the equivalent of the Gnostic gospels.

I feel highly ambivalent about this.  On the one hand, the new makers of the new movies need a free hand, and thus shouldn't have their plot ideas hemmed in by innumerable minor, and often low grade, things written under the Star Wars name.  I get it.  However, the expanded universe has an important place in my heart and in the hearts of other Star Wars fans, and it ought to be given its due credit.

I saw Empire Strikes Back in the theater at age four, and for my fifth birthday got a bevy of action figures.  After that point, I never looked back. Star Wars dominated my imagination as a young child, and my friends and I played with our action figures and took on the roles of the characters for hours.  (I was a good-goody, so I was Luke Skywalker, natch.  My more daring best friend Danny always took Han Solo.)

Problem was, I wanted more.  The three year gap between Empire and Jedi was unbearably long, and I savored every Star Wars-related piece of entertainment, especially the rare treat of seeing the re-run of Mark Hamill's appearance on the Muppet Show.  One day in the library, where I probably spent too much time even back then, I saw an orange-covered paperback with Han and Chewbacca on the shelving cart part of something called The Han Solo Adventures.  I was very intrigued, although too young to read something on that level.  (In high school I bought the reissue and ravenously devoured it.)  I instead dived in the Star Wars comic books owned by a friend's older brother, intrigued that the characters I loved could be involved in all sorts of stories I'd never heard about.

Once Jedi came and went, there was a period where I acted like I was too cool for Star Wars.  After years of it dominating popular culture, in the mid-1980s enough fatigue had built up that Star Wars stuff practically disappeared.  I remember in the sixth grade when we were telling our teacher ideas for what movie we'd watch in class on the last day of school, and I mentioned Return of the Jedi.  The teacher actually said, "aren't you guys getting a little old for that?"  (If I am not mistaken, we watched Monster Squad.)

Deep down, however, like a lot of other kids my age, I'd never really let Star Wars go.  I watched my VHS tapes of the original trilogy recorded off of network TV (commercials and all) over and over again.  During the beginning of my seventh grade year I sought out the novelization of the original Star Wars, and marveled at the differences between the book and the film.  Back in those days, though, there was no new Star Wars product.  No books, no films, no video games, no kids shows.  The role-playing game was just about the only new thing out there, but since my mother thought that such entertainments were Satanic, I never got to play it.  (I could only stare longingly at the ads for it in my contraband copies of Dragon magazine.)  I'd heard rumor that George Lucas was going to make prequels that would explain Annakin Skywalker's  fall, but with the passing of every year, that prospect seemed more remote.

Then, in the early 1990s, a miracle happened.  Lucasfilm authorized Timothy Zahn to write a trilogy of sequels.  I cannot express my level of anticipation for these books among my secret Star Wars nerd friends, or how happily surprised we were by how much we liked them.  A veritable floodgate seemed to open up after that.  I played Star Wars games on my Nintendo, Dark Horse comics put out new (and interesting) Star Wars series like the Dark Empire books, and the local Ben Franklin variety store started carrying Star Wars models again.  A friend of mine spent months creating a suitably battle-damaged and unique-looking Millennium Falcon.  Older expanded universe stuff like the aforementioned Han Solo Adventures came back into print.

None of this stuff was nearly as good as the original films, but it filled a hole.  It also worked because the Star Wars universe is such a well-drawn and interesting place, and always a fun location to park my imagination, especially at that age.  Things have probably gotten a little out of hand, but as hacky and mediocre as much of the expanded universe stuff can be, I'd be hard pressed to say it is of lower quality than the much anticipated prequels turned out to be.  Zahn's trilogy is workman-like, but he never released an atrocity like Jar Jar Binks upon the world.  It's safe to say there is more of the spirit and feeling of what keeps Star Wars geeks coming back in the humble, yellow-pulpy pages of my copy of The Han Solo Adventures than in the mega-pixeled spaceship battles in any of the cinematic prequels.  For that, the expanded universe deserves an appreciation.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Track of the Week: Neko Case, "The Needle Has Landed"

Neko Case is on a very short list of performers whose new albums I buy as a matter of course, without hearing a note or reading a review.  There are few, if any artists whose body work can match what she's done since the turn of the 21st century.  Even if the quality of her songs drops off in the future, I'd still be buying the records for Case's voice alone, a bold brassy instrument that just cuts right into the listener.

On "The Needle Has Landed" she dials down the considerable force of her pipes at the song's start, eerily intoning the words over a spare, haunting minor key accompaniment.  I hear in the words the narrator coming back to a hostile place and a lover she left years ago.  The lines "if I knew then what's so obvious now/ you'd still be here, baby" just drip with painful regret.

More than just about any song I've ever heard, "The Needle Has Landed" encapsulates the feeling of a past and people from it that you just can't escape, but also can never go back to.  My life has settled down now, but during the stretch between 1998 and 2011 I lived in two different countries, five different states, and eight different cities.  Lots of people I love have been left behind, and I have tried to return to some of these places, only to find them altered and foreign to me.  Late on a rainy night I think about the twists and turns that have led me to where I am, and how badly I would just like to say hello to some of the wonderful people I left on the way.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Critics Of Academic Hiring Practices Are Not Merely Pining For A Lost Past

Claire Potter aka Tenured Radical recently wrote an interesting piece comparing the academic world to Downton Abbey.  There were a lot of compelling points, including the need for major structural change, the rigidity of academic hierarchy, and the need for political action to stem the tide of austerity.  However, there was an assertion within it that Potter made in her recent critique of Rebecca Schuman that she repeated here again, but needs rebuttal.  I have seen versions of it in other places, and I feel that it dismisses and misrepresents what critics of academic hiring practices actually think.  In so many words, she thinks critics are pining for an idealized past that never existed.  To wit: 

"It seems to me that part of what has been going on on this blog for the past several weeks is a vast ressentiment that the system of academic employment is broken, but only recently broken and thus can be returned to an imagined past if only there were the will to do so.  However, this romantic academic past, where merit was honored and everyone had the job they wanted, never actually existed. Those searching for jobs imagine that there was a time when there was full employment. They blame forms of gatekeeping like the traditional conference interview, or the fear of the currently tenured that they will be outshone by newcomers, for keeping employable grad students out of a well-regulated world where there is a place for everyone and everyone has a place. These things have never been true, I’m afraid: the academic world has always relied on exclusion to maintain its fictions of equal opportunity and meritocracy. There have always been people kept firmly at arm’s length in the academic job market: people of color, women, queers and Jews. But more importantly, the idea that the hiring system itself is a source of gross inequity neglects a quite recent past in which the conference interview was introduced as a democratizing reform. It replaced a system in which faculty merely called their friends and asked them to simply recommend “a good man” to replace a retiring colleague. Hate conference interviews? How about not even being allowed to apply for jobs in the first place?  In other words, if you think the current system is not transparent, you should see how they used to do business."
No, just no.  Those searching for jobs do not imagine a world of full employment ever happened, or that it used to be a meritocracy.  I, like my peers,  am well aware of how the conference interview came into being, but also know that it has outlived its usefulness.  Expecting destitute students to blow a large chunk of their meager money for a twenty minute interview in the age of Skype is needlessly cruel and silly.  To dismiss this criticism by saying "forty years ago this was a good practice" just does not cut it.  Who's the one living in the past, anyway?
This whole line of reasoning about starry eyed, supposedly naive junior scholars is another version of the "it could be worse" mantra that is used to shut people up.  Not happy with going into debt to apply for a job?  Well at least you aren't a blind beggar on the streets of Lahore.  The message I hear from Potter is this: "things are so much better than they were in the bad old days of the old boys network so stop your complaining."  However, like the informal old boys network, the current hiring system, with its onerous expenses and innumerable inhumanities, has outlived its usefulness as well.  Its expense alone means that the privileged get a leg up, just like in the bad old days.
Job candidates and contingent laborers are not looking to a past that never was.  Rather, they are looking to basic human standards of behavior, like not being paid poverty wages for a job that requires a PhD and not being forced to spend money they can't afford for a twenty minute interview on a hotel bed.  Now that I work in secondary education, the total dysfunction of academic hiring practices is quite vivid for me.  The vast, vast majority of teachers are paid salary, have a modicum of job security, and do not have to spend hundreds of dollars in their job application process.  This is not some kind of special world, it's the most basic, baseline expectation you could have of holding a professional job.  Contingent academics have been treated so bad for so long that achieving basic dignity seems too far out of reach.  We act as if things that secondary teachers -hardly a well-paid or privileged lot- can take for granted are impossible for adjuncts and contingent faculty to achieve.  
The problem is not that critics of academic hiring are naively fixated on a non-existent past, but that the expectations of the system are so low that people who want only the most basic pay and job protections are treated like naive dreamers.  It's a profession that demand a lot, and gives so little in return, and I am glad I stopped wasting my life by trying to be a part of it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

In Praise of Frank Thomas

This year's baseball Hall of Fame class is particularly meaningful to me, because the three players inducted all started their careers after I had become a real student of the game.  In 1987 I watched Greg Maddux pitch his first games on WGN, and acquired his Topps Traded baseball card after the season was over.  I remember seeing Tom Glavine pitch as a rookie for the Braves on TBS in 1988 when he lost 17 games and I questioned whether he would ever measure up to his promise.  Most meaningfully, I saw Frank Thomas in the flesh several times while attending many games of my beloved White Sox in the years 2000-2005.

It is hard today to remember just how dominant and different Thomas was in his prime years from 1991 to 1997.  In the 80s, when I first started following baseball, the guys who put up big power numbers did not hit for average, since they were primarily  swinging for the fences.  When Andre Dawson hit 49 homers for the Cubs in 1987, he batted a merely respectable .287, and only walked 32 times.  That same year Mark McGwire hit 49 homers while hitting .289.  It simply did not seem possible to hit 40 home runs and bat .300.  Sure, there were guys like George Brett who were .300 hitters with power, but they could only get to 30 homers tops.

Thomas was not held down by these mere mortal constraints.  In his glorious 1991-1997 run he batted well over .300 every season, led the league in on base percentage four times, and hit 40 home runs three times.  He managed to get over 100 walks in every season from 1991 to 1998, despite the fact that his tall 6'5" body gave him a huge strike zone.  As big as that zone was, it was a brave pitcher who dared to give the Big Hurt something over the plate.  In fact, it was Thomas' exploits that first educated me to the power of getting on base.  I stopped judging players solely on their batting average, and paid attention to how much they walked and struck out after seeing what Frank Thomas could do.

I got to see how much he intimidated opposing pitchers first hand at my first Sox game in 2000.  When it was Thomas' turn to bat, the stadium PA played a snippet of the "Theme from Shaft," and I saw an impossibly large man step into the batter's box.  Thomas had had a couple of sub-par seasons (by his standards) in 1998 and 1999, but in the Sox's division winning season in 2000, the old Frank was back.  He had such a presence when he dug in, something I don't think I've seen in any other hitter, except maybe when I saw the roided-up Sosa and McGwire play in the late 90s.  He looked like he owned the plate, and was daring the pitcher to throw a strike at him.

Over time I also began to appreciate what Thomas did away from the diamond.  During his down years he unfairly caught a lot of flack from the Chicago press for being stand-offish and difficult, when in reality he was a strong, silent type who let his actions do the talking.  His leadership was of a quiet variety.  Had he been more brash and outgoing, Thomas would have been more of a household name.  However, that just wasn't his style, and I respect him for it.  He was by far the best hitter in the American League in the 1990s, but became such in the most low-key way possible.

Most importantly, he was one of the few players willing to blow the lid off of the PED scandal in baseball.  Thomas volunteered to testify before Congress, and urged testing.  After all, he had seemingly defied all the old limits for hitters, but now those limits were being shredded by 'roid poppers.  He had managed to accomplish what he did without resorting to such measures, and for that reason alone, we ought to praise Frank Thomas.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

David Bowie and Iggy Pop in Berlin (a playlist)

Last Friday when we got eight inches of snow dumped on us I had to do my duty as a new homeowner and start shoveling.  Our extra-wide driveway suddenly began to look a lot less attractive.  I made a playlist to listen to while I worked consisting of the albums that David Bowie and Iggy Pop cut in Berlin in the late 1970s, and it was perfect.  I spent two hours busting my hump, but the time passed pretty fast due to re-immersing myself in music that I had let slip from my ears for far too long.

The albums in question are Low, Heroes, and Lodger by Bowie, and The Idiot and Lust for Life by Pop.  Each is a masterpiece in its own right, but together they form a distinctive corpus of work that sounds like nothing else.  Here, in my own idiosyncratic order, are five of my favorite tracks, one per album.

Iggy Pop, "Sister Midnight"
This is the first song on The Idiot, and a statement of purpose.  The old Iggy Pop rocking out in front of the proto-punk riffage and caveman beats of The Stooges is gone.  The rhythm is angular and robotic, like a funk song run through Kraftwerk's computers.  The guitars are droning textures devoid of hooks.  Pop sings in a kind of quietly deranged way about Oedipal dreams and heroin addiction.  This is a man who has been to the brink and managed to come back and talk about it, but the damage is impossible to ignore.  The sound is completely arresting no matter how unsettling it is, and I have been listening to "Sister Midnight" over and over again for the past few days.  It's an uncanny sound that will give birth to some great music. For example, without this song there would be no Joy Division, a sadly ironic fact since Ian Curtis is said to have killed himself after listening to The Idiot.

David Bowie, "Boys Keep Swinging"
Lodger is the least dark of Bowie's Berlin albums, and one that points to his future after his Berlin phase.  (It's good, but my least favorite of the trilogy.)  Robert Fripp's guitars signal the heroics he will unleash on Scary Monsters, and "Boys Keep Swinging" has seeds of the popper sound Bowie would ride to world conquest in the early 1980s on Let's Dance.  Here in '79 he still retains some of the edge on a song that is one of the weirdest things I've spent a weekend humming to myself.

David Bowie, "Joe The Lion"
Heroes is justly best known for the anthemic title track, which is one of the few songs that have ever stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it.  There's plenty of other good stuff on that record, however, with "Joe The Lion" running a close second in my book.  The guitars are overwhelming, putting the listener into the claustrophobic mind of the protagonist until they drop out and Bowie purrs irresistibly about the morning routine before the guitars jump back in with increased ferocity.  I've never been totally sure about what this song is about, but it replicates the feeling of going crazy from the boredom of daily like nothing else I've heard.

Iggy Pop, "Tonight"
Lust for Life is also best known for its stomping title track, but just about every song is killer.  My second favorite on the album is probably "Tonight," which starts with an operatic opening about a drug overdose that segues into a sweet mid tempo ballad backed by airy synthesizers.  It has the sophistication of art rock but drained of it pretensions, replaced by a hearty dose of Iggy's punk fervor.

David Bowie, "Warszawa"
The first side of Low is made up of electro-rock tracks reflecting the singer's state of mental breakdown.  The second side is something else entirely, a bunch of soundscapes midwifed by ambient master Brian Eno.  "Warszawa" is the best of them, and a song that to me is one of the most beautiful and haunting that I know.  Bowie is famously afraid of flying, and he spent some time on a train layover in a still war-damaged Warsaw , which generated the impressions that inspired this song.  I've always felt this song described a dark city where people are less living than waiting to die, and it speaks to the fear and dread often lingering just below the surface in our daily lives.  Not many rock songs ever speak to that.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Introducing "Police For America" (some satirical fun)

"Police For America"Seeks To Use Elite Graduates To Patrol Underserved Communities

AP)  Backed by money contributed from the Gates Foundation and other wealthy donors, the organization Police For America has recently grown from a small non-profit to a prestigious entity that elite college graduates from around the country are angling to get on their resumes.  PFA has responded to the spike in crime in poor communities by providing them with recent college graduates to work on their police force for two years.  PFAers get six weeks of training in criminal justice over the summer before walking the beat in the fall.

While some have criticized the readiness of PFA cops and questioned their lack of experience, PFA maintains that their graduates are the best and brightest of their generation.  As one spokesman said, "Our graduates come into the police force with much higher credentials than regular officers, and bring their drive and will to succeed with them.  Any issues with police work they can easily learn on the job.  Anyone who has ever had contact with the police and watched a lot of television shows understands all to the basic stuff, anyway.  Who wouldn't want the future leaders of this country patrolling their streets?"Some cash-strapped mayors in cities like Trenton, New Jersey, where hundreds of PFA cops were hired right after massive lay-offs of traditional police, agree.

While most PFAers leave the force after two years to work for the likes of Goldman Sachs, a select few have used their time in PFA to claim high-level positions in law enforcement.  This has proved especially controversial in the case of former Washington, DC, police commissioner Michael Lee, who once was caught on camera duct-taping shut the mouth of a suspect in the back of his squad car while working as a PFA cop. Although Lee lost his commissioner position after local opposition and near-mutiny by police officers in the wake of his policies, he has used the backing of wealthy foundations to advocate for "police reform" across the country, calling forcefully for privatization of the police in many communities.  "We have too many failed police departments in this country that need to shut down," Lee asserted at a recent $2,000 a plate fund-raiser in Manhattan.

Critics point out that high crime areas need experienced officers the most, and that six weeks is not enough time to prepare novice officers for the level of difficulties they must face.  They also point to statistics showing that PFA cops do not have superior arrest records or performance evaluations.  As far as the PFA cops themselves are concerned, however, they are very positive about their experiences.  Kyle Wilker, a Harvard graduate and Stockton, California, PFA officer noted that "This is a win-win for everyone.  I have the experience I can use to get a job on Wall Street, and this town has more people patrolling the streets.  And how lucky are these people to have a Harvard grad on duty?"  When asked whether he would ever come back to Stockton after leaving PFA, Wilker went silent.

The murder rate in Stockton has not gone down under the PFA-heavy force, but Wilker isn't worried, "The old way of policing wasn't about to be challenged by the veteran police officers stuck in their ways.  We are part of a wave of innovation, thinking outside of the box, and embracing the new normal.  I'll get back to you on the specifics at some other point."

Friday, January 3, 2014

Track of the Week: The Rolling Stones, "Start Me Up"

When I first heard popular music, it was the 70s soft rock and crossover country tapes we had at home: John Denver, Kenny Rogers, The Carpenters, and Tony Orlando.  It was in the early 80s that I first became aware of what was on the radio, and began to know what the hits of the day were.  The first song I ever remember digging through the radio was "Centerfold" by the J. Geils Band.  I seemed to hear it every day on the radio on my way to school in kindergarten (which jives with the fact that it hit #1 in February of 1982.)

Of course, I had no idea of what the song was about, I just loved the catchy riff and the bright organ, an instrument for which I still have an inordinate affection.  Back then I also assumed that all the songs I heard on the radio were by new artists.  Around the same time, when I heard "Start Me Up," I thought the Rolling Stones were just as young and fresh faced as Rick Springfield or Duran Duran, and had no clue of their past.  After all, my older cousin had "Start Me Up" on 45, just as she had Bow Wow Wow and Billy Idol.  I always liked the song, which I thought of as the "make a grown man cry" song.

By the mid-1980s I saw the video for "Start Me Up," and found out that these guys were OLD.  (They were about my age now in that video.  Eek!)  It was kinda puzzling, like when I saw Bob Dylan singing in the "We Are The World Video" and thought "who is that weirdo croaking, I want more Lionel Richie."  It was perhaps my enthusiastic embrace of the Monkees and their 1986 reunion that made me aware that there was plenty of older music that I actually liked just as much as the stuff coming out of the local hits station.

Little did I know then that I had been just old enough to witness the Stones' last great single in its natural habitat, Top 40 radio (classic rock radio is more like a zoo than the wild.)  In 1981, when it hit #2, the Stones had been together for 19 years, churned out several hits, and sold out arenas under the braggadocios banner of being "the greatest rock band in the world."  Like I said, I thought they were pretty old and crusty at that point, but they've been together another 33 years, and while they still sell out stadiums, the Stones have not produced a single hit that any of their fans would elevate to the canon.  Every few years they put out another album that their fans optimistically call "the best since Tattoo You", the record that spawned "Start Me Up."  That's telling, since everyone seems to acknowledge that "Start Me Up" still hasn't been topped, and it doesn't look like it ever will be.

This begs the question, what makes "Start Me Up" so great, anyway?  I would point to the groove.  After Exile on Main Street in 1972 the Stones put out a lot of mediocre material (1978's Some Girls being the major exception), much of the mediocrity easily attributable to Keith Richards' drug use.  (Their suckitude since his cleaning up is mostly the fault of Jagger's heart not being in it, IMHO.)  That said, while the songs sucked, many of them had some seriously funky grooves.  (The idiotic yet danceable "Emotional Rescue" is a prime example.)  It's as if the band finally mastered rhythm, but lost everything else.  Someway, somehow, the old standard of songwriting actually got molded to the groove on "Start Me Up," a song that is irresistible both for dancing and singing along to.  It is their one last bright shining moment as group, and even if they've been milking their former glory for over three decades, songs like "Start Me Up" are the reason why they can get away with it.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Gloss On The Term "Lifeboater" tm

If I have one accomplishment as a writer and scholar, it is coining the term "faculty lifeboater," which has caught on in the wider discourse on contingency and academia.  (The relevant post is here.)  It's certainly had a much bigger impact than any of my journal articles, that's for sure.  I see "lifeboater" popping up a lot on Twitter, usually attributed to better known, better writers like Rebecca Schuman and Sarah Kendzior.  Both have been gracious and non-jerky enough to give me credit for it on numerous occasions, so I can't complain about being ripped off or anything.  In fact, I am very thankful for the exposure they have given me.

It's actually been kinda interesting to see the term's meaning change from how I originally intended it.  (That's how language works, after all.)  This is how I defined lifeboaters in my post coining the term:

 "These are junior scholars who don't bother thinking about the naked exploitation of a system where adjuncts are paid as little as $1,700 a course, and do just as good of a job (or better) as they do. In their minds, they won, they're on the lifeboat, and fuck all those other people drowning around them."

I put junior scholars in this category because they have experienced the exact same contraction of the job market as their peers, and thus cannot plead ignorance about just how bad things are, or deny the role of luck and fortune in getting them on the lifeboats.  The drowned and the saved were both on the same sinking ship.  I tend not to think of tenured faculty and senior scholars of being in this category, I envision them on a yacht in the distance, turning their heads from the carnage and drinking their sherry and eating their caviar, in the worst cases, not bothering to notice in the less worse cases, looking aghast at the toll but not sure what to do about it the better cases, or actively changing course to rescue as many as they can, in the best cases.  (And yes, there are many t-t and tenured folks who do this.)

I certainly do not excuse the willful ignorance of the tenured oblivious, but I actually think that junior scholars who refuse to do anything about this situation are actually more morally odious, even if they don't have as much institutional power as others.  Knowing what they know, it's their duty to use their positions communicate the horror of the shipwreck to those unaware of it, and by not doing so, are a key component in preserving the status quo.  There's a reason that Dante put betrayers in the lowest circle of hell.

Much of my vitriol also had to do with knowing many assistant professor lifeboaters personally, and being filled with anger about their unconscionable lack of empathy.  They have been all too willing to watch their peers from grad school go under without saying a peep, even though trends in higher ed will soon be drowning them as well.  I have even heard them make excuses about the system to the faces of their own less-fortunate (and sometimes better qualified) friends and colleagues.

"Lifeboater" is now used to include pretty much anyone tenured or on the tenure track whose main complaint about the situation for contingent faculty is the shrieks of the drowning, not the actual fact that they are being swallowed up.  That alteration is just fine with me, since people who engage in such awful behavior deserve to be called out.  If something I once wrote helped bring that about, I couldn't be happier.

It's just that I will probably never hit a rhetorical home run like that again, and I want some credit attached to my name for it, dammit.  Call it petty or silly, but life is about small victories, and this humble blog will never be reckoned among the big guns.  So let the world know that it was I, Jason Tebbe, writing under the pseudonym Werner Herzog's Bear, who coined the phrase "lifeboater."  You don't have to mention my name when you use it, obviously, but if you want to credit someone, please credit little ol' me.  Thanks.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Newark Is The Canary In America's Coal Mine

Yesterday my wife and I cleaned out our old apartment in the Ironbound and handed our keys over, which means I'm no longer a resident of Newark.  While I am glad to have much more space in our Maplewood home, I already miss the old neighborhood.  I also feel a little guilty, because I feel like I am abandoning a city I love during its time of need.  The small improvements and positive changes that I had been perceiving since 2007 (when I started splitting my time there) appear to have been wiped out in 2013.

Crime is way up again, evidenced by a recent New York Times article showing that Brick City is again the car jacking epicenter of America.  The number of murders jumped to an alarming one hundred and eleven, the highest total since 1990 in midst of the crack wars.  Not only is that death toll atrocious, the murders themselves have been especially heartbreaking.  Last week on Christmas night a 13-year old girl was slain by stray bullet fired by another teenager in a revenge killing that also claimed a 15-year old boy.  Corey Booker, the city's former celebrity mayor, bailed on Newark for the Senate, leaving this mess to the unlucky winner of the next mayoral election, which could very well put the old machine back in power.  That outcome would mean graft and mismanagement on top of poverty and crime and will surely make things even worse.

Of course, few people outside of Newark and Essex County seem to give a damn about any of this.  The recent killing of a man in a car jacking at the ritzy Short Hills Mall just a few miles (but worlds away) has received as much media attention as all of the 111 murders in Newark put together.  As I have said before, some lives are cheap in this country, and none more so than poor people of color.

But others outside of Newark ought to pay heed, because Brick City's woes will be coming to them, too.  There are two larger forces at work behind all of this that have made themselves felt more immediately in a poorer city like Newark struggling to keep itself above water before the twin tsunamis of economic stagnation and government austerity came crashing down.  Not to mix metaphors, but Newark is the canary in the proverbial coal mine, and its fate ought to be seen as a harbinger for what's to come across the country.

Although the economy is no longer in free fall, as it was in 2008-2009, any recovery that has happened since then has been seen by the wealthy, not by the majority.  Low wages and high unemployment are leading more and more people to desperation.  On top of that, the response by government in the midst of such want has been to slash, rather than raise social spending.  That austerity was held off for awhile by the 2009 stimulus' aid to state governments, but since Christie's coming to power in 2010, the state has slashed money to poorer cities, which has meant cutbacks in police for Newark and Trenton.  Not surprisingly, crime and murder have jumped up in those places.  Of course, most of the state's suburban population could hardly care less about the fate of black and brown people in places like Newark and Trenton, and will happily take a tax break and ignore the sight of blood on streets they'd never drive down in a million years.

New Jersey's austerity mirrors that in the nation at large.  For three years now, since the Tea Party midterm of 2010, deficit reduction has trumped stimulus and relief.  Republicans in Congress have largely gotten their way, evidenced by the fact that many food stamp recipients and the long term unemployed are about to lose their benefits.  The bill for such negligence is finally coming due, and continued austerity will only make it worse.  As a nation, we have decided to respond to a hopeless economic situation by making things even worse for the poor.  For three years people have pretended that this won't have any consequences, they won't be able to pretend that much longer.  I just wonder if when the death tolls and misery start to skyrocket in poor communities, anyone outside of them will care.