Sunday, June 29, 2014

Track of the Week: Les McCann & Eddie Harris, "Compared to What"

In our world of digital music it is easy to think that it's so much easier to be exposed to music now than in the bad old days when you had to go out and buy CDs, tapes, and records if you wanted to listen to your favorite songs.  Digitization has certainly helped me explore genres that I had barely known before and to better find new music that I like.

That being said, the old days offered their own opportunities for discovery that no longer exist today.  Movie soundtracks have helped me find lots of great music.  For instance, my ears had never been graced by the Velvet Underground until I bought the soundtrack to The Doors, and heard "Heroin."  I was never the same.  Another great discovery came via the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's Casino.  I liked the movie, but also thought that the soundtrack was superb, an interesting mix of jazz, blues, rock, vocal pop, and even classical.

There was one song that I'd only heard a snippet from in the film that really intrigued me, but not having access to Shazam and this coming in the early, undeveloped days of the internet, I had no way of knowing what it was called.  Once I bought the soundtrack, I discovered that the song was "Compared to What" by Les McCann and Eddie Harris.  I was thrilled by the relentlessly driving piano, fiery political lyrics, and the pairing of soul singing with killer jazz playing.  (The original recording, by Roberta Flack, is good, but not nearly as intense.)  "Compared to What" quickly become my favorite song on the soundtrack, one filled with gems like Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug."  Recorded in 1969, "Compared to What" came out at a time when soul and rock acts were increasingly bringing in jazz influences.  (Think especially Jimi Hendrix at this time, the Allman Brothers Band, and the soon to come Steely Dan.)  In many respects this meant greater musical complexity and virtuosity, which is perhaps why "jazz fusion" is a dirty word for many rock critics, who tend to fetishize feeling and spirit over ability.  As much as I love punk rock's noise and the subtle rhythms of classic R&B, the older I get the more I appreciate jazz's pure musicianship, a great slice of which I discovered almost by accident.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Some "Overlooked" Films Worth Checking Out

I've been listening to a lot of movie podcasts during my morning commute, and it's had me thinking about movies that are really good but never quite get their due.  Back when I lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, one of the year's highlights was when local boy Roger Ebert trekked down from Chicago to host his Overlooked Film Festival.  It was a great way to see films on the big screen that I may have missed, and deserved more acclaim.  A lot of movies in this genre are my all-time favorites.  For my purposes, I am thinking of films that did not get prerelease hype, major awards consideration, or  big box office to be "overlooked."  I am also including films that have never developed a cult following.  For instance, Dazed and Confused was overlooked on its initial release, but has developed quite a legion of fans (including yours truly.)

If this film is remembered at all, it's for putting Clive Owen's name out there.  It's one I happened to see at a Chicago art house theater in the summer of 2000 back when I spent a lot of time going to movies by myself.  It's a gritty, noir story of a casino croupier who gets in too deep with a heist job.  Not surprisingly, it was directed by Mike Hodges, whose 1971 Get Carter is one of the best British films of all time, and a dark, noirish story as well.  Owen makes this movie in a fantastic performance as a world-weary writer willing to do wrong to get ahead.  Like all great noirs it explores the role of fate in the world, how larger events and schemes can crush individuals, and the price to be paid for one's moral choices.

The Damned United
Here's another British film starring another great Gen X actor, Michael Sheen.  Most folks stateside will remember him playing Tony Blair in The Queen and as David Frost in Frost/Nixon.  Those other films got a lot of attention, and like The Damned United, were scripted by Peter Morgan.  (The source material is by David Peace, one of my favorite contemporary authors and someone criminally overlooked in the US.)  All three films are character studies of famous people. While Queen Elizabeth, David Frost, and Richard Nixon are well-known in this country, 70s English football (soccer) coach Brian Clough is unknown even to Americans who follow soccer.  The Damned United follows Clough as he moves up in the coaching world to take the helm at Leeds United, a club infamous for its rough play, which Clough himself resented when he coached a competitor.  As you can imagine, his time there does not go well, as Clough obsessively tries to outdo his rival, the former coach, Don Revie.  Clough ends up getting fired after only 44 days, but the film also gets into his recovery and overcoming of failure.  By far the best soccer movie ever made.

I love love love love this movie.  Part of it stems from being a big fan of Richard Linklater, but mostly because he absolutely nails his East Texas setting.  (Having lived there for three long years, I can attest to the film's accuracy.)  In case you don't know, it's based on the real story of Bernie Tiede, a small-town funeral director who struck up a relationship with a rich yet hated widow in town, only to murder her.  The twist is that Bernie is so beloved in the town, and his paramour so despised, that the locals don't want to see him punished.  Hollywood usually gets small town life wrong, depicting it either as a repository of forgotten virtues, or a freak show of murderous hatred.  This movie gets it right, as the friendliness, community and gregariousness mix with the noir, which is how I experienced small town life in my childhood.

Not Fade Away
This one surprisingly fell through the cracks a bit, even though it was Sopranos creator David Chase's film directorial debut.  It tells the story of a rock band in suburban 1960s New Jersey that tries to make it big, and doesn't.  As always, Chase is the poet laureate of the Garden State, and draws out how living in the shadow of New York's skyline inspires dreams of making it.  This film is not without its flaws, including a flat affect at times when more intensity is called for.  In a sense that might be a statement by Chase, who unlike most Hollywood types, is telling a story of failure, not success, in all of its soul-eroding reality.

A Mighty Wind
This is by far my favorite of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries (Spinal Tap was directed by Rob Reiner, so doesn't quite count.)  For some reason it has not achieved the following of Waiting for Guffman or Best In Show.  In this tale of 1960s folk musicians getting together for a memorial concert Guest more than ever mixes the humor at seeing clueless people taking themselves too seriously with some real emotional heft.  The story of folk-singing duo Mitch and Mickey is a sad one, with Mitch suffering from mental illness and Mickey trapped in an unfulfilling life.  Beyond the emotional stuff, there's some amazingly hilarious facsimiles of 60s folk music and album covers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Regionalism And The Tea Party

The more I study the political history of the United States, the more obvious it is to me that regionalism has played and continues to play a significant role.  This is not so much a case of Red States vs. Blue States but of regions that cross state lines, and in some cases do not even dominate a particular state.  (For example, electoral maps from the last election show solidly Democratic territory in the Midwest in counties bordering the Mississippi River, even in conservative states like Iowa.)

That regionalism can do a lot to explain the Tea Party.  Earlier this year many pundits (and establishment Republicans) announced its demise, but recent events show that in certain parts of the country, the Tea Party is still going strong.  Most who follow politics are aware of how Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel has been giving the plenty conservative Thad Cochran the fight of his life in Mississippi.  Less commented upon, but of perhaps greater significance, in the Texas Lieutenant Governor race Tea Party favorite Dan Patrick beat incumbent David Dewhurst.  In Texas this typically symbolic office is actually very important, and considering that Texas is effectively a one-party state, immense power will soon be wielded by a man who calls himself "a Christian first."

At the same time, Tea Party nominees are practically absent in the Northeast and Midwest, while those making waves hail from the South and West.  This is actually part of a much older story in the Republican Party where those regions have been the engine of the GOP's shift to the hard right.  Goldwater came from Arizona, Reagan from California, Jesse Helms from North Carolina, Strom Thurmond from South Carolina, Newt Gingrich from Georgia, etc.  The population shift to the Sun Belt in the past 50 years has helped make Republicans from that region dominant in the party, and has also amplified their presence in the House of Representatives, with states like Texas and Florida now sending huge delegations.

There is a strange irony, of course, in the fact that the two regions that are the most Tea Party-centric are also the regions that rely the most on government support.  Through the TVA, agriculture subsidies, and various other projects and giveaways, FDR sought to economically develop and modernize the South.  World War II and the Cold War brought oodles of bases and dollars to both regions, now crisscrossed by Interstate highways.  The federal government built up the infrastructure in both places, and then they very deftly used "right to work" laws and low wages to lure Northern companies down there that could now actually do business with the more modernized infrastructure in place.  Moreso that the South, the modern West is practically the creation of a federal government that killed and displaced its original inhabitants, and has long subsidized railroads and highways through practically empty areas that have also made convenient locations for military bases, bringing money to places with little economic base.

I must say it gets tiresome to live in a state like New Jersey, where we give more than we take from the feds, and then hear Tea Party hacks in places like Alaska and Alabama bitch about the size of the government.  It confirms a thought I've had for a long time, namely that the Tea Party is less about reducing the size of government than in making sure the government's largesse flows in a certain direction.  The rather grey supporters of the Tea Party don't want to part with their Social Security or Medicare.  They still want the government to build highways and to keep its military bases open.  However, they don't want tax money going to "moochers" and "takers" (we all know who they are, wink wink), or anyone who's "not like us."  That also means "securing the border," but not punishing corporations that hire cheap, undocumented labor.  I'm hardly the first person to point out that the whole Tea Party thing often seems to be a kind of white identity politics for hardcore conservatives.  Looking through a regional lens, and knowing the history of the South (and to an extent of the West), it's hardly surprising that those places are the hot beds of Tea Party activity.

In the future I doubt we will see the likes of Carl Palodino getting nominated states like New York anymore, but Mississippi will still keep producing Chris McDaniels, and Texas will still manufacture Dan Patricks.  If anything, we are about to witness a replay of the GOP's regionally-divided internal battles of the 1950s and 1960s.  Last time around the political style of the South and West won out; this time, if the party is to not fall into irrelevance due to generational replacement, the less radical conservatives might need to win.

Monday, June 23, 2014

To Vote, Or Not To Vote

The current political scene, especially here in New Jersey, has me wondering for the first time since I turned 18 whether I should vote or not.  I know in my heart of hearts that I likely will, but that's mostly due to my awareness of the struggles made to bring about the democratization of the vote in this country, and that one political party is basing its strategy around preventing people from voting.  I also think that it is just my civic duty to vote, no matter how distasteful the options are.

My choices in the upcoming election are not what's going to get me to the polls.  Here in New Jersey the various scandals surrounding our governor have revealed the extent to which he rules this state in tandem with Democratic political bosses.  In some of the races I'm voting in, it's either a Republican or a Christiecrat; what kind of choice is that?  In the senate race Cory Booker is running for a full term after taking office in a special election.  Having lived in Newark during Booker's tenure, I have not forgotten how in his later years he began to neglect the city in favor of his national political ambitions, or that he is very much a shill for Wall Street.  Why should I vote for someone out to protect the rapacious finance industry, even if they are a Democrat?  I had a similar feeling when I heard that Education Secretary Arne Duncan supported a recent court ruling stripping teacher tenure in California.  Teachers and their unions pushed hard for Obama's election, and now his own administration has repaid them by spitting in their face.

In a strange way, the Tea Party has given Democrats a secret weapon.  The Dems have done very little to act on the things that their base cares about, but then they can turn around and tell their voters "If you don't get out and pull the lever for us, *insert name of Tea Party troglodyte* will be in office and do all kinds of terrible things!"  I have been consistently voting for Democrats in recent years almost purely because I am so frightened of what the Republicans are doing.  Now it appears that this stopgap strategy on the part of progressives like me is enabling conservatives, since it allows Democrats to coast along without putting out initiatives of their own that might possibly upset their corporate donors.

So I guess I'll vote this year, but my ballot might not be complete.  Those Democrats who refuse to represent the interests of their supporters will get no support from me.  I know that my single vote is a piddly thing that won't change any politician's mind, I only hope enough like minded people might start doing the same and force those in the party's power structure to start listening to their base.  Democrats need to stop counting on the votes of people who they do little to help; until they stop doing that, there will be little, if any chance for progressive political gains.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Track of the Week: Uncle Tupelo, "Whiskey Bottle"

I've been re-listening to Uncle Tupelo recently, a band whose music reaches me on a very specific level.  They hailed from Belleville, Illinois, a town very similar to the Nebraska burg where I grew up.  Both are blue collar, industrial towns located in a rural Midwestern setting.  It's a very specific living environment where you're surrounded by farmland and far from the big city but you don't really feel part of the country, either.  As far as I'm concerned, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were the poet laureates of the blue collar rural Midwest in the late 80s and early 90s, which coincided with my adolescence.  It was too bad that I didn't discover Uncle Tupelo until my senior year of high school, right as the band was coming apart.

Of all their songs, "Whiskey Bottle" might sum up best what it feels like to be trapped in an isolated town.  It's a feeling I often felt the most this time of the year, in the summer, where I had a lot of time to kill and nothing to do.  The weight of the vast Plains sky sagged heavy with boredom, which is why I didn't mind the hours I spent in my summer jobs walking the rows of corn fields with a detasseling crew, since at least they were a break from the feeling of being lost in space.  There's a brilliant line in the song that starts the chorus, "A long way from happiness/ in a three hour away town."  By "three hour away town" Farrar means a town that's a three hour drive from the nearest big city.  (My understanding was that it was a reference to Columbia, Missouri.)  Having grown up three miles from Omaha, I can feel these words in my bones.  Of course, back then I didn't drink and unlike the narrator of the song wasn't using a whiskey bottle for solace.  I mostly listened to music, read long novels too sophisticated for my age, and watched too much MTV.

Musically, "Whiskey Bottle," illustrates Uncle Tupelo's early mission to mix classic country music with The Clash.  The song starts with an acoustic guitar, a weeping steel guitar straight out of George Jones, and Jay Farrar's gruff, world-weary voice before the massively distorted electric guitar blasts into the chorus.  It's an absolutely thrilling combination of sounds, and one that still gets me, even as I walk from the subway up Broadway to my job amidst the concrete canyons that blot out the sky that was my constant childhood companion.  It's a long way from a three hour away town to the maelstrom of Manhattan, and these days this song makes me wonder just how the hell I got there.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Playlist: Soul Covers Rock

As readers of this blog know, I love vintage rock and classic soul.  I also think that performing original material is an overrated fetish.  A good song is something that ought to be cherished, shared, and played around with.  Just because someone recorded it first shouldn't mean that the song gets frozen in the vinyl amber of the original record, never to be altered again.  A great illustration of how songs can be reinterpreted in thrilling ways comes from covers that soul artists did of rock songs back in the 1960s.  Back then a popular song would be covered by lots of different people, often with great results.  Here are a few of my favorite covers in the specific souls covers of rock genre.

Wilson Pickett, "Hey Jude"
Let's start with Wilson Pickett, perhaps the most muscular soul singer that ever walked the planet earth this side of Levi Stubbs.  According to the story, he was cutting a session in Muscle Shoals, and sessions musician (and later Allman Brothers Band founder) Duane Allman suggested they do a version of "Hey Jude."  It was an audacious move that paid off with a supremely funky groove and some great singing from Pickett, especially when he screams as the band goes into the long "na na na na na" fadeout.  Allman's guitar solo is also just absolutely killer.

Aretha Franklin, "The Weight"
Aretha Franklin went from peak to peak in the late 60s and early 70s, including on this cover of the Band.  The original combined the voices of Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel, but Lady Soul's pipes can carry the whole darn thing by themselves.  (Since it's a collaboration rather than a cover I couldn't include the Staples Singers doing this song with The Band on the formal list.  Nevertheless, Mavis Staples' singing here is some of her best.)

Otis Redding, "Satisfaction"
I've heard Keith Richards say that when he wrote "Satisfaction" he envisioned it as a soul song, with the loud, fuzzy guitar taking the place of a horn section.  Otis Redding obliged Keef by dropping this killer cover, complete with horns.  Instead of Jagger's punky sneer, Otis gives the song some of his patented sweat, making the frustration of the singer much more palpable.

Stevie Wonder, "We Can Work It Out"
Might as well end with where we started, with a Beatles cover.  "We Can Work It Out" has the distinction of being both one of my favorite Beatles' songs and one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs.  Wonder gives the song an absolutely killer groove and some great "hey!"s to punctuate the song, not to mention a soaring harmonica solo.  Like all great covers it stays true to the song while still managing to turn it into something new, and I would argue, better.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Pathological White Masculinity Files: 4Chan and Feminists of Color

Editor's Note: After having written on this topic so many times, I am starting a series I am calling The Pathological White Masculinity Files.  Since the Newtown massacre I have kept pushing for a real, national conversation on the dysfunctions and pathologies of white American masculinity.  It's not just big events like mass shootings that show this problem, and so I plan on exploring less bloody but nonetheless horrific examples of white American masculinity at work.

In case you haven't heard, users of the 4chan site have basically admitted to creating fake Twitter profiles posing as feminists of color in order to sow discord among feminists and to embarrass the women's movement, in particular the non-white women's movement.  This included the manufactured hashtag #EndFathersDay, something that some people at Fox News actually took seriously.  Using the #YourSlipIsShowing hashtag, activists have been outing those fake Twitter profiles.

I don't know all of the details, but I do know that this is taking typical troll behavior in an even more dangerous and threatening direction.  Trolls are probably the worst thing that the internet has given us, and I have been lucky to only occasionally have been trolled.  (Those words still hurt, even if they were being lobbed by pieces of human garbage.)  Of course, I'm a white guy, and women and especially women of color commonly face violent, aggressive, threatening trolling intended to silence them that makes what's happened on this blog look like child's play.  The so-called "Operation Lollipop"attempted the same, but in a much more organized and systematic manner.  I've heard it compared to a kind of non-governmental COINTELPRO, and I think that's an apt comparison, since the FBI used agents provacateurs and informers to silence similar movements back in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the worst things about pathological white American masculinity is that it carries with it white supremacist assumptions.  Regardless of anything else, the fact that white men are to be the rulers of society is not to be challenged or questioned.  This is a big reason, naturally, why the fact of Barack Obama's presidency has caused unprecedented disrespect for the office and intransigence in Congress.  The same goes for the Internet.  The computer world has long been heavily white and very masculine, and the trolls at 4chan aim to keep it that way.  They just don't want black and brown people, and especially black and brown women, to be using "their" space.  Their upbringing and this society's assumptions about white masculinity make them feel not as if this is a terrible thing they are doing, but simply defending their birthright.

The pathologies of white masculinity are at their worst when white men feel cheated of the privileges they think are rightfully theirs.  This leads them to attack others whom they hold responsible, sometimes with words, sometimes with bullets.  Hence the actions of Elliott Rodger, who felt he was "owed" the sexual favors of women.  This pathology comes out with gunfire, but it also happens every day via rhetorical violence on the Internet.  Operation Lollipop is only one of many examples of what will be added to the Pathological White Masculinity Files.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How Will The 2002 USMNT Go Down In History?

With the US playing their first game in the World Cup today, I have been thinking a lot about the USMNT's recent past, especially since Landon Donovan's absence in this World Cup seems to be marking a generational change.  They have been a frustrating team to root for due to their inconsistency and inability to follow up on their successes.  It is perhaps fitting then, that I never felt better about this team than I did after a loss, rather than a victory.

My expectations about the USMNT going into the 2002 World Cup were pretty low.  After all, the American side had embarrassed itself in 1998, finishing the tournament 32 out of 32 teams, including a thrashing at the hands of lowly Iran.  That immediately changed in their first game in 2002, when they blew Portugal and its "golden generation" of stars out of the water.  I watched that game in complete disbelief as America put up three goals on a top European squad in the World Cup, something I never thought I would see.  In typical USMNT fashion, they only managed to tie the tenacious South Korean squad, and then lost badly to a weak Polish team.  The USMNT thus barely qualified for the elimination round, but happened to draw traditional rival Mexico.

Beating Mexico was exciting, but since the US had done so in qualifying, it did not seem so unprecedented, even though the US squad would be advancing to the quarterfinals for the first (and so far only) time.  Waiting in the quarterfinals was traditional powerhouse Germany.  This was not as powerful an iteration of the Mannschaft as what came before or the current squad of inspiring young stars, but the old machine would still manage to make it to the finals that year.

I was expecting the US team to get creamed.  Instead, they dominated the possession and pace of the game, but just couldn't score a goal.  When Tony Sanneh, who played an insane game, missed his open header near the end, my heart broke.  The loss made me sad, but the aftermath of the game made me feel proud, perhaps for the first time, of the USMNT.  Sanneh played in the Bundesliga against many of the players on the German side, and after the game they seemed to be consoling him, acknowledging that the US had been the better team.  After the game I remember German coach Rudi Voeller pretty much admitting as much himself.

That game, even though it was a loss, meant that the USMNT had finally arrived, and could hang with the biggest soccer powers in the world on the biggest stage.  At least that's how it felt at the time.  Then 2006 happened, and the team couldn't make it past the group stage.  It took a crazy, magical rushing goal by Landon Donovan to get the Americans to the elimination round in 2010.  With Klinsmann in as coach it seems that he is already looking to 2018 and has written 2014 off.  Was that run in 2002 just a one time, lucky shot, akin to the defeat of England in 1950?  Or was it the true beginning of the United States as a force to be reckoned with among the elite teams of the world?  These days it looks like the jury is still out on that one.  I hate to admit it, but I don't see a victory happening in this World Cup to match that last defeat in 2002, even today's breath-taking game.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Track of the Week: The Monkees, "The Door Into Summer"

The Monkees hit their mid-80s comeback right around the time I started to discover the music of the 1960s.  For a couple of years there I rated them with the Beatles, but by the time the 90s rolled around, I saw my former love of the Pre-Fab Four to be a huge embarrassment.  After all, wasn't music supposed to be "authentic"?  Weren't bands supposed to write all their own songs and play their own instruments in the studio?

In recent years I've met folks whose musical tastes I respect who happen to like the Monkees.  That got me to rethink things, but nothing changed my mind like their movie Head, a crazy psychedelic nugget where they provide a withering metacommentary on their own fame.  Since then I've picked up some of their albums, and have been pleasantly surprised at just how good they are.

One of my favorites, especially this time of year, is "The Door Into Summer."  It comes from their Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones Ltd. album of 1967, and while sung by Mike Nesmith, was penned by Chip Douglas and Bill Martin.  There's a lot going on here, from the catchy chorus to the hippy lyrics criticizing war profiteers.  I just love the feel of it, since it has that kind of relaxed mid-tempo vibe made for a leisurely suburban drive in the summer time.  (Maybe that's why this CD is currently on heavy rotation in my car.)  It doesn't hurt that the trebly organ sounds like a circus calliope.

Listening to this song is also a good time to contemplate what the Beatles wrought.  They made it is so rock bands were expected to write their own material, but few groups can actually muster up a lot that's profound.  That being the case, I'd rather listen to a song performed by crack studio musicians and written by professional, award-winning songwriters than the half-baked compositions of a second-rate rock band.  Perhaps the Monkees were on to something after all.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Real, Mundane Reasons Why America Isn't Soccer Obsessed

Note: This is an edited version of something I wrote on my old blog that I find to be relevant with World Cup fever upon us.

As an American soccer fan, and a sports follower generally, I've heard this question posed in various permutations every four years: "Why don't Americans like soccer?" Those who ask it often assume that there's some kind of profound truth about America's relationship with the rest of the world revealed in its answer (and ignore the sport's growing popularity.)  I think it's time that we finally stopped asking this tiresome question, because the reasons for the relative lack of soccer fever in the States are actually quite mundane.

Let us start with the obvious yet oft forgotten truth that matters of taste are mostly subjective in nature. There is nothing about soccer that makes it an objectively more or less interesting sport than American football. It's all really a matter of sporting culture and one's expectations built from experience. There is very little soccer culture in the United States, and that which exists is either confined to immigrant groups, hipsterish guys with scarves, or associated with ten year old suburbanites. When the average American sports fan sees the World Cup on TV, it looks foreign, different, difficult to understand, and perhaps, yes, boring. Players dive and simulate injuries, half of the attacks are called offsides, the sounds of horns and chants fill the air, and many games end without any scoring whatsoever. When immersed into soccer culture abroad, though, the vast majority of American sports fans that I know have come home with a love or at least an interest in fubol.

If you think about it, worldwide sports fans raised on soccer would likely have similar feelings when confronted with an NFL game. During its three hour duration, the ball is in play for maybe twenty minutes. A large number of plays are entirely inconsequential: incomplete passes, two yard runs up the middle, false starts, etc. Commercials constantly interrupt the run of play. The number of penalties is steep and the nature of their application perplexingly random. At times it looks so brutal as to be a blood sport. If you haven't been raised, like I was, in a town that showed up every autumn Friday to watch the high school team play, and lived in a state where college football acted as the great social and cultural glue and bordered on religion, American football just might not seem all that exciting.

Despite these differences, there are those around the world who have warmed to American football, and there is a growing number of Americans (including yours truly) who are nuts for soccer. (I should add that I am still a total devotee to baseball.) It's just that when certain sports cultures have established themselves, they tend to dominate. No one seems to comment on the fact that other populous countries aren't even playing in the World Cup: China, Indonesia, India, etc. In many (but not all) of these nations, soccer is less important than other sports. Think of South Asia in particular, where cricket is the dominant team sport.

Furthermore, the popularity of soccer in America will continue to grow, even if it will never eclipse any of the big four team sports of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. With the advent of satellite TV and expanded cable, Americans can now watch top-level club soccer from around the world. (The MLS, no matter how hard it tries, will never be a showcase for world talent, and thus can never challenge the NBA, NFL, and NHL.) With rising fears (entirely legitimate in nature, I might add) over concussions and other football injuries, more parents will be steering their kids toward soccer. America may never be soccer-mad, but I will bet that the World Cup's popularity will continue to increase. After all, Americans don't normally pay much attention to downhill skiing and competitive swimming, but tune in massively for the Olympics. Like the Olympics, the World Cup is a great escape valve for nationalism.

So I hope we can lay to rest all of the fatuous talk about America's supposedly exceptional rejection of soccer. It really has become quite tiresome. Soccer does not represent some kind of socialist plot, as at least one idiot conservative commentator will say every World Cup year. In fact, it does not represent any kind of "American exceptionalism" whatsoever, unless these same people want to talk of "Indian exceptionalism" as well. If you like soccer, keep enjoying the World Cup, but don't get indignant if your friends and neighbors don't care for it. If you don't like soccer, that's fine, just don't turn your dislike of the sport into some kind of metaphor for American culture or world relations. Most of all, for folks on both sides of the soccer line, please avoid the arrogant belief that your subjective taste in athletics is based on some kind of objectively discernable superiority. It isn't.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Deeper Truth Behind Cantor's Loss

The sudden and unexpected defeat of (now former) House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary has been the talk of the new media these last two days.  There have been a lot of people parsing all kinds of theories as to why.  Some claim voters punished Cantor for not being a hard-liner on immigration, others think he lost touch with voters back home, and others see a reaction against the Washington elite.  Some ask whether this means that the Tea Party is still relevant, or whether the Republican party is tearing itself apart.

Most of this analysis leaves me cold, because it does not go deep enough.  I rarely write on the daily political news anymore, since I think that most of the quotidian disputes and point scoring matches are happening within and being determined by a larger superstructure.  Cantor's loss is no exception, but is much more notable.

The truth of the matter is this: a small minority of hard core, ideologically-driven conservatives is holding our political process hostage.  With Cantor out, the conventional wisdom says that immigration reform is now impossible, because whacko nativists on the right will punish any Republican who dares to compromise, this despite the fact that immigration reform is widely popular.  (This by the way is why we can't have things like universal background checks for guns, a measure which the public supports by huge majorities.)  The hard Right is so obsessed with hating Obama that any Republican who dares work with him, even on legislation beneficial to the country and with a support of the majority of the people, will get primaried.  Those ideologues like Ted Cruz who shut down the government on a lark are thus perversely rewarded for their behavior.  Like the sorcerer's apprentice, the GOP establishment that astroturfed the Tea Party is now at the mercy of its own creation.

The consequence for the rest of us is that the country has become ungovernable.  With a divided government compromise is necessary for problems to get solved, and with one party never willing to compromise, the problems only get worse.

What makes it that much more insane is that the number of true believers who are holding the country hostage are rather small.  In the election in Virginia, only 65,000 bothered to show up to vote, meaning that only about 35,000 people were able to veto the majority will of a nation of hundreds of millions to humanize our immigration policy.  It is a crazy, stupid, and dysfunctional way to run a country, but that's the way things are today.

The only real way to stop the extremists on the Right is to outvote them.  That isn't happening, despite their extremity and the unpopularity of their positions.  Low voter turnout means that the real winner of practically every election in America is "none of the above."  The bitter partisan environment cultivated by extreme conservatism drives away the moderate middle by making politics unappealing and divisive.  Voters in more conservative states will loyally vote for the GOP, and not for a Democrat, regardless of whether that Republican is moderate or extreme.  (Once he got the nomination, Ted Cruz's election in Texas was secured.)  The Democrats are so afraid of losing corporate backing that they do barely anything economically to appease their own base and give them a reason to vote.  Case in point: Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised a court case yesterday striking down teacher tenure laws in California.  Teachers unions have worked hard to put the Obama administration in power, and in return they get a big kick to the teeth.  When they finally proposed universal health care it was a market-oriented model cooked up by the Heritage Foundation.  No wonder there is no Tea Party of the Left.

On the other hand, the Right wing ideologues have a captive party to play with, they are swimming in contributions for Koch-style plutocrats, and they have a vast propaganda arm on Fox News and talk radio to enforce message discipline and spread disinformation.  (The support on talk radio for David Brat helped him make up his funding gap.)  They are a minority, but are a big enough minority to control a political party, and to benefit from low voter turnout and recent attempts at voter suppression.  As long as those who aren't extreme conservatives are apathetic and as long as Democrats fail to give their base a reason to care, this state of affairs will just keep getting worse.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Power Of Appreciation

The last two days have been full of intense emotion, mostly because the graduating senior class at my school has very publicly, and multiple times, expressed their gratitude and appreciation for me.  Among other things they have dedicated the yearbook to me and written letters about the impact I have had on them.  The levels of appreciation have been so deep that I have had to gather myself multiple times so as to not break down in a sobbing mess, tears of joy flowing down my cheeks.

I don't know what to do with all of this appreciation because I am not used to getting it.  Back when I was in academia, appreciation was in short supply.  Individual students often thanked me at the end of the semester, but my employers never heard these words of praise, nor did they offer me much appreciation themselves.  As a low-level academic, both on and off the tenure track, I was expected to fill the slots on the schedule and not inspire any student complaints.  That's the only expectation placed on my teaching, which was considered to be a negligible contribution to the university.  After years and years of this I started to go a little insane, wondering if anyone besides my students was aware of the impact I was having.

Things are different now.  My colleagues and superiors have both acknowledged the bonds I've built with the graduating seniors.  The appreciation and support I have received has only made me feel better about my work at school.  So few university administrators seem to realize that faculty need appreciation, they need a sense that they and their work have value.  Around the time I left academia, I began to think that maybe I had little to offer, that I did not have value, and that my work was meaningless.  Those self-doubts no longer exist for me, and it's all due to working in an environment where I am treated as a human being with worth.  That shouldn't be such a difficult feeling to establish, but the academic world, for whatever reason, seems to have a hard time with it.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Track of the Week: Ron Wood, "I Can Feel The Fire"

When I was younger, I never understood why Ron Wood had been the choice to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones.  Taylor's playing provides some of the best moments on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, by far my two favorite Stones records back then and still to this day.  By contrast, I never rated Wood as a guitarist, and always figured he was in the band because he had the right look and was Keith Richards' drinking buddy.  The Stones' albums from the mid-70s onward have been almost universally lackluster, so that didn't make me think much of Wood, either.

As I got older and started digging the Faces, I soon learned the error of my ways.  Back in the early 1970s there was perhaps no greater rock band in the world, and Ron Wood was a big reason why.  The man's slide guitar is simply thrilling on tracks like "Around the Plynth," and he absolutely burns up the frets on "Stay With Me."  It was around the time that I was discovering the Faces that my friend Edward played me Wood's first record, the hilariously titled I've Got My Own Album To Do.  It is a dig at Rod Stewart, who had begun focusing his attentions on his solo albums rather than with the Faces.  (Stewart still contributes to this album, though.)

The album's title is enhanced by its cover, showing Wood looking disheveled and hungover, wearing a rather unfortunate Hawaiian shirt beneath his frayed rooster coif.  It's a real case of truth in advertising, since the album takes the Faces' penchant for ragged and spirited rocknroll that makes up in feeling what it lacks in precision.  I was lucky enough to find this gem on vinyl at the WFMU Record Fair last weekend, and have been playing it to death since.

There are plenty of good songs, but "I Can Feel The Fire" is a great listen because it would be the best Stones song of the mid-70s if it was an official Stones song.  Keith plays guitar and Jagger sings backup, and their mark is all over this thing.  It is heavily influenced by the same reggae sounds that also inflected the Rolling Stones' music at the time, but incorporates them much more effectively and skillfully.  This does not sound like a rock band playing at reggae, but rather a real gutbucket bar band that can play just about anything and just happens to dig reggae.  The guitars are great without being flashy, the melody catchy, and the feel masterful.  (It also doesn't hurt to have the great Ian McLagen on organ.)  In many ways this is a precursor to the Clash's reggae-inflected numbers, although Joe Strummer would never have copped to it.

"I Can Feel The Fire" makes me a little wistful since it shows what the Stones could have been after their peak, but never were.  They did indeed go in new directions (witness the disco of "Miss You" and reggae of "Emotional Rescue"), but rarely with the requisite effort.  With Keith messed up smack and Mick distracted from music, Ron Wood's infusion of new blood and yes, fire, could only go so far.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Academia's Teaching Problem

I went to a Jesuit university as an undergraduate full of highly skilled teachers.  While my alma mater did not give me much insight into the recent trends in scholarship, it did provide me with engaging classes taught by faculty committed to the classroom.  I knew from friends and family that not all universities were like that.  I'd heard horror stories of disinterested faculty and incompetent teaching assistants.  It confused me, since I figured that university faculty were being paid to teach, and ought to not keep their jobs if they weren't capable of doing it.

Once I got to graduate school at a Big Ten university, I soon realized how deep the problem was.  My department had plenty of able teachers, many of whom also happened to be accomplished scholars.  However, it was obvious that those in the academic world who talked about or conspicuously sought to improve their classes were not to be considered serious scholars.  I remember one new hire whose manifest teaching ability had actually made her suspect in some people's eyes.  Graduate students were tracked from the beginning.  Those considered to have the best potential as scholars were spared from being TAs, as if getting trained how to teach would be useless in their future careers.

Of course, the vast majority of students that academics teach have little to no interest in the academic accomplishments of the people standing in front of the classroom.  Only highly-engaged majors in upper-level classes are aware of such things.  I hate to break to you, but nobody cares about your monograph.  Despite the fact that students form a much bigger audience than exists for most scholarship, there is a subset of profs who have absolute, unmasked contempt for their students.  I have heard them express such sentiments in the faculty lounge, online, and at conferences.  Don't take my word for it, just read Rebecca Schuman's piece on how critical theory poster boy Slavoj Zizek joked about not caring if his students committed suicide.  It is a decided minority who think and talk like this, but the culture of academia gives the haters a pass, and if they are accomplished scholars, defends them.

The combination of students being unaware or indifferent to their professors' scholarship with the negligence (and even malice) of so many university faculties towards their students means that with the humanities and higher education generally facing massive cutbacks, professors have few allies among the students.  Why would they stick their necks out for people who aren't invested in their own education?  Of course, there are many, many excellent teachers in higher education, and I have had the pleasure of knowing some of them.  I just think that deep down the fact that the faculty in toto sees teaching as a secondary, lesser pursuit is palpable among the students.

That attitude exists even among people trying to get out of academia.  As someone who has become a high school teacher, I am well aware of how difficult it is to teach K-12 and why that's not something many folks looking for a post-ac life preserver are enthusiastic about.  That said, when I read something like this, written by s struggling adjunct who acts like being a mere high school teacher is beneath him, I detect the same old snobbery.  I honestly don't see this cultural attitude changing, since it is so deeply ingrained.  In former times, when our universities had greater support and control, that disdain for teaching was not going to cause major problems for anyone except frustrated students.  Now, as the neoliberal assault is gaining speed with each passing day, academics have effectively set themselves apart from the students, who ought to be their natural allies in holding off the profiteers and educrats.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

TV Break: The Resonance of Taxi

I am a pathetic old man, since I primarily use my Hulu subscription to watch old reruns of 70s television shows rather than keeping up on the latest stuff.  I've recently grown partial to Taxi, a show I saw quite a lot as a child, even though it started airing before my time.  Back in the olden times before my family had cable, my TV options were rather limited, and certain hours of the day were very TV intensive.  We used to eat dinner early, about 5:30-6 o'clock, farmhand hours.  In the Central time zone back then networks would run a half-hour rerun after the local news and before the regular prime time schedule got started.  Three shows dominated the reruns in central Nebraska back then, Benson, The Muppet Show, and Taxi.

While I tended to watch the Muppets, I liked Taxi, too.  Living in such a rural place, I got a kick out of the whole notion of taxi cabs, much less the shot of the New York skyline refracted through the 59th Street Bridge in the opening credits.  (When my family crossed a tiny cantilevered bridge in Red Cloud, Nebraska, my sisters and I called it "the Taxi bridge."  Needless to say, we were unaware of the scale of the 59th Street Bridge.)  I loved Danny DeVito's wily and rascally Louie DePalma, and got a kick out of characters like Latka and Reverend Jim.

It was a very adult show, so nowadays I appreciate it on a whole other level.  Almost all of the characters were driving taxis because they were struggling to succeed in their chosen fields, or had failed out of them.  Many of the characters are lost souls, like 60s burnout Reverend Jim, and confused immigrant Latka.  It's a show born in the economic downturn of the late 1970s, and for that reason reflects our own economic hard times.  I have plenty of friends who have had to give up their old dreams for the reality of needing a steady gig.  What starts as a way to make money while searching for better opportunities becomes the only option left.

What Taxi shows is that while few of us ever realize our dreams, it is important to have the right kind of people around us in our day to day lives.  The cabbies form a kind of family, united in their affection for each other and their resistance to their tyrannical boss.  In a time when employers hold all the cards, and plenty of folks are working full time at was once supposed to be a transitional day job, it's a show that's more relevant than ever.

Monday, June 2, 2014

1994 In Historical Perspective

Now that I am getting older, I am realizing that I have reached such an advanced age that the years of my youth are long enough ago to be put into perspective.  That though crossed my mind recently after hearing that the New York Rangers are going to the Stanley Cup finals.  In my head I think of their last victory being not so long ago, since it happened right after I graduated high school.  Then I realized that was twenty years ago!

1994 was maybe the most action-packed year of my life, so it is a difficult time for me to think of in world-historical terms.  I graduated high school, finished third in the state of Nebraska in Lincoln-Douglass debate (my greatest competitive accomplishment), went on my first date (not as great), traveled to Germany as an exchange student (my first trip outside of North America), went to college, used the internet for the first time, and met some lifelong friends.  Lots of things were going on the world that I didn't pay much attention to, and lots of things I took for granted ended up being really big in perspective.

Politically I think 1994 will go down as a watershed year in American history.  It is easy to forget nowadays, but the Reaganite neoliberal political order was not always fated to have its three decade (and counting) run.  In 1992 George HW Bush failed to win re-election and garnered the lowest support for an incumbent since Taft.  Bill Clinton presided over a Democratic Congress, one that had been solidly Democratic, more or less, since the New Deal.  He proposed a national plan to provide health insurance, the first such attempt to significantly expand the safety net since LBJ.

All of that changed in 1994.  Clinton's plan bit the dust in Congress, and it was used by Republicans to win a sweeping victory in the midterm election that year, taking the House for the first time since the 1950s, and they've held it for almost all of the time since.  After that point Clinton went deeper into triangulation mode, and in the aftermath he would cut back on welfare, declare the era of "big government" to be over, appease the religious right by signing DOMA, and generally governing like a moderate Republican.  Granted, he had supported NAFTA and such beforehand, but 1994 ended any true progressive initiatives on his part.

That 1994 Republican resurgence was led by Newt Gingrich and popularized by talk radio.  The hard-Right, inflexible in its ideology, had taken its place in the leadership of the Republican party rather than being relegated to the back benches.  Our politics, from the Lewinsky scandal onward, have never been the same.  Gingrich's temper tantrum government shutdown the next year was a sign of things to come. The hard Right's far fringe grew as well, since 1994 saw a major rise in the militia movement, in the wake of Ruby Ridge, Waco, and anger over a Democratic president.  Our politics today are routinely held hostage by conservative zealots; 1994 was when they first realized their power.

1994 was also a crucial year in culture and society.  I happened to be in Germany during OJ Simpson's infamous ride in his white Bronco, and I went from being in a place where no one was talking about it to a country completely obsessed with it.  Looking back the reaction to the OJ trial and the way it was covered was a kind of canary in the coal mine as far as the health of the news media is concerned.  There once was a time when channels like CNN carried primarily hard news, often delivered by far-flung global correspondents.  When TV news organizations cashed in on the OJ case, they put themselves well down the road to where they are today: purveyors of bland, idiotic infotainment.

In the world of popular culture, Kurt Cobain killed himself, an event that deeply saddened me at the time, and seemed to be the beginning of the end of an all-too short trend where interesting rock music found its way onto the radio.  In retrospect it might even be the end of rock music as a broad cultural force.  (Don't believe me?  Look at the charts.)  Nevertheless, Pearl Jam put out the seriously challenging Vitalogy, and punk (albeit in poppy form) finally broke in the form of Green Day.  Albums by Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. redefined hip-hop, and west coast gangsta rap went pop with Warren G.  In the world of film Pulp Fiction dropped like a bomb, a film so revolutionary and so much more exciting than the usual Hollywood fare that I felt like I was witnessing something historical even before the film was half over.  It is hard to state just how moribund and lifeless the world of film felt at the time, or how distant the independent world felt from the mainstream.  Pulp Fiction opened space for indie-type films to get a wider audience, and for more challenging fare to hit the multiplexes.

Last but not least, plenty of craziness happened in the sports world.  (My own Nebraska Cornhuskers finally won a national championship, but that's neither here nor there.)  The baseball players' strike did not get resolved, leaving the World Series canceled and Expos fans to wonder "what if?"  That strike's consequences led to the labor peace that the sport currently enjoys, to the envy of others.  The Rangers won the Stanley Cup and broke a 54 year streak of futility for their long-suffering fans.  George Foreman became heavyweight champion at the ripe age of 45.

If I ever have the time and inclination, I think there's a lot here that could be made into one of those "profile of a year" books.  The Boomers had '68, my fellow late-period Gen Xers have 1994.

Footnote: And this is just in the United States.  From a world historical perspective, 1994 was also very momentous.  The horror of the Rwandan genocide happened that summer, and the fighting in Bosnia was fierce at that time.