Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Democrats Are Still The Party of Richard J Daley

During the last five years Republicans have been taking radical actions on the state level, fulfilling Tea Party ambitions that have been thwarted in Washington.  The new wave of conservative governors and legislators has enacted a massive wave of abortion restrictions, has gutted social services (with Kansas as a prime example), busted public worker unions, and slashed money drastically to public universities.  Just this week it appears that Scott Walker is trying to essentially destroy the public university system in Wisconsin, and Sam Brownback is willing to keep massive tax decreases in place that have made it extremely difficult for the state to finance itself.

You would think that in response to this onslaught that Democrats would be using their power in Blue States to enact a progressive agenda.  If you thought that, you are sadly very wrong.  Democratic politicians in blue states and cities that vote overwhelmingly for their party have turned around and offered conservatism lite, as opposed to any kind of progressive agenda.  In Chicago Rahm Emanuel has sought to fire unionized teachers and replace them with Teach for America recruits.  In New York Andrew Cuomo keeps pushing the testing of teachers, despite the positive results so far on previous tests.  His bloodlust for teacher firings must be filled, I guess.  Other Democrats are more concerned about lining their pockets than anything else, as this week's revelations about Sheldon Silver revealed.  Here in New Jersey local Democratic bosses like Joe DiVincenzo and George Norcross continue to support Chris Christie in a cynical power play.  With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?

Rahm Emanuel, who's re-election bid as mayor of Chicago is less than a month away, is perhaps the best example of the continuities of the worst aspects of the Democratic Party.  Chicago is as true "blue" as they come; I can't imagine a Republican ever getting elected to be mayor of that city.  At the same time, it has been ruled for decades by Democrats who have impeded progressive political action at every turn and have favored corporations over their own people.  Rahm has attacked teachers and privatized key public functions of the city while refusing to listen to calls to reign in police violence.  He is governing much the same as his predecessor, Richard M Daley, who never met a corporation that he didn't like.

Of course, little Richie never lived up to his father Richard J Daley's reputation.  The elder Daley ruled Chicago with an iron fist from 1955 to 1976, and in the process became one the most important Democrats in country, despite holding only a local office.  As the book American Pharaoh points out, he used his immense power and ability to tap federal largesse to keep the city segregated.  Interstate highways formed walls between black and white neighborhoods, and massive housing projects warehoused the black poor.  Today it might be easy to look at his racial politics and see a man from a bygone time, but modern Democratic mayors have done little or nothing to fight the growing waves of gentrification that bring segregation in their wake.  They are more likely to welcome it for boosting the tax base.  Just like Daley, politicians like Cuomo and Emanuel are primarily interested in one thing: the preservation and expansion of their personal power.

They are allowed to do sobecause the old party apparatus has a stranglehold on Democratic institutions on the local level, and because too many rank and file Democrats are unwilling to push for better.  Back when I lived in Chicago, at a time when Richie Daley's administration was allowing mass transit to rot while throwing out tax giveaways to Boeing, most locals seemed to respond with the old chestnut "Chicago is the city that works!"  As long as the Loop looks spiffy and they have jobs, these types won't complain.  Organized labor is so cowed that even though the likes of Emanuel and Cuomo have been actively hostile to unions, they still fall in behind them.  By undercutting labor these modern day bosses have effectively neutralized the one institution that has any chance of challenging them.  It's hardly a surprise that Democratic bosses like Norcross and DiVincenzo have been Christie's buddies, they're cut from the same venal cloth.

Bill de Blasio gives me hope that genuine progressives can gain power in Democratic strongholds, but he has faced an unprecedented rebellion by police for daring to publicly utter the obvious truth that blacks and whites have a different relationship with the police.  He is effectively being punished for not governing in the style of Emanuel in Chicago, where the cops still have free reign.  If he governed like Richard J. Daley, "shoot to kill" order and all, the police would be just fine with him.

Progressives rightfully fear the things that Walker and his radical ilk are doing on the state level, and rightfully excoriate the inability of the president and Democrats in the capital to consistently push a progressive agenda.  Something they ought to be paying more attention to is that in supposedly "blue" territory like Chicago and New York, that the Democrats are still the party of Richard J Daley.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

More Baseball Ephemera For The Winter Blues

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 23 days, position players in 28.  We are one orbit of the moon away from baseball's partial return, and I am joyous.  The NFL has maintained its diva-esque insistence on two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, which this year has meant interminable discussions of ball inflation and Marshawn Lynch's recalcitrance in press conferences.  And people call baseball boring.

Anymore baseball is less a sport than a symbol of spring, summer, and early fall to me.  Baseball's return is the return life, of the sun, of days when I can wake up with something to look forward to.  The older I get, the more the winter wears on my body and saps my soul.  When spring returns I practically celebrate like a Russian peasant overjoyed when the ice cracks and the rasputitsa comes.  To tide me over, and for your consideration, are some pieces of baseball ephemera.

Jim Kaat's 1983 Fleer Baseball Card

I love the ramshackle nature of 1983 Fleer cards.  The background color is like the walls of a secretarial pool, and the Helvetica lettering makes it seem doubly institutional.  I imagine if they had baseball cards in Soviet Russia, this is what they would look like.  I love cards like this, when the photographer is snapping a photo of Jim Kaat while he's doing an interview, not even bothering to have him pose.

Reggie Jackson's Scrapbook

I was a weird kid, which meant that I learned an awful lot about sports events of the past by checking out recently outdated sports books from the library.  One of my favorite was Reggie Jackson's Scrapbook, published after his 1977 season, when he ended the World Series by hitting three homers on three straight pitches for the Yankees.  By the time I picked it up, he was a slightly over the hill slugger with the Angels.  It was full of great photos, including a breakdown of the famous game 6.

Gary Matthews' 1979 Topps Card
You can see why they called him "Sarge."

Ron Luciano's Books

Luciano was a colorful umpire in the American League in the 1970s who went on to be a broadcaster and author in the 1980s.  I devoured his books, fascinated by how the game looked from the ump's perspective.  For a little while in middle school, I seriously thought that becoming a major league umpire would be my life's calling.  I would get to see all the games I wanted, get paid for it, and have a lot of time off.  When I got the news that he had committed suicide, I was profoundly upset.

Tim Flannery's 1988 Fleer Baseball Card
Surf's up.

Seasons in Hell by Mike Shropshire

I just read this book, inspired by its inclusion on a top baseball books list by Dan Epstein, who's no slouch as a baseball writer himself.  In it a beat reporter for the Texas Rangers of the mid-1970s describes a particularly crummy team and what it was like when the anything goes culture of the 1960s finally hit the more staid world of baseball.  Shropshire has a great voice reminiscent of Hunter S Thompson, and would recommend the book to any fans of baseball or the good doctor.  It also happens to contain the definitive account of the Ten Cent Beer Night fiasco in Cleveland in 1974.

Wally Moon's 1959 Topps Baseball Cards
Great name, all-time great unibrow.

Ten Cent Beer Night

The "aw, fuck it" brand of rebellion in the 1970s was on display in Cleveland one fateful night, the same year that Nixon retired.  Part of me believes they're somehow connected.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Link Between Snowstorm Preparation and the "War on Terror"

Living here in New Jersey, I was prepared for the worst yesterday.  During my commute the snow was coming down really hard, and the train was so full that all the seats were filled and I stood in the aisle packed cheek to jowl with my fellow commuters.  The only other time I experienced this was in the aftermath of Sandy, when trains ran infrequently.  My wife didn't want to venture out with the kids in the snow, so I ended up walking about two miles home from the train station.  The snow wasn't fearsome, but I thought that if it was just the beginning, the night would be horrible.

It turns out that I had already experienced the worst of it.  It all ended up being a heavy snow, pretty nasty and inconvenient, but hardly the "historic blizzard" we'd been led to expect.  Despite that fact, all mass transit had been shut down and states of emergency declared.  You could say that this overreaction resulted from the storm changing its path, or a bad weather prediction, but I don't.  The stringent, top-down measures are also rooted in our country's mentality after 9/11.

When I was younger I can't remember snow storms getting this much pre-game hype, or extensive and drastic measures being taken BEFORE it was apparent what the storm was bringing.  Having grown up in Nebraska, I know from blizzards, but they usually didn't close the interstate down in the windswept western areas of the state until it was apparent that the roads were impassable.  Yesterday four states declared states of emergency before the storm even hit.  While I was on the train ride home yesterday I was told that trains would not running until Thursday, (they're already back now.)

Those actions reflect a tendency today by political leaders in this country to quickly take state action whenever there's a whiff of any kind of threat or crisis.  They do it because it enhances their power, and also because the public has been inured to accepting emergency measures.  Both come from the "War on Terror."  In the case of politicians, they can't fail to have noticed how 9/11 saved George W. Bush's presidency, which started off with questionable legitimacy and responded to an economic downturn with tax cuts for the rich.  (Of course, his poor handling of the Katrina disaster showed how not responding to a crisis well can kill a political career.)  Chris Christie was paying attention, and he parlayed Sandy into a positive public profile at a time when his popularity in New Jersey was slipping.  He used that event to create an image of a tough-talking leader in charge, and one able to reach across the partisan divide to cooperate with a Democratic president.  Disasters are great for executive leaders in that they get to look responsible, criticism of them becomes de facto bad, and they can wield much more power than in regular times.  When we hear news of drone strikes and NSA spying that should hardly surprise us.

As far as the people are concerned, they have been conditioned to accept greater authoritarian measures.  We take our shoes off at the airport, accept NSA spying despite Edward Snowden's revelations, and punish anyone at the polls who dares to challenge the PATRIOT Act for being "soft on terror."As I have written before, we are a society ruled by fear.  This fear now apparently extends to the weather, where a snowstorm or blizzard becomes "Snowmageddon" or somesuch thing.  Of course the media play a big role in this, mostly because they've realized that the public craves fear, from the bogus "knock out game" to hyping up weather events.

Others may see a bad weather forecast to blame for the overreaction to snow in the New York City area, I see the fear spiral at work once again.  At least this time it was fairly harmless, but I'm sure it will be used to gin up more wars, domestic and foreign, in the future.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Track of the Week: David Bowie "Always Crashing In The Same Car"

I was watching a documentary about David Bowie last night called Five Years, and I appreciated that it focused primarily on his music (rather than personae), and included a lot of conversation with his musical collaborators.  It helped me to realize that after he left his Ziggy identity and the Spiders from Mars band behind, Bowie succeeded because he had such great musicians and producers working with him.  Those collaborators came from different places, and the resulting friction really enabled a lot of interesting results.  My favorite moment was guitarist Carlos Alomar discussing his frustration with producer Brian Eno's methods, and Eno's admission that at that point in his life he simply hadn't worked with musicians as accomplished as Alomar, and thus was using methods better suited for rudimentary punk rockers than a session man like Alomar.

The results, on albums like Low and Heroes, were amazing.  Those two records, though they came out in 1977, still sound fresh and unique.  "Always Crashing In The Same Car" is one of my favorites of this era, and it seems especially suited to the bleakness of winter time.  It is a lament about making the same mistakes again and again in life, and not being able to break the pattern despite knowing that it exists.  Despite the poignant nature of the lyrics, I tend to focus on the shimmery, textured sound of the music.  You'd probably never guess that the thudding drums come from a soul/jazz session player like Dennis Davis, but the more I listen to it the more I can hear the subtle feel.  The guitars are layered and trade feeling for heroics, acting much the same as the synthesizers beneath them.

It's less a song than a peak in Bowie's damaged psyche at the time, making it all the more powerful.  Another thing I noticed in the documentary was that Bowie's practice of emodying a character took a hiatus in his Berlin period.  The reason that I like his work at that time above all others may very well be that he was not trying to play a different person, but to actually dig a little deeper within himself.  I don't think Bowie was ever more vulnerable and real than on this track.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Andrew Jackson Still Lives

America’s true Founding Father was not Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin or Hamilton, but Andrew Jackson.  The 18th century Founders were the product of a pre-modern America where politics was conducted by the “better sort,” not the masses.  Jackson was the first president to be a true mass politician, as have all the presidents who have followed him since.  Unlike the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, he was not a man of the Enlightenment, but a man of action who felt no need to find moral or intellectual justifications for slaughtering Native Americans, removing them from their lands, expanding the borders of slavery, and filling the government’s offices full of party flunkies.  This was not politics as virtue in action, but politics as bloodsport.

I see much of Andrew Jackson in conservative politics today.  Modern day Jacksonians laugh at the notions of global warming and sustainability, and champion a volatile, extractionary economy where entrepeneurs can “drill baby drill” and have access to as much cheap labor as they want.  In their minds, public expenditures on infrastructure are a waste.  I see much in the same in Jackson’s day, where he pushed to open up more land in the Southwest (as it was then) for the booming cotton economy, its fields worked by slave labor.  As Edward Baptist points out in his new book, the cotton frontier exploded during Jackson’s tenure, helped by his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, and the reallocation of federal money in “pet banks” happy to speculate wildly on the sale of cotton and the sale of slaves.  That same hands off, freewheeling impulse is apparent today in the conservative push to lift regulations on Wall Street banking.  Jackson also famously rejected Henry Clay's so-called "American System" of roads and canals.  I see that spirit every day when I drive on pothole scarred roads in a nation that refuses to raise its gasoline tax, even when the price is rapidly dropping.

Of course, just as Jackson and modern day conservatives champion "small government" out of one side of their mouth, they just love using the military to expand territory and reward the vested interests backing them.  Jackson moved to remove Native Americans against the will of the Supreme Court, just as the "War on Terror" has relied on illegal and extralegal means.  Jackson's closest imitator, James K Polk, sparked war with Mexico with terms just as illegitimate as those formulated by George W Bush for his invasion of Iraq.  Jacksonians of all era scorn the notion that government can improve people's lives, but have little restraint when using it to further the goals of nationalist expansion.

While the effects of the supposed populism of present and past day Jacksonians on the lower classes tends not to be economically beneficial for them, they have wielded a powerful ideology of anti-elitism.  It was hardly a coincidence that Jackson, the first mass president, was by far the least educated of those to hold the office before him, and perhaps the least literate to ever hold the office.  He and his supporters denigrated the educated, much as conservatives today scorn climate scientists, academics, and teachers.  All three have committed the cardinal sin of having expertise and thinking that means they know more than the average yahoo.  One of Jackson's most toxic legacies has been the extremely anti-intellectual tenor of American public life, something routinely exploited by conservatives.

Last, but not least, don't forget white supremacy.  Andrew Jackson's America was more "democratic" in that the franchise was no longer limited to the affluent, but was now open to all white men.  Women and men of color were aggressively cast out, even in places where they had once been enfranchised.  While the poorest, most low-down white man could pass a ballot, African Americans were expected to toil in slavery, and Native Americans faced a fearsome onslaught of war and ethnic cleansing.  Modern day Jacksonians are a lot more careful with their rhetoric, but they still love unleashing the full force of the American military on brown people around the world.  These are also the same people wearing "I am Darren Wilson" shirts and are highly supportive of the police state that incarcerates people of color at a truly fearsome rate while reenforcing residential segregation.  When a black man took the office of the president, they responded by treating him with unprecedented disrespect and contempt.  (Just witness the behavior at the last State of the Union address.)  The Tea Party, that most Jacksonian of political movements, has been vowing from the beginning of Obama's term to "take our country back."  Gee, I wonder what that could mean.

The America of the Founders is a strange and faraway place.  The America of Andrew Jackson, the true Founder of our current dominant political mode, doesn't seem all that foreign, despite being almost 200 years ago, because its values so thoroughly permeate our political system today.  My only hope is that if there was ever an American president who was the anti-Jackson, it was Lincoln.  There are alternative traditions to draw from, and we need them badly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top Ten Albums of 1971, My Favorite Musical Year

Most fans of classic rock and soul music tend to think of the late sixties as the golden age of popular music, and there isn't much I can say to argue against that.  However, one's own personal sensibilities are not always completely tethered to objective, or at least accepted standards.  As much as I love the music of the late 1960s, I tend to think of 1971 as my favorite musical year.  It's the time that a lot artists who had begun in the sixties had enough experience under their belts to really put together some more mature, fully realized work before they ran out of gas.  I also tend to think of 1971 as the transitional point from the 1960s to the 1970s, when the social movements of the era lost their power and the Silent Majority triumphed.  The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, indeed.  Here are the ten albums from that year I would use to make my case that 1971 was the best year for popular music.  There were so many to choose from that the honorable mention list is quite long as well.  Is there any other year that can stack up to this?  (Please remind me of any omissions in the comments.)

1.  Marvin Gaye, What's Going On
An absolute masterpiece, and among the greatest albums ever made.  Gaye was finally set free from the Motown system to explore his more creative and artistic side, and the album allowed the Funk Brothers to really show their jazz chops.  Unlike the vast majority of political music, it is not heavy handed or didactic in any way.  I dare you to put this on and find anyone who doesn't like it.

2. Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
The Stones had been on a high, but this album I think is their apex.  The ballads are heart-breaking and lush, and the rocking tracks, like "Can You Hear Me Knocking" and "Bitch" have some truly wicked grooves.  

3. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV
Zep's best record and one of the most influential ever recorded.  Even the less well-known tracks, like "Misty Mountain Hop," are absolutely stunning.  Even though it's maybe the most overplayed song of all time, "Stairway To Heaven" still packs a wallop when I listen to it.

4. The Who, Who's Next
The Who also reached their personal best in 1971.  Shuffling off the rock opera tendency between Tommy and Quadrophenia, The Who put together their best collection of songs ever.  "Getting In Tune," "Bargain," and "Behind Blue Eyes" still give me that teenage feeling when I listen to them.

5. Sly and the Family Stone, There's a Riot Goin' On
This might be the soundtrack to the death of the sixties.  The hopeful, inspirational Sly of the flower power years sounds depressed and doped up, but cooler than ever.  "Thank You For Talking To Me Africa" may very well be the funkiest song ever committed to wax.

6. Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story
Stewart betrayed his talent after the mid-70s and became a self-parody.  That's all that anyone these days seems to remember him for, but from 1968-1974 he cut a bunch of amazing records in The Faces, The Jeff Beck Group, and solo.  This is the best of his solo albums, full of some great songs that Stewart makes his own.

7.  The Allman Brothers, At Fillmore East
Perhaps the best live rock album ever, it features the band at the height of their powers before Duane Allman and Berry Oakley's tragic deaths.

8. Badfinger, Straight Up
This star-crossed band should have been one of the biggest ever.  The managed to channel the same spirit of The Beatles with songs to match, and this is the best that they ever managed to do.

9. Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson
Yet another personal best for yet another great artist in 1971.  Nilsson jumps from peak to peak, with barn burners like "Jump Into The Fire" rubbing shoulders with gorgeous ballads like "The Moonbeam Song."  All the potential he had to this point came into full flower, and yet never gelled the same way again.

10. Faces, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse
The Faces were too damn ragged and rough to ever put together a perfect album, but this is as close as they came.  "Debris" is a gorgeous ballad, and "Stay With Me" never fails to give me a shot of adrenalin.  

Honorable Mentions: Carole King Tapestry ("So Far Away" still makes me cry like a baby), David Bowie Hunky Dory (one of his absolute best), Traffic Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (best chill out rock album of the era), Paul McCartney Ram (Macca's best solo record), Black Sabbath Master of Reality (set the template for metal just as much as Paranoid), Can Tago Mago (amazing experimental record from Germany's best), John Lennon Imagine (his best solo record apart from The Plastic Ono Band), Faces Long Player (the point when they really came into their own), Flamin' Groovies Teenage Head (as if the Stones and Stooges had a baby), T Rex Electric Warrior (bang a gong, baby!), Pink Floyd Meddle (a truly beautiful album that I'll never stop returning to) Al Green Gets Next To You (does it get any smoother?).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Standing At The Crossroads On MLK Day

This MLK Day I see a nation standing at the crossroads.  The horrible deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and too many other people of color at the hands of the police have prompted the biggest protests against racism that I have seen in my lifetime.  Also for the first time in my life, the creeping hand of the prison-industrial complex is being challenged, and those challenges are beginning to get broader traction.  At the same time, hardline conservatives have taken over Congress and an unprecedented number of statehouses, benefitting from white backlash and racial resentment in the process.  The mayor of New York dares to discuss the reality of racist policing, and is met with unprecedented revolt and disrespect from his officers.  Something will have to give.

Lots of people are going to see reenactments of the Selma March in the theaters right now, but the present is just as crucial as the past.  There is a growing recognition, one pretty obvious for people of color, much less so for whites, that the efforts of Dr. King and others in the 1960s were not the end of the story, but the beginning.  Barack Obama's election was supposed to be proof of a "post-racial" society, when in reality the hateful reception he has received in many quarters has proven rather starkly that such claims of a post-racial nation were completely wrong.

Will that knowledge be acted upon?  Will new change come?  I honestly don't know, but what I do know is that I cannot remember a time in my life when the possibility for racism to be pushed back was this palpable.  I know plenty of young people who are getting conscious, getting active and taking to the streets, and they give me the hope that the legacy of Dr. King will not be one of greeting card sentiments, but as an inspiration for future generations to further the work he began.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Track of the Week: Wilco "Far Far Away"

Last week I was playing an old playlist I'd made of mellow songs for long winter nights, and my wife perked up when "Far Far Away" by Wilco came on.  I got to thinking about this humble little song has been a favorite of mine since I first heard way back in 1996.

It's the second track on Wilco's double album Being There, the record that began the band's transition from alt-country to something different and deeper.  It comes at the end of the intense, experimental "Misunderstood," and immediately turns down the mood, and perhaps was meant to keep the band's old fans from feeling too confused by transitioning back into more familiar territory.  Regardless of classification, it's a beautiful song of quiet beauty and longing.  Jeff Tweedy sings about being in the country, far from the city lights of Chicago (he alludes to the CTA) and from his love, backed by a pretty organ and understated steel guitar.  It's the sound of lonely rural isolation, perfectly distilled.

It's a song that's meant different things to me over the years.  I remember listening to a lot when I first moved from Chicago to Urbana, Illinois.  After two years in the big city I had developed a real love for urban living, but my academic aspirations took me back to the prairie landscape I had grown up with.  I remember having a hard time adjusting to quiet nights, the lonesome sound of a train horn blowing in the dark, and the vastness of the sky.  Before long I met the right people and learned to love the place, but for the first month or so, I felt like an exile, and this song was a comfort.

Nowadays I think about the song, but in reverse.  I work in the heart of New York City and live in the densely populated environs of northern New Jersey, and I feel like my rural Nebraska hometown is in another country, or on another planet.  So many of my close friends, flung far in the aftermath of grad school, live in small burgs from Murfreesboro to Nacogdoches.  When I listen to this song I think about them too, so far far away.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bring On Pitch Clocks In Baseball

There is no mistaking the fact that the major leaguebaseball games have become increasingly longer over the last few decades, with a serious uptick coming in recent years.  The reasons are legion, from the greater number of pitching changes to pitchers who dawdle on the mound to batters who insist on stepping out of the box or adjusting their equipment endlessly before stepping in to bat.  This state of affairs has increased the oft heard sentiment that baseball is much too slow, especially when compared to sports like football and basketball.

This is especially interesting in light of the fact that early observers of baseball in the 19th century constantly commented on the game’s speed and fast pace.  Contrary to popular belief, baseball is not a rural game, but the product of the explosive growth of American cities in the industrial era.  Alexander Cartwright, who formalized the first version of baseball’s modern rules, hailed from New York City and played his games in Hoboken.  You might think that those hailing baseball’s speed might just be reflecting the fact that life in general moved a who lot slower back then, and the fact that other, faster paced games were less popular.  To the contrary, I think the game was played differently back then, and baseball played with urgency is truly thrilling.  I got a glimpse of it when I used to watch Buehrle pitch for the White Sox.  He worked very fast, spending little time holding the ball.  I cherished his game in each series, since it would be shorter and much more intense.

Today brings the news that baseball is expanding the use of a twenty second pitching clock in the minor leagues, along with other measures meant to decrease delays, such as no-pitch intentional walks and keeping batters in the box.  This makes me wonder if we will be seeing these changes coming at the major league level.  I certainly hope so, despite the fact that the players' union could easily scuttle them.

One objection to all this, and one that I am sympathetic to, is that clocks are antithetical to baseball.  There is indeed something wonderful about the fact that the game is not governed by the clock, one of the few parts of modern life that isn't beholden to almighty time.  As much as that aspect of the game provides its unique character, the abuse of baseball's lack of clocks has gotten completely out of hand.

In any case, defenders of "tradition" ought to realize that the tradition of baseball as a fast-paced game has been sorely neglected in recent years.  To repeat, baseball is not a slow pastoral game, but the arresting product of America's growing cities in the industrial age.  It's about time we bring it back to that.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Scalise and a Peak Behind the GOP Curtain

With all of the crazy and violent events going on in the world right now, it's easy to forget the news that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise once spoke to a meeting of out and out white supremacists.  Despite the calls for "minority outreach" by the likes of Rand Paul, it appears that Scalise will retain his position after the bigwigs rushed to his defense.  In the aftermath of it all David Duke even declared that he isn't a racist, thus proving the observation many archly have made that there are no longer any "racists" left in 21st century America, even among Klansmen.  And yet racism still persists.  Hmm.

Scalise's real crime in all of this was that he was stupid enough to try to appeal to white racists directly instead of cloaking his appeals in thick rhetoric and deploying dog whistles rather than trumpets.  Since the days of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968, the Republican Party has masterfully deployed white racial resentment in order to garner the votes of conservative Dixiecrats in the South and the denizens of white flight suburbs in the North.  Fifty years later, the former Solid South stronghold for the Democrats has become the Republican heartland, and with the defeat of Mary Landrieu, no white Democrats from the South remain in Congress.

The effects of all of this are obvious in Scalise's home state of Louisiana.  According to one report, the ideas put forward by David Duke in his infamous 1991 campaign are now broadly accepted in that state.  Duke himself even understood that he could go far by chucking the white sheets and assailing welfare recipients and affirmative action.  It is hardly a mistake or coincidence that such policies slashing social funding and building prisons are disproportionately harmful to people of color.  These policies do the work of white supremacy under the cover of "smaller government" and "law and order."

I am not surprised that the Republicans refused to dump Scalise, mostly since they have profited from a policy of never admitting that they are wrong. Our compliant media turns it into a case of "he said-she said" and forgets about it the next week.  Trent Lott's political demise is an exception, but his enemies in the party had been sharpening their knives before his gaffe.  Speaking of Lott, he committed much the same crime as Scalise by openly praising Thurmond's segregationist campaign of 1948 when to that point he had been subtly advancing its ideals under the cover of the usual conservative slogans.  He paid for his stupidity with his job, but his party kept hitting the bong of white racial resentment.

Low level Republican officials typically lack the discretion and care of their Capitol Hill counterparts when it comes to advancing a white supremacist agenda without making it too explicit.  These bush leaguers often get caught sending racist cartoons of the president and watermelon-themed emails about the White House.  Scalise's scandal is proof that their more sophisticated and powerful counterparts in the party are pretty much cut from the same cloth.  Don't worry though, the Scalise affair is already forgotten, and the game of promoting white supremacy and profiting from it at the polls by Republicans will continue on unabated.  With all of the white fear, backlash, and reaction against the protests in Ferguson and New York, conservatives will have plenty to work with.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Track of the Week: 2 Live Crew "Banned in the USA"

The attacks in Paris have led to massive demonstrations and plenty of pronunciations supporting free speech.  While the motives of some of these protestors and their actual commitment to freedom of speech are open to question, I am glad to see such an impressive response to the attacks.  This also had me thinking about some (less violent) cases in this country where freedom of expression has been challenged.

The free speech movement was perhaps the first political movement I ever got behind, one that stood at the beginning of my political journey to the left in my teen years.  At the turn of the 90s the forces of the Religious Right had been in power long enough to really flex their muscles.  Albums I wanted to buy were forbidden to me because of the imposing black and white "Explicit Lyrics" stickers.  (I had a friend dub a copy of Fear of a Black Planet as a result.)  Authorities in Cincinnati tried to shut down a Robert Maplethorpe exhibit and Jesse Helms fulminated against the "obscene" art supposedly funded by the NEA.  In terms of political expression, president George HW Bush championed a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.  While I never had any intention to burn the flag, I found the notion of having an amendment banning a certain political expression to be ridiculous and small minded in the extreme.

The same went for a lot of the "explicit music" out there.  I was a good little Catholic boy, and so found a group like the 2 Live Crew to be repugnant.  My proto-feminist dislike of music in general that disrespected women also got tripped off whenever I heard kids in school reciting the group's lyrics.  (This is the same reason I didn't really care for the hair metal bands of the era.)  That being said, I came within a hair's breadth of buying the cassingle for "Banned in the USA," which at the time was probably the most political song on MTV.  As much as I disliked Luther and the rest of the crew, I thought the small-minded Bible thumpers who sought to ban their music and their performances to be a whole lot worse.

I listened to song last night for the first time in almost a quarter century, and was struck by how dated it sounded, from the on the nose style of the MCs to the cheap-sounding synthesizers.  It's enough to make you question any nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hip Hop.  At the same time, Luke's speech near the end still gets me a little fired up, and the use of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is pretty brilliant.  In the twilight of the Reagan-Bush reaction it was a welcome breath of dissent.

Just as I didn't care for the 2 Live Crew, I am also not a fan of Charlie Hebdo's version of satire, which looks chock full of racism and Islamophobia, as far as I can tell.  As much as I dislike some of the cartoons I've seen, those that strive stifle expression they don't like, whether it be through the law or violence, are a million times worse.  I can only hope that the expressions of "Je Suis Charlie" are truly an acknowledgement that freedom of speech should be valued, even when we don't like the speech itself.  Time will tell if those in the streets are not just as likely to suppress the things that they don't like.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Wilco And Memories of Grad School

Because the American Historical Association conference was in New York City this past weekend, I was lucky enough to see some old friends from graduate school.  We're all pretty intense music fans, and in one conversation, while discussing concerts we'd been to together, realized that it's been ten years now since I've seen Wilco play live.  This realization took me aback.  In the first place, I've seen Wilco four times in concert, the most of any band.  For that reason I'd never realized that my last concert was so long ago.  It was also a reminder of how much time had passed in my life since my graduate school days, which I had somehow convinced myself were not so long ago.  My time getting my PhD is indelibly linked to Wilco, even though I had been into them well before that time.  

For my friends and I back then, Wilco was The Only Band That Mattered.  We spun their albums at get-togethers, debated which half of the Being There double album was better, and even drove to far flung cities -from Milwaukee to Carbondale- to see them in concert.  Wilco really meant something to me in a way that no musical group had meant since I was a high schooler blasting Nirvana in my room, and which no other band has ever, or could ever, mean to me since.  Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a daily presence in my life from 2002 to 2004.  Back in those CD days I took it with me to Germany during my archival research year, and every eerily quiet German Sunday morning would play it right after I woke up, a comforting reminder of home while I was living alone an ocean away.  When A Ghost Is Born came out I acquired it immediately, and treated my first listen almost like a religious ritual.  I could hardly wait to hear what mysteries lurked in its grooves, what revelations it had to offer me.  When the band soon appeared on Austin City Limits I used my roommate's newfangled TiVo to record it, and watched it with a friend with the kind of hero-worshipping anticipation that one would think I had long outgrown.

It was both strange and exciting to still have those teenage feelings as an adult, feelings that are all but lost to me now after almost a decade of life outside of grad school.  My graduate school years were actually some of the happiest in my life, since I was surrounded by an amazing group of people who were like a second family to me.  We were a family of choice, with shared interests and touchstones, Wilco being one of the most important.  It wasn't fun surviving on a TA's stipend, but the money for a sixer of mid-priced beer and cheap pizza consumed in someone's basement wasn't that hard to come by.  Pleasures were simple, mostly because we just wanted to share each other's company.

It was great to be reunited with some of those friends again, since we've been scattered to the four winds and have taken on all kinds of responsibilities, from children to being heads of history departments.  It was also a sad reminder that there are parts of my soul that have gone dormant since I graduated.  I still listen to new music, and I like a lot of it, but nothing has matched the experience I had in 2002 seeing Wilco live and feeling transported out of myself for two hours.  As much as I love any new music today, I do not have people around who share that love, and certainly not with the fervency of that old community.  Perhaps it's just me getting older, but I suspect it's more than that.  In the words of "Heavy Metal Drummer"'s chorus, "I miss the innocence I've known."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Chris Christie's New Jersey Hustle Continues

I've avoided writing about Chris Christie, even though I'm a resident of New Jersey, because he appears to have achieved peak media saturation.  Looking at the various articles, especially the ones about his sweaty embrace of Jerry Jones at a Cowboys game, I've decided it's time to examine the man a little more deeply, since no one else seems willing or able to do so.  Christie is a gregarious chap, the kind the media loves for being good for a quote.  It's in their interest to keep the Christie Show going, so their criticisms will always be muted by the hope that they don't sink his political career.  The thing is, Christie is not a straight shooter, as the press would have you believe, he's a hustler.

Say what you want about the man, like most hustlers he's not stupid.  People tend to forget that by the time of Hurricane Sandy his popularity was slipping, and Mitt Romney looked weak.  Christie saw his opportunity: he distanced himself with Romney and cozied up to president Obama, all while talking big on TV in the storm's aftermath.  He managed to get generous aid for the state (which he then used to reward his friends and punish his enemies), and also not to be tainted by Romney's failure, which certainly would have been the case had he been the GOP VP nominee.  While this angered the Republican base, we all know it's the moneymen who hold the strings in that party, and they can appreciate Christie's ruthlessness when it comes to shredding the social safety net.  (It's not for nothing that I refer to him as Fat Reagan.)  He has managed to survive serious scandals and still be a viable presidential candidate.  This is not a man to trifle with.

Christie owes much of the success of his hustle by fabricating some truly impressive narratives that happen to be completely untrue.  He ran for governor as a "good government" man, someone who had a reputation for putting corrupt politicians behind bars as a US attorney.  He came into office with guns blazing at teachers and other public workers, and turned this obvious assault on working people into a kind of populist anti-tax crusade.  Despite the fact that he puffs himself up as an enemy of corruption, he has been running the state like an old school political boss.

The evidence keeps piling up.  In regards to the hug of Jones, it appears that Christie lobbied to get a contract for a company part-owned by the Cowboys to run concessions at the new One World Trade skyscraper, which is managed by the Port Authority.  This is the same Port Authority that acts without any oversight, especially now that Christie and his equally dirty counterpart Andrew Cuomo have vetoed legislation that passed the NJ statehouse unanimously that would have brought transparency.  This is the same Port Authority that shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee.  This is the same Port Authority that Christie has stuffed to the gills with patronage hires in a practice that resembles more Tammany Hall than anything else.

After spending money to get sinecures for Christie pals, the Port Authority is now jacking up tolls, and cutting back on nighttime train service.  Beyond the Port Authority, Christie has taken campaign money from a financial services company that is paid to manage state pensions.  Christie handed over management of the state's halfway houses to an outside company owned by a friend.  He has profitted while inmates have been abused or allowed to go free.  This is some Lincoln Steffens-level misgovernment, but our journalists today would rather kiss ass to get "access" than rake the muck.

You might wonder how Boss Christie manages to do all of this in a state where most people are Democrats.  The answer is that he has become the boss of all bosses and owes his position in large part to state Democratic bosses like Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross, both of whom continue to support him.  They refused to support their own candidate for governor to keep Christie in power, since he was going to keep the flow of patronage going their way, and shield them from prosecution.  This is a mutually advantageous system where the grafters of both parties benefit and the rest of the state has to live with the higher tolls, inadequate mass transit, and slashed school budgets.

Of course, the average person, especially those outside of the tri-state area, are unaware of this.  They think Christie is a brash, earthy straight-shooter fighting for lower taxes and better government.  That narrative is a bald faced lie that shields a reincarnated machine boss and his authoritarian graft operation.  I am not sure how Christie thinks that he can act like an old school boss and also be president, but until more people with bigger voices than mine expose the real Chris Christie, his hustle will still keep paying off.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Baseball Artifacts For Winter Dreaming

Now that the new year has begun, I can start dreaming about baseball again.  I just picked up a used copy of a baseball game for my PS3, and have started to internally assess how the White Sox and Mets will do this season.  As if that wasn't enough, when my friend Brian came to visit this weekend he brought the gift of a box of assorted old baseball cards.  Even though they are commons, I love that I have cards from the 1960s in my possession, and enjoy comparing styles and designs.

I've said this before, but I have become inordinately attached to baseball in my middle age.  Its coming heralds the spring, and the hope I am allowed to feel before the season starts is a feeling I rarely allow myself in other aspects of my life.  I've been immersing myself in baseball ephemera now that the holidays are over and there's little else to look forward to during these coming, cruel months.  With that in mind, here are some baseball related things you might enjoy, too.

1975 Topps Dave Kingman
I found this card in the box my friend gave me, and it struck me immediately.  In the first place, I love the 1975 Topps design, with its bold colors, raised letters, and signatures on the photo.  This card strikes me especially because of Kingman's laconic expression, which seems to be saying "Do I really have to do this?"  It's particularly fitting for a player with a well-known difficult streak that he appears bored as he is being immortalized on cardboard.

The Sully Baseball Daily Podcast

I have become a big podcast fan, and I started listened to this particular podcast after seeing the moving video Sully put together over the All-Star break honoring major league players who'd died in the last year.  Sully talks baseball each day for about twenty or thirty minutes, and does so from a unique perspective.  He talks not as a journalist, researcher, or player, but as an articulate fan of the game.  During the season it was my preferred way to keep up on what was going on in the game, but in the off season it has been great to hear him talk about all kinds of aspects of the game, especially its history.  I found his podcast on New Year's Eve, when he called on baseball to take drastic action against fan drunkenness at games, to be particularly interesting.  How many other baseball commentators reference The Wire?

1984 Fleer Glenn Hubbard

Well, that's one way to make your baseball card more spirited.

Game 6 of the 1986 World Series Rendered In An Old Nintendo Game

This is one of the most brilliant things the internet has ever given to us.  Somebody recreated the famous game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and did so using the old RBI Baseball game for the original Nintendo.  The whole thing is synced up with Vin Scully's original call and is sublime in the kind of way that only people born between 1973 and 1977 can appreciate.

1988 Topps Record Breakers Eddie Murray

I loved the double vision effect of this card, especially since it commemorated Murray's unique feat of hitting home runs from both sides of the plate two games in a row.  Steady Eddie was always an underrated player who somehow managed to amass 500 homers and 3000 hits with as little fanfare as possible.  This striking card is a fitting tribute.

Wilford Brimley in The Natural

Wilford Brimley was born a grumpy old man, since he looks like he's already gone full codger in this film, even though he was still only in his forties.  This is one of my favorite baseball movies, not least because of Brimley's performance as the manager.  I can only aspire to be this crotchety.

1987 Topps Darryl Motley

I still remember seeing this card in one of the wax packs I bought with my lawn mowing money, and being weirded out by the "Now With Braves" on the photo.  Evidently he was traded so late in the season that Topps couldn't get a photo of him in the right uniform.

Chris Chambliss's Walk-Off Homer in the 1976 ALCS

When Chambliss hit this dramatic homer to put the Yankees in the Series, the fans stormed the field and made it impossible for him to touch home plate.  This giddy chaos could never happen today, and is one of the best examples of New York City's epic anarchy in the 1970s.  I hate the Yankees, but this clip still makes me happy.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Track of the Week: Fairport Convention "Meet On The Ledge"

This weekend I have been attending the American Historical Association's annual conference just across the river in Manhattan.  It's been good to swim in the scholarly world again, even if with all of its attendant bullshit.  The best part has been seeing all kinds of old friends again.  I know them from grad school and multiple jobs, and most have been flung to places far away from where I met them.  I like a lot of people I know now in this part of the country, but nothing can match the friendships formed in the crucible of graduate education and low-level academic work.  In both cases we were kind of an informal family, helping each other from babysitting to house moving to emotional support.

There are few songs out there that can describe this kind of friendship better than "Meet on the Ledge," by Fairport Convention.  It's one of guitarist Richard Thompson's first great compositions, written at the tender age of 17.  It's about the community of friends, and its strengths through the years and hard times that inevitably come.  You could also read it as a statement of how that community will live on somehow after we're all gone.  In the midst of seeing such wonderful people again this weekend I can hardly think of a more comfortable thought.