Sunday, June 28, 2015

Track of the Week: Elvis Presley "Promised Land"

I am on the road right now, my family and I taking an extended road trip out to my home state of Nebraska, with several stops in between to visit friends and family and to see new things.  There is little I love more than a road trip, and I have a few songs that always find their way onto the playlists I make for my trips.

Elvis Presley's cover of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" is one of them.  It's a song written while Berry was in prison on a Mann Act charge, describing a journey from Norfolk, Virginia, to Los Angeles, with stops in Birmingham, New Orleans, and Houston.  Berry is one of the great American exponents of the open road, and this song is especially poignant considering his yearning for the freedom of travel while behind bars.  Berry's version very much fits with his usual tried and true formula and is one of the better executed examples.

Elvis, of course, never wrote his own songs, but was masterful at interpreting other people's songs, with "Promised Land" no exception.  The song came out in 1974, and the album of the same title in 1975, perhaps the last really good one that Presley made before his death in 1977.  Elvis' version is updated for the 1970s with a funky feel and wah-wah guitar effects.  The studio musicians, recording at the great Stax studios really give it their all as they drive it on home.  Elvis also bends the words in interesting ways, I can never get over his clipped drawl when pronouncing "Los Angeles."  In Presley's version, the "poor boy" of the song is calling home to Virginia with some swagger.

I used to think of Elvis in his white jumpsuit years as a complete joke, turns out I was wrong.  The man sounds like he's having a blast with good material and crack musicians, it's a shame that he spent so many prime years of his career churning out godawful film soundtracks full of tunes written by low rent hacks.  Even in the mid-70s, when his powers had dimmed, he was still capable of something like this.  I'll be sure to put it on tomorrow as we drive over the Appalachians.

Friday, June 26, 2015

So Much Depends On a Green Ice Chest

The picture above is of a retro green Coleman ice chest (this is no mere cooler, folks) that my wife and I purchased right after our wedding.  I bought it in emulation of the one my family had going back to my earliest memories, a wonder of high-quality engineering that lasted my parents from the early 1970s into the 21st century.  When my father would take it out of the garage and hose it clean in the driveway I knew we were about to take a road trip.

Those road trips and vacations were some of the biggest highlights of my childhood.  My father especially cherished them as an escape from work and a chance to enjoy the open road and great outdoors, the two places he'd most like to be.  No matter how tight money was or how many balls my dad had to juggle at work, my parents made sure that each summer we took a bona fide vacation.  Since we lived in the middle of rural Nebraska and were heading for the mountains or desert anyways, we always drove and never flew.

My parents could be called cheap, but they would prefer "thrifty."  For example, we almost never ate out for lunch on vacations, but went to a park, rest area, or picnic area and ate lunch out of the big green ice chest.  This usually meant one slice of Oscar Meyer bologna with store brand mayo on supermarket bread so thin and light you could ball of a whole loaf in your fist.  Sometimes even the evening meal would be improvised in this fashion.  One of my earliest memories is of being in a motel room in Colorado Springs with my dad using a camp stove to warm up a can of pork and beans.  (Sounds like something out of a Tom Waits song, doesn't it?)

Now that I am older I realize that cutting corners like this allowed my family to afford to go to some beautiful destinations, from the mountains of Colorado to the wide visas of the Grand Canyon to the breezy shores of Lake Winnipeg.  I'm a little freer in my spending, so we won't be staying at dingy motels with shag carpeting full of toast crumbs from 1974, nor will I bar my children from drinking anything but tap water when we eat out.  When we do eat sandwiches they'll be with bread from an Italian bakery and top shelf lunch meat.  They'll still come out of a big green ice chest, though.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Need For A Civil War Memory Offensive

New York's Soldiers and Sailors Monument back when the living memory of the Civil War could visit it

If you travel to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and stroll along the paths in Riverside Park, you might come across two massive monuments to the Civil War: the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and Grant's Tomb.  The former is a towering structure honoring the Union troops who served in the war, a Beaux Arts beauty in its time that now looks awful today with cracks, weeds, and poorly covered-up graffiti.  Grant's Tomb has been cleaned up, but this gorgeous monument (built with the help of fund raising by the grateful African American community in New York City) is barely kept open by the National Park Service.  If you travel to the South, you'll notice that similar monuments to the Confederacy are kept in gleaming shape, and even battlefields managed by the National Park Service will have museums that include varieties of reunionist and even Lost Cause ideology.  (Surprisingly enough, the museum in Vicksburg is not like this at all.)

There has been a lot of needed discussion in the aftermath of the Charleston terror attack about the Confederate battle flag.  I think that discussion needs to be converted into a Civil War memory offensive.  Ignorant people have been free to believe that the flag is a benign symbol of "southern pride" because those who sympathize with the Confederacy have had an inordinate influence on public memory of the Civil War.  Just witness Shelby Foote's heavy presence in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, where he gave great praise to slave trader, war criminal, and Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.  It has been so from the beginning, where 1915's infamous A Birth of a Nation presented a racist interpretation of the war and Reconstruction, and 1939's Gone with the Wind valorized slave-owners.

Those who rightfully sympathize with the Union cause (or more appropriately, the American cause) need to amplify their voices.  Many historians of the Civil War (rather than reenactor hobbyists) have been engaging with the public, more need to follow their example.  Teachers need to teach not just the battles, but the larger political and social aspects of the Civil War, and ground its causes without any doubt in slavery.  (Historians should assist in making materials that do this that teachers can use.)  Modern day Unionists need to do more to honor their own monuments, memorials, and heroes.  (I'm a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates for many reasons, not least of which that he uses a photo of Grant as his Twitter avatar.)  Monuments like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument need to be repaired and used ceremonially.  (New York should also more formally memorialize the Draft Riots, but that's a whole other issue.)  In general, Reconstruction needs to be made much more legible to the public.  This crucial time in American history has been largely forgotten, and the few public narratives that exist still parrot a paler version of Birth of a Nation.

More importantly, many existing memorial sites related to Reconstruction and the Civil War need to be changed, and contemporary Unionists ought to fight for those changes.  For example, a friend of mine recently visited the site of the Colfax Massacre, a horrific act of violence perpetrated in 1873 by white supremacists against former slaves to destroy their political power.  This is what the state of Louisiana's official plaque looks like:

That's right, one of the worst incidents of lawless violence in this country's history is presented as a victory against tyranny.  It is absolutely disgusting that an event like Colfax is honored in this way.  This marker is only one of many valorizing white supremacy and its accompanying violence.  Yes, take down that traitorous, blood-soaked flag and burn it.  But also rip the historical narratives rooting that flag right out of the damn ground.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Has The GOP's Deal With The Devil Come Due?

Back when the Tea Party winds stared blowing back in the early parts of this decade, I wondered whether the Republican Party had signed a devil's bargain.  It was encouraging the support of fringe elements that had long been outside of the mainstream of American politics, all in order to benefit politically from the rising feelings of resentment among white people.

One such example is the Republican eagerness to put the grievances of the "open carry" movement into law, as just recently happened in Texas.  This is a movement that worships guns and views the Second Amendment as a protection against tyranny, as if the only thing standing between the status quo and a dictatorship is a bunch of dudes carrying AR-15's into the local Chipotle.  Voters who vote on gun issues tend to be highly motivated, so the Republicans are willing to break bread with armed vigilantes if it means electoral success.

The same goes for white nationalism, although the connections have been blurred more.  The continued Republican support for the official use of the Confederate flag (which was only shaken after the terror attack in Charleston), is a case in point.  The same goes for the lip service paid by Rick Perry and others to Texas nationalism, which in my experience is an idea limited almost completely to white Texans.  The anti-immigrant rhetoric and "show me your papers" laws in states like Arizona are based in a conception of the United States as a white man's country.  Sometimes the links between the "secure our borders" rhetoric and the ugly truth beneath those words gets exposed.  For example, it came out today that that Earl Holt III, the leader of Council of Conservative Citizens, has given campaign donations to multiple Republican presidential candidates.  In case you don't know, this organization was cited directly by terrorist Dylann Roof in his manifesto as instrumental in affecting his worldview.

Now this is not necessarily a case of Republicans actively seeking out the support of extremists.  Rather, they have been more subtle, in that they will take their money and promote policy positions that make those extremists happy.  Anti-immigrant legislation, voter suppression of people of color, and slashing programs that help Latinos and African Americans in poverty might be called "securing our borders, combating voter fraud, and welfare reform" officially, but everyone with eyes who can see understands that they are all policies that further white supremacy.  (Hence their popularity in large sectors of white America.)  The horrors of the Charleston killing, as well as the almost comical responses by many conservatives that downplayed any discussion of race, have highlighted just how beholden the Republican Party is to extremist elements.  In the wake of a racist terror shooting it must figure out how to spin its long-standing policies of no gun control and defending the flying of the Confederate flag.  It was easy to court extremist elements when no one was watching, now it will be much harder to hide.  Time will tell if this will actually result in any electoral change.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Track of the Week: Randy Newman "Short People"

Randy Newman seems to have a particular genius for writing two types of songs: warm catchy ballads for Pixar films and wickedly satirical songs sung from the point of view of horrible people.  The awful opinions expressed in order to be mocked are still bathed in the same exquisite melodies as in the Pixar tunes, making it hard for the casual listener to get the joke sometimes.  And occasionally the melody is so catchy, as with "Short People," that Newman could score a big hit with it.

The narrator of the song is obviously deranged in his hate of short people, mumbling about their "dirty little hands and dirty little minds."  This is similar to Newman's earlier "Political Science," where the narrator fantasizes about nuking the world and turning it into "one big American town" in a biting parody of American nationalism.  The earlier song was just as catchy as "Short People," but the lyrics were perhaps easier to decipher, which kept it from getting played on the radio.

I wonder if anyone got Newman's point when he released "Short People" in 1977.  While Newman likes to skewer bigots in this fashion, he also presents them as everyday people, wandering around the same world as you and I.  I've been thinking a lot about that in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, whose perpetrator has been revealed to be the kind of deranged bigot that Newman often sang about.  According to news reports, others knew about Roof's violent hatred and even his plans to act on it, and did nothing.  That tells me that they were either sympathetic to his general viewpoint, or that such feelings were so common as to not cause alarm.

As far as the latter goes, I have heard, when in "white spaces" some horrifically, violently hateful things over the years, and I am not talking about your garden variety prejudice.  I am talking about eliminationist sentiments, like the kid in high school who wanted to nuke Mexico, the bartender who wanted to "send them all back to Africa," and so many others.  The events in Charleston are proof that these hateful souls are not a joke, they have the potential to do truly terrible things.  While it can be satisfying to disarm bigots by laughing at them, we should never stop taking them seriously.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

We STILL Need To Talk About White Male Pathology

I woke up this morning to the horrific news of the terrorist shooting in Charleston.  Following the story today, I have seen yet again how the killer/terrorist is presented as an "isolated case" detached from larger society.  This is the way it tends to be with white men when they commit these acts.  The folks at Fox News are even spinning this as some kind of anti-Christian thing, despite the fact that the terrorist liked to sport apartheid symbols and justified his attack to one of the victims with noxious racism.  Many white people in this country are so afraid to admit the persistence of racism even when it has manifested itself in the most violent way possible.  If this is not an act of racist terrorism, what on earth is?

In the aftermath of the horror of the Newtown shooting I wrote about how America needed to confront the pathologies of white masculinity, and returned to the topic multiple times afterward.  A Slate article today provides a list of the many, many terrorist acts committed by racist white men in the last twenty years, a truly scary litany of murder and hate that most white people refuse to see as anything more than a set of unconnected "isolated incidents" with "lone wolf" perpetrators.  They will also likely blame "mental illness." as if someone cannot be both mentally disturbed and a terrorist.  Furthermore, they will not wonder why mentally ill white men often respond to their illness by murdering other people (often people of color) in large numbers, when other types of people don't.

For an illustration, take a foreign example, that of the xenophobic Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik (the president exaggerated today a little about the uniquely American nature of mass shootings.)  He murdered 77 people in a highly planned bombing and shooting spree all on political grounds as an enemy of the Left.  (He targeted a social democratic youth camp for reasons similar to Roof's targeting of a prominent and politically powerful African American church.)  Beyond his politics, Breivik fit the stereotype of the maladjusted, aggrieved loner.  The American media does not have a problem characterizing Breivik as a politically motivated actor.  Why then the reluctance to do so with Dylann Roof?  The answer is pretty simple, namely that it would raise all kinds of uncomfortable questions.

The fact that Roof presented himself online wearing patches of the apartheid regime flags of Rhodesia and South Africa is telling.  He was obviously "radicalized" at some point, since knowledge of those regimes' symbols isn't common among most American 21 year olds.  He didn't commit his act in just any predominately African American church, either.  He chose the church founded by black freedom fighter Denmark Vesey and pastored by Clementa Pinckney, an elected official who had called for mandatory police body cameras.  It is the first AME church founded in the south, and due to its history is a national landmark, official or not.  I can't imagine that a person who was aware of Rhodesia's history would not have been aware of the significance of this particular church.

Will the government start entrapping fellow white supremacists to pre-emptively get them in prison, just as they have with followers of radical Islam?  Will the government be committing psy-ops on white supremacist web pages and forums, as they do with Islamist ones?  Don't hold your breath.  The hatred Roof expressed to justify his shooting is very extreme, but sadly it is not rare.  Go to practically any traditional white barber shop in large swaths of this country for a day and you will likely hear a variation of it.  God knows I have.  It is an everyday hatred that is not taken seriously by many whites, just listen to Roof's roommate.  But don't worry folks, it's just an isolated incident by a quiet loner.  Move along, move along, and don't forget to keep buying stuff.


Here's what I wrote in 2012, most of it still sadly relevant:

Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework.  Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools.  We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things.  There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons.  However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.
Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student.  That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men.  I hardly think the connection is coincidental.  Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings.  I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.
Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control.  I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal.  That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America.  Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.
Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are.  When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront,  they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide.  Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did.
The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well.  Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill.  We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill.  They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in.  Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home.  While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.
We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives.  These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed.  When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst.  We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions.  We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks.  Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

2016 Will Be A Turnout War (And What That Will Mean)

Voters in long lines in Ohio in 2012.  Efforts to keep them from voting will only be more intense next year.

It's one of my great flaws, but I just can't get enough of the presidential election horserace, it's my favorite reality TV show.  Based on recent events, I am getting more and more of a sense of what the 2016 election will be, and know that no matter who gets the nominations, it will be a hard, brutal fight.

Hillary Clinton's launch speech made it clear that she is making major moves to attract the base of the party, distancing herself from the triangulation of the Clinton presidency.  She has made voter suppression an issue, and has proposed the bold idea of universal, automatic registration.  She has talked openly about income inequality in ways more reminiscent of the Democratic old time religion of FDR and LBJ.  I don't just think that this is a ploy to keep from getting outflanked on the left by Sanders in the primaries.  This is intended to get Democratic voters excited early so that they will be ready get out the vote in November of 2016.

Clinton has been criticized for following what looks like a targeted strategy to concentrate on swing states and not on "switching" red states.  This is another clue to her intention to win by getting Democrats to the polls.  It's the smart move, and while I have been long skeptical of Clinton's motives, she's always been smart.  In a polarized electorate, the only thing in the middle of the road is a dead skunk.  With "culture war" issues like weed and gay marriage trending more liberal, and public alarm over economic inequality rising, Clinton is looking to win voters with bread and butter progressive issues, rather than presenting herself as a moderate there to keep the extremes on both sides at bay.

While we can pretty much assume that the Democrats are going to nominate Clinton, but the Republican field is less clear.  If Jeb gets the nomination, turnout will really be key, because the Bush vs. Clinton matchup will not attract a lot of voters. Low turnout has been a benefit for Republicans in midterm elections, but that dynamic might not work with this matchup, since a lot of this low turnout will be due to conservatives staying home.  A Bush-Clinton redux, which no one wants, will be absolutely brutal.  It will lead to increased voter suppression efforts by Republicans, who are well aware of how they benefit by driving down turnout via voter ID laws and taking advantage of the kind of shenanigans we saw back in 2000 in Florida.  Keep in mind, Florida and Ohio have Republican governors who will ensure that voter lines are long in neighborhoods with lots of Democrats.

The money men who pull the strings for the GOP might just throw their chips behind Scott Walker, both because of his anti-unionism, but also due to his ability to attract evangelicals and Tea Party types.  If this election is about getting out the base without totally alienating the center, he might be their man.

It does seem useless to speculate about who the eventual Republican nominee will be.  Regardless of who it is, the 2016 election will be a desperate fight by the two parties to get their base to the polls, and one by Republicans to prevent as many Democrats from voting as possible.  2000 is looking less and less like an anomaly, and more and more like the new normal.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Track of the Week: Belle and Sebastian "I Know Where The Summer Goes"

People like to knock the suburbs, myself including.  However, now that I am living in suburbia I try to make the best of it.  One of the advantages to living here is being able to take a leisurely drive on a Saturday morning though leafy neighborhoods while I feel the summer breeze toss my hair about.  I was doing that yesterday while running some errands while listening to Belle and Sebastian's Push Barman To To Open Old Wounds rarities compilation.  It was a quietly sublime experience, especially when "I Know Where The Summer Goes" came on.

It's a low-key, quiet song with little organ swells and some yearning strings.  Stuart Murdoch sings it in his high, almost strained style, giving it a frail, human touch.  Despite coming from dark and rainy Scotland, I find Belle and Sebastian to be some of my favorite summertime music.  Its languid quality reminds me of a gentle wind blowing through the curtains on a sunny June day.  It also fits those aimless drives I love best, when I'm more interested in enjoying the scenes as they pass by than actually getting somewhere.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dusty Rhodes and Mid-80s Working Class Populism

Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive, a study of the white working class in the 1970s, is one of my favorite recent works of history, not least for his ability to weave in popular culture.  He ends his story, however, in 1984, seeing that year as marking a kind of end point for a white working class culture rooted in progressive populism.  I think he's mostly right, but there were still some glimpses of that progressive populism after '84.

I was reminded of that fact with the passing of Dusty Rhodes, who was big during the time when I watched pro wrestling most intensely (mid to late 80s).  At the time I was more interested in Hulk Hogan, Bruce "the Barber" Beefcake, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and the Ultimate Warrior, and didn't know much about Rhodes.  In the wake of his death I saw his famous "hard times" promo from 1985, and was transfixed.

I shit you not, this actually puts tears in my eyes.  Yes Rhodes is dressed outlandishly and sloppily at the same time, speaks in an odd lisp with street preacher slang and cadence, and has a scarred forehead beneath his ridiculous blond perm.  However, he speaks with real conviction and real experience about being a "plumber's son" who understands the plight of mill and auto workers losing their jobs.  The part where he puts his hand out and asks his viewers to touch the screen and give him the love he needs to defeat Ric Flair (who was Reaganesque in his flaunting of fancy suits and Rolexes) puts chills down my spine.  It was as if he was trying to channel all of the suffering experienced by working people in the 80s in order to defeat their tormenters

It might seem silly to cry at an usually large man with such a ridiculous appearance saying these things, but he was articulating something that the more "serious" figures at the time preferred to ignore.  Mario Cuomo's barn burning speech at the 1984 DNC is another good example of mid-80s working class progressive populism, but fewother politicians were speaking like this any more.  I am increasingly beginning to think that the ultimate triumph of neoliberal ideology actually came in the 1990s, rather than the 1980s.  Even in the height of the Reagan Era the old time working class ethos was still being openly expressed by everyone from pro-wrestlers to Bruce Springsteen.  In the 90s the Democratic Party basically turned its back on labor and embraced globalization and austerity, making neoliberalism the only game in town.

When, in future years, we look back to the past and name those who fought against the brutal triumph of unfettered capitalism, we just might be remembering a battle scarred pro wrestler who was a plumber's son.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Reagan Dawn Culture

Over the past few weeks I've been finding myself obsessed with the period between 1979 to 1981, which I think of as "Reagan Dawn."  This was augmented by my recent reading of Split Season, a book about the 1981 baseball season and its attendant strike by Jeff Katz and today's rewatching of Wet Hot American Summer, which attempts to recreate the feel of the time.

Why Reagan Dawn?  A particularly bad set of circumstances (Iran hostage crisis, oil shock, inflation, Soviets invading Afghanistan reheating the Cold War) helped get a Right wing ideologue elected president only sixteen years after Barry Goldwater went down in flames.  This was a time of swift backlash against organized labor (in the form of Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers), culture war fever (the Moral Majority was founded in 1979), and reheated nationalism (I'll get to that in a bit.)  It was a transitional period of time where the 70s malaise was at its worst, but the 80s neoliberal philosophy was coming into its own.

This time period also happens to be when I became aware of popular culture to the extent that I could participate in it.  I saw The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980 and I remember a kid who wore a "I shot JR" t-shirt.  There were a lot of important cultural moments in that era, but here are few I'd like to comment on, given their links to the political culture of the Reagan Dawn.

Disco Demolition Night

Disco was the dominant music of the mid-to-late 70s, but it also engendered a "Disco Sucks" backlash by rock fans.  While their animus cannot simply be chalked up to racism and homophobia, a good deal of it can.  That backlash achieved its peak in the infamous Disco Demolition Night that took place between two games of a White Sox double-header at Comiskey Park.  The explosion and ensuing riotous behavior by attendees left the field too wrecked to host the second game, which was forfeited.  This moment sees the confluence of eras.  The chaotic dope smoking 70s is on display here, but those shaggy haired rockers are engaged in a reactionary action worthy of the Reagan years.

The "Miracle on Ice"

This is likely the King Daddy moment of the Reagan Dawn.  Most Americans are pretty indifferent to hockey, but they certainly tuned in to see the American national team defeat the Soviet Union.  Portraying the powerful United States as some kind of weak underdog was a common theme during the Reagan Dawn, and no event allowed that narrative to unfold better than the Miracle On Ice.  I am still convinced that this game was a factor in winning the presidency, since Reagan used the newly amped-up nationalism to appeal to voters who would later be eviscerated by his economic policies.

Rock n Roll High School, Over the Edge, and The Warriors

These films, all from 1979, give you an idea of why the Moral Majority was so incensed.  They all show youth gone wild, blowing up their high school, attacking their parents, and joining gangs, respectively.  All treat drug use and sex as wallpaper to teenage life without any punishment for those who engage in once immoral behavior, while mocking authority figures. I get a thrill seeing this stuff, mostly since my teen years were the era of DARE and AIDS, and I thought sex or drugs would kill me.

Absence of Malice

Seven years after Nixon resigned in the wake of Watergate, crusading journalists become the villains, rather than the heroes in this film.  It's a perfect curtain-raiser for the Reagan era, when all those who wish to decry its injustices would be marginalized and defamed.

Corporate Arena Rock

The great rock acts of the 1960s mostly seemed to run out of gas in the mid-1970s, part of what motivated the whole punk movement.  It's easy to forget now with the benefit of hindsight, but the punks were at the fringe of the rock world.  At the center were faceless bands who, like corporations, were easier to identify by their logos than by pictures of their band members: Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Journey, Styx, et al.  All played well-produced music made for the radio, but pretty forgettable compared to the stuff going on in the New Wave and punk world.  Some 60s veterans even managed to be reborn in this mold, like Jefferson Starship, which included members of the seminal psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane.  Their 1979 hit "Jane" dropped any pretense of art and revolution for some ass kicking corporate rock backed by piano triplets a la Toto (which, fitting the vibe of corporate rock, was made up of session musicians.)  During this same period, the once wild and wooly world of FM radio rock stations became corporatized and bureaucratized, leading to uniformity of playlists.

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Beneath the Van Halen surface there was a lot of interesting music coming out during the Reagan Dawn, and much of it reflective of the era's changes.  This album, a one-off by David Byrne and Brian Eno, combined experimental music with field recordings of music and political and religious rants on AM radio.  The radio preachers are a sign of the Moral Majority times on songs like "Help Me Somebody," and the opening track "America Is Waiting" keeps repeating a newscaster's intonation of "America is waiting for a message of some sort or another," a mantra for the malaise of the late Carter years.

Kool and the Gang, "Celebration"

When I say "Reagan Era music" your mind might immediately jump to synthesizers and loud drum machines.  However, the first real specimen of Reagan music might very well be "Celebration" by a suddenly de-funkified Kool and the Gang.  It was #1 in February of 1981, right after Reagan's election and the return of the hostages from Iran.  It's the song that got played at every wedding and graduation and bar mitzvah in the 1980s, an empty, fun song about having a good time.  It's not a bad song, but a far cry from primal slabs of pure funk like "Jungle Boogie."  Like a lot of other people at the time, Kool and the Gang were wanting to put the past behind them and enjoy the present without thinking about the impact on the future.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Return of The History Wars, AP Edition

In the past few years the wars over how history is taught and presented in public have flared once again.  This is hardly surprising, since interpretations of American history have major implications when it comes to national identity and judging modern day policies and events.  A few years back Texas was in the headlines for rewriting history standards so that the curriculum pushed an essentially Right wing interpretation of American history, from implanting God in the Constitution to singing the praises of capitalism to renaming the slave trade "triangular trade" and placing a huge emphasis on "American exceptionalism."

Now the focus has shifted to the AP American history course more broadly.  Back in the 90s the big war in this regard was over the attempt by the NEH to formulate national history standards that reflected recent historical scholarship and rejected a nationalist interpretation.  Lynn Cheney (yes, that Lynn Cheney) organized an assault on the standards that led to them being condemned in a Senate resolution.  Those history standards bit the dust, but the AP curriculum has de facto become a national curriculum because those students wishing to take the AP test need to take AP classes with a curriculum that's the same in Texas and Massachusetts.  That new curriculum happens to reflect, like the 1990s standards, current scholarly work on American history.  More crucially, it treats America like it's any other country, and thus is not an exercise in building nationalism or "civics."  (If the AP is supposed to be a college-level class, I would expect nothing less.)

Apparently the people who mobilized against the NEH standards are just as incensed over the AP, judging by a letter signed by the likes of Victor Davis Hanson and, yes, Lynn Cheney.  The letter (which I will get to in a minute) follows condemnations of the AP curriculum in local school districts and even by the state legislature in Oklahoma.  Attacking it has become a cause celebre in right wing media circles, as evidenced by a Fox News segment recently.  Here is a long quote from the letter:

"The new framework is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to an bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that selfconsciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective. There are notable political or ideological biases inherent in the 2014 framework, and certain structural innovations that will inevitably result in imbalance in the test, and bias in the course. Chief among these is the treatment of American national identity. The 2010 framework treated national identity, including “views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism” as a central theme. But the 2014 framework makes a dramatic shift away from that emphasis, choosing instead to grant far more extensive attention to “how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities.” The new framework makes a shift from “identity” to “identities.” Indeed, the new framework is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how  students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be."
When it talks of narrative having once been the "chief glory" of historical writing, I'm confused because that has not been the language of historical scholarship since the 1960s.  We would be upset if we taught our science students methodologies from fifty years ago instead of what's used today by actual scientists, so why go back to the way history used to be done?  The whole jist of the letter is to complain that developments in the historical profession in the last fifty years are actually being taught to high school students, who ought to be learning a long dead consensus narrative intended to make them obedient citizens who won't question whether America actually lives up to its ideals.  They seem especially incensed by its transnational focus, which well reflects the current trends in the field, but also completely undermines the fatuous notion of "American exceptionalism."

Its hardly surprising that a racist like Hanson and a hardcore conservative like Cheney would want students to be taught a literally and figuratively whitewashed version of American history.  This idea that national history classes be a staging ground for nationalist indoctrination is hardly new, in fact it was the very motivation for their existence.  When France instituted compulsory education in the 1880s, it required French history, and one of that curriculum's architects claimed it was intended to "make French boys want to die for France."  Much of what has been taught in American schools since then was very similar in intent.

The History Wars are really a fight over whether students in American schools will actually learn America's history, warts and all, removed from any designation of the USA being "special" or "exceptional," or whether American history education will still continue as a tool for nationalist indoctrination and the denial of the unpleasant realities of the past.  If students learn and absorb this nation's history of racism, class stratification, gender inequality, and imperialism, it will certainly make them less likely to deny that those things exist in the present day.  That is why the History Wars matter, and why historians need to get out of the archives and universities and into the public sphere.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Track of the Week: MC5 "Sister Anne"

The MC5 were a legend to me before they were a band.  I read about their past exploits in music magazines as a teen, fascinated by their revolutionary politics and all of this talk about them having been one of the inspirations for the punk rock I enjoyed so much.  They were far enough under the radar, however, to not have any of their albums available at the local Musicland, the one record store in my hometown.  At age 17, on a trip to Omaha, I picked up a copy of their second album, Back In The USA, which had recently been reissued.  I really wanted Kick Out The Jams, which I'd heard was their most important.  (I knew the title song from a cover version on a Blue Oyster Cult live album a friend of mine had.)

Back in the USA wasn't bad, but it was not the earth-shattering experience I had been expecting.  On that same trip to that Omaha record store I picked up my first Velvet Underground album, which was indeed like having a spiritual ecstasy the first time I heard it.  Finally, when I was college, I got Kick Out The Jams, which was full of raw power and daring experiment, if a little hit and miss at times.  I chalked up the MC5 to being one of those groups who's really influential, but not necessarily that musically satisfying after you've heard all the bands who borrowed and improved on it.

Well, that's what I thought until many years later I finally heard "Sister Anne," off of the band's last record, High Time.  This was finally the legendary MC5 I'd heard so much about.  It's a seven minute song that feels about two minutes long, a time-bending feat accomplished through the persistent, killer riffs by Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith that just tear out of the speakers like wild tigers.  The song means business from the start with a fuzzy guitar figure that morphs into a gut-busting drum break with the bass guitar punching along in time, adding extra weight.

The subject matter is also fascinating.  It's a about a badass nun who "doesn't give a damn about revolution" and is "a liberated women who's got the solution."  Nuns aren't exactly the type of people you expect to think of as the subject of a rip-roaring Detroit rock bonfire.  Considering all the restrictions and crap that the Vatican has been throwing at nuns around the world who fight every day for social justice, they more than deserve such a dedication.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Cranky Bear On Tenure's Long Slow Death

Editor's Note: My rather impolitic friend Cranky Bear has come out of hibernation with a vengeance this year.  It's a Friday night here and I am tired, I thought I'd let him have a turn again.

Cranky Bear here, with a hoppy summer beer in my hand and righteous indignation burning in my heart.

The academic world is abuzz this week with the news that the state of Wisconsin seems poised to effectively eliminate tenure in its state university system.  This is coming on the heels of a major cut to the state university system's funding, and I am willing to bet that the tenure elimination is an attempt to make sure that the funding cuts bring about massive layoffs of professors, rather than tuition hikes to make up the difference.  People like Scott Walker want state universities to become glorified vocational schools producing obedient workers smart enough to do the menial knowledge tasks of the new economy, but too ignorant to be able to question the system.  (George Carlin basically nailed it right before his death.)

Walker basically got away with destroying collective bargaining rights, and then a bunch of other Republican governors jumped on the bandwagon and did the same thing.  If he succeeds in kneecapping tenure and shared governance, you can bet your ass that the likes of Mike Pence and Rick Scott are going to do the same damn thing, and that administrators around the nation will be falling all over themselves to put their faculties in their place.

Here's the deal, though.  Tenure is already mostly in the grave anyway.  For the huge numbers of adjuncts and other non-tenure track academics, it never existed in the first place.  For forty years now universities have hired a growing army of employees who have been told that they don't need (or deserve) tenure.  Honestly, who the fuck is going to listen to tenured scholars when they defend their privileges when they have been complicit in a system that denies this supposedly essential right to their own co-workers?

Obviously I'm not blaming those with tenure, or at least not mostly blaming them.  The neoliberal onslaught has consistently pushed universities to "be more like a business" with predictably wretched consequences.  Just like the supposed "talent elite" (that phrase makes me puke) in other fields, university administrators make more an more money, while the grunt workers make do with lower pay, fewer benefits, and a general climate of fear to keep them in line.  Adjuncts, visitors, and lecturers have experienced the worst of this, having practically no job security or respect.  Now the protected are about to lose their protection.

Think of it this way: the grand edifice of tenure began to slowly rot four decades ago, but nobody seemed to notice who wasn't being actively fucked over by that system.  Year by year by year the rot kept creeping in more and more and more, with those lucky enough to have tenure looking at the contingent laborers drowning around them thinking "there but for the grace of God go I."  Or at least they thought that if they actually paid the plight of contingents any mind.  Now the whole thing has gotten so rickety that a couple of good smacks from a legislative hammer can have the whole crumbling structure come crashing down to earth.  That is exactly what's going on in Wisconsin.

And you know what?  It makes me sick to my fucking stomach.  Good ole Cranky Bear has long since ambled his way out of academia to greener pastures, but I have many friends who still reside in its walls.  These are amazing people who are smart as hell and bust their asses to reach their students.  They have endured the indignities of a wretchedly tight job market, they have been furloughed by conservative politicians, and they have faced years without pay raises.  They are so talented and do so much, yet their efforts are met with so much derision and hostility.  The message of Wisconsin's government to these good people is "you are expendable."  It is a job where one is forced to live wherever one can find work and make a helluva lot less money than many other professions that require a lot less brainpower and work.  It used to be the case that scholars accepted these things, but knowing that they would get security and respect in return.  Now they are being given neither.

As horrible as this is, let us not pretend we didn't know the die was cast a long time ago.  It was easy for so many to turn their heads and pretend they didn't see the exploitation that surrounded them, now tenured and untenured will be cooking in the same pot, in solidarity at last as they are consumed and shat out by the great neoliberal Moloch.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Whither Triangulation?

Adam Kotsko tweeted this recently:

He was referring to the "triangulation" strategy practiced by both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s.  In both cases they positioned themselves between the left wing of their own party and the right wing opposition, calling on those in the middle to join them.

That got me thinking about the future of this methodology since, as Kotsko states, it inherently means slagging your own base.  I am beginning to think that the Democrats' days of triangulation may soon be coming to an end.  The party has consistently failed to come through for its most loyal voters, and those voters are getting fed up.  African-Americans have been an exceptionally loyal voting block, but they also suffer disproportionately from mass incarceration, a policy that Democrats are very complicit in supporting.  Teachers and teachers unions have long supported the Democrats, but Democratic politicians have paid them back with "reforms" that vilify teachers and treat them like garbage (see: Emmanuel, Rahm.) The labor movement generally has been a backbone of the Democratic party, and the president they helped elect is pushing on yet another free trade agreement.

These are the reasons for the apparent enthusiastic reception in some corners of the party for Bernie Sanders' campaign.  He is actually campaigning openly for the things that progressives actually believe in.  I think base of the party has gone thirsty for so long that Hilary Clinton can't triangulate her way out of this.  They Dems have been losing midterm elections due to low turnout, when getting the base to the polls especially matters.

This begs the question, however, if the Republicans can incorporate the triangulation strategy successfully.  I actually think they can, and here's why.  In the first place, most voters do not care for the Tea Party, making it easy for a relatively moderate Republican to run against the base of their own party.  Second, if the Democrats nominate Clinton (as they likely will), the hatred for her among the Tea Party base will be so great that they will temporarily forget their objections to the likes of Jeb Bush.  If Clinton is forced to run to the left (which I think she will), that will make triangulating against her all the easier.

In fact, I would say that triangulation is potentially the one way that the Republicans can retake the White House.  They are a party so dependent on their fickle, extremist base that any candidate who wants to win the primary has to subscribe to views that are anathema to a great many moderate voters.  If a less extreme candidate like Bush can manage to get the nomination without kow-towing to the conservative wing, they might finally have an opportunity to grab the middle, especially if Clinton is pushed to the left.  I still think that the conservative base is still so extreme and powerful that no moderate (or relatively moderate) Republican candidate for president will make the jump and take the risk on triangulating.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Requiem For A Video Store

Today brought the very sad news that That’s Rentertainment! is closing its doors.  It is that rarest of places, an independent video store. While it might be tempting to just be happy that such an institution managed to last as long as it did, and even outlast the Blockbuster locations in Champaign-Urbana, such facts are cold comfort for me.

That’s Rentertainment! was a major part in an unofficial, independent study course I took in graduate school.  There were no professors or seminars, just the films at Rentertainment and my curiosity.  They pretty much had anything you would want, including stuff you didn’t know ever existed.  I still remember walking in for the first time and seeing an entire wall of French film (all on glorious VHS, of course.)  This included bootleg copies of films that did not have official release, especially  suppressed music docs like C***sucker Blues and Let It Be.

It was a small place, cramped and labyrinthine in order to fit the amazing stock of movies.  It was very common for me to run into friends there and chit chat, or ask one of the clerks for a recommendation.  During my five years in Champaign-Urbana I would commonly go there two, three times a week, sometimes not even renting anything, but just enjoying the space.

We are living in a world where spaces like this are fast fading away.  The record store in campustown, Record Service, closed while I was a grad, though at least Exile On Main Street opened in downtown Champaign.  The little diner in my Urbana neighborhood was forced to shut its doors to make way for a parking lot expansion at the court house.  Pages For All Ages, the local independent book store, also went under.  If these institutions can’t survive in a college town with a massive student body far from the box stores of the suburbs, where can they survive?

Considering all the bad that is going on in the world, it might seem silly to lament the passing of a video store in a town where I haven’t lived in nine years.  I think of it more as a lament for the society we live in, one where corporate entities crowd out independent businesses that actually offer a higher quality experience.  That’s Rentertainment! had stuff you would never find even on Netflix, and you didn’t have to wait two days for it to come in the mail, either.  I don't know how many times I've watched something on Netflix streaming I really wasn't all that interested in merely because I couldn't go out and get the movie I truly wanted to see.  

We increasingly live and congregate in cyberspace, and our real lived environments are getting ever more alienating as they paradoxically get more bland.  I have  a feeling that this trend is far from over, especially because most people seem to think this narrowing of options is actually progress.