Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fort Campus

Today University of Cincinnati campus cop Ray Tensing was indicted for the murder of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed African American man that he shot in the head during a traffic stop.  The continued litany of black people killed by the police, whether directly like DuBose or more indirectly like Sandra Bland, is this nation's greatest shame.

Strikingly, this killing was done by a campus police officer off campus.  It reminded me of college campuses I've been affiliated with that had a heavy police presence, where the school seemed to relate to the surrounding neighborhoods like a fortress in hostile territory.  For example, my undergraduate institution sat right between downtown Omaha and the city's north side ghetto.  The police presence on campus was very apparent, although I mostly saw the cops issuing parking tickets.  Nevertheless, I felt like the school was very deliberately trying keep the mostly black local population from setting foot on campus.

The show of force was even greater when I was at the University of Chicago for my master's degree.  I would commonly see UChicago police patrolling off campus, and had heard through the grapevine that most of them were off-duty CPD cops earning extra money.  While there was a high level of street crime in Hyde Park when I lived there (I know multiple people who were threatened with knives and guns during robberies), I've seen robust campus police in the sleepiest of locations.  Campus cops were everywhere when I taught in a small East Texas town, and as faculty salaries were frozen, the massive police force maintained its outsize position.

The fact that so many college campuses feel like fortresses is telling.  It is part of a larger trend in America where social inequality is accepted and dealt with through force and violence.  Rather than trying to increase the life chances for all, our society builds walls and arms sentinels to keep what were once called the "dangerous classes" in the Gilded Age from getting inside the havens of the more fortunate.  Ray Tensing felt so empowered in this role that he pulled over Samuel DuBose even though he was off campus, and tried to make an arrest for what should have been simple traffic citations.  Yes, he appears to be a particularly violent and murderous officer, but our system apparently finds it fit to employ such people to defend college campuses.  As long as white America persists in building its fortresses and arming them to the teeth, more tragedies like this will keep happening.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes On A Game At AT&T Park

I am currently at Stanford University doing a week-long seminar, and on Monday decided to trek to San Francisco to see a Giants game at AT&T Park.  I am one of those weirdos who actually enjoys going to baseball games alone from time to time.  A good ballpark is like a good bar, you're bound to find good company if you make an effort.  As cool as some of my compatriots here at the seminar have been, I also wasn't too keen on wrangling others to come along anyway.  I didn't want the pressure of pushing through awkward conversation or having to come to decisions collectively about tickets and the like.  I just wanted to go to church, so to speak.

I strolled up to the ticket window in the first inning (I was late getting to my train) and got a ticket in the upper deck, knowing that being my first time in a new ballpark that I would be wandering around some.  When I got there high above the third based line, I knew I was lucky.  As is usually the case in the cheap seats, I was surrounded by families.  Nothing ruins a ballpark experience more than dealing with drunken assholes (more on that later.)  Since they (usually) don't have their kids in tow, they don't have to worry about affording four tickets, and can thus by something closer to the action.  One of the families were from North Carolina, possessed of a euphonious twang and friendly disposition.  They chatted throughout the game with the folks around them, who were more than happy to oblige.  (I was included in some of these conversations, which included Steve Smith's ability to demolish the Chicago Bears.) I sat next to a working class Latino man with his family who immediately talked baseball to me without any pretense or introduction.  That instant connection is one of the great things about going to a baseball game in the right circumstances.

For the first inning or so I was actually too awestruck to make conversation with anyone.  I have been to several ballparks, but none situated like this one.  Up high in the upper deck I got an amazing view of the San Francisco Bay, where I could see the big ships moving in and out, their lights reflecting on the water.  I would have paid the price of my ticket just to sit there without a baseball game.  The cool breeze started coming off of the bay, which felt immaculate after a week of scorching heat on the East Coast.  That breeze added to the feeling of surreality I've always had when visiting California.  It is a place that exudes newness and a sense of impermanence built on lofty dreams.  Rebuilt after the 1908 earthquake, San Francisco is a product of the 20th century, not the 19th like the big cities of the East, Midwest, and South.  New York too draws people from around the world, but in California it always feels like they don't just come for opportunity, but to slough off their past selves.  That's my perception, at least.

After the sixth inning I got up at started walking around the park.  I have been to a lot of ballparks, but none beat this one when it comes to the concourses. I could look right behind me over the bay if I wanted to, or look the other direction at the action on the field.  The ballpark food was also great, and I ate the best chicharones (fried pork skins) of my life that night.  After exploring the concourse I looked for an entrance to the lower deck not guarded by an usher, and found one on the third base side.  After the 7th inning I took my chance and traded up to the lower level.

Seeing the game on the lower level was a bit of an adjustment, everything suddenly seemed so near.  Before the 9th inning they played "Lights" by Journey, an ode to San Francisco, and everyone sang along and swayed.  In that moment I felt jealous that I was only visiting.  It also reminded me that a good baseball stadium will somehow find ways to draw people together in a community.

The only real blip was a dude sitting two rows ahead of me.  He had a baseball glove on his hand, marking himself as a humongous tool, since nobody over the age of 12 should be bringing a glove to a game, especially in a non-foul ball zone like the one I was sitting in.  He kept spitting tobacco juice into the aisle, and when anything happened in the game, would stand up and stagger into the aisle (he was obviously drunk) even though the elderly people sitting right behind him could then not see a damn thing on the field.  They were too feeble to keep standing up themselves, but did not contact any ushers or police.  It was a sad reminder that the assholes who ruin the fan experience for others are so often allowed to act with impunity.  Soon enough, however, Sergio Romo managed to close things out and have us walking to the exits.  Afterwards I felt calm, rested, fulfilled.  There's nothing like going to the ballpark.


Here are all the ballparks I've been to, ranked best to worst:

1.  Wrigley Field
It's different now with all the electronic doo-hickeys, but when I used to go there it was just pure baseball.  It's a truly beautiful place to see a game, and it transports you out of the daily grind in ways that other parks don't.

2.  AT&T Park
The view alone puts this park at the top.  There is no other ballpark situated in a better location.

3.  Camden Yards
This park is absolutely beautiful, and has a timeless element that makes it feel like something much older than the 1990s.

4.  Old Yankee Stadium
It was getting to be a bit of a dump when I went there, but man oh man did it have atmosphere.  The presence of the ghosts of the past was palpable.

5.  Kaufmann Stadium
This is where I saw my first major league game.  It is the paragon of the second wave of baseball stadiums, functionalist but still beautiful.

6.  Citi Field
While the design is not exciting, this park does the basics very well, from food to the availability of restrooms.

7.  Minute Maid Park
It is way too small, but it does have its own character, from the flagpole in center to the retractable roof.  The stadium has a nice intimacy to it.

8.  US Cellular Field
While I love the Sox, their stadium is a non-descript "ball mall."  At least the food and concourses are great.

9.  Turner Field
Pretty uninspiring, but at least the tickets are cheap (but not for long.)

10.  The Ballpark at Arlington
It looks better on TV than it is real life, which is the Dallas area in a nutshell.

11. Old Busch Stadium
Boring cookie-cutter stadium with bad sight lines.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Track of the Week: Buck Owens, "San Francisco Town"

I arrived at Stanford University today for a weeklong seminar.  I'm pretty excited about it, especially because I've never been to the Bay Area before.  As a young child growing up in the windswept plains of Nebraska, I developed from popular culture fascinations with two cities: New York and San Francisco.  I am now, of course, intimately familiar with New York, but never had the chance/time/money to get out here until now.

While there are a lot of great artists from this part of the country, my track of the week is from someone from outside the area singing about it.  Country great Buck Owens was the pioneer of the "Bakersfield Sound" in the 1960s, but actually had more broad musical interests than you would think.  In the early 70s he put out a fantastic album mostly of folk and rock covers called Bridge Over Troubled Water. (His version of the title track also happens to be quite good, as is this amazing cover of Dylan's "Love Plus One-No Limit.")  It showed his interest in the kind of music they didn't play on the Grand Ole Opry, and it might be my favorite of his albums.

There are a lot of songs written about the glories of San Francisco, from Journey's cheesy "Lights" to Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart In San Francisco."  Owens' "San Francisco Town" is different because its story is not just a celebration or statement of homesickness.  It is sung from the point of view of a member of the flower power generation down on his luck, homeless, and looking for a bite to eat.  Despite his desperate condition, he still pledges his love for San Francisco.  He seems to say that he loves the place so much that he's willing to put up with being down and out.  Not sure myself if the city is worth the hype, but looking forward this week to finding out.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Star Wars Universe Movies I'd Like To See

I still can't get over the fact that Disney is going to be putting out a Star Wars film every year, mostly since it offers endless possibilities for playing around in that universe.  What I really want to see are films that deviate from conventional action/adventure tropes and use the Star Wars world as a place to tell new kinds of stories.  Here's a a few I would want to see.

The Eyes of Obi-Wan
The greatest failure of the prequels may actually be in their very conception.  Making the story about Anakin's turn to the dark side was a huge mistake, in that he is not an easy character to empathize with, and that his turn simply is not enough to drive a three-film series.  Going into the prequels, I was much more interested in Obi-Wan's role.  As I have written about before, he is an extremely compelling character, someone whose failures haunt him but at the end of his life sees a way to make it good again.  For that reason I would love to see a Bergman-esque art film along the lines of Wild Strawberries where the old Obi-Wan is living as a hermit on Tatooine, contemplating his past.  Most of the film would be flashbacks, which would be a great way to retell the story of the prequels from a much more interesting perspective.

Binary Souls
I would really love the new Star Wars films to stretch out when it comes to genre.  Why not a romantic comedy?  In the binary-sun based Tschugarin System a freighter pilot's ship breaks down, and he meets cute with the tough-talking proprietor of a cantina.  They fall in love and match wits, but will he stay on the planet, will she fly with him to new worlds, or will they go their separate ways?  (I see this as a bit of an intergalactic Before Sunrise.)

Many Bothans Died
I'd also love to see a Star Wars-based spy thriller.  This film would tell the story of intrigue and bravery around the Bothan spies who managed to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the Empire's bureaucracy and confiscate the plans to the second Death Star.  Intrigue abounds as the Bothans fear a double agent in their midst whose machinations lead to several of them dying.

White Helmet
The odd thing about the Star Wars films are that none of them are war movies, proper.  I would like to see an All Quiet on the Western Front-style anti-war film made in the Star Wars universe.  This one would follow a squad of storm troopers who become increasingly traumatized and embittered after years of fighting.  This would be a no-holds barred picture, portraying things like summary executions of Jawas and the Empire's "take no prisoners" policy in regards to irregular war against the Rebels.  It would also serve to humanize the storm troopers a bit, which would change the moral calculus of the original films in interesting ways.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Donald Trump In Historical Perspective

Being a historian I tend to look at what's going on in the news from a broader perspective informed by past events.  After all, the present is nothing if not the direct product of the past.  I've had Donald Trump on my mind, for obvious reasons, and I think his surprising lead in the presidential primary polls is interesting from a historical point of view.

Using what we know of the past forty years of history, Trump's popularity might not actually be that surprising.  Since Watergate American political culture has favored "outsiders" who are critical of a system that I think the majority of Americans has simply lost trust in (including a great many people who despise Trump.)  Trump has been attacking the political process itself, and his harsh ad hominem words for John McCain and Lindsey Graham thus make him more, not less popular.  By being cruel to them he is channeling the rage of the Tea Party against mainstream Republicans and Washington in general.  Unlike career party politicians, Trump is free to be as nasty as he wants to be, so he can say things that would destroy the careers of others.

Furthermore, Trump is keying into the political language and style of conservative talk radio, which has been a massive force for the past thirty years.  Rank and file right wingers who are used to fire-breathers like Savage and Limbaugh must be warming to Trump's crass bluntness.  (Even the likes of Ted Cruz have to limit themselves in their speech.)  The Right wing media has become powerful over time in framing the news and even the basic political frameworks of conservatives (I know this just from discussions with family members).  While Fox and right wing talkers openly espouse racial resentment and xenophobia, politicians to be respectable have to resort to dog whistles and euphemisms.  They say things like "upholding the law" and "securing the border."

Donald Trump doesn't do any of that, which is why his naked appeals to anti-immigrant hatred make him more, not less popular.  This is why his Birther beliefs didn't get him discredited for life.  He is just openly saying what a lot of conservatives already think.  The Republican party leaders are like the sorcerer's apprentice.  They have called into being a Tea Party that helps get their legions of voters to the polls, but now it has been exploited by a man who is totally outside of their control.  This simply could not have happened forty years ago.

Beyond all that, I have long thought that Trump was the cultural avatar of the spirit of post-Reagan America.  In the time of Andrew Carnegie wealth was accumulated in huge amounts by a small few, but Carnegie himself shamed rich men who flaunted their wealth in empty spending and failed to fund institutions for the public.  The robber barons of the day stole and exploited, but they gave us parks, libraries, and universities.  After the Depression and New Deal the crass wealthy were even more despised.  That egalitarian spirit lasted at least forty years.  As neo-liberalism began to raise its ugly head in the late 70s and its avenging angel Reagan took control of the White House, cultural values around wealth began to change.  Getting rich was celebrated, more than ever, as an end in itself.  The notion that wealth came with responsibility completely flew out the window.  Trump went from being a real estate mogul to a celebrity in this time, flaunting both his wealth and his complete and utter selfishness.  Never mind that he inherited his father's business, he became the new "self-made man."

Generally in our culture, but especially in conservative circles, it has been an article of faith that the wealthy (or "job creators") are true geniuses who know what's best for the country, and that politicians can't be trusted (not that that's not true.)  Our culture has only become more celebrity and wealth obsessed as the years go on.  Trump has a combination of money and celebrity that no one else can match, along with the ability to speak the political language that hardcore conservatives listen to for hours on a daily basis.  Perhaps his recent political success should not surprise us.

Monday, July 20, 2015

More Vintage Beer Ads

Now that it's summertime I've got too much time on my hands to look at old commercials from my youth on YouTube.  I find beer commercials especially compelling, since they are selling vice, and in the case of mass produced American beer, vice that tastes like goat pee.  It might seem hard to think of drinking an Old Milwaukee as something glamorous, but oh how the beer companies and ad agencies try.  I did a similar post awhile back, here's another one.

Busch Beer

"Head for the mountains" indeed.  You'll want to run for the hills after tasting Busch's bouquet of wet cardboard and wood chips, a flavor that recalls my college dorm before I was 21 and could acquire quality brew of my own.  This commercial also shows how companies were all about rugged outdoorsmen in 80s beer ads.  Joe Blow sitting on his couch after a day of mindless labor downing can after can of Busch evidently had dreams of riding the range and roping cattle.

Dave Cowens and Bob Lanier for Miller Lite

In the early days of light beer, brewers worried that the stigma of a "diet" product would make it hard to sell to men concerned about their masculinity.  (They should have been concerned about their taste buds, but oh well.)  Miller got around that by putting a bunch of ex-jocks in their commercials. Some of the ads back then flummoxed me because these were athletes of the 1960s and 1970s, not of the 80s.  I did learn from this commercial's use of silly puns that Bob Lanier had the biggest feet in the NBA.

Classic Rock in Miller Genuine Draft

Beer ads in the late 80s and early 90s tried to sell their swill to young hetero men by promising their product's ability to attract hot babes.  In this ad a group of guys happens to be wandering through the Gulf Coast bayou when they see a group of totally hot babes.  Unfortunately, the ladies are surrounded by deadly alligators.  Never mind, the guys crack open their bottles of MGD, and the swamp freezes, leaving them free to party with some pretty women.  Not only is this genre of commercial extremely sexist, showing women as passive objects there for the taking, it also incorporates and bastardizes Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," turning its mighty riff into a commercial jingle.

Budweiser Clydesdales Play Football

Budweiser in the 90s loved using critters to sell ads, presumably to hook in children to the brand.  (The Budweiser frogs certainly fit in with that mission.)  In this ad the Budweiser clydesdales -the brand's original critters- play a game of football with each other in front of the Rocky Mountains.  (There's those mountains again.)  It ends with a silly joke and says nothing at all about the beer.  I guess Budweiser is just being honest and admitting that its product is nothing they can believably advertise on its own merits.

Coors Light Is "The Right Beer Now"

This right here ladies and gentlemen may perhaps be the most 80s-tastic commercial ever made.  Behold neon patterned shorts!  Poofy hair reaching to the stars! Horribly over-emotive singing over a lame butt rock song!  Gaze upon this if you dare.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Track of the Week: Rod Stewart "Gasoline Alley"

Track of the Week has been on hiatus for a couple of weeks owing to my time on the road.  While traveling my mind was engaged so much in the sights and sounds of my trip that I wasn't all that engaged with music.  The fact that I was pretty much forced to listen to whatever would make my children happy or put them to sleep didn't really help all that much, either.

I've been thinking a lot about early Rod Stewart music due to a book project I'm working on (details will follow if it turns into anything), and I am still blown away by how good his first four albums were.  I've been telling this to people for years, many of whom push away my evangelism, unable to believe that the man who gave the world dreck like "Love Touch" could possibly once have been great.

Perhaps you will turn me away too, but I shall shake digital dust from my cyberfeet at your door, because I am on a mission to make the world hear.  You may be skeptical, but you must not dismiss me until you have listened to "Gasoline Alley."  It's the title track of his second album, and exemplifies his unique sound at the time.  Stewart took folk music but amped and rocked it up with the rollicking spirit of the Faces, the band he fronted at the time.  This was not the folk music tradition of dour protest songs, but the folk music tradition of the hoe down and Irish jig.

It's a beautiful song with a pretty acoustic guitar line backed both by traditional instruments like mandolin and less traditional electric slide guitar courtesy of Ron Wood.  It's a song sung from the perspective of an older person who lives far from the neighborhood where he was born and raised.  He's thinking back fondly to where he came from, and pleading not to die and be buried where he lives.  Now do you have the spirit?  Now is the revelation made plain to you?  If not, and you doubt that Rod was once great, then you have a heart of stone.

Going home to Nebraska put this song in my mind.  Somewhere in Oklahoma the trees suddenly faded away and the sky opened wide, stretching instantly from horizon to horizon.  Tears started welling up in my eyes, since I had just passed into the Great Plains, the land of my birth.  It's a place I don't particularly want to live in again, but I hate being so far away from it.  Whenever I hear this song, it reminds me of how far away the land of my birth is from me, and how I wish I could go back more often.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Star Wars Films, Ranked

The Star Wars Minute podcast just recently finished their last episode on the original trilogy, and I am missing the hosts' daily dissection of the Star Wars films.  (In case you don't know, they went through the films one episode per minute each weekday.)  One question they ask all of their guest hosts is what order, best to worst, they put the six films in.  Here's my take with explanations, and I am sure my friends out there will have their own.

1.  The Empire Strikes Back

Deciding between number one and number two is incredibly difficult.  A friend in college used to always say that Star Wars (I will NOT refer to it as A New Hope) was the only one of the three films to be its own complete, self-contained story, and hence the best.  There are a lot of reasons I am putting Empire first, however, but the biggest ones are totally subjective and personal.  This was the first Star Wars film I saw, and one of the first films period that I saw in the theater.  It completely blew me away like no other film has since.  I spent the next three years of my life occupying its mental universe through toys and make-believe games with my friends, with coloring books and drawings.  It I was three years older, I guess Star Wars might well be number one for me.

Besides my personal attachment, Empire has many uniquely great elements.  The battle on Hoth with the AT-ATs is spectacular, Yoda is introduced, Luke and Vader's lightsaber duel is the best of them all, etc.  Beyond the spectacle, there is a much greater emotional pull with this film than with the others.  The romance between Han and Leia is affecting, Luke's struggles to learn the Force are fascinating, and Vader's revelation to him after cutting off his hand is probably the most visceral moment in any family-oriented blockbuster film ever made.  A great deal of this is down to the fact that while Lucas produced the film, he let others do the things he was not good at.  Irwin Kershner directed, and had a better talent for coaxing the actors than the infamously detached Lucas.  The dialogue was handled by Lawrence Kasdan, who could take the romantic elements and make them work.  (Contrast this with the dialogue in the prequels.)  Even much of the production was handled by Gary Kurtz.  Even though the film ends on a cliffhanger and isn't a full story, it's still my favorite.

2.  Star Wars

Star Wars is a very, very close second place.  For better or for worse, it will go down in history as one of the most influential films ever made.  I've been watching a lot of the sci-fi movies of the 70s that preceded it, and so I can't imagine how audiences reacted when they saw the first shots of the giant Star Destroyer coming across the screen.  Nothing like it had ever come before.  When I watch it now, after years of immersing myself in cinema, I am amazed at its editing and pacing.  It moves extremely quickly without feeling rushed in any way.  The film is just over two hours long, but you barely notice it.  As the Star Wars Minute hosts pointed out, the end attack on the Death Star is so suspenseful that even after having seen it innumerable times, I still wonder if Luke can pull it off.  I watched the de-specialized version of the film awhile back, and was amazed at how rooted in the 1970s it looked.  Something about it seems less timeless than Empire.

3.  Return of the Jedi

For awhile I tried to tell myself that Revenge of the Sith was better, then I recently rewatched Jedi and realized I was being crazy.  The Ewoks are actually in it a lot less than you would think, and three-sided ending (Endor battle, assault on Death Star, and Luke matching wits with the Emperor) is masterfully done.  Essentially, the beginning with Jabba's palace is great, and the ending inspiring, but a lot of what is in-between doesn't work as well.  It's telling that Gary Kurtz is not involved, since he had wanted to push this into the darker emotional territory of the preceding film.  Instead of Luke walking into the sunset while Leia tries to sort out the political aftermath, we get singing Ewoks, smiling Force ghosts, and Lando clapping off-beat.  Because of Lucas' spat with the Director's Guild, he was not able to hire Stephen Spielberg (holy shit that would have been amazing) but British TV director Richard Marquand instead.  The director was evidently a bit of a yes man, meaning that unlike with Empire, no one was there to put Lucas in check.  That said, the film is still a delight, and I still can't bear to watch when the Emperor is shooting force lightning at a pleading Luke, and I still get emotional when Vader takes his mask off.

4.  Revenge of the Sith

This is by far the best of the prequels, which is like saying that Coors is the best of the big three domestic brewers.  It's better than the competition, but it's still Coors.  I still remember seeing this in the theater, and during the last third I felt a feeling I had not felt years, something I'll call that Old Star Wars Magic.  I was briefly transported to being a child in the old downtown movie house seeing the originals for the first time.  There is real, actual emotion in places, especially in the duel between Obi-Wan and Vader, and in Vader's grotesque fate.  That said, other elements are just crap.  Anakin's transformation into Vader seems too abrupt.  Amidala's death by "broken heart" is silly.  What could have been an amazing adventure by Obi-Wan and Bail Organa to protect the Skywalker children lasts about one minute.  These were all moments I had been waiting to see on film since I was a child, and while they were done maladroitly, they were done well enough for me to get that special twinge again.

5.  The Phantom Menace

Deciding the worst of the six films is just as hard as deciding the best.  Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are both just bad movies, the only two in the bunch.  Again, my own personal sentiments sway things.  Seeing Menace in the theater in 1999 was a such a wonderfully collective experience, and even though the film wasn't that good, it felt great to see new Star Wars on the big screen again.  The pod race scene and the duel with Darth Maul were also exciting and well-executed.  Much of the rest is just crap, from the opaque plot to the clunky dialogue to riseable stuff like midochlorians and Jar Jar Binks.  The movie ends with Anakin Skywalker still as a kid, and at the time I scratched my head about that.  If this film did not exist it would not make a whit of difference in terms of establishing the story of Anakin or moving it forward.

6.  Attack of the Clones

I was willing to forgive the first film being a light, clunky bit of empty entertainment, but I had high expectations for Attack of the Clones.  Boy was I disappointed.  The first time I saw it in the theater I went with my dad, and getting to do that was such a happy thing that I was less distressed by the film's low quality.  The second time I went with a good friend and Star Wars head, and we were so let down by it that we spent hours afterward mocking it in Yoda reverse speak. ("Lucas a script writer he needs.")  I had a lot more fun doing that than seeing the film.  It is hopelessly jumbled, with laughably bad romance thrown in.  Even the presence of the great Christopher Lee and a lightsaber-wielding Yoda can't save it.  Whether it's the dialogue or acting, I came away from it just not giving a shit about Anakin's character, which is an absolute failure on the film's part.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Silence on Housing Discrimination

MLK in 1966 in Chicago, where he pushed to end housing discrimination, an action largely forgotten in public memory due to its tendency to raise uncomfortable questions

There has been a great deal of discussion and action recently when it comes to the Confederate battle flag and of the memory of the Civil War generally.  While I am all for taking down the traitor flag and have called for a "memory offensive" on current public ways of viewing the Civil War, I do think that the discussion over the flag can be limiting.  It is easy for whites who live outside of the South to decry it, since they see it as embodying an Other.  Speaking from my time in East Texas, I can tell you that yes, there are a lot of good ole boy goobers in the rural South with violently racist dispositions.

However, there a lot more white people both inside and outside of the South who have benefited and continue to benefit from institutional racism in the form of housing discrimination.  I would even say that residential segregation is the root tool of racism in this country.  Living here in northern New Jersey it couldn't be plainer.  Those suburbs (like, say Summit)  touted for their safety and "good schools" are very, very white, while cities known for their crime and poverty, like Newark and East Orange, are overwhelmingly not white.

The historical past that made this present is well known.  These divisions are not natural, but are the intentional results of decades of policies that subsidized suburbanization, warehoused the poor in urban areas, and that made it easy for whites to get access to cheap home loans, and difficult for people of color.  When African Americans began moving into new neighborhoods and suburbs, white flight and block busting often followed.  The vast majority of white people, both in the postwar period and now, simply refuse to think of sharing a common fate with black people, especially poor black people.

Because of residential segregation, schools are more racially segregated than they were at the time of Brown.  This segregation leads to vastly different outcomes for children in different municipalities and neighborhoods that border each other.  Again, this is all by design, not by accident.  To give a local example, the grandchildren of Newark white flight living in nearby Livingston (where Chris Christie, born in Newark, went to high school after his family left Newark) have access to a renowned public schools system.  Their fate is entirely different than the children of Newark, who are currently being used as guinea pigs in a misguided "reform" scheme because Newarkers aren't allowed to run their own schools.  Those living in the protected municipalities can simply forget about those less fortunate, and never give them a dime of their local taxes.  Unless residential segregation is broken down, there is no hope whatsoever to stop either racism or severe economic inequality.

For that reason, the issues of fair housing and residential segregation ought to be prominent in the public sphere, especially now that the government is taking action on it.  The Obama administration recently announced that it is going to push for stricter enforcement of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  There is a lot at stake in this announcement, which could potentially radically alter residential patterns in large swaths of the USA.  It's interesting, then, that there has hardly been any public discussion of it in the mainstream media.  Perhaps this is down to a busy news cycle, with Greece and Iraq dominating headlines, but I doubt it.

Most Americans (white ones especially) would really, really like to avoid a discussion of fair housing and residential segregation.  In the first place, it is a key example of how racism is systematic and institutional, when most would pretend to see it as a nasty attitude held only by the type of redneck who waves the rebel flag.  The vast majority of white people do not want to see themselves implicated in racism in any way.  Politically, as Thomas Edsall pointed out yesterday, this is a difficult issue for Democrats.  If their party is perceived as bringing poor minorities into affluent white communities, a lot of white voters will react extremely negatively.  That said, Republicans are also hesitant on it, partly because they do not want to admit that systemic racism exists, and also because they would prefer not to make their collusion with it so obvious.

To solve the problems of residential segregation would mean action on a vast and massive scale, action that the majority of Americans would really prefer not to take.  They would also prefer to see the current residential dividing lines as natural, and will just go on pretending the problem doesn't exist, and to wail and gnash their teeth whenever affordable housing is proposed for their community.   That issue will continue to be framed as a local, and not systemic one, and nothing much will change.  For it do so would require and actual acknowledgement of the true realities of economic and racial oppression in this country, which I don't see coming anytime soon.  I only hope that the Obama administration's efforts make things less awful. Until white people and the affluent really and truly see the fates of their children as being intertwined with those of children of color and poor children, the base problem will persist.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

All Star Break Thoughts

Nomar Garciaparra was Mr Red Sock before a post-All-Star trade to the Cubs in 2004, the season that the Beantowners finally won, but without him

The all-star break is here, which is more than halfway through the baseball season in terms of games played, but spiritually marks the end of the first half of the season, since there will be a lot of intensity packed in for teams that are in contention.  The next month will basically decide who will have a chance to win it all, and who will be an also-ran.  Trades will come fast and furious as teams try to get that last piece of the puzzle.

If your team really sucks, they are already out of the game.  There's a reason that "June" and "swoon" are paired together so often by baseball reporters.  That month typically weeds out the crappy teams that might have had a lucky start, something I feared would happen to my Mets.  While they scored runs about as effectively as Comcast takes customer service calls that month, they managed to go into the all-star break on a four-game winning streak of inspired baseball.  I heard the last game over the radio as I was driving into New Jersey at the end of our two-week road trip, and cursed the Mets for making me care.  When your team stinks, it's easier sometimes just to write them off at this point, in order to avoid the inevitably bigger disappointments lurking in the future.

That's the way it's been for my White Sox this season, whose recent winning ways can't change my mind about their crappy performance this year.  I still remember the point in mid-June where I realized that their "slow start" had gone on so long that it was now actually a "bad season."  This despite the addition of several high-powered players in the off-season.  It goes to show that the games have to be decided on the field.  Take the Mets, for instance.  Their lineup and bullpen have been so injury-prone that at times the team on the field was more fitting for the Pacific Coast rather than the National League.  Team captain and public face David Wright has not played for months now.  By some kind of miracle fans have practically forgotten about him and their spotty lineup in the avalanche of amazing young pitching that the Mets have put on display this year.

This now puts the Mets in a conundrum during the trade deadline that they haven't faced in years: whether to take a risk to get a needed component via trade, or to stand pat and hope things work themselves out.  This is usually an agonizing thing for a hardcore fan to contemplate, something I know full well as White Sox fan.  For several years before their 2005 title, they would have okay teams who played in a weak division, tempting ownership to make a move to get them over the top.  Often they would make a move, and then the team would just get bad.  From 2001 through 2004, the Sox had records of .500 or above, and finished in second place three times and third place once.  Rooting for a team that's good enough to contend but not good enough to win is a nerve-wracking experience, especially when it happens four years in a row.  It's especially bad if a team trades good players for others who fail to realize their promise.  Last season the Oakland As, a team that usually stuck to its moneyball formula, decided to finally go for broke and ended up falling apart about as fast as a Gary Busey reality show.  I remember back in 2001 when the Cubs picked up Fred McGriff down the stretch, and long-suffering fans rejoiced as if the solution to their woes had been found.  They ended up in third place after a losing record in the second half of the season.

The Mets, also carrying forward a tradition of mediocrity, haven't had a winning season since the Bush administration.  They are owned by the Wilpons, who despite having a team in the nation's biggest media market, throw around nickels like they're manhole covers.  Much of this has to do with them taking a bath on the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  (They made money, but had to give over $162 million in the settlement.) As you would imagine, people who invest millions and millions of dollars in Ponzi schemes might not be the most astute and financially capable people in the world.  The Mets have finally started spending money on free agents, but on over the hill, overpriced players like Michael Cuddyer and Curtis Granderson.  (Would have loved to have had them in 2009!)  Originally I wanted the Mets to make a big move and even to trade one of their array of young arms to get a big bat in the lineup.  Then I remembered that would probably add yet another aging slugger who was a whole lot better five years ago.  Such are the anxieties when you root for a solid but not great team with a history of losing.

Of course, what if your team really and truly is completely out of it?  What do you do then?  What I've done is to stop following my team, and to start following baseball as a whole.  I pore over the stats a few times a week, listen to more baseball podcasts, watch random games on, and generally immerse myself in the drama of the pennant races.  It's a lot more enjoyable than watching a bad team I love get crushed on a daily basis.  This year I won't have that privilege, and will likely be spending the next two and a half months steeling myself for the inevitable Mets collapse.  Why do I do this to myself again?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

On Seeing My Grad School Campus Again

Today I finally returned from my 16 day road trip with my wife and two daughters.  It has been a long, strange, tiring trip.  The sound of the Frozen soundtrack (played to placate my toddlers) is still ringing in my ears, and I feel like I have a bit of the white line fever.  We took a meandering path on the way to and from my Nebraska homeland, stopping to see all kinds of friends and family along the way.  On Friday we happened to pass through Champaign-Urbana, where I did my doctoral studies.

We had already taken an extended stop in Springfield to see various Lincoln sites and to have lunch with some friends from my grad school days who are living there.  I was hoping to stop in Chambana and take my daughters out of the car and walk them around the quad while my spouse took a well-deserved rest.  (I drove, she tried to keep them entertained.  Not sure which was harder.)  Toddlers being who they are, they had just fallen asleep in the back seat after a morning of being less than easy to deal with.  (That was the exact point at which I think they hit the wall, poor kids.)

I was not going to mess with nap time, so instead I drove through downtown Champaign, campustown, and the campus itself.  Earlier that morning I harbored ideas of going back into Gregory Hall and seeing if any of the profs were about.  Once I gazed upon campus again, I knew that such actions would be totally out of the question, and not just because my daughters were sleeping.

Unlike a lot of other people, I had a very pleasant grad school experience.  Until recent years, it was the happiest that I've ever been in my life.  I was living the life of the mind, young, and surrounded by great people in a town that was affordable and had a lot going on.  I knew that the job market was going to be difficult, but I had always put that in the back of my mind.  After leaving the nest I ended up in a dead-end, temporary "visitor" job for two years, then three increasingly unhappy years on the tenure track.  (I'll spare you the details, but my interpersonal relations at work were setting off panic attacks on a daily basis by the end.)  I gave up on my grad school dream and left academia at that point.  Gazing upon that golden campus, I felt an intense wave of sorrow.

Looking back, I was a completely different person in those days.  A vast gulf of painful experience has estranged me from that person.  While I am happy these days with my personal life and my job, my five years in the cauldron have made me distrustful, cynical, and even a little bitter.  My sorrow was the sorrow for losing the hope, belief, and optimism that I once had that I know will never really come back.  Of course, I am a whole lot wiser, pragmatic, and driven than I was back then, too.

I've come to see my decision to go to grad school to be, in the words of Elvis Costello, a "brilliant mistake." I had no clue what I was getting into back then, and from a financial standpoint, I fucked my life over pretty good.  I also developed my mind and gained friends who I wouldn't trade for anything.  I've met plenty of good people since I left the academic world, but none have shared the bonds of friendship that I wove back then.  I was lucky enough to see many of these friends on this trip, and today I was hit with the realization that it is not Champaign-Urbana or my old campus that means something, but the people I met there.  I'll continue to keep going great distances to see them, and will likely not bother to revisit my grad school campus anytime soon.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jeb And "Moderate" Republicans

As I am sure you've heard, Jeb Bush pulled a Mitt Romney this week, accidentally letting his true thoughts out in public by saying that the solution to America's economic woes is to work more hours.  Considering that American workers put in many more hours than their peers in other affluent nations, such a statement would be a joke if some random moron on the street said it.  In this case, however, Jeb Bush is not only running for president, he is the son and brother of former presidents, born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  He is basically the last person that the majority of Americans want lecturing them on their work habits.

Mitt Romney's comments about the 47% of Americans who were "takers" (which he thought were private) did a lot to lose him the election in 2012.  What he said, as obnoxious as it sounded to most people, was actually a common talking point among conservatives well before he made it public.  Conservatives also think that regular working people need to be working more hours, but they won't come out and say it in those terms.  Instead they just let their policies do the talking: blocking family leave, trying to eliminate the weekend, undermining overtime pay, etc.  It takes someone as maladroit and gaffe-prone as Jeb Bush to make the intent of all of this much more visible.

Bush has also illustrated the problem with the "moderate Republican" brand.  Anymore a "moderate conservative" is someone who opposes gay marriage but doesn't spew hate about it, who is opposed to meaningful immigration reform but not xenophobic, but in economic matters supports policies that funnel more money into the hands of the wealthy and squeeze those at the bottom and the middle until their pips squeak.  The supposed "respectable" Republicans in the race for president (Jeb, Walker, Christie) are all servants of corporate America dedicated to slashing workers' rights and protections.  When it comes to economic and labor policy, there are no moderates in the Republican party, and the toffs to the manner born like Jeb and Mitt are too clumsy to hide their true intentions.  If anything, Bush's slip-up might open a door for Christie, a man with a true contempt for the working class who masks it behind a bloviating wall of fake populist bullshit.  In any case, the desire of the monied puppet masters behind the GOP not to have a repeat of 2012 just might seal Bush's doom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Place That Mattered Once

[Editor's Note: This is probably the last report from my hometown, thanks for indulging me.]

It's been good to be back home again, to see friends and family and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life than what's normal for me in the Northeast.  Sometimes when I come back to my hometown my adolescent feelings of resentment and boredom bubble over, but perhaps having my kids along has kept those feelings in check.

This time around what I'm feeling for my home town is a kind of melancholy, rather than anger.  Having my children here has meant going to local museums for the first time in over twenty years, and in the process being reminded that my hometown of Hastings was once a place that mattered.  It went from a little prairie settlement to a bustling town in a short period of time in the 1880s due to its location as the junction between the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific railroads.  With the railroads came commerce from the surrounding farming areas and factories (including a brewery) who wanted to take advantage of the proximity to transportation.  Hastings made bricks and cigars, beer and machine parts.  The many rail passengers passing through could get fine clothes at Stein's department store downtown.  Hastings was basically the most important railroad town between Omaha and Denver.

Around this time local boosters deemed Hastings "The Queen City of the Plains."  There are a lot of beautiful houses and institutions in my hometown built in the 1900-1930 time period, the town's economic heyday.  The Dutton-Lainson manufacturing company, still the biggest in town, built a large warehouse downtown after World War I that is still the city's tallest building.  Despite being a warehouse, it has some beautiful art nouveau touches, as you can see below:

The VB stands for "Victory Building," in reference to the nation's victory in World War I.  I often gaze upon this building as a symbol of a dream that never quite came to be.  During the 1920s the railroad was losing importance to the automobile, but the presence of US Highway 6 in town kept the city relevant.  The railroad also led the the town's last burst of growth in the 1940s during World War II, when the government located a massive naval munitions plant and depot in Hastings.  Its central location made it hard for saboteurs to hit and easy for trains on two different lines to get the ammo to ports on either coast. After the war, the growth stopped.  More damaging, when the interstate highway came through, it bypassed Hastings in favor of Grand Island, its rival thirty miles to the north.  There is a whole line of cheap, rundown motels on Highway 6 on the edge of town attesting the effects of this decision.  On top of this, the evisceration of the farm economy in the 1980s drained the local countryside of people and wealth, kneecapping Hastings' position as a commercial center.

The melancholy I have now is over the fact that my hometown is a place that mattered once, and that does not matter anymore.  Like rural Nebraska generally, it is in a position of irreversible decline.  Those who grow up here who get educated get out and don't come back, mostly because there just aren't opportunities for those who would even want to come back.  As in a lot of rural America, the raging against the dying of the late often takes the form of extreme religiosity and an ultra-conservative politics of fear and resentment.  

On this trip I've tried my hardest not to let those things irritate me, even if they do.  Instead, I've tried to focus on the good that has survived from Hastings' heyday past.  Having blossomed in the Progressive Era, Hastings has had well-supported and much used public institutions.  Yesterday, for example, I took my children to a park in the shadow of the Chautauqua Pavilion, built in 1907.

Before film and radio, speakers toured the country on the Chautauqua circuit, named for the town in New York where it originated.  Unlike most similar structures, Hastings' pavilion has survived, and civic events still take place there.  Growing up it was the location for church picnics and high school band concerts, though in former times Robert Kennedy and William Jennings Bryan had spoke there.  
I mentioned a few days ago that a bunch of vandals almost burned it down in the 1990s.  Perhaps the fact that Hastings is indeed a town with a bright past and a dim future is what arouses such hatred of its monuments.  I may have underestimated the dirtbag element in this town, they too know that this place could never again claim to be the Queen City of the Plains.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Trip Back To My Childhood Church

I'm still in my hometown, and this being Sunday, I went with my parents to the old parish church where I received first communion and was confirmed in the Roman Catholic church.  It's a unique design from the 1960s, with a rotunda centered around an octogonal tower with wood lattice behind the altar.  Sadly the abstract sculptures used for the stations of the cross have been replaced, and the blood-red carpet swapped out for a whitish gray.  Growing up in this parish I thought that all churches were supposed to look like this, which meant I felt out of place whenever I went to a Gothic or Romanesque church.

While I attend Episcopal services these days when I go to church, I still enjoy visiting a place that played such a pivotal role in my youth.  However, I was a little worried about today, a Sunday coming right after the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage.  Indeed, the priest (fresh out of the seminary) had been tasked by the bishop with telling his congregation about the evils of legalized same sex marriage.  While the priest refrained from any denunciations of gay people, he still reiterated the tired old saw that Catholics who aren't in the clergy ought to engage in a heterosexual marriage and reproduce ad infinitum.  It's always interesting to get such advice from a man who has pledged himself to a life of celibacy.  Also interesting to hear priests lament the church's lessened moral authority as an indictment of a society gone wrong without any thought towards the abuse scandals.

Of course the sermon was full of fake facts and bad reasoning.  The priest actually said that more contraception leads to more abortion.  (Recent efforts in Colorado show quite the opposite.)  He also claimed that opposition to gay marriage in France is practically universal (it's not.)  The icing on the cake was the notion that the legalization of gay marriage is somehow oppressing the religious liberties of Christians.  In his view, and in the view of a great number of the congregants I'd wager, being able to use the law to smite sinners is a key religious liberty, and that's now being violated.

Despite the priest's youth, the whole exercise was a glimpse into how American Christianity -especially American Catholicism- is immolating itself.  While the pope has shifted his attention to social justice, the American church is still obsessed with sexuality and reproduction.  It is sticking harder than ever to its ridiculously old-fashioned ideas on these issues while broader social attitudes are moving fast in the other direction.  This is hardly the approach to draw in new worshipers or keep those raised in the tradition, especially young people.  Instead of acknowledging the problem, the response is now to claim that the world is broken and falling from the one true path.  If anything, today was a good indication as to why "ex-Catholic" is the second biggest denomination in America today.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

July 4th Notes From My Hometown

In the past three years the meaning of the fourth of July has changed greatly for me, since my daughters were born on that day.  Their birthday, not blowing off fireworks or engaging in nationalism, has become my main Independence Day priority.  In any case, this year I had very little July 4th spirit.  The events of the last year, from Ferguson to Charleston, have been harsh reminders of this nation's failure to live up to its promises.

This year I spent the holiday in my rural Nebraska hometown for the first time in years.  While I wrung my hands a little yesterday, I was happily surprised at what I witnessed this morning.  My wife and I went out to Allen's, the local department store, to get party supplies.  Afterwards we drove downtown to the Blue Moon, the local coffee house, and grabbed some espresso-based drinks.  It's good to see such local institutions still thriving, and that the downtown has rebounded while the mall has fallen into disrepair.  Of course, most of the commerce is going down in the metastasizing tumor of box stores and Applebee's next to the highway on the edge of the north side of town.  You can still get away with pretending that it doesn't exist.

We took our daughters to an event at a local park, which reminded me of what's good about my hometown.  There was a nice, chill atmosphere of people mingling and saying hello, and catching up with those (like me) returning from out of town.  My hometown was really built up during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, and much of the public-minded ethos of the age has still managed to survive.  Some things had changed from my childhood, such as hearing Spanish spoken on a pretty consistent basis.  Changes like that are positive in my opinion.

Something else hadn't changed, something I wonder whether it is even capable of changing.  In my overwhelmingly white hometown, expressions of patriotism are as ubiquitous as the air one breathes, and thought about just as deeply.  I wondered today if anyone in the park with me questioned this nation's ability to live up to its highest ideals.  I also got chills thinking about how many of them might sympathize with the Darren Wilsons of the world rather than the Micheal Browns.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Back Home Again

Andy the Goose, one of my hometown's biggest celebrities

Today, after a meandering, week-long trip across the upper South seeing sights and visiting friends and family, I finally arrived with my wife and kids to my hometown.  It feels good to be back, but also strange.  This morning, as I was gassing up my car at station where I could look out across the vast windswept Kansas plains, I had a strange out of body experience, thinking about those mornings frantically trying to refill my MTA card while catching the express subway train in Penn Station.  Where I live now is in many ways very alien to the place where I'm from.

My differences with the land of my upbringing have been with me for a long time, but now they seem more stark than ever.  I am not sure how much this has to do with me changing, or with my hometown changing.  I do sometimes get the feeling that life in my hometown of Hastings, Nebraska, has become coarser and meaner.  I then remind myself of my hometown's strange habit of destroying its most cherished symbols.  The town has a beautiful old chautauqua pavilion that was almost burned to the ground by vandals in the 1990s.  Fisher Fountain, which combines jets of water with alternating color projection, was long a pride of the town.  In the early 1980s someone dynamited it.  Last but not least, years ago a local man found a baby goose with malformed feet.  He helped that goose by making it shoes, and Andy the Goose quickly became a cause celebre, and soon even appeared with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  Some horrible person then went into Andy's pen at night and broke off his wings, killing him.

There is a vein of awful darkness in this town, obviously.  I just feel like it is closer to the surface than it used to be.  This town feels more and more like Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life when George sees what it would have been like had old man Potter took over.  Then again, maybe I'm wrong.  In any case, over the next few days I will be making some reports from the "heartland" and will be thinking a lot about politics and social change.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Some Thoughts On VIsiting The Clinton Presidential Library

I remember reading this issue of Rolling Stone in 1992 and getting excited about a Clinton presidency. 

I am currently on a long and extended road trip between New Jersey and Nebraska, with the ultimate goal of arriving at my parents' house in time for my daughters' birthdays on July 4th.  We decided to take a long detour through the South in order to visit friends and family, which has been a great experience.  Today we were just concerned with getting down the road, and stopped in Little Rock.  In the spirit of seeing things along the way, we decided to go down to Bill Clinton's Presidential Library.

I was more interested in examining its narratives and approach than anything, especially having visited the museums for Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, and Carter, had plenty of things to compare it to.  It was hard to do this, mostly because two toddlers are not the best people to take to a museum when you want to linger over exhibits.  It ended up not being too hard, because the narrative of the museum was about as subtle as Rip Taylor.  There was almost nothing about Clinton the person or the usual array of presidential paraphernalia, and a whole lot about his policies and legislative accomplishments.  It basically boiled down to "look what a great job Clinton did as president!" but in the kind of overly extensive, policy wonk overkill way that Clinton himself was often criticized for.

The tone was very different in the introductory film, which we saw last because, again, traveling with toddlers means having to bend a bit to their iron wills.  Clinton himself narrated a magnificently corny piece of agitprop showing leaders like King Hussein of Jordan and Nelson Mandela praising him.  Clinton himself lays it on thick, using the same effortless, charismatic appeal that allowed him to survive scandals and gain a high level of popularity by the end of his term in office.  It was the kind of thing meant to have you standing up, shouting "four more years! four more years!"

I even got enthusiastic, but just for a second or two.  I then remembered how his administration had pushed through NAFTA, cut the social safety net, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, gutted banking regulation, and supported mass incarceration policies.  Clinton's cynical triangulation strategy after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress meant that actual progressive legislation became a dead letter from that point onward.

Despite those sour feelings, I also felt a wave of nostalgia for the time between 1993 and 2001, when I went from being a high schooler to a grad student and passed through the young adulthood's ring of fire.  That kind of thing is probably inevitable with a early-middle aged guy like myself, but there was something a little deeper there, I think.  The exhibits threw me back into the world of the 1990s, and reminded me what a feeling of hope I had for the future back then.  The Cold War was over, and democracy appeared to be advancing all over the world, including the former Soviet Union.  When America exercised its power abroad, it was often in positive ways, such as ending genocide in the former Yugoslavia.  Perpetual war, as we have experienced for the past 14 years, was barely conceivable.  The economy was not showering its benefits equally, but it was growing in a big way.  Gun control was actually possible, both in the form of the Brady Bill and in the assault weapons ban.  The Oslo Accords created hope for a path to long lasting peace in Palestine.  I thought a lot about the long, post-Cold War peace that could have been, and the last fourteen years of war and paranoia.

I see little in the high political world today that gives me much hope for the future.  At least more people are taking to the streets these days, but those controlling the levers of power are deaf to their cries.