Monday, August 31, 2015

America Has Its Own Antecedents For Trump

With Trump don't think Mussolini, think George Wallace

It's been interesting to see folks (many of whom I am a big fan of) draw comparisons between Trump and Mussolini.  Trump fits the fascist bill in their estimation (and mine) because:

  • His appeal to nationalism, fascism's key ingredient
  • His naming of internal enemies to be expunged for the health of the nation
  • His militaristic bent in foreign policy
  • His misognyny
  • His authoritarian proposals and demeanor
  • His appeal to voters across regional, religious, and social class lines
  • His support of a strong (for a Republican) social state
  • His attacks on cultural and political elites
  • Trump is a charismatic leader from outside of the regular political world with a cult of personality around him
None of these things alone makes someone a fascist, but put them together....

I tend to shy away from calling people fascists unless they are of the avowed Golden Dawn variety, mostly because it diverts political debate into obfuscating semantics.  I also shy away a little bit from using that word in an American context.  The fascist movements in Europe were innovative because they were on the Right, but based in a populist nationalism, rather than the old elites of the church, monarchy, and nobility.  Those institutions don't exist in America, which is why extreme right wing populism has taken a slightly different form.

In America we have a maddening tendency to look to the histories of other nations to find examples of evil to compare people like Trump to.  Actually, we have a lot of good examples here in America, and I find that Trump can more easily be compared to many American historical figures and movements.  

As I have written before, I think it all starts with Andrew Jackson.  Jackson's white nationalism appealed directly to the mass of rural white men.  He brazenly ignored the Supreme Court and pushed to deport the Cherokee to Oklahoma in a shameful ethnic cleansing.  Trump's deportation advocacy ought to be seen in light of the Trail of Tears.  Trump's immigration proposals come out of a belief that this is a white man's country, a basic principle of Jacksonianism.  Jackson also set his sights on elite, attacking the Second Bank of the United States, and acting contemptuous of those more established in Washington.  Later Southern populists like Ben Tillman, who attacked elites while simultaneously enforcing white supremacy carried on the Jacksonian spirit until the end of the 19th century.

In regards to immigration, it is also obvious that Trump is tapping into a long tradition of nativism in America stretching back to the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s and including the 1920s iteration of the KKK.  That nativism was accompanied by harsh violence of the kind visited upon a Latino homeless man by two Trump supporters recently.  Trump's tardiness in condemning or distancing himself from it demonstrates that he understands the power of this violent nationalism, which is why he is eschewing dog whistles for the raw red meat his followers have been craving.

There are more recent examples of the long tradition of extreme nationalist populism that Trump fits in with.  The great Kevin Kruse has compared Trump's campaign to that of George Wallace in 1968, and I think there is a lot to that.  The segregationist governor managed to get almost 13% of the vote and won five states, the biggest showing by a third party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and Wallace wasn't a former president.  Wallace softened his "segregation forever" tone and became an expert in euphemisms like "local control of schools" and "law and order."  (Nixon made this appeal more respectable and took it all the way to the White House.)  His post-Tet Vietnam policy was to double down on the war, the kind of fanciful militarism that Trump is promising.

The most recent example is, of course, the Tea Party, which is the John the Baptist to Trump's savior.  They said "I want my country back," but then voted for Republican politicians who couldn't give it to them.  Now Trump is promising to "make America great again" and he's not promising "self-deportation," he is calling for the real thing.  The Tea Party cohorts are not a third party, but a particular wing of the Republican Party, one that the GOP has been desperate to get to the polls and appease, and which has given it victories in 2010 and 2014.  However, like the sorcerer's apprentice, the party establishment has lost control of its creation, and Trump has swooped in.

The Republican leadership has been in an uneasy dance with extreme nationalism, at least since 2008, when John McCain had to disavow the birthers in his midst while Sarah Palin was simultaneously crowing about "real America."  That ideology is a deep, dark vein in American political history, one that has been around at least since Jackson.  Instead of comparing Trump to Mussolini, as apt as that comparison might be, we ought to look at how he has inherited a distinctly American political tradition, one that has long reinforced hate, racism, and violence.  The fact that Trump has this much support this late in the game ought to be a warning that ideology for which he stands is gaining power yet again.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Track of the Week: Jefferson Starship "Miracles"

As I mentioned last week, I'm about to turn 40, and am picking some tracks of the week based on their proximity to when I was born in 1975.  I looked up the album charts and found out that Jefferson Starship's Red Octopus, which can readily be found for a buck or two today at innumerable used record stores, was #1 the week I was born.

Jefferson Starship are certainly of their time, a band forgotten and lesser known than the one from the 1960s it came out of (Jefferson Airplane) and the one it morphed into during the 1980s (Starship.)  In that respect Jefferson Starship is the perfect representative of the forgotten years of a much maligned decade.  The band included Airplane stalwarts Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, and Marty Balin rejoined for Red Octopus.  His smoother, more melodic stylings are in evidence on "Miracles" which has strings and an chiming electric piano that sounds straight out of a fern bedecked singles bar circa 1975.  This is a long, long way from the psychedelic rock of the Jefferson Airplane, and perhaps symbolic of what had happened to the spirit of the 60s.

The song has a whole tone of world-weariness about it, and Balin gives the line "If only you believed like I believe we'd get by" a real wistful sadness.  It perhaps tells the spiritual story of the band, which went from talking about revolution on songs like "Volunteers" in 1969 to crafting softsational smooth music in 1975 to being responsible for insanely cheesy fare like "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." (Listening to Starship is akin to watching bad movies for the cheese contact high, the pop cultural equivalent of sniffing glue.)  In between the band would also craft some passable arena rock in the late 70s, going from a trendsetter to a savvy trend exploiter.  (They also appeared on the Star Wars Holiday Special, speaking of pop cultural glue sniffing.)

As I've been mentioning on here recently, the mid-1970s are the true heart of that decade's malaise, containing the triple shock of Watergate, the fall of Saigon, and the oil crisis and resulting recession.  "Miracles" is perfect malaise music, a harbinger of a specific genre of music I like to call "downer easy listening" or "Quaalude rock."  While this genre would find it's perfection in Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," Jefferson Starship can get some credit for capturing the Zeigeist a few years earlier.

Friday, August 28, 2015

It's Okay To Like What You Like

Don't be this guy

I've always been wary of subcultures, because they seem so limiting.  When I was a teenager I loved punk rock and devoured books about it, but was never a punk.  I didn't pierce anything, I didn't spike my hair, and I didn't go pogoing at all ages shows.  I also loved the sixties counterculture, watched the Woodstock documentary in awe, and listened to psychedelic music and read boatloads of Hunter S Thompson, but I was never a hippie.  In college and grad school I marched and stood on picket lines for various causes, but I was never an activist.  While I knew some punks, hippies, and activists, entree into that world seemed to require a uniform, both physical and mental.

This used to confuse me, I began to think that I just wasn't cool enough to be one of them.  Once I graduated from college, I matured a little and realized that my tastes and thoughts were too broad to be jammed into a limited framework.  Instead of hating all popular music because that was the punk thing to do, I admitted that I actually liked ABBA and disco and Frank Sinatra.  (A book called The Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll by Chuck Eddy helped me find this path, since he got as much meaning out of disco and Italian teen pop as others did out of the Velvet Underground.)  I still remember meeting a self-professed punk in grad school who said he didn't like Joy Division's second album because he wouldn't listen to anything with synthesizers on it and I thought "there but for the grace of God go I."

These days things are going in the other direction, where the modern cultural Puritans love to point out how much they enjoy cheesy Top 40 music.  It is a kind of faux populism that says "despite my graduate degree from a private college I am down with the people because I like Beyonce."  Hey, there's absolutely nothing wrong with liking Beyonce, but Jesus Lord don't make it into some kind of political crusade.  It's okay to like what you like because that's what you like.  You don't need to justify your love of Fury Road by doing a feminist analysis of it, or feel deficient because you just enjoy it as a well-crafted action movie.

This new pop cultural moment feeds into frankly idiotic binaries that less sophisticated cultural consumers like to enforce.  All of the overblown snark directed at Jonathan Franzen, for instance, has nothing to do with his actual writing, and is more a statement with identifying with a certain leftist cultural mindset.  I find it all so ridiculous.  I think The Corrections and Freedom are great novels, and I really don't care if he is a prickly curmudgeon in real life.  I just. don't. care.  People act as if he is the first prominent writer to be a difficult crank.  And hey, even though I like those Franzen novels, I still think Zadie Smith is great.  I can appreciate Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, even while accepting Achebe's critique of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  I love Dickens and Catcher in the Rye too, even though Salinger thought of Holden Caulfield as the anti-David Copperfield.  I enjoy genre fiction like Carl Hiaasen novels but also like to pick up difficult, thick stuff like David Foster Wallace.  These false binaries are less politicized in film and television, but we still have them.  Star Wars versus Star Trek, Marvel versus DC, etc., who the hell cares?  Isn't it better to like them all or none of them at our own leisure?

I should also say it's okay to not like what you don't like.  Don't like young adult fiction because it's emotionally simplistic? (This is one of my peeves.)  Fine!  You're not a snob.  Don't like Breaking Bad because of the level of violence? Fine! You don't have to like violent stuff to be cool.  Don't like Birdman because it's too stagey?  Fine!  That's a reasonable critique even if I don't agree with it.  Think Thomas Pynchon's novels are overblown and too showy?  Fine! That doesn't make you unsophisticated.  That guy who wouldn't listen to anything with synthesizers?  That seems rather limiting to me, but if he doesn't like them, he doesn't like them, and that's his loss.

See how easy that was?  Trust me, life gets a lot easier when you let your tastes roam free without any need for explanation and justification, and when you stop trying to be an evangelist for your own particular cultural denomination.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I Was a Teenage Doors Fan

I was driving around running errands the other day while listening to WFMU, and Scott Williams' fine show was on.  In the middle of some obscure art rock he threw in "Not To Touch The Earth," one of The Doors' real far-out songs.  He mentioned he was happy not see any negative comments about that selection on the website, because he was expecting flack for playing The Doors, whose appreciation has fallen off a bit.  I hadn't heard the song in years, and had forgotten how much I'd liked it back in high school.

Back then, especially in 9th and 10th grade, I was a complete and obsessive Doors fan.  I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, the tell-all biography of Jim Morrison by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman, multiple times.  This is something I am a little embarrassed about today.  The Doors put out some good music, but my obsession went far beyond what was necessary.  They are a group that seems to inspire this madness, especially from teenage boys.  (Hence the great Kids in the Hall sketch posted above.)  Looking back on it, it was hilarious that a kid like me could see Jim Morrison as a model.  Unlike the Lizard King, I didn't wear leather pants, go around shirtless, drink or do drugs.  I had zero interest in the occult, and couldn't get a date.  I wore jorts and oversized eyewear.

My interest made sense in the context of the early 1990s.  It was the early spring of 1991, and the Oliver Stone biopic of Morrison and the band was coming out.  This was right before the onset of Nirvana and grunge, when contemporary popular rock music was just utter shit.  (Living in rural Nebraska I didn't have access to the good stuff underground.)  Perhaps because of the film the local hits station, which still allowed a commendable level of DJ freedom, started playing "Break On Through" in rotation.  The song just blew me away, it was miles ahead of Poison and Motley Crue.  I went to my local Musicland at the mall to get some of their music, but noticed that since their greatest hits comp was two discs, it cost over twenty bucks.  I started looking for something else, and noticed that their self-titled debut had "Break on Through" on it, as well as "Light My Fire," the only songs of the band I knew, and for the much more acceptable price of $14.99.  (Goddam Musicland was expensive back in the early days of CDs.)

I brought it home, and was instantly and utterly blown away.  Perhaps from my time in church I had developed a love of the organ (which I still have), but I had never heard it sound so dark and ethereal.  Morrison was not some screeching hair metal dude, but kinda crooned out his poetic lyrics.  (And yes, I though stuff like "Day destroys the night/ Night divides the day" was supremely profound.)  Sitting there listening to it, I noticed that length of the last track, "The End," was over eleven minutes long.  I'd never heard of such a thing before, and that song in particular was something completely new to me.  Yes, some of the lyrics are overblown, but damn if it does not evoke a mysterious mood, in the religious sense.

My school's spring break was the next day, and my family was going to go down to the Ozarks for a few days.  In preparation I dubbed the album onto to tape so I could listen to it in my walkman, but didn't have any time to dub something on the other side.  I purposely brought my boom box with me so I could rewind the tape and listen to it over and over and over and over again.  That tape also had a personal touch to it, since while I was dubbing it my mom put some clothes in my dresser, knocking my first generation CD player off track, causing one of the lines in "The Crystal Ship" to repeat.  Even today I expect to hear that glitch when I listen to the song.

The group never equaled that first album, and I always consider it a massive stroke of luck that when I went in to buy a Doors album, I chose the perfect one almost by complete accident.  Today I might cringe at how I tried to write poetry that imitated Jim Morrison, or that I covered my high school notebooks in doodles of The Doors' logo.  Then again, they were my gateway into both classic rock and psychedelia.  And because Morrison liked Nietzsche and Baudelaire, I sought those authors out and gained a lot from the experience.  As corny as it sounds, I also felt like I wasn't alone in the world as a death-obsessed kid with poetic ambitions and a love of the mystic.  There was probably no time in my life as lonely as my freshman year of high school, and it was music that helped pull me through, as it did so many other times afterward.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Are The Democrats Going To Blow It (Again)?

I had a good exchange on Twitter with Gerry Canavan this morning about the Hillary Clinton email kerfuffle that's got me thinking about the next election from the Democrats' point of view.  It's been easy not to, with the whole GOP circus happening and all the attention of Trump.  I am beginning to think that the Democrats are quite possibly headed for some major problems.

This is usually what happens after the Democrats are in a good position.  They take such a passive approach to politics, and often just seem to sit back and hope for the best when the climate appears to benefit them.  Right now they are probably thinking "The Republicans are being such troglodytes on immigration that we'll automatically get a big Latino vote and therefore are assured of victory."  That's the kind of passive thinking that lost them a Senate seat in Massachusetts (of all places) to Scott Brown, and which has contributed to midterm shellackings in 1994, 2002, 2010, and 2014.  Winning midterms requires getting the vote out, and the Dems try to hard to appease donors and corporate interests that their base has little motivation to come out.  When the president is elected the stakes are too high to ignore, but that again is the Democratic party trusting that conditions and political climate will carry them forward.

When it comes to this year's presidential race, Democrats and others have just assumed that Clinton is going to win it all.  The email scandal around Clinton has not been taken too seriously on the left, most likely because all of the many, many fake Clinton "scandals" over the years.  Those were bullshit, so why not this one?  I am beginning to think, though, that Clinton did something that could result in an indictment, even if her malfeasance was rather minor.  It might not be jail worthy or anything, but it could certainly make it difficult for her to win with a legal cloud over her head.  I don't know enough about the accusations to know how this will turn out, but I think there is a significant risk that it could be bad, a risk that the Democrats simply can't afford.

In years past this might not have been an issue, because traditionally Democrats have not just nominated the obvious candidate and have always had a big (sometimes too big) slate of candidates.  This year, the roles are reversed.  The Republicans have a wide range of candidates contending, and the Democrats are just hoping to nominate the obvious successor.  What happens if that doesn't work out?

Right now the alternatives are Sanders, who is much too far to the left to have a chance in the general election, and O'Malley, who has zero name recognition and whose support of mass incarceration alienates much of the base.  Biden is thinking of jumping in, but it is very rare for siting vice presidents to win (George HW Bush was an exception, not the rule), and he has too long been -justified or not- the butt of jokes to be taken seriously by many Americans.

Even more worrisome, there does not appear to be a "bench."  It should be noted that Clinton is 68, Sanders is 73, and Biden is 72.  This is telling.  The Democrats elevated Barack Obama, but since then have not managed to sustain a new generation of national politicians.  Much of this is the fault of their inability to win in the midterms, meaning that "blue" states like Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, and Wisconsin now have conservative governors, effectively cutting off their farm system (to use a baseball metaphor.)  If you look to the big states, Jerry Brown of California is too old, and Andrew Cuomo would be selling cars in Massapequa if his father wasn't Mario Cuomo.  Deval Patrick now works for Bain Capital.  The Dems do have some promising younger pols, but they are either too young or too uninterested in the big time.  (I am thinking Julian Castro for the former and Kristen Gillibrand for the latter.)  Elizabeth Warren, the one real new star in the Senate, is (tellingly) 66, and appears to be sitting this one out.  I'd give her my vote over anyone (including Sanders, who I will have more to say about later), but it looks like I'll never have the chance.

The Democrats have benefitted wildly from the ideological extremism of the Republican party.  Their professions of hatred against immigrants have shielded them from criticism on deportation.  Attempts by conservatives to suppress the votes of African Americans have motivated black voters while the Democratic party has done little to help them.  Walker and others have made unions the enemy, so union members then vote for a party whose president supports free trade.  Teachers are being made into a target by conservatives nationwide, and so they vote for the party of Rahm Emmanuel and other ruthless education "reformers."  The Todd Aikens of the world say horrible things about women's health, leaving Democrats off the hook for actually having to push for new initiatives.  The Democratic leadership still cozies up to corporate interests, but has maintained its base because the alternative is too much to bear for them.  While this has worked somewhat in the short term, in the long term it has robbed them of a slate of interesting candidates and of any sense that they ought to be actively trying to win, rather than passively letting events play themselves out.

So yes, I will continue to vent my spleen about a Republican party that has become a mere vehicle for the extremist beliefs of an ideological movement.  That does not and should not absolve Democrats from their sins.  Get off your asses and fight, for crying out loud.  The rot is already setting in.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Track of the Week: The Isley Brothers "Fight The Power"

[Editor's Note: In two weeks I am turning 40.  In honor of that momentous and depressing occasion, my next few tracks of the week will be taken from the charts around the time I was born in 1975.]

I got into history and historical thinking at way too early an age, when I was still in elementary school.  I think even as a ten year old I was interested to know what important historical events had happened on my birthday, and what was going on in the world on the day that I was born.  That interest has dovetailed with my obsession with music, and a desire to know what songs were hits when I first entered the world.  A lot of time has passed in my life now, and the world I was born into is pretty foreign to the one I am living in today.

Looking back to the charts in September of 1975, I am struck by the broad range of stuff in the top 20, from Bad Company to the Carpenters.  I was most surprised to see a political song by the Isley Brothers, "Fight The Power" lingering near the top of the heap in the weeks around my birth.  It has a very funky feel and very complex rhythm with some almost overbearing wah-wah bass that dates the song immediately to the mid-70s.  It lies on the cusp between funk and disco, which is only appropriate for an innovative band that made some of the best dance music of the sixties.  (The breadth and diversity of the Isley Brothers' output never ceases to amaze me.)

"Fight the Power"'s strong political nature and criticism of authority are also very striking.  (Public Enemy would quote this song in their own "Fight The Power.")  While the music is VERY 70s, the lyrics are reminiscent of the 60s.  The mid-70s, and 1975 in particular, were a kind of transitional period, when the social movements of the sixties and early seventies seemed played out, but the conservative tidal wave that would wash over the country in the late 70s had not yet coalesced.  Musically "Fight the Power" is pointing the way to the future and the sounds of disco and hip-hop, where rhythm would eclipse melody.  Lyrically, this song points to the past, and the great period of change and protest receding into the distance.  That makes it perhaps the most representative song on the charts in September of 1975, and one still worth listening to.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Endurance of Mid-Seventies Malaise Cinema

I can't totally account for it, but I have an abiding and all-consuming obsession with the culture of the mid-1970s.  Perhaps it's because I am fascinated by the world as it was when I was born into it, but I really do think the 1974-1976 time period was a unique turning point.  It coincided with three cataclysmic challenges to the American order: the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon's resignation, and economic instability that marked the end of the long post-war boom.  Understandably, these events led to films that reflected a sense of malaise and deep questioning of American society.  I happen to believe, despite recent revisionist thoughts to the contrary, that mid-70s cinema generated the best films about America, ones that really questioned this society before the era of blockbusters and Reagan washed it all away.  I think that these films endure because the questions they ask and the themes they explore are still with us.

I had a lot of these thoughts re-watching Nashville (the new Criterion version) last week.  Since I have been researching the mid-70s for a book project, that film's themes are even easier to trace.  It deals with the death of the dream of the 1960s, which has fallen into either wistful nostalgia (as in the Barbara Baxley character's sad lament about the Kennedys) or counter-cultural pleasure-seeking nihilism.  While third-party candidate Hal Phillip Walker (who you hear but never see) represents himself as a populist, his political henchmen are conniving and slimy.  Entertainers like Haven Hamilton sing treacly songs like "Keep A Goin'" that tell their working class listeners that they will escape misery if they just try hard enough, as if the game isn't rigged against them.  I could go on and on.  The film ends with a concert for Walker cut short by an assassination of one of the singers, and the startled crowd soon joins in the chorus of a song called "It Don't Worry Me."  In this film Robert Altman uses the city of Nashville, which proclaims its American-ness at every turn, as a symbol of a nation adrift and lying to itself.

Network is probably the only other film of the era to so completely critique American society writ large.  Decades before Fox News, it predicted the devolution of news programming into mere entertainment, and television audiences as easily manipulated.  In one of the most daring scenes in film history, the news anchor Howard Beale is treated to a mad sermon on capitalism by Ned Beatty's character, a reduction of the world into money that I am sure gave Reagan a boner when he first heard it.  (Beale's "mad as hell" monologue, which is an encapsulation of mid-70s malaise, is more famous, but not as good.)  I find it wonderfully insane that a major Hollywood studio once produced a scorch-earthed film that savaged both television and its audience, while containing a critique of corporate capitalism.  In 1976, in the midst of military defeat, economic decline, and Watergate, it probably didn't seem all that radical.

Although it's a period piece set in the late 1950s and early 20th century, The Godfather Part II is very much a product of the mid-70s malaise.  In the first film, for all of its gore and violence, you are kind of rooting for Michael Corleone as a man who is trying to protect his family even as he is losing his soul.  In the sequel, he's much less sympathetic.  He treats his wife poorly before she leaves him, and he has his brother killed.  Michael's story is juxtaposed with that of his father, and how he was able to make a way in America.  In this version of the tale of the American Dream, it is a quest that ends in soul destruction and even the destruction of the very family whose life was supposed to be secured in America.  It's also no mistake that the film portrays the Cuban Revolution and the imperial hubris of American mob bosses in that country, an obvious reference to America's adventure in Vietnam.

The first Godfather suggested a world where violent, shadowy men meet behind closed doors and plan all kinds of nefarious deeds, an image that would be even more powerful after the release of the Watergate tapes.  Watergate seemed to unleash a whole slate of paranoid films suggesting dark forces at work behind the scenes.  The lesser-known Parallax View suggests a cabal carrying out political assassinations and framing patsies. In The Conversation we follow a surveillance expert who finds himself the target of surveillance and who witnesses a horrific act undertaken by powerful elites, but also is unable to stop it or even keep himself from being watched. Also from 1974, Chinatown's noir mystery ends with the knowledge that powerful men behind the scenes commit unspeakable acts without ever being punished.  1973's Executive Action took that notion to its explicit extreme, and theorized a conspiracy to murder JFK.  After the revelations of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate tapes, it seemed downright foolish not to expect such nefarious deeds from the powerful.

Taxi Driver in 1976 may well have been the culmination of malaise cinema.  It presented a New York City full of crime, violence, and decay.  The main character is an alienated psychopath who almost assassinates a presidential candidate, one whose campaign is shown to be more concerned about rhetoric and grabbing power than actually improving anyone's life.  Travis Bickle is unable to carry out his deed, and instead "rescues" a teenage prostitute by carrying out a brutal triple killing.  That action turns a potential villain in the eyes of the public into a hero, but in either case he is a psychopath committing murder.  (It's also implied that Bickle is a Vietnam vet, and scarred by his experience.)  The film implies that our society could easily elevate someone like that into a hero.

As I am finding in my own research, in the midst of all this malaise, the public began to look for redemption.  Beyond its greatness as a film and its groundbreaking nature, when Star Wars came out in 1977 it directly hit that desire for uplift in a huge way.  That, I think, contributed mightily to the film's destruction of box office records.  I love it, but I also love those malaise films, which while they are a lot less fun, stick with me for deeper reasons.  Surveillance, the nefariousness of elites, America's loss of imperial prestige, economic decline, media manipulation, and political apathy are all quite relevant today.  Yes, I will be with the hordes seeing the new Star Wars flick, but when I want to contemplate the state of the nation, the malaise films are the ones I'll keep turning to.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nationalism and the 14th Amendment

The diverse nation envisioned by Thomas Nast in the late 1860s after the passage of the 14th Amendment. Today's Republicans aren't in favor of it.

I wrote last week about how Donald Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, has managed to harness the power of political nationalism, a force that Americans refuse to name, but which has had major effects on the political order throughout this country's history.  Predictably, now that Trump has shot to the front of the ranks by espousing nativism and ginning the dark forces of white racial resentment, the lesser lights competing against him have followed suit.

Scott Walker and Chris Christie, both corporate conservatives who appeal to the Koch brothers rather than the talk radio crowd, have questioned birthright citizenship.  In case you didn't know, that principle is enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, a document that conservatives love to use as a defense of their policies, whether it agrees with them or not.  That amendment is perhaps the most radical in the Constitution.  Unlike the original Bill of Rights, it was not derived from pre-existing traditions in English common law.  As radical as abolition of slavery was, by the time the 13th Amendment was passed, it was already a fact on the ground.  The 15th is very radical in granting universal male suffrage, regardless of color or race, but it is merely following in the spirit of the 14th.

The 14th Amendment essentially says that all people born in America are citizens (regardless of race or color,) and that their citizenship is universal and may not be violated.  By "universal" I mean that they maintain the same rights no matter what state that they live in.  Those who crow about "states rights" essentially want to have the power to violate the rights of people they don't like in the areas that they control.  Conservatives in many states have been fighting hard in recent years to do this, from strict voter ID laws to "show me your papers laws" to refusing to comply with the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage.  As we all should know, the 14th Amendment was not used to maintain universal citizenship after Reconstruction, when the imposition of Jim and Jane Crow was given the blessing of the Supreme Court.  It has only really held force, like the 15th Amendment, in the last fifty years or so, and has been the key factor in the victory of so many civil rights cases.

As it was originally constructed, the 14th Amendment's universal citizenship was a radical break from pre-Civil War America, and motivated by a kind of nationalism.  It was a progressive nationalism, one that gave all Americans, regardless to what state they lived in, equal citizenship.  The nationalism of the Republican party today could not be more different from the one that animated the likes of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner.  It is at base a racialized nationalism whereby whites are to maintain a privileged position with the help of the state.  (It is ironic that the party of Union has become the party of Confederate values.)  By ending birthright citizenship, the Republicans would effectively be creating different legal categories of people, some enfranchised, others not.  This certainly fits with their support of harsh voter ID laws and tendency to support state-level laws that keep former felons from ever voting again.

The fact that business-oriented conservatives like Christie and Walker are going down this road is a sign that Republican party is increasingly a vehicle for Herrenvolk nationalism, and is no longer bothering to hide it.  This strategy will either result in a victory too terrible to contemplate, or political suicide in a changing nation.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Track of the Week: A Tribe Called Quest "Bonita Applebum"

It's very strange seeing a Hollywood film coming out with a hagiographic vision of NWA, a group considered a threat to the public order in their heyday.  During the height of the band's fame I was an enthusiastic fan of rap music, I could never really fully embrace them, like I had Public Enemy or Eric B and Rakim.  (I guess I was pretty East Coast aligned from the beginning.)  This wasn't due to NWA's political stance or musical style, but mostly because of the hateful misogyny and homophobia in a lot of their songs.  I'd dug "Fuck Tha Police" and "Respect Yourself," but when my buddy Dan (who was an even bigger hip hop fan than me) played me Efil4zaggin in his basement I recoiled at the woman hating (as well as the violent attacks on the departed Ice Cube, who I considered to be the group's real talent.)  When I heard about Dr Dre beating up journalist Dee Barnes it seemed that the lyrics demeaning women weren't just words.  (This was also the same reason that I held certain rock bands like Guns and Roses and arm's length.)

When men sing songs about lust, no matter what the genre, the results are usually pretty ugly, whether it be Foreigner or Eazy-E.  It doesn't have to be, though.  A Tribe Called Quest penned what might be the best sensitive lust song (as opposed to love song) of all time, "Bonita Applebum."  It's got a wonderfully jazzy feel and a creative sitar sample to boot.  The lyrics are all about wooing the attractive lady of the title, but in a way that is unmistakably about sex, rather than mere romance. ("You gotta put me on.")  At the same time, it's a very non-macho overture.  The narrator promises to "say things other brothers won't" and to provide "mad prophylactics."  The likes of Ted Nugent, or most other rockers and rappers, don't talk like this, which is a shame.  

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reagan, Trump And The Persistence of American Nationalism

Reagan's appeal to nationalism in 1980 was key to his success, but little talked about since

As someone who has studied German history for many years, I've developed an interest in political nationalism.  I've always found it a bit odd that it is a topic discussed so little in the American context by either historians or political analysts.  Much of this oversight has to do with how Americans define their nationalism as "patriotism," a word with a more positive connotation.

Nationalism, of course, has been a powerful force in America from the beginning.  The revolutionaries of 1776 fit the literal definition of nationalists perfectly.  Nativism and the Know-Nothing agitators of the 19th century were an outgrowth of a particular strand of nationalism, and the the Civil War and Reconstruction were, from a Northern perspective, an attempt to reforge the nation, whereas the Confederacy tried and failed to construct a new one.

More recently, nationalism has been the great secret force in American politics, one that derives its power from the fact that no one ever says its name.  I think Ronald Reagan is the best example of how nationalism can propel those politicians capable of using it.  Back in 1976, when he almost successfully challenged incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, he managed to boost his moribund campaign by going after the treaty to give the Panamanian government control over the Panama Canal.  In 1980 his supply-side economic ideas were well out of the political mainstream, and yet he managed to win labor-heavy states like Michigan, where they would have been abhorrent.  Certainly much of his success can be chalked up to economic crisis and lack of confidence in Carter's leadership, but those factors alone can't account for Reagan's success.

He was also campaigning in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, and five years after the fall of Saigon.  A great many Americans felt that the United States was losing its place in the world, and Reagan, with his hawkish Cold War stance and promise to "make America great again" spoke to that nationalist resentment.  If you doubt the power and force of that nationalism, just look at how crazy people in this country went when the United States defeated the USSR in hockey in the 1980 Olympics.  In terms of the hostage crisis, he claimed that he would "get tough" and scare the Ayatollah into sending those Americans back home.  (Never mind the arms deals that Reagan later made.)  He was going to show the Soviets, who had just invaded Afghanistan, who was boss.  I have not done the research to verify this, but my gut and reasoned intuition tell me that more "Reagan Democrats" went for the Gipper because of nationalism than the Laffer Curve.

Fast forward to today, where Donald Trump is confounding critics with his place atop the GOP polls.  Not coincidentally, he has also used the slogan "make America great again," while in true Donald fashion claiming that it was all his idea.  Pundits who talk about him being "the first post-policy candidate" have it all wrong.  He is getting support through naked appeals to narrow, militant nationalism and is fully aware of this.  His slogan, his nativist attacks on immigrants, his militaristic statements about the Middle East, and his laments that America is losing ground to China are all grounded in nationalist resentment, as is a great deal of his success.  He doesn't need policies, "make America great again" is all he has to say and he will get support.  He says it with great charisma, more than the likes that his sorry-ass opponents can do.  (Ted Cruz has to be fuming that Trump is stealing his voters because Trump is saying much the same but he isn't a weak-chinned, insufferably priggish know-it-all. )

Trump may be a boorish, bigoted, ignorant jerk, but he is not stupid.  It is obvious that he has seen how the Tea Party has driven the Republican Party, and that the Tea Party's battle cry of "take our country back!" is pure, unfiltered nationalism.  That (white) nationalism is at the heart of birtherism and why Trump's birther past has not been a hindrance to him.  Among the highly nationalistic Tea Party crowd, that stance is to be commended.  Call Trump dumb all you want, but he seems much more aware of the presence and power of nationalism in American life than all of the mainstream pundits put together.  That's also why the Trump campaign is a joke I'm not laughing at, because nationalism is a force with the potential to do so much harm, especially when those guarding against it don't take it seriously.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Son Of A Teacher

I've written before about my decision to leave academia and become an independent school teacher.  In the past I've written about how it was a hard decision, at least in terms of leaving my career behind, which I had sacrificed a great deal to sustain.  However, there was difficulty on the other end, too.  Being a high school teacher is just about the last thing I ever expected myself to be, and not because I thought myself above it.  My wife is a teacher, my little sister is a teacher (with a blog!), but most importantly, my mother was a teacher.  I knew all too well what I would be getting myself into, and knew that it would be challenging.

Lots of education "reformers" act as if the teaching profession is full of layabouts collecting inflated union salaries, but I knew from experience that stereotype could not be further from the truth.  The profession has an insanely high attrition rate; about half of new teachers leave the profession before their fifth year.  It is a job that requires full mental, emotional,  and sometimes physical commitment.  It is very hard to do right, and is not well paid work.  On top of that, teachers are constantly being vilified, and parents and students feel more entitled than ever to challenge the authority and decisions of teachers.

I saw a lot of this first hand through my mother, who taught about thirty years total.  I saw how giving bad grades to students resulted in angry phone calls from their parents on Sunday afternoons.  On those same Sunday afternoons I would see her grading for hours on end while other people were out having fun or relaxing.  I saw her car egged and a small homemade bomb that (thankfully) didn't detonate put on our front walk.  I saw how people could put years and years and their whole heart and soul into a job, only to be treated as a threat to be tuned out rather than listened to.  I saw how teachers don't get more authority and power in the workplace with age, but often a lot less, unless they join the dark side and become administrators.  I saw how she coached speech and debate teams, sacrificing multiple Saturdays to get up at 4AM to ride a bus full of students to Omaha, for which she was paid a bonus as big as the teacher sponsor of the cheerleading squad.  I heard her tell me about dishonest and borderline illegal acts by her bosses that I can't mention here for liability reasons.  I even saw her in one case be the object of an obscene, verbally abusive rant by a student whose father threatened to sue because his daughter had been taken to detention as a result.  At the end, I saw the criminal lack of gratitude shown by the school for her decades of hard work.

To be honest, growing up I didn't think I could ever be as strong as she was, to endure all of that to get a comparatively small salary in return.  I'm lucky to teach in a much easier environment, with smaller classes, motivated students, and all the resources I need provided.  I hate that people assume that because I have this rarified job that that somehow makes me a better teacher than a public school teacher like my mother.  From what I've seen, it is quite the opposite.  My mother doesn't have an advanced degree, but I could never do what she did.  Our society treats people like her -outspoken experienced teachers who don't put up with anyone's shit- as some kind of obstacle to be overcome, rather than the heroic figures that they truly are.  Some can be proud to be the son of a politician or the son of a banker or the son of a CEO.  I'm proud to be the son of a teacher.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Gen X Reflections on the Culture Wars

Ah, the early 90s, when the Vice President would give a speech attacking a fictional TV character

Last week, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Andrew Hartman's A War For The Soul Of America, a history of the culture wars of the 1960s-1990s, with most of the focus on the 1980s forward.  It's a good book, and one that got me thinking a lot about the political culture when I came of age.  It's hard to put a finger on how and when and why I managed to slough off the conservatism and Republican identity I was raised with, but it just might well have been as a reaction to the wave of censorship that hit in my teen years.  In 1989 I didn't care for 2 Live Crew's music (I loved rap, wasn't so big on misogyny), but thought it was absolutely ridiculous that they would actually be banned in Florida.  By 1992 I had come to realize that big money ran the system, but it was when I saw Pat Buchanan's infamous "culture war" speech at the Republican convention (where the title of Hartman's book comes from) that I truly realized that I had no identity with the Republican party anymore whatsoever.  In that vein, Hartman's biggest contribution is to show that the so-called "culture wars" were not a sideshow or a distraction, but one of the (if not singular) central fronts of American politics.

At the end of the book Hartman claims that the culture wars are over, but it is not a triumphant statement.  Instead of arguing over school prayer, conservatives are just slashing money from schools and effectively privatizing them.  Instead of pushing for canonical texts in the universities, the very existence of the humanities is being questioned.  His conclusion was one of the most depressing things I've read recently.  Despite gains by progressives in many areas of cultural life, the neoliberal economic model has emerged victorious in ways people in the 1960s could never have imagined.  That, of course, is a different discussion for a different time.

In terms of the culture wars, as I read the book I began to think of their impact in generational terms.  I think my cohort, which could best be described as "late Generation X" were the first to feel these conflicts as children in our daily lives, because our school years coincided with the high point of the power of Christian conservatives.  (I'm thinking here of people born about 1973-1979.)  I have friends who were part of the wave of children sent to evangelical Christian day schools, indoctrinated to be foot soldiers in the Army of God.  I have cousins who were home-schooled in the 10th grade so that they would not learn about evolution in school.  Had they been born ten years earlier, their lives would have been very different.

We were also a generation to be scared of, the one described in, A Nation At Risk, the infamous 1983 report on education as part of a "rising tide of mediocrity."  My generation was viewed with suspicion, as a problem.  (This is why those columns praising millenials -inevitably written by boomer parents of millennials- make me insane with rage.)  We were the ones to pay penance for what our elders had wrought in the 60s.  We were the guinea pigs for the failed policy of "abstinence-only education," which coincided with the height of the AIDS crisis.  Because the generation before us had been toking weed, we were inundated with DARE in schools and my generational peers of color faced draconian policing in their neighborhoods and harsh new sentencing policies.  The popular culture we liked ended up being branded as evil and threatening.  Role playing games were purportedly Satanist, all the rap albums I wanted had "explicit content" stickers to bar me from buying them, and heavy metal supposedly had the potential to induce suicide.  When politicians fretted about the future and the loss of traditional values, we were usually the ones in their sights. African American youth of my generation had it far worse from me, from aforementioned drug enforcement policies to racist balderdash like Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve.  Black youth were constantly portrayed in the media as a threat to the rest of society or a burden upon it, with talk of teenage "predators" who needed to be put behind bars in new superprisons.

It's often been said that my generation (speaking here of late Gen X) that we are cynical and not politically motivated.  I think the political world of our youth, at the height of the culture wars, has a lot to do with it (however true the stereotype is.)  Politicians used us as a symbol of decline or an object in need of discipline.  The Democrats finally took the White House with Bill Clinton, who promptly sold out his base.  The Republicans put forward the likes of George HW Bush, a patrician lacking any charisma.  It was effectively a choice between "read my lips, no new taxes" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman!" No wonder we are less trusting than others.  (This article has statistics showing Gen Xers are far less trusting of institutions than either boomers or millennials, so it's not just a stereotype.)

Of course, generational thinking can be lazy thinking, and I don't want to indulge in it too much.  I do think, however, that my particular mini-cohort was the first to experience the culture wars in a real visceral way as children, and that experience marked the political mindset of its members in ways that it didn't for others.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Track of the Week: Wire "Mr Suit"

There are few bands that have grabbed me on first listen like Wire.  I first heard "12XU" on a Rhino's great DIY punk rock compilation series, and was struck by their brutal yet catchy minimalism.  While on a student trip to Germany the summer after high school I spent a lot of time in record stores, mostly because my options for music in my hometown were so limited.  I picked up the On Returning compilation, where I realized that "12XU" was actually pretty accessible compared to some of Wire's other tracks.  Nevertheless,  I probably spent too much of my time in the my host family's house absorbing the music I was buying rather than seeing the sights.  Thus are the perils of being a teenage music geek.

Wire had the philosophy that a song shouldn't overstay its welcome, meaning that their debut album Pink Flag  clocks in at only 35 minutes, but has over twenty songs.  Some of the songs stretch to a (for them) epic three minutes.  Others come in and out like a fast car through a small town without a streetlight.  "Mr Suit" is my favorite of these songs, it's a minute and half of pure propulsion.  The guitar tone has some ineffable quality that I still can't get over all these years later.  The lyrics are also a profane kiss off to a be-suited boss, which is pretty damn punk.

There really isn't another band out there like Wire, one that could combine the punk aesthetic with a non-obnoxious artiness.  In its own way it was a lot more challenging to its listeners than the Sex Pistols ranting about "Anarchy in the UK."

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My GOP Debate Hot Take

"Well you're a waste of space..."

Plenty of half-wit shysters are throwing their half-baked hot takes out into cyberspace tonight, so I figured, why not me?

I actually managed to finish watching the whole damn thing, with much aid from beer and tequila.  That was the only way to swim against the tide of bullshit while keeping my sanity intact.  Plenty of other people will be talking about who "won," but that's not my concern here.  Instead, I'd like to get into what the debate says more broadly about the Republican party.

In the first place, it shows the centrality of Fox News to the GOP, to the point that by cutting off the debate at ten according to their own criteria, Fox was allowed to essentially be the gatekeeper in this election.  Watching the debate it was also obvious that Trump was getting questions not about the issues, but about himself, questions obviously intended to undermine him.  Fox seems desperate, like the GOP leadership, to make him just go away.

The debate also illustrated quite a bit about the Republican party line, and the positions one must hold to be a contender for the Republican presidential nomination.  Here, in no particular order, are the policy positions that seemed universally supported by the candidates:

  • Lowering taxes
  • Increasing defense spending
  • Reducing the deficit (evidently by magic if taxes are cut and defense increased)
  • Slashing the social safety net
  • Limiting immigration
  • Denying the existence of structural racism
  • Banning abortion
  • Starting new wars in the Middle East
  • Letting Israel dictate American foreign policy
  • Refusing to back the nuclear deal with Iran
In addition to these basic notions, several candidates called for a flat tax, border wall, and elimination of the Common Core.  Gay marriage dropped off a bit, replaced by the "religious persecution" dog whistle, which implies that not allowing Christians to discriminate against gay people is some kind of oppression against Christians.  There actually weren't a lot of points of friction, apart from everyone other than Trump going after him.  The biggest came between Chris Christie and Rand Paul over government surveillance.

It is also obvious after this debate that the Republican party needs Ben Carson as a cover for deflecting charges of racism.  Carson himself attacked the very notion that racism exists in this country, allowing Republicans to say that a Bonafide Black Person backs them up.  Carson was the only candidate asked about "race relations," which seemed to make the intentions of the debate organizers pretty obvious.  (Or just expose them as racists.)  Scott Walker got a question about police brutality, but completely deflected it.  There was no real discussion of racist policing, a burning issue in this country for the past year.  That silence is telling indeed.

Another thing I noticed was that the Republican party is dancing on a volcano, as far as religion is concerned.  The question at the end about whether candidates had talked to God was pretty ridiculous, but some of the answers were downright scary.  Scott Walker talked about being washed in the blood of the lamb in a way that would make anyone who's not an evangelical Protestant nervous about having him as president.  Many candidates, like Cruz, also sounded the alarm about "religious persecution" which is a neat trick to avoid being direct about their homophobia, but still made him sound like someone suspicious of those who don't hold his beliefs.

Last, but not least, the debate has raised the profile of John Kasich, who had barely made it in.  Unlike the likes of Cruz, Paul, Trump, et al, Kasich actually seems like a serious man.  I got to thinking about this, and realized that this might a long con by the Republicans who are putting out a bunch of loonies so that a candidate who still follows their limiting and damaging ideology gets elected because he looks sane by comparison.  Kasich, despite not being a nutter, has still gone after labor and abortion rights in an aggressive fashion.  He also distinguished himself by discussing attending a gay wedding recently, unaware of the irony that if it was up to him, that wedding never would have actually happened.  Despite this hypocrisy, Kasich's star has risen because he looks like a gem compared to the turds he's surrounded by.  I will enjoy watching the continuing saga of my favorite reality TV show.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August Baseball

Rudy York hit 18 home runs in August of 1937 as a rookie.  He is also one of the most prominent American Indian baseball players of all time

August is my favorite baseball month of the regular season.  It comes before the start of (American) football season, giving the events primacy in the sports world.  Most of all, it is when things really get serious.  As I've mentioned before, the baseball season is not a matter of two halves, but of three parts.  The April-May part is subdued and hopeful in the early spring cool breeze, a time when surprise teams might briefly hold the spotlight and teams with high expectations are allowed to stumble a bit.  June-July is the winnowing phase, a proving ground where the teams that are going to have a shot emerge, and the also-rans make themselves known.  August-September is endgame, when the contenders fight to make the playoffs and the cellar dwellers have a hard time drawing a crowd to the park.  It comes after the trade deadline on July 31, when teams on the bubble scramble to get that last piece of the puzzle and the front runners stock up on spare parts.

It has been a few years since I've been able to enjoy August baseball as a fan of a contender, so seeing Noah Syndegaard blow his 109th (and last pitch) right by the fearsome Bryce Harper on the way to a Mets victory that put them tied for first with the Nationals on Sunday was a special treat.  The Mets haven't even had a winning season since 2008 and a playoff spot since 2006.  My other team, the White Sox, are indeed losing again this year, but not totally out of contention due to a strange bunching around the middle in the American League.  In any case, they haven't made the playoffs since 2009.  It feels good to watch these late season games with some emotional investment, rather than resignation.  When Syndegaard made the mighty Harper look a fool I jumped up from the couch and punched the air, which doesn't really happen in June, even in a similar situation.

When a team is contending the sometimes sleepy, laid back atmosphere of the ballpark is completely altered into a fervent, high stress zone where fans are keyed into every pitch.  The crowds at the last Mets home stand were going absolutely bananas, and sustaining loud chants of the sort usually reserved for soccer terraces.  Last night's game on the road in Miami showed the flipside of this phenomenon, where the Marlins barely drew a crowd on a Saturday night against the Mets, and quite a few fans were rooting for the opposing team.

The way fans of contending teams root is never the same, however.  When I was at AT&T Park in San Francisco last week the place was packed, but the Giants fans were fairly composed.  They had the confidence and swagger of a team that has won three championships this decade, whereas Mets fans are currently sloughing off a decade of futility and frustration in an ostentatious manner that fans of the likes of the Giants or Cardinals would likely find distasteful.  Thus is always the case with long-suffering fan bases.  I had just moved to Chicago during the end of the 1998 season, and Cubs fans treated the chance at a wild card spot like the Second Coming.  (I still remember watching the infamous Brant Brown botched catch and actually hearing the sound of a collective stomp and "aw fuck!" in the air.)

Baseball is a long season, from the first signs of life after winter to when the leaves begin to fall.  Hardcore fans watch a lot of games, a lot more than fans of any other sport.  It is a sport where one has to keep one's full emotions in reserve, because to treat every game with intensity will burn you out before Memorial Day.  Once August comes, it means either letting baseball fade into the background or, if your team is in a pennant race, suddenly throwing one's soul into each and every inning.  After Sunday I'm all in as far as the Mets are concerned, hopefully now that they have my heart, they won't break it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reagan, Neshoba, The Voting Rights Act, And The Eternal Return

Today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of an event little known in the general public but widely known among historians of recent American history: Ronald Reagan's speech in favor of "states rights" in Neshoba County, Mississippi, spitting distance from the site where civil rights workers James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered by white supremacists only sixteen years before.

It's good to see Reagan's statement about "states rights" in context, so here is the relevant section of the speech:

Today, and I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare, I know that one of the great tragedies of welfare in America today, and I don't believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they're trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.

I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement].

I believe in state's rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I'm looking for, I'm going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

Of course Reagan never mentions African Americans or segregation by name, but he sure implies a lot.  "States rights" itself had historically been used mostly (and vociferously) by the South to defend slavery, and then Jim Crow.  Reagan also talks about "welfare" and "education," which likely conjured up images of poor African Americans in the first place and integrated schools in the latter in the mind of his audience.  Note as well the sustained applause mentioned in the transcript, so loud that Reagan had to stop for a moment.  I doubt a crowd of white folks in rural Mississippi in 1980 was cheering that hard at the mention of "states rights" because they truly believed in the efficiency of state-level agencies.  No, I can bet that they had something else in mind.

And that's why the Neshoba speech matters, because it shows how modern conservatism has deftly incorporated color-blind racism into its arsenal.  According to a depressing article in the New York Times Magazine, that same color blind racism was used by conservative operatives and jurists to dismantle the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act.  Since the Supreme Court invalidated preclearance and allowed voter ID laws several states have passed a wave of legislation to restrict the vote, restrictions that fall especially hard on African Americans.  Such a wave of voter restrictions hasn't been seen since the 1880s and 1890s.  Gee, I wonder what was going on back then?  (Lee Atwater's infamous 1981 interview pretty much lays out the basis of this whole strategy.)

In the Times Magazine article former Kansas Senator and majority leader Bob Dole says something very interesting about what has been happening in his party:

But as [John] Roberts pressed his case [against a strong Voting Rights Act], a powerful opponent, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, was working against him. Dole, who voted for the Voting Rights Act in 1965, thought the Reagan team’s ideological fervor put the party’s efforts to build a broad, winning coalition of voters at risk. His argument prevailed, and Reagan ultimately signed the strengthened version of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, with the new standard for bringing discrimination cases intact. “I tried to make the point to the White House that, as a party, we needed to demonstrate that we cared and were concerned about votes from African-Americans and Hispanics,” Dole, now 92, told me earlier this summer. “I don’t know where we lost track after Abraham Lincoln.”

It's obvious from this statement that Dole does not think that the Republican party is making any effort whatsoever to concern itself with representing the interests of either African Americans or Latinos.  As others have said before me, the Southern strategy has ended up, fifty years later, turning the Republican party into a white identity party.  Considering the changing demographics of American society, the only way to ensure the success of such a plan is to disenfranchise those who would be likely to vote against Republicans.  For that reason new voting restrictions target people of color, the poor of all races, women, and college students.

That desire is sadly nothing new in American politics.  From day one there have been voting restrictions, whether they be by property or race.  During the Gilded Age nativists argued against immigration in order to suppress the power of immigrant voters, and some in New York even toyed with bringing back property requirements.  The Voting Rights Act wasn't passed until 1965, only fifty short years ago.  In a society where universal suffrage is the legal principle behind voting, those who defend the interests of the privileged will always attempt to drown democracy, since they can't win any other way.  In the wake of Neshoba, Reagan's followers fought to end the Voting Rights Act, and they effectively did, to this nation's great shame.  Much like the period of postwar prosperity that lasted until the 1970s, the 48 year stretch of actual equal voting will likely be remembered in the future as a bright blip in a much more dismal story.  Of course, things could change, but I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Track of the Week: Sir Douglas Quintet "Mendocino"

I'm back from the Bay Area but still can't get over what an engaging place it was.  I've only immediately fallen in love with three cities in my life: Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Francisco, and in the latter case I fell super hard. (I guess I have a thing for port cities.)

Like New York City it's a place that has long drawn musicians in like a cultural magnet, often from far away places.  Doug Sahm and his original band the Sir Douglas Quintet hailed from Texas, where they cut one of the best garage rock tracks of the mid-60s, before heading out to the bay like so many other "gentle people."  This gang of Texans who favored the rhythms of 50s R&B and Mexican folk music must have been out of place amidst amidst all of the psychedelia, something referenced in songs like "At The Crossroads," which have longings for the Lone Star State.

While Sahm wrote a lot of other songs about Texas (where he eventually returned), one of his best is about a California town, "Mendocino."  It has his usual off-hand feel, starting with a little thank you leading into a memorable Farfisa organ hook over a choogling piano part driving things along. The organ is not psychedelic, but reminiscent of 50's sock hops, and the beat is more Tex-Mex than it is rock and roll.  Sahm and his band were a throwback to popular music as a soundtrack to a good time, as something you could dance to.  Sure, I like heavy rock and music that takes itself super seriously, but now that it's summer I just want something fun for letting the good times roll.  That's why every year when summer hits the dog days I listen to a little Doug Sahm on the road to a Mendocino of the mind.