Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Takeaways From The Kaepernick Affair

I don't want to write yet another hot take on a subject that a lot of other people are hot taking. Instead, I'd like to analyze Colin Kaepernick's protest and the reactions to it, and what they say. Here are some simple observations.

The Inability Of White America To Acknowledge Racism Is On Display (again)
I mean, we already knew this, but the reaction to Kaepernick's very silent, unobtrusive protest has touched off a firestorm among white people. The folks upset about his refusal to stand for the national anthem are also the type who never seemed to have a problem with the police murder of African Americans. His protest is meant to address systemic injustice, a thing that the vast majority of white Americans actively or tacitly or implicitly support. The fact is, a very large chunk of white America, probably the majority, cares more about the national anthem than it does about the lives of black people.

Nationalism Is A Very Powerful Force In American Life
This is a drum I keep beating, and I am going to keep banging on it until people listen. In America we coerce children to say a secular prayer to the flag in school every morning with words they don't even understand. At every sporting event we play the national anthem. The flag saturates our clothing, and politicians are expected to wear flag pins on their clothing. Hell, even many sportscasters do it. This behavior is highly unusual in a country that purports to be a democracy. When someone challenges these practices, just watch the lizard brains of so many people in this country go into rage spasms, as we're seeing now.

It's Okay For Athletes To Beat Their Spouses But Not To Engage In Critical Politics
One of the times this year that I've felt the sickest happened at a Mets game. The team had brought back Jose Reyes, who in the off season brutally battered his spouse. While Reyes served out a suspension, the crowd cheered him lustily. If Kaepernick showed up to CitiField, however, I would fear for his safety. Other players have also abused women, such as Aroldis Chapman, and their careers are going just fine. Contrast this to Kaepernick, or even Michael Vick. In our misogynistic society flags and dogs rate higher than women for some people. Athletes are allowed to do a great many terrible things, but for them to be politically critical of this country opens them up for attack. Little has changed since the days of Muhammad Ali.

American Nationalism Is Militarist In Nature
Those who are critical of Kaepernick often say that he is somehow disrespecting veterans and "the troops" who fought and are fighting for "freedom." I find this disturbing on many levels. That so many so easily conflate the nation's symbols with the military's symbols makes me think a military coup could be successful in this country. It also shows tremendous ignorance about what Kaepernick his doing. His protest has fuck all to do with the military; it's about the police and the justice system. Some seem to see the conflate the police with the military, which says a lot about the militarization of the police, and how they are perceived as fighting an internal enemy. (That might explain the willingness in white America to let the murder of black people at the hands of the police slide.) The stuff about the flag being connected to the military as a freedom fighting force not only shows a lack of understanding of American history, but a disturbing tendency to view the military as infallible. Most American wars have had little to do with freedom, from the empire building of the Spanish-American War to the empire building of the Mexican-American War to the empire building of the war in Iraq, and many other in between.

The farcical view of American history as a story of freedom also contributes to the inability of white Americans to see how they have and continue to profit from racism. I salute Colin Kaepernick for jolting those people.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Exclusive: A Second RNC Leaked Phone Call

[Editor's Note: My sources were able to procure most of a RNC conference call three weeks back. They have come back to me with another one recorded sometime last week.]


REINCE PREIBUS: We're all here? Good. I just wanted to check in, gentlemen, and hear how things are going.

PAUL RYAN: Not well, Reince, not well. That asshole Boehner is probably on some golf course right now sipping a Natural Ice and smoking a Marlboro and laughing his orange ass off right now. We knew Trump was a maverick, but this is getting ridiculous.

CHARLES KOCH: The goddamn plane has crashed into the mountain!

PREIBUS: I know hiring Bannon took us all by surprise, but isn't it good that Trump is actually speaking instead of ranting? Remember, we want him to lose, but to lose in a way that doesn't make us look bad. I see potential for him to gain back some points.

KOCH: Are you kidding me? I'm putting all my money into the Congressional races, but a landslide for Hillary will wipe out our money advantage. We are in a bad position here. I told you that we should have moved mountains to get Cruz the nomination.

RYAN: Mr Koch, you know that my colleagues in Washington hate Cruz more than Trump. He's of more use to as someone to shut down the government to hamstring the presidency.

KARL ROVE: If I may interject, we are in a dangerous position. We all know that your average voter could give a fuck about the inheritance tax and actually likes the entitlements they get. That's why we win with other issues. Back in '04 we rode the gay marriage issue to victory. The alt-right shit that Trump is parroting has the same effect, but it alienates too many people in the middle. If we can't get more Hispanics to vote for the GOP then we are fucked.

KOCH: Karl, have you gone soft? You and I both know we have been very successful in making it harder for many of our opponents' voters to be able to vote. It doesn't matter what their opinions are if it's harder to get to the polls.

ROVE: I'm with you all the way on this, Mr. Koch. But we are seeing backlash against it, and the voter restrictions are causing major blowback. It might cost us more than it gains.

KOCH: This from the friend of the Bush family. Where's your dynasty now?

PREIBUS: Gentlemen! This kind of fighting is exactly what our enemies want!

ROVE: Sorry Mr. Koch.

RYAN: Don't forget: we will still at least have the House. I will be able to keep my troops in line, no worries about that. McConnell gets on my nerves, but even if he won't have the majority, he will get the votes he needs to filibuster everything. We will not let a liberal Supreme Court nominee go forward no matter what.

PREIBUS: We need to get that message out to the Bible thumpers and gun humpers. They always put us over the top in close races. They will come out and vote if they think the 2nd Amendment is threatened or abortion less restricted.

ROVE: Maybe, but if you look at the demographics the younger people are not as engaged on those issues. In ten years we won't be able to do this. I fear that we are fucked.

PREIBUS: So the alt-right stuff is the best we've got right now?

ROVE: 'fraid so, and it's killing us with nonwhite voters.

RYAN: I for one think our conservative message of free markets transcends racial and age barriers.

ROVE: That sounds great, but our voters vote with hate and resentment, not with the values of the University of Chicago's economics department.

KOCH: Which is why we double down on voter IDs. That will actually get results.

RYAN: Ok, but what the hell do we do with Trump? He doesn't listen to us and he hires people like Bannon. The man is out of control.

ROVE: We have to staunch the bleeding somehow. I think we need to keep leaning on the media, and any time they call out his lies start a huge campaign alleging media "bias." If we muddy the waters enough it will blunt his tendency towards self-destruction.

KOCH: Well, I'll give a call to Murdoch and see what he can do....

Friday, August 26, 2016

Billboard Top Ten August 30, 1980

I've recently been obsessed with a time period I like to call Reagan Dawn, which I date as roughly between 1979 and 1982. It coincides with the election of Reagan, along with two big economic downturns. It's the world where I first gained consciousness, and a time when the culture of the seventies gave way to something new. It's also a time whose cultural artifacts seem very rooted in it, and rarely recalled in the present day. Now, on with the countdown!

10. "More Love" by Kim Carnes
Next year Kim Carnes would hit number one with "Bette Davis Eyes," a song that would help define the pop sound of the coming decade. "More Love" still has a foot in the seventies. The chorus reminds me of KC and the Sunshine Band's "Keep It Coming Love." It's got a bit of disco swing in it, but the synthesizers and stripped-down sound are signs of changing times.

9. "Let My Love Open The Door"

For some reason I thought this song came later in the 80s, probably because it sounds ahead of its time. The synthesizer sound was a harbinger of what was to come, and Townsend's softer approach reflected the middle aging of the Boomer generation. It's a great song, and better than any song the Who put out after Quadrophenia in 1973. It's refreshing to hear one of Townsend's more heartfelt songs without Roger Daltry flexing his scrote all over the vocal track.

8. "Give Me The Night" by George Benson
Oh yeaaah! People tend to think of funk as a 70s genre, but the early 80s saw some fantastically funky hits. Rick James, Prince, and the Gap Band might be more remembered today, but this song shows that George Benson knew a thing or two about laying down a killer groove. This song also demonstrates how, like New Wave, 80s funk had more angular rhythms than the 70s variety, perhaps reflecting the "straighter" nature of America's turn in the Reagan Dawn.

7. "All Out Of Love" by Air Supply

Is there a more Reagan Dawn artist than Air Supply? They drew from soft rock explosion of the 70s, but more polished and less funky with a dash of bombast. It was emotive and shimmery and a little over the top, like an early 80s prime time soap opera. No artist ever had a better soft rock name. I mean "Air Supply" is about as evocative of this music as it gets. From Australia, they are also on the edge of the first wave of the Antipodean Invasion of the 1980s, with Men at Work to soon follow. This cultural phenomenon has given me a lifelong fascination with Australia, which I still yearn to visit.

6. "Fame" by Irene Cara

Contrary to a popular misconception, disco did not die right after the Disco Demolition Night in Chicago in the summer of 1979. It was still all over the charts in 1980, but a little more stripped down and less glammed out. This new disco, instead of dying, would quietly form the basis of 80s dance music. Take Irene Cara, who sang this song in 1980, but went on to do "What A Feeling" in 1983, at which point the Reagan Dawn had turned into new morning. This Giorgio Moroder-fied disco does not have the big string sections, replacing it with synthesizer, a sign of things to come.

5. "Take Your Time (Do It Right)" by The SOS Band
Speaking of 80s funk, The SOS gave the world a particularly tasty slice in the summer of 1980. I mean, just try not dancing to this song. I dare you. Sadly these are the kind of funky grooves that would get killed off by the increasing computerization of R&B in the 80s.

4. "Emotional Rescue" by The Rolling Stones
For awhile in the mid-1970s the Stones branched out from blues rock to make some music inflected by reggae, funk and disco. They pretty much got back to basics on 1978's Some Girls, except for the discofied megahit "Miss You." On "Emotional Rescue" they went back to the funk, with Jagger affecting a horrible falsetto. I can't stop being distracted by it, which is a shame, since the groove is so tight. Then he makes things worse with his silly vamping at the end in an intentionally low voice. This is perhaps a taste of a decade of bad decisions that Jagger was about to make.

3. "Magic" by Olivia Newton-John

Like I said, disco was not dead in 1980. Hell, this song comes from a roller disco movie! (Xanadu is one of my fave so bad it's good flicks.) Despite that fact, it is deceptively ahead of its time. The watery guitar and synths would be big 80s pop production elements, although the laid-back drum beat still lingers from the 70s. Olivia Newton-John may have been the representative artist of the Reagan Dawn, hitting her peak in that era with "Physical" in 1981 and soon dropping off.

2. "Upside Down" by Diana Ross

Now this right here is a song. It is appropriate for the dusk of disco, edgier and less ostentatious. The song is built on a wicked, sharp-elbowed groove that has never failed to get me moving. Ross's soft voice provides a sweet counterpoint, yin to the groove's yang. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk indeed.

1. "Sailing" by Christopher Cross

Poor Christopher Cross. In 1980 he wrote and performed what's probably the most successful Yacht Rock of them all, right before the advent of MTV. In the 70s ordinary looking guys could get big if they could write catchy songs, but in the age of videos it would take something more than that. Phil Collins managed to crack to code by making his videos stand out, but in 1981 that wasn't really an option yet. The smooth sound of this track, easy listening but with more of a soul influence, sounds like Reagan Dawn. Cross, like that period, was liminal. Too bad he got caught in between.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Trailers From Trailers From Hell

I am a Gen X child of the 80s and 90s, which meant that I spent a lot of time watching cable when it consisted of B-grade movies and 70s TV reruns. I stayed up late on the weekend to watch USA Up All Night and its treasure trove of trash, but also random monster movies, westerns, Kung Fu Theater, World War II flicks, and lesser Clint Eastwood films. (The Gauntlet and Coogan's Bluff anyone?). My whole family did Tae Kwon Do for a few years, and my dad would watch any random martial arts movie and dissect the fighting style, especially impressed with Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. (He reached black belt.) Mystery Science Theater 3000 was such a revelation because the characters were riffing on bad movies the way me and my friends and my family did, just a lot funnier. Once I left college and was too poor for cable, my consumption of trash entertainment was replaced by pretentious foreign film rental. In recent years, however, I have been going back to the entertainment that nourished me in my youth. Three of my favorite recent documentaries are Not Quite Hollywood, about Australian "Oz-ploitation" films of the 70s and 80s, Electric Boogaloo, about schlock purveyors Cannon Films, and The World Of Roger Corman, about America's greatest B-movie producer.

As luck would have it, I learned about Trailers From Hell, and amazing website where B-movie film-maker experts like Joe Dante, John Landis, and Allison Anders offer commentary on the trailers for all kinds of great B-movies. I can sit down and lose hours looking at it. Fans of the genre should check it out. Here are some trailers from the site that I like, either for the movie, the commentary, or both.

Bloody Mama 
Shelly Winters as a murderous, gun-toting 1930s bank robber? Yes please! Roger Corman himself gives the commentary on this trailer. Also notice the very young DeNiro in the trailer.

Taste The Blood of Dracula
I love Hammer horror films, which are all spooky castles and Gothic moods with the blood mixed in, rather than the main attraction. Christopher Lee was the greatest Drac ever, period. I think the fact that he (purportedly) had killed men at close range as a member British special forces in World War II gave him special insight into the character.

Monster Squad
I loved this movie soooooo much when it came out. I dare not watch it again lest my happy childhood memories be disturbed, because I am sure my adult eyes will find it ridiculous. "Wolfman's got nards!"

The Car
This movie has haunted me for decades. It's about a killer, possibly possessed car that goes around running people over. I remember watching it with my dad late at night and being scared out of my mind, and being sent to bed before it was over. I woke up the next day and immediately asked my dad how they managed to stop the car.

Beneath The Planet Of The Apes

Bad sequel, but as John Landis points out, interesting in its badness. Charlton Heston delivers a performance that's insanely sweaty and over the top even by his standards. I'll never forget the moment when the mutants pull off their faces, which is serious nightmare fodder.

I Was A Teenage Werewolf

One underrated effect of the postwar teen culture was the proliferation of the "I Was A Teenage..." movies. My favorite thing is that the titular werewolf is Michael Landon. Yes, that Michael Landon. I remember seeing him as a guest on Carson one time, and Johnny showed a clip of this after he came out to embarrass him.

The Terror

Maybe the most infamous Corman film, because it had multiple directors and no discernible plot, until a completely contrived speech by Dick Miller at the end (in a Nu Yawk accent transported to old England) attempted to tie everything together. It still made money, which is more than you can say for a lot of Hollywood blockbusters.

Viva Las Vegas

Elvis movies are schlock personified, and mostly unwatchable. This one is different, mostly because of the unstoppably vivacious force of nature that was 1963 Ann-Margret. She practically bursts through the screen, and seems to inspire Elvis to wake the heck up and match her energy.


A baby alligator gets flushed down the toilet, then emerges a decade later from the Chicago sewers as a massive, man eating monster. I remember seeing this on TV and loving it as a little kid. Little did I know, the writer, John Sayles, would later go on to be a respected independent film maker.


Last but by no means least, this is the best of all of the rip-offs of Jaws, and a movie I still can't believe my parents let me watch. Also written by John Sayles and directed by future Gremlins director Joe Dante, it's the rare film that shows children getting killed. The sequel was actually directed by James Cameron!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Trump And German-American Identity

A nineteenth century German beer garden in New York, fun for the whole family

I am a German-American, which is a phrase that very few people of my ancestry use to describe themselves. This would've been surprising back in the nineteenth century, when German language newspapers abounded and German beer halls were a common meeting place for German immigrants in cities across the country. Today, according to some measures, German is the most common ethnic ancestry in America, just ahead of African-American. At the same time, one does not see many outward expressions of German-American identity, not nearly what one sees for say Irish, Greek, Italian, Puerto Rican, etc.

I've long pondered this question, and if I had the time, talent, and resources, I'd love to write a sweeping history of Germans in America. A lot of it certainly has to do with the effect of the world wars, which made identifying with Germany very problematic. My German immigrant great-grandfather, for instance, fought in the American army in World War I, even as his own brother was fighting in the Kaiser's forces. Matters weren't helped by Nazi sympathizer groups like the German American Bund in the 1930s. Those events added urgency to the broader erasure of German ethnic identity, something already common among those groups deemed "white." That process for German-Americans (or at least those who were not Jewish) first began back in the nineteenth century, when German Protestants would often be compared favorably to Irish Catholics by WASP elites. The wave of hatred against German Americans in World War I changed that perception, and accelerated assimilation.

Another thing that probably contributed to the lack of a strong German identity was the fact that Germany was an extremely divided country before 1871, and even after that regional and religious divisions were very stark. One of my ancestors actually emigrated because he did not want to be drafted into the Kaiser's army. He was Catholic, and at the time the church had been attacked by the Protestant Prussian dominated new national state in the name of national unity. Most of my ancestors would have spoken the Plattdeutsch dialect of the swampy northwestern places they came from like Oldenburg and Ost Friesland, which would have been unintelligible to someone speaking "high" German.

The vast, vast majority of Americans of German ancestry spend little to no time thinking about their ethnic origins or know much of anything about German food, culture, language, or history, apart from World War II movies. I grew up in central Nebraska, a very heavily German area, and I didn't get a taste until I took German classes in high school from the son of Volga Germans forced to flee the Soviet Union. No one in my family ever cooked German food or spoke in German or encouraged me to learn or know much about German things. (This despite the fact that two of my grandparents had grown up speaking German in the home with their immigrant parents.) A couple of genealogists in the family were interested in researching the family's German roots, but not really at all invested in a German-American identity. We were certainly not ashamed of it or anything, it just didn't really matter that much. German-Americans, by and large, like my own family, have long fully accepted whiteness.

I get depressed that Donald Trump too is a German-American, but his history with his identity is very interesting and telling, both about him and about German-American identity and the lack thereof. Just today the Times published an article on Trump's immigrant grandfather, and the fact that for years his father Fred and Donald himself had claimed their ancestry was "Swedish" rather than German. His grandfather of course Anglicized his name from "Drumpf" to "Trump" much earlier. The Trump talent for self-fabrication seems to go back really far in his family. His own family history shows the larger story of German identity being shed very quickly in the twentieth century, within a generation of arriving in America. (Donald Trump having a Scottish immigrant mother certainly helped with that distancing, too.)

While the article paints this decision as a way for Fred Trump to have easier dealings with Jewish businessmen, the Trump family went well beyond a change in ethnic origin in its embrace of whiteness. Fred Trump was notorious for building segregated housing, and Donald himself was sued for housing discrimination in the early 1970s. He has gone on to run the most explicitly white supremacist presidential campaign since George Wallace.

While this German-American will not be voting for Trump, I see in his family history the larger, unfortunate dynamics of German-American identity. Take for instance Milwaukee, probably the most German large city in America, and also by some measures the most racially segregated. (Having been there I would not doubt that assessment.) The borders of whiteness are even starker there than in most American cities, and that's saying something. Like other white Americans, German-Americans have gladly accepted the benefits of whiteness and tossed what once made them "other" in the trash, with the usual social, moral and spiritual consequences.

It was not always this way. The first big wave of German migration after the 18th century "Pennsylvania Dutch" came after the failed revolutions of 1848. (This wave included the first of my German ancestors to come to America. He was an artisan, I'd like to believe that he was a political radical, but I have no evidence.) Those immigrants, many of whom were political refugees owing to their commitments to democracy and equality, took their beliefs with them. In Texas, those anti-slavery German immigrants refused to cooperate with the Confederacy during the Civil War. In the north, a large number of German immigrants served in the Union army, including '48er Carl Schurz, who was a general and later Republican senator. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, a German immigrant himself, used his pen to attack slavery, the Klan, and mistreatment of Chinese immigrants and to support Reconstruction. German-Americans helped build up socialist parties and institutions, putting socialist mayors in charge of Milwaukee. And, I would like to add, the antipathy of beer-drinking Germans to temperance forced the Republican party to hold back on the issue for decades, and their proclivity for beer helped undermine Prohibition when it did get put in place.

Nowadays these roots are unknown in American society apart from historians. German-Americans have been melted (with their enthusiastic participation) into the white mass, and Donald Trump is now the most famous German-American in the country. This, I guess, is the ultimate endpoint for opportunistic cultural amnesia, and it makes me despair.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Flamin' Groovies, "Have You Seen My Baby?"

The Flamin' Groovies, like Big Star, are one of those bands that are inexplicably obscure. I ask myself, how could music this good and catchy not be world-conqueringly popular? They started off in the San Francisco scene of the sixties, but didn't play psychedelic music. Instead, they loved early rock and roll, with its groove and rhythm. Later in the 1970s they evolved into doing power pop, and cut some of the best songs in that genre. In between they put out Teenage Head in 1971, full of blues rock scorchers. It is by far the best Stones album that the Stones never cut, but with more than a strong dash of Iggy Pop-style garage feeling.

"Have You Seen My Baby?" from Teenage Head is a cover of a Randy Newman tune from his 12 Songs album, and for my money is the best Newman cover, even better than the ones Harry Nilsson did on Nilsson Sings Newman. They leave the voice down in the mix, communicating the narrator's desperation better by not making the lyrics legible. It moves at a blistering pace with some boogie piano and driving guitar churning hard over relentless drumming. It was the perfect song to open Newman's album, but here it turns up the heat after the first two tracks. Randy Newman's version plays up the pathetic, oddball nature of the narrator with his singular voice, as he does on so many other songs. The Groovies jettison that for some honest to goodness rocking.

Like Big Star, the Groovies were a band out of time. In the early seventies, during the rise of arena rock, they chose to mine a purer seam of rock and roll. Instead of bowing their guitars or playing lobotomized Deep Purple riffs, they kept the groove and rhythm. They didn't have the world of independent labels later spawned by punk to fall back on, which is a damn shame, since after Teenage Head's commercial failure key members left the band. All these years later I'd rather listen to that album a hundred times before putting on a Humble Pie record (and they're all right with me.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Back To Comic Books

Web of Spiderman 64

My early adolescent obsessions went through three very distinct phases. At age 11 I started collecting baseball cards, an obsession that dominated much of my free time in 1987 and 1988, before dimming in 1989 and pretty much going away by 1991. In junior high, starting some time in 1989, I got very heavily invested in comic books, and started checking out compilation books from the library. A kid a grade ahead of me in my study hall also sold me a pile of old Spider Man comics he had. They seemed to fit pretty well with my love of Dungeons and Dragons and Stephen King novels. Unfortunately for me, by the time I graduated from the eighth grade, the nerd friend group I was a part of basically decided I wasn't cool enough for them, and cast me out. They had finally found someone they could mock and feel superior to for a change. (Of course, I spent a very sad and pathetic year trying to ingratiate myself with them to be allowed back in, to no avail.) I associated my interests with that group of nerds, and sometime in the spring of 1991 basically turned my back on comics and role playing games and started obsessing about music. Also, I soon started reading philosophy and heavier novels in my spare time. I associated my nerdy obsessions with my former friends who thought they were better than me. I decided that, in actuality, role playing and comics were a lot less cool and mature than punk rock and Dostoevsky. I would even later poo-poo the entire art form, finding it much more limited in its capacity to tell a story than literature or film. Still couldn't get a date, though.

Had I not been ostracized at age 14, I think I might have been able to sustain my interest in comics. On many days after school I would walk over to the public library and wait for my parents to pick me up after school. I soon started making a detour over to the main street of my hometown's downtown (just a block away) to go to an old school newsstand that was still there called Central News. They had a big spinner rack of comics, and a much bigger selection than was available at the local drug store.

My first purchase was Web of Spiderman 64, in the spring of 1990. I chose that title because that was the title that the kid had sold a pile of the previous year. It was actually not considered to be a very good comic, but being a contrarian, I decided to make it "my" Spidey title. This is the same distaste for doing the popular thing that has led me to be a fan of the Mets, White Sox, and Everton FC. I also bought a ton of Batman and Punisher, whose violent ways were a kind of naughty joy for the nice altar boy that I was at the time.

I actually kept my purchasing of comic books a secret from my parents, because I was buying a lot of them and I feared their judgement of my spendthrift ways. I had a desk drawer full of my comics stash, where other, more daring teenage boys would've had much more illicit materials. (I also kept my visits to the arcades secret for the same reason. Yes, I was such a dork that my sneaking involved comic books and video games, not booze and porn.) Later on, during the early 90s comics boom, a bona fide comic book store opened up in my hometown, but by that time I had checked out, although I did occasionally read a (true) friend's comics, including the Dark Empire series and the Death of Superman books.

Flash forward to today-ish. Last year I was contacted by a reader of this blog (hope you're still reading) who lives in the area wanted to chat with me in person about the process of leaving academia for independent high schools. As we talked it came out that he was a huge comics fan, and that he knew a great comic book primary source for my current research project. He took me to Midtown Comics, where we were able to track it down in a compilation. He wasn't wrong about the source, which was great, but as I started reading that comic and others, I was reminded of what had drawn me in to begin with. I started checking out graphic novels from my school's library and buying a few books here and there from stores in the city. Then, a few months ago realized that there was comics store not far from where I live. (Amazing Heroes in Union, New Jersey, to be precise.) It's small but packed to the rafters with a pretty astonishing selection of both comics and books. The owner is a chatty, friendly guy about the polar opposite of the character on The Simpsons. Now that it's summer I've been taking my daughters with me and letting them pick a kids comic to take home.

I am by no means diving in completely (I have never really wanted to be a member of any subculture club that would have me.) I pick up some books that look interesting, follow a couple of titles pretty consistently, and chat a little with the comic store owner. It is a little strange to delve back into an adolescent activity that I had already considered passe by the time I was in the tenth grade. Some of it I think is a coming to grips with my rejection back in the eighth grade, which had haunted me for years. Because of my loneliness in my teen years that resulted from not really having a group of friends, I never turned down a social engagement in college and grad school, hoping that my friends would not suddenly decide that they didn't like me and wouldn't want me around anymore. It took awhile, but I guess I am over that fear, and am over avoiding things that remind me of the little nerd world that I was cast out of.

Because you know what? Comics are cool. They are a unique art form, and when done well, are really stunning things to behold. The amount of lore and history built into the biggest heroes adds layers of richness missing in many other forms of pop culture. As someone obviously interested in history, I like an art form where the history is an essential part of enjoying it. (This is also why I like baseball.) Comic fans are often mocked, but it is definitely a more demanding and discerning fandom than many others. As a child of Generation X, I also just miss physical media artifacts. Everything is getting downloaded and pixelated, and that's not a wholly bad thing, but it does make me feel alienated somehow from the art. There is something more vital about going to a comics store, browsing the racks, flipping through the books, and choosing a couple to take home. I find it to be a kind of subtle therapy, the type of small pleasure that makes life bearable. If that's not reason enough to go back to a childish thing, then what isn't?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Nationalism Nationalism Nationalism

I am going to start sounding like a broken record here, but I am going to keep delivering my message until people more important than me hear it. So here I go again.

Nationalism has been a crucial force in American political history, and it has been THE major factor in the rise of Trump, much more so than "trade" or "jobs," which he is merely using to talk about the nation.

There, I said it.

I feel prompted to make this statement after listening to the 538 Elections Podcast yesterday, which as always was full of smart, analytical commentary. Towards the end they discussed the recent Gallup survey of Trump supporters that showed that these people are not the economically downtrodden white working class they have been portrayed as in the media. They do not live in areas with lots of immigration, either. The hosts discussed these findings, and some did discuss the obvious appeals to cultural and racial resentment in all this. They talked about anxiety over the old America going away. But they also weren't sure of what the glue was tying all this together, and to why people who aren't hurting economically are responding to Trump's talk on trade issues, which they don't seem to have much knowledge of.

The answer is, of course, nationalism. Nationalism nationalism nationalism. Say it with me folks, don't be shy. Trump's entire message this whole campaign has been, essentially, that America is headed in the wrong direction, is "losing," and needs to be turned around. Hence his ubiquitous slogan. Nationalism is such a dangerous political force because it can bring in and subsume a variety of things at once. Trump's trade talk, for example, isn't being bought by people because they know anything about trade (they don't), but because of the promise of building the nation's industrial power back. His hate directed and immigrants and Muslims is grounded in a racist version of nationalism that sees the white nation threatened by "others" coming in from outside. His foreign policy, which amounts to telling international institutions like NATO to fuck off and to engage in wars of plunder ("take their oil"), is as nationalist as it gets.

The people in places who are most likely to consider their ancestry "American" (as opposed to English, German, African, etc.) are the ones most likely to vote for Trump. Why? Because they are the people most invested in a particular version of American national identity. The people in those places think of themselves as the "real Americans." Back in 2010 they got motivated to "take our country back!" during the birth of the Tea Party, Trumpism is just that on steroids. They think this is "their" country, and after eight years of a black college professor from Chicago with a Kenyan father in the White House they are foaming at the mouth. Trump was smart enough to understand that it was this white nationalist resentment that drove the base of the Republican Party, not tax policy or government regulation.

The Democrats as well as the Trumpists have been engaged in nation talk, but we don't call it that. The Democratic convention was notable for the number of generals who spoke, and became most dramatic when the Khans took the stage. Khizr Khan very passionately argued for an alternative version of American nationalism, one where America was defined by its diversity and a commitment to equal rights. There has been little policy discussion in this election, it has essentially boiled down to what version of the nation voters identify with more strongly.

This all begs the question of why so few people are talking about nationalism in this election. Part of it has to do with the strange American denial that nationalism exists in this country. We talk about "patriotism," not nationalism, in another manifestation of a bogus assumed American exceptionalism. This even extends to professional historians of the US, who haven't really done much to address it. Our political commentators tend to want to look at very surface level factors in politics ("blue collar anger") and thus consistently downplay how racism and nationalism are such titanic forces in the American body politic.

C'mon people, stop ignoring what's staring you right in the face. We've been lucky this time that the man stirring up the forces of nationalism has sabotaged himself. We might not be so lucky next time.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Michael Lewis' Moneyball might be the most influential book written about baseball, since it popularized many of the baseball management strategies used by the Oakland As. Their great innovation was to win without a lot of money by taking advantage of inefficiencies in the system. By using stats such as on base percentage when scouting players, for example, they could pick up great players for cheap who may have lacked the obvious physical attributes of the more highly prized prospects.

I have my own strategy, which I call Moneybeer, for getting tasty beers at a good price. The beers may not be as delectable as say an Edmund Fitzgerald Porter or Two Hearted Ale (two of my favorites), but for the money they're pretty damn good. They are Scott Hatteberg to craft beers' Mike Trout and Budweiser's Marv Throneberry. Not only are they better tasting than the name brands, they're also usually cheaper, too. Here are some of my candidates for best beer for the money.

Old Milwaukee
Old Milwaukee evidently made you a mountain man back in the 80s

I remember back in the 1990s, before the craft beer craze had fully saturated beer culture in America, Consumer Reports did a ranking of beers by blind taste test. (The beers were all relatively mass-produced.) Old Milwaukee won, which surprised me, since I always associated it with those cheesy "it doesn't get any better than this" commercials. But you know what? Yesterday it was hot as balls and I went to a Mets game with a friend. I packed a couple of Old Milwaukee tall boys in my ice chest to drink in the baking parking lot, and I'll be damned if that wasn't one of the best tasting beers I've ever had. There are better beers, but on a hot day few go down so smooth.

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Yes, a guy in Illinois made a PBR coffin for himself

This beer's reputation has been ruined by hipsters, but hey, hipsters often have good taste in stuff. It's cheaper than the mass market beers like Bud or Coors, and tastes better. One thing I've never understood is its distribution. So many liquor stores don't have it, and others only have it in thirty pack cubes. The other problem is that it has some kind of strange sugary chemical slurry in it, and I can't have more than two or the back of my throat starts tasting icky.

Narragansett Lager
Drinking a Narragansett is like entering a time machine, in more ways than one

This is a recent discovery. Awhile back I was at a work-sponsored happy hour at a bar, and my two drink tickets were good for either a shitty microbrew that smelled like yeast that a colleague gave to me because he couldn't finish it or a can of Narragansett. I went with the latter, and was happily surprised. It's out of Rhode Island, and I'll bet it's only available regionally. I happened to have it in their retro 70s cans (pictured above), which I can't seem to find in my local liquor store.

Preppies meet an old salt making chowder in the 70s in this Genesee ad 

From the forests and rusting factories in upstate New York comes Genesee. The first time I had it was on a total whim. I walked down to one of the local bodegas in my old neighborhood in Newark, and saw 24 ounce cans of Genesee for only a dollar. The cans were white with just a small red label, they looked so cheap and generic that I had to have one out of curiosity's sake. I like Narragansett better, but you really can't beat the price.

National Bohemian

Speaking of local beers, when I first went to Baltimore I was confused by seeing this on the taps at bars, and by all the people calling it "Natty Boh," rather than its given name. As my friend Jim once said of it, "I like a good shitty local beer." The aftertaste is a little thin, but I'll drink this over Bud any day.

Modelo Especial
Gotta love a beer that uses a garage rock classic in its ad

You've heard of Corona, Tecate, and Dos Equis, but you should be drinking Modelo. Their dark Bohemian version, Negro Modelo, is a higher priced and good, but the straight Modelo is the best Mexican beer for the money. Also a favorite on hot days.


This beer almost doesn't belong here because it is about the same price point as the big three. It is, however, SIGNIFICANTLY better than them. A lot of bars in these parts have it on tap, and if I am looking for something simple and good and cheap, this is what I order. My first experience with Yuengling was visiting a friend in Buffalo nine years ago. We went out to a dive bar with a friendly bartender with a Cheap Trick tattoo who kept lining up the Yuenglings, which I kept knocking down. Too bad this is the last time I've seen this friend. We really ought to catch up.

Ballantine Ale

Newark grew on the back of its industries, including brewing. At one point Ballantine Ale was one of the biggest beers in America, and by far its most popular ale (as opposed to lager). Like a lot of other industries in Newark, brewing fell too. (The Passaic River being polluted by Union Carbide's production of Agent Orange didn't help matters.) It's now brewed elsewhere, but is sold around here. It tastes like it's made more cheaply than it used to be, but being an ale, has a nice richness that a lot of cheap lagers lack.

Beers You Might Think Are Moneybeers (but aren't)
There are certain local or cheap beers that we all know are garbage, like Milwaukee's Best or Busch Light or Keystone. However, there are others that are more colorful that people like to think are moneybeers, but are just cheap.

Lone Star

I drank my fair share of Lone Star in my days in Texas, but usually only at my local bar, where they were often only $1.25 a bottle. You can't beat those prices. A friend and I joked that Lone Star tasted gritty, like there was a handful of Texas sand in each bottle. We drank it anyway, but Lone Star does not have the requisite quality to make it a moneybeer.

Old Style
"Brewed In God's Country" (more like brewed in the devil's rectum)

Some folks will try to tell you this is a moneybeer, but it tastes like stale goat pee. Can only be justifiably drunk while watching a game at Wrigley Field.

You won't be a stranger to indigestion, that's for sure

Gag-worthy. Tastes like it was fermented in a Detroit pot hole.

The beer is even more offensive than this ad

This once great beer is a crime against beer. I bought a 12 pack in college once because it was only four bucks. There was a reason for that.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Zen And The Art Of Going To The Mall

When the mall ruled

My four year old daughters have evidently been drinking what's in the New Jersey water, since they spent most of the summer asking if we could go to the mall. I finally broke down yesterday, but we decided to go a little further afield than our local mall in Livingston and make a day of it. In any case, it was hot and brutally humid yesterday, with the kind of air you choke on more than breathe.

We took the 45 minute trek to the Rockaway Mall, located in the far suburban interzone of Dover, near the foothills of the Appalachians. I saw the trip mostly as a way to keep my daughters occupied and to find a couple of shirts on clearance for the school year for me and some pants for the one daughter who inherited my abnormally long legs. It was mission accomplished on both counts. The large play area in the mall was more than big enough to accommodate double toddler wackiness, and the clearance racks yielded a cut rate gold mine.

What I was not expecting was the feeling of peace that came over me at the mall. It helped that we were there at 10AM on a weekend, with hardly anyone about. With the prestige and attendance of malls now being eroded by online shopping, they've actually become much more pleasant places to be. On an awful, muggy day I could walk around in air conditioned comfort without sweaty balls. My daughters could expend their vast reservoirs of energy without making a mess for me to clean up or constantly demanding to watch some godawful kids show on TV. Sure they made the usual hue and cry for me to buy them a toy, but their general level of happiness at being in the mall made it pretty easy to turn back their entreaties.

Walking around the mall I also remembered what the mall meant in my youth. In my small town it was the center of youth culture, and luckily within walking distance of my house. My hometown mall was about a quarter the size of the Rockaway Mall, which made trips to Omaha positively thrilling. Going to Westroads Mall at age eleven was a sublime experience. I realize now that some of that experience was aspirational. In the 1980s the mall was the apex of the Hegelian unfolding of history, as far as I was concerned, and going to those big Omaha malls was a taste of what I could experience once I grew up and got out of my isolated, small hometown. I did probably spend too much time in college at the mall, but I took it as a sign of my independence and moving up in the world. I bought artsy movies at the Suncoast Video, existential novels at Barnes and Noble, and punk rock CDs at Blockbuster Music. (Some of those stores were mall-adjacent, but I went as part of my mall trips.) I was a sophisticated mall goer. Well, maybe except for the time I saw Showgirls at the mall multiplex.

The mall has lost its once mighty status, both socially and in my heart. Once I moved to Chicago after college my nascent love of urban life went full-blown, and I began to see the mall as a symbol of the tacky and inauthentic nature of mainstream American society. I rarely went to malls after that, unless out of necessity. Yesterday the mall was much quieter than malls back in the 90s were, almost sleepy. It felt like the times I'd been to church in massive medieval cathedrals in Germany with only a sparse scattering of worshippers. In both cases, the experience was spiritual. So much for the gulf between the sacred and profane.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Contemplatin' Podcastin'

I probably consume podcasts more than any other form of popular media these days, something abetted by my long commute. I've toyed with the idea of doing one, then an anonymous commenter yesterday mentioned it would be good for me to do a podcast.

The main issue, beyond time and resources, is how to conceptualize it. My blog, as those who are regular readers knows, goes all over the place, from academia to politics to music to autobiography to parenting. This scattershot approach probably doesn't help me build an audience, but hey, I write this blog so I can get to write about what I wanna write about. My podcast should probably be more limited.

I was thinking that my podcast should be something music-related, specifically music and the memories associated with it. I could keep it broad, and do episodes similar to my blog posts, where I might highlight a particular Top Ten from a past year, or go through an album track by track, or dig into a specific song and its associations. A more specific idea I had was to do episodes centered around obscure vinyl records I've managed to dig up. Another was to have episodes about music associated with specific memories, and if I was able, to include guests talking about their music-related memories. Most blogs are pretty high concept, with very clearly defined episodes, and usually with more than one person. I resist the high concept thing, but then I remind myself it will make the podcast just as obscure as this blog happens to be.

Another thing to contemplate is the name. This is the thing that draws people in on their first listen. Here are some ideas I've had:

Old Jason's Records (a play on "Old Dan's Records" by Gordon Lightfoot, and hence good for a vinyl-related podcast for people who like outdated music)
Vinyl Madelines (a Proust reference to memory. Could also be "audio" or "musical.")
Notes From The Ironbound (obvious)
More Cowbell (I bet it's been taken already)
The Soundtrack Of Our Lives (hokey)
The Dad Rock Podcast (concept would be I dig out dad rock records and talk about them, plus I'm a dad)

Anyway folks, let me know what you think, or if there's a title or concept that looks good.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

U2 "In God's Country"

It has become fashionable in recent years to deride U2, something cemented by their ill-advised placing of their lackluster new album on everyone's iPhones. It is easy to forget they from 1983 to the dawn of grunge they were one of the few rock acts making interesting music getting played on Top 40 radio amidst the morass of hair metal. I recently gave The Joshua Tree a fresh listen, and was surprised at how good it still sounds almost thirty years later.

Most people know the hits, like "Where The Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With Or Without You." I first had the album on tape, and I came close to wearing out the first side (the one with all the hits), which is one of the strongest first sides to any album I can think of. The second side does not have any hits, and certainly has fewer hooks. Without the hooks, the depression that Bono was in at the time was much easier to see. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is a song about failing to find meaning in life, but it is so good as pop music that you don't really think about the undertones.

Of all the second-side songs, my favorite is "In God's Country," referencing the term some use to describe the vast deserts in the American West. I also take it to be a bit of commentary on the United States more generally, which was the big inspiration for the album, as a place of spiritual emptiness. It has one of those beautifully understated yet up-tempo guitar parts from The Edge, more reminiscent of The Unforgettable Fire than the more bombastic Joshua Tree. That fast yet faded sound perfectly matches the song's evocation of the desert.

I distinctly remember going on a short family vacation to the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska not long after I bought the album. To get there we drove through the gorgeously vast and empty Sandhills. As I heard "In God's Country" on my Walkman with the landscape rushing by, I knew exactly what the song's inspiration had been. I laid my head against the window and closed my eyes with the hot sun still visible behind my eyelids as Bono sang "Sleep comes like a drug/ In God's country." Mock U2 all you want, but that kind of transcendence does not come around very often.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

1988 On My Mind

I've been thinking a lot this week about the 1988 election. Most of this is probably because I read Matt Bai's All The Truth Is Out, about Gary Hart's campaign that year being derailed by accusations of adultery and the broader implications of a changing political media taking a more tabloid approach in an age of emerging hypermedia. It's an interesting book, although Bai is overly praiseful of Hart and predictably insider-y. That said, it reminded me that the 1988 election was the first one where I was actually able to coherently follow it; In '84 I knew there was one happening and who was running, but was still pretty hazy as to the issues. In '88 I knew enough to get all the jokes about it on Saturday Night Live, which I was watching religiously.

It's an interesting election to think about this year for a variety of reasons. It happens to be the last time that the incumbent party held the White House for a third straight election, and the last time since FDR and Truman that a party had been able to do so. That trick is something that Hillary Clinton is trying to pull off this year, something the Democrats failed to do in 2000 and the Republicans failed to accomplish in 2008. This used to not be so tricky. The Democrats held the White House from 1933 to 1953, and the Republicans from 1921-1933 and 1897-1913. (I won't dip into the nineteenth century to belabor the point.)

This election should thus have been a golden opportunity for the Republicans, but their dumpster fire of a candidate looks like he's headed for disaster. If they were running a generic Republican I think they would be winning. One thing that ties 1988 with 2016 is that both candidates are not well liked. The Trump-Clinton matchup involves two people with high unfavorable ratings, while Bush and Dukakis were both uninspiring to their party bases and to the country at large. (This was reflected in historically low voter turnout.) While the feelings and political discourse in the country are very, very different from 1988, there is a similar lack of enthusiasm in the broader electorate. Most of the passion on the left is merely oppositional, to stop Trump, while on the other side, many Republicans are skeptical of Trump.

As Bai points out in his book, the 1988 election is very interesting from a televisual perspective. Candidates became defined by clips and sound bites in ways they had never been before, reflecting a new media landscape where the stentorian nightly newscasts of the big three networks would be replaced by news as entertainment. Gary Hart has been forever defined by the picture of him with Donna Rice. When people think of Michael Dukakis, they think of his ill-fated tank ride. If they bother to recall Dan Quayle, it's him getting schooled by Lloyd Bentsen's brutal "You're no Jack Kennedy" putdown in the vice-presidential debate. Flash forward to today, where Donald Trump's nomination would not be possible without the news as entertainment paradigm and his well-honed ability to manipulate it. Trump has basically used cable news as a vast reservoir of free publicity, and has managed to make the entire election story about himself. He is the ultimate product of a political media that seeks ratings and clicks over anything else. (Hello, CBS president Les Moonves pretty much admitted this!) The voracious, yawning maw of 24 hour news needs chum stuffed down its gullet, and Trump has dumped the chum better than anyone else on the political scene.

Speaking of corrupt media, the most notable ad from the 1988 election still lives in infamy: the notorious "Willie Horton" spot. It is still remembered today, more than any other presidential campaign ad in the last thirty years. It was used to tie Dukakis to the specter of black criminality, and it worked remarkably well. The ad was technically run by an "independent" organization in an effort to keep the Bush campaign from being directly tainted by such an obvious appeal to white racial fear.  Unlike in 1988, Trump owns his racism, and he has used it as his primary basis of appeal, rather than a cynical ploy. That makes the stakes of this election a whole helluva lot higher than they were in 1988.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Exclusive: Leaked RNC Conference Call

[Editor's Note: through my shadowy sources I was able to get a partial recording of a conversation held between Reince Preibus and some important figures in the Republican Party.]


Reince Preibus: So are we all on the line now?

Paul Ryan: Yes

Charles Koch: Yes

Preibus: This has been a pretty insane week, gentlemen. I know there's talk of Republicans fleeing Trump. And I know, Paul, that his refusal to endorse you must be rankling. But don't forget about the bigger picture. We can still count on you, right Mr. Koch?

Koch: As you know, I am not pitching money to Trump. That leaves much more for all those Congressional races. Even if Mr Trump gets beat bad I think we will still hold Congress and have a tight grip on the states. What I want to know is if we will be able to keep enforcing party discipline to prevent Hillary from having any success in generating bipartisan legislation. That's how the Clintons fucked us the first time, you know. Since I am spending all of this money, I want to know if I can count on you.

Preibus: Yes sir, of course. You know that the yahoos in our base would primary someone who worked with Hillary so fast your head would spin. They'll vote for that whacko Trump just because he's a Republican.

Koch: May I remind you that that whacko Trump is in danger of harming the conservative brand? And he could push this party away from an adherence to free market principles? Remember, my brother was on the Libertarian ticket back in 1980. If we don't get a return on our investment we might just have to seed some projects outside of the Republican Party.

Ryan: Mr. Koch, I don't think that will be necessary. I have the complete trust and support of the party members in the House. The radicals ousted Boehner to put me in and the moderates would rather have me as their face than some crusty old fart like Boehner, even if just for the better press coverage I get. Because of the wonderful job we did redistricting back in 2010, we could survive a Clinton landslide with a clear majority intact. We will block everything Clinton or anyone else proposes that might restrict markets.

Preibus: My contacts in the Senate tell me that we can expect another refusal to raise the debt ceiling pretty fast into the Clinton administration. That will force her to cut government even when she doesn't want to. I guess that jackass Cruz can actually be useful from time to time. That hostage taking tactic has worked like a charm, and for some reason the voters keep letting us do it. Even if we lose the Senate, there's no way the Democrats will get a supermajority. We can filibuster at will. I am expecting the Senate to block the confirmation of any Supreme Court justice who's not a conservative.

Koch: I am glad to hear that. However, I am worried that this man Trump may be splitting the party apart and will lead Republicans to push for trade barriers. You know that there's no way I or my brother or any of your other big donors will stand for that.

Preibus: Yes sir, I know. The people falling for Trump's talk on trade wouldn't know their ass from a hole in the ground. If they bitch about the TPP we can ignore it. I'm sure our friends at Fox will come up with some great propaganda for free trade and these yobs will forget everything that orange asshole ever told him.

Ryan: And if TPP doesn't go through it's a de facto attack on the Obama administration. A win-win, basically.

Koch: Not as far as my pocketbook is concerned.

Ryan: Anyway, you know that his support has a lot more to do with rednecks mad about Muslims and Mexicans than it does about trade. We'll just keep blocking any immigration reform and keep dishing them the same talk about America being a "Christian nation" and they'll know where we stand. That nativism feeds into our attack on the welfare state, in any case.

Koch: Certainly.

Preibus: Paul, what I want to know is: can you keep putting up with Trump's refusal to endorse you?

Ryan: Of course! It's a small sacrifice to make for party unity. When this is all over I will still be Speaker and he'll be on reality television again, if he's lucky.


Preibus: Can you seriously believe there are people who want this man to be president? Remember that time when we met with him and he

*static drowns out the next minute of conversation*

Koch: But that man is a danger to all we've built if he wins.

Preibus: I was seriously afraid of that after our convention, but it looks like he's doing a good job of sabotaging things all by himself. My only concern is if he pulls out before the election.

Ryan: That would actually be great. That way we can keep the moral high ground not being associated with him.

Koch: Paul, would you be willing to jump in in that case and be the candidate?

Ryan: Are you kidding me? Sorry for my tone, Mr. Koch. It's just that I didn't want to be Speaker either. I'm just marking my time until I get to be a lobbyist.

Koch: Well I know you'd do a great job of representing Koch Industries.

Ryan: Thanks, sir.

Preibus: We can just throw Cruz out there, if need be. He'll get crushed worse than Trump. Just might end his political career, which would be a real shame, huh?


Koch: But really, what are we going to do with all of these Trump supporters when the election's over?

Preibus: They'll go back to just being Republicans, like they've always been. I don't see any future figure like Trump able to poach those folks.

Koch: Easy for you to say. Don't count on the tap running free from me forever


[Editor's Note: This is all of the conversation my sources were able to procure. Please let me know if you have a full transcript of the conversation, and look for future leaks here.]

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Merle Haggard, "Sing Me Back Home"

This summer has been quite a success from a record buying perspective. Just yesterday I was in Easton, Pennsylvania, taking the kids to the big Crayola Experience playfest. We wandered the rust belt in recovery downtown, and I found a record store where I was able to get a pristine copy of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions for just seven bucks. My best finds have not been soul music, but country music. I went to an estate sale last week, and was surprised to see a huge collection of classic country from the 1960s. I made off with a Charley Louvin solo album and some really old Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills compilations. Two weeks before at the incomparable Princeton Record exchange I managed to find, for two bucks each, Porter Wagoner's Soul Of A Convict and Merle Haggard's Sing Me Back Home. I never thought such treasure troves of classic country were available in New Jersey.

Listening to these records has been great, but a little painful. Classic country music is not necessarily my favorite kind of music, but is elemental to my being. Its sounds call forth things in my bones. It is music I associate very strongly with my central Nebraska homeland, and when I hear it, it can make me extremely homesick. I love living here in Jersey and getting to work in New York City, but there are daily reminders that where I live and where I am from are really two different countries within the same country. Sometimes, when it comes to politics, that's a comforting thought. Nevertheless, I miss my family back home and lots of small things, from the taste of a Runza to the sound of a Cornhusker football game coming out of a radio on a fall Saturday afternoon to the skies so expansive that they seem infinite.

One song above all others wrecks me, "Sing Me Back Home." Merle Haggard could get away with a bit of corn in his music because he had the tough guy bonafides. When the man who sang songs about drinking like "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" or crime like "Mama Tried" turned to ballads, you get the feeling he means it in a way that you wouldn't if the song was sung by, say, Ray Price. (No disrespect to Ray Price.) It's the song of a convict walking to his execution, pleading for his fellow prisoners to "sing me back home before I die." 

As I have been learning since listening to those old country records, next to food nothing can evoke home like music. The prisoner, knowing he is about to die without seeing his home every again, at least wants the songs of home to send him off in his last moments. And so I listen to that old country music on my record player, and think of home, get a little smile on my face, and try not to cry.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Contemporary Relevance Of The Dreyfus Affair

Back in the spring of 2010, amidst the Tea Party onslaught, I wrote something on my old blog about the parallels I was seeing in the United States and fin-de-siecle France. The last six years, especially the Trump phenomenon, have only strengthened my belief in this comparison. The current political scene in America is a conflict between two vastly different and mutually irreconcilable understandings of the nation. One a pluralistic collection of people with complex identities, the other a closed circle delineated by blood and soil. Khizr Khan's rousing rebuke of Trump and the response to it have put those different visions in high relief. Below is my original post. You can replace "Tea Party" with "Trump Supporters" and it will fit right in with today.


As I've said before, the current American political scene reminds me very powerfully of Third Republic France. Recently I've given a lot of thought to the Third Republic's greatest drama, the Dreyfus Affair. My students are reading an excellent documentary history by Michael Burns about the Affair, and in reviewing the text I found some eerie echoes of contemporary America.

First, for those of you who don't know, Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer convicted of espionage and treason in 1894 based on faulty (and later fabricated) evidence largely because of the fact that he was Jewish. His trial unleashed a wave of latent anti-Semitism, including mobs chanting "death to the Jews" in the streets of Paris. After tireless work by his brother Mathieu and prominent figures like Emile Zola, the true culprits were uncovered and Dreyfus was exonerated. The entire ordeal was marked by political violence (including assassination attempts on Dreyfus and one of his lawyers) and exposed the deep division between those who supported the legacy of the French Revolution and those who rejected it.

The Dreyfus Affair appears to be relevant to me today for a host of reasons, not least of which being the issue of national identity. The Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards were both motivated by their own particular ideas of France. Those who fought to destroy Dreyfus thought of the French nation as a community of blood, faith, and soil, whereas his supporters rallied behind the revolutionary principles of citizenship, liberty, equality, and fraternity. The anti-Dreyfusards thought of themselves as the representatives of the "true" France, and anyone who Jewish, Protestant, Socialist, or a Mason constituted the "anti-France." This phrase was used by Charles Maurras, one of the intellectual leading lights of France's radical right in the first half of the twentieth century and a rabid anti-Dreyfusard.

Need I even connect the dots for you? The Palin/Teabagger/Oath Keepers gang constantly talk of themselves as the "real America," and are quick to doubt Barack Obama's birth and to question whether he is really "like us." Nativism, long a scourge in American life, has come back with a vengeance, and the likes of Pat Buchanan using phrases like "national suicide" (i.e. "race suicide"). Just as the anti-Dreyfusards contended that France was a Catholic nation and that Jews and Protestants could not truly be French, the radical right in America has been insistent in claiming that America is a "Christian nation." This blood/soil/faith perspective is exactly the one that the Texas Board of Education recently imposed on the state's history curriculum: it omitted as many Latinos as it could, cut deists like Thomas Jefferson out, and brought in John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. I truly think that we today are confronted with a question similar to that raised by the Dreyfus Affair: is America a diverse agglomeration of equal citizens, or is it a mystical community tied together by race and religion? By declaring this month Confederate History Month, Bob McDonnell gave his own answer to this question. If I may draw the metaphor out, the Civil War is our French Revolution, and its principles are still being fought over today.

Not only does our unspoken conflict over national identity resemble that of the Dreyfus Affair, so does our current political style. The right-wing press in France fanned the flames of hatred and termed Jews and Dreyfus' supporters to be an enemy within, destroying "true" France. Although our current talk radio hosts are not quite as ugly as the likes of Maurras, the basic accusation remains the same. Glenn Beck talks of progressives as a "disease" and a "cancer" and Michelle Bachmann wants to root out those she considers "un-American." Furthermore, anti-Dreyfusards committed mob violence. As I mentioned before, they screamed "death to the Jews" as Dreyfus left the courtroom. At a steeplechase race an angry mob surrounded and shouted threats at president Loubet before a reactionary nobleman knocked his hat off of his head. An angry mob showed up and hurled abuse at the burial of Emile Zola, the great writer and passionate defender of Dreyfus. Reading of these incidents reminds me of nothing more than the teabagger mobs who have screamed at town halls and spat on American Congressmen.

Although the Dreyfusards and their vision of France won the day, French politics remained bitterly divided, and those who thought of their nation as an entity of blood, soil, and faith found their salvation in 1940 via the collaborationist Vichy regime. Nevertheless, we ought to remember Emile Zola's slogan during the Affair, words that ought to give us hope and motivation today: "truth is on the march!"