Monday, October 31, 2016

21st Century Victorians

Great news gang, the great Jacobin has published an essay I submitted. I am very proud of it and very happy to have something published by such an institution. It's called "21st Century Victorians," and it's about the parallels between modern bourgeois moralism and that of the 19th century, as dissimilar as these two eras might seem. I would love it if you checked it out, if you already haven't. Here's a passage below that I like:

"Intensive parenting expectations continue well after children leave infancy. Young children are encouraged to participate in costly club sports, and parents to give up their free time to support them. These activities take time and money, two resources working people lack.
This proliferation of organized activities represents a form of improvement: a child’s free time is now completely subsumed by Bildung. And the ability to provide these opportunities to kids is portrayed as a reflection of a family’s morality, not their economic situation. Just as Victorian women had to learn to play the piano and speak Italian — showing off a refinement unavailable to the other levels of society — modern kids play soccer, learn Mandarin, and volunteer at a local charity.
But the capstone of the modern quest for Bildung is surely the college application process. There is no good nineteenth-century analogue for this ridiculous new ritual, although Dickens would’ve been perfectly able to satirize its inherent absurdity: Millions act as if a system weighted very heavily toward privilege is in fact some kind of meritocracy, and that a person’s worth can be judged by the prestige of the school where they have been accepted."

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Real Meaning Of "Drain The Swamp"

Let's take a break from speculating about Hillary Clinton's emails, shall we? I'd like to talk about the latest Trumpist meme: "drain the swamp." This slogan is meant to emphasize Trump's promise to go to Washington and change "politics as usual" with a slightly menacing overtone.

I hear it and get anxious. In the 1970s the German scholar Klaus Theweleit wrote a long examination of the writings of German proto-fascists, psychoanalyzing the authors. He found that they tended to subconsciously associate the leftists they hated with women, and for both used metaphors of rising tides to express their fears. The enemy was damp, wet, and threatened to drown out the "real men" of the Freikorps, who were hard and dry. It is fitting then that as David Blackbourn has shown in his research on environmental history, the Nazi occupying regime in Poland hoped to show German racial superiority over the Slavs by draining the swamps there. When I hear the cry of "drain the swamp" I hear echoes of fascist yearnings, to purge the society of all of those people deemed pollutants.

That has been at the core of the Trumpist message from day one. The Orange One started his campaign by calling for millions of people to be deported from this country. Since then he has also called for banning Muslims, who he discusses as a kind of infestation. (Disease metaphors, like swamp metaphors, set off alarm bells for me.) That depiction of Muslims as virus fits with the oldest tropes of anti-Semitism, an ideology that seems to have found a safe home in the fringes of Trumpdom. "Drain the swamp" also fits with Trump's well-known germophobia, which draws from his manifest disgust with bodily functions, especially those of women.

When attacking Megyn Kelly he famously decried "blood pouring from her whatever," obviously disgusted by menstruation. He had a similar disgusted reaction to Hillary Clinton taking a bathroom debate in one of the Democratic presidential debates. That disgust with women's bodies coupled with the desire to control and own them (which Trump most definitely has) is pretty much how Theweleit defined his subjects' outlook.

"Drain the swamp" is thus no mere slogan, it is the outward manifestation of a diseased and toxic form of fascist masculinity.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bruce Springsteen, "Youngstown"

I am currently reading and greatly enjoying Bruce Springsteen's memoir. This has prompted me to do a deep dive into his back catalog, especially albums that I have neglected as of late. One of those records is The Ghost of Tom Joad, a mostly acoustic, political album in the vein of his more famous Nebraska. Ghost came out in 1995, years after the Reagan ascendance that the earlier album decried, but in a nation still marked by its inequities.

Like on Nebraska, Springsteen tells stories from the point of view of the marginalized. There are multiple songs sung from the perspective of undocumented immigrants, and one narrated by a former convict. Of all the songs, "Youngstown" sticks with me the most. The Boss's hometown of Freehold is in the Central Jersey mini-Rust Belt, and while this song references Youngstown specifically, it is a lament for the Rust Belt as a whole. At one point Springsteen speaks of a vast land, from the Monoghahela River to the Masabi Iron Range to Appalachian coal mines, that's facing extinction. He defines the Rust Belt as a nation within a nation, once glorious and now dying.

The tone is ominous, set by a scratchy fiddle, dark synthesizers like black clouds on the horizon, and a steel guitar like the wind blowing through a broken windowpane. Those instruments come in after the first verse, descending like the vultures of deindustrialization. Springsteen talks of the fiery furnaces of Youngstown's steel mills making the cannon balls that won the Civil War, and the steel that built the nation up after. But later its working class boys were sent off to die in Korea and Vietnam, and now the town lies in ruins, forgotten. In the words of the song, "Once I made you rich enough/ rich enough to forget my name."

This election year we've been hearing a lot about Youngstown, as it fits the vision of America that Donald Trump wants to exploit: jobless and resentful. It's a much more complicated place than that, obviously. Before the orange grifter showed up, the Rust Belt had been hurting hard for four decades. Trump's just another rich asshole hoping to rob the people there blind once more. I hope come November they listen to Springsteen, a true son of the Rust Belt, not a phony billionaire.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Late October's Spell

"Tubular Bells" pretty much fits the eerie mood of late October

Driving my daughters back from their gymnastics class around 6:30 yesterday, it hit me. The ancients were very wise, and much more in tune with the messages being sent by our natural surroundings than we are today. In late October (at least in this latitude), you really do get the eerie feeling come evening time that the world of the dead feels very close to the world of the living. The wind blows the dead leaves skittering across the street as the sun goes down before dinner time. That dinner time dark just feels so much darker than sundown did back in September.

I do get a thrill over this eerie feeling, but after awhile, the open portal to the world of the dead beckons in ways that are not as enjoyable. It was during this time of year three years ago that my grandmother died. I remember the last conversation I had with her, wrapped in the gloom of a dark Newark night as her voice traveled out from under the impossibly starry Nebraska night sky and found its way into my ear. I keep wishing I'd been able to have one more conversation with her, but alas.

Today while riding the bus from the train station to my house the looming dusk gave me another powerful flashback, perhaps a message from beyond the grave from a departed friend. I suddenly, and quite vividly, started recalling the dark October night when my friend Dave and I rode the Chicago el from his Rogers Park apartment down to Old Town to an art house theater to see Velvet Goldmine. We were two Nebraska rubes just arrived in the big city of broad shoulders, reveling in the freedom and excitement of urban life as only people who have come from outside of it can do. We loved the movie, I gravitating to the Bowie character, Dave to Iggy Pop. Me ever the mod, he ever the rocker. Two odd ducks too weird for regular society and too dorky to ever be accepted as bohemians. It was a great night, a night when my decision to leave the plains for the urban jungle seemed to be the best idea I ever had.

There is nothing like a Chicago night in late October. The wind blows chilly off the lake, carrying ominous rumors of winter. Despite the lights of the city, it seems oddly dark and quiet, the subdued prairie under its streets trying to reach its tendrils out through the concrete and reclaim its dominion. I spent those nights in movie theaters and record stores, dive bars and house parties, and smoking Camels while walking the streets not knowing what I was looking for.

I was too young and too unaware of mortality to know that the dead were there in the night air floating about me. Now in the less mysterious world of suburban New Jersey, settled down and wandering nowhere, I can feel them on this dark chilly night. The least I can do is think about them, and the good times we once shared.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Over the past two weeks the Trump campaign has been pivoting, but not to the middle. He has made claims of a “rigged” election the centerpiece of his campaign. These assertions reflect a dangerous tendency among Republicans to use false rumors of voter fraud to disenfranchise people of color and to delegitimize Democratic officials. Sainted John McCain, supposedly a representative of a less vicious GOP, claimed that ACORN was going to engage in election fraud back in 2008. In the years since, those accusations have led to increased voter requirements and a pliant Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act.

One thing that has bugged me about the reaction to Trump’s execrable comments is the assertion that "America has always had free and fair elections.”


Until 1968, there was not a single election where everyone could vote. There was a brief period in Reconstruction where black men could vote, but women still could not. Until 1920, women could not vote. Until 1965, voting rights were still contingent on race. Considering that African American voter registration rates in the South were disproportionately low in 1968, even that election might not be able to be classified as the first free and fair presidential election in American history. But for the sake of argument, I’ll say that there were merely twelve presidential elections in this country’s history, from 1968 to 2012, that count. That’s out of 58 total.

It is the rule, not the exception, for the vote to be limited in American history. And since the Shelby decision, it looks like we are turning back the clock to before 1965. And yet the candidates were not asked about voting rights during the presidential debates. It is a vital problem that isn’t being dealt with by the political media, who cannot cram it into their fatuous “both sides do it” narrative. This is a case where Republicans are just blatantly trying to deny the vote to groups of people who tend to vote against them. The stenographers then report the "voter fraud" rationale and refuse to call voter suppression what it really is, since that would be taking sides.

A big part of the reason for this suppression, and for Trump's "rigged" rhetoric, is that a whole lot of Republicans simply will not accept the legitimacy of any Democrat in the White House. We saw this with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and we will certainly see it with Hillary Clinton, too. They assume that they are the "real Americans," and that if their preferred candidate is not elected, it must be due to chicanery on the part of the left, particularly with voters of color.

As I mentioned, the Voting Rights Act only held sway over the presidential elections from 1968 to 2012. During that time each Democrat elected president has done so without a majority of the white vote. The attempts to limit the vote seemed rooted to me in an assumption as old as the "Redeemers" who violently ended Reconstruction: a government without the support of a majority of whites is de facto illegitimate. This year Trump has merely made the subtext into text. Time will tell if this energizes white supremacy or if it helps expose its machinations to those previously blind to them.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Fela Kuti, "Zombie"

I can still remember the first time I listened to Fela Kuti. It was as if Miles Davis and James Brown had somehow been combined into one amazing, flowing, eternal music. I remember preaching the gospel of Fela Kuti, playing his music to anyone who'd never heard it.

Beyond the polyrhythmic, jazzy ecstasy of his music, Kuti was one of those very rare artists who wrote political songs that actually worked and didn't collapse under the weight of their own intention. (Bono and Jill Stein can provide some examples of the other variety.) His albums consisted of side-long jams, and "Zombie" is one of the best, both musically and lyrically. The groove is, as usual, irresistible and otherworldly, driven by a frantic rhythm guitar.

The song is directed at the soldiers of Nigeria's army, portraying them as mindless zombies following orders to kill innocent people. At one point he shouts out orders like a drill sergeant on the parade ground, with Africa 70's beat getting much more martial. The army didn't take kindly to this taunting, and attacked his commune, beating Fela Kuti and fatally injuring his mother. There's nothing that puts those with an authoritarian personality in a blind, violent rage more than questioning their blind obedience. (Exhibit A: the reaction to Colin Kaepernick.)

I've been thinking of this song this week, where so many crowds have thrilled to the words of an authoritarian who happens to be getting prominent support from police unions. Many zombies in their ranks have killed innocent people without remorse. If Trump were less of a buffoon he may well have been capable of using his zombie army to take power by force in a contested election. The story's not over yet, of course. And those zombies will still be around, still holding guns in their hands.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How Long Will Our Legitimacy Crisis Last?

This has been a dark week in American politics. John McCain basically said that Republicans, who have blocked president Obama's Supreme Court nominee, would also block any nominee put forward by Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump and many of his surrogates have proclaimed that this is a "rigged" election, and are calling on their minions to take action.

I believe what we are seeing is the latest chapter in a legitimacy crisis that stretches back to the 1990s. Republicans since the Clinton administration have decided that any Democrat in the White House is de facto illegitimate. They impeached Bill Clinton over a hummer after years of obstruction. The levels of obstruction got even worse under Obama, with the debt ceiling used as a hostage taking device on more than one occasion. Worse than that, Congress has refused to act on Merrick Garland's nomination, something that in a normal year would be considered a constitutional crisis.

Why do Republicans assume that every Democratic president is illegitimate? It's a matter of ethno-nationalism, really. Republicans see themselves as the "real Americans," and thus if they lose, it must be the fault of anti-Americans, or a nefarious plot to subvert the will of the true majority. Keep in mind, no Democrat for president has carried a majority of the white vote since LBJ. Deep down a lot of Republicans feel in their guts (they probably don't even consciously think this) that a president not approved by a majority of white men or white people generally is not legitimate.

How much more of this can our nation endure? The weakness of the Republican Party in presidential elections means that they are likely locked out of the White House for the foreseeable future. If Clinton wins, they will have lost the popular vote in six out of the last seven elections. This era may soon resemble the period between 1860 and 1908, when Democrats won only two presidential elections over a 48 year period, with the parties reversed.  The "real Americans" will not stand for such an outcome.

If Democrats keep the White House, the paramilitary organizations (which is what militias are) will only get stronger. The white nationalists, who have used this election to grab a place in the political mainstream, will only have more and more disaffected white voters available to sway to their side. Above all, the Republicans, as long as they can keep winning off-year elections, will just obstruct obstruct obstruct, and get their way by refusing to cooperate. They will also deny the legitimacy of the other party's presidents, and keep ratcheting up the "rigged election" rhetoric and the fear of people of color, all while the folks on the fringe are oiling up their guns.

This state of affairs cannot last forever. A house divided against itself cannot stand. It must become either all one thing, or all the other.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Classic Albums: Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3

Last week's announcement of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize win has put the Bobfather back on my brain. Every couple of years or so I go on a deep Dylan jag where his music dominates my listening habits, and it looks like this win may have started a brand new one. All of this got me thinking about the first Dylan album (in this case, box set) I ever owned.

I had never really listened to Dylan when I was a 16 year old in the October of 1991, but I'd heard so much about him, and even checked out Clinton Heylin's biography of him from the local library. I was at the moment where I was discovering music not on the Top 40, but without a guide, other than the occasional issue of Rolling Stone bought at Walgreen's. In a strange bit of serendipity, a record store in a neighboring town was going out of business, with cassette tapes 66% off. I noticed that the just released The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased, 1961-1991) box set was there for the taking for only ten bucks, and I took the plunge. (I also bought my first Replacements album at that same sale. It was a good day.) It was strange to dig into Dylan through cast-offs and B-sides, but looking back on it, the best way to be introduced to him. It meant that when I heard his more famous material, I could put it into a broader context. And even if you happened to listen to his official stuff first, these "bootleg" songs open up an entire world.

Dylan was the first artist to be widely bootlegged, and one of the few this side of Prince whose vaults can yield unending amounts of great material. (Nice try, Beatles Anthology.) The complexity of his words and his studied mask of mystery pretty much impel his fans to know more. The official Bootleg Series, several volumes long by now, emerged more out of necessity than anything else due to how much of Dylan's material was being put out in substandard bootlegs.

The first three volumes were all sold together, but all tell a vastly different story. The first tape or disc takes us only to 1963. This volume tells us the story of Bob Dylan young folksinger, the new Woody Guthrie singing topical songs with a harmonica and a guitar. This is the figure misguidedly canonized by so many hardcore Village folkies, the one they would later call "Judas" for going electric and rock and roll. It starts with "Hard Times In New York Town," about the Minnesota country boy trying to make it in the hard-shouldered urban canyons of Gotham. Volume 1 ends with Dylan at Town Hall, no longer just playing Village coffee houses. It ends on such a fitting note, with a poem dedicated to Woody Guthrie, the man who was the obvious inspiration for this part of Dylan's career. In between there are many gems, including the piano version of "When The Ship Comes In" and "Let Me Die In My Footsteps," perhaps the best song about living with the threat of the Bomb. When I was 16 I listened to this tape the most, mostly because it was the least challenging and most familiar, since my parents were big fans of the poppier acts of the folk boom, like Peter, Paul, and Mary and the like. In any case, topical, finger-pointing songs like "Who Killed Davy Moore?" appealed to a teenager first realizing that he was actually a progressive and not a Republican.

The second volume is the one I later gravitated to, but also the strangest. Whereas the first one captures a specific moment in Dylan's career, the second takes us from 1963 to 1975, from Dylan the edgier folkie to Dylan the electric master of mayhem to the post-motorcycle crash recluse to the reborn artist of Blood On The Tracks. This volume also has precious little from his holy trinity of mid sixties peaks: Bring It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Many of the songs from that period are also incomplete, perhaps reflecting the toll of touring and drugs. There's a weird, minute-long piano waltz version of the epochal "Like A Rolling Stone" that ends with Dylan tiredly announcing "My voice is gone, man." The promising "She's Your Lover Now" comes to a crashing halt. At the same time, there's a great version of "I'll Keep It With Mine," later famously sung by Nico. The songs seem chosen to imply that Dylan's years of quiet were the necessary result of exhaustion.

We get two precious little songs from the famous Basement Tapes, but both grabbed my attention so much when I first heard them that my obsession with what he recorded at Big Pink was born. There's the silly yet catchy "Santa Fe" and a jaw-droppingly beautiful rendition of "I Shall Be Released." From there, things get eclectic, reflecting Dylan's wanderings in the late 60s and early 70s, including the lovely, straight up country song "Wallflower," later put on wax by the great Doug Sahm. After hearing all the rock and folk, the bright country steel guitar on this song is jarring. The second volume ends on a much different note, however, with three songs from the Blood On The Tracks sessions. The version of "Tangled Up In Blue" on here is maybe my favorite, perhaps because you can hear the buttons on Dylan's jacket clanging on the guitar. It's such a great glimpse into his spontaneous recording process, a habit that can drive his collaborators nuts. "Call Letter Blues," which is "Meet Me In The Morning" with different lyrics, lays Dylan's separation from his wife bare. "Children cry for mother/ I tell them mother took a trip." It all ends with "Idiot Wind," completely and utterly different from "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie." The youthful hope has curdled into middle-aged bitterness. I love this version so much more than the one on Blood On The Tracks. It's more spare and wistful, less hateful. This version was perhaps too rare and real for the secretive Dylan to show the world. He had to cover up his vulnerability with vitriol.

I made a habit of listening to volume 2 on dark, lonely nights. The first side (remember album sides?) is the sound of a man breaking down in the midst of his career peak. The second is the sound of a man flailing and then hitting an emotional valley only to be shocked into making something great in response. That's an arc you can only get from the Bootleg Series, not from any compilation of Dylan's official recordings. Volume 2 might be the truest single disc picture of Bob Dylan that exists. It is not an album in the traditional sense, but is perhaps more masterfully organized and curated than any other compilation.

Volume 3, I must admit, is the least played of the three, but just as revealing. It starts strong, with songs from Dylan's mid-1970s comeback, including a great live rocking "Seven Days" and the pretty little baseball song "Catfish," about pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter. Unfortunately, it then gets into outtakes from Dylan's trilogy of Christian rock albums, and there's nothing here that revealing. His music in that era also imitated the dominant, middle of the road California cocaine rock. The real revelations come in the second half, with a passel of songs from the sessions for 1983's Infidels much stronger than much of what was officially released. "Blind Willie McTell" has become legendary as an example of how Dylan's outtakes in his 80s slough were better than the crap he put on wax. This fact is an enduring topic of conversation, but I think it just shows how bad his judgement had become, how lost he was. In 1991, listening to these songs I thought I was hearing the last gasp of a once great, but spent artist. The last song, "Series of Dreams," had an elegiac quality to it. Perhaps now, after thirty years, the dream is over and Bob Dylan has nothing left to say.

Of course, what I didn't understand then was that the Oh Mercy sessions that birthed that song gave Dylan the spark and confidence he needed to continue after many years of treading water. The great Signs Of Life entry in the Bootleg Series shows a second career beginning at this point, one with its own high points. In a way, the first three volumes of the Bootleg Series tell a story that the hits and well known songs never could. It shows a great artist able to weather two extended low points and still come back with songs just as good as any he wrote in his sixties heyday. If you want to hear the real greatness of Dylan, it's not on the broad interstate highways of "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Like A Rolling Stone," but in the potholed backroads of "Mama, You've Been On My Mind" and "Foot Of Pride." His cast-offs are other people's masterpieces.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Clinton Voters

Clinton voters.

That's a phrase we haven't heard much in this election cycle. Harry Enten of 538 likes to point out that never before has a voting bloc this big been so -under-analyzed. I keep hearing story after story after story about "Trump voters" in this election. They have become about the most tiresome thing around. A reporter goes to northeast Ohio or western Pennsylvania and interviews a resentful white person with a blue collar background and talks about economic anxiety and never racism or culture. With very, very, few exceptions, Trump voters are just Republicans. I find the Republicans who aren't voting for Trump a much more revealing and interesting group to examine, since they might be the fulcrum that future elections turn on.

But what about Hillary Clinton's voters? They gave her many more votes than any candidate in the primaries, including both Sanders and Trump. They are also poised to put her in the White House. We may be witnessing the creation of a new New Deal coalition, and instead we're spending our time hanging on every word from racist retired steelworkers from Youngstown. Reporters should be talking to politically moderate Asian and Latino voters, since they are the ones who will be putting Hillary over the top.

Here's a little secret: historically party affiliation in America has had as much or more to do with identity than with political ideology. Both parties are broad coalitions of different groups with a lot of ideas and interests in common, but also some cleavages. The party that builds a coalition of groups that are bigger than the groups of their opponents wins. This is what happened with the Democrats for decades after 1932. The New Deal brought together the traditional party constituencies of southern whites and northern urban immigrants with African Americans, blue collar workers more broadly, and educated liberals. Of course, the party could not maintain such a coalition, as African Americans had a much different agenda than the southern Democrats still pining for the Confederacy and violently defending Jim Crow.

What is the new Democratic coalition? African Americans, gays,  organized labor, educated white liberals, coastal city dwellers more broadly, Latinos, Asians, and perhaps now white suburban women. (White women went for Romney, it looks like Clinton will get them.) Asians and Latinos used to split their vote less decisively, but now that the Republican brand is tinged with white nationalism, the Democrats have been able to increase their advantage with those groups. While I am not happy with the party's economic centrism since the time of Bill Clinton, it has meant not scaring off middle class voters who might have gone Republican, and has allowed the Democrats to capture voters repelled by the conservative culture war.

The primaries this year showed the challenge of keeping this coalition together. Younger voters within the party are further to the left and not as committed to the party. Progressives generally are tired of New Democrat centrism. Either the voters on the left or the moderates could get alienated. However, these are small concerns next to what Republicans are facing. Trump has mobilized a lot their voters, but Mormons, some evangelicals, Republicans of color, women generally, and highly educated conservatives have been repelled by him. While the Democrats had a contentious primary and convention, the Bernie or Bust folks are not disrupting the party the way that the Never Trump faction has done on the other side.

So please, let's analyze "Clinton voters." They're the coalition saving us from the Trumpist nightmare.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Guess Who, "These Eyes"

In August of 2000 I moved from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana to start my doctoral program. While that was in this century, it feels like a million years ago. Back then radio still mattered, but it was in the midst of being strangled to death by ClearChannel in the wake of 1996 Telecommunications Act. The local radio in Champaign included a fine NPR station, but it was all talk (literally). At that time the college radio station was a godawful imitation of the "alternative" station in Chicago, complete with Limp Bizkit and shock jocks. (Thankfully that would change in a couple of years.) I ended up really digging the local oldies station, since their playlist still seemed formed by local whims, rather than a megacomputer in the Texas desert sending songs via satellite.

One song they played a lot was "These Eyes" by The Guess Who. This was a band I'd usually associated with their later, harder rocking incarnation with barn burners like "American Woman." I really took a shine to this song, which was also on the CD jukebox (remember those?) of my local bar, The Embassy. I had a friend who loved the song too, and every Friday happy hour our gang would get together at The Embassy and drink $6 pitchers of Leinenkugel and eat tasty sandwiches, my favorite being the grilled tuna steak.

The Embassy was a strange combination of bar types. There was occasional live music, but no stage. Undergrads never set foot in there, which was a big part of the attraction, but the beer selection was extremely basic. The walls had tasteful exposed brick, and it was a clean place while still maintaining a dive bar's soul. It did not countenance rowdiness; a friend of mine got cut off once after drunkenly knocking over his half-finished beer bottle. The aforementioned jukebox was heavy on good soul music and cheap to boot. Between my friend and I, "These Eyes" got a lot of spins.

I'm still not quite sure what attracts me to this song. I do have a kind of inexplicable love for the baroque pop of the late 1960s, which also explains my love of the Bee Gees' music of the era. I'm also a sucker for melancholy pop songs, and there's not enough good ones nowadays. All pop music seems to be about partying and self-affirmation. The whole Top 40 sounds like Reagan-era propaganda these days, no matter if the music itself is more daring than it was twenty years ago. "These Eyes" is also helped by Burton Cummings' -aka the Canadian Jim Morrison- passionate vocals. Sure, it's schmaltzy as all get out, he makes me believe it just enough to get lost in the song.

Nowadays I mostly listen to it for the memories of beer, food, friends and fun, and of a comfy little bar that is sadly no more.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Why Now, More Than Ever, We Need To Talk About Reconstruction

Reconstruction: America's greatest missed opportunity and proof that history does not move in a straight line

Today the ever-perceptive Jelani Cobb tweeted about how our history classes in school tend to tell the tale of progress over time and increasing democracy. This narrative, of course, leaves out a whole host of times when democracy has been shattered. He called for educators to show the fragility of American democracy.

However, due to the dominant historical narrative and many other reasons, Reconstruction is probably the event in American history least studied in proportion to its importance. Whereas schoolchildren used to get a version of the Dunning School's racist interpretation that it was an experiment bound to fail because only whites were fit to govern, now they get little to nothing at all. As I like to remind my students, Reconstruction is a depressing example of how history does not move in a straight line. The attempt to build a multi-racial democracy in the South ended in an orgy of white supremacist violence among former Confederates, and white supremacist indifference in the North.

The actions of many of the so-called "Redeemers" in putting an end to Reconstruction amounted to military coups, political terror, and violent counterrevolution. The Klan was America's first political terror organization, acting to specifically intimidate Republican voters. Armed white militias took power by force, including in Colfax, Louisiana, where dozens of black defenders of the town were massacred in 1873. The Grant administration did nothing to retaliate, and the Supreme Court later ruled that the victims did not have their 14th Amendment rights violated in the attack, since it was not carried out by the state of Louisiana. That response betrayed the unwillingness of white politicians in the North, including in the Republican party, to stick their necks out on behalf of African American rights. The moral failure of Northern politicians was sealed with the noxious deal struck after the election of 1876, where Republican Rutherford Hayes resolved a contested presidential election by promising southern Democrats "home rule" and an end to Reconstruction. In return he got the White House, and the federal government essentially stopped intervening to protect civil rights in the South until the mid-20th century.

It is a sordid tale that seldom gets told, in popular culture or in classrooms. When I look at the political mess of the last year and a half, I am reminded of the arrogance that so many in this country have in assuming that history moves in a straight line. When Trump showed up on the scene last year, he was treated as an amusing sideshow. Huffington Post famously said they would put his campaign news in the entertainment section. Even though he was engaging in noxious nativism and mobilizing white supremacists, the media seemed to treat him as a funny distraction who drove the ratings sky high. There was a tacit understanding that we as a nation were beyond the kind of open racism that Trump was spouting, that it was all a relic of the past, and that we shouldn't really take anything he said seriously anyway.

Sunday's debate showed how dangerous those assumptions turned out to be. Everything that happened in that debate should be overshadowed by the fact Trump directly threatened his opponent with being thrown in jail should he win the election. This is naked authoritarianism. Today Paul LePage, the openly racist Tea Party governor of Maine, said that the nation needed Trump's authoritarianism. This is what so many of Trump's supporters want, and what draws them to him. It is not an unfortunate drawback to his appeal for these people, it is essential to their devotion to this demagogue. Their hate of "political correctness" is just a fig leaf for their desire to protect white, male, hetero, and cis advantage, even if doing so violates the Constitutional rights of others, such as in voter suppression. The Democratic Party's slogan in 1876 was "This Is A White Man's Country," which is pretty consistent with Trumpism. When push comes to shove, a large proportion of white Americans are willing to trade democracy for white supremacy. That's one of the lessons of Reconstruction, and one that we should never forget.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Are You a Vin Scully or a Harry Caray? (Quiz)

One of my favorite posts is one I did called "Are You A Kurt or An Axl?" where I riffed on the differences between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose, the two most prominent figures in rock music in the early 1990s. On a totally different note, I've been thinking a lot about Vin Scully and Harry Caray due to Scully's retirement and the Cubs being poised to perhaps win the big one this year. Caray and Scully were my favorite baseball announcers growing up, despite their obvious differences. I wondered, which one is truly more my style? In case you're wondering, here's a quiz:

1. What is your feeling about broadcast partners?
A. I don't need one, because my words tell stories and paint a rich tapestry, which back and forth banter is unsuited for.
B. Absolutely necessary for when I space out or I've had too many beers.

2. The team just won a really important game on a walk off hit. How do you call it?
A. Let the moment breathe and let the people back home hear the cheering crowd of the stadium rather than me yelling about it.
B. Scream at the top of my lungs in incomprehensible gibberish like I'm having a heart attack. After all, the fans are doing it too, and I'm really just one of them.

3. What's your pregame routine?
A. Studying my notes and remembering especially interesting anecdotes to utilize during the day's game.
B. A sixer of Budweiser.

4. Preferred attire for broadcasting a game:
A. Shirt and tasteful tie.
B. Shirtless.

5. The fans see you as:
A. A kindly, wise father figure dispensing wisdom.
B. Their fun-loving rowdy uncle.

6. You're more likely to be parodied:
A. In a subtle way by The Simpsons.
B. By an over the top Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live.

7. Your catchphrase is:
A. The warm inviting "time for Dodger baseball" before the game starts.
B. A maniacally shouted "Cubs win" after a victory.

8. Your first postgame phone call after a road game:
A. Is to my wife to see how she's doing and hear about her day.
B. Is to that bar to see about paying for the damages from the night before.

9. What's your attitude about being a "homer" for your team?
A. I'm way too professional for that. The fans don't need me carrying on while watching their team.
B. It's my job to be a homer. I'm a Cubs fan and a Bud man, after all.

10. Have you ever left a job announcing for a major league team?
A. No. I even moved with the Dodgers when they went from Brooklyn to LA, and why not? The Dodgers have been very good to me.
B. Well, occasionally you have an affair with the owner's wife and have to hightail it out of there. That happens to everybody, right?

11. Have you done national broadcasts for the major networks?
A. Yes, for many years.
B. No. They told me drinking on the air was"unprofessional." Whatever.

12. If they did a biopic of your life, you would be portrayed by:
A. Cary Grant
B. Jack Black

13. During the middle innings of a slow game late in the season you are likely to entertain your audience by:
A. Going off on a fascinating tangent about the history of warning track dirt.
B. Trying to say "Andres Galarraga" backwards.

14. If your announcing style was a jazz artist, you would be:
A. Dave Brubeck. Precise and complicated, yet smooth.
B. Ornette Coleman. Free, loud, and unpredictable.

15. At the end of your career, were your fans ready to see you go?
A. No
B. No

Give yourself zero points for each "A" answer, and one point for each "B" answer.

If you have 11-15 points, you are definitely a Harry Caray. You're the lovable life of the party, and even if you have the smell of beer on your breath at inappropriate moments, people still love you.

If you have 6-10 points, you are mix of Harry and Vin. You are a professional with professional standards, but you wear your heart on your sleeve and you love to party every now and then.

If you have 0-5 points, you are a Vin Scully. You are a highly dependable, highly skilled person who other people admire for your hard work and talent. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Trump Monster Is Strangling The GOP Mad Scientist

In keeping with the spirit of the season, I've been watching lots of old Frankenstein movies this week, and so I've had mad scientists and monsters on my brain. Watching the aftermath of the release of the Trump tape yesterday made me realize that the monster, long having been on a rampage, is now choking its supposed mad scientist master.

The monster here isn't Trump, or even Trumpism, but a certain kind of populist conservative politics propagated, encouraged, and nurtured by both the Republican Party and conservative media over the past fifty years. It doesn't matter if the candidates are "big government conservatives" like Nixon and Dubya, or more laissez-faire types like Romney and Reagan. Almost every candidate the GOP has put out in the general election since Goldwater (save for Gerald Ford and Bob Dole, to their credit) has tried to divide the country in order to win by taking the bigger half. These divisions have often been made on consciously racial fault lines in order to pander to the white majority's baser instincts. In other cases, they exploited cultural fault lines, be they generational or religious.

I'll just give you a greatest hits highlight reel: Goldwater opposing the Civil Rights Act, Nixon's appeals to "law and order" and "the silent majority," Nixon's terming of his opponent in 1972 as the candidate of "acid, amnesty, and abortion," Reagan's talk of "welfare queens" and "young bucks" and "states rights," George HW Bush's Willie Horton ad, Dubya's "with us or against us" and turning out Bible thumpers to attack gay marriage in '04, McCain's harping on Bill Ayers and Palin's "real Americans" rhetoric (the beginning of the Tea Party), Romney's 47% "makers and takers" schtick, and just about everything out of Donald Trump's mouth.

In recent years this kind of conservative populism was given a massive shot in the arm, Steve Rogers-style. After losing both the White House and Congress in 2008, many wondered if the conservative movement had met its Waterloo. Instead, conservative media went on the offensive, most famously in the guise of Glenn Beck, an old school paranoid ranter who would have embarrassed the editors of Red Channels. The Tea Party was soon unleashed, and by appealing to the most rabid portion of its base, the GOP managed to thunder back. Of course, to do this they had to let the monster of its leash. And the monster started getting so confident that it was not afraid of fire or the whip wielded by its master anymore. It decided it would not be quiet and go back into its hole.

And so the monster found a new master: Donald Trump. This master told the monster exactly what it wanted to hear, got it angry and smashy to wild effect. The mad scientist tried to ignore this at first. Then, afraid that the monster would be lost forever and the scientist's powers destroyed, decided to chicken out, cross its fingers, and just let Trump do his thing. Now the scientist is paying the price for his cowardice and craven cynicism, and is being strangled by the monster. My only hope is that the monster finishes its task right before the angry peasants show up with torches and pitchfork to destroy the awful beast.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Berlin Wall and Trump's Wall

Yesterday Fox New personality Monica Crowley tweeted a picture of herself standing in front of one of the remnants of the Berlin with the caption "At the Berlin Wall last week. Walls work." 

I saw this on the commuter train on my way home and almost started screaming. The Berlin Wall worked for almost forty years, if by "worked" you mean killed people, broke apart families, and assisted in stabilizing a horribly repressive police state. As Crowley showed her smug picture, she probably wasn't thinking of the photo below:

This is Peter Fechter, an 18 year old East German shot trying to climb the wall in 1962, and left bleeding on the ground for almost an hour by the DDR's border police. He died, all for the crime of wanting a better life. At least 137 others did, too. To speak of this monument to oppression positively is truly, truly disgusting.

Of course, being a Fox News personality, Crowley's problem might be just as much pig ignorant stupidity as lacking a soul. She might not be aware that the Wall was built to keep people in, not keep them out. She just might be stupid enough that she thinks the Wall was built by the West to hold off the Communist menace or something. 

But now that I think about it, I'm not so sure. By using the Berlin Wall so maladroitly, I think she may have admitted something I've long suspected: many Trump supporters want to see Mexican immigrants shot and bleeding out in front of their beloved wall. These are the same people, after all, who defend the police ever time an unarmed person of color gets shot to death by them. These are the same people who took George Zimmerman's side. These are the same people who live behind the suburban walls of redlining and school districting. (Or in the case of suburban Detroit, an actual wall.) They want walls, both corporeal and legal, between them and people of color, and they want men with guns prepared to shoot anyone who might cross over. This basic fact lies at the center of the dark heart of Trumpism, not trade, not globalization, not nostalgia. Don't forget it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Glen Campbell "Wichita Lineman"

I had today off due to Rosh Hashanah, which allowed me some time to actually sit down and watch a Glen Campbell documentary I had been meaning to see. It's mostly about his struggle to do his last tour right after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Having had a family member suffer from it when I was younger made the film feel very familiar to me.

I find Campbell to be a fascinating fellow since I am a little obsessed with the so called "Wrecking Crew," the gang of LA studio musicians who played on an insane number of the pop hits of the 1960s. He was the rare case of an anonymous studio musician hitting the big time as a performer. He also seems to have existed in a place in the pop world that doesn't exist anymore, which is probably why you'll see Glen Campbell records at practically every Goodwill and yard sale in the country. Campbell played pop music with a country twang, inverting the crossover formula taken by country artists like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton later on. His songs, despite their down home elements, were centered around the kind of mannered singing common in the world of vocal pop, a dying genre (just ask Frank Sinatra circa 1966).

Needless to say, liking Glen Campbell isn't cool.

However, he happened to perform what I think is one of the most affecting pop love ballads of all: the Jimmy Webb penned "Wichita Lineman." It's the story of a working man going about his daily tasks stringing and repairing telephone lines, all the time longing for the woman he loves. "I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time" gets me every time. The narrator's mind wanders as well to his task at hand, worrying if "that stretch down south will ever stand the strain." If you've ever worked a manual labor job that requires working along before, you'll know the strange mix of thoughts described here. "Wichita Lineman" is one of the realest pop songs about being in love, the real kind of love that lasts after years together and the fading of infatuation, a rare subject in the youth-driven charts.

It's also a great song for demonstrating the Wrecking Crew's abilities. The strings swell and pull on the emotions without being overbearing or schmaltzy. Carol Kaye, the great Wrecking Crew bassist, starts it off with that beautiful descending bass line, the kind of thing you never heard isolated like that in a pop song of the time, unless she was doing it (like she did on "These Boots Are Made For Walking.") The moody, understated guitar solo sounds like a surf rocker lost in Nashville, wandering lonely streets in search of a home. (Still not sure if it's Campbell on this or Al Casey.) As pop music is more and more computerized and mechanized, it's good to hear what human musicians were once able to make with it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Westworld, Stranger Things, And The Need For Joy

I am not a binge watcher, which these days feels almost like an admission of fuddy-duddyism. I am a full time teacher (and now grade dean) with a long commute and two four year old children. I have precious little free time, and honestly, television shows expecting me to sacrifice twenty hours of something I get for MAYBE two hours a day are asking way too much. My commuting and child rearing have reinforced my reading habits and podcast addiction, instead.

I long for old school TV watching habits, and so last night my wife and I sat down to watch Westworld, both of us fans of the dark hard sci-fi that spawned the original, and intrigued by what would be done with the update. I also just thought it'd be nice to have a show to watch on the regular, once a week, without feeling any pressure to give it a chunk of time that I just don't have.

I thought the show was worth the watch, and I think I'll watch it next week, but it had many of the hallmarks of HBO TV that I don't really care for. Were women other than the leads unnecessarily naked a lot? Yes. Was there a constant "dark gritty" overtone? Yes. Were the opening credits an eerie song beneath metaphorical graphics? Yes. Was there constant, gratuitous violence? Yes. Was there rape and violence against women? Yes. At least there wasn't a "complicated" male protagonist or an ironically sordid suburban setting.  The show raised enough questions about human behavior and artificial intelligence that I was willing to let my annoyance with the formulaic elements take a back seat.

Since watching it I've been thinking a lot about Stranger Things, I show I LOVED in ways that I don't think I have ever loved a television show. We had the time to binge watch it this summer, but spaced out the episodes because we didn't want it to end. (I felt the same way about Jessica Jones.) Was some of this nostalgia for all the things it referenced and the mood it evoked? Maybe.  But here's the deal: the things it reminded me of worked for the same reasons that Stranger Things worked. I really liked the characters. It actually showed a working class household with some measure of accuracy. The bad boyfriend ended up becoming a mensch by the time all was said and done. I could actually ROOT FOR the characters I loved to survive and emerge victorious without feeling ambiguous. (There's a reason Barb has become a meme. WE CARE FOR HER.) The show was still emotionally complex, and managed to touch on parenthood, adolescence, social class, bullying, and friendship. Pleasing the crowd does not mean sacrificing depth.

Wanting someone to root for seems to have become a no-no in the age of "dark and gritty" and "complicated." Look, I love 70s cinema and films like Chinatown and The Godfather, so I'm all about complicated protagonists. But on prestige television it has become a hoary cliche, just as it has in so many superhero movies. I think The Force Awakens succeeded because when Finn and Poe are escaping the Star Destroyer and shouting "woo!" in their TIE fighter it is such a moment of joy and fun. It just made me so damn HAPPY. And that feeling could still coexist with the sad story of the Solo family's disillusion.

Darkngritty for the sake of darkngritty is getting tiresome. When Walter White became progressively more evil, it pained me to see a man sell his soul a piece at a time, because I was allowed to root for him early on. Years from now Game of Thrones might end up being seen as a massively deleterious force on the course of television, just the same as Star Wars' unintended consequence was to squeeze out all those creative 70s cinema trends I mentioned before.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Season In Five Games

The baseball regular season is winding down to an end, and today my team, the New York Mets, clinched a playoff spot despite an imposing number of injuries. On this cool, wet afternoon with damp, newly fallen leaves on the ground, I feel a million miles away from the April thaw and spring breeze. The baseball season is a long one, and with 162 games, it can feel like a journey of sorts. You remember the good times and bad, certain random games out of the 162 sticking in your mind. Right now I am thinking back at the five Met games I was able to attend, and how they tell a story of this improbable season.

April 30, 2016
Mets 6 - Giants 5
Mets record: 15-7

Every year my friend Jim gets a bunch of people to together for Metsgate, which involves intense tailgating in the furthest, least policed corner of the parking lot. I brought a small, behind the liquor store bottle of Maker's Mark with me on the Long Island Railroad wrapped up in the Saturday New York Times. This year, to save money, our group of tickets were in the top rows behind home plate. This was a sign of the Mets' resurgence the season before, which meant that they were actually a hot ticket again for the first time in years. The April winds blew hard that day, and I was freezing my butt off, despite the warmth of the bourbon in my blood. Going to games in April is a real roll of the dice. Jacob deGrom gave up three runs, but none of them were earned. Youngster Michael Conforto was hitting his stroke, and knocked in three runs in that game with three hits, including a homer. To avoid the wind we went down to the area behind the bullpen at the end of the game, and watched Jeurys Familia warm up, throwing hard with a satisfying *pow* sound every time his pitches hit the catcher's glove. The Mets hit 15-7 and I thought that they were on their way to a dominant season. Ah, the hubris of April!

June 21, 2016
Mets 2 - Royals 1
Mets record: 37-32

April's chill had more than faded by this time. It was a bright sunny day, and my last day of school for the year. Ending that blessed day at the ballpark was like a dream come true. I met my friend Guy at the stadium, and we got there so early that we had to wait in line for half an hour before they would let us in. He is a a great baseball companion who likes being at the park early, and is good at striking up interesting conversations with other fans. We went straight to the outfield bleachers for batting practice, and Guy even brought his glove. I really do love getting to the park early, drinking it in and attuning myself to the subtle rhythms of baseball. We actually got about seven feet from catching a ball hit in the seats during BP, but we weren't big enough losers to muscle out the kids scrambling for it. We had great seats for the game, on the first base line, although this meant the sun blasting our faces for the first three innings. This ended up being one of the most memorable games I'd ever been to. Bartolo Colon was pitching, and the first batter hit a line drive right off his wrist, driving Colon from the game. It was up to the Mets' bullpen to win an entire game without any time to warm up, and they actually did it. The fact that they managed to do it against the team that beat the Mets in the World Series made it all the more sweet. The Mets were faltering at this point in the season, with Duda on the DL and Conforto hitting a big slump. The guts they showed in this game made me think that they still had a chance.

July 1, 2016
Mets 10 - Cubs 2
Mets record: 42-37

I went to this game with my Dad, visiting from Nebraska, and my friend Matt, visiting from Georgia to root on his beloved Cubs. The Mets had been maintaining a holding pattern, a winning but not dominant theme. We almost didn't go, since the weather forecast looked pretty grim. There was a rain delay, but that afforded the perfect opportunity to get some spicy sausage sandwiches and beers in the concourse. That experience also showed the wisdom of Citi Field's architects, who designed concourses wide enough to hold fans during a rain delay without becoming as crowded as rush hour on the subway. As always, it was great to go to a game with my father. He has not stayed up on the current players, but has an amazing eye for the game itself. He notices the defensive shifts and predicts what kind of pitch the pitcher will throw next, and going to a game with him always reminds me that statistical analysis is only a one part of how to understand baseball. My father marveled at Jacob deGrom's dominating pitches, especially a high heater that tempted the opposing to swing and miss many times. The Mets looked really sharp, and they ended up taking all four games in this series. I actually felt bad for Matt, since he had made such a long trip to see his team in what is supposed to be a year of destiny for the Cubs. Little did I know that after sweeping the Cubs the Mets would began a long, slow decline, and the Cubs would prove themselves to be the most dominant team in the National League. Such are the twists and turns of the wide river that is a baseball season.

August 13, 2016
Mets 3 - Padres 2
Mets record: 58-58

When this game started, the Mets had a losing record. Guy and I managed to get tickets dirt cheap for a Saturday night game due to the Mets' decline. We went on what must've been the hottest day of the year, the sun just blasting down and waves of heat rising from the concrete of the parking lot as we each slammed an Old Milwaukee tallboy, more to quench our thirst than to get a buzz on. It was the kind of heat so intense that my usually profuse sweating no longer caused me embarrassment because everyone there was drenched. DeGrom was on the hill again, and yet again he pitched a gem, not giving up a hit until the fifth inning. However, the Mets' anemic offense could not give him the necessary run support. The Padres were down 2-1 when the ninth inning began, with the Mets' imposing closer Jeurys Familia there to close it out. After putting down the first two batters, he gave up a big blast of a home run that felt like a massive punch to the gut. It was a metaphor for a season when the Mets showed promise, and then managed to screw things up. I might've left the game in disgust at that point, but Guy and I attended this game in large part because Styx (remember them?) was giving a free concert afterward. Finally, in the eleventh inning, the Mets put together a string of hits, and won the game on that most anticlimactic of plays, a fielder's choice. Perhaps this game was another metaphor, the Mets as a team with its back against the wall that managed to scratch and fight its way forward. Gabriel Ynoa, just called up from the minors, managed to get the win in relief, just one of many players who would come out of nowhere to bolster the Mets as they contended with injury. We left the stadium feeling just a little bit of hope that the Mets could turn things around.

September 25, 2016
Mets 17 - Phillies 0
Mets record: 83-73

This game was my birthday present, and I attended it with my wife and my two girls, who were at their first Mets game. It was also the last home game of the season, and I'd always wanted to go to a last home game, since they can be such wistful moments. When we got the tickets a month before I assumed that the Mets would be out of contention at this point. It was right then that the Mets started catching fire, hitting the ball and scoring runs in torrents after the drought of the summer. Their starting staff was decimated worse than a regiment of North Caroliners at the bloody angle at Gettysburg. Harvey, deGrom, and Matz all went down, and Wheeler was unable to come back. The pitchers they called up from the minors, like Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman (who started this game) somehow excelled. It reminded me of the third part of the Lord of the Rings, when the dead kings rise to joint the battle and win the day for the heroes. The weather at this game was damn near perfect, sunny, a little breezy, and exactly what you want out of a September afternoon. I also had the good luck to find out that an old friend from college was in town for business and attending the game, and so we got to have a beer and catch up on the concourse while my daughters dashed around our feet. I took it as a sign that this was not just going to be an ordinary baseball game. The Mets themselves seemed hellbent on giving their home fans a great sendoff in a game that was the team's biggest blowout of the season. We left in the eighth inning to get in line behind the stadium for the Sunday special promotion where kids get to run the bases after the game. It took forever, because the Mets tacked on six runs that inning. Running the bases was a special treat, and not just for the girls. We stood out on the warning track, waiting for our turn, and I looked out giddily at the lush green field where so many of my hopes and wishes had been directed through the long, long season. I felt a little silly for investing so much in a boys' game played by grown men, but on the way home, when my daughters said they wanted to go back to the ballpark again, I felt so happy that I can barely describe it.

The giveaway that last home game was a magnetic 2017 schedule. The cycles repeat. Winter will come, but soon spring, and then baseball again, and with any luck, more trips with my family to the ballpark.