Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Forecast For 2017

I've had a history on this blog of making useless predictions, which I am going to put to rest. Too many pundits are flooding the public sphere with asinine prognostication, so there's no need for my own entry. No, I would like, in a term borrowed from a Tom Waits song, to give an emotional weather report and forecast for the upcoming year.

My fears from this summer have proven correct: we are witnessing a major change in the historical weather. To mix my metaphors, the tectonic plates are shifting, the earth is shaking, and edifices are crumbling to the ground. I simply cannot predict exactly what is going to come next, but I can only tell you that it will be bad. There are dark storm clouds on the horizon, I just don't know how bad.

As near as I can tell the political opposition will have little power to stop Trump and his agenda. The Democrats are a minority in both houses of Congresses, were blocked from swinging the Supreme Court, and are fighting an opponent more than happy to eradicate obstacles to power, democracy be damned. Just look at voter suppression, the coup in North Carolina, and the aforementioned blocking of Merrick Garland's nomination. The political left remains divided, still fighting each other over the last election rather than banding together to face the common enemy. The radical left's membership is practically non-existent outside of college campuses while the mainstream Democratic party seems incapable of rallying its base. If the Democrats try to filibuster in the Senate, I get the feeling that the filibuster will be suspended by Senate Republicans, which would fit their MO.

At the very least the social safety net will be shredded even more, and the wealthy will get even more money due to ending the inheritance tax and lowering their income tax burden. Millions will lose health insurance. Paul Ryan has been jizzing himself since November 8 at the thought of starving your grandmother, and he will get his wish.

This alone is the best case scenario. In terms of foreign policy, where the president has a lot of free reign, things could get really crazy. Trump effectively wants an alliance with Putin, and NATO may soon go the way of the dodo. Putin may well invade the Baltic states. US warplanes may soon be dropping bombs on the Syrian opposition in order to maintain the Assad regime. A trade war with China could be in the offing. At home a Jeff Sessions-run Justice Department will give racist cops even freer reign to kill. A Betsy DeVos Department of Education may permanently paralyze public education. Trump will likely use his position to enrich himself, his cronies, and his awful children.

One of the worst things about this is the unpredictability of the situation. We are in uncharted waters and are going to stay there. There is going to be no going back. I cannot predict what will happen, but I do know that the next year will be unprecedented.

I've read two moving books this year by people caught up in historical change, One was Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, detailing her early life, especially her years as a nurse in World War I. This book is a reminder that our whole world can change overnight in ways that we could never expect, and that larger historical changes, like the universe itself, are indifferent to our fate. I got a similar feeling reading Victor Klemperer's diary of life under Nazism. That book has shaken me because Klemperer and his friends initially thought that there was no way that Hitler would maintain power, that the army would step in, that his own cronies would have him done away with. I am convinced, more than ever, that all good people who oppose the incoming autocrat need to be prepared to fight to the last breath if we are going to have any chance of maintaining democracy. Anything short of that will not be enough. And so for the next year my only resolution is to put my shoulder to the wheel.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

NFTIB Best Posts Of 2016

At the end of every year I like to go back and look at my handiwork, such as it is. Here are the posts that I think are the best. I invite you to take a look!

Our Endangered, Outmoded Constitution
I wrote this months ago and still stand by it.

A Historical Analysis Of Baseball's Divisional Era
I'd love to make this a book someday, if I only had the talent and time.

Suffer Little Children
News of abuse in a charter school network got me thinking about my own abusive experience in kindergarten.

Billboard Top Ten February 2, 1985
My favorite from this series this year.

It's The Nation, Stupid
I wrote a LOT of posts on this theme this year. This was the first.

A Letter From Nebraska
Some thoughts about my homeland, more cogent than usual.

Don't Adjunct
Back to the post-academic well just one more time.

Untangling Race, Class, And The "Good Old Days"
Well, this seems prescient:

"The thing is, a lot of those whites unhappy at the economic turn are not turning to hate. The Democratic party has to reach those voters. I am not making the usual call for Democrats to appeal to working class whites at all costs, because those days are over and the Democrats ought to prioritize those loyal to them. Instead, I want the party to solidify its connections to those working class white voters willing to be in a multiracial coalition. While there is a stereotype that the white working class is overwhelmingly Republican, that is actually skewed by the numbers from the South. Outside of the South, it's much less the case. The Democrats can use the "good old days" narrative in a more positive way by arguing for worker protections, strong unions, and support for college and child care. Trump is actually handing them an opportunity, I only hope that they take it."

I also wrote about it here.

The Age Of Resentment
Looking at the above in a global context.

Dr. Sillylovesongs, Or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love Paul McCartney
Getting old means reevaluating one's taste.

Grand Funk Railroad, "We're An American Band"
My favorite Track of Week post of the year.

I might have spent the most time of any post this year on this one, about quality cheap beer.

Trump And German American Identity
I want to turn this into a bigger essay and get it published.

On Watching The Wizard Of Oz With My Daughters
Sad dad time.

Why Now, More Than Ever, We Need To Talk About Reconstruction
It is the great failed revolution in American history, and I am seeing parallels to it today which should frighten all of us.

Notes On A Night Ramble In Central Park
Probably my most coherent response to the election.

Forget rural areas, the suburbs and their culture of racialized fear put Trump over the top.

Another one I want to make into a longer essay.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

George Michael, "Mother's Pride"

This has been a bad week for celebrity death. Carrie Fisher died today, just two days after George Michael, two people who had an impact on me in my formative years. Wham!'s Make It Big was the third tape I ever owned, something that later embarrassed me after I went punk in the early 90s. Nowadays I am mature enough to recognize that it was a cut above the other over-produced, glossy 80s pop of the mid-80s. George Michael was heavily influenced by soul music, and he sang in a soulful style that was in no way derivative or tinged with the "love and theft" dynamics of so many white artists influenced by black musicians. I should also add that as a boy I failed all the metrics of young male masculinity, and thus was interested in men like George Michael who seemed to stand outside of the usual gender norms. Prince's overt sexuality kinda scared me, so George Michael was more my speed.

After hitting it big with Wham! and then getting even bigger as a solo artist with the Faith record* he took some time off and came back with Listen Without Prejudice, one the first CDs I ever bought. It came out in 1990, a dark and moody album that was just a little ahead of the more serious direction that a lot of music was going to take after the dayglo 80s. This was a million miles from "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," more fully in the direction he'd taken with "Father Figure." "Freedom 90" was the one real hit from the album in the states, and before I discovered REM, The Doors, The Clash, and Nirvana in 1991, it was among my favorite jams.

"Mother's Pride" was the darkest and most affecting song on Listen Without Prejudice, the story of a mother reluctantly sending her boy off to die in war, unconvinced by the narratives of noble sacrifice. It is a beautiful song backed by spare piano and pan flute. Unlike other explicitly political songs of the time, Michael does not hit the listener over the head, he subtly makes the point that wars have consequences and demand sacrifices that are unnecessary. It's a song that sends a chill down my spine. I listen to this and think that George Michael was a helluva singer, and someone who should've been taken a lot more seriously. RIP

*"Monkey" is highly underrated, in my opinion

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Christmas Eve Epiphany

My rate of postings has slowed down here in the last week due to the holiday and my good fortune at having my parents here to visit. This has actually allowed my mind to work and wander more, generating more and more ideas that I don't have the time to write about. Such is life.

One of those ideas hit me very strong on Christmas Eve. I went with my family and my parents to Christmas Eve mass, and despite my status as a lapsed Catholic agnostic Episcopalian, I felt something very, very strong, even if it was not what I was supposed to feel. Being with my parents at Christmas Eve mass again reminded me of my childhood, when my beliefs were pure and simple. The joy expressed at the coming of the Savior felt very real to me back than. My heart exulted, my spirits lifted, and my soul felt warm.

As I got a little twinge of that long absent feeling, I also began to feel extremely melancholy. For a believer, Christmas holds the prospect that this awful, corrupt, wretched world can in fact be saved. That belief has echoed in so many ways in the intellectual history of the West, even in the thought of those who were non-believers. Marx dreamed of the revolution that would end history and destroy alienation. Nietzsche foresaw humanity moving into a higher stage of being.

Standing there singing the old hymns of salvation I realized that I could only go half way. I do not think that this world can be saved, nor do I believe that there is any moral arc to the universe, as badly as I want to believe the famous words of Dr. King. I think that, as Werner Herzog has said, the universe is indifferent to our existence.

The election of Donald Trump has only confirmed the darker thoughts I've been having in recent years. I am beginning to think that all of the bad historical trends that I have been noticing for decades now have actually converged to create a new, much worse historical reality. Like the Soviet citizens of the Brezhnev era, I've noticed the rot but never thought this meant that the current political reality was going to undergo a revolutionary overhaul. I doubt that the international order will survive the next four years, and I doubt that the remains of the shredded social safety net will either. The police will be allowed to be even more murderous, and the strides made by gay and trans people will face setbacks.

The center will not hold, as the poet said, and no one will come to save us. We will have to somehow find a way to save ourselves.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Trump And Fortress Suburbia

A classic tale of fear in fortress suburbia from Patton Oswalt's youth

There is this narrative going around that "Trump voters" are all "traditional" rural folk feeling embattled by changing times, lost jobs, etc. While Trump did very well among rural whites, those people are a small part of the electorate. He got over the top (at least by the standards of the electoral college) by winning suburbia. According to the Miami Herald, his performance among suburban whites won him Florida, and by extension, practically the entire election.

With Democrats dominating in the cities and Republicans in the country, suburbia has long been the crucial swing zone, and Trump won it. This was in large part due to his campaign of fear, which tapped into the fundamental underpinnings of suburbia itself.

American suburbia is a fortress zone. It is set up to allow certain people in, and others out. It is what helps maintain the racial and economic segregation of schools and housing in this country, and which thus maintains the most pernicious aspects of institutional racism. In most of white suburbia there is a constant fear of encroachment, that the tidal wave of "inner city" migration will hit their town and destroy it. This is the reason for such beefed-up police in low crime areas.

In my experience this way of life fills its residents (especially the white ones) with a constant, nagging anxiety that they are threatened. Hence as well the proliferation of so-called "gated communities" in affluent areas. It is very, very easy for someone like Trump to mobilize fear to court voters who are already live in an environment of constant fear of infiltration. These are the people who took the "knock out game" urban legend seriously. These are the people who bought duct tape and plastic sheeting after the government told them to in the wake of 9/11. These are the people who shoot trick or treaters. These are the people who fight to keep mosques from being built in their communities. These are the people who think the very existence of transgendered people is somehow a threat to their kids. These are the people who make excuses for George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin in a typical suburban fortress subdivision.

They needed someone to tell them they were protected and that their fears of other people were not hateful, but justified. The wall Trump talks of so fondly has real symbolic weight with them. They want walls around their communities, and want them heavily guarded. And they want the people they don't like who cross those walls to be shot. There have been far too many tragic cases to prove that point in the last few years.

So please, national news media, when discussing "Trump voters" get out of Akron and rural Mississippi for a change, and go to Suffolk County on Long Island or Morris County in New Jersey, two populous suburban counties in heavily blue states that went for Trump when the state as a whole did not. Those voters are key to understanding why Trump won.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

On The Appropriateness Of Weimar Metaphors

The rise of Donald Trump has raised questions over whether we are seeing the rebirth of fascism. (A friend wrote a fairly convincing case.) Scholars who study authoritarian regimes, whether in the past or present, have been especially alarmed by Trump's actions, seeing in them echoes of 1930s Europe and post-communist Uzbekistan. A lot of folks on the radical Left have resisted these comparisons. For example, a recent article in Jacobin questioned the use of Weimar analogies.

While I agreed with the larger point of the article, which was to resist the bad temptation to meet the challenge of Trumpism by reducing democracy in the name of saving society, I disagreed with the notion that we need to chuck Weimar metaphors altogether. The authors, Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg, are not convincing when they say that, for example, Trump does not truck in "blood and soil" rhetoric. This is a man who started his campaign with an attack on Hispanic immigrants (blood) and a call to build a wall on the border (soil). He began his political career by questioning Barack Obama's citizenship, an assertion that was implicitly grounded in blood and soil conceptions of national belonging. They also say that he rarely praises war, but this is a man who has called for aggressive military action against ISIS, expropriating oil from conquered lands (a la a certain nation's behavior in WWII) and executing the families of supposed terrorists. Last, they say that Trump does not attack democratic and electoral institutions, but he would not pledge to abide by the results of the election, and even after winning questioned its legitimacy and claiming "millions" of people voted illegally.

No historical analogy ever fits perfectly, of course. America in 2016 is a very different place from Germany in 1933. I have tended to avoid Weimar metaphors because for most people Nazis are detached from any kind of historical context. The are simply bogeymen and pure evil, and once the accusation that someone today resembles Nazis gets made it dominates the conversation. I'm also well aware of Godwin's Law.

All that being said, I am profoundly disturbed by the fact that Trump and the movement around him most certainly adheres to the core attribute of fascism: regenerative nationalism. Trump has promised to make the nation "great again" both by purging people from it and by engaging in military action abroad. The nation's ills are blamed on immigrants and a stab in the back from those who signed "bad trade deals." Perhaps, as Bessner and Greenberg argue, it might be best to combat this without resorting to historical analogies, but those analogies do help illustrate the stakes for the uncommitted.

I see historical precedent for the current political winds in the world, and I do locate it in the 1930s, but without necessarily seeing a total one-for-one similarity with Weimar in particular. The world today is being swept by authoritarian nationalism, which our press erroneously calls "populism." In the US, Poland, Hungary, India, China, the Philippines, Russia, and in other places we are seeing new regimes that are restricting free speech rights while promising national redemption. While Italy and Germany established the most well-known authoritarian regimes in the 1930s, they were the more extreme edge of a broader authoritarian sweep. After the Great War the world was supposed to be "safe for democracy," but by World War II there were hardly any democracies left in Europe. After France and Britain sold out Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938, none of the newly formed democracies in Eastern Europe had survived. These regimes were conservative and nationalist in character without the revolutionary intentions of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but were certainly reactionary and repressive. Also think of Franco's Spain. While the fascist Falange supported Franco, he and his regime were more reactionary than revolutionary.

Of course, in the 1930s the reactionaries were motivated in large part by fear of communism. Today, by contrast, the left in the West (and in some other places) is extremely feeble. In America in particular the labor movement's power has been broken, and without a strong labor movement I think a broad-based Left is impossible.  Easy credit and the culture industry have cushioned the blows of wealth inequality and this country's heritage of white racism continues to inhibit class-based political action. Back in the 1930s the United States bucked many of the trends in Europe by choosing social democracy in the form of the New Deal. With the United States falling under the nationalist authoritarian wave, I wonder if we are about to live out an alternate timeline from the past. A timeline with a very different ending.

I am a social democrat but I am disturbed by the deeper motivations behind the rejection of Weimar analogies from those on the left. There is an obsession these days in those corners with attacking liberals, and acknowledging the stakes of the new regimes would force the left to take a popular front strategy that many seem to be rejecting. Those folks are under the delusion that the current situation is creating an opportunity. If you look back at the 1930s, the refusal of different leftist and progressive groups to unify inevitably led them to be crushed on the anvil of rightist authoritarianism. In America, where the radical CIO unions formed an alliance with New Dealers, it was the right that was marginalized. Or look to the popular front in France, which put Socialist Leon Blum in power, despite the fact that his opponents would say "better Hitler than Blum."

Liberals, progressives, social democrats, and radicals surely have points of disagreement that can't be resolved, but we need to be focusing our energies on creating a united front and to reverse the nationalist tide. If not, it will surely drown us all.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Baseball In The Winter Of Our Discontent

I've made no secret of my love of baseball on this blog. During the baseball season it is my daily companion, the welcome distraction with its endless depth, whether it be history, statistics, or the moment of anticipation before the next pitch. A lot of people don't like baseball, and I get that. The fact that it is increasingly a niche sport only warms my contrarian heart that much more.

Right now I am sitting here at a coffee shop while my daughters are at a birthday party, staring out the window at rain falling on snow, perhaps the most dismal form of weather in existence. This time of year I usually start dreaming about baseball as a way to imagine winter melting away. As a child this was quickly fulfilled, since the new baseball cards came out in January and February. Now I will watch snatches of a "Mets Classic" on local cable or watch an old game off of YouTube. However, the local comics store has old packs of cards from my late 80s heyday, and I have a rack pack of 1988 Fleer at home waiting for the moment when my baseball anticipation can't be suppressed any longer.

This winter has me longing for the escape of baseball even harder than ever. To endure the Trumpist onslaught without my favorite and most meaningful distraction makes it all so much worse. (Then again, perhaps it's best I'm not distracted.) This year I have been having fever dreams of flying to Florida for spring training, using my wife's trip to a conference in Orlando in January as a justification. ("If she gets to go to Florida, I should too, dammit!") Yes I know I am grasping at straws, but these are tough times.

The thing I can't escape from right now is the absolute uncertainty of the future. I just don't know what Trump is going to do, I only know that it is going to be bad. This uncertainty drives me crazy some days. I am certain of the fact that once spring comes, baseball will too, and I will need it more than I ever have before. I also want baseball, in all of its traditionalist stodginess, to get political. Of the three major team sports it is the one where Latin and foreign-born players (from all over the world, not just Latin America) are the biggest stars and make the biggest impact. The quality of baseball has gone up in recent years, and it is due to the kind of people that Trump hates. Part of me wants to believe that baseball heroes can convince Trumpist baseball fans to question the coming onslaught. I know that's probably ridiculous, but I can hope.

Anyway, here are some baseball artifacts that have been giving me cheer:

White Sox and Tigers Brawl, 4-22-2000
This is a guilty pleasure in a true sense, in that I think fighting is stupid. That said, this is not a typical baseball fight, where people just sorta mill around, but a full on brawl. I remember hearing this on the radio when it happened as I was driving from Urbana back to Chicago. This White Sox team seemed to bond over the experience, and went on to win their division for the first time since 1983.

Tom Emanski Defensive Drills Video Commercial
Only $29.95 (and endorsed by Fred McGriff!)

Bartolo Colon Running Down AJ Pierzynski
Bartolo Colon proves that being old and fat does not mean you can't be a great athlete. I am so bummed that Big Sexy won't be playing for the Mets next season.

Tom Lasorda's 1988 Topps Card
Speaking of old and fat...(I kid, I kid) this card always cracks me up. 1988 Topps had a lot of lazy spring training cards, but this one really takes the cake.

Darrell Porter's 1983 Fleer Card
I miss the days when baseball players would sport big glasses and names like Darrell.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


I've got some things to get off my chest. My time on Twitter has been a constant aggravation recently, because the Monday morning quarterbacking of the Clinton campaign ceases to abate. We are over a month past the election and I am just tired of it. There were some obvious strategic mistakes as well as some harder to control factors (electoral college's structure, voter suppression, Russian hacking) that contributed to Clinton's loss.

At this point, however, anyone who is talking about 2020 and not 2018 is wasting their time and mine. In case you don't remember, the Republican surges in midterm elections in 2010 and 2014 helped to hamstring the Obama administration. The Democrats need to learn a lesson from their enemies and do likewise. Not only that, state legislatures elected in the coming years will be in charge of congressional districting in 2020. Gerrymandering has hurt Democrats severely, and winning on the state level will be absolutely crucial to turning back the tide.

Democrats will be able to do this only through a fifty state strategy and through going on the offensive. For too long Democrats have been playing defense, defending the status quo in a society where the status quo is loathed. For example, if Republicans want Obamacare repealed, Democrats need to run on expanding access to affordable health care even more. Push for a public option, or even Medicare for all. Give people something that can help them and something positive for party activists to fight FOR. Expanded health access at low prices without the rigamarole of the health care exchanges is something that working people of all races -those elusive working class whites included- will find attractive.

Also, exploit the mistakes that Trump and the Republicans are about to make. If they try to privative Medicare and reduce Social Security hang that around their neck and light it on fire. Those actions would be EXTREMELY unpopular. Make the corporatist 1% agenda the image Republicans are known for, and hammer them on it. It is not a popular agenda, hence their need to stir up nationalism. Make them defend it. Beyond that, Trump is proving already to be unpopular and disliked. Make other Republicans pay for being on his side. Associate Republicans with him and make the 2018 election a referendum on his time in power.

I just said it, but I will say it again: rehashing 2016 is a waste of time. 2018 (and 2017, in some states) is where the focus should be. The Democrats have done a poor job of building from the bottom up in recent years. Now is the time to do that, and the consequences of not doing so are far too dire to ignore.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bee Gees, "You'll Never See My Face Again"

I am in a funk. I am enjoying my students, but I am teaching three preps right and along with some added responsibilities and it is getting near the end of the term and I can feel my wick burning down to the nub. The state of the world hasn't helped all that much, either. Each day brings a new horror and I feel like I am living in some kind of insane funhouse. Last Friday night I sat in front of my computer late at night, the rest of my family asleep as I read about the CIA's knowledge that Russia had intentionally tried to swing the election to Trump. This of course came after Trump had made it known that he wanted to put generals in positions normally held by civilians. I am beginning to seriously think that our country as we know it is about to come to an end.

Well, I am not going to regale you with my theories on that count. No, I am going to talk about some comfort music, since we all need to be taking care of ourselves. I've let it be known that I love the Bee Gees' baroque pop of the 1960s, and I don't care who knows. I know it's about the least hip music around, but the melodies are beautiful and the themes melancholy, allowing me to wallow in my funk in a way that feels cozy rather than frightening. I often turn to this music in winter, when my seasonally-related drops in serotonin lead me to cling to musical comfort food for survival.

Odessa was the last of the Bee Gees' baroque pop albums of the 60s, one that almost broke up the band. (Robin actually left for a little bit after.) The orchestrations on it are much bigger and more lush than the preceding albums, and there is little rock and roll here. Amidst the bittersweet love songs on the album comes "You'll Never See My Face Again," a jaded kiss off with more than a hint of just straight out bitterness, no sweetness included. It has a great sound, an insistent, almost gritty acoustic guitar meshing with the atmospheric strings. I've heard this song is about Robin's intention of leaving the band, but I listen to it when I am so world-weary that I just want the world to piss off and leave me alone.

That's how I feel this week, at least. Maybe next week I can get back to fighting again.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


I have not been right since Friday night, when I saw the news that the CIA had concluded that Russia had intentionally been using its espionage efforts to swing the election to Donald Trump. That was quickly followed by Trump's unhinged, mendacious response, which contained many obvious lies, but also exposed a massive conflict between the president elect and the main intelligence service. Then after that I heard that Rex Tillerson, perhaps Putin's biggest ally in America, would be Trump's Secretary of State.

We are in uncharted waters here, folks. Either the incoming president will be doing the bidding of a hostile nation that manipulated the election to get him into power, or the nation's main intelligence agency is actively trying to undermine an incoming president. (Or both.) Based on the Tillerson pick and other evidence, my money is on the first option.

We are thus met with the paradox that the biggest nationalists in the country are solidly behind a man whose primary foreign policy effect will be to empower Russia. They don't see it this way, of course, because these people believe that they are the "real Americans." If they are "real America," then anything and anyone they support is de facto American, and anyone they oppose is trying to destroy America. Hence the Tea Party cries of "take OUR country back."

I've tangled with these people before. Back in 2003 when I lived in Champaign, Illinois, I participated in protests during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Then, one Saturday, our usual spot was taken over by a large group of people with flags who had been rallied there by the local talk radio station. They had a PA system, which even blasted "Born in the USA" (Springsteen wept) and the local talk radio demagogue excoriated us. (Usually it was just the usual person driving by in their car.) For the crime of not wanting my fellow Americans to kill and die for a lie, I was being called disloyal. The counter-patriotism of me and my brethren on the picket line never really got much of a public airing.

One of the Left's many failures in recent decades has been its inability to formulate its own version of patriotism. This failure gives creedence to conservatives who question the loyalty of their opponents, and makes it harder for those on the Left to draw converts. The Russian intervention in the election, and Trump's apparent desire to do the Kremlin's bidding, present us with a golden opportunity to develop a counter-patriotism. In a time of rising nationalism if the Left cannot articulate a vision of the nation then I fear it has absolutely no chance. This was something that I think Barack Obama did well in his rise to the presidency. There is a positive vision of the nation out there, and now is the time to articulate it and draw strength from it.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Are America's Brezhnev Years Over?

Leonid Brezhnev's many medals couldn't hide the rot of the Soviet system

As I have written on this blog before, sometime during the Dubya years I started proffering the theory that America had entered its Brezhnev years. Here's how I described it:

"Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, presiding over its long decline.  While he enjoyed giving himself medals and flexing Soviet power, the system began to rot and most people, even in the party itself, stopped believing in the party ideology.  Similarly, our political class profess to love freedom and democracy, all while democratic institutions crumble.  Elections are bought and sold, and voters can't be bothered to show up at the polls.  Gridlock and acrimony have led to a do-nothing government no longer even able to pass the most basic legislation.  Social institutions are hardly faring better. Our universities, once the pride of the world, have become money-grubbing enterprises whose high cost make debtors out of their students.  Roads crack and bridges fall due to lack of funds. As labor unions have been crushed, workers are seeing their wages shrink while the wealthy see unprecedented gains.  Abroad America's failed War On Terror has, like the USSR's ill-advised invasion of Afghanistan, exposed a once mighty empire's clay feet.  Belief in institutions has been broken, and the fact the military and police routinely come out on top when Americans are polled about institutions that they trust shows an authoritarian longing that belies all of the democracy talk."

The Brezhnev years, despite surface appearances of stability, were a time of massive structural rot. I feel that the same thing has happened in America in the past three decades. "Democracy" has become a buzzword with about as much meaning as "outside the box" or "excellence" or "grit." I think that in many respects, Trump's election is the culmination of America's Brezhnev years. While Trump is a very different man than Mikhail Gorbachev, both represent leaders willing to break down the very political structure of their own countries, as well as change the state of world diplomacy.

Gorbachev wanted to maintain communism and save it from itself. Trump, on the other hand, wants to break the old system down to get more power for himself. Don't believe me? He actually once discussed on Fox News the need for social chaos before "we can be great again." Decades of the rot that has robbed the country of a belief in democracy will enable him. Hence all those marginal Trump voters who said that they wanted someone to "shake things up," despite doubting his fitness for office. This kind of political nihilism is too a product of America's Brezhnev years, the product of endless gridlock and cynicism.

America's Brezhnev years may now be over, but what comes next is the collapse. Trump has appointed several generals to positions usually held by civilians, most notably to head the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Never mind the tradition that the civilians should oversee the military and the military should not be in charge of internal affairs. Trump knows full well that when a tyrant takes power in a modern state, he needs the military to be on his side, since they are the one institution capable of stopping him. He got a large amount of the military vote, and is now heavily associating himself with it in ways that are unprecedented for a president. Beyond that, he knows that the police and military are the most trusted institutions in America (a truly deleterious effect of America's Brehznev years.) Their support will insulate him, and make his abrogations of democracy seem acceptable to a majority of the country.

Trump has used his Twitter megaphone this week to personally attack anyone who dares to criticize him. This ought to scare us, but after twenty years of rot, the reaction is as much amused as it is outraged. Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million votes, got support from a foreign government, and benefitted from voter suppression, but the vast majority of this country is willing to just let all of that slide. Decades of rot have made it difficult to care for so many. Trump is refusing to divest his business holdings, release his tax returns, and had to pay $25 million for a fraud lawsuit, but none of these issues has inspired outrage outside of a minority. Why? Because the rot has set in, and like the KGB agents who fought to get postings in the West so that they could buy blue jeans and Marlboros, people in this country no longer believe in the ideology of their political system anymore.

For years I've been telling people we've been living in the American Brezhnev years, now it looks like we are primed to experience something a whole lot worse.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Classic Albums: Neil Young, On The Beach

Winter has come. The leaves as gone, and the morning air has a hardness in it. It is not the best backdrop for contemplating the horrors that the next four years are about to bring us. As always, I turn to music during times of seasonal change, both political and climatological.

I have found comfort in Neil Young's "ditch trilogy" of albums from the mid-1970s. (After going to the middle of the road with Harvest, he steered things into rougher territory for a bit.) 1974's On The Beach in particular stands out. For a long time this album was out of print due to Young's insistence, which has always baffled me, since it's so good, and copies of the likes of Landing On Water and This Note's For You were always easy to find when On The Beach was languishing in the vaults. Perhaps it's because this album is a too raw reminder of a tough time in his life, but then again, the more harrowing Tonight's The Night was never swept under the rug.

The ditch trilogy began with the live album Time Fades Away, from 1973, a chronicle of Young's difficult tour that year. It started right after Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was kicked out of his band, after which he soon died of a drug overdose. That came on the eve of the tour, and really set the tone. After hitting it big with mellow songs like "Heart Of Gold," Young was playing to stadium audiences of new fans expecting a laid back 70s folkie vibe, not the blast of chaotic noise on songs he hadn't yet released. After that he recorded the aforementioned Tonight's the Night, a supremely dark album that he shelved until 1975.

On The Beach was recorded last, but was released in the middle. In a lot of ways, it is an album of recovery. After two years of personal turmoil, Young was beginning to find perspective. In the past I have listened to this album in times of personal crisis, since it seems to show that even the worst storms can be braved, even if you take some permanent damage from them. I've recently been listening to it again as I contemplate our nation's own crisis.

It starts with "Walk On." If they ever make a biopic of my life I'd want this song playing over the opening credits. It's bouncy and sunny, like no other song on the album, which is why it's weird to hear it first. It's a song about going through a bad patch and coming out alive, and being a lot less concerned about what people think of you. I know in my own personal crisis in my mid-30s I came out of it stronger, but also far less trusting of others and their opinions of me. "Sooner or later/ It all gets real." No kidding.

Next up comes "See The Sky About To Rain," what I think of as the weakest song on the album, mostly due to the lyrics. As much as I love Young, his overindulgence in the hippie weed leads to some over-baked words. The first lines of the song are "See the sky about to rain/ Broken clouds and rain." He rhymes rain with rain, for crying out loud! I do have to say that it has a nice little vibe, and imparts the feeling of a dreary rainy day, especially the great Ben Keith's weeping steel guitar. His work on songs like "Old Man" was one of the best things about Harvest, and he's definitely the highlight on this track. This song is a leftover from that period, and it shows.

The mood changes on "Revolution Blues," where we are plunged into a deep dark canyon for the rest of the album. It's obviously inspired by Charles Manson, and is sung from the perspective of him or someone a lot like him. The groove is sinister but it swings, too, which makes sense because Band stalwarts Rick Danko and Levon Helm are on bass and drums. The former's melodic tones and the latter's back on the beat funk perfectly compliment the wails Neil gets from Old Black. One theme of On The Beach, named for an apocalyptic film, is the death of the sixties, which Manson so perfectly symbolized. The narrator of the song talks of killing "famous stars" in Laurel Canyon, home of so many of the singer-songwriter troubadors that emerged from the previous decade, including much of Young' circle. In that respect it's a kind of death wish.

The bleakness continues on the fourth track, "For The Turnstiles." The electricity and funk of the last song is suddenly gone, with only the darkness left. There's a plucking banjo, and Young singing so high that his voice breaks, the kind of raw embellishment that would show up a lot on the ditch trilogy records. This song is very countrified, with the banjo joined later by dobro in something that sounds like a hootenany in the middle of a Samuel Beckett play. The first side ends with a sloppy blues number, "Vampire Blues." It's about oil companies, and the only political song on the album. The clumsiness of its directness (so typical of Young) works because the loose feel works as a bit of comic relief amidst some harrowing stuff. Plus it's always good to have something wacky closing out side one.

Side two, however, takes absolutely no prisoners. "On The Beach" kicks things off with a long, spare, repetitive dirge that is the sound of dread personified. "Though my problems are meaningless/ That don't make them go away" pretty much sums up depression in a nutshell. He talks about needing a crowd but not "day to day" and radio interviews, referring to the drudgery of touring. This is the sound of someone who is just about at the end of their tether.

"Motion Pictures" has a twangier and more hopeful feel to it. It is a song of longing and love, and wanting to come home. (It's dedicated to "Carrie," which I assume refers to his wife at the time, Carrie Snodgrass.) It's a tour song, but one where the comforts of home feel like they are almost within sight. The whole album has a feeling of homesickness to it, less for a place than for a feeling of emotional comfort. That kind of spiritual homesickness is also pretty familiar to depressives.

Side two is pretty spare, and it ends with "Ambulance Blues," the sound of someone who after reaching the end of their rope has found a way to go on. I almost feel like "Walk On" should be played twice on the album, at both the beginning and the end, because this song is the prequel to "Walk On." Long, sparse, and meandering with an ominous title, you can hear Young working out the emotional wreckage of the previous year of his life. It's folkie at the start, and Young immediately starts recalling his folk singing youth, as if it is a time of innocence beyond all comprehension. The country fiddle that comes in has a mournful, elegiac quality to it. Like the other songs on side two, there's no drums, only understated bongos. He suddenly opines that "it's easy to get buried in the past" with the tone of voice of a man who is desperate to put a bad past behind him but also carrying around the crushing weight of memories of simpler times, of people and places that are gone and are never coming back. Perhaps that's why the album was left in the vaults for too long, it's far too personal.

In any case, his admonition that "you're all just pissin' in the wind" seems aimed at the whole hippie thing. What started as peace, love, and art in the "folkie days" had curdled into addiction and bullshit. He says that it's a good friend who tells you you're pissing in the wind, implying that Young knows that he needs to take a new direction in life. That's the kind of crisis I was in five and a half years ago, one that I wouldn't wish on anyone. But if you find yourself there, give On The Beach a listen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Clarence Carter, "Back Door Santa"

In my continuing quest to find good Christmas music, I recently discovered Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa," which I never knew was the song sampled on Run DMC's classic "Christmas in Hollis." I've always loved Carter and the school of funky, rough and tumble of Southern soul he subscribed to. (Let's just say I'm the kind of guy who bought the nine disc Stax singles collection despite being poor as dirt in grad school at the time.) As always Carter has just the right amount of grunt, and you can practically hear the sweat.  Considering the fact that this man had his biggest hit with a song about stroking, the title "Back Door Santa" is not surprisingly a single entendre.

In recent years I have rekindled the excitement I used to have about Christmas. Having children of my own has allowed me to experience the holidays vicariously through them, and get enjoyment from their enjoyment. This year, with the world seemingly gone insane, I am also milking the comfortable repetitions and rituals of the holidays. I've been doing that with a lot of things, not just the holidays. Old favorites are coming back. I'm rereading books and digging up good music that I've let slip from my life. Southern soul music, like a big holiday glass of mulled wine, has never failed to warm me up. With the things being the way they are, I'll need it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The New Age of Nationalism

“They’re painting the passports brown.” Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

I had a sinking suspicion this summer that we were indeed entering into a new global age of nationalism. Brexit seemed to confirm this, and Trump’s election has cemented it. The walls are going up around the world, and the gates are crashing down. In China Xi Jinping has used nationalist rhetoric to bolster his role, and to claim more power. Putin’s brand of nationalism has been the basis of his autocracy.  This week comes the news from India that the supreme court has decreed the national anthem to be played before all movies. I am reminded of Sir Edward Grey's line in 1914 as World War I began and young men were sent to war: “The lamps are going out all across Europe. We won’t see them lit again in our lifetime.”

All of this reminded me too of my first trip outside of North America at the age of 18. My senior German class spent a month with students from our sister school in June of 1994. The school was the Yuri Gargarin Schule (named for the Soviet cosmonaut) in Schwerin. We were well behind what five years before had been the Iron Curtain. The students had already come to visit us in the preceding autumn, and we were fast friends. Of course, we had all grown up thinking the others were our enemy. Had the Iron Curtain remained and World War III broken out in the 1990s, we would have been shooting at each other. Well, that’s being optimistic. It’s more likely that missiles launched from my Great Plains stomping grounds would have been vaporizing the wonderful, generous people I met.

My visit to the former East was one of the most important experiences of my life. It made me realize the folly of national borders and the absolute ridiculousness of national hatreds. In the mid-1990s, befriending the former enemy in the forbidden zone, I had the feeling that the world was changing. We were entering into a more connected world, one where we would find understanding, not conflict. The Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation were over. Going to see Checkpoint Charlie, now a museum piece, felt exhilarating. The bad old days were over!

Of course, I was being hopelessly naïve. Now the borders are being tightened. Fewer people reach out to others for understanding, and instead retreat inside of their own borders. We are entering a time of closed borders, closed minds, and closed hearts. We see it in the chants of “Build the Wall!” and in the indifference to the suffering of Syrian refugees, whose need is met with fear rather than understanding. And so we learn to fear and hate once again, and to forget that our counterparts out there are just as kind and noble as we are. It is their leaders, and ours, who we have to watch out for, as well as the fear that can eat our souls and rob us of our humanity.