Yesterday I took the train from New Jersey into New York City to attend the immigration protest at Battery Park. For those of you who don't know, Battery Park sits at the extreme southern tip of Manhattan, so named for the batteries of guns there placed to fend of an invasion from New York harbor.
I am not going to write about the protest, you can read about that in innumerable other places. No, I want to write about the Battery itself. It was probably the most apt place in this country to have a protest to defend immigrants and immigration. Millions and millions of people first set foot in America after docking in the harbor well before the Statue of Liberty was there. For that reason I often get emotionally overwhelmed when I look at the harbor.
It was the first thing in America that my German and Swedish migrant ancestors gazed upon. Could they have even contemplated one of their descendants would be standing there 100 years later as a migrant from the middle of the country? I also get overwhelmed thinking about the fact that so many African slaves used to work the docks on the harbor, and they too first set foot in America there. They were bought and sold just up Broadway on Wall Street, the street named for the wall built by slave labor.
It is an eerie place. Once you reach the Battery, the skyscrapers of downtown melt away, and you find yourself in open ground, with water on three sides. It can be a jarring transition, and I often feel almost naked standing there, especially on a sunny day like yesterday. There is a real energy in the air that is inescapable. I do not believe in ghosts, but there are places where human history has left behind a psychic atmosphere, I am sure of this. I've felt it too at the Bloody Angle at the Chickamauga battlefield. I remember standing there where a horrifically savage fight had taken place, and my skin started tingling. The place still remembered what had happened there.
I get that same feeling when I go down to the Battery. I can feel the spiritual residue of the hopes and fears and pain of the people who passed through and by it vibrating in the air. It is a reminder that New York harbor must still be a golden door of hope, not a mockery of this country's stated but unheeded narratives about itself as a nation of immigrants and land of opportunity.
Soon after the election I decided to spend more time reading things from the past that could give me insight into our current situation. One of those books was I Will Bear Witness, the diaries of Victor Klemperer from the years 1933 through 1941. When I read it in December it was a shocking wake-up call, thinking about it now after a week of Trump in office it seems five times as relevant.
Klemperer was a professor of languages living in Dresden. He was a Jew by birth, but converted to Christianity and married a Christian woman. He had served in the German army in World War I, and had a deep devotion to the German nation. His conversion, marriage, and war service would all shield him from deportation, and the day he was supposed to report to the authorities was the day of the infamous Allied firebombing of Dresden. That gruesome act actually saved his life.
Two things struck me most about the diary, and I cannot stop thinking about them. The first is the initial reaction, for about a year or so, to the seemingly chaotic and extremist rule of the Hitler regime. Klemperer records political discussions with his friends, many of whom think Hitler will just be a flash in the pan. Klemperer himself thinks for awhile that the military will step in and put a stop to the madness. That never happened, of course. After that initial confidence that the nation will not tolerate a man like Hitler, Klemperer then slides into despair over this regime becoming permanent.
I am seeing variations of what Klemperer wrote about. Plenty of smart folks seem to think that this chaos will bring down the Trump regime in short order. They predict that since Trump is an unhinged madman, he will eventually bring about his own destruction. If only that were so. When power-hungry, paranoid madmen take power they don't just give up when they fail, they hold onto power that much harder. Only other people can step in and put a stop to it. We can't just sit on the sidelines and expect the autocrat to topple without anyone doing the pushing. That mistake was already made by too many people in the election.
The second thing that struck me in Klemperer's diary was the reaction of ordinary Germans to the situation. To be sure, many tried to help him out, but he ended up losing his job pretty quickly without a protest by his "Aryan" colleagues. One scene stuck with me especially. Klemperer lost his job just as he and his wife were building a house, and thus had to pay for everything from his pension, accrued both from his university and from his veteran status. One day his pension check was significantly lower, and he went to the government office to settle the matter. He discovered that his pension had been cut because up to that point he had not been listed as a Jew in his pension paperwork. Once his Jewish status was discovered, his pension was cut. Klemperer was so upset by this that he related the story to a German stranger, something he normally would not do.
The man had two responses. The first was one of ignorance: "I didn't know things like that were being done to the Jews!" But soon after expressing sympathy he sort of just shrugged his shoulders, feeling that the government must have had its reasons for doing what it was doing. That willful blocking of empathy for the victims of an autocrat that bystanders to oppression support is something I have been seeing plenty of today. There are lots of "good Germans" out there in America. They might even feel something for the families broken apart and refugees sent to their doom. But they will shrug their shoulders and turn their backs and plug their ears so that the cries of the drowning don't disturb them. All we can do is to fight and scream loud enough that they can't pretend that they can do that.
Unless we truly take responsibility for what happens in our society instead of waiting for someone else to, our future is darkest midnight.
After some time thinking about it, I've decided to start a podcast. I am still sorting out the technical aspects, but in the meantime I decided to put the raw first episode out there while I figure that stuff out. It's called Old Dad's Records, and it's about the old music we take for granted. Here's the Soundcloud link. Hopefully soon I'll have something more professional going.
[Editor's Note: It's been way too long since I've put a video under a microscope, so here it goes.]
The other day I was talking to a new friend, and after feeling each other out and making sure it was safe to admit, we realized that we both had a deep affection for U2. This has become a bit of an uncool thing to admit recently, I guess for good reason. But as uninteresting as the band's music has become and as insufferable as Bono's public persona can be, they made a handful of really fantastic albums that will always stick with me.
My friend and I noted how in the cultural and political wasteland of the 1980s, their early political moves were exciting, rather than eye rolling. In the midst of the Reagan reaction and its excess of greed, nationalism, and indifference to suffering, the live video for "Sunday Bloody Sunday" hit me upside the head with a spiritual two by four. I was a weird child, so I watched the news and was well aware of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living in a town where Catholics and Protestants were pretty divided (at least back then) I was shocked that such differences could be a reason to murder someone. (I wasn't really apprised of the history of occupation and settlement, of course. Due to my Catholic identity I definitely had a side, though.) This song was about those Troubles, but in the midst of Reagan's rearming and the sudden reheating of the Cold War, I took it as a cry for sanity in an insane, war-crazed world.
The marching beat, descending melody of Edge reverb, and keening harmonies immediately provoke an erie, unsettling sensation. That gets magnified in the video, shot in the Red Rocks outdoor theater in Colorado. There are burning flames on the rocks under a famously blood red sky, their colors turned into kaleidoscopic flares by virtue of being shot on early and primitive videotape. (So meta. It's a video where video itself is a major player in the look of it.) The video is also notable for showing Edge with hair and without a hat, perhaps the last one to do so. His buffalo check flannel vest is kind of in style again nowadays, so you can't say this aged too poorly.
As always, Bono is the center of attention, practicing unique and less overtly macho front man moves than say Jagger or Plant. Bono sort of skip-hop marches in time with the beat, occasionally flinging his mullet, perhaps the most glorious of the 80s. The piece de la resistance, of course, is the white flag that Bono plants at the front of the stage screaming "No more!" You can call it cheesy, but it still gets me. In the midst of the glorification of military might and false lies of "morning in America" here was a song calling for humanity and peace. We need that spirit more than ever.
In case you missed it, press secretary Sean Spicer was sent by the Orange Emperor to blow up at the media today and dispute the crowd size numbers from the inauguration. Tellingly, he did not talk about the wave of protests today, since it was blindingly obvious that Trump's opponents had vastly outnumbered his supporters in the streets of New York. And that didn't even count the hundreds of thousands in other cities.
I am not going to discuss crowd sizes in terms of hard numbers, but rather get at why there is such a disparity. With Trump now in power, he is having to face two harsh realities. Reality number one is that he benefited from the left being divided over Clinton. With her out of the picture they can unite over their dislike of the right, making the left much stronger. Second, Trump's base of support is much smaller than he and many others have assumed.
Remember, he did not even win a majority of the Republican votes in the primaries. He obviously lost by almost three million votes in the general election, getting only 46% of the popular vote. The people who did not vote for him really really dislike him. He won the presidency with the votes of Republicans, but a lot of those Republicans were really just voting against Clinton. None of the conservatives I know were Trump voters in the primaries, and since the election they have basically washed their hands of him. They voted for him as an imperfect choice or as a way to hold off their enemies or get a favorable Supreme Court pick, but without any real enthusiasm and many reservations.
This has all been obscured by the media's portrayal of Trump as a "populist." He is in actuality an authoritarian nationalist, and he does not have the support of the majority of the country. In fact, it is easy to assume that over half of the country actively dislikes him. That number certainly includes many who voted for him.
This situation could be a boon or it could be a disaster. Congressional Republicans would certainly feel more at ease resisting a highly unpopular president. On the other hand, Trump not being loved and adored will likely cause him to have temper tantrums with the full power and might of the United States behind him. We are entering into uncharted territory for sure.
As I have mentioned on this blog my theory that the past twenty years or so have been a low-grade political civil war in this country. What we think of as the "red-blue" divide is actually an irrepressible conflict between two radically opposed visions of the nation. At a similar point in the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln declared that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." People often forget the accompanying line that "it will become all one thing or all the other." The union would endure, either as one with slavery throughout, or one where slavery was gone throughout.
The agenda of the Republicans, Trump, and his cabinet is plain to see. They want to make the country all one thing in their image. The low grade civil war will end when there is no more "red" or "blue" America because one vision has finally and definitively triumphed over the other.
We will either live in a country where health care is purely a commodity or where all have a right to it.
We will either live in a country where gay people are second class citizens or where they are free and equal members of society.
We will either live in a country where the votes of black people and others are suppressed or where they are encouraged.
We will either live in a country where the federal government plays no role in enforcing civil rights or a country where it does so vigorously.
We will either live in a country where women have no right or access to an abortion or a country where they do.
We will either live in a country where college education is increasingly unaffordable or a country where access to college for all is guaranteed.
We will either live in a country where climate science is rejected or one where it is acted upon.
We will either live in a country where immigrants are attacked and deported or one where they are protected and welcomed.
We will either live in a country where women are pushed into traditional roles or a country where they are given the support to flourish on their own terms.
We will either live in a country where schools are privatized or one with a robust public education system.
We will either live in a country that is white supremacist or one that provides equal rights and economic opportunity to all.
It will become all one thing or all the other. The right-wingers have decided to make their play to mold the country in their image. We must stop them, or lose having a country where any of the things we value and cherish matter anymore. The price of not fighting and fighting like hell as we are cast into the fire tomorrow is too high to pay.
Watching president Obama's farewell address last week I was struck, after a year of hearing Trump's bloviating, at how he has always performed a very positive version of masculinity. For eight years boys around this country have had a great example of how to be a man. Obama has allowed himself to feel emotion in public, perhaps most famously during his speech after Sandy Hook. He showed similar emotion last week when talking about Michelle, his obvious respect and love were displayed for all to see. This was a man in a relationship of equals, not the usual politician with the smiling, prop wife. While Joe Biden still has a lot of his generation's male bravado and, well, handsy-ness, he has also displayed a similar relationship with Jill. And speaking of Biden, he and Obama have an obviously deep connection to each other. This is part of a positive masculinity where men can be emotionally vulnerable and honest with each other.
President Obama has also modeled how to confront one's enemies without resorting to aggression and anger. He has used humor many times, including in response to Trump's birther allegations. He does not engage in the kind of dick swinging that practically ever other president in my lifetime indulged in. I am thinking here of Reagan's "joke" about ordering the missiles to be fired at the Soviet Union, George HW Bush's TV attack on Bob Dole to counter his "whimpiness," or the innumerable examples of George W Bush swaggering like a two-bit cowboy ("smoke 'em out of their caves," "ride herd," "watch this drive," etc.) Obama is what you could call a savvy nerd when it comes to his masculinity, the thing I basically aspire to be.
With Trump and Pence taking the White House, we are seeing two very different models of masculinity. Let's start with Pence, since he's the easier one. He represents patriarch masculinity. This kind of masculinity, usually wedded to religion and nostalgic and inaccurate views of the past, sees men as the unchallenged head of the family and leaders of society. They are there to protect women and children, but in a relationship that is hierarchical. This type of masculinity is also tied together with a painfully serious affect, as if nothing is ever to be a laughing matter. I know a lot of men who subscribe to this kind of masculinity back home, and they are almost always insufferable.
This type of masculinity, as limiting and toxic as it can be, is not nearly as poisonous as Trump's masculinity. Almost all the strains of negative masculinity are contained in his personality. As is usually the case, this wretched personality was fed by the manure of paternal neglect. With a loving father Trump may have just become a garden variety asshole, but by craving his father's never present approval, he (with all the money he had as an assist) went into full blown megalomania.
Trump does not have Pence's pretense of protecting women, home, and family. He has an obvious contempt for women, something clear to see even before the Access Hollywood tape came out. As I have written before, his version of masculinity sees women as beings to be conquered, controlled, and displayed, all the while being feared. But his attitude towards other men also betrays his toxic masculinity. He does not appear to have any close male friends. He is incapable of having friendship, since that involves a give and take of emotional support that he simply can't muster. Other men are to be belittled and dominated. The slightest criticism of him leads to angry tweetstorms and unhinged ranting. For him anger and violence are the only tools used when confronted by opponents.
I could never imagine Trump giving the kind of heartfelt dedication to Melania that Obama did to Michelle in a million years. I could not imagine a moment between Trump and Pence like the one we saw between Biden and Obama for a million more. We have enough toxic masculinity in our society as it is, from the soft patriarchal kind to the violent, psychopathic kind as it is. We don't need it modeled (and implicitly validated) by the new occupants of the White House. It's our job to push our boys and young men to something more positive.
Yesterday there were several rallies held across the country to call for the preservation of the Affordable Care Act. The rally in Warren, Michigan, featuring Bernie Sanders got the most attention, but plenty of folks, like yours truly, attended other less grandiose rallies. Mine was held at the main ballroom of the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark.
The east side of downtown Newark was quiet as always on a Sunday morning, but when we tentatively stepped through the doors of the building, I was immediately hit with a wall of body heat and a cacophony of voices. The inside of the building was ALIVE. There were people circulating petitions and assembling lists of attendees and generally a flurry of activity. I knew right away that this is something that I had been missing in my life, having last engaged in protest in a major way back in my grad school days.
And yes, the rally started half an hour late, and we had to corral our impatient daughters and eventually had to leave early to get them some lunch. But despite that, I really felt something good deep inside of me. It just felt good to occupy a space with people as concerned as I am about the future, and united in the desire to stop the Trump administration and its Congressional flunkies. I think it helped that this rally was organized primarily by unions. In my experience, union-organized events bring in a more diverse group of people, both in terms of class and race. The moral posturing and intellectual bullshit so prevalent in so many activist circles isn't here. Union people get to the point. Perhaps this is just my own social class prejudices showing, but when I am surrounded by people wearing SEIU shirts and Teamsters jackets I feel much more comfortable than at any protest that involves a drum circle or human microphone.
This event was also interesting in that it showed Democrats that their base is not so restive anymore. Senator Robert Menendez was one of the speakers, and there were several people there holding signs criticizing him for his vote against a Sanders-supported law that would open up importation of cheaper Canadian drugs. There was also plenty of booing when he came to speak. Those there to criticize him eventually relented, and he ended up giving a very fiery speech on the need to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Many speakers, including my former Representative, Albio Sires, openly stated, to the crowd's approval, that health care is a right. I fervently hope that out of the disaster that awaits us that bold statements like that will be Democratic Party's official position, and that those words be made into a reality.
That is something that people will fight for. I think what I saw yesterday was a sleeping giant awaking. A lot of the energy in the room had been directed last year towards the election, now it was freed of support for any one person. This is something that makes me very happy, partly because it should make the leadership of the Democratic party a little scared. At this rally I saw people who are enthusiastic about fighting back, and ready to put themselves out there. At one point I almost started crying, because it was the first time since November 9 that I have felt even a shred of hope for the future. If you are dreading the coming Trumpist nightmare, I beg you to get involved, if not for the good of the country, then at least for the health of your soul.
We are currently embroiled in the biggest political scandal since Watergate. Richard Nixon's inauguration after being re-elected by a landslide in November was overshadowed by the Washington Post's stories about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and potential cover-up. Similarly, Donald Trump will be taking office under suspicion that his campaign colluded with Russia. I wanted to do another top ten list, and figured this week forty four years ago was appropriate. Now, on with the countdown!
10. The Four Tops, "The Keeper Of The Castle"
By this point in the 1970s the Tops were far away from their Motown heyday, but still managing some hits. Their Holland-Dozier-Holland produced sound practically defined Motown, and they pushed a bunch of great pop songs off the assembly line as efficiently as Ford and Chevrolet. When Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, echoing corporate America's growing abandonment of that city, the Tops stayed, and were picked up by ABC records. The wah-wah guitar intro was reminiscent of a blaxploitation movie of the time, but the lyrics are part of a genre you could call "patriarchal soul." Levi Stubbs sings not as the wounded lover as he once did, but as a solid family man. Their other big hit of the time, "Ain't No Woman Like The One I've Got" sounded a similar theme.
9. Elton John, "Crocodile Rock"
1972-1973 saw a huge nostalgia wave for original rock and roll (as opposed to rock.) Chuck Berry and Elvis would both be back on the charts, with "My Ding-a-Ling" and "Burning Love," respectively. 1973 was also the year that American Graffiti came out. Coming right at the end of the war in Vietnam and as the protest movements of the 1960s were fading, it reflected the usual fatuous longing for a supposedly innocent time that was anything but. "Crocodile Rock" is maybe the best of the nostalgia songs because it is self-aware, commenting on the silliness and simplicity of fifties music.
8. Curtis Mayfield, "Superfly"
Blaxploitation cinema created a lot of great soundtrack music, but Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack for Superfly was the best, in my opinion. He acts as a kind of Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the main character's drug dealing ways, neither celebrating or condemning someone who's "just trying to get over." The music just exudes cool, and Mayfield's falsetto was never used to greater effect.
7. Johnny Rivers, "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu"
Here's yet another nostalgia song, this one from perhaps the most significant hitmaker of the 1960s to be forgotten today. Rivers was known as "the king of the covers," which probably hurt his reputation as artists were more and more expected to perform original material. This song at least is copying the spirit of old rock and roll rather than trying to imitate its sound. A rollicking good time.
6. Loggins and Messina, "Your Mama Don't Dance"
And here we with yet another rock and roll nostalgia tune. This time was just sick with duos (Seals and Croft, Zager and Evans, etc.) but Loggins and Messina were the most paradoxical. Messina was of the past, Loggins the future. Messina had been in seminal sixties band Buffalo Springfield and in country rockers Poco, while Loggins would go on to pioneer yacht rock then later rule the world of 80s movie soundtracks. This song sounds like none of that, with a pronounced backbeat and yakety sax. It sounds like something a roadhouse band might jam on, but it's a little too self-consciously nostalgic to really work.
5. Donna Fargo, "Funny Face"
In the 1970s country music began crossing over to the pop charts. Fargo's got twang in her voice and there are faint echoes of the honky tonk in the piano. Later on, the slide guitar sidles right on in. As a country song it's pretty mediocre, but maybe that's why it was able to cross over so easily. A harbinger of bad things to come.
4. Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Clair"
This twee singer from across the pond was never as popular stateside as in the Commonwealth. The song is evidently dedicated to a little girl, but at least it's not creepy. The bounce is reminiscent of the Beatles, but the accompaniment is not all that interesting. O'Sullivan does at least give it his usual sheen of resigned melancholy. I miss the depressing undertones pop music used to have before it all became about partying.
3. Billy Paul, "Me And Mrs Jones"
This has got to be, without a doubt, the best song about adultery ever to make the top ten. Paul has such a tenderness in his voice, the emotion just drips out of the grooves of this record. I've always found his spiraling lead into the chorus to be one of the most beautiful things on oldies radio. The backing music has that impeccably lush yet not overdone quality that Philadelphia International made a trademark in the 1970s. Reflecting the sexual revolution, the listener feels sympathy with the singer's anguish, and the cuckolded husband does not make an appearance.
2. Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"
This is probably my favorite Stevie Wonder hit, and it comes from my favorite Stevie Wonder album, Talking Book. Its mood of darkness and warning fits so well for the age of Watergate. It's easy to forget that darkness, however, since this song is so wonderfully funky. Wonder has the groove absolutely locked in, and the horns are disarmingly tight and sound like a million dollars. The mood of confusion he describes also fit with the slow demise of the sixties social movements and counterculture, when many of its members drifted into communes and cults. Today I take this song as a warning against that kind of drift.
1. Carly Simon, "You're So Vain"
Well, this is just about the perfect #1 for a countdown list inspired by the impending ascension of Cheeto Mussolini. This is surely one of the best kiss-offs to hit the top ten, both due to the mystery of who its subject could be and due to the arch putdown of the hook: "you probably think this song is about you." It certainly fit with the growth of women's liberation movements in the early 1970s, as Simon is showing a former lover just how much his male arrogance underestimated her abilities. I've always liked this song because I always like hearing an asshole get his due. Here's hoping the next four years is full of that.
Don't call them conservatives. Don't call them populists. Call them what they are: authoritarian nationalists.
With the embrace of Trumpism the Republican party has fully become a nationalist party as much as Alternative for Germany or The National Front. They have melded their preexisting free-marketeering more fully onto a nationalist message, evidenced this week by new bills in the state legislatures of Missouri and Iowa to strip tenure from professors there. The politician pushing the bill in Missouri has called tenure "un-American."
Academia is one of the few institutions in this country where the left has any level of real power. And the right, as I have been at labored pains to point out, sees themselves as the "real America" that must eradicate all "un-American" elements from society. They cast a wide net. They want immigrants deported, Muslims banned, African Americans terrorized by killer cops, gays in the closet, and trans people invisible. The professors who promote points of view that contradict this must have their power broken and to live in fear, and that is exactly what these nationalists want. They want loyal, obedient subjects with enough technical knowledge to run the machines and perform their jobs, but too stupid and ignorant to be able or willing to criticize the system that dominates them.
In former times they justified these anti-academic policies via cost cutting and efficiency. "Why are we offering arts majors when we need more coders?" Now they have crossed the line into wanting those oppose them crushed directly rather than indirectly. Without tenure there are going to be mass, wholesale firings as entire departments are scrapped, and any individual professor who teaches classes on race, class, or gender will be targeted by some dipshit in the state legislature. We will have the perfect intersection of austerity and nationalism. The states want to slash non-technical education anyway, now they can have the icing on the cake by destroying the careers of left intellectuals.
In other nations where authoritarian nationalists have come to power, intellectuals and academia have never failed to be a big target. It's time for academics who've been in the lifeboats as their adjunct brethren drown around them to wake the fuck up.
In January of 2009 we thought the war was over, when it had just begun
I am planning on watching president Obama's farewell speech tonight and am feeling very melancholy. It pains me to see such a warm, intelligent, thoughtful person hand over the office of the president to a boorish bigot whose ascension represents the death throes of American democracy. It also feels weird because I have been very connected to this president, since well before he held the office.
Back in 1999-2000 I worked as a library clerk for the University of Chicago's law library. I knew "Professor Obama" as the guy who was in the state legislature and had written a memoir I saw displayed at Powell's. Once or twice I'd seen his face as he came to the desk to check out books (usually we just delivered them to the professors' offices.) I was living in downstate Illinois in 2004, when he ran for the Senate and impressed the crowd at the DNC with his speech. He was the first politician to have their name on the bumper of my car. I had been drawn to him by his forceful opposition to the invasion of Iraq at a time when most Democrats had been cowards.
When he won the presidency in 2008 I was living in rural East Texas. I was out at a bar with some friends, In this reddest of red areas there was one TV with the election returns on mute in the corner, and when we started whooping and hollering, it was obvious from the hard stares that my friends and I were getting that we were going to need to watch Obama's acceptance speech at their house. I should have taken that as a sign of things to come, but didn't see it in the moment.
Sure, I thought all the "post-racial" America hype was a load of horseshit, but seeing the massive crowds on inauguration day made me think that the thirty year conservative wave had been broken on the rocks of a new progressive movement. My naivete became obvious in February of 2009, when Mitch McConnell, Rush Limbaugh, and others basically made it known that they were going to go into massive resistance mode.
In the end, they won. President Obama has been very quiet since the election, and I sincerely believe that he has a broken heart. He has to cede to White House to a man whose political career began with a racist conspiracy theory attack on him. I am sure he feels some amount of responsibility for the Democrats' failure in the last election. He thought Clinton was going to win, and so sat on the intelligence revelations that are now coming out so as to avoid having our electoral system being called into question. I can see the heartbreak over this in his eyes.
It hurts even more knowing that we who voted for him let him down. This does not mean that I think the president has been above criticism. He was too generous to Republicans on the stimulus and in general his first year. His use of drones is highly questionable. He should have gone for broke on health care. He did not do enough to use the organization he had built in the 2008 election to keep his voters active etc etc.
But....on that last point, it takes two to tango. We who voted for him can criticize Obama for all manners of things, but we need to acknowledge that we let him down. Did I go out and knock on doors in 2010 or 2014? Was I writing my representatives with the fervor that I am now? Were my friends calling Congress and circulating action plans when the public option was on the board the way they are fighting Trump's appointments now? Nope.
I know what we did do. We placed unreasonable expectations on him. We watched as he dealt with unprecedented levels of disrespect and opposition and complained about what he didn't get done. We saw those massive crowds on inauguration day and got complacent. As my wife said to me tonight, we thought that being right was enough, and we were wrong. When the Republicans blocked his Supreme Court nomination we should have been in the streets. Instead, we were on Twitter.
Those of us who voted for him learned our lesson too late. I'm sorry we let you down, Mr. President.
We are now into my least favorite part of the calendar year. The holidays are over, and now there are no happy distractions from the oppression of winter's cold and dark. I almost always fall into a mental depression and get physically ill this time of year. I got spoiled by my three winters living in Texas, and have had a hard time with them in Jersey. While the weather is not as extreme as it is in my Nebraska homeland, the effect it has on my commute can be soul-destroying. There's nothing like spending an hour in Penn Station crushed cheek to cheek with other irate commuters waiting for a train that will be even more crowded. Snow also means shoveling, now that I'm a home owner, and there's nothing like ending a hard day of working and commuting with having to shovel my much too long driveway.
I try to warm myself however I can, from hot chocolate to dark beer to bourbon to lamb stew (made a big pot last week) to the right music. I lived two very very long winters in Michigan, which happened to coincide with my exploration into folk music. (This was assisted by the amazing music collection at the Grand Rapids Public Library.) I find it well-suited to the winter months, especially English folk music.
Fairport Convention are one of my favorites, due to the combination of Sandy Denny's gorgeous voice, Richard Thompson's impeccable guitar playing, and Dave Mattacks' impressionistic drumming. I tend to like their originals best, but there's a special spot in my heart for "Sir Patrick Spens," an old Scottish folk song about a doomed ship. It's the tale of the Scottish king asking Sir Patrick Spens to sail a ship for him, even though Sir Patrick doesn't think he's up for the task. The ship sinks, and Sir Patrick assumes he's been manipulated by an "enemy" to going to his death. I love the way that Mattacks' drums roll like the waves of the sea on this song. It's also good to hear that all the way back in medieval times capricious bosses were setting their subordinates up for failure.
I like the BBC sessions version of this song from the Live At The BBC album best, since it has a rawness to it that I think all good folk music should have.
(Is this a listicle? Well, I was writing listicles before content aggregators were, so sue me.)
Last night I started watching the new Oasis documentary and I was floored by how old everything looked. It was kinda depressing, since Britpop was my favorite music in college. I had been jamming to Suede my senior year of high school, and then picked up Definitely Maybe, Parklife, and Elastica's debut album in my first year of college (1994-1995). American "alternative" music was looking pretty bleak after the death of Kurt Cobain, and the likes of Bush and Silverchair were rushing to cash in. The Britpop bands were fun, catchy, and more sophisticated. It was a short-lived period, roughly 1994 to 1997, which also coincided with my college years. Anyway, here are ten albums that I think managed to stand the test of time.
10. Elastica, Elastica
Elastica were a one album wonder, but it's a great album. Lead singer Justine Frischmann brought a punky brashness and the band also sprinkled in elements of early New Wave. Sex was front and center in a frank and real way. Songs like "Stutter" talked about a boyfriend's impotence, "Vaseline" about well, you know. Like rock in general, Britpop was a male dominated field, but some woman fronted bands like Elastica, Echobelly, and Sleeper made their mark.
9. Oasis, Definitely Maybe
Oasis were the biggest band in Britain in this era on the strength of their catchy songs and don't-give-a-toss attitude. While the songs were catchy, the lyrics could be godawful. According to the new Oasis documentary, Noel Gallagher wrote the lyrics to "Supersonic" in the time it took for his bandmates to eat some Chinese takeout. I don't doubt it. The song has a great power to it, despite being slightly turgid with just dumbass lyrics. Liam Gallagher's punky John Lennon voice helps pull these songs off. Some of them, like "Cigarettes and Alcohol," make Oasis sound like the greatest bar band in the world. (That's a compliment.)
8. Suede, Suede
This 1993 record along with Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish are the real kick off of Britpop. I saw the video for "Metal Mickey" on 120 Minutes and ran out to buy it immediately and it quickly became my soundtrack to that summer. Unlike the other groups, Suede were highly influenced by glam and engaged in gender bending and flirted with gay imagery (especially on "Drowners.") Lead singer Brett Anderson brought the androgyny and guitarist Bernard Butler just shredded in a creative way that seemed to have disappeared from the heavy riffing on alternative music. This record also has some range. "She's Not Dead" is the greatest Smiths song the Smiths never wrote. "See You In The Next Life" is a haunting ballad. It's a shame Butler left the band after this, they never recovered.
7. Pulp, His N Hers
Jarvis Cocker had been kicking around the Sheffield music scene for years before his band Pulp finally hit the big time in the mid-90s. They were not a typical Britpop band, in that their songs were not usually based on guitar riffs, and because the lyrics were perhaps the most important component. The music was reminiscent of 80s New Wave, but in an updated way that sounded fresh. Like Elastica, Pulp talked pretty frankly about sex and relationships in a way that was totally foreign to what American bands were doing at the time. The smart ones, like Pavement, tended to avoid love altogether and shroud everything in irony. There is perhaps no song about young love and sex more frighteningly real and awkward than "Babies," and that's only the tip of the iceberg on this album.
6. Blur, Parklife
This in many ways is the curtain-raising album to the whole Britpop thing. Instead of imitating the grunge blasting out of Seattle, Blur made a conscious decision to Anglicize their approach a la The Kinks. That was obvious from the packaging of the album, which featured racing dogs on the cover and the back, which was stylized like a racing form. I mean they had a song called "Bank Holiday," fer cryin' out loud! I was most struck by how they had rehabilitated the 80s in their music, from the synth touches on "London Loves" to the New Wave style of "Girls and Boys." The title song, with Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels providing Cockney narration, may well be the most British thing ever created.
5. Blur, Blur
1997's self-titled album, however, was a statement by Blur that they were not going to be confined by the strictures of Britpop. This album was clearly inspired by what was happening in the indie scene in America, especially the great blast of noise that was "Song 2." This was quite a surprise after the uber-Englishness of their previous outing. Along with Radiohead, by 1997 Blur had figured out that the old Britpop fields would no longer yield such a great musical crop, and began looking to reach out. Oasis, on the other hand, would fall flat on their collective arse with Be Here Now, a wet fart of a record.
4. Radiohead, The Bends
In this century Radiohead would become the bards of our fractured, uncertain world. Radiohead had first hit in 1993 with "Creep," which nailed the sweet spot of 90s grungy teen angst. The Bends was much more mature, Johnny Greenwood's guitar especially dynamic on songs like "My Iron Lung." "Fake Plastic Trees" foresaw the more adventurous musical direction was about to take as well as a focus on the daily uneasiness of modern existence.
3. Oasis, What's The Story Morning Glory
Yes, Oasis were a bunch of caveman blokes making straight-ahead meat and potatoes rock, but damn if they didn't make a perfect example of how good that music could be. Noel Gallagher may have lifted some rifts and melodies, but he had exquisite taste in which ones to choose. And despite all the bash and boom this album produced "Wonderwall," one of the best ballads of the 90s, and "Champagne Supernova," one of the great all time late night inebriated sing along tunes. The lyrics are perhaps even stupider than on the previous album, but the songs are so good you barely notice.
2. The Verve, Urban Hymns
The owl of Minerva flies at dusk. This is perhaps the last great Britpop record, coming in the autumn of 1997. The Verve had always been good, but much spacier and less poppy in their approach. On this album their cool sound finally gelled with some really strong songs from Richard Ashcroft, who looked like he was forged in a Britpop rockstar lab by a mad scientist. This album also happens to be the soundtrack to my life in the autumn of 1997, a very tumultuous time when I experienced love for the first time, a lot of drama within my circle of friends, and saw a couple of people very close to me go into some mental health troubles. ("The Drugs Don't Work" will always bring me to tears for this reason.) "Bittersweet Symphony" will last for ages.
1. Pulp, Different Class
Back in 1995 all the talk in the British music press was over Blur versus Oasis, and in the midst of it, Pulp beat 'em both. This is Jarvis Cocker's masterpiece. There are few love songs as genuinely affecting as "Something Changed." "Sorted Out For E's and Whizz" is a hilariously real description of a rave gone wrong. "Disco 2000" embodies the intersection of unrequited love, memory, and regret in ways that still makes my soul clench whenever I hear it. Most importantly, "Common People" summarized the working class attitude to affluent hipster poseurs perfectly, apparently predicting how common they would become in the next two decades. If this music doesn't move you then you have no heart.
The best British album from this period, Radiohead's OK Computer, is not on this list, since that album went well beyond the world of Britpop into something far less traditional and far stranger. A lot of folks who liked The Bends were flummoxed by it, but it soon became clear that Radiohead were operating on a totally different plane of existence. Straight-ahead melodic rock was nice, but this was an album that broke new ground and summed up the feelings of pre-millennial anxiety, a taste of the far less sunny decades to come.
Now is the winter of our discontent Made wretched nightmare by this son of Queens
In a little over two weeks, Donald J Trump will be the next president of the United States, and I fear that we don't stand a chance. In conversations I've had with those who voted for Trump, both online and in person, they simply do not have any concerns or reservations about what this man has done or anything he is about to do. In most cases they are people who want their version of America to triumph, and that's a version where gays are in the closet, immigrants deported, bosses control their workers, people of color are invisible, and women are in the kitchen. If Trump has to break a few laws and break a few heads for that to happen, they simply do not care.
Just think of all the violations we have already seen -by Trump and by his allies- that have failed to move these people. Republicans blocked the president from nominating a Supreme Court justice in an unprecedented breach of the Constitution that would have caused a crisis in an ordinary year. Republicans in North Carolina have a attempted a Reconstruction-era coup. Trump did not release his tax returns. What we know of his taxes shows that he does not pay them. He openly bragged about groping women. He mocked a reporter's disability. He insulted the parents of a soldier who died for this country. He insulted the service of a man who spent years in a POW camp. He received support from the hacking of a foreign government opposed to the United States, has praised that nation's dictator, and has now taken steps to kneecap America's own intelligence apparatus. He has appointed the editor of a white nationalist rag to a new advisor position previously unheard of. He has failed to give a press conference since July, preferring to use Twitter as a platform to kvetch, insult, and threaten. On Twitter he has made alarming statements about nuclear weapons.
None of these actions has swayed his supporters, because they have been fighting a low-grade civil war in this country for decades, and are convinced that an autocrat will finally give them the victory they crave.
So where are those who can check Trump's power, and call him to account? The news media has been servile, giving him credit for the Carrier deal and the House Republicans' retreat from scrapping independent oversight of Congressional ethics, even though he was not responsible. And those are the "liberal" outlets like the New York Times. With Fox News and Breitbart, Trump has a massive propaganda operation backing him. The Democratic opposition is typically pathetic. Bernie Sanders, the supposed champion of the left, greeted the election by talking about how he could work with Trump. Schumer has been playing the backroom buddy game. The left generally has been divided and disorganized. Time, money, and effort was put into a doomed recount campaign headed by the charlatan Jill Stein but supported by gullible liberals. So-called radicals have been downplaying the significance of the Russia hack and Trump's response to it, seeing it as yet another opportunity to chide liberals rather than to actually do anything constructive. Liberals have had a tendency to run around like chickens with their heads cut off. The united nationalist front behind Trump, which is drooling over itself at the thought of smiting the left and erasing its influence, will be the anvil on which progressives are smashed by the Trump hammer.
I don't like being such a downer, but if Trump's opponents remain this divided and disorganized, and the media continues to play into his hands, we are really and truly fucked. In two weeks we are headed into the fire.
You take your political resistance where you can find it.
This weekend I was listening to WFMU, the local freeform listener supported station, specifically the Glenn Jones Radio Program. I noticed that his song choices were, as usual, quite eclectic, but all of them had an implicit message of resistance. It totally clicked when Kenny Loggins' "This Is It" came on.
On the surface this doesn't really sound like a call to arms, it's a yacht rock tune by Kenny Loggins with a backing vocal by Michael McDonald, who seemed to sing on practically every other hit song of the time (roughly 1979-1981.) You might interpret it to be about a relationship, but I think it can easily be a political song.
It starts smooth and sultry, with an air of menace about it despite the shimmery keyboards. Loggins talks about tough times in life that he had felt he'd always survive "but now I'm not so sure." That could describe a lot of folks on the political left right now. Just as you feel the despair, Michael McDonald's baritone voice then emerges from the ether, crooning "You think maybe it's over."
But no! As he says, "it's only if you want it to be."
Loggins then sassily challenges you: "Are you waiting for a sign, your miracle? Stand up and fight!"
Suddenly, like Castor and Pollux descending from the heavens, Loggins and McDonald, the twin gods of yacht rock belt out "THIS IS IT!" You can feel their determination, the willingness to fight despite the long odds.
Forget "Street Fighting Man" or "Fight The Power." The improbable source of yacht rock has given us the political anthem we need for these troubled times.