Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Simple New Year's Resolution

Instead of pledging temperance, it's time to pledge resistance

Today is New Year's Eve, a day that used to be my favorite holiday, back when I had a vibrant circle of friends. It was like Christmas, except with my chosen family, with lots of booze. Even as a child my parents would get together with their friends and we kids, who were practically like family, would play in the basement for hours. Now alas I live a very different life, and in case you don't know, making new friends doesn't really happen after about age 35, especially if you have kids.

Nowadays my New Year's Eve is really mostly about reflection and looking forward. I sometimes make resolutions, and I try to make ones I can keep. Well, I've got one this year I know that I can hold myself to: I will do everything in my power in 2018 to resist the Trump administration and its conservative enablers.

I certainly did a lot of that this year. By my count I engaged in at least seven protests, I wrote several letters and made even more phone calls. I ran teach-ins at my school. I blogged on this stuff talked with people I know. But this year, with its congressional elections, probably requires a little more than that. So here are some sub-resolutions I will hold myself to:
  • I resolve to get over my skittishness and campaign for Democrats in surrounding Republican districts here in New Jersey by canvassing and making telephone calls
  • I resolve to dig deep and give money to worthy candidates and causes
  • I resolve attend the Bedminster protests every single time I can
  • I resolve to join a general strike or a bank strike if one is called
  • I resolve to take to the streets at every available opportunity
  • I resolve to reach out to people I know and invite them to take part in resistance
I am actually thinking about creating something called the "Resistance Pledge" similar to the temperance pledges used by the temperance movement back in the day. I want to frame it and put it on my wall and look at it every day. We need to make sure we are holding ourselves accountable, and also that we are always supporting each other in this. 

I am not being a pollyanna here. I know things are bad and getting worse. I know the odds of success are long, but the surest way to lose is not to fight. Not fighting is not an option for me, and it shouldn't be an option for you, either. So in 2018, let's get to it!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Best of My 2017 Stuff

We all know this year was a dumpster fire. At least this blog wasn't!

Well, we've come to that point in the year again where we take stock. In 2016 I published a piece with Jacobin that got a ton of positive attention (including from the New York Times). I did not write anything so popular this year, but I did write a lot more for outside websites.

That's the stuff I tend to be proudest of this year, when this humble blog became more of a test kitchen for my brain and less where my finished ideas landed. I'll try to do better next year. Anyway, here's the stuff I'm proudest of, written for this site and others.

These Are America's Brezhnev Years
This was my first piece for Tropics of Meta, and I think my best. It also seems to have been very prescient.

What Smokey & the Bandit Can Still Teach Us About the "New South"
This is another Tropics of Meta piece, and another that was the product of years of thoughts turning over in my head.

Rockers, Warriors, and the Last Days of Rebellion in the American Teen Film
This was another piece for Tropics of Meta, where I explored the controversial teen rebellion films of 1979. It involved months of work and research, and I think it's one of my best pop culture pieces.

Trump's Jacksoniansim and Its Needed Response
Like my theory about the Brezhnev Years, I have been thinking a lot about Trump and Andrew Jackson, and this piece for Liberal Currents finally put those ideas together.

The Meaning of the Gettysburg Address 154 Years Later
The Gettysburg Address
Strangely enough, I wrote two piece about the Gettysburg Address this year. The first was for Liberal Currents, and was born in a tweet-storm on the anniversary. The second is a piece of satire where I imagine what the current president would have said with the same speech in front of him. That was first published on this blog, then on Tropics of Meta.

I'm Sorry We Let You Down, Mr. President
This was my farewell to president Obama, and where I blame myself for not having been as politically active during his presidency as I am now.

A Battery Park Reflection
I wrote this after participating in protests in New York City against the anti-Muslim travel ban back in January. At the time it was already my second protest of the year.

The Consolation of Classical Music
Classical music has been a constant companion in this wretched year for me. In fact, some Bach today totally lifted my spirits.

Billboard Top Ten March 28, 1981
This is my favorite in my looks back at top tens this year.

Requiem For A Small Town Movie Theater
About the now defunct theater in my hometown where I saw a lot of my all-time favorites.

Two-Lane Blacktop (The 1971 Project)
Well I didn't stick with my series on 1971, but I like my analysis of this film.

Memories of The Joshua Tree At 30
Gen-Xers can be nostalgic, too.

Bob Seger, "Heavy Music"
Probably my best "track of the week" entry.

The Nixon Ad That Was Roger Ailes' Ur-Text
One of my better historical analysis posts, this one about the seeds of Roger Ailes' Fox News style.

"Blood and Soil" Is The Story The Media Missed In Charlottesville
I wrote this about the FIRST white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. I and others tried to warn people about what was really going on. Unfortunately, nobody really listened.

The Kinks, "Celluloid Heroes"
Another fine "track of the week." I need to revive that series.

Report From A Small Protest
I showed up at a protest where there was only one other person. We need to do better.

Out Into The Great Wide Open
One of pieces about "bubble jumpers" like myself who grew up in conservative places in their own bubble and now live in urban bubbles.

Sgt Pepper and Boomer Nostalgia
This topic has been on my mind for about 30 years, which is insane.

Protest Has Really Mattered In The Trump Era
Shout it from the rooftops.

Some Advice For Democrats
They actually seem to be taking some of it.

Pleasures And Pains Of Solitude
Inspired by some rare time alone.

A Political Weather Report From Nebraska
Read this, and not the crap by coastal journalists parachuting into places they don't understand.

Memories of a Lapsed Husker Fan, part one
I wrote a series about my Cornhusker football fandom, which I feel very ambivalent about these days, but which once mattered so much to me. I am proud of the whole series.

Media Talking Points From A Scholar Of Historical Memory
This one went semi-viral, and I dashed it off in a moment of extreme passion regarding the Confederate monuments debate.

REM, "You Are The Everything"
This song has really stuck with me this year, and it's one I'd forgotten about for years.

Requiem For A Dog
RIP Hannah

Nice Liberals versus Fighting Liberals
Still too many nice liberals out there.

Billboard Top Ten: October 19, 1985
Another favorite top ten.

Life During Wartime
Written on the day I had the worst attack of The Fear.

Nostalgia Rock And The Reagan Dusk
Another comment on the decades-old phenomenon of Boomer nostalgia, looking here at its origins.

Sing Me Back Home
About missing my home state on Thanksgiving.

Cranky Bear Says You Don't Need To Fight With Your Conservative Family This Thanksgiving (Or Find Common Ground, Either)
I think the Crankster was onto something here, and I hope those other stupid takes die.

"Code Red" And Crying At My Dinner Table
My daughters had their first active shooter drill as kindergarteners. I did not take it well.

Ruminations On Internal Exile
More thinking about what it's like to live in a place very different from where you grew up, even if it's technically in the same country.

West From Omaha
I am pretty proud of this description of my homeland's landscape.

Glimmers of Hope in 2017
They are there, trust me.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Holiday Season Despotism

Aguirre: the Wrath of God is the best look into the despotic mindset

For years now the "War on Christmas" has been a cause celebre among conservatives. Donald Trump is a profoundly ignorant man, but he understands media manipulation and he understands his base, so he has weaponized this once silly ploy to get ratings on Fox News. This Christmas he tweeted about how now that he was president, we were all saying "Merry Christmas" again.

Now, it would natural to laugh at a statement so manifestly ridiculous, but I'm not laughing. Trump has very deftly used his ridiculousness to shroud the profound danger he presents. His claim to had gotten America to say "Merry Christmas" again was to me the manifestation of despotism. (Brian Klaas' use of "despot" for Trump is perfect and the term I have been searching for to define him.) Trump does not know or care much about democratic norms, he wishes to rule, and to make his personal whims reality. We caught a glimpse of that this week, when his obvious racism against Nigerians and Haitians found its way into immigration restrictions.

Like many other despots, he is a self-centered sociopath who has a toddler tantrum when he doesn't get his way. Combine this mindset with power, and despots usually degenerate into a kind of frightening unreality. I think of Idi Amin's murderous regime causing the British to recall their diplomats, after which Amin gave himself the title of Conqueror of the British Empire. I think of Hitler looking over his models of the new Berlin he wanted to build as Soviet bombs fell around his bunker. I think of Rafael Trujillo renaming the tallest mountain in the Dominican Republic after himself.

It is especially scary to me because I do not see any end to this in sight. Even if Republicans lose big in 2018, there will still be a dangerous wannabe despot holding the most powerful political office in the world. I wrote recently about signs of hope in the last year, but nothing scares me more than the way that Trump's despotism was normalized in the past year. He has publicly attacked the media and attacked those in the state he wants purged, all to the applause of his supporters. A man like this, as unpopular as he is, is extremely dangerous, yet our media persists in treating him either like a "normal" politician or a reality television show being mined for ratings.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Secular Humanist Argument For Keeping Christ In Christmas

Today is Christmas Eve, the most magical day of the year when I was a child. Very little of my German ancestry's culture survived down to my parents' generation, but we did keep to the German tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve night. My family also went to mass on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas morning. When I was an undeniably doubtless true believer, the midnight mass on Christmas Eve swelled my soul like little else. It was not just the music and the incense and the weirdness of being at church on a pitch black night, but also the promise that the world, so broken and sinful, was in fact redeemed by the Son of God.

Last year when I went to Christmas Eve mass with my parents I got much of the same feeling, even if I am a lapsed Catholic agnostic who attends Episcopal services. I have been thinking about that experience for a year now, and have come to realize that there are completely secular reasons to "Keep Christ In Christmas," as the bumper stickers say.

What I mean here is the idea of Christ and what he represents. Those who are not believers could still take heart in the idea of redemption offered by Christmas. It is a chance to look out at our broken world and all of its problems and to think about redeeming it. Instead of looking to divine favor, Christmas could be a time to think about how we, in the here and now, can bring about that redemption.

That thought would also be necessary antidote to most of what Christmas has become in America. Its ridiculous, vulgar consumerism is the opposite of redemption. The idiotic culture wars over saying "Merry Christmas" are divisive and chauvinistic during a season that should be about acknowledging our common humanity. This is perhaps why I love the Charlie Brown Christmas special so much. The consumerism of his sister, dog, and friends has left Charlie Brown exasperated, and when he asks if someone can tell him the true meaning of Christmas, Linus quotes from the relevant passages of the Gospels.

I watch it nowadays with my children and see it less as an expression of Christianity and more as a plea to treat Christmas as something more meaningful than an orgy of materialism. This Christmas, as the Scrooges in Congress have voted to shovel more money into the bloody maw of the Moloch that is this nation's plutocratic class, it's more relevant than ever. Let's use Christmas to think about what kind of world we want to live in, and how we will bring that about.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Glimmers of Hope in 2017

My optimism is perhaps more of the Radiohead variety

If you read what I write and you know me, you know I am generally a pessimist. So it might strike you as odd that I find some reasons to be optimistic at the end of 2017.

And before you stop me, yeah I know shit is bad. My mind reels just thinking about the damage that will be caused by the recently passed tax bill. This week the White House (not Trump, but the actual White House) tweeted that it was time to "end chain migration." So yes, the executive branch of the United States is publicly pushing white nationalist talking points. We still keep hearing about killer cops murdering citizens and getting away with it. The opiate epidemic has lowered life expectancy in this country, and a report today shows that it is spreading into African American communities.

So what's there to be optimistic about? As I look back on the past year, I see evidence that the struggle against the kleptocrat disgrace in the Oval Office and his criminal band of right wing radicals is not doomed to failure. They have accomplished a lot less than they should have, considering how many levers of power they control. It is tempting to blame that on their colossal ineptitude, but the inept should still be able to score slam dunks when they hold both houses of Congress and the presidency. It took until the end of the year before they got a major "win."

Much of the Trump administration's problem was that it was stuck in a defensive stance from day one, something I have never seen before in a new presidency. The white nationalist in chief gave a Miller and Bannon-ified inaugural address talking about "American carnage" that crashed and burned. The new president's lack of popularity was underscored the next day by the Women's March. Millions turned out, from big cities to small towns all across America. It was an emphatic message that this president did not have the popular will on his side, something that gave the weak and feckless media the strength to stop covering his seizure of power in such a fawning way.

Trump has mostly been playing defense ever since, except for this week. Soon after the Women's March came the Trump administration's first crack at the travel ban, which prompted a massive wave of protest and civil disobedience. This has largely been forgotten, but it has to be one of the biggest spontaneous mass actions in American history. Lawyers ran to the airport to help immigrants and crowds cheered those who came through customs. This action forced the courts to act, and they put a stop to the ban. On a more personal level, a Syrian refugee family in my neighborhood was able to come into the country just a couple of weeks later, all because of this action. While a modified version of the ban has stood, the Trump administration has been blocked from rolling out the fullest extent of its white nationalist agenda.

During the spring and summer, Congressional Republicans tried multiple times to repeal Obamacare, and ultimately failed (although the tax bill will weaken it.) Repealing Obamacare was the thing that every single Republican was promising to their knuckle-dragging base, and it was treated as a fait accompli. It failed because millions of people organized to pressure their representatives, and because disabled protestors put their bodies on the line. I feel that we have grossly underestimated how improbable and important this victory was.

The health care issue was also used successfully to fire up the progressive base and to sway independent voters. Democrats did very well in this fall's elections, from New Jersey to Virginia to, yes, Alabama. Lesser publicized special elections on the state level in conservative corners of Oklahoma and New Hampshire have even gone the Democrats' way. The tax bill, which is a giveaway to the wealthy, will certainly be an effective tool in 2018. Net neutrality, an issue that younger voters are especially engaged in, is another issue that will be turned against Trump and the Republicans.

What gives me hope in all of these examples is that people are not waiting around for "leaders" to tell them what to do. The protest against the travel ban came from ordinary people taking matters into their own hands. The only way forward is for more of that to happen, and for the rudderless "leaders" of the Democratic Party to learn to be the followers.

And yeah, shit is bad and it will probably get worse next year. We can expect massive cuts to the social state, a further erosion of democratic norms, and perhaps an expansion of the Foreverwar or even an attack on North Korea. As true as that all is, we have to, we MUST fight against the odds. There is no way to be a moral person in a time like this and to sit on the sidelines. The last year has shown that action gets results. So in 2018 I will be putting my shoulder to wheel. I will not have an expectation of winning and there may be a tear in my eye, but the fight must be fought.

Monday, December 18, 2017

My Letter To Senator Deb Fischer

I am proud to say that I was born, grew up, and went to college in the Cornhusker State. While life has taken me elsewhere, most of my family still lives in Nebraska, and I am still very attached to it.

I still pay a lot of attention to who represents my home state in Congress, and I have witnessed your support of the current tax bill with great disappointment. It would do great harm to the people of Nebraska. Many would face tax increases, rather than cuts. By undermining the Affordable Care Act it will increase health insurance premiums on Nebraskans, and hurt access to health care in rural areas where this has long been an issue. Above all, it will blow a massive hole in the deficit that will be paid for with cuts to social services

This is a bill that transfers wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy and multinational corporations. It would be more accurate and specific to say that it takes money from my family and gives money to yours. I currently live in New Jersey, which means that the elimination of the local tax deduction will make it harder for my wife and I to provide for our family. Your family’s ranch is owned as a corporation, and thus you and your family stand to gain financially from this bill, which favors corporate income. I am not sure what justifies this. My wife and I are teachers. Do we work less hard? Is our work less valuable? I don’t think so.

Having followed your record, I am well aware that you probably do not feel any shame about this. However, you are up for election next year. Looking at what just happened in Alabama, you might need to think about how you will retain your Senate seat if you keep betraying Nebraskans. When I grew up my state was represented in the Senate by Democrats like Bob Kerrey, Ed Zorinsky, and Jim Exon, people who would never vote for awful legislation like this. Nebraskans are surely now feeling due for leadership like that. I implore you not to vote for this bill. If you don’t do it for the right reasons, at least think about the whirlwind coming next year to sweep you out of office.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Enduring Relevance of Dickens' A Christmas Carol

[I wrote the following essay four years ago, and I figured now was a good time to dust it off. With Christmas approaching, Paul Ryan and his gang of Scrooges are about to take from the poor and give to the rich. The Republican Party is indeed the party of prisons and workhouses.]

My first brush with Dickens did not impress me.  We read A Tale of Two Cities in my tenth grade English class, and I came away turned off by his anti-revolutionary politics, sugary sentimentality, and ridiculous plot devices.  (How many Dickens novels are there that don't feature crazy coincidences or orphans with mysterious parents?)  Around that same time I started reading serious literature on my own, not just Stephen King novels and the Dragonlance series, but didn't pick up a Dickens novel again for about a quarter century.  Having grown many years older and more open minded about my reading choices, a close friend during my Michigan days convinced me to pick up Bleak House, saying it would change my opinion of Dickens, and he was right.

Three Christmases ago, when I was still deep in my Dickens phase (I read Little Dorrit, for cryin' out loud), I decided to finally read A Christmas Carol.  I was well familiar with it, of course, through countless reinterpretations and retellings, from the Disney version to the movie Scrooged, which was a particular holiday favorite in my family.   Reading it I fell in love, and also soon realized that Dickens' highly political message had been drained from the various adaptations.  A Christmas Carol is not just about Scrooge's redemption, but is also a critique of greed and laissez-faire capitalism.  That critique is just as relevant now as it was then, in the midst of Britain's rough transformation into an industrial society.

Near the beginning, when he is asked to give money to assist the poor, Scrooge famously roars "are there no prisons?" and notes that workhouses, the treadmill, and the Poor Law are all in full effect.  When those asking for a donation note that many would rather die than subject themselves to such cruel institutions Scrooge replies: "If they would rather die...they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."  As a historian of the 19th century I knew when I read those words that Dickens was calling out the cruel economic philosophy behind what Pope Francis has recently deemed "unfettered capitalism."  Through Scrooge Dickens was trying to expose a hard-hearted way of thinking that was only increasing the sufferings of the poor.

These days our conservative politicians are not so brazen as to openly call for the poor to be killed off for the good of society, but as my friend Chauncey DeVega has theorized, that thought may very well lay behind the recent attacks on Food Stamps and other aspects of the welfare state.  These same modern Scrooges are more than happy to spend money profusely on prisons while they slash school funding, and those of Newt Gingrich's ilk have even openly called for disadvantaged children to clean toilets.  More than one Republican has likened welfare recipients to animals.  Just as in Dickens' time, these apologists for the status quo think that all poverty is deserved, and that those who profit handsomely from the system do not owe anyone else anything.  Scrooge's rants about the surplus population have come down to us in Margaret Thatcher's infamous dictum. "there is no such thing as society."

Scrooge's attitude toward the poor is echoed in his treatment of his employee, Bob Cratchit.  Cratchit is given hardly enough coal to warm himself in a cold office, is paid the absolute minimum, and has to beg to get Christmas off.  Scrooge gives him the holiday, but only after grumbling that providing a Christmas holiday is "a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December."  Reading these words I cannot help but think of the retail workers who are now being forced to give up their Thanksgiving holidays, or the companies that are chiseling their minimum wage employees further through fee-laden debit card payments.

As the story goes on, Scrooge learns the error of his ways.  As the ghost of Christmas future reminds him, the wages of sin is death.  Make no mistake, Dickens judges Scrooge to be a sinner, and his mistreatment of his employee and his cruel attitude towards the poor to be great sins deserving of damnation.  That is essentially the same moral framework that Pope Francis has been advocating recently.  When he wrote that a two point drop in the stock market was news, but a homeless person dying of cold on the street wasn't, I heard in those words the spirit of A Christmas Story.

As in Dickens' time, we live in a society where wealth is being generated on a massive scale but is going into the hands of fewer and fewer people who have abdicated any sense of social responsibility.  Their arrogant disregard for the sufferings of those below them -the surplus population- is trumpeted throughout our public discourse under the guise of conventional wisdom.  It is time we follow the lead of A Christmas Carol, and shame those who so easily deny the needs of those less fortunate than them.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Some Alabama Election Takes

It's been a long time since I've done straight up "take" blogging in regards to politics. I guess Twitter sates my appetite for that. Anyway, I'm just as qualified as any of the pundits out there, so why the hell not?  Here are some takes.

1. Jones was a good candidate who has an obvious knowledge of and affection towards Alabama. He seemed to really understand how to appeal to the voters of that state. Dems have been able to win "red" and "purple" states with these kinds of candidates. See also Jon Tester in Montana and the recent race in Virginia.

2. Jones won by appealing to the base of the party, especially African American voters. He did not try to run from Democratic positions on issues like abortion and trans rights, something other Dems running in "red" areas have tried. The Democrats may hopefully learn a little from the Republicans, who understand that off-year elections are all about that base.

3. Trumpism does not work without Trump. Moore was the Trumpiest of candidates, and had the Orange One's support (and even robocalls), but to no avail. The governor's election in Virginia also showed this. The luster of strongmen never gets transferred to others. (Back in the 30s Germans would profess love for Hitler and dislike for "the Nazis.")

4. The Republican Party really made themselves look bad. They dropped support for Moore, then brought it back, and still lost. This means they lost in terms of the election as well as any moral high ground that they could have claimed.

5. BUT: let's be honest, a candidate like Strange would have probably beat Jones pretty handily.

6. That last point shows the Republican Party has a continuing problem of letting its base choose candidates in the primary who are repulsive to the general electorate. See Todd Aiken, Joe Miller, etc.

7. Which gets to my last point, which is that the Republican Party is in many respects a vehicle for an extreme ideology. They still get more moderate people to vote for them, thinking that it is merely a center-right party and a viable alternative to the Democrats. Yesterday's election is a sign that that benefit of the doubt by voters in the middle might be eroding. By supporting the lunatic fringe pedophile elected by their whacko primary voters even after the worst was revealed about him they made a large step towards killing what's left of their reputation as the "serious party."

8. Steve Bannon is a charlatan. He is like the pathetic addicted gambler who hit the trifecta once and spends the next twenty years chasing that one hit into bankruptcy.

9. The Republicans who rejected Jones and never went back on it will benefit greatly. I sense an attempt soon by some Republicans of the Romney persuasion to get control of the party. I think they know their party is about to get hammered in the next election and want to be there to fill the power vacuum.

10. This election showed Democrats the importance of getting out the vote and combatting voter suppression efforts, which have been aimed primary at African American voters. This needs to be a nation-wide, grassroots effort. Democrats need to provide the money and resources to get people registered. More importantly, they need to run on the promise to pass a new voting rights act to ensure that everyone's right to vote is protected.

Monday, December 11, 2017

West From Omaha

Yesterday my plane arrived in Omaha from New Jersey just as the sun was setting. Once I settled into the seat of my rental for the two and a half hour drive west to my hometown, I realized that this was the first time I was making this trip alone in almost ten years.

The road from Omaha to Hastings is a well-worn one for me. It was the path home after countless debate and band competitions in high school, to college and back, and then the last leg of my long sojourns home from Chicago, Champaign, and Grand Rapids. I know every road sign, every gas station, every distant grain elevator. The names of the towns are a familiar litany: Gretna, Ashland, Waverly, Seward, Friend, Beaver Crossing (one of my favorites), Aurora, Giltner, Doniphan and many more. In the last decade I've had my wife with me on this leg, and I tell her the same stories about every spot in the road and she patiently waits until about York or so to remind me that I've told all these stories before.

By myself, with no one to tell my stories to, I was struck by the forbidding nature of the drive. Once you get west of Omaha, the sky opens up, a massive sky that feels like it could crush you without a thought. In the dark it is that much more powerful. The real moment of shock, however, comes in a little bend in the road just on the west side of Lincoln. The fifty miles between Lincoln and Omaha have become ever more crowded as these sprawling and growing cities seem destined to join in one giant blob of subdivisions and strip malls. However, once you pass the last exit for Lincoln, the one for Northwest 48th Street, the interstate makes a little curve, you go over a hill, and suddenly all the lights are out. The darkness is darker than any other I've known, a darkness that makes you feel like the other cars on the road represent the only other living people left in the world.

Driving on the sparsely traveled roads of Nebraska at night can be a kind of spiritual experience, but one I took for granted as a child. I never knew that getting from here to there was not a reminder of human mortality in other parts of the country. Last night I even took a little detour, taking a two-lane road for about ten miles, a route where I did not see a single sign of another person until I hit Doniphan. It was like a trip to a distant, empty planet. Under that limitless, inky black sky I never could have imagined that I take a train to the beating heart of Manhattan's human ant swarm every work day. It's been a good respite to be west of Omaha.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Ruminations on Internal Exile

A sight from my homeland that never fails to stir my heart (or my stomach)

We tend to think of exile in terms of national boundaries, but in an America that is increasingly divided, exile can be internal, too. I live 1500 miles from my hometown in rural Nebraska, and when I am in New York City every day for work, I might as well be on a different planet. I never planned it this way, it just kind of happened.

I am going to be returning to my homeland with a heavy heart in a couple of days to attend the funeral of my aunt. I say the word "homeland" in the German sense, an analog of the German word "Heimat." This means a kind of regional home, as opposed to a national one. The region I come from certainly has its own distinct culture and ways as notable as a peasant's lederhosen or dirndl.

My relationship to it is complicated. I cannot abide its bad politics of its bad food, but when I look around the supposedly sophisticated East Coast I find it wanting. People in this part of the country are high on their own bullshit. They are much more status and wealth obsessed, and much more likely to think "rules are for suckers." Of course, I don't dare say that out loud here, where people use the term "Midwestern" as an implied insult. For that reason I can find my homeland irritating but my adopted home exasperating.

My aunt exemplified many of the aspects of my homeland that I miss. She was a gentle, kind person uninterested in material things. Her life was humble, but she was okay with that. That's a quality I find admirable when in the snake pit of Manhattan and all of its neuroses, resentments, and social hierarchy. I will admit, I get sick and tired of Manhattan's bullshit quite a lot.

I know at the same time that my homeland's knee-jerk conservatism, nativist tendencies, and fear of anything new helped drive me out of there in the first place. It is an almost impossible place to be a thoughtful young person. I enjoy visiting, but never feel much like staying. Yet when I come back to the Northeast, I feel something missing. For better or for worse, my homeland is something I still carry around in my heart, and it has placed an indelible stamp on me, even if I have broken with some of its values.

Some internal exiles I've met in these parts seem embarrassed of their origins, constantly running down the homeland of their births in order to get approval of the Northeasterners who see everything between the Hudson and the Pacific as easily dismissed "flyover country." Others seem to cling to their regional chauvinism as much as possible, constantly finding their new surroundings wanting. Despite my frustrations with not feeling comfortable in either the homeland of my birth or my adopted one, I am at least glad that I can see the good in both.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Grim Reality of Our World-Historical Moment

A lot has changed since 1989

I am at home sick today, and I am feeling energetic enough after some hours of rest to do some writing. Getting sick is something that clears my mind, mostly because it gives me a break from my commute, job, and parenting responsibilities. This has allowed me to think about our current era as it relates to larger world-historical trends, and the thoughts aren't good.

The revolutions of 1989 and the international community's response to the genocide in Bosnia made me feel for a time in the 1990s that though we had certainly not reached an "end of history" that the future of the globe was going to contain plenty of conflict, but generally be more peaceful and democratic than it had been in the past. After 9/11, it seemed that I had been very much wrong. The international policing imperative that had been used to save the people of Bosnia and Kosovo from mass murder was used to justify the disastrous war in Iraq. Likewise, I once saw anti-globalism as an important corrective from the left against the ravages of capitalism. The 1999 Seattle protests were, to me, a sign that the excesses of the post Fall of the Wall neoliberalism were about to be pushed back. Now anti-globalization is the currency of a resurgent, international neo-fascism which has captured the presidency of the United States. The 1990s held out the prospect of international agreements arresting the advance of global warming, now they seem doomed.

I have been feeling whiplash about the world historical moment since the Brexit vote last year. As I said at the time, it appears that the whole post-World War II order, which the leaders of the West tried to extend after the of the Cold War, is falling apart. International institutions of that order like the EU are shaking. The United States is abdicating its global leadership role, leaving a massive power vacuum that states like China and Russia (and now perhaps Germany) are yearning to fill. Similarly, the Middle East looks to be breaking down into a general conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nationalism and chauvinism are on the rise everywhere, bringing with them authoritarianism. On top of all of this, climate will bring greater misery and cause for conflict in a world where the possibilities of international mediation are shrinking.

Looking at the dire state of things, I am becoming more and more convinced that only revolutionary changes will be sufficient to solve the current crisis, especially in regards to climate change. However, the means for revolutionary change in many places have been broken. Take the United States, where labor unions have been broken and communal life generally is practically non-existent. Consumer capaitalism, as long as it keeps the gadgets flowing and credit available, will keep most people complacent. Independent media is being swallowed up, and ethnic and racial divisions have been doing their traditional work. Most white people still prefer "the wages of whiteness" to solidarity with people of color. Social media only reinforces these boundaries.

As much as I detest Donald Trump, he is the product of his times. After he is gone, the forces that produced him will still be here. I don't have all the answers, but I do know that any path to a more peaceful and democratic future means radically changing the fundamentals of our political-economy. I just don't see that happening, and that realization is one that fills me with dread.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Moral Rot of "Fetuses Uber Alles"

It looks as if the election in Alabama is shifting back to Roy Moore. The Republicans who had condemned him have now embraced him, with Donald Trump giving him an endorsement today. They have made their usual Leninist calculation, as with Trump's nefarious tape, that they can win the election and face zero consequences for supporting sex abusers.

In Alabama this has to do with the fact that the state is a very conservative place where a Democrat winning is seen as an impossibility. An article in the Times today discusses this, as one Democratic operative even admits "I don't think the Lord Jesus could win as a Democrat in Alabama."One of the reasons cited in this article, and one I have seen in many articles about Moore, is abortion. Many Republican voters claim they will never support a pro-choice candidate.

I have always wondered about the limits of this, since I know a lot of people who hold similar views. For them abortion is the ultimate issue, and even when they do not like the Republicans on offer (like Donald Trump), they tell themselves "at least they don't support abortion." This is the absolution that forgives all sins. A vain, bigoted, misogynist, greedy, mean-spirited, thrice divorced man like Trump, who would seem to be the opposite of Christ's example, suddenly becomes God's anointed once he appoints an anti-abortion justice to the Supreme Court.

I have long disagreed with the Fetuses Uber Alles position, but I once did give it some respect as an expression of moral righteousness. I do not accept the premise that a zygote is the equivalent to a human being, but those I know who subscribe to this position take it very seriously, contrary to the stereotypes that many pro-choice people have. (The argument that pro-lifers are merely about controlling women's bodies is a self-serving interpretation that does not tell the whole story, and part of the reason that advocates for abortion rights keep losing, since they so fundamentally misunderstand their opponents.)

Well, those days are over. Fetuses Uber Alles is nothing but a dirty cop-out. It is an easy way for religious conservatives to deny their complicity in the horrible immorality of the policies pushed by the people they vote for. After Trump and Moore I am convinced that this crowd simply likes voting for conservatives and approves of their policies, and saying they are doing it for the fetuses gives them moral cover to be immoral. "Fetuses Uber Alles" does a lot of work in our current political discourse in this regard, which is why I am skeptical the anti-abortion Democrats can somehow get votes that would normally go Republican.

Those folks will still vote Republican, and will maybe feel a little bad when their neighbors are deported, but will always be able to console themselves by saying that they are still saving the fetuses. I honestly don't know what is to be done about Fetuses Uber Alles, because no one I know who subscribes to that outlook seems capable of being shaken from their position. As Alabama shows, it is an extremely powerful wall to break down. The only real solution is to make sure that we are more organized than they are, and I fear the necessary work in that regard isn't getting done.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Right Wing Leninism Strikes Again

The vote for the tax overhaul bill in the wee hours of this morning was part of something I have been trying to say for years on this site. The Republican Party is not a party in the traditional sense, but merely a vehicle for a radical ideology. The Republicans are not conservatives, they are revolutionaries who intend to roll back the 20th century.

In this regard they have a lot in common with the Bolshevik party, which in 1917 did everything with one goal in mind: to gain power. Other revolutionary parties had moral limits on their behavior, they Bolsheviks didn't, and they won. They would do any deed and tell any lie if if helped them reach their goal. The ends justified the means if it meant getting their revolution.

The Republican Party has signed a blood pact with a lunatic, supporting his presidency as long as he he supports its revolutionary agenda. He may have collaborated with an enemy power, he may be bilking the government for personal gain, and he may even be an unhinged wacko, but the Republicans don't care as long as they get tax cuts. In the same spirit, they passed a bill that consisted largely of scribbles in the margins without any kind of public hearings, or even the ability for legislators to read it. They know the majority of the country is opposed to it, and they just don't care.

They have no qualms about using undemocratic means to hold power. They suppress the vote, they pack the courts with unqualified 36 year olds, they gerrymander, and they willingly accept assistance from a foreign dictator. They have their own television network, web sites, and radio stations to feed their lies and bullshit to their followers. The truth, the Constitution, and the law are useful only in so much as it serves their agenda.

There are no "good ones." The sentimental attachment to the likes of McCain, Murkowski, Flake, and Collins among liberals needs to stop. These supposed paragons of virtue showed their true colors at 2AM this morning. The one and only response is to drive them out, and to fight fire with fire.