Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Year of Living Shamelessly

Melania's jacket really summed up the attitude of most Americans about the current slide into disaster

2018 is finally over. This has been one of the more depressing years of my life when if comes to world events. Talking with my father over Christmas I realized that I am very happy with my personal life and my job, but that the weight of the dread I feel about where we are heading drags me into dark moods on an almost daily basis.

2017 was bad, too, but I was heartened by things like the airport protests against the Muslim ban, which actually forced the government to change course. At the end of last year I was also looking forward to the midterm elections, and focused on doing my bit to bring victory.

And while I am pleased at the rebuke Trump received in those elections, his recent behavior shows that he has chosen to react by intentionally shutting down the government. It's the perfect cap to a year when the right wing in America completely dropped the mask and decided to be completely shameless about itself.

There was the Republican Secretary of State in Georgia rigging the election in his favor so that he could be governor. The Saudis have starved people in Yemen and murdered and dismembered a dissident in one of their embassies and our president has completely stood by the Saudi government. Trump nominated an accused rapist to the Supreme Court and Republicans confirmed him after his sweaty, evasive, belligerent performance followed the moving, forthright testimony of his accuser. Trump and his family use the government and foreign powers to enrich themselves. A Times report found that Trump's wealth rests in large part on tax scams, and people talked about it for about two days. Trump abused his pardon power to pardon conservative activists like Dinesh D'Souza, and dangled pardons to maintain the loyalty of his henchmen who are currently under investigation. Perhaps worst of all, the Trump administration decided to separate children from their families and put them in camps for the crime of trying to get asylum in America.

This shamelessness has been staggering to me, and not only because of the human cost. I have been continually depressed at how people in this country have responded to all of this. I'm not talking about the MAGA dipshits and hard right wing politicos, I have zero expectations of their behavior. No, I am enraged by most other people who should know better. On one end there are the "moderate" and "sensible" Republicans who furrow their brows, say they are "concerned" about what Trump is doing, and then completely go along with it. I don't just mean politicians like Ben Sasse either, but the rank and file voters. During my last trip home to deep red rural Nebraska I noticed that nobody I knew who voted for this seems concerned about it at all. Oh sure, they might find Trump vulgar, but they basically support what he's doing. This even includes my home state, where farmers have been suffering as a result of Trump's tariffs. Like supporters of other authoritarian regimes, they hate their enemies more than they love democracy. They will watch their undocumented neighbors being

But it's not just them. There's also the large mass of apathetic people who just tune everything out. (It helps to be white and middle class, but this isn't just limited to that demographic.) The news media turns everything into a "he said-she said" and dullards who think they're smart just say "I don't like politics" or "they're all crooked" and go on with their lives as regional under-assistant manager for office supplies.

But it's not just the apathetic, either. It's also those who know what's going on and don't do a damn thing, except maybe Tweet. I remember a conversation with an outspokenly liberal coworker before the election where I told him about my campaign contributions and he looked at me and basically said he didn't know you could contribute to a campaign. More than that, he didn't get why I would do it! A lot of liberals like him talk a big game and don't even do the most basic things when it comes to taking action. I firmly believe that people should be hectored about voting, but if that's the sum total of your message that is a failing message, and that's all that many liberals had to offer this year.

To win this fight is going to require something more. It's going to need strikes, people in the street, and putting our bodies on the line. The forces we are up against are so sinister and shameless that sharing Mueller memes isn't going to hack it. And in any case, what's Mueller really going to be able to do if Republicans have enough votes to block impeachment, anyway? Our institutions revealed their complete failure this year even more concretely than they have in the past. Stop looking to other people to save you. Stop thinking our institutions will somehow sort this out. Stop thinking that we can "go back to normal," and for the love of God stop thinking that going back to the status quo is any kind of meaningful goal. "Normal" was shit. Trump is not the cause, he is the symptom of a broken society.

The only way we can fix it is to have what Lincoln called a "new birth of freedom." Anything short of that will mean destruction.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Thoughts On Sarah Smarsh's Heartland

I've just returned from a Christmas visit to my Nebraska homeland and on the way there and back got to read Sarah Smarsh's excellent book Heartland: A Memoir Of Working Hard And Being Broke In The Richest Country On Earth. As a fellow Great Plainsian raised in a rural German Catholic milieu with farming in my family the book was pretty much destined to find its way into my hands. Even closer to home, the author is from the same corner of Kansas where one of my sisters and her husband farm. He evidently once went to the same school as her, too.

The main difference in my experience and the author's is that she grew up poor in an unstable home environment, whereas I grew up lower-middle class in a very stable home environment. Unfortunately, families like mine tended to look down on families like hers in the never-ending quest for respectability. What's interesting about the book is that she explicitly connects her family's poverty to the broader social and political forces around their lives. Smarsh was born in 1980, and sees her life being profoundly shaped by the post-Reagan onslaught of neoliberalism. In her part of the world and mine the farm crisis of the 1980s came in like a wrecking ball. Once small farming ceased to be viable, it tore out the basic economic foundation of so many rural areas. Once her father could finally afford to buy a house in 2007, the housing bubble would burst and that house would become a millstone. This happened to countless other working class families.

Her main point is to use this more systemic understanding to undermine the cherished American idea that we are all the masters of our circumstances, and that simply through working hard we can get ahead. She shows in painful detail how hard her family members had to work throughout their lives, wrecking their bodies in the process. I fear that only people who understand that the American Dream mythology is a lie will actually read the book. Instead folks on the prairie will complain about people buying steak with food stamps and refuse to see how the government, from farm subsidies to backing inexpensive mortgages, has made their existence possible. (I heard plenty of this kind of talk on my trip home.)

This brings me to a question that the book touches on, but does not answer because it lies outside of the main thrust of the narrative: how did this political false consciousness take root in this community? Or is it even false consciousness? (For many folks "saving the unborn" to them is more important than whether they are voting for corporate plutocrats.)

It's a dynamic I've seen a lot in my own circle. My grandfathers, like Smarsh's, were staunch New Deal Democrats. Their children, and most of their grandchildren, are conservative Republicans. Not only that, the nature of conservatism in this region has radically changed in the past thirty years. My home area has always been conservative, but with a small "c." There was still support for public institutions, and guns were pretty non-controversial in my youth. Now schools and universities are being gutted as proposals are made to arm teachers. Kansas famously endured the misrule of Sam Brownback, whose libertarian tax policies have starved Kansas' public schools, once among the nation's best.

I don't have all of the answers either. As near as I can tell, it's a bitter stew of racial resentment, white nationalism, the radicalization of talk radio and Fox News, Boomer narcissism mediated through consumer capitalism, the rise of fundamentalist Christianity, and in how party identity has become closer tied to personal identity. (Being a Democrat marks you as one of "those people," essentially.) The next question that remains, of course, is if that any of the rural white conservatives out there can be swayed by a new economic populism from the left, or whether the aforementioned resentments and religiosity make that a fool's errand.

Another, more personal issue was on my mind as a I read the book, however. Smarsh talked about the difficulty of leaving the world she was brought up in, getting an education, and rubbing shoulders with people of privilege who have open contempt for "flyover country." This hit home for me because I have had to make the exact same transition. Unlike her, however, I have opted to leave for good, instead of to come back. I will get very defensive about my homeland when people around here in the New York area said dumb and ignorant things about it, but I am much more likely to rant against that homeland than Smarsh is. This balancing act is something that all internal exiles must face up to at some point. When I visited home this week I was glad to be there but also reminded that it's a place I could never live in anymore, from its awful politics to its bland food to its suffocating conformity. Standing beneath that all-encompassing, beautiful Plains sky does make my heart leap, but that's not enough for my anymore. Reading Heartland I wished I could feel the same closeness to that world I once felt. Maybe I'll get it back someday, or maybe I will just give up on trying to have it anymore.

Friday, December 21, 2018

American Solstice?

I have grown to appreciate winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. I like to use it as a day of reflection. This year it coincides with my last day of teaching before break, as well as a clusterfuck of epic proportions in Trump World.

The Justice Department is being led by a literal con artist who is signaling that he wants to shut down the Mueller investigation. Trump is shutting down the government to get money for slatted wall. Mattis resigned in protest after Trump decided at abandon long-supported military commitments. The stock markets are tanking. All of the other petty scandals and corruptions keep churning beneath it all.

Of all things yesterday seemed perhaps to be a breaking point for a lot of Very Serious People on the Republican side. They had expected Trump to be kept in check by the likes of Mattis, and now he has Hulked out and broken loose. Some folks in the media seem to think that this is some kind of turning point.

I am not holding my breath.

We have been down this road before. There was a similar reaction to the Access Hollywood tape. When Trump so flagrantly and publicly kowtowed to Vladimir Putin in public this summer we heard similar rumblings. In the end the Republicans maintained their end of their blood pact with Trump. He gets to be president and loot the country for his benefit while they get tax breaks and conservative judges. Expect that deal to carry on to the bitter end.

I know plenty of conservatives. Not one who voted for Trump has renounced him. They will all vote for him again. I certainly know a couple of Never Trumpers, but they never went for the devil's bargain to begin with. I would say that they would vote for the lowest piece of garbage embodying the worst attributes of this country rather than a Democrat, but guess what, they already have! They are not going to change their mind, they can only be outnumbered and overruled. They know that, which is why they are manipulating the system, from gerrymandering to hamstringing Democratic governors in lam duck sessions. This impulse will only get more pronounced.

Solstice gives hope in that for the next 365 days there will be more light than on this dark day. The media narrative is trying to say that America is hitting its solstice low point under Trump, but I think we have further to go. It will be dark day after darker day ahead. I'm not hopeless and I am committed to the fight, but I still don't see signs that we are headed in any way toward the light just yet. I hope this next year proves me wrong.

Monday, December 17, 2018

My Best Writing From 2018

No better way to introduce a clip show with a clip show

It's hard to believe this rotten, wretched year has finally run its course. Now we are on to 2019, which will certainly end up being a whole lot worse.  But hey, I can at least look back at what I wrote in the past year and take stock. In case you missed it the first time around, here are what I think are my best pieces of the year.

Watching The Dark Waters of History Flow on the Armistice Centennial 

This was a crossover with this blog and Tropics of Meta. It's a topic I have been thinking about for years, and I was glad to finally write down my thoughts.

It Crawled From The College Debate Circuit

Here's another ToM crossover, where I discuss how Ted Cruz's successes and his lack of popularity have a lot to do with his time as a college debater. Having been one myself, I feel like my expert opinion offers some special insights.

Listen To The Bubble Jumpers

This is the ToM piece of mine that I thought would hopefully change the discourse on regional political "bubbles." Alas, it was not to be. Still pretty damn good, though.

Life's Rich Pageant And The First Shadows Of Reagan Dusk

I think this is my favorite music piece this year, touching on how REM's 1986 represented the first green shoots of a post-Reagan mentality.

The Cold War Is Finally Over (Both Sides Lost)

A short post, but it sums up thoughts I've been having for quite some time.

A Requiem For The Faculty Office

The professors realized too late that they too were expendable.

Nostalgia for Other People's Nostalgia: A Gen X Disease

This is another piece that was bangin' around in my head for awhile. It's awful strange that Gen Xers are so in thrall to Boomer culture, and part of my generation's general overlooked-ness.

The Verve, "Bittersweet Symphony"

Probably the most honest I've ever been in any of my song posts.

Postcard From Virginia Beach

I wrote this overlooking the crashing surf at night. I can't wait to get back.

The Exquisite Propaganda of NFL Films

I think that a large of professional football's rise had to do with marketing, and NFL films managed to take a sport that was already well-suited for modern television and make it look positively beautiful. If I had the talent, time, and resources I'd write a book about it.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Regret

Sometimes visiting the beloved pop culture of one's youth isn't so pleasant.

A Shameful Father's Day

I wrote this after news of the president ripping children from their families went public. I'll say now what I said then, that the only way out of this is by remaking our country. There is no "normal" to return to.

An Overlooked Legacy of Watergate

Agnew, Nixon, and other Watergate criminals never had to go to jail. This set a dangerous precedent, whereby politicians who break the law never must face real accountability. Time to break the cycle.

Fight Dirty Or Don't Fight At All

This is basically my message to liberals.

Hollowed Out

This is a piece about my hometown written when I visited this summer. Like a lot of places in the rural Midwest, it is becoming increasingly empty.

Locker Room Talk

Dr. Blasey-Ford's testimony and Kavanaugh's angry denunciations brought discussions of "locker room talk" back into the national conversation. This kind of language works as a misogynistic ritual of male bonding.

The Long Shadow of the 2000 Republican Primary

Instead of praising or damning John McCain, I decided to talk about his role in the 2000 Republican primary, an election whose consequences are still being felt.

The White Supremacy of Not Caring

I know I am not the first to say this, but I think I said it well.

Billboard Top Ten Alternative Songs October 22, 1994

This is my favorite of my Billboard Top Ten posts from this year.

Fascism 2.0

This post didn't get much traction, so I hope y'all read it this time.

"Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner"

History does not move in a straight line, and those who think it does breed damaging levels of complacency.

Coming of Political Age in the Bush41 Years

The death of George HW Bush dredged up memories of his brief reign, and how essential it was in establishing my general political outlook.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck

Hello folks! It's the holiday season, and we know what means: godawful Christmas music played everywhere. It's always the same lame songs done in a halfassed fashion. Either that or an artist's original composition that's even worse. My love of the farty synth on Macca's "Wonderful Christmastime" is the result of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. The next time you're at a holiday party and they play that shit, commandeer the stereo and put these selections on.

Miles Davis, "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern"

The whole song is just one long critique of holiday consumerism with some fantastic Miles Davis trumpet playing underneath it. A real palate cleanser after having been subjected to the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" for the hundredth time.

Free Design, "Close Your Mouth It's Christmas"

The jazzy late 60s sophisti-pop sound won't freak out the squares but it's just weird enough to give a change of pace to your holiday guests. I've had it in my head all day long today.

James Brown, "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto"

You can never, ever go wrong with the Godfather of Soul, of course. He put out some great Christmas music, but this is probably my favorite. There's a whole subgenre of Christmas music about imploring or forcing Santa to redistribute the wealth to poor children. This song is among the best of the type.

Otis Redding, "Merry Christmas Baby"

Speaking of soul music, Otis Redding could cut a Christmas track, too. I love this one both for his typically sweaty delivery, but also for Booker T's holiday organ sound. Why on earth this song isn't played at the malls instead of the lame "Jingle Bell Rock" is totally beyond me.

Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin'

And speaking of the organ, if you want a whole Christmas album to put on, I'd recommend Jimmy Smith's. He does some jazz versions of holiday standards, but the organ gives it an especially Christmas-y sound even if the music itself gets really far out at times. One of the few Christmas albums that actually feels fresh and original.

Reece Shipley, "Santa Miss Those Missiles"

If you REALLY want to get real far gone listen to this track, a fine example of the lunacy of the Cold War.

Ernest Tubb, "I'll Be Walking The Floor This Christmas"

Ernest Tubb reconfigured his biggest country hit, "Walking the Floor Over You" into a depressing holiday tune. As we all know, the holidays can bring sadness and dredge up bad memories. Rarely do the songs blasted out in waiting rooms and grocery stores go to those places.

Tom Waits, "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis"

Speaking of sad Christmas songs, there's always this Tom Waits gem, one of the greatest portraits of ordinary despair ever painted in a song.

Bessie Smith, "At The Christmas Ball"

Before the nineteenth century's cult of domesticity, Christmas was less about family time and more about making merry and having a ball. That spirit still lives on in the people who get blitzed at their company holiday party. My favorite song for THIS Christmas spirit comes from Bessie Smith, Queen of the Blues. Basically this song is about wanting to go out on Christmas and tie one on.

King Curtis, "The Christmas Song"

I'll end on a sweeter note, though. King Curtis could wring emotion out of the sax like no one else, and it's a damn shame that he's not a household name. If you want to kick back in front of the fire with some very heavily spiked egg nog this is just about the most perfect thing.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Perfect Gift For A Non-Consumerist Christmas

For a long time in my adult years I saw Christmas mostly as an annoyance punctuated by holiday parties. The holiday's consumerist orgy would often leave me feeling depressed and let down. Now that I am the father of two young children, the Christmas spirit has been much revived in me. Watching how much my daughters enjoy the holiday season just gives me so much joy.

Of course, the same pitfalls of consumerism remain, and I still break out Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping to expel the demons of capitalism from my holiday celebration. This holiday ought to be about more than buying boatloads of cheap shit. We still buy gifts for each other in my family, but we try to keep it pretty low-key and humble.

There are gifts that can be given much more valuable than anything that can be boxed and wrapped. They are the gifts I am trying to give out more often during the Christmas season. Today I was reminded of one of the best.

Every year the college counseling office at my school throws a little after-school party for all the people who wrote letters of recommendation for our students. This year was actually a personal record for me, with 27. For the first time that also made the teacher at the school who wrote the most letters. The counselors gave me recognition and a nice bottle of wine, but there's a much richer gift waiting for me. Sitting on the table right now is a stack of envelopes full of appreciations from my students. I am hesitating to open them because they never fail to hit me straight in the heart.

If you are looking to give a gift this holiday season that's not ordered on Amazon, give the people in your life the gift of appreciation. It is a precious thing we get so rarely in our society. Bosses treat workers like expendable commodities who should feel lucky just to have a job. Service workers deal with asshole customers on a constant basis. Teachers often leave a pint of blood in class every day with little to no encouragement from their overlords or their students. These times are really bad, and we all need to be taking care of each other. A little appreciation goes a long, long way. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Reliving My Most Listened To Tracks On My Pod

In the most recent episode of Old Dad's Records I decided to break from protocol. This time I randomly played songs from my Spotify playlist of most played songs of 2018. I had a lot of fun with it, although it reveals the ways my private listening habits do not match up with my much more hip public ones. What can I say? I love 70s AM radio pop and 80s New Wave.

Friday, December 7, 2018

An Overlooked Legacy Of Watergate

Sadly the only prison Nixon went to was the one in his mind

Today brought the clearest evidence yet that not only has Donald Trump committed felonies (we all knew that already, of course), but that federal prosecutors are willing to say that he did, and that in addition to this his team was petitioning Russia for help as far back as 2015. The president signaled this was coming with an epically unhinged temper tantrum on Twitter this morning. This day he also finally put forth a name for a new AG, a man who will presumably try to curtail investigations into his behavior. His former Secretary of State also gave an interview where he basically said that Trump constantly wanted to commit illegal acts and seemed unaware of legal restrictions.

A felonious president flying off the handle and desperately filling the Justice Department with lackeys to protect himself against an ever-growing criminal investigation sounds an awful lot like Watergate. (This is not an original observation.) As Marx said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

A lot of other people have been thinking so, too. Rachel Maddow's excellent Bag Man podcast did a deep dive into the wrongdoings of Spiro Agnew, which are oft forgotten in the shadow of Nixon's greater malfeasance. Listening to that podcast I thought a lot of how the ghosts of Watergate keep coming back to haunt us.

Decisions were made by politicians and prosecutors at the time that we are still living with. Agnew's criminality was truly staggering. Not only had he taken kickbacks as governor of Maryland, he was still getting cash-filled envelopes in the White House! He also directed federal contracts to the men paying him off. In order to get him out of office as quickly as possible so that he would not succeed his criminal boss Nixon, prosecutors allowed Agnew to resign without going to jail.

The precedent that members of the White House not pay the true price of their actions was solidified when Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full pardon before he had been convicted or even tried of something. While Ford thought that he was removing a distraction from a paralyzed nation beset by economic decline and the end of Vietnam, he essentially established that presidents and their operatives would never actually be held accountable for their illegal actions in a court of law.

Just consider the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s. This was another clear-cut case of presidential law-breaking. While it was done on behalf of policy goals instead of maintaining political power, selling arms to Iran to give money to the Contras was illegal on its face. Reagan and Bush never really had to face the music, and Bush would issue pardons for those involved. The nation mostly moved on.

In the 2000s the George W Bush administration lied the country into war in Iraq and engaged in torture. There was never even really an attempt to do much to punish those responsible. By that time the immunity of the White House to prosecution was pretty much accepted. Trump's crimes present an opportunity to break this cycle.

We talk a lot about the legacy of Watergate being that Americans do not trust the government, but the more consequential legacy is that America is a country where the president's quasi-monarchical status goes beyond expensive state funerals and ceremonial frippery to being above criminal prosecution. This thought must be in the back of Trump's mind today as he prepares a defense against the coming legal onslaught.

America desperately needs to get over this taboo of locking presidents and their minions up. Other democracies do not have this hang-up, and they are all the better for it. Just witness the recent imprisonment of Park Geun-hye in South Korea. The prospect of Trump's imprisonment is no mere legal fantasy, it actually might be crucial to ensuring the future health of our democracy.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Quick Explanation of Why We Are F***ed

I am going to keep this short.

As I have said for years and years and years, the Republican Party is not a political party in the traditional sense, but merely a vehicle for an extremist right-wing ideology. That ideology is wedded to a nationalism that proclaims conservatives to be "real Americans" and those who are not to be "un-American." This means that the "un-American" faction has no legitimate role in governing even if it wins elections.

When Republicans gerrymander and suppress the vote they are not just doing so out of political expediency, they really and truly feel as if they are saving the country from ruin. Pretty much any malfeasance can be justified by that fear because that end will ALWAYS justify the means.

What we are seeing right now in Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina is just the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. There is no sign whatsoever that Republicans are going to change their way of thinking. They were rebuked in the last election, but can use the Senate, gerrymandering,  the electoral college and suppression to maintain minority rule.

The only way forward is to acknowledge the brokenness of our system of government and the need to gut the Constitution. That won't happen, partially due to conservative power, and also to the lack of will or even the consciousness of the need to act on the other side.

Instead our democracy will continue to decay and drift, year after year after year. The forces of repression lack any shame or doubt, while this opposed to them are disunited, tentative, and lacking in resolution. None of this is going to end well.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

On Coming of Political Age In The Bush41 Years

I was born in 1975, which means I am in one of the smallest age cohorts in postwar America. There aren't many people around my age, and our adolescence happened to coincide with the first Bush administration. Our political consciousness was formed at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, a much more tumultuous time than the years that came before and after.

It was the absolute high point of the war on drugs, something pushed hard by the Bush administration. The streets of LA burned in 1992 after police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King case. The gang wars related to the drug trade were never bloodier, and the murder rate shot up in this era. The Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. With the Gulf War, the United States went to full-fledged war for the first time since Vietnam. Soon after, a nasty recession hit.

Ironically, the Gulf War was the event that capped off my political migration from being a nominal Republican due to my parents' affiliation to adopting a much more progressive political stance. Two other Bush-era events put me on this road: the AIDS crisis and the Central Park Five. They both showed the indifference of the government to the mass suffering of marginalized people, as well as the unfairness of the criminal justice system. I had initially been enthusiastic for the Gulf War, but when it was over I wondered whether such horrible loss of life was necessary. The insane jingoism sparked by the war also frightened me. I knew my country had all kinds of problems, and people were willing to forget about them and wave the maniacally flag because of a victory over a third rate power.

The Bush41 years were also very fraught when it came to race, and forced me, as a white teenager living in a very white rural small town, to actually see the racial inequality I wasn't being taught about in school or able to observe around me. There was the War on Drugs, Central Park Five, and Rodney King beating. Above all, there was the infamous Willie Horton ad. By the end of the Bush41 years I was reading Malcolm X's autobiography in study hall and seeing the country of my birth in a new light.

This was a far cry from where I was in 1988, when I was old enough to observe politics but too untutored to understand what I was seeing. I remember George Bush attacking Michael Dukakis for being a liberal, saying the word like a curse. Saturday Night Live did a funny parody of it, imagining a liberal who like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive must keep running from the authorities. I honestly didn't know what the word even meant. I asked an adult what was so bad about being a liberal and the response was basically that liberals were terrible people who believed in taxes and were against religion.

Of course, liberals ended up having the last laugh when Bush lost to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. The Bush years coincided with what I like the call the Reagan Dusk. The social problems and inequalities exacerbated by neoliberal policies were becoming more stark by 1989. As the Cold War ended there was a feeling that the United States needed to focus more on its own issues. Bush was not equipped to handle the backlash against the world created by his more amiable predecessor. Back in those pre-internet days of 1992 I bought a book called Bushisms that quoted his most maladroit attempts at rhetoric. As far as I could tell, he was a clumsy representative of a failed establishment.

In fact, Bush provided an example to me of how disconnected America's political leaders were from the lived reality of most people. This came through clearest in an famous moment where Bush was captivated by a supermarket checkout scanner. That one incident seemed to encapsulate so much. There was also the time he talked glibly with the press as the American dead from his attack on Panama were coming home to Dover Air Force Base. Perhaps most flagrantly, Bush seemed incapable of empathizing with people who were being hit hard by the recession in the second half of his term. It was slowly dawning on me that the people who ran everything couldn't care less about the people they ruled over.

Popular music certainly reflected the disenchantment so many had with their supposed social betters. Political rap music flourished in that era, from Public Enemy to Ice Cube. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" burst on the scene in late '91 and banished hair metal decadence to the dustbin of history. At the time I really felt like some real change was about to happen. "Change" was the theme of Bill Clinton's campaign, which I fell for hard. Little did I know how soon he would disappoint me.

The other day I was listening to some of my favorite music from the era, a time when I felt very optimistic about the future. The Cold War had ended without a bloodbath. The Reagan-Bush regime had been rejected. My generation, ready for a better world, was coming of age. My funeral this week is for that feeling, which I sadly found to be naive and short-lived.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Billboard Top Ten Alternative Songs November 27, 1993

I enjoyed doing alternative rock songs for my last top ten, so here it goes again. In November of 1993 I was a senior in high school. After years of being a mocked dork I was starting to figure things out. I had some fake Doc Martens boots from Payless Shoes and lots of flannel. A girl I had a crush on always told me she loved the boots. Was I too chickenshit to respond to this now in hindsight obvious expression of interest? Yes, yes I was. Now on with the countdown!

10. Smashing Pumpkins, "Today"

This was by far the poppiest, catchiest tune that the Pumpkins had managed to craft up to this point. This vaguely proggy grunge band had finally come up with something made for the charts. When I first brought Siamese Dream home from the local Musicland it stuck out to me as far less ambitious musically that the other songs on the album. Billy Corgan's guitar playing was far more reminiscent of classic rock than Cobain's, but the feebleness of his voice helped mask the throwback nature of the music.

9. The Breeders, "Cannonball"

A cassette tape of Last Splash lived in my car in the winter of 1993-1994. It's such a great album, bridging the indie-mainstream divide with some catchy songs and far out sounds. "Cannonball" had a catchy bass riff but was still pretty damn weird. That the video got major MTV airplay was a minor miracle. Back in those days I thought a renaissance of rock music was upon the land, unaware of the Bush-Silverchair-Creed onslaught about to happen.

8. Belly, "Gepetto"

"Feed The Tree" was one of the truly great alternative rock songs of the era, and "Gepetto" was the follow up. (Ironically, Tanya Donnelly had once been in The Breeders.) This song is not as good (few songs are), but its sound is so perfectly, ineffably 1993. I hear the bouncy rhythm and folky guitar with the languid vocals over it and a little tear comes to my eye. Back in 1993 I thought things were changing for the better in the world. The Reagan-Bush years were over, much more interesting music was hitting the mainstream, and the winds of change seemed to be blowing. It's hard for me to say when that feeling of optimism ended for me, but the Republican sweep of the election the next year was probably it.

7. Gin Blossoms, "Found Out About You"

The Gin Blossoms were one of those weird first wave of alternative bands. They came out of a local scene, and were not derivative of alternarock trends like the coming Bushes and Creeds. They sound much more influenced by REM. Of their hits, this minor key song with ringing guitars (both catnip to my ears) is my favorite. The band's story also contains a tragedy worthy of a downbeat 90s alternative song. Original guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins penned this song, along with other Gin Blossoms hits. He was kicked out of the band before they hit it big, and signed over his royalties for a pittance. He killed himself about a month after this countdown. Life is cruel.

6. Cracker, "Low"

I loved Cracker's first album, which is a sassy combination of alternative rock and rootsy, country-inflected songs. Bandleader Dave Lowery had pioneered this sound with Camper Van Beethoven, but now in the 1990s it was a sound that could actually hit the airwaves. This song, from their second album, had those great Southwestern guitars, but with a heavy dose of the kind of doom we couldn't get enough of in '93. Cracker was also one of the first acts to have a radio song with a hidden CD trick (remember those?) with "Eurotrash Girl."

5. James, "Laid"

James first came on my radar a year before this, when I heard "Born of Frustration," which sounded pretty unique. This song is another unlikely hit, full of pretty unambiguous sexual references. The band also wore dresses in the video and on the album cover, the kind of cheeky gender-bending common in the alternative rock world before the testosteronal Fred Durst types came in and ruined it. For a teenage boy who was failed at the traditional markers of masculinity of the Nebraska town he lived in, it seemed pretty liberating.

4. The Cranberries, "Linger"

Oh boy. You might find this song cheesy, but it usually makes me cry. It's such a beautiful confection, and the dearly departed Dolores O'Riordan's voice never sounded better. The chorus and her background voices on it is one of the most truly sublime moments in pop music. It's not just the song, either. When I was a senior in high school I would either go to Wendy's for lunch (yeah, I know) or go home and eat. I'd have a lunch of leftovers while watching MTV, and that year I kept seeing the video for this song. At this point I could taste the freedom and possibility of college that lay ahead for me, and "Linger" seemed to hit all of my desperately yearning emotions. I hear it today and I am transformed into that emotional teenager, so full of longing and naivete. RIP Dolores

3. Nirvana, "Heart Shaped Box"

In Utero is my favorite Nirvana album, the band firing on all cylinders with a gritty and more suitable production behind them than on their breakthrough. "Heart Shaped Box" is great for all kinds of reasons, but perhaps most for being a knock against Boomers and their "priceless advice." It's a generational anthem in the form of a dirge.

2. Pearl Jam, "Daughter/Yellow Ledbetter"

I must admit, at this point I thought I was too cool for Pearl Jam. Like a lot of dumb teenagers into indie music, I sneered at anything I considered "corporate." I'd actually bought their first album before it went big, but turned my back once the cool kids who wrote for the music magazines told me I should. Today I can see that "Daughter" is, as the kids say these days, a banger. In one of those weird happenings back when singles were things pressed on wax and sent to radio stations, the live B-side of "Yellow Ledbetter" ended up getting played all over alternative radio. They totally lift the guitar sound from Hendrix's "Little Wing," but you should always steal from the best.

1. The Lemonheads, "Into Your Arms"

The Lemonheads don't have the recognition of the other bands on this chart, but this was their big shining moment. They were part of the indie scene playing punk way back in the 1980s, but in the 90s took on a folkier, more pleasant sound. It was tailor made for the alternative explosion of the early to mid 1990s. Like "Gepetto" the sound of this song is pure 1993, those guitars just jangling all over the place. The mark of Big Star is all over this, as it was of so much music circa 1993-1994. Nostalgia is a disease, and this kind of music gives me the sickness like nothing else.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Twitter Killed The Blogosphere Star

I often wonder why I still maintain a blog. Blogging is a practice that is very much of the oughts, like burning CDs or talking on cell phones. If you want to get into political conversations with the big wigs Twitter makes it much easier. You do not have to write long essays and can merely throw the main ideas out there for others to see. Tweetstorms are much likely to be read than blog essays are. There's a Twitter meme now where people use a photo and label one element "video" and the other "the radio star." It's all kind of silly, but to get meta, Twitter was the video to the radio star of blogs.

Now we all know there are still radio stars, as much as there are blogs. It's just that blogs are a fairly minor corner of the public sphere these days. I find that to be shame, since while Twitter is awfully convenient and I have gained a lot from it, it is not an ideal place to carry on discourse. Ideas get distilled down to their most basic elements, with nuance eliminated. It's a format that ensures lots of fights and disagreement, driving the clicks that Twitter so craves.

It is a format that discourages deep thought and reflection. People who are successful on it tend to trade in snark and bon mots and knowing the most recent memes, but rarely have anything much to say of substance. I felt differently back in the oughties where I had a whole list of blogs I would read on a daily basis that would energize me and give me ideas. The personas of those bloggers also seemed much more measured and so much less fake and performative.

I have recently drastically cut down my Facebook usage, which has had the side effect of upping my Twitter usage. That hasn't been such a good thing, since I get sucked into the most ridiculous petty arguments on a regular basis. As with Facebook, I find myself continually outraged and angry, which is exactly how these platforms want to make us feel. I have been thinking back to what my mental state was like before I engaged in social media, and remembered being a much more reflective person. Ideas would come into my mind, but I would give them serious thought before writing about them. Nowadays like a junky I crave the instant gratification that social media affords me. I see an article about something Trump did that made me angry? I immediately post that sucker with an indignant statement attached to it.

That IS more satisfying that blogging, but far less meaningful. After having let this blog take a back seat I have resolved to focus my writing here, rather than on Facebook or Twitter. Fewer people will read what I have to say here, but what I do have to say will be a helluva lot more profound.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Joy Division, "Novelty"

In these stark times I find myself turning to the kind of dark, mysterious music that can speak to the unease I carry around with me every day. No band has ever topped Joy Division when it comes to articulating daily dread of life under late capitalism.

It makes sense that they emerged from Manchester on the eve of Thatcher's ascendance. In the nineteenth century Manchester was the first industrial city, the test case for a new way of life. In the 1970s it and many cities like it were hitting decline. The "modern" world was becoming postmodern. Out of the ruins of the industrial revolution Manchester bands like Joy Division created postmodern music, deeper and more challenging that the scream and spittle of punk rock.

"Transmission," a non-album single, is my favorite of the band by far. As I wrote about it a couple of years ago, it is enthralling, from its telegraph-operator bass to the unorthodox beat to the searing guitar lines to Ian Curtis' voice sounding like a man crushed by the wheels of life. However, if you flip that single over, you hear a B-side that's much more than a cast-off: "Novelty."

I first heard it on a box set I bought year ago and was amazed that such an arresting song was left off Joy Division's regular albums. The intro is long and mysterious, Bernard Sumner's guitar building up into a killer riff. Like "Transmission" the rhythm sounds like a desperate telegram sent at night from a doomed city. It creates a feeling of claustrophobic desperation, with Curtis intoning "Whatchya gonna do when the novelty wears off" and "Whatchya gonna do when it's over." While it may not be the official meaning of the song, I've always thought of it as questioning the consumer novelties of modern life. Once they are seen to be as empty as they are, what's then to be done?

The novelty has worn off, to be sure. However, the answer to Ian Curtis' question remains unanswered.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner"

This Thanksgiving season I have been thinking a lot about a Thomas Nast cartoon from 1869, "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner." He drew it as the 15th Amendment, banning racial discrimination in voting, was being ratified. That Amendment represented the high point of Reconstruction and its revolutionary ambitions. 

Most Americans know very little about Reconstruction. Those that do possess a rudimentary understanding of American history (probably a minority), know that Jim Crow followed slavery, but are generally unaware of the time in between when black men represented Southern states in Congress. Most people, regardless of their level of historical knowledge, tend to assume that "back then" racial attitudes were unenlightened and bigoted, unlike "nowadays."

Well, the recent news certainly gives plenty of evidence that "nowadays" plenty of white people are super racist. The past, however, also gives us clues that plenty of white people "back then" had progressive ideas about race. In this cartoon Nast presents us with a vision of America as a diverse and welcoming place. There are African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and various immigrant groups sitting at the same table. The centerpiece reads "Universal Suffrage" and Nast frames the picture with the phrases "Come One, Come All" and "Free and Equal." 

The revolution of Reconstruction, bolstered by people like Nast, would be destroyed by the Klan, "Redeemers," and other white vigilantes as the federal government looked on and did nothing. It is an event that should remind us, more than any other, that history does not move in a straight line. Progress does not simply "happen." It is not inevitable or the natural arc of history. Every time there has been an advance for equality, its opponents have come back harder. I am reminded of Ibram X. Kendi's brilliant formulation in Stamped From The Beginning, where he reminds us that "racial progress" has always been met with "racist progress" in American history. 

When Barack Obama was elected, many people saw it as a sign that the image of American society presented by Nast in this cartoon was finally a reality. Instead it was the catalyst for a reorganization of American politics around issues of white nationalism. If we truly want a "free and equal" society, we have to fight for it, not simply expect it to happen naturally through the tides of history. This Thanksgiving I want to give thanks to the fighters, and to pray for others to get the fighting spirit.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Trumpism And The Enchanted World Of Christian Conservatives

My confirmation saint kicking demon butt

When I was first grappling with history on a more serious level as a grad student, one concept that fascinated me was supposed "disenchantment of the world" that followed the Enlightenment in Europe. While most people still believed in God and had some nominal connection with religion, they were far less apt to see supernatural forces at work in the world. For example, French churches stopped ringing bells during thunderstorms as a way to call down God's protection on farmers' crops. Unfortunate events were no longer blamed on demons or witches.

Part of the reason this fascinated me is that I knew a lot of people who still believed in an enchanted world. My family's home Catholic parish is St. Michael's, and at some point in my youth it became a tradition to say this rather shockingly superstitious prayer at the end of each mass:

"St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen"

This vision of angels and demons fighting over the world in a time post-space travel might seem insanely anachronistic to most people, but this is the mental frame of a great many Christian conservatives, both Protestant and Catholic. Just yesterday, for instance, there was a minor Twitter kerfuffle over conservative commentator Rod Dreher discussing a friend's exorcism. Plenty of folks were shocked that a person could believe in such things and still be taken seriously as a thinker, but I was not surprised. I grew up hearing stories of being helped by Good Samaritans after having been stranded on the road, and the story-teller assuming it was actually angels in disguise doing the good work. I once heard Hurricane Katrina described as God's punishment on a sinful city.

Those who believe in an enchanted world take that mentality with them into politics. It tends to mean a much greater willingness to accept outlandish interpretations of reality, since they are already well-practiced in it. Someone who thinks demons stalk the earth is much more likely to see the "caravan" as a horrifying threat. Supernatural and irrational forces explain everything to them, and if you combine that mentality with a generally bigoted and racist mindset it's like dumping bleach into a bucket of ammonia. This is especially evident in the Soros conspiracy theories, which feed on an anti-Semitism so rooted in the mentalities of certain devout Christians that they are not even really aware that they are anti-Semitic (i.e. seeing wishes for Jews to be converted to be a wholly benevolent thing and not understanding when it upsets people.) Take that prejudice and combine it with the notion that demons are prowling the earth and you will have a highly effective propaganda tool, as Republicans have discovered.

When Trump's approval is broken down by church attendance, Trump always comes out best among those who attend church on a weekly basis. (Here's just one example.) I think this is probably a better metric of understanding Trump's appeal than breaking it down by denomination, since the prevalence of white evangelicals in the South means (as far as I am concerned) that the religious connection there owes a good deal to a regional one. I do not have the data to prove this, but I can certainly surmise that the adherence to an enchanted worldview is most likely among those going to church more often. While the president's views on issues like abortion and transgender rights may appeal to these folks, his appeal also jives with a certain habit of mind. Those mental walls will not be broken down by fusillades of "facts" and "reason." Liberals who continue to think so will be disappointed.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Winter Isn't Coming, It's Here

This post is a throwback, since I am writing it in a coffee house. I'm here in the evening because the roads in my town are so impassable from a snowstorm that I can't drive home yet. The town was unprepared for this storm, which is much more severe than predicted. The plows have been absent and the roads left unsande.

This seems to be a metaphor for our current political moment. So many predicted only a light snow but now we are getting buried in snow and ice, and the response has been tepid and inadequate. And just as the roads in my town are full of desperate people running out of gas having realized their fate too late, a lot of folks in our country have only now understood that we are up against fascism. 

Winter isn't coming, it's here.

Trump's attempt to intervene in the Florida recount goes against any precedent I've seen in my lifetime, and the response is basically a shrug and bemused chuckle from the liberal sectors of the media. The conservative media, on the other hand, is giving Trump's baseless accusations full-throated approval.What we have here is a president trying to interrupt the Democratic process for his benefit, and there's hardly been a response.

The same goes for Trump installing a whackadoodle con artist as Attorney General just so that he can protect himself from prosecution. Again, the response has been inadequate. Some protests, to be sure, but nothing that has the ability to stop this. This is not Watergate. After this Saturday Night Massacre there will be no Supreme Court subpoenas of presidential documents because this Supreme Court has become the judicial arm of the conservative movement. 

I am sitting here in a Starbucks drinking mediocre coffee and listening to bland music because people weren't prepared for winter. I am living in a country on the brink of losing what little democracy it ever had because so few are prepared to fight the fight that needs to be fought. I am losing hope that by the time enough people see the light, it will have been too late. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Old Dad's Records (The Comebacks Episode)

Comebacks is the theme of the newest episode of my podcast. I start with one of the ultimate pop comeback songs, Tina Turner's "What's Love Gotta Do With It." The song certainly reflects the hard times Turner was emerging from, and its middle-aged world-weariness intrigued me as a young boy. From there I pull Elvis' double album From Vegas to Memphis/From Vegas to Memphis from my pile of old records. This is from Elvis' great and all too brief "comeback" period. I finish by discussing a new reissue of sessions from Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, his own "comeback album."

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Watching the Dark Waters of History Flow on the Armistice Centennial

A short lived celebration

November 11, 1918, is one of those few truly memorable dates in world history. The first global war of the post-industrial world had ended. It had taken the lives of millions, destroyed several empires, and helped bring about the world’s first communist state.

In our cultural memory, we tend to think of World War I as a catastrophic, horrible waste. That memory dates back to the 1920s and works of literature like All Quiet On The Western Front and films like The Big Parade. The narrative that World War I meant nothing other than death and suffering still lives on a century later. In the recent Wonder Woman film the titular heroine needed to fight a villain who personified the destructive horror of war itself, and thus had her origin placed in the Great War, rather than in World War II, where her character had actually been born.

It is very easy to forget that in the Allied nations, at least, the established narrative of the war was very different on the November day the guns fell silent. The full name for the Great War was “The Great War For Civilization.” “Civilization” was a loaded word. It had been weaponized during the imperialist expansion of the preceding decades, an excuse to violently subjugate peoples who preferred to be free. During the Great War the target of civilization’s march shifted from Africa and Asia to Germany. Both the American and British war efforts established formidable and successful propaganda machines that pitched the war as a fight for higher ideals against a wicked enemy.

This point of view was affectionately parodied in the great British film The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, made in the heat of World War II. The main character, an honor-obsessed aristocratic officer of the old school, hears of the armistice and beams with pride that the British had won the war with “fair play.” By 1943, in the midst of an even worse world war caused by the last one, the romantic view of a “Great War For Civilization” had become a joke. 

It is dangerous, however for us to ignore that initial postwar feeling of triumph, because it provides a lesson that we should learn from. It was another November day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. That event, symbolizing the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, infamously gave rise to rhetoric that would’ve been at home in a Great War propaganda speech.

There was a feeling in those heady days of release, that the fear of nuclear annihilation had passed. There was an assumption that we would all be living in a more peaceful, connected, and democratic world. The problems of the past could very well have been solved.

Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history” found many willing adherents. Civilization, in the form of neoliberalism, had won, and there was truly No Alternative. Like the viewers of The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, we today have the wisdom to know just how preposterous that idea was.

History does not end and it does not stop. Its dark waters flow and can break their banks and drown us in the flood. The world today is dominated by a wave of bigoted nationalism that our media mistakenly calls “populism.” The earth’s most powerful nation is led by a dangerously unhinged narcissist wannabe dictator who sows chaos with his every move. We are staring a near future of climate change dystopia straight in the face. A hundred years after the guns of the Great War went silent, we still stand at the river’s edge, uncertain of how long the ground under our feet will hold out.

Friday, November 9, 2018

What I Saw At The "No One Is Above The Law" Rally

 Months ago I signed up to get an alert for a snap protest in case the Trump administration moved to end the Justice Department’s investigation into its criminal behavior. As I expected, that day came after the midterm election, although I was not expecting it to be that very day.

I had a decision to make. Was I going to go to what would be a big protest in New York City where I work, or was I going to go to one in South Orange, New Jersey, sister city to my home base of Maplewood? While the NYC rally would have been more excited, I decided to stay local so my spouse and kids could join in.

The rally was right by the South Orange train station, with about fifty or sixty people attending. There was a mood of quiet determination in the air in the eeriness of the November dusk. I knew we would not be staying too long, since my six year olds were pretty exhausted and hungry.

I came to the protest in a fighting mood, but the event itself was deflating. The speeches by the organizers were tepid and illustrated a lingering concern of mine: most of those opposed to this regime aren’t prepared to take the necessary actions. After being told our democracy was under threat, the first speaker then urged us to contact our representatives.

Yup, that’s right. In the face of a wannabe despot shredding the rule of law the only action we were urged to take was the absolute bare minimum. In any case, our representatives were already with us on this, so even that small action was pretty worthless. If you truly believe American democracy is under threat, you need to be serving stronger tea than that.

The problem might be that the mostly white, affluent, suburban crowd there knows deep down that they will be fine no matter what the wannabe despot does to our political system. For that reason their responses lack the necessary urgency. These are people who proved capable of organizing local voters to get more Democrats elected in New Jersey, but taking on despotism requires a different approach.

We don’t need to call our representatives. We need to be able to bring the machine to a stop. Anything short of that will end in failure, and I have no confidence that the “Resistance” even has an idea of what is actually required in this moment. My only hope is the airport protests that happened after the Muslim Ban, which actually did force the government to make a retreat. More of that or it’s midnight, folks.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Regionalism And The Midterms

As always, there's been a lot of spin and punditry in the aftermath of the election. Much of it is full of sound and theory, signifying nothing more than the need to fill up blocks of time on television with idiot wind. 

One of the many things missed in all of this is the role of regions in the midterm elections. For example, the "urban versus rural" narrative ignores just how different many rural regions are from each other. You can see this in the election results. Iowa has long had a progressive rural block in its eastern counties, and this year the Democrats flipped two seats in that state. 

More broadly, the Midwest went hard for the Democrats. This region was mostly ignored in the pre-election coverage in favor of Georgia, Texas, and Florida, so reporters missed a huge story. No other region probably suffered more under the Tea Party policies and governors of the early to mid-2010s. This election was a huge rebuke, with Tea Party poster child Scott Walker sent packing in Wisconsin, Bruce Rauner canned in Illinois, Michigan brought back to the fold, and Kansas flipped after years of the Brownback disaster. I see a similar dynamic in New Jersey, which endured eight years of Chris Christie. This state will now be represented by Democrats in eleven of twelves of its districts. States that had been put under the yoke of activist conservative governors have proven to be receptive to the Democrats.

Trump and the Republicans put all their chips on an anti-immigrant, white nationalist appeal. While those arguments sadly appeal to white people nationwide, they appeal most to white people living in the South. You can see this in the election results. The South mostly held for Republicans, but pretty much all of the other regions did not. The current iteration of the Republican Party is such that it alienates a lot of "purple" suburbs, which is easy to see in the election results in New Jersey, California, and Virginia. Heck, the Republicans lost a seat that includes Cobb County, Georgia. That was once Gingrich country. 

The Republican strategy of firing up the base and everyone else be damned appears to be running into trouble. The Bible-thumping part of the base is weak on the coasts. In fact, it alienates swing voters in those places. The low-tax Republican economic message used to appeal to suburban voters in places like New Jersey, but the abject failure of those policies on the state level has discredited them.

If the Democrats are able to maintain their new hold on the Midwest and their increased margin of victory on the coasts, 2020 will be in the bag. Here's hoping that this regional shift holds.