Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Dawn of Spring Oldies Playlist

As I have indicated many, many times here, my emotions and consumption of music are highly molded by changes in the seasons. Some times of year certain music gets broken out to match the weather. The two most fecund moments are the start of autumn and, of course, spring. After a long, dark winter that never seemed to end spring has finally come to New Jersey. Nature is euphoric in its bursting, my barren backyard transformed itself into a blooming garden in a matter of days.

When it comes to spring I find myself listening to a lot of cheery oldies hits of the 70s AM radio gold variety. Their mellow tones and attitudes fit the excitement in my soul.  Here are a few of my favorites for this time of year.

Johnny Nash, "I Can See Clearly Now"

This is just a stunningly beautiful song, like the sun shining off the early morning dew on the grass. I've also always taken it as a metaphor for emerging from a period of depression. Their is a slight tone of relief as the clouds are being parted and the singer can finally "see clearly now." As someone whose mental state is dependent on sunshine, it certainly makes sense to me.

Glen Campbell, "Southern Nights"

The original Allen Toussaint is far trippier, this song is perfect for sipping a glass of wine on the back porch while the sun goes down. Both Toussaint and Campbell are gone, geniuses in their own fields who deserve to be remembered.

"It's A Sunshine Day," The Brady Bunch

Okay folks, let's amp up the cheese factor by several factors. Is this a dumb song? Yes. Are the Brady Bunch kids great singers. No. Is this song still a delight on a sunny May Sunday? You bet.

"Shake Your Body To The Ground," The Jacksons

This song encapsulates the exuberant blooming of spring, just as it represented Michael Jackson's flowering as a musical star in his own right. It is irresistible and I find myself playing it in my car with the windows rolled down this time of year.

"Let Your Love Flow," Bellamy Brothers

Has a funkier country song ever existed? It's got a groove reminiscent of "Southern Nights," but lyrics more specific about spring as a time for the blooming of love.

"Rock Me Gently," Andy Kim

This is the Platonic form of 70s AM radio gold. Just a little bit of funk and flash, earnest singing, spacey keyboards and lots of "baby baby" in the lyrics. It's also the best rip-off of Neil Diamond ever recorded.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Things Will Continue To Get Worse Before They Get Better

Every now and then I have to check myself and look around and think really critically about what the heck is going on in this country. My assessment since the first days of the Trump administration was that things were going to get worse before they get better, and I do not think we have reached the crossover point yet. In fact, we are not even close.

The Trump administration has proven itself to be craven, incompetent, corrupt, racist, and possessing authoritarian tendencies. It is destroying America's standing in the world while perpetuating its internal inequalities. It is seductive to look at the Mueller investigation and think that justice will be done, but no president yet has been removed from office after impeachment, and Trump will not be the first. Beyond that, the two sides in Korea are longing for peace, and if that is achieved the media will bow down to Trump and credit him as a great statesman, even if the result was primarily due to the moves by North and South Korea.

The biggest problem is that the opposition is not up to the task, and Trump's supporters remain steadfast. Let's look at this from some different factions in our political landscape.

Trump Voters
The people who voted for this man in the primaries have stayed with him. They sometimes express disappointment, but that's only to get him to keep giving them what they want. He is their leader, their messiah. They will never abandon him.

Non-Trump Republicans
The people who did not vote for Trump until the general election are sticking with their party, which has signed a blood-oath with the despot. They are not proud of their vote, necessarily, but they made it, and show every sign of making it again in 2020. As long as someone screams "taxes, fetuses, guns, and gays" in their ears they will stay loyal. Fox News still has an iron grip on them.

Never Trump Republicans
They are a tiny group, mostly consisting of op-ed writers and pundits for respectable newspapers. They are few in number, and are too invested in conservatism to hold the Republican party accountable for its Trump alliance.

Middle of the Road Independents
These are the most frustrating people on earth. For the most part they aren't paying attention and are prone to saying "I don't like Trump, but I don't like liberals either." They have already slotted Trump into their fatuous "both sides" narrative.

They have been marching and making calls, but they are still weak and lack a proper perspective. They are the people who saw James Comey swing the election to Trump, but are now waiting in line to read his book and shower him with praise. They still want to believe in the system, and still want to think that conservatives are not a radical movement bent on their very destruction. So far they have been far too weak to mount a strong response.

Rank and File Democrats
This is the most promising group. These are the teachers on strike, concerned about bread and butter issues and not the symbolic politics beloved of liberals and leftists. This is, relatedly, the least white of all the factions. The problem is that these folks are getting little direction from the party.

In the face of despotism many are spending all of their time bitching about liberals. During the anti-gun violence walk-outs and marches, many say on the sidelines naysaying and acting above it all. The same people spent more time attacking the supposed offensive nature of pussy hats than engaging in protests themselves. One of the biggest problems with this group is that because of their educations they have an inflated sense of their importance, which in fact is virtually nil to people who don't have graduate degrees in the humanities.


This has not been a message of comfort, but it's one I think people ought to be listening to. We have to stop believing that things will change because they must or that Mueller will somehow stop it all. We have to fight, and to be willing to fight together, regardless of some of our differences.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Consolation of Superman

This week marked issue #1000 of Action Comics, which happened to be released quite fortuitously on the 80th anniversary of Superman's first appearance, in Action Comics #1. While I have been drawn back into comic books over the past few years after two decades aways, I have never really been a big Superman guy. Picking up Action Comics #1000 and a few other comics with Supes here and there might have me changing my mind.

As has been well-documented, the rise of "prestige television" elevated a certain kind of anti-hero. Tony Soprano and Walter White, perhaps the two most emblematic, both wanted to do right by their families as they committed heinous acts and ultimately alienated the people they thought they were protecting. We have been hit by a deluge of "dark and gritty" ever since. In the cinemas, that has also meant Superman becoming violent and unlikeable in the Zach Snyder films.

Superman is perhaps the ultimate example in our cultural heritage of the untainted, pure hero, but even he fell to the pervasive need for our heroes to be tainted. In the comics, however, he is still an embodiment of the qualities we wish to see most in ourselves. Instead of rejecting this character as corny or silly, I find myself embracing him.

We live in an era where the absolute worst kind of human being holds the highest power in the land. In a time like this, the concept of heroism needs to be redeemed. After all, Superman had his origins in the Great Depression as the world was about to go to war. In tough times we need things to rally us, to give us belief. Some of the stories in Action Comics 1000 comment on this, implicitly and explicitly. I feel my fight waning every day after over a year of both commitment and political insanity. Not a lot can snap me out of my sense of doom, but Superman does. If that's corny, well corn me up.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Track of the Week: Tears for Fears, "Mad World"

Right before my parents came to visit I suffered from a pretty intense attack of the black dog. The seasons have a big effect on my mental state, and this endless winter we are experiencing had me down, plus work stress and some bad news about the health of someone very close to me.

In times like these I tend to turn to the music I listened to in my youth when I wanted to wallow in sadness. (Sometimes the wallowing makes it better.) This meant Depeche Mode and New Order, since the cold synthy sound of those bands fits the purgatory of the late winter. While assembling a queue of songs in that vein I added Tears for Fears' "Mad World."

I soon became obsessed with it, playing it every day during my commute. Even though I am a child of the 80s, I still knew the song best in the form of Gary Jules' excellent cover, which has eclipsed the original in the collective pop cultural memory. Whereas his song is a quiet lament on a dark night of the soul, Tears for Fears give us a thumping 80s synth pop song. The synths are deep and dark however, more John Carpenter soundtrack than Duran Duran.

It's an incredibly bracing song for one that hit the top ten in the UK, where there seems to be more of a market for sad sack anthems. A line like "The dreams in which I'm dying/ Are the best I've ever had" which is a powerful yet oblique reference to being dogged by suicidal thoughts. It's generally a lament for the treadmill of life, and expresses the nagging doubt (which I often have) that nothing in this world will ever get better. It will be the eternal return of the same, forever and forever and forever. We will all just be stuck desperately plugging away until the day we die while greedheads lord their money over us.

In case you don't know, Depeche Mode is on tour and making serious bank. My fellow dark British 80s pop loving Gen Xers are in middle age, when songs like this have translated our teen angst into fortysomething sadness and fear. It's music that isn't talked about much in the rock or pop canons, but it has more than stood the test of time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Back From My Hiatus With Some Reflections

I’ve been away from the blog for the longest time in years, maybe ever. (I haven’t checked.) First off, I spent my writing energy on a piece for publication, something I had resolved to do more often. (So far, no bite.) Soon after my parents came to visit, and I see them so rarely that I resolved to give them the full measure of my time and attention.

My time away, as well as my parents’ visit, has given me some time for reflection. Some of it has been good, some has been hard. On the good side on Sunday I returned to Frank Pepe’s, the justly famous brick oven pizza place in New Haven. We were on a road trip back from Rhode Island with my parents, and made time to get some awesome pizza. It had been seven years since I had been there, and the last time was pretty significant.

I had been in New Haven for a conference. I was not totally excited by said conference, but this was back when I was still an assistant professor in East Texas. Going to New Haven gave me a chance to see my wife, who drove up from New Jersey. I’d also been encouraged to attend by a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, who was good to see again.

That weekend was a crucial one in my life, since it was on those days that I made the definitive decision to get out of academia at any cost. I knew right then and there that I was not staying in East Texas and nothing was going to stop me. The delicious meal at Frank Pepe’s capped off a weekend where I had suddenly attained clarity.

This came after months of severe anxiety and depression brought on by my career woes, illnesses in my family, living far from my wife, and being bullied and belittled at my job. Coming back to Frank Pepe’s with my wife, my parents, and my children made me realize just how much better my life is than it was seven years ago. That realization helped cut through some of the intense stress I’ve been feeling as of late.

As great as that reflection was, it came during a week of less happy thoughts about myself and my life. When I am with my parents I inevitably think about how I’ve changed since my youth. Seven years on, it’s apparent that my years as a low-level academic, first as an exploited “visitor” and then as a put-upon and bullied assistant professor, had a permanent effect on my personality.

On the positive side, that experience made me tougher. I am more of a fighter than I used to be, more confident and much more able to spot climbers, back-stabbers, and assholes before they have a chance to come at me. At the same time, I am not as nice a person as I used to be. I am much more cynical, and far, far less trusting. I am constantly thinking that someone somewhere is out to fuck me over at all times. I have no patience for other people’s bullshit, which I realize has made me an unpleasant person on things like local town Facebook group where yuppies run amok. I am as patient as I can be with my students, but that sometimes means that my patience is used up before I get home where I need to have some in reserve for my family.

I love Bernand Malamud’s The Natural because (unlike the film) it makes the point that suffering is not redemptive. I survived the worst low of my adult life, but it did not leave me unscathed. I learned some lessons, but also developed some bad habits. I can't ever be the person I used to be, but I am going to be trying hard to be a better person.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Conspiracy Theories Kill

I have long deplored conspiracy theories. It used to be it was because I thought that they misspent political energy. After all, the biggest "conspiracies" was there for all to see: the wealthy use their power to keep the state in their pocket and to do their bidding. White people use their power to perpetuate their position and to maintain a racist criminal justice system. They don't even bother to hide it!

However, that annoyance (rather than outright opposition) was back in times of more benign conspiracy theories. Now I am seeing their potential to kill, as they have often done in the past. Conspiracy theories take hate and fear and turn it into outright violence. The examples are legion. During the French Revolution, rumors of plotting by reactionaries led to the September Massacres in 1792, where thousands of prisoners were killed because they were supposedly going to be joining the nobility in an uprising against the Revolution. Most of those killed were regular criminals, not anti-Revolutionaries. In Germany the Nazi conspiracy theory that Jews and socialists had stabbed Germany in the back, leading to its loss in World War I became one of Hitler's most effective tools. Generally the history of anti-Semitism is full of conspiracy theories that lead to mob or state violence against Jews. In fact, I would say that the association between conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism is so strong that even conspiracy theories not directly connected to Jews bear marks of it. (Most JFK theories, for example, finger a dark, shadowy cabal pulling the strings.) In America conspiracy thinking has also been unleashed. In the mid-1800s "Know-Nothings" burned Catholic churches and convents to supposedly thwart a popish plot. In the present day mosques have been bombed in reaction to a supposed Muslim plot to subject America to "sharia law."

Conspiracy theories can justify state violence as well as mob violence. Just witness the ways that the current Russian autocracy has used media-circulated conspiracy theories to attack the political opposition and LGBTQ people. The kind of conspiracy theories that kill are on the rise in this country. People like Alex Jones, who treat gun violence victims as actors in a plot to take his listeners' guns. No one less that the president of the United States listens to him. The only people who listen to him on the left do it as a fun kind of joke, the deadly potential of what is pushing is usually ignored. The Pizzagate conspiracy almost led to a mass shooting.

But now people do not even have to seek out hateful conspiracy theories to be exposed to them. YouTube's autoplay feature shoves them in front of unsuspecting eyes. On Facebook conspiracy theories gain credence because if one of your trusted friends endorses something, you are much less likely to discount it. Racist billionaires like Robert Mercer not only finance Breitbart, they have used Cambridge Analytica to inflame the hatred of potential Trump supporters on social media. Many people, young as well as old, lack the capacity or experience to divine true from fake. If something confirms their preconceived notions, they will usually just buy into it, no matter how ridiculous.

We are entering darker and darker times. Things will continue to get worse before they get better, I fear. The spread of hateful conspiracy theories and those who push them has become normalized. Just witness how Roseanne Barr, someone who has disseminated conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, was feted by the media after the successful return of her eponymous show. The use of faked propaganda on social media was shocking back in late 2016, now we are used to it. The president of the United States attacking journalists has now become just another political weather event.

I used to wonder why Julius Streicher, the most egregious Nazi purveyor of anti-Semitic publications, got the death penalty at Nuremberg. After all, he had not committed war crimes and genocide like the others. (And Albert Speer SHOULD have been put to death for his own, but that's another story.) Now I understand. His efforts had made it possible for millions to be murdered.

In countering the anti-Semitic attacks on Alfred Dreyfus, Emile Zola rallied the troops by calling out "truth is on the march!" To win a victory like Zola and Dreyfus' against bigotry, we too must go on the march. We will not change the minds of those addicted to Breitbart, Fox and InfoWars, we can only marginalize and neutralized them by stripping them of their power. Time to get marching.