Sunday, July 29, 2018

Hollowed Out (My Hometown As A Microcosm Of The "New Economy")

The Chautauqua Pavilion, a relic of my hometown's Progressive Era boom years

When I was back in my rural Nebraska hometown of Hastings last week I had the pleasure to go on a thirteen mile bike ride around the town with my dad. We went to pretty much every corner of the town of 24,000, and I was able to see more vividly than from my car window what's been happening in it.

Hastings is not typical economically, but many of the broader trends are remarkably visible there nonetheless. The town initially grew up in the Gilded Age as a railroad junction where the Burlington and Union Pacific came together. Growing up timing a trip across town had to include some extra minutes to account for waiting for a train, since there was no under or overpass on the Union Pacific as there was on the Burlington. After the economic depression of the 1890s the town boomed in the early twentieth century. It was my great fortune to have grown up in a town that had its youth in the Progressive Era, which meant the library, parks, and schools were all well-made and well-supported.

It's economic high point came in the 1940s, with the building of a massive naval ammunition plant on the edge of town for World War II. (My dad's father, too old for the draft, worked there.) The city's population increased by a third, but that would be the last major economic boost. After the war small industry assisted by proximity to the railroads remained (and still does), and the city persisted as a commercial center for the surrounding rural area.

However, when the interstate was built through the state, it went through larger Grand Island, 24 miles north. There is a line of broken down and abandoned motels on highway six in Hastings attesting to the significance of this decision. Then, in the 1980s, Nebraska's farm economy took a major hit, forcing many farmers into foreclosure. This is evident in the small towns in Hastings' orbit, which mostly look beaten down and half-abandoned. The industrial sector is still thriving (unlike elsewhere), but the commercial economy has greatly declined. The Union Pacific re-routed their tracks to bypass the town in the 1990s, which seemed to say something about its reduced place in the world.

What you see in my hometown now is something you see around the country: the squeezing out of the middle. I was lucky to be from a middle class family that stayed up during the squeeze, others were not. My old neighborhood is evidence of this. It was built in the 1960s, consisting of very small, box-shaped ranch houses. Growing up it was solidly lower-middle class and people owned their homes. Now many of the homes are rentals, as home ownership even in a market as cheap as Nebraska's is increasingly difficult.

Businesses that cater to the disappearing middle (and especially lower-middle) are also struggling. The local Perkins and Applebee's restaurants are closing, in the midst of what is supposed to be an economic boom. Allen's, the local department store with its own grocery store is now closing everything except for food. The last non-box store general clothing store (Herberger's) is closing too. (I got a couple of things there and mourned the place I bought all my school clothes as a kid.) The local men's store and tailor is still going downtown, but anyone not wanting to buy a men's suit either has to go to Wal-Mart or drive 24 miles to Grand Island. Herberger's was the last holdout in the ironically named Imperial Mall, now a giant dead rotting hulk visible from my parents' front window. Behind it are an abandoned theater, grocery store, and restaurant, likely to be ruins forever.

Many more local establishments are gone now too. A legendarily wild bar with a dance floor called the Second Street Slammer, due to the bars on its windows, is also closed. So is the local family restaurant, the OK Cafe, as well as Bernardo's, the steak house where I marked all kinds of family milestones, from my sister's wedding rehearsal dinner to my grandparents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Ponderosa Lanes is no longer setting up the bowling pins.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course. The local bookstore, Prairie Books, is still going downtown after the death of one of its owners. The beautiful historic municipal baseball park, Duncan Field, now has a summer league team. However, the places that are new and thriving are the ones catering to the affluent, rather than the middle. There are two coffee shops downtown, a new fine dining restaurant that takes reservations (!), two (!) microbreweries and old building lofts being converted into condos, including the home of an old brewery that had never been occupied by anything in my lifetime. Perhaps these innovations will attract the educated professionals who rarely come back after growing up in Hastings, and who do not stay long if they move in from away. Be that as it may, it is obvious that in Hastings, like everywhere else, those at the top are doing well for themselves.

Things are not so great for those squeezed down. For a town with a very low unemployment rate, Hastings has blocks and blocks of dilapidated housing, some of it built in a temporary, slap-dash fashion for war plant workers in the 40s. Working-class neighborhoods look worse for wear, some scruffier, some practically squalid. I got wind of the literal squeeze at the county fair, when I overheard a conversation about a factory worker experiencing wage theft. The low wages that make Hastings attractive to bosses make living tough for workers. Now even Wal-Mart might be too expensive to shop in. There are now three dollar stores in town, one in the cancerous growth of box stores on the edge of town, two others in working class areas on the other side of the tracks where other stores and restaurants lie vacant. 

That vacancy can be seen elsewhere. While associational life in Hastings might be stronger than in many other communities, it is much less pronounced than it used to be. At the county fair there were many, many, fewer civic organizations with tables than 20 years ago, and all of them had conservative religious or political (or both) orientations. A got a graphic glimpse of this when biking past what was once the Knights of Columbus Hall, which is now an auction house touting the sale of guns and ammunition. The Tribune, the Monday-Saturday daily paper, still lives but it is thinner than boarding house soup. When I attended 11 o'clock mass with my parents at one of the two Catholic churches I was shocked at how few people were there, even accounting for it being summer. (There is a megachurch in the aforementioned cancerous growth on the edge of town, so perhaps this represents more a shift than a lack of engagement.)

Associational life is a plumb necessity in an isolated Plains town like Hastings, but even there it is going the way of the dodo. While people what they call "the Heartland" often feel apart from the broader currents of American society, they are not. My hometown, like so many others, is one more atomized and divided by class than ever before. At least they have IPAs.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Political Dispatch From Rural Nebraska

Saw this at the county fair in my hometown. Evidently 2nd Amendment porn is a category

I just arrived back home in New Jersey from visiting my family in rural Nebraska, and unlike those journalists who parachute in and talk to the random cranks at the local diner, I actually know the section of "middle America" I'm writing about. Those same journalistic paratroopers also make the same mistake of seeing "between the coasts" as a giant, undifferentiated mass, as if Dallas, Chicago, rural Alabama, and the mountain west are all the same.

I can't speak for other places, I can only tell you what I saw and know from Nebraska. The main thing I noticed was that nothing has really changed from this time last year when I visited when it comes to support for Donald Trump. What I discovered then, as now, is that his support in the Cornhusker State is akin to the state's Platte River, famously described as "a mile wide and an inch deep." He has his hardcore supporters, of course, but I was surprised yet again by how little people there talk about him, when he's all people seem to talk about where I live. Trump seems to get most of his shallow yet dependable support due to the kind of identity politics that don't get discussed much in the press.

A lot of folks in what some call "the Heartland" think of themselves as Real Americans. They also think that voting Republican is a kind of membership renewal ritual for maintaining that status. In their minds liberals are bad people who come from outside and don't share their values. They would rather cut off their right arms than ever vote for a Democrat, it would be akin to them desecrating a crucifix. With that mindset in place, these same voters could find Trump personally repugnant, but at the end of the day he stands for People Like Us, aka Real Americans.

I talked to multiple people on this trip, some strangers and some not, who knowing I live in New Jersey would wrinkle their noses and say "How do you like living THERE?" Or I would get "I could NEVER live in a place like that!" The passive-aggression of those comments wore me out. They literally could not understand how I could have possibly decided to move out of Real America to the east coast. What I noticed more than anything on this trip was how embedded the politics of resentment have become in a place like rural Nebraska.

This paradigm of Real America is incredibly strong and explains a lot of behavior that outsiders don't get. For example, there all kinds of people who scratch their heads at devout Christians supporting a lying, cheating, adultering greedhead who brags about never turning the other cheek. The answer is simple: the true evil are the liberals, and anyone who stands for Real Americans can never be wrong because they are, after, the real America. The media screws this up when they keep talking about "populism" when this is really an issue of nationalism. The reporters really find it more comforting to think that these white people in the hinterlands are mad about their jobs and not animated by an exclusionary bigotry that sees those very reporters as evil people.

The biggest political attitude I seemed to get in rural Nebraska was one of avoidance. I get the feeling that I lot of people know that they signed a devil's bargain with Trump, but they could never allow themselves to question their choice. Therefore nothing seemed to register. The news of relief for farmers hurt by Trump's tariffs was out there, but no one seemed to be talking about it. The kidnapping of immigrant children and Trump publicly selling out the country to Putin might as well have never happened. The only people talking about Trump were those who despise him, who are making their voices louder against long odds.

However, they are extremely marginalized. I went to the county fair while I was back home, and in the area where civic groups have their tables I was taken aback by the lack of a Democratic Party stall. When I was a child both parties would have candidates to talk to people and plenty of swag to hand out. There were also few civic organizations that were not religious or politically religious in nature. The local Christian radio station was there, as were the Gideons and anti-abortion groups. The range of ideological diversity expressed in a public forum like that basically runs from solid conservative to Christian dominionism.

While in that section I ran into someone who was two grades behind me in school who now has seven children that she home schools. (Her new baby was really cute.) In rural Nebraska that's not looked on as being out of the ordinary (and I'm not judging btw), but moving to New Jersey is. My prediction for the political future is that rural Nebraskans will never ever abandon the Trump train, even if their support for him personally is pretty scant.

Apart from that shallow but wide river of support I have noticed an alarming rise in blatantly racist and fascist activity in my home state. I read about three of these stories in the Omaha paper on the same damn day, here's a sampler:

Fascist white supremacist posters put up in Hastings (my hometown)

20 foot swastika burned into the lawn of an Omaha park

A white bicyclist berated a black woman with a racist tirade in Omaha

Small town of Scribner considers adopting a "show your papers" law

Nazi propaganda found in "little free libraries" in Lincoln

The extreme fascist bigots are flexing their muscles. Nebraska liberals have been publicly countering this stuff, but conservatives and those in the middle really just don't seem to care. So while I have not witnessed deep enthusiasm for Trump, there is broad apathy about the worst of what he has brought.

Anyone who thinks these voters can somehow be "turned" by the right message is deluded. My great sadness is that winning is going to require getting the people who don't vote to vote, and that requires messages and imagination that are completely absent from the Democratic Party. In the meantime, the Real Americans will keep voting, and keep passively supporting this criminal administration through their apathy.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Disney's Main Street USA and The Long Pre-History of Trumpism

Today I took my children to Disneyland. It was a lot more fun for me than I had anticipated, but I could not help but to analyze my experience through my knowledge of the park's history. We came in before opening at 7AM, which enabled us to walk into the Main Street area before the "rope drop" allowed us access to the rides in the park itself.

In the soft glow of an early California morning, the eternally scrubbed Main Street looked gorgeous. I knew that it was Walt's idealized rendering of his rural Missouri hometown in the early 20th century, an attempt for him to pretend he did not have an unhappy, disadvantaged childhood. (Disney and his works are always about fantasy as escapism.) The buildings were built smaller than a real main street of that time, which makes everything feel especially cozy.

I could not help thinking of the political meaning of this section of the park. This idealized main street does not have any saloons (as it would have had circa 1910), of course, or any traces of the immigrants who were coming to America in massive numbers at the time. Built amid the cultural reaction of the 1950s in Orange County, the very heart of the growing postwar grassroots conservative movement, Disneyland could not help but reflect its context, nor the political context Disney himself grew up in.

Main Street is supposed to represent a "simpler time," but to me it looks like what reactionaries in the 1910s and 1920s wanted America to be: white, native-born, rural, and teetotal. People of color are certainly present and otherized in the older rides, from the wild "Indians" in Peter Pan to the African "headhunters" in the Jungle Cruise.

The fact that the entrance to the park is a nostalgic tribute to an idea of America as a culturally homogenous place is very striking to me today in the age of Trump. I am not saying that Disney today is a Trumpist enterprise or that Walt Disney himself would have been a Trump supporter were he alive today, but rather that Disney's Main Street reflects an idea of America and the "good old days" that rhymes with Trumpism. In the 1950s Walt looked to the small town America of 1910 as the time to be idealized, while Trump and his supporters pine for the 1950s. The Trumpism of today, as many a historian will tell you, is rooted in a longer history of nativism and nationalism. You can find traces of it everywhere, including at Disneyland.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Feeling At Home And Uneasy In LA

I have not been writing as much because I am currently on vacation in California. I have spent the last four days in Los Angeles, a city that I have very quickly learned to like. In a weird way, I immediately felt at home here.

I grew up on the Great Plains, in Nebraska, and the sky here too is a vast, Western sky. The clouds are Western clouds. The dry, dusty air is Western air. The scrubby mountains I see in the distance are Western mountains. This is a fundamentally Western city, not oriented towards the East, but to the Pacific. Here the weather and natural elements are scary and unpredictable. The tornadoes, heat waves, and blizzards I grew up with are mirrored here by earthquakes and wildfires. In the West you can never escape the feeling that someday nature will come and just wipe you off of the map, and are reminded of the unnatural fact of your very existence in a place not fit for millions of people to live in. (Nebraska draws its life-giving water from underground, Los Angeles from rivers many miles away. Neither is ultimately sustainable.) Los Angeles is Western too in that it is a new city with people born elsewhere and a kind of haphazard construction. Nothing here feels permanent.

I have seen a lot on this trip, from the beaches of Santa Monica to the tourist traps of Hollywood to the hipster havens downtown to the rarified culture of the Getty Center. I have eaten Korean fried chicken, tacos al pastor, and a Los Feliz brunch. I've shopped at Amoeba and been to a movie at a 1920s movie palace.

As much as I have loved being here, there is something else that makes me uneasy. The contrasts between rich and poor may be even starker here than in New York, and that is saying a lot. The other day we drove through Skid Row on our way through downtown, an area of squalor so vast that it is named on the map. There were blocks of tents and people living in them. I've seen smaller tent cities all around the city in practically every neighborhood we have visited.

If the West has always symbolically represented a place of opportunity and reinvention, California is both its culmination and its dead end, since you can't pick up stakes and go further west after you've hit the ocean. In a place like this my country's failure to live up to its promises of plenty are stark. Just a few blocks from Skid Row old warehouses are being converted into microbreweries and apartments rent for astronomical prices. Come to Los Angeles, then, and see what has become of the "American Dream," both its possibilities and its limits.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

New Podcast Episode

Episode 27 of my podcast Old Dad's Records has been up for a few days, I was negligent in getting the word out on my blog. The theme of this episode is quitting. I start with "Coming Up" by Paul McCartney, a song few play today but went #1 in 1980. It was part of a change in direction from him after he dissolved Wings. I then pull Public Image Ltd's first album off of my pile of old records. That music was the product of the former Johnny Rotten becoming John Lydon and quitting both the Sex Pistols and punk. When that's done I talk the new Aussie punk band Amyl and the Sniffers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day Thoughts

I woke up this morning unnaturally early, with a sick feeling in my stomach. I went downstairs while my wife and daughters slept to make some coffee. I noticed a little pink water beneath the watermelon sitting on the counter. I picked it up, only for watermelon water and pulp to gush out all over the counter and floor. Evidently it had been bruised or something, but I took it as a kind of sign on this Independence Day in this year of nightmares, 2018.

How in the hell can people be out giving a party for this country while it jails at least 2000 children it has kidnapped from its parents for the crime of seeking asylum? How can we celebrate when we are being ruled (not governed, ruled) by a despotic kleptocratic sociopathic black hole of greed and bigotry?

This feeling is not new of course, and Frederick Douglass said it best with his famous oration "What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?":

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."

This day always makes me feel ambivalent, but this year the feeling is something deeper, and Douglass' line about a nation guilty of shocking and bloody practices that are the shame of the world feels especially resonant. Today as in Douglass' day children are being ripped from their parents, but now it is being directly carried out by the American government.

When I did my year abroad in Germany for my dissertation research I discovered that no matter how much I enjoyed my time in Germany, I was an American at heart. For all this country's faults and horrors it has a vibrancy and diversity that I missed while I lived in Germany. Fourteen years later, however, I am rethinking things. It's too late for me to leave, and I have too much invested here anyway. Sometimes, however, I think that I should be teaching my daughters German so that they will have the choice to emigrate, because the future of this nation looks incredibly bleak. Of course, there are reactionary forces on the rise in Germany, too. Nowhere may be safe from the rising tide of hate submerging the world.

I love my country, but I love it like a family member. Sometimes we love family members out of blood and a sense of obligation, even when they are cruel and treat us poorly. In that sense my love may be misplaced, but I don't think it can be destroyed. And that's why this day hurts so much. The country that I cannot stop loving and caring for is committing horrible crimes while its self-appointed "patriots" cheer on. This is not the first time, of course, but this time it is cutting me harder and deeper. So I will think this day on what needs to be done to make this country worthy of my love, but also whether my children should follow my path or not.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Works in Progress and a New Piece at Tropics of Meta

Last week the good folks at Tropics of Meta published my little essay on William F Buckley's "mission statement" for the National Review. Basically, I argued that despite what movement conservatives tell you, Trump very much exists in the version of conservatism the more erudite Buckley laid out.

I have not been blogging as much because I am working on some things I'd like to get published in more prominent locations. Here's a list, I'd appreciate any friendly help on how to make these essays better or where I should get them published.

  • The Democrats need learn from LBJ. I wrote a draft of this already, basically about how LBJ's rough way of practicing politics (which isn't that far from McConnell's) is what the party needs, not West Wing niceties
  • Ted Cruz as debater. I wrote this and it already got rejected from one place. I write about how as a former debater myself I can see how Cruz's liabilities and strengths as a politician can be traced to the weirdo world of college parliamentary debate. I also discuss how Beto could exploit the college debater approach used by Cruz.
  • Nostalgia for other people's nostalgia. I am working on something now about how many Gen Xers like me are so connected to the music of the 60s and early 70s, before we were born or really conscious of the world. I trace this to the Boomer nostalgia boom of the late 80s, and how many of us who came of age at that time found the music and culture of the past more interesting than a lot of what was happening in our times. I plan on using this as a jumping off point for discussing the cultural and political weakness of Gen Xers compared to Boomers and Millennials. 
  • From Blow-Up to Blow Out. This essay will discuss Antonioni's 1966 film and De Palma's 1981 homage. The fifteen years between the two basically mark the journey from the height of the 60s to the point where the cultural backlash against the sixties emerged victorious. Blow-Out was a huge inspiration to the "New Hollywood" directors who upended American cinema in the 1970s, and it is fitting that De Palma's film represents the end of the years when studios would give money to young directors to make artistic films. The journey between the two films tells the story of America's greatest cinematic era.