Wednesday, December 25, 2019

What If...Bedford Falls Was A Real Town?

[Editor's Note: It's A Wonderful Life is a holiday classic that also contains a critique of capitalism. But what if Bedford Falls was a real place? What would it look like today?]


BEDFORD FALLS, NEW YORK) Seventy-three years ago Bedford Falls became famous as the hometown of George Bailey, hero of It's A Wonderful Life. A lot has changed in this small town in upstate New York since that time.

Most notably, the Building and Loan run by the Bailey family no longer exists. Like other such institutions it went under during the savings and loans crisis of the 1980s. During the 1970s George Bailey passed the business down to his children, who took advantage of Reagan-era deregulation to engage in real estate speculation. The town's economy was not strong enough to support such risky investments, a familiar story across the country.

The Building and Loan's fate was mirrored by that of the local mill, which shut its doors in the 1990s after years of downsizing and layoffs. With the decline of local manufacturing the job opportunities available to residents of the town drastically decreased. Nowadays young people who get an education do not even have the option of choosing to stay home like George Bailey did. There simply is no work requiring their degrees. Those people end up in bigger cities in the region, often with fond memories of a place they are estranged from out of necessity, rather than choice. Those who lack education have few options in Bedford Falls as well, and what jobs do exist are mostly minimum wage work in the service sector.

Todd Bishop, whose grandfather was famed local cabbie Ernie Bishop, said "I drive Uber but there's not much business in a town this poor. Mostly getting drunk people home from bars. Apart from that I work part-time at the local gas station."

The once glittering main street has gone dark, with many storefronts having been empty for decades. Gower's Drugstore became a pawnshop before closing for good ten years ago. An empty home like the one the Bailey family took over has gone from being a rare oddity to a typical sight. The one advantage to living in Bedford Falls is the low cost of home ownership due to depopulation.

The land downtown has been passed down from Henry Potter -George Bailey's economic rival- to his descendants. All but one live outside Bedford Falls, most having moved to the New York City area. These absentee landlords see their holdings more as an heirloom or tax write-off than a viable business commodity. The one exception is Jacob Potter, a twenty-something descendent of Henry who has started a microbrewery and axe throwing club in one of the downtown buildings.

The commercial center began shifting to the highway on the edge of town in the 1980s, but the closing of the mill has meant even the absence of big box stores like Wal-Mart. Dollar stores are the only retail left in Bedford Falls. For anything else residents have to drive several miles to either Rochester or Syracuse. The one industry doing well in the region is the medical industry, which makes money from an aging population and a spike in opioid addiction.

George Bailey Jr still lives in his family's old Victorian home in Bedford Falls, even after the Savings and Loan debacle. "I know my father did a lot for this town, but keeping a town afloat isn't a one person job. An individual can't hold back a tidal wave. I have no doubt he made a difference, but I am almost glad he died thirty years ago so he didn't have to see what's happened."

Monday, December 23, 2019

Notes From The Ironbound's Best of 2019

Another year has come and gone, a perfect time for reflection and, inevitably, best of lists. I am pretty proud of what I do here, and so I would like to share my favorite posts of mine this year in case you actually like this blog and missed one of them. (Stuff I wrote for other sites is included as well.)

Slacking as Refusal (A Gen Xer Reflects)
Talkin' 'bout my generation. People try to put us down, etc etc.

From Broadway To Gravel Roads And Back
I went back home in January to go to the funeral of a relative, and that prompted some reflection on the clash between the world where I am from and the one I live in now.

Ben Sasse: The Sassiest Boy In America
At long last I wrote my takedown of Ben Sasse, the Eddie Haskell of the Plains. It felt good.

Billboard Top Ten Albums February 6, 1982
This is my favorite of my top ten recaps this year.

Notes on a Trip to Pelham Bay Park
I don't write enough travelogues anymore, and I really like this one.

Take the 2020 Presidential Primary Pledge
This is a pledge I need to follow better. Let's spend our efforts and words more effectively.

Requiem For A Small Town Bookstore
The bookstore in my hometown closed and it felt like the death of a loved one.

The Decline of the University Humanities as a Metaphor for America
No future for you

A Teacher's Due
On why I do what I do.

The Pleasures and Despair of Driving in Suburban New Jersey
Strong dad energy on this one.

If The Democratic Primary Field Was A University History Department
This went viral, a thing I wrote as a fun toss off. It was a reminder not to take what I do too seriously. Thanks to everyone who shared it.

Thoughts On Metzl's Dying of Whiteness
Dying of Whiteness is the best summation of the confluence of misery and a politics that worsens that misery in white, rural America. Go read it.

Cracked Windshields and Free Beer on a Bush League Nebraska Night
I love this essay. Nobody wanted to publish it, but it is near and dear to my heart.

On Seeing To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway
"I feel like this play reinforces some of the bad habits of mind of its audience, who are mostly educated liberals. They think of the current crisis as a moral one, not as a matter of life or death for millions of their fellow Americans. They are willing to do some things to resist, to be sure, but are incapable of taking the more radical action the current times demand. After all, the Atticuses of the world will be able to go on living comfortably, while the Tom Robinsons are sent to the grave. Until the Atticuses wed their moral duty to a greater sense of urgency, nothing is going to change."

How "Meetings Day" Sums Up the Worst of Teaching in Low-Level Higher Ed
"My old university was full of a lot of good people. If they had been given the power to run things instead being forced to obey the whims of others, that institution could've been something special. Today I am thinking of all my friends and colleagues still working in the world of low-level higher ed, and hoping against hope that the tide can be turned and that universities will someday be worthy of their faculty and students."

The Consolation of Baseball
My favorite baseball post of the year.

REM, Murmur, and Solace in Hard Times
Music has been helping me survive all this.

Reflections on Summer Travel Around America
"We have sadly treated the current crisis like something to be watched on television and to be affected by, rather than a play where we all take part."

Stop Asking The Children To Save You
I hate that I have to keep saying this.

Quitting (A Labor Day Reflection)
With the crushing of labor quitting is the only surefire weapon workers have.

What Socialists Can Learn From Obama And Trudeau
"I'm not talking here about policy, though. I am talking about the way they make their cases to the people. "Sunny ways" and "hope" are not slogans, they are effective techniques. Leftists spend so much of their time shitting on liberals, then wonder why they keep losing to them. (That's when they're not shitting on each other.) They ought to think a little harder about this and learn from the success of others."

Chronic Town (REM Rewind)
My favorite album dissection of the year.

The Weaponization of Cynicism
This is one of those takes that will piss everyone off.

Badfinger, "Got To Get Out Of Here"
My favorite song analysis post of the year.

Neil Young, "A Journey Through The Past"
This is my number two.

Pete Buttigieg and the Dead Weight of the Status Quo
"There is nothing more difficult in the whole wide world than convincing a middle class Boomer that younger than generations have had it harder than them. These Boomers got free child care in their youth via their stay at home moms, cheap mortgages via the FHA and suburbanization, practically free college, and are now enjoying Social Security and Medicare paid for by younger workers. They seem to assume that future generations also got this sweet deal instead of higher home prices (which benefitted the Boomers whose homes have appreciated in value), student loan debt, precarious employment, and ridiculously expensive child care. Mayor Pete understands that these voters want to think that the youth love and look up to them, and so he has played the part of the dutiful son. This strategy has gone over gangbusters."

1877, 1972, and 2016: Our Ongoing Low-Grade Civil War
This piece summed up a lot of my political and historical thinking this year. 

"We are not on the verge of a revamp of the Blue and the Gray on the killing fields of Antietam and Gettysburg. However, there have been less overt versions of civil war in this country’s history that we typically fail to understand as such. Reconstruction and the 1960s both represented deep disputes over how to define the nation and who belonged to it, both ended with reactionaries taking over the state to reinstate inequality. We need to understand the echoes from those times to understand the current civil war moment."

My Family's Uncensored Christmas Letter
Ending things with some dark humor. It's also a reminder that my family has made the horror of the world today bearable 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The 2000-2006 Bubble In Time

After writing my last post on periodizing the 21st century, I have been thinking a lot about the Bush era. It's such a recent period, but we seem to have jammed it right down the memory hole. I think that's because a lot of people just don't want to reckon with what happened in that time.

As I said in my last post, 2000-2006 was its own distinct period. It began with the contested election of 2000, and ended with the 2007-2008 economic collapse, which happened to coincide with the rise of smart devices and social media.

Right now I just want to talk about the politics of the Bush era. The 2000 election set a precedent whereby Republicans would gain power through undemocratic means like gerrymandering and the electoral college, then use their narrow victories achieved without majorities to enact hardcore conservative policies. In 2003 Tom DeLay pushed through a redistricting in Texas that gave Republicans a majority mostly through redrawing the lines. State Republicans have been copying that tactic ever since.

These years also helped set the scene for austerity. In the months before 9/11 Bush enacted a largely unpopular tax cut that showered billions on the wealthy. The budget surplus achieved in the late 90s immediately went up in smoke. This is an underrated moment, considering that money could have funded an expansion of health insurance or elimination of student debt. Instead it aided austerity by creating deficits that could always be used as an excuse not to fund social programs.

Before 9/11 Dubya was an unpopular president, but that tragedy allowed him more power than he could have possibly imagined. This allowed for the invasion of Iraq, a neo-conservative wet dream that had been years in the making. It was also perhaps the biggest own goal in this country's history, America's equivalent of the Suez Crisis. Both exposed a dying empire's feet of clay. Parallel to that, Bush maintained a failed occupation of Afghanistan that continues to this day to show the United States' weaknesses. In prosecuting these wars the Bush-Cheney administration used torture and extraordinary rendition, destroying this country's claim to any sort of moral authority in the world. Trump has basically completed a process that began in these years.

The 2000-2006 period also cemented the role of white evangelicals in American politics. In 2004 Dubya won reelection partially through coordinated campaigns in various states to pass anti-gay marriage laws. This helped get the Bible thumpers, who Dubya could claim to be one of, to the polls. Now that gay marriage is the law of the land and broadly normalized this episode might seem antiquated. While this is no longer the primary issue used to appeal to evangelicals, they are still the solid base of the Republican Party. What Donald Trump discovered was that they are tied to together more by culture and outlook than by religious doctrine. Nationalism is just as central to their worldview as marriage or abortion, and leading with nationalism has allowed Trump to maintain the support of white evangelicals without alienating other voters. Unlike Bush, he doesn't even bother to walk the walk.

The political bubble of 2000-2006 ended due to the Bush administration's failures in New Orleans and Iraq and the collapse of the economy. But when Obama became president he faced a federal budget already gutted by tax cuts and a Republican Party that had figured out how to use its base and anti-democratic means to maintain power. Last but not least, conservatives learned to ignore "the reality based community" in an infamous line from the time. Trump, like no other modern politician, has simply created his own reality and managed to get his followers to buy into it. You see it every time he has a rally and tells lie after lie after lie. The tactics used by Bush and Cheney to bring America to war in Iraq and to get them into office in the first place live on.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

My Family's Uncensored Christmas Letter

[Editor's Note: families often write Christmas letters that put their life in the best light. I've decided to theorize what an uncensored one would look in my home. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and any resemblance to persons dead or alive is purely coincidental.]

This year was not as bad as 2018. Dad's most-played Spotify song of 2018 was "Weightless Again" by the Handsome Family, and in 2019 it was "Mariner's Apartment Complex" by Lana Del Rey, so he's slightly less of a sad old dad than the year before. That might have to do with a happier work environment that no longer makes him crack open a beer after getting home from work and screaming his frustration.

In the midst of a booming economy Dad and Mom didn't get a raise last year, which is to be expected when working in education. They got a lot of appreciation for their work, but appreciation doesn't pay for the kids' college. Considering the pace of global warming, perhaps college will be irrelevant in ten years.

Mom and Dad stayed politically active, but attended far fewer events and rallies than in years past. Dad and Mom's hope that any brighter future is possible might have finally been broken. They still spend too much time on Twitter and watching TV news getting mad and sad about the state of the world.

The children played softball in the spring. One played with gusto, the other mostly played with sticks in the outfield. Half the games were rained on. Mom and Dad decided not to do any summer camps this year in order to spend more time with their kids. Well...this was less decided and more being too insanely stressed to meet the deadlines for camps. And also not having gotten a raise. This strategy worked out well for the first month of summer, then basically meant weeks of breaking up fights and warding off requests to use the iPad.

Dad's parents visited and the whole gang took a trip to Maine, which was a lot of fun. Well, except for the cheap hotel Dad booked in Brunswick with weird activity at night and Mom getting a strange bug or spider bite. Dad also took a trip to Colorado to see his grad school friends. His main response was to feel depressed about living hundreds of miles from his closest friends and family.

The family has mostly been in good health. Mom just recovered from a nasty stomach virus that happened to coincide with a major initiative at work. Dad has had some dental work done, and the painfulness of eating has been the best thing for his weight control in years. One child threw up in class and Mom and Dad hope this didn't cause any emotional scarring on her or them, since they disbelieved her complaints of a stomach virus that morning. The morning routine is usually so hectic and stressful that human needs get lost in the shuffle.

Despite all the difficulties they all still love each other. In fact it's probably the only consistent thing they can all count on. Regardless of what happens in 2020, there's a comfort knowing that's there.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Live, "Selling the Drama"

I've been going back into the music of the 90s recently. I rarely do so, since this music reminds me of the hopeful time in my youth when I felt like my generation was going to make a difference and that the world could be changed for the better. There was plenty of bad stuff out there, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Reagan-Bush rule seemed to signal a new era unencumbered by the ideologies of the past. The rise of the Gingrich right, Clinton's triangulation politics, and the way a growing economy made inequality worse changed my attitude by the end of the decade.

But in the early summer of 1994 I had just graduated from high school, anxious to escape my hometown after many years of feeling out of place and being reminded of that constantly by my peers. Those months coincided with what was probably the high point of "alternative rock" as a mainstream phenomenon. I could put on the radio and hear the music I had spent years staying up late on Sunday night to see on 120 Minutes. That in itself seemed like a minor miracle.

I had a soft spot for Live because they came from York, Pennsylvania, a town not unlike my hometown in Nebraska. They seemed to have retained a kind of small town earnestness. Then as now I could never get with the irony-drenched detached pose affected by the urban hipster crowd. I see it as a sign of weakness from people who are too afraid of their own emotions to experience them. One of my fatal flaws in this cynical society is that I just care too damn much. 

"Selling the Drama" is one of the most earnest Live songs, a seeming generational anthem of resistance against the manipulation of authorities. I did not try to understand the particulars back in '94, I could just feel the rebellion in the chorus "We won't be raped/ we won't be scarred like that." The song drives hard, and the beat, to quote the kids, really slaps. Live's musicianship comes on strong in a song that's not the usual grunge by numbers that dominated the airwaves then.

I seemed to hear this song every day as I drove my car to work the evening shift at the rubber parts factory that summer. It never failed to steel me for a few hours of mind-numbing labor in a boiling hot room drenched in carbon black and layered with Stygian chemical smells. (The pay and my coworkers were good, though.) When I hear this song I am immediately brought back to those weeks, hopeful for the future but aware of how much hard work I had ahead of me before going to college at the end of the summer.

It's not cool to like Live nowadays, but honestly, fuck being cool. Being cool is exhausting, and for anyone over the age of 40, it's pretty damn pathetic, too. I've willed, I've walked, I've been there before.

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Longest War

In the midst of all the impeachment stuff it was easy today to miss a report from the Washington Post about the realities of the war in Afghanistan. What's especially striking is that the information is not classified, it's been out there in plain sight.

The article gets into the massive levels of corruption, the failures to establish a lasting order, and the inability to win the conflict. These are things we have known for quite some time, but have just elected to ignore. I have been hearing inklings of these failures for several years now, rumbling in the background. The report is damning, but we've known the gist for over a decade.

If this century has demonstrated anything, it's the inadequate nature of America's institutions. It's all been laid bare in America's persistence in fighting the longest war in our history. More than eighteen years after invasion the Taliban is still going strong, despite hundreds of billions of dollars being spent and the sacrifice of thousands of lives. It's part of the same institutional breakdown that led to the election of Donald Trump and the inability to prosecute him for his crimes.

On Capitol Hill and in Kandahar the American Colossus has feet of clay. The credibility that was squandered after 9/11 by the failed occupation of Afghanistan, the illegal war in Iraq, and the torture of suspects from shadowy black sites to Guantanamo Bay has erased the United States' post-Cold War claims to moral superiority. We knew they were fraudulent all along, now we have the incontrovertible proof. Obama tried to salvage America's reputation, but with Trump it is now lost and gone forever.

The question the report raises is what exactly is going to happen to the world with the end of Pax Americana. It's entirely appropriate that even with the release of this report, most Americans have forgotten about Afghanistan a long time ago. This is how empires end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

On America's Ongoing Low-Grade Civil War

My newest piece is up at Tropics of Meta. It's a distillation of a lot of the things I talk about on this blog, which is part of the reason I had to hack the first draft to pieces. I think the finished product is pretty darn good.

I talk about the low-grade civil war Republicans have been fighting since at least 1994, Herrenvolk nationalism, the end of Reconstruction, America's unexceptional history, and how the moral arc of history only bends when we force it to.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

My Fearless 2020 Election Prediction

It's December, that time of year where we look back on the past and think about the future. I'll think of some "best of" lists later, but right now I want to cut straight to the predictions.

I still remember the January morning in 2016 when I woke up to the news that David Bowie was dead. Few other musical artists ever meant as much to me, and his death coincided exactly with the moment where it looked like Trump could be president. Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars starts with "Five Years," a song about what happens when people on earth find out that's all the time they have left. I am beginning to see an eerie coincidence here, since January 2021, five years after Bowie's death, will also see Donald Trump's inauguration.

I now have little doubt that he will be reelected. I can now confidently predict that he will lose the popular vote again, but will also win the electoral vote again. His opposition is still fractured and the Republican Party has maintained its iron discipline. I don't really see many people changing their votes from last time. The election meddling last time will look like child's play compared to what we will see next year. We know voting machines are insecure and a few votes here and there can be easily fudged in a close election in a swing state. Many of those states have Republican leaders who are purging the voter rolls, eliminating polling places (leading to long lines), and putting voter ID laws in place. These measures have already been used effectively. Just look at what happened to Stacey Abrams in Georgia.

When it comes to the primaries, Democrats are in a no-win situation. They cannot nominate a moderate like Biden promising the status quo ante, since that lost them the last election. The economy is growing, which totally undercuts any appeal the turn back the clock message might have. On the other hand, social democrats like Warren and Sanders might have the populist appeal of promising a better life, but that has some pitfalls, especially against Trump. White Americans have never been willing to share with people of color, and policies like Medicare for All demand that. Once Trump tells white people that "your hard-earned dollars will be taken from you and given to THOSE PEOPLE" a lot of "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" dipshits will gravitate away from the Democratic candidate. If a Bloomberg-like moderate runs as a third party candidate then it will truly be curtains. The same goes if a moderate gets the nomination and someone like Tulsi Gabbard runs third party. Again, it won't be enough to give Trump a majority of the popular vote, but he doesn't need that to win anyway.

So this is a roundabout way of saying I don't really care all that much who gets the Democratic nomination. Whoever gets it will win a majority of the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. If I have to make a prediction I think it will be Biden because the Dems typically fall back on "electability" to give an uninspiring candidate the nomination. (Look at 2000, 2004, 2016, etc.)

In terms of electoral politics I want to put my energy into state, local, and Congressional races. The country is going up in flames, but federalism at least makes it so we can try to make our own little corners of the country more humane. Winning Congress keeps conservatives from being able to pass their extreme legislation. It's especially important to win the Senate in order to stop the wholesale bombardment of the federal bench by unqualified ideologues. But like the electoral college, the map doesn't favor it.

Our system of government was designed to thwart the majority will, we can't be all that surprised when it does exactly that. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Losing My Christmas Spirit

Current Christmas mood

The past few years of my life have been full of Christmas spirit, mostly because of parenthood. It's been a truly great thing to vicariously experience the holidays through my kids and to remember my own Christmases. I was a misfit in school growing up but I was lucky to have a very warm and loving family that made celebrating Christmas fun.

For some reason this year I am not feeling the spirit. Thanksgiving weekend will come and go without us putting out our decorations. My wife is feeling the same ennui, and our children's enthusiasm is not enough to shake us out of this.

After some reflection I think this has to do with Christmas on the meta level. Once you strip away both the consumerism, it is a holiday about hope. On the pagan level, it is the hope for the spring to arrive as we sit in the depths of winter darkness. On the more Christian level it is the hope that the birth of Jesus, savior of the world, represents. Christmas means that the broken world can indeed be saved and a kernel of that exists in even its more secular permutations. In recent years that hope has probably had a lot to do with my increased Christmas spirit, even if my children's zeal is the primary factor. In fact, the two intertwine because nothing forces me to think about the future and nothing absorbs as much of my hope as my children do. 

I think my loss of Christmas spirit reflects, deep down, my profound pessimism in this moment. In world affairs the dominoes keep falling, from Poland to Bolivia. In this country evidence that the despot has committed high crimes is out in the open and it will not lead to his removal. The 2020 election will be marred by voter suppression, disinformation, foreign meddling, and the reality that the electoral college will very likely preserve minority rule. (This is currently my prediction, btw). The world is burning up and apart from people posting Greta Thunberg memes little to nothing is being done to stop it in this country. In fact, our government's policies are hastening the apocalypse.

So what is there to look forward to? I think of the world my children will inherit and am filled with the deepest sense of helplessness and sadness. The last handful of Christmases I knew things were bad but I could still take heart in the promise of the holiday. Maybe I will eventually get there this year, but it will take some doing.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Pete Buttigieg And The Dead Weight Of The Status Quo

There's a been a lot of discussion about Pete Buttigieg, a surprise candidate whose qualifications for the highest office in the land are barely greater than mine. His highest office has been as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a town a quarter the size of Lincoln, Nebraska. Not only that, he has not exactly distinguished himself as a mayor, either.

What he does have is a way of appealing to older white Democrats. This demographic votes more frequently than their younger counterparts and has more money to contribute to campaigns. Buttigieg appeals to them by supporting elements of the status quo that benefit this demographic. His recent ad has thrown cold water on the idea of tuition-less public education with the entirely cynical pitch that "your tax dollars will pay for the children of millionaires to go to college." (In brief: 1. those kids go to private school 2. they use public schools, roads, and libraries already 3. their parents would be paying for others to go to college through their taxes! But I digress)

There is nothing more difficult in the whole wide world than convincing a middle class Boomer that younger than generations have had it harder than them. These Boomers got free child care in their youth via their stay at home moms, cheap mortgages via the FHA and suburbanization, practically free college, and are now enjoying Social Security and Medicare paid for by younger workers. They seem to assume that future generations also got this sweet deal instead of higher home prices (which benefitted the Boomers whose homes have appreciated in value), student loan debt, precarious employment, and ridiculously expensive child care.

Mayor Pete understands that these voters want to think that the youth love and look up to them, and so he has played the part of the dutiful son. This strategy has gone over gangbusters.

He also seems to understand that most older middle class white people would like to maintain the status quo. (This is why they generally vote Republican.) This is basically the same as it's ever been, and only the most forceful of disruptions can change that mentality. As horrible as Trump has been, he has not been bad for the bottom line of this demographic. For them anti-Trumpism is a moral stance, not essential to their survival.

Candidates like Sanders and Warren are promising to deliver presidencies that are more than the status quo ante. The problem is that the demographic who votes more in primaries, where turnout is really low, are older middle class whites. Right now I am predicting that the Democrats will not nominate Warren or Sanders, and will put Buttigieg or someone like him in the starring role. That candidate, like HRC, will fail to have an enticing vision of the future. Trump will win again in a minority victory relying on the electoral college.

The current status quo is unacceptable, but most palatable to the people who control the primary. This is a tragic situation.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Badfinger, "Got to Get Out of Here"

Badfinger should have been huge. They were one of the first bands on Apple Records, endorsed by the Fab Four themselves. Their first hit, "Come And Get It" was written by Paul McCartney. "Day After Day," one of the most sublime pop hits of the early 70s, has a soaring slide guitar hook courtesy of George Harrison. They wrote a whole passel of catchy pop songs with some cracking music backing them up. This combo would later be called "power pop," but like Big Star, they were a few years too early. Both bands became major points of influence for 80s and 90s indie rock.

Both Badfinger and Big Star had their inability to get the audience they deserved compounded by tragedy and misfortune. Apple ended up being a famously dysfunctional company before it died an ignominious death. Once the band was ready to put out a new record on a new label, Apple dropped a substandard record on the public, undercutting their comeback. Their management also ripped them off at every turn. In 1975 Wish You Were Here, one of their strongest outings, got pulled from shelves a few weeks after its release due to managerial disputes. Pete Ham, the band's principal songwriter, killed himself the same year. Tom Evans, the other main creative force in the band, took his own life a few years later.

I love this band so much, but listening to their songs, no matter how joyous some of them are, is always leavened with feelings of sadness. All they wanted to do was give the world some great music, and lots of shitty people wouldn't let them because they'd rather squeeze them for money instead. It also reminds me of how so many people have their ideals betrayed and abilities squandered by a society that only cares about filthy lucre. I think especially of academia where there are a lot of Badfingers toiling in contingent jobs. They still produce scholarship that's just as good as anyone else with better positions, but it still gets them nowhere. I'm sure a lot of this will be read in a few years by a new generation of young scholars, wondering what happened to the person who wrote the book or article that blew them away but who has dropped off the radar.

Despite their difficult straights, Badfinger did not write doom and gloom songs. However, one standout track on Wish You Were Here seems to signal to the despair, even if it's written by Joey Molland instead of Pete Ham. "Got to Get Out of Here" is one of the few Badfinger songs not driven by elecrtic guitar, the principle instruments a simply strummed acoustic guitar what appears to be a sad-sounding harmonium. You can hear the fatigue in this song, the feeling of being trapped in an impossible situation. Molland sings "got no choice" over and over again over a very Beatlesque beat.

I feel like we have all been there, stuck somewhere oppressively unhappy and feeling like there's no way to get out. The song starts building a little as it goes on, leaving a slight, small feeling of hope, but hardly an anthem of triumph. It's the soundtrack of just getting through the day, only so you can go to sleep and have to face another one after you wake up, over and over and over again. I listen to it now with sadness over what being trapped can do to people, but also relieved I've escaped my own emotional cul-de-sacs in my life. If you see someone else struggling there, give them a hand. If you've found yourself there, don't be afraid to ask for help. The people who love you want to be there for you.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Now That The Academic Lifeboats Are Capsizing, What Next?

On academic Twitter today I've seen a lot of folks sharing charts showing the steep decline in the number of available jobs in the humanities this year. It's an alarming image, showing what happens when bad goes to worse and then to something beyond. Today I have also been seeing a lot of stuff about the closures of small colleges. Beyond that, there's news out of places like Tulsa that are cutting back their humanities departments. I know someone who just left academia because the history department at their school got cut.

It appears that we might be hitting the crossover point a lot of people saw on the horizon around the time I left academia, back in 2011. I still remember my last American Historical Association conference as a professor that year. I booked the trip to San Diego, but didn't get any interviews (I was trying to get a job closer to my spouse.) My friends and I joked about there being an uprising in the job pit and the established scholars escaping the riot with jetpacks. It seemed like everyone who wasn't at the top was doomed.

Of course, no mass collective action arose to resist all of this. The people in the lifeboats, who had their jobs, stood by while people around them drowned, comforting themselves in the myth of mediocrity. They were the only faculty who had any real power. Those on the contingent track either gave up or kept hoping they'd get that tenure-track job at the end of the line. Back in 2013 I warned the lifeboaters that the reckoning was coming for them, too. Now it looks like that day is upon us.

So, what's going to happen? I don't foresee a mass movement by academics to defend their interests. The old timers will just wait to retire, the midcareer folks will hope for the same and the young scholars on the tenure track will cross their fingers and count their blessings with an understanding that the future is unclear. Contingent faculty will continue to lack the power to act and the churn and precariousness of their position will make organizing difficult, just as it is now.

At this point the salvation can only come from outside. The proposals by Sanders and Warren to make public higher education free might be the death knell for some of those small private colleges, but it would do more to bring money and majors to academia than anything else. At this point I think it is the only way out. I'm not holding my breath, and meanwhile lots of good people are drowning, their immense talent and potential squandered.

Monday, November 18, 2019

New Episode of the Old Dad's Records Podcast

On the latest episode of my podcast I dug into what I like to call the "feel bad" music of the 90s. Instead of spotlighting an album, I decided to talk about a bunch of songs from a playlist I made of these songs. For some reason in the 90s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, we were all in the mood to be sad. I start with "Adia" by Sarah McLachlan, a song I remember bringing me to the verge of tears as I heard it driving around the thoroughly ugly streets of suburban Omaha. I finish the podcast with a rave for Altin Gün, a Dutch-Turkish psych/prog band that I can't stop listening to these days.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The 2010s, The Decade That Wasn't

In popular culture we like to use decades as shorthands, despite their limited usefulness. For example, the 60s equals countercultural times of peace, love and dope, even if it was the decade of high concept TV (Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, etc) and greater suburbanization than the 1950s. Now that the 2010s are coming to an end, there have been some half-hearted attempts to summarize the decade's culture. Those attempts will fail not only because decades are artificial boundaries, but also because 2010 is not a meaningful milestone in any way.

Periodization is one of my favorite historian parlor games. It's kind of frivolous, of course, and if done wrong can limit our understanding. (Plenty of inequality and corruption was going on before and after the Gilded Age, for example.) That said, I feel like there was a there was a pretty definitive period that lasted from 2000 to 2006. George W Bush's contested election in 2000 marked a more tumultuous political era even before 9/11. In 2006 the Republicans were trounced in midterm elections following disasters in Iraq, and in New Orleans. The politics of the Bush years were over at this point.

More importantly, a major technological change was afoot. In 2006-2007 social media first appeared on the scene, as did smartphones. This also coincided with the growth of broadband, wifi, and Netflix. From this point on, so much of America's life was going to be lived online in ways that it wasn't before.

Amid this change Barack Obama was elected president. This election did not represent a "post-racial society," but in fact led to a nationalist backlash. The Bush administration's combination of culture war and war on terror had lost its allure, conservatives now understood the power of white nationalism. This happened well before Trump. If 2010 is a milestone of anything, it's because that year saw the rise of the Tea Party, the precursor and trailblazer for Trump. His victory in 2016 was the culmination of the anti-Obama nationalist reaction.

Along with the rise of smartphones, social media, and nationalism in the late 2000s came an economic collapse that created the kind of privation and scarcity that nationalists love. Hard times make it easier to scapegoat and to draw people to the extremes.

Ten years of living dangerously led to Trump's election in 2016, which is probably the marker of a new era. 2010 and 2019 don't really represent much, but I think a lot books will be written about 2006-2008, which appears to be one of the fulcrums of history. We certainly cannot escape it.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Neil Young, "A Journey Through The Past"

This time of year, as late fall fades into winter, has become very tough for me. Six Novembers ago my grandmother died, a person who had been so present in my life I could not really conceive of life without her. Two years ago in early December my aunt Joann passed away. Last November my aunt Kathleen's health started failing, she died this past January. Too many trips home to rural Nebraska in the past few years have been marked by death. Three times I've talked with people I've loved over the phone halfway across the country, knowing in my heart it was the last time I was ever going to hear their voice.

Every morning when I ride the subway to work I can't get over that I grew up in a place so far removed from the world of New York City. It's not anything I could have imagined when I lived there. I love my job and I love my life here, but every now and then I feel like part of myself is missing. A big chunk of my soul is still out there, 1500 miles away, beneath the skies so vast they feel like they could crush all the world beneath them. When I go back to Nebraska I can feel that part of me reawaken.

I don't necessarily want to go back and live there, but living away from there weighs on my soul. It's the paradox of being a self-inflicted exile. Sometimes I fantasize about buying an old Nebraska farmhouse and making it a kind of low rent, countrified summer home. You can have Newport and Martha's Vinyard, I'll take the prairie.

I think I've always liked Neil Young partly because he too grew up in a small town, moved to the big city, but never really left rural Ontario behind. He was never more forthright about this than on "Journey Through the Past." It comes from the haphazard 1973 live album Times Fade Away, such a document of a low point in Young's life that he kept it out of print for decades. While there are decadent tales of junkies like the title song, or cries for help like "Don't Be Denied," "Journey Through The Past" is far more straightforward and sentimental in its emotions.

It's about homecoming as a journey through the past. When you leave where you are from, it's almost as if time stops there. For years I would come home to my old teenage bedroom, the same shelf full of Stephen King novels, the same Rolling Stone cover of Nirvana on my closet door. Even though my room has been made over some, it's still a place where I access feelings and memories that would otherwise disappear from my mind.

However, the people I knew and loved there keep disappearing, and this time of year I spend a lot of time remembering them. I can go back to my old room, but I can't ever talk to them again. So the years go by, the past fading ever more, and the ache that comes each November can't be nourished.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

30 Years From The Wall's Fall and 3 Years From Trump's Rise

Happier days

This morning one of those Facebook memories reminded me that it's been three years since November 9, 2016. (They rarely remind me of happy things.) The 8th was election day, but the 9th was the day that the reality of what had happened set in. A little while later I realized that today is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In Germany this day is called "Schicksalstag" (Day of Fate) because it was on November 9, 1918, that a revolution toppled the Kaiser and on November 9, 1938, that the Nazis perpetuated the pogroms of the Night of Broken Glass. It is a reminder of the unpredictable careening of history and its utter lack of permanence. In that light it's appropriate that we think of Trump's rise and the Wall's fall on the same day.

The Soviet bloc's demise inspired Francis Fukuyama's now infamous theory about the "end of history" (which must be said was much disputed even at the time.) With Leninism in the grave there was supposedly no other game in town other than liberal capitalist democracy.

The Islamic revolution ten years before in Iran ought to have been a clue of how limited such a thesis was, but I digress.

Pretty immediately after the fall of the Wall it was apparent that nationalism was stepping back into the political vacuum. Czechoslovakia broke up in the Velvet Divorce, Yugoslavia broke up in a civil war that included genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo. Right wing violence against immigrants spiked in Germany, and Le Pen came in second place in the French presidential election of 2002. Events like 9/11 put nationalism off the radar of international observers, however. It was still gaining strength, of course. The new Putin regime, founded at the start of the new century, showed the effectiveness of a marriage between authoritarianism and nationalism, especially in countries with new democracies. After the economic collapse of 2008, a bunch of other nations started down this road. From Poland to Hungary to India to China an anti-democratic, anti-pluralist populist nationalism is the globe's most disruptive political force. It's hardly a mistake that Russia is the world's foremost exporter of nationalist authoritarianism. It pioneered this political form and is a nation run by former intelligence operatives who understand the importance of misinformation and soft power.

History is made up of trends and events, and while the trends are like tides, events have much more contingency attached to them. The fall of the Wall was haphazard and unexpected because the East German official who announced the opening of the border to the West did not reckon that crowds of East Germans would flood the Wall. If he had known that, he would have been more clear and the scenes that are so famous likely would not have happened. The same goes for the election of Donald Trump. The man himself was not expecting to get elected! He lost by three million votes, but the Electoral College, James Comey, Wikileaks, a tepid HRC campaign, and other factors helped put him into power.

He was in a position to benefit from these accidents because the Fall of the Wall did not bring about an end to history. Instead, it brought complacency. Even if you didn't buy into Fukuyama, it was still very tempting to see democracy in America at least as permanent. Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War did not bring a peace dividend for America. Soon enough there would be more war. In 1989 public discourse was alarmed at social inequality, that problem only got worse and worse. In the moment of triumph any real attempt at self-reflection was completely avoided. At around the same time, conservatives decided to embark on a scorched earth political agenda.

Now we find ourselves in a situation where an authoritarian nationalist rules America. He puts immigrant children in camps. He bans Muslims from entering the country. He fills the courts with reactionaries who despise reproductive and civil rights. In many states Republicans are limiting the vote, preventing Democratic governors from ruling, and challenging the results of legitimate elections.

The Cold War is over, but both sides lost. The Soviet Union's defeat was made manifest on November 9, 1989, America's on November 9, 2016. The movement of history's tides today is clear, but we need to swim against the current one even if it exhausts us. The post-1989 complacency cannot be repeated if democracy is going to live.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Post-Election Thoughts

Feeling good after yesterday

The odd off-year election last night was an interesting barometer of where things stand politically right now. Here's some general thoughts about it.

Last night was a strong showing for Democrats that presents an opportunity in more ways than one. Right before the election the pundit Chuck Todd talked about it as a referendum on impeachment. He seemed to predict failure for the Democrats for this reason, and was proven wrong. Now is the time to flip things around. The wins in Kentucky and Virginia are instead proof that the hard stance against Trump is working. That's at least the narrative that needs to get out there. I fear that weak-willed Democrats in the middle might not have the glue to stick in this fight. Hopefully last night will stiffen their spines some more.

Some have noted the swing in suburban areas that helped determine the outcomes of elections in Kentucky and Virginia. I have been thinking a lot about this, since affluent, educated suburbanites have been default Republicans ever since there have ever been affluent, educated suburbanites. The new Republican Party, beholden to Trump. nativism, and Bible thumping does not appeal as much to people who used to just pull the lever for low taxes and regulations. However, I fear this new alignment will further defang the Democrats. These new Democrat voters are likely to vote Dem on social issues, but still support neoliberal economic policy. I have a feeling that this will be a real problem coming down the road for those (like me) who want the party to have a redestributionist approach.

Last, this election yet again shows the singularity of Trumpism, which has no coattails. The same people who worship Trump do not transfer their loyalty to his toadies. Just take a look at Matt Bevin and Roy Moore. There is not going to be a dynasty with Ivanka, Jared, or Don Jr picking up the mantle. Trumpism is not a coherent ideology or a movement, it is simply about elevating one man. One key in 2020 will be getting enough people who distrust other politicians but believe in Trump to see him as a betrayer. That's not going to be easy.

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Contentious School Board Election In My Divided New Jersey Town

I live in Maplewood, New Jersey. My family moved here from the Ironbound section of Newark after our apartment got too small i.e. the kids started to be able to walk. We were attracted by the relatively low home prices in a town that had a rail connection to the city (necessary for my job) that was also more walkable and less auto-focused than other suburbs. It was also more racially and socio-economically diverse and politically progressive than other towns in the region.

When we moved in I slowly started noticing the fault lines in Maplewood. Our neighborhood near the Irvington border is very mixed by race and class, but that's an anomaly. One neighborhood to the south of us is predominately African American and poorer than the rest of the town. Another, on the other side of the train station, is very white and full of massive million dollar homes. There is a mix of people, for sure, but only if you look at the aggregate numbers. The town itself is pretty segregated. This has inevitably led to de facto segregation in the schools. One of the elementary schools is majority black, and all the others are majority white. As more white families like mine have moved into town the school my daughters go to has gone from being very mixed to much more white than ten years ago. The situation was so stark in an ostensibly "progressive" town that the New York Times wrote an article about it.

The issues go beyond the segregation of different schools, they also extend to the combined high school (which also includes South Orange.) Tracking, as in many other places, has been applied in ways that benefit white students and hurt black students. There have also been claims of harsher discipline being applied to black students than white students. The new superintendent is advocating for an integration plan that will be implemented next year. There's a school board election on Tuesday, and as you would imagine with this background, it's very contentious.

There are seven candidates running for three seats. Five of the candidates are black (four of them women) and two are white (one of them a woman.) On the surface it's the kind of thing the town likes to talk up about itself. Beneath the surface, however, this is by far the nastiest local election I've ever witnessed. The fuel for the fire is social media and the many local Facebook groups in this town.

On these groups I have witnessed a constant, daily stream of invective directed not only one of the candidates, but also against other Facebook groups, especially a social justice group called SOMa Justice I am a member of (full disclosure.) Any candidate affiliated with that group is attacked as representing a "special interest." Every election a parents association dedicated to racial equity asks candidates to fill out a questionnaire which is then used to give the candidates ratings on a scorecard. This year a majority of the candidates flat out declined to do so. The questionnaire and its scorecard were both vehemently attacked online by the same people attacking SOMa Justice. In so doing advocates for equity just lost one of their biggest tools to hold candidates accountable.

A lot of these attacks are coming from a splinter group from the main local group, SOMa Lounge. (The acronym is for South Orange-Maplewood.) The splinter group is called SOMa Lounge Uncensored, touting its lack of moderation. As you can imagine, this has led to a kind of local version of 4chan. I know this because particularly outrageous comments have been screenshot and shared with other groups.

In the big picture there is a school board election in a town with a serious racial equity problem, but many of the candidates have been remarkably quiet about their opinions on this issue. Their silence, rightly or wrongly, has been taken as a sign by a brigade of internet trolls who are trying to tear down organizations fighting for racial justice in this community. I used to find the drama level of our local school board elections amusing but now I find it frightening. The Trumpist politics of destruction and resentment are everywhere in this country, including in this supposedly progressive, diverse town in New Jersey. Next year the integration plan is going to be launched. I need to get ready to get out there and fight.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Deadspin and the Power of Quitting

Deadspin is no longer. Rather than assent to the stupid priorities of their new corporate overlords, the staff and editors quit the site en masse, effectively destroying it. The name their owners bought will still be there, but that will be meaningless because Deadspin's readers came for their writers, not the site itself.

I am sad to see Deadspin go, since it was one of the last vestiges of that great moment in internet history after universal broadband and before social media dominated it. Back then (when I first started blogging) I had my daily rotation of favorite websites and blogs and Deadspon was one of them. It still was until this week, the lone survivor of my old internet routine.

However, I am taking heart in how Deadpsin went down. American workers are under the thumbs of their greedy, stupid bosses. Just about every frontline worker has experience being good at their job and knowing back to front before some clueless higher up comes in to tell you what to do. Deadspin's new bosses said "stick to sports" without understanding that the site had distinguished itself by doing the opposite. Those of us (like myself) in education have innumerable instances of some administrator implementing a bad, asinine program so they can put it on their resume and leave for a better job before their lackluster initiative is exposed as bullshit.

Union membership is as low as it was in the dark times of the 1920s. Wages are stagnant and employers keep turning the screws to squeeze more profit from their businesses and more labor from their workers. In this hellscape American workers have only one weapon at their disposal: quitting. Like going on strike, it deprives your boss of your labor.

We have all worked in dysfunctional workplaces and dreamed of everyone quitting at once, the boss left with a problem they can't solve. When I quit being a professor two of my colleagues left that same week, and it felt like for the first time the higher ups in my department and college actually paid attention to the problems they were ignoring or actively causing.

Good on the Deadspin writers for pulling off the fantasy that so many of us have. And let that be a lesson to the rest of us that in depriving our bosses of labor we can have real power. I fervently hope workers in this country can start using that tool as a more effective weapon.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What Socialists Can Learn From Obama And Trudeau

Last week Justin Trudeau managed to win re-election as Canada's prime minister despite a wave of scandals and other parties splitting the non-conservative vote. President Obama also gave a powerful and well-received eulogy for Elijah Cummings. Both events got me thinking about what made these two men successful politicians, and how the political left needs to learn from them.

I'm not talking here about policy, though. I am talking about the way they make their cases to the people. "Sunny ways" and "hope" are not slogans, they are effective techniques. Leftists spend so much of their time shitting on liberals, then wonder why they keep losing to them. (That's when they're not shitting on each other.) They ought to think a little harder about this and learn from the success of others.

If you follow socialists on Twitter, as I do, you will notice a constant wave of snark and derision. Those who do not belong to the club are constantly being slagged. This might create a stronger bond within the club, but doesn't exactly entice other people to join. Part of the problem is that a lot of socialists in America are more interested in being "right" and being the in the right club than they are in effecting any real political change. Another is that those who claim to speak for the left are often just flat out nasty and unpleasant. Take Chapo Trap House, for instance. If you ever wanted to hear a gang of know it all assholes talk about how smart they are and how dumb everyone else is, that's the podcast for you. They revel in being the "dirtbag Left," but all the edginess is just typical douchebro edgelord bullshit with some Marx mixed in.

When it comes to socialism as well as religion I guess I am a praying agnostic. The main attraction of both is the promise of a better future. That to me is the very essence of what makes socialism so enticing. At its base it's an argument for the human dignity of all, and of having a society where every person can live a good life. It's a tremendously idealistic and hopeful thing, but you wouldn't know it from following socialists online. Instead of discussing this bright future they are mired in backhanded comments about "shitlibs."Anger at the current system is totally warranted, but that anger is not enough to build on.

What both Trudeau and Obama understand is that people want to be FOR something. They need narratives and symbols to grasp onto. Obama's eulogy was an argument for a certain kind of patriotism, one informed by the nation's failures but committed to making it live up to its stated ideals. These are words that can stir people into action. To me the advantage socialism has over more centrist politics is that it can indeed promise great things and fulfill high ideals. It's a shame to me that this positive vision is so lost in the discourse. Online socialists make a sport out of deriding Obama, but seem to ignore the fact that he is by the most popular American politician of my lifetime. Aren't the reasons for that worth examining? Or does that threaten failure on the purity test?

Saturday, October 26, 2019

On Reading Peter Pomerantsev's This Is Not Propaganda

Based on a positive review a friend shared on social media I decided to pick up Peter Pomerantsev's newest book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. I was not disappointed. His book is a look at media manipulation undertaken by authoritarian regimes in the world today. It moves from the Philippines to Russia to China, all the while showing a world where reality itself is a matter of dispute. The book's great strength is that Pomerantsev is able to weave together on the ground reporting, political analysis, and his Soviet exile family's experience together.

The salient and depressing insight of his book is that the movements that brought democracy to Eastern Europe were unable to sustain themselves. Authoritarians took note of their methods, and now use them to gather popular support for their regimes instead. The mass movements for democracy learned to mobilize people by appealing to the most basic grievances that could unite people across boundaries. The authoritarian nationalists do this today by targeting marginalized groups with a galvanizing hatred. Just witness Putin's homophobia, and how LGBT people are made to be the scapegoats for so-called Western infiltration.

This is so hard to combat because the media is oriented towards this kind of politics. I spend too much time on Twitter and Facebook, and my time there usually leaves me agitated. They are place intended to generate outrage to keep you coming back. Facebook is effectively a news source for millions, a scary prospect when its leaders brand Breitbart a "trusted news source." We also know that Facebook has been used to aid and abet massacres in places like Myanmar.

As Pomerantsev so accurately shows, reality itself is under question. For example, we live in an age where anti-vaccination nuts have brought the comeback of measles. He is also bracingly honest about how we got here. In one section he discusses how in the Cold War both superpowers were enamored of facts, each claiming to upload the one true ideology and being able to prove it. America's supposed superiority was disproven by the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the collapse of the global economy in 2008 (and the austerity measures that followed) exposed the inadequacies of global capitalism.

There was no political ideal out there to exploit those failures. Instead we have seen the fracturing of the world and the rise of nationalist authoritarians who are actively hostile to facts. Pomerantsev writes:

"With that the last of the old, Cold War-framed notions of a universal future fell away for many. Elsewhere, from Mexico City to Manila, it had already been dissolving gradually, like an old bar of soap coming apart in mushy flakes. And if there is no future that your facts are there to prove you are achieving, then what is the appeal of facts? Why would you want facts if they tell you that your children would be poorer than you? That all versions of the future were unpromising? And why should you trust the purveyors of facts, the media and academics, think tanks, statesmen? So, the politician who makes a big show of rejecting facts, who validates the pleasure of spouting nonsense, who indulges in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence, from glum reality, becomes attractive...All the madness you feel, you can now let it out and it's okay."

None of these authoritarians even bother to promise a new future. They instead engage in the reactionary nostalgia of "make America great again." This is something Pomerantsev and Masha Gessen have both diagnosed in this version of politics: the lack of a future. The only way forward is a politics that is future-oriented. You have to give people hope and something to believe in. You have to think big to provide more, be it free college, universal health care, subsidized child care, or affordable cities to live in. My fear is that this vision, as attractive as it is, will not able to overcome the powerful nexus of resentment and media manipulation it is up against.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Waylon Jennings, "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line"

I did a little extra work at my job last week, and I used the money to buy the DVD set of highlights from the Johnny Cash Show, which ran from 1969 to 1971. Unlike most country music television it wasn't syndicated but a major network production and the performances crackle and pop in ways that variety show TV rarely did. 

Variety shows seem to have disappeared after the 70s, which is a damn shame. Sure they're as cheesy as all get out, but I'd rather watch great musicians do their thing than some rich failson or trophy wife clown in from of the camera on a "reality" show.

One of my favorite performances on the DVD is Waylon Jennings doing "The Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line." It's a song from his pre-outlaw days when Nashville just didn't know what to do with him. While Jennings languished a bit in those days, this track has the bite and rhythm that his future outlaw classics would show. 

On the Johnny Cash Show Jennings turned in a great gritty performance of this song, breaking it out of the shackles of the Nashville Sound. He also performs a truly baller move (as the kids say) when the band strikes up the song while he is still being interviewed by Cash, Jennings strides across the stage and grabs his guitar to join in at the exact right moment. 

It's a moment that's both contrived and spontaneous, and the kind of thing, for better or worse, you just don't see on television anymore. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Letters of Recommendation

The seniors at my school are in the middle of the college application process, which means I am currently in the thick of letters of recommendation season. This year I have over twenty letters to write. This is a function of teaching juniors, and as difficult as it can be, I always cherish it. I am aware of just how much responsibility I have over my students’ future, and I take it very seriously. Being able to help them on their way in life is an example of how the work of teaching means making a positive impact on others.

It also reminds me of the difference in mentality between teaching high school and being a college professor. As a college professor I wrote letters of recommendation, but far fewer in the average year than I do now. Those letters also tended to be spaced out over the course of the year, while nowadays I have to do them in a massive flurry of activity. It’s not easy work, but I am also aware that it is an essential part of my job.

It also reminds me why I’m glad I’m not a professor anymore when I read articles like the one in the Chronicle today on the burden of letter writing for some professors. Like just about anything professors do, it’s considered an undue impediment for Working On Your Research. The only thing that’s never seen as a waste of time for professors is working on research. Spending too much time on teaching and advising are always warned against. The almighty god of research must be kept happy.

While the article is right that the work is uncompensated and often falls harder on some more than others (which I am well aware of), it is wrong to treat it as less important than doing research. Most academics need to realize that their research isn’t all that important. Few people are likely to read it, and those who do will turn it into a footnote, at best. Writing a letter of recommendation means making a direct impact on a person’s life. Isn’t that a much more significant thing than writing a journal article that will barely be read?

The same goes for teaching. If you are an academic you will make a far bigger impact on the lives of the people sitting in your classroom than anyone on a conference panel. I enjoy being a high school teacher for many reasons, but the biggest is that my work MATTERS and I work in an environment where others feel that way too. As a professor I published research that did not align with the fields of my colleagues, so it meant nothing to them. As a teacher I am part of a team motivated by the collective responsibility to teach our students well.

The older I get the more I try to focus on what matters in life. What matters most is other people and my relationship to them. My kids and wife mean more than my career. At school my students matter most. I'm glad to be working in an environment where human relationships are prioritized. It's a shame that the academy isn't like that more.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Chronic Town (R.E.M. Rewind)

[Editor's Note: It's been too long since I've done a series, and this is a topic I know some of my readers will find engaging. This post begins a new series, R.E.M. Rewind, an album-by-album reflection on the band's music.]

Living in a small, isolated Nebraska town in the late 1980s meant getting access to underground music was not easy. I was basically limited to whatever they stocked at the Musicland at the local mall, or what was played on top 40 radio and MTV. At that time one band had bubbled up from the world of college radio to a high enough mainstream level that I could access: REM. I heard "The One I Love" on the radio and loved it. Peter Buck's jangling guitar and Michael Stipe's keening sounded like nothing I'd heard before.

Beyond the music, REM had a special appeal from me. They hailed from Athens, Georgia, and did not seem interested in being big time. They had emerged from a small town world and their music being off the beaten track felt like an affirmation for those of us living in the sticks. A friend had an REM t-shirt with an image of an old Athens warehouse on the front, and it looked like a scene straight out of my railroad town hometown. To me this seemingly innocuous image was a signifier of identity.

It was perfect then that REM's first collection of recording was called Chronic Town. Living in a small town means a lot of time for dreaming and contemplation, especially if you're a person who doesn't fit into the rigid social conventions of small town life. If there's one thing I miss about living in small towns it's that time slows down enough there for my mind to wander distant fields it never seems to visit nowadays. REM's early music grabbed me because it sounded like the inside of my mind on a darker than dark rural night while I laid in bed, seemingly in another world as the train horns whined in the distance.

The first song, "Wolves, Lower" lets the listener know that REM is taking us to that liminal space, from the title to the mumbled lyrics to the mysterious noises beneath the guitars. While it sounds much more postpunk than future REM music, this song is an apt introduction to the band. There's Peter Buck's aforementioned jangle on guitar, Mike Mills' melodic bass and background vocals, Michael Stipe's haunting and illegible voice, and Bill Berry's driving yet subtle drums. I still have no clue what it's about, and that's fine. Early REM music is impressionistic and abstract, like a Kandinsky painting. It hits you with sensations that your mind makes meaning out of in its own way. Rock music rarely does this, and when it did before this it would be at the hands of someone more self-consciously experimental like Brian Eno. REM were still doing this as a scruffy band of young men from a college town in the South.

The lyrics didn't get any easier to discern on "Gardening At Night," but the sitar added splashes of psychedelia that was an obvious influence on the band as much as punk rock. The first side of the EP closes out with "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)," where the album's title comes from. REM's small town origins are most evident here in a song that evokes the rhythm of a freight train moving through a junction. I grew up in a town where two major railroads intersected, so it's something I know really well. The constant movement of trains was always a weird contrast to the quiet and empty streets of the town.

Side two of the EP starts with "1,000,000," which has a more anthemic sound that what had come on side one. The bounce of reigning new wave music is evident here as well. I think one reason for REM's success was how their sound drew from 60s psychedelia, post punk, and new wave without ever aping those styles and instead creating something original. The EP closes with "Stumble," which might be a song about growing up if I were impertinent enough to assign hard meanings to REM songs from this era. All in all it's a vital, original set of songs that still holds up extremely well today. It's hard to think of other groups so fully realized coming straight out of the gate.

While I bought up all of REM's back catalog of studio albums in the summer of 1991 after completely falling in love with the band post Out of Time, Chronic Town was the one exception, since it was so hard to find. (I also didn't know that the tracks were included on Dead Letter Office! Damn lack of internet!) I finally got to hear it two summers later when I was working in the corn fields in my summer job detasseling. Our foremen were all teachers earning extra income, and one of them, en elementary school gym teacher, learned I loved REM. He loaned me a cassette tape of the EP to listen to on my walkman as we worked. It turns out that this jock-y gym teacher fell in love with the band at the moment of their birth, and even saw them live in Omaha at a club show well before anyone knew who they were.

As we had to ride the bus to and from the fields to work I asked him about what that was like, but also just shared my REM opinions with him. It was rare to find one of my peers who shared my musical interests, so it was validating to see that an older person loved what I loved with the same level of devotion. As much as I love the music of REM, I can never separate it from those formative moments of developing my own interests and personality. I guess that's why I'm still listening to their music and bothering to write a lot about it over 25 years later.



Evidently this song was replaced by "Wolves, Lower" at the behest of the record label. I've always liked it, even if it probably isn't up to the level of the album. The drum pattern at the start is very Joy Division.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Weaponization of Cynicism

Donald Trump has been a major figure in American public life since the 1980s, and from the beginning he was the avatar of the complete cynicism that had overtaken the country in the Reagan years. Trump received accolades and wealth all while behaving like a completely amoral asshole. Despite his multiple bankruptcies millions of American workers tuned in to watch him fire people on television, gloating in schadenfreude. His victory in 2016 affirmed that he is the true representation of a country where consumerism and the almighty dollar have become the dominant religions.

Trump well knows that the worship of materialism and egotism creates a mentality whereby actually believing in something makes you a loser or a sucker. Whenever Trump is confronted with wrongdoing, or seemingly painted into a corner by his own stupidity, he relies on the cynicism of his audience.

Take this week, when he justified his abandonment of the Kurds to ethnic cleansing by saying that they were "no angels." The implication was that people who think anyone in the world is innocent and people who believe in altruism are dopes. The implicit statement is "The world is shit and everyone is guilty so who cares if anyone gets hurt as long as we benefit." It also reminded me of when he was confronted with Putin's brutality. Trump retorted by saying "we have killers too." His message there was essentially the same.

It is sadly an effective message because the vast majority of Americans, even those on the left side of the spectrum, are deeply cynical. Whenever anyone expresses shock at the latest atrocity, someone on social media will immediately respond and say "How is anyone actually surprised by this?" This response devalues human emotion and replaces it with an insufferable know-it-all ironic distance.

I have been limiting my exposure to Twitter because it is so drenched in the knowing cynicism eating away at society. Even people I agree with have so carefully crafted a persona where they are constantly above it all, always showing the world just how smart they are for saying "of course" whenever something bad happens.

I have resolved to be corny, to drop the knowing cynicism. I do not think positive social change is possible if we cannot give our whole hearts and souls over to a cause, rather than reserving some of our emotion for the sake of maintaining the cynical pose. Trump and his minions thrive on the cynicism of their supporters. They need the Bible thumpers who support a mammon worshipper, the isolationists who get behind sending troops to Saudi Arabia, the decriers of government waste who turn the other way when the president makes the government pay him to vacation at his properties. We need to oppose that cynicism with care.

The only way forward is to model a politics based on full-hearted emotional engagement and the willingness to actually believe in something. If we don't actually commit to those beliefs, we will always be at the mercy of the cynics.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Newest Episode of Old Dad's Records

Episode 44 of my podcast Old Dad's Records just dropped this week. I let life get in the way of recording a new episode, then let the dread of my bad feelings about that procrastination bother me a little too much.

In this episode I start by talking about Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," a perfect autumn song and one of the Boss's most underrated. After that I dig out Tom Waits' Heartattack and Vine from my record pile. In the process you will learn a lot about my days as a visiting assistant professor in Michigan, as well as the sad recent death of my friend Bill. I end with a rave for The Downstrokes, a punk rock band I got to see live in New York City. (The bassist also happens to be a friend.)

I'm pretty proud of this episode, I think my skills as a raconteur are improving. It only took 44 episodes!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"

Each day brings more revelations in the Ukraine scandal, a trickle turning into a flood. If I was a TV news producer I'd have set music to introduce segments on the issue. The song I would choose? "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" by Warren Zevon.

It's catchy and the heavy, repetitive riff would draw the audience in. Of course, the subject matter is just perfect. It's a song written from the perspective of a feckless elite American abroad, possibly a member of the intelligence community. His playboy lifestyle keeps getting him in trouble, which means he needs to call his "dad" to send in "lawyers, guns, and money" to save him. It's the ultimate parody of the typical stupid elite failson. I first started digging this song in the Bush II administration, for obvious reasons.

Watching the news today is surreal. I want to laugh, but I can't because the stakes are just too damn high. It all feels like a Le Carre novel if it was adapted into a film by the Coen brothers. Le Carre is brilliant in how he presents the pompous ineptitude of secret agents, and the Coens are the poets of the day to day mediocre stupidity and venality in American life. It's serious business, but it makes me feel a little better to mock the people responsible for it with a little Warren Zevon.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

On Being A Lone Protestor

Caring enough about local zoning laws to waste my Monday night in a public meeting probably means I'm a kook

Since the beginning of the Trump presidency I have been thirsting to get involved in political action. I call and write elected officials almost every week. I have attended all kinds of protests, from the "People's Motorcade" at Trump's golf course in Bedminster to multiple events at ICE facilities in Hudson County to anti-gun violence protests in Newark to a candlelit vigil in my hometown for the victims of police violence.

Something inside of me can't rest unless I feel like I am meeting my obligation to combat the horrible situation we find ourselves in. This has driven me to put myself out on a limb all alone. Back in the early days of the Trump presidency he was going to drive down the interstate in a motorcade to Bedminster. This was in the midst of the threat to the Affordable Care Act, and I'd heard there was a protest about it where people would line the overpasses on Trump's route and hold signs to show the level of opposition. 

This interstate isn't far from from home, but once I arrived I realized that I was the only person there. (You can read the fully story here.) A cop stopped to see what I was doing, a couple of people honked. Later one person joined me. I wondered if people below could see my sign. It was a chilly night, with the cold wind whipping my face. In the town I live in people are pretty big on being progressive and resisting Trump, but I was the only person who bothered to show up.

I had a similar feeling last night when I went to a local zoning board meeting. I've recently become committed to the gospel of YIMBYism, meaning I want the local government to support inclusive zoning, more density, and more walkability in order to lower housing costs and create opportunities for a more racially and economically diverse town. I went to the meeting to speak in favor of a proposed multiunit development. There would be eleven apartments located at a major intersection, right across the street from another apartment building.

When it came time for the public to comment, I was the only person there to speak in favor of it, which was tough with everyone else's eyes on me. I also had to go first, meaning that the people who were against got to attack my arguments without a chance for me to respond. Those opposed basically argued that housing opportunities should be limited and having housing costs for others driven up was good because the people there would reap the reward of their home's inflated resale value. (Of course, they claimed that the developers were the greedy ones.) As you could guess, the zoning board did not give a variance to the proposed development.

It was a bit of a gut punch, mostly because I was there alone. I've started a local YIMBY group on Facebook and I had hoped at least one other person would come along. Nope, it was just me, looking like an idiot for believing in a lost cause.

I don't say this to get on my moral high horse, by the way. The fact that I was there alone means I was doing something wrong. Perhaps moving to the suburbs was a mistake. Maybe I suck at organizing. Maybe this is the adult version of me eating alone at lunch in high school, too maladjusted and dorky to be able to relate to other people. Maybe the problem is that my caring too much about this stuff is less about being morally righteous and more about being a kooky misfit. 

The thing is, I can't help myself, because I cannot do otherwise. I am only hoping this means I'm willing to do the right thing, not that I'm just a hopeless case. 

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Damned, "New Rose"

Last week I had the good fortune to see my friend Greg's band The Downstrokes perform at the Bowery Electric. The club is just a block north of where CBGBs used to be, and continues its spirit. Down in the basement a bunch of bands played hard, fast and loud.

Since then I have been revisiting the first wave of punk rock, music that had first energized me in my teen years. All the grunge bands I loved referred to this stuff as an influence, and the first time I popped Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols into the tape deck of my 1992 Mazda Protege I fell in love. This music was so much more vital, energizing, and just plain electrifying than anything I was hearing in the early 90s.

Around that time Rhino put out a series of compilations on early punk, and I played the one on the first wave of UK punk almost to death. This was where I first learned of X Ray Spex, Wire, and The Damned.

The latter were the first UK punk band to release a single and an album. That first single, "New Rose," was about the phenomenon of punk rock itself. The "rose" of the title is not a new girlfriend, but the new punk rock sound. It's about falling in love with this new music, and that swooning, intoxicating feeling of a new infatuation. (Appropriately enough, the Downstrokes' latest album is called Fall In Love With Punk Rock Again.)

That first wave of punk felt less like a new music and more like a new religion. The young and hungry Savonarolas had burst into the gilded palaces of 70s rock to smash the idols and erect a bonfire of the vanities to burn to the ground. It was such an exciting moment that there were people still chasing it in a bowery basement 43 years later. No song channels that feeling better than "New Rose."