Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Decline of the University Humanities as a Metaphor for America

A prophecy from the dawn of neoliberalism

During the twelve years I spent in academia as a grad student and professor in history there was a constant feeling of crisis, one that has only heightened since I jumped ship back in 2011. First came the cutbacks to salary increases and research. Library budgets bit the dust while retired professors meant the elimination of tenure lines and their replacement with adjuncts and "visitors." Then came the 2008 crisis, with furloughs, salary cuts, and soon the absolute destruction of entire departments and programs. The languages, once considered a cornerstone of higher education, got eviscerated. In recent years philosophy and even history have followed. We are now living in a country where so-called "universities" have football teams that mash their student athletes' brains into mush but where a student can't major in philosophy. 

All the while, precarity has become the norm. More and more classes are taught by adjuncts paid by the course who do not get basic benefits and protections. If you want to see American capitalism at its most exploitative you won't just find it in the strawberry fields and slaughterhouses, you will also find it on tree-lined campuses. 

The future is going to look a lot like the past. Higher education in the humanities is going back to being a luxury good reserved for the affluent. In the meantime, careers and lives are being destroyed. Those of use who were on the front lines in this as grads, adjuncts, and even tenure-track profs at regional universities in red states saw this coming. The people who ran our professional organizations, who were supposed to be looking out for the interests of their members, didn't lift a finger. Why? Because they really represented scholars at the most prestigious universities, whose precious advisees would always be in demand on the job "market." Now, at long last, some of them seem aware that action should be taken. (Probably because their star grad student had to stoop to take a job at a regional state university somewhere in the South. Eww!) Of course, it's too late now. The die has been cast.

I feel like this is a metaphor for America at large. Just as neoliberalism has gutted universities, it has gutted the nation as a whole. The rot has been setting in for decades. I first came of political age in the late 1980s. Back then, over THIRTY YEARS AGO the discourse was full of concern that inequality was rising, that poor communities were being pushed down harder, and that deindustrialization was wrecking whole regions of the country. Thirty years later we still have the same issues, and they have only gotten worse and worse. For example, in the 1980s my home region of rural Nebraska was ravaged by the farm crisis. Back then people express alarm over the spike in farm foreclosures. Since then family farms have kept disappearing and the small towns have been more and more emptied out. Nowadays the only thriving retail in my hometown is dollar stores. 

This entire time, the elites of the country could see what was happening. Like a lot of tenured professors at R1 universities, they didn't like it, but they also weren't directly hurt by what was happening to others. They could watch those drowning around them, turn their backs, say "That's a shame" and get on with their lives. This of course only goes for the sympathetic elites. The others just laughed and counted their money. 

Since the election of Trump it has dawned on the more sympathetic elites that something truly wrong has happened in the country and they need to respond to it. Of course, like those tenured professors they aren't equipped to see the severity of the problem. They somehow think that our institutions alone can solve the problem, that it can be combatted with "civility" and "norms." Again, those at the front lines know that something more is necessary, but they are kept away from having any kind of voice in the halls of power. 

In any case, it's already too late. While the elites were ignoring the problem it was quietly overwhelming them. The Sex Pistols, singing in the late 70s at the first dawn of neoliberalism, were prophets. "No future for you."

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Commercials From Hell: The Night Belongs to Michelob

I have been having a hard time finding writing inspiration recently, so I've decided to kick off a new series: Commercials from Hell. This is inspired by the amazing website Trailers From Hell, where commenters give glosses on old B movie trailers. This series will involve me writing about old television commercials and ad campaigns.

I have been consuming too many of these ads because late at night I find myself to watching old blocs of commercials on YouTube gleaned from old VHS tapes used to tape things off of TV (remember that?) Nothing puts me back into the past like these ads, since they don't get rerun, unlike the shows. They thus tend to be pretty amazing cultural artifacts of their time.

I want to start with the Night Belongs to Michelob campaign. Michelob is a product without a niche today, but back in the dark ages before craft beer it was Busch's "premium" beer. This meant that it tasted slightly less watery than Budweiser, and cost a little more. As a premium product, Busch would have to have a premium ad campaign. What better way to show class than a commercial with Phil Collins and Genesis!

I am struck by the juxtaposition of the young singles in fashionable yet bourgeois clothes with middle-aged rockers Genesis. Did they think this was going to sell to both age groups? Did the makers of this think that Genesis was super hip? Phil Collins skullet should have disabused the ad execs of that notion. There's also the awful moment where a guy puts a move on a young woman and puts his hands behind her neck, bottle of Michelob in hand.

Despite those off notes, there is an irresistibly noir element to all of this. Neon signs. Steam rising from manholes. Rain slicked streets. The song may be 80s cheese, but there's enough minor key mood that it sort of works with the commercial. When I saw it back in 1987 as an 11 year old, it gave me a bit of a thrill. Is this what being an adult was like? Seductive glances from across the bar, geezer rock, and a Michelob in hand? It was certainly alluring than beer ads with animal mascots and outdoorsy men going fishing. Premium beer indeed.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Impeachment Is A Kobayashi Maru (and we should still do it)

The day that the fuller version of the Mueller report dropped, I realized that the impeachment situation is a Kobayashi Maru scenario for opponents of Donald Trump. For those who don't know, Kobayashi Maru was a training exercise for Starfleet in the Star Trek universe where prospective captains were put into an impossible situation. They could try to rescue the civilians aboard the namesake ship, but would be destroyed by the enemy. The point of the simulation was not to guess the correct course of action, but to show how officers would react in bad circumstances.

Impeachment is a Kobayashi Maru because there are two options: to allow a brazen criminal to continue to occupy the presidency, or to exhaust political capital in what will be an inevitable failure to unseat that president. As has been obvious from day one, Republicans will follow Trump to the gates of Hell. They happily defended his breaking up of migrant families and tossing their kids into cages. They signed their deal with the devil, and now there's no going back. In any case, he is the key to their wildest dreams of unfettered capitalism and Christian dominionism. Even if ten Republican Senators defect (which will never happen), the Senate still would not be able to unseat Trump.

A lot of folks, including in the Democratic Party leadership, have made this calculation. They are concerned that this inevitable failure would boost Trump, allowing him an easy path to reelection in 2020. They are more rightly concerned with how focusing on Trump takes air away from appeals on issues like health care that are the party's winning advantage.

I've been thinking long and hard about this, but impeachment needs to be done. If failure is guaranteed either way (which it is), then doing the right thing actually becomes a lot easier. The pragmatic option doesn't exist. The question becomes simply this: are we going to give a proven criminal president a pass, or not? I do not see how we can live with ourselves if we refuse to carry out the Constitutionally mandated remedy for this situation.

It can also be carried out in a way that does not backfire, or where the consequences are at least mitigated. The message on impeachment can be intertwined with the "bread and butter" issues. Investigating the Trump finances (which aren't even part of the Mueller probe but are by far where most of the crime goes on) will dredge up all kinds of stuff. The message gets pretty easy: "Your tax return went down last year, but Donald Trump set up a system where people like him don't have to pay taxes." Any serious look into his business empire is going to turn up all kinds of stuff (just listen to the Trump Inc podcast), revelations that can be capitalized on, so long as Democrats run an economically populist campaign. This will be crucial, because with the economy growing they need to not just talk about "jobs," but about compensation, health care, child care, etc.

Ever since Trump's election, the country's politically apathetic soft middle has yearned for a "return to normal." This I think is secretly one of the Democratic party's biggest advantages in the 2020 election. If you spend time talking to so-called independent moderates, they tend to frame things in maddeningly imprecise generalizations. Last time around it was "I don't like either candidate" and people who deep down didn't like Trump ended up casting their vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, which in key states was effectively a vote for Trump. One of those garden variety suburban dipshit opinions could easily turn out to be "I'm just tired of Trump. I just don't want to have to care about politics." In that case, impeachment might actually be able to help Democrats.

And speaking of the soft middle, political corruption is something that most voters dislike. It's the reason Trump kept talking about "draining the swamp." It turns out, of course, that this was not about ending corruption, but invoking the kinds of metaphors for the opposition beloved by fascists. Impeachment hearings will dredge up things that are public but which have been allowed to leave the headlines, as well as brand new stories.

The danger, of course, is that the soft middle white suburban dipshit opinion after the Senate clears Trump could easily turn into "I guess Trump did nothing wrong and those Democrats ruined my life by putting all this stuff in the news that I didn't want to think about." That won't end so well.

Be that as it may, impeachment has to be attempted. Not just because the president has been proven to abuse his power (the basic litmus test of impeachment), but because if we take our political ideals seriously we MUST take action. And though failure may be inevitable in the short term, in the long term the Republicans will never be able to shake the stigma of their support of this criminal. Future generations will look back and know who was in the right.

I am reminded of another time in American history when a political faction held the country hostage against the demands of justice. In 1860 Lincoln gave his famous speech at Cooper Union in New York City, where the prairie politician moved his skeptical east coast audience by reminding them that slavery was wrong and nothing could ever change that. He ended his speech thus: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

We know we are right. We know our duty compels us. Time to act.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Teacher's Due

This week ends the fourth term of the school year, with just one more to go. This has been an especially tough term, mostly because I am teaching an overload with four different preps. I am back in the frenzied mode I occupied as a beginning teacher, working from before dawn to after dusk, all only to just stay afloat. It's something I could handle back when I was 31 and single, but now that I am 43 with a family (and a long commute) it's taken me to the breaking point.

It hasn't helped that members of my extended family have been stirring up drama and cruelty, or that the political situation seems so bleak. Over spring break, for the first time that I can remember, I asked myself if teaching was even what I was meant to do on this earth. As always in times of great stress, I started hating on myself, thinking that I had lost my mojo.

Students of course do not know the internal struggles that we teachers have, nor should they. Today that was my saving grace. One of my senior electives ended today, and my students gave me a round of applause and thanked me for the class. I don't think they have any way of knowing just how much that has uplifted me today.

So now I am kicking myself for having been so down on myself. (The self-flagellation never ends with me, folks.) Despite my exhaustion, what mattered was that I still put the effort in, even on days when my nerves were shredded and my patience was shot. Teaching is a job where the reward never comes in the form of money or social status. Day after day I see articles about teacher shortages. and of teachers leaving the profession.

It's a hard job that demands both intellectual and emotional labor, the latter being the most draining. When I tell people I teach, there's a good chance that they will say something completely idiotic, like "it must be good to have your summers off." (If teaching were so easy we would not be seeing such turnover, but I digress.) This reflects the dominant American idea that work is measured in the numbers of hours of labor, not its intensity. That's a fundamentally flawed metric. As we all know, and hour of combat is not the same as a quiet hour spent on base. Being in the classroom is like being at the battle front for half the year. Without break time we would go berserk.

As tough as the job is, it is hard to top a moment like I had today. Every morning I wake up thankful that I spend my days doing work that MEANS SOMETHING. I am not just pushing papers or acting as a gear in the corporate machine. It's probably the only reason that turnover isn't higher in the profession. I'm just glad that I teach students so willing to give me thanks. I wish every teacher were so lucky.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Burning Rust (New Podcast Episode)

The newest episode of Old Dad's Records in number 39, "Burning Rust." As always, I go "live on the nines" and discuss two live albums I picked up on Record Store Day. One is Iggy Pop, the other Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. It's proof, if needed, that I contain multitudes. I start by talking about Neil Young's "My My Hey Hey" and how burning out rather than fading away is really about burning your artistic lamp, not dying young. I end by talking about the new Jenny Lewis album, where I think she burned her lamp quite well.

Friday, April 12, 2019

A Gift From The Baseball Gods

As loyal readers have probably noticed by the decreased pace of my posting, I've been in a state of exhaustion lately. At the my job I've been teaching an overloaded schedule since November, and it has finally caught up with me. Teaching four different preps this marking period has ended up being more than I can handle. This isn't the last time I have found myself in a position where no matter how much work I do I never feel like it's enough, but this is the first time I have felt that way since I was a professor. Every day this week I have not fallen asleep in bed, but passed out in my armchair on the couch. And by passed out I mean not drifting off to sleep, but losing consciousness with a quick, fearsome violence.

My spring break ended only two weeks ago but it feels like it never even happened. At times like this I am especially irritated at the people who act like teaching is a cushy gig for the numbers of days "off" it has compared to others. They don't realize that it requires being both "on" and hyper-patient with (in my case) rooms full of hormonal teenagers in thrall to spring's awakening. I'd like to make everyone who isn't a teacher do the job for a week or even a day. I get the feeling our pay and respect would shoot up.

In the middle of all this soul-crushing stress I've had a couple of moments of bliss that I must credit to the gods of baseball. I have been trying to expose my six year old daughters to baseball for years, and this season one of them really seems to have gotten the bug. We went to the Mets game last Sunday, and she did not complain about wanting to leave early. In fact, she kept wanting to know more about the game and the players. Every night this week she has begged to stay up and watch the Mets on TV. Tonight being a Friday she got her wish, and she fell asleep in my arms as the Mets took on the Braves. I didn't notice she had even fallen asleep, I was kind of in that wonderfully empty state of being one can fall into when exhausted with a baseball game on. Before conking out she borrowed my phone and read off the entire team's roster, especially interested in their uniform numbers.

In times of stress and fatigue I appreciate baseball because it is like a daily friend, always there when I need it. Right now, when I barely have the energy to do anything apart from work, that friend has been a real helper. My mind gets freed, and when the Mets screw up my simmering frustrations have a relatively harmless outlet. To know that my daughter will perhaps have that friend in her life too is just sublime.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Get Your Marching Shoes Back On

Today brought the news that Nielsen's ouster at DHS was just part of a larger purge of officials in the domestic security state apparatus. She and many others were proteges of John Kelly, the former Chief of State. This purge was not merely done to maintain slavish loyalty in the DHS, it appears to be part of a broader strategy to "get tough." That I assume means that he wants to separate families and ignore laws about asylum seekers.

Nielsen and Kelly are absolutely atrocious people, but now it looks like Trump will be surrounded only by sycophants like his son in law and daughter, and extremist ideologues like Stephen Miller and Mick Mulvaney. He appears to have decided that the Mueller Report is behind him, and so nothing can stop him. Considering that the Democrats refuse to talk impeachment (and that the Senate would never vote to convict), he's onto something.

Since the midterm election so many people who should be in the streets have been staying at home. This has been a grave mistake. I am not sure where this complacency is coming from, since the Democrats in the House do not really have the power to do all that much. Perhaps this is also down to the misbegotten and naive faith in Robert Mueller's investigation. Opponents of Trump have allowed themselves to become passive observers, rather than active participants. That has to stop.

If you look at the Trump years so far, you will notice that the greatest victories against this administration have come through mass mobilization. The first Women's March, coming the day after inauguration, was absolutely crucial in shifting the narrative and putting the Trump White House on the defensive. The mass actions at airports in the aftermath of the first Muslim ban forced the courts to intervene. Last year mass action in the streets forced the government to back down from family separation. The most powerful force to counter Trump has not been elected officials, it has been what West German activists in the 1960s called the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Mueller won't save us. The Democrats won't save us. Our institutions won't save us. We have to save ourselves. The other side is readying for a fight. Time to get our marching shoes back on.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Rolling Stones, "Salt Of The Earth"

In an alternative universe Mick Jagger was a sensitive folky

There was a lot of news recently about the Rolling Stones postponing their American tour because Mick Jagger had to get treatment for a heart issue. Despite the man's age, something about it took me aback. Way back in 1989 wags called the Stones' Steel Wheels Tour the Steel Wheelchairs Tour and that was 30 years ago! A friend who saw them back in the 2000s said he was shocked by Jagger's physical exertion and how much he ran about the stage at his age. Even though plenty of elderly rockers have been dying in recent years of old age ailments, rather than heroin overdoses and choking on vomit and the like, in my mind Mick Jagger was still ageless.

I was also struck by my lack of emotion at the news. By contrast, when Johnny Cash died I went into deep mourning. The Stones were such an important component to my musical education, even moreso than Cash, but I just didn't feel anything. In fact, I was kinda put off by the expressions of concern people were putting out there. It felt wrong to be giving well wishes to Mick Jagger, despite his condition.

I think that's down to the image he has crafted of himself over the past 56 years. Like a certain Robert Zimmerman, I suspect that Michael Jagger of Dartford has been completely subsumed by his persona. That persona was of a aristocratic satyr who sought pleasure above all else and seemed to look down with mockery on all social conventions. "Mick Jagger" has for a long time represented a kind of secret wish-fulfillment of less elevated (let's face it) men who can fantasize about a life of decadence. The Mick Jagger persona has no room for sentiment, and hearing people express heartfelt sentiment for him was strikingly off-key.

That got me thinking about the times that the Jagger mask has dropped a bit and some dribs and drabs of humanity have come out. "Salt Of The Earth," which closes out 1968's Beggar's Banquet, is a direct ode to the working class. There really isn't any guile here at all, any sneers or smirks. Perhaps that's why the vocals are so low in the mix. Jagger might have been a little embarrassed to be associated with such pure sentiment.

I'm sure he will be back soon, fronting the band on tour and charging the salt of the earth a king's ransom for tickets. After all these years, I find that thought quite comforting. Realizing that the Stones have little time left means that soon my generation will be in the front ranks when the scythe comes down.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

An Update on America's Brezhnev Years

Watching the Soviet gerontocracy applaud itself while their empire dies feels pretty relevant these days.

As loyal readers of this blog know, I have long hypothesized that America is in its Brezhnev period, and has been for some time. Not only is the material basis of the American empire declining and standards of living falling, most people no longer believe in the ideology that the entire edifice is built upon. (More on that here.

The essay I wrote for Tropics of Meta summing up my theories about this is now two years old. I wrote it as the Trump era was dawning, and I tried to end it on an optimistic note:

The millions who have taken to the streets in the past three months are hopefully a sign that enough people are ready to arrest the decline in democracy. In that respect, America’s Brezhnev years may be over in a much more positive way. We can only hope so."

I was thinking of the time about the airport protests against Trump's Muslim ban. I was hoping that they would be the precursor to more direct action. Sadly, their success has not been replicated. In fact, the air really seems to have gone out of mass resistance movements.

In 2018 that energy was directed towards gun control after the Parkland shootings. After massive school walkouts and huge protests, no new gun laws came on the national level, and few on the local level. In fact, this was used as an opportunity in many states to pass laws allowing teachers to carry guns in school. 

Political engagement in liberal and progressive circles quickly switched to the 2018 Congressional election, which did indeed bring many important victories but did not capture both houses of congress. Now that that's over there seems to be little to no mass action from the kind of people who had been taking it up after years on the sidelines. Most of the political heat I have been feeling from the left has been related to the 2020 primary election. That's a year away, and it has tended to lead to infighting and inwardness rather than unified action against a regime that still puts migrants in camps and is dead set on stripping the country of assets and selling the rest for scrap. 

So maybe we have passed the threshold into the Gorbachev years, but a crazy, Spock's beard version of Gorbachev intent on destroying institutions in order to kill democracy. In any case, I feel like the last two years have been a test, and that we have definitely failed it. The ramifications of this failure will likely still be here until the day I die. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Baseball on the Radio

Now that baseball season has begun, my daily friend is back. Following baseball provides me with that little bit of distraction that makes getting through the day just a little easier. I don't need it every day, but it's good to know that it's always there for me.

One of the best ways this manifests is when I get into my car in the evening, and there's a baseball game on the radio. I might be driving to the gym or going to the grocery store, and in that time can transport my mind to another place. After a long day of working and commuting it's a small comfort in life that I cherish.

Baseball is the sport most suited to radio, a fact that I think is universally acknowledged at this point. It's much easier to visualize than basketball or football, and the pace of action fits the medium perfectly. A baseball game is something you can have on in the background, letting it fade in and out of your consciousness. After all, there are 162 games in a season, so trying to hang onto every pitch with total intensity is a path to psychosis.

My daughters got a taste of this tonight. While I was in the bathroom helping them get showered I had the Mets game audio streaming on my phone. I yelled with excitement when pitcher Jacob deGrom smacked a home run. One of my daughters picked up my phone, expecting to see something. When I told her it was the radio, she put the phone to her ear, as if it were a conch found on the seashore.

My only problem with listening to games streaming is that the sound is too clear. There no sound quite like AM radio. On the AM radio in my car I get to hear that wonderful low buzz that sometimes intensifies and alters the voices of the announcers. At times it sounds like the game is being broadcast from another world or a parallel universe. It's an uncanny feeling that I find as oddly comforting as the rhythm of the broadcaster's litany after every inning "no runs one hit no errors."

As podcasting has risen in popularity I think we are gaining a new appreciation of audio-only media. A good radio broadcaster makes the game more vivid to me than seeing it on television. On TV it's a thing happening on the screen, on the radio it feels like the game is going on inside of my own head. That intimacy is why so many baseball radio announcers are so cherished by their fans. Someone I know from Michigan once described the Tigers' announcer Ernie Harwell as the narrator of his childhood summers. Spring will soon become summer, but that too will fade. I'll be taking every opportunity to hear baseball on the radio while it lasts.