Thursday, May 30, 2019

Commercials From Hell: Gorbachev Sells Pizza Hut

When I taught world history to college students, I would end my class about the end of the Cold War by showing this commercial. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was reduced to shilling for a second-rate fast food pizza company. Is there anything that better sums up the victory of capitalism? Of for that matter, the utterly fatuous nature of the brand of capitalism that triumphed?

One of my favorite passages from The Communist Manifesto deals with how capitalism destroys traditional culture.

"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers."

Whatever Marx got wrong, he certainly got that right. Gorbachev turned into pizza pitchman was ultimate proof of capitalism's ability to force every single aspect of modern life to bend to its values system. Back in the 1990s it was easy to think that this was the end of history. How wrong that was.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Futility of "Norms"

Today, perhaps more than any day of the Trump administration, revealed the absolute futility of institutional norms in opposing him. Robert Mueller made his statement, which basically amounted to "I am signaling that the president is a criminal, but I can't actually say that because of norms and process, only Congress can." While institutionalists like Mueller follow the rules to a T, Trump just goes on burning down the house. His daily violation of what were once hard and fast rules of political life has become so common that nobody talks about it. This week he not only attacked Joe Biden with schoolyard insults, he took the side of Kim Jong Un against him.

"Politics ends at the water's edge" used to be one of the few evergreen behavioral standards for presidents, and now that's shredded. (Of course, if a Democrat gets elected president expect Republicans to resurrect that rule, and all the other ones Trump broke.) Presidents are also supposed to divest from their financial holdings, to not put their children in high positions, and to not declare emergencies just to have their way. I don't think there's much of a point raising objections over these, because Trump has clearly shown that the unwritten laws and norms don't matter. When he said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not get punished that was the truest thing he ever said.

That's why it's insanely frustrating to watch people root for Mueller on the sidelines instead of getting out there into the streets. Direct action gets the goods, as the IWW used to say. The airport protests pushed back against the Muslim ban. Massive protests last summer led to the end of the family separation policy. If the offices of every Democrat in Congress and every Republican of the Amash stripe (there are a few) were picketed by protestors I would bet you that Pelosi's impeachment reluctance would fade.

Anyone waiting for process, institutions, or democratic norms to sort out this mess on their own without mass action is not just naive, they are actively doing harm. Way too many middle class liberals believe way too much in the system's benevolence, and are far too meek to raise the hell necessary to fight this lawless regime. It's time for more direct action, and for those people lobotomized by watching The West Wing to pick a side.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Rumors of War on Memorial Day

It's a beautiful Memorial Day here in New Jersey, exactly what you would ask for. As always, this holiday meant to commemorate the dead of American wars has been used for anything but. People online turn it into Second Veterans Day and Second Armed Forces Day where they talk about the troops or their uncle's service in Vietnam but not about the fallen. Americans don't like to think much about death, nor about the human consequences of war.

I remember the shock I felt as a child when I found out that my piano teacher's first husband died in the Battle of Okinawa. To me World War II was one of the "good wars," unlike Vietnam, whose horrors were dominating movie screens at the time. I had never really thought about how the "good" wars demand that the lives of young people whose lives have barely begun be sacrificed.

I think about this a lot, since wars like Vietnam and Iraq demanded this sacrifice, but completely unnecessarily. The last time I saw the Vietnam memorial in DC was about seven years ago, and my eyes were filled with tears of rage. Being confronted by that list of people who lost their lives for a lie was almost too much to take.

Instead of giving us pause, Memorial Day becomes yet another day to wave the flag. The subtext beneath all the local hometown parades is purely nationalistic, pretty much indistinguishable from the Fourth of July. We are a nation conditioned to war.

I was born in 1975, a few months after the fall of Saigon. The United States did not wage a full-scale war until the Gulf War in 1991, when I was fifteen. Opposition to new wars was pretty broad during my childhood. When Congress forbade Reagan from intervening in Nicaragua, that was a popular position. My students were born after 9/11, and so the United States has been at war for their entire lives, with no end in sight and very little concerted opposition to future wars.

This day, which should be for national reflection on the lives our nation has sacrificed for good causes and bad, is the ultimate symbol of our war mongering ways. We wave the flag, grill burgers, and watch the jet flyovers with no thought to the black soldier massacred at Fort Pillow, the doughboy blown apart by a trench mortar, or the sailor drowned in the waters of Pearl Harbor.

And so rumors of war fly again. Our nation rattles the saber with Iran and starts talking about the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuela. It may be there or someone else, but I would bet anything that soon enough there will be more American names added to the "roll of honor" on ground where their blood has yet to be spilled. The way we celebrate Memorial Day is all the proof I need.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Reading Le Carre in the Age of Trump

Behold 1970s London, in all its grimy, depressing glory

After dabbling with the works of John Le Carre over the years, I recently got completely hooked on him. I am currently on Smiley's People, my fourth Le Carre novel since March with no signs of slowing down.

As much as I love Le Carre's writing by itself, I think the current moment has made his work a big draw for me. This might seem paradoxical, since I've been reading his Cold War novels, which appear to describe a political world completely foreign to our own. This is especially the case with his "Karla Trilogy" of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People. They were written in the 1970s, when the Cold War's intensity waned and the prestige of spying had worn off. The spies in these novels continue to play a deadly game that most people have stopped caring to watch. This gray 1970s world seems so unlike our own overheated, garish Trumpian fantasia.

Le Carre's main thesis in the Smiley novels is the futility of the Cold War spy game. The agencies are lost in a maze of mirrors, unable to see clearly through the haze of paranoia and confusion. While he has an obvious dislike of the Soviet Union, Le Carre shows the West doing terrible things to try to win the game. In the process it diminishes the ideals that it is supposedly fighting to protect. This all seems especially futile in the 1970s, after three decades of fighting a conflict with no end in sight. While I am much more convinced of the justice of the cause of stopping the global wave of nationalism than Smiley may have been of his own, I am feeling a similar futility. I do not think the war will be won. It won't necessarily be lost either. I see stretched out before me decades of conflict and costly yet ineffectual struggle.

Another feature of Le Carre's books is how Smiley and other agents must constantly deal with the fatuous nature of politicians and higher-ups within the agency. The leaders of the system they are defending are lame and uninspiring. I've been thinking about this a lot in regards to the current political situation. I have stayed engage despite, rather than because, of the political leaders of the Democratic party. Trump keeps discovering new ways to abuse his power, but Pelosi and others keep ruling out impeachment, the exact legal remedy for these situations. They have become so comfortable in their power that they don't want to have to actually take a risk. In this regard they remind me of Oliver Lacon, a recurring Le Carre character. He's a product of the upper class and a civilian overseer of the secret service. Lacon is typically concerned with what can't be done, as opposed to what can be done. He's not all that desperate to get things done because deep down, he knows that he will be okay.

Back in November of 2016 I was depressed. In 2017 and 2018 I was extremely politically active, but now it seems that so many people who pledged to resist the current regime have just gone home. It's hard to participate in protest and political agitation by myself, which is basically the current situation. Like George Smiley, I can't give up a fight that may ultimately be futile. It's a strange thing to commit oneself to, and I am glad I have John Le Carre novels to help me along.

Monday, May 20, 2019

How The Phantom Menace Saved Me From Fandom

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the release of The Phantom Menace, a film that in many respects marked the beginning of our current moviemaking culture. The heavy use of CGI and its role in extending a beloved franchise were harbingers of the future. It's a film that made over a billion dollars, but is one that no sane person thinks is a great movie. It's best known today as fodder for jokes and derision.

It is safe to say that there is no film I have ever seen or ever will see that filled me with such anticipation. I was one of the Star Wars firekeeper fans. The original films dominated the pop culture Zeitgeist in the late 70s and early 80s, but were very quickly thought of as passe. When my sixth grade class had to choose an end of school year movie in the spring of 1988 I lobbied for Return of the Jedi, and my teacher was shocked. "You still want to watch that kid stuff?" he asked. (The chosen film was Monster Squad. History has vindicated me.)

I stayed true to Star Wars, recording the movies off of network TV and practically wearing out the tapes. I devoured Timothy Zahn's Heir to Empire when it came out in 1991 and read the Dark Horse comics. In those pre-Amazon days my best friend in high school managed to cajole the manager of the local Ben Franklin variety store to order models of the old Star Wars ships for him. He spent a summer doing an epic detailing job on the Millennium Falcon.When I was in college I delighted in getting the remastered versions of the trilogy on VHS (not knowing this would be the last time they'd be available in their original form.)

Seeing the special edition of Star Wars in the theater in 1997 was absolutely thrilling, even if I was underwhelmed by the new additions. That night in the theater the mood was positively joyous. I made sure to see it at the now sadly defunct Indian Hills Theater in Omaha, which had a giant 60 foot concave Cinerama screen. Star Wars had never looked so good.

Two years later, I could barely contain my excitement at seeing The Phantom Menace. Part of me wondered if I would be capable of viewing the movie in any kind of objective light. If it was shit would I ever recognize the fact? I saw it at a much less exalted location, a junky movie theater on the South Side of Chicago. At one point a derelict the row in front of me was passed out, snoring.

The film perplexed me. I liked the lightsaber battles and the pod race, but so much of it just seemed off, and the dialogue just flat. I also didn't buy this budding relationship between a kid and a teenage girl much more mature than him. Of course, nothing bugged me more than Jar Jar. The comic relief in the original trilogy was so natural, here it was forced and grating. However, I thought the film looked visually stunning, and I'd never really seen CGI used so well before.

I left that first night telling myself that it was still a new Star Wars flick, and hey "Isn't this supposed to be kids' stuff?" I went again, and then realized that the movie actually kinda sucked. Soon The Matrix and The Fellowship Of The Ring would blow George Lucas' vision out of the water and The Phantom Menace would just seem lame. I hoped for better from Attack of the Clones, but that film was arguably worse.

The second film completed the shift in mentality that the first had begun. I didn't get mad at George Lucas or anything like that. I realized simply that I had probably invested too much of myself in Star Wars. If they were going to make shitty Star Wars movies, maybe I just didn't need to care about it so much. I remain a big fan of Star Wars, but that fandom in no way is fundamental to my identity. I would like to thank The Phantom Menace for that.

Fan culture has become so rotten and toxic. Fans expect fan service in their movies, and for the artists who make the film to only do what the fans demand. This of course is a recipe for really boring entertainment. Even worse, fans talk about box office receipts like they are some kind of personal validation. "Avengers made the most money, so that means I'm the best!" What kind of messed-up perspective on the world is that?

By all accounts George Lucas is a good boss who gives very generously to fine causes. He also jealously guards his independence to a fault. When there was no one who could say no to him, he was allowed to indulge his worst tendencies, and the prequels were the result. While those films were a letdown, I wish the "fans" had gotten the right message. As much as you care about this stuff, ultimately you don't own it. Lucas has made that clear through his impounding of the original version of Episode IV. As much as I am dying to see it again, I'm also pleased that his recalcitrance is angering the fans (including myself) so much.

So today I would like to thank George Lucas for making a bad movie and giving me a little perspective.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Lessons From Living in the Anti-Abortion Bubble

Citizen Ruth, by my fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, seems more relevant than ever

I grew up in a very devoutly Catholic family in small-town Nebraska in the 1980s and early 1990s. I heard about abortion constantly from a very young age, it might have been the first political issue I was even really aware of. The first time I ever participated in a political protest was holding an "Abortion Kills Children" sign as part of one of the nationwide protest days (not sure which, but it was on a Sunday.) I participated in this event multiple times.

I was an altar boy who for a time thought about going for the priesthood, and was a member of Catholic youth groups in high school. My experience in the church was very positive, so I was primed to accept its line on abortion uncritically. Most of the congregants of the church were, like me of German ancestry. After the world wars our forebears had chosen complete assimilation to avoid having their patriotism questioned. This meant that the local cuisine was drained of any of its ethnic flavor, and that the brand of Catholicism was especially zealous. In other communities in America being Catholic is part of being Irish, Italian, Mexican, etc. Where I am from being Catholic is part of being Catholic.

The one and only political commitment demanded of this brand of Catholicism was opposition to abortion. There was not a month that went by when it did not make its way into the priest's sermons. The church bulletin boards always had information about anti-abortion organizations. Abortion was really the one and only time we were ever asked as Catholics to apply our faith to society. Jesus' exhortations to protect the most vulnerable among us were often interpreted to mean that we were demanded by God to defend "the unborn." (This had the added effect of not challenging the congregants on their support for the Reagan era assault on the poor.) After being told this message every week for years from the mouths of some of the people in my life that I trusted the most, it's no wonder I found myself carrying signs in anti-abortion protests.

My views have changed a lot since then, but I think my experience in the bubble might shed some light on the recent wave of draconian laws outlawing abortion across the country that I hope can aid in fighting back.

The first thing to understand is that the anti-abortion movement bears some similarities to the NRA. In both cases the majority of the country does not agree with the goals of these groups. Banning abortions outright and lifting all restrictions on guns are very unpopular positions. However, both movements have captured one of the major parties, which means that Republicans who are not really anti-abortion in their hearts (or who even ask their mistresses to get them) will vote for the most extreme abortion restrictions to maintain the support of the large group of one-issue voters.

The pro-gun and anti-abortion movements are also similar in that while they are a minority, their members care a LOT more about these issues than the people in favor of legalized abortion and gun control. There's obviously a strong pro-choice movement out there, but few people who agree with legalized abortion are part of it. The anti-abortion movement also benefits from the mobilization resources possessed by churches. In order to push this movement back, the silent majority of those in favor of choice needs to be mobilized with equal fervor, because those on the pro-life side never rest.

Having grown up in that milieu, I understand why. If someone really and truly believes that an abortion is tantamount to murder, and that God himself demands that something must be done about it, it is extremely hard for them not to put everything they've got into this issue. Some folks on the other side make the mistake of assuming that the cynical exploitation of these beliefs by conservative politicians means that pro-lifers don't really believe that they are stopping genocide, but I can assure you that they definitely do. There really isn't any point to changing anyone's mind, the real issue is getting that aforementioned silent majority engaged. Once the Republican party has to pay a price for its abortion position, it will go back to treating it as a matter of conscience among its members as opposed to a core priority.

While the belief that abortion equals murder among pro-lifers is a sincere one, the issue does indeed carry symbolic weight. If you come to my home region, you will notice that there are anti-abortion signs everywhere, unlike any other political issue. On my last trip back I got to thinking about this, and I think this tendency, along with the local churches' emphasis on it, demonstrates that abortion is a general proxy for traditional society. In the places where anti-abortion feeling is the hottest, there is also anxiety about the loss of "traditional values." This was a common refrain in church, but the one specific political issue this always seemed to land on was abortion. It stood in for anxieties about the nuclear family, women's sexuality, and women's liberation in general. It was about more than "controlling women's bodies" because women who were committed to traditional values were the staunchest supporters of the pro-life movement in my community. (You could call this the Schlafly Effect.)

However, it is not merely a political issue. Like guns, it is embedded in the very IDENTITY of those who call themselves "pro-life." This means fighting back against this determined minority is going to be tough, but the only way to do it is with a fight. The other side is not going to rest, nor or they going to change their minds.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Imperial Precipice

The Roman Empire survived Caligula, but the American one may not live through it's own mad emperor

This week has brought some hair-raising news about American foreign policy. North Korea’s missile launch indicates the complete breakdown of nuclear talks with that nation after America already bargained away one of its biggest chips by already granting a summit meeting. Trump has initiated a trade war with China, confident that he can win it. The United States supported an unsuccessful coup in Venezuela that led to civilian deaths. On top of it all, the Trump administration seems ready to gear up for war in Iran. All of this news seems to have registered very little with an apathetic public and a Resistance that tends to have tunnel vision around Trump’s corruption and Russia connections. The media, as always, is treating this as a normal presidency because to do otherwise would force them to actually have to take risks.

I see the events this week as a sign of America’s imperial precipice. Like the Roman empire, its height lasted much shorter than its long, slow decline. The fall of Saigon in 1975 marked the definitive end of the apex, along with the Iran Hostage Crisis. The fall of the Soviet Union was a Pyrrhic victory; the United States merely outlasted their enemy in a Cold War that hobbled them. 

That too was masked by the Gulf War, which happened right on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The failed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ten years later exposed the weakness of the American Colossus. What was once deemed a "hyperpower" looks pretty pathetic. This supposedly all-powerful nation's bridges are falling apart, its people are killing themselves at fearsome rates, and many more die of guns and opiates. Nothing is being done to solve any of these problems, a sign of the collapse of the political system

The failed diplomacy in Korea and failed coup in Venezuela are signs of a creaky empire led by a feckless, incompetent wannabe emperor. The trade war with China and the threats against Iran are signs of this mad emperor's complete recklessness. So many people in America are paying this little mind, worn down by Trump's erratic behavior, or still believing that America will never lose its preeminent place in the world.

I look at this and see and empire about to fall off a clip. History tells us that mighty empires can hold on even after decades of rot. However, once an empire has rotted from within, all it takes is one good hard whack to send the whole thing crumbling down. Rarely do people at the time anticipate this.

I am currently reading Stephen Platt's recent book on the Opium War, and I am struck by how fast China's empire was brought low. In the late 18th century Europeans considered China to be not only a massive and powerful country, but far more advanced in civilization than Europe. Something like a third of the world's population lived there. The rot of corruption and complacency existed in the Qing Dynasty, but that was hard to see from the outside. It only took the short, sharp shock of the Royal Navy's cannons to turn that mighty empire into a pawn for outsiders. I likewise think of the Soviet Union, which in the early 1980s appeared to be an eternal monolith. In 1985 when Gorbachev took control no one could have possibly imagined that he would be its last leader. 

Other historical empires had disastrous rulers through the accident of birth, which can wreck monarchical systems. America's precipice is so striking because Trump was elected, and even though he has been behaving like a tyrant, his opponents refuse to impeach him. His presence in the White House is truly one of the greatest self-owns in human history.

I honestly believe that something like an invasion of Iran would be the disaster that finally brings permanent imperial retreat, a la Britain and the Suez Crisis. Actually, imperial retreat is an optimistic outcome. Collapse is more likely on the radar. That might seem hyperbolic, but history shows us otherwise.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Richard Thompson, "Salford Sunday"

I recently found out that Richard Thompson has moved to Montclair, New Jersey, a town I know well not far from where I live. As a huge fan of his music, I find this to be very exciting. I am now on the lookout for an older bearded man with a beret and English accent. Also, knowing his sensibility, I think he will feel at home in New Jersey.

Of all of the rock artists who originated in the 1960s, Thompson has probably done the best work of all of them in the 21st century. Because he's less well known than his peers, this fact has largely slipped under the radar of those outside of his cult. While most artists of his generation have either been playing their aging hits to their aging fans or cutting mediocre albums in the last 20 years, Thompson has put out a staggering amount of great new music.

One of my favorites, Electric, came out in 2013. The title is truth in advertising, as Thompson ended his acoustic detour to cut some songs with his vintage guitar sound, which is like Jimi Hendrix if he was raised on English folk music instead of the blues. While there are some real ravers on that record, my favorite is the moody, slower "Salford Sunday." 

When I hear the song, it is like I am getting a message from an alternate life. It's from the point of view of a man making up in the grim, gritty northern English town, hungover on a Sunday morning. He has a "bass drum" beating in his head, but also a "cold side of the bed." It's a beautifully subtle way of saying that his significant other has left him. He partied and drank away his cares on Saturday night, but in the rainy, dark, and quiet English Sunday morning reality has set in again.

This song chills me because this could have been me, but with the Sunday weather a little different in America. When I left grad school for my first job as a professor I broke up with my girlfriend and pretty much resolved myself to a life of being single. I'd go out on Saturday night and have a blast, then would wake up the next day with an all-consuming loneliness on Sunday morning. It was the time during the week that I felt most acutely that I had committed myself to an unfulfilling life. That ended a few months later when my now wife and I connected, but I will never forget those grim fall and winter months in West Michigan, which is just as dark as Salford that time of year.

This song's evocative nature is grounded, of course, in Thompson's abilities as a songwriter. He is an expert at rendering the emotions of regret and resignation and restlessness. (This is not the emotional terrain that makes for pop stars.) There's no guitar pyrotechnics this time, just a beautifully lush riff. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Pleasures and Despair of Driving in Suburban New Jersey

New Jersey. “The Garden State if you’re growing smokestacks” as a friend from Trenton used to say. New Jersey, butt of jokes from New Yorkers who can barely see across the Hudson River to find targets for their derision. New Jersey, immortalized in The Sopranos as the land where the American dream’s degeneration is on full display. New Jersey, the state Bruce Springsteen elevated on thousands of concert stages, but also as a place to be “born to run” from.

New Jersey also happens to be the most suburban state in the country. Nine million people live here, but proud Newark, our largest city, has fewer than 300,000. New Jersey’s image is what it is in part because it maps so well onto ideas people have about suburbs, especially citified, educated people (many of whom grew up in the suburbs themselves.)

I am a reluctant suburbanite and accidental New Jerseyan, both of those things being connected. I grew up in rural Nebraska, and later spent time living in big cities like Chicago and Berlin, and college towns like Champaign and Nacogdoches, and mid-sized cities like Omaha and Grand Rapids. After I fell in love with a Jersey girl I left my old life behind and moved to Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, as densely populated as any New York City neighborhood, and at least as diverse and interesting. (I know this may come as a shock to some New Yorkers.)

Then came the familiar story, and not one of pride and glory. We had twins, our apartment could barely hold us, and so we ventured out to suburbia, where we could find an affordable home.

I miss being able to walk a block to the Portuguese bakery with the big pot of caldo verde behind the counter. I miss grabbing some fruit at the street market on my walk back from the train station. I miss going to Brazilian barbecues and stuffing my face with marinated meat on skewers. I miss the little kids running up with smiles on their faces asking to pet my dog when I walked her. While the increased space in our home is nice and the local schools are well-supported, plenty has been lost. Along with the schools and space there is an ambivalent thing I have gained: the suburban drive.

Driving is the quintessential suburban activity. The car is king, and the entire human environment here is crafted to best serve that sovereign. I learned to enjoy the suburban drive as a leisure activity by happenstance. When we first moved here my daughters still required naps but were reluctant to take them, so I would just put them in the backseat and drive around until they fell asleep.

One of my favorite places to drive was on Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, since it was a long straight road with few stoplights, all factors in helping my daughters drift off to sleep. The road follows said valley, right beneath the steep hills that mark the furthest eastern march of the Appalachians. It also happens to be the namesake of the 1967 Monkees hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King while they lived in the area after moving from New York City. The song’s sarcastic take on suburbia reflected their unhappiness there. The
original demo ends more ominously than the recorded hit with the line “I don’t ever want to see another Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

But the New Jersey suburbs, despite their best efforts, contain multitudes.

I always think that when I drive into Summit, New Jersey, from my town of Maplewood. I exit off of highway 24 onto Broad Street, which ascends the town’s titular summit beneath a gorgeous grove of sycamore trees. Its sublimity was revealed to me one bright June afternoon while I was listening to Belle and Sebastian’s “I Know Where The Summer Goes” in my car, the sunlight through the leaves dappling my windshield. Summit’s existence predates the postwar suburban explosion. Its downtown park contains a reverent art nouveau monument to the World War I dead of Summit, unaware that their sacrifice merely paved the way for a newer, bigger, deadlier war. Today thousands drive by without even noticing it.

At the time of the war the town’s most famous resident was Anthony Comstock, he of the infamous “Comstock Laws.” A former postal inspector, Comstock successfully lobbied for restrictions on “obscene materials” being sent through the mail, including information about birth control. In that era’s twilight of Victorian values his name was synonymous with moral probity or busy-body prudishness, depending on who you were.

But New Jersey indeed contains multitudes, because the same sleepy Summit where Comstock lived, now a haven for Wall Street commuter types, is also important in the The Velvet Underground’s story. That band, associated so heavily with New York, decadence, experimentation and the dark side of life played their first show at Summit High. I can imagine that the sound of songs about sado-masochism and heroin addiction may well have roused poor Anthony Comstock from his grave.

My drives into Summit and West Orange are a pleasure in themselves. Most, however, are merely utilitarian in purpose and grueling in execution. Just going about the daily business of life requires a lot of driving, and when it comes to shopping especially, those drives are grueling.

Just as Pleasant Valley Way and Broad Street have a curving, languid ease to them surrounded by trees and hills, other roads are jarring in their ugliness. I often find myself on Route 10 in East Hanover, which is a jumble of box stores and strip malls alongside what fifty years ago was a farm road dating to colonial times. Today Route 10 possesses a startling inhumanity, a space made for cars and stores and fast food restaurants and devoid of life and charm. It is proof that American capitalism can in fact create even more grotesque public spaces than what Soviet planners were able to manage.

 Route 10’s ebbs and flows are also a good marker of America’s economic boom and bust cycle over the past twenty years. For a long time after the 2008 crash, coming into East Hanover from neighboring Livingston lied a space I called the “dead zone.” Empty car dealerships with weed-cracked parking lots sat by a sign for a strip mall complex that was almost barren. It had been anchored by a Borders, and the other stores there met a similar fate. Now life has returned to that complex and the dead zone, where I used to joke as I drove with my wife that we had to “look out for chuds and zombies.” Fittingly, however, the now defunct Toys R Us was located too in that tidewater of capitalism. When the next bust comes and the tides recede, I am sure it will empty out again.

Further up the road, where business was always booming, traffic has become atrocious. Hulking SUVs belching exhaust line up to go to Costco and fill up on massive quantities of consumer goods, cars snake around Starbuck’s to get a cold brew, and the Bed Bath and Beyond parking lot is almost always full. It is not a space I enjoy being in, but my suburban home most be fed. Suburban drives like this tend to shock me out of my thinking that this way of living was ever a good idea.

Driving on route 22 in Union is even worse. This is a road that I assume was created as a grand experiment in psychological terror. It is a divided highway without stoplights. There are chain stores and fast food restaurants on both sides of the highway, as well as in an island full of strip malls in the middle. If you are traveling westbound but need to go to a store on the eastbound side this means finding a little u-turn whiparound and trying to merge into traffic that’s going fifty or sixty miles an hour from a dead stop on the left side with limited visibility. Every time I drive there I do so in mortal terror.

I am shocked that this road is not a daily scene of carnage. I brave it because it contains one of those suburban amenities that’s a saving grace to parents of young children: a McDonald’s with a play area. So much suburban public space is privatized, and when winter comes and I desperately need to get my children out of the house I end up at the mall and McDonald’s far more often than I’d like.

If there is a suburban drive that is the antithesis to the anxiety-creating worlds of route 10 and route 22, it’s the drive on Cherry Lane and Brookside Drive through South Mountain Reservation. In the 1890s, as my corner of New Jersey was first sprouting suburban towns connected to New York City by railroad, Essex County bought up over 2,000 acres to be preserved, under the guidance of Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It is still a wonderful place to go for a hike, and while in the woods it is possible to totally lose one’s sense that they are living in the most densely populated state in the country, with highways and Jamba Juice just over the horizon. Deep in the woods the sound of the wind rustling the trees even drowns out the faint hum of cars on the highway.

That feeling of being transported by natural beauty comes as the road winds through the thick forests, with little ponds by the side of the road. Every time I drive through the Reservation I look at the hills and trees and think of a time when the entire area looked like this. Not so long ago the little hill in Maplewood where my house sits probably looked exactly the same.

When I can envision what my neighborhood once was, I think a lot about the suburban way of life and how it is destined to be a fleeting moment in world history. Sprawling populations using fossil fuel-powered automobiles to do everything from getting the groceries to going to spin class are simultaneously killing the earth. This Shangri-La is built on a slaughterhouse. For all the beauties of the suburban drive, our descendants will probably shake their heads in judgment and confusion that we destroyed the world so that something like the commercial strip on route 22 could exist. They will not see such things with the same mixture of contempt and awe we have for the palaces of Louis XIV or the Tsar’s Fabrege eggs. That would require any redeeming ounce of beauty amidst the senseless waste and indulgence.

So suburban New Jersey contains multitudes indeed. The apex of 20th century America’s broad prosperity and stark reminders of its capacity for wholesale destruction sit side by side. Just take a New Jersey suburban drive through Essex County and witness it yourself.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Old Dad's Records 40 (England's Oldest Hitmakers)

Episode #40 of Old Dad's Records is now live. Every tenth episode I try to talk about a cherished record in my collection rather than mining oddities. The news about Mick Jagger's health ailments and the Stones postponing their American tour along with the release of their new compilation had me thinking it was finally time to discuss them in detail on the pod. I start with Devo's cover of "Satisfaction," since shows pretty starkly the evolution of rock music post-punk away from what bands like the Stones were doing. From there I do a deep dive into Beggar's Banquet, the album that started the Stones' golden four album run. Instead of discussing a new song at the end of the episode, I try to defend the band's much-maligned psychedelic period by raving about the song "Citadel" from Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Commercials From Hell: Bartles and Jaymes

In the 1980s wine coolers bestrode America like a colossus. Yuppies had given wine a leg up, but most Americans didn't know a chardonnay from a merlot. Wine coolers allowed cheap sophistication, and 17 year olds who did not like the taste of beer could now drink something less potent than vodka and cranberry juice.

The actual drink was pretty atrocious. A few years ago as a joke I picked up a pack of them for a party, and they tasted like Mad Dog doused in corn syrup. (Don't ask me why I know the taste of Mad Dog so well.) At that moment I realized that I had been seduced by nostalgia not for the taste of wine coolers, but for their commercials.

Bartles and Jaymes had some of the catchiest commercials of the 1980s. Two old codgers dressed in an old-timey way pitched the product. Bartles did all of the talking, and finished off his little folksy monologue with "thank you for your support." Jaymes stood in the background, a silent enigma with a wry smile. These ads took a mediocre corporate product and made it seem like the passion project of local eccentrics.

The ads also smartly contrasted the new product consumed by a young audience with the old-fashioned characters and their courtly formality. There's nothing more poisonous for a youth product's advertising than pandering to what middle-aged ad execs think young people want. This ad also fit in with the old people as cute mascots trend of the 1980s, from the "Where's the Beef" lady to Sophia on Golden Girls.

Watching it now, the sensibility seems so alien from modern day advertising, to the point that it feels refreshing. Certainly much more refreshing than the product it's pushing.