Sunday, June 30, 2019

If The Democratic Primary Field Was a University History Department

The Democratic primary field is a mix of clashing personalities who like to hear themselves talk and where white men are overrepresented. I was immediately reminded of the dynamics in a university history department when I watched this week's debates. With that in mind, here is the Democratic primary field (or at least most of it) as a history department.

Joe Biden is the old professor still teaching off of notes he typed up in 1975 and who gets handsy at the holiday party after one too many scotch and sodas. His colleagues have been privately asking themselves for years why he hasn't retired yet.

Bernie Sanders is the old Marxist scholar who doesn't show up to all of the faculty meetings, but when he does he's salty and still holds grudges established in 1983. While most of his colleagues are ambivalent to him, the grad students and adjuncts like him because he's one of the few tenured people to actually bring their concerns to the faculty.

Kamala Harris is the hotshot rising associate professor known for showing up to job talks and destroying weak candidates with withering questions. She also suddenly became a transnational historian once that became a popular topic and abandoned her dissertation on diplomatic history.

Elizabeth Warren is the established full professor who is still putting out highly regarded research while having a high reputation as a teacher. She also has managed to take Professor Sanders' side in faculty meeting disputes without alienating her colleagues.

Beto O'Rourke is the young, run of the mill assistant professor who thinks he is above his current department, and tries and fails every year to land a job at a more prestigious university.

Tim Ryan thinks his obsession with grade inflation is the reason that his class enrollments are low, not the fact that he is an insufferable ass who lacks empathy for his students.

Amy Klobuchar is the professor who has racked up a lot of publications but has never mentored a graduate student on through their dissertation, despite taking on several of them in their first year at the school. When asked about this her former advisees, who always take on a different advisor or drop out, go silent. Junior colleagues pray that she's not on their tenure committee.

When Tulsi Gabbard comes up in conversation her colleagues sigh and point fingers over who was responsible for hiring her.

Pete Buttigieg is the Type A personality assistant professor who got hired while he was still ABD at an Ivy League university. He was the golden child of his well-known advisor, but he mysteriously hasn't published anything yet.

Julian Castro is the new hire that nobody talked about when he arrived but had the fattest binders when he applied for tenure.

Cory Booker is the professor who is constantly talking about himself. This draws a core group of impressionable students who don't understand why the other professors roll their eyes when they express their admiration for him.

Marianne Williamson is the professor who burns incense in her office and invites grad students over to her home to try edibles.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Thoughts on Metzl's Dying of Whiteness

I just finished Jonathan Metzl's Dying of Whiteness, a book I had been excited about from the time of its release. In case you don't know, he is a psychiatrist who uses case studies in Tennessee, Kansas, and Missouri to show how Republican policies in those states have severely damaged the health and well-being of the people who there. Furthermore, he connects the political popularity of those policies among the very people they harm to white identity formation of the people who vote for them. According to Metzl, these people vote for gun proliferation, limiting Medicaid, and defunding public schools do so because they want to defend the "castle" of whiteness by "protecting" themselves against others and making sure those others are not allowed to share resources with them.

I found it to be very persuasive, and not just because this is something I have observed in my own personal life. Metzl incorporates both quantitative and qualitative data and approaches both with sophistication and sensitivity.

While the end of the book offers some optimism in the form of the defeat of Kris Kobach in Kansas and that state's rejection of educational austerity, I came away from it horribly depressed. Metzl lays out a prescription for a politics that can overcome white backlash, but I am more and more convinced that the future will only get worse.

Just take yesterday's Supreme Court decision on gerrymandering. With this ruling states that already cut up districts to amplify the votes of white reactionaries in the suburbs and small towns will act with greater impunity. This will make it even easier for backlash politicians to get by while only appealing to their base. You can add this to voter suppression, the filibuster, the reactionaries dominating the courts, and the structure of the Senate. And on top of all this political structure you have Fox News and Facebook constituting the most effective propaganda tools this country has ever seen. The only way forward is a mass movement willing to fundamentally transform the system. Any look at the current situation -and especially the Democratic Party- tells us that's not happening anytime soon.

Metzl's book can't touch on everything, so I would to add a couple of wrinkles to his analysis that I think both confirm his thesis but also undercut optimism for the future. I think there needs to be more about religion in his analysis, and I do not mean how certain modes of religion directly reinforce whiteness. I am thinking more about what I would call a religious frame of mind. Certain forms of Christianity, especially evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism, encourage their adherents to take a dogmatic, all or nothing approach to their faith. If any one thing the believe is wrong, then it is all a lie, so every attempt to question even the most absurd aspects of their faith must be fiercely opposed. In fact, it's the most absurd provisions, like saying the earth is 6000 years old, that must be the most fervently defended because they are the ones most assaulted.

This helps explain some of the respondents in Metzl's focus groups. For instance, those who lost close family members to gun suicide refused to believe that easy access to guns was a contributing factor. In order for their worldview to hold together, guns could never be questioned. The same goes for those in Tennessee who were suffering horrible health ailments and had limited care options but still decried Obamacare. If they had to admit that they were wrong about their need for health care, then in their minds their entire way of understanding the world was false. That religious mindset makes changing someone's mind incredibly difficult to do.

One of the most compelling things about Dying of Whiteness is Metzl's use of the "castle" metaphor. A lot of gun proliferation is justified by the "castle doctrine" that a person's home is their fortress, meaning they can do what they want there (leave loaded guns unlocked) and defend it how they please (by shooting suspected intruders.) The white people Metzl talks to are constantly afraid that "those people" will breach their homes or the more metaphorical castle of whiteness.

He could have talked even more about how white communities writ large are literal fortresses built with whites only home loans and policed in ways to keep people of color out to this day. While the country at large is becoming less white, many rural, small town, and suburban communities are still overwhelmingly white today. Those suburbs were constructed in an explicitly exclusionary fashion, and many of those towns were "sundown towns" a century ago. In these places the locals fight tooth and nail to resist school consolidation, affordable housing, and anything else that might mean sharing space and resources with black and brown people. That sense of living in a fortress is written in the DNA of the very places most white people in America live and breathe. It is hardly a wonder that a majority of white people voted for Trump.

I guess this is a way of saying that Metzl's thesis is so clearly true that you could easily list far more examples of the salience of whiteness to America's current political mess. Sadly I think whiteness will go on killing, at the border, at the hands of the police, and in the homes of the very white people voting to destroy their own health, education, and safety to maintain their relative position.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Six Days On The Road

I've taken the longest hiatus in awhile from this blog. I just got back from taking a group of students on a road trip through the South visiting historical sites, most of them connected to the histories of slavery, civil rights, and the Civil War. I will talk more deeply about this experience later, but today I just have one main observation.

I have lived in the NYC area for the past eight years, and when I leave to travel in many other parts of the country I am reminded of how much more generally prosperous this region is compared to others. Some of this is general prosperity deriving from the area's economic base, but a lot of it comes from a society that is willing to build a safety net.

There is horrific inequality in this part of the country, but what I saw on this trip was a much bigger bottom much deeper in the hole. The crumbling shotgun shacks in Montgomery, homeless encampments in Atlanta, blighted neighborhoods in Chattanooga, and rusty trailers along countless rural roads all seemed to signal the false promises of the Sun Belt. All the fancy coffeeshops and craft beer bars can't hide that.

This is the region that attracts so many corporations with promises of low taxation. In Chattanooga auto workers voted against a UAW union this month. They are being fed a myth that the race to the bottom somehow means a better life for all. In actuality it's just a continuation of the South's old history of cheap labor being used to keep a group of reactionary grandees at the top. That Southern style of labor relations has been exported to the rest of the country over the past forty years.

This trip prompted a lot of thoughts from me, but the most depressing was that our current worsening inequality is not the precursor to a rebellion of the oppressed, but to a permanent state of brutal hierarchy. White racial resentment is currently the most powerful political force in America, the same force that kept Jim Crow in place for almost a century. I more and more believe that the period from 1965 to 2016, as messed up as it was, constitutes a mere blip in a larger history. I wish that wasn't the case, but it's best to see the world realistically.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Uncle Tupelo, "Outdone" (Track of the Week)

I've been thinking a lot about my rural Nebraska hometown recently. Partly this was out of hearing that a bunch of businesses that were important to me there are closing, and partly this was due to finding out two priests I worked with as an altar boy were listed by the diocese as having committed sexual abuse. One of them was excommunicated 25 years ago, but this was all hushed up because I never heard about it and am finding it impossible to find information out about it.

I'll probably write more about that soon, but today I've been retreating into the music of the band that best gets at my ambivalent feelings for my homeland: Uncle Tupelo.

I first discovered them in the spring of 1994, right as I was leaving my hometown behind. Their music blew me away, a combination of punk and country roots suffused with a critical political stance and poetic words about small town Midwestern life. I felt such a kinship with Uncle Tupelo, since they seemed to be so much like me and nothing else in the pop culture universe at the time really was.

Listening to the band's compilation on Spotify while I rode the commuter train to Manhattan I was struck by "Outdone," a song that had never been a favorite before. The chorus really hit me "Now there's too many people trying to hard/ Not to be outdone/ They follow close being their proud smoking gun." Amid the thrash of the twangy punk I hear a disdain for the daily rat race, an emotion that gives my Gen X soul all the feels.

I guess the song struck me because as much as I like living in the New York City area, some parts of it will never be comfortable for me. People here are much, much more status-oriented and hierarchical than back home in the Midwest. The local bourgeoisie here just constantly walks around high on their own bullshit. When I meet someone of that class background I've learned to not trust them until they reveal to me that they're not one of these striving yuppie bores. These are the kind of people in their status obsession who are so afraid of being outdone.

I don't miss the smalltown bigoted squareheads who bitch about Muslims and immigrants and think mayo is a spice. However, I do miss the small town sages who embraced the slower pace of life but look around them with a jaundiced eye. Sadly they've been written out of the "red state" narrative.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Die Was Cast in November of 2016

The people of Hong Kong are showing us how people should act in a democracy. We are failing the test.

In recent weeks I have been increasingly angered and unnerved and the lack of political action by opponents of the current regime. Trump keeps escalating, whether it be through suppressing the Mueller Report, claiming he would accept foreign help in the election, putting immigrants in concentration camps, putting said camps under military jurisdiction, engaging in a massively destructive trade war, manipulating the census to rig elections, and engaging in naked political corruption. In response to this, Nancy Pelosi won't even begin impeachment. The massive protests of 2017 have not repeated themselves.

These last few weeks I have felt an overwhelming urge to be on the barricades, but there's no one to lead the way or even to join up with me. I have never felt more frightened or downhearted since Trump has come to power, because back during the Muslim ban and last summer's family separation, people were taking action. Nowadays they are paralyzed.

Part of this is due to the poor leadership of the Democratic Party, which has been narrowly focused on electoral politics. Once the House was taken, all the fight seems to have been gone, even though winning the House was supposed to be the beginning, not the end of the story. Another part is the fact that so much of the "Resistance" is made up of comfortably middle-class suburban whites who are too complacent, protected, and numbed to be able to engage in the direct action necessary to fight back.

I also think, however, that so many have lost faith because they now believe, quite rightly I am afraid, that the die was cast in November of 2016. The bedrock fact is that Donald Trump holds the highest office in the land and has rigged the Supreme Court in his favor. He has weaponized all of the tools of the imperial presidency granted by the Cold War. Once in power, he was never going to allow himself to lose it. The next election will not be a free and fair election, and beyond voter suppression, gerrymandering, and God knows what other tactics our social media will be flooded with disinformation both domestic and foreign.

Just the fact of him becoming president was the product of the complete failure of our Constitutional system. The electoral college, which was created partially to stop a demagogue like Trump from being president, enabled him to win despite his loss of the popular vote. The country is so divided that the system is not going to be changed, so it will now essentially be a tool to ensure minority rule through the electoral college, Senate, the now-packed courts, and its tolerance for manipulating voter qualifications. The nagging thought I keep having is that we are not in a fight against creeping autocracy, we are instead merely flailing against an autocracy that grows stronger with each passing day.

I know I can do nothing else in this situation, other than fight. I have been calling my representatives and begging them to act with the urgency the current moment demands, but they are not. They, like everyone else, are just trying to close their eyes and go on as if nothing has changed. Perhaps I'm a fool for even bothering to still fight.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Joe Biden's Vanishing Consensus

Joe Biden has been involved in public life since sideburns and wide collars were acceptable on politicians. It's time for his to get out of the way.

I am breaking my resolution to stay away from the 2020 primary because I think we are seeing a bigger story playing out here beyond the horserace. When Donald Trump was elected president it should have been clear that "politics as usual" was over. (Even before his election Mitch McConnell's blocking of a Supreme Court nomination was proof enough.) Furthermore, anyone interested in actual political change could see that promising the American people to go back to the way it was before Trump was pretty weak tea. The only way forward is, well, forward.

Enter Joe Biden, first elected to the Senate in the early 70s. Now that he has entered the presidential race, he has shown just how many Democrats have refused to accept the new reality. They really want to believe that Republicans are simply good people that they disagree a little with, not fierce advocates for right wing extremism who are willing to suppress votes and engage in racial gerrymandering. Biden's comments this week, about how Republicans would somehow come to their senses after a Trump defeat, were pretty damning in this respect.

He is still stuck in a time when there was greater comity between the political parties. This is kind of surprising given Biden's role in the Bork affair, something that conservatives have long used to blame liberals for starting our never-ending low grade civil culture war.

You can see this as well in his comments on the Hyde Amendment, which since the 1970s has prevented federal funding of abortion. For a longtime this was accepted by many Democrats as part of a consensus on abortion. The practice was legalized nationwide, but government programs would not directly fund it. With the Republican attempts to criminalize abortion nationwide having obliterated one side of the bargain, rank and file Democrats are no longer willing to cede ground on the Hyde Amendment. Once Biden quickly understood this, he changed course immediately.

This was the political equivalent of an elder parent needing a child or grandchild to set up the wifi network in their house. Like a lot of people his age, Biden is kind of confused by the way things are today, and hasn't done the work to keep up. Telling Democrats to that they will be able to be friends with Republicans again reminds me of an older relative who told me to just call up universities and see if they had jobs after I had my PhD. No amount of me telling them that this is not how things are done was capable of changing their mind.

When I see the elders in my own life struggling to keep up I am understanding and try to help them. Joe Biden is trying to be president of the United States, an entirely different scenario. We don't need to help him figure it out, he just needs to get out of the way. Unfortunately, a lot of Democratic voters, especially the older ones, are just as clueless as he is. They too are unwilling to acknowledge the new reality. It is our job to break their stranglehold on the Democratic Party.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

"Southern Cross" (Track of the Week)

I am a big believer in the notion that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, at least how the category is usually constructed. We like what we like, and should never feel bad for what we like not being hip enough. I think, however, that one can feel embarrassed. I call such things "sheepish pleasures."

One of my sheepiest pleasures is the song "Southern Cross" by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Not only are they the avatars of the Boomers turning the 60s into a lifestyle brand, this song comes from the early 80s, well after their hour had passed. Back in the 90s the underrated Request magazine had a "Geezer" category in its reviews section exactly for stuff like this. It was all treated as a kind of joke, the lamest of lame music.

Despite that stigma, I think "Southern Cross" is my favorite CSN song (when you add the Y that's another story.) Age has weathered the group's voices a little, giving their famous harmonies a little something deeper in their sound. It's also not just hippy dippy stuff in the lyrics, either. It's a song about sailing as a metaphor for searching, of hitting some rough seas in your life and getting out of it and being reading to go to new horizons.

I love this theme because it is so transparently about *gulp* middle age. In my youth I disdained this music for that very reason, but now it resonates so clearly with me. I first really started appreciating this song the summer after I moved from Texas to New Jersey to start my new life post-academia. I had survived some stormy oceans and almost got shipwrecked along the way. My new lease on life felt like a miracle.

I was remembering that feeling yesterday on the commuter train ride home. It was the last day of classes for the school year, and I was feeling that usual sense of accomplishment and exhaustion. It's a sublime emotion that I never felt before I set sail from the familiar waters of my academic training into the uncharted seas of teaching high school. A new and better world was revealed to me, as foreign to the old one as the Southern Cross for a sailor who had never crossed the equator before. I'm so glad I made that journey.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

D-Day Anniversary Thoughts

I've been seeing things about the 75th anniversary of D-Day all day today, but it's left me nothing but conflicted and sad. It's a day that marked the inevitable demise of Hitler's regime, as well as the ascendance of the United States to being a true world power. Yet here we are 75 years later, the United States ruled by perhaps the worst person our society has barfed up in the last fifty years, that same man openly supported by American Nazis who dared to yell "Hail Trump!" on the day he took office. It seems as if the victory of that glorious day was for naught.

Of course, we should not romanticize D-Day too much. After all, the American government that fought the Nazis maintained a segregated military and denied black people the right to vote. It firebombed the people of Tokyo and dropped nuclear weapons on defenseless civilians. That being true, it was still a far greater evil that was defeated. I am still proud to this day that I had a great uncle who parachuted into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne.

But I am also aware of how empty that pride is. D-Day was a long time ago now. Instead of pining for the victories of the past, we ought to be far more concerned with the fight that cries out for our blood, sweat, and tears in the present. We are living in a world where nationalism is on the rise again, and shows no signs of abating. Our memories should not make us complacent, lulling us into the false notion that all the fights happened in the past. No, our memory of D-Day ought to be preparing us for a new kind of combat, one not fought on battlefields.

In Eisenhower's famous order of the day on D-Day, he proclaimed that "The eyes of the world are upon you." Now that gaze has shifted to us living right now, trying to fight the rise of Fascism 2.0. It is up to us to take the actions that will have us remembered 75 years from now. So let's get fighting!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Old Dad's Records 41 (Paydays and Crate Digging)

The newest episode of my podcast is all about paydays and digging for obscure records. I start with the 80s new jack swing classic "Just Got Paid" by Johnny Kemp, then dig through the records I got at a local record fair. The digging includes everything from Bowie to Porter Wagoner to a 70s album of Bob Dylan covers. I end with a rave for Frankie Rose, whose music parties like it's 1981.