Monday, September 30, 2019

Impeachment Is Not A Spectator Sport

After months of avoiding an impeachment inquiry, Nancy Pelosi was forced to begin one because a government official had finally produced a smoking gun and Trump confirmed it with the release of the call with Ukraine.

It would be very tempting to sit back and let Congress do its work, but that would be a massive mistake. Pelosi is approaching this is a gingerly, almost apologetic fashion. She has been pushing for a narrow, rather than a broad inquiry. She has taken the investigation out of the more progressive Judiciary Committee and put it in the hands of the more conservative Intelligence Committee. This is evidently part of a laughable strategy intended to get the support of moderate Republicans. The last 25 years appear to have taught the Democratic leadership nothing about who they are dealing with.

If we leave them to their own devices these are the stupid kinds of decisions the Democrats will make. We simply cannot allow this. Impeachment is not a spectator sport. We need to be constantly calling and contacting our Democratic reps and letting them know that we want a broad inquiry and to act from a position of strength, not weakness. The lily-livered types will get scared of the polls, instead of acting in ways that will persuade voters and move those poll numbers. Make them more afraid of their base than they are of vague "swing voters."

At the same time, pressure needs to be put on Republicans. I know that it seems like a long shot to expect Republicans to turn coat, but if GOP politicos think their futures are at stake, they can potentially be persuaded. Make them defend Trump's unhinged Twitter rants, which are doing a lot to undermine his defenders. Show up to their town meetings and make them have to own this. I don't know if this will work, but it beats not trying. There have been moments where GOP support for Trump has wavered (the Access Hollywood tape, for example.) The point is to turn wavering into defection.

We cannot watch this on television as our nightly entertainment. We need to be out in the streets and demanding justice. This weekend I was in DC, and I witnessed a pathetically small pro-Trump rally on the National Mall. There must've been more flags than people. The other side is mostly old and comfortable. They do not have the energy or guts for a real fight. The most deplorable elements are being whipped up by "civil war" rhetoric. We cannot fight back against that with Facebook memes. Those in power, both Republican and Democrat, must feel the pressure from below. They will not make the right choice on their own, we have to create a situation where they are forced to take that choice. So let's get out there and do it!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Will The Republican Blood Pact With Trump Hold?

It is easy to forget that at one time Donald Trump was seen as apart from the Republican Party. Back during the 2016 primaries he was treated by prominent Republicans as a kind of cuckoo bird, invading the nest of the Grand Old Party. Before Ted Cruz became a servile Trumper, he tried to organize resistance to him at the 2016 convention.

That convention was when Trump and the Republicans signed a blood oath. He would deliver on their policies and use his populist mob to get power, they would turn the other way when confronted with his corruption. That blood pact was confirmed when Trump and the last Republican Congress managed to put through massive tax cuts on corporations and wealthy. It has been furthered by Trump's judicial nominations.

Republicans have paid him back by backing him on everything. Putting children in cages, colluding with Russia, trying to buy Greenland, taking government money at his private properties, and all kinds of other misbehavior has been endorsed by prominent Republicans. Those who once criticized him, like Romney, Sasse, Cruz, Rubio, and Graham have become loyalists.

This week's revelations, however, seem to be some kind of break. The conversation with Ukraine's president cannot be waved away with plausible deniability. Direct evidence of Trump's misbehavior is staring the world right in the face. It's telling that many Republicans have been more lukewarm and evasive on this affair than in other scandals.

For the first time since 2016 I wonder if the blood pact will be broken. I have a feeling that the cracks in the facade will soon be fixed. While I bet many Republican politicians really don't like Trump, they are also afraid of their base, who is still behind him. And as long as Trump keeps up his end of the deal, it would be dangerous to replace him.

I do, however, see a small chance that they will dump Trump. Why? Because being distracted by impeachment will hurt his ability to stay focused on altering the federal bench, the big long term goal of Senate Republicans. If it looks like the Republican candidate will lose in 2020 no matter what, they might as well get Pence in these and keep nominating judges. That will also keep their base happy.

I still don't really see this scenario happening, though. The Republican leadership knows their ideas are unpopular, and that they need Trump as their front man. I can only hope that if he goes down, the rest of the rotten gang will go down with him.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Existential Dread on a New Jersey Sunday Drive

The radio can strike fear sometimes

My children were bouncing off the walls and my spouse needed a break so I took the kids out of the house in that aimless Sunday afternoon kind of way. Today was one of those visually stunning days that also happened to be too damn hot, when the world looks best from inside of an air conditioned car.

This was a tradition back when my kids were toddlers and needed to take a nap and the gentle rocking of the road would lull them to sleep. Now they stay awake, but quietly read books in the back while I listen to my favorite shows on WFMU (that part has stayed the same.)

Today, in honor of the death of Ric Ocasek, the DJ spun "Drive" by The Cars. A chill came over me as I drove the winding Morris Avenue as it wended its way from Summit to Millburn. It's not just that this is one of the most profoundly sad songs allowed on the charts in the dayglo lobotomy of Reagan era America. I had a slight real life connection to Ocasek (not worth discussing here), but also got news that a friend from my time in Texas died suddenly on Friday morning.

For some reason that feeling of dread drifted to thinking about Friday's climate strike. Driving through the sprawl I looked out at the way of life destroying life on earth. What will future generations think of our Sunday drives? Of our pop music reveries while the tailpipe belches poison into the air? I get the feeling that the suburbs of New Jersey will be like Nineveh and Tyre for future generations.

On the way home we ran into a traffic jam at a bridge over the freeway. Evidently a horrible crash left a truck overturned and a car on fire. People from the neighborhood were gathered on the bridge looking at the wreckage below. It seems to have barely made it into the local news. Just another day in our way of being, I guess.

In any case, my kids and I went to the Dairy Queen and enjoyed some ice cream. That made me forget this doomed world and all the people I've lost in recent years for a bit.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Stop Asking The Children To Save You

Marvin Gaye had it right. It's the responsibility of older generations to do right by the young.

Tomorrow brings the climate strike, an event that a lot of my students will be participating in. I am certainly proud of their choice to protest, but also miffed at the attitude of a lot of their elders.

This week my social media feed has exploded with stories about Greta Thunberg, the teenaged Swedish climate activist. I think what she is doing is fantastic, but those reporting on her and retweeting the articles frame her as some kind of child messiah. Likewise, much hay is made of how the young generation is going to set things right. I read this discourse and get sicker and sicker at heart.

What kind of irresponsible person looks at the world burning up, and then places the responsibility for solving that problem on the shoulders of a bunch of children? What kind of person looks at the DECADES of their own inaction and decides to conspicuously praise the efforts of the youth to sort out the mess they created?

This is the product of disordered minds in the possession of the people motivated by a strange brew of apathy and moral superiority. They want to signal that they are in league with the climate change movement, but they don't actually want to have to do any of the work themselves. This is politics as spectator sport, where merely rooting for the right team is extent of taking action.

We saw much the same with the rise in activism against gun violence after the Parkland shooting. All these media figures and well-meaning middle-aged liberals sitting on their ample behinds smiled and cheered how "the children will save us!"

What a load of absolute, unmitigated horse shit.

The future we are giving the youth gets worse and worse. Fewer opportunities for advancement, debt traps around every corner, declining life expectancies, their schools shot up, opioids easily available, their education reduced to a treadmill of standardized tests. Here's a thought: instead of expecting people to praise you for praising Greta Thunberg and David Hogg, why don't you get up off your lazy ass and fight for a change? Instead of expecting the children to save you, why don't you go all out to make better lives for the children? Your empty words of support are less than useless because they only feed our society's fatal complacency.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Tom Waits, Heartattack and Vine (classic albums)

[I finally got this one on vinyl today, so let's take a trip down memory lane to 2013, when I wrote this.]

I came to Tom Waits late in life, but like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes and I preach Waits' gospel every chance I get.  A friend in college was a Waits disciple too, and always used to play his stuff for me without winning me over.  His music seemed willfully obtuse, his voice abrasive, and none of it really fit with other artists I liked.  My girlfriend in grad school tried to win my soul for the bard of the gutter, and I didn't crack until she loaned me a copy of Heartattack and Vine.

For some reason, it just clicked with me, which is funny considering that is not one of his more highly rated records.  Allmusic only gives it three stars out of five, the second lowest score for any of his albums, and much lower than those that come right after.  Robert Christgau's B grade review is chock full of faint praise.  Released in 1980, it is a transitional album marking Waits' shift from his jazzbo lounge singer persona of the 1970s to his avant garde wildman stage that began in earnest with 1983's revolutionary Swordfishtrombones.  Up until this  point Waits' jazz piano laid the foundation, afterward it would be unorthodox percussion.  On Heartattack and Vine, it's the blues.  I think people don't like this record for the same reason I didn't like Waits for so long: it doesn't fit pre-existing categories.  Maybe that's why it was the one to hook me, it had a quality I lacking in the other stuff I'd heard.

The bluesy nature of the proceedings is apparent when the title track kicks of the record in raucous fashion.  A cutting, drunkenly lumbering guitar staggers into the room, soon accompanied by one of Waits' signature growls.  He uses this to best effect on one of his all time best lines "There ain't no devil, just God when he's drunk."  When I heard this song, his sandpaper and Marlboros voice suddenly made sense to me the way that Howlin' Wolf's similarly unorthodox vocal stylings always had.  Waits' singing is really better suited to blues-based material, and here his voice finally gets the right platform.

Other songs on the record mine the depths of the blues, especially the caustic "Downtown" and perverted "Mr. Siegal."  However, it's a couple of weepy ballads that make this album so great.  The first is "Jersey Girl," a song that has a lot of meaning for me.  I was listening to Waits a lot around the time I met the Jersey girl who would later be my wife.  When Waits says "Nothing else matters in this whole wide world, when you're in love with a Jersey girl" my heart swells.  Beyond my own subjective biases, it really is a fetching ballad, and expresses, without being maudlin, the insane magic of falling in love.  When my wife and I slow-danced to this at our wedding it was probably the happiest I felt that day.

The other ballad is the monumental "On the Nickel," whose title refers to 5th Street in LA (hence "nickel.")  This is skid row, and Waits is singing a lullaby to the men who live there.  The accompanying strings are lush, like something off of a Disney soundtrack, his voice whisperingly tender at the start.  Halfway through it gets low and fearsomely gutteral, as if he is channeling the pain and broken hopes of the men for whom he sings.  By the end if you are not moved, you have no heart.

None of the other songs can match "Heartattack and Vine," "Jersey Girl," or "On the Nickel," but a record with three awe-inspiring songs counts as a classic in my book.  It might not fit the image Waits fans or critics have of him, which is all the more reason to admire it as one of the most confounding works of a charmingly confounding artist.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

9/12 and Failed Tests

In the days after 9/11 I would put this song on and have a good cry

This year the 9/11 anniversary hit me harder than usual. It might be because at my school in NYC there are maybe a handful of students who were alive when in it happened. As fewer people have a living memory, the official memory of the event has now been hijacked by militarism and nationalism. It's become a time for empty patriotic gestures and stupid platitudes. The shock, horror, and human loss are gone.

That event was a test of this nation, and this nation failed. Muslim and Sikh men were targeted by random acts of violence, but they were not even discussed in the public discourse. Muslim students I TAed spoke of the terrible things strangers said to them in the weeks following 9/11, but few seemed to be sticking up for them. The United States immediately moved to a war footing, starting an invasion of Afghanistan that still hasn't ended. Bin Laden wasn't liquidated until ten years later.

The public was distracted by the Bush administration's adventure in Iraq, which a majority erroneously thought was somehow connected to 9/11. The propaganda offensive worked. That war too is an ongoing disaster. The public support for war also ended up giving the Bush administration the validation it needed to engage in systemic torture.

At the end of the Bush administration the last tatters of America's moral authority were gone, and its power in the world fast ebbing out. It was one of the biggest self-owns in the history of the great powers. 9/11 was a test of this country, and it failed that test horrendously.

Donald Trump is another test this country has failed. He came to office without a majority or even a plurality, has behaved like a wannabe despot and the political opposition has done little to reign him in. Children are being put in prison camps but there's hardly a word about it. Sure Democrats won the House back, but Trump's using the Senate to remake the judiciary. That's likely going to prevent any positive political reform for another generation.

The country has managed to survive its failed test eighteen years ago, but this new failure may very well represent a point of no return. Dying empires are not pretty things. I just never thought I'd be living in one. Such is life.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Southern Culture on the Skids, "Camel Walk"

I've been going back to the music of the 90s recently. Some of it's been what I call "feel bad" music that owned the "adult alternative" format late in the decade. Whenever I hear "Adia" by Sarah McLachlan I am instantly transported to driving around the Omaha suburbs in the summer of 1998 feeling glum, an emotion the Omaha suburbs are good at prompting.

To get out of my funk I've also been spinning novelty songs of the time. My favorite of that now dead genre is "Camel Walk" by Southern Culture on the Skids. It is amazing to me that something this weird ever got played on the radio, such is the magic of that brief moment in the early to mid 90s when strange sounds were allowed on the airwaves. "Camel Walk" came out in 1995, and by 1996 the winds were already changing and soon Limp Bizkit would come like a plague upon the land.

It has a retro sound, garage punk combined with surf reverb and a beat straight out of a 1960s B-movie set in the Sahara, all deep country fried. It's deeply strange. The singer starts by asking his lady love if she'll eat a "snack cracker" in her "special outfit," including her "pointy boots." Kinky! The whole song is the sensibility of Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision on TNT put into musical form, and considering that I loved old trash entertainment like that, I was well-primed for "Camel Walk."

While the band has this sort of psychedelic hick persona, I've always thought it to be genuine, rather than a mere put-on. Growing up in the country myself, one of the few cheap pleasures to be had was junk food, especially Little Debbie cakes. If there was anyone who could turn that into a fetish, it'd be a fellow hayseed.

So what happened to novelty songs? They've been a big part of popular music, from "Disco Duck" to "They're Coming To Take Me Away." When I first heard "Old Town Road" I thought it was a novelty song, but the audience seems to be taking it straight. The range of what constitutes pop music is narrower than it's ever been in my life. And hey, some of it is pretty good, but I really want it to be inscrutably silly every now and then.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

New School Year's Resolutions

A new school year is upon me, and I still can't get over how school here in the NYC area starts after Labor Day. For that reason I have spent the last two weeks in a constant stage of anticipation almost painful in its intensity. After spending two days on a school camping trip, today was my first full day of classes. As usual it felt like like something unlike most American workers experience. Being a teacher on the first day of school feels like being a sailor leaving port on a long voyage or the first day of baseball season for a manager. Our job may not be year round, but the months we do our job will require the fullest measure of our efforts. While the office drones are writing TPS reports or killing time with their fantasy football team, we are dropped into the lion's den of the classroom. 

For that reason a teacher does not mark January first as the year's beginning, but today instead. Every year brings its unique challenges and joys. Every year ends with sad good-byes and hopefully a sense of accomplishment. To steel myself for the new school year, I have composed some resolutions.

Read books on the train 
I started this last year and stuck with it. On my way to school and home I read books and try to avoid the news or social media. It means I get to school with my mind activated yet relaxed, and I get home without being agitated. I also need to do this because in the evenings on school nights I am so exhausted that I pass out if I try to read a book.

Make use of the post-dinner pause
This is a new one. There is a strange lull in my day that comes after dinner and before the kids are put to bed. A lot of days I end up wasting this time by sprawling out on the couch and going on Twitter. Last year I tried to lean into parenting in these hours, but often my children too need a break. So if I am not being active with them, I resolve to be active on other ways. For example, right now I am writing this blog during the pause!

Keep it moving
I am resolved to avoid drama at all costs. This includes workplace gossip and disputes, but also social media bullshit. Dumb arguments online and resentments in the workplace only lead to wasted emotional energy in bad directions. I already broke this resolution today, I feel like it will be a tough one.

Walk in the door happy
I have been reliably informed that when I get home I can be difficult to deal with. I am going to try extra hard to have a smile on my face at the end of my long days. I'm pretty damn lucky to have my family and I shouldn't take that for granted. I also broke this resolution today.

Music over podcasts
I love podcasts, but I find I listen to them too much during my commute and while prepping at work. They jam too many thoughts in my head, making it harder for me to think and reflect and clear space. Music has always helped me go deeper in my thoughts and provides me with far more joy. I'll reserve podcasts for drives and housework. I've already started doing this, and it's really been healthy. I have also resolved to seek out more new music.

Get more sleep
I resolve this every year, but it's hard for this former night owl to adjust to getting up at 5-5:30 every day. Maybe I'll finally figure it out.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Quitting (A Labor Day Reflection)

Andrew Luck was in the news last week when he abruptly decided to quit being an NFL quarterback. Predictably, a lot of armchair macho men judged him for daring to value his health above their fantasy football teams.

I was happy for him. He's financially secure, why should he destroy his body and mind for the profit of billionaires and the entertainment of others? Although Luck is a millionaire by virtue of his profession, he got to experience one of the greatest thrills the typical American worker ever gets: quitting their job. 

In the modern American workplace the toilers have little leverage and less power. Organized labor gets weaker with each passing year, while the bosses find ways to drive their workers harder with the rallying cry of "efficiency." The film Office Space came out twenty years ago, and the trends it documented have only worsened. That film highlighted what I call "underling fatigue": the accumulated drag of being treated like a peon by people who are no better than you. The one surefire thing a worker can do is to quit, especially when it's inconvenient for their employer. That's certainly what Andrew Luck did.

I quit that way twice. Once was my worst job ever, as a telemarketer one summer in college. I took on part time evening shift hours at the rubber parts factory for a month so that I could quit the telemarketing job and work part time the rest of the summer and still make enough money. My telemarketing bosses were a little shocked to see me go well before summer was out, and it felt good.

The next was leaving my job as an assistant professor. This was the thing I spent seven years in grad school and two years in a "visiting" position fighting to have. It turned out to be a nightmare, but it was the job I was supposed to cherish. Plenty of other people out there still cling to their tenure track jobs, even if they never bring the fulfillment they promise. I decided that my life was meant to be better than that. I have never felt more free than the day I told my chair that I was gone.

Despite the thrill that quitting brings, and the positive changes to life that can come with it, it is a weak power. We all fancy ourselves irreplaceable in our jobs, but we are pretty easy to switch out. I love my current job and have no desire to quit. I also know that they'd be able to get a good teacher to take my place without much fuss.

And that prompts me to remember another time I felt powerful as a worker. It was in grad school when I went on a walkout with my fellow teaching assistants and we picketed the quad. That eventually led to getting a union contract. American workers are stuck having to get their shot at power by telling their boss to take their job and shove it. It'd be far better if they could get it in solidarity with their coworkers creating a workplace that doesn't make them want to quit. In today's climate that seems downright fanciful.