Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What Socialists Can Learn From Obama And Trudeau

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 26, 2019

On Reading Peter Pomerantsev's This Is Not Propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Letters of Recommendation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Chronic Town (R.E.M. Rewind)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Weaponization of Cynicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Newest Episode of Old Dad's Records

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

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

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

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

On Being A Lone Protestor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Damned, "New Rose"

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Remembering the "Malaise Speech" on Jimmy Carter's Birthday

Jimmy Carter turned 95 today, a minor miracle considering his recent bout with cancer. Growing up in the Reagan years (my first political memory was his inauguration) Carter was always played off as a joke, a typically embarrassing memento of the 70s like pet rocks and polyester pants. He gradually earned a lot of respect back for his post-presidential work, although this has not (with justification) changed the low ratings of his presidency.

I have always felt that Carter was not the kind of person suited for that job, although he is a brilliant person nonetheless. I guess I have felt a kind of kinship with him, in that his moral commitments made it hard to function in a job that required the abandonment of morality.

That tension probably came out the most in his supposed "malaise speech" in the summer of 1979. He gave the speech after a new spike in oil prices after the Iranian Revolution threatened a new bout of inflation after years of economic turmoil and energy crises. Carter went to Camp David for several days to meet with a variety of advisors, and the public anticipated the speech he was going to give.

Instead of offering a list of policy solutions, Carter gave a sermon. He spoke of the nation's "crisis of confidence" and how its inability to unite to make a collective sacrifice the underlying problem in American society. Like a typical sermon it started with an accusation of sin, pointing out how American society had become consumeristic and materialistic. He discussed the failures of Vietnam and the divisions wrought by the sixties. He then ended as many sermons do with a call for repentance and renewal.

As Robert Mattson's "What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr President" lays out, some people actually responded to the call issued by the speech. That good feeling was short-lived, since Carter then immediately fired his cabinet and asked for them to re-apply for their jobs. This move was meant to show his commitment to making big changes, but it came across as chaotic and desperate. A speech that could have been a risky shot to go beyond the usual political bromides now looked confused and inappropriate. Although he never used the word, Carter's message to the country would be dubbed "the malaise speech."

It deserves to be reconsidered. Presidents should probably not be delivering sermons, we expect them to deliver solutions. But torn from that context the speech seems remarkably prescient. Carter was getting at the "fault lines" that Kruse and Zelizer made the focal point of their history of recent America. He also understood the moral hazard of consumerist society, and how it rots community. We are living now forty years later with those trends having continued unabated in an atomized society where people are killing themselves and dying of drug overdoses so often that life expectancy is going down.

Carter's opponent in 1980 did not critique the consumerist mentality, he embraced it. Reagan asked "are you better off than you were four years ago?" It's a crass-sounding question that perfectly fit the new values matrix. Carter talked about the need to conserve and make sacrifices, Reagan said we didn't have to. Carter questioned America's human rights abuses in its foreign policy, Reagan told the nation they had nothing to be ashamed of.

The "malaise speech" is a prophecy, and for years after Carter was a prophet without honor in his own land. Today he has become a kind of avuncular mascot, but on his birthday I want to remember the Jeremiah who issued a challenge that the nation has failed to pick up to its detriment. As the seas boil and the country comes apart, that challenge is more important than ever.