Friday, November 29, 2019

Pete Buttigieg And The Dead Weight Of The Status Quo

There's a been a lot of discussion about Pete Buttigieg, a surprise candidate whose qualifications for the highest office in the land are barely greater than mine. His highest office has been as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a town a quarter the size of Lincoln, Nebraska. Not only that, he has not exactly distinguished himself as a mayor, either.

What he does have is a way of appealing to older white Democrats. This demographic votes more frequently than their younger counterparts and has more money to contribute to campaigns. Buttigieg appeals to them by supporting elements of the status quo that benefit this demographic. His recent ad has thrown cold water on the idea of tuition-less public education with the entirely cynical pitch that "your tax dollars will pay for the children of millionaires to go to college." (In brief: 1. those kids go to private school 2. they use public schools, roads, and libraries already 3. their parents would be paying for others to go to college through their taxes! But I digress)

There is nothing more difficult in the whole wide world than convincing a middle class Boomer that younger than generations have had it harder than them. These Boomers got free child care in their youth via their stay at home moms, cheap mortgages via the FHA and suburbanization, practically free college, and are now enjoying Social Security and Medicare paid for by younger workers. They seem to assume that future generations also got this sweet deal instead of higher home prices (which benefitted the Boomers whose homes have appreciated in value), student loan debt, precarious employment, and ridiculously expensive child care.

Mayor Pete understands that these voters want to think that the youth love and look up to them, and so he has played the part of the dutiful son. This strategy has gone over gangbusters.

He also seems to understand that most older middle class white people would like to maintain the status quo. (This is why they generally vote Republican.) This is basically the same as it's ever been, and only the most forceful of disruptions can change that mentality. As horrible as Trump has been, he has not been bad for the bottom line of this demographic. For them anti-Trumpism is a moral stance, not essential to their survival.

Candidates like Sanders and Warren are promising to deliver presidencies that are more than the status quo ante. The problem is that the demographic who votes more in primaries, where turnout is really low, are older middle class whites. Right now I am predicting that the Democrats will not nominate Warren or Sanders, and will put Buttigieg or someone like him in the starring role. That candidate, like HRC, will fail to have an enticing vision of the future. Trump will win again in a minority victory relying on the electoral college.

The current status quo is unacceptable, but most palatable to the people who control the primary. This is a tragic situation.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Badfinger, "Got to Get Out of Here"

Badfinger should have been huge. They were one of the first bands on Apple Records, endorsed by the Fab Four themselves. Their first hit, "Come And Get It" was written by Paul McCartney. "Day After Day," one of the most sublime pop hits of the early 70s, has a soaring slide guitar hook courtesy of George Harrison. They wrote a whole passel of catchy pop songs with some cracking music backing them up. This combo would later be called "power pop," but like Big Star, they were a few years too early. Both bands became major points of influence for 80s and 90s indie rock.

Both Badfinger and Big Star had their inability to get the audience they deserved compounded by tragedy and misfortune. Apple ended up being a famously dysfunctional company before it died an ignominious death. Once the band was ready to put out a new record on a new label, Apple dropped a substandard record on the public, undercutting their comeback. Their management also ripped them off at every turn. In 1975 Wish You Were Here, one of their strongest outings, got pulled from shelves a few weeks after its release due to managerial disputes. Pete Ham, the band's principal songwriter, killed himself the same year. Tom Evans, the other main creative force in the band, took his own life a few years later.

I love this band so much, but listening to their songs, no matter how joyous some of them are, is always leavened with feelings of sadness. All they wanted to do was give the world some great music, and lots of shitty people wouldn't let them because they'd rather squeeze them for money instead. It also reminds me of how so many people have their ideals betrayed and abilities squandered by a society that only cares about filthy lucre. I think especially of academia where there are a lot of Badfingers toiling in contingent jobs. They still produce scholarship that's just as good as anyone else with better positions, but it still gets them nowhere. I'm sure a lot of this will be read in a few years by a new generation of young scholars, wondering what happened to the person who wrote the book or article that blew them away but who has dropped off the radar.

Despite their difficult straights, Badfinger did not write doom and gloom songs. However, one standout track on Wish You Were Here seems to signal to the despair, even if it's written by Joey Molland instead of Pete Ham. "Got to Get Out of Here" is one of the few Badfinger songs not driven by elecrtic guitar, the principle instruments a simply strummed acoustic guitar what appears to be a sad-sounding harmonium. You can hear the fatigue in this song, the feeling of being trapped in an impossible situation. Molland sings "got no choice" over and over again over a very Beatlesque beat.

I feel like we have all been there, stuck somewhere oppressively unhappy and feeling like there's no way to get out. The song starts building a little as it goes on, leaving a slight, small feeling of hope, but hardly an anthem of triumph. It's the soundtrack of just getting through the day, only so you can go to sleep and have to face another one after you wake up, over and over and over again. I listen to it now with sadness over what being trapped can do to people, but also relieved I've escaped my own emotional cul-de-sacs in my life. If you see someone else struggling there, give them a hand. If you've found yourself there, don't be afraid to ask for help. The people who love you want to be there for you.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Now That The Academic Lifeboats Are Capsizing, What Next?

On academic Twitter today I've seen a lot of folks sharing charts showing the steep decline in the number of available jobs in the humanities this year. It's an alarming image, showing what happens when bad goes to worse and then to something beyond. Today I have also been seeing a lot of stuff about the closures of small colleges. Beyond that, there's news out of places like Tulsa that are cutting back their humanities departments. I know someone who just left academia because the history department at their school got cut.

It appears that we might be hitting the crossover point a lot of people saw on the horizon around the time I left academia, back in 2011. I still remember my last American Historical Association conference as a professor that year. I booked the trip to San Diego, but didn't get any interviews (I was trying to get a job closer to my spouse.) My friends and I joked about there being an uprising in the job pit and the established scholars escaping the riot with jetpacks. It seemed like everyone who wasn't at the top was doomed.

Of course, no mass collective action arose to resist all of this. The people in the lifeboats, who had their jobs, stood by while people around them drowned, comforting themselves in the myth of mediocrity. They were the only faculty who had any real power. Those on the contingent track either gave up or kept hoping they'd get that tenure-track job at the end of the line. Back in 2013 I warned the lifeboaters that the reckoning was coming for them, too. Now it looks like that day is upon us.

So, what's going to happen? I don't foresee a mass movement by academics to defend their interests. The old timers will just wait to retire, the midcareer folks will hope for the same and the young scholars on the tenure track will cross their fingers and count their blessings with an understanding that the future is unclear. Contingent faculty will continue to lack the power to act and the churn and precariousness of their position will make organizing difficult, just as it is now.

At this point the salvation can only come from outside. The proposals by Sanders and Warren to make public higher education free might be the death knell for some of those small private colleges, but it would do more to bring money and majors to academia than anything else. At this point I think it is the only way out. I'm not holding my breath, and meanwhile lots of good people are drowning, their immense talent and potential squandered.

Monday, November 18, 2019

New Episode of the Old Dad's Records Podcast

On the latest episode of my podcast I dug into what I like to call the "feel bad" music of the 90s. Instead of spotlighting an album, I decided to talk about a bunch of songs from a playlist I made of these songs. For some reason in the 90s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, we were all in the mood to be sad. I start with "Adia" by Sarah McLachlan, a song I remember bringing me to the verge of tears as I heard it driving around the thoroughly ugly streets of suburban Omaha. I finish the podcast with a rave for Altin Gün, a Dutch-Turkish psych/prog band that I can't stop listening to these days.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The 2010s, The Decade That Wasn't

In popular culture we like to use decades as shorthands, despite their limited usefulness. For example, the 60s equals countercultural times of peace, love and dope, even if it was the decade of high concept TV (Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, etc) and greater suburbanization than the 1950s. Now that the 2010s are coming to an end, there have been some half-hearted attempts to summarize the decade's culture. Those attempts will fail not only because decades are artificial boundaries, but also because 2010 is not a meaningful milestone in any way.

Periodization is one of my favorite historian parlor games. It's kind of frivolous, of course, and if done wrong can limit our understanding. (Plenty of inequality and corruption was going on before and after the Gilded Age, for example.) That said, I feel like there was a there was a pretty definitive period that lasted from 2000 to 2006. George W Bush's contested election in 2000 marked a more tumultuous political era even before 9/11. In 2006 the Republicans were trounced in midterm elections following disasters in Iraq, and in New Orleans. The politics of the Bush years were over at this point.

More importantly, a major technological change was afoot. In 2006-2007 social media first appeared on the scene, as did smartphones. This also coincided with the growth of broadband, wifi, and Netflix. From this point on, so much of America's life was going to be lived online in ways that it wasn't before.

Amid this change Barack Obama was elected president. This election did not represent a "post-racial society," but in fact led to a nationalist backlash. The Bush administration's combination of culture war and war on terror had lost its allure, conservatives now understood the power of white nationalism. This happened well before Trump. If 2010 is a milestone of anything, it's because that year saw the rise of the Tea Party, the precursor and trailblazer for Trump. His victory in 2016 was the culmination of the anti-Obama nationalist reaction.

Along with the rise of smartphones, social media, and nationalism in the late 2000s came an economic collapse that created the kind of privation and scarcity that nationalists love. Hard times make it easier to scapegoat and to draw people to the extremes.

Ten years of living dangerously led to Trump's election in 2016, which is probably the marker of a new era. 2010 and 2019 don't really represent much, but I think a lot books will be written about 2006-2008, which appears to be one of the fulcrums of history. We certainly cannot escape it.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Neil Young, "A Journey Through The Past"

This time of year, as late fall fades into winter, has become very tough for me. Six Novembers ago my grandmother died, a person who had been so present in my life I could not really conceive of life without her. Two years ago in early December my aunt Joann passed away. Last November my aunt Kathleen's health started failing, she died this past January. Too many trips home to rural Nebraska in the past few years have been marked by death. Three times I've talked with people I've loved over the phone halfway across the country, knowing in my heart it was the last time I was ever going to hear their voice.

Every morning when I ride the subway to work I can't get over that I grew up in a place so far removed from the world of New York City. It's not anything I could have imagined when I lived there. I love my job and I love my life here, but every now and then I feel like part of myself is missing. A big chunk of my soul is still out there, 1500 miles away, beneath the skies so vast they feel like they could crush all the world beneath them. When I go back to Nebraska I can feel that part of me reawaken.

I don't necessarily want to go back and live there, but living away from there weighs on my soul. It's the paradox of being a self-inflicted exile. Sometimes I fantasize about buying an old Nebraska farmhouse and making it a kind of low rent, countrified summer home. You can have Newport and Martha's Vinyard, I'll take the prairie.

I think I've always liked Neil Young partly because he too grew up in a small town, moved to the big city, but never really left rural Ontario behind. He was never more forthright about this than on "Journey Through the Past." It comes from the haphazard 1973 live album Times Fade Away, such a document of a low point in Young's life that he kept it out of print for decades. While there are decadent tales of junkies like the title song, or cries for help like "Don't Be Denied," "Journey Through The Past" is far more straightforward and sentimental in its emotions.

It's about homecoming as a journey through the past. When you leave where you are from, it's almost as if time stops there. For years I would come home to my old teenage bedroom, the same shelf full of Stephen King novels, the same Rolling Stone cover of Nirvana on my closet door. Even though my room has been made over some, it's still a place where I access feelings and memories that would otherwise disappear from my mind.

However, the people I knew and loved there keep disappearing, and this time of year I spend a lot of time remembering them. I can go back to my old room, but I can't ever talk to them again. So the years go by, the past fading ever more, and the ache that comes each November can't be nourished.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

30 Years From The Wall's Fall and 3 Years From Trump's Rise

Happier days

This morning one of those Facebook memories reminded me that it's been three years since November 9, 2016. (They rarely remind me of happy things.) The 8th was election day, but the 9th was the day that the reality of what had happened set in. A little while later I realized that today is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In Germany this day is called "Schicksalstag" (Day of Fate) because it was on November 9, 1918, that a revolution toppled the Kaiser and on November 9, 1938, that the Nazis perpetuated the pogroms of the Night of Broken Glass. It is a reminder of the unpredictable careening of history and its utter lack of permanence. In that light it's appropriate that we think of Trump's rise and the Wall's fall on the same day.

The Soviet bloc's demise inspired Francis Fukuyama's now infamous theory about the "end of history" (which must be said was much disputed even at the time.) With Leninism in the grave there was supposedly no other game in town other than liberal capitalist democracy.

The Islamic revolution ten years before in Iran ought to have been a clue of how limited such a thesis was, but I digress.

Pretty immediately after the fall of the Wall it was apparent that nationalism was stepping back into the political vacuum. Czechoslovakia broke up in the Velvet Divorce, Yugoslavia broke up in a civil war that included genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo. Right wing violence against immigrants spiked in Germany, and Le Pen came in second place in the French presidential election of 2002. Events like 9/11 put nationalism off the radar of international observers, however. It was still gaining strength, of course. The new Putin regime, founded at the start of the new century, showed the effectiveness of a marriage between authoritarianism and nationalism, especially in countries with new democracies. After the economic collapse of 2008, a bunch of other nations started down this road. From Poland to Hungary to India to China an anti-democratic, anti-pluralist populist nationalism is the globe's most disruptive political force. It's hardly a mistake that Russia is the world's foremost exporter of nationalist authoritarianism. It pioneered this political form and is a nation run by former intelligence operatives who understand the importance of misinformation and soft power.

History is made up of trends and events, and while the trends are like tides, events have much more contingency attached to them. The fall of the Wall was haphazard and unexpected because the East German official who announced the opening of the border to the West did not reckon that crowds of East Germans would flood the Wall. If he had known that, he would have been more clear and the scenes that are so famous likely would not have happened. The same goes for the election of Donald Trump. The man himself was not expecting to get elected! He lost by three million votes, but the Electoral College, James Comey, Wikileaks, a tepid HRC campaign, and other factors helped put him into power.

He was in a position to benefit from these accidents because the Fall of the Wall did not bring about an end to history. Instead, it brought complacency. Even if you didn't buy into Fukuyama, it was still very tempting to see democracy in America at least as permanent. Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War did not bring a peace dividend for America. Soon enough there would be more war. In 1989 public discourse was alarmed at social inequality, that problem only got worse and worse. In the moment of triumph any real attempt at self-reflection was completely avoided. At around the same time, conservatives decided to embark on a scorched earth political agenda.

Now we find ourselves in a situation where an authoritarian nationalist rules America. He puts immigrant children in camps. He bans Muslims from entering the country. He fills the courts with reactionaries who despise reproductive and civil rights. In many states Republicans are limiting the vote, preventing Democratic governors from ruling, and challenging the results of legitimate elections.

The Cold War is over, but both sides lost. The Soviet Union's defeat was made manifest on November 9, 1989, America's on November 9, 2016. The movement of history's tides today is clear, but we need to swim against the current one even if it exhausts us. The post-1989 complacency cannot be repeated if democracy is going to live.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Post-Election Thoughts

Feeling good after yesterday

The odd off-year election last night was an interesting barometer of where things stand politically right now. Here's some general thoughts about it.

Last night was a strong showing for Democrats that presents an opportunity in more ways than one. Right before the election the pundit Chuck Todd talked about it as a referendum on impeachment. He seemed to predict failure for the Democrats for this reason, and was proven wrong. Now is the time to flip things around. The wins in Kentucky and Virginia are instead proof that the hard stance against Trump is working. That's at least the narrative that needs to get out there. I fear that weak-willed Democrats in the middle might not have the glue to stick in this fight. Hopefully last night will stiffen their spines some more.

Some have noted the swing in suburban areas that helped determine the outcomes of elections in Kentucky and Virginia. I have been thinking a lot about this, since affluent, educated suburbanites have been default Republicans ever since there have ever been affluent, educated suburbanites. The new Republican Party, beholden to Trump. nativism, and Bible thumping does not appeal as much to people who used to just pull the lever for low taxes and regulations. However, I fear this new alignment will further defang the Democrats. These new Democrat voters are likely to vote Dem on social issues, but still support neoliberal economic policy. I have a feeling that this will be a real problem coming down the road for those (like me) who want the party to have a redestributionist approach.

Last, this election yet again shows the singularity of Trumpism, which has no coattails. The same people who worship Trump do not transfer their loyalty to his toadies. Just take a look at Matt Bevin and Roy Moore. There is not going to be a dynasty with Ivanka, Jared, or Don Jr picking up the mantle. Trumpism is not a coherent ideology or a movement, it is simply about elevating one man. One key in 2020 will be getting enough people who distrust other politicians but believe in Trump to see him as a betrayer. That's not going to be easy.

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Contentious School Board Election In My Divided New Jersey Town

I live in Maplewood, New Jersey. My family moved here from the Ironbound section of Newark after our apartment got too small i.e. the kids started to be able to walk. We were attracted by the relatively low home prices in a town that had a rail connection to the city (necessary for my job) that was also more walkable and less auto-focused than other suburbs. It was also more racially and socio-economically diverse and politically progressive than other towns in the region.

When we moved in I slowly started noticing the fault lines in Maplewood. Our neighborhood near the Irvington border is very mixed by race and class, but that's an anomaly. One neighborhood to the south of us is predominately African American and poorer than the rest of the town. Another, on the other side of the train station, is very white and full of massive million dollar homes. There is a mix of people, for sure, but only if you look at the aggregate numbers. The town itself is pretty segregated. This has inevitably led to de facto segregation in the schools. One of the elementary schools is majority black, and all the others are majority white. As more white families like mine have moved into town the school my daughters go to has gone from being very mixed to much more white than ten years ago. The situation was so stark in an ostensibly "progressive" town that the New York Times wrote an article about it.

The issues go beyond the segregation of different schools, they also extend to the combined high school (which also includes South Orange.) Tracking, as in many other places, has been applied in ways that benefit white students and hurt black students. There have also been claims of harsher discipline being applied to black students than white students. The new superintendent is advocating for an integration plan that will be implemented next year. There's a school board election on Tuesday, and as you would imagine with this background, it's very contentious.

There are seven candidates running for three seats. Five of the candidates are black (four of them women) and two are white (one of them a woman.) On the surface it's the kind of thing the town likes to talk up about itself. Beneath the surface, however, this is by far the nastiest local election I've ever witnessed. The fuel for the fire is social media and the many local Facebook groups in this town.

On these groups I have witnessed a constant, daily stream of invective directed not only one of the candidates, but also against other Facebook groups, especially a social justice group called SOMa Justice I am a member of (full disclosure.) Any candidate affiliated with that group is attacked as representing a "special interest." Every election a parents association dedicated to racial equity asks candidates to fill out a questionnaire which is then used to give the candidates ratings on a scorecard. This year a majority of the candidates flat out declined to do so. The questionnaire and its scorecard were both vehemently attacked online by the same people attacking SOMa Justice. In so doing advocates for equity just lost one of their biggest tools to hold candidates accountable.

A lot of these attacks are coming from a splinter group from the main local group, SOMa Lounge. (The acronym is for South Orange-Maplewood.) The splinter group is called SOMa Lounge Uncensored, touting its lack of moderation. As you can imagine, this has led to a kind of local version of 4chan. I know this because particularly outrageous comments have been screenshot and shared with other groups.

In the big picture there is a school board election in a town with a serious racial equity problem, but many of the candidates have been remarkably quiet about their opinions on this issue. Their silence, rightly or wrongly, has been taken as a sign by a brigade of internet trolls who are trying to tear down organizations fighting for racial justice in this community. I used to find the drama level of our local school board elections amusing but now I find it frightening. The Trumpist politics of destruction and resentment are everywhere in this country, including in this supposedly progressive, diverse town in New Jersey. Next year the integration plan is going to be launched. I need to get ready to get out there and fight.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Deadspin and the Power of Quitting

Deadspin is no longer. Rather than assent to the stupid priorities of their new corporate overlords, the staff and editors quit the site en masse, effectively destroying it. The name their owners bought will still be there, but that will be meaningless because Deadspin's readers came for their writers, not the site itself.

I am sad to see Deadspin go, since it was one of the last vestiges of that great moment in internet history after universal broadband and before social media dominated it. Back then (when I first started blogging) I had my daily rotation of favorite websites and blogs and Deadspon was one of them. It still was until this week, the lone survivor of my old internet routine.

However, I am taking heart in how Deadpsin went down. American workers are under the thumbs of their greedy, stupid bosses. Just about every frontline worker has experience being good at their job and knowing back to front before some clueless higher up comes in to tell you what to do. Deadspin's new bosses said "stick to sports" without understanding that the site had distinguished itself by doing the opposite. Those of us (like myself) in education have innumerable instances of some administrator implementing a bad, asinine program so they can put it on their resume and leave for a better job before their lackluster initiative is exposed as bullshit.

Union membership is as low as it was in the dark times of the 1920s. Wages are stagnant and employers keep turning the screws to squeeze more profit from their businesses and more labor from their workers. In this hellscape American workers have only one weapon at their disposal: quitting. Like going on strike, it deprives your boss of your labor.

We have all worked in dysfunctional workplaces and dreamed of everyone quitting at once, the boss left with a problem they can't solve. When I quit being a professor two of my colleagues left that same week, and it felt like for the first time the higher ups in my department and college actually paid attention to the problems they were ignoring or actively causing.

Good on the Deadspin writers for pulling off the fantasy that so many of us have. And let that be a lesson to the rest of us that in depriving our bosses of labor we can have real power. I fervently hope workers in this country can start using that tool as a more effective weapon.