Wednesday, December 25, 2019

What If...Bedford Falls Was A Real Town?

[Editor's Note: It's A Wonderful Life is a holiday classic that also contains a critique of capitalism. But what if Bedford Falls was a real place? What would it look like today?]


BEDFORD FALLS, NEW YORK) Seventy-three years ago Bedford Falls became famous as the hometown of George Bailey, hero of It's A Wonderful Life. A lot has changed in this small town in upstate New York since that time.

Most notably, the Building and Loan run by the Bailey family no longer exists. Like other such institutions it went under during the savings and loans crisis of the 1980s. During the 1970s George Bailey passed the business down to his children, who took advantage of Reagan-era deregulation to engage in real estate speculation. The town's economy was not strong enough to support such risky investments, a familiar story across the country.

The Building and Loan's fate was mirrored by that of the local mill, which shut its doors in the 1990s after years of downsizing and layoffs. With the decline of local manufacturing the job opportunities available to residents of the town drastically decreased. Nowadays young people who get an education do not even have the option of choosing to stay home like George Bailey did. There simply is no work requiring their degrees. Those people end up in bigger cities in the region, often with fond memories of a place they are estranged from out of necessity, rather than choice. Those who lack education have few options in Bedford Falls as well, and what jobs do exist are mostly minimum wage work in the service sector.

Todd Bishop, whose grandfather was famed local cabbie Ernie Bishop, said "I drive Uber but there's not much business in a town this poor. Mostly getting drunk people home from bars. Apart from that I work part-time at the local gas station."

The once glittering main street has gone dark, with many storefronts having been empty for decades. Gower's Drugstore became a pawnshop before closing for good ten years ago. An empty home like the one the Bailey family took over has gone from being a rare oddity to a typical sight. The one advantage to living in Bedford Falls is the low cost of home ownership due to depopulation.

The land downtown has been passed down from Henry Potter -George Bailey's economic rival- to his descendants. All but one live outside Bedford Falls, most having moved to the New York City area. These absentee landlords see their holdings more as an heirloom or tax write-off than a viable business commodity. The one exception is Jacob Potter, a twenty-something descendent of Henry who has started a microbrewery and axe throwing club in one of the downtown buildings.

The commercial center began shifting to the highway on the edge of town in the 1980s, but the closing of the mill has meant even the absence of big box stores like Wal-Mart. Dollar stores are the only retail left in Bedford Falls. For anything else residents have to drive several miles to either Rochester or Syracuse. The one industry doing well in the region is the medical industry, which makes money from an aging population and a spike in opioid addiction.

George Bailey Jr still lives in his family's old Victorian home in Bedford Falls, even after the Savings and Loan debacle. "I know my father did a lot for this town, but keeping a town afloat isn't a one person job. An individual can't hold back a tidal wave. I have no doubt he made a difference, but I am almost glad he died thirty years ago so he didn't have to see what's happened."

Monday, December 23, 2019

Notes From The Ironbound's Best of 2019

Another year has come and gone, a perfect time for reflection and, inevitably, best of lists. I am pretty proud of what I do here, and so I would like to share my favorite posts of mine this year in case you actually like this blog and missed one of them. (Stuff I wrote for other sites is included as well.)

Slacking as Refusal (A Gen Xer Reflects)
Talkin' 'bout my generation. People try to put us down, etc etc.

From Broadway To Gravel Roads And Back
I went back home in January to go to the funeral of a relative, and that prompted some reflection on the clash between the world where I am from and the one I live in now.

Ben Sasse: The Sassiest Boy In America
At long last I wrote my takedown of Ben Sasse, the Eddie Haskell of the Plains. It felt good.

Billboard Top Ten Albums February 6, 1982
This is my favorite of my top ten recaps this year.

Notes on a Trip to Pelham Bay Park
I don't write enough travelogues anymore, and I really like this one.

Take the 2020 Presidential Primary Pledge
This is a pledge I need to follow better. Let's spend our efforts and words more effectively.

Requiem For A Small Town Bookstore
The bookstore in my hometown closed and it felt like the death of a loved one.

The Decline of the University Humanities as a Metaphor for America
No future for you

A Teacher's Due
On why I do what I do.

The Pleasures and Despair of Driving in Suburban New Jersey
Strong dad energy on this one.

If The Democratic Primary Field Was A University History Department
This went viral, a thing I wrote as a fun toss off. It was a reminder not to take what I do too seriously. Thanks to everyone who shared it.

Thoughts On Metzl's Dying of Whiteness
Dying of Whiteness is the best summation of the confluence of misery and a politics that worsens that misery in white, rural America. Go read it.

Cracked Windshields and Free Beer on a Bush League Nebraska Night
I love this essay. Nobody wanted to publish it, but it is near and dear to my heart.

On Seeing To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway
"I feel like this play reinforces some of the bad habits of mind of its audience, who are mostly educated liberals. They think of the current crisis as a moral one, not as a matter of life or death for millions of their fellow Americans. They are willing to do some things to resist, to be sure, but are incapable of taking the more radical action the current times demand. After all, the Atticuses of the world will be able to go on living comfortably, while the Tom Robinsons are sent to the grave. Until the Atticuses wed their moral duty to a greater sense of urgency, nothing is going to change."

How "Meetings Day" Sums Up the Worst of Teaching in Low-Level Higher Ed
"My old university was full of a lot of good people. If they had been given the power to run things instead being forced to obey the whims of others, that institution could've been something special. Today I am thinking of all my friends and colleagues still working in the world of low-level higher ed, and hoping against hope that the tide can be turned and that universities will someday be worthy of their faculty and students."

The Consolation of Baseball
My favorite baseball post of the year.

REM, Murmur, and Solace in Hard Times
Music has been helping me survive all this.

Reflections on Summer Travel Around America
"We have sadly treated the current crisis like something to be watched on television and to be affected by, rather than a play where we all take part."

Stop Asking The Children To Save You
I hate that I have to keep saying this.

Quitting (A Labor Day Reflection)
With the crushing of labor quitting is the only surefire weapon workers have.

What Socialists Can Learn From Obama And Trudeau
"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."

Chronic Town (REM Rewind)
My favorite album dissection of the year.

The Weaponization of Cynicism
This is one of those takes that will piss everyone off.

Badfinger, "Got To Get Out Of Here"
My favorite song analysis post of the year.

Neil Young, "A Journey Through The Past"
This is my number two.

Pete Buttigieg and the Dead Weight of the Status Quo
"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."

1877, 1972, and 2016: Our Ongoing Low-Grade Civil War
This piece summed up a lot of my political and historical thinking this year. 

"We are not on the verge of a revamp of the Blue and the Gray on the killing fields of Antietam and Gettysburg. However, there have been less overt versions of civil war in this country’s history that we typically fail to understand as such. Reconstruction and the 1960s both represented deep disputes over how to define the nation and who belonged to it, both ended with reactionaries taking over the state to reinstate inequality. We need to understand the echoes from those times to understand the current civil war moment."

My Family's Uncensored Christmas Letter
Ending things with some dark humor. It's also a reminder that my family has made the horror of the world today bearable 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The 2000-2006 Bubble In Time

After writing my last post on periodizing the 21st century, I have been thinking a lot about the Bush era. It's such a recent period, but we seem to have jammed it right down the memory hole. I think that's because a lot of people just don't want to reckon with what happened in that time.

As I said in my last post, 2000-2006 was its own distinct period. It began with the contested election of 2000, and ended with the 2007-2008 economic collapse, which happened to coincide with the rise of smart devices and social media.

Right now I just want to talk about the politics of the Bush era. The 2000 election set a precedent whereby Republicans would gain power through undemocratic means like gerrymandering and the electoral college, then use their narrow victories achieved without majorities to enact hardcore conservative policies. In 2003 Tom DeLay pushed through a redistricting in Texas that gave Republicans a majority mostly through redrawing the lines. State Republicans have been copying that tactic ever since.

These years also helped set the scene for austerity. In the months before 9/11 Bush enacted a largely unpopular tax cut that showered billions on the wealthy. The budget surplus achieved in the late 90s immediately went up in smoke. This is an underrated moment, considering that money could have funded an expansion of health insurance or elimination of student debt. Instead it aided austerity by creating deficits that could always be used as an excuse not to fund social programs.

Before 9/11 Dubya was an unpopular president, but that tragedy allowed him more power than he could have possibly imagined. This allowed for the invasion of Iraq, a neo-conservative wet dream that had been years in the making. It was also perhaps the biggest own goal in this country's history, America's equivalent of the Suez Crisis. Both exposed a dying empire's feet of clay. Parallel to that, Bush maintained a failed occupation of Afghanistan that continues to this day to show the United States' weaknesses. In prosecuting these wars the Bush-Cheney administration used torture and extraordinary rendition, destroying this country's claim to any sort of moral authority in the world. Trump has basically completed a process that began in these years.

The 2000-2006 period also cemented the role of white evangelicals in American politics. In 2004 Dubya won reelection partially through coordinated campaigns in various states to pass anti-gay marriage laws. This helped get the Bible thumpers, who Dubya could claim to be one of, to the polls. Now that gay marriage is the law of the land and broadly normalized this episode might seem antiquated. While this is no longer the primary issue used to appeal to evangelicals, they are still the solid base of the Republican Party. What Donald Trump discovered was that they are tied to together more by culture and outlook than by religious doctrine. Nationalism is just as central to their worldview as marriage or abortion, and leading with nationalism has allowed Trump to maintain the support of white evangelicals without alienating other voters. Unlike Bush, he doesn't even bother to walk the walk.

The political bubble of 2000-2006 ended due to the Bush administration's failures in New Orleans and Iraq and the collapse of the economy. But when Obama became president he faced a federal budget already gutted by tax cuts and a Republican Party that had figured out how to use its base and anti-democratic means to maintain power. Last but not least, conservatives learned to ignore "the reality based community" in an infamous line from the time. Trump, like no other modern politician, has simply created his own reality and managed to get his followers to buy into it. You see it every time he has a rally and tells lie after lie after lie. The tactics used by Bush and Cheney to bring America to war in Iraq and to get them into office in the first place live on.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

My Family's Uncensored Christmas Letter

[Editor's Note: families often write Christmas letters that put their life in the best light. I've decided to theorize what an uncensored one would look in my home. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and any resemblance to persons dead or alive is purely coincidental.]

This year was not as bad as 2018. Dad's most-played Spotify song of 2018 was "Weightless Again" by the Handsome Family, and in 2019 it was "Mariner's Apartment Complex" by Lana Del Rey, so he's slightly less of a sad old dad than the year before. That might have to do with a happier work environment that no longer makes him crack open a beer after getting home from work and screaming his frustration.

In the midst of a booming economy Dad and Mom didn't get a raise last year, which is to be expected when working in education. They got a lot of appreciation for their work, but appreciation doesn't pay for the kids' college. Considering the pace of global warming, perhaps college will be irrelevant in ten years.

Mom and Dad stayed politically active, but attended far fewer events and rallies than in years past. Dad and Mom's hope that any brighter future is possible might have finally been broken. They still spend too much time on Twitter and watching TV news getting mad and sad about the state of the world.

The children played softball in the spring. One played with gusto, the other mostly played with sticks in the outfield. Half the games were rained on. Mom and Dad decided not to do any summer camps this year in order to spend more time with their kids. Well...this was less decided and more being too insanely stressed to meet the deadlines for camps. And also not having gotten a raise. This strategy worked out well for the first month of summer, then basically meant weeks of breaking up fights and warding off requests to use the iPad.

Dad's parents visited and the whole gang took a trip to Maine, which was a lot of fun. Well, except for the cheap hotel Dad booked in Brunswick with weird activity at night and Mom getting a strange bug or spider bite. Dad also took a trip to Colorado to see his grad school friends. His main response was to feel depressed about living hundreds of miles from his closest friends and family.

The family has mostly been in good health. Mom just recovered from a nasty stomach virus that happened to coincide with a major initiative at work. Dad has had some dental work done, and the painfulness of eating has been the best thing for his weight control in years. One child threw up in class and Mom and Dad hope this didn't cause any emotional scarring on her or them, since they disbelieved her complaints of a stomach virus that morning. The morning routine is usually so hectic and stressful that human needs get lost in the shuffle.

Despite all the difficulties they all still love each other. In fact it's probably the only consistent thing they can all count on. Regardless of what happens in 2020, there's a comfort knowing that's there.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Live, "Selling the Drama"

I've been going back into the music of the 90s recently. I rarely do so, since this music reminds me of the hopeful time in my youth when I felt like my generation was going to make a difference and that the world could be changed for the better. There was plenty of bad stuff out there, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Reagan-Bush rule seemed to signal a new era unencumbered by the ideologies of the past. The rise of the Gingrich right, Clinton's triangulation politics, and the way a growing economy made inequality worse changed my attitude by the end of the decade.

But in the early summer of 1994 I had just graduated from high school, anxious to escape my hometown after many years of feeling out of place and being reminded of that constantly by my peers. Those months coincided with what was probably the high point of "alternative rock" as a mainstream phenomenon. I could put on the radio and hear the music I had spent years staying up late on Sunday night to see on 120 Minutes. That in itself seemed like a minor miracle.

I had a soft spot for Live because they came from York, Pennsylvania, a town not unlike my hometown in Nebraska. They seemed to have retained a kind of small town earnestness. Then as now I could never get with the irony-drenched detached pose affected by the urban hipster crowd. I see it as a sign of weakness from people who are too afraid of their own emotions to experience them. One of my fatal flaws in this cynical society is that I just care too damn much. 

"Selling the Drama" is one of the most earnest Live songs, a seeming generational anthem of resistance against the manipulation of authorities. I did not try to understand the particulars back in '94, I could just feel the rebellion in the chorus "We won't be raped/ we won't be scarred like that." The song drives hard, and the beat, to quote the kids, really slaps. Live's musicianship comes on strong in a song that's not the usual grunge by numbers that dominated the airwaves then.

I seemed to hear this song every day as I drove my car to work the evening shift at the rubber parts factory that summer. It never failed to steel me for a few hours of mind-numbing labor in a boiling hot room drenched in carbon black and layered with Stygian chemical smells. (The pay and my coworkers were good, though.) When I hear this song I am immediately brought back to those weeks, hopeful for the future but aware of how much hard work I had ahead of me before going to college at the end of the summer.

It's not cool to like Live nowadays, but honestly, fuck being cool. Being cool is exhausting, and for anyone over the age of 40, it's pretty damn pathetic, too. I've willed, I've walked, I've been there before.

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Longest War

In the midst of all the impeachment stuff it was easy today to miss a report from the Washington Post about the realities of the war in Afghanistan. What's especially striking is that the information is not classified, it's been out there in plain sight.

The article gets into the massive levels of corruption, the failures to establish a lasting order, and the inability to win the conflict. These are things we have known for quite some time, but have just elected to ignore. I have been hearing inklings of these failures for several years now, rumbling in the background. The report is damning, but we've known the gist for over a decade.

If this century has demonstrated anything, it's the inadequate nature of America's institutions. It's all been laid bare in America's persistence in fighting the longest war in our history. More than eighteen years after invasion the Taliban is still going strong, despite hundreds of billions of dollars being spent and the sacrifice of thousands of lives. It's part of the same institutional breakdown that led to the election of Donald Trump and the inability to prosecute him for his crimes.

On Capitol Hill and in Kandahar the American Colossus has feet of clay. The credibility that was squandered after 9/11 by the failed occupation of Afghanistan, the illegal war in Iraq, and the torture of suspects from shadowy black sites to Guantanamo Bay has erased the United States' post-Cold War claims to moral superiority. We knew they were fraudulent all along, now we have the incontrovertible proof. Obama tried to salvage America's reputation, but with Trump it is now lost and gone forever.

The question the report raises is what exactly is going to happen to the world with the end of Pax Americana. It's entirely appropriate that even with the release of this report, most Americans have forgotten about Afghanistan a long time ago. This is how empires end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

On America's Ongoing Low-Grade Civil War

My newest piece is up at Tropics of Meta. It's a distillation of a lot of the things I talk about on this blog, which is part of the reason I had to hack the first draft to pieces. I think the finished product is pretty darn good.

I talk about the low-grade civil war Republicans have been fighting since at least 1994, Herrenvolk nationalism, the end of Reconstruction, America's unexceptional history, and how the moral arc of history only bends when we force it to.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

My Fearless 2020 Election Prediction

It's December, that time of year where we look back on the past and think about the future. I'll think of some "best of" lists later, but right now I want to cut straight to the predictions.

I still remember the January morning in 2016 when I woke up to the news that David Bowie was dead. Few other musical artists ever meant as much to me, and his death coincided exactly with the moment where it looked like Trump could be president. Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars starts with "Five Years," a song about what happens when people on earth find out that's all the time they have left. I am beginning to see an eerie coincidence here, since January 2021, five years after Bowie's death, will also see Donald Trump's inauguration.

I now have little doubt that he will be reelected. I can now confidently predict that he will lose the popular vote again, but will also win the electoral vote again. His opposition is still fractured and the Republican Party has maintained its iron discipline. I don't really see many people changing their votes from last time. The election meddling last time will look like child's play compared to what we will see next year. We know voting machines are insecure and a few votes here and there can be easily fudged in a close election in a swing state. Many of those states have Republican leaders who are purging the voter rolls, eliminating polling places (leading to long lines), and putting voter ID laws in place. These measures have already been used effectively. Just look at what happened to Stacey Abrams in Georgia.

When it comes to the primaries, Democrats are in a no-win situation. They cannot nominate a moderate like Biden promising the status quo ante, since that lost them the last election. The economy is growing, which totally undercuts any appeal the turn back the clock message might have. On the other hand, social democrats like Warren and Sanders might have the populist appeal of promising a better life, but that has some pitfalls, especially against Trump. White Americans have never been willing to share with people of color, and policies like Medicare for All demand that. Once Trump tells white people that "your hard-earned dollars will be taken from you and given to THOSE PEOPLE" a lot of "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" dipshits will gravitate away from the Democratic candidate. If a Bloomberg-like moderate runs as a third party candidate then it will truly be curtains. The same goes if a moderate gets the nomination and someone like Tulsi Gabbard runs third party. Again, it won't be enough to give Trump a majority of the popular vote, but he doesn't need that to win anyway.

So this is a roundabout way of saying I don't really care all that much who gets the Democratic nomination. Whoever gets it will win a majority of the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. If I have to make a prediction I think it will be Biden because the Dems typically fall back on "electability" to give an uninspiring candidate the nomination. (Look at 2000, 2004, 2016, etc.)

In terms of electoral politics I want to put my energy into state, local, and Congressional races. The country is going up in flames, but federalism at least makes it so we can try to make our own little corners of the country more humane. Winning Congress keeps conservatives from being able to pass their extreme legislation. It's especially important to win the Senate in order to stop the wholesale bombardment of the federal bench by unqualified ideologues. But like the electoral college, the map doesn't favor it.

Our system of government was designed to thwart the majority will, we can't be all that surprised when it does exactly that. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Losing My Christmas Spirit

Current Christmas mood

The past few years of my life have been full of Christmas spirit, mostly because of parenthood. It's been a truly great thing to vicariously experience the holidays through my kids and to remember my own Christmases. I was a misfit in school growing up but I was lucky to have a very warm and loving family that made celebrating Christmas fun.

For some reason this year I am not feeling the spirit. Thanksgiving weekend will come and go without us putting out our decorations. My wife is feeling the same ennui, and our children's enthusiasm is not enough to shake us out of this.

After some reflection I think this has to do with Christmas on the meta level. Once you strip away both the consumerism, it is a holiday about hope. On the pagan level, it is the hope for the spring to arrive as we sit in the depths of winter darkness. On the more Christian level it is the hope that the birth of Jesus, savior of the world, represents. Christmas means that the broken world can indeed be saved and a kernel of that exists in even its more secular permutations. In recent years that hope has probably had a lot to do with my increased Christmas spirit, even if my children's zeal is the primary factor. In fact, the two intertwine because nothing forces me to think about the future and nothing absorbs as much of my hope as my children do. 

I think my loss of Christmas spirit reflects, deep down, my profound pessimism in this moment. In world affairs the dominoes keep falling, from Poland to Bolivia. In this country evidence that the despot has committed high crimes is out in the open and it will not lead to his removal. The 2020 election will be marred by voter suppression, disinformation, foreign meddling, and the reality that the electoral college will very likely preserve minority rule. (This is currently my prediction, btw). The world is burning up and apart from people posting Greta Thunberg memes little to nothing is being done to stop it in this country. In fact, our government's policies are hastening the apocalypse.

So what is there to look forward to? I think of the world my children will inherit and am filled with the deepest sense of helplessness and sadness. The last handful of Christmases I knew things were bad but I could still take heart in the promise of the holiday. Maybe I will eventually get there this year, but it will take some doing.