Thursday, December 31, 2020

My Best Writing of 2020

Another year come and gone, and as exceptional as this year has been, I am still going to give you all a year's best of my stuff. Please forward it to editors and/or eccentric millionaire patrons.

Radiohead's 21st Century Soundtrack

Maybe my favorite piece of the year. Radiohead were the prophets of our age.

How a Film Flop from 1991 Explains 2020

This piece on Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World is one I think I will keep coming back to.

John Le Carré, Patron Saint Of Disillusioned Academics

I wrote this before his death. RIP to a great one.

Hotel Floors, Truck Stop Parking Lots, Train Stations at 2AM and Other Mundane Adventures

This piece got rejected by a fancy publication but I think it's great. I miss travel so much.

Where Were You in '73?

My piece on nostalgia in the 70s for Tropics of Meta. I am also very proud of this one.

Letter on Local Housing Segregation

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests I got this letter published on the local news site calling out the resistance to denser and more affordable housing in my community.

Some Historical Metaphors for This School Year

My favorite post on teaching in the pandemic.

Embrace the Suck 

The wisdom that has allowed me to survive.

Pictures at a Cataclysm

Why Kandinsky's Improvisation 30 still moves me.

It's About More Than Just The Textbooks

I should write more about pedagogy, this is a piece I wrote about the need for a broader debate over what goes into our history classes.

Teaching High School Debate Differently

More pedagogy.

Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams"

Wow, even before this song went viral again later in the year I wrote about it back in January. I also *sob* wrote about the pleasures of bars and jukeboxes. Little did I know...

Going to the AHA as an Ex-Academic

Some tweets I wrote about my return to the AHA got some attention and new Twitter followers. I ended up enjoying the AHA experience far more with all the pressure off of me.

A Guide to Bloomberg Country

Since I work on the Upper West Side I have insight into the Bloomberg base. Remember when he ran for president?

Zen and the Art of Opening Wax Packs

Old packs of baseball cards were a needed comfort this year.

Opening Day

Speaking of baseball, here's a poem inspired by the game and the early days of the pandemic.

My Hear is Far Away

Another poem, one that I still feel.

My iPod of Hopes and Dreams

Another pandemic moment was digging out my old iPod.

The Heart of the Matter

One of my better rants.

The Speech I Want Joe Biden to Give

I'm still available, Joe.

Down By the Seaside

The first day I ventured back to the beach was an emotional one.

Why Sorcerer Is a Great Quarantine Film

My favorite classic film discovery of the year.

Give Us Social Care, Not Self Care

The call is still unheeded.

Thoughts on Reaganland

Perlstein's latest was my favorite read of the year.

America is More Wilhelmine Than Weimar

As a historian of 19th century Germany I have to prove my relevance, you know.

Why a Landslide of "Rebuke" Was Never Coming

My post-election analysis.

A Reflection on the Plague Year (Apologies to Daniel Defoe)

Well, this is where I get it all out of my system. Let's hope 2021 is better.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

A Reflection on the Plague Year (apologies to Daniel Defoe)

The Kinks' "Too Much On My Mind" is my 2020 theme

This wretched year of 2020 is finally coming to a close. Unfortunately, the forces of nature and history do not recognize dates on the calendar. The coming winter months will lead to a lot more COVID deaths and potentially more violence from right wing extremists. Nevertheless, I want to honor the dates on the calendar as a tool for some reflection. 

Between the pandemic and the election, I consider 2020 to be the Great Unmasking. The realities of our society and a lot of the people I know have been revealed. This has been horribly disheartening but there have been a couple of bright spots. Some of the unmasking involves things I knew to be true but was loathe to confront.

For example, a lot of people I have known my entire life voted for Trump in the 2016 election. To a person those I had the most respect for did not vote for him in the primaries, and seemed to be voting for him in the general election out of their hatred of liberals (HRC was someone some of these folks had intensely hated for decades) or religious imperative to be anti-abortion. I thought that many of these people, after seeing the damage wrought by the past four years, would reconsider or maybe not vote. Instead they started openly praising Trump on social media and going to local rallies. I reproached myself for being so completely naive. Conservatism has become an authoritarian personality cult, why should I surprised that conservatives in my life, no matter how virtuous they are otherwise, would be taken in? Trump losing the election has helped me cope, but I know there's a lot of people in my life that I will never be able to view the same way ever again. 

The same goes for responses for the pandemic, which are not easy to break down along political lines as you may think. I have seen a lot of selfish, irresponsible behavior from outspoken liberals with comfortable lives who did not need to break quarantine out of necessity. There's also people like the guy who owns the local comic book store, who never wears a mask or shield. I won't be patronizing that store anymore. There are also those in my community who quickly turned to demonizing teachers when they did not want to go back into the classroom out of health concerns. These are steadfast New Jersey liberals, not Trumpers I am talking about. 

On top of this, of course, are the innumerable jackasses on public transit and in other crowded areas who refuse to mask up for some inscrutable reason. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it's that I should be very careful about who I trust. I learned this lesson before during my ill-starred time in academia, but I think after recovering from that experience I let my guard down a little too much.

Our society's hierarchies have been exposed this year like never before. In terms of race it was telling that many people in my life expressed angry outrage about looting in the aftermath of George Floyd's death and absolutely zero concern that his life was taken. The widely disparate impacts of the virus based on race and class have shown just how much racism and classism literally kill. I remember when the virus first hit, and the wealthy of New York City decamped to their second homes in the country while working class people of color stuck in overcrowded housing died in fearsome numbers. 

We have also seen in the past year who actually does the most valuable work and how badly exploited they are. Delivery and truck drivers, nurses, warehouse workers, and grocery clerks have kept the country afloat. Teachers have completely changed their practice in impossible circumstances. What all these "essential workers" have received for this is just lip service. In fact, when someone calls you an "essential worker" you should run for the hills. It means you are about to be put in the line of fire to do grueling work with little regard for your safety. These essential workers will be facing layoffs and pay cuts (educators already are) when their work will no longer be considered so important. All the while the stock holders are still raking it in and university administrators whose only role has been to add to the burden of the educators on the front line are making top dollar. 

(All this talk of "essential workers" should also have us asking some hard questions about the people whose work has been exposed as inessential. They should be feeling much, much more afraid than they are.)

The worst part is I do not see much changing positively after the pandemic. As the election showed, America's constitutional system and geography make sweeping change very difficult and 40% of the country is dead-set against any changes and will in fact burn the country down if they are attempted. Plenty of people who voted against Trump are still committed to the status quo. Since I work on the Upper West Side I have been exposed to multiple "liberals" who thought it was good that Biden won but the Democrats did not win the Senate. The class solidarity of keeping taxes on the wealthy low is not going to break anytime soon. Six months after the streets of America were full of more protest than I have ever seen in my life, many who paid lip service seem to have forgotten that moment even happened, and are secretly glad about it fading, too.

On a bigger scale, the pandemic was a test that this country has failed. We never had a national response, meaning the virus has never been under control. People refuse to cooperate with contact tracing, authorities refuse to enforce restrictions, and many worn down by months of sacrifice have understandably given up right at the moment when it's worse than ever. And so the deaths keep piling up, another 9/11 every two days in a country where many still say "it's no big deal."

It's the same country where our life expectancy was falling before this happened. The same country where suicides, drug overdoses, and gun deaths were epidemics that were also "no big deal." Plenty has been unmasked, but America's status as a nation that any other country would want to imitate is perhaps the biggest. I have never been more convinced that I stand a fair chance of outliving the United States. Currently doses of the long awaited vaccine may expire before they can be distributed. This country does not have much of a future, but it just might keep dragging its wrecked carcass around for a century more.

This year even I, a middle class cishetero white guy, got to experience what it's like when your own government abandons you. I remember how back in March and April, when the hospitals were overflowing in New York and New Jersey and the death totals spiked, yet the federal government did little to help. I remember people in other parts of the country acting as if it was our problem, and not theirs. They were fine letting people die here. Most people -including those in the Tri-State area- have forgotten about this. I never have, and I never will. 

In the short term, I try to find hope. Trump will soon no longer be president. The vaccines are coming even if their distribution is being botched. A young generation took to the streets to demand justice this year, and their commitment gives me the most hope of all.

In my personal life I have tried to cling to what is good and sustaining. I have been able to spend so much more time with my wife and children, usually rare during the school year with our impossible commutes and schedules. I have strengthened friendships with friends who live both far and near. During the pandemic I fell in with a group of local dads and we started watching backyard movies every week together. For the first time since moving here seven years ago I feel like I am actually a part of the town I live in, rather than a temporary sojourner. 

I have thrown myself into the work of distance and hybrid teaching and am quietly proud of how well this old dog has learned new tricks. I have had the joy of teaching sustain me through some difficult straits. Forget all the "essential worker" lip service, I am just glad to be doing work that actually matters. Not many people who make more money than me can actually say that about what they do.

And so I take joy in my family, take heart in my work, and spend my free time reading stimulating books and listening to music and getting a lot better at making pies and cornbread. My hope for the wider world is dim, but life is a short shining moment and I aim to make the best of it. Perhaps 2021 will be better. I am certainly mentally prepared for it to be worse. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

We Need A Little Christmas

I was looking through my old Christmas-related posts on this blog, since 'tis the season for self reflection. I noticed that in the past I had written a lot about the awful consumerist ethos of the season and how it should be counter-balanced with other Christmas values of generosity, kindness, and a sense of responsibility for others. This year the consumerist orgy of Christmas has been bugging me less. This is partially because my headspace has more immediate concerns, but also because Christmas in quarantine seems to have dampened the usual ostentation. 

Growing up Christmas was a magical time, and not only because of the presents. Back then I was a very devout Catholic, and at midnight Mass I would get a jolt of reassuring feeling in my spine that things would be okay. That's the ultimate message of the holiday, after all. Even those of us who have drifted from the faith still have that feeling in our hearts. We live in a broken, corrupted world, but the hand of grace can somehow offer the hope of redemption.

While I have not recovered the faith (and doubt I ever will), I haven't lost the feeling of hope. This year I we need it more than ever. Thousands die of disease every day while one political faction has openly flouted the rules against mitigation. The president is undermining democracy and pardoning his criminal associates who helped cover up his crimes. The police continue to murder unarmed Black people with impunity. People are losing jobs and businesses and aid is not coming. 

I also try to remember that there are rays of hope. Trump lost by seven million votes. Republicans can still lose the Senate. People are starting to get vaccinated. Perhaps all is not lost. That's the one thought that is sustaining me this Christmas. It's a time of year when I might be able to believe that things can actually get better.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Embrace the Suck

I just want to thank a Gulf War Marine vet friend (who is now a school principal) for giving me the  wisdom of "embrace the suck" in regards to dealing with the current dumpster fire. 

For example: last night the local schools did a Q&A about reopening in January and I didn't watch. I'll just adjust to whatever the hell they tell us we have to do. Send the kids in on Mondays and Tuesdays except for full moons  when there is a mandatory asynchronous field day? Fine. Whatever. 

Having to do all this while my wife and I are required to work on site with schedules that are entirely incompatible with our children's? No biggie. We will light a bunch of money on fire for child care or have them go to the old woman in the shoe or some shit. We'll manage somehow.

After months of thinking that people in authority should be doing something, and that people around me should be behaving responsibly in a pandemic, I've realized I'm a sucker for expecting anything different. This whole experience has revealed a lot to me, and none of it good. 

The only thing I can do is try to do my job and take care of my family and just assume no one else is going to do a goddamned thing to make our lives any easier. When the occasional mensch has come through for us it only makes their generosity that much sweeter.

The part of my soul that had any expectations about the behavior of my fellow humans is now gone. So let that part of your own soul die. It's only holding you back. Embrace the suck. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

I Was a John and Then a George, Now I'm a Paul

Yesterday Paul McCartney came out with a quarantine album of his own, McCartney III. It's a successor to his earlier self-titled albums, which are one man band lo-fi experiments. There are many reasons why the stereotype of Paul as the poppy, conventional Beatle are wrong, but these albums are the strongest. I find the most recent one inspiring because McCartney is 78 and still trying new things and putting out good music. 

As I have gotten older I have begun to appreciate Paul a lot more, not least because he's a family man with a grounded sense of priorities. And, unlike other Boomer rock stars, he hasn't become some reactionary troglodyte denouncing lockdowns. I wrote the following four years ago, and it still holds true today.

Dr Sillylovesongs: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Paul McCartney



Contrary to stereotype, Paul McCartney can make dark, introspective lo-fi music

Anyone who gets into the Beatles at a young age decides which Beatle is their favorite. This choice is not merely an aesthetic one, but also is meant to reflect the personality and values of the fan. In my teens, John was far and away my favorite. To me he was the rebel Beatle, the one who stood up for peace and was not afraid to speak his mind. I also valued his musical contributions more, seeing him as the true artist in the group. The Revolver album, my fave Beatles record, seemed to make the choice pretty clear.  The John songs on that record are searing and full of all kinds of spiritual angst, perfect fodder for an adolescent. What teen hasn't just wanted to not get out of bed, as in "I'm Only Sleeping"? The real kicker, however, was "Tomorrow Never Knows," which still sounds amazing and different fifty years later. It was almost impossible to think that the band responsible for "Love Me Do" had created it. Paul had some fine songs on that record ("Yellow Submarine," "Good Day Sunshine," Got To Get You Into My Life," Eleanor Rigby" etc.) but they tended to be less rockish and more poppy.

As my twenties progressed, I started gravitating towards George, rather than John. Much of this had to do with my friends Debbie and Brian, who were big George fans. I had also loved his wry perspective in the Beatles Anthology interviews. The more I read about the Beatles, the more I liked George and felt less of a connection to John. While John finally seemed to be getting it sorted out at the end of his tragically short life, he could be a mean drunk who neglected his first child and treated his first wife, Cynthia, poorly. I empathized with his bouts of depression, but he began to strike me as a rather unpleasant person. On the positive side, I finally heard Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and I still believe that it's by far the best Beatles solo album.

Ringo was never a candidate for favorite Beatle for me, but I've always loved him. I think his drumming is very underrated, and it pisses me off when people put his musical ability down. (Harrison and Lennon could have had anyone drum on their first solo records, but they chose Ringo.) Paul, of course, was the one I had the most mixed feelings about. The more I learned about the breakup of the Beatles, the more I realized that those who blamed Yoko Ono were completely wrong.  Of course, the four men growing up and developing their own separate personalities and interests was the root cause of the break up, which I now take to be a good thing, since it saved us from terrible reunion tours and the kind of mediocre music we've been getting from the Stones in the last thirty years. The Beatles break-up had its immediate origins in the death of manager Brian Epstein, which left a huge vacuum. Paul tried to step in and be the leader of the band, and to have his brother in law manage. I attributed this to Paul being a control freak, something I saw first hand in his unbearable antics in the studio in Let It Be. I'd also heard the story that he had forced the band to record eighty takes of the mediocre "Ob La Di Ob La Da," which is enough to make anyone quit any band, including the Beatles.

I also generally thought of Paul as "the cute one" who made, in his own words, "silly love songs." Could I really rate the guy responsible for "Honey Pie" above the man who wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows"? Plus, as a child of the 80s and 90s, I thought of Paul as a guy with a terrible mullet wearing fashion-victim vests touring the world playing his hits. This to me, in my punk rock phase, was the height of uncool.

In recent years, however, my attitude has been changing. Paul is most definitely a control freak, of course. In the Wingspan documentary his own daughter seems a bit exasperated at all of the lineup changes in Wings brought on by that tendency. At the same time, aren't a lot of great artists control freaks? Paul isn't someone I'd want to work with, but his exacting standards are probably responsible for the timeless nature of his best songs. I also came to realize that while his attempt to take a controlling interest in the Beatles after Epstein's death backfired, it might have been the right way to go. They ended up hiring the infamous Allen Klein over Paul's objections, who, as he often did with the artists he represented, ripped them off. At that point in the late 60s John, who had been the leader of the group early on, was beginning to check out and act more erratically. Somebody had to step in and do something. Paul did it maladroitly, but he intentions were in the right place.

Paul's iron will to keep things together is also what gave us Abbey Road, which next to Revolver is my fave Beatles record. Even though the band was falling apart, they managed to end on an extremely high note. Paul was chiefly responsible for the second side's pastiche of song fragments. I think that medley might be my favorite thing that the Beatles ever did. (George also has some fantastic songs on that record. John's are good, but not at the same level.)

Over the years I also came to realize that while John got the credit for being experimental and George for bringing in Indian music, Paul was not just the guy who wrote silly love songs. Imagine my surprise when I learned that "Helter Skelter" was a Paul song, since that totally went against narrative. While may have penned some schmaltzy numbers, he had a well-documented interest in experimental music, as well as decidedly non-schmaltzy sleaze like "Why Don't We Do It In The Road." On top of all of that, he was definitely the best musician in the Beatles. His melodic bass lines are really miles ahead of what most rock bassists were doing at the time. What really put me over the top musically with Paul were his first two solo albums, which I didn't hear until a few years ago, mostly due to my old prejudices. He recorded the first one completely by himself, and the second with only some background vocals from Linda. They are idiosyncratic albums with a great amount of looseness to them. Hearing them now, they sound like the earliest antecedents of lo-fi indie rock. They also happen to be really good, and daring in their own way. The fan reaction was not greatly positive, and McCartney would find great solo success after creating Wings and going for a big 70s pop-rock sound.

Beyond the music, I really started empathizing with Paul after reading the book Man on the Run, about his career in the 70s. He fell into a deep depression after the breakup of the Beatles (which he had worked hard to avoid), complete with overconsumption of alcohol. His relationship with Linda and the loose experimentation of those early records are what helped him cope and recover.  (I myself could certainly understand the difficulties that come with having to make a major career change in your thirties against your will.) I always get irritated when people mock Linda and her presence in Wings. Paul brought her and their children on tour as a way of keeping the family together, rather than indulging in the rock and roll party lifestyle. Learning this now that I am a parent made me respect him even more. (Not to be petty, but compare this to John's treatment of Julian.)

I am not sure who my favorite Beatle is anymore, probably because I'm no longer young enough for that to be meaningful. I can say that time and wisdom have made me appreciate Paul McCartney much more than before. And hey, if some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, what's wrong with that? I'd like to know.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Clash, "Death or Glory" (Track of the Week)

Today I saw a great article about London Calling on the anniversary of its release and that got me to re-listen to it for the first time in awhile. It's probably in my all time top ten, and was certainly one of the first albums I ever bought that branched out beyond classic rock and 90s alternative music I listened to at the time.

As I listened I slowly realized there was a reason I had put it down for so long. When my friend David and I roomed together in Chicago (one of the most fun years of my life) we listened to this album over and over. Whenever we were back in our favorite bar in Omaha (where he grew up and we both went to college) we'd pop "Death or Glory" onto the juke box. Dave also had a t-shirt of the album cover that I greatly envied. (My Clash shirt was of their first album.) 

We were like two peas in a pod back then, about as close as friends could get. It was eight years this month that he died suddenly and unexpectedly. I realized I had unconsciously avoided this album because like some other things we enjoyed together (Army of Darkness, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and M*A*S*H* reruns included) being exposed to it brings up painful associations. 

I guess that makes sense, since London Calling is as rich and sprawling as life itself. Genres explode out of every corner and amalgamate. Stories tumble out too, everything from the Spanish Civil War to the death of Montgomery Clift to the loneliness of suburban supermarkets. 

"Death or Glory" is a more conventional rocker, but it is rock stripped of the bravado of youth. It's also cleaner and more direct than the chaotic spittle and crunch of the Clash's earlier punk efforts. "Protex Blue" this ain't. This is a song about what happens to young punks in middle age. "You end up making payments on a sofa or a girl." As the song goes, death or glory becomes just another story. 

When Dave and I lived together in our Rogers Park apartment we got to live out the bohemian fantasy of lower-middle class Catholic Nebraska boys in the big city. We had espresso in coffee shops and read philosophy. We went to midnight showings of old cult classics. We drank in dive bars and ate at late night diners and talked big ideas. Neither one of us was all that interested in settling down or living the straight life but he ended up meeting his future wife and we both got accepted into doctoral programs in other cities that year. 

Dave died at 36, right on the cusp of middle age. By that time we were both parents and pretty happy about it. "Death or Glory" is still right, though. The dreams of youth got eaten up for both of us. We were both PhDs working outside the academy by that point. If you hang onto those young dreams too tightly they will eat you alive. 

It still stings that he and I were not able to grow old together, which is something I had somehow always expected to happen. If middle age has taught me anything, it's that you lose more friends than you pick up after a certain point. I can still pump my fist to The Clash and remember, though. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

A Legitimacy Crisis For All The Wrong Reasons

The crowds calling the system illegitimate are not who you'd suspect

It should not be a surprise that the American system of government is having a legitimacy crisis. After all, Democrats have won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, but only three members of the Supreme Court were nominated by Democrats. Two of the most disastrous presidents in this country's history were elected with a minority of the vote. The Senate, filibuster, and gerrymandering have allowed the minority party to either gain power or prevent the majority from wielding it. In states like North Carolina and Wisconsin Republicans have won legislatures via gerrymandering then stripped incoming Democratic governors of their powers. 

It's very strange then that we are seeing accusations of illegitimacy not by the disenfranchised majority, but instead by the aggrieved minority. The fact that 126 House Representatives and 17 state attorneys general signed onto Texas' ridiculous challenge to the election result is truly staggering. They are the people who benefit from the undemocratic nature of the system, yet they are the ones fighting to tear it apart.

On the surface this doesn't make sense, but it does if you look at legitimacy through their eyes and take stock of the past thirty years of American political history. Jimmy Carter is the last Democratic that Republicans treated as legitimate. They impeached Bill Clinton over a minor offense after years of saying his win in 1992 was not legit because he won a plurality, not majority of votes. When Barack Obama took office they said he wasn't really born in America. They used the filibuster to block his legislation and would not even give Merrick Garland a hearing. Now they are openly calling Biden illegitimate before he even has a chance to take office. 

What explains all of this is the conservative worldview where they are the "real Americans." In this framing liberals and those who vote for them are the other, something compounded by the fact that people of color and city-dwellers mostly vote for Democrats. Anyone who opposes conservatives is de facto illegitimate because they are not Real Americans. On top of that, Republicans refuse to submit to the authority of any elected Democrat because liberals represent an un-American, malevolent force impinging on them. 

As I have said, many conservatives would literally rather die than do something a liberal asked them to do. The pandemic has offered proof. Conservatives have opposed mask mandates and refuse to cooperate with contact tracing, even as we are seeing a 9/11 worth of deaths every single day. Reason, science, and even self-interest are not adequate antidotes for this mentality. Any admission of being wrong means the entire basis of the their identity as the infallible Real Americans crumbles and so challenging their worldview only causes them to double down. 

The current legitimacy crisis is going to be perpetual as long as the Republican Party and its allied media continue the narrative that they are the only people with legitimate claims to power. It will continue until the party and its adherents change, or their behavior finally breaks the system. Our political system certainly can't sustain one of two major parties actively trying to destroy it for very long. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

My Letter to the Nebraska Attorney General

 This evening I discovered that my home state of Nebraska has joined 17 others in the lawsuit filed by Texas to overturn the election. I know that the people responsible for this will never stop being horrible, but at the very least I don't want them to think that they can play games with our democracy without getting their ears burned with words of rebuke. My letter is below, I urge others to do likewise.


Attorney General Peterson:

It was with great alarm and disgust that I read that you have included Nebraska in the group of states that have joined Texas in trying to overturn a free and fair presidential election. Millions more Americans voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, and those votes have now been certified. Apparently you are such a craven partisan that you would rather destroy democracy than accept losing an election. 

I grew up in Nebraska and while it was always conservative politically, I never had to doubt that the state's leaders supported the maintenance of democratic institutions. I am saddened and angered that this is no longer the case. I do not know if you are doing this out of misguided conviction or a slavish devotion to the Republican Party, but either way you should be ashamed of yourself and resign your position. You are clearly unfit to hold it, at least in a free and democratic nation. What puzzles me is that you would sell your soul for Donald Trump, a lying con artist who cares about no one but himself. To betray the public trust in such a flagrant manner for such a man is truly, truly pathetic. If the consequences were not so damaging I would laugh. If there is any justice in this nation your name will forever be wreathed in shame. 


Jason Tebbe

Monday, December 7, 2020

Dispatches From The Front

Wilfred Own Knows What's Up

Back in September as the school year began I likened the difference between teaching in March when the virus hit to going back for a new year to the difference between World War I and World War II. The first time out I was full of the vigor and enthusiasm of taking a leap into the unknown, as dangerous as it could be. My attitude was all Rupert Brooke "swimmers into cleanness leaping" and all that. After surviving those months of remote learning to be thrown into hybrid learning in the fall, my enthusiasm was gone. All that was left was a devotion to duty. In September of 1939 there were no jubilant crowds on the streets of the combatant countries, just fear, resignation, and some quiet resolve. 

I have done my best to fulfill that duty all while hoping and praying that this all ends soon. I have been uplifted by the spirit of my students, which has truly impressed me, as well as many of my front-line comrades, and even some of the commanding officers. 

This morning I had enough time to actually reflect, and something hit me really hard. I have become inured to the ridiculous demands of teaching hybrid while parenting children in remote school with a spouse required to go to school every class day. I get up in the morning and shoulder the burden and get to work not even thinking about how impossible the task is or how ridiculous any of this would have been to conceive of a year ago. I just do it.

I realized this morning that this attitude is what has kept me from having a nervous breakdown. At the same time, I feel like part of my soul has died and won't be coming back. The same thing happened in my last years in academia, where some of my natural generosity and openness got permanently destroyed after it led me to be taken advantage of. The experience made me a harder person, and definitely not a better one. 

Right now I am starting to get tunnel vision. For example, I am no longer bothered when I hear and see people I love and care about being reckless in their behavior towards the virus. They are adults. Just let them do what they want. If they want to be careless, fine. I can't stop them and trying to will just make them mad. I can only hunker down and protect the people in my household and hope all turns out well. It's really the only thing I can control. 

So the war goes on, with no end in sight. The only thought that fazes me anymore is the idea that there never will be an end. I find that unbearable but I have little reason to think otherwise. Tonight I will rest and try not to think about it. Tomorrow I will be back in the trenches doing the impossible, but at least the work occupies my mind and gives me a reason to care. See you at the front, comrades. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Upstairs/Downstairs World of Education Under COVID

The education workplace feels more and more like Gosford Park

COVID has been a test of American society, one that we have completely failed. It has also further exposed pre-existing realities that were not as close to the surface. If anything, it has exposed what a grossly unequal and stratified society that we live in.

In areas where public schools have been closed, private schools have been open (including the one where I teach.) Actually opening schools in a safe manner under COVID requires monetary support and funding, something being deprived from public schools. Poorer students are less likely to have reliable internet and to live in place where schooling from home is comfortable. It's more likely that their parents have to work outside of the home. They were already struggling, now they are underwater. Meanwhile, wealthier parents in schools that are shuttered can afford to be pod people and pay someone to be their children's governess. It's like a return to the 19th century. On top of this, they have the kind of white collar professional jobs that allow them to work from home, allowing them to avoid steep day care costs if they are not pod people.

Others are not so lucky. Not only must they work outside of the home and sometimes confront angry customers who refuse to cover their faces, they are more likely to live in the kind of crowded circumstances where the disease spreads easiest. That's the result of the country's crisis in affordable housing, which was hurting people before but is now killing them. 

Those of us who are lucky enough to have better housing and steady work during this mess can still see the hierarchy play out in more subtle ways in the workplace. This is especially the case in education. Administrators get to sit in their offices without being exposed, often without their masks on, while teachers are there in the trenches in the classroom. The admins also get to make decisions about opening and closing, which impact them the least. They can make those choices without bothering to take the concerns of their faculty into account. After all, they're just the people teaching the students. 

Meanwhile those teachers have completely altered their pedagogy and teaching materials. We have been forced to do our jobs in entirely different ways that we were never trained for. In the hybrid classroom we get to try to teach in two different worlds at once, real and virtual. Sometimes this means constructing two lessons for the same class. Our reward will be firings, furloughs, and pay cuts. The government is refusing to help state and local governments, meaning public schools and universities are screwed. Private schools are seeing students leave due to the cost and fund-raising dry up in the midst of a recession. 

In higher ed there are stories of universities slashing whole departments and tenure track faculty members. Those same institutions still have football coaches who are the highest paid public employees in their state. They still possess an army of deans whose only purpose in life is to make their faculties  do stupid shit just to justify their useless positions. 

I know a lot of teachers and profs who are furious about this situation. I know multiple educators very close to me who contracted COVD at institutions that were irresponsible in their handling of the virus. Without any radical action the inequalities in education, already festering, are going to defeat any possibilities for future change. I foresee a scenario where teachers start quitting en masse due to burnout, and public schools start de-professionalizing teaching by plugging in untrained employees who can at least apply a pre-set digital curriculum. At the college level adjunctification will overtake the totality of entire disciplines. Those fortunate enough to live in the right zip code will still have a good public school education, and will get accepted into universities what have not been converted into glorified vocational schools.

The only way forward is to join together and fight. It's time to tell the "bone spurs" types among our colleagues that they need to orient their dissatisfaction away from unproductive spite towards action. It's time to tell the "company men" among our colleagues that the company will throw them away if they feel like it. It's time to tell our bosses that they need to make a shared sacrifice, and if they want our labor, they have to listen to us. It's time to demand that the government actually fund public education and do right by our students. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Center-Right Nation*

 It's been only a month since election day, but it feels like a million years. Now that the hot takes have faded it's time to look at it all with clearer eyes. There's a lot going on, but one thing that seems pretty obvious is that possibilities for political change are currently greatly hampered by structural events.

Mitt Romney once proclaimed that America was a "center right nation," although that nation voted against him for Barack Obama. In fact, voters have given the popular vote win to the Democrat over the Republican in seven of the last eight presidential elections. 

Despite that fact the Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority. From 1993 to 2021 Democrats have controlled both the White House and Congress together for only six of those years. The electoral college, Senate, gerrymandering, and voter suppression (either actively via voter ID laws or passively via a system where people must register) have made it difficult for progressives to make gains on the national level. 

The electorate is most certainly center-left, based on their choices, but the outcomes have been extremely right wing. In the 28 year period when Democrats were winning the popular vote almost every time the United States engaged in a misbegotten neoconservative invasion of Iraq. It has radically slashed taxes for the wealthy and corporations. It has built a wall on the border and broken apart immigrant families while imprisoning their children. It has banned immigrants from several Muslim countries. It has weakened environmental protections and pulled out from climate accords. It has shredded the possibility for improved relations with nations like Cuba and Iran. 

In the 2020 election Joe Biden won a very clear popular vote victory but still had to sweat the electoral college. That big win did not translate to more seats in the House and control of the Senate. The entire structure of our system is currently set up to make it possible for Democrats to get real power only in massive landslides. Republicans can have the same if they still lose but only by a little. 

This structure means we will not get universal health care, a Green New Deal, free college, or subsidized child care. With Republicans likely controlling the Senate they will use the debt ceiling to hold the country hostage and force austerity in the next administration. I guarantee it. 

The only options are to appeal to voters in the small states to win the Senate, or revolutionary change. The former means having to give up on calling for the very progressive policies that winning the Senate is supposed to secure. The latter just isn't going to happen. 

The next four years will bring gridlock and stasis, and right now that looks like the best we can do under our current Constitutional arrangement. I plan on putting my efforts on the local level because there's no point in bothering with national politics apart from hoping for some good executive orders. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A COVID Thanksgiving Reflection

This Thanksgiving is not one I could have ever anticipated. Back in March when my school went remote I was shocked when the head said we might be remote to the end of the school year. Now I wonder when the next day I teach all of my students in the classroom will come, if it ever will. Sometimes I think of the World War I trench soldiers who thought about the war just going on forever, an eternal hell. 

This month has given hope and fear in equal measure. The election and news of successful vaccines has lifted my spirits, but inauguration isn't until January and the drugs have yet to be administered. In the meantime the infection rate has skyrocketed and the winter weather will only make things worse. Millions have decided to have a "normal" Thanksgiving in these circumstances that will probably kill more people than Sturgis did. Your move, Christmas. 

In the past week things have been hitting closer to home. The households of friends have been hit by the disease, including in the house literally next door to mine. This feels like the proverbial darkest hour before the dawn. Well, at least I hope there's a dawn.

In the midst of this gloominess comes Thanksgiving, a time of reflection. As I take stock of things, I certainly have plenty to be thankful for. In this time of economic anxiety I still have my job, and my employer has to my estimation done a good job of keeping me safe even though I am going in to school. Because of quarantine I have been able to spend a lot more time with my wife and children, and I am glad for that. During normal work weeks my commute made it so I barely saw them, and that when I did I was either stressed trying to get to work or exhausted coming home from it. I know I am fortunate and am planning on making some donations to help people who have not been as lucky.

I am also feeling thankful on a slightly different level. This week I started reading Thoreau's Walden, a book I had been circling around for almost thirty years. I had heard such conflicting things about it, but in September we took a trip to Cape Cod and I picked up his travelogue of the area at a local bookstore. I found that I really liked his prose style, so often derided by others. 

Some books that are assigned to high school students never should be, and Walden is obviously one of them. The issues it raises only become clear once one has gone far into adulthood. At a certain point, usually middle age, most people realize they are no longer becoming the person they will be, but have already become the person they will be for the rest of their lives. This reckoning can be a tough one, and one no teenager on earth can truly comprehend. (And that's to be expected! Let them have their days in the sun because the sun will soon be clouded.) 

The question the book forces the reader to ask, again and again, is "What am I doing with my life?" The one true gift the horror of COVID and the boredom of quarantine has given me is the clear knowledge that I am not wasting it. My work as a teacher, especially under the demands of quarantine, is difficult and draining. But it is also meaningful. I know what I am doing makes a positive impact on my students, and the paper shufflers, bureaucrats and salesman that make double and triple my salary really can't say that. All the time with my family has brought home to me that I have made the right choices in my priorities.

When this all started I had a couple of days of deep reflection, wondering if my soul was prepared if my life were to be taken in the pandemic. I have so much more to live for, but if the universe doesn't have that in the cards for me I know I did a lot with the time I managed to eek out. For that, I am thankful. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Back to Mozart

With the closure of NYC public schools today there is a familiar feeling in the air. The same air of panic and uncertainty I felt in March has returned. Here in Jersey we experienced the worst of the pandemic early on and have mostly been spared since, dodging the spike that happened in much of the country in summer. Now the cases are shooting up, as well as hospitalizations. Soon I am sure the deaths will follow.

The last time, eight months ago, feels like a distant era. It's hard to remember a time when I went out in public without a mask or went into a full classroom to teach. At times it feels like "normal" is never coming back. 

Back in March I was overwhelmed and depressed but I got a certain spark from the feeling that I had a mission to complete. Like a German student volunteer in 1914 I went into battle singing. Now in November it feels more like Verdun. I think of the British trench soldier's morbid singing of the chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" as "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here." 

Going remote happened to coincide with my "spring break," so I helped my kids navigate those first difficult weeks of distance learning while I read books and listened to music and desperately tried to get my classes converted to the new format. In terms of books I leaned on 19th century novels and started reading Middlemarch. In terms of music, I threw myself back into classical, particularly Mozart. 

Something about Mozart fills me with the joy of being a human alive on this planet. His music is not only sublime, it never sticks with the expected direction. Mozart has a seemingly endless bag of tricks, yet he makes all of his twists and turns sound completely natural and expected. In Mozart I hear the pure bliss of human creativity in all of its potential. It completely blows my mind that a single human being was capable of creating such an expansive body of music, all before he turned 36 years old. 

So today I find myself listen to the overture to Figaro again, a piece of music that will always bring a smile to my face. Life is short. Most of it is tedious and stupid. Looking at death in the face I am leaning on the things, like Mozart, that make me proud ever to have lived as a human being on this earth. I already have nine more years than he did, so I should count myself lucky. Stay safe out there, everyone. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

America is More Wilhelmine Than Weimar

Over the past four year there have been a lot of comparisons between the United States and Weimar Germany. These were mostly rooted in comparing democracies succumbing to fascism. The most recent election has me thinking of a different period in German history, the period know in Germany as the Kaiserreich but sometimes in English as the Wilhelmine period, lasting from 1871-1918. (It also happens to be the period of German history I used to be a paid expert in.)

Historical analogies are always limited and imperfect, so it's best to use them not as a one to one comparison, and more simply as a way to get some deeper insights into the present by looking into the past. 

In this case I see an analogy because Wilhelmine Germany had a hybrid political system with elements of democracy and authoritarianism. The Reichstag was voted on through universal male suffrage, a much broader franchise that existed in most of Europe in 1871. The Social Democrats would become the largest party in that body by World War I.

So while Germany had the biggest socialist party of any country at the time, the Kaiser was still the head of state. The military declared an oath of loyalty to him. He controlled foreign policy as well, and got to choose the chancellor. The German electorate may have looked left and liberal on paper, but conservative elites still got to run the show. It all came crashing down in the revolution in November of 1918, when a war-weary people had enough and forced the Kaiser to abdicate, making way for the Weimar Republic. 

The most recent election is a sign that America too is more of a hybrid system than a true democracy. Joe Biden won a clear majority of the vote, and a clear majority of voters chose Democrats in the House and Senate races. Despite that success, Democrats will likely not control the Senate, which much like the Kaiser will get to decide what kinds of laws get passed and which don't. The judiciary has been loaded with conservative judges by a president who lost the popular vote and Senate that is not representative of the people. They will likely strike down or neuter progressive legislation. 

As in Wilhelmine Germany there is great tension between urban and rural areas, and by proxy between the forces of tradition and modernity. In both cases tradition has a lopsided Constitution on their side to effectively veto any changes they don't like. That traditional phalanx is a minority of Americans, but because they think they are the "real Americans" this seems totally fair to them. Just as German conservatives viewed Social Democrats as foreign to the nation and their power illegitimate (especially later under Weimar), American conservatives view liberals and even "Democrat run cities" as outside the nation. They have not recognized the legitimacy of a Democratic president since Carter. They impeached Clinton on spurious grounds, said Obama was a foreigner, and are currently refusing to acknowledge the results of the election.

There are of course some very important differences, but I find them telling. (Again, we should use historical metaphors to illuminate, not as a parlor game.) As someone pointed out on Twitter, the less democratic Kaiserreich produced an innovative social welfare state, while America's democracy is eroding it. In the German case this was a way of buying the compliance of the masses, in the American case it's a reflection of Herrenvolk nationalism. Most white Americans simply do not want to share with others, especially those of different races. McConnell and co. have made the greatest mission to thwart any expansion of the welfare state, as evidenced by their refusal to accept compromise on the ACA and challenging it in the courts. 

Another difference is in the legitimacy of the varying hybrid systems. Germany was a new nation in 1871 and its union of various states and kingdoms tenuous. It really took the experience of World War I to truly forge it together, but ironically the failures of the war killed that system. America by contrast has had the same Constitution for over 200 years, and it is politically unacceptable to state that it needs to be replaced. It has been woven into the very identity of the nation. This means, of course, that the current system where the courts, electoral college, Senate, local voting requirements, and gerrymandering limit democracy as much as the Kaiser choosing the chancellor did will not be changed save for a revolution or a massive shift in political consciousness. I don't expect either to be in the offing.

I do want to end with an important parallel, however. We spend so much time talking about Weimar because most Americans know little about the rise of authoritarianism outside of that example. If we look back to the Kaiserreich, we can see the rise of what historians refer to as volkish nationalism. This was a national conception based not on language or culture, but blood and soil. The Nazis obviously grew out of this tradition, but it had many offshoots. In the time of the Kaisers extreme nationalist groups like the Navy League achieved a great deal of popularity. The massive monument built to the Battle of Leipzig in 1913 (which I've written about for the German Studies Review) was really a monument to the German nation as a Volk, with no references to the Hohenzollerns (whose army had helped with the battle!) 

This somewhat inchoate nationalism thus undermined nationalist allegiance to the system the Kaiser represented. I think of Trumpism in similar terms. His supporters don't really care about the rule of law or other once conservative values. They see themselves as the real nation and want their enemies to be smote. They have little affection for traditional elites. Trump's appeal, and why he won the Republican primary, was that he represented a kind of nihilistic anti-politics. And yes, you can see that with Nazism and its self-definition as a "movement" rather than a party. But for the most part I suspect the people who voted for Trump will remain what they always have been: Republicans. 

They will continue to support the hybrid system that chokes democracy and deny legitimacy to liberals in authority. It's not a one to one with Wilhelmine Germany, but like that system a veneer of democracy helps paper over a system rigged in the favor of the wealthy and advantaged. I don't think a November 1918 is coming in our case, though. Be prepared for decades of semi-democratic stasis.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Low-Grade Civil War Continues

Frequent readers of this blog will note that I have two long-standing theories of American politics. One is that we are in America's Brezhnev years, and the other is that America has been engaged since the 1990s in a low grade civil war. 

I am beginning to think that Trump was a sign that we have gone beyond our Brezhnev years of stagnation into full-on imperial collapse. However, the low-grade civil war hypothesis remains stronger than ever.

The crux of this conflict is that conservatives do not recognize the legitimacy of the Democratic Party. They never accepted Bill Clinton's presidency and used his personal life to force an impeachment. They treated Barack Obama like a pretender, denying his citizenship and refusing to even hold hearings on one of his Supreme Court nominees. Now Trump and his Republican enablers have refused to accept the results of the election and have cast doubt on the democratic process. 

Even if they fail to overturn a democratic election, this is part of the larger plan to delegitimize the Biden administration even before it takes office. Republicans know they are in the minority, so it is their strategy to push their extreme agenda when they get power, and using all their time without power preventing the opposition from doing anything. Packing the courts is essential in this. 

At base, the pandemic has proven that conservatives would literally rather die than do something a liberal in power wanted them to do. (Jonathan Metzl's excellent Dying of Whiteness already established this.) They think the country is rightfully theirs, hence the Tea Party rallying cry of "take our country back" and saying "Make America Great Again" when a Black man was in the Oval Office. They understand themselves as the "real America," and any move to protect Real America, no matter how undemocratic, is thus ultimately justified. It's not that they think they won a majority of the vote, it's that they think they won the majority of the votes of Real Americans. To them, those are the only votes that count. (Hence all the talk of "legal ballots.") When Sarah Palin talked about "real Americans" while John McCain tried to quiet the people who attacked Obama's heritage, we were seeing the tides irrevocably turn.

If there was any Democrat whose election might have symbolically broken this cycle, it's Joe Biden. He's an old white guy very much steeped in traditional masculinity. He is politically moderate from a small rural state. He is an establishment guy who has put himself in opposition to progressives in his party. The fact that even this man is considered to be as illegitimate as the Clintons (representatives of "the sixties") and Barack Obama (representative of less white America) shows that conservatives have fully absorbed the notion that ANY Democrat and anyone to the left of Reagan is a threat to the existence of the country.

Perhaps because of Biden's nature the attack on his legitimacy is a last ditch attempt by Republicans to maintain the narrative in the face of someone who so obviously doesn't fit it. While that might be the case, it's more likely that we have a two party system where one party does not believe in democracy. I am not sure how much longer we can have this situation and still have a democracy and union. It's either secession, authoritarianism, or revolution. You know which one I think is best. Anyone who says you get more moderate with age is full of shit.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Why a Landslide of "Rebuke" Was Never Coming

Even blue New York has Trump mobs

The political discourse is always irritating and tiresome, but sometimes it gets so ridiculous that I have to wade into the bullshit muck and make an intervention. In the wake of Joe Biden's decisive yet not landslide victory over an incumbent, lots of liberals and leftists have been beating their chests over the fact that it wasn't truly a "rebuke" of Trump at the ballot box.

I find this viewpoint completely perplexing. What country do these people think they live in?

George McClellan got 45% of the vote during the Civil War (in the North!) running against Lincoln while basically saying he would roll back emancipation. Richard Nixon expanded the Vietnam war to Cambodia and Laos, unleashed the FBI on dissenters, and abused his power and was rewarded with a landslide victory in 1972. So was Reagan twelve years later after he gutted the welfare state. Dubya did not get elected with the popular vote, but he won it in 2004 after the illegal, unprovoked, and disastrous invasion of Iraq. 

In his four years in office Trump became the Republican party, and the party became Trump. That was made clear at the convention, when no platform was written. The party just re-upped their old one, because Trump WAS the platform. Plenty of Republicans who reluctantly voted for him in 2016 enthusiastically voted for him this time around. And why not? He gave them what they wanted. He cut taxes, packed the courts, punished immigrants, and made the liberals crazy. When people showed up to protest police brutality at the White House, he tear gassed them and held a Bible aloft. He was their id, and his "respectable" voters secretly delighted at seeing him do and say the things they might not do but wished they could.

In regards to his disastrous response on COVID, since when have Americans valued human life? Every years tens of thousands of people die from guns, drug overdoses, alcoholism, and automobiles and the response is basically "That's no big deal." It's been the same line about COVID. In fact, these same people are far more concerned about the restrictions meant to stop the spread of the virus than the virus itself. Anthony Fauci to them is just another liberal. They are united in their hatred and fear of liberals, and would literally rather die than do something a liberal asked them to do. 

Trump's politicization of COVID did not help him with most of the electorate, but it allowed him to more firmly lasso his conservative base. For the anti-mask crowd that little piece of cloth on their face is an insult to their identity and their mythological narrative about themselves. They are self-reliant, rugged individuals, and no one has the right to tell them what to do, or even have any knowledge they must respect. This is also why they love the police so much, since they exist to visibly shackle and beat down the others who are not allowed to have access to this reckless freedom. 

I wonder why so many are so incapable of seeing the people who surround them. For some it's ignorance. They live in blue enclaves and don't mix outside of them. However, it is also a function of people who know better about their friends and family but won't admit the ugly truth. There is no magic bullet. The vampire's victims don't come back to life after the stake is driven through his heart. 

I would have loved a "rebuke" of Trump, but that was never coming. And yes, it disturbing that after all that he has done that so many would vote for him again. That's unfortunate, but it's also reality. If we are going to get anywhere, a lot of people are going to have to grow up and start facing things as they actually are in order to change them instead of finding solace in magical thinking. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

They Are What We Thought They Were

On this election eve I have been thinking back to 2016 and contemplating what I anticipated and what I failed to see. I missed a few things, but I was right about one important thing: the Republicans are who we thought they were. 

I get the phrase from the famous Dennis Green meltdown after his Arizona Cardinals lost in a humiliating fashion to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. Back in 2016 there was this talk that placed "Trump voters" in a separate category from "Republicans" as if they weren't one and the same. There was this bullshit notion that Trump and elected Republicans would act independently from one another, and might even butt heads. 

The opposite has happened because Trump stands for the same things that Republicans stand for, he just says the quiet parts out loud, and Republicans love him for it. This is why a sniveling weasel like Ben Sasse will let it leak that he privately objects to Trump's behavior while he still votes for all of his bills and judicial appointees. Other Senators may get disturbed at how big daddy Trump has the ability to turn their Fox News addled voters against them, but since they all want the same stuff it doesn't really matter. 

Republicans have figured out that their brand lacks mass appeal. Their ideology is anathema to most Americans, which is why they have won the popular vote in the presidential election only once since 1988. If you want minority rule you have to have a flashy strongman, not a no-necked simp in a suit telling people to eat cat food to increase Wall Street's bottom line. No, you need a preacher proclaiming the old time religion of racial and religious resentment with a showman's flair. 

Despite the botched pandemic response, kids in cages, failure of North Korean diplomacy, and constant governmental chaos, Republicans have not abandoned Trump. Nixon and Dubya's approval ratings dipped far lower. He has successfully made himself the avatar of white American identity, and reaped the reward of a fanatical following that cannot be lost no matter how badly he fucks up. When he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, he knew what he was talking about. 

So on this election eve, I can't help but think about how rank and file Republicans will react. If he loses decisively I expect another Tea Party, filibusters, obstruction, and state nullification. Like their white supremacist forbears at the dusk of Jim Crow, they will opt for "massive resistance." If it's close I suspect we will see a thousand "Brooks Brothers riots" across the country. No matter what, we will be stuck with figuring out to have a functioning democracy in a country where one of the two major parties doesn't want to accept democracy at all. The Republicans will continue to be who we think they are. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Listening to Tusk and Waiting for History to Happen

The weather in New Jersey has been damp and rainy of late, with today being no exception. That combined with the feelings of the worlds of the living and dead coming into close contact with each other that always happen around this time, has depressed my mood. (There' a reason the ancients chose this time of year for Halloween!) I mean this literally, by the way, in that my emotions are feeling less intense than I expected on the eve of such an important election. 

I feel like I am waiting for history to happen with knowledge that it will be happening no matter what in two days. I just don't know what it will look like, and instead of worrying have labored hard save my energy for what I expect to be a post-election landscape where that energy will be needed. My thoughts on this can run wild, from "this will be a blowout of such proportions that there can be no doubt" to "will it be my fate to be run over by a pickup with Trucknutz driven by a Three Percenter at a protest to save democracy?"

This week starts my first full official week of hybrid teaching at my school. I don't need to go in until Thursday, and who the hell knows what will be in store before then? I planned out all my classes this week anyway, because what else can I do?

As usual music has been a faithful emotional companion. I have been listening to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album over and over again, pun intended. (The first track practically invites you to!) For a long time I didn't rate Fleetwood Mac because of Bill Clinton. I was in the depths of my punk phase when he used "Don't Stop" as his campaign song in 1992 and all the Boomers seemed giddy about it. I've always hated Boomer self-regard, and I'd also read that the original 70s punks were directly opposed to this kind of music. Like a lot of overly doctrinaire teenagers, I bought the fundamentalist narrative.

Years later I became more sympathetic through some friends whose music taste was so unimpeachably indie and cool that I wouldn't feel like a sellout for spinning Rumours. By that time I had also come to the conclusion that most punk rock beyond the vital core was formulaic (which is why bands like the Sex Pistols imploded at The Clash moved on to a more diverse sound.) In the midst of this discovery I was living in rural East Texas and happened upon a pristine vinyl copy of Tusk at the local Goodwill. 

It came into my life at the right time, in the midst of a personal crisis. It's a strange sounding album, full of Lindsay Buckingham's desire to learn from the punks and impress them filtered through a snowstorm of cocaine. Tusk is also the sound of the "survivor" trope of the 1970s. It's the sound of the sixties being over and drugs and excess being the only things left and now they've done their damage and failed to fill the hole. It's the sound of exhaustion, the dark night before the Reagan Dawn in the conservative narrative. For me it was what I listened to late at night while brooding, and early in the morning when I had to face another day I didn't want to see. It got me through a lot.

Back then my thoughts of dread were connected to my personal life. I was living 1500 miles from my wife. I had close family members falling ill. I didn't like where I lived and was getting bullied at my suboptimal job. Nowadays I am far happier in my personal life, but the dread is for my country and its future. I don't know if democracy is going to survive, nor how much bloodshed will take place killing it or defending it. For the next 48 hours I just need to distract myself in ways that are far calmer that doom-scrolling. 

As good friend in Texas said on a particularly tough night as we say outside listening to music, "This isn't a problem Tusk can't solve." 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

John le Carre, Patron Saint of Disillusioned Academics

 I have a new piece at Tropics of Meta about John le Carre novels and how they are the true apex of "quit lit," that genre beloved by sad sack ex-professors like yours truly. Check it out!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Give Us Social Care, Not Self Care

Return the gift

Today came the news that my daughters' school may not be open until January. Meanwhile, I am going in part time at my school, and my wife has to go to school every day. This, as you could imagine, creates a bit of a conundrum for us. We are relying on a combo of overpriced part-time day care and grandparent help to make this possible. Time will tell if this holds together.

We are not being given any help from our employers, our daughters' school district, or our local, state, and national government. What we are told, over and over again by those same entities, is that we need to practice "self care." "Self" as in "handle it yourself." As in "Fuck you we aren't going to help you." "Self care" is a heinous neoliberal plot to make people think that problems like not having proper child care can be solved with mindfulness meditation.

I am through with it. You can take your self care and shove it up your ass. It sure feels good when I order Chinese take-out and wash it down with some French wine, but it does absolutely nothing in regards to the underlying problems I am facing. It's less than worthless, since not only do my problems remain, I am made to feel as if it's all my fault for it getting me down.

If this moment has taught us anything, it's that the ethic of capitalist individuality does not work when the shit goes down. We don't need self care, we need social care. We need a society that takes care of its members, that offers them basic protections. If we had social care we could close down businesses and compensate workers to get the virus under control. We could avoid parents having to quit their jobs in order to take care of their kids. We could have schools refurbished to be more spacious and ventilated, and for children to be learning in them. 

Instead we have given everyone a little bag of self care magic beans, and told them to cheer up while their neighbors choke to death. To quote Gang of Four, return the gift. Fill that bag with gasoline, light it on fire, and throw it back. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The One Issue on the Ballot

In 1992 "the issues" were hip. Feels like a million years ago.

I was a weird kid who watched the nightly news every evening, read the newspaper, and read the news magazines in the library. From too young an age I began to understand media on a meta level, and absorbed the critique that election coverage did not do enough to focus on "the issues."

While the claim was repeated to the point that I wished the critics in question would just talk about the damn issues instead of the media, it was essentially right. Part of Ross Perot's appeal in 1992 came from his focus on the minutae of economic policy. The 1984 election had been a referendum on Reagan and the 1988 election was reduced to pure symbolism. It was all Willie Horton's mugshot, Dukakis in a tank, and Bush saying "read my lips." 

The political media loves the personalities and horse race stuff still today, in large part because these reporters do not have the knowledge or intellectual firepower to actually discuss policy in a meaningful way. It also draws in a lot more eyeballs. 

However, this year discussion of "the issues" has slid below even where it was in 1988, and this time it's not just a media framing. Issues discourse is so thin because Trump himself has become the issue. This election is really a referendum: are we going to have a democracy, or not?

Trump and the Republican Party have made it clear that they are willing to maintain minority rule through suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college, Senate, and the courts. They have not made any attempt to reach the majority of Americans, what has to be a first in my lifetime. Trump himself is the issue. It's why his party did not even bother to write a new platform. Their only platform is Trump.

And what is Trump? He is the avatar of white nationalism. Plenty of people voting for him would admit that he's an incompetent doofus, but that doesn't matter. In fact, it helps his case. Having an ignorant, maladroit white man occupying the position recently vacated by a competent, intelligent Black man sends the message that badges of whiteness will allow white Americans to have an elevated place in American society no matter how undeserving they are. 

Despite being a foul-mouthed adulterer and tax cheat, he is also the avatar of white Christian supremacy. By banning Muslims and treating American Jews like Israelis in disguise he sends the message over and over again that this is a white Christian nation. (There's a good reason that Allan Lichtman's history of conservatism is called A White Protestant Nation.) Putting someone like Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court -a doctrinal Catholic (except on social justice) who practices religion like a Pentecostal Protestant- is the capstone of this message. 

Most who vote for Trump don't really care that much about his tax plan or even his immigration policy. They want the assurance that they are the only people that matter in this nation. (Hence why the "black lives matter" slogan triggers them so much.) They want to go to the bar without their mask on and tell "politically incorrect" jokes because the biggest of wage of whiteness for white people in America is to never, ever be told what to do, especially when their behavior hurts others. "Free, white, and 21" indeed. 

Are we going to have a multi-racial democracy or not? That's been the issue since Reconstruction in America. This year it's the only issue on the ballot. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Is 2020 A Geographical Political Re-Alignment?

 After months of resisting the urge, I have thrown myself into looking at election polling data. I have been most struck by an untold story. Ohio has become a red state, as opposed to a bellweather, but Arizona is turning blue and Democrats look strong in North Carolina and Georgia.

The old assumption was that the industrial Midwest was a "blue wall" for Democratic presidential candidates, something thrown into doubt by Clinton losing Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That once seemed very worrying, but now Democrats are breaking the Republican hold on the Sun Belt, a region that is growing far faster.

The Republican success in the Sun Belt going back to the 1970s has been essential to that party's success, not least because growing population there meant more seats in Congress. Now the places that blue collar workers have been fleeing to, and which have also seen an increase in immigration, could be a new "blue wall."

The political press is loathe to give up their old narratives, so maybe that's why they do not see the significance of this change. If Democrats have a lead pipe lock on the Northeast and the West Coast and can add the Sun Belt, the Republicans are at a permanent disadvantage. 

This change has been happening for years. Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia have gone from swinging to solid blue. A lot of Republicans have to be secretly hoping that Trump loses so that they can make a pivot. Putting all their chips on white nationalism doesn't work as well in a more diverse nation, especially when it alienates Latinx voters in states where they used to be much rarer. 

After this election Republicans might have to go back to blowing racist dog whistles instead of blasting air horns. They might suddenly rediscover the ways of Reagan and Dubya, who appealed directly to Latinx voters and didn't demonize undocumented immigrants. I say "might" because the ideology of white nationalism works so well in mobilizing their dwindling base that they will be loathe to give it up. Time will tell.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Spiritual Necessity of Hangovers

I'm hungover today, quite by accident. I rarely have more than two or three drinks in a sitting. I love being buzzed, do not care for being drunk. It's just that I had a terrible, stressful week, and I was watching outdoor movies at a friend's last night and the warmth of the bourbon I brought deceived me into overindulgence. 

Despite my hangover, it's been a busy day. I chaperoned a hiking trip with my daughters' Girl Scout troop, then had a birthday lunch with my mother-in-law. It's all for the best, since sitting on a couch with a hangover just reminds you that you have a hangover. It mostly faded in the outdoor air and joy of eating. When I got home I collapsed.

Sometimes a hangover is a good thing, though. By being knocked on my ass I made the healthy decision not to do any work for my job today. I'm not sure I can remember the last day I could say that, including the days I was in Cape Cod two weeks ago. I also know not to drink that much in one sitting for the foreseeable future. It takes the occasional hangover to remind me of that and keep me on the straight and narrow.

Perhaps it's my moralistic Catholic upbringing, but I tend to take hangovers as a kind of spiritual rebuke. I am reminded that I should take good care of myself, and that an excess of pleasure leads to a level of pain that makes that pleasure not worth the bother. I probably would not have been hungover twenty years ago with the same level of alcohol consumption as I had last night, so it's also a needed reminder that my aging body needs to be handled with better care than I have been giving it. 

Tomorrow I am planning on taking a long hike, and enjoying the fresh air without a painful buzz in my head. I will appreciate that all the more after being hungover today. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Thoughts on Reaganland

 Rick Perlstein's fourth volume of his epic history of the conservative movement filled me with more anticipation than anything I've waited for since Return of the Jedi when I was seven. After a month of savoring it, I finished the book last night. As is usually the case when I complete a very long but very good book, I am feeling a sense of loss. 

Reaganland lived up to my expectations, even if the end felt less grand than it deserved and less impactful than Perlstein is capable of. Still, he showed how sixteen years after Barry Goldwater went down in flames, one of his disciples would be elected president. 

I knew a lot of the story already (I have been working on a project related to the 1970s for almost ten years now), but certain things brought new light to the narrative. Perstein's focus on what he calls the "boardroom Jacobins" illuminates how the popular push for consumer reform spurred by Ralph Nader ended in corporate regulatory capture. To understand Reagan's rise to power, he dug into his columns, radio spots, and speeches on the "mashed potato circuit." This compelling analysis showed how Reagan honed his abilities as a speaker and built a strong base well before running for president.

Although Perlstein is a leftist, he is more than willing to credit Reagan's rhetorical gifts. What kept coming through, more than I had thought already, was Reagan's ignorance and penchant for fabulism, as well as his ability as a speaker. As Perlstein shows, he often improved upon the work of his speechwriters. At the same time, Reagan came across as an exceptionally shallow person uninterested in knowing much of the world. He struck me as having George W Bush's lack of curiosity, but far more adroit at communicating. Reagan likewise had Trump's obsession with nationalism, but a flair that broadened his coalition instead of narrowed it.

Perlstein gets at something that I have been harping about for years: nationalism is an exceptionally strong force in American politics. Most Americans did not and still do not buy into supply side economics, no matter what the conservative movement types say. Reagan was able to tap into nationalist resentments post Vietnam, such as in his opposition to the Panama Canal treaty. The Iran Hostage Crisis also helped him in this regard. He sold national renewal, and many people were buying, including traditional Democrats. Barack Obama rose to power by projecting a positive kind of nationalism, and woe to Democrats and others on the left if that can't construct a narrative of the nation.

It wasn't just nationalist resentment driving Reagan, however. He tapped into racial resentment as well. Often Perlstein quietly comments on how much Reagan and other conservatives praised apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia. Reagan's "welfare queen" stuff is well known, but Perlstein ties it into a general growing wave of white grievance at the time. The economic downturn of late 70s made it even less likely for the white middle class to support sharing more of the pie, and Reagan's "anti-government" rhetoric implied that "the government" was anything that helped Black people. 

Despite this, Reagan managed to build a broader coalition. He said kind things about undocumented immigrants, and sought to bring people of color into the tent. His promise of national renewal drew in plenty of Democrats. Modern day Republicans could learn a thing or two from this approach. 

There's a lot that modern Democrats can learn as well. Carter suffered because he became obsessed with austerity and inflation, allowing Reagan to play "Santa Claus" with tax cuts. He was right that the country needed to wean itself off of fossil fuels, but clothing that mission in language of limits and privations made it political unpalatable. His moralism and his technocracy were his undoing. Democrats trying to get ahead by making concessions to conservative austerity only destroy their chances.

Last but not least, I loved how Perlstein weaved in references to Joe Biden in his narrative. Even then he occupied the dead center of the Democratic Party. Time will tell if he is capable of moving in a more progressive direction. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Soldiering in the Classroom

Edward Dwyer, singing a song teachers know well right now

This week on Thursday I had my first meltdown since the school year started. My last one came during the pre-school year prep and endless meetings, and the feeling that I was about to confront an impossible task. This one came as I thought about all the things I had to do that day, how difficult it would be to complete those tasks, and that every day for the foreseeable future would be this same dance of stress and anxiety. 

That thought weighed on me until I quietly flipped out on the inside. (My last meltdown was more vocal.) I kept asking myself, "How many days in a row of living to just get to the end of the day will there be until I just snap?" I went to bed that night in a daze.

When I woke up on Friday with the news of the president's diagnosis, the combination of the coming weekend and the frenzy of news distracted me long enough to not fall into another trough. The weekend has been great; my wife's sister is visiting from California and it's been lovely to catch up and for my daughters to have her around.

Now the Sunday night blues are looming. This week I not only have to teach my students in a difficult format and be a teaching assistant for my kids, I have to go into my school for two days of training to prepare for our hybrid launch in November. I am teaching asynchronous classes on these days, so I am basically pulling a double shift while enduring my grueling commute on top of it. Needless to say, I am not happy about it.

Thankfully I have a new mental frame of mind. A Gulf War marine vet who is also an educator posted something on Facebook about the crushing mental load, and discussed the motto in the service of "embrace the suck." This was reminding me of my mentality before the beginning of school year meetings broke my morale. Teachers are soldiering, but not in the way our politicians think by sending us into a deadly situation. 

I am talking more about mentality. I've read enough front-line memoirs that I think I understand the mental attitude needed to survive the test my fellow teachers and I are being put to. Unlike some of those soldiers, I even deeply believe in the cause I am fighting for: my students' education. As is often the case in war I am being sent in to do the job without proper support, but I will have to do it anyway. I may be given contradictory and sometimes downright nonsensical orders from superior officers, but I will have to follow them. It doesn't mean I have to like it or respect the people giving me the orders or refrain from complaining, though. That's always a soldier's prerogative. 

To use another well-worn soldier's phrase, "Shit rolls downhill." The officers in the rear avoid the shit details during peacetime, and now during wartime they are safe from any of the flying shrapnel and aim to keep it that way. That's certainly unfair, but there's also a war on, and though I have resigned to grumble and complain, I've also resigned to embrace the suck and fight. 

Teachers have discovered that we are basically on our own in this. Nevertheless, we have to soldier on. Keep up the fight so we can win, but when it's over it's time to demand a lot more from our schools and from our country.