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."