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.