Wednesday, September 29, 2021

America's Estates General

I have been reading Mike Duncan's excellent new Lafayette biography, which has been especially good at seeing the French Revolution from the angle of a pro-Revolutionary yet anti-Jacobin nobleman. Reading the drama of this even again I also remembered the oddity of the Estates General, called by Louis XVI in 1789 to sort out France's financial difficulties.

It had not met since 1614 because the kings of France had maintained such a tight grip on power via the construction of the absolutist monarchy. This medieval representative body included three groups voting as blocs: the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. It was an obviously undemocratic system meant to prevent the commoners from wielding real power, and soon the third estate and revolutionaries from the other two formed a national assembly to write a constitution.

Going back to when I learned about this in high school I had always laughed at the crown trying to gain legitimacy in a changing, modernizing society through such an institution. I have stopped laughing, because I have come to realize that the US Senate as an institution is hardly less farcical.

Wyoming getting the same representation as California is just as ridiculous as the nobility getting the same number of votes as the commoners, isn't it? Just as the Estates General did not in any way represent the majority, the Senate is split down the middle despite many more votes in Senate races having gone to Democrats. Of course, the majority (once counting the vice president) still doesn't even get to govern due to the filibuster. Like royalists clinging to the traditions of kingly authority when it had long lost its luster with the people, the filibuster is being preserved by Democrats who are more invested in the symbols of a dying, dessicated system than they are in paving the way for a more democratic and beneficial future.

Ironically the American Estates General could in fact lead to the kind of collapse the original was called to avoid. Congress needs to raise the debt limit, but with Republicans blocking it via filibuster and feckless Democrats like Manchin and Sinema refusing to budge, our government could default not due to extravagant spending on palaces or foreign wars, but simply because our system is being taken hostage by a radical minority that the majority simply refuses to stop. 

Reading about events like the French Revolution is a reminder that things do not have to be as they are, and that events and the world can radically change in ways that are impossible to predict. In 1783, after a successful war against Britain, the French monarchy looked to be the strongest in Europe. Its palace at Versailles put all others in awe. Ten years later the king was beheaded, a republic established, and Notre Dame cathedral transformed into the Temple of the Supreme Being. 

Nothing says that the United States is going to be the world's great power in ten years, or that it will even continue to have this form of government, or even exist as a unified country. I get the feeling that we are sitting atop a volcano. Interesting times, indeed.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Gordon Lightfoot, "Early Morning Rain" (Track of the Week)

This week brought the autumn equinox, heralding six months of more darkness than light. The beautiful weather we've had these past few days has helped obscure this depressing reality. As I grow older I abhor winter more and more, less for the cold and more for the darkness. The lack of sunshine certainly has a negative effect on my mental state. It doesn't help that my work schedule means waking up before the dawn and getting home when the sun is setting come wintertime.

However, as I have aged I have also delighted more and more in the changing of the seasons. When I lean into it I am far happier. I don't just change the clothes I wear but the food I eat, and even the music I listen to. Just as I went apple picking last week and baked a cobbler, I am back to listening to folk music after a six month hiatus. I seem to listen to it little between March 21 and September and to imbibe it religiously between September 21 and March 21. 

The association does not come from folk music itself, which can be plenty sunny. I think it comes from when I first took a deep dive into it. I had moved from Illinois to western Michigan, and picked up a Gordon Lightfoot compilation on Rhino. In Michigan winter comes early and already in October the winds suddenly went from cool to chilly. I would take long walks listening to the album on my CD walkman (it took a year to modernize to an iPod), the first song being "Early Morning Rain."

It's the story of a wanderer, stuck outside on a cold rainy morning pining for home warming his body and deadening his emotion with liquor. He's watching the airplanes take off and land at the airport, hoping for deliverance. It's a sad song but underneath there's a youthful liveliness, a sense of spirit that the narrator is going to be able to carry on for another day despite having a bad one this day. (After all Lightfoot wrote this early in his career.) 

I buy the occasional CD these days to have music in my old-ass Honda Civic (which lacks a modern entertainment system) and last year got Lightfoot's complete early recordings. This was a song I played a lot as I took my children to daycare in the morning before returning home to an empty house to teach over my computer. The spirit of carrying on amid depressing circumstances in this song helped me get through the day.

With the coming winter dark and the present reality of my daily commute's return, this song is still a balm for my soul. I also get comfort from embracing the changes in the seasons. Despite everything terrible in the last year and a half the world keeps turning, life goes on, and I am glad to be living it.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Why The Afghanistan Papers is Essential Reading

As the United States finally left Afghanistan, America's news media acted as if President Biden had prematurely ended a successful occupation. I had followed the conflict for all of its twenty years, and this framing seemed as mendacious to me as the "Saddam has weapons of mass destruction" water-carrying the same media did back in 2003. 

This framing emerged from the fact that the military and political leadership of this country has been obsessed with claiming victory despite reality, and the establishment's media stenographers are incapable of admitting that they traded access for the truth. If you want the truth, read Craig Whitlock's The Afghanistan Papers.

It is not a long book and every page is a revelation, but it has taken me time to finish. Each chapter is so full of horrific revelations that I just have to put the book down. Based on what I've read, the war was already lost in 2002. Al Qaeda was neutralized but bin Laden was still on the loose. The US shifted to a nation building mission with little to no understanding of the country, and deprived that mission of resources as it ramped up preparations to invade Iraq.

All the while the CIA had war criminal warlords on its payroll, men who murdered prisoners and raped civilians and had been so horrible in the 1990s that Afghans welcomed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. The US military kept killing civilians, making permanent enemies of the population by doing things like blowing up wedding parties then initially claiming the dead were all terrorists. To claim to bring "democracy" and peace under these circumstances was a sick joke and the relatives of the dead weren't laughing, or willing to see the United States as their friend.

Under Bush as well as Obama and Trump the Defense Department attempted to build an Afghan army in America's image in little time, a wild social experiment that was doomed to failure. The way that army melted away at the end of the war tells the tale. Insane amounts of money were misspent on development. The infrastructure failed to meet the actual needs of the Afghan people and resulted in rampant corruption that undermined the very government the United States was propping up.

It is impossible to read this book and conclude that the Afghanistan adventure was anything other than a bloody farce. Whitlock is able to draw on primary sources from the government where public officials and military figures are being candid, instead of feeding pablum to the press. It's obvious they thought this was a failure years ago. 

Much like in the aftermath of Vietnam, the people responsible for the failure are trying very hard to deflect the blame. To avoid a repeat of the misbegotten war in Afghanistan, that must be stopped. Read the book, and recommend it to others. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

High School Dirtbag Rock Playlist

Today was my first day back in a non-hybrid, full classroom since March of 2020. By the end of the day I felt like I had run a teaching marathon. When I got home my children, experiencing their first day of the same, were exhilarated. I can't remember the last time I saw them so happy. (This makes me more mad than ever at how badly their school district has fucked things up under COVID, but I digress.) 

It struck me that I was NEVER this happy to be back at school. I was a good and diligent student, I just felt pretty ambivalent about school itself. A lot of the time seemed wasted, and I had to endure bullying and exclusion. For this reason I have weirdly gravitated towards having rebels and stoners and friends even though I am pretty straight-laced nerd. I appreciated these other people because they didn't seem to like school all that much either. 

This rebel attitude towards high school has long been present in rock music, especially in the 1970s, when denim-jacketed wearing dirtbags had plenty of anthems for their lifestyle. Here are some of my favorites.

Brownsville Station, "Smoking in the Boys Room"

Going to the bathroom to smoke during school is a classic dirtbag hobby. A couple of years ago when vaping spiked among the youth it made an unfortunate comeback. I first encountered this song via the pretty flat Motley Crue cover back in the mid-80s. At the time I loved it despite being a nice little Catholic boy, my fascination with rebellion that I myself would never commit already evident. The Brownsville Station original has some fantastic blues rocking riffage behind it, one of the great examples of the genre. 

The Runaways, "School Days"

The Runaways don't get enough credit for being one of the most viciously hard rocking bands of the 70s. They were in fact teenagers themselves, giving songs like this a real verisimilitude. This song isn't about being in school, but the cry of release after finally being done with it. I certainly remember my graduation day as being one of the most satisfying of my life, to finally be free from a place where I never felt at home.The Ramones, "Rock and Roll High School"

1979 gave birth to the two all time classic dirtbag high school movies, Rock and Roll High School and the scarier and more serious Over the Edge. Both had good soundtracks, but only the former had the Ramones. This is one of the best examples of how their love of classic 1950s rock translated into punk. 

Alice Cooper, "School's Out"

This might be the best of the 70s era dirtbag high school songs. However, as a teacher playing it in September rather than June it just seems like a cruel joke. Used to amazing effect in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused.

The Donnas, "I Don't Wanna Go Back to School"

No band carried the spirit of the aforementioned Ramones and Runaways like The Donnas. Great punk energy on this one.

Chuck Berry, "School Days"

Just as Berry basically invented rock guitar, he also invented the high school dirtbag rock genre. I can't imagine how subversive this was in the context of the 1950s. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Day the Future Died

(I was going to wait until 9/11 itself to post this, but the emotions of this 20 year milestone are weighing on me too much and I have to release them.)

Those of us old enough to remember 9/11 all have our stories about when we first heard the news, but we don't talk enough about our emotions that day. When the actual enormity of the event sank in I was hit by the knowledge that as horrible as the death of this day would be, it would lead to much greater death and destruction in its aftermath. After walking around in shock it was that realization that caused me to break down and cry. It pains me to say I was right in ways I could not even imagine.

There were the wars of course, which dragged on for decades. There were also the drone strikes, "extraordinary rendition," wire-tapping, secret prisons, and torture. Twenty years later the US failed to defeat the Taliban. Instead it militarized its own police, emboldened to commit bloodshed in poor neighborhoods, especially if they were black or brown. Now the terrorists mostly come from within our own borders and had their preferred candidate in the White House for four years. Some of them, including a bunch of off-duty cops and military veterans, tried to overthrow the government this year.

Their rallying cry, "Make America Great Again," is rooted in the notion of an idealized past. 

It was an effective slogan because Americans by and large no longer believe in the future. We are witnessing the consequences of climate change but are doing little to stop it. We let our bridges and roads crumble, block new buildings from our cities, and have endless fights over the smallest changes to school curricula. Our children are shot to death in their own classrooms with such regularity that there are ritualized reactions to it and no expectation that it will ever end. Even before COVID life expectancy went down because so many Americans were committing suicide and dying of alcoholism and opioid addiction. The vaccines made to combat COVID, a genuine marvel of modern technology, have been refused by over thirty percent of the population, allowing the disease to keep killing. 

Our system is a gerontocracy. Our last two presidents were in their 70s, and so is the Speaker of the House. The leader of the movement to push back against the current economic system is even older than the president. University departments are full of tenured Boomers who refuse to retire while younger scholars languish in precarity. The aged rock stars of the 60s and 70s still tour and rock until they literally drop. Film and television audiences are fed a steady diet of sequels, reboots, and remakes. There are no young film stars anymore, just old ones who have not gone away despite their advanced age. Even plenty of original stuff, like Stranger Things, is still drenched in nostalgia for a bygone time. 

9/11 feels like the day the future died. It was a shock to the system disproving America's invulnerability in the most flagrant and tragic way possible. The failed wars waged in the aftermath showed that the United States was in fact not some dominant hyper-power, but a crumbling empire inflicting greater wounds on itself than any hijackers could. It didn't even spawn a sense of civic-minded unity that could last more than a month or two. In the aftermath George W Bush told Americans just to keep shopping. 

I feel like the last twenty years have been a never-ending nightmare of failures rooted in the preceding decades of neoliberal rot. Some of those failures, like the useless wars, have been easy to see. Others, like growing inequality and lowered quality and length of life, have been buried away from mainstream discussion. It's a strange thing that so few believe in this country's future but the majority that doesn't will never outwardly say so. In this country, so invested in its image of exceptionalism, one isn't allowed to admit certain things. So twenty years after 9/11, with great pain, I will. This country doesn't have a future, and most of you know that already. Living in a dying empire is no picnic.   

Saturday, September 4, 2021


I turn 46 years old today, far enough into my 40s that I cannot deny that 50 is looming. This birthday I feel oddly at peace with that fact. It's taken me this long into my 40s to get comfortable with the reality that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows and that each day another door of possibility closes. These are difficult thoughts to sit with, and I have seen them cause a great deal of emotional distress. When you're young it feels like doors of possibility are constantly opening up, to lose that and live the opposite feels horribly cruel.

A few years ago I started to notice the unnamed problems of middle age. It's considered cringe and lame for middle-aged people to talk about the discontents of this life transition, so we rarely do. This only makes the problems worse. Imagine if we just ignored the emotional difficulties of adolescence? Middle age is just as trying to the soul, but in a different register. I have witnessed many people become bitter to the point that other people don't want to associate with them. I have seen others wall themselves off and give up on living. Others still descend into addiction. 

The statistics show the toll. Even before COVID life expectancy was going down on America due to the opioid epidemic and increase in suicides and alcoholism. The main danger zone was among the middle aged, especially white working class women. 

You go through your youth dreaming of the future, once you hit a certain age you realize that your present in going to be your future, every damn day until your looming demise. If, like a lot of working people, you spend your days doing shitty menial work for low pay and benefits and no financial security and your body is breaking down due to that work that fails to provide you a decent livelihood it's no wonder people turn to drink, the needle, or kill themselves. Even those who are more well-off must face the dread that they are not going to be able to break out of the rut they have found themselves in, albeit a comfier rut.

I've tried to not focus on the things that won't happen. I will likely never finish the book project I have been working on, for example. I will never be a respected historian. My writing will probably never reach a larger audience than this blog. That's okay. The last year and a half has been trying in the extreme, but my job is more meaningful than ever, even though it has been harder than ever. I own a house and have cleared my debts. I have a wonderful spouse and my children bring me joy even on the days that they annoy the hell out of me. As the last few years have shown, the world is unpredictable in horrific ways. Instead of being bitter about what I don't have, it's just best to enjoy what I've got.

The pandemic was also clarifying in terms of my middle-aged priorities. For instance, I got to spend a lot more time with my family, and I am glad for it. For me and a lot of other folks it seems to have pushed us to de-prioritize our jobs and careers. When death looms those PTS reports can sit for a bit. So on this birthday I'm going to take a little hike with my family and get some takeout. We'll watch a classic film I've been dying for my kids to see. What could be better?