Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Turning Point That Failed To Turn (How 2020-2021 Reminds Me of 1848-1849)

As an undergrad history major and later as a PhD student in European history I had a huge interest in the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe, an event that seemed both earth shaking and perplexing yet under-studied. There was very little historiography about 1848, even among German historians studying a place where 1848 raged as intensely as anywhere outside of Paris. 

The line I always heard about 1848 was that it was "the turning point that failed to turn." Revolutions toppled governments across Europe, established a republic in France, and promised a unified in Germany. Instead France ended up with a new Napoleon and the Frankfurt Assembly was dissolved by the Prussian king. Russian troops invaded Hungary and crushed Kossuth's government. France would have to wait until 1871 for a republic, Hungary until 1918 for independence, and Germany would be unified under the auspices of the conservative Otto von Bismarck into something very far from a democracy.

It is my firm belief that the United States has just endured another turning point that failed to turn. From the spring of 2020 to January of 2021 an opportunity for change from below opened. The protests after George Floyd's murder rocked cities in every region. Statues fell across the nation, a common symbol of revolution. Institutions from elite private schools to Hollywood scrambled to show they were taking anti-racist measures. The energy of those protests could be felt in the get out the vote campaigns that won Georgia for Democrats. After years of Trump and the economic disparities he exploited with racialized rhetoric, Democrats eschewed neoliberalism for a bold plan of social democracy. 

Then came January 6th. In the aftermath the need for a renewed commitment to democracy seemed obvious not just to progressives, but more generally. When Georgia pushed voting restrictions the MLB moved the All Star Game from Atlanta. 

Eleven months after January 6th and a year and a half after the George Floyd protests it is now illegal to teach the history of racism in public schools in several American states. In many of those same states it's legal to run over protestors. Biden and Democrats are unable to get their social democratic agenda through Congress due to the filibuster and a few feckless members of their own coalition. The news that paid family leave would get axed felt a lot like the Prussian troops attacking barricades of Frankfurt in 1849. This Saturday Donald Trump, who it is now completely obvious tried to destroy democracy in this country on January 6th, showed up at a World Series game in Atlanta. The same city that months ago was censured over voting restrictions. The wannabe dictator is now free to move about the nation as he pleases, as if he is just another celebrity. 

Well folks, as Marx said about 1848, "History repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce." This farce has uniquely American characteristics, namely what Carol Anderson famously called "White Rage." There is an endless cycle in American history of racial progress being met with racist progress, to paraphrase Ibram X Kendi. The chance to make permanent change in that 2020 moment is long gone. Now we must suffer what will be years and years of reaction. The Third Reconstruction is over and we all need to be working every day to bring about the fourth one.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Paul McCartney "Every Night" (Track of the Week)

Around this time of year I invariably dig into the early solo albums from the Beatles. I am not sure where this comes from. Is it because I played All Things Must Pass to death in that dreadful post-9/11 autumn of 2001? Or is the feeling of tough transitions evoked by these albums as summer turns to winter and the sunny past fades to an uncertain future? Probably a bit of both.

Paul McCartney has churned out his fair share of dross and laughably cringey music in his solo career, but he will surprise you out of nowhere with that old magic. His last album, for example, is pretty damn great and the man is almost 80. Like that album his early albums were one man band affairs, proto-versions of indie bedroom rock. 

A recent New Yorker profile revealed that Paul still really isn't over the breakup of the Beatles. It seems he took it the hardest at the time, retreating to a farm in Scotland and turning to drink. He was slowly able to get back on his feet due to his family, especially Linda. "Every Night" is the story of that recovery. He describes being lost, wanting to go out and "get out of my head," to drink and forget. Soon he discovers it's best to stay at home with his wife, who is the only person who can make him happy. 

Like the other songs on his first solo album it is sparse and sounds a little dark. This is a million miles away from the layered sounds and baroque arrangements McCartney had recorded the year before for Abbey Road. The themes are also a million miles away from being at the epicenter of the 20th century's biggest pop cultural phenomenon.

It's easy to mock Paul's songs as treacly, as John Lennon himself often did. However, this song of marital devotion is rooted in the darkness of depression. It's love as a kind of grace, there to save you when everything seems to be going wrong. I don't begrudge the cheeseball Paul that followed because that cheesiness was enabled by his personal happiness. There are things in this life more important than being cool.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Dune and Historical Contingency

37 years after David Lynch's famously beautiful failure to adapt Dune, I am entranced and obsessed with Denis Villeneuve's new and even more beautiful adaptation. It's been a long time (maybe never) since Hollywood has embraced full on gonzo hardcore science fiction, rather than the kiddie space opera stuff. This kind of sci fi provides a way to look at ourselves through an imaginary reality. While Dune might have more obvious connections to the roles of environmentalism, imperialism, and religion in our world, I also think it provides some opportunities to think about history.

Those of us who study history seriously learn early in our education that popular renderings of history as a playground of great noteworthy individuals just don't hold true. We tend to jump to the opposite, to seeing broader economic and social contexts determining so much behavior. At some point, however, you realize that despite all of larger tides of history, events can still turn on individual actions that are completely unpredictable.

Dune is a great way of thinking about this. The desert planet Arrakis does not seem like the kind of place so set off a movement to topple a galactic empire. The messiah was supposed to come a generation later, nor in the form of Paul Atreides. Lady Jessica was supposed to have a girl, not a boy. It is fundamentally a story about what happens when unpredictable forces completely derail history from the train tracks.

There are plenty of examples of this in history. The rise of Islam out of the backwaters of Arabia, leading to a total conquest of the Middle East, could never have been predicted. (It's also an inspiration for Dune.) The Berlin Wall fell in a kind of fever dream, and Vaclav Havel went from being a dissident playwright to president of Czechoslovakia in a month. 

Of course, the coronavirus has been the biggest such contingency in living memory. They put memos saying "Bin Laden determined to strike in the US" on Dubya's desk in the summer of 2001, but the complete world changing implications of all of this have unfolded without the least bit of predictability. Like the characters in Dune, we too are living through a time when much that seemed certain has melted into air. One of the worst things about the pandemic is the feeling that nothing can be depended on, that day to day anything can change. Dune is realistic too in showing the violence of change, the uncomfortable fact that building a new world means the painful destruction of an old one.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Teaching After the War

Longtime readers know I am a huge John Le Carre fan. One of my favorite moments in his novels comes in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when George Smiley pays a visit to Connie Sachs, a crack MI6 researcher forced into retirement. After trading thoughts on a possible mole in the organization, she remembers World War II. In her words "Englishmen could be proud then." The Cold War seemed sordid and unworthy by comparison. 

As a teacher this school year I too feel a little adrift after the last school year, which felt a lot like fighting a war. Every day brought new challenges and almost impossible tasks. My schedule, my wife's schedule, and my children's schedule could all change at the drop of a hat, triggering a cascade of difficulties. On many days I would be with my kids at home, trying to supervise their learning and make lunch for them while teaching my own classes. 

It was horrible, but I also felt like I had a real mission. I also think I happened to do a good job with it. Against all the odds and with an endless string of twelve hour days, I somehow managed to make the impossible work. I have to say it is among the things I've done I am most proud of.

This year it's all "normal" except for masks and a few other protocols. The day to day teaching is more fulfilling because I actually get to be with my all my students at once, but the feeling of heroism is gone. Last year I got more gratitude from my students and superiors than ever, in recognition of faculty's Herculean efforts to move heaven and earth to keep the learning going. Now I enjoy my classes more but feel a lot less appreciated. 

This was probably inevitable, and it's part of a general disillusionment so many workers are feeling right now. We were "essential," we went into the front lines, we did our bit and made huge sacrifices only to find ourselves right back where we started. Everyone else just kind of wants to pretend that unrequited sacrifice didn't happen. The problem is I can't forget it. Don't think I ever will.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Beatles, "Two Of Us" (Track of the Week)

I had a great day today. My wife and I took our kids into the city. We had a wonderful meal in Koreatown then went to Broadway to see Wicked, the first Broadway show for my kids. We were masked the whole time but it was still a sublime slice of "normal" fun after a year and a half of COVID. These are the kinds of days one cherishes.

This week also brought yet another release of The Beatles' Let It Be, a taste of the coming Peter Jackson doc. I put it on tonight after everyone else went to bed and the first song, "Two Of Us," resonated like never before. When it came out people thought it was about John and Paul, but it really describes a fun day Paul and Linda had together. It's a song about the quiet joy one gets when you've finally found the person you want to share your life with. Today for me was certainly a "four of us" version of that. 

Back in my teens and twenties John was my favorite Beatle. I admired his rebellion and wit, but later learned he could be an abusive drunk. My belief in the Lennon myth had been punctured, and so I gravitated to George. In my tumultuous thirties I admired George's deadpan taking the piss attitude. As I struggled to find a way post grad school and eventually left academia I identified with George's frustrations in the band. His first album, All Things Must Pass, is loaded with amazing songs and proof that his talents were not being fully recognized. Laboring in the halls of academe as tirelessly as I did with so little reward made this something I could understand so well.

Strangely enough, I have elevated Paul to favorite Beatle status in my 40s. This was mostly due to becoming a family man and learning about how much Paul prioritized his wife and children. Linda got horribly mocked for her amateur musicianship but I still find it touching that Paul always had her by his side on the road. This is a man who had his priorities straight. Family was always more important than rock star decadence. (It has also become clear to me that Paul was both the best musician and song writer in the band.)

"Two of Us" also reflected Paul's correct instincts that the Beatles needed to get back to basics in order to stay relevant. Dylan's Basement Tapes and the first Band album were signs that psychedelia had played itself out and there was a need to "get back." The song is stripped down, driven by acoustic guitar and Paul's always supple bass playing. In sound and attitude it's a million miles from the likes of "I am the Walrus." Lyrically it's just a plain ode to having a great fun day with the ones you love. We have so few such days in our short lives of toil that we have to cherish the sublime ones we do get on occasion. 

It has the repeated assertion "we're on our way home." My God it feels so good to have a home in this world. The biggest reason I left academia was the physical distance it put between my wife and I. Being together and starting a family was what I chose and I will never regret that. Days like today are why. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

My Strange Oughts Nostalgia

I have a long-standing theory that there is a 20 year nostalgia echo. In the 70s there were 50s movies like Grease and American Graffiti and 50s TV shows like Happy Days. In the 80s there was The Wonder Years and Vietnam movies. In the 90s there was Dazed and Confused and That 70s Show. So we are due for oughts nostalgia, even if the phrase itself sounds so alien.

It was a decade so indistinct that we weren't even sure what to call it. That's in part because of a major transition in the decade itself. On or about February 2007, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, human character changed. The smartphone hit and the internet went at long last from an ancillary thing alongside day to day life to its ubiquitous center and the biggest conduit for entertainment. 

It had the effect of speeding things up and slowing them down at the same time. While it put communication of ideas and discourse into hyperdrive, people today dress pretty much the same as back then. (You would never think the same of comparing 1967 and 1981, for example.) This is why the 90s is the last true coherent decade in the way we started thinking about decades back in the "Roaring Twenties."

So maybe nostalgia for the oughts is impossible on the basis of it not even being a tangible entity. That being the case, I feel weird pangs for that time. It's mostly personal. I am a late bloomer and the oughts, of all times, ended up being my salad days. It's when I started my PhD program, met a lot of people whose friendships I still cherish, got a tenure track job, met my wife and got married. Related to the last point, I had figured out how to dress myself properly and make small talk. I was old enough to know some things about the world, and young enough to still enjoy it to its fullest. 

Beyond the personal level subjective stuff like this, one might question oughts nostalgia. This was the time of 9/11, government crackdowns, the Afghanistan War, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic crisis. How could anyone want to go back to the Bush Era?

Well the Trump years and pandemic have shown us things could get even worse than America under Dubya. In any case it looks like we are doomed and as the 2010s are worse than the oughts the 2020s will likely be even worse than that. Nowadays what I once thought unbearable seems quaint.

At base I feel like there is something we lost in that fateful circa 2007 transition. We went from blogging to Twitter and Facebook, from long, deep essays to bon mot tweets and all their snark. (This blog itself is a kind of relic, one I am not willing to part with no matter how much it makes me look like a guy in 1983 with a Beatle haircut.) The internet had been this strange, rich haven that soon became corporatized and dominated by social media. 

The late 2000s saw the first Marvel movies, a transition toward a one note Hollywood churning out blockbusters and blocking out more mature art. The high point before this came in 2006 with the release of both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both films are masterpieces, and both seemed to distill the decade's dark realization of America's imperial decline. 

As one of a dwindling number of rock music fans I can also look back to the oughts as that genre's last and moment of cultural relevance. Back in 2001 everyone was playing the Strokes and White Stripes. The whole "the band" thing wasn't so much a genre as the last distinct rock movement to hit the mainstream. Since then it's either been lame nostalgia or great stuff that's buried left of the radio dial. That was the decade that brought file sharing and burned CDs, and with it the culling of record stores. Its true symbol was the iPod, a harbinger of much more to come and maybe the best device ever invented to deliver music. It also happens to be completely obsolete, a true artifact of an era with no name.

So it could be that the oughts represented the last moment of the culture existing outside rather than inside the internet. A time when you had no clue of the reactionary political opinions of someone you once knew in your hometown because there was no Facebook to throw it in front of your eyes on a constant basis. Perhaps this century's oughts will seem like the last century's, a time before a new modernity stripped away part of our humanity. In the meantime, I'll crank some Wilco.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Primal Scream, "Loaded" (Track of the Week)

Let me tell you children about a time when I hit adolescence, a time I call the Reagan Dusk. From about 1988 to 1991 the promises of the dayglo decade were beginning the get stale but conservatism held on. The old emperor himself was revealed to be a senile old man tied to a horoscope. Communism collapsed to be sure, but anyone who was honest about the situation understood that American bluster had little to do with it.  Instead of a peace dividend there was AIDS and crack.

If you were a left of center young person politically and culturally back then it was hard to find a home. MTV still cranked atrocious hair metal. Guns N Roses were the one bright shining hard rock band of note, but their misogyny and homophobia were hard to overcome. Over in Europe you saw the Berlin Wall coming down and the world "waking up to history" as that Jesus Jones song said, but America seemed deader than a doornail, at least in terms of mainstream culture.

While MTV blasted hair metal shite they had a couple of key exceptions: Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes, both a Godsend to someone like me living in a pre-Internet rural area. Here's where I heard new music that actually excited me. It was a golden age for rap music, but in terms of rock the great "Smells Like Teen Spirit" the great breakthrough hadn't happened yet.

If you were into what they called "alternative" before it was mainstream, it meant UK stuff. It meant wistfully staring out the window to The Sundays' "Here's Where The Story Ends," writing Smiths lyrics on your school notebooks, and sniffing around the dance-y rock style known as "Madchester."

Now Primal Scream weren't from Madchester, they hailed from Scotland. But despite their origins in the dark moors north of Hadrian's Wall they nailed the sound down. They sounded as if Brian Jones had risen from the grave and listened to a stack of Happy Mondays records. "Movin' On Up" was their closest thing to a hit in the US, mixing 60s spirit and melodies with 90s beats.

That may've been the big song, but in a week like this, when I'm beat down and exhausted, I listen to "Loaded." It starts with a sample from the biker exploitation flick The Wild Angels where Peter Fonda says he wants to be free, but also wants to get loaded, and to have a party. The thing is, he says it with a kind of subtle aggression in his voice, as if so much needs to be purged from his body in Dionysian ecstasy. 

The song itself ambles along baggily like someone strolling down the street swinging their arms with a head full of chemical sunshine, not a care in the damn world. That's a lovely feeling to evoke when the day at the rat race has you down. During the Reagan Dusk reviving hippie tropes wasn't just nostalgia, it was a form of protest against the dominant culture of consumption and workaholism. We never quite managed to root that garbage out of our most deeply cherished social practices. In the meantime I will just turn this song up and have "a real good time." 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Consolations of Philosophy

In April of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic's shutdown phase, a student at my school asked if I would read some Nietzsche with him, since he heard I had some philosophy background. (It was my co-major as an undergrad.) In those days, with personal interactions so curtailed, I went for it even though I was drowning in work at the time. (This is the conundrum every teacher faces. The only way to do your job well is to work well past your contracted hours. But if you work well past those hours it gets draining and makes it easier for your employer to exploit you.)

It was a great experience, and out of that he started a student philosophy club that I oversaw. The club got very high attendance, despite the fact that it had to survive the ravages of the pandemic and hybrid meetings. I asked the students if I should offer a philosophy class, they said yes and I obliged. (Again, I am a sucker for my students.)

After co-majoring in philosophy as an undergrad I had mostly left it behind in the ensuing years. In a little bit of kismet I started getting back into it right before that student asked to read some philosophy with him. A friend gave me a book about Stoicism for Christmas in 2019, detecting the slide in my mood at the time. When the pandemic hit I decided to read the dang thing and started to realize what I had been missing for so long. 

It was the exact right time for philosophy to come back into my life. When quarantine began and the dangers of the disease were unknown, and as it absolutely ravaged my state of New Jersey, I took an inventory of my life, and asked myself if I was prepared to die. At its most fundamental, this is the question philosophy forces us to answer. I had been spending so many years on the hamster wheel of work as a teacher and parenting that this important question had been forgotten.

Since dipping back into philosophy I have gained a needed sense of perspective about what matters, and what doesn't. As much as I can I have been cutting myself off from the bullshit that stands in the way of a meaningful life. I am not so concerned any more about my status, for example. I have distanced myself from things that drain me, like the drama on local Facebook groups and political disagreements with friends and family. When group texts devolve into endless kvetching I just mute them or turn off my phone. I don't finish watching a TV series on streaming just to finish it. If it's mediocre or just drops in quality I let it go. Listening to music while I read a good book usually gives me far more pleasure. 

I still work beyond my contracted hours, but with more limits. For instance last week my school had its back to school night for parents, meaning I worked from before dawn to past 8PM. On the evening the next day I sat down to get a head start on some grading of papers my students just handed in, and I stopped myself. It could wait another day and still be done in a timely fashion. I sat down and watched Barry Lyndon again instead, a film that reveals more and more with each viewing. When it was over I felt happy and content and energized. 

And when I do my work, I do it with a greater sense of purpose. I know that as a teacher what I do matters, and that I should center that in my practice. That deeper meaning of my work is something I no longer take for granted; most people in modern capitalism can't really say their job does anything of much lasting value. I don't think I have had a single day in the classroom this year when I felt like I was just going through the motions. My re-immersion in philosophy has meant a revival of my sense of intentionality. My main goal in life right now is not to lose it to the ravages of middle-aged despair and cynicism.