Saturday, November 27, 2021

A Republic of Consumers

There's been a lot of talk lately about Biden's falling approval numbers corresponding with increases in gas prices and the general freakout over inflation. Some have expressed bewilderment, considering how much the economy is growing, wages are rising and jobless claims are shrinking. 

It might be confusing, unless you understand a simple fact: we live in a republic of consumers (apologies to Lizabeth Cohen.) 

Once upon a time the social contract may have revolved around a social safety net or human rights but those things are pretty immaterial to most Americans. What makes a successful polity in their eyes is maintaining the flow of cheap consumer goods and services. For at least the past forty years this has been at the heart of everything.Workers' wages have been stagnant, postindustrial and farming communities are falling apart, but you can still get almost anything you want for cheap at the local Wal-Mart. You might not have much, but you can still afford to go to a fast food restaurant and afford a hot meal made by others who have to serve you. The rise of globalization and consumer credit that accompanied the onset of neo-liberalism have made it possible for massive wealth and income inequalities to not lead to revolutionary change. 

Those on the left might find this to be a rather paltry reward, but talk to most workers and they've basically given up on any idea of solidarity. (Notice the recent, high profile failures to start unions at Amazon.) Things like universal basic incomes and free college are ephemeral, cheap gas and enough workers at the local Mickey Ds to keep the dining room open are not. 

In a lot of ways we have failed to understand what the last four decades and counting of neoliberalism have done to our mental geographies. Most people still hold fast to its basic tenet that there is no such thing as society. Billionaires like Elon Musk are treated like superhuman heroes. When the New York Times reported on the Build Back Better bill it only listed the price-tag in the headline, never bother to enumerate the bill's many benefits. 

Talk to even affluent moderate liberals in a suburb like mine and they will still bitch about property taxes and unions like they were Republicans. They might have a Black Lives Matter sign on their lawn and a Pride flag hanging in their window, but don't you dare integrate the schools or challenge exclusionary zoning. In a lot of ways, they are basically the same Rockefeller Republicans who lived here fifty years ago, old politics with a new party label on them. 

You may have noticed how the rise in prices (which is there but not as unprecedented as it is made out to be) has registered far more with the collective psyche than the deaths of 800,000 people from COVID. The fact is that a majority of Americans simply DO NOT CARE what happens to people they don't know as long as they are doing fine. If it wasn't someone in your family dying the pandemic might as well not even be happening in the minds of most people. Similarly, if animals are slaughtered inhumanely to make your cheeseburger or children are forced to work for pennies in sweatshops for your Wal-Mart duds it is immaterial. Hell, when the pandemic began prominent Republicans were basically calling on old people to sacrifice themselves to keep this economy the same. The small-r republican consumer is not interested in knowing that fast food workers are making a higher wage, they are mad that the help is not as plentiful as before. 

I am not sure where to go from here, but the assumption on the left that passing popular policies will result in political popularity does not seem to be holding true. I think that's because the most popular policy is the one polling firms never ask about: maintaining cheap consumer goods and services uber alles. To paraphrase Dune: the cheap crap must flow! It is now the job of progressive and leftist politics to figure out how to win in these circumstances, because failure is not an option. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Now Be Thankful

We've reached the second COVID Thanksgiving, something I never would have anticipated back in March of 2020. I had the naive belief that if would just be a short, sharp outbreak and over in a month or so. Eighteen months later there's over 700,000 dead in America. More people have died this year than in 2020 and the infection rates are shooting up again as we head into winter. 

If I am thankful for anything this Thanksgiving it is the vaccine. I know I am not bulletproof, but I don't worry about dying or serious illness anymore. My kids just got their shots too, so the range of things I can do will open up some more. Because of the vaccine I am not looking at this winter with the same absolute dread I had last year. I knew last November that we were headed into the worst winter of my life, and I was right. 

Sometimes it's hard to be thankful because we are constantly reminded of the things that make us bitter and resentful. The vaccine, for example, has been blunted in its effectiveness by anti-vaxxers. I have probably spent up too much mental space in the last year on these choads. They're not going away, so I should at least be happy that so many people I love and care about are being protected by the vaccine.

I am feeling similarly about politics. The fact that the teaching of American history, which I do for a living, has become the primary focus of the right wing's hate has been demoralizing to say the least. But I can still be thankful that I teach at a school that supports teaching the country's actual history. The complacency and failures of liberals and the vigor and lack of restraint on the right scare and frustrate me, but I can at least be thankful that Donald Trump is no longer president. 

Just so you know, I have not had a lobotomy or religious experience or have turned into a kind of Pollyanna. It's more that the pandemic has taught me some new life habits. On the eve of the pandemic I was an emotional mess, overstressed and pulled into five different directions at once. The daily assaults on democracy and humanity by Trump filled me with both outrage and hopelessness. The pandemic forced me to buckle down and get to prioritizing the things that actually mattered, instead of engaging in constant emotional spasms. That wasn't going to help anyone.

So I guess above all I am thankful for the perspective I have gained recently, the kind of perspective I needed to mentally survive this difficult time. Part of that perspective involves appreciating what I do have in my wife and my children, in my students and colleagues, in my friends and family. The reality of death has never been more present, as well as the imperative that comes from the consciousness of death to lead a meaningful life. Here's hoping we make it to the next Thanksgiving with COVID behind us and a successful midterm election, and that we have the strength to make both happen. That's my Thanksgiving prayer. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Love, Labor, and Exploitation

Like a lot of other people I have been thinking a lot lately about work and its meaning. After four decades of neoliberal propaganda proclaiming workaholism a necessary condition rather than a disorder, the centrality of work to our lives looks increasingly perverse and unbalanced. The fact that teachers like me in particular have worked harder under more stressful conditions than ever without any additional compensation or respect or workplace power has been especially glaring. 

Back when I was a callow undergraduate I had decided that whatever I did with my career, it would be something I enjoyed and that made the world a better place. Goodbye law school, hello grad school. Even after I jumped ship from academia I landed in secondary education. I know I am smart enough to have gone to law school and started making more money than I do now after decades of teaching in my first year at the bar. Despite that I opted to join one of the lowest paid of the educated professions. (I think only social workers have us beat.)

It is certainly true that despite the difficulty and stress of my job, that I enjoy it most of the time and feel like my hard work is having a positive impact on the world. At the same time, my older worries that educators are exploited through the love we give have only intensified. Last year I was an "essential worker" riding empty commuter trains, trying to juggle teaching other people's kids when mine weren't allowed into their school until May of 2021. The question thus arises of whether I would be better off in a meaningless job that I do not "love" with much lower stress and better pay. This is a calculation that a lot of teachers are making.

There is one thing staying my hand, however. While I am very sympathetic to the voices saying that we need to be working less and centering our lives around things outside of work, they sometimes miss a crucial fact. Work is the thing we do more than anything else with our waking hours upon this earth. When you have a shit job (I have had some in my day) you feel like the hours of your life are being stolen from you, spent in boredom and empty toil. It is an absolutely soul-crushing feeling, a kind of emotional torture. 

(Notice, of course, that the journalists and writers saying we should not look to work for fulfillment aren't quitting their writing gigs to become line cooks or HR specialists.) 

If I had to spend eight hours of my day (or more, most likely) doing something I didn't believe in I would probably fall into a state of suicidal depression. Having a soul only when the quitting time whistle blows is not how I want to go through life. 

In the meantime I keep asking myself how to stop my work from taking over my life. Last Saturday, for example, I decided I just wasn't going to do any schoolwork, I needed to rest. I wonder if I can allow myself to take longer to grade my students' work, to be more willing to recycle suboptimal lessons rather than spending several evening hours constructing a new one that may not even work. Teachers are always told to do these extra sacrifices "for the kids' but I never hear doctors being told to do uncompensated labor "for the patients" or lawyers to not bill for all their hours "for the clients." 

My hope for the "Great Resignation" is that all of these individual refusals can somehow add up to a collective reorientation around work expectations. I love what I do, but I will not be suckered. Those days are over. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Iggy Pop, "Success" (Track of the Week)

When you're a hopeless music obsessive some albums become inextricably tied to certain moments of your life and certain people from those days. You listen to the right songs and they become time machines. This is the case even if it's music you've been listening to constantly ever since.

Iggy Pop and David Bowie's 1977 Berlin albums are among my most played, but when I hear them I am still transported to the Chicago apartment I shared with my friend David. Our joke was that he was the rocker and I was the mod, and hence he liked the Iggy albums more and I liked the Bowie albums more. In those days when CDs still ruled the world I had The Idiot, Low and Heroes before we moved in together, bur David completed the collective by buying Lust For Life. I got so used to playing his copy that it took me years to get my own, long after we had gone our separate ways. 

I have been thinking a lot about David recently because I have finally started reading Heidegger's Being and Time, a book he had constantly evangelized to me. I would often gently mock him for this, but now that I am finally reading it, I get it. I am a little sad that I didn't him up on it back then. He died nine years ago and isn't around to talk to anymore.

Lust For Life however was something we were able to share together. Being the rocker it's obvious this would be David's pick from the great Berlin records. (He even wore a t-shirt with the album cover on it.) Much of the experimentation brought by Bowie to The Idiot is stripped away and the amps turned up. There are some all-time Pop tracks like the title song and "The Passenger," but plenty of compelling deep cuts, too.

"Success" is my favorite of these because it's just so delightfully silly. There's just a big riff and a catchy call and response structure that gets sillier and jokier as the song goes on. David and I used to love singing responses. We were a goofy lot back then, watching Army of Darkness all the time on VHS and shouting "I'll swallow your soul!" at each other.

If The Idiot is about the long dark midnight of the soul, Lust for Life is the celebration of getting through it and coming out on the other side. This week with my children getting vaccinated I certainly know what that feels like. And when I think about my departed friend and want the memories to make me smile instead of cry, I throw on "Success." 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Back at the Record Fair (with playlist)

Sometimes I think back to life a year ago and it's hard for me to even remember how I managed to get through all of this with my sanity intact. In November of last year the wannabe despot president was disputing the election while the deadliest COVID wave was just sinking its teeth in without a vaccine in sight. Some days I would have only one or two students showing up to be in my classes in person, a sign that most people did not consider the commute I was making worth the risk. Months of cold, deadly winter followed.

I was faked out by the big drop in cases at the beginning of this summer, which was followed by Delta. Here in Jersey, however, we managed to avoid the worst, and with cases per 100,000 barely in double digits and kids getting their shots, I am going into this winter feeling far less discontented. 

What helps is the return of the parts of "normal" I never knew I was missing, like the annual record fair in my town. It wasn't just a time to troll for some tasty vinyl, but a way to see others I know in a different context, to strike up conversation and meet like-minded strangers. This time around I got to see a friend selling records but also the low-key pleasure of sharing a space with people of like interests. It's a small thing that the pandemic had taken from me, but an important one. Getting to go back made me more optimistic than just about anything short of getting that literal shot in my arm back in January.

So here's a weirdo playlist inspired by the records I found today:

Joe Jackson, "Steppin' Out"

I grew up in a small town, which meant the local Top 40 station was less concerned with market dominance than a big city one. The DJs could thus spin some of their favorite songs for years after they hit the charts. This is one I heard a lot after 1982, and I was all the better for it. The best Elvis Costello song that wasn't Elvis Costello, and full of the possibility of being out at night in a big city that's still new to you. I got the Night and Day album for three bucks from my friend's table. I saw it for ten at another one, so quite a steal.

Richard Thompson, "Tear Stained Letter"

I have been on a huge Richard Thompson kick recently, and finding Hand of Kindness for five bucks felt like the hand of grace touching my shoulder. This is the first track, combining exuberance with a sad tale, which is classic Thompson. 

Nick Lowe, "I Knew The Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll"

I was so psyched to see a copy of Live Stiffs for five bucks. I've been a huge Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe fan for years, and had been hoping to catch this document of them and their label mates in the sweaty small venues of England in 1977 at the moment when punk and new wave changed rock music forever. This song should replace plenty of schlocky shit that gets played at weddings year after year.

David Bowie, "Warszawa"

Well this was my big money find. David Bowie's music from 1976-1980 is among the most significant to me. Of all the albums of that era, Low is the one I cherish the most, the biggest reason for my tears when I heard about his death. He made the album while recovering from serious addiction and depression, and it has been a balm for me in my own "low" moments. This song, evoking Communist-era Warsaw, is among the most beautiful pieces of music ever made in my opinion. One of the rare times when I insist on getting something on vinyl that I've had in other formats for years.

Tangerine Dream, "Burning Bar"

Here was my prize obscure find. Tangerine Dream has been some of my crucial pandemic chill music. Thief is a film I have recently fell for, and the band and film are an amazing combination. It's really the Platonic form of the 80s action movie soundtrack, using electronic sounds when they were still experimental. This is the kind of stuff Bowie was drinking up in his Berlin years, so it's only appropriate to go for the source last. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Surviving The Mid-November Plunge

Sometime in mid-November, spiritual winter begins. The temperatures might not be freezing yet, the solstice is still a month away, snow may not be falling, but something has changed.

The leaves are mostly off the trees. It gets dark before 5PM, and not just any dark, but a kind of truly thick darkness, so dark you can't even see what's outside your window. It's the moment when the reality of the next awful four months begins to sink in. 

Growing up in rural Nebraska it seemed to come like clockwork. The weekend before Thanksgiving the Catholic churches I attended had a bazaar every year, complete with pickle cards, games of chance, and a chicken and noodle dinner. Invariably, the first snow of the year came that week. 

The bazaar in its own way became a crucial method of coping with the mid-November plunge into spiritual winter. As a child it was one of the highlights of the year for me. Now that I am older I must use other methods.

Sometimes this means putting on the right film. Right now I am watching the 2012 adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Everyone claims the 1979 British TV version is better, but I don't have that many hours to kill. On a night like this, when I am exhausted from a long day of work, this little two hour window in the gloominess of 70s London and Cold War intrigue hits the spot just fine. 

Music is even more vital as a means to ward off the mid-November plunge. Sometimes the best thing to do is to steer into it. It may be a bit on the nose, but Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" nails this transition well. "The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early" indeed. It is a spooky song with terror lurking beneath the surface, perfect for this spooky time of year when winter's cold dead hand creeps in.

Best of all, surviving this plunge requires the right food drink. Hearty stews and root vegetables can make the belly feel warm. A dark porter beer or musky bourbon provide a different kind of hearty warmth. As much as we moderns pretend otherwise, humans are still biological creatures subject to the changing of the seasons. This particular seasonal change can be depressing, but I am trying as always to revel in its fearsome nature. Here's hoping spring comes sooner than usual this time. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

War on Drugs, "I Don't Live Here Anymore" (Track of the Week)


At my age there are few bands I am passionate enough about that I wait in anticipation for their new releases, but War on Drugs is one of them. Call them Dad Rock all you want, I've accepted that I am a middle aged dad with a dull, buzzing ache in my soul that's been there around the time I turned 35. The War on Drugs is novocaine for that ache. 

"I Don't Live Here Anymore" is the title track of the new album and might now be my favorite song of theirs ever. It's got that driving early Dire Straits beat and the "80s Dylan but good" sound is compounded by direct references to "Shelter From the Storm" and "Desolation Row." More than that, the lyrical themes speak deeply to where I'm at right now. The pandemic and general political breakdown have me going back to philosophy, and in the process have had a personal transvaluation of values, if I can be Nietzschean about it. 

I am becoming more aware than ever of what matters and what doesn't. One thing that matters to me is that I still keep seeking, discovering, and learning new things. That's a theme to this song, a passionate cry against the temptations to torpor offered by flabby middle age. To seek, to strive, to find, and all that jazz. 

It's fittingly ironic then that The War of Drugs sings these songs in a transformed version of the sound flabby middle aged rockers adopted in the 80s. The fact that those gated snares, airy synths, and reverby guitars could be made to sound so sublime is a miracle on par with the miracle of life itself. "I want to find everything I need to know" indeed.