Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Best of the Blog 2021

Another shitty year is ending in another COVID winter but that doesn't mean I can't engage in some flagrant navel gazing. Here's the best stuff I managed to write in this awful year. 

I am probably proudest of this examination of mall culture and why we long for it that I published over at Tropics of Meta.

This summer I listened to and reviewed every single Bob Dylan album. The link takes you to all the revalent posts. 

A peak into my current research project. 

This has got to be my favorite of things I've written trying to get at the lived culture of neoliberalism. Also a nostalgia bomb for your Gen Xers out there.

On how the failed revolutions of 2020 mirror the failed revolutions of 1848. Welcome to the violent restoration, folks. 

Both the book and the film are interesting to think about as commentaries on how history moves.

My reflection on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

On why Americans don't even want to solve the pandemic or other problems as long as the supply of cheap shit keeps flowing.

I am pretty proud of this analysis of the US Senate and its role in our dysfunctional political system. 

I am one of the few to have nostalgia for this weird time because it coincided with my personal prime. 

On how political progressives have checked out, and the consequences of that.

I wrote this in the aftermath of 1/6, seeing in plenty of conservatives similar behavior to Germans willing to overlook some things back in 1933.

My Rush Limbaugh obit.

Dig deeper and you will find that the master of 80s schmaltz makes for uneasy listening.

I wrote a few dispatches from the teaching front last year but this one came right as morale was about to break.

Old Grandad when I'm hard up, Old Fitzgerald when my pockets are full.

Commentary on maybe the most stimulating book I read last year. 

I've been trying to sound the alarm about this conflict for some time now.

On how watching old episode of this show kept me sane.

A trip upstate with my parents back in June revealed a lot about where the country was headed.

Some sad thoughts on my spiritual estrangement from the land of my birth. 

On the movie that helped me reconnect with my love of teaching right before the school year started.

Getting back into philosophy in the pandemic has been a great help for me.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Quarantine Christmas

Today was the first Christmas day I have ever spent at home with only members of my own household. Even when I spent a year living abroad in Germany I trekked to my mom's cousin's house a couple of hours away. This wasn't by choice, of course. My daughters testing positive and the general omicron surge meant my parents were not able to fly our here as planned, and quarantine meant we could not be with my wife's parents. (We will get to see them in a couple of days.)

I've been fortunate to not catch COVID from my kids, and that they've pretty much been asymptomatic. This Christmas has been a kind of throwback to the early days of the pandemic, when everything was put on hold and the world outside of the four walls of my home seemed to disappear. Then as now this meant more time with my children, which I cherish. The demands of my job often make it difficult to get any quality time with them in the normal run of things. 

Christmas is a time of reflection, which is the kind of thing that can bring on the holiday blues. That's been particularly intense this year as I have been unable to celebrate it with my parents. That in itself is a reminder of how much has been lost over the last two years, and I've even been one of the the lucky ones. Friends of friends and relatives of friends have died from COVID but so far no one directly connected to me has (touches wood.) Nevertheless, I have missed out on a lot of time with my parents and sisters, and that weighs on me.

The Christmas reflection gets more intense from me as a teacher, since going from ten hour days of intense work to two weeks of break gives me whiplash. I get too much time to think, too much time to contemplate the scary state of the world today, too much time to get depressed. I read a recent medieval history at the start of break, and one of my takeaways is that I now get why people like St. Benedict just went out into the desert to live as isolated monks. Maybe this broken world just cannot be fixed. Christmas is the ultimate promise that somehow, some way the world can be set right, but I am not feeling that spirit this year.

Of course, I can't just quit everything, put on a brown robe, and move to the desert. It's not feasible, and more importantly, I don't really want to. Quarantine Christmas has reminded me that everything I need is right here in front of me. I will draw from it as much as I can in the coming months, since it's the only thing that gives me any kind of faith in the future. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Teacher's Bitter Christmas Reflection

As a kid I did not get the holiday blues. This was the best time of the year, dammit! Present and mountains of candy and cookies and parties. As I have aged it has come into focus how the holiday season forces reflection, and that's not always a fun thing. I think every year of Christmases past, and the people I celebrated with who are dead now.

I also tend to think about what I've done over the past year. In this second COVID year it has been a bitter reflection. The year started with the dark COVID winter and it is ending with the Omnicron surge. Back in June I was naive enough to think it was ending. Oh how wrong I was.

That also coincided with the end of the end of the 2020-2021 school year, one where I had to completely alter my teaching practice from top to bottom not once but twice. First to go remote, and then to go hybrid. I worked twelve hour days every day and dealt with having to go to work when my kids' school still had them remote. 

My reflection has become bitter because I have realized that all of this labor has added up to nothing.

I am not getting a single extra penny of compensation from my job. I have not been given any more respect, either from my employer or my students and their parents. All that effort and work was appreciated by my students in the moment, but its long-term impact is basically zero.

Meanwhile my kids' education horribly suffered, and I failed to halt it because I was spending all my efforts teaching other people's kids. What reward did I get for this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Looking back on it I can't believe what a complete sucker I was. 

Well, as the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, same on me. The days of heroic sacrifice for no reward are over. I wonder when school leaders are finally going to figure this out. 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Searching For Hope In The Second COVID Christmas Season

This has been a rough week for me. My daughters' friend tested positive for COVID. My daughters are in quarantine (they just got their second shot) and tested negative on a rapid test after a positive result on a home test. (I guess the PCR will tell the tale in a couple of days.) My parents canceled their trip out to see us due to rising infections. One of my daughters asked us today if we will be in "COVID times" forever.

Back in January, when I got my first shot, I felt pretty confident it wouldn't be like this. Oh how wrong I was.

Last year I probably went a little too over the top with Christmas. We showered our daughters with gifts and drank and ate to our heart's content. It was a needed kernel of hope after months of death and fear. This year my thwarted expectations have left me feeling much less Christmas cheer. Due to quarantine it will be just us at home this year (with some time with my wife's family two days late.) 

It feels especially cruel because hope is the essence of Christmas. People talk about "keeping Christ in Christmas," and for me, lapsed Catholic that I am, this means the belief that this broken world can somehow be redeemed. After all that's why the shepherds rejoiced and the three kings followed the star to Bethlehem. It's the thing I am clinging too in my heart when my mind tells me the recent escalation of cases is a sign that we are in for another punishing winter of discontent. 

So I search for ways to find rays of hope. I'm planning on making Christmas cookies with kids, trying to repeat my mother's alchemy. I will try as hard as I can not to think of how she was supposed to be here this year, passing on her secrets to my daughters. We will watch our favorite Christmas movies together, and are working on a family play adapting A Christmas Carol. (I am told I get to play Scrooge!) I will remind myself that as horrible as COVID has been, it has given me so much more time with my children than I otherwise would have had. I truly cherish that time.

After all, Christmas is a yearly reminder of where we are at in life. You can't celebrate it without thinking about Christmases past, and where you are in relation to them. As trying and difficult as these past two years have been, they have forced me to take stock of what truly matters in life. We only have so much time and only so many Christmases. Despite my sadness and fear this Christmas season I just need to remind myself that it's a time to be cherished for what it brings that I never get to have in other parts of the year. I hope you and yours find some scraps of hope this holiday season. 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Other Great Resignation (Or Why Progressive Politics Are In Bad Shape)

There's been a lot of talk about the large numbers of workers quitting their jobs, the so-called "great resignation." It reflects a tighter labor market, as well as the stresses of COVID and the ways the pandemic has prompted reflection on what matters in life. I tend to view this positively, since it might break the ironclad hold the bosses have had over workers for the past few decades. 

However, there is another great resignation, one going on with political progressives that I feel far less sanguine about. 

The reason why Donald Trump lost the 2020 election despite the advantages of the electoral college, voter suppression, and incumbency was progressive mobilization. This lead directly to two Senate seats being picked up by Democrats in Georgia, something few people foresaw. His presidency in general resulted in massive levels of participation, from the nationwide Women's March events to protestors shutting down airports after the Muslim ban to (less directly, but still connected) the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. 

Since then the scales of mobilization have flipped. Conservatives are flooding school board meetings and censoring high school history and English classes. Red states have basically made any mitigation of COVID inoperative by opposing and nullifying vaccination and mask mandates. They have also passed new voter suppression laws and have used the filibuster to prevent any federal action against them. The Supreme Court, packed by Trump, is poised to destroy abortion rights. The fact that COVID and its related economic disruptions drag on will give Republicans the shine of being the opposition party in the midterm election, especially since most moderate voters do not see them as the vehicle of an extremist Right wing movement (which they are.) As evidence of that, the January 6th coup and the complicity of many Republicans in it has been forgotten. 

The forces of reaction were ripe for a backlash, especially after losing an election and the Black Lives Matter protest. It feels like the Tea Party all over again, but with the latent fascism now being expressed out in the open. However, it is more difficult to explain the ineffectual nature of progressive politics currently.

Some certainly is, in the words of Marx, repeating history first as tragedy and then as farce. Like after the 2008 election, a lot of normie liberals basically assumed they could go home and weren't needed in the streets anymore. Some of this has to do with American liberalism's misbegotten faith in institutions and process, and in the assumption that their conservative neighbors are the loyal opposition rather than extremists who would rather they be dead. 

There's also some measure of fatigue. After four years of desperate fighting and almost two years of pandemic we need a break. I certainly don't write and call my electeds with the fervor I once did. I know plenty of people like me feel the same. That said, I am afraid we might be using this to slide into cowardice. Looking at the right wing mob and their willingness to punish those they hate can be intimidating. I get the feeling sometimes that a lot of us (myself included) aren't just tired of fighting, but fearful of it. 

Another big reason for the resignation has to be feelings of futility. The Biden administration has done a lot, but not what people were expecting. For example, student loan payments are about to continue. Voting rights are still being held up, as well as promised expansions of the social safety net. The political news has been dominated by Manchin and Sinema basically blocking any progress on these issues. In light of this, it's pretty easy to give up. Also take into account that one of Biden's major successes, ending the US war in Afghanistan, was treated as a failure by the press (a narrative accepted by plenty of his voters.) There's also the overriding fact that the pandemic continues. A lot of people expected "back to normal" and didn't get it.

However, there are even deeper reasons for a feeling of futility leading to disengagement. In the part four years I have witnessed massive mobilizations by young people against gun proliferation, climate change and police violence. Students walked out of my school to demonstrate their voice on these issues, something that had never happened before in my time as a teacher. What was the result? In the short term, nothing. Cops were untouched, guns are just as available (and more so in some states), and the Biden administration is allowing new coastal drilling. In terms of the Black Lives Matter protests the only substantive legal outcome has been several states trying to ban the teaching of the history of race. I am not sure how progressive-minded young people can live through this without giving up hope. 

The threat to democracy is so stark right now but those who need to defend it are indecisive and silent. Those of us who spent the Trump years need to get active again, and need to get organizing instead of Tweeting (I include myself in this.) But it's not just on us. Progressive political leaders desperately need to up their game. They need to get results instead of dithering. They need to take the kinds of actions that will give us hope instead of leaving us mired in cynicism. First and foremost would be leadership on voting rights. I am planning to make that the center of my activism for the next year, hopefully my prodding will lead to something. I shudder to think at the results if it does not. 

Friday, December 3, 2021


 My latest at Tropics of Meta is a piece about our nostalgia for shopping malls. Here's a sample: 

"Our idea of what the mall represents has been radically softened. Malls used to be a stand-in for the shallow culture of Reagan-era consumerism, hence alternative rock artists of the day like Mojo Nixon penning the likes of “Burn Down the Malls.” After all, there could be no firmer statement in the 80s of rejection of the era’s dominant ethos than by rejecting the decade’s dominant cultural form, the shopping mall. Little did we know then that much worse was coming down the line."