Saturday, December 31, 2022

Four Strong Winds (A New Year's Eve Rumination)

A lot of famous people died this week, and I feel like the passing of Ian Tyson got lost in the shuffle. A Canadian cowboy turned folk singer, he wrote "Four Strong Winds," the ultimate New Year's Eve song. 

It's about how the winds of life scatter us from the people we love, and the sadness that comes with it. The line "But our good times are all gone/ And I'm bound for moving on" always makes me think of my amazing circle of friends in grad school and how fate condemned us to be separated. It also makes me think of being a high school teacher, where I get to watch teenagers blossom into adults but then have to say good-bye to them. I repeat this bittersweet ritual every year and it never gets easier.

I used to love New Year's Eve as a holiday. It meant a fun gathering with a group of my friends in Lincoln. Nebraska, made merry by food and drink. I haven't been able to take part for over a decade now, and the old professor who linked us all together has been dead for a few years. Nowadays New Year's Eve just reminds me of the impermanence of everything in this life. 

I've got more yesterdays than tomorrows, and the burden of the past weighs heavy on my heart. The new year represents less a new beginning for me than it does a stark reminder of my mortality. I am thinking a lot tonight about how the strong winds of life have separated me from so many people over the years, some of them permanently through death. 

I know this isn't exactly the cheeriest New Year's Eve message but tomorrow I will focus on the future. We owe it to those we've lost through death, distance, and estrangement to remember the good times we had together before they were all gone. 

Friday, December 23, 2022

2022: Year of Cultural Reaction

My newest Substack is out, a more reflective piece on the dominant themes in American politics in the past year. I chose to focus on the politics of cultural reaction, which are the true dividing line in the electorate. 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

The Boredom Killer: Why I Can't Quit Social Media

I saw that recent article in the Times about students at a school in New York who have called themselves "Luddites" and are logging off of social media and subsisting on flip phones. Their reasons are pretty compelling to me, since I know deep down in my soul that I use my smartphone and social media far far too much. The article reminded me of how I used to be very much like those kids. 

When cell phones first emerged in the 1990s, I did not have any interest. It took me forever to even get an answering machine. When I started teaching as a grad student TA in the 2000s, I noticed how cell phones brought disruption and distraction to classroom spaces. Back then I reveled in living the life of the mind., which meant a lot time spent in contemplation.

I still used and loved the internet, but as something alongside my daily life, not central to it. I started blogging all the way back in 2004, a great way to articulate all the ideas banging around my head back then. Did people read what I blogged? Not many, but I didn't really care, readership wasn't the point. 

I finally had to get a cell phone when I moved out of grad school, an already antiquated flip phone I kept for four years until I replaced it with a slightly slimmer flip phone that a buddy of mine used to tease me for. When Facebook first hit the scene I signed up to see what it was all about, but I found it pretty vapid and disorienting. The world of smartphones and social media seemed like a useless time suck to me and I was pretty proud of being out of step. I spent my time at home listening to music and reading books, the thing that still relaxes me most. I didn't think I would ever bother changing my habits.

Then I got hooked.

Partly this was because I was living far away from most of my friends and family at the time, and Facebook offered a crucial lifeline to the people I missed most. More crucially, once I got my first smartphone about ten years ago, boredom mostly left my life. 

My wife likes to joke that smartphones have helped reduce smoking since cigarettes used to be such an effective boredom killer. Stuck waiting for the bus? Sitting bored on the couch? Need to step out of a lame social engagement? Light up! This was brought home to me by the recent Get Back documentary about the Beatles' recording sessions in 1969. So much time is spent sitting around waiting for things to happen, and smoking the boredom away. Today folks in the studio could be checking Twitter or Instagram or playing games during downtime. Part of me wonders, however, if that boring downtime is actually crucial to the creative process, that our brains need to slow down to find the solution to our creative impasses. 

In any case, my phone and social media have allowed me to lift the crushing weight of boredom. Waiting in line at the store, waiting for my train, getting my car fixed, and all other dull situations can be escaped. Instead of my mind wandering, I get to alternately chuckle at the jokes or get irritated by the discourse on Twitter. So many of the people on Twitter that I follow are also just so damn smart and insightful. Day to day conversations in real life can be so mundane, on Twitter I can get far deeper opinions on things I actually care about. 

I am trying hard to reduce my social media usage, and with the changes on Twitter to ween myself off of that particular site altogether. I've gone from filling up those boring minutes to getting distracted when I am with my kids or agitated over stupid fights online. My new year's resolution this year is basically to use my smartphone and social media a lot less. I will report back later if having more boredom in my life is a good or bad thing. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Want to Know Why. Republicans Lose Urban America?

 My newest Substack is up, where I ask the title question less as an inquiry and more as an accusation. Prestige media talks a lot about how Democrats are losing rural, but not how Republicans actively demean cities and antagonize their voters. As I relate, the reasons are rooted in ideas of what's "American" as well as the expectations the media has placed on the two parties. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Defanging of Dickens' A Christmas Carol

On my Substack this week I discussed how Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is the most popular work of capitalist critique in the English language. For that reason, modern day adaptations tend to downplay those elements. I think Apple TV's Spirited is especially egregious in this regard. 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Mattiel, "Those Words" (Track of the Week)

This week brought 2022's Spotify Wrapped, the moment of truth for music hipsters. We can tell people what we listen to, but the app gives us the numbers and it doesn't lie. I've found that my Wrapped can sometimes be a good indicator of my mental health in any given year. The year when "Weighless Again" by The Handsome Family was my number one was....not a good one. 

I was elated to see that most of my top ten, including my top two songs, were new ones rather than old favorites. In recent years I have been making an effort to listen to new music whenever possible. I wrote about my number one, Cate Le Bon's exquisite "Moderation," earlier this year. My number two comes from Mattiel, a band I liked so much that I bought their most recent album on CD and have been playing it constantly in my car. 

They get their name from lead singer Mattiel Brown, who grew up on a Georgia farm but makes post-punky music rather than country twang. Their aforementioned Georgia Gothic album was my favorite this year, but my favorite song wasn't on it. "Those Words" came out as a non-album single, a tradition in great need of being returned. 

The song is wonderfully bouncy with a pleasing jingle-jangle reminiscent of fellow Georgians REM. Brown's deep alto voice, as with most Mattiel songs, is the thing that elevates it beyond the usual indie rock. Its rich dark sound just holds together while giving extra zest, like putting brown sauce on an English breakfast. It's a song I put on many mornings as I boarded the commuter train, mixing my need to get pumped for the day with all the nagging doubts still there in my mind. 

A lot of stupid shit people say gets me mad, but little more than other dudes my age who like music saying they don't listen to anything new. As we age it's crucial to keep living in the now, and not in the past. I may not be the largest audience, but I am glad groups like Mattiel are out there for me to listen to. 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Tangerine Dream, "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares" (Track of the Week)

Middle-aged music fans like myself have a tendency to get weird with it at this stage in our lives. I have listened to the usual verse-chorus-verse songs for years, which don't excite me enough anymore. This has led down the road to jazz and (gulp) Frank Zappa, but also Tangerine Dream. Just yesterday I fanboyed out at Record Store Day Black Friday because they had an Edgar Froese solo album. 

Their music, in case you don't know it, is sort of Brian Eno on mushrooms with even less song structure. Tangerine Dream created soundscapes, ones they converted into some truly great film scores in the 70s and 80s. I also like how their music, played with old Moog synthesizers, sounds both like the past and the future at the same time. Like their countrymen Kraftwerk, they made groundbreaking electronic music best heard by playing it on an old-fashioned, analog record. I love early electronic music because the rules have not been written yet, and the experimenting required literally dial and knob twisting to get it to work. 

I love so much of Tangerine Dream's work, but my fave deep cut is "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares." Despite its title, I listen to it often at bedtime to soothe myself. In those eerie moments before sleep, when I can feel consciousness slipping away, the effect is sublime, like floating in space. It's music I embraced in the depths of the pandemic, giving me the inner calm I so urgently needed. Hopefully it can serve you, too. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Existential Dread on Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving is usually one of my favorite holidays. I like its theme (thankfulness and reflection) and simplicity (get friends and family together for a giant feast of comfort food.) My emotions about it have never been that complicated.

This year is different, for some reason. Yesterday, riding home on the commuter train, I had a moment of existential horror. The holidays can comfort us in their regularity and rituals, but I suddenly felt overwhelmed by it all. Here I am, another year later, repeating the same old cycle until I'm dead. Once the holiday is over, there will be another round of miserable winter months, and after I endure them, I will have to suffer again in less than a year, and repeat that year after year after year after year. 

These are the kinds of emotions that come with middle age, that moment when you realize the future you spent your youth planning is happening now and that the rest of your life is going to look a lot like the present, with a door to a new possibility slamming shut every single day until there aren't any left. I was kind of shocked by my horror and Thanksgiving because I have pretty much made peace with the life I have built and am happy to live it. 

I suddenly realized that my emotions were actually coming from the missing chairs at the proverbial Thanksgiving table. In the last decade, I have lost many friends and family members. Some to death, and some to permanent falling out, which can feel like a kind of death. The deaths almost all took place in the late fall and early winter, so the sudden cold in the air was hitting the face of my memories, reminding me of funerals under the dismal November and December Nebraska skies. I also thought about the dark days of the pandemic, watching my Aunt Sue's funeral in Texas over a live stream, bawling my eyes out on my back porch between teaching Zoom classes. 

It makes me think some of my dread comes also from the collective trauma of the past two and half years. This is our first post-pandemic Thanksgiving, and it's as if a million people didn't die and our lives weren't upended. For understandable but deeply unhealthy reasons, we are all going on as if nothing happened. All the sacrifices I made in those dark days have added up to nothing. Heck, considering how much teachers have been villainized nowadays, my sacrifices have added up to less than nothing. I guess I should have taken the day of my Aunt Sue's funeral off. 

I had my moment of profound dread and sadness yesterday, so as a form of therapy common in my family today I threw myself into useful physical activity. I raked the leaves, got our malfunctioning toilet replaced, cleaned the house, baked a pie, and went for a long walk. I feel a lot better now. My time in Hot Stoic Summer reading Marcus Aurelius has paid off. I am following his advice and focusing on the thing before me and doing it. Most of the time that's all we can really do in this unyielding world. 

Many of the people who made me who I am have died or become estranged from me, but I've got my own Thanksgiving traditions to maintain. Tomorrow my wife's family will be coming over, we will be preparing a feast, and I'll by watching the Macy's Parade with my kids. Instead of dreading having to repeat the cycle, I am relishing the break I am getting from the drudgery of daily life, a far worse repetitive cycle. You could even say I am thankful for it. I hope you too find your moments of comfort this holiday. 

What Twitter Gave and What It Took Away

My latest Substack has to do with Elon Musk''s purchase of Twitter and the ensuing chaos. I take a look back at the site, why I have used it so much but also its deeper issues. An agora owned by a corporation is not an agora. We need to think bigger and to build a true, publicly managed online public sphere. 

Friday, November 18, 2022

Trump's Campaign Announcement Represents America's Failures

A week after the midterm elections, Donald Trump announced his run for president, an event that encapsulates so many of America's failures. Here is a man who attempted to overturn a democratic election and spurred his followers to assault the US Capitol, leading to multiple deaths. We spent all summer seeing testimony from the January 6 committee to that effect. And yet this demagogue, who openly seeks an end to American democracy, is not only walking freely on the streets, he is being allowed to run for president. 

That represents a failure of our justice system to bring a criminal leader to justice. Recent moves by the Justice Department make any kind of justice impossible to see happening. Attorney General Merrick Garland has just appointed a special prosecutor, which means that we will see legal action taken against him sometime around 2045. In the meantime, he will be free to try to regain power. 

Trump running again is also a failure of our democracy to even defend itself. In a healthy republic, Trump would not be allowed to run again, even if he was not confined to jail. He was impeached twice, and both times his own party shielded him from punishment. It is hilarious to me that so many Republicans have turned on him after their poor election showing. Trying to overthrow the government was not a deal-breaker for them, but hindering their single-minded quest for power certainly is. 

Trump's return also shows our media's complete and abject failure as well. Even after this man tried to overthrow the government, they give him the benefit of the doubt. They seem to assume that their readers have been lobotomized and thus can understand the most bland, "objective" take on Trump. For example, lots of pundits have been scratching their heads and asking "why is he running so early?" The answer, to avoid prosecution for his crimes, is pretty obvious. The media is so wedded to a false "objectivity" that they refuse to even say that. 

Our system is simply not equipped to handle a criminal demagogue like Trump. The United States is a nation incapable of punishing high-ranked criminals, as Trump himself surely knows. Perhaps he will suffer in the backlash and not come close to the White House this time. Even if that is the case, he has already won by forcing the country to once again pay attention to every one of his private actions. We might be done with him, but he is not done with us. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Public Image Ltd, "Swan Lake" (Track of the Week)

Guitarist Keith Levene died this week. He's one of those musicians unknown by most but legendary among true heads. I did not get initiated until I was in grad school and picked up Simon Reynolds' incomparable post-punk tome, Rip It Up And Start Again. British punk's creation myth starts with the Sex Pistols, and Reynolds appropriately located post-punk's origins in Public Image Ltd, the band formed when Johnny Rotten became plain old John Lydon again. I had thought of PiL in terms of their pretty tepid 90s output, not knowing how amazing their early stuff could be. Levene's arty, fractured guitar playing was key to the band's sound, and made the three chords and a cloud of dust riffing on punk seem pretty lame and pedestrian by comparison. 

Their self-titled first album still had some fierce riffing, but their next, Second Edition/Metal Box (US and UK versions, respectively) sounded like nothing else that came before. Lydon's voice sounds forcibly restrained, no longer sneering and spitting but a half-scream caught in his throat. Jah Wobble's bass is a kind of wall of dread, dub as played by the devil if he'd never picked up an instrument before. Levene's guitar, angular, caustic, meandering, was like a punk rocker had been locked in a room for a year with only free jazz and prog records to listen to. 

It sounds best to me on "Swan Lake" off of Second Edition, originally given the evocative title "Death Disco." It's about the death of Lydon's beloved mother, an anguished cry of despair about the finality dying. The line "the silence in your eyes" so aptly describes the feeling of looking at someone you've always known but suddenly they are not there anymore, just their body. The song perversely incorporates a disco beat and the melody from Tschaikovsky's "Swan Lake," but it's Levene's curtains of jangly feedback that make it all work. I guess it's appropriate to remember him with a song about death. 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Why The Trump Era is Not Over

 I've written a couple of Substacks since my last post here. The most recent is an appraisal of the 2022 election, and the emerging "Trump is over" narrative. I find that to be wishful thinking, for reasons that are becoming obvious. 

My prior one I forgot to post here! It was a pre-election post so your mileage may vary. I wondered if the 2022 election would be like the 1874 election, which helped bring Reconstruction to an end. So far I am glad that nightmare scenario has not played out. 

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The Long Road to Our Ppst-Truth Moment

 I wrote a Substack this week reacting to the Right's lies in response to the attack on the Pelosi residence. What we are seeing is the culmination of decades of conspiratorial thinking. As I write about, the difference is not social media, it's that Republican politicians are now willing to endorse it, effectively speaking in public in the voice their supporters use in private. That was Trump's major innovation and it's one that is not going away, because the media still treats it in a "both sides" frame. 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Preparing for the Apocalypse

There's a bad feeling in the air right now among leftists and progressives. Republicans are poised to win the midterm election despite maintaining their support for Donald Trump and all that implies. Politicians who openly deny the 2020 election and have implicitly taken the side of the mob who ransacked the Capitol will be gaining even more power and control over at least one house of Congress. 

This week, in the midst of this dread a Qanon type just tried to assassinate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Right wing billionaire Elon Musk has gotten monetary support from the Saudis to buy Twitter and make it private while letting the Nazis and white nationalists run riot. Just today I saw an explicitly Nazi account touting Joseph Goebbels' birthday. Donald Trump's ban will likely be lifted as well, the one tangible punishment he has faced for trying to overthrow democracy. The mainstream political media has reacted to this by maintaining their "both sides," horserace coverage. 

At times it feels like watching a slow-motion disaster. We can see the apocalypse coming, and feel helpless. 

Standing and watching by is not an option, it's time to prepare.The first order of business is to get out the vote on November 8, but that won't be enough. We need to be ready for what comes after. 

Republicans have made it clear that they wish, once again, to use the debt ceiling to hold the nation hostage so that they can get their extremely unpopular, radical agenda put into place. After all, there's only so much they can do with the courts that they have so deflty packed with ideologues. Gutting the social safety net will require direct action.

If we know this is coming, we have to pre-empt it. Congress could possibly do this by raising debt limits now, but we also have to organize. The spirit of protest, so active in the Trump years, needs to return. If they want to the government hostage, we need to have people in the streets. We need to be ready to take to the streets and make them think twice about this course of action. Maybe it won't work, but it's better than doing nothing. 

This week's political violence is a reminder that Biden's election win was only a temporary reprieve from the forces of fascism. Too many people thought that Trump losing was like killing the head vampire in a horror movie, unwilling to see how he is the product of the right-wing mob, not its creator. Because of this complacent attitude, we failed to strike hard against the mob after 1/6 and to make anyone who tried to deny the election into a pariah. 

We blew the chance to reaffirm democracy after January 6. As far as I can tell, we won't have many chances left. In my darker moments, I tend to think that we are already out of chances. However, that kind of doomerism leads to its own complacency, a complacency that is poisonous. Those of us who after four years of resistance (yes I said it, cooler than thou leftists) thought our work is done need to get their shoulders back on the wheel. Failure is not an option. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

An Update on America's Brezhnev Years

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have long theorized that the American empire has entered its Brezhnev Era. I've written about this here and elsewhere, and this week on my Substack I posted a new update on my theory. Essentially the lack of alarm most Americans have about democracy's peril reflects the fact that most Americans have lost faith in the nation's animating ideology, much like Soviet citizens did in the USSR's waning years. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

It's the Silence of God, Charlie Brown

I was bummed to hear that It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown would not be getting a live TV airing this year. Perhaps it's my dumb old man nostalgia talking, but it was always my favorite of all the holiday specials on TV when I was growing up. In those pre-streaming days they were true appointment television, and this special was one of the first things my family taped off of TV onto our brand new VCR. It also inspired thoughts much more intense than the usual holiday special fare. 

The Great Pumpkin special came out in 1966, in the midst of a cultural moment where many speculated that traditional notions of God had outlived themselves. Time magazine, hardly a radical outfit, put our their infamous "Is God Dead?" cover that same year.

No foreign film director dominated the art houses of the day like Ingmar Bergman, and earlier in the decade he crafted his "Silence of God" trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. All three grappled with the fact that we live in a world where God manifestly does not intervene. If there is no divine being actively guiding our lives and giving meaning, what then? Although Bergman rejected his religious upbringing, I find these films to be far meatier meditations on faith than what professed Christian film-makers have been able to come up with. At the end of Winter Light a disillusioned minister doubting his faith still holds service in an almost empty church but manages to find a reason to live in it. 

Like Bergman, The Great Pumpkin contemplates God's silence. Linus is a true believer surrounded by doubters who mock his steadfast faith. In fact, their mockery only strengthens his belief. He goes out into the pumpkin patch, eagerly awaiting the Great Pumpkin's arrival, even fainting when he mistakenly believes it has arrived. When comes to, he finds out it was just Snoopy. His deity has refused to give him a sign, or to requit Linus' devotion. 

However, his faith is not shaken. The next day Charlie Brown tries to comfort Linus by saying we've all done stupid things, causing him to explode in anger. How dare Charlie Brown call his belief "stupid"! His response to God's silence is thus to pray that much harder. 

I've never known quite what to think of Linus in this moment. Yes, he is being obstinate and silly, but his devotion to his principles is admirable. After all, the Great Pumpkin will only reward the most "sincere" pumpkin patch, and Linus is wholly sincere. 

We live in a scary and seemingly senseless world. It is hard to maintain belief in anything in the face of our world's all-consuming cynicism. In the face of injustice, humanity cries to the heavens for assistance, but it does not come. At the same time, letting cynicism win ensures that nothing will be able to change. Maybe Linus sitting fruitlessly in the pumpkin patch isn't so laughable. In this broken world cut adrift from divine assistance, we could all use a little sincerity. 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

John Carpenter's Halloween and Fortress Suburbia

I released my newest Substack this weekend, inspired by my first viewing of John Carpenter's Halloween. Released in the late 70s after the last major waves of suburbanization and before the dawn of gentrification, it questions suburbia's founding myths. The place that supposed to be protected actually spawns true evil. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Pale Blue Eyes, "Globe" (Track of the Week)

I have made some good and bad choices in the past few years, but the best was making sure that I mostly listen to new music. It is truly mindblowing how much good music is out there, and how much work it can be to access it sometimes. Despite those difficulties, listening to new music helps keep me fresh in middle age and from becoming yet another Gen X bore getting high on nostalgia.

Sometimes, however, I cheat a little. A lot of my favorite new music strongly recalls the sound of new wave and post-punk. It's kind of great to hear so much music that strips out the best aspects of 80s music and leaves its excesses of overproduction out. 

Pale Blue Eyes is a band in this vein I just discovered via the Sound Opinions podcast. The name is such an obvious Velvet Underground reference that it's almost cringy, but the band still delivers. You'd have to in order to get away with such a bold move. Despite the Velvets' name, the sound recalls other sources. The insistent, pulsing bass owes much to Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order, the nervy rhythms are pure new wave. The airy synths recall the textures used by The Cure. Somehow it's not in any way derivative. I like a lot of their songs, but "Globe" brings the elements together most beautifully. 

This is a style of music I always come back to in October, as the leaves die and fall and the nights get darker and longer. In years past I might have been content to spin Echo and the Bunnymen's Crocodiles yet again. I am glad in my middle age to find someone current to give me the same spooky vibe.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Whatever Happened to "Virtue" and "Character"?

I put out of a Substack newsletter installment last week called "You Can't Shame The Shameless" about how the shamelessness of radical conservatives in the Trump Era is a kind of superpower. They can never be caught in a scandal because they refuse to play along with the media. When they get caught, they just double down and refuse to admit wrongdoing. Their base only cares about gaining power, and anything and anyone is justified in protecting "Real America" from its political opposition. 

I'd like to expand on this theme a little here. I just finished reading a couple books about politics in the 90s, and it was striking to re-familiarize myself with the conservative rhetoric of that era. Today "values" issues for right wingers means abortion prohibition and attacks on trans teenagers. Back in the 90s there was still plenty of fetus fetishization and gay bashing, but there was also a softer side of social conservatism. Social conservatives criticized what they termed a selfish society that had strayed from old virtues.

Movement conservative types like William Bennett kept sounding this trumpet. During the Clinton presidency it wasn't just used to term progressives Godless, it was used to undermine the president himself. He lacked virtue and "character" as well. The impeachment proceedings arising out of the Lewinsky affair injected this stance with a shot of steroids that would've made Mark McGwire jealous. In the worldview of the virtue mongers, the country could not be great if it tolerated such an immoral man at the top. 

At the time I did not think this was just cynical point scoring. I truly thought that social conservatives believed this stuff. In my book these were misguided beliefs, but I still had to take them seriously. I'm also someone who thinks our society is harmed by negative values, especially the worship of money and power. These are not the things social conservatives excoriate, but my own stance inclined me to believe that social conservatives truly wanted a more virtuous polity, even if I found their definition of virtue to be hollow. 

Two decades after the Clinton administration I've witnessed social conservatives bow to the altar of Trump, the personification of greed, pride, and any number of sins. I hear very little talk of values, virtues, and character from them. Their power worship does not have any time for such petty trifles. 

This week marks the sixth anniversary of the Access Hollywood tape. It was a turning point for me because after hearing the vile things Trump said about grabbing women by the genitals the same people who I've known forever who were incensed at Bill Clinton's lack of character back in '98 were open at how they were still going to vote for Trump. In that moment I realized all those years of virtue rhetoric were complete bullshit. Instead of bullshit, we are living with something worse, a full-throated, undisguised movement dedicated to destroying democrac. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

A Post-"Process" Politics?

I've been doing a deep dive into the politics of the late-80s and early 90s, a time I feel to be a secret turning point in American history. I just read Nicole Hemmer's excellent Partisans, on conservative politics in the 90s, and am currently digging into Political Fictions, a collection of political essays by Joan Didion written from the late 80s to 2000. Both books have been driving me further to the conclusion that the seeds of the current political scene in America were laid during that period of time. 

The presidential elections in that period seem pretty alien compared to today. Distance between the major parties shrank as Democrats adopted neoliberal policies and Republican nominees shied away from the blood and soil nationalism craved by their base. As Didion pointed out in her classic essay "Inside Baseball," politics was something increasingly practiced by a narrow "in group." Back in the 90s many people (including myself) described themselves as "politics junkies," implying that politics was something most normal people paid little mind. Participation in elections was incredibly low, a further reflection of this dynamic. 

In that same essay, Didion described how the 1988 presidential campaigns all boiled down to "the process." Candidates would hold events with the only express purpose being getting a soundbite on the evening news. The people there, as Didion reports, did not seem so interested, but that never made it into print. She found that the media was mostly reporting to people already inside of the "process" bubble. The candidates jumped to the middle and spent all of their time an effort trying to win the same narrow band of middle-class suburban moderates. (Remember "soccer moms," anyone?) According to Didion, the lack of participation by the masses had less to do with apathy and more to do with antipathy. A lot of people just did not think "the process" had anything to do with them. Ross Perot's campaign in 1992 and Pat Buchanan's "Culture War" speech pointed to a desire to break beyond "the process," a feeling Hemmer claims Newt Gingrich exploited to his advantage.

That's the political world where I came of age. While I was a "politics junky" I did not feel invested in the system, and tended to view Democrats as Republican Lite. I voted for a fringe third party candidate in my first election in 1996 because Nader wasn't on the ballot in Nebraska, and I voted for him again in 2000 while living in Illinois. I really disliked the Republican Party, but I desperately wanted Democrats to move to the left. My vote did not seem like one they were particularly interested in. (The 2000 election converted me into the "Democrats are the best option out of bad options" crowd.)

While there is still a lot of inside baseball in politics, we are potentially living in a post-process world where both parties now aim to win over their respective bases first and have dropped their old taboos. Republicans have embraced blood and soil nationalism and an anti-democracy stance now that Cold War commitments no longer force spoliticians to pay lip service to higher ideals. Democrats have dropped their adherence to neoliberalism and have once again embraced the welfare state. Even Republicans like Trump have moved away from austerity. It's hardly a surprise that participation in elections has shot up in the last few years.

Obviously, this has been accompanied by a great deal of volatility and the emergence of a wannabe despot in the form of Trump. While the end of "the process" has enabled the growth of blood and soil nationalism, it also has the potential to create a new political landscape where participation is not just limited to insiders. At least that's what I'm hoping for. I certainly think the landscape we used to have is not worth mourning, and that out of its ashes a real democracy can rise. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

R.E.M., Chronic Town, and the Uncanny Weirdness of Small-Town Living

 My newest Substack is about REM's debut LP on its 40 anniversary. Deep down it's about how music got me through my teenage years in the middle of nowhere. I will be listening to REM until the day I die because they are the music that illuminated a dismal world. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Disillusionment and Nostalgia of a Former Cornhusker Superfan


For the first forty years of my life, a September Saturday meant college football. I will never care about a sports team again the way I cared about the Nebraska Cornhuskers. My newest Substack is about how I have lost my enthusiasm for college sports, but also how it has been impossible for me to shake the Huskers completely. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Uncle Tupelo, "Graveyard Shift" (Track of the Week)

Due to a new writing project I have been taking a deep dive back into Uncle Tupelo. There is no other band that encapsulates the experience of being a misfit with lefty politics living in a small Midwestern town in the early 90s. I didn't discover them until their last album Anodyne, right as I was about to graduate from high school in the year of '94. That album filled me with the joy of recognition; I hadn't heard any music before that spoke so directly to my specific circumstances. 

Later on, I dug deeper into their catalog, and it still amazes me how hard they went right out of the gate. No Depression, their first album, became the name of a whole new music scene and a magazine devoted to it. "Graveyard Shift" is the first track off of that album. It sounds like The Clash if they were from Iowa. 

The first lines, "Home town same town blues/ Same walls closing in" just sums it all up. It's about the experience of working a factory job in a small Midwestern town where you grew up and feeling completely trapped by it. I spent my college summers working in local factories, including one summer on the graveyard shift. Granted, I was a college boy, so I could the light at the end of the tunnel. It also became clear to me that a lot of people work really hard for too little money. And yet, "The powers that be/ might take it all away."

The guitars and drums crunch and crash with wild abandon. It's the sound of wanting to jump out of your body trying not to look at the clock while being chained to a machine for eight hours. "There's much you've missed working on that graveyard shift." Yeah, no kidding. On the graveyard shift you literally lose the sunlight because you've got to go to bed in a morning light harsh in ways you never though possible. 

Being a lefty in the early 90s included a deep feeling of futility. You raged against the obvious shittiness of the system but did so with no expectation that anything could change. After a decade of Reagan, there was No Alternative. So you found rebellion where you could, including blasting the music of some fellow small-town Midwestern misfits. Thirty years later it still feels liberating. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska at 40

 My latest Substack goes into the kind of musical analysis I typically reserve for this site. (Worry not, superfans, I will have some OG content here soon.) 

I wrote a piece about Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album, which turns 40 this month. I've long found it to be a prophetic and damning statement about life in Reagan's America. It's also one of the most existential albums ever made, grappling with the quest for meaning in a cruel world. Give a listen then give my post a read!

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

How an Old Samurai Movie Illuminates Student Loan Discourse

My Substack last week was about the ways we talk about student loan forgiveness. I was inspired by the film Harakiri, which depicted desperate ronin confronted by the complete indifference of the well-to-do. I found it to be an excellent illustration of the cruelty of the "just world" fallacy, something animating so many of those upset by student loan forgiveness. 

Friday, September 2, 2022

My 80s Baseball Nostalgia

I am on record as anti-nostalgia. It calcifies culture and pushes old people to become cranky bores. Just look at the current pop culture landscape, where a 36 year later sequel to Top Gun is the biggest movie of the year. (I don't care if the movie is good or not, btw. That's not the issue here.) Or take my fellow white middle class Gen Xers, who were born after 1965 but still fervently follow a man who tells them America was "great" before that time. Just pathetic. 

I firmly believe that right now there is all kinds of amazing new music being made, maybe more than in my entire lifetime. Television, despite the ponderousness of the prestige format, is far far better than the garbage I was subjected to in childhood. Our athletes are of higher skill, too. Despite all of this I reserve my occasional bites of nostalgia, and one of mine is for 80s baseball.

I still buy old packs of 80s baseball cards to crack open. I read pretty much every 80s baseball book I can get my hands on, and even troll used book stores and eBay for ones that are out of print. I recently found a book I didn't know even existed, This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones, a compilation of Bill James' non-statistical essays from his baseball abstracts, published in 1989. Beyond his always witty prose and trenchant analysis, just being back in the world of 80s baseball has been like holding a warm blanket.

Since I am a hater of nostalgia, I guess I need to find a way to justify myself, beyond the usual search for lost time that most middle aged nostalgics express. Beyond my happy memories, I love 80s baseball for what I would argue are concrete reasons. Here they are.

Style of Play
This here is the number one reason. To be sure, baseball players today are better conditioned and more talented than they were in the 80s. Front office executives, managers, and sportscasters are all far better educated about the game, thanks to the sabrmetric revolution. I go to games nowadays and I see stats like OPS, WHIP and WAR being posted on the scoreboard. The broadcasts measure velocity and talk about a pitcher's BABIP. However, that revolution has created a kind of Frankenstein's monster. 

As is well documented, the obsession with stats has led to the reification of the Three True Outcomes (homer, strikeout, walk.) Longer at bats have made games drag on and on. Homers are great, but fewer balls in play means fewer fielding theatrics, fewer close calls on the bases, and just less action in general. IT'S BORING. Back in the 80s games moved faster and were more exciting. Much of this was due to free swinging and the emphasis on speed. There were lots of steals and hit and run plays and they were FUN.

Home run hitting was more of a specialization, which also meant there was a more diverse range of athletes on your average baseball team back then. You had your little slick-fielding middle infielders like Jose Lind doing gorgeous acrobatics as he turned the double play. (Cal Ripken back then was just beginning to show how a shortstop could be a slugger, too.) Since homers were a rare commodity teams often had to keep on portly sluggers who did little else like Steve Balboni and Gorman Thomas. I miss seeing the occasional fat ass with a big bat who would fall over himself trying to field his position. 

There were also different kinds of pitchers. Nowadays everybody throws hard and tries to get strikeouts. Pitching motions are pretty uniform, too. I miss the days of a submariner like Dan Quisenberry becoming a top relief pitcher. Back then a knuckleballer could will 300 games, as I witnessed Phil Niekro do in the 80s. As with hitters there were some glorious fat guy pitchers, like Rick Reuschel and Sid Fernandez. 

The uniforms were similarly diverse. While the most extreme 70s designs had fallen by the wayside, a lot of that decade's innovations remained: elastic waistbands, road blues, and the Houston Astros' "tequila sunrise" pattern. 

Soon afterwards baseball uniforms got boring and well, uniform. I yearn for the days when the Padres dressed like they were working at Taco Bell. 

Baseball Cards
As a little boy baseball fan in the 80s you can bet your ass that a significant chunk of my lawn mowing money went to the products of Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and Score. During the 80s baseball cards became a big business and a big bubble that soon burst in the next decade. It was fun while it lasted. While I have bought my share of 1989 Fleer packs, I have yet to get the uncensored Billy Ripkin card.

Diversity of Stadiums
Just as there was a diversity of players and playing style, baseball stadiums themselves were far less standardized. In the past thirty years, most of the old parks have been torn down and replaced by retro stadiums that mostly don't shoot for something new. When they have, like in Florida, they eventually renovate to make them boring. 

Back in the 80s there were more just plain old parks out there. We still have Fenway and Wrigley, but we lost Comiskey, Tiger Stadium, and Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Fenway and Wrigley have also been renovated and gentrified. In the 80s the "ashtray" multipurpose stadiums of the 1960s and 70s still stood, from Cincinnati to St Louis to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Many of them had Astroturf, including the Astrodome itself. The expansive turf stadiums also encouraged a style of play that relied on speed and bae hits rather than the three true outcomes. Those stadiums were certainly ugly, but they kept things interesting.

Quality of Post-Seasons
I think I became a baseball fan in the 80s because of the multiple nail-biting World Series matchups. The series went to seven games four times and six games twice in the decade. These amazing battles featured moments like Bill Buckner missing the play in 1986 and Don Denkinger's blown call in 1985 along with many others. Even the 4-1 and 4-0 years had amazing moments, like Kirk Gibson's home run in 1988 and a freaking earthquake during game two of the '89 series. Beyond these famous moments, nine different teams won the series in that decade, level of parity not seen since in baseball. 

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Great Revelation Behind the "Great Resignation"

Just realized I did not post last week's newsletter! I am back at school now and in the whirlwind of work have been neglecting some things.

My newest Substack is about what I call The Great Revelation. The whole "quiet quitting" thing and the so-called "Great Resignation" both stem from how the pandemic forced people to take stock of what really matters in life. It's perhaps the biggest moment of philosophical reflection in American history. I predict its effects will be felt for a long time. 

Friday, August 19, 2022

Cate Le Bon, "Moderation" (Track of the Week)

As age fifty approaches and I see people my age becoming increasingly narrow-minded and reactionary, I try my best to stay open to new things. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail, but I've mostly been able to keep listening to new music. I'd say it makes up the vast majority of my listening, helped along by having two daughters who prefer the current pop sound. 

One of the biggest surprises I've had this summer is turning on the Top 40 station in the car with my kids and hearing Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill." It was a song I enjoyed in the 80s, but it was never this popular. Beyond it being a great song featured on a hit show, I think its popularity has to do with the fact that the mid-80s sound meshes well with the current pop landscape. "Running Up That Hill" really does not sound jarring when heard between Harry Styles and Doja Cat. (The same could not be said for a similar 90s song like "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone.") That also might be why my kids demanding to hear Top 40 in the car isn't bugging me that much. The sound reminds me of my own childhood.

It's not just pop music with 80s vibes, my favorite independent music in recent years has also tended in that direction. Lots of atmospheric synths, reverby guitar for texture rather than melody, nervy rhythms, and if not drum machines, drums that sound like drum machines. I actually wondered if well-known alt acts like Angel Olsen and Big Thief going in a folk/country direction was a kind of reaction against the electronic sound I've been hearing. 

When Spotify gives me its Wrapped at the end of the year, I am sure Cate Le Bon's "Moderation" will be at the top. I just can't stop listening to it and often start my listening sessions with it first. It definitely sounds like it could have been sung by Kate Bush in 1985, but without sounding derivative in any kind of way. I couldn't tell you exactly what the song is even about, it just gives me that aching feeling of longing that only music can dig out of my soul. Her melodic bass playing and the spooky saxophones reminiscent of Berlin-era Bowie are like catnip for me, and that's even before the gorgeously reverby guitar kicks in. 

I've been listening to this song on repeat all year, but with summer ending and the school year approaching the twinge of longing it evokes is especially strong. It's a vibe my favorite 80s music from REM to New Order evokes so well. As awful as things are right now, it pleases me greatly that modern artists have been able to mine what was good about the 80s sound while ditching its awful excesses. 

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Status of the Trump-GOP Blood Pact

My most recent Substack newsletter builds on my last post about my trip to Texas. I ask if the blood pact between Trump and the GOP under any kind of threat now that Trump's law breaking is so glaring. Liz Cheney's defeat since I wrote this piece seems to indicate that the pact will stand strong.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Notes on a Texas Sojourn

Last week I went down to Amarillo, Texas, to visit an old friend. Beyond having a good time, I also took the time to take the political temperature. My trip coincided with news revealing why authorities searched Mar-a-Lago, as well as a deranged Trumper attacking an FBI building. 

I knew from talking to my friend that I was in a very conservative corner of a very conservative state. (I spent three years in East Texas, so I have some lived experience with Texas politics.) Therefore, what I saw surprised me a little. We took many walks around various neighborhoods, and during that time I noticed a few Beto signs. I never saw a single Greg Abbott sign. 

I am well aware that this doesn't say much about the election's probable outcome. Abbott will win handily in Amarillo. He got 71% of the vote in PotterCounty in 2018, and 81% in Randall County. (Amarillo straddles the county line.) However, the signage I saw in Amarillo points to a certain political mood. 

I did see expressions of conservative political sentiment, but they were mostly few and on the extreme end. For example, while driving by a strip mall I saw a tricked-out pickup truck parked to be a sign that had "Murder all Molesters" painted on it. (I assumed this was some kind of QAnon thing.) At the local minor league baseball game a guy was sitting in front of me wearing camo shorts and a "Let's Go Brandon" shirt with lots of firearms on it. I saw two political billboards, one promoting House Republican representative Ronnie Jackson, the other for failed radical conservative gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines.  

My theory about all of this is that the most extreme conservatives feel very motivated, but normie conservatives are ambivalent. I am sure they will come vote in November and give Abbott another four years as governor, but more out of obligation than conviction. The January 6 hearings and the FBI search of Trump's home have undermined his support among the kind of Republicans who voted for him with reservations back in 2016. Once taking the presidency, Trump won enthusiasm from those voters by effectively hurting the people they wanted to hurt. Now that he's out of office, it's easier for the old doubts to come through.

I also wonder if the repeal of Roe has anything to do with this. Texas now has draconian abortion laws, laws which I would bet would be defeated if they were put up for a referendum in the state. While walking downtown I noticed flyers for a past abortion rights rally. (A crisis pregnancy center advertised at the baseball game, though.) This surprised me, considering my assumptions about the city's conservatism. My friend also told me about the city's well-attended Pride event, and took me to a curiosity store carrying a whole rack of 'zines, including one called "Queer Werewolves Defeat Capitalism." Even in the extremely conservative Texas Panhandle there seemed to be a strong and vibrant community of people challenging the dominant politics and culture.

Of course, these are merely anecdotal impressions, but they add up well with other experiences I have had in recent weeks.  While radical conservative politicians have been calling for "war" in response to the FBI search, less extreme conservatives have disengaged. The reality of the new abortion laws has also exposed the reality of the radical conservative agenda writ large. It was easy to support when it was immigrants getting smacked around by the state, it's different when it's you or people you care about getting a taste.

Back in 2016, I thought that the Republican Party establishment reluctantly supported Trump because they knew they were unpopular and needed him to win the White House. They made a blood pact with each other: Trump would push their priorities, they would shield him from legal prosecution. Trump's success in meeting the demands of the Republican base allowed him to become a metonym for the party itself. Up until now, I assumed this relationship was permanent. If Republicans would defend Trump's attempt to steal the election, what could possibly cause them to turn on him? The last tumultuous week has tested the blood pact. The politicians have stayed loyal, but many of the voters seem to be withdrawing their enthusiasm. Time will tell if this is just another blip, like McConnell's immediate response to 1/6, or a long-awaited chink in the Republican Party's commitment to Trump. Up until now I didn't think such a thing was even possible, but I also know the folly of assuming the status quo will be permanent.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Why the Teacher Shortage Will Only Get Worse

I hadn't posted last week's Substack post here because I wrote right before leaving town to visit a friend and didn't have the time. I wrote about the current shortage of teachers, particularly on why the current responses to it are so inadequate. It's not all doom and gloom, though. I also get into some signs of hope and the potential for change that exists only if we tap it. 

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Bob Dylan in the Reagan Dawn

One of my pet cultural history theories is that the popular culture of the period from 1979 to 1982 reflected and reinforced the neoliberal and social conservative turns that would set the Reagan years off from the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. The cultural "eighties" did not really begin until 1982, when this process was ending and the new paradigm reigned supreme (and the economy finally started to recover.) I call this period Reagan Dawn.

I got to thinking about it again because I have been going through one of my periodic Bob Dylan obsessions, and have been trying hard to crack the mystery of his Christian years. I suddenly realized that Dylan's strange path made sense in the Reagan Dawn context.

In 1979, after years of gathering strength, evangelical Christians became an independent political force by establishing the Moral Majority. That happened to be the same year that Dylan declared his conversion experience, and put out his first Christian-themed record, Slow Train Coming. Unexpectedly, Dylan won some plaudits for his new direction. The album scored positive reviews, and he earned a Grammy for "Gotta Serve Somebody." I was shocked when I learned this, because I assumed his Christian stuff got a negative reaction. That would mostly come later.

For one thing, the record has a slick au courrant sound, the kind that Fleetwood Mac rode to the top of the charts at the time. He also keyed into the running on empty vibes of the sixties generation, to use the title of one of the truly emblematic Reagan Dawn songs. "Slow Train Coming" talks about people feeling shell-shocked in a cruel world run by a rigged system. Other searchers and seekers of the 70s turned away from wanting to change the world to change themselves. Dylan did that too, but through Christianity rather than New Age belief.

More people turned on him once Dylan toured again and started delivering fire and brimstone from the stage instead of "Like A Rolling Stone." It certainly must have been surreal to see the poet of the sixties counterculture telling his audience to adhere to the same narrow evangelicalism professed by the people who were pushing hard to erase all of the cultural changes of the prior twenty years. Saved and Shot of Love, his other Christian albums, were not as warmly received as Slow Train Coming. They are full of finger-pointing jeremiads against people who refuse to be born again, rather than Dylan's old targets in the establishment. The Bobfather was not directly singing about the Moral Majority or tax cuts, but his turn certainly felt like an endorsement of the conservative restoration. 

It's interesting then that Dylan stopped making explicitly Christian albums in 1983, after the end of the Reagan Dawn, with Infidels. (The title certainly shows some residue, though.) It was all over the map politically. "Neighborhood Bully" supported Israel after its bloody invasion of Lebanon, but "Union Sundown" commented on how Reaganomics and globalization left the American working class in the lurch. His other 80s albums would be far less topical, but in any case one could no longer assume that Dylan had thrown his lot in with the forces of the conservative restoration. 

I continue to find the Reagan Dawn to be a fascinating period because it represented the beginning of a political, economic, and cultural order where there was, in Thatcher's words, "no alternative." Even a figure like Bob Dylan was unable to resist. For better or for worse, it was the world I have spent most of my life in.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

CPAC and Orban in Historical Context

My Substack post this week is about CPAC inviting Viktor Orban to speak. My main idea is that authoritarian nationalism is endemic to modern politics going back to the nineteenth century, and both American conservatives and Viktor Orban are drawing from its lineage. I also get into how American conservatives more resemble our country's own anti-democratic white supremacist movements, but the legacy of Jim Crow is so toxic that conservatives need to use Orban as their avatar. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The Pleasures of the Late Dog Days of Summer (Hot Stoic Summer)

Loyal readers know that I have been trying to cope with my usual bouts of anxiety and depression during the summer by turning to Stoic philosophy. It's actually helped me a lot, especially Marcus Aurelius' command to do what's set out in front of you. I've been far less likely to doomscroll Twitter, and instead go swimming, walking, or do work around the house. 

Now we are entering the time of summer that no one enjoys, not even the freaks who like baking in the sun: the late Dog Days. The first ten days of August are usually pretty miserable. Extreme heat after months of heat fatigue and the coming school year looming over my head. (For some of my friends and family in other parts of the country it means starting school now. Yikes!) People I know are likely to be out of town and there just seem to be fewer people around. The euphoria of summer felt back in June has fully worn off. I have hated this time since high school, when marching band required a "camp" that was spending all day marching in the blazing Nebraska sun.

In the spirit of Hot Stoic Summer I have been thinking of the unique pleasures of this time of year, and how I can embrace them to shake the malaise out of my head. 

The first for me is baseball. The trade deadline is today, the moment when teams proclaim to the world whether they are contending or rebuilding for next year. With my Mets in first place, it's an especially thrilling time. The baseball season is long and each game is a drop in the bucket, until August. With pennant races heating up each game takes on more meaning. Even if my team is doing poorly I can enjoy the races and start having hopeful thoughts about next season. As a baseball fanatic I also enjoy how it's the last moment of baseball having the sports stage to itself before giving way to football. 

Another is food. Growing up in Nebraska this was sweetcorn season, and we would be able to go to a farmer we knew and pick it straight off of the plant. Here in Jersey we always try to go peach picking right about now. Since moving here I like to take that sweetcorn and use it to make a low country boil. The heat makes it hard to bake but I can't resist making a pie around now, either. It just tastes better on days like this.

With it getting so hot another dog days pleasure is taking my kids to the town pool. It's within walking distance for us, and when we go we always seem to run into people we know. After the pandemic starved me of chance meetings it's a small pleasure in life I cherish more than I ever did before. Speaking of pandemic deprivation, I am using these last days of summer to visit my far-flung friends, too. Since so many of them are professors and teachers, it's far easier for me to do a short trip or casual drop-by. The heat is actually a benefit here, since it reduces the pressure to go out and do things when we are together. We can just sit and chat and stay out of the sun and feel like we haven't missed out on something. 

The last two years have taught me that life is short and that I want to spend what little time I have left very intentionally. That insight has made me try to find what I can salvage even from this most miserable of weeks. I hope you find something more fun than band camp for yourself in these dog days. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Ghost World, The Last Nineties Movie

Decades are notoriously inelegant ways of periodizing popular culture but impossible to resist. "The sixties" obviously did not start in 1960, or really by at least 1964 for that matter. Chuck Klosterman's recent book The Nineties argued for it as a "last decade" in this regard, and I tend to agree with him. When we say "nineties" in terms of popular culture we still have a notion of what that means in the way we just don't for the 2000s or 2010s. 

I recently rewatched Ghost World, and even though it came out in 2001 (just ten days after the 9/11 attacks), it feels like the last nineties movie. Like many indie films of that decade, it prioritizes an outsider perspective and the whole slacker mentality. It disdains politics as a waste of time, an annoyance that has little meaning for daily life. That's a perspective that's impossible to imagine in this day and age.

The main characters, Enid, Rebecca, and Seymour, are out of step with the consumer world of late capitalism. Since there's no political way to counter it in a world of "there is no alternative," resistance takes the form of slackerdom. Gen Xers who grew up with the Reagan delusion of "morning in America" did not have many productive ways to reject it. Being one of those young people, I longed to be a part of political movements for change that didn't exist yet. Instead, I abandoned the profit motive by going to grad school (lol). 

Enid and Rebecca are two high school grads with no clear ideas about the future and brimming with loathing over their surroundings. Seymour is an adult with the same mentality who lives a monk-like existence, driving a broken down car and living in a crappy apartment while putting his money and passion into collecting old blues records. Rebecca starts to make peace with the world, but Enid and Seymour never will, and they can't even maintain a connection with each other despite having so much in common.

Nowadays, the characters' obsession with authenticity feels quaint. Everybody sells out. Indie rock bands license their music for car ads and social media has turned everyone into a PR flack for themselves. Plenty of prominent socialists spend their days on Twitter hustling to get more followers. 

The film also has a very 90s attitude towards politics. The two parties both bought fully into neoliberalism and neither seemed all that appealing. The whole Lewinsky thing summed it up. Clinton was a slimey liar, but Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr were reactionary liars trying to gain power in skeevy ways. The serious problems the country faced weren't being addressed at all, either by politicians or the media. There did not seem to be much point in engaging with such a completely hopeless political world. 

This stance comes across in Enid's art class. Her teacher seems to think that art can only be "serious" if it specifically topical. She therefore touts her own bad video art and praises a student in class who constructs pieces that are very heavy handed allegories for abortion rights. The film treats this as unbelievable cringy and lame. When Enid tries to get her teacher's approval by doing a "found art" piece using a nasty old racist caricature to point out modern hypocrisies over race, she ends up getting in trouble at the exhibition. The film treats the reaction as an example of what today gets called "cancel culture." The lesson seems to be that political engagement is ultimately futile, a common understanding of the time.

Back in the 90s using blatantly offensive language and imagery to critique bigotry was far more accepted than it is today. It was also striking to hear characters throw the word "retarded" around so much and to use "gay' as an insult. Modern day Enids would probably be put off by that kind of thing. 

In smaller ways the film reflects the 90s in a positive fashion. Enid and Rebecca both work low wage jobs, but can also rent a decent apartment together on that money in the LA area. That's pretty much impossible today. The scenes where Enid fails to catch on doing crumby service work at a movie theater reflects 90s tropes in movies like Clerks and books like Generation X. The reality of low wage service labor has pretty much disappeared from film nowadays apart from a few exceptions.

It might be a cliche that the nineties ended on 9/11, but things become cliches for a reason. The problem of the nineties, of how to find meaning in a postmodern world devoid of anything real, got replaced by the war on terror, and that was replaced by battle over the country's very soul. Nostalgia is stupid, but I do have nostalgia for a time when the stakes were lower and the problems more quaint. When I feel that way I can always pop on Ghost World. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Need for a Populist Pluralism

My latest Substack post is up. I write about how world politics is hinging on a battle between illiberal nationalism and pluralism. If the forces of pluralism are going to win, they are going to have to sing in the political key of populism. I offer some ideas on how that can be done.

Check it out, and please subscribe.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Time is a River (Hot Stoic Summer)

Awhile back I promised you all this would be Hot Stoic Summer and today decided it was time to drop some knowledge nuggets. I have been reading and tremendously enjoying Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. There might be more wisdom per page of that book than anything else that I have ever read.

It's a comforting read because Aurelius time and again reminds me that it's essential to prioritize what matters and that I should stop worrying so much about what I can't control. One of my favorite themes is his idea that time is a river. By this he means that time is constantly moving and changing and it can't be stopped. For that reason trying to oppose it will only lead to frustration and suffering. Change is constant, and we must accustom ourselves to it if we are going to have a good life. Either learn to swim with the current, or drown.

I feel that this is an especially important message for people in middle age. At this stage in life people tend to get set in their ways, and to fear and resent change. I see this behavior around me all of the time. People who love music but dismiss anything current. People who see the younger generation doing things differently then getting angry and defensive. It is important to internalize the reality that change is going to come whether you like it or not, and trying to stop it is just going to make you miserable. 

In my mind I have been stretching the metaphor a bit to think of life as a river journey. Growing up my family would take trips up to Valentine, Nebraska, and canoe, kayak, or tube down the Niobrara River. I have returned twice since (including last year) and still enjoy it tremendously. You get on the river in one place, float down for awhile, then get off somewhere down the line. Sometimes it's a long journey, sometimes it's short. Either way, it ends, but the river keeps flowing. The river pays no mind, it will roll on forever. What are a few rafters to this mighty, eternal thing? 

Likewise we have our journey through life, but we make little impact on our surroundings. When we are gone, things will go on as before, as if we were never even here. That might sound depressing, but to me it is liberating. Live in the present, since that's all that we've got. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

America's Brezhnev Years

Loyal readers of the blog know I have used the Soviet Union's decline in the Brezhnev years as a metaphor for recent American history. I decided to write about that for this week's Substack, which you can access here.

And in case you missed the news, I have started a Substack. Fear not, I will post all the links here and will still be blogging original essays and observations on this site. The Substack is called I Used to Be Disgusted, Now I Try to Be Amused, and I would appreciate if you subscribed. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Seductive Simplicity of Pro-Life Ideology

The Supreme Court's repeal of Roe has drastically changed the political discourse around abortion. While this is obviously far less important than its impact on women and pregnant people in particular, it is something worth understanding for the hard political fight ahead.

I grew up in an intensely anti-abortion milieu (conservative rural Great Plains Catholic) and anti-abortion protests were the first political activism I ever engaged in. My views have changed to supporting legal abortion, but it is still not easy to shake the feelings of guilt and shame around renouncing a belief that I once held deep and is still strongly held by many people I love. This was very different from my support of social democracy, which also went against my upbringing.

Much of that has to do with being immersed in pro-life ideology, a way of thinking that is actually not much understood by its opponents. If you aren't able to access any alternatives, the pro-life movement's ideology is seductively simple. The formulation goes as such: "Life begins at conception, therefore abortion is mass murder, and therefore abortion supercedes every other political issue until the slaughter is ended." 

It is seductive because it makes a very complex issue easy to apprehend. This is why conservatives have been freaking out so much over the story of the ten year old rape victim in Ohio who got an abortion in Indiana. Their worldview simply cannot account for such cases and refuses to hear them. In their minds sex is sinful and if you engage in it you must face the consequences of your actions. They try to handwave away rape and incest but when it's a ten year old they really just can't. They tried denying reality, and now are just trying to punish the doctor. 

It is also seductive because it allows people who are actively opposed to social justice feel as if they are the righteous ones. Support killer cops, wealth inequality, and opposed integration and universal health care? Well, the liberals on the other side support the mass murder of the unborn. What about that? Being "pro-life" means you can support forced birth but not subsidized childcare, birth control, well-funded schools, maternity leave, or universal healthcare and not see any problem because you have the correct belief on the one issue that trumps them all.

It's also a very hard position to argue against because it follows from the first, farcical proposition that a zygote is equivalent to a human life. That proposition, which is official doctrine in the church that raised me, is the linchpin of the whole ideology. If you are a devout American Catholic, for example, questioning that doctrine is equivalent to renouncing one's faith, which for the pious is unacceptable. It is incredibly hard to question the thing that gives your life meaning. As I mentioned, my break with this way of thinking still makes me feel as if I have done a terrible, terrible thing even though I am sure I am right and they are wrong. 

This is why I find the statements of pro-choice activists about the main motivation of the pro-life movement being controlling women's bodies to be incomplete and self-serving. The biggest anti-abortion advocates I know are all women. Controlling women's bodies is certainly the outcome, and many politicians appear to find this to be a reason to oppose reproductive rights, but for the average pro-lifer the motivations are very different and harder to address. 

The older I get, the more difficult I think it is to fight a powerful ideology. For example, despite the manifest failures our system a majority of Americans think that with hard work alone you can get ahead in life. A snaller but significant chunk think that trickle down economics works That's just complete bollocks but ideology is all about spinning bullshit into belief. If the pro-life ideology can be fought, it can happen through highlighting the ways that Roe's end has exposed the bullshit of the simple abortion narrative. Plenty of cases are showing how blanket prohibitions on abortion lead to women dying. If we are to restore reproductive rights these very horrible stories need to be spread far and wide so that adherents to the seductively simple pro-life ideology are forced to reckon with reality. That might sound impossible, but I managed to come over from the other side. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Introducing My Substack

I have been blogging on this platform for almost 18 years now (yikes!) I don't do it to promote myself or for recognition, mostly just to get my thoughts down by writing them, an activity I enjoy very much. At the same time, I do like it when people read my stuff. In that spirit I decided to launch a Substack newsletter as a way of incorporating another avenue to an audience. I will still be posting most of what I write here, but I would love it if you would sign up for the Substack. Here's the link:

Thanks again to the loyal readers of this blog.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Wilco, "Cruel Country" (Track of the Week)

Once you're over the age of 25 or so your favorite band isn't supposed to be a part of your identity anymore. It may have been the extended adolescence granted by grad school or the fact that I was living in Illinois when I turned 25, but Wilco was very much part of my identity in my late 20s.

Part of it was that Jeff Tweedy was a fellow small-town Midwestern boy who moved to Chicago. Part of it was that my group of grad school friends were fans too, and we went to multiple shows together. They were sort of the mascot for our gang, the way Mods embraced The Who and Small Faces. That period of time happened to coincide with their best records, as well their fight against their record company. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wasn't just an album, it was an act of defiance against the corporate machine. Being a Gen X white dude I probably freighted this episode with more meaning than it deserved. 

I had been a fan of Wilco from their first albums due to my love of Uncle Tupelo. That first record is still in the alt-country mode, and while Being There breaks from it, it still feels rooted in more traditional approaches. While I think their next three albums, which incorporated electronics and Krautrock, are their best, I kinda missed the old rootsy Wilco. Their last few records have been alright, but their sound has been feeling as staid to me as the alt-country thing felt to Tweedy in the late 90s.

When I heard that their new album, Cruel Country, was returning to their roots, I got excited. The album far exceeded my expectations, as the songwriting did not lose the sophistication that Tweedy has managed to hone in the last 20 years. 

I have been most struck by the title track, a sad lament for America that I listened to more than once this fourth of July. The first lines set the tone: "I love my country like a little bot/ Red white and blue/ I love my country, stupid and cruel/ Red white and blue." Despite my best judgement, I still love this country intensely despite how upset it makes me. If you criticize this nation but don't love it, that criticism comes a lot easier. It's a lot harder to feel like you are losing something you love. 

I am tired of the flag-waving nationalists getting to define what love of country means. It feels good to know I am not alone in mixing my love of country with a certain horror. I am a few years older than 25, but I am glad Wilco is still able to reach right into the heart of me.