Friday, March 25, 2022

"The Supreme Ecstasy of the Modern World"

Last week my parents came for a visit, and I decided to take them into New York City for a day. Before hitting Broadway, I decided to take them to Top of the Rock, the observation deck on the 68th-70th floors of Rockefeller Center. It's the kind of touristy thing I never do since I live here, but get to indulge in with visitors. 

I was not expecting much from the experience, considering I'd been on top of plenty of tall buildings before. This time, however, I was overcome. It may have been geography. I had been to the top of the World Trade Center while it still stood, but that meant looking at the urban canyons from a distance. Rockefeller Center sits amidst the skyscrapers, and I felt like I could reach out and touch them on that clear day. 

On the ground in midtown Manhattan it is also just easy to miss its grandiosity. Down on the street it's such an unappealing place, crowded, dirty, loud, and corporatized within an inch of its life. Up in the clouds I felt a sublime connection to something higher. It reminded me of how in the 1920s when foreigners steamed into New York Harbor they gawked at Manhattan's skyline, something monumental and totally unprecedented. This was the skyline that inspired the futuristic city of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a place embodying new possibilities and new fears all at once. 

I got to thinking specifically of Of Time and the River, a Thomas Wolfe novel ending with the arrival by ship in Manhattan in the 1930s, the narrator gushing over the sight of the tall buildings from the decks of the wondrous ocean liner, calling it "the supreme ecstasy of the modern world." We have become so used to this sight that it does not register in the same way anymore.

I've been thinking a lot about the impoverishment of our politics being rooted in a lack of belief in the future. The fascistic strain embodied by Putin and Trump prefers an eternal present when it is not trying harken back to an imagined past. Progressives, belying their name, lack any imagination. Faced simultaneously with high gas prices and global warming they are ignoring an opportunity to move us beyond fossil fuels and advocating for cuts to the gas tax instead. Across the political spectrum there does not seem to be any interest in building anything, merely maintaining power. 

Staring at the New York skyline from the Top of the Rock is a reminder that things can be built, that the world can be re-imagined. If we want to make the world a better place we need to start thinking as big as the New York skyline. 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy During a Hot War

As I continue along my life path of being an aging dad I have picked up various aging dad habits. I give over too much effort to yard work and try to deliberately embarrass my children. Most of all, I have become addiction to spy novels and history, some of the daddest dad lit of all time.

This addiction has grown so powerful that I am re-reading spy novels I have already read. This is strange considering that I pretty much stopped re-reading books once I got to grad school and realized there were too many damn books out there that needed reading. Re-reading was a luxury I could no longer afford.

Yet here I am, having just completed a second read of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on my way to a re-read of the whole Karla Trilogy. (I also admit to viewing the film version at least a dozen times.) The current war has had me thinking about the legacy of the Cold War and diving back into it. This book in particular speaks to the current moment in unexpected ways.

One of my other obsessions is the 1970s, and TTSP came out in 1974, during the brutal mid-decade malaise. The "Circus" spies have gone from Bond allure to begging a cash-strapped government for funding. In the period of Detente the Cold War continues on a lower boil, but outside of the "secret world" few seem to care all that much. The UK is no longer a world power, its spies must wonder what the point is, anyway.


A lot goes on in the novel, but something I noticed this time is how the hunt for the mole in the Circus (as Le Carre called MI6) reinvigorated the aging and prematurely retired George Smiley. Just when he and the service he worked for seemed completely cooked, the mole was found and Karla and his Soviet agents put on the back foot. At the same time, when the mole is finally caught, George Smiley's victory is bittersweet. When he interviews the traitor Bill Haydon he finds himself agreeing with much of the substance of his critique of the West and particularly of the United States. However, Smiley notes that while he enjoys the "music" he cannot abide the "tone." Deep down, despite his reservations about America and the Cold War, Smiley knows the USSR represents something even worse. 

This got me thinking about the war in Ukraine. For the past few years the West has appeared to be as decadent and crumbling as Bill Haydon claimed. Brexit and the election of Trump were omens of a new age of decline, or at least that's what we fought. When faced with the Ukraine crisis, the West is suddenly showing cohesion and backbone again. Beneath the ratty, disorganized surface the West still persisted, it just needed a cause to rally behind. Despite this country's manifest failures and injustices, Vladimir Putin has come along to remind us all of how there are far worse things that can exist in this world. If anything I hope this moment provides some missing clarity in the public discourse. 

Like Smiley however, I hope in our fever to support Ukraine in the current war, we don't lose sight of our own manifest flaws. If not we will be back in crisis mode sooner or later.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Seven Year Spiral

The older I get, the faster time seems to pass. When I worked for two years in Michigan after getting my PhD those years seemed to last forever. I cane remember them today incredibly distinctively. Since I've aged and especially since I have had kids, the years just seem to rush by in an indistinct mass. Say "2007" or "2003" to me and I will have immediate associations. Say "2013" or "2018" and well, I got nothin'. 

It suddenly hit me today that I've been living through a constant spiral of negative change for seven years now. World War II only lasted six! I have become used to a constant crisis. I am sure you have, too.

I date it to Trump's announcement that he was running for president. He immediately sucked up all of the politics media coverage, and became the central problem of American politics and public life from the day he came down the escalator in June of 2015 to January 6, 2021, and beyond. His election in 2016 with a minority of the vote was an indictment of a failed political system and an American society dominated by fear and hate. 

If his misrule and undermining of democracy were not enough, we then experienced the worst pandemic in a century, a fascist backlash against movements for racial equality, and finally a war unleashed by Vladimir Putin. This war has generated so much uncertainty about the future of the world order on top of America's dire domestic situation. Sometimes it feels like I have experienced thirty years of history in just these seven years. 

The spiral ought to be forcing us to realize that there is no going back to "normal." That ship sailed long ago. The past is a dead weight on us right now, pushing us lower into the quicksand of crisis. It turns out that history did not end in 1991, and instead of seeing the status quo as an inevitability that cannot be changed we desperately need to imagine a different future. If we are not capable of imagining a new future I can guarantee you the facsists will. 

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Year Three of the Pandemic Begins With a Whimper

My resigned pandemic sadness theme song

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of 3/11/2020, the day the pandemic became truly "real" in the United States. I had long hoped that we would turn this anniversary into a day of reflection and remembrance, but yesterday hardly anyone seemed to notice. Sure there were op-eds in the major papers, but that was about it.

Much of this has to do with fatigue, certainly, but there's a more willful denialism at play here. Reflecting on the past and remembering the dead would just be an embarrassment to so many. Our authorities, who have completely failed to adequately respond to the moment, certainly don't want that discussed. The third of Americans who have elected to not even bother readjusting their lives of course have no interest in taking an anniversary like this seriously. Why start now? Republicans of all kinds don't want Trump's obvious malfeasance in this discussed, nor are Democrats willing to acknowledge how the Biden administration has not made good on its COVID promises (or its glaring failure to prepare for Omicron.)

Meanwhile, people keep dying. Cases are dropping and I myself am allowing myself more freedom, but well over a thousand people a day keep dying. The seven day daily average of deaths has not dipped below one thousand since early December, which was a few day blip of average deaths over a thousand going back to August 21st. For well over six months that daily average has been in the four figures the whole time apart from one week. 

I brought this up to one of my students this week, who had no idea. They were not particularly ignorant by any means, just reflecting how normalized this has all been. I am definitely glad that cases are so low. I am excited that my parents are visiting this week and that I am able to go out and do more things. However, I also know that nothing will be learned from this pandemic. Not one little thing. From gun violence to infant mortality to lead pipes to our broken health care system to the pandemic, life is cheap in America. I knew this before the pandemic, I just never knew the true enormity of it. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

Depeche Mode, "Two Minute Warning" (Track of Week)

Like a lot of other people my age, I have been revisiting the nuclear-themed music of my 80s childhood. Current events have brought back the familiar feelings of fear and helplessness in the face of world events that could lead to the red button. The music helps me deal with these familiar emotions. It only goes so far, of course, because even without the bomb being dropped Ukraine is being brutalized. That's got me thinking back to the evening news back in the early 80s, with a nightly report from Beirut or Belfast with blood on the streets.

I also remember a nightly news report after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the reporter talking to a radio DJ about what music they would be playing now. Depeche Mode's Music for the Masses was one record the DJ showed the reporter, to the reporter's evident bewilderment. (American radio was so basic at the time that even Depeche Mode was out of bounds.) My host brother from the former East Germany, who came for his visit in 1993, also adored the band. This was a great moment of bonding between the two of us since Violater had been in constant rotation in my CD player. At the time it seemed like they were the Beatles in Europe. 

I'd missed "Two Minute Warning," which came out in 1983 when I was still only listening to Top 40. I've discovered it in middle age as a particularly good atomic war song. David Gahan's singing on the chorus is wonderfully eerie. The title is a reference to the Doomsday Clock, something I paid attention to quite a bit back in those days. Maybe it's time to bring it back. In the meantime, I will listen to Depeche Mode.