Thursday, May 26, 2022

Guns Are The Ultimate "Kitchen Table" Issue

I have been reading a lot this election cycle how Democrats are trying to avoid "social issues" in favor of "kitchen table" issues because that's what their internal polling says or something. And hey, I get that there should be a focus on those issues, like inflation and affordable housing for starters. However, I would argue that guns are the ultimate "kitchen table" issue.

They are because when I got home from work that day I sat down at the table to eat dinner with my family and looked my two fourth-grade daughters right in the eye. Just thinking about how they are the exact same age as the victims is almost too much to bear for me. I contemplate how there are fourth-grade parents in Uvalde whose children will never sit at their kitchen table again, how so many of their kids' friends they have gotten to know are gone forever, too. I have no idea how the survivors are going to carry that pain. 

Our country's insane gun policies mean that a lot of other parents in this country are having the exact same thoughts this evening as they sit down at their own kitchen tables. Protecting our children is the most basic duty parents have, and the sacrifices demanded by the gun Moloch and given freely by our society take that protection out of our hands. And yes, the odds of a school shooting happening in our own school are very low, but there is no way to not contemplate it happening to your own kids because these shootings are so common and completely random. 

The response by Democrats on this issue has been completely pathetic. They hold the House, Senate, and White House, yet have failed to get something passed. The House has taken action, but enough Democratic Senators would rather preserve a procedural rule made to protect slavery than protect our own children. Evidently the filibuster matters, and the safety of our children doesn't. The Senate Majority Leader has talked about making a compromise with Republicans, as if any of them are going to break ranks and turn against the most fervent element of their base. Schumer is just a coward, using this as a convenient excuse to kick the can down the road to the next massacre. At this incredibly fraught moment where action is needed he has called a recess for two weeks.

I have a proposal. We need to make this a very unpleasant vacation for our Senators, Democrat or Republican. They need to hear from us every day. We need to flood their public events and demand action, fill up the voicemails of their local offices, and call them out in public in whatever way that we can. They should not be able to show their faces anywhere without being asked to DO SOMETHING. Beto's recent actions might be a bit theatrical, but at least he shows he really and truly wants to disrupt this completely dysfunctional pattern. I haven't seen a single other Democrat prove that to me. 

I can't get any rest because every waking moment of my day is tortured by the thought that my kids or me (as a teacher) could be next. The faces of the victims in Buffalo and Uvalde haunt me every night when I try to sleep. I keep wondering when the next white supremacist terrorist is going to strike in this nation bathing in hatred and toxic masculinity. If I can't get any rest, these lazy cowards who actually have the power to do something shouldn't get any either. 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Julian Cope "Sunspots" (Track of the Week)

Streaming music is a luxury I take for granted all of the time. It's really amazing just to be able to call up whatever I want to hear at a particular moment. At the same time, it can't do what radio does. A really good radio station will introduce you to something you never knew existed, and it will become your new favorite.

Every morning I listen to WFMU in the car on my drive to the train station. It's only about a six minute trip, but in a given week I will hear at least one song that gets added to one of my playlists. Last week that song was "Sunspots" by Julian Cope.

I always associated him with what I thought of as "alternative" music in that very specific period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I would stay up late on Sunday night and watch 120 minutes, and instead of loud guitars I mostly heard Madchester beats and catchy melodies from the likes of the Sugarcubes and The Sundays. (At that time it seemed like all the alternative music came from the British Isles.) That's when I first heard Julian Cope, who I didn't dislike, but also didn't rate that much.

However, hearing "Sunspots" on my car radio on a gorgeous spring morning electrified me. I've been singing it to myself since. I also can't get over how its guitar sound seems to be lifted from one of my favorite Stones psychedelic songs ("Citadel") while the two note synth riff seems to come from one of my all time favorite songs (Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric.") Evidently mister Cope and I share the same tastes.

As I mentioned last week, the month of May is made for psychedelia. Life comes bursting out of the ground and walking around will get you high on flowers, pollen, and sunshine. The beat of this song is perfect for a spring walk, which I have taken many of these past two weeks. If you're taking your own spring walk, give this song a spin. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Stakes of California's Surplus

Like Springfield, California is faced with a high stakes surplus

Yesterday brought the news that California has an almost $100 billion budget surplus this year, almost half of which can be spent on pretty much anything. This presents an amazing opportunity, one not just for California, but for the country at large.

In my lifetime state-level budgets and politics have been geared towards neoliberal austerity, and California has been no exception. A state where local public university students did not have to pay tuition now charges tens of thousands of dollars, for instance. Conservatives abhor budget surpluses because it does not allow them to proclaim that services must be cut and new programs avoided because "where is the money going to come from?" When I lived in Texas during the recession the state actually had a "rainy day fund" and didn't spend it during the downturn, using that as an excuse to slash the budgets of state universities. 

California has an opportunity right now to show the country what can be done with public money. In a state where housing costs are driving people out, it can fund new social housing. In a state where students are having to crowd into existing universities, it could build new campuses. In a state where the automobile rules, it could build more public transportation. In a state where schools crumble due to being starved by Proposition 13, it could rebuild them. In short, California can provide an example of how government can be used to benefit regular people.

It is hard for voters to think of social democracy as beneficial to them unless they see results. Otherwise, they will just be told by the other side that "wouldn't you rather have your tax money back in your pocket?" Texas likes to tout itself as an alternative to California in this regard. (Never mind that its regressive tax structure means that regular people there really don't pay lower taxes than in California.) Cheaper housing, modern schools, low tuition, efficient transportation, these are all things that would make an immediate impact.

I fear that the opportunity will be lost, that this money will be used to give gas tax rebates, build bigger highways, and give tanks and helicopters to police. The neoliberal state is okay with lavishing money, but only if it's car infrastructure and the carceral state. California has a tremendous opportunity to show another way forward. I hope they don't blow it. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

May Is for Psychedelia (A Playlist of Favoritel Nuggets)

I've always enjoyed psychedelic music despite never having dropped a tab of acid in my life. It combines mind-bending sounds with a special kind of brightness, even in its darkest moments. It's a kind of music that just makes me feel alive. For that reason May is the best time to listen to my old psych records. It's the month when spring is in full bloom, where on a rainy night you can actually hear the grass and trees gulping down the water and in the sunshine that follows the sound of life bursting forth. 

It was this time of year in 1999 when I purchased the great four disc Rhino Nuggets box set, chock full of psych garage of the most obscure vintage. In that spirit here's a playlist of my favorite psychedelic songs you might not know about. 

Rolling Stones, "Citadel"

Conventional wisdom says that Their Satanic Majesties Request was a wrongheaded, self-indulgent failure to copy Sgt Pepper, finally corrected when the Stones went back to the blues. While I must acknowledge that their 1968-1972 run after this album is maybe the best in rock history, Majesties is weird in a fun way. This song has amazingly gonzo guitar and a mind-bending bass sound like a bad trip come to life. It's psychedelic, but with the hardest edge the Stones are capable of. Flower power this is not. 

The Move, "I Can Hear the Grass Grow"

Hey, check it out, I'm not the only person who can hear the grass grow, The Move can too! They might be the best band whose catalog is not fully available on Spotify. I firmly believe this song was the inspiration for Spinal Tap's "Listen to the Flower People."

Small Faces, "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake"

I am a sucker for bands that were big in Britain that never made it in the States. That applies to The Move, but also to the Small Faces. This is the title track to the album, which has many a banger on it, but I find it's this instrumental intro track that gets me in a relaxed mood.

Chocolate Watch Band, "Dark Side of the Mushroom"

Speaking of instrumentals, this one sounds like a smoggy LA sunset over Hollywood Boulevard. It's also a perfect example of how the darkest psych songs still sound bright. 

Brian Jonestown Massacre, "Vacuum Boots"

The Brian Jonestown Massacre only modern band who has mastered the dark brightness of vintage psychedelia. This is less moody than some of their classics, but is a stone cold banger. The fuzzy riff is an all-timer. Rave on.

The Human Society, "Knock Knock"

I mentioned the Nuggets comp off the top, and this is one of the many gems it contains. The riff is so damn powerful and the singer's anguish and alienation just bleed right through the grooves. I swear to God I heard this is a beer commercial once. Some ad exec is a person after my own heart. 

Pink Floyd, "Matilda Mother"

Pink Floyd is probably the most successful psychedelic band ever, managing to bridge the gap between hippie happenings and arena rock. I remember in high school, in those pre-streaming days, asking someone what their Syd Barrett-era stuff sounded like, since I had never heard it. They told me "the music doesn't play, it sort of sounds." Well reader, I was awfully intrigued. I still love their first record, especially this song, which sounds more like a trip to Middle Earth than any of their songs that are more explicitly Tolkein-y. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

How the SCOTUS Leak Exposed the Games Being Played With Abortion

Abortion has been a massively contentious political issue for my whole entire lifetime (and I ain't young). It was probably the first political issue I really learned about, growing up as a devout Catholic with ardently anti-abortion family members. As part of my youth group at church I even attended a couple of local anti-abortion protests, the first time I ever protested anything.

Of course, I later ended up in grad school in the humanities, where the feelings about abortion are pretty much the polar opposite. This experience (which I like to call "bubble jumping") has maybe given me some special insight into the current reactions to the leaked SCOTUS opinion on Roe and Casey.

Pro-choice folks have been justifiably enraged over the theft of rights by the hands of a court put in place by presidents who didn't win the popular vote and whose draft decision reads like something out of the late 1800s. Much of this rage has been vented at the Democratic Party for failing to stop this, and prominent Democrats have been having to play catchup with the mood of their base. The reaction by anti-abortion types has been far more muted. Most of what I see is more about the leak itself than the prospect of their dream of killing Roe coming true after five decades of grinding battle. 

I think an explanation for all of these reactions is that the political games that have been played with abortion for my entire life have been exposed. Alito et al have flung the gaming table over, chips flying. I want to start with the games played by Democratic politicians, then the more significant ones played by Republicans.

A lot of the commentary I've seen on Twitter focuses on how Democrats failed to codify Roe into law despite having some opportunities. While this claim over-simplifies the ease of these opportunities, there is something to it. Namely, Democrats know that while they are in the majority on abortion, they are a diverse coalition of groups that can't afford to alienate too many people, lest they defect. There are plenty of Republicans, for instance, who are pro-choice in their private views, but they maintain party discipline when it comes to voting. Instead of being a coalition of groups, Republicans are an ideological bloc, and thus have an in-built advantage despite that bloc's minoritarian nature. 

The game the Democrats kept playing with their base was proclaiming that Roe was settled, a kind of bulwark or firewall, so it did not need to be codified. That game allowed Democrats to get the votes of pro-choicers while trying not to alienate swing voters. They never believed that the Right's onslaught on the courts, especially pronounced in Trump's administration, could actually overturn Roe. 

This is related to another game, that the Republicans' thwarting of the will of the people via undemocratic means or breaking established norms (the stolen 2000 election, Garland's nomination being crushed, Barrett's being rammed through, gerrymandering, Senate filibuster) did not necessitate an escalation. Instead their response was to tell people to keep voting. And while that is a necessary component of a strategy to preserve Roe, it is obvious now that it is hardly sufficient. The Court's leaked decision has exposed the Democrats' failed gamble at the political gaming table.

This exposure has enraged the Democratic base, but it has also quieted the Republican one. The Republican Party's biggest game on abortion was to constantly use it as a way to rile up their base and get support (especially for judges who would gut regulation on behalf of their corporate backers). It worked, even though the anti-Roe position is very unpopular. They knew, however, that the average anti-abortion person is several degrees more passionate about this topic than the average person who supports Roe, mostly passively. In this way they were able to pull off the political magic trick of having a very unpopular opinion that actually GAINED them votes. 

Unfortunately for Republicans, the leak has exposed the true stakes at the gaming table, and the momentum of outrage has completely shifted. This is especially the case for younger voters, the kinds of people most likely to get into the streets. Republicans and anti-abortion types have not been rejoicing about winning a victory because the coming backlash is easy to see. 

Also, the anti-abortion movement (less so the Republican party itself) has talked to its membership as if THEY are the majority, and lot of people in this movement actually believe it. The public reaction is proof positive that they most certainly are not, and many of them I think are genuinely shocked. 

Additionally, there's a big game that's been exposed as a cheat. The anti-abortion movement treats ending a pregnancy as tantamount to murder and a fetus as a full-fledged human being, but this decision does nothing of the kind. It does not ban abortion nationwide, it only allows states to do so. It also does not establish fetal personhood. This Court is as friendly as anti-abortion folks could ever hope to have, and even now they are not getting a decision that fully coincides with their ideology. They were promised something that could never actually be delivered, and now they are being forced to defend a suboptimal outcome from getting rolled back. 

GOP politicians are desperate to scream about leaks because they don't want to have to defend the SCOTUS decision, either to the public or their opponents. Democrats are scrambling to appease their enraged base while fully knowing the time to stop this would have been in 2015 when they stood by while Obama was not allowed to nominate a justice. Both have been playing games on abortion, and now the bill is coming due. I don't know where things are heading, all I know is that the old rules of the abortion game, in place my whole life, are gone forever. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

A Teacher Calls For The End of Teacher Appreciation Week

The thing that keeps me going as a teacher more than anything else is the genuine appreciation I get. For example, the seniors at my school just had their last day of regular classes and some of them said some really kind and complimentary things to me. The emotions in these moments can be overwhelming. After all, one of the hardest things about being a teacher is getting to know and mentor some amazing people then have to say goodbye to them year after year after year. I'm no good at good-byes.

Every year at my school the parents' association holds a tea for the faculty, which I also take joy from, especially when individual parents pay me compliments. It feels good to do work that makes a positive impact on people.

None of this genuine appreciation has to do with the thing we call Teacher Appreciation Week. The people who are kind enough to appreciate me would do so with or without some kind of official occasion. Teacher Appreciation Week is not about students and parents appreciating teachers, it is a time for lip service intended to keep teachers satisfied with scraps from the table.

Before the pandemic our pay sucked and our burdens kept increasing. Since the pandemic things have reached the breaking point and teachers are quitting in huge numbers. 

Over the past two years teachers have had to completely overhaul their entire practice from top to bottom to deal with the pandemic, some times more than once. In my case I had to convert everything to remote learning, and then to hybrid, and then to face to face, but a face to face accommodating for students missing due to individual quarantines and students suffering from the mental consequences of what they had endured. Most other white collar workers got to stay home (and complain online that teachers are lazy.) We have had to switch to doing things entirely differently more than once, and for the most part, we did it well.

During the pandemic my school, my wife's school, and my children's school had totally different protocols. This meant having to go to work in person when my kids could not physically attend school, a juggling act that almost broke me. Even when we were all home I would run out of a Zoom class, quickly prepare them a lunch, frantically respond to student messages while cramming ramen down my mouth, and jump back into a Zoom class. 10-12 work days were the norm, and then I had to start commuting again on top of that.

When I told it was time to go back in person every day last April I was given less than a week's notice. At that time my wife was already back full time, but my kids' school was still fully remote. Like I said, it almost broke me.

But I am still one of the fortunate ones. My school has taken COVID safety very seriously. We are a progressive private school and so I have not been flogged in the current wave of cultural combat singling out teachers and trying to destroy them for teaching the actual history of this country. These attacks are our compensation for all the work we did on the front lines keeping children educated during an unprecedented emergency. Our Herculean labors have been paid with scorn, derision, and hate. Thankfully it's a hot labor market and more teachers can escape this awful situation and find something to do with their time that pays more money and costs less stress. 

After all of this all teachers are going to get from their political leaders and administrators is a pile of canting flattery. If Teacher Appreciation Week doesn't come with smaller classes, more autonomy, better pay, and more respect the people who trot out the same bullshit platitudes this every year can just keep their big mouths shut. Just one of the heartfelt letters I got this year from a student thanking me for their college letter of recommendation is equivalent to a thousand of the bland emails from school boards and political leaders. At least I knew the student actually meant it. Unless Teacher Appreciation Week comes with actual material improvements for teachers I will keep assuming it is worse than meaningless.