Monday, June 20, 2022

Hot Stoic Summer

My school year is almost done. The students have graduated, my reports are almost finished, and now I just need to hunker down for some meetings. Every summer I get major whiplash from having no time at all to having all the time in the world. This usually sends me into a spiral of anxiety and depression. 

This spiral has been more acute in the last six years because I end up spending a lot of time reading the news and on Twitter. With the state of the world being what it is, my depression just ends up snowballing to the point where I get paralyzed with fear and anxiety. This year I have resolved to break this cycle.

Some of that is going to involve restrictions on my online time, some of it is going to involve a bunch of cleaning and home improvement projects, and I have decided some of it is going to involve better reading habits. Instead of descending into the swamps of online discourse every day, I want to explore Stoic philosophers. 

For the last Christmas in the Beforetimes a dear friend and reader sent me a book about Stoicism. I didn't read it right away, but dug in during the start of the pandemic. I found much consolation in it, which started me back down a path of reading philosophy again. That experience has really helped me ward off the demons of despair. It has allowed me to be clear-eyed about how I am going to approach living the rest of my life in a broken world that will likely be a much worse place than the already bad one I was born into. 

I don't go all in on Stoicism, but there's wisdom there to be mined in these awful times. Stoicism is ultimately about dealing with the fact that the world is a place rife with disappointment and suffering. Happiness is ephemeral, our inner sense of self is not. When faced with tragedy we need to steel ourselves. I don't embrace the Stoic denial of emotions, but if I can't get control of them I won't be able to function when a lot of people are relying on me.

So first up is going to be Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, which I will be reading with a former student. Not sure where I will go after that, but I'm hoping for a summer of wisdom and reflection.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Justified Pessimism and the Hard Way Forward

Events of the past few weeks have heightened my usual pessimism into Schopenhauer territory. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has devolved into a bloody slog that will at the very least cleave away more of its Eastern territory while causing mayhem on world food markets. The Supreme Court is about to destroy the Roe decision in a way likely to undermine other rights. One of the justices is married to a woman involved in a coup against the US, and is facing zero consequences. A court in Minnesota struck down Minneapolis' drive to solve the housing crisis. The Uvalde and Buffalo massacres have been horrifying enough, the lack of action in their aftermath just makes me feel hopeless. The Fed just jacked up interest rates, intentionally tanking the economy to deal with high inflation in an election year. The Republicans currently attacking teachers and trans youth are poised to win power. This same group of people still refuse to acknowledge the enormity of 1/6, and many who fought to overturn the election will soon wield even greater influence. The 1/6 hearings themselves are only really preaching to the converted. 

I look out right now at a nation on the brink of autocracy, and a world where nationalism and militarism are ascendant. The conservative capture of the courts means any legislation that could be passed will just get struck down. Those laws won't happen anyway due to gerrymandering, voter suppression, lopsided Senate representation, and Democrats who refuse to suspend the filibuster. President Biden like those Senators and the Democratic leadership in general is stuck in a long-lost past of bipartisan comity and are simply incapable of rising to the fascist threat that we currently face. I do not know how anyone who isn't a right winger can feel optimistic about the future right now.

We have long been in denial about the state of things. A lot of pundits and politicians have conceived of Donald Trump as the cause of conservative extremists, unwilling to see that he was an effect. He was elevated because he spoke to the conservative base, and without him around the base is still persisting. They have been emboldened by how election manipulation and judicial capture have made it possible to govern as a minority. They aren't even trying to gain a mandate, but despite that will likely get a majority in the midterms due to the bad economic situation. Anyone who isn't pessimistic right now is a fool.

At the same time, I would argue that we should put our justified pessimism in the context of American history. I recently read Heather Cox Richardson's West From Appomattox about Reconstruction, and am halfway through Jefferson Cowie's The Great Exception, which puts the New Deal in the context of broader American history. Both historians show that moments of expanded freedom like Reconstruction and the New Deal are rare and fragile in American history. They are exceptions from a norm where policy is governed by the old Jeffersonian ideology, which in modern America effectively means corporate dominance and suppression of minorities. It takes special circumstances to break through the stranglehold of that way of thinking. The rise of Trump presented one of those moments for a "new birth of freedom," but that moment is long gone now. 

I've also been digging into the work of Derrick Bell, whose actual (as opposed to mythical) critical race theory is grounded in a highly pessimistic view of American history. According to Bell, the success of the civil rights movement was down to a convergence of interests, not a moral change of heart by white Americans. The Cold War made Jim Crow a counterproductive embarrassment in a decolonizing world, and thus white elites had to acquiesce to protestors. Not out of conviction, but out of material benefit. 

I am not sure if I 100% back all of these ideas, but I do think that some pessimism can be useful right now. Yes, pessimism can curdle into toxic inaction and apathy. However, we don't talk enough about how optimism enables deadly complacency. Way too many liberals these days seem to think that history moves in a progressive direction, and that progress is inevitable. They find it to be so inevitable that do not even bother fighting for it. 

We need pessimism because we cannot find a way forward until we fully understand how bad things are and how difficult they will be to change. "Just go out and vote" isn't good enough when the votes are suppressed and the courts rigged. If the system is being rigged by a bunch of proto-fascists, then it is also essential to imagine far more radical adjustments to our frame of government. It also means building strong, lasting movements. Those movements need to be there when the right conditions appear to make change, rare as they are. That work is hard, and takes time. It also pays off. 

The American labor movement built itself up over many decades and faced many setbacks before the New Deal. Because that movement was there, however, it could mobilize in that moment. A similar moment may not come soon. Heck, it might not happen in the next twenty years. Even so, it's time to put away childish notions of history's arc bending without a whole bunch of us making that bend happen. 

I am very pessimistic about the immediate future, but I also know I cannot abandon my children to live the rest of their lives in the kind of world right wingers want to build, We may not be able to stop them for a long, long time, but the only way we ever will is by clearly seeing just exactly what we are up against. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Top Ten 80s Dylan Songs

None more 80s

Hey everybody, remember listicles? I sure do! They were all the rage about ten years ago, which is an eternity in internet time. In the early days of this blog, they were my metier, in fact. I figured if Bob Dylan's 80s music can be brought back (as it has been re-evaluated in recent years) so can the listicle. It's a match made in heaven! So, with that in mind, here are my top ten Dylan songs from the 80s.

1. "Every Grain of Sand" (Bootleg Series version)

Dylan began the 80s in his evangelical Christian phase. While he got some great musical backing on these records, the hectoring, overzealous lyrics on many of these songs are by far the worst of his career. At the same time, when he keyed into the true spiritual depth of religious music the sublime could emerge in new ways. "Every Grain of Sand," about the mysterious power of God and finding peace in closeness to Him, moves me like few other Dylan songs. When I am having a bad day I can listen to it and find some inner calm. 

2. "Blind Willie McTell"

The most famous outtake of all time, proof that Dylan either didn't know his own best songs or felt a perverse need to withhold them. I hear this song as a commentary on how the history of slavery still haunts this country, and how this country owes its musical heritage to Africans brought here against their will. Maybe Bob thought it was just too real. 

3. "Ring Them Bells" (New York Supper Club version)

This is a great example of how Dylan took the spirituality of his Christian phase onward, but took away the preaching while keeping the depth of emotion. It's just a flat-out beautiful song. The live version from the Signs of Life Bootleg Series entry is even better than the studio version. (Not a surprise considering the way Dylan tosses off stuff in the studio compared to how spontaneous he gets live.)

4. "Brownsville Girl"

Knocked Out Loaded is a terrible album, but it perversely includes "Brownsville Girl," one of Dylan's best all time songs. It's one of his shaggy narratives, like "Lowlands" or "Murder Most Foul," and like both of those songs, hypnotic. Despite the overblown production it is something I can't stop listening to. 

5. "Jokerman"

Reggae inflections, Mark Knopfler's sweet guitar tone, and one of Dylan's catchiest choruses. This is actually the song that sent me down my 80s Dylan rabbit hole in the first place. In 1984 Dylan decided to perform this song on Letterman with the punk band Plugz backing him. Their version of the song is pretty amazing, and it's a shame they didn't cut an album together. 

6. "Series of Dreams"

An outtake from Oh Mercy!, produced by Daniel Lanois. His impact on U2's sound is obvious here, and I would say this is the best U2 song that isn't done by U2. It has such a stirring, rising anthemic quality to it. Play this one at my funeral.  

7. "Most of the Time"

The Lanois sound is in full effect again here. Outside of Blood on the Tracks he never wrote a song this good about heartbreak. "Break" is the operative word here, since this evokes the feeling of being broken by lost love so damn well. 

8. "Dark Eyes"

Empire Burlesque has Dylan's clumsy attempt to embrace 80s production techniques in full effect. However, this song eschews gated snares and synths for harmonica and acoustic guitars. Dylan employs his old tools of the trade gloriously. It's tantalizing taste of a road not taken by him in the 80s. 

9. "Silvio"

Down in the Groove is a bad album, but even the worst Dylan albums have a gem or two. "Silvio" is some rollicking fun, a mode Dylan should engage with some more since I always love the results. 

10. "Political World"

Yet another Oh Mercy! track, by far his best album of the decade. This long couldn't be more relevant today. It's about rigged systems and the venal, corrupt operators running the show. It's a testament to this song that it can be a political commentary without losing any of its contemporary relevance. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Angel Olsen, "Go Home" (Track of the Week)

I'm a huge Angel Olsen fan, and so was super-excited to listen to her new album this week. I'd been humming the single "Big Time" for weeks already, its infectious country soul is irresistible to me. That song, the album's title track, is all about good feeling and the joy of falling in love. 

Other songs, however, go in far darker directions. On my first listen the song "Go Home" stopped me in my tracks. It might be about a relationship ending, but I hear it as an elegy for the country. It slowly builds in a way that sends a knife into my soul, like "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The crucial line is "We watched it all burn down and did nothing."

Looking at the wreckage around me I get the feeling that the point of no return has long passed us by. The courts are poised to revoke rights, the fascists who tried to overthrow the government on 1/6 are about to sweep the election, mass shooters murder and nothing happens. 

In times of extreme futility like this it's natural to want to "go home" and "go back to small things." In the immediate aftermath of the Uvalde shooting I suddenly understood quietism. If this world is irreparably broken and resists all attempts at being fixed, might as well retreat into the monastery of my mind. This might not be the intended message of the song, but it's the one that speaks loudest to me right now.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Reflections On A Not Normal "Normal" School Year

The beginning of this school year held out the promise of being "normal," that ineffable thing so many of us have been craving (rightly or wrongly) since March of 2020. This year the Zoombots were taken out of my classroom, students who were absent no longer telecommuted in, and masks were even able to come off after awhile.

The masks were a reminder that everything hadn't changed back to "normal" of course. Not to mention that we had to go a week remote right after the winter holiday in the midst of the Omicron spike. Around that time plenty of students and colleagues had to quarantine as well. That at least was a major exception, rather than the rule.

Even now, with mask mandates gone and the latest COVID wave dying down, things aren't normal. In the first place, the experiences of students and teachers could not be erased overnight. It took time to get used to being in the same space together again. Students who had passed through important years of adolescent socialization in isolation were more likely to engage in anti-social behavior. The increased mental health struggles faced by students (and faculty, let's not forget) did not simply go away. The sequestering of the pandemic has shown up in smaller ways. Students used to come by my desk during free time to get guidance or even just to chat, that rarely happens now since we've all been conditioned to handle those things electronically. 

The extra work teachers had to do to adjust to the pandemic didn't stop either. Going back to full classrooms meant the third major change in my teaching practice in two years, and we were pretty tired to begin with. On top of that, we simply could not flip a switch and go back to the way things used to be. Students are still tired, the same demands that they could meet in 2019 are just too much in 2022. This has meant a lot of adjusting on the fly and extra work to make it happen. I always feel tired at the end of the school year, and this year I feel far more beat than after a "normal" school year.

Right now I want to start thinking about what we need to do in the next school year, because educators must come to grips with the reality that there is no going back to the old days. Our students have been fundamentally changed, and so have we. First and foremost, faculty and students need to meet each other halfway when it comes to expectations. Students, used to not paying attention during Zoom classes, need to find more focus in class and lean into face-to-face interactions. Faculty need to be much more aware of the mental load their students face and make curricular decisions accordingly. 

Essentially, we need to establish a new social contract in the classroom that accounts for what we have all been through. More than just about anyone else, teachers and students endured the harshest disruptions from the pandemic. No matter how "normal" things might look, that experience will continue to weigh on us, maybe forever. If we are able to have a better school year next year, we need to create a new normal that's humane for all involved.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Nightmare Continues

The United States certainly wasn't in great shape before 2015, but I feel like since then we have been in one long, unmitigated crisis. That was the year Trump came down the escalator, but that wasn't the only harbinger of doom. The same summer brought the white supremacist massacre in Charleston. Both were expressions of white male anger, the one cloaked in politics, the other naked violence that politics barely concealed. 

We have become so used to this violence that the white supremacist terror attack in Buffalo hardly seemed to register with most people. I was dismayed when a week later nobody online seemed to be talking about it. The Uvalde massacre happened soon after, and the sight of another classroom of elementary school kids being slaughtered temporarily shocked the country out of its torpor. 

After a few days of rage, I feel like most people upset by the shooting and by law enforcement's incompetence and lying have started to quiet down. Deep down we know that nothing can change. Hell, the Senate Majority leader let that body go into recess rather than keep people there to solve the problem. Schumer knows as much as anyone else the stasis we are in. Without a repeal of the filibuster, Republicans will block any action.

The fact that members of the ostensible progressive party are prioritizing a procedural rule enacted to protect slavery over the lives of this country's children really says it all. Nobody really believes in the future anymore. Nobody thinks the status quo can be altered. Progressives put their "In this house we believe..." signs on their lawns knowing that proclaiming their ideas in such a way is the extent of what they can do. We put up our signs, wave our flags, and do absolutely nothing. 

Cities are unaffordable, but we don't build housing. The earth is warming, and we give out gas tax refunds to reward pollution. The reactionaries are a bunch of horrible crypto-fascists, but the people who are supposed to be fighting them are basically worthless. I guess I could include myself in that, too.

All the while, the crisis never ends. Gerald Ford called Watergate "our long national nightmare" but that lasted for only a year and a half. We have been in this crisis state for seven years now, and while progressives have been ineffectual, the fascists have been confident despite losing bad in the last election. This crisis cannot last forever, and despite the hopes of the weak liberals out there, it will not simply go away. I said in 2020 that it could end only in a new birth of freedom. That doesn't look like it's happening, which makes it increasingly likely that this can only end in a new birth of fascism. Get your passports in order, folks.