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. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Using Truck Decals to Understand Folk Fascism

Driving to Florida and back last week gave me an opportunity to see America's continued public discourse through car stickers, flags, and decals. A lot of what I see on a daily basis in New Jersey was replicated elsewhere, so this appears to be a national, rather than regional thing.

I didn't see many bumper stickers, but I did see a lot of decals in the back windows of large pickup trucks. In North Carolina as well as in New Jersey I noticed an interesting and common combo; a blue line flag decal paired with some version of the "don't tread on me" Gadsden flag. (In one case it was in the form of the Punisher skull.)

On the surface, these symbols completely contradict each other. The blue line flag expresses unwavering loyalty to the violent agents of the state, even after (or especially after) they have been criticized for killing unarmed Black people. The Gadsden snake symbol, on the other hand, is an admonition against an oppressive government, like the kind of government whose agents commit murder with impunity. 

We rarely notice the contradiction when we see these symbols put together because both are exclusively used by the exact same people. When we dig deeper, however, we should see the use of these symbols as a clear expression of the folk fascism adhered to by millions in this country. The blue line plus "don't tread on me" really means "I should be allowed to do whatever the hell I want by the government, which should be spending its resources beating down the people I don't like so my privilege is maintained." It's a harsher-edged expression of the dictum that right-wingers think there are people the law protects and does not bind, and people the law binds but does not protect.

It's important to understand this daily, folk fascism because our political media's framings make it impossible to do so. They still talk in terms of conservatives wanting "less government" as if giving more power by the police to kill and jail is in any way "less government." (Or making it illegal for women to cross state lines to get an abortion, for that matter.) It's really about conflicting ideas of what the government exists to do. The fascistic notion that the government exists to protect the Herrenvolk and to destroy its enemies is being openly expressed everyday on America's streets and highways. 

Thursday, July 7, 2022

How I Learned to Like 70s Elvis

I've changed my mind about a lot of things in my life, like academia, my favorite baseball team, and 70s Elvis. I didn't really dig Elvis until my mid-20s, and when I did it was either his early Sun stuff or his stellar 1968-1969 "comeback" material. To me Elvis in the 70s constituted one of the biggest missed musical opportunities of all time. 1969's From Elvis in Memphis is just an amazing record, his best in my opinion. But then after that, he went right to Vegas, which in my mind meant cheap, crappy, and middle of the road. In my mind, I thought of 70s Elvis as Elvis at the very end: a bloated, be-jumpsuited self-parody too stoned to remember his song lyrics. 

A few years later, out of morbid curiosity I decided to watch the last special he filmed in 1977, documenting this sad version of Elvis on his last tour. It's a rough watch seeing him in such decline, but he was also still capable of blowing the doors off of the arena, as in his rendition of "My Way." This version still moves me, it's a man near the end raging against the dying of the light and refusing to be defeated.

While that spirit isn't always there in Elvis' 70s music, I have come to realize that he retained more of the spirit of his "comeback" than I had given him credit for. I have also come to understand that Elvis was always a singer first, and a rock and roller second. Before recording his rocking sides with Sam Phillips he had wanted to sing smooth ballads. In the early 60s he started to move more towards the singer direction but got side-tracked by years of horrible movie soundtracks. The comeback allowed Elvis to pursue more of what interested him musically. While your mileage may vary on a lot of his 70s stuff, there's no doubting the gusto he puts into it. 

I also just appreciate the total, over the top kitschy fantasia of it all. Elvis in the 50s was cool, his 60s movies were lame, but his 70s were delightfully camp. I also appreciate that he was not really an "oldies" act because he performed his old songs in entirely new ways. In fact, in concert he seems bored with his old hits and often deliberately clowns as he sings them. (It's one of the most punk rock things ever, the kind of thing you'd expect from Johnny Rotten.) When he sings a newer song, however, you can watch Elvis really attack it. Promised Land is a fine album and it came out when Elvis was 40. How many rock and rollers of the 60s generation were still putting out good stuff at that age? Not many. 

To be honest, a lot of his albums of that era can be spotty, or were thrown together through the Colonel's never-ending carny nature to make a buck by pulling a fast one on the pigeons. I had a hard time entering this era until a friend recommended Walk a Mile in My Shoes, the comp of selected RCA masters from the decade. The compilers do a great job of selecting the material. Even with a lot cut out, there's still five CDs worth of goodies. If you need some nuggets to tantalize you, here it goes:

"See See Rider"

The "Elvis Fanfare" and the loud horns of this song are such a great curtain opener. The rock and roll spirit is definitely here too. I wish this played when I walked into the room. 

"Promised Land"

Speaking of rock and roll spirit, this Chuck Berry cover really sizzles. Catchy as all hell, too. 

"Burning Love"

Yeah it's an obvious choice but it's obvious for a reason. Only Elvis song I've ever karaoked. 

"Polk Salad Annie"

There are few songs more delightfully Southern-fried than this one. 

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"

Beautiful version of the haunting Gordon Lightfoot song. 

"For the Good Times"

Elvis really puts his stamp on his covers of this era, and this is one of my faves. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

July 4th Vertigo

Due to the stresses at the end of the school year and my resolution to NOT do any writing on my vacation I think this blog has had its longest ever hiatus (not that anyone noticed.) Appropriately enough, I caught COVID on that vacation (still worth it) and am sitting on my screened-in back porch, my children remarkably sanguine about our 4th plans being canceled. 

In the past two weeks I have felt intense, literal physical vertigo on multiple occasions, an unsettling sensation that applies to my mental state whenever I contemplate the state of the nation. For example, my school's end of year teacher gathering was held on a boat docked in the Hudson. I was on it for five minutes before getting puking sick and having to go home (I suffer pretty badly from motion sickness.) At Disney with my family I made the mistake of taking "non-drowsy" Dramamine, which should be called "non-working." I managed to recover and get back on the rides but I spent a couple of hours feeling like absolute garbage. 

I got spiritual vertigo from the Supreme Court's decisions destroying reproductive rights, erasing church/state boundaries, and promoting gun proliferation, along with the revelations of the 1/6 hearings. The "non-drowsy" medication failing to fix this vertigo happened to be the tepid response from the gerontocratic Democratic Party leadership and general apathy in the population apart from those already politically committed.

I'm sitting here now in COVID quarantine, anxious and tired and without anything to distract me from contemplating the reality of what faces the nation on this July 4th. Reading about a mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, only makes my anxiety worse. For the past seven years of my life I feel like I have been watching the chickens of the past four decades coming home to roost. Ever since I was able to consume and understand the news in the 80s I have been hearing about increasing econommic inequality, racist policing, Christian nationalists forcing their vision on the country, mass shootings, and a general loss of faith in the future. Back in the 80s one could look back 20 years to the 60s to contemplate the possibilities of radical change, but for people of my generation, we never experienced such a time our lives. For younger people the rot was already obvious decades before they were born. My entire life we have been confronted by the same same structural problems and nothing has been done to fix them.

I have been contemplating the collapse of the American Empire for just as long, but I always assumed it would be like Britain's: a long, managed deflation. Now I forsee something like the Soviet Union's fate. I am sure the average Soviet citizen in 1988, even in the midst of perestroika and glasnost, had no thought that the USSR would cease to exist at all in three years' time. January 6th proved that the Right is willing to use force to seize power. The rigging of the Supreme Court and the rigging of state elections through gerrymandering and suppression mean that minoritarian rule is already here. We are basically seeing a return to the post-Reconstruction American political order, complete with white supremacist militias. 

Driving South to Florida I could not help but notice the gun store billboard with an assault weapon proclaiming one could but "Guns Ammo Freedom" there. I could not fail to notice the trucks that had both blue line flag decals and "don't tread on me" logos. Their drivers see no contradiction between praising the state's wielders of violence while proclaiming their independence. Freedom is for them, state violence is for other people. That is the folk fascism that dominates large swathes of this country, including much of the military and law enforcement. If push comes to shove I have no doubt which side those institutions will take, and how eagerly they will deputize those truck owners. 

And even without the horrific prospect of open civil conflict, I still live in a country where in many areas ten year old rape victims are forced to carry their pregnancies to term and where Black suspects are shot 50 times by the police and their corpses handcuffed. (Both of these incidents took place in Ohio last week.) Mass bloodshed still takes place even if there aren't battle flags in places like Buffalo, Highland Park, and Uvalde. So many progressive minded people, including myself, don't really see a way forward. If we maintain a democracy in this country I imagine it will be by dumb luck. I'm planning on taking some mental Dramanine in quaratine this week so I can shake this vertigo and figure out what the hell needs doing.