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.