Tuesday, September 27, 2022

A Post-"Process" Politics?

I've been doing a deep dive into the politics of the late-80s and early 90s, a time I feel to be a secret turning point in American history. I just read Nicole Hemmer's excellent Partisans, on conservative politics in the 90s, and am currently digging into Political Fictions, a collection of political essays by Joan Didion written from the late 80s to 2000. Both books have been driving me further to the conclusion that the seeds of the current political scene in America were laid during that period of time. 

The presidential elections in that period seem pretty alien compared to today. Distance between the major parties shrank as Democrats adopted neoliberal policies and Republican nominees shied away from the blood and soil nationalism craved by their base. As Didion pointed out in her classic essay "Inside Baseball," politics was something increasingly practiced by a narrow "in group." Back in the 90s many people (including myself) described themselves as "politics junkies," implying that politics was something most normal people paid little mind. Participation in elections was incredibly low, a further reflection of this dynamic. 

In that same essay, Didion described how the 1988 presidential campaigns all boiled down to "the process." Candidates would hold events with the only express purpose being getting a soundbite on the evening news. The people there, as Didion reports, did not seem so interested, but that never made it into print. She found that the media was mostly reporting to people already inside of the "process" bubble. The candidates jumped to the middle and spent all of their time an effort trying to win the same narrow band of middle-class suburban moderates. (Remember "soccer moms," anyone?) According to Didion, the lack of participation by the masses had less to do with apathy and more to do with antipathy. A lot of people just did not think "the process" had anything to do with them. Ross Perot's campaign in 1992 and Pat Buchanan's "Culture War" speech pointed to a desire to break beyond "the process," a feeling Hemmer claims Newt Gingrich exploited to his advantage.

That's the political world where I came of age. While I was a "politics junky" I did not feel invested in the system, and tended to view Democrats as Republican Lite. I voted for a fringe third party candidate in my first election in 1996 because Nader wasn't on the ballot in Nebraska, and I voted for him again in 2000 while living in Illinois. I really disliked the Republican Party, but I desperately wanted Democrats to move to the left. My vote did not seem like one they were particularly interested in. (The 2000 election converted me into the "Democrats are the best option out of bad options" crowd.)

While there is still a lot of inside baseball in politics, we are potentially living in a post-process world where both parties now aim to win over their respective bases first and have dropped their old taboos. Republicans have embraced blood and soil nationalism and an anti-democracy stance now that Cold War commitments no longer force spoliticians to pay lip service to higher ideals. Democrats have dropped their adherence to neoliberalism and have once again embraced the welfare state. Even Republicans like Trump have moved away from austerity. It's hardly a surprise that participation in elections has shot up in the last few years.

Obviously, this has been accompanied by a great deal of volatility and the emergence of a wannabe despot in the form of Trump. While the end of "the process" has enabled the growth of blood and soil nationalism, it also has the potential to create a new political landscape where participation is not just limited to insiders. At least that's what I'm hoping for. I certainly think the landscape we used to have is not worth mourning, and that out of its ashes a real democracy can rise. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

R.E.M., Chronic Town, and the Uncanny Weirdness of Small-Town Living

 My newest Substack is about REM's debut LP on its 40 anniversary. Deep down it's about how music got me through my teenage years in the middle of nowhere. I will be listening to REM until the day I die because they are the music that illuminated a dismal world. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Disillusionment and Nostalgia of a Former Cornhusker Superfan


For the first forty years of my life, a September Saturday meant college football. I will never care about a sports team again the way I cared about the Nebraska Cornhuskers. My newest Substack is about how I have lost my enthusiasm for college sports, but also how it has been impossible for me to shake the Huskers completely. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Uncle Tupelo, "Graveyard Shift" (Track of the Week)

Due to a new writing project I have been taking a deep dive back into Uncle Tupelo. There is no other band that encapsulates the experience of being a misfit with lefty politics living in a small Midwestern town in the early 90s. I didn't discover them until their last album Anodyne, right as I was about to graduate from high school in the year of '94. That album filled me with the joy of recognition; I hadn't heard any music before that spoke so directly to my specific circumstances. 

Later on, I dug deeper into their catalog, and it still amazes me how hard they went right out of the gate. No Depression, their first album, became the name of a whole new music scene and a magazine devoted to it. "Graveyard Shift" is the first track off of that album. It sounds like The Clash if they were from Iowa. 

The first lines, "Home town same town blues/ Same walls closing in" just sums it all up. It's about the experience of working a factory job in a small Midwestern town where you grew up and feeling completely trapped by it. I spent my college summers working in local factories, including one summer on the graveyard shift. Granted, I was a college boy, so I could the light at the end of the tunnel. It also became clear to me that a lot of people work really hard for too little money. And yet, "The powers that be/ might take it all away."

The guitars and drums crunch and crash with wild abandon. It's the sound of wanting to jump out of your body trying not to look at the clock while being chained to a machine for eight hours. "There's much you've missed working on that graveyard shift." Yeah, no kidding. On the graveyard shift you literally lose the sunlight because you've got to go to bed in a morning light harsh in ways you never though possible. 

Being a lefty in the early 90s included a deep feeling of futility. You raged against the obvious shittiness of the system but did so with no expectation that anything could change. After a decade of Reagan, there was No Alternative. So you found rebellion where you could, including blasting the music of some fellow small-town Midwestern misfits. Thirty years later it still feels liberating. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska at 40

 My latest Substack goes into the kind of musical analysis I typically reserve for this site. (Worry not, superfans, I will have some OG content here soon.) 

I wrote a piece about Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album, which turns 40 this month. I've long found it to be a prophetic and damning statement about life in Reagan's America. It's also one of the most existential albums ever made, grappling with the quest for meaning in a cruel world. Give a listen then give my post a read!

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

How an Old Samurai Movie Illuminates Student Loan Discourse

My Substack last week was about the ways we talk about student loan forgiveness. I was inspired by the film Harakiri, which depicted desperate ronin confronted by the complete indifference of the well-to-do. I found it to be an excellent illustration of the cruelty of the "just world" fallacy, something animating so many of those upset by student loan forgiveness. 

Friday, September 2, 2022

My 80s Baseball Nostalgia

I am on record as anti-nostalgia. It calcifies culture and pushes old people to become cranky bores. Just look at the current pop culture landscape, where a 36 year later sequel to Top Gun is the biggest movie of the year. (I don't care if the movie is good or not, btw. That's not the issue here.) Or take my fellow white middle class Gen Xers, who were born after 1965 but still fervently follow a man who tells them America was "great" before that time. Just pathetic. 

I firmly believe that right now there is all kinds of amazing new music being made, maybe more than in my entire lifetime. Television, despite the ponderousness of the prestige format, is far far better than the garbage I was subjected to in childhood. Our athletes are of higher skill, too. Despite all of this I reserve my occasional bites of nostalgia, and one of mine is for 80s baseball.

I still buy old packs of 80s baseball cards to crack open. I read pretty much every 80s baseball book I can get my hands on, and even troll used book stores and eBay for ones that are out of print. I recently found a book I didn't know even existed, This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones, a compilation of Bill James' non-statistical essays from his baseball abstracts, published in 1989. Beyond his always witty prose and trenchant analysis, just being back in the world of 80s baseball has been like holding a warm blanket.

Since I am a hater of nostalgia, I guess I need to find a way to justify myself, beyond the usual search for lost time that most middle aged nostalgics express. Beyond my happy memories, I love 80s baseball for what I would argue are concrete reasons. Here they are.

Style of Play
This here is the number one reason. To be sure, baseball players today are better conditioned and more talented than they were in the 80s. Front office executives, managers, and sportscasters are all far better educated about the game, thanks to the sabrmetric revolution. I go to games nowadays and I see stats like OPS, WHIP and WAR being posted on the scoreboard. The broadcasts measure velocity and talk about a pitcher's BABIP. However, that revolution has created a kind of Frankenstein's monster. 

As is well documented, the obsession with stats has led to the reification of the Three True Outcomes (homer, strikeout, walk.) Longer at bats have made games drag on and on. Homers are great, but fewer balls in play means fewer fielding theatrics, fewer close calls on the bases, and just less action in general. IT'S BORING. Back in the 80s games moved faster and were more exciting. Much of this was due to free swinging and the emphasis on speed. There were lots of steals and hit and run plays and they were FUN.

Home run hitting was more of a specialization, which also meant there was a more diverse range of athletes on your average baseball team back then. You had your little slick-fielding middle infielders like Jose Lind doing gorgeous acrobatics as he turned the double play. (Cal Ripken back then was just beginning to show how a shortstop could be a slugger, too.) Since homers were a rare commodity teams often had to keep on portly sluggers who did little else like Steve Balboni and Gorman Thomas. I miss seeing the occasional fat ass with a big bat who would fall over himself trying to field his position. 

There were also different kinds of pitchers. Nowadays everybody throws hard and tries to get strikeouts. Pitching motions are pretty uniform, too. I miss the days of a submariner like Dan Quisenberry becoming a top relief pitcher. Back then a knuckleballer could will 300 games, as I witnessed Phil Niekro do in the 80s. As with hitters there were some glorious fat guy pitchers, like Rick Reuschel and Sid Fernandez. 

The uniforms were similarly diverse. While the most extreme 70s designs had fallen by the wayside, a lot of that decade's innovations remained: elastic waistbands, road blues, and the Houston Astros' "tequila sunrise" pattern. 

Soon afterwards baseball uniforms got boring and well, uniform. I yearn for the days when the Padres dressed like they were working at Taco Bell. 

Baseball Cards
As a little boy baseball fan in the 80s you can bet your ass that a significant chunk of my lawn mowing money went to the products of Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and Score. During the 80s baseball cards became a big business and a big bubble that soon burst in the next decade. It was fun while it lasted. While I have bought my share of 1989 Fleer packs, I have yet to get the uncensored Billy Ripkin card.

Diversity of Stadiums
Just as there was a diversity of players and playing style, baseball stadiums themselves were far less standardized. In the past thirty years, most of the old parks have been torn down and replaced by retro stadiums that mostly don't shoot for something new. When they have, like in Florida, they eventually renovate to make them boring. 

Back in the 80s there were more just plain old parks out there. We still have Fenway and Wrigley, but we lost Comiskey, Tiger Stadium, and Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Fenway and Wrigley have also been renovated and gentrified. In the 80s the "ashtray" multipurpose stadiums of the 1960s and 70s still stood, from Cincinnati to St Louis to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Many of them had Astroturf, including the Astrodome itself. The expansive turf stadiums also encouraged a style of play that relied on speed and bae hits rather than the three true outcomes. Those stadiums were certainly ugly, but they kept things interesting.

Quality of Post-Seasons
I think I became a baseball fan in the 80s because of the multiple nail-biting World Series matchups. The series went to seven games four times and six games twice in the decade. These amazing battles featured moments like Bill Buckner missing the play in 1986 and Don Denkinger's blown call in 1985 along with many others. Even the 4-1 and 4-0 years had amazing moments, like Kirk Gibson's home run in 1988 and a freaking earthquake during game two of the '89 series. Beyond these famous moments, nine different teams won the series in that decade, level of parity not seen since in baseball.