Sunday, June 4, 2023

ZZ Top, "Jesus Just Left Chicago" (Track of the Week)

I was weirdly missing Texas this week. I lived there for three years in a kind of love-hate relationship. I came to adore Houston and Austin, the amazing food, the great musical tradition, and a certain kind of zest for life that was refreshing after spending the rest of my life in the staid Midwest. At the same time, I despised its fascistic politics, open bigotry, and suffocating provincialism. I went back to visit last summer and enjoyed myself, but also knew it was definitely not a place I wanted to live.

Despite my resolution on this count, there are days when I need a taste of Texas. So this weekend I thew on ZZ Top's Tres Hombres record. It includes maybe the greatest gatefold of all time (pictured above), a gorgeous still-life tableau of Tex-Mex food. Eat your heart out, Rembrandt. 

Beyond the imagery, the music is pure Texas. It's a perfectly executed blues shuffle shot through with the spirit of Lightnin' Hopkins. When I listen to "Jesus Just Left Chicago" I can imagine myself sitting at the bar in the Flashback Cafe in Nacogdoches, sucking down a dollar twenty five Lone Star on a sticky Friday night. My time in Texas wasn't all that fun, but it sure was memorable. Despite its faults, it's a place with a real unique culture and spirit that you just can't elsewhere. While ZZ Top is best known for their sleek 80s hits, their bluesy 70s stuff will give you some of that Texas spirit without having to go there.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Look at Academic Labor to See Why the WGA Strike Matters

 Just realized that I hadn't posted my last Substack. It's about the WGA strike, and why it's so important. Having seen what happened in academia when knowledge workers lost all power to the bosses, the writers are right to fight. 

Sunday, May 28, 2023

'Tis the Season for Narragansett Beer

Captain Quint drank 'gansett

I do not typically endorse products, mostly because no one is paying me to. (If any eccentric billionaires or benevolent corporations have an offer, you know my contact info!) However, there are some products I enjoy so much that I can, nay must sing their praises on this blog. 

It's Memorial Day weekend, the true start of summer. This weekend and those that follow for the next few months will be full of cookouts and sweaty outdoor activities tailor-made for drinking beers. The catch, however, is that on a hot day a beer must not merely taste good, it must also quench the thirst.

Craft beers may be great, but they fail this crucial test. Normally I stan darker beers, but drinking an imperial stout on a 90 degree day just feels flat out gross. Craft brewers have gone all in on IPAs in recent years, whose hoppiness makes my mouth puckery and dry. This is anathema on a hot day. Fruitier beers avoid this problem, but their sugar combined with hot sunshine can make me feel zapped. 

On a hot summer day it's best not to get fancy. A can of good old fashioned mass market lager can do the trick. Its watery nature quenches the thirst and goes down easy. The problem is that such beers are often bland, taste like crap, have a weird aftertaste, or lose one street cred. This is why you have to take a step down to the bottom shelf at the liquor store and grab what a friend calls "a shitty local beer." In this dusty area you will not see cans of beer with cute names or animal mascots, but beers that look like they haven't updated their graphic design since the Ford administration.

This is why I love me some 'gansett. 

It's got enough flavor that it's not Bud Light piss water, but doesn't have the weird aftertaste of Coors Banquet. They also often sell it with their rad 1975 can design, which makes you look pretty cool while drinking it. Hell, if it's good enough for Captain Quint, it's good enough for me. 

So this summer bring some 'gansetts to the cookout and reap the rewards. 

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Therapeutic Joy of Watching Silent Film

I have been on a mission to reduce the amount of time I spend in the virtual world. It's becoming clear that social media is designed in ways that make me anxious and unhappy when I use it too much, and that it often distracts me when I should be focused on other things. 

Like any other addiction that one wishes to tame into moderation (as opposed to abstinence), one needs to establish rules and practices. When it comes to my device I push myself to go to news sources themselves, rather than social media. One problem I still face is the lure of "double screening," which usually means not fully enjoying a film or TV show.

My willpower can't always do all the heavy lifting, so watching certain things helps. Recently the Blank Check podcast, one of my favorites, decided to do a series on Buster Keaton. Since I can easily watch all of his films due to the good folks at Criterion and Kanopy, I decided for the first time to watch all of the films the podcast would cover in their series. 

I'd seen a couple of Keatons before, a long time ago. Watching a bunch of silent movies has been strangely therapeutic, since they completely resist double screening. The lack of sound demands closer attention, and the intricacies of Keaton's set-ups and gags provide an amazing payoff. I find myself getting lost in these movies in ways I just haven't been watching movies at home in years. 

The best silent films are the purest cinema, and are visually far more exciting than anything to come for decades after. Not having to worry about microphone placements or sound or setting scenes around dialogue gives the camera an exhilarating freedom of movement. The lack of dialogue also allows something made 100 years ago to still feel contemporary in the most uncanny ways.  

It is ironic that film, that most visual of mediums, was more viscerally so in its earliest incarnations. It was the first to utilize the screen, the origins of our modern screen-obsessed daily lives. Yet somehow, the originators managed to do things a century ago that seem impossible today. Watch a great silent film and lose yourself; I guarantee a good time. 

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Bring Back the Roadshow Format

 My most recent Substack is about the need to bring back intermissions in movies. They are making movies even longer without any way for us to pee! Back in the 50s and 60s Hollywood showed longer epics in a "roadshow" format that included an overture and intermission. I say bring it back!

(No worries, some Notes From the Ironbound exclusive content is coming this weekend!)

Friday, May 12, 2023

Teacher Action Week

Teacher appreciation week is drawing to a close, which got me thinking about how the people currently attacking education are in the minority. The love teachers get this week from parents and students has the potential to be turned into something more impactful than mere gratitude. Over on Substack I wrote about how next week should be Teacher Action Week. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Elvis Presley, "For the Good Times" (Track of the Week)

Every now and then I go on an Elvis jag, and now is one of those times. My recent obsession is the King's live performances from the 1970s. I used to overlook this part of his career, seeing it as the long sad, sunset of decline before Elvis' death. While he struggled with addiction during this period, he still turned in some amazing performances. After giving up on the movies and doing the 68 Comeback Special, Elvis was able to do more of what he wanted to do in terms of what he sang. In concert he would toss off his old hits, but he would give his new favorites a power and energy surpassing what he brought as a raw country boy shaking his hips back in the 50s. 

Priscilla also divorced him.

As far as I am aware, Elvis was not faithful, so I don't want to paint him as a victim here. In any case, he started singing famous songs of heartbreak and made them his own. Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" became a hit in the hands of Ray Price. As good as that version is, Elvis tops it

It's a song of boundless, shameless need. The singer begs for his lover to stay with him for another night even though he knows that the relationship and the love are over. This is the sound of a man at the end of his emotional rope, unable to move on from the emotional devastation of a breakup. I must admit I have been on both sides of this situation in my life, as the person begging and the person being begged. It's not very dignified, but love makes fools of us all, even the King of Rock and Roll. 

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Democrats are Sleep Walking to 2016

I just wrote a Substack thinking about the 2024 election (I know, I know.) My main takeaway is that Democrats are repeating the mistakes of 2016. They are running an old, unpopular candidate who has a low ceiling for expanding his support and won't turn out base voters. All it will take is a few thousand votes shifting in key states and a robust third party candidate. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Tucker Carlson is the Symptom

Liberals, befitting their historical origins, have an intense attachment to the ideology of the Enlightenment. They tend to see the people who vote for their opponents of having been misguided or mislead, and that if they knew the true facts they would have to acknowledge their error.

Of course, it's a ridiculous outlook, but it colors liberal opinion on a lot of things, especially the conservative media apparatus. The liberal Enlightenment take says that if we can somehow shut down Fox News or push it in a less extreme direction, its followers will surely moderate. Once the Fox blinders are lifted the truth shall miraculously set them free. 

Yesterday's news that Fox let go of Tucker Carlson was met with some rejoicing in liberal circles, but the wise heads were not moved. In the first place, this fits a larger pattern. Fox has dumped Beck, O'Reilly, and Dobbs, and their message has not moderated a wit. A new demagogue will surely take Carlson's place. Liberals also fail to understand that the audience has the agency here. 

People like Tucker aren't just radicalizing their audience, they are also responding to their audience's radical demands. He says crazy shit on TV because his audience WANTS him to say crazy shit on TV. Just take the revelations about Carlson's private castigations of Trump. He may loathe the man in his heart, but when Trump comes on his show he bends the knee because that is what his audience expects. 

After January 6, Fox was concerned about losing their core audience to Newsmax and One America News, and had to compete with the crazies. Carlson served them well in that purpose, and I am sure they will find someone else to fulfill the same role.

Of course, if liberals are finally able to understand that their opponents' supporters are reactionaries because they WANT to be, and not because they are tricked, that will be hard pill to swallow. They want to pretend that their conservative neighbors and acquaintances are "good people," and if they have horrible politics, well, they just haven't heard the right message. It's much harder to understand that many people you like and respect quietly support a politics meant to destroy you. It's easy to blame radicalization on Tucker Carlson, it's harder to accept that he is much more the product of his viewership, a viewership that includes people in our own lives. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

2010, the Secret Political Turning Point of the 21st Century

So much of the news that crosses my scanner these days involves state and local governments implementing the most demented right-wing policies. States across America are eliminating restrictions on concealed weapons, banning gender-affirming care, limiting what's taught at universities, and banning abortion without exceptions. 

In the heat of the Twitter moment it's easy to miss the longer historical context. What we are seeing now is the fruit of a longer-term project, one of the most successful political moves in America's history. Back in 2010, Republicans whipped up their resentful base against Obama and fueled the Tea Party movement. They were also able to exploit the Great Recession, which started during the Bush administration but did not reach full impact until the Obama years. While Republicans would lose the 2012 presidential election, they "shellacked" Democrats (in Obama's words) in the 2010 midterm election. By concentrating on the low hanging fruit of state government, they began building a power base that has translated into getting their priorities enacted even as those priorities have been rejected by a majority of the country. 

In many ways 2010 should be seen as this century's true political turning point. In 2008 McCain had been reluctant to attack Obama's identity. His running mate Sarah Palin, however, proved herself to be the John the Baptist of the new right-wing Republican style. She talked about "real Americans" and whipped up resentment against those of us who don't conform to the right-wing vision of the nation. That's what the party ran with 2010. 

As usual, they were abetted by an ineffectual Democratic party and a fatuous media. The Democrats basically just watched all this happen, standing slack-jawed while conservative ideologues like Scott Walker took over formerly liberal states like Wisconsin. The media, perpetually frightened of accurately describing the undemocratic and oppressive slant of conservatism lest they be accused of "bias," frame the nationalist populism of the Tea Party as simply regular citizens concerned by taxes. They missed how "take our country back" was not about the capital gains rate, but walling off immigrants and punishing those they hated. 

One person did understand this: Donald Trump. He used his knowledge of the Republican base's true desires to ride birtherism and nativism to the Republican nomination in 2016. 2010 revealed that this was the true soul of the Republican Party, even if the media and people like Mitt Romney refused to see it. 

What made 2010 doubly impactful was that it came after the census, meaning that these newly conservative statehouses were in charge of redistricting. Using data, they could gerrymander far more effectively than in the past. This led to the current situation where a majority of voters in Wisconsin could turn out for Democrats yet return a legislature with a Republican supermajority. 

Conservatives in several states have effectively established one-party rule, aided and abetted by gerrymandering and voter suppression. Unlike Democrats, they don't worry much about how their decisions will impact the public as a whole. They merely wish to do what helps their own base, and no one else. 

The recent judicial election in Wisconsin gives me hope, but this is going to be a very difficult hole to dig ourselves out of. In large swathes of the country, the will of the majority is simply inoperative. Just look at Florida, which recently set down a harsh abortion ban against the wishes of a supermajority of its citizens. Fighting this will necessitate action by Democrats, who mostly put all their eggs in the basket of the presidency. As we are seeing, even with the presidency states are free to go in a much different direction. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Can I Learn to Love the Grateful Dead?

The other day on Facebook I reposted a hilarious The Hard Times article, "We Ranked Every Grateful Dead Album and They All Came In Last." Some of my Deadhead friends still thought it was funny, so trying to be friendly I asked for tips on albums that could change my mind about the Dead.

I've never been a fan. Back in the 90s I tried and failed to appreciate the whole wave of jam bands at the time, from Phish to Blues Traveler. The Dave Matthews Band was inflicted on me at every party and on every college debate team road trip. It was music that was supposed to be so wild and free and creative and it just felt, well, lame. There was more life in one Stooges track than in all of Dave Matthews' albums put together. Sure the band were great musicians, but to what end? 

That was also my opinion about this scene's godfathers, The Grateful Dead. I knew the name and iconography before I ever knew the music. The name and the skeletons made me think their music would be hard-hitting and dangerous. My first encounter came with their late 80s radio hit "Touch of Gray." It's a nice little synth-driven ditty and I liked it at the time, but this was not the music I imagined. 

Soon after I started listening to classic rock radio, and I learned that back in the 60s and 70s their music was still lukewarm, like weak coffee that's been sitting out on the counter. Yeah "Truckin'" and "Casey Jones" were catchy, but they did not electrify me like Hendrix and the Stones. At some point I got the early comp Skeletons From the Closet on tape, and my feelings were similar. Not bad, but not very interesting. 

If they had been some forgotten group from the past it wouldn't have bothered me. I could have heard "Uncle John's Band" and thought, "This obscure hippy band had some mellow tunes, I guess." But at that point, the Dead were still one of the biggest concert draws. It just didn't make sense to me. Were people really giving up their lives and traveling the country to hear "Sugar Magnolia"? Really? People were actually marking their bodies with Dead dancing bear tattoos? Really? That seemed absolutely insane to me. I also have a really low tolerance for hanging around people who are stoned, so I was doubly perplexed. 

However, I am also aware that it's good to revisit and question one's deeply held opinions. I use to dislike The New Yorker, now I am a proud subscriber. For years I didn't care for Rush and prog rock in general, then once I started listening to lots of jazz my ears became friendlier to more complex rock music. So I asked my Deadhead friends on Facebook after I posted that Hard Times article to give me some recommendations.

What came back, not surprising, were a bunch of live albums from the 70s. I'd always heard they were more of a live than a studio band, but I never bothered to investigate because their studio stuff left me so cold. Listening to these live albums the last few days I've been enjoying their groove, musicianship, and also the band's deep knowledge and appreciation of American roots music, something I also share. A groovy cover of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried"? Sign me up. 

So have I been converted? Do I love the Dead now? Well, no, but I have gained greater appreciation. I still get hung up on how this roots-oriented material is accompanied by such weak, tepid vocals. When you sing country and the blues you gotta belt that stuff! But maybe I will overcome that. After all, I learned to ignore Geddy Lee's voice and Neil Peart's lyrics and love Rush. All I can say about my relationship with the Dead is what a long strange trip it's been.  

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Thoughts on America After A Weekend in Canada

The Canadians in Guess Who were right all along about America

Sorry to have been away for so long. The last week has been taken up with a trip to Montreal and the accompanying preparations. Now that I have returned, I am in a reflective mood. 

As we crossed the border north of Plattsburgh to return to the US this morning, I felt a new emotion. In the past, when I have returned to America after going abroad I have felt a certain warmness about being back in my home country again. This morning I felt dread. During a trip spent walking Montreal's streets, enjoying its sights, and riding its refreshingly modern subway system, I kept seeing the news from America. I read about progressive state representatives being expelled, about the gun deaths of children lowering our national life expectancy, and of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. For a couple of days, I felt like I had escaped a madhouse.

To be sure, Canada has its own problems. There were panhandlers and mentally disturbed people on the streets, for example. By and large, however, it felt like such an infinitely more FUNCTIONAL and livable place. There also wasn't an ever-present feeling of dread, one that has been dogging me in this country every day since the summer of 2015. For almost a decade, America has been on a precipe, our own Years of Lead with mass shootings, police murders, and capitol stormings with the spectre of right-wing authoritarianism constantly hovering. To the last point, I was in Montreal when I saw the news about a Trump judge banning abortion medication.

I had not been out of the country since 2009, by far the longest stretch in my adult life. I've still been traveling a lot however, and in that time have been to practically every corner of the United States. My travels to everywhere from New Orleans to Los Angeles to Alabama to Boston have deepened my love of this nation and given me perspective on its stunning regional diversity. I cherish getting to walk the Golden Gage Bridge, joining a second line on Bourbon Street, and chowing down on Maine lobster. 

But as my love has deepened, so has my despair. I don't much believe in this country's future anymore, and my deeper investment in it makes its precariousness all that much harder to endure. It's a dynamic I had not been aware of until I spent some time in Canada this weekend. It felt good to get a break from America, I only wish I could believe this nation could find a way out of its current spiral. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Macron Illustrates Why Neoliberalism Can't Save Democracy

France is currently being torn apart by massive protests after President Macron raised the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote (which he surely would have lost.) It goes against the wishes of the majority of French people, and probably of their representatives, too. There is a kind of irony to this, since Macron ran and re-ran as a defender of democracy against the forces of populist authoritarianism. His current situation ought to be a warning to centrist and center-left politicians who profess to do the same.

Populist authoritarians get mass support partially because they advocate a Herrenvolk nationalism that assures people in the “in group” that they will be taken care and the social state will not be pared back. Just think about the United States, where Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election by promising to make the public feel the hard hand of capitalism, and Donald Trump won after defending Social Security and Medicare against that type of Republican. While Trump’s policies involved massive giveaways to the wealthy, his rhetorical uses of Herrenvolk nationalism assured the less affluent parts of his base.

Like other neoliberals, Macron thinks the public needs to take their medicine no matter what. Neoliberals see this as a moral imperative, hence Macron’s monomaniacal push to raise the retirement age when the pension system is not in crisis. I am also reminded of the austerity policies in the UK that left its standard of living hobbled without bringing on any economic benefit. The Tories stick to those policies because they are on a moral crusade to save their people from “dependency.”

Neoliberals even take pride in bucking the popular will, to them giving the public less is not a bad thing, but rather a sign of courage. While they play these games, however, the populist authoritarians proclaim that they will take care of the in-group. Macron’s decision about retirement has probably done more to boost the National Front than anything Marine Le Pen has ever done. Similarly, Hilary Clinton’s tendency to defend neoliberal policies in the 2016 election did great damage to her.

The world’s democracies are on a knife’s edge. From India to Hungary to Israel to Florida we are seeing populist authoritarians gain power then use their positions to prevent their opponents from winning elections. Unfortunately, many opponents of these regimes still recite the old neoliberal creed. As long as they flout the wishes of the people so that they can punish them, these neoliberal centrists will be the second biggest threat to democracy because they enable the biggest threat to claim they are protecting “the people” against “the elites.”  

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Track of the Week: Fountains of Wayne, "Sick Day"

Last night we watched That Thing You Do! for family movie night, which reminded me how much I love Fountains of Wayne. (They did the title song that makes the "Wonders" a hit band in the film.) Going back to them can be a bit emotional for me, partly because I was listening to their first album a lot during one of the lowest depressions of my life, and also because Adam Schlesinger's death made the awfulness of COVID real for me in the early days of the pandemic. 

I was struck by how much everyday melancholy permeates their songs. It isn't just the usual pop song laments about lost love, but also how much daily life grinds us down. "Sick Day" takes the point of view of a burned out office worker who decides she needs a break from the brutal commute from Jersey (something I know well) and the disheartening routines of being a low-level worker. 

Songs about worker alienation tend to be more openly rebellious, like Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It." Rarely are they more real, like "Sick Day." Very few of us ever tell our employers to go to hell, even if we all may have been in a job that made us wish we could do this. Instead, we soldier on, cry in the bathroom, or take a sick day just to get a break from the crushing ennui. 

"Sick Day" has all the hallmarks of what I love about Fountains of Wayne beyond the aching yearning tone. The guitars are sublimely jangly, and the lyrics clever. "Lead us not into Penn Station" to the cadence of "Lead us not into temptation" is just *chef's kiss* as far as I am concerned. Now that I live in Jersey I can't get over the very specific references to the PATH train and Holland Tunnel. I've been commuting from Jersey to NYC for twelve years now and this song speaks to me in ways that few others do. 

I am on spring break right now, and this song is helpful reminder for me to make the most of these days I am getting. If you're on spring break I recommend giving it a listen. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Lockdown Insights Worth Salvaging

I wrote a Substack last weekend on how amidst the horrors of the pandemic our lives were disrupted in ways that allowed us to appreciate certain things more. Three years on I want to hold onto those insights. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

The 20th Anniversary of the American Empire's Self-Immolation

On the evening of March 19, 2003, I went with a friend to the movies to see The Quiet American, adapted from Graham Greene's novel about American idealism's failure to understand Vietnam. Little did I know how appropriate that choice would be.

I came home, and a couple of hours later in the basement room, I watched the start of "shock and awe" with absolute horror. Rumors of war had been circulating for months, with a whole kabuki theater of nuclear inspections and Congressional testimony making the public believe this was about "weapons of mass destruction." I was in the minority of Americans who knew this was all bullshit. I had shown up to anti-war protests, had been yelled at by "patriots" from their pickup trucks and told I was ignoring threats to this country. Sitting there watching Baghdad being blown up on television I felt such profound despair. So many other awful things have happened since then (the 2008 crash, multiple police murders, Trump's election, COVID, January 6th, etc.) that we have failed to account for the consequences of the Iraq invasion. Beyond the human consequences, it represented the end of the United States' post-Cold War predominance. 

The invasion of the anniversary has passed unmarked in this country because so many people pretend they never supported it when it had been very popular in the moment. Its boosters cannot deny that it was a disaster, so they must deny their connection to it. Even ultra-nationalists like Trump have done this, allowing his supporters, the same people yelling at me back in 2003, to wash their hands of the whole affair. 

Even if the majority in this country may not feel the Iraq invasion to be an act of grave immorality as I do, they still understand that it meant the destruction of America's post-Cold War dominance in the world. After 1991 the United States stood as the lone superpower. 9/11 gravely shook the feelings of invincibility, but those same feelings spurred Bush's actions in Iraq. It was a completely elective war. Iraq posed no threat to the United States, nor was it threatening any of our key allies. Bush's crew really thought they could use this invasion to remake the Middle East to America's liking. Many of its own allies cautioned against it and the "weapons of mass destruction" had not been located, but no matter. 

The Quiet Amerian, both the Graham Greene novel and the 2003 film, concerns Alden Pyle, a CIA agent in 1950s Vietnam in the twilight of French colonialism. He naively believes that he can create a "third force" in the country that is both democratic and anticolonialitst that will push both the French and the Vietnamese communists aside. Furthermore, Pyle is willing to fund terror attacks and sacrifice lives for his unrealistic vision. The narrator, a British journalist named Fowler, understands the country's realities far better and is not surprised when Pyle meets a bad end. Greene wrote the book years before American "escalation" in Vietnam, but like many of us on that night in March of 2003, he clearly saw what was coming. 

Like Alden Pyle, Bush and the neo-cons soon discovered that not every group of people in the world are just Americans trying to come out. They hadn't even bothered to consider the most basic issues in the war's aftermath, watching mobs loot priceless artifacts from museums and calling it "the price of freedom." Any moral credibility the United States had managed to amass in its post-Cold War humanitarian interventions was erased in that moment. But it wasn't just America's moral hypocrisy that was exposed by the invasion. The American military's inability to win a decisive victory against Iraqi insurgents or to quickly capture Saddam Hussein revealed the clay feet of a supposed Colossus. 

And so thousands died, including someone I went to college with. We wrecked Iraq, with the ultimate strategic winner being our regional rival, Iran. We destroyed homes, killed civilians, and shredded infrastructure for less than nothing from a strategic standpoint. Hussein is no longer in power, but I get the feeling that's cold comfort for those mourning their dead. 

I want to remember the dead, but also that the vast majority of Americans supported the invasion at the time. It is easy to blame this all on politicians, but if there had been more robust opposition, those politicians would have changed their tune. The media helped too, treating protestors like me as unserious or naive. Practically every media outlet became a cheerleader for the invasion. Country music stations banned The Chicks when they criticized George W Bush. All of this has been forgotten because it is inconvenient for so many to recognize that the self-immolation of the American empire happened with the majority's full faith and support. Right-wingers certainly need to be held to account for their cheerleading of this conflict, but I should hope that this would prompt the Left to rethink their naive ideas about "the masses." 

Monday, March 13, 2023

What I've Lost and (Mostly) Gained By Quitting Twitter

For the last couple of years I have given up alcohol for Lent. This year I wanted to do something new, since giving up booze had proven to be pretty easy and I had other bad habits to tackle. This Lent I decided to give up Twitter, except to post my blog writing.

Since about 2015 I had been chained pretty hard to the bird site. I spent more time there than I did watching TV or movies. During idle moments of any kind I would open up the app on my phone and start scrolling. Once Musk bought the site I opened up the obligatory Mastodon account and locked my tweets, but didn't have the guts to leave the site. Lent gave me the perfect opportunity, and I took it.

And here's the deal: I don't miss Twitter one bit.

Quitting has felt liberating. My mental state is far calmer because I am not constantly being agitated by a barrage of stupid and hostile opinions. I am not getting asinine replies to my tweets or letting myself get pulled into the prettiest fights. I am also sparing myself from the loads of bad news I used to read on Twitter throughout the day. Now I just get a short sharp blast when I look at the news in the morning. 

I am also realizing how much Twitter boosts certain brands of stupidity that actually aren't all that pronounced in American society. For example, the kind of "Leftist" who makes apologies for Putin just does not cross my path since quitting Twitter. Good riddance. For those who are still hanging onto the birdsite I can tell you that quitting will really improve your quality of life. 

In terms of what I've lost, I miss interacting with lots of folks, but many of them had already cut down their presence post Musk. It's harder for me to get incisive commentary on the news and to follow local politics stories back in my home state of Nebraska. My reaction has been to dip back into the blogosphere, which is showing signs of recovery after having been obliterated by Twitter. With various blogs and Substacks I can read smart words on current events without wading through a thousand "hot takes" designed to get clout via outrageousness. 

After Lent I am sure I will go back to Twitter, but with limitations. For example, I am keeping the app off of my phone. We have been conditioned via FOMO to think that we MUST immerse ourselves in the Twitter discourse if we are to be "with it." My experience has confirmed my suspicions that Twitter failed as a way to exchange ideas. The blogosphere was dead, long live the blogosphere. 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

COVID's Forgotten Histories

My newest Substack is remembering the third anniversary of the pandemic and the uncomfortable histories we have consciously forgotten. That forgetfulness is very political in nature, motivated by those who refuse to believe that they owe even the smallest shred of social solidarity. 

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Like Trump, DeSantis Understands the Right's Love of Humiliation

Recent news and anecdotal evidence points to a rise in Ron DeSantis' stature on the Right, and a drop in Trump's. It would be superficial and wrong to credit this to a change in the Right's fundamental politics or a return to "normal." 

Rather, DeSantis has adopted the most fundamental aspects of Trump's politics while allowing some on the Right to distance themselves from the latter's toxic brand. DeSantis, like Trump, understands that the conservative base does not care a fig for actual policy outcomes. They aren't really interested in legislating, and the behavior of Republicans in the House has been proof of this. They are far more invested in something far more tangible: punishing and humiliating the people they don't like. 

Just as Trump separated children from their parents at the border, DeSantis has been deporting migrants to other states with not even the minimum of arrangements made for their comfort upon arrival. This policy has nothing to do with border security and everything to do with generating a spectacle of humiliation, both for the migrants and for liberal politicians. 

DeSantis' education policies and anti-LGBT legislation performs a similar function. His base hates gay and trans people and they hate teachers and he is giving them the public attacks against their objects of hate that they so crave. This same base boils over with resentment, angry that the culture is changing and that their worldview is no longer unquestioned. When Disney, a company they assumed was on "their side" starts making movies with Black mermaids or that deal with menstruation, they get mad. When that same company publically opposes their political values when it comes to anti-LGBT hate, they lose their minds. DeSantis understands this, which is why he very publicly humiliated Disney by taking away their special status, something that will also force liberal voters in Orlando to pay higher taxes as well. That was a double win for his politics of humiliation.

Like Trump, DeSantis is what I call an instinctual bully. I've been bullied a lot in my life, both as a child and as an adult, so I know the type. Some people are casual bullies or situational bullies. I call Trump and DeSantis instinctual bullies because it is their central defining characteristic. They look at every situation and think about how they can turn it into a way to bully or humiliate someone they don't like. It is the thing that occupies their minds through most of their waking hours. They don't merely want or like to bully others, they MUST do so.

At this point, I have to point the finger a bit more broadly. They would not have such power if it was not for the masses of people who enjoy living vicariously through the bully's actions. So many ordinary "nice people" get a thrill out of seeing university administrators sacked and replaced with conservative ideologues, or smile about trans youth being denied health care. They are the people who stopped to laugh at me during my own childhood humiliations, cowards content to toady to the big boss bully in order to protect themselves. 

I would also point the finger at this country's useless prestige media, eager to hop on the DeSantis Rising train for clout and getting credit for being on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing. They watch public universities being turned into factories for Right wing ideology and then treat it like just another policy decision, shrugging their shoulders and saying "well, who can say who's right or wrong here?" This is another parallel with Trump: boosting ratings and circulation gets prioritized above actual journalism.

Time will tell if DeSantis or Trump or someone else gets the Republican nomination, but that's beside the point. Either way, this is a party animated by the humiliation ethos of Libs of TikTok more than anything else. That's not going away anytime soon.  

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Republicans Used to Target Democratic Presidents, Now They Target Their Own Schools and Neighbors

New Substack is out about the changing Republican dynamics in the Biden administration. Under Clinton and Obama they turned the Democratic president into an avatar of all their resentments. This has been harder with Joe Biden, and so Republicans are directly attacking vulnerable groups like trans people and educators to unite their base. It' represents a chilling and alarming shift in our politics and one that needs greater attention. 

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Aerosmith, "Back in the Saddle" (8 Track Camaro Classics)

I was born in the mid-70s, around the time of Aerosmith's first popular high point. By the time I was listening to pop music circa 1982, they had fallen off the map. American wanted its MTV and all the frothy British New Wave acts that actually had good videos. Aerosmith was drowning in a sea of drugs and their brand of AOR was no longer au courrant. 

Inexplicably, they managed to mount a comeback with 1986's Permanent Vacation, and their pairing with Run DMC (who I adored) put them on my radar. As far as I was concerned, they were just a more experienced version of Poison and all the other lame hair metal bands of the time. I had no clue of their earlier incarnation until I started listening to classic rock radio circa 1991. All of a sudden, I was exposed to a very different and far more vital band. 

This band rocked savagely, the edges not worn down by 80s production techniques. My favorite of that era then and now is "Back in the Saddle Again." ("Sweet Emotion" is a strong second.) It has a momentous buildup, sounding like the soundtrack of an old horror movie during a scene when the monster is secretly creeping behind the hero. 

Then, all of a sudden, BLAM!

Steven Tyler gives his best scream of "I'M BAAAAACK!" and Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton unleash a truly monster riff, smashing through the speaker like Bigfoot crushing cars. Joey Kramer lays down a swaggering, swinging beat made for strutting down the street with this on your headphones. Brad Whitford jumps in with spashes of screeching guitar, like paint splattering against a canvas. The energy is just completely off the charts, but somehow it manages to keep building across the song to the point that it almost overheats and explodes until it settles into a groovy coda.

Put this in your Camaro and you'll blow the bloody doors off. 

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Crisis We See But Don't Name

The CDC released a report this week about depression and anxiety among teenagers that showed some alarming increases in suicidal thoughts, primarily among girls. As a high school teacher I'm well aware of of this phenomenon, which I feel powerless to stop.

It's notable that the spike in anxiety and depression did not start with the pandemic, and was already shooting way up around 2017. The tendency to blame all this on pandemic disruption is a bit too pat, and the data does not seem to bear that out. I was especially alarmed to see an increase in the number of girls reporting sexual assault. It's especially alarming when the percentage of teens who have had sex is decreasing. 

The terrible data about teenage depression and suicide tracks with general mental health trends. Researchers have pointed to the jump in so-called "deaths of despair" in the past 25 years from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcoholism. This jump in deaths of despair has been especially acute among middle-aged whites, whose life expectancy is dropping and dragging down the average life expectancy overall

Something is truly wrong with the way we live today in the United States. I would think that all of these suicides and overdoses, especially among society's youngest members with so many years to live, would prompt political action. Neither political party seems willing to talk about this much. Relatedly, there's no massive grass roots campaign to push them to care. We seem to take all of this death and misery as a given.

In a way, that very attitude is a driving force behind this crisis with no name. Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager. You know climate change threatens untold suffering on your generation and live in fear one of your classmates shooting up your school, and that your elders don't care enough to do anything about it. Think about all of the teenaged girls who have witnessed an outright misogynist who bragged about harassing women elected to the presidency and the judges he appointed taking away their reproductive freedom. The youth look to this bleak future knowing that the college education they need will put them in debt and a home will be too expensive to buy. 

Now go put yourself in the shoes of a middle-aged working class person doing a job that pays little money with no security or satisfaction to offer, your body broken down and tired from it. You don't make enough to retire, so what's the point of living to old age anyway? 

Picture the same teenagers and middle-aged folk living immersed day-in and day-out in social media with its implicit message that everyone else is happier than you, and that anyone who isn't doing well has something wrong with them. Think about this especially from the point of view of teenaged girls, constantly judged by unreachable standards. 

Now put all of these people in a society where community ties and state assistance have been shredded by the onslaught of neoliberalism, where in times of turmoil you are told this nation's true creed: "you're on your own." Our national ideology tells us that individualism is liberating, but it is practiced in such an extreme way that it leaves so many suffering in isolation with no larger structures to give their lives meaning. 

As I have rediscovered philosophy in the past three years I have noticed a big improvement in my mental health. I have a much firmer grasp on the meaning of my existence, an understanding that helps me weather life's storms. So many people are drowning in those storms now, stripped of the resources to survive and left for dead. That is the unnamed crisis that this country must finally confront. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Humble Pie, "I Don't Need No Doctor" (8 Track Camaro Classics)

Some bands have the hits but get tagged with "I heard they suck live." Others can't seem to buy a slot on the charts, but draw massive audiences for their live shows. Back in the 70s, Humble Pie was one of the latter. Part of the armada of dirtbag boogie rock bands of the era, they were distinguished by their super group status, drawing together Peter Frampton and the Small Faces' Steve Marriott. 

Appropriately, their double live album Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore was their only gold record. Their studio songs missed a certain intensity that comes out loud and clear on the live album. The album ends with a true boogie rock apotheosis, "I Don't Need No Doctor." The song starts with Marriott telling the crowd that "it's been a gas" before launching into an absolutely killer riff that the bass player doubles up on. It sounds like a runaway semi truck and Marriott gives it some of his most spine-tingling screams. Did I forget to mention that there's cowbell?

That cowbell clangs hard in the middle section, the crowd energetically clapping along, before the reprise of the riff hits harder than a baseball bat spiked with nails. It's nine minutes of absolute 8 track Camaro rock mayhem. It was the band's biggest hit in the US to date, going all the way to...73. Liked I said, some bands couldn't buy a hit, which is a damn shame in this case. 

The Nefarious Silicon Valley Ideology Behind ChatGPT

There's been a lot of discourse around ChatGPT. I am less worried about the technology itself that the ideology it is being used to uphold. Read about it on my Substack. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

"Rock and Roll All Nite" (8 Track Camaro Classics)

A few weeks ago someone on Twitter asked if there was a band you despised with one song that you loved. My answer was immediate: "Rock and Roll All Nite" by KISS.

Let's be clear from the start: KISS sucks. They were a marketing campaign in search of a band. They could generate riffs but were incapable of building full songs around them. Ace Frehley's solo "Back in the New York Groove" is better than any of the band's songs. Gene Simmons is the poster-boy for Boomer self-regard in all of its nasty sociopathy. Paul Stanley's stage banter is Spinal Tap-level self-parody. Their biggest hit, "Beth," came from their drummer and is embarrassingly clunky. It also does not rock. 

However, out of this smelly turd grew the gorgeous rose of "Rock and Roll All Nite," one of the ultimate 8 track Camaro tracks. The riff is an up-tempo monster and the rhythm swings behind it. Unlike other KISS songs, the riff actually goes somewhere, right into the truly anthemic sing-along chorus. It proclaims the creed of 8 track Camaro rock to have a great time at all costs, to rock and roll all night and party every day. I dare you to try to resist singing along. 

Beyond the words, it embodies the true willfully stupid spirit of 8 track Camaro rock. The whole point is to lose yourself in the noise and fun. In the middle of a hard week full of hard work, it feels good.  

The Forgotten Veterans of the COVID Teaching Trenches

Against my better judgment, I wrote a Substack about how I feel like I've come home from a war that everyone pretends never happened. Like Vera Brittain after World War I, teachers can't let go of what they saw at the front, but everyone else is tired of hearing about it. 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Getting Through the Winter Doldrums

It's late January, the grimmest part of the year, a stretch that will last about a month. It's cold and dark. The weather tends to make commutes hellish. The holidays are over and the decorations stripped. Lunar new year came early this year and is now over and marred by tragedy. There's little to do and the only real "event" is the consumer orgy of the Super Bowl, which mostly just makes me feel ill. 

It's Sunday night now, which means facing another work week after a weekend spent in the fog of this winter malaise. The end of the last year brought reflect, as the end of the year always does, and that reflection in middle age typically leads one to contemplate how dreams hoped for in youth are just never going to come true. 

If I had been wiser in my youth, I'd have gone to law school instead of grad school and now I'd be making enough money to go on a vacation somewhere warm and sunny to get away from all of this. I foolishly chose to pursue knowledge rather than lucre in a society that worships the latter and despises the former. Sometimes I can be comforted in the knowledge that my work actually has meaning but this time of year the old narratives don't work their magic like they usually do. 

I am willing to bet a lot of you are feeling the same way right now. So how do we get through this? Sometimes the only way out is through.

I lean into despair with my trusty friends music, books, and movies. Here's some recs if you are looking for them. 

Jackson Frank's "Blues Run the Game" just totally embodies that feeling that winter is never going to end and life is pretty hopeless. He also talks about sending out for whiskey and gin, which are my preferred tipples this time of year. 

Robert Altman's anti-Western McCabe & Mrs Miller is suitably bleak and gloomy. The dark rainy Pacific Northwest setting perfectly frames a story where love and passion are ultimately futile. Sometimes the bastards win and the hero doesn't ride into the sunset. 

Sad folk music is my preferred soundtrack this time of year, and no one did it better than Nick Drake. All three of his albums are superlative, but Pink Moon gets busted out on many a winter night in my house. It's eerie and dark but weirdly comforting, too. 

Sometimes a little anger helps, too. January in an odd-numbered year means a brand new Congress and brand new state legislatures. It does not exactly help my mood to read about Republicans trying to hold the country hostage with the debt ceiling or finding new and unique ways to persecute trans people and target my fellow educators. It's even worse when the people who ought to be fighting back are AWOL. That's when I put on Neil Young's "Ambulance Blues." "You're all just pissing in the wind."      

In terms of books, last year at this time I decided to reread le Carre's "Karla Trilogy." I won't do the same thing this year, but I might just give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy another spin. Gloomy 70s London combined with Cold War intrigue is perfect for this time of year. It's also the kind of story where the "good guys" have to make moral compromises in order to win, compromises that undermine their "good guy status."


These are the winter days of out discontent. I'm too pessimistic to think they can be avoided, but I at least I hope we can get through them with some splendid wallowing. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Need For a Values Conversation From The Left

My most recent Substack is about how conservatives have abandoned their "values" talk from the 90s, and why the left needs to pick it up. This nation worships wealth and the wealthy in ways causing us drastic harm. So many of us yearn for deeper meaning beyond getting and spending. We need to talk more about thar.

My friends who are Christian leftists have reacted positively to what I wrote here. At the same time, I fear that values conversations on the left that do exist are getting ghettoized into particular religious contexts. That really needs to be fixed. 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Notes on Gerstle's Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order

 I've been doing a deep dive into the history of neoliberalism, starting with Gary Gerstle's recent overview. As I write in my Substack, it's an excellent book with a couple of blind spots when it comes to interpreting the behavior of conservative voters. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Introducing 8 Track Camaro Rock Classics

I've been neglecting this blog in favor of chasing clout on Substack, and that makes me kind of sad. I want to reserve this space for the hardcore nerds who bother to read the really obscure stuff that bubbles out of my head. With that in mind, I am starting a new series: 70s Camaro Rock Classics.

We all have our guilty pleasures, and a genre of music I call 8 Track Camaro Rock is my biggest. This is the kind of dumb, loud, meathead hard rock music that you can imagine some reprobate would be blasting out of the 8 track deck of his souped up Camaro circa 1975 while taking hits from a bag of airplane glue. 

I've been a good little boy and pretty sensible all my life, but I get my bad side out of my system through music. I may wear collared shirts and dress shoes to work every day, but on the subway ride in I will be blasting some Foghat into my headphones. I try to be a sensitive man, so I get a guilty thrill out of the sexist macho in this music. I am an intellectual who reads at least a book a week, but sometimes I have to listen to lyrics written on the third grade level. 

This is the kind of music that no rock critic takes seriously, and they're actually right. I'll be highlighting these songs over the next few months, and having fun along the way. I'm also aiming to bring in some deep cuts, and not just the best known tracks of the genre. 

I am going to start with a band near and dear to my heart, REO Speedwagon. They started in Champaign, Illinois, where I spent some of the best years of my life. I always thought they were a cheesy 80s power ballad band, then a friend introduced me to their 70s 8 track Camaro classics. Before they hit the big time, they wandered through the polyester decade with album after album of boogie rocking. 

"157 Riverside Avenue" was the highlight of their first album, one they have played in concert since. In fact, it's best heard on their tragically named double live album You Get What You Play For. By that point, the band had honed their arena rock skills through years of touring. In this version you can hear the absolutely searing guitar work of Gary Richrath, someone who ought to be classified among the greats of his era, a kind of Midwestern Peter Green. 

The double live album itself is the greatest cultural relic of 8 Track Camaro Rock. The rock show was truly the place to be back then, and in case you passed out in the parking lot after smoking a J and drinking one too many Old Milwaukees, you could go down to the record store and bring the rock show home with you. At its base, 8 Track Camaro Rock is just about letting loose with some big dumb stupid fun. We could all use a dose of that. (REO Speedwagon in the 80s certainly could have, too.) 

Why More People In Power Should Follow Benedict's Example

My newest Substack is about the recently deceased Pope Benedict. I very much disagreed with his leadership of the church, but he ended his tenure as pope by doing something admirable: he quit. I wish more of our failed leaders had that courage.