Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Media Talking Points From A Scholar Of Historical Memory

My dissertation was about historical memory, and I have written plenty of scholarship and taught classes about it. For that reason, it is extremely irritating to look at the discourse around the removal of Confederate monuments and not see any scholars of memory featured prominently in the media. Since I won't be asked to go on CNN, here are some handy talking points you can use in your conversations with other folks.

Monuments are about creating a "usable past."
Folks who are in the middle seem most convinced by the argument that taking down these monuments is somehow "denying history" or "eliminating history." It is easy to understand why this argument appeals to (white) people with a low-stakes interest in this issue, but it doesn't hold water. Monuments as part of public memory are an attempt to create a "usable past." They are a way to create an interpretation of the past that is given an official stamp of approval. This is why you don't see massive public monuments celebrating emancipation in this country, but plenty of them in Caribbean nations where the population is mostly black.

Confederate monuments created a white supremacist usable past.
Other people have written about this, but it bears repeating: the vast majority of Civil War monuments in the South were built during the height of Jim Crow. They were not immediate responses to the war. They are also intended to push a certain interpretation of the war, the "Lost Cause." This narrative essentially said that the white South was the superior side fighting for a just cause, and only lost due to the material superiority of the Union. These monuments defended the old slaveocracy at a time when lynchings and other incidents of racial violence were accelerating. By being erected after Reconstruction and during Jim Crow, they are not mourning a defeat in the Civil War, but actually celebrating the victory of white supremacy in its aftermath. Context matters.

There is plenty of precedent for tearing down monuments.
This is something we know, but it bears repeating. The same people today saying that tearing down Confederate monuments is "destroying history" did not complain when statues of Lenin and Stalin were eliminated during the revolutions in the Eastern Bloc. Those monuments were symbols of hated, repressive regimes. The same goes for Confederate monuments. They are the symbols of white supremacy. Hell, American colonists in New York famously tore down a statue of King George III, and melted it into cannon balls. This event was celebrated in my history textbooks in school. No one seems to be crying any tears over the loss of that statue. We are not bound to the usable pasts created by people who lived a hundred years ago.

We should view this moment as a time for positive change.
While it is good to tear down monuments to white supremacy, we should be thinking about the usable pasts of this country that would be preferable. For example, Union monuments built in the North were also built during a time of intense white supremacy. While these monuments obviously do not celebrate the defense of slavery, they rarely, if ever, mention it. This is due to the "reunionist" feeling at the time where the memory of the Civil War eliminated its political causes, and instead the reuniting of the country was emphasized. Of course, this meant erasing African Americans from this history, and essentially accept a reunited nation for white people only. In North and South we need more public memory of slavery, and the role of slavery in the Civil War. We should use this moment to create a usable past that is more inclusive and more honest about this country's history.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What I Saw in Bedminster

Saturday morning I drove forty minutes out to rural western New Jersey to meet a group of people participating in the "People's Motorcade." This is a protest where protestors get around the lack of a nearby protest space by driving very slowly past the gates of Trump's golf course, their cars festooned with signs and noise blaring.

I had done it once before, back weeks before during the president's first visit. This time there were fewer cars, about twenty of them. Those participating were almost all from the immediate area, except for a family that, like me, had trekked from Essex County. This is a part of New Jersey that's rather conservative in its politics, especially compared to the rest of the state, so the locals really seemed to relish their event. It was begun by a single person, and is completely and totally grassroots.

In many ways this is a great thing. This kind of grassroots action is the necessary ingredient for successful political movements. However, I found it disheartening as well. Where was the institutional support? Why weren't larger groups coming in to bolster and support this? Since Trump has taken office there has been a massive tide of engagement by liberals and progressives, but the lack of institutional support and organization has made it difficult to sustain.

Our opponents do not make this mistake. Remember the Tea Party? It was astroturfed into relevance with massive infusions of conservative cash. It had a champion, Glenn Beck, on cable news spouting its talking points every day. We, on the other hand, are on our own.

This is why I am taking part in protests like the one I did yesterday. It's not only important as a political act, it is a reminder that I am not alone in this. Just standing there and chatting before we drove to the course was a kind of therapy. In a time when everything seems to be out of my hands, it felt like taking back some power. As I went past the entrance of Trump's golf course the first time I blared the Isley Brothers' "Fight The Power," on the second run it was Public Enemy. It felt good. Did it do anything? Not in the bigger picture, but it mattered for those of us who were there.

My good feeling died pretty quickly since right after I got home I started seeing the news out of Charlottesville. I'm still kind of reeling, to be honest. I only know that we have to get out there. We have to fight. If you ever wanted to know how you would have acted in in other times of moral crisis, now's the time to find out.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

August Dread

We put our daughters in camp this week and next, mostly because my wife's job starts up well before the school year. Last summer was her first in the new position and we didn't do this and I almost went nuts from having to wrangle two hyper and bored four year olds by myself for three weeks. This camp time has been nothing short of blissful. Today I sat on the back porch with a book and a cup of coffee, listening to Tusk as the leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. Earlier I started cranking out an essay for publication. In my relaxed state this week I had already written two others. I don't want these days to end.

But soon they will. For teachers August is the Sunday of months, a mix of relaxation and dread.

Those jerkoffs who always think teachers have their summers "off" never understand that our work is akin to being front line soldiers. Without leave we would lose our minds and the ability to keep fighting. Summer feels less like a break than a rotation out of the trenches. Like a World War I soldier, I am keenly aware when I am away that I will have to go back.

This is not meant to be a complaint. I love my current job more than any other job I've had. This year, as in the others, there were hugs and tears at graduation, and the kind of gratitude that warms my heart like nothing else. But getting to that point requires a truly monumental expense of mental, emotional, and physical energy. In my case I dread not the demands of teaching as much as my commute. It's an hour each way if everything goes right, which would be bad enough, but lately that hasn't been the case. Just getting to the train on time each morning requires a ritual of clockwork precision which includes walking the dog, preparing breakfast for my children, and getting a couple of headstrong toddlers out of bed and out the door before the sun comes up. I am usually worn out even before I get to my train, a train so crowded that half the time I do not even get to sit down.

Between my work, commute, and child care responsibilities on an average work day I get about two hours of free time if I am lucky. Some days it's none. I used to expand that time by staying up too late, but that had a lot of bad side effects, from fatigue to crankiness. Last year I resolved to get seven hours of sleep a night, and I mostly held to that. (Watching the World Series made that difficult, though.)

Soon the cycle will start all over again. As much as I am feeling the dread, I know that on that first day of class that I will answer the bell and will be full of energy and enthusiasm. At the end of the day, that's what you have to do if you want to be a teacher, and why so few people make it past their first few years, even with their "summer off."

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 15

This episode of Old Dad's Records is a "five" episode, meaning that I get to dissect one of my more prized records. In this case, it's Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. With the president threatening nuclear war and tearing apart the social safety net, it seemed pretty appropriate.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Life On Mars

Well, it's been six months since inauguration, meaning that we are only one eighth of the way through the first term of Trump's presidency. Every now and then I force myself to stop and look at what surrounds me and to remind myself the subtle changes that have already happened. We have already come to accept the fact that the leader of our country will go on Twitter to denounce his enemies, intimidate the press, and spew a torrent of lies and bullshit. That has become normal. Hell, it's become the daily entertainment for a lot of people. It reminds me of Kierkegaard's tale about a clown who rushes out to the stage of a theater to tell the crowd that the theater is on fire and they must leave. The crowd thinks it's a joke, and just laughs harder the more that the clown implores them, before it's too late.

We have made the destruction of our own democracy a kind of true life reality show. As I wrote about before, America went through a long Brezhnev period of rot, where the masses stopped actually believing in the system they were living under. I know more than one person who voted for Trump out of a kind of nihilistic glee. (At least one of them regrets it, but too late.) Even people who oppose Trump get fascinated by the show, forgetting the stakes involved. Back in the 2016 election, too many media voices treated him as a joke, and they still do. After all, they're not the ones getting deported, and it drives up their ratings and ad revenue. I get the feeling that Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death will be seen as a work of great prophecy by future generations.

And you what, I play my role in this. I watch Hayes and Maddow way too much. I spend a lot of time on Twitter. There is a difference between being engaged and being distracted, and I think I am becoming the latter. This morning I got a good reminder of that. I went to a nearby town to get some bakery bread, and there were folks setting up what looked like a protest in the small town square against Trump's immigration policies. At that moment I realized that while I had been diligently calling and writing lawmakers for the past three months, I had not been doing anything communal, not since I joined a protest for transgender rights in Austin, Texas, that I happened to run into back in March. That's not good enough.

Salvation is not going to come from anyone near the top. The top-level media still equivocates and still, after all these years, tries to play the false equivalency game. The Republican Party has signed a blood pact with the criminal in chief, and will not turn against him until maybe the 2020 election, if then. On the other side, if political smarts was TNT the Democrats could not blow their nose. Change is only going to come from those of us who take the time and make the sacrifices to act. That's a fact that I am going to try to keep in mind as the world around me becomes increasingly unbearable.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Dialing Back

Let me give y'all a peek behind the curtain.

The small number of people who read this blog on the regular have probably noticed the decreased frequency of posts in recent weeks. This is largely due to the fact that I slept in my own bed in only eight of the 34 days between June 28 and July 31. My travel schedule has made blogging tough, but I am also making a self-conscious decision to dial things back a bit. 

If have kept myself to a very strict pace of posting something every other day. I've been blogging at this pace for most of the past thirteen years. Back when I started, blogs were the cool new thing. Now they have been replaced by tweetstorms and articles on innumerable websites, from the big to the small. I have come to realize that my concentration on this blog has been spurred by a certain amount of cowardice. Here I am my own editor, here no one can reject my work. After years of the hell of the academic job market and publishing worlds, I am still very much afraid of rejection. I need to get over that.

Like the person who cleans their house when they need to be meeting a work deadline, this blog has allowed me to keep intellectually busy in a way that allows me to feel less guilt about my slacking in other areas. I have been working on a book length project for over six years, for example, where I have written over a hundred pages, but none in the past year. I have been able to get things published on much more renowned sites like Jacobin, but my pace of writing things for the outside has really slowed down. 

It's not 2004 anymore, and very few people are reading blogs. Nobody is going to read this and decide to promote me out of the minor leagues. The fact of the matter is that deep down I am a plugger who still believes that excellent work is its own self-promotion. I am aware that in the current climate that is a phenomenally wrong-headed approach. 

So I am going to still keep writing here, but I will be writing less for this blog and more for my other projects, which I will be doing more to integrate into this blog. I'm also going to keep up with the podcast, since that's been providing me with a direly needed creative outlet. And if you are a regular reader, please let me know what kind of stuff you prefer to hear from me, just so I know what to concentrate on.  Thanks as always for listening.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

REM, "You Are The Everything"

1989, When the cover of the Rolling Stone mattered

Back when I was 15-16 years old, no band mattered more to me than REM. In my isolated Nebraska hometown they were pretty much the only band from the postpunk underground that I could hear on my local radio station and see on MTV outside of 120 Minutes until "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped like bomb in the late autumn of 1991.

During the preceding summer a great chunk of my summer job money went to buying the band's entire back catalog. Of all of their albums I purchased that summer, Green is perhaps my least favorite (though I still like it.) At that point in REM's career they had graduated out of the college rock circuit into the arenas due to "The One I Love" off their previous album and "Stand." Green was the last of a trilogy of more straight ahead rock albums (also including Life's Rich Pageant and Document), turning away from the stranger sounds on their early records.

The band would turn from the rock to folky and, ironically, greater fame with 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People. I call those the "mandolin albums" due to Peter Buck's infatuation with that instrument at the time. This missing link is a song on Green, "You Are The Everything."
It is one of my all time favorite REM deep cuts, and brings out an element of the band that always spoke to me: their rural vibe. Much was made of the fact that they hailed from and continued to live in Athens, Georgia, rather than the big city. The Gothic weirdness of rural America is embedded in their best music, and having grown up in a small town, that really grabbed me.

"You Are The Everything" starts with the sound of insects chirping in the dark, and I have always pictured the sound of my parents' back patio on a summer night whenever this song plays. There is an air of mystery in the haunting harmonium and mandolin. For lack of a better word, REM perfected the use of mystery in their music, of creating an uncanny feeling. Michael Stipe's poetic lyrics, never straight-forward and always open to interpretation, were a key element in this. In the early days he mumbled them, making it obvious that feel and impression, and not literal meaning, were what he was going for. By the late 80s the lyrics were easier to make out, but not always to interpret. This song expresses a kind of despair and fear, and has great evocative Stipe lines like "all you hear is time stand still in travel" and "eviscerate your memory." The "you" in the song is amorphous. Is he talking to his sister about a childhood road trip? A friend? A lover? Despite the talk of despair, there is warmth in the music and Stipe's voice. The talk of finding comfort and hope amidst the fear makes this song pretty apt for these times.