Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year's Eve Longings

New Year's Eve has always been a beloved holiday for me, mostly since it has nothing to do with family obligations, and a lot to do with friends, booze, and self-reflection, three of my favorite things. Growing up, my family always got together with two other families with whom we had been friends with ever since I could remember. One couple are godparents to one of my sisters, the other came all the way out to Jersey from Nebraska for my wedding, something that no one in my extended biological family bothered to do. The kids of my friends' parents were close in age to me and my sisters; in a lot of ways they were our second family. While the adults made merry upstairs (on one of the few nights when my parents would have more than a solitary drink), we would be in the basement, playing games, drinking endless cans of soda (Mountain Dew, not bourbon, was my tipple of choice back then), and running upstairs now and then to snag some snacks. The best part was when everyone got together at midnight to ring in the New Year (with the help of Dick Clark, of course.) Us kids had a box of old-school noise makers, and really raised a holler with them. Those nights are some of the most vivid and happiest of my life.

 I had such a good time that I would still show up to the annual party when I came home for college, although now I would be drinking beers and talking football upstairs with the adults. I did this despite being at a point in my life where my late-adolescent disdain for everything associated with myself before college and its concomitant personal reinvention knew no bounds. However, getting to participate in the New Year's party like an adult marked a true coming of age, more than either my high school or college graduation.

 As I get older, these memories highlight a problem with holidays I never used to have. Namely, I'm really starting to miss the people who aren't around anymore. I don't just mean friends and family who have passed on, but people that mean a lot to me who I never get to see. There's a lot I would give to reunite all of the three families together for a New Year's party. Sometimes we get to see each other around Christmas, but that's not enough. Some of us are on the east coast, some in California, others sprinkled around the Midwest. My childhood family friends are only the tip of the separation iceberg, however. 

Since leaving home at the age of 18, I have lived in seven different cities, four different states, and one other country. During my vagabond days I had the good fortune to meet so many fantastic people and make so many cherished friends. As happy as I am to be here in New Jersey with my wife and finally living together after years spent apart, I still really miss my old friends. New Year's Eve is not a holiday for family, it is a holiday for friends, and it is them that I long for more than ever this year. I want to relive the annual New Year's feast and drinking of Irish whiskey with my peeps in Lincoln, to get the grad school clan (the only other group that could qualify as a second family for me) back together for a bocce ball bbq and to see all their children who are growing up so fast, to enjoy a rye whiskey cocktail and obscure pop culture at R and E's pad in Illinois, to gab in broken German with my generous relatives in Nordenham, to get K and J from my Michigan days together with a bottle of Scotch and a trip to the bowling alley like we used to after our exhausting Thursdays, to spend a night in Milwaukee with my old Chicago roomie and pal D and his lovely wife M, and to reconvene and share survivor stories with the gang of true blue Menschen who helped me endure three years in East Texas purgatory.

Life is too short, and one of its great cruelties in our modern age is that it is constantly pulling us apart from each other to new jobs in new towns during the little time we have. With all due respect to Robert Burns, this New Year's Eve I fervently hope that all acquaintance shall not be forgot.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Will 2011 Be a "Turning Point that Failed to Turn"?

2011 has a been year of world revolution akin to those 1848, 1968, or 1989. In the space of one year Mubarak, Qaddafi and Berlusconi have all been tossed from power. Now even Vladimir Putin has had to face popular wrath. Arab Spring is remaking the Middle East, the Occupy protests have swept America and changed the political discourse, and the European Union has been pushed to the brink. In the words of Yeats' famous poem, "the center does not hold."

As a historian, I am well aware that revolutions are unpredictable and are just as likely to move backwards rather than forward. The old saw about the revolutionary year of 1848 in Europe was that it was "the turning point that failed to turn" because revolutionary regimes failed to maintain power and were toppled by authoritarian and reactionary forces. More recent historical work has shown that the revolutions still changed much in the long term, but the fact that they failed to reach their immediate goals still holds true. I often wonder whether the current situation will be a repeat.

As in 1848 and other moments of revolution, the current situation has arisen from the breakdown of basic political and economic structures. In the Middle East the old secular dictatorships are being toppled, in the United States there is increasing anger with the supply-side economic model that has reigned for the past three decades, and in Europe the whole post-Cold War order seems to be entering into a crisis stage.  At the same time, the forces of reaction have been readying their counterattacks.  For instance, the Egyptian military is clamping down on protest and in Europe the technocrats, hardly known for their democratic spirit, have more power now than ever.  2012 may very well be a repeat of 1849, a year of restorations.

However, I think it's well nigh impossible to get the revolutionary genie back in the bottle.  In this country wealth inequality has finally become a pressing political issue, and can no longer be warded off with shrieks of "class warfare."  Restorations of the old guard will happen, but they will also bring with them concessions.  Even if the next year sees a roll-back, 2011 will go down as a pivotal year.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Why I am Saying Good-bye to College Sports

Growing up in rural Nebraska, I lived and died by the prospects of the Cornhuskers.  When they went through years of getting shellacked and embarrassed in bowl games, I felt real, despairing pain.  I attended their famous 1987 showdown with Oklahoma, and the 'Huskers' loss that day ripped out my twelve year old heart. When they won national championships after the 1994, 1995, and 1997 seasons, I felt true joy, akin to that of a pilgrim finally reaching a holy site.  Like any true believer, I tried to downplay the less savory aspects of my faith.  For example, in 1995 when star running back Lawrence Philips was merely suspended -not kicked off the team- for violently assaulting his ex-girlfriend, I felt a twinge of uneasiness and thought the decision was wrong, but managed to shrug it off and still celebrated when Philips returned for the Fiesta Bowl and helped the Huskers cream Florida.  Later on, when I was a graduate student at Big Ten University, I went to football games and watched as many of the team's basketball games as possible.  This despite knowing from friends who had some players as students, that some of them should have been academically ineligible to play, but either through manipulation or pressure, still got to take the court.  Those facts faded from my mind when I celebrated my team's amazing comeback victory to get them into the Final Four.

I'd known for a long time that big-time college sports were corrupt and riven with the rankest hypocrisy, but somehow managed to compartmentalize that knowledge.  Perhaps I saw it as a small price to pay for all the pageantry, drama, excitement, and fun college sports provide.  Is there any weekend in sports more captivating than the NCAA basketball tournament's opening?  Are there any rivalries in all of American sport to rival Auburn versus Alabama, Michigan versus Ohio State, and Texas versus Oklahoma?  These things are often wonderful things to behold, but they are built upon a foundation of lies and corruption, and have a parasitical relationship with America's struggling universities.  Finally, after years of trying not to think about the implications of big-time college athletics or let its reality mess with my ideals, my absolute disgust and moral conscience has triumphed.  I only wish it hadn't taken so long.

The NCAA is famously hypocritical and corrupt.  It talks about the ideal of the "student athlete" while generating millions of dollars for coaches, sportswear companies, leaders of "non-profit" bowl games and other assorted business types who benefit from the free labor on the field and on the court.  Recently it has allowed the creation of "superconferences" whose alignments have been determined by TV revenue, not geography.  These new conferences will necessitate longer travel times, and thus more missed classes by "student athletes."  These same "student athletes" often suffer from neglected education and low graduation rates.  The vast majority do not have professional careers waiting for them, and many are simply tossed on the trash heap once their playing careers are over.  (I should note that I have had many great student athletes in my classes over the years, so I am not saying that athletes are necessarily bad students.  However, I can say without hesitation that sports commitments make studies difficult for most of these students, and many of them were the absolute worst I ever had.)

Among those in the know, there's a consensus that every major basketball and football program cheats to a greater or lesser extent.  A recent study found that HALF of all big-time athletic programs had been punished by the NCAA in the last decade.  The tacit acceptance of this fact might be the reason why violators of the rules are allowed to get lucrative coaching jobs at other universities despite their past malfeasance.  In a recent example, Bruce Pearl, who just got fired from coaching Tennessee's basketball team for committing multiple major violations, fully expects to get hired somewhere else!  The pretense that college sports are being regulated in any meaningful way is a joke.

Athletic programs, in my experience, exist outside of the university community at large.  There certainly seems to be a mentality within these programs, and certainly among the coaches, that they are above the law and operate outside of university scrutiny.  The Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State is proof positive in case you needed it.  I also think of Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech football coach who locked a player with a concussion in a closet, has not only had the goal to sue Tech for wrongful firing, but has also been rewarded with a two million dollar a year contract with Washington State.

All of these things have nagged at me for years, but my true breaking point didn't come until I connected college athletics to the larger problems universities are facing.  Those of you who have been reading this job are aware of my alarm and anger at the continued degradation of our universities and their misplaced priorities. For a long time, like a lot of other academics, I viewed the athletic department as almost a separate appendage of the university, a wholly different world.  My main contact came in the form of queries from officials in that department over the grades of student athletes, which I resented for giving athletes special status.  Still, it didn't really bother me all that much until I noticed that during the major cuts at all of the universities where I studied or worked over the last ten years, humanities departments were more likely to be cut than anything related to athletics.  In my last job this was most clear.  When the president of East Texas University gave his annual address, he let the faculty know that we could not expect a merit pay increase in the coming year, and that no promises could be made in regards to job cuts.  In the same speech, he got very excited by a new purple beacon (school's color) that would be lit up to signal victories by the football and basketball teams and be seen all across the town, replacing the measly purple light that had been on top of a recently demolished dormitory.  Keep in mind, this is not taking place at a big-time sports university, but a regional state university struggling with its finances.  As if to confirm these misbegotten priorities, a new student recruiting film gave the school's football traditions more air time than its academic programs.

Murray Sperber memorably termed the college athletics "beer and circus," referring to them as a way to distract students from the degradation of their education.  A large number of students are much less interested in college as an educational opportunity than as an experience.  Athletics is one of the key components of the "college experience," as much as parties, luxury dorms, and the shiny new student centers and gyms that universities are building to compete for those students who seek it.  At big time sports schools, students are more willing to march to protect millionaire misbehaving coaches rather than to protest their increased tuition and the drastic cuts to their education.  Just witness the students who took to the streets to support child-molestation enabler Joe Paterno and the physically abusive Bobby Knight.  The support of "beer and circus" has seemingly eclipsed the educational mission of so many institutions of higher learning.

Affordable public higher education is a in life-or-death situation, perilously close to extinction.  That several universities have cut philosophy and language programs, yet retain football teams, is perhaps the greatest piece of evidence for our society's current insanity.  I just can't go on enjoying college football and basketball, pretending that these things aren't a big part of what's killing universities.  Like any other bad habit, I feel it's time to give it up.  

Friday, December 23, 2011

Reasons to Be Glad I'm Not Attending the American Historical Association's Annual Conference

This academic job hunting season is the first since 2004 that I have not been on the academic job market. It took me three cracks to get a tenure-track job, and then three increasingly futile stabs at finding an escape from that job. I spent about six months of each year in a six year period wracked with anxiety and self-doubt and an extra layer of stress on top of an already stressful existence. In 2009 I went to the conference in San Diego without an interview because I was flogging a book manuscript. Later on in the hunt some phone interviews and an on campus interview at least materialized. Last year I did not get a single interview for a university position, AHA or not, despite have better qualifications than ever (more on that below.) I had another article in print and a book contract, but apparently that didn't mean anything. Not being on the market feels liberating, but strange. Like some kind of sick junky, I watch the job ads and look closely at the ones I could apply to. Maybe it's because my life has been so transient for so long that I am just not used the idea that I can be certain about where I will be living and working in the next year. It's good to finally have that certainty, but it still hasn't sunk in yet. Below you'll find what I wrote about the annual AHA conference this time last year. My feelings are pretty much the same today.


 This coming January will be the first since 2005 that I will not be attending the American Historical Association's annual conference. Because none of the schools where I applied invited me to dance, and because my book manuscript is now under contract (eliminating the need to kiss the asses of publishers), the expense didn't seem justifiable. I am little bummed that I am passing up a chance to see Boston (a place I've never been), and certainly wish I could see many old friends who will be attendance. However, I have plenty of good reasons to happy about not going.

First and foremost, I will not miss the job annex, a place emanating a most powerful musk of fear and desperation. It represents much that has gone wrong with my profession: young scholars must humiliate themselves in an academic meat-market where they compete in a Darwinian struggle for a dwindling number of tenure track jobs. It's especially great if you have to deal with committee members who are out to lunch, senile, or just plain hostile.

Largely because of my rural, lower-middle class upbringing, I have a strong distaste for brown-nosing, status mongering, social climbing, pretentiousness, intellectual dick-waving, and institutionalized elitism. All of these are on display to rather disgusting extremes at the AHA. I loathe watching people check out the name tags of others, to see if they're worth talking to. My stomach turns when I overhear smug children of privilege brag about their number of job interviews. And I positively gag when I attend panels where someone who attended the same Ivy League institution where they now teach prattles on about some obscure tradition at that place like the rest of us should fucking care about it. The next person who tells me that academia is a meritocracy is going to get a neck-punching.

Last but not least, I can no longer simply stomach the sound of a violin playing in the midst of a great fire. Never has the metaphor of emperor Nero been more apt, despite recent efforts by the organization to address the jobs crisis. Last year the book display had an ominous number of empty spaces, and the job annex looked less like a bustling hive of anxiety and more like a lonely nave of dead dreams. As I have said many times before, the university-based historical profession is dying before our eyes, but the vast majority who have managed to get tenure-track jobs have preferred to relish their place in the lifeboat rather than to do anything for their peers who are drowning to death all around them. The lifeboarters will survive and get to live the great academic dream; my only solace is, to paraphrase Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, do nothing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why Education Reformers Remind Me of Robert Moses

I spent a lot of my time last summer immersing myself in the history of New York City. Part of this is because I am wanting to relate trends in history to episodes in New York to make the material more relevant to my students, but mostly because it's just so damned interesting. One subject that I find endlessly fascinating is the transformation (some would say disfigurement) of New York City at the hands of Robert Moses. As part of my further education, I recently read Joe Flood's recent, highly engaging The Fires, and am currently burning by way through Robert Caro's classic Moses biography The Power Broker.

Both show the horrible damage that can be done under the banner of reform, especially when unaccountable power is given to someone as ruthlessly autocratic as Moses. Essentially, from the 1920s to the 1960s, he tried to remake the city in the image of the automobile. This meant building freeways by bulldozing entire neighborhoods with almost zero input from their residents. Organic communities that had flourished, despite the challenges of poverty, were now having their hearts ripped out. These moves, of course, massively privileged the suburbs and helped drain the city of revenue.

In addition, Moses supported the postwar trends in "slum clearance" and concentrated public housing, which meant tearing people out of their neighborhoods and stacking them like blocks in alienating high rise complexes. A pattern emerges whereby poor people of color are labeled a "problem," and then have all kinds of misbegotten experiments performed upon them without their input.

Flood's book examines the famous epidemic of fires in the Bronx, parts of Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side in the 1960s and 1970s. He finds that much of the problem had to do with the upheavals caused by Moses' reconfiguration, along with a failed attempt by the city to do fire fighting on the cheap. In a move that ought to sound familiar to those of us in education, the city decided to deal with its shrinking revenue by asking the fire department to "do more with less." They ended up doing a a lot less with less, despite the pleas from the firefighters' union for more men and more stations. In another familiar phrase, their proposal was met with the old saw "you can't just throw money at the problem."

Many of today's supposed education "reformers" exhibit a similar arrogance and willful ignorance of the people they are inflicting their ideas upon. They often come in from outside, with experience in the corporate world (think of Bill Gates), and little understanding of the educational system that they want to upend. They claim the current system is inefficient and costly, and boast that they can do more with less. Without consulting the teachers (who they always call "unions"), they propose destructive solutions like ending tenure, heavily relying on standardized testing for evaluating students and teachers and ending collective bargaining.

Coincidentally enough, the "failed schools" they rail against are always poor, and heavily attended by people of color. In the educational equivalent of bulldozing, they don't bat an eye at closing down schools or firing all the teachers, all the while refusing to address the underlying problems of poverty. Like the public housing officials who thought that park space and modern kitchens alone would somehow cause poor people to lead much improved lives, they believe the myth that the right teacher can somehow cancel out the effects of endemic social inequality. When the people being experimented on revolt against their treatment, as happened in Washington DC when Michelle Rhee (our modern day Robert Moses) was ousted by the public, parents are blamed for their short-sightedness, and simply not listened to.

I see a similar dynamic in higher education as well. Hollow-headed pols like Rick Perry make much fanfare about "breakthrough solutions" that amount to dousing the university system in gasoline and setting it ablaze. They propose doing away with the current system without having consulted the people who live and work inside of it. In fact, he has been actively pressuring universities to adopt his ideas against their will and better judgement. I would be the first person to say that higher ed faces major problems, but one of the primary issues is constantly being asked to "do more with less," since that's what's been done for thirty years and we're just about at the breaking point.

Many of the self-styled reformers of education exhibit the willful ignorance, authoritarian tendencies, and magical thinking I associate with technocratic reformers from the past like Robert Moses, and another Robert, by the name of McNamara. Like the US military in Vietnam, Rhee, Perry, and Bill Gates will do a lot of damage in the course of their failed experiment.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Progress Report on Letting the Dream Die

As most of you out there in cyberland who read this know, I recently left academia to teach at a private high school in New York City so that I could be with my wife and live in a place that I liked.  When I left my old job, despite its being wretched in so many respects, I still felt a great loss.  In effect, I was letting a dream die, a dream to which I had sacrificed over a decade of my youth, my financial well-being, my health (not having dental care through most of that time has taken a toll, and I drank and smoked way too much as a stress release), and tremendous mental and physical effort.  I told myself that I was in effect putting away childish things, and accepting the fact that I probably wasn't cut out to be a professor of European history.  I had the publications and the tenure-track position to sustain that fiction, but deep down in my heart of hearts, I was already feeling like I was having to try harder and harder to be pretend to be something that I was not, even if I had wanted to be that very thing more than anything else for so long.

A few months on, I can't say that I feel let down.  Right now I get to go to bed each night and wake up each morning with my wife, and our life together gives me unspeakable joy.  I eat much healthier, have lost weight, cut down drastically on booze, and have yet to fall into the kind of debilitating depressive episodes that I used to have every two months or so in the past.  I love my job, cherish interacting with my students, and am humbled by how much appreciation has already been shown me by my superiors.  After five years spent in two different positions where my hard work and accomplishments were either ignored or seen as a threat, I almost feel as if it is too good to be true.  The ill treatment I've endured at those jobs has made me a bit of a scaredy cat, always on my toes to be ready when they all turn on me.  This month I finally feel like I've been able to put my guard down and be more open and more like myself around my co-workers and superiors.

The hardest part has been letting myself have other dreams, after the dream of my lifetime ended with failure and bitterness.  I am working on a book-length project and a couple of smaller ones, but I constantly have to fight the voices in my head that say that publishing is dying, or that now that I have been banished from the groves of academe, no one will take my historical scholarship seriously, let alone publish it.  Today I went to the New York Public Library to do some serious research, and the nagging doubts died down amid the ecstasy of my immersion into the documents of the past.  Perhaps even if nothing comes of my research forays I can use them as a sort of meditation.

Here's the post I wrote on my old blog about letting the dream die, by the way.  Enjoy.
****** After much soul-searching and with the academic hiring season over, I've decided that it's time to leave the profession. I know in my heart it's the right thing to do, and many people I trust think so too, but it feels like part of my soul has died. Twelve years of insanely hard work -much of it spent in penury-, a book contract, three scholarly articles, and semester after semester of positive teaching evaluations don't seem to have added up to much of anything besides a lackluster job at a completely dysfunctional institution in a two-bit crudhole town over a thousand miles from the love of my life. It's insane to stick with it, and even if the dream was effectively killed before I made this decision, it still means I am in mourning.

I've been coping in the usual way: both wallowing and transcending. For the wallowing, there's been plenty of depressing British folk music. This song currently has a particular resonance with me.

For the transcending, I have started working on a non-academic book that may very well be my magnum opus. I also think about this clip to cheer me up, too. It's the equivalent of laughing at a funeral, which I am wont to do.

As the man says, "let the dream die!"

More Evidence That The Ideological Tail Wags the GOP Dog

Not so long ago, I had this to say about the current presidential campaign: "The continuous circus sideshow otherwise known as the Republican presidential debates has exposed the GOP's scary twin obsessions with ideological purity and demonizing their opponents."  I wrote those words partially in response to Rick Perry's claim that he would purge the government civil service of those who did not agree with his political philosophy.  Now it appears that the Newtron bomb has upped the ante saying that president Gingrich would send out US Marshals to arrest judges who made decisions that he did not agree with.  Perhaps the death of Kim Jong Il has pushed these words off of the front pages, but they are as chilling as they are outrageous.  We essentially have the leading candidate for one of the two major parties for president openly bragging that he would destroy the independence of the judiciary through authoritarian means.  (It can't happen here, you say?  Anyone remember the purge of the Justice Department in the last administration?)  I've said it before, and I will say it again: the modern Republican party has ceased to be a political party in the traditional American sense, and has become a vehicle for an extremist political theology.  If the increasingly dire pronouncements by its presidential candidates don't convince you, the most recent hostage-taking attempt by the House GOP over the payroll tax should.  With any luck these tinpot crackpots will have worn out their welcome with the sane sectors of the public long before November of 2012.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What Newt Gingrich's Catholicism Means

There's a very well-done piece in today's Times about Newt Gingrich's conversion to and relationship with Roman Catholicism, a topic that's been on my mind this election season. Why? Because we are witnessing a historically unprecedented moment in our nation's history: politicized evangelical Protestants throwing their support behind a member of a religion they have traditionally seen as the handmaid of the Antichrist.  As in all things related to the past, Americans have a short historical memory when it comes to the longstanding and deep historical currents of anti-Catholicism in this country, and so fail to notice how odd the current situation truly is.  In early America, Catholics were banned from voting and holding public office in several colonies (and later states).  Irish immigrants met a great deal of xenophobia in the mid-nineteenth century, much of it related to their faith.  During the 1920s, the KKK emphasized anti-Catholicism along with racism, and Al Smith's presidency of 1928 inspired all kinds of paranoia about having a "papist" in the White House.  (The rhetoric employed against him, depicting Smith as a kind of anti-American alien, is eerily similar to the paranoid rantings about the current president.)

These days such anti-Catholicism is rather rare outside of isolated pockets of backwoods America and among a certain brand of overly zealous atheist.  Muslims have become the acceptable religious group to hate, evidenced by attacks on mosques, local efforts to ban shariah law (reminiscent of the paranoid rantings against papal domination of the 1920s), and the recent pulling of advertisements from All American Muslim, a show that dares to depict adherents of Islam as human beings.  Gingrich's politically successful conversion to the church of Rome indicates that the old combination of religious bigotry and anti-immigrant "Americanism" has found a new target, even if the substance and rhetoric of the base hatred involved has changed very little.  The formula is pretty much the same: a foreign people with foreign, apostate ways supposedly want to impose their alien way of life and will eventually keep America from staying American.

Basically, the evangelical types supporting the Catholic Gingrich are more concerned about beating back Islam and "secularism" than with the pope.  I should add that this change of emphasis has as much to do with changes in the Catholic Church itself as it does with changes among evangelicals and American society at large.  American Catholicism has always been as much -or even more- about ethnic identity as it is about religious belief.  Being Catholic is part of being Irish, Italian, Mexican, Cuban, Polish etc.  As the descendants of many of these ethnic groups are further and further removed from their immigrant origins and progressively "whitened," ethnic identities fade, and with them adherence to the church.  ("Former Catholic" is the second biggest Christian denomination in America today.)  The church has abetted this process by becoming increasingly ideologically narrow and militant in the last forty years since the great and brief window opened by Vatican II.  To be a Catholic means not being a member of a community, but to be a zealot in an army to roll back the modern world.  It's hardly a surprise that many born into the Church would abandon it, or that many outsiders who share an inability to reconcile with the modern world would become converts.  In their unhinged obsession with abortion and their persecution complex regarding "secularism," many of today's devout Catholics have plenty in common with evangelicals, hence their current, and strange, political alliance in the form of Newt.

Gingrich is a perfect fit for the nouveau Catholicism, as the Times articles points out, because he was attracted from the outside by its reactionaryism and its recent political stances.  As one of the numerous ex-Catholics in this country, I would also say he must be attracted by the Church's manifest hypocrisy and arrogance, two of  Gingrich's defining traits.  In regards to hypocrisy, Gingrich has famously attacked liberals for bringing about moral decay and Bill Clinton for his infidelity, all the while engaging in extramarital affairs in the midst of his fulminating.  The Church's hypocrisy, evident through much of its history, has been made glaringly obvious in the wake of the innumerable abuse scandals, horrific revelations enabled by that institution's tendency to judge others but to retain its moral authority by covering up the heinous crimes of its clerics.  In regards to arrogance, Gingrich never misses an opportunity to puff up his supposed credentials, calling his paid lobbying for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac historical consulting, and expecting others to view him as a "definer of civilization."  The Church's arrogance has been even more flagrant, as it screams about "secularism" and tries to browbeat lapsed Catholics back into the pews while doing absolutely nothing to make the Church more welcoming to and reflective of the needs and desires of Catholics, lapsed or not.  The recent changes in the English language liturgy, which supposedly make it more literally faithful to the Latin but clunky and, in places, non-sensical in English despite the objections of Catholics to the changes is just the most recent example of the Vatican's arrogance.

All that being said, I know a lot of good people who are also deeply Catholic (or evangelical), and we shouldn't confuse all rank and file parishoners and priests with the more reactionary members of the current hierarchy.  I only hope that those wonderful people have the courage to resist the Catholic church's alliance with people who have traditionally treated Catholics with contempt and intolerance, and who are currently heaping infamy on Christianity through their inflexibility, bitterness, and bigotry.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

War is Over: Is Anyone Paying Attention?

The American occupation of Iraq is coming to an end, despite the carping of has-beens like Dick Cheney and John McCain. Strangely enough, that carping has pretty much been the only public discussion about such a momentous occasion. This is reflective of an American public who checked out on this war years ago, despite the continued export of dead Americans in flag-draped coffins from Mesopotamia. Despite the aforementioned moaning from high ranking Republicans, the end of the occupation is massively popular in this country.

But why is this majority silent? Most likely because this war has been unofficially acknowledged as a terrible mistake, the worst American foreign policy decision since Vietnam. It was the most defining aspect of the Bush administration, and the single biggest reason why Shrub has been the least public ex-president in living memory. Lest we forget, his administration fabricated evidence and lied to the American public while exploiting post-9/11 grief to start a war of choice that distracted the military from its mission to get bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. At the time, war hysteria reigned, and opponents, like myself, were a distinct minority. In the run-up to war any dissent or questioning of its motives was met with accusations of treason. I still remember having profanity screamed at me while I quietly held my sign (which read "I love America, not imperialism") at peaceful anti-war protests. I have a feeling that most of the people who yelled those epithets back then secretly believe today that the war never should have been waged. Most people are loathe to admit they are wrong, and so the silent majority today is unwilling to admit their change of heart.

There are plenty of unpleasant worms lurking under the rock of the Iraq war's memory, things most people in this country do not have the stomach to revisit. Let me just name a few, in case you've forgotten: massive torture at Abu-Ghraib, American soldiers sent into battle with inadequate protection (and then condescended to by Donald Rumsfeld for daring to raise the issue), the vice president's henchman outed a CIA operative in order to cover up administrative lies over uranium sales to Iraq, and president Bush proclaiming "mission accomplished" when seven years of grueling war followed.

That rock needs to be turned over, no matter how painful the memories. Now that old Bush administration hands have been rising out of the muck and returning to the public spotlight and advising Republican candidates for president, it is time to remind the public of their past malfeasance. More importantly, we ought to remember the sacrifices made by American soldiers (who deserve a true welcome home), and the sufferings of the Iraqi people, whom we still bear an obligation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

An Ode to Robert Altman

As I sat down to watch McCabe and Mrs. Miller tonight, I remembered this piece from my old blog about Robert Altman. He may be the greatest cinematic genius this country ever produced, and even though I've seen many of his films several times, they always reveal new riches.

I was going to write a long piece that's been gestating in my mind for a couple of years about having grown up during a time of cultural reaction and how I can't fathom the current wave of 80s nostalgia considering the utter shittiness of that particular decade. My plans got changed, however, after I sat down this evening to watch California Split, a 1974 Robert Altman film that I'd never seen before. Altman has become one of my favorite directors, mostly on the basis of his more canonical films, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park, Short Cuts, M*A*S*H*, and the incomparable Nashville.

I like him enough that I've decided to delve into his lesser known stuff (including The Long Good-Bye, a fantastic piece of film making), and California Split certainly qualifies. To be honest, it doesn't reach the heights of the classics I've already mentioned, but it contains all the elements that make Altman's films so good. Unlike 98% of all the movies that get made, the characters live in the kind of cheap, cluttered interiors that most Americans occupy. I'm amazed at the houses depicted in typical Hollywood films, they are light years cleaner and bigger than the average domicile. This may seem like a small thing, but when I see an Altman picture I BELIEVE it because it looks real. His characters also drink in bars with bad lighting, fake leather chairs, and overly talkative, annoying barflies.

Which brings me to one of his great innovations: his way of recording dialogue. Conversations in the movies are usually much too clean; one person talks, and then another one does. In California Split, as in other Altman flicks, people talk over each other, they don't listen, and snatches of conversation in the background distract the listener. In Split he probably takes this a little too far, it was impossible for me at times to understand the gist of some of the conversation. Still, even at its most extreme his methodology betrays an artistry and attention to detail that most directors can't even dream of approaching.

The best thing, though, is that his real subject is life, its compromises, failures, and hopes. When I was a 21 year old I didn't know shit about life, and so I gravitated towards the theoretical flights of fancy in Kubrick and the violent frescoes of Scorcese and Tarantino. Granted, I still enjoy their work, but for the most part they are overgrown adolescents who have little to say about the small sorrows, setbacks and defeats that adults must endure. California Split itself is about two gamblers, and unlike the new entry in the Ocean's Eleven franchise, casinos are not glamorous places. No, the casinos are like the casinos that I've experienced: sordid dens choked with cigarrette smoke and the smell of desperation and wild hope. The gamblers aren't romantic heroes, they're chain smoking, polyester-clad addicts burning with an itch for the next hot streak like a junkie craving for a fix. Even when they win, they know that they're losing a wholly different battle.

Now that Robert Altman is dead, I don't know if anyone else can make flims that speak to these dilemmas. At least he made a lot of them, and I know they'll be my companions until my own passage from this earth.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Explaining the Diminishment of Rick Perry

I haven't weighed in much on the presidential election or the political scene recently, partially because it wears me out, and partially because there are other people out there who can write about the Herman Cain phenomenon better than I can. And let's face it, the fact that Herman Cain became a leading candidate before imploding in a flash of scandal just weeks later is just about the strangest turn of events one could think of. I also never would have thought that the disgraced, disliked and fatuously self-important Newt Gingrich, a man who seems to have put more time into personal book signings than building a ground game in Iowa, would rise from the dead to take the front runner's spot. There's another twist, however, that I saw coming a million miles away: Rick Perry crashing and burning.

Having lived in Texas for three years, I had the opportunity to get to know Governor Goodhair up close and personal. His personae was perfect for the Lone Star State: ultra-conservative, doctrinaire, and leavened with masculine braggadocio. Lotsa my Texan friends thought that he would go down like gangbusters in the Republican primaries, but I was skeptical. Like New Yorkers, Texans have a tendency to see their homeland as a place unto itself, and forget or just don't know that the rest of the nation is very different than they are. Perry was so used to preaching to the wingnut Texas choir that he never had to deal with the broader and more diverse national electorate. I never understood how a man proposing secession could then turn around and ask to be the leader of the very country he would have torn apart.

Perry's inability to see that paradox speaks to one his most obvious attributes: the man is a goddamned moron. If his "D" grades in college weren't enough to prove that point, he has done his best to prove the proposition in the Republican presidential debates and via several public speaking gaffes. Despite the downfalls of Cain and Bachmann, Perry has failed to pick up any momentum. Even a party as brazenly anti-intellectual as the GOP (full global warming denial, creationism and the bashing of academia) seems to be aware that they cannot let the public face of their party be a palpable idiot along the lines of Palin, Bachmann, or Perry. They know deep down that the erudite, articulate, and intelligent president would flat-out embarass any one of those three dolts. Gingrich, on the other hand, preaches the old time conservative religion, with lots of pseudo-intellectual clap-trap to make it look like a set of ideas rather than blind faith in supply-side theology. In the soon to be immortal words of Paul Krugman, Gingrich is "a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like."

Perry is nobody's idea of what a smart person sounds like. The nation already endured eight years of an intellectually unserious swaggering Texas governor as president, there's little call for another one. That's easy to see. Here's something less obvious, but no less true, in my opinion: the Occupy movement's effect on public discourse has ultimately sunk Perry. Even among rank and file Republicans, there's a sense that America's current economic model is a failure. Perry's main claim to fame was as a "job creator," but his state has mostly produced insecure, low-wage jobs, the kind that exemplify the diminishment of opportunity. (Romney may have a record of putting Americans out of work, but he at least looks like he knows what he's talking about.)

Last but not least, Perry is fighting the wrong culture war. He has recently tried to gain strength among evangelicals by attacking gays, but that strategy is so 2004. (In any case, Rick Santorum has the rabid homophobe/self-hating closeted gay vote sewed up.) Republicans have turned their hatred on new targets: immigrants and Muslims. Perry's record in Texas undercuts his anti-immigrant credentials, and he doesn't seem to have engaged in much anti-Muslim or anti-Arab rhetoric (unlike Herman Cain or Newt "Palestinians are an invented people" Gingrich.) Newt gets special a bonus for blowing the "welfare queen" dog whistle; his proposal to teach poor children the value of labor by putting them to work scrubbing toliets in their schools has a subtext that essentially says "let's teach those shiftless Negroes a lesson."

And so Rick Perry, supposedly the shoe-in candidate, finds himself in fourth place. I would feel a little sorry for Rick Perry's continuing public humiliation if he wasn't such a hate-filled authoritarian bully. The overly large contigent of blockheaded right wing flat earthers in Texas might buy into his hokum, but it pleases me to know that the rest of the nation, even in conservative circles, has rejected it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Musical Interlude: Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck

Ever since the dawn of recorded music it seems that performers have been trying to cash in on the Christmas season with the worst kind of over-larded sentimental drivel. Ordinarily enjoyable acts like the Beach Boys have dumped atrocities like "Little Saint Nick" on an unsuspecting populace that still must endure Mike Love's adenoidal yelpings of the world's most asinine lyrics for yet another December. Amidst this never-ending sea of dreck there are a few wonderful pearls to be found, some of which I'd like to highlight.

Fifties jazz singer Pearl Bailey shows how it's done with "Five Pound Box of Money," the type of Christmas gift that I could really go for. The song's a fun play on the materialism of the holiday, taking it to its logical extreme.

So many performers screw up their Christmas songs by making them radical departures from their normal style, or by trying to sing hoary old holiday standards. It's much more fun when a country singer like Ernest Tubb takes his signature tune, "I'll be Walking the Floor Over You" and turns it into "I'll be Walking the Floor this Christmas."

Speaking of deviating from one's strengths, Elvis' "Blue Christmas" has always left me a little cold. However, his rendition on the '68 comeback special, with Elvis tearing into his guitar and the song while clad in black leather, gives it the kind of rough edge it needed on record.

Not all Christmas songs that get major airplay this time of year necessarily stink. The top 40 station in my hometown played this McKenzie brothers tune every year and I still love it. After all these years SCTV holds up really damn well too, much more so than Saturday Night Live. Don't believe me? Check out this hilarious Christmas moment from the show.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

December Sunsets and the Velvet Underground

Here's something I wrote six years ago that came to my mind on a day when the sun came down before I even got to Penn Station. It makes me a bit sentimental, since I wrote it back in my Illinois days, a time that just keeps looking better in hindsight.

I love December sunsets so. So today, after feeding my friends Rachel and Ed's wondrously lustrous feline Delores, I took a walk around in the late afternoon, listening to the Velvet Underground's first album on my discman. It's one I love, especially in December, it just sounds wintry to me for some reason, even though I first started listening to the album in the spring of 1994. Nico's voice (or Nordic foghorn, more accurately) is like a chilly north wind, and the sparks of feedback courtesy of Lou Reed's guitar shoot into my skull like the cold air knifes through my coat. When I listen to "Heroin" or "All Tomorrow's Parties" on that album, though, they seem to physically warm me somehow.

John Cale's background drone on "Heroin" replicates the hazy feeling of a December dawn. The setting sun today created that orange-grey dusk that somehow sets my heart affire in ways that I cannot comprehend. It is ethereal, as if I am on another planet further from the sun, where the sun is more of a star that provides light but no warmth, and a dim light at that. Perhaps it is in the shortest days of the year that we come closest to seeing universal death, and it just might be that brush with mortality that gets me every time.

Or maybe just memory. Growing up, my family would go to Mass on Christmas Eve at 5PM, the church's "children's Mass." Because my parents have a pathological fear of being late, we always arrived more than half an hour early, able to take any seat in the church, and right as the sun was setting. The church lay in a spot where the sun would strike the stained glass quite directly, flooding the church with a golden bath of color and warmth. It would set before the special Mass so full of ritual, and in a child's eyes, magic. (When a child is very young, that's what religion is to them.) The setting sun of Christmas Eve was probably the closest I came to religious ectasy in my life, and I guess there's a piece of that exhilerating feeling in the sunset I saw today.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why It's A Wonderful Life is More Relevant Now Than Ever

Last weekend my wife and I got a wild hair to sit down and watch It's a Wonderful Life, a way to combine our live of 1940s Hollywood with the desire to get into the Christmas spirit. It had been a long time since I'd seen it, and watching it with new eyes I realized that it is one of those films whose deeper meanings have been forgotten. We think of it today as a heart-warming Christmas parable, but in doing so we forget that the main character is driven by his miserable circumstances to lash out at his family and come close to committing suicide. George Bailey, like a lot of people beaten down by life, wonders if he'd been better off never having lived in the first place. This is some pretty dark stuff.

This time around, I paid special attention to the character of Old Man Potter, a greedy banker and slumlord who refers to the immigrant and ethnic residents of his properties as "garlic eaters" and mocks George for trying to give the less fortunate a leg up rather than squeezing them for as much money as possible. Despite the ornate and old fashioned trappings of his office, Potter is a rather contemporary figure. Like the ownership class today, his business decisions are motivated entirely by lucre, with absolutely zero concern for humanity. The local politicians do his bidding, and Potter almost successfully ruins George through an act of naked theft. Because of this apparent critique of the heartlessness of unfettered capitalism, the FBI in 1947 considered It's A Wonderful Life rife with communist propaganda.

When George famously visits his hometown as it would be had he never existed, it has become a mean-spirited, unseemly place where immorality rules and no one cares about the common good. Unlike the Gingrich types today who like to bloviate and bluster about traditional morality while supporting laissez-faire capitalism -that solvent most potent to traditional social bonds- Frank Capra understood that the two cannot coexist. You cannot reduce other human beings to lines on a ledger and expect to create a society that values anything other than the cash nexus. Capra was hardly a radical, but back in 1946, when he made this film, Americans took for granted that a concern for humanity and greed were not compatible.

In our own lives, where many of us are often beset by the kind of self-doubt and economic hardship that drives George Bailey to the brink, it's important to remember what really matters. For years It's a Wonderful Life has been seen as a reminder that family, friends, and community really matter in our own lives. Perhaps we should also see it as a reminder that treating people with dignity and respect is better for our society, too.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Republican Party Just Gets Scarier

Time to dive back into American electoral politics, not least because we are currently witnessing a first in American history: one of the major political parties has completely devolved into an ideologically-focused extremist political movement. By movement I mean something very different than party, although many other nations have parties like this on their fringes (like the BNP, for instance.) Traditionally the two major parties (whether they be Republicans, Democrats, Whigs, or Federalists) had a broad appeal and were essentially coalitions of different groups, geographic origins, and agendas. They also had a fundamental respect for their opposition's right to exist.

No longer.

The continuous circus sideshow otherwise known as the Republican presidential debates has exposed the GOP's scary twin obsessions with ideological purity and demonizing their opponents. Case in point: Newt Gingrich, who is arguably the godfather of our current adversarial mode of Washington politics, called for Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to be jailed. I don't know about you, but when I hear someone calling for their political rivals to be thrown in prison, my blood runs cold. But it doesn't stop there. Just today Rick Perry claimed he would purge the government of civil servants who did not agree with his philosophy. Back in 2008 Michele Bachmann proposed a committee to root out "anti-American" members of Congress. This language does not sound like the discourse of a democracy, it sounds like plain old-fashioned authoritarian extremism.

This type of rhetoric, which amounts to "if you can't beat 'em, throw 'em in prison," is a reflection of the even bloodier words that circulate on talk radio and the conservative blogosphere. Ann Coulter, that perennial hate-filled banshee who inexplicably continues to get interviews on mainstream television, implicitly called for Occupy protesters to be shot this week. Glenn Beck has repeatedly referred to progressives as a "cancer" in need of being cut out. In any healthy democracy, these voices would be completely sidelined, free to scream their hatred from the safety of a street corner rather than with a giant media megaphone at their command. Down in the muck of talk radio there's plenty of racist resentment of the president being stirred up. Just witness Rush Limbaugh's defense of the NASCAR fans who booed Michelle Obama, whom he had the unmitigated gall to label "uppity." To my knowledge there's never been a First Lady treated like this, and if you think that Mrs. Obama's race doesn't enter into it I've got a bridge to sell you. Instead of running away from the right wing media and its violent words, Republicans have tended to embrace it.

What we have here is not a political party in a traditional sense, but a vehicle for an extremist ideology whose fanatical adherents are more than willing to tolerate violent rhetoric and disqualify anyone to the left of Francisco Franco for their party's nomination. While this state of affairs is disturbing, it looks like these brigands' extremism is making them increasingly unpalatable to those who are not true believers in their creed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Musical Interlude: Gordon Lightfoot

As I mentioned awhile back when I wrote about Neil Young's Harvest album, 70s folk music is one formerly popular genre that has not experienced a revival. Go to any used record store and they'll practically be giving away countless discs of Dan Fogelberg, Jim Croce, and Nicolette Larson. I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for this genre since my parents listened to it when I was a wee lad. (My earliest memories have a John Denver soundtrack.) Much of this stuff is worth forgetting, but a lot of it still holds up, in my opinion. I didn't really care for him for a long time, but in the past five years or so I've really taken a shine to Gordon Lightfoot.

I picked up a compilation CD of his on a whim soon after I moved to west Michigan after grad school. My first semester was tough, since it brought the end of a long relationship, 70 hour weeks of intense course preparation, and lots of lonely nights before I started to make some friends. I would take lots of long walks around my neighborhood, often listening to "If You Could Read My Mind," which seemed to fit my mood of feeling lost and lonesome quite well.

Of course, living in Michigan I would make sure each November to give "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" a spin. The doomed ship song is a venerable genre in folk music, and ole Gord may have penned the last one to hit the upper reaches of the charts. The Edmund Fitzgerald itself sank in 1975, and I think that its demise and this song have such power in Michigan because the disaster coincided with the economic disaster that is still causing so much misery in that state. When I hear this song I don't just lament the sailors who perished, but a state I learned to love fiercely in my short time there, a state that has suffered much too much.

On a lighter note, Lightfoot could get beyond traditional folk song themes and song structures. One thing I love about a lot of 70s pop music is that it's got groove. "Sundown"'s skanky, funky vibe is the perfect bed for Gord's tale of infidelity. A drummer laying back on the beat, funky bass, and song about a cheating lady in "faded jeans" equals seventies top 40 bliss.

I'm cheating a bit because "Canadian Railway Trilogy" comes from 1967, but I have an unabashed love of this song because I love trains and songs about trains. Taking a train from Newark to New York City each day has convinced me that it's the ideal way to travel. I also must admit that I have long held a great affection for Canada and have enjoyed visiting there on multiple occasions. This song, about the Canada Pacific Railway, was written for Canada's centennial in 1967, and is a good example of why I find Canadian nationalism less odious than its American variety. After all, the middle section of the song is a rumination on the human cost of building the railroad and the negative effects it had on the underpaid workers who made it possible. Americans are always loathe to admit the downside of their triumphs.

And just for fun, one of my favorite SCTV bits ever, which has some fun at the expense of Gord's distinctive voice.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ben Franklin was Right About the Turkey

It is a well-known fact, often trotted out this time of year, that Ben Franklin thought that the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, should have been America's national bird and placed on the national seal. Granted, this idea comes from a letter he wrote his daughter (and thus not intended for public consumption,) and being the cheekiest and most ironic of the founders, I wonder whether Franklin was really serious about his proposal. Franklin thought eagles to be bullying, weak, and parasitic, and the turkey to be brave and intelligent.

His famous comparison of the birds has been the subject of mirth as far as I can remember. We tend to think of turkeys as rather hapless, raised to be centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, not as the symbol of a great nation. Domestic turkeys are indeed dumber than a bag of hammers; my Dad tells me that when his family raised them they would end up drowning themselves if left out in the rain. Wild turkeys, however, are known for their wiliness, smarts, and ability to evade even expert hunters.

At this point in America's history, I think it is more important than ever that Franklin's proposal be followed. Eagles have long been the preferred birds of empires, from the Romans to the Habsburgs to the Romanovs to the Hohenzollerns. Some founders, like Thomas Jefferson, may have welcomed the comparison; he dubbed America "an empire for liberty." After all, the westward expansion he vigorously endorsed was just another form of imperial conquest. Today we face a dire situation, where the American empire has quickly fallen from the "hyperpower" of the immediate aftermath of the Cold War to an imperium in decline, its credit downgraded, standard of living stagnant, and politics hopelessly divided.

As it stands now, I believe the nation is facing a crucial choice, one which it might not be aware that it must make. The United States can no longer be both a global empire and a nation capable of providing a better quality of life and opportunity for its people. We have let our physical and mental infrastructure rot; bridges collapse and are shut down while educational standards and support have fallen through the floor and the social safety net is being shredded. Fighting two costly wars while cutting taxes for the wealthy has led to a dangerous level of debt that must be addressed, no matter how difficult it will be to do so. (This is a reality that many on the left need to admit to.) We can only do one of two things in response: give up imperial ambition while reinvesting in society, or prop up the empire with ever more blood and treasure extracted from a suffering populace on a steady diet of austerity.

Many of the right-wing politicians out there, like Newt Gingrich and Ricky Perry, want to keep funding our metastasized war machine (and even threaten new wars) while engaging in a economic race to the bottom where America becomes a haven for low-wage labor. (That's the real impetus behind Gingrich's endorsement of child labor, by the way.) This approach completely abandons the nation's infrastructure, and replaces it with the kind of cruel laissez-faire calculus that was rightfully abandoned a century ago. To today's mainstream conservatives (not even the radicals), the only thing the government is good for is to drop bombs on brown people. Their vision of America's future, where global supremacy will be attempted to be maintained at the sacrifice of its people, would be a horrific disaster. That is the path of the pompous, predatory eagle. Let us imitate instead the wisdom and practicality of the turkey, and give this "respectable bird" its due as the symbol of a nation wise enough avoid the temptations of empire.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Pepper Spray and the New Protest Movements

The older I get, the crankier I become, especially when I look at the current political scene. I have at least been heartened by the Occupy protests, since the fundamental problem of our nation, social inequality, has finally entered mainstream conversation after over thirty years of class warfare by the wealthy. At the same time, I have also been appalled at the violence used against these protests, and rather frustrated at the protests themselves.

As far as the repression of the Occupy protests goes, it has been a litany of injustice, from Oakland's cops putting a marine in a coma to Mayor Bloomberg (and others) clearing off encampments in the dead of night like the cowards that they are to University of California protesters getting billy clubbings to finally, and perhaps most famously, prone, peaceful protesters at UC Davis being attacked by chemical agents wielded by "campus police" behaving like a goon squad. In many ways, we are seeing a lot of chickens come home to roost. In the aftermath of 9/11, our nation reacted hysterically, building up a fearsome and secretive security apparatus. Now we have police on steroids and an internal espionage network, intended to fight terrorists, now being used to crush dissent. The current proclivity towards trigger happy policing, whether the finger be on a taser, can of mace, or gun, has long been apparent to those lacking the wealth or whiteness necessary to avoid daily contact with the cops.

The attacks on student protesters in California point as well to the misplaced priorities in academia. Higher education is now run by administrative apparatchiks, and faculty and students are expected to shut up and stay in their place. Dissent means tenure denial and a billy club to the ribs. California, a state where academic programs have been cut wholesale and tuition has skyrocketed, is a natural place for students to protest the degradation of their education. The fact that the police forces on campuses like UC Davis had the imperial storm trooper gear to dress themselves in bespeaks to an academic world where majors are slashed but luxury dorms are being built, rec centers feature rock-climbing walls, and football coaches are paid millions of dollars while more and more classes are taught by adjuncts on starvation wages. Universities are businesses, and the bells and whistles are good for business. Like the Gilded Age factory owners of yore, those of own the educational means of production today need an armed force to crush any opposition to their rule. If the complete corruption of public higher education wasn't already blindingly obvious, it should be now.

As much as I find the repressions of the Occupy protests to be odious, I have to say that the Occupy protests are fast in danger of losing the plot completely. Is setting up encampments really the most effective means of protest? I really don't think so. The protests now are devolving into disputes with the authorities over the right to camp out in public spaces overnight, which seems to be distracting from the real issues at hand. What's more, winter is coming, making the encampments difficult if not dangerous. The leaderless nature of these protests, and their reliance on consensus, makes them weak and ineffective.

I think the Occupy protests have been a great wake up call, and have raised issues that have too long been ignored. That being said, now that awareness has been raised, it's time for the more traditional organizations to step in and push for substantive change on the issues. Unions need to start organizing, especially in the service sector. The rank and file of the Democratic Party need to push for and get behind candidates willing to do something about social inequality. Faculty and students at universities need to make clear demands for reforms at their institutions. (And I mean realistic, pragmatic demands, not pie in the sky calls for free university education.) Protesting is all well and good, but unless it leads somewhere, it's merely a kind of therapy with shouting.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Classic Albums: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

As Thanksgiving approaches, winter is slowly creeping in to New Jersey. The dead leaves rustle on windy streets under slate-gray skies turning dark much too early in the day. It is time to hunker down and prepare for months of cold and darkness, something I was spared the last three years while I was living in Texas.

Seasonal changes tend to spark powerful memories associated with similar times in the past, which often brings me to music I associate with certain moments in my life. I first listened to Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight at the start of a typically unrelenting and bleak west Michigan winter a few years back, and since have used this album as a cold weather soundtrack. I originally stumbled across it by accident, checking it out from the Grand Rapids public library's prodigious music holdings almost as an afterthought at a time when I was exploring Richard Thompson's original group, Fairport Covention. I was immediately transfixed by the interplay between Richard's lyrical guitar playing and Linda's haunting voice, and then spent about two months listening to it almost every day. Like the space heater at the foot of my bed in my freezing apartment, it was a nice little emitter of warmth in a cold and forbidding winter.

It really plugged into my state of mind at the time, as a visiting assistant professor just scraping by desperately applying for full time jobs. The title track was a kind of Friday afternoon theme for me, one that I would sing on my way to the bar to escape my day to day worries and slide into oblivion. Another tune, however, deals with the theme of escape via alcohol in a much less celebratory fashion: "Down Where the Drunkards Roll." This song's melancholy mourning is more indicative of the album's mood that the more upbeat title track and "When I Get to the Border," which seem to have been added in to keep the listener from jumping off a bridge in despair.

Case in point on the sad song front is "The End of the Rainbow," where a father tells his newborn child that the world it has just entered into is a wretched and cruel place. According to the lyrics, "there's nothing to grow up for anymore." That pessimism may have reflected the fact that the album was cut in 1973 amidst an energy and economic crisis in Great Britain, a time when the future looked bleak indeed. For me, it should go down as one of the most brutally honest songs about life ever written. Working in a job that parodied my academic aspirations and facing constant rejection on the job front, it really resonated with me at the time, as well as the quite depressing "Withered and Died." On really bad days I would listen to the latter song as I drove into work, singing along with the key lines, "my dreams have withered and died."

I am a lot happier today, in large part because I finally let my old dreams of academe wither and die so that I could go on to live a better life. When I listen to this album it is no longer to wallow in depression but to enjoy the music and reflect on an earlier stage in my life. In this Thanksgiving week, I am certainly thankful my life has taken that turn.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are the Republicans Headed for a McGovern Moment?

A good friend and loyal reader of this blog queried me today about whether I thought that the GOP is on a similar trajectory as the Democratic Party in 1972. For those of you not versed in political history, that was the year that the Democratic Party failed to unseat Richard Nixon, a highly divisive president who had failed to make good on his promise to end the war in Vietnam. During the primaries, establishment candidates like Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey faltered in the face of grass-roots support for George McGovern, perhaps the most liberal major-party nominee for president in America's history.

I certainly admire George McGovern and his politics, but that, of course, was the problem. His positions were too far to the Left, and the ever-shifty Nixon took advantage of this, since his own policies often appeased liberals, as in the case of his signing of landmark environmental legislation and establishing OSHA. Nixon's domestic policies were moderate at the time, they would make him a Democrat today. McGovern also made several major mistakes in his campaign, many that could be blamed on his lack of experience on the national stage. He famously stood "1000%" behind his VP nominee Senator Eagleton after his earlier treatment for mental illness was revealed, and then looked unstable and untrustworthy by dumping him soon after. Activists flooded the 1972 DNC because of rules encouraging the nomination of delegates from outside of the traditional machine, but this also led to fights over the platform and a nomination process so contentious that McGovern had to give his acceptance speech in the middle of the night, when no one was watching. The liberal wing of the party got what it wanted, but it was not what the rest of the nation was after, even if Nixon was hardly a beloved figure. On election night he won in one of the biggest landslides in election history.

In some respects, the GOP is going down the same road. They are facing up against a president with less than stellar popularity, this time due to a stagnant economy and his inability to live up to (admittedly unrealistic) expectations. Despite that advantage, they seem prepared to squander it by nominating a candidate odious to the political mainstream. Romney, the establishment candidate, keeps getting eclipsed in the polls by an impressively loony cast of ideological die-hards. First it was Michele "vaccinations cause mental retardation" Bachmann. After that, it was Rick "oops" Perry. Then Herman "I don't need to know foreign policy" Cain had his rise and fall, with a nice little sex scandal thrown in for good measure. Nowadays Romney trails Newt "my campaign was left for dead months ago because every word that passes my lips is lying, pompous, bullshit" Gingrich. Instead of one McGovern, the Republicans have at least four of them.

This week, in an interview with Univision, Barack Obama said something regarding his strategy for the election that I've been thinking for some time: "we may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim." Every one of the crop of crazy candidates, including Romney, has said something toxic in their eternal game to prove ideological purity. By putting their reality show (the incessant, unprecedented number of primary debates) on TV each week, they are making themselves in the kind of televisual trainwreck that America can't get enough of these days. Think of it as "Real Candidates of Wingnutia."

As much as I'd like the Republicans to shoot themselves in the face with their own 2nd Amendment-protected shotgun load of conservative looniness, I don't think it will happen. Unlike the Democrats, they have a history of rallying behind the most acceptable candidate rather than ripping themselves to pieces. (Goldwater is the exception that proves the rule.) Back in '72 Nixon's infamous dirty tricksters had deliberately undermined the more mainstream Democrats like Muskie, manipulating the primaries to get the opponent they wanted. I doubt president Obama's men are up to something similar. Instead, at some point the Koch Brothers and the other money men who really call the shots will step in Godfather-style and make Gingrich, Bachmann, Cain, and Perry an offer they can't refuse. As I've said before, evil will prevail.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy the AHA: Rough Draft for a Manifesto

I read today about a group planning to do follow in the footsteps of the Occupy movement and occupy the MLA annual conference. Why not the AHA as well? I won't be in Chicago this year, and will most likely never attend an AHA conference ever again in my life (I won't be on the academic job market, flogging a book, or giving a paper there), so the following manifesto is just a thought-exercise that might prove useful (or not) to anyone out there in cyberland who will be attending the theater of cruelty and broken dreams that is the American Historical Association's annual gathering.

The state of the historical profession is dire, and for younger scholars and contingent faculty members, it has become completely unacceptable. Graduate students do more and more teaching labor with fewer and fewer full-time jobs when they are done. Adjuncts are paid sub-poverty wages without health benefits and toil in obscurity as second-class members of their institutions, without voice, power, or job security. Those that speak out are often fired as "trouble makers." We are being told there is a problem with the "overproduction" of PhDs, yet the demand for adjunct labor grows more and more each year. Those lucky enough to get tenure-track jobs face departments that are increasing the number of students in the classroom as well as the publishing requirements for tenure, even at "teaching centered" universities. Young historians struggle to meet these requirements in an environment where university presses are downsizing and abandoning their knowledge-based missions in the pursuit of mass appeal and lucre. In the meantime, little sacrifice is being borne by older generations who get to sit in judgement on tenure cases, many times applying standards that they never could have dreamed of passing themselves.

Although the AHA has done more in the last two years to respond to these issues, it is still an institution centered around the interests of a minority of privileged historians with tenured positions at research universities. It was only when the scions of the profession's elite stopped finding good jobs that the organization bothered to pay attention. It still expects poverty-stricken graduate students and contingent faculty to pay prohibitively high travel expenses to have only one or two twenty minute job interviews at this very event, an event that symbolizes the powerlessness of junior scholars who must beg for book contracts and humiliate themselves for even the least desirable jobs. For far too long we have been pitted against each other in a vicious struggle for survival that for the majority of us is a losing game. Those days are over! Today, instead of desperately competing for jobs and book contracts, we demand that the AHA overcome its moribund inaction and do something to stop the destruction of an entire generation of historians.

Here is an impartial list of our proposals:

1. That the AHA officially repudiate the rhetoric of "overproduction" and acknowledge that the lack of good jobs is the biggest cause of the current crisis in employment for historians.
2. That the AHA create high-level positions in its organizational structure specifically intended to be filled by and to advance the interests of graduate students and contingency faculty members.
3. That the AHA encourage departments that persist in using non-tenured labor to establish permanent positions with decent pay, health benefits, and job security, and to officially censure those departments that fail to meet these standards.
4. That the AHA recognize the current crisis in academic publishing and encourage departments to make their tenure and hiring decisions accordingly.
5. That the AHA put an end to the conference job register and discourage the practice of on-site conference interviews, and encourage their replacement with preliminary interviews over the phone or via video chat.
6. That the AHA stop espousing the rhetoric that "there's little we can do to force universities and departments to change their hiring practices" and concentrate all of its power on doing that which it can do to alleviate the crisis.
7. That the AHA reduce its membership fees for graduate students and contingent faculty members.
8. That the AHA come up with clear guidelines in relation to online publications, so that junior scholars may be better rewarded for their academic accomplishments.
9. That the AHA locate future conferences on the basis of expense for conference attendees over any other factor, or failing that, subsidize attendance by adjuncts and graduate students.
10. That the AHA make alleviating the employment crisis for junior scholars its most important priority for the foreseeable future.

If that AHA refuses to respond to these demands, particularly the last, it will have proven itself to be a morally bankrupt, useless institution in the eyes of junior scholars, who will have no choice but to abandon it en masse. Remember: if we have no future, you won't have one either.

In solidarity and righteousness,
Werner Herzog's Bear

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Classic Albums: Randy Newman's Sail Away

Some albums are just made for a quiet, dark November night, and Randy Newman's Sail Away is one of them. There is a melancholy aspect to its songs, even the darkly comedic numbers like "Burn On" and "Political Science." The former tells the tale of Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching fire, which has Newman describing "Cleveland, city of light, city of magic" in a sardonic twist on descriptions of Paris as the City of Light. In "Political Science," as in many of his classic numbers, he takes on the personae of a hateful bigot in order to expose the stupidity of such people. (And yet so many people refuse to understand Newman's purpose, as when his one hit song "Short People" aroused controversy.) The song's narrator fantasizes about America nuking and colonizing the rest of the world as if such a thing would be a glorious lark.

As if that's not enough, the first side's last song is sung from the perspective of a son reminding his dying father that he taught him not to believe in an afterlife, and the second side ends with a song where God taunts suffering humanity for actually believing that He cares about their fate.

The first song, the title track, with its swelling strings and anthemic hooks might seem more cheerful on the surface, until you listen to the words. They are from the mouth of a slave ship captain on the coast of Africa promising his human cargo that their lives will be wonderful in America. This song, more than any other, assaults the myth of the American Dream and of the notion of America as a land of opportunity. (I won't get into much more detail on this song because Greil Marcus wrote about this much more ably than I could four decades ago.) Newman pretty much sets the tone for the whole album here; he is describing a world governed by cruelty, hatred, and suffering.

Newman provides another ironic twist in the second song, "Lonely at the Top," originally intended for Frank Sinatra. It tells the tale of a big star who seems completely blase about his fame and riches. On the one hand, it mocks the narcissism of celebrity, on the other, however, it points to a unfillable hole in the human soul. Instead of promising his listeners the possibility of God as that thing that can fill the hole, Newman ends the album with God laughing at the naivete of humanity. "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" has people of all faiths pleading to God for help and deliverance, and God tells the world that they're crazy to think that he cares. But he adds: "you really need me/that's why I love mankind." It's Ingmar Bergman set to music, and just as powerful as The Seventh Seal or Through A Glass Darkly.

Randy Newman has always been an acquired taste, and seems to arouse either devotion or revulsion. One of my friends has expressed his absolute distaste for Newman on multiple occasions; my wife pleads with me not to play his records when I throw them on the turntable. That seems awfully strange for a guy who delights the toddler set with soundtrack tunes for Pixar films, and speaks more to Newman's crooked way of singing his songs than anything else. True, on some songs he slurs and moans like a falling-down drunk trying to impersonate Ray Charles, but that's part of the reason why I like him so much.

But that voice is not his only voice, and at times he breaks from it to sing in a higher, more wistful register. My favorite sleeper track on Sail Away is "Dayton, Ohio 1903," where he employs that other voice to great, moving effect. It's quite a simple tune, the narrator asking to "sing a song of long ago/ when things were green/ and moving slow." It's less a lament for a simpler past than a reminder for people in the present that their lives will seem just as distant, remote, and quaint to their ancestors. What other songwriters are able to make that point, and make it so tunefully?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Explaining Higher Ed's Malaise: Too Many People Just Don't Give a Shit

This historical blogosphere is abuzz after Historiann put a call out for responses to a recent Anthony Grafton article in the New York Review of Books concerning the growing number of books diagnosing the malaise in higher ed. Both Grafton's piece and Historiann's commentary are well worth checking out. Since this humble blog is well below the radar of the heavy-hitters, I myself have not been invited to comment, but I figured I'd do it anyway.

Now having left academic life, I feel that I have gained some special perspective of things. When I think back on what I observed in America's universities, I have one overwhelming thought: too many people just don't give a shit. As Grafton himself points out, the diagnoses of the American university system usually blame one group of people for their problems, but the issue is much too complex to pin on one group. In my experience, the inability to give a shit infects students, faculty, administrators, politicians, and ultimately, and perhaps most crucially, the public.

Just to be fair, let's start with the faculty. At every institution where I taught -Big Ten University, Frontier University, and East Texas University- there was an appalling apathy among many faculty members when it came to undergraduate education. This was especially flagrant at East Texas University, because many of the same people who didn't seem to give a shit about educating their students also did the absolute rock-bottom minimum of research to get tenure. (And get tenure they did!) At that supremely awful institution, they considered being a university professor a cushy job, which it is if you mail in your unrevised lectures and never publish. One of these people even openly mocked faculty members who were doing relevant research! My former employer is an outlier on the living hell scale, but nevertheless, most American college students are matriculating at places that much more resemble East Texas University than they do the Ivy League.

At the more august Big Ten University, there were many distinguished scholars who also happened to be wonderful in the classroom. However, there were others (interestingly, not as accomplished in their scholarship) who seemed contemptuous of their undergraduate students, and annoyed that they should ever have to step down from the lofty heights of their research interests to sully their hands in the lecture hall. Other scholars trailed a cloud of suspicion for being too good in the classroom. After all, shouldn't they be using their energy on research, not teaching? The idea that the two are completely separate, or that being good at one precludes being good at the other, is a bullshit fabrication concocted by scholars too lazy or maladroit to teach well. (Like I said, the most renowned scholars also tended to be among the best teachers.)

To be even more fair, I will not exclude contingent faculty from this discussion. At my last job I knew of an adjunct who paid an undergraduate to transcribe her notes from her Western Civ class (taught at the same university) so that he could put together an online version of the course. When I was at Frontier University, where contingent labor taught most of the classes, there were multiple people totally unfit for the job. One read the textbook aloud to the class, another skipped a week of classes for a wedding, and had a student in the class show a film each day that he was gone. This same person also had a sexual relationship with one of this students. Neither one of these men was fired, and I have yet to hear of a contingent faculty member being pushed out for incompetence. However, I do know of a few who lost their jobs for resisting pressure to change grades, or complaining about their own ill treatment. Strangely enough, these adjuncts and visitors tended to be top teachers and passionately devoted. Their unwillingness to submit to having their dignity as educators and human beings stripped from them made them unfit for life as a contingent faculty member in the modern American university. For the most part, contingent faculty are seen merely as the warm bodies necessary to slot into the schedule to keep the gears of the machine running, as long as they accept their position, they will keep their jobs.

That state of affairs, of course, can be laid at the feet of administrators who don't give a shit, of which there are many. So many of them are focused on climbing the ladder to the next job that they drown their current institutions with meaningless initiatives that look good on their resumes. By the time that the new policies have proven themselves to be utter failures, their authors are already at their newest job, applying the same initiatives to their new institution. They also drive the decay of higher education's true mission by funding the rec center arms race, with its rock climbing walls and lazy rivers while starving faculty of development funds and libraries of books.

But let's not forget about the students. I had many great and memorable students in my time in higher ed, but also a gigantic cancerous mass of lazy, apathetic consumerist zombies. So many students don't seem to have a solitary clue as to why they are in college in the first place, something reflected in studies showing that students spend less time studying outside of class than at any other time. Many of them expect answers to be spoon-fed to them in between hours in front of the TV and games of beer pong. Fewer and fewer students seem to have any real desire to learn anything, college is a mere stepping stone to them, never a thing in itself to be cherished and cultivated. As Grafton noted in his piece, universities, through the rec center arms race and largesse spent on the beer and circus of college sports, have basically whored themselves out completely to consumer demand. They do this because, you guessed it, too many of the people running them just don't give a shit.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, the public and their political representatives really and truly don't give a shit about maintaining affordable and quality higher public education. State schools get less and less money from their state governments, but still just enough that the politicians can slap them around if they so choose. Hence the state of Texas forcing schools to make all kinds of information public, like student evaluations and course syllabi. The public and their politicians would rather have the short-term gain of slightly lower taxes than the long term benefit of robust higher education. Instead students shoulder ridiculously high tuition and get buried under mounds of student loan debt. We now have a situation where public universities are starved for cash, and the money they do have gets diverted into building the toy towns that seem to exist in the minds of university presidents everywhere. Without money for instruction, contingent faculty positions proliferate, education quality degenerates, and student achievement stagnates.

I have left academia to teach at a private high school, and one of its great graces is that the community, from students to teachers to parents to administrators, really and truly care. The students come to class prepared and are usually enthusiastic to learn something new. Instead of asking questions to students and hearing nothing but the soul-sucking silence of apathy, I have a difficult time making sure everyone who wants to participate gets their chance. Faculty do not cut corners, but work hard to improve their classes and maintain high standards. They care intensely about the students, and even if they kvetch about certain individuals, they never do so in a superior of mean-spirited fashion. The whole place just exudes a powerful aura of giving a shit, a seemingly simple virtue that is appallingly deficient in the supposedly superior realms of higher education.