Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Clash "Straight To Hell"

My relationship with The Clash started right at the moment that I began to develop an interest in more challenging music. I remember a cold winter day in 1991, the light of the sun faint over the snow-strewn flatlands of my Nebraska hometown as I drove to the local mall and browsed the Musicland, the one record store in town. I picked up the Story of the Clash compilation, which is maybe the worst place to start, since the track listing is pretty much nonsensical and the track choices dubious.  I'd heard they were an important band, and the local FM station, perhaps because it was located out in the sticks, still allowed their DJs to play personal favorites. One DJ evidently liked "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and "Rock The Casbah," since I heard them on a regular basis, even though they came out almost a decade before.

Perhaps because of the Nebraska winter surroundings, I gravitated more to the spookier sounding tracks initially, including "Straight To Hell." It's a sign of how much the Clash evolved musically, since it sounds nothing like the distorted guitar attacks of their early days.  There's barely any guitar here, the rhythm is intricate and slow, and synthesizers dominate.  At times everything drops out except for the spare percussion.  It perfectly expresses a certain feelings of alienation and rootlessness, something I didn't understand until I started listening closer to the lyrics.

"Straight to Hell" is a song I always seem to return to this time of year, although political events have me thinking about it this time around. It's a song commenting on the hostility to Vietnamese refugees in America, particularly those who had American fathers.  People tend to forget this, but there was very violent opposition to refugees from Vietnam in the 70s and 80s, despite the fact that America's foreign policy was the primary reason so many were having to flee their homes.  The song's name comes from the expressions of xenophobia that greeted the refugees, many of whom had to survive unspeakable horrors to make it to these shores.

We don't hear much about the violent opposition to Vietnamese refugees these days, mostly because it would be embarrassing to talk about, considering that those refugees and their descendants have become such valuable members of American society.  I only hope that Syrians fleeing such horrific warfare are given the same opportunity to prove the bigots wrong.

Friday, November 27, 2015

My Wilco Years

Now that I have passed the threshold of age 40, the distance between my present and my past is becoming ever-more apparent.  For instance, I still love music, but no contemporary music can MATTER to me any more like it used to.  Sure, I've been playing the new Kurt Vile record to death, but it hasn't become part of my greater consciousness, like say Radiohead's Kid A when I picked it up back all the way in 2000. Perhaps because I spent my 20s in grad school in a college town with multiple rock clubs, contemporary music mattered to me more then than it did when I was a teenager. And no band, not even Radiohead, mattered as much to me as Wilco.

From about 2002-2007, Wilco meant more to me than any other manifestation of popular culture.  Wilco had been part of my life before, but in this time the band mattered in a way it didn't before and hasn't since.  I had learned of Uncle Tupelo right before its demise, and loved the Anodyne album. For that reason I eagerly bought the first records by both Son Volt (Jay Farrar's band) and Wilco (Jeff Tweedy's), both coming out in 1995. That first Son Volt record is by far the better one, but Farrar could never best it, while the double that came next year from Wilco, Being There, was an exhilarating great step forward. The roots-rock elements remained, but songs like "Misunderstood" had something more experimental behind them.  That experimentation really flowered on 1999's Summerteeth, an album I had a harder time relating to. The fact that the band's next album had been rejected by the record company intrigued me.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, October 2001 and April 2002

I first heard ripped versions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001 before buying an official copy in 2002. That album was a complete revelation. I listened to it over and over and over and over again. In that strange post-9/11 time amidst the increasing drumbeats for war, its songs seemed to make sense of the fear and emptiness at the heart of the national condition. The fact that the record company had dropped Wilco over this album made it all the more glorious to listen to, a validation that "they" were wrong-headed and stupid, and "we" were ultimately right.  This album was like medicine for the soul.  During my year studying abroad in Germany, when I was mostly alone day after day, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a comfort, especially amidst the quiet dread of a German Sunday morning.  It is difficult for me to even listen to this album again because the associations are so intense.  That mostly has to do with "Heavy Metal Drummer," a song that would get played at grad school barbecues after my more musical friends had brought out their guitars.  It's a song about not being able to recapture the heedless abandon of youth, and little did I know as I sang along with my friends, I was living in my own golden days.

"War on War," Late Show With David Letterman, April 2002
There was once a time when I made sure to tune into the late night talk shows if bands I liked were performing.  Wilco obviously made the cut, and I remember seeing them perform "War on War," one of my favorite songs on the new record.  My friend and roommate at the time took the piss out of it for me because he thought the song was too tepid and Tweedy too meek to be a rock frontman.  I felt deflated, but held on to my obsession that much tighter.

October 27, 2002 (Foellinger Auditorium)
In the fall of 2002 I was ecstatic that Wilco would be playing a gig on campus in the same giant lecture hall where I was a TA during the week. I bought the tickets the day they came out, and ended up in the lower level maybe ten rows back.  At this point Jay Bennett had been jettisoned from the band, Leroy Bach was still in it, and Pat Sansone and Nels Cline had yet to join.  The anticipation before the show was palpable in the audience; everyone there had been absorbing the new album for months.  I was not disappointed.  This was perhaps the best rock show I've ever been to.  I was hearing amazing material that was still fresh by a band at the height of their powers and giving it their all.  Tweedy was still willing to play some of the older stuff, so I got to hear the rip-roaring "Casino Queen" live, a great thrill.  I left that auditorium that night on a high, my expectations more than surpassed. I've been chasing that feeling at every other show I've been to since.

May 3, 2003 (Southern Illinois University)
My circle of friends in grad school was similarly Wilco-crazed, and when one of my friends announced that they would be playing an outdoor show over a hundred miles south in Carbondale, we road-tripped down for it.  It was a beautiful spring day, sunny but not hot, with a gentle breeze.  The show was a little loose, and a lot of the students there weren't hardcore fans.  Tweedy was a little jokey, giving the proceedings a fun, tossed off vibe.  They even played "New Madrid," a song from Tweedy's Uncle Tupelo days about predictions of earthquakes on the New Madrid fault, perhaps a nod to concert's location.  This was the same line up as before, Kotche-Tweedy-Bach-Stirratt, but with Mikail Jourgensen and his laptop lurking in the background.  I like remembering this trip, and the spontaneity of my 20s, so long ago.

A Ghost Is Born, July 2004
My aforementioned year abroad in Germany, where I was doing my doctoral research, ended in July of 2004. A Ghost Is Born was released right before I left, I remember reading a review of it in a Berlin culture magazine maybe two days before my flight home.  I picked it up immediately after getting stateside. I listened to this one a lot alone, as I had been hired by my advisor as a house sitter that summer.  The heavy Neil Young guitar on "Guess That's What You Said" kinda shocked me, but I grew to love a lot of the songs very quickly, including "Company in My Back," "Late Greats," "Handshake Drugs," "Spiders," and "Muzzle of Bees." If I strip away the layers of memory that these albums carry with them and try to evaluate them objectively, I think A Ghost Is Born just might edge out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I still have one very vivid memory of this album: as I was driving back to Illinois from a job interview in Michigan in May of 2006, "Company in My Back" came on somewhere south of Kankakee.  As the impossibly flat prairies beneath the unending sky stretched out before me, it seemed like the most perfect song in the world at exactly that moment.

August 2, 2004 (Eagles Ballroom)

Only a month after being back in the States, I trekked up to Milwaukee with a friend (and his parents) to see Wilco live at an old ballroom downtown.  It was an interesting night, as I walked down one of Milwaukee's hills on our way to a place to get dinner, I passed right by Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, who was chatting with someone on the sidewalk outside of a hotel.  (I guess he must have been playing a show there, too.)  This was also my first time seeing the current Wilco lineup, without Bach and with Cline and Sansone.  The guitar pyrotechnics were certainly impressive in this show, and I do remember Tweedy doing a couple of power jumps with his guitar on "Spiders (Kidsmoke)." However, the old bash and sass I had witnessed before was gone, a relic of the 90s now put away.

February 8, 2005 (Foellinger Auditorium)
This concert was a tad disillusioning.  I was back at Foellinger on a cold and dark night, but in the balcony instead of close to the stage.  The show wasn't bad by any means, but not inspiring, either. That changed in the encores, which were amazing.  Tellingly, the band revived "Kingpin" off of Being There, and really nailed it. They also played a bitchin' cover of "Don't Fear The Reaper."

Dinner With Jay Bennett (sometime in 2005-2006)
One of my friends was a close friend of the now departed Jay Bennett.  I can't quite place the exact date, but I did in fact get to have dinner with Jay Bennett.  He was in the area doing some production work at a new studio in a nearby town, and my friend and his spouse decided to have Jay and a few other folks over for dinner.  Needless to say, I was a little more than starstruck. Turns out that he was a very friendly and gregarious guy, full of some funny stories a couple of which I still remember.  I felt lucky just to have met the guy, but this made me especially sad at his passing, and at the impression you get of him from the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart Documentary.

Sky Blue Sky, May 2007
This album is the point at which my Wilco obsession began to simmer down into mere love and affection.  This was fitting, since I had graduated with my PhD in 2006, and had trekked off to Michigan to work as a visiting assistant professor.  Around that time my life had become much more difficult, having moved to a new place and working a job that was both demanding and unrewarding.  This album did not make a huge impression on me when I first heard it.  I didn't think it was bad, in fact it was good, but it was definitely not great.  I probably like it more now than then, mostly because "Impossible Germany" has grown on me a great deal.

I've liked the other albums since then too, especially the self-titled one, but Wilco hasn't and can never mean what it did in that time roughly between 2002 and 2006.  It's probably not coincidental that I reached age thirty at that point.  Nevertheless, when I listen to a song like "Heavy Metal Drummer" I am transformed, sent back to a time in my life when I was young but poor, living the life of the mind with some amazing friends.  While I am pretty damn happy nowadays, sometimes I wish I could go back to my Wilco days for just one of them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Thanksgiving Table Wars

I saw this tweet yesterday and chuckled, but also thought a lot about it:

There seems to be a lot more discussion in the last few years by progressives online who write about "how to win arguments with you conservative relatives" and generally more agony that usual over the inevitable holiday fights over politics.  I think that this agony speaks to something deeper, namely the widening political divide in this country and the higher stakes involved.

I understand it, since I come from a very conservative family, as does my wife.  Luckily for us, our parents are reasonable and loving people, and so we all are pretty much party to an unspoken truce not to drag politics into our family time. With my parents the breaking point came fifteen years ago, when the 2000 election between Bush and Gore was still up in the air.  After a couple of angry disputes we pretty much decided we'd had enough of that.  For all of you out there in the same position, I would recommend a similar course of action.  I would just warn you I've had to deflect political discussions initiated by them from time to time.

Of course, relatives in our extended families are not parties to the truce, and so when they come in all bets are off.  Since my wife's extended family is so far-flung, this isn't a problem, but when my whole family gets together there will be people trying to bait me.  Since I am greatly outnumbered it's also extremely exhausted.  We will probably never have a family-wide truce, but I see my extended family so seldom that I am usually just happy to be with them and can let the political stuff slide.

This brings me back to the tweet I quoted above, though.  I've realized why in the Thanksgiving Table Wars it's progressives, specifically white progressives, who tend to get the most emotionally wound up about it. Any conservative white family is going to have its share of vocal racists.  Sometimes it's just on the level of petty resentment, sometimes on the level of "jokes," and sometimes on the level of boldly-stated bigotry.  About twenty years ago one of my cousins basically let it be known that the n-word was not be used in her presence or the presence of her children, and that toned things down, but only a little.  It's one thing to have an argument with someone over tax policy, another to talk to someone spewing hate against African Americans, immigrants, gays, and Muslims (this has been a recent favorite). One uncle of mine once made a veiled (but racist in intent) comment about my then Asian girlfriend (who wasn't present.) If we hadn't been in a public place I would have broken his jaw.

As our politics have become more heated, they have become even more racialized than before.  With a Right wing that wants to "take our country back" for the "real Americans" there's no question that the color line is a crucial element, if not the most crucial element, to the current political divide.  White progressives wringing their hands about having to deal with their white conservative relatives aren't just being effete or solipsistic, they are responding to the very real issue of the mainstreaming of racist resentment in American politics.  Like our broader politics, the Thanksgiving Table Wars have escalated. For those of you who haven't managed to broker a truce, I wish you the best of luck.

Monday, November 23, 2015

What Is Trump's Game?

I see a lot of Trump in Georges Boulanger, a French populist general of the late 1880s who was the face of broader discontent, but ultimately unable and unwilling to seize power

I have been taking a wait and see approach to Donald Trump in regards of the viability of his presidential campaign.  Yes, he has been leading the polls for months now, but this kind of polling is often inaccurate, and in the last debate he looked disinterested and tired.  I have also wondered about what kinds of ground campaigns he has in the early states, since primaries can be won and lost by doing a slightly better job than others of getting people to the polls, since the number of voters is so small.  Now that we are hitting Thanksgiving and Trump has rebounded after his lackluster debate performance, I am inclined to think, for the first time, that he stands a decent chance of being the Republican nominee.  

What I can’t figure out is what Trump’s game actually is.  Early on I didn’t think he was acting like a serious candidate. I wondered if he had in fact been aiming only for a sideline hobby, then blundered into being the front-runner of the Republican Party by accident. I’ve wondered whether he is trying to start a fascist movement, or if his hateful words are merely a cynical attempt to get support, rather than expressions of his deeply held beliefs.

In any case, Trump has benefitted by breaking a rule that Republicans have followed since the 1960s, a rule I would like to call the Atwater Directive.  As Lee Atwater famously discussed once in an interview, to whip up white resentment in the aftermath of the civil rights era politicians have to avoid racial slurs and direct racist appeals. Instead they have to use dog whistles and make it clear that they want to cut the government in ways that disproportionately hurts people of color.  Trump understands that a large portion of the conservative base has grown tired of this, and longs for racism to be expressed straight, no chaser.

Trump has given them that by breaking a taboo that appears to not apply anymore.  I’ve long thought that at least 15% of Americans are essentially fascist in their political outlook.  If the military overthrew president Obama, made Christianity the official religion, deported millions of undocumented immigrants, and banned Muslims, about that percentage of the population would rejoice. Another 15% would have misgivings, but generally prefer it over the status quo. Trump knows this, and he is exploiting it.  I am still not sure to what end.  I get the feeling that he is a man who enjoys power, and that his goal is less to be president of the United States, but to amass power and get adulation.  He does not seem interested in starting a fascist movement, but a lot of the people who listen to him seem to be.

This does make me wonder what will happen.  Here’s a list of predictions, with my current odds.  I plan on revisiting them in the future.

1. Trump flames out fast
If Trump isn’t super serious about all of this, he just might flame out, unwilling to do the hard work necessary to run for president. If this was all some kind of whim turned into reality, this is the most likely option.
Current Odds: Possible, but not likely

2. Trump wins the Republican nomination
Trump is leading the polls right now, but Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were in the lead at one time in the last election cycle as well.  I really wonder what percentage of the voters who will actually turn out for a primary vote will cast their vote for Trump.  His appeal is very broad, but is it deep? Trump has benefited thus far from a highly fragmented Republican field.  If the GOP establishment goes all in for Rubio and gives Christie, Kasich, Fiorina, et al an offer they can’t refuse, all while allowing Cruz to appeal to the bark at the moon crowd and thus steal the Donald's votes, Trump’s goose is cooked.  I could even see a brokered convention at this point, crazy as that sounds.  
Current Odds: Very possible but not likely

3. Trump loses in the primaries and runs as an independent
If Trump loses the nomination, does he make a third party run?  This would allow him to be the ultimate troll and take a dump in everybody’s punch bowl.  The Perot run in 1992 just might an inspiration for him.  This is the Republican Party’s worst nightmare, and Trump being the spiteful shit that he is just might go throw with it to give the GOP the middle finger.  On the other hand, he likes winning and hates losing, and a third party run would almost guarantee not winning.
Current odds: highly unlikely

4. Trump wins the presidency.
Of course, he would have to get the nomination first, or put together a third party run.  While Trump has a broad base of support, he also has an even bigger base of opponents.  Unless some crazy scandal would befall Hillary that would actually be true, there’s no way Trump could win a general election.  (Please let this not tempt the fates.)

Current odds: Not impossible but extremely unlikely

Basically I think Trump might win some early victories, but once the Republican establishment gets their act together, he will lose. This prediction is, of course, subject to change. And even if he loses, he has forced others to copy his nationalism and xenophobia, which will be very prominent in next year's election.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Platters "The Great Pretender"

As loyal readers know, my musical tastes range far and wide. There are some genres that I've known for longer than others, and because of my parents listening to the oldies stations, I've been listening to 50s R&B for a long, long time. While sixties soul and fifties rockabilly have more tempo and drive, listening to the Platters is like taking medicine for the soul. I get the same feeling hearing Tony Williams' voice on "The Great Pretender" as I do hearing Miles Davis' trumpet on "All Blues" or the violin in Vivaldi's "Spring": joy in simple yet deep beauty.  The backing harmonies have a minor tone them that's almost lush, and the saxophone and piano glue it all together. I could listen to this song thirty times in a row and not get tired of it.

Another reason I like this song is for its tale of vulnerability. The singer effects a confident pose in public, but beneath it lies anguish and heartbreak. That anguish pokes through in the hiccup that Williams uses as he enters the song with "O-o-oh yes, I'm the great pretender." Sure, it's a silly pop song, but one with just the right amount of emotional pain wrapped inside of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cranky Bear Has Had It With The Hate Against Refugees

[Editor's Note: My impolitic friend Cranky Bear has emerged from this week to send me a new missive about the opposition to Syrian refugees. I have held off on publishing it, but now think that his brand of profane anger is what's needed right now.]

Hello cats and kittens, Cranky Bear coming at you here with a pot of black coffee and righteous anger seeping through my pores.  I have seen a lot of awful shit in my time on this earth when it comes to this nation's politics.  I remember the Reagan years' happy face on top of human misery. I remember the hysteria after 9/11 and the calls to war by our feckless idiot of president and how people actually listened to this lobotomized manchild.  I have seen the rise of the Tea Party and have witnessed the racist backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.  Nothing could prepare me, however, for what has happened this week.

We are seeing fascism, pure fascism red in tooth and claw openly shouted from the rooftops by elected officials and contestants for the presidency.  On Monday Republican governors fell over themselves proclaiming that their states would categorically refuse Syrian refugees, with Christie taking the cake by expressing banning orphaned toddlers and babies.  They did this because they know it is a winning issue to stir up hatred against Arabs and Muslims because it appeals to their base of resentful white dipshits who don't know their own assholes from a hole in the ground.  Say what you want about the godawful Dubya years, he at least had the human decency to decry attacks on Muslims and Arabs in America.

In the last couple of days this sorry-ass situation has become positively fascistic.  Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has said he "wouldn't rule out" closing mosques and creating special identification badges for Muslims.  Other Republican elected officials have mentioned rounding up refugees and putting them into camps as a viable option.  What is especially striking is that America wasn't even attacked!  This hatred and paranoia has been building up for years, and now a convenient excuse has been found to unleash it.

Make no mistake, a large number of Americans actively hate Muslims and would like to see them eliminated from American society.  I have often thought that if Dubya had ordered all foreign-born Muslims to be sent to relocation camps in the aftermath of 9/11, the public would have gone along with it.  Hell, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, has used the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a positive example!  

These fucking people make me sick, but they aren't the worst.  No, these politicians are simply opportunistic hacks trying to appease the garden variety dumbshit fuckwits who post their godawful Facebook memes and actually fucking listen to what the pig fuckers on Fox and talk radio are telling them. These people, ordinary fucking people, are what's wrong with this country. They spend their lives in complete fear, defending the cops who shoot black people while hiding behind the gates of their lily white suburbs. They collect their Social Security checks while bitching about "welfare queens" and "takers."  They think that the very presence of Muslims in this country is some kind of affront to their Christianity, and they get super paranoid and angry about it.  A lot of these people are people I grew up with, and honestly, fuck them. They should know better.

Fascists don't fall from the sky or grow out of the ground. They are regular people who have given themselves over to a diabolical ideology. I've long thought that 15-20% of Americans are fascists in sympathy, and that if they were told that a military coup would overthrow president Obama and install Christianity as the official state religion would jump for joy. In times of strife and terror Republican politicians have learned that they can maintain their position by appealing to hate and fear.  They did this in the last presidential election they won, in 2004, by going after gays and whipping up fears about terror.  With political homophobia now unpalatable to the larger electorate, they have doubled-down on Islamophobia.  This is how they manage to add to their fascist support, by appealing to the lizard brain fears of the run of the mill fucknut crackers who think the terrorists are going to blow up the Arby's in their shit-ass cookie cutter tract housing suburb.  (They are scared to death of the Muslim boogeyman but apparently not of the Type 2 diabetes from the Big Gulp they're chugging while scarfing down fried garbage.) Once upon a time conservative pols tried to send out dog whistles, but now are just full-on, shamelessly appealing to the worst kind of hate these shitbags possess.

For years we have looked back at the refusal to accept Jewish refugees in the 1930s and the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s and thought "how on earth could people do such terrible things? I am glad we are so enlightened nowadays!" You know what, we're not.  We are a nation dominated by hateful, fearful, stupid ass bigoted morons. In the 1930s most Americans feared and hated Jews, in the 2000s, I am afraid that most Americans fear and hate Muslims.  That is the "middle America" and the "Heartland" that so many praise, which are really a massive crock of dog diarrhea. Fuck "middle America." Fuck the "Heartland." Fuck "real Americans." Fuck them all. They aren't worthy to lick a refugee's shoes. Cranky Bear out.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sadly The Hatred Against Syrian Refugees Is As American As Apple Pie

Yesterday will go down as a dark day in American history.  As the world faces one of the worst humanitarian crises yet known, several American politicians went out of their way to attack some of the world's most vulnerable people, continually competing to be the most cruel.  Chris Christie laid down the trump card (pun intended) by declaring that even orphans under the age of five would be banned from my state of New Jersey.  The spectacle of elected politicians currying favor with the bigoted masses by pissing on war orphans, the group of people in the world most in need of protection, completely sickened me.  My students often ask how American turned back Jewish refugees -even children- in the 1930s.  Now I guess they'll know.

Unfortunately, liberals have responded to this onslaught of noxious nationalism with a decent amount of naivete. They assert that the governors don't have the power to ban certain classes of immigrants, and that's true, but that's really beside the point. Also, I have heard it said many times that this state-sanctioned hatred is "un-American."

Oh, how I wish that were true. However, if you look at American history, you'll find that this kind of hatred is as American as apple pie. We have a lot of myths we tell ourselves about our country, and one of the biggest is that "America is a nation of immigrants." Never mind that most people of African descent in this country did not have ancestors who came here willingly, or that plenty of folks here are Native Americans.  And just because most people who live here are descended from immigrants doesn't mean that immigration was always welcomed, valued, or free and equal.

Just look at the Naturalization Act of 1790, one of the first important pieces of immigration legislation.  It limited citizenship to those who were "free white persons."  One year before the passage of the Bill of Rights, those vaunted rights were effectively being limited to white men.  When waves of Irish immigrants came over in the mid-1800s, they were feared and hated, commonly depicted as ape-like by native born whites.  This new surge in migrants gave birth to a nativist party, the Know-Nothings, who coincidentally were one of the elements that formed the nascent Republican party in the 1850s.  These nativists didn't just spread hate, they burned Catholic churches, and instigated anti-immigrant riots. 

Even though more immigrants followed from more places, paranoia and hatred still abounded.  The cartoon below by Thomas Nast depicts Catholicism in the form of bishops invading the nation and destroying its values. Replace the bishops with imams and you could run this cartoon today.

In the 1880s the government began draconian restrictions on Chinese immigrants, who also faced horrific violence.  In Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885 white workers torched Chinese dwellings and murdered 28 Chinese immigrants.  Depictions of the time, like the one below, show the level of racism directed at Chinese Americans.

In the 1920s restrictions on European immigration followed.  The Immigration Act of 1924 set strict quotas aimed at immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, those deemed less "white." That coincided with the high point of the KKK's power.  The Klan's slogan of "100% Americanism" reflected their emphasis on nativism and hatred towards immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews. These restrictions came after a wave of paranoia associating immigrants with violence and terrorism.  Acts of terrorism in the post-World War I period, such as the passel of bombs sent out to politicians and capitalists on May Day in 1919, were blamed on radical immigrants, without proof. Foreign-born radicals like Emma Goldman were literally shipped off to Russia without trial. The supposed threat of foreign radicalism was the excuse used to bar new immigrants from coming in, including refugees from war and revolution in Europe.  Sound familiar? (The cartoon below is typical of all this.)

When European Jews fled Nazi oppression in the late 1930s, those quotas of the 1920s were not relaxed, and those refugees were cruelly turned away.  The reasons then are pretty much the same now: many Americans hated and feared Jews, just as a great many today hate and fear Muslims and Arabs.

In the last 70 years I can certainly point to other instances of nativist hate and violence, some rather close to our own time.  Vietnamese "boat people" faced opposition to their presence in America. Remember when mobs attacked buses full of child migrants from Central America?  That was only a year ago.

So yes, we must fight the bigots who are acting so cruelly to people so desperately in need of aid. But let us not pretend that the sickness we fight is "un-American."  It is a tendency in our history that we must tear out root and branch, but before we do that, we have to realize that it's there.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nancy Sinatra "You Only Live Twice"

I am in a big Bond mood this week, perhaps due to the release of SPECTRE. I've been going back and listening to old James Bong movie themes, including some that I had never really paid attention to before.When it comes to the bombastic John Barry numbers, Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" in unimpeachable.  In terms of pop songs as Bond themes, nothing can really top Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" or Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better." I think there's a lot of general consensus out there about these points.

However, there are quite a few lesser known Bond themes deserving of recognition, perhaps none more so than Nancy Sinatra's interpretation of "You Only Live Twice."  That 1967 flick marked the end of Sean Connery's first run as Bond, and includes a now embarrassing plot element where he attempts to pass as Japanese.

Perhaps because of its Asian setting, the theme incorporates elements of Eastern music into it, but manages to do so without sounding Orientalist.  I really love it because it manages to incorporate some disparate elements together.  It starts with a beautiful string figure, reaching a high note as it crescendos, then going soft for a gorgeous, descending melody.  As Nancy Sinatra's sultry voice comes in she is accompanied now by a fuzzed out guitar mimicking the strings.  It's lush and gorgeous, evoking the same effortless cool personified by Sean Connery in his Bond films. Despite their politics and inherent silliness, I still get a kick out of them.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Nebraska November Memory

This morning as I got in the car to go to the gym and run some errands, I had such a powerful flashback that it was like some kind of out of body experience. Even though I was driving the suburban streets of New Jersey, the sky was like a Nebraska November sky.  The wind was blowing so fast that I could watch the clouds moving from horizon to horizon, like cattle ambling across the plains. I was suddenly and quite violently thrown back two years ago this month when I was back in my home state of Nebraska for my grandmother's funeral.

Although she lived the vast majority of her life on farms near Elm Creek, she was to be buried in Kearney, the place she referred to when she discussed "going to town." Every Sunday she and my grandfather used to drive 18 miles down highway 30 (never the interstate, which my grandfather abhorred), go to service at a Lutheran church, then hit the supermarket to stock up for the week.  For that reason I'd been in the church where her funeral took place on several occasions, mostly in my childhood summers where I would spend a week or two on the farm.

The day of the funeral something struck me hard that I had never really noticed before: my homeland is a strange, harsh, and forbidding place when it comes to climate and landscape.  Growing up there I assumed the insane temperature swings and endless skies were just normal.  Now it seemed that Kearney, a bustling little city of 25,000, was like a gnat on the prodigious rump of the Great Plains.  The gusting winds that morning as my wife and I went before the funeral to the Wal-Mart on the edge of town to get some baby supplies felt as if they could rip the town from its moorings and scatter its debris all over the prairie. The Wal-Mart there is on top of a hill, and I felt exposed and fearful, looking north to the barren land north of the Platte River Valley, where fields of corn give way to endless range.

A large murder of crows had made the roof of the church their home, a forbidding sight against the massive, roiling Plains sky, clouds darting across.  They crows would suddenly fly in the air, then after a flurry of hovering, rest back down on the church's roof. The church was near the edge of town, and in Nebraska towns that borderline feels creepy, making you realize that human habitation in such a place is almost an affront to nature.  On the edge of town you can feel as if the ground could open up and the earth could swallow the town whole.  When you grow up there you don't really notice it, but after spending some years in the New York area, where nature feels as if it has been wiped from existence, Nebraska in November was quite a contrast.

Nevertheless, Nebraska in November is a beautiful place, and fearsomely beautiful at that.  With the harvest in the fields are a humble stubble that allows an even more expansive view of the far-flung horizons.  Green, fragile as it is on the prairie, has drained out, but what remains is a stunning mix of hues of brown and yellow like spread Van Gogh brushstrokes across the canvas of the wide, flat plains.  The naked cottonwood trees are sublimely gnarled and twisted, like broken skeletons.  The fearsomeness comes from the feeling that the earth and sky are squashing whatever puny people happen to be stuck between them.  The sudden ice storms and blizzards don't make November's beauty feel safe or comforting.  It is more stunning and unsettling.  On this blustery New Jersey day, I am glad of the reminder of a place I see much too seldom these days.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What We Learned From Last Night's Debate

Last night I decided to subject myself to the Republican debate, mostly because I'd spent the last one watching the Mets game and was missing my favorite reality TV show.  This election has already entered surreal territory, and last night took it even further.  Here's what we learned:

Rubio is slick in the Dubya mold
Watching the debate I'd have to say that Rubio "won." I don't mean that he made the best arguments or anything, only that by the standards of what Republicans want, he did the most to get their support.  Above all, Rubio is slick.  He knows exactly the right lines to mouth to get the crowd going. I could actually see him as a new Dubya, and that scares me.  He is smooth enough to fool your garden variety moron "undecided" voter into thinking he's on their side. He comes across as "likeable" in a way that would play into sexism in a debate against Hilary. Like Dubya, the media seems to have an obsession with playing nice with him.  Speaking of...

Fox has gone all in for Rubio
Rubio got a succession of softball questions so easy that one of them caused him to chuckle to himself. The debate was on Fox Business, and as we know, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes have a history of using their media voice to promote politicians that they want in power.  Obviously Carson and Trump are unacceptable to them, but Jeb! has floundered as the establishment favorite. Now that Rubio has jumped up in the polls, it looks like Murdoch and Ailes have made their choice.

Jeb's desperation broke Trump's spell on deportation
As much as I mock Jeb!, he was actually responsible for a moment of human decency last night. He took Trump to task for his deportation plan, calling it both ridiculously impractical and inhumane to immigrant families. Back during the summer the candidates were too chickenshit to dare defy Trump, but Jeb!, desperate for a boost, attacked him head on.  Trump seemed deflated and tired, perhaps a bit bored. I get the feeling that he just wants to go play golf now that his campaign is going to require actual commitment. I doubt he will be a factor come Iowa.

Magical Reagan thinking still exists on taxes and spending
One of my favorite moments of the night was when Rubio was actually questioned in his budget plan, since he wants to cut taxes while drastically increasing military spending.  Showing his smoothness, Rubio completely dodged the question by beating his chest and saying that America will never be weak.  Of course, he pretended that doesn't have a cost.  That reminds me:

Rand Paul brings up good points but is there to be a foil
Rand Paul really pushed Rubio on this as the one Republican who acknowledges the reality of America's imperial overreach and the price that comes with it. Rubio relished this, since it allowed him to show strength against the one naysayer on stage.  The other Republicans seemed to use Paul as a punching bag, proclaiming that America would not relinquish its leadership role. They love having him around to burnish their love of the military industrial complex. It almost makes me feel bad for him.

Ted Cruz is a classic bullshit artist college debater
Of course, I'll never feel bad for Ted Cruz. Something about him sets me on edge more than the average person, and last night I finally figured it out. Much has been made of Cruz's past as a college debater. I used to be one too, in fact I once competed at the same tournament as him (the world championship of parliamentary style debate at Princeton in 1995). Cruz's debate style is bullshit artistry. He can make all the garbage that comes out of his mouth sound smart because he speaks with absolute conviction. The weak minded mistake this for intelligence.  I remember a lot of debaters like this, and they would drive me nuts when I had to go against them. They never ceded ground, they never broke their mask, and they loved developing straw man arguments. They could say shit that just wasn't true, but made it sound good. Cruz's know-it-all superior tone is familiar to me and now that I know where I've heard it before it is especially annoying. Speaking of bullshit:

Republicans get away with saying some insane shit
Despite the absence of Huckabee, there were some crazy ass assertions.  Speaking of Cruz, he discussed he economic plan, and like a lot of bullshit artist debaters, used evidence that wasn't actually evidence.  He cited other times that his economic approach had worked, including under Calvin Coolidge! Never mind that those policies generated massive inequality and ended in a horrific Depression. Nobody called him out on it, not even the moderators.  Trump had his own howler when he defended deportations by recalling those that took place under Eisenhower.  Of course, he didn't mention the name of that initiative, which was named "Operation Wetback." As the name implies, it was cruelly violent to undocumented immigrants, based in the assumption that they were less than fully human. At least Trump's deportation scheme was challenged.  This was not the case for Carly Fiorina, who actually had the gall to say that she had "fought to protect jobs" as a CEO. Yes that's right, the same CEO who fired 30,000 workers. Not only did she have the chutzpah to say those words, nobody, not even Trump bothered to point out the ridiculousness of such a statement. It's all more proof of the funhouse mirror world of the Republican party, which would be hilarious if it wasn't so frightening.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Penn Station Project (Tracks Bar and Grill)

For my first entry in my Penn Station Project, I thought I would highlight one of the few places in Penn Station that are bright beacons in an otherwise dark and awful place.

During my first few months of commuting through Penn Station I would walk from the New Jersey Transit terminal to the 123 subway line via the main hall past all of the stores and restaurants.  I soon discovered an alternate route through an exceptionally dingy, empty corridor that dead ends at a side entrance to the subway line.  Right at that dead end sits one of the great curiosities of New York and perhaps the world, Tracks Bar and Grill.

Although it is embedded in the least attractive corner of Penn Station, the outside is all shiny diner chrome and neon beer signs.  In the dank corridor one is greeted by the sign I've posted a picture of below:

In this cave of despair there is indeed a raw bar, good food, and some very tasty pints of beer.  ("Gold Medal Guinness" another sign exclaims, and I have no reason to doubt it.)For awhile I avoided it, thinking there was no way that Penn Station could possibly contain such a safe harbor.  Then one Friday I was meeting my spouse after work, who was coming in from Jersey.  I got to the station too soon and found myself with some time to kill.  I figured what the hell, and went into the bar.  I was pleasantly surprised.

Like all good bars do, it exudes warmth, the kind of human warmth that pushes drunks to pay extra to get loaded at a bar, rather than more cheaply at home.  The barkeeps are almost invariably middle-aged Irishwomen, quick on their feet and friendly.  Since I only go to Tracks every once in a blue moon I am pretty anonymous, but the bartenders seem to know practically everyone else on a first name basis.  While Tracks is always crowded, the bar is incredibly long (105 feet, supposedly), and I have never failed to secure a seat at the rail.  Almost no one sits at the small cluster of tables by the door.  People aren't there for the much-lauded raw bar, any food consumed is in the interests of soaking up alcohol.

Tracks is full of a kind of special energy one only feels in the presence of people getting off of work and taking a slight detour on their way home.  Guys in paint-stained Carharts lugging lunch boxes rub shoulders with men in navy suits and loosened ties. The talk is fast and lively, the smiles plenty, and vibes are good.  Most of Penn Station is a kind of dehumanizing nightmare, the kind of place you are just hoping to rush through on the way to someplace else.  Tracks actually invites you to linger, and in the low light amid the joy of a Friday happy hour with some very high quality Guinness in your belly, it's easy to forget that you are in the bowels of Penn Station.  This last Friday I sipped a wonderfully creamy pint of Guinness in that glorious moment that is as far away from work on Monday as you're gonna get.  Tracks is not the best bar in the world, but it is pretty damn high on the list when it comes to the best place to have a pint with strangers on a Friday afternoon.  As I ambled over to my train that warmth stayed with me, and I could look out of my train window at the desolate marshes between the tunnel and Newark with a smile of bemused contentment.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Classic Music Videos: "Wicked Game"

This week I've decided to kill two birds with one stone and combine my track of the week with another entry in my series music videos from MTV's golden age.  This is inspired by a commenter on my last video post asking me about "Wicked Game," as well as me seeing the film Wild At Heart for the first time last night.  That David Lynch film lifted Chris Isaak's brooding song of broken love out of obscurity and onto the charts in 1990-1991.  In a day-glo era, this black and white film noir of a song was a breath of fresh air to your truly whenever I heard it on the radio.

And then the video happened.

The original video for the song was pretty standard, more fitting an obscure artist than a hit song.  The record company changed that, and commissioned a new video shot by Herb Ritts on Hawaii with bombshell Norwegian model Helena Christensen.  The beginning images are beautifully striking.  In black and white we see massive plumes of steam and smoke, evidently from the lava of volcanoes hitting the water.  The smoke rolls over the half-faded image of Christensen, her alluring pale eyes peeking through, all while the spooky reverb of the song's guitar unspools itself.  The fires and steam of the volcanoes are mirrored in scenes of Isaak and Christensen vigorously fondling each other while topless.  At a time when I was relying on the lingerie section of the Sears catalog for titillation, this video was a heat seeking missile straight to my teenage libido.        

You may doubt me when I say this, but I appreciated this video with my brain as well as other organs.  Its use of black and white was masterful, especially in the little flecks of black volcanic sand on the lovers' skins and billows of white smoke. Before any movie did so, this video got me thinking about cinematography.

Nevertheless, the unvarnished pain of the lyrics, delivered so well by Isaak's quivering voice, got a little lost when I was watching a beautiful woman teasingly disrobe.  In many respects the success of the video hurt the impact of the song. This was often the case in the golden age of music videos, when average songs with great videos would get much more attention than they deserved, and good songs with great videos would be appreciated mostly for their visuals.  ("Sledgehammer" is a prime example.)  This song explored the dark side of love in ways that rarely make the top 40. Its retro sound and Isaak's vocal stylings make it the best Roy Orbison song that Roy Orbison didn't sing, although Orbison is the last guy I could picture cavorting with a half-naked model on a Hawaii beach.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Introducing the Penn Station Project

Editor's Note: I am currently reading the book Looking For America On The New Jersey Turnpike by Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland and am blown away at how they are able to derive so much meaning from such a mundanely inhumane institution.  This morning while reading the book on the train I had an "a ha!" moment: shouldn't Penn Station get similar treatment?  I then remembered that I have not the time, talent, or resources to write a similar book about America's busiest train station.  I then remembered that I at least have this humble blog.  I plan on making the Penn Station Project a running series.  Today is the first chapter.


Penn Station might be the most unloveable place of its importance in the world, on par with Heathrow and LAX, but worse because it isn't even allowed to be its own space.  It is first and foremost the basement of Madison Square Garden, an afterthought beneath The World's Greatest Arena.

It is even more unloveable for being a poor replacement for what had been one of the most impressive train stations ever constructed.  The original was completed in 1910, a Beaux Arts beauty made of pink marble and meant to symbolize permanence.  In perhaps the greatest crime against New York's built environment ever perpetuated, Penn Station was torn down in the mid-1960s, its marble and famed eagles dumped into a swamp in New Jersey.  In less than sixty years a great monument to the ascendance of rail travel had been obliterated, a sign of its obsolescence in the age of the automobile.

The new Penn Station would be part of a multipurpose space, a concept so beloved by architects and urban planners of the day.  On top would be Madison Square Garden and a tall office building, jammed beneath, like an unwanted child, would be Penn Station.  Never mind that 650,000 people pass through it everyday, more than the number of passengers at all three major New York area airports combined.  Before 1963 travelers to New York would emerge from the tunnel under the Hudson into a spectacular cathedral to trains, a grand place befitting a world-dominating city. Now they are disgorged into a dirty, grungy rabbit warren with claustrophobically low ceilings and foul air.

I pass through this place twice every day.  I am in it so often that I my brain doesn't really register what my eyes see. I once joked that I could walk through Penn Station and pass right on by Dick Cheney administering fellatio to Satan. I know there are hundreds of thousands of fellow commuters who have the same relationship to the place that I do.  I would like to slow down a bit and actually take a look around.  That's what this series will be all about.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

America's Brezhnev Years (Continued)

Vintage Soviet anti-alcohol poster

One of my favorite theories is that the United States has entered its Brezhnev period.  In case you don't know, Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, presiding over its long decline.  While he enjoyed giving himself medals and flexing Soviet power, the system began to rot and most people, even in the party itself, stopped believing in the party ideology.  Similarly, our political class profess to love freedom and democracy, all while democratic institutions crumble.  Elections are bought and sold, and voters can't be bothered to show up at the polls.  Gridlock and acrimony have led to a do-nothing government no longer even able to pass the most basic legislation.  Social institutions are hardly faring better. Our universities, once the pride of the world, have become money-grubbing enterprises whose high cost make debtors out of their students.  Roads crack and bridges fall due to lack of funds. As labor unions have been crushed, workers are seeing their wages shrink while the wealthy see unprecedented gains.  Abroad America's failed War On Terror has, like the USSR's ill-advised invasion of Afghanistan, exposed a once mighty empire's clay feet.  Belief in institutions has been broken, and the fact the military and police routinely come out on top when Americans are polled about institutions that they trust shows an authoritarian longing that belies all of the democracy talk.

This week brings more news to confirm my thesis.  A recent study found that middle-aged whites are now dying at a HIGHER rate than before.  This death rate is increasingly especially among the least educated, and death is coming at the hands of suicide, heroin, and alcohol.  I wish the data was broken down by region, because I suspect these trends are most pronounced in the Rust Belt and in rural areas.  Low educated whites used to be able to find work in farming and factory labor, work that could actually pay pretty well, too.  Those whites who are currently middle-aged and low-educated grew up at a time when they were told they could quit school and go right to work (a lot of guys I went to high school with did this), but deindustrialization has pretty much destroyed that avenue.  They put themselves at a disadvantage expecting a decent option, but then found themselves with the rug pulled out from under them.  Our society does, however, provide easy access to the tools for obliterating the mind and providing temporary pleasure.  Cheap booze and now cheap heroin make for tempting escapes.

I find this interesting because Brezhnev-era Russia also saw a similar rise in alcoholism and increase in mortality.  Things got so bad that when Gorbachev came to power he started a campaign to reduce alcohol consumption.  That plan would be short-lived, and in the 1990s after the fall of Communism, both mortality and alcoholism would rise in tandem, until recently.  Just as the Soviet system failed to provide a way forward for its workers in an age of stagnation, the shrinking prospects for so many Americans are also finding an outlet in drugs, booze, and eventually, early death.

As the Berlin Wall fell so many people in this country acted as if America was the great victor in the Cold War.  Perhaps that was not really the case, and that one of the Superpowers just happened to lose about thirty years before the other one.  Or maybe in the coming years America after the Cold War will be compared to Britain after World War II: a dying empire.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

David Bowie "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)"

As I say a lot on here, I am the type of person who is particularly sensitive to the changing seasons.  This also means that because I first heard certain songs during a change in the seasons, that those songs remain associated in my mind with certain times of the year. These associations also seem particularly acute when it comes to autumn.

Because I have spent my adult life working in education after years of grad school, I have faced a lot of transitions with the beginning of school in the fall.  One of the toughest was moving to Chicago right after college to start my master's degree.  I loved being in the big city, but I was there by myself, and without a lot of money.  The worst was that my graduate classes were very challenging, and the university treated the students in my master's program like orphans.  We were neither undergrads or doctoral students, essentially caught up in a revolving door that was quite lucrative for that particular university.  I really and truly felt alone, the only consolation was that one of my college friends was living on the other side of the city, and that we could get together from time to time.  (I would find a good gang to hang with, but that was a few months away.)

I passed many nights in my lonely studio apartment trying to work while the particularly harsh autumn nightfalls came crashing down on the South Side of Chicago.  For the first time I could remember, I was studying my favorite subject (history) but not automatically "getting it."  Those months of difficulty and loneliness happened to coincide with my David Bowie phase.  I went with my aforementioned college pal to see Velvet Goldmine that autumn, which only piqued my interest in Bowie's glam rock era that much more.  That's where I was when I picked up a used copy of Diamond Dogs at the record store around the corner from my apartment.

It's a somewhat maligned album, coming after Bowie had decided to leave glam and the Spiders From Mars (his old backing band) behind, but before he had jumped off into his more daring experiments of the mid and late seventies.  He had wanted to write a musical based off of Orwell's 1984, but couldn't get the rights.  For that reason, the Diamond Dogs album doesn't quite cohere.  It has stuff from that failed project, a daft concept-album plot about a post-apocalyptic London that seems to go nowhere, and radio-friendly singles like "Rebel Rebel."

In the middle of this is a three song suite, "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)."  It has some beautiful singing from Bowie, who was finally learning how to use his lower register and screech less.  The suite ping-pongs between high and low, fast and slow, with some of his best sax work providing great texture and a gorgeous guitar solo. According to a Bowie interview, these songs were reworked remnants of the Orwell musical, and evoke very well the mix of dread, paranoia, and hope in the novel.

To me, because of that tough autumn seventeen (!) years ago, I come back to this song cycle on a day like today, when daylight savings time is over and night falls early and dark. It's at this point, around Halloween, that I begin to realize that winter is around the corner and relentless.  Just as in the song, hope coexists with dread, but the latter seems poised to dominate.