Monday, February 29, 2016

Making Fascism Respectable Again

Super Tuesday could well be Trump's electoral equivalent of the March on Rome.  The show of popular force may well push the old guard elites to pledge fealty to a demagogue.

Just when I thought that this current political situation couldn't be crazier or more depressing, last week brought news of two very curious and very telling official endorsements of Donald Trump.  The first came from David Duke, America's most well-known white supremacist.  (Since that endorsement white nationalist groups have been making calls on his behalf.)  Now it had been pretty obvious that Trump was appealing to white nationalists, but it was something else that those connections were now completely out in the open and laid bare for all to see. (And now this weekend Trump was unwilling to disavow the endorsement of the KKK.)

A more shocking endorsement came days later from Chris Christie, the first powerful Republican to endorse Trump, who did so despite the recent Duke endorsement.  Other Republican politicians, not wanting to be Johnny-come-lately to the now probable Trump nomination jumped on the bandwagon, including Maine governor Paul LePage, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer and Alabama senator Jeff Sessions.  Thus a man who endorses the deportation of eleven million American residents, coercing Mexico into building a border wall, colonizing Iraq to take its oil, banning Muslims from America, and murdering the relatives of accused terrorists, is now getting the backing of powerful, established figures in one of the country's major parties.  After Super Tuesday, expect more to follow.

Trump has been unleashing nascent forces in American life that right wing politicians have gestured towards, but have never totally embraced.  The essence of fascism is redemptive nationalism wedded to militarism and authoritarianism centered around a charismatic leader.  Trump is the first American politician to embody that essence to achieve the heights that he has climbed.  Like all good fascists, he has few specific ideas, but acts as if he can achieve what he wants through pure force of will.  He treats any political obstacles as illegitimate, and removing them as more important that following the rule of law.  For instance, this week he pledged to change libel laws (which don't exist on the federal level) so that he could sue hostile media outlets out of existence.

Fascists have been able to take power historically once old-line conservative elites are willing to make a deal with them, since fascists are fringe enough that they usually can't quite make it to the top on their own.  The old conservatives elites make these deals once they realize that the masses are sick of them, and thus think they can keep power by allying with, or even controlling, a populist demagogue.  We seem to be on the cusp of entering that phase.  I think the next month will pretty much decide it.  If Trump keeps winning primary election, I doubt many in the Republican party will have the decency to stand in his way.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

What If? (Trump's America 2019)

BBC News) Today marks the third anniversary of an important day in the ascendancy of president Donald Trump.  In February of 2016 vice president Christie, while he was still governor of New Jersey, endorsed Trump, making him the first established Republican to do so.  This endorsement laid the groundwork for other prominent Republicans to be willing to throw their support behind Trump, and for the party machinery to assist him in his election victory.  This support was especially crucial after the 2016 election ended without Trump, Hilary Clinton, or third party candidate Michael Bloomberg getting a majority of the electoral vote.  Although Trump did not get a plurality, trailing Clinton, House Republicans threw the balance to his side.

It has been impossible for the BBC to talk to Trump or Christie to discuss this anniversary, since only journalists vetted by Secretary of Information Scarborough are allowed access to the president.  Other outlets, such as the New York Times, have not been so lucky.  A libel lawsuit conducted under new laws formulated by Trump has left that newspaper bankrupt and unable to operate.  Because the United Kingdom has not remained allied with the United States in Trump's recent military interventions, the BBC too has been threatened with lawsuits by the Trump government.

With American armed forces currently deployed in the oil fields of Iraq and on the Mexican side of the border with the United States, Trump has been restricting the media even more on the grounds of protecting the nation in a time of war.  Just last week he sent the American army over the Rio Grande, where maquiladoras (Mexican factories on the border) have been forcibly shut down after the Mexican government refused to pay for the wall Trump is currently building. Sources in the US military also say that the maquiladoras may be burned down, or failing that, turned into dumping grounds for the millions of undocumented immigrants that are currently being held in makeshift internment camps in the Nevada and Utah deserts.

After what some insiders call a plastic surgery operation gone wrong, Trump has not appeared in public for the past four days.  Rumors about the leader's ill health, combined with unrest over the policies of mass deportation and invasion, have led some to think that a palace coup may be in the offing. The suspension of Congressional elections in 2018 after armed skirmishes broke out between federal agents carrying out deportation orders and undocumented workers in several immigrant neighborhoods was seen as a step too far by some powerful Republicans.  Others see a potential power grab by vice president Chris Christie, information minister Joe Scarborough, secretary of the interior Sarah Palin, or even chief justice Andrew Napolitano.  Fox News, now the de facto government organ, has been showing nothing but reruns of Trump campaign rallies from 2016 and reruns of The Apprentice, leading some to wonder if his death is imminent.  Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch have both refused to comment.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Our Endangered, Outmoded Constitution

Chile had constitutional rule for 140 years before 1973. There's no reason an American constitutional crisis couldn't have a similar ending

Americans like to brag about having kept with the same constitution since 1787, a world record by far in terms of written constitutions.  I've long thought this was a problem, since the American Constitution was drawn up before there had been other examples of modern republics to draw from.  It was also drawn up with the assumption that political parties would not be powerful forces in American political life and with the express intention of thwarting popular will.  The electoral college meant to put the vote  for president in the hands of the "right sort" of propertied man.  The federal system gave each state equal representation in the Senate, before a proliferation of low-population states made that body completely undemocratic.  That same Senate is allowed to make its own rules, rules that allow minorities to block votes with ease and even individual Senators to put a "hold" on an appointment without even providing a reason.  We have now reached a point of constitutional dysfunction that a Supreme Court justice can die and the Senate majority leader can proclaim that he has no intention of even considering the president's appointment, and he just might be able to get away with it.

This pronouncement comes after years of blocked judicial appointments and legislative gridlock.  Our system of government simply isn't functioning properly.  It's also completely schizophrenic.  The principle of "one person-one vote" is part of our judicial system, but when it comes to the Senate, Wyoming gets the same representation as California.  Despite its obsolescence, we still use the Electoral College which can, as in 2000, give the presidency to the candidate with fewer votes.  It also nakedly violates the principle of one person-one vote.

These have been endemic issues for a long time.  In recent weeks, the failures of our constitutional system have been put in high relief by the Republican Senate's apparent desire not to vote on any candidate that president Obama nominates for the Supreme Court.  This is an unprecedented move, and one that our dysfunctional system allows for.  In fact, while this case is getting attention, most people are unaware that the Senate has consistently been blocking Obama's nominees to lower courts as well.  Our higher courts are going unstaffed because an outmoded constitution assumes that such a thing would never happen.  When it was written, these kinds of partisan issues were never expected to be part of the task of appointing judges.  But guess what, they are.

Keeping our 18th century Constitution has also led to massive distortions in what rights our citizens have.  Because of the very ill-worded 2nd Amendment, owning an assault rifle has become an inviolable right.  But due to the 18th century values of the Constitution, education and health care are NOT things that the people have a right to, which is insane.  Compare this to Germany, whose Basic Law written after World War II guarantees rights to health care, education, and equal rights to both men and women.  (In America the ERA failed to get ratified in the 1970s.)

As a nation we sing hosannas to the legal millstone around our collective neck.  Of course, there is no real way forward.  A constitutional convention in this day and age would be impossible considering the depth of political division.  There is no way to compromise between a libertarian and social democratic vision of society.  The states have become so ingrained in our mental and physical maps that there is no erasing them or our ridiculously confused federal system.  The only thing to do is sit back and watch the current fatally flawed system be manipulated and gamed, until one day the whole thing just collapses.

Make no mistake, when the collapse comes it will be at the hands of radical conservatives.  They have shown a propensity for proclaiming their love of the constitution all while thinking that the ends always justify the means when it comes to accomplishing their goals.  They are rabid true believers who feel that they are "saving" the country, and thus can do whatever needs to be done. In the last twenty years we've already seen an impeachment over a BJ, a stolen election, multiple government shutdown hostage situations, restrictions on voting rights, unprecedented use of the filibuster, and now refusing to act on any Supreme Court nominee.  I'm beginning to think that the ultimate day of reckoning is coming sooner rather than later.  The history of the Americas is littered with examples of rightist reactionaries suspending constitutions in order destroy their leftist opponents.  Let's not pretend that the same thing can't happen here.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Music For Troubled Times

Ever since Saturday night a feeling of dread has accompanied me. It has to do with Donald Trump winning the South Carolina primary, and the feeling that his candidacy is actually viable.  Right now I must admit that I think he stands a fifty-fifty chance of getting the Republican nomination.  While one would assume that such a large percentage of people dislike Trump and his ideas that he would be destroyed in the general election, stranger things have happened.  A Trump nomination could bring about a Bloomberg third party run, which would sink Clinton or Sanders. If Clinton is the nominee the email scandal could maybe turn into something big.  Basically, it’s a chance I’d rather not take.  And even if Trump does not win the nomination, the fact that so many Americans are behind such a vulgar, fascistic man who appeals to the worst instincts in this country is depressing enough.

On top of all of this we had yet another mass shooting met with a collective shrug this weekend.  Police still get away with murder and the wealthy keep choking off opportunity for others.  I’ve turned to music to salve my soul.  Here’s some songs for these troubled times.

Ray Charles “The Danger Zone”

This is an absolutely beautiful song in its dejection, but one that expresses the dread of living when “the world is in an uproar.”  According to the song, “the danger zone is everywhere.”

Arcade Fire “Windowsill”

This is a song and album I associate very strongly with the Bush years.  It starts with a litany of “I don’t wanna”s before the last, devastating one: “I don’t wanna live in America no more.”  This is a song of disgust at a country gone insane, one I am really feeling right now. “Because the tide is high/ and it’s rising still/ but I don’t want to see it at my windowsill.”

The War On Drugs “Under The Pressure”

This gorgeous song sounds like it comes from an alternate-universe 1980s when the production techniques of the day were slightly toned down and put to use for art’s sake.  It has a wonderful driving quality, which is why I often listen to it while I ride the subway on the way to work, “trying not to crack under the pressure.” 

Bob Dylan "Political World"
The War on Drugs' sound reminds me very powerfully of Bob Dylan circa Oh Mercy, an album that dealt with the broken-ness of the world.  "Political World" puts the point most starkly, speaking of a world where "Love don't have any place/ we're living in times where men commit crimes/ but crime don't have any face."  That just about sums it up, don't it?

U2 "Seconds"

I know it's trendy to knock U2 these days, but we shouldn't lost sight of how great they were in their heyday.  This ominous song came out in 1983, in the midst of renewed threats of nuclear war, the subject of the song.  It's a very pretty song about that lingering fear that the world can be blown up with the push of a button.  Thinking about Trump's finger on that button makes me shudder.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Track of the Week: REM "Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)"

We've now entered a strange and liminal part of the year that I usually just refer to as "late winter," but whose effects are more profound than that mundane moniker suggests.  There are signs of spring, but it's not here yet.  Winter has just about worn me down by now.  Growing up it was always rotten because I was usually depriving myself of something I liked because of Lent. For a sports-obsessed kid it was the pits because football was over, baseball hadn't started, and in basketball March Madness and the NBA playoffs hadn't arrived yet.  I also tend to get sick this time of year, and this year was no exception.  Just as I recovered from a wretched bout with the flu, my wife contracted it, and has been laid up for three days.

The air is filled with a mysterious ennui, but also a faint whiff of the green blast of spring life just over the horizon.  That mood has always been the perfect one for listening to REM's early music, which has a similar air of mystery and anticipation about it.  I find this to be the case especially with Chronic Town, their debut EP, released in 1982.  Fitting the title, "Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)" starts with the sound of a faded carousel calliope, before the punky guitar and driving drums come in.  The chorus has one of Peter Buck's best descending, jangly guitar figures, a real beauty.  Like most early REM songs, the lyrics are intentionally vague and sung in a way as to be incomprehensible.  That, of course, only adds to the mystery, one just as ineffable as the strange stirrings in my soul on a late February day when the chill wind carries just a hint of verdant warmth.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Seven Years Of Politics On The Brink

Our modern political insanity dates from Rush Limbaugh's speech seven years ago

We are approaching an ignominious, important, and yet forgotten anniversary in American political life, and one that explains the recent conservative response to the death of Antonin Scalia.  On February 28, 2009, after Republicans had taken a massive electoral beating after their severe mismanagement of the economy led to a fearsome crash, many important conservatives gathered at the CPAC conference.  On that day Rush Limbaugh, clad in an open-necked black suit with slicked down hair like a Bulgarian mafiosi, gave a fiery speech calling for massive resistance to the Obama administration.  The response was boisterous enthusiasm that helped propel the complete and total commitment to destroying the president at all costs.  Even if conservatives had already decided upon that course of action, Limbaugh's speech amounted to a public declaration of that intention by the conservative movement.

It's hard to remember now, but back at the time of Obama's inauguration, it looked as if conservatives were going to have to bend to a tidal wave of support for the new president.  Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, and the massive crowds that showed up to cheer Obama's inauguration seemed to be harbingers of the end of the 30-year-long reign of political conservatism in DC.  After all, an opposition party compromising with a massively popular new president was nothing new.  Democrats controlled the House under Reagan, but still passed his massive tax and social spending cuts in the early 80s.  Perhaps some in the Republican establishment were ready to play (relatively) nice in 2009, but the conservative media wouldn't let it.

Well before Limbaugh's speech on the 28th, Fox News premiered the Glenn Beck Program on January 19th, the day before Obama's nomination.  Beck would soon fulminate against the president with a heaping dose of paranoia and conspiratorial thinking.  He would call progressives "fascists," much like Jonah Goldberg, whose book making the same ridiculous claim was just published in 2008. The conservative media had been paying attention during the election, and saw the response that Sarah Palin received by appealing to the worst instincts of their base.  She would be a prophet of the coming changes.

The conservative political leadership was confronted by its own failure in November of 2008.  It could very well have licked its wounds and stepped aside for a bit, taking some time to think about what to do next.  It didn't do that, of course.  After seeing the response that Limbaugh and Beck were getting from the rank and file by appealing more directly and crudely to it than even Palin did, it decided to treat Barack Obama as if he were an illegitimate president and an enemy of the country.  That has been the modus operandi of the Republican Party for seven long years now, with disastrous consequences for the country.  This is why Marco Rubio, a supposed "moderate" constantly claims that the president is intentionally trying to destroy the country.  This is why an obvious sociopath like Ted Cruz has rallied the Tea Party base despite alienating everyone who actually knows him. And this, ultimately, is why Donald Trump is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination.  The leadership has talked a big game for years, raising the expectations of their base beyond what's realistically possible.  Trump has managed to somehow convince a plurality of that base that he will actually make their wildest desires come true.  After years of lies, hatred, calumny, and disinformation being fed the conservative base by both its politicians and media, such an outcome is hardly surprising.

The conservative politicians know that they have struck a devil's bargain, but so far, it's worked for them.  They may have lost the presidency, but mobilizing their foot soldiers has helped them turn statehouses red in numerous blue states and to control both houses of Congress.  The obstructionist tactics have made it impossible for the president to properly govern the country, and the occasional debt ceiling hostage crisis forces him to give ground.  For that reason this nightmare won't end until the Republican party is kept out of holding the Senate, House, and White House for at least three election cycles.  Until the political strategy articulated by Limbaugh seven years ago starts to no longer pay off, it will be with us.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Billboard Top Ten February 21, 1987

I was going to limit myself to one top ten breakdown a month, but I've spent the last four days seriously ill and in need of the kind of goofy pick me up you can only get from 80s pop music.

10. Cyndi Lauper "Change of Heart"

Hellooooooo 80s!  The synths and drums are IN YOUR FACE!  This is a sad contrast to Lauper's first album, which had more unique singles like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Time After Time."  If you ever needed a master class in 80s overproduction techniques, just listen to this song.

9. Ready for the World "Love You Down"

Soul music had become so processed and systematized by the late 80s that Public Enemy was prompted to write "Who Stole the Soul?"  Is there some slap bass?  Oh you bet!  All over it, baby. This song is the musical equivalent of the lead singer's jheri curl and wispy mustache combo, a true time capsule.

8. Madonna "Open Your Heart"

Okay, now we're in the major leagues.  Yes the gated snare drums are over the top and the synths shinier than a disco ball, but Madonna really adds something here.  Unlike on her earlier records, she's really learned to use the lower register of her voice, and it sounds great, almost enough to make me forget the computerized juggernaut sound beneath it all.

7. Lionel Richie "Ballerina Girl"

Now if there is a true master of mid-80s top 40 pop music, it's got to be Lionel Richie.  Here's a very tasteful little ballad, with strings that remind me more of 70s than 80s pop.  Evidently he wrote it for his daughter Nicole, and for that reason as the father of daughters I guess I can't mock it that much. It does sound like the kind of thing written specifically for father-daughter dances at weddings.  It also marks Richie's last trip into the top 10, a sign that the late 80s were going to be a different pop landscape.

6.  The Jets "You Got It All"

Watery electric piano and smoooooth sax? Aw yeah, it's an 80s pop ballad alright.  I was not surprised to discover that this song was written by Rupert Holmes, the man responsible for "The Pina Colada Song."  I liked The Jets back then, but more for their danceable stuff.

5. Samantha Fox "Touch Me"

Gulp.  This song made 11 year old Bear feel things he hadn't quite felt before listening to the radio.  I had a friend on the wrong side of the tracks who I'd started to drift from -and would eventually end up in Boys Town- who loved this song.  I was intrigued and a bit scared by the raw sexual force that was Samantha Fox, a voluptuous cockney with a limited singing range.  The song's utter lack of quality just didn't register with me.

4. Huey Lewis and the News "Jacob's Ladder"

Now it wouldn't be an 80s countdown without a little Huey Lewis, would it?  I will defend the band's 1983 Sports album as a fun collection of bar band music gone pop.  Unfortunately, by the time they put out Fore! all of their bar band spirit was gone.  The tacky suit on the cover knows the score.  This song just….isn't that good.  It's the musical equivalent of a flat bottle of Perrier overheating in a yuppie's 1987 BMW.

3. Chicago "Will You Still Love Me"

One of the small number of post-Peter Cetera songs by Chicago to hit the top ten.  This is full-on 80s ballad cheese, the kind of thing I imagine teens necking to in the back of their Datsuns after the football game.  Of course, there are a few loud guitar crashes here and there, but it's pretty weak sauce.

2. Georgia Satellites "Keep Your Hands To Yourself"

Yes Yes Yes YES!  Now this is what I am talking about!  A song played by an actual band that doesn't sound like it's been sequenced within an inch of its life.  The drums sound like drums, not bricks hitting the pavement.  It has SWING and RHYTHM and still manages to rock.  I also think it's a pretty funny tune about the reality of eventually needing to settle down and leave one's rough and rowdy ways behind.  Before the Black Crowes showed up the Georgia Satellites revived the southern rock of the seventies on this track.  Is it derivative?  Sure, but it's a helluva lot more fun and real than most of the other stuff on the charts.

1. Bon Jovi "Livin' On A Prayer"

But of course, it had to end with this.  Nothing in recent years chaps my breeches like the idea that Jon Bon Jovi somehow belongs in the same Jersey rock pantheon as Bruce Springsteen.  Bon Jovi has managed to attain this level of praise by never going away, and always having a knack for producing some more lame, middle of the road music just attuned enough the radio of the time to get hits.  I will at least give them credit for two things on this song: 1. Centering the song on gritty working class reality 2. The infectious chorus.  Just remember, y'all, diseases are infectious, too.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Brief Historical Analysis Of Baseball's Divisional Era (1969-1995)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent history of baseball, and that with my obsession with historical periodization made me realize that the period between 1969 and 1995 forms a distinct and important era in baseball’s history.  It is also the period that coincides with the creation of divisions in 1969 and the beginning of the wild card format in 1995.  If I had the time, inclination, resources, and ability I would write a book length history of the topic. Since I possess none of these things, I’ll sum up the themes in this blog post. 

In a lot of ways, 1969 marks a real turning point in baseball’s history.  It was the first year that an expansion team (the Mets) won a World Series.  Expansion in that year also necessitated the division system and playoffs.  In 1969 baseball expanded across the border into Canada with the Expos, an early moment in the internationalization of the game, which would only continue to get more intense over time.  This combined with the movement of teams and integration in the preceeding years made baseball something very different than came before.  

It certainly began to look different.  If you look at film of the '69 series, the teams are wearing flannel uniforms that you could picture on the bodies of Lou Gehrig and Josh Gibson.  Very soon, with the Oakland As as early adopters, double-knits came into fashion, as well as more outlandish and inventive colors.  The same As wore white shoes and bright gold pullover jerseys.  Soon enough the world would witness the Astros' "tequila sunrise" look and the Taco Bell Padres unis.  Add to that the many teams sporting road blues, solid color looks, and a elastic waistbands.  An average fan in 1969 would not recognize half the teams playing in 1976.  Just as the mid-90s rolled around, this sartorial inventiveness began to fade.  Belts replaced elastic, baggy pants billowed, and gray became the solitary road color and white practically the only home one.

In terms of stadiums, the multipurpose sports complex replaced the old ballparks, a trend that began in the 1960s that became dominating by 1969.  In 1995, only Wrigley and Fenway remained of the original parks (Yankee Stadium's renovation in the 70s completely changed its character.)  At the end of the divisional era, new baseball-only stadiums began to be built, and with the success of Camden Yards, opening in 1992, the template for the retro stadium was set.  Over half the parks in the major leagues have been built since the end of the Divisional Era, a truly amazing statistic.  A fan as late as 1990 would only have known a third of the current parks.

This isn't all about looks, though.  If there's a defining attribute of the Divisional Era, it's labor strife.  The strike of 1994, and the attempt by owners to field replacement players in 1995, makes an appropriate bookend, along with Curt Flood challenging the reserve clause by refusing a trade in 1969.  Flood's effort eventually led to the advent of free agency in the mid-70s, which is one of the biggest changes to the game in professional baseball's history.  The players, once docile, became assertive in this era, and the owners, feeling betrayed, clashed time and time again with their teams.  This meant strikes in 1972, 1981, 1985, and 1994, with the strike in 1981 eliminating a large chunk of the season, and the strike in 1994 canceling the World Series.  It also meant collusion by the owners in the 80s to try to thwart free agency.  The players clearly won this long war, and the last twenty years have been marked by a labor peace that is the result of the owners having to accept things that they had tried to destroy or undermine.  The amount of money flowing into baseball from cable TV has also made it easy to make everyone happy.

The Divisional Era is also very interesting from the standpoint of race.  While Jackie Robinson broken the color line in 1947 and many players of color followed, many teams (most notably the Red Sox) resisted integration.  Black stars could easily find a spot on major league rosters, but second tier black players often got overlooked when a white player of similar ability was the other option.  Robinson's last public speech was at Three Rivers Stadium in 1972, during the World Series.  It was an appropriate location, considering the the hometown Pirates had fielded the first lineup without a white player in a game the season before.  That Pirates lineup reflected the rising numbers of black and Latino players at the time, which would lead in 1986 to 19% of major league players being black.  At this speech Robinson lauded the increased number of players of color in the game, but also called for more diversity in terms of managers and front offices.  Soon enough, in 1975, Frank Robinson would manage the Cleveland Indians.  The Blue Jays would win the 1992 and 1993 World Series helmed by Cito Gaston.  However, after the mid-80s the number of black players would start to decline, and there were still signs of racism in baseball, most notable Al Campanis' infamous interview with Ted Koppel, where he implied that black players did not have the intellectual capacity to be managers.  If anything, the Divisional Era both saw deeper integration and illustrated the racist barriers that still existed.

The Divisional Era is very much a transitional period when baseball figured out how to prosper while both no longer being the nation's top spectator sport and breaking away from its past.  Baseball attendance had dipped in the 1960s while the NFL rose and baseball owners remained stuck in the past.  In the late 70s and early 80s, however, attendance started shooting up.  During the 1980s baseball returned to a prominent place in the media landscape and pop cultural mind.  Several baseball movies were hits, and The Natural, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams have managed to remain in cultural memory.

Beyond a return to pop cultural relevance, the baseball renaissance might have been primarily due to the way baseball was played in the Divisional Era, which was compelling in its balance.  For a long time baseball got boring with station-to-station tactics in the supposed "golden age" of the 50s, when attendance lagged.  (I get the feeling that the preponderance of baseball writers who grew up in the New York area in that time, when the three teams were all great, has something to do with the golden age misnomer.)  Then, just as speed and excitement began to return, pitching became so over-dominant that they had to lower the mound after the 1968 season.  While there were ups and downs in terms of offense, the game was pretty balanced in this era, rebounding from the second dead ball era in the early 70s, but not shooting up in offense until around 1993.  Another round of expansion and the increased use of steroids probably had something to do with that.  In 1996, the runs per game average for a single team would clear the 5.00 mark for the first time since 1936, a sign that the juiced era was on in full force.  During most of the Divisional Era the game included both power and speed, and strikeout rates while rising were much lower than they are today, making for exciting play.

Despite seeing a recovery from the stagnating attendance in the postwar period, the Divisional Era also saw the halo finally and permanently fall off of the game.  To be sure, there had been other scandalous times, such as the reaction to the 1919 White Sox throwing the World Series, but now there was no going back to a norm where baseball's purity was assumed.  This has a lot to do with the general questioning and dethroning of American institutions in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.  The seminal point for baseball was Jim Bouton's Ball Four, which came out in 1970 and described the dirty realities of ballplayers' lives. Joe Pepitone's memoir, which came out a few years later, did much the same work.  Scandals involving baseball players and managers grabbed the headlines, from prominent players being involved in a cocaine ring to Pete Rose betting on baseball.  It is impossible to understand the level of reaction against steroids without taking this period into account.  It established a powerful discourse of baseball as a fallen game, and a standard of behavior not expected of other major sports.

Above everything else, the Divisional Era was the time when baseball learned to adjust to no longer being the top sport in American life, or to being an institution with any assumed level of purity.  It learned, through its revived status in popular culture, that its history and nostalgia for its past were powerful forces.  That emphasis on staying connected to a rich past would come out most visibly in the new "retro" ballparks that followed Camden Yards.  It was a period of survival and adjustment, coming before the "juicing" of the game and all that entailed.  Grayer heads than mine may fondly recall Mantle, Aaron, and Mays, but for me and others this Divisional Era was our golden age.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Track of the Week: Earth, Wind and Fire "Got To Get You Into My Life"

Death struck the music world again this month with the passing of Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind, and Fire.  He pioneered a truly unique sound, one borrowing from jazz, soul, funk, and Latin music while not sounding derivative of any of those genres.  There's a lot of songs to choose from, but I'm picking "Got To Get You Into My Life," since this cover of an already great Beatles tune showcases Earth, Wind, and Fire's pure musical brilliance.

The original had a bold horns part, making it pretty ideal as an Earth, Wind, and Fire cover, but the similarities end there.  The beat and the arrangement are totally different, even if the tempo is still the same.  It's funky, complex, and intricate in ways that the original, which was more of a hard-driving rock song, wasn't.  Many have attempted to cover the Beatles, and this is one of the rare cases where the cover matches or improves on the original.

The context for this cover is also interesting.  It was included in the soundtrack to the wretched Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band film, a late '70s pastiche of disco-era awfulness.  Several contemporary artists, especially the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, who starred in the film, covered classic Beatles tracks on the soundtrack.  The vast majority of these covers are really shite.  When Earth, Wind, and Fire come on near the end, it is an invigorating shot of energy that makes the crap surrounding it look even worse by comparison. Maurice White's vision was so unique that no one else really repeated it, not the same way as say, David Bowie.  It would be a shame if that keeps a brilliant artist from getting his due.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Suffer Little Children

Today brought an article in the Times about the educational tactics used in Success Academy charter schools.  Here's a brief glimpse:
"Indeed, several of the current and former staff members interviewed said that the network’s culture encouraged teachers to make students fear them in order to motivate them. Carly Ginsberg, 22, who taught for about six months last year at Success Academy Prospect Heights, said teachers ripped up the papers of children as young as kindergarten as the principal or assistant principal watched. She once witnessed a girl’s humiliation as the principal mocked her low test score to another adult in front of the child.
In one instance, the lead kindergarten teacher in her classroom made a girl who had stumbled reciting a math problem cry so hard that she vomited. Ms. Ginsberg resigned in December because she was so uncomfortable with the school’s approach. “It felt like I was witnessing child abuse,” she said, adding, “If this were my kindergarten experience, I would be traumatized.” She is now teaching in Los Angeles."
This article made me so very glad that I teach in a progressive school where students are treated with respect and humanity.  At the same time it brought back some very bad memories, memories that are lodged so deep in my brain that I will never forget them.

I did in fact did have a traumatizing kindergarten experience myself.  For my first two years of schooling I went to a Catholic elementary school in my Nebraska hometown before my parents pulled me out and put me in a public school in second grade.  My first grade year wasn't that bad, but kindergarten was a nightmare. Later I learned that it was supposed to be a time of exploration and happiness, of nap time and play.  My kindergarten was a misery.

My teacher was evidently brand new, and considering the protocols of small town Nebraska Catholic schools, I doubt she had much in the way of training or education.  You would think that a teacher of kindergarteners would love little children, but she seemed to despise us.  For some reason she had a special dislike of me.  I was constantly getting yelled at, usually for the crime of daydreaming, hardly.  We had to bring athletic socks in for some kind of activity one day, and while I was looking out of the window (most likely because I had been able to do the day's schoolwork with little fuss), she yelled at me and made me sit in a chair in the hallway outside of class.  While doing so, she threatened to shove my socks down my throat.  (And I hadn't even said anything!)  At least my mom called the school and demanded to talk to the teacher.

Our days were an unending train of wretched rote learning.  I remember distinctly for our school's Christmas pageant the entire class had to memorize an extremely long nativity story.  We spent hour after hour, day after day, repeating it over and over and over again, getting barked at when we made a mistake.  It's a miracle that my love of learning survived that year.

Of all the rotten things I experienced that year, two were worse than being threatened with physical violence by my teacher for the crime of looking out of the window.  One day I was pulled out of class.  I was taken to the cafeteria, which was empty, and two strangers asked me to do things and took notes.  I had no clue at the time what was going on.  I later found out fifteen years later that I was being tested for developmental disabilities.  My teacher, who never bothered to understand me, assumed that there was something wrong with me.  At the time I didn't know the reason I was made to jump up and down on one foot in the cafeteria, but it felt pretty ominous, nonetheless.

The worst thing didn't happen to me, but to another student.  We were tasked with being able to tie our shoelaces.  One day we were to come in and demonstrate our ability.  One little girl did not seem able to do it.  The teacher, in a fit of rage, shoved her out of the way.  The girl, flung to the side by the shove, struck a desk right on the bridge of her nose, which started bleeding out a gusher of blood.  I have yet to see another bloody nose so scary in its fearsomeness.  The blood covered the front of her white puffy Catholic school blouse.  The teacher sent her off to the nurse's office for help, but without a single shred of compassion or remorse in her voice.  The vision of that bloody blouse has been burned into my mind like a hot branding iron.

My mom swears that my experience in kindergarten had an extremely negative effect on my social abilities.  I was already anxious before all of this, but afterwards the anxiety and lack of confidence I felt became crippling.  This makes me think about those children being taught this very day in the Success Academy, and how many of them are losing heart when it comes to learning.  I wonder how many them will have their belief in themselves permanently shredded.  All the while Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy's leader, will keep amassing power and influence amidst the Success Academy's systematic mental abuse of children.  Like I did, they will grow up, too.  I can only hope that they are able to recover from trauma, as I have been lucky enough to do.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Truth or Consequences, New Hampshire

This montage of red shirt deaths reminds my of the Republican primaries this week

I don't think I've ever witnessed a New Hampshire primary as momentous as this one.  It took out the electoral equivalent of the Star Trek red shirts (Fiorina and Christie and maybe Carson), severely damaged another leader candidate (Rubio), and handed victories to a crypto-fascist in Trump and a socialist (more like social democrat, to be fair) in Bernie Sanders.

The latter phenomenon is especially striking, in that it shows the complete weakness of the political parties.  Trump has never held office, and was long a Democrat, but now is the front runner in the Republican race despite being feared and despised by the party leadership.  Running close behind is Ted Cruz, who inspires similar loathing.  Sanders was an independent for years in Congress, and became a Democrat merely for the convenience of running in this race.  In the process he defeated the hand-picked candidate of the Democratic party, a candidate thought to be so unassailable that more established figures didn't dare challenge her.

The political trends of the past few years have accelerated longer-term declines in party strength.  The bans on "soft money," which went to the parties, led to the workaround of the superPACS, which are technically (and often in practice) independent of the candidates.  This means, especially for the Republicans, that rich groups of donors, not the party bosses, hold the power.  For the Democrats, labor's power in the party has declined along with its power in the nation.  Most of the old local political machines have also been broken, so nowadays the party leaders have few mechanisms to get the rank and file into line or get them out to vote for preferred candidates.

This is not a totally positive development.  While it is good that for the Democrats that the vested interests can't necessarily call the tune, on the other side the current situation tends toward demagoguery and anarchy.  Republicans compete to do the bidding of hardcore reactionaries like the Koch brothers, and have the money win once blue states like New Jersey and Wisconsin.  The alienated right wing base, no longer held in check, is free to be tempted by the likes of Trump.  I get the feeling that this weakness in parties will only continue on into the future.

The Republican leadership is desperate for a standard bearer to take on Cruz and Trump, but can't seem to find one.  New Hampshire, more than anything, exposed the difficulties inherent in trying to stop Trump.  It was hard for him to win a caucus state like Iowa, where ground game is essential, but in a primary state like New Hampshire, he does not really have to work hard to get out the vote.  The Republican vote is divided, and Marco Rubio, the candidate many (including myself) thought would be the establishment champion got intellectually pantsed on live television on Saturday.  I've long thought Rubio to be a lightweight, but then again, so was Dubya.  But a lightweight who is visibly anxious and scared (that's why he kept repeated the same phrase like a talisman) has no chance of becoming president.  Kasich looked strong, but he is so moderate by modern Republican standards that I see him having a hard time mustering the votes.  Bush, of course, has been completely lame, a punchline to a joke nobody told.  He has shown some fire recently, but the die has been cast.  Right now I can't make any kind of confident prediction about how this is going to turn out.

I do know that Christie is done, an almost shocking downfall.  He should have been the mainstream standard bearer, but his relationship with Obama during Sandy hurt him, Bridgegate mortally wounded him, and his grating, mean-spirited nature alienated voters and helped finish him off.  Of course before he went out he did a kamikaze attack on Marco Rubio, both motivated by revenge (his favorite emotion) and the pleasure he derives from bullying a weak person and humiliating them in public.  I can only hope that when he gets back to New Jersey his need to lash out at his enemies will have subsided.

I am also still agog at the fact that Donald Trump just won a primary election by a wide margin.  He says horrific, bigoted things all while just talking out of his ass while wearing a spray-on tan and laughable haircut.  Who on earth is impressed by this?  He sounds like someone who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.  I guess his legions of knuckle-dragging troglodytes don't know either.  His audience scares me more than him, since after he's gone they'll still be around.

I but two things to say about the Democrats.  In the first place, the youth vote for Sanders is indicative of a larger generation gap.  Boomers got to benefit from a generous social state and low cost higher education in their youth, got tax cuts in middle age, and will still have Medicare and Social Security waiting for them in retirement.  Those in Gen X and younger had much of that taken away from them with fewer job opportunities.  Socialism is not the boogeyman if you never really got all the goodies from the social state to begin with.  Last, people should be careful about overestimating Sanders' chances.  New Hampshire is an open primary state, and Clinton actually won among registered Democrats.  Demographically and geographically, the state was in his wheelhouse.  Soon the primaries will move to the South, where Clinton will clean up.  If Sanders survives that onslaught, then we can start taking his chances more seriously.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Billboard's Top Ten February 2, 1985

[Editor's note: I was thinking about this time of year today and a very specific memory bubbled up in my head about listening the Casey Kasem's Top 40 in February of 1985.  I then looked up the charts and was surprised and amused by what I saw.  Every now and then I plan on looking at what the top ten was that week during a year in the past, both for my own amusement and as an exercise in cultural history.]

Starting in late 1984, I began to religiously tune in to Casey Kasem's weekly top 40 countdown, one of the great bygone cultural practices of the spandex decade.  Being a nerd, I took note of which songs were on top, and which were climbing and falling.  This week sticks in my mind, because Madonna's hold on the top slot was finally broken by Foreigner, of all people.  And now, on with the countdown.

Number 10: "The Neutron Dance" by The Pointer Sisters
I remember really liking this song at the time, one of the many tracks from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack to hit the charts.  It marries the Pointer Sisters' soulful singing with the electro-plastic production of mid-80s pop music, which isn't as bad as it sounds.  There's not much funk here, emblematic of how the pop music of the mid-80s drained away groove and feel in favor of big dumb beats.  In many ways we are still living with that change.

Number 9: "Method of Modern Love" by Hall and Oates
I also remember digging this song, which is rarely cited these days by Hall and Oates enthusiasts. Like the Pointer Sisters they had dialed back the rhythm and amped up the gated snare drums and synths.  Listening to it today I can hear traces of Can and Neu!, which makes me realize that the influence of krautrock reached deeper than I ever imagined.  It's got some odd sound textures, making it fairly daring by the pop song standards of the time.

Number 8:  "I Would Die 4 U" by Prince
This too is a lesser single by a renowned artist.  By this time Prince was starting to suck his monumental Purple Rain album dry of singles.  This song is in no way the equal of say "Let's Go Crazy" or "When Doves Cry," but it's a nice bit of pop song, and has enough of the Prince character to make it stand out from the other chart-seekers of the time.

Number 7: "Like A Virgin" by Madonna
I must admit, this song kinda scared me.  I was nine years old, and I had no clue what a virgin was.  Madonna was sexy, but not in the smiley accessible way of Catherine Bach aka Daisy Duke, my first celebrity crush.  I had no way of understanding the words of the song, but the deeper meaning was somewhat apparent, and it frightened the shy little third grader I was.  Listening to it now I can't stop hearing how limited Madonna's singing was at the time (she got a lot better), but also how in the midst of the boring shopping mall facade of Reagan-era America this was something a bit dangerous.

Number 6: "Boys Of Summer" by Don Henley
Okay, here's a song I really liked at the time and I still most confess to have never left behind. The mid-80s had a genius for dark sultry top 40 music with an air of mystery to them.  The rhythm is insistent, like driving a car 70 miles an hour in a rain storm.  The song touches on nostalgia and loss, and hearing it was a kind of early introduction to adult emotions.  The Doppler-effect guitar still spooks me, just like the immortal line about seeing a "Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac."  This song might be better than anything Henley did in the Eagles.

Number 5: "Loverboy" by Billy Ocean
Billy Ocean is one of the great forgotten chart toppers.  Why do some people score hits and then fade out of consciousness?  Perhaps this song is too much 80s.  It's part of that weird mid-80s rocking R&B genre, with synth-drums and squeeeely guitar as far as the eye can see.  It is not something you can listen to and find timeless, that's for sure.

Number 4: "You're The Inspiration" by Chicago
I remember staring with hate-filled eyes at the happy lovers couple skating to this song at the roller rink.  It is hard to imagine that the same band responsible for jazzy rock like "25 or 6 to 4"in the 1970s would conquer the charts with soft rock pablum like this in the 80s.    Peter Cetera's voice has a certain timbre that I can't describe, but which seems perfectly suited for the 1980s and no other time. I am surprised that there's no sax solo here.

Number 3: "Careless Whisper" by Wham!
Oh, but speaking of saxophones, the the sax riff on this song is one of the most memorable of the era when mellow sax ruled the charts.  This was the last song on Wham!'s Make It Big album (don't ask how I know that), and seemed a lot more serious and adult that the jaunty fare like "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go."  There is no Andrew Ridgely on this song, which seems to signal that George Michael is about to strike out on his own.  For some reason Great Britain has kept the groove of soul music alive, and this song actually has some cool musical interplay beneath the requisite sheen.  At the time I found this song rather emotionally moving, but while I certainly no longer feel that way anymore, I don't think it's a punchline to a joke about the 80s, either.

Number 2: "Easy Lover" by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey
I wrote about the video for this song, which is just so much of its time.  The mid-80s had a thing for duets, and this is an odd one on the surface.  Phil Collins, who was drummer for proggy Genesis in the 70s, and Philip Bailey, who lent his falsetto to the great Earth, Wind, and Fire at the same time, make for an interesting combo.  This song has a rocking tempo with some bonafide rocking drums (not a drum machine), giving the right foundation for the kickass guitar riffing.  It's ultimately saved from being butt rock both by those drums and Bailey's always wonderful falsetto, which is too cutting and unique to be constrained by the strictures of mid-80s chart topping pop music.

Number 1: "I Want To Know What Love Is"
Foreigner were world-conquering cock rockers in the 1970s who managed to update their sound to make it in the 80s, adding synths and New Wave beats and saxophones on songs like "Urgent."  It was thus inevitable that they would make a power ballad.  This song starts so moody, with singer Lou Gramm, once "hot-blooded" now talking about his "heartache and pain" walking the mean streets of life with a minor chord synthesizer accompanying him.  The song builds and builds, until a massive gospel choir comes in, turning the very teenage sentiment of "I wanna know what love is/ I want you to show me" into something like a hallelujah.  The choir lifts the song up into something so much better than it has any right to be.