Saturday, April 30, 2016

Track of the Week: Stevie Wonder "You Haven't Done Nothin'"

With all of the deaths of musical pioneers this year, I have been making an effort to appreciate those of advanced age that we still have with us.  Stevie Wonder is right at the top of that last, and a couple of weeks ago I found a pristine copy of Fullfillingess' First Finale on LP. It's one of the lesser-discussed records of his 1970s run of greatness, but just as good as the likes of Talking Book and Innvervisions, as far as I'm concerned.

The highlight is "You Haven't Done Nothin'," a red hot tune that appears to be about those who talk a big game about changing the world but doing little to actually make it happen. In this election year, full of empty promises, it's especially relevant.  Like the best songs on Talking Book, the riff is merciless hard funk with horns blasting gloriously over it. The song is a burning accusation against those who claim to act in the interests of others but really only care about themselves.

I've heard it said that the song was directed at Richard Nixon, but I hear it more as a denunciation of ostensibly "progressive" politicians who sell out to maintain power. Bill Clinton recently learned that his own actions in that regard will not be allowed to pass on by. I feel that people like him ought to be followed around perpetually by someone with a huge boom box blasting "You Haven't Done Nothin'."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Christie's Hit On Rubio Now Looks Essential To Trump's VIctory

After last night's primary sweep, Trump looks all but assured of getting the Republican Party nomination on the first ballot.  Cruz and Kasich got blown out of the water, and the former proved himself to be completely desperate by announcing Carly Fiorina as his running mate yesterday.  Cruz and Kasich are just the last two non-Trump candidates standing, nothing more, nothing less.  They have proven incapable of stopping him.

Part of the issue is that they were not the strongest candidates to stop Trump. Kasich has never had a great deal of support in the polls, and Cruz is so extreme and despised by his fellow Republicans that they've hardly felt motivated to rally around him.

A mainstream candidate with broad appeal could stop Trump, but no such candidate exists on the Republican side anymore. Cruz is about as palatable to the GOP establishment as a barbed wire enema and Kasich has about the same broad appeal as asparagus flavored ice cream.  Marco Rubio would've been the most obvious choice, but he dropped out after a poor debate performance.  Of course, that performance was brought on by an attack by Chris Christie that was the political equivalent of a Jersey mob hit. Christie made that attack at a time when people questioned his continuance of his campaign, since he was at the bottom of the polls. Christie very quickly dropped out and endorsed Trump. I think we can assume that Christie's attack was coordinated with the Trump campaign.  The New Jersey governor likes living the high life, and he got to ride on Trump's private plane in return for kneecapping Rubio.  Now he can have as many M&Ms and as much Hennessy as his enlarged heart desires. (I have it on good authority that he's a Hennessy man.)

The Republicans could really use Rubio about now. They are in a situation where the means to stop Trump involve chicanery with delegates or changing the rules at the last minute. Such desperate measures can't be used on Kasich's behalf, since his appeal is so limited, and will never be used for Cruz because most Republican politicians hate him. Yes, they will back him as a last resort against Trump, but only because they have to. They would never risk alienating the rank and file on his behalf. I get the feeling that they would have done it for Rubio had he been able to stay in the race and get a reasonable number of delegates.

Now the Republican Party leaders are faced with the prospect of accepting Trump as the nominee, or with moving heaven and earth for Cruz, something they just can't stomach doing. So now they will be forced to do business with the demagogue, in large part due to the attack leveled by his hit man.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On Being A Member Of The Moral Panic Generation

Todd Rundgren's band Utopia knew that the Beatles burning of 1966 was more a sign of the early 80s than an image of the past

I was born in 1975, the year of the lowest birth rate on record in American history. That reflected both a sluggish economy as well as a shift away from the power of the traditional family in post-60s America. It also made me the perfect age to endure a whole raft of moral panics, which came fast and furious in the 1980s as a response to the very era of decadence that I and my generational cohort was born into.

During the years when I was first able to trick or treat, the rumors about poisoned candy intensified. In the early 1980s in my grade school years "stranger danger" became a constant fear. It didn't help that two boys were horribly murdered in Bellevue, Nebraska, (my home state) by a serial killer who picked them up in his car.  As I got older, sex, drugs, and rock and roll all became deadly and even devilish. By the time I was in middle school, I got heavy indoctrination in anti-drug propaganda, as was the style at the time. Tipper Gore and the PRMC were telling everyone that the music their kids liked was evil, and started slapping "explicit content" warnings all over it.  Others went further, claiming backwards messages were inserted to incite devil worship and suicide. Instead of empathy and compassion, the AIDS epidemic resulted in fear and scapegoating of gays and panic over how it spread. I was constantly on the lookout for drugs being pushed on me, and constantly told when I went to the big city (Omaha, in my case) to be on the lookout for gang members who would hide under cars and slash my ankle tendons as part of their initiation.  Hell, I couldn't even enjoy a harmless game of Dungeons & Dragons, which had been declared Satanic. At one point a family member panicked because someone had told her that Nintendo was Satanic, too. She couldn't actually remember the reason, but evidently my playing Nintendo was endangering my soul.

I've been thinking a lot about how this particular moment in American cultural history came to be. As more and more mothers worked, we were the daycare kids before becoming latchkey kids. The guilt and anxiety over this transition, combined with the rising influence of hardcore evangelicalism and Reagan-era backlash against the permissiveness of the 60s and 70s, perhaps made this all inevitable. Back in the sixties when Bible thumpers burned Beatles albums it was pretty obvious that the Fab Four were not under any serious kind of threat. All of a sudden, in the 1980s the Dobsons, Falwells, and Pat Roberstons of the world had their own media empires and powerful friends in office.  Boomers who may have strayed from the righteous path started going back to church, but it was more likely to be of the mega variety. Even for those of a more secular bent or adhering to a different religious sensibility, a reevaluation of values, as Nietzsche would put it, was in the offing.

Whatever the reasons, the sons and daughters were forced to atone for the sins of the mothers and fathers. Although members of my generation were the most likely in history to experience parental divorce, it was our generation, not our parents' generation, that bore the cultural fallout. We were an object of suspicion as much as we were of protective anxiety.  In school we were a "nation at risk" according to a famous report from 1983.  In my teen years the African American and Latino members of my cohort were labelled "superpredators." Youth were feared as products of a society gone wrong, cannon fodder in the culture wars.

But nowadays, my comrades in the moral panic generation have had the last laugh. I have a theory, borne out by data,  that the recent spike in those declaring themselves religiously unaffiliated began with my generation. Bombarded with a newly strengthened conservative Christianity powerful enough to engender court cases accusing day care centers of running Satanist death cults, many of us decided that religion just wasn't for us. We were bombarded with anti-drug education using spurious methods, but still were more likely than our parents' generation to favor legalization, which now looks like it is possible in the next ten years. With the advent of streaming on the internet, the attempt to limit music that teenagers can hear is now pretty much null and void. Hilary Clinton's "predator" comments -intended to harness the moral panic for the Democratic side- are now used AGAINST her. LARPing has become commonplace and is no longer fodder for scare-books like Mazes and Monsters.

People like to put my generation down as disaffected, but that disaffection is actually wisdom. We were fed massive tranches of steaming bullshit and fear mongering in our youth, and it's given us a healthy distaste for authority and a well-developed ear for malarkey.  (And yes, I am aware that generational thinking is notoriously subjective, but just indulge me this once.)  If that means we're not as big of "joiners" as our millennial juniors are, that's fine. We survived the wave of moral panics and defied them so that those younger than us could grow up with more possibilities for action and the necessary faith to be able to push for change. You're welcome!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Notes On A Quiet Saturday Morning

There is an eerie quiet in my home this misty Saturday morning.  My daughters stayed over with my in-laws last night so that my wife and I could go out on a much needed date.  Things seem thrown all out of kilter.  I actually managed to read the Saturday paper, something that was a singular pleasure of mine in my former, pre-parent life.  Nowadays I end up having to throw half of it away without having read it, my attempts interrupted by little voices asking for something, wanting to play, or me looking up to see my daughters about to deface something with a Sharpie or put stickers on the wood floors.

I ate a simple breakfast, but I could savor it without having to hear the strands of Peppa Pig or similar entertainment in my ears, or without assembling a breakfast for my daughters and pleading with them to actually eat it or not get it all over the table. Instead I'm playing an old favorite folk-rock record (Rod Stewart's Gasoline Alley, to be precise) and feeling something on a Saturday morning I haven't felt in so long: relaxation. My wife is sleeping in, enjoying the opportunity for once.

In my younger days, I never felt more at peace at any point in the week than I did on Saturday morning. My shower washed the working week off of my back, and the next Monday morning was still a rumor.  When I lived in Michigan I had a well-developed practice of walking two blocks to buy a copy of the Times, then strolling a few blocks more to a diner, where I would read the paper while quaffing coffee and devouring corned beef hash or some similar concoction.  I'd then walk home, totally at peace.

There are the days when I long for the boredom of youth. Long stretches of empty time are actually good for the soul. My current day to day existence resembles a kind of spiritual trench warfare. I get up at 5AM, wake my daughters up (or at least start them stirring), get dressed, and then walk the dog while my wife and daughters get dressed. Right before leaving with the dog at 5:20 I get the coffee going, and when I get back, I feed her and get breakfast ready for my daughters as my wife helps them get dressed. They come downstairs at about 5:35. I eat with and supervise them while my wife prepares their stuff for school. Then my wife comes out of the kitchen for her breakfast about 5:50 while I put shoes on the girls, brush their hair, and make sure they don't have yogurt all over their faces.  I am often unsuccessful in the latter endeavor.

About 6:05 we get up to leave, with varying levels of resistance from my daughters. We walk down the back steps, with varying levels of resistance, then strap them in their car seats, also with varying levels of resistance.  At 6:10 we back out of the driveway, so that I can be dropped off at the train station at 6:18 so I can catch my train that picks me up at 6:22. My wife then drives the girls to preschool before going to her own job.

We've managed to perfect the routine to the point that it rarely fails to get us all out of the house when we need to be.  But man is it exhausting, and after it I still have to do my arduous commute, great but demanding job, and then another duel with the New York commute on the way home. Sitting here writing a blog post (which usually only happens after dark) while slowly drinking coffee and listening to old records in the morning light is so astounding to me that I can barely believe that I am actually experiencing such a once mundane thing.

And yet.

I am desperate for my wife to wake up.  I so so badly want to get in the car and pick my daughters up from the their grandparents.  Being in this home without them feels wrong.  I want to see their smiling faces, I want to build Lincoln Log cabins with them. I want to watch old Batman episodes and play around in the sandbox. Before being a parent I did not know I was even capable of these feelings. As much as I can appreciate the taste of my former life I'm getting this morning, I wouldn't trade what I have now for anything.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince, Memory, And Taping Off Of The Radio

I'm one of the millions of people stunned by the death of Prince today, and I thought I'd add my small voice to the chorus of mourning.  His best musical years happened to coincide with my earliest consciousness of popular music.  Back in 1982-1984 I started listening to top 40 radio, but the only album I owned was Michael Jackson's Thriller on cassette. I resorted to a practice that kids these know nothing of: taping off of the radio.

In 1984 my parents bought a boom box that enabled me to do this.  The tape I made that year seems to have been lost to the sands of time, what I would give to have it back. So many evenings I sat with the radio on, my hand poised on the "record" button so I could get my favorite songs all to myself. When DJs talked over the intro it made me especially angry, because they ruined the song.

On New Year's Eve 1984 Casey Kasem was counting down the top 100 songs of the year, which made it the perfect opportunity for taping off of the radio.  My older cousin in high school at the time babysat my sisters and I, and it was her who had cultivated my interest in popular music to begin with.  (And she just emailed me as I was writing this. The age we live in now would've been incomprehensible in that 1984 world.) She encouraged our taping habit, and I distinctly remember being happy to have captured Billy Idol's "Eyes Without A Face," a song she especially liked.

Being young kids we had an established bed time, so my cousin promised that she would tape the songs we requested, and that she would tape the entire top five regardless of what was in it. The next morning I listened to the tape intently, and two songs most definitely grabbed me harder than any other: "Let's Go Crazy" and "When Doves Cry."  Yeah, I got a kick out of "Footloose" and "Say Say Say," but damn, "Let's Go Crazy" was really something else for me.

It had such a feeling of energy.  My sisters and I would go down into the basement of our house and put it on and dance around, hopping and running and laughing maniacally. It was such a fun song, and the lyrics about mortality flew straight over my head.  As much as I loved the song, the epic, flaming guitar solo at the end was what I truly adored.  It sounded like nothing else on the radio, which by the mid-80s was as homogenized as a stack of Velveeta cheese slices.  It's the closest thing to Jimi Hendrix that anyone one else has ever done. It made me hunger for other music that transcendent.

And that was the genius of Prince. He made pop music, but pop music with something strange and beautiful at the heart of it. He could sing soul songs, but then peel off a guitar solo that blew anything that rock guitarists were doing then out of the water.  Genres just didn't seem to matter to him. Now we are left in a musical world without him that is much poorer for it.  RIP

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Election Day In New York

This morning when I stepped out of the subway at 72nd street on my way to work the guy handing out free newspapers (AM New York, in this case) was using an old school newspaper hawking voice straight out of Orchard Street circa 1922. "Election! Election! Who's gonna win?"

I could feel a certain electricity in the air as I strolled up Broadway in the crisp spring morning air.  How would this turn out?  I can't remember the last time I was a place making a primary vote that actually mattered. At school some of my senior students were proud to vote in their first election, as was a colleague who was voting in her first American election after gaining citizenship.  It made me feel bad for my high levels of cynicism about the political process.

That cynicism returned later in the day.  I heard the Bernie supporters, perhaps worried about an impending loss, saying that the election was "rigged" due to voters dropped off the rolls in Brooklyn. I tend to think that this is more a case of incompetence and neglect, but in the paranoid imagination of many Bernie supporters saying such a thing is high treason. They seemed to know that a Sanders loss in New York would effectively mean an end to his crusade.

And while Clinton may win, I did not hear any genuine enthusiasm for her in the air. Getting enthusiastic for Hilary is like getting enthusiastic for Microsoft. The few people who really seem committed to her always seem like they are trying too hard to convince themselves of their conviction.

I didn't give the Orange Pumpkin of Doom any real thought until this evening when I sat down to watch the election returns, and saw that Trump had won New York even more handily that estimated.  Of course, the media hype of this win is way out of hand. We all knew that he would take his home state, especially after Cruz so egregiously insulted the people of New York.

It's a reminder that while in this country we tend to stereotype rural Southern folk as the repository of violence conservatism, it's the Northeast that fits the bill.  This area is crawling with white ethnics who guard their whiteness with a savage determination. While Republicans may be a minority in these parts, they are make up for their numbers with violent racism. If you want to find the heart of the white supremacist nationalism, don't go to Alabama, go to Long Island. Even if he goes on to lose, I am disheartened by the knowledge that I am living in a part of the world where Trump supporters still live, waiting to strike.

Monday, April 18, 2016

On Blue Voters In Red States

I have lived the vast majority of my life in politically "red" territory. Even when I lived in blue states like Illinois and Michigan, I was in more conservative parts of those states. There is a special challenge to being on the left in places like central Nebraska and east Texas, since the entire prevailing opinion is against you. Even the apolitical default to being Republican, only some kind of weirdo would out themselves as a liberal unless they were truly committed.

As the political lines have hardened over the past twenty-five years or so, being blue in a red state has gotten that much harder. You get used to losing, and little disheartened. However, it is in the presidential primaries where you can actually have a fun election. Not having to run against a Republican means a vote that might actually count, and that the candidate you vote for might actually win.

The biggest misperception of these voters is that they are more conservative than Democrats in other parts of the country. This must've passed through Bernie Sanders' mind as he tried to pass off his losses in the South as a reflection of the more conservative nature of voters there. More conservative overall, of course, but not when it comes to Democrats.

Twenty-five years ago he might have had a point. Conservative Democrats and blue dog Democrats in the South still existed.  In my youth my home state of Nebraska regularly elected Democrats to statewide office, including Jim Exon, Ben Nelson and Bob Kerry to both the governorship and Senate, despite the fact that the Cornhusker state hasn't voted for a Democrat in the presidential election since LBJ in 1964. As the parties became more ideologically coherent, the Republicans turned many conservative places into what amount to one party states.  The Democrats who remain in those places, like the deep South and Great Plains, are there because they really believe in progressive principles.

They are holding fast to those principles against long odds. As a former resident of Texas I found Wendy Davis' filibuster so exciting because someone was standing up to the onslaught of radical conservatism there. About 40% of that state's population has been left without a political voice in the realignment of the past few decades.  Living in that kind of political climate is oppressive and hard to put up with.

The Democrats in places like Mississippi, Texas, and Nebraska thus deserve respect from their fellows.  After all, they are the ones who helped put Barack Obama over the top in 2008 as the more progressive option to Hilary Clinton. Don't believe me?  Then check this out:

Democrats in these places love the primaries because it's really their one chance to have their voice heard. With that in mind, progressives in other parts of the country need to give their support to them, not their indifference or scorn.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Track of the Week: The Verve "So It Goes"

I've had 90s Britpop on my brain a lot this week. Something somewhere gave me the impetus to listen to music that pretty much dominated my stereo from 1995 to 1998. Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Radiohead all became big favorites of mine at the time. Of all the Britpop bands, however, I loved The Verve the most.  Their music combined psychedelia with groovy rhythms and lyrical emotional reflection, and today still sounds pretty unique. "Bittersweet Symphony" and the Urban Hymns album raised their profile stateside, but I was first hooked by their 1995 album, A Northern Soul.

I bought it, in those pre-internet days, without having heard a single song. I'd been in Ireland in January of 1996 for a college debate tournament, and while there picked up a bunch of British music mags that placed it high in their year-end lists. I figured it must be pretty good, and in those days when I listened to Blur and Oasis incessantly, I figured anything the Brits liked must be good. (I bought Pulp's Different Class for the same exact reason.)

It's hard to pinpoint a song from A Northern Soul to highlight, since they're all so good and often go in wildly different directions. Going by how I'm feeling right now, I'll nominate "So It Goes." It comes after the first three songs, which are fairly direct. "So It Goes" is more loose, and it signals a switch in the album, which soon gets more groovy and jam-y.  Nick McCabe's guitar sort of flows out of the speakers, like a lotus in bloom, over the top off a head-nodding groove.  The lyrics are pretty stark: "So it goes/ you come alone into this life/ and you leave on your own." It's a rumination on mortality and heartbreak, made palatable by the beauty of the guitar work.

As usual Richard Ashcroft delivers them with just the right amount of anguish and resignation. In the The Verve he was this strange combination of sensitive poet and charismatic rock frontman, like the mutant child of Michael Stipe and Steven Tyler.   He was a big part of the band's distinct musical voice, one that was too rhythmic for most rock bands, too jammy/trippy for the pop charts, and too "rock-ish" to be avant-garde.  (Later hit tunes like "Lucky Man" and "Bittersweet Symphony" came after McCabe had been in and out of the group, allowing the poetic Ashcroft to call the tune.) They are evidence for one of my pet theories about regionalism and rock music. Coming from the mining town of Wigan, they were not part of the whole Madchester thing and its fallout, or the London scene. A lot of music that forges odd paths, my theory goes, tends to come from artists cut off from trend-setting scenes, allowing them to do their own weird things in isolation. That certainly helps explain the Seattle sound of the 90s, REM's emergence from Athens, Georgia, and how Minnesota could simultaneously produce The Replacements and Husker Du in the early 80s.

So give this song and the whole album a listen. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Long Shadow of 1989's Batman

I've had Batman on the brain a lot recently. My daughters enjoyed seeing reruns of the old sixties series with Adam West, so we bought the new DVD versions, which look fantastic. Now when we get in the car my daughters ask me to "be Robin, and mommy be Batman." I then must tell them things like "holy moly Batgirls, we've got to get to school!" I am a little bummed that they never let me let loose my Adam West impersonation.

My wife also recently picked me up a copy of Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade, which tells the story of Batman through the years while adding some compelling interpretations. In the midst of my Batmania I decided to rewatch the 1989 version of Batman directed by Tim Burton starring Michael Keaton. I was motivated both by the book, and the apparent disappointment in the new Batman v Superman flick. Burton's version of Batman had really grabbed my 13 year old self when it came out, and it sparked a huge interest on my part in Batman comics and in books about the history of the Batman.

Rewatching the 1989 film and reading about it has made me realize that it is one of the most influential films of the last thirty years. In the first place, it was a superhero movie that made a huge amount of money, convincing Hollywood that the supes were valuable properties. While some legendarily shoddy product that came in the wake of Batman (the 90s Captain America, the never-released Fantastic Four), it nevertheless set the template for the new century of blockbusters. It was a film that also revolutionized home video, in that it was one of the rare movies at the time to have a low price, intended to be sold for home consumption, rather than to be bought by video stores. To get Jack Nicholson to star, the studio offered him an unprecedented amount of money, as would soon become the practice in Hollywood blockbusters. The marketing campaign for the film was also stunningly modern, using minimalist posters with just the bat symbol and date of release (June 23, 1989, I can still remember it). That campaign came with an overwhelming number of toys, tie ins, and publicity, enough to make George Lucas blush.

Crucially, it was also the first Hollywood film to explicitly address the desires of the nerd/fan community. I've been looking at old reviews and articles about the original Star Wars films recently, and have been taken aback at just how openly contemptuous many critics and commentators and even participants like Hamill are of the notion that these films are anything more than "kids stuff." (And this from some who actually like Star Wars.) By '89 the maligned nerds had proven their monetary value, and the producers of Batman were worried. Tim Burton himself had admitted little interest in or knowledge of Batman. Picking Michael Keaton, a smallish guy known for comedies, to be Batman caused a massive outcry among Batman fans frightened of a return to the campy Adam West Batman. Warner Brothers responded by cutting a trailer pitched straight at the fans and by hiring co-creator of the character Bob Kane to shill for the film. The trailer, Kane, and absence of Robin all pointed to a "dark gritty" Batman a million miles from the lovable clown who danced the Batusi.

The film itself did have plenty of literal darkness (it's almost all at night), as long as a fair amount of the metaphorical variety. However, it also broke from the conventions of the comics in a big way. It gave the Joker an origin story, and also made him the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents. It also had Batman reveal his secret identity to Vicki Vale. Wayne and the Joker confront each other in a scene that I like, but that Weldon and others think grinds the movie to a halt.  While there's plenty of violence and angst, Nicholson played the Joker in the over the top manner he had become accustomed to by the late 80s, tripping over into Batman '66 territory in the scene where he playfully defaces paintings in the art museum while a Prince song blasts from a massive boombox.

Weldon observes that the 1989 film was an action film that had Batman in it, rather than a Batman film. I won't go quite that far, but it's obvious that it was the first of many successful Hollywood attempts to bring in the legions of comic book fans while offering enough familiar tropes to attract casual move goers. That formula does not appear to be going away any time soon, and for that we can credit or blame the 1989 Batman.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What Rough Beast Slouches Toward Cleveland To Be Born?

(Title inspired by Yeats and this tweet from the incomparable Sarah Kendzior.)

I have never lived through a presidential election this volatile and unpredictable. At the start of the year, against my better judgment I made some predictions, one of which was that Trump would have dropped out at sometime in March, and also that Rubio would eventually get the nomination. I was drastically wrong on both counts, but mostly because I was working from false pretenses, which is the usual reason why predictions fail.  I assumed that the fundamentals of our post-Watergate political system were still functioning. They are not.

Since about the mid-1970s both parties have had a pretty established structure. Around that time the old Democratic party of union halls, ward bosses, and blue dog Democrats was fading away. New Democrats like Gary Hart in the Senate and Bill Clinton in the Arkansas governor’s mansion pointed to a new technocratic party elite rarely beholden to the grievances of the rank and file. With the decline of labor’s power and the death of the old urban machines, the party became an agglomeration of interest groups with a heterodox ideological environment.

The Republicans were becoming an unquestionably conservative party, its liberal elements purged out. It was a party that had grabbed Christian and Southern conservatives, running on a platform of aggressive foreign policy, smaller government, and values issues. While a fractious base often lashed out, the party elite’s hold was never seriously challenged.

This year, that has all changed. The parties look weak, their power shaken and their respective bases calling the tune. The high levels of support for Sanders reflect a Democratic party that is becoming much more ideologically cohesive, having finally shed the blue dogs. After years of Clintonian New Democrat compromise, the Obama years have given progressives a measure of confidence, and less patience for triangulation.  The technocrats might not be displaced this year, but I think that the party activists are not going to go back asleep. Sanders' campaign has brought talk of redistribution out in the open, and reclaimed social democracy.

Things are more extreme on the Republican side. The iron triangle of interventionism, supply side economics, and Bible thumping is in danger of being broken by a populist nationalism that wants to preserve the welfare state for white people and has zero interest in a robust foreign policy beyond carpet bombing, while being relatively indifferent to abortion and gay rights. Pat Buchanan stirred up the entho-nationalism elements in the Republican party back in 1992, but also wedded it to the culture wars, something Trump has not done.

On that point, times have changed. As America has become remarkably less religiously observant over the last two decades, the Religious Right threatens to be more a millstone rather than a catalyst for the GOP. Recent events in North Carolina are a pretty good example of how following the whims of the Bible thumpers is now carrying real consequences. An even bigger change threatens the harmony of the Republican Party, though: the 40 year erosion of the middle class. (This has also been, I think, a big factor in Democrats supporting more openly redistributionist policies.) Supply side economics have been a tremendous failure, something that I think a lot of middle and working class Republicans know in their hearts to be true. The Paul Ryan types can prattle all they want about capital gains taxes and the inheritance tax, but your average Republican could give a fuck about that. In fact, they want secure retirements and a better life for their kids and grandkids.  People like Ryan don't really have a whole lot to offer them.

This all makes me wonder what will happen in Cleveland, and more broadly to the GOP. The wealthy donors hold an insane amount of power, but at the end of the day, they have not been able to stop the insurgency. (Just look at the spectacle of Jeb Bush's $100 million going up in smoke.) Trump is too feckless to play the game of delegate assemblage, and so may well go down in flames like the Cuyahoga River. There will be other Trumps, however, who will have a similar appeal, and maybe a bit more organization and grit. The Republicans are increasingly looking like three parties: a small group of economic libertarians, a large group of populist nationalists, and a sizable but shrinking cadre of religious zealots. Business as usual in that party will not survive the year. 

The political structure of the past forty years, which may well be crumbling, rested on a kind of new consensus that accepted the validity of neoliberal economics. (Hence Bill Clinton deregulating banks and cutting welfare despite being a "liberal.") Now that those policies have assisted in the destruction of the broad middle class, the parties that promoted them are being shaken to their foundations. I don't know how much discontinuity our two party system will allow for, but I do think that things won't be the same after this year.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Track of the Week: Wilco "Misunderstood"

I was lacking inspiration for a track of the week this week, and as I was sitting and reading this evening, "Misunderstood" by Wilco came up on a playlist I've dubbed "Late Night Brooding." This song, which has been familiar to me for twenty years now, suddenly hit me with a force it had never possessed before.

Coming first on the Being There album, the song is quite a statement of purpose from Jeff Tweedy and co. No longer will they simply be an 'alt-country" band, as the violent, dissonant build at the end of the song attests. That was brought home to me back in 2002, when I first heard the band perform on stage, by which point the repeated "nothing"s when things get crazy had become so intense as to almost be unbearable.

I've always liked the song, but other Wilco tunes spoke to me on a deeper level. This time around, after two decades, something finally clicked into place. Perhaps it's because I was back in "my old neighborhood" where I had been "so misunderstood" in my youth two weeks ago. It's a song that keys into the feelings of adolescent loneliness and rejection, and I felt those things quite intensely in my youth. Going home was great in terms of seeing my family, but this time, more than others, my visit dredged up some bad memories. Somehow my wall of memory repression had been breached, and I remembered exactly what it felt like to spend years in a place where I felt constantly out of place and alone. These were not memories of things I could see in my mind's eye, but memories of the actual feelings and emotions, which suddenly started running their way through my middle aged body, just as they had when I was teen.

In the spare opening of this song I hear those quiet nights laying in bed, the mournful tones of a train's horn in the air, and impossibly bottomless prairie darkness just beyond my window. I can feel, truly feel my anguished wish as a 17 year old for there to be somewhere, anywhere where I could go to escape.

Thankfully I got out at age 18 to college, and eventually found my true tribe of compatriots in grad school, where we would listen to Wilco, play and sing along to Wilco songs at late night parties, and drive hundreds of miles to Wilco concerts. Hearing "Misunderstood" in concert with my friends was more an acknowledgement of my new community, than anything else.  The problem is now that that community is flung far and wide, from the high Plains of the Texas panhandle to the Palouse of eastern Washington to Shreveport to Topeka to Macon. I hear that song now and get homesick for a home that was never meant to be permanent.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Revenge Of The '90s

A Bill Clinton ad from '96 touting a capital gains tax cut and expanded death penalty. If he ran today his campaign would do about as well as Jim Webb's did

It is hard for me to fathom, but the 1990s are officially The Past. They are past enough that we can begin to grasp that time period in a more historic sense, and evaluate it as such. This strikes me every time I see a Seinfeld rerun while I'm flipping channels, and I wince at the clothes and hair. It struck me even more this week, of course, when Bill Clinton offered an uncharacteristically artless defense of the 1994 crime bill, which he had championed.

That bill was part of the wave of policies leading to a massive uptick in incarceration. It added 100,000 police officers to forces recently enamored with "broken windows" policing and included a "three strikes" provision at the federal level. At the time it had a lot of support across the political spectrum, and was also a typical "New Democrat" exercise in courting the middle by being so "tough on crime" as to disprove the perception of liberal permissiveness.

This was the story of Bill Clinton's presidency. His major policy moves included welfare "reform," deficit reduction, NAFTA, signing the Defense of Marriage Act, slashing bank regulations, and prison building. On the other hand, Clinton's attempt at health care expansion was such a legislative failure that it killed the chances for reform for over a decade. A friend of mine likes to joke that he was the best Republican president since Eisenhower. From Clinton's point of view this was all fine, since it resulted in the thing he cared about most: keeping Bill Clinton in the White House.

At the time it worked gloriously for him, since progressive Democrats had been taking a beating in the post-Reagan era. I still remember the 1988 election, when George HW Bush called Michael Dukakis a "liberal," as if that very fact disqualified him from being president. Clinton had few strong opponents to his left back then. I remember disliking him intensely from a left perspective, and being very lonely in that position, especially later during the Dubya years. "At least he wasn't Reagan or Bush" was what I'd hear from Democrats.

Bill Clinton's exchange with Black Lives Matter activists, and the reaction to it in social media, are a stark illustration of how times have changed. Barack Obama has governed well to the left of Clinton, and his successes despite the letdown from the expectations of 2008, have given progressives a great deal of confidence. This has also made them much more critical of the compromises of the past. Clinton's triangulation helped him keep power in 1996, but in 2016 the obvious failures of policies like mass incarceration are glaring. The bill has long come due.*

The high levels of support that Bernie Sanders is getting is perhaps the most telling evidence that we are not in the 90s anymore. As is the much more progressive cast of Hilary Clinton's policy positions this time around. Bill Clinton continually gave up bigger goals for short term gains and power in the 90s. Back then he looked savvy, but events of this week are showing that we aren't in that political world anymore, and I for am glad for it.

*I should add that the 1990s being two decades old has also made people forget that the crime bill didn't come out of nowhere. The murder rate in big cities in the early 1990s hit the highest point ever. Real people were dying in awful numbers, and people across racial lines really wanted strong action in response. This was not just a case of chasing phantoms. At the same time, the policies of incarceration were extreme, racist, and have more than outlived any usefulness they once had.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Merle Haggard And My Crooked Path To Country Music

If "Sing Me Back Home" doesn't move you, you have a heart of stone

The passing of Merle Haggard yesterday hit me harder than I was expecting. It might be because I had just come back from visiting Nebraska and nights spent playing cards with my parents with songs like "Mama Tried" playing in the background. It also might be that the greats of country music are now almost gone. Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton are with us, but that's about it. Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, and others have crossed over.

Unlike almost any other genre, the weight of history and tradition weighs heavy on country music. It prizes authenticity, and lament from fans that the genre has lost its way is pretty damn old itself. Heck, Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" is now over forty years old. In the midst of the "countrypolitan" movement on the sixties, with its strings and Nudie suits, Haggard brought back the old time honky tonk religion. A gut-bucket tune about trying to drink away bad memories like "The Bottle Let Me Down" is about as far from the likes of Eddy Arnold as you could get. Haggard was no rhinestone cowboy, he'd grown up in a house made out of an old box car and did time in San Quentin. Not only that, he sang about that world in songs like "Hungry Eyes."

I didn't know much about Merle Haggard, even though I came of age in a place saturated in country music. When people said "country" I thought of Garth Brooks and other generic singers with big hats and hacky songs. Country was becoming, in Tom Petty's words, "bad rock with a fiddle." It was the one genre of popular music that I had no use for.

That changed in 1994 when Johnny Cash put out his first American Recordings album. A lot of hip people were endorsing it, and it was produced by Rick Rubin, whose work I knew well. While today I consider it the weakest of his late period albums, at the time it really grabbed me. Soon I expanded beyond Johnny Cash to Uncle Tupelo, and got excited by contemporary country music made by people who sounded more like The Clash than Billy Ray Cyrus. After that I got into Hank Williams, and I was hooked for life.

Eventually I got around to listening to Hag, which I'd avoided because of his political songs, such as "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fighting Side Of Me." I learned that the former was actually meant less as an endorsement of reactionary small town politics than a tongue in cheek description of them. Now I listen to that song and get a laugh. The latter is not redeemable.  After awhile I reminded myself that while I loved old country music, my relationship with it was a bit complicated, much like my relationship with the region I come from.

I come from Nebraska and I'm proud of it, but its politics make me crazy and its parochial viewpoint tries me. But I can't deny my loyalty or my deep and sincere love for the place. At the same time, while country music has long given voice to reactionary sentiments (despite folks like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash), it's music that affects me on an elemental level that I cannot describe. It's music that is, like my home state, a part of me, whether I like it or not. I might listen to other kinds of music more, but when I throw Merle Haggard's Same Train, A Different Time on my turntable, something deep inside of me sings along. I'm sad that one of few people left on this earth who could do that kind of magic is no more, and that his like will never be seen again.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Trump's Supporters Are Not The Dispossessed

Jesse Helms' infamous "Hands" ad is just proto-Trumpism in its appeal to white racial resentment

One of the most notable things about Trump is his political thievery. His slogan “Make America Great Again” was basically stolen from the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980. He’s also fond of speaking of the “silent majority,” which was Nixon’s great rhetorical turn of phrase.

Trump may be ignorant of a lot of things, but he’s not dumb. He knows the message that has worked for conservatives in the past, and is using it. His combination of nationalism, white racial resentment, and anti-global populism brings together some well-worn strands of conservatism.

What gets me are the pieces that talk about Trump’s supporters as the dispossessed. The way that the narrative goes, Trumpers are all working class whites who are angry at an economy and political party that has left them behind.


Trump may draw more working class whites than his primary opponents, but he still draws large numbers from middle and upper class whites. Not to mention the fact that a sizable number of working class whites –especially outside of the South- are Democrats. I would easily bet that a majority of working class whites to have voted in the primaries thus far have voted for someone other than him, whether it be Clinton, Sanders, or one of the other Republicans.

Trump’s supporters are the same type of people who have supported similar figures in the past. Trump's white supremacy combined with nationalist militancy and an attack on elites is the same stew that drew so many to Andrew Jackson back in the early 19th century. More recently, the same type of person who voted for George Wallace is the same time who votes for Trump.  His voters also tended to be working and lower-middle class, and they were also driven by white racial resentment and nationalism. Trump was just savvy enough to know that those voters were out there and that no one was trying to reach them directly with the red meat they wanted to eat.

The news media has made the mistake of assuming that because the white working class has suffered under the neoliberalization of the last 40 years, that that economic angst is the primary engine of white working class support for Trump. There is correlation, but not necessarily causation. Trump is playing with the same populist nationalist politics that others have before him, pure and simple.

Some of the media's misconceptions might stem from the well-meaning but untrue myth that the poor are inherently more virtuous than the rich. They are in fact people like anyone else, and thus susceptible to appeals to the darker side of their nature. Many wealthy conservatives express their sociopathic tendencies through a libertarianism hell bent on getting them more money at the expense of others. Less affluent conservatives, on the other hand, lower their sights onto those just below them on the social ladder, with promises to keep them down. It's an impulse that's been there in American history from the New York Draft Riots to the 1920s iteration of the KKK to the Southern Strategy.

Trump's supporters are thus NOT the dispossessed, but those who want to keep what they've got, and a lot of what they've got is white skin privilege. That privilege has been tenaciously guarded throughout this nation's history, we shouldn't be surprised to see a demagogue rise who speaks to the anxiety of its loss.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Track of the Week: Pointer Sisters "Fire"

We live in a cultural moment where an obsession with "authenticity" co-exists with increasing cultural segmentation.  Even though I am getting long in the tooth, I can still follow pop music because the amount of it that crosses over the various segments is really tiny compared to the past. The various genres of music seem to multiply with each year, and seem to be saying less and less to each other.

It wasn't always like that. Back in 1930 the king of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, cut the song "Blue Yodel #9" with Louis Armstrong, jazz legend. In the 1960s, Nina Simone's music seem to pull from innumerable genres, from jazz to classical to to show tunes to soul. The Clash's magnum opus London Calling has everything from reggae to ska to rockabilly to hard-charging punk on it.

In 1979, the same year as that Clash record, the Pointer Sisters released "Fire," which sounds as if country and soul got together to make a beautiful baby. Like the sensation described in the lyrics, this song just smolders until the drums, piano and organ come in big, then draws back again, only to burst forth once more on the solo. There are few other songs that replicate the sensation of trying to suppress burning lust so well, and it's all done with a sultriness that's neither playful or silly. I've been listening to this song non-stop for the last month, and as much as I enjoy it, it makes me wistful for a time when pop music could hold multitudes.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Baseball Thoughts

Baseball season is tantalizingly close. I will be happy to have my daily friend back in my life, a welcome distraction and easy to access obsession. As I get older, I dread the winter more and more. Each day is a reminder that everything dies, and that I will be down under the ground before too long. When baseball comes it comes with spring and Easter, signs of hope and regeneration.

One of my favorite songs on this theme is Frank Sinatra's "There Used To Be A Ballpark," which came out in the 1970s, well after his heyday, and is appropriately elegiac. Sinatra sings of a non-descript city block that once had a ballpark, and was full of joy and wonder. Those days are over, but the memories faintly remain. I've been thinking a lot about this song, since the ballpark in downtown Newark is due to be torn down. I see it every day during my commute, and looking at it in the winter has long been a way for me to dream of better times. I saw some games there, it was a good place, and I'm sad to see it go. I wonder if the people who will live in the high rise to be built there will smell a faint whiff of hot dogs or hear the crack of a bat talking in the wind.

The breeze yesterday was cool but pregnant with spring's life, the kind of air that can stir memories of my youth this time of year, much of which was spent collecting baseball cards.  Before the season started I'd be buying pack after pack of Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and Score. (I thought Upper Deck was ridiculously priced. I am my father's son.) I'd pore over the stats from the year before, and rank the players at there positions and come up with predictions for the season, written down and saved until the October. I've long stopped putting them in blog format, since I tend to be ridiculously wrong. I still remember the 1990 season, and thinking that the acquisitions of Mark and Storm Davis would put the Royals over the top for a championship.  Boy was that wrong. On the bright side, I never would have thought last March that there was any chance that the Mets would go to the World Series.

It's strange to think of what it was like to follow baseball in the 80s and early 90s. Nowadays due to my subscription and cable services I can see every single baseball game, and through the magic of DVR can even watch them after the fact with ease. My phone gives me real-time scoring updates, and allows me to look up any player's stat at any time. Back then, when baseball first put its hooks in me, things were different. I could watch all the Braves and Cubs games I wanted due to TBS and WGN, but for other games I relied on NBC's Game of the Week on Saturday and Monday Night Baseball (remember that?) on ABC. To get scores immediately I would tune into CNN Headline News at either 19 or 49 minutes past the hour, back when that station just ran a half hour newscast 24 hours a day. (I miss the esoteric days of early cable.) I could also wait for the nightly Sportscenter broadcast or for the box scores in the next day's paper. Speaking of the newspaper, the sports section of the Sunday Omaha World-Herald did a great service by printing a complete list of of all the players' stats up to that point in the season, as well as the team stats. That could occupy me for hours, much as does today. Baseball is often too laden with nostalgia, but in this case I have none. After all, who wants to go digging through newspaper box scores?

Speaking of the NBC Game of the Week, Joe Garigiola, one of that telecast's defining voices, passed away last month. More than any other sport, baseball relies on its broadcasters. The great announcers have to be narrators and conversationalists. Since there's 162 games, the folks you listen to on the radio or hear and see on TV have to be engaging and interesting enough, lest you get sick of them by August. The Mets have great TV and radio teams, which has made it easy to follow them. My favorite announcer, and probably the favorite of most hardcore baseball fans, is Vin Scully. He is set to retire after this season, after broadcasting Dodger games since 1950. To put that in perspective, he was calling games with Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial on the field. I first encountered him as a broadcaster for NBC in the 80s, both on Game of the Week and in the World Series. Thirty years ago he was already legendary, a fount of diamond wisdom. Scully also clearly understood how to enhance the events on the field without overshadowing them. (Notice how he calls Hank Aaron's record breaking homer in the clip above.) When the crowd went crazy he dialed it back, letting the moment speak for itself. He calls the games by himself, which feels like sitting down with a friend. Every now and then I watch a Dodgers game during the season just to hear him call it. I know I will be there this season to hear his last one.