Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sanders' Missed Opportunity And Its Consequences

Bernie Sanders. That's a name that probably hasn't been on your mind in about a month, reflecting his growing irrelevancy. It recently occurred to me that by refusing to concede, Sanders and his supporters are accomplishing the opposite of their goal. Bernie has refused to drop out despite losing the popular vote by millions and the delegates by a healthy margin, ostensibly to push the Democratic party to the left.

That strategy, to put it bluntly, is failing. While Sanders supporters have been refusing to get behind Clinton, her lead in the polls has only grown stronger and stronger in the last month. Trump's manifest unfitness for the office of president is getting more and more apparent each day even with voters skeptical of Hillary. The Republican Party has failed to maintain unity. Because of this, Clinton has little incentive to bargain with Sanders and his hardcore supporters because she does not seem to need them.

That was not the case right after the primaries ended, when Trump got a polling surge typical for a new nominee. At that moment, if Sanders had pulled out of the race and endorsed Clinton, he might have actually had some real leverage. He could have easily said (candidly, of course) "Now that I've dropped my campaign and given you a big boost, here are some things that we need to do." Right now events have turned in a way that have closed that window.

While I eventually tired of Sanders, I think that his strategic failure is bad news generally for the Democratic party. With no leverage to her left, Hillary can easily go into the triangulation strategy that Bill used to effectively in the 1990s. Already she has been advocating 1990s-Clinton type proposals, like easing the student loan debt of entrepreneurs and small business owners. It's the type of 90s Clinton proposal that hits the right political targets but doesn't really do much of anything, and undercuts more egalitarian approaches. Feeling freed from the need to placate the left, expect a lot more of this from Clinton this election.

Of course, not all of this can be laid at the door of Bernie Sanders, but his missed opportunity is indicative of larger political problems that the left has. The left seems hell-bent on moral victories, and not so much on actual political victory. Sanders' talk of "revolution" has just been fuzzy-headed, well-meaning bullshit. Said "revolution," which would be necessary to accomplish his political agenda, just isn't possible in the current political landscape, meaning that if he were president he would have no way of getting anything accomplished. This is why I am much more hopeful about the Sanders supporters trying to get like minded candidates into Congress, rather than those aiming to pitch a fit at the Philly convention this summer. I have been distressed to see so many people put so much trust and faith in a man who appears to be completely incompetent when it comes to exercising political power. It's time that the left stopped letting their opponents have the monopoly on hard-headedness and pragmatism. If not, expect more "beautiful losers" who excite people and accomplish little in the years to come.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Jersey Shore Playlist

Clip from a doc about the Shore from the 90s, during the Shore's scuzzier days

Tomorrow I'm heading off to the Jersey Shore with my family, including my parents, who are in town this week. I am relishing turning my parents on to the magic place that is the Jersey shore, a place that makes me inexplicably happy. As a child of the Great Plains, nothing consoles my soul like wide vistas, whether they be the ocean or the broad expanses of the prairies. But on the Shore I also get a sea breeze, cool water, and the carnival atmosphere of the boardwalk. I have assimilated myself to New Jersey in so many ways, and not just out of the need to make peace with the fact that this is the place I have chosen to settle down. I do love so much about this wrongly maligned place, and the Shore is near the top of the list.

Driving down to the Shore is an experience in itself. There's the beauty of the Parkway once you cross the Perth Amboy bridge and the industrial grit gives way to trees that become increasingly pinier and more foreign as you keep moving south. There's also the anticipation of soon being able to bask in a summer that is more summer. (It's the only way I can explain the Shore this time of year.) Key to relishing that anticipation is a good soundtrack. Here's some of my favorite Shore songs.

Bruce Springsteen, "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
Okay, I am going to get the obvious pick out of the way first. Not only is The Boss from Jersey, he cut his teeth as a musician in Asbury Park, a shore city that had fallen on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. When you go there, you immediately understand his early sensibility. It is a ragtag place with a few monuments to its faded glory, a visible symbol of the realities beneath the shining, false propaganda of the American Dream, perhaps Springsteen's most potent theme. This song is the most direct one of his about The Shore, describing bands playing at the Casino (not a gambling casino, btw) on Asbury Park's boardwalk. It is an unjustly forgotten song of longing from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, perhaps his most Shore-centric album. (His previous record may have been called Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, but more of the songs seem to be about New York City.)

Tom Waits, "Jersey Girl"

Tom Waits has different modes, from the weirdo street poet to the cracked bluesman, to the wacko mad scientist of odd sounds. It's easy to forget his skills as a balladeer, and this song is probably his greatest ballad. It's about falling in love with a Jersey girl, something both he and I did in real life. It expresses so well the feelings of newfound love, the ecstasy that almost seems too good to be true, along with the anguish about being separated from the person that makes you so happy. The key line for our purposes here is how he expresses the ecstasy "Down the Shore everything's all right/Just you and your baby on a Saturday night."

Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'"

Don't judge me. On the Shore some things have never gone out of style, and that includes the big hair and big music of the 1980s. Folks there sorta decided around 1989 that they liked things how they were and were not too keen on changing it all that much. This song, as cheesy as it is, represents the kind of chance romantic meeting between two lost people that the Shore was made for. Also it doesn't hurt that it's associated so strongly with The Sopranos.

The Drifters, "Under The Boardwalk"

Wildwood, New Jersey, had its heyday as a Shore town in the 1950s and early 60s, when folks could motor on over from Philly for some fun in the sun. The amazing number of tacky mid-century motels in the town are called "doo-wop architecture," in honor of the music that dominated the Shore at the time. The Drifters sang the ultimate song about romance on the beach, about making out under the boardwalk. It's been covered many times, but nothing beats the original.

The Shirelles, "Dedicated To The One I Love"

And of course, some of the great vocal R&B music being played on the boardwalks during the Shore's boom times came from right within the Garden State. The mighty Shirelles hailed from Passaic, and pioneered the "girl group" sound well before Phil Spector came around. There's the boardwalk and all that on the Shore, but sometimes it's good just to relax and let the beauty of the ocean wash over you, just as these harmonies do.

Bruce Springsteen, "I'm A Rocker"

Okay, I just couldn't help myself with a second helping of The Boss. This is not one of his more famous songs, but just you see if you can find a better one to blast from your car as you shoot down the Garden State Parkway into the heart of summer on the Shore.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, "The Fever"

Not all of the Shore musicians got as famous as Springsteen, but many still cut some great tracks mining the same shaft of rocking riffs mixed with old-school R&B grooves. It's a sound that fits the Shore's imperative to dance and let the good times roll. I still want to see Southside Johnny play a show.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Age Of Resentment

I rarely tweet anything that more than two people retweet, so I was glad to see a bigger group of people respond to this tweet:
I was referring to the now deceased historian's four books on modern world history, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes. Broad based synthesizing histories are not in vogue anymore, but I love them for their sweeping scopes and big ideas. I was being a bit flippant, but I do think that resentment is currently an overwhelming force in world affairs.

That resentment has expressed itself in nationalist terms. Putin has harnessed the resentment over Russia's fall from superpower status to burnish his authority and invade Georgia and the Ukraine. Dating to Sarah Palin in 2008, America's hard right wing has put all of its money on the resentment-fueled "take our country back" meme, culminating in the rise of Trump. And a slim majority of British voters opted to leave the EU in a campaign driven by fear of immigrants and promises of restored national prestige.

How to explain these resentments? One response is what I call the "blame it on neoliberalism" school. They see Trump and Brexit as reactions by the economically dispossessed who relish the opportunity to smack down the elites. I find that this explanation has limited power. In the first place, the arguments for Brexit were made in explicitly neoliberal terms: less money being redistributed and fewer regulations will make the economy grow!  Just because a group of people is economically hurting, that doesn't mean that its political choices are all a direct response to that fact. That's a fallacy that a lot of people are falling into, partially due to their own life experiences. It always makes me chuckle when bougie Vassar grads lecture others for "punching down" on the Archie Bunker types. Coming from a lower-middle class background in rural red state America, I can tell you that a lot of these people are just narrow minded bigots, pure and simple. There is no great mystery to solve there, especially when white supremacy gets threatened.

It would be terribly short-sighted, of course, to just blame the Age of Resentment exclusively on racial fear, even if it is a key element. What appears to be happening is that larger resentments brought on by the forty year contraction of the middle class in the wake of neoliberal globalization are being channeled towards nationalism, which is inherently populist. This has happened in large part due to the weakness of the left. In Europe, the old social democratic and socialist parties have been in retreat. In France, with Francois Hollande in power, the socialists have been forced to compromise.  Across Latin America left-oriented governments have fallen, as in Argentina and Brazil, or are in serious trouble, as in Venezuela and Bolivia. In America the radical left has become so intertwined with academia that the people who claim to be pushing for popular revolution are incapable of making a political statement devoid of grad student jargon. That'll get the working class fired up!

With the left unable to properly harness resentment (partially due to the siren call of white supremacy), the radical right has had a field day. Anger and resentment at globalization is not being directed at multinational corporations, but at immigrants. As far as America is concerned, the Occupy Movement and the Sanders campaign certainly show the presence of left wing populism, but both tend to skew towards the young and the more educated, and both have had problems with attracting people of color. The right wing variety is much more robust, and it has a secret weapon in its media presence. In Britain, the Sun and other tabloids gushed out geysers of misinformation. In America talk radio and Fox News not only reach millions, but they crucially influence their outlooks. I still remember a relative one day who started railing about how "America is a republic, not a democracy," then realized they had been watching Glenn Beck.

What I would like to see coming out of this is a left self-critical enough to understand its shortcomings. I see so much leftist vitriol directed at liberals, for instance, without any analysis of why leftist ideas are not gaining traction. I see so many Bernie supporters wailing about a "rigged" system rather than thinking long and hard about how and why they could attract more voters of color. There is a lot of resentment out there, and it runs especially high in the white working and middle classes of this country, where it feeds on the power and attraction of nationalism and white supremacy. Combatting it will require a lot of hard work, as well as some political hard-nosedness. No more beautiful losers. No more elevating a single person in messianic status. No more blaming the right whenever the left fails. No more empty self-righteousness. In this Age of Resentment, it is time to put away childish things, and it is time to roll up our sleeves and give the fight of our lives. The loss will not be a noble defeat, it will be unthinkable.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Track of the Week: Ace Frehley, "New York Groove"

In 1978 Kiss was riding on top of the world. Their mix of catchy hard rock, shock horror/sci-fi tropes, theatricality, and clown makeup was like a tactical pop cultural ICBM aimed right at the sweet spot of suburban 70s adolescence. Late in 1978, perhaps consumed by hubris, each member of the band put out their own solo record simultaneously. If they had done a double album with each member getting a side it may have worked, but not too many people were going to plop down full price to hear a Peter Criss solo album.

While Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have always been the core creative force of the band, the best song to come from those records by far was Ace Frehley's "New York Groove." In fact, I think I like it better than any of Kiss's songs. It has a glam rock stomp that betrays its origins: the song was originally performed by minor Brit glam band Hello in 1975. Frehley himself was the product of the Bronx, and he gives the song a bit more of the local swagger. It's skanky rhythm and funky feel instantly put me in the mind of New York City in the late 70s: a place simultaneously collapsing and acting as a cultural supernova. I'm not sure if I would have liked living there, but its contradictions and the amazing things it produced still fascinate me.

I hear in this song a kind of New York that's now been practically gentrified out of existence. "New York Groove" personifies the city as a swaggering street hustler with drugs and a roll of bills in his pockets and a bulge in his pants just living for today. A more accurate song today would personify the city as a financial analyst getting some cash from a Bank of America ATM and walking to get a cold brew at Starbucks while checking stock prices on his smartphone. I heard the song this week at a Mets game. The team broke a losing streak, and as fans filtered out of the stadium, the PA played "New York Groove," an almost perfect choice. New York doesn't have the same groove today, but this song still does.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Brexit And The Post Post-Cold War World

Things have changed since the days of the Marshall Plan

I know I am repeating myself, but it is a point that bears repeating: we are experiencing a worldwide resurgence of nationalism and the nation state and are now effectively living in a post post-Cold War world. This development frightens me, because a similar spike in nationalism, which came amidst the explosion of the global economy in the period from the 1850s to the 1910s, led two horrific world wars. It wasn't until the 1990s that the level of global trade returned to 1913 levels.

Evidence of this shift is everywhere, from Putin's invasion of Ukraine on nationalist grounds to China's invocation of nationalism to Donald Trump's appeals to ethno-nationalism to new nationalist governments in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Tomorrow the people of the United Kingdom are voting on whether to stay in the European Union, and right now the vote looks very close. While there is a tiny pro-Brexit left, most of the push is motivated by nationalists drawing on fears of immigration and the effects of multiculturalism. (The EU can be criticized on many legitimate grounds, but it is nationalism first and foremost that is driving this.)

This is a remarkable turnaround of events. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty, which turned the European Community into the European Union, was hailed in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall as the sign of a new, peaceful Europe free from the specter of war. Of course, the wars in the Balkans raging already in 1991 proved such hopes were overstated, and were perhaps a more accurate harbinger of the future than Maastricht.

There is no doubt that the EU has failed immensely in the last quarter century. It failed to meaningfully intervene in the Yugoslav wars. It overextended the euro, putting countries like Greece onto the currency that had no business being there, harming the Eurozone economy and making it difficult for Greece to recover due to it not having any control over its own monetary policy. The EU's organization itself is maddeningly bureaucratic, often undemocratic, and almost impossible to understand. When I taught a class on postwar Europe I didn't even bother trying to explain it to my students because I actually wanted them to be interested in their education.

So yes, there are reasons to want to change the EU, and I think it is in dire need of rethinking. However, the response in Britain (specifically England) has been motivated by notions of national sovereignty, rather than any desire to improve the EU or any real interest in its goals. So for me it is not the backlash against the EU that unnerves me, it's the nature of that backlash. Nationalism was responsible for a tremendous amount of bloodshed in the 20th century, including murderous campaigns blamed on communism that were actually part of larger projects of nation building. (I am thinking here especially of Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. Putin and Xi are just new players in an old and continuing nationalist narrative.) Not all nationalism ends in the concentration camp and bloody battlefield, but it is usually accompanied by narrowed minds and marginalization of the "other."

The European project originated out of a need, after the cataclysm of 1914-1945, to use economic integration as a way ensure peaceful coexistence. In that respect, it has been a massive success, so successful that so many are forgetting the fragility of that success. After World War I, the architects of the post-Versailles world system thought it would be permanent and were confident in its success. By 1933, it was already practically extinct, torn apart by nationalist demagogues and worldwide economic decline. Does that sound familiar to anybody? We are entering a new phase in world history, time will tell just what that means.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Last Night Is Why I Love Sports

In the internet age cultural tastes have become much more segmented and tribalistic. There is a misbegotten notion, for instance, that sports fandom and nerdom do not intersect. (When otherwise intelligent people like Chris Hardwick preach this line I get irritated.) All kinds of snarky folks use the term "sportsball" online as a sign of their contempt. And hey, they're welcome not to like sports.

It's just that according to the false lines we've drawn, I'm not SUPPOSED to like sports. I am on the left politically, literate, love sci-fi and comic books and am intimately acquainted with both the 20-sided die and the Dungeon Master's Guide. But I love sports, and have since I was a child.

And yes, I have soured on college sports, mostly because of the ways they exploit athletes and warp the missions of universities. And I am also the first person to call out pro sports franchises for making cities pay up for unnecessary new stadiums. I also condemn macho culture and rape culture and the ways that male athletes are allowed to get away with sexual violence. I hate how sports is often over-prioritized in many schools and communities.

But I still love sports, and last night illustrated exactly why. Game 7 of the NBA finals was among the best basketball games I have ever seen. The lead changed hands innumerable times and it all came down to the wire with the kind of drama that script writers could never create. (Sports never, ever seem right in the movies. The real-life magic is too spontaneous.) The two best teams with the two best players slugged it out, putting everything down there on the floor. It reminded me of the last rounds of the Thrilla in Manilla, two punch drunk champions giving it their all to the point that they seemed unable to go another minute. Watching that is unlike anything else.

In LeBron James I saw what I love still more about sports: seeing human excellence in action. There is nothing like watching a truly great athlete perform feats that seem impossible for others to do. Yes, it can lead to hero worship, but it can also inspire us to think about our own potential. I look at Lebron and I marvel that he and I are somehow members of the same species, that another fellow human can do what he does.

As last night also showed, sports fulfill an important community function. My advisor, when discussing the history of memory, always liked to say that "nations remember, but cities forget." I told him that he was wrong, because for many cities it is their sports teams that provide the glue of collective memory joining longtime residents with newcomers. Cleveland's identity was partially wrapped up in its identity of futility in sports. Last night's victory may not bring back the steel mills, but it does give people there a memory that they will be celebrating probably for decades.

I remember onetime being in a friend's basement watching a game, and we were in agony over our team blowing their leading. One of my friend's spouses asked why we watched sports if we didn't enjoy it. I kind of saw her point, and wondered if I was the member of some kind of religious cult. Last night, however, reminded me of the joy that sports can bring. Despite all of the things that need fixing in the world of sports, I know I will keep coming back.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On My Thousandth Post

This right here is post number one thousand of "Notes From The Ironbound."  At moments like this, I do have to stop and think about just what the hell I am doing with my life.

I get between 5,000 and 8,000 views a month here, which actually isn't all that much. In the age of Twitter, blogging has become incredibly passe, especially a blog as unprofessional looking as this one with a weird title. Some days I wonder if I am just a pathetic relic of the oughts, a sort of internet Disco Stu. I'd like to get my stuff published in more notable places, but so far that's been going nowhere. I have resolved this summer to try to submit more pitches. Considering the barrage of godawful hot takes on the internet, I can't imagine how they can turn me down.

Hitting this milestone has me thinking about how I first started. This was not my first blog. I started right after the 2004 election, mostly to process what had just happened. I also used to send my friends extended rants over email, and decided that a blog would be a better platform for them. My first blog had the awfully unwieldy name "Fugitive Streets/Jackal Tombs," which I changed to the catchier "I Used To Be Disgusted Now I Try To Be Amused." That blog had a measure of success, but I had to kill it 2011.  A former coworker who had stabbed me in the back had previously been trusted with the knowledge that I was writing an anonymous blog that contained some pretty inflammatory opinions about academia and my own workplace. After my nightmare experience at my old job I needed to speak my mind without my former colleagues coming at me. One nasty comment on this blog makes me think that one of them found me, but I've deleted that post and brushed it off.

These facts make my continued blogging even more puzzling. Why keep going with something that hardly anyone reads and could be used against me? I think it comes down to the fact that I love to write about music, current events, culture, and history, and that I am not good enough, interesting enough, or connected enough to get published by others on a consistent basis. (I am very lucky to count the much more successful Chauncey DeVega as a friend, and he has given me many helpful signal boosts.) This blog is my turf. I can write and publish whatever the hell I want, and even if few people read it, I still get to derive a great deal of pleasure from the experience.

I really appreciate the fact that based on the comments and Twitter, I have some loyal readers. Thanks guys, it's good not to feel like I am just shouting into the void. I hope you stick around.

And while I am going to keep my current writing pace for this blog, this summer I think I really need to push myself out of the very cozy comfort zone I've established here, as Chauncey and others have urged me to do. If anyone can give me advice in the comments on how to do that, please let me know.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd, Meddle

When people talk about the great Pink Floyd albums, they'll mention Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, those two staples of classic rock radio, Those with an appreciation of the band's Syd Barrett incarnation will talk about Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Wish You Here will get some attention, especially from the more serious fans, and there will always be some overly-intense young men who will name Animals as their favorite.

Rarely will you hear talk of Meddle, the album Floyd put out in 1971 that bridged the gap between their psychedelic years and the arena-ready sounds of Dark Side. Those who know Meddle know its power, however. I was not surprised years ago to read in an interview that Johnny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead, counts it among his favorites. This is an album of moods more than songs.

The one real rawk song is the first, the sinister "One Of These Days." It begins with the sounds of howling wind, and then an overpowering bass riff unlike anything on a rock record to that point. I hear this song as Pink Floyd throwing down the gauntlet and announcing a new beginning, much like the Stones' similarly up-tempo "Jumpin' Jack Flash."  The song sounds like a horde of horsemen sweeping across a wind-blasted plain out for blood, a feeling confirmed by the only words, spoken through a voice distorting modulator: "One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces"

"One Of These Days" grabs the listener's attention with its brute force, but the rest of the album is decidedly mellower as it segues into the appropriately named "A Pillow Of Winds." The tone is set by David Gilmore's gentle slide guitar, and million miles from the slash and burn we've just heard. While this song is a nice little gem, the following song, "Fearless," is one of my all time favorites. Just today I was bumming around Central Park, killing time before my school's graduation while I listened to this song as a cool summer breeze blew through the trees. The song and experience were a perfect, serene combination. Whenever I hear this song I feel calmed, uplifted.

I'm not the only person who loves it. In Everybody Wants Some, his most recent film, Richard Linklater devotes a whole scene to the characters listening to the song while smoking up and listening to the resident pothead philosopher's enthusiastic promotion of it. It's also an interesting example of Floyd bringing in outside noises into the studio, something that Dark Side would very successfully incorporate. The beginning and end use recordings of Liverpool soccer fans chanting "You'll Never Walk Alone," still sung today at Anfield stadium. The song gives real meaning to the lyrics; it's impossible to hear and think that you're alone in the universe.

And just to make things even less consistent, the next song "St Tropez," is a jazzy little number that sounds like something a 40s lounge band might've played. Again, it's less a song than a mood, one of detached decadence in the sun of the French Riviera. Refusing to stick to a theme, the last song on side one is "Seamus, " a joke song. It features David Gilmore playing Delta blues slide guitar over the sound of his dog Seamus howling and moaning. As a song it's not all the great, but on the record in contributes to the surreal feeling established elsewhere. There's an intimacy here, as well as the rest of side one, which has made this album a favorite of mine to play as I lay down to go to sleep.

Pink Floyd developed a reputation for concept albums later in their career, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any hard and fast concepts on the first side of Meddle. Side two has a very simple concept: an album-side length song: "Echoes." It starts with the crystalline sound of piano keys that ping like sonar or a faint signal from a distant star. Those pings come in throughout the song, which has few words and a lot of musical interplay. It's a song I love getting lost in for awhile. When I listen to all twenty-three minutes of it and clear out other distractions I feel greatly refreshed by the time it ends. Unlike a lot of other prog rock of the day the musicianship does not over power the song or kill the mood with excessive showiness. The feeling is the most important thing in this song.

The feeling that this whole album gives me is why I keep coming back. It is a feeling of comfort and belonging. In a day to day existence that is full of too much work and stress, these songs reveal the secret veins of the universe, the deep rivers of meaning beneath all of this material garbage. If you need 45 minutes to transport yourself off of this vulgar plane into a world of beauty and mystery, then look no farther than Meddle.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Last Day Of School

Yesterday was the last day of school, a day that feels very different as a teacher. When I was a child it was the king of all holidays, the day of the year when I knew I would never have more freedom. The entire summer, two and a half months of sun and fun without any bullies or authoritarian teachers to ruin it, was stretched out before me, seemingly endless. Leaving school on that day was always such a high, a feeling of complete and unaltered joy that I have only had small glimpses of since.

Nowadays the last day of school comes as bittersweet relief. My wife and I have honed our morning routines with military precision in order to be able for both of us to leave the house at the same time and for me to get to New York City, her to her school in suburban New Jersey, and my daughters to their preschool. Balancing the intensity of the school year with parenting is a daily test of our abilities. Summer feels less like freedom and more like being a World War I soldier on leave from the trenches, knowing full well that we'll be back at the front for the fall offensive.

Thus the relief. The bittersweetness comes with saying goodbye to the students at the end of the year, especially the seniors. This year there is a group of seniors who I have advised for several years and feel very close to, and their hugs and tears have moved me but also made me sad for their parting. Working in secondary education means constantly meeting new young people and helping them grow, and then having to watch them leave right at the moment they become adults.

Amidst the bittersweetness of the last day of school, I also get a needed reminder of where I've come in my life. Once summer starts I usually begin thinking about how fortunate I was to escape the world of academia and land where I am now. It is sad to see the students go, but they make me feel so appreciated. They make me feel like my work MATTERS. I got that feeling so rarely in my former life. It's the feeling that has me looking forward to September and a new beginning with a new class of students, an anticipation so foreign to my childhood summers, but one that tells me I've made the right career choice.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Republic Of Fear

I spent most of yesterday in a state of deep, dark reflection. The mass murder in Orlando had me depressed. I got into a fight with a relative on Facebook about it and felt bad for flying off the handle. I reminded myself yet again that after this country allowed a room full of first graders in Sandy Hook to be slaughtered with no real change that mass murders like this would be inevitable.

And then came today, when Donald Trump opened his filthy sewer mouth yet again. Dodgy Don reiterated his call for a ban on Muslims coming to America, despite the shooter having been an American-born citizen. Trump called for a Stasi-like system where Americans would inform on each other's "suspicious behavior," or else. Trump also insinuated, in a rebirth of his birther ideology, that president Obama was some kind of secret Muslim undermining the country. When the Washington Post reported on that, Trump had their credentials to cover his campaign revoked.

There was no way that Trump was going to pass up an opportunity to attack Muslims and exploit fear. He seems to understand, as Bush and Cheney did, that the voting public will listen to the fear reflexes in their lizard brains first, and ask questions later. The Bush-Cheney administration deftly exploited 9/11, saving their sagging administration and accomplishing a radical agenda of invading Iraq, extraordinary rendition, and increased surveillance.

Trump is also less restrained than Cheney-Bush, something I had not thought possible. Bush, to his credit, took pains to tell the public not to conflate Islam with terrorism. Trump has not shown such restraint. His proposed Muslim ban is a statement on his part that he believes Muslims are inherently terroristic, and that he has no problem using the state apparatus to persecute people for the crime of just being Muslim.

In the aftermath of 9/11 I thought that if Bush called for all foreign born Muslims to be rounded up and put in internment camps or deported that a clear majority of Americans would have supported him. Trump looks as if he would actually do it.

I would like to think that his statements today would hurt his chances at the presidency, but I'm not so sure. White America lives in a constant state of racialized fear, from its gated communities to its periodic freak outs over being seated next to Muslims on airplanes. Trump could very well carry a combination voter suppression and white fear with him to the White House this November. I want more than anything else for my white brethren to stop living in fear.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Track of the Week: Todd Rundgren "The Night The Carousel Burnt Down"

When people put together great classic rock albums lists you never see Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything, which is proof positive that most all-time best albums lists are bullshit. It's one of the few double albums, along with The Clash's London Calling, that manages to have great diversity in sounds while never having any weak points. Some of the songs on it are just perfect pop, like "I Saw The Light," "Hello It's Me," and "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference." There's garage rock an electronic experimentation and weirdo story songs, too.

My favorite deep cut has got to be "The Night The Carousel Burnt Down." It starts with just some keyboards and Rundgren singing softly over a waltzy rhythm before the percussion, reminiscent of a carousel comes in. In lesser hands it might be a bit too on the nose, but here it works just fine. It's a song of resignation, of having to leave town after the fun has come and gone. Rundgren has a knack for writing songs about what I call "wistful resignation," where the singer is resigned to his suboptimal situation, but wistful over missed opportunities. It's a feeling I know pretty well. I just can't make it sound as pretty as this.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Continued Relevance of "A Face In The Crowd"

Once upon a time I heard about a movie starring Andy Griffith (yes, that Andy Griffith) as a character who could only be described as Elvis meets Joseph McCarthy. I sought it out mostly for the weirdness factor, and discovered instead an endlessly relevant look at what happens when mass media meets a demagogue.  The film I am speaking of is 1957's A Face In The Crowd, which also starred the great Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.  It's a film I keep going back to again and again, especially this election year.

The main character is a vagrant named Lonesome Rhodes, who parlays an interview from jail on the local radio to his own radio show, then regional TV show, then national television superstardom. Along the way he learns that he has a powerful ability to manipulate people. That's exploited by a reactionary senator, who uses Rhodes to present himself as a man of the people. Soon Rhodes is planning on becoming a propaganda minister in Fuller's administration, only to be derailed by letting his real feelings for his audience get out on the air.

The film came out right after the worst of the Red Scare, and in the midst of television's rise as a medium, especially for politics. Back in 1952, Nixon saved his political career with the "Checkers" speech. Joseph McCarthy met his undoing during the televised hearings on the army, where McCarthy's sweaty, drunken rants were there for everyone to see. Although the good guys win in the end, it's a dark message about the potential for political manipulation lurking in everyone's living room.

There has perhaps never been a candidate for president before this year who was a pure product of television -except maybe Pat Robertson- like Donald Trump. After first taking the print media of New York City by storm he catapulted into television, where he has been a mainstay since the late 1980s.  While Trump's use of ethno-nationalism has brought him the votes of the Republican Party, his use of television made it possible to get his message heard and his legitimacy established in ways that other candidates could only dream about.

Already last summer the news networks were covering his campaign speeches live, something I'd never seen before with another candidate. Recently networks were showing an empty podium at his rally rather than a speech that Clinton was giving at the exact same time. Trump calls in constantly to the networks, putting them on the defensive and keeping him in the news. His ratings boost means that they won't go too hard on him, lest he decide to throw a tantrum and not speak with them. Even when he says horrible and outrageous things the anchors still talk about him with a smug smile and a chuckle on their lips, as if this is all just a big game.

For years people have been noting that our political press had lost the ability or even the desire to be a tribune of the public. Now we have reaped that bitter harvest with a news media that cares about rating and clicks, the public good be hanged. That media has helped elevate Trump, and since his presumptive nomination has allowed him a great deal of legitimacy.

Both Lonesome Rhodes and Trump are vulgar, misogynistic, lying sociopaths using television to advance a radically reactionary agenda. Sadly for us, one of them is living today in the flesh, with a news media much less independent than it was sixty years ago. The recent affair over Trump's attack on a judge's Mexican heritage reminds me of Rhodes' downfall. For men like these, the media will not tear them down, but only their own words. I only hope that Trump continues on his self-destructive path.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Billboard Top Ten June 9, 1990

For whatever reason, my aging brain still retains very vivid memories of the early summer of 1990, the summer between middle school and high school. That summer I started buying a lot of music, rather than just listening on the radio, and first started developing something like taste. At the same time, I was still listening to what was on the charts and watching way too much MTV. 1990 was a strange year culturally, still spiritually in the late 80s but with signs of change afoot, especially on the charts. And now, on with the countdown!

10. Sinead O'Connor "Nothing Compares 2 U"

Sinead O'Connor freaked 14 year old me out. I was a good, devout Catholic boy, so her later infamous ripping up of the pope's picture on national television scared me. Her shorn head and unconventional manner were hard to assimilate for a boy who had yet to figure his relationship with traditional gender norms. All of that made it hard to appreciate what is a real classic love ballad, one infused with a kind of raw emotion so often missing from the top 40. Whenever I hear this song used as background music in supermarkets and airports I still prick my ears up and drink it in.

9. MC Hammer "U Can't Touch This"

Another song using "U" in the title, but it couldn't be more different. I was getting into rap music at this time, but Hammer was a million miles from Public Enemy and Eric B and Rakim. I didn't care. I still remember taking my lawn mowing money from my first mow of the summer down to Musicland to buy Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em, which I promptly wore out over the course of the summer. I had in my walkman during my summer job detasseling corn, and I remember one day, stuck in the detasseling bus on a muddy road in a thunderstorm, me and another kid reciting the whole song vertabim, including that tough part near the end where he says a bunch of lines fast. Like it or not, this song, baggy pants and all, broke hip hop music into the malls, and the world has never been the same since.

8. New Kids On The Block "Step By Step"

The New Kids are one of those true cultural relics of a very specific time, like OK Cola and polyester bell bottoms. My little sister loved them, and I always taunted her for it. My other sister and I would mock sing "Step by step/ooh baby/Gonna get to you girlrlrlrl" and fall on the floor in gusts of laughter. This song is a bit goofy, even by New Kids standards, but is evidently the biggest hit they had. The production is certainly forward looking with more than a dose of new jack swing. The twin onset of grunge and hard-edged rap swept the New Kids into the dustbin of history, only for boy bands to appear again in the late 90s when pop regained its ascendancy.

7. Linear "Sending All My Love"

Linear too is going for the new jack swing boy band vibe here. The production is far less polished, but that's actually a little welcome. There's little minor key flourishes in here, making it a much more compelling listen a quarter century on.

6. Janet Jackson "Alright"

Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation album sort of bridged the gap between the 80s and 90s. It's got both the big synthesized pop sound and the big hip hop beats. This song, unlike a lot of the other hits off of the album, is more about dance than it is about the melody. The Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production still dominates, though.

5. Roxette "It Must Have Been Love"

Okay, here's an embarrassing admission: in September of 1990 I asked for and received a copy of the Pretty Woman soundtrack for my birthday. It was packed with hits, including this one! I'd known Roxette for their slinky "The Look," so hearing this very conventional lost love ballad from them surprised me. The backing has a kind of baroque pop element to it that I have to admit I sort of like. The chorus is awful catchy, too. Dammit, I think this song just got in my head.

4. Heart "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You"

Heart came on the scene in the late 70s with some fantastic hard rock. I would always crank "Magic Man" and "Barracuda" when they came on the classic rock radio. In one of the more improbable mutations a band has undergone, they retooled themselves for the 80s with lots of overproduced ballads in videos draped in fog and lace. This song is not ready for the 90s. Lots of gated snares, watery guitars, and shimmering synths. It's a sign that Heart's run was about to come to an end.

3. Bell Biv Devoe "Poison"

Before the New Kids producer Maurice Starr had created New Edition. Bobby Brown broke out of the group as a big time solo artist, and the other members tried their luck, too. (Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant, anyone?) "Poison" is probably the best post-New Edition song of them all. The beat is absolutely irresistible, one of the most recognizable of the era. There's a cool minor-key vibe to the background vocals and the song avoids the overly bright, sugary sound that had a stranglehold on the charts in the late 80s. I bought this one on cassingle at Wal-Mart after the first time I saw the video on MTV. I still like hearing it.

2. Madonna "Vogue"

If anything, this song taught me the names of a bunch of classic Hollywood stars ("Rita Hayworth gave good face" etc.)  This song is Madonna at her best: appropriating gay male subculture and mixing it with fresh dance music and a reserved cool. The gay voguing dance craze was now safe for the Willowbrook Mall. Snark aside, it might be her greatest accomplishment.

1. Wilson Phillips "Hold On"

Speaking of the mall, I think I've heard this song in malls for twenty-six years straight. This group combined children of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. That might sound like a flimsy idea for a group, but Carney and Wendy Wilson and Chynna Phillips made some great harmonies, a disappearing art in the pop world. The melodies almost but don't quite overcome the dated production, which is stuck in the 80s world of big, loud, and obvious. The lyrics are also part of that whole 80s self-affirmation music genre. It's a song meant to be played at corporate retreats and to introduce "inspirational" speakers.

Monday, June 6, 2016

At Long Last Voting

New Jersey finally votes tomorrow, bringing up the rear in a interminable primary election process. Two months ago I hoped that the election would go down to the wire, so that the politicians would come to the Garden State on their grubby knees and beg folks from Cape May to Hoboken for their votes. I also really wanted to protest a Donald Trump rally and tell my governor what an ass he is. Alas, I would not get the chance.

My enthusiasm passed a long long time ago. I started off firmly behind Sanders. I would call myself a social democrat, and Sanders might be the running the most powerful social democratic candidacy since Ted Kennedy in 1980. At the same time, I was glad to see that Hillary Clinton had moved to the left, and would've been fine with her as the nominee, despite her past history. As I've detailed here, the Sanders campaign lost me once it stopped reigning in its worst supporters and started threatening to disrupt the summer convention. To not admit defeat (which was crystal clear) and keep dividing the left in the face of a fascist threat got me over any Bern I was once feeling.

If New Jersey had its primary in March or April, I would've gladly voted for Sanders, Now that he still has refused to call off his campaign before the convention, I'm with her, as they say. I am feeling a lot of ambivalence about this, though. I respect Clinton for her intelligence, political savvy, and experience. However, I am not too happy with her hawkish foreign policy or past history of support for the war in Iraq. At least she's proposing a major program to help pay for day care, something that would help me and a whole lot of other people. I am trying to think of those things as I vote tomorrow. I am also feeling a little bit of a thrill, as New Jersey will likely be the state to put Clinton over the top as the first woman to get the presidential nomination from a major party.

Part of me can't escape the feeling that I've spent most of my time as a voter not enthusiastically casting my vote, but to support an underwhelming option that's not conservative extremism. When I voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, I did feel real pride and enthusiasm. Now I am just hoping to hold off the Trumpocalypse. I just tell myself that the way for progressives to push Clinton to the left is not to vote for Sanders, but to give Clinton the vote with the understanding that it will be withheld in the future if she follows the triangulating path of her husband.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Track of the Week: Bob Dylan "Visions of Johanna"

I just found out today that last month was the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Dylan's landmark Blonde on Blonde album, the capstone to his mid-60s trilogy of artistic peaks, also including Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home.

I came to Blonde on Blonde last, back in the days when you had to buy albums to hear them. It is such a dense work, and one with such a uniquely thrilling sound. Dylan brought organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson with him to Nashville, where a crack group of country session musicians filled out the studio band. That combination of such disparate elements and obvious musical talents really enabled something special to happen.

"Visions Of Johanna" is probably the song that exemplifies this alchemy best. At this point Dylan was writing long songs full of all kinds of poetic imagery and modernist style, even if he would pen the occasional "Just Like A Woman." I've never actually bothered to figure out the "meaning" of this song, I've just contented myself with some of the images, like "the heat pipes cough." There's perhaps none more powerful than "the ghost of electricity/ howls in the bones of her face." That line will enter my head in random moments, no matter how long ago I heard the song.

The sound is really something else, from the spare drums to the prickly harmonica to guitar twanging in the twilight between blues and country to the decidedly un-churchy organ's faint keening. The words and their abstractions somehow fit the sound perfectly. Dylan's infamous motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966 took on mythic proportions, mostly because he would not return to this sound, something I'd bet he would've done anyway, knowing how fast he changes his approach, even to this day. Those who lamented the direction Dylan took after Blonde on Blonde are missing the point. The uniqueness of what he accomplished here makes it all the more special.

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Plea To My Republican Friends and Family Members

I understand that we differ in our politics. I understand that you may really dislike Hillary Clinton. But I beg and implore you NOT to vote for Donald Trump in the general election.

Although I voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, I never would have asked you not to vote for McCain or Romney because as much as I disagreed with them, I at least thought they were legitimate candidates for the presidency.  Look, you don't have to vote for Clinton, you can go third party if you wish. Heck, I did that in 1996 and 2000 after being disgusted by the equivocating and conservatism lite of the Clinton-Gore administration. And I am not asking you not to vote for Republicans further down the ballot, as much as I may dislike them.

Trump is a special case. This is a man who has openly inflamed hatred against immigrants and Muslims. He has introduced notions once considered outside of the pale in our politics to the mainstream. He is instinctively authoritarian, and doesn't seem to have much interest in the First Amendment or the judiciary if those things can be used against him. He is also massively unqualified to be president, from his childish temper tantrums to his complete lack of experience in public office to his complete ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity. He represents a danger to this country.

Although I disagree with your politics, I know you, my Republican friends and family, to be fundamentally decent people. Why give your vote to a man of such indecency? Many of you are devout Christians, but here is a man who is as opposite of Christ as you could find, from his spewing of hate to his celebration of crass materialism. If he was just a random someone who lived in your town you'd probably really dislike him, and judge him negatively for his two divorces to boot. Anything he has said about religion and "values" has been lip service, anyway. Do you really want to be played like that?

Some of you are in the business world. I've heard you complain of companies that use the justice system in frivolous lawsuits to shake you down for money, something Trump is known for.  Would you do business with someone who has such a rash of bankruptcies?  I even know one of you has had business dealings with Trump and you have spoken negatively about it in years past. Are you now going to give your vote to a man that you would not trust enough to do business with?

A lot of you are women. Are you really going to go out and give your vote to a man who has a long history of treating women with disrespect? A man who seems to regard women as some lesser form of life? I know you are strong women, why would you openly support a man who seems to have an insane hatred of strong women?

Knowing that many of you might be willing to vote for a man who appears to be against who you are as people and what you stand for, I am sad and disturbed. Just because he is the nominee of the party you vote for doesn't mean that he should automatically get your vote.  Just because the likes of Rubio and Ryan have shown themselves to be abject cowards does not mean that you ought to follow their path.

You should know, last of all, that if you do vote for this man come November, I will indeed question my assumptions of your decency, morality, and strong womanhood, so be prepared. You cannot claim to be those things and be a Trump supporter.