Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Media Talking Points From A Scholar Of Historical Memory


My dissertation was about historical memory, and I have written plenty of scholarship and taught classes about it. For that reason, it is extremely irritating to look at the discourse around the removal of Confederate monuments and not see any scholars of memory featured prominently in the media. Since I won't be asked to go on CNN, here are some handy talking points you can use in your conversations with other folks.

Monuments are about creating a "usable past."
Folks who are in the middle seem most convinced by the argument that taking down these monuments is somehow "denying history" or "eliminating history." It is easy to understand why this argument appeals to (white) people with a low-stakes interest in this issue, but it doesn't hold water. Monuments as part of public memory are an attempt to create a "usable past." They are a way to create an interpretation of the past that is given an official stamp of approval. This is why you don't see massive public monuments celebrating emancipation in this country, but plenty of them in Caribbean nations where the population is mostly black.

Confederate monuments created a white supremacist usable past.
Other people have written about this, but it bears repeating: the vast majority of Civil War monuments in the South were built during the height of Jim Crow. They were not immediate responses to the war. They are also intended to push a certain interpretation of the war, the "Lost Cause." This narrative essentially said that the white South was the superior side fighting for a just cause, and only lost due to the material superiority of the Union. These monuments defended the old slaveocracy at a time when lynchings and other incidents of racial violence were accelerating. By being erected after Reconstruction and during Jim Crow, they are not mourning a defeat in the Civil War, but actually celebrating the victory of white supremacy in its aftermath. Context matters.

There is plenty of precedent for tearing down monuments.
This is something we know, but it bears repeating. The same people today saying that tearing down Confederate monuments is "destroying history" did not complain when statues of Lenin and Stalin were eliminated during the revolutions in the Eastern Bloc. Those monuments were symbols of hated, repressive regimes. The same goes for Confederate monuments. They are the symbols of white supremacy. Hell, American colonists in New York famously tore down a statue of King George III, and melted it into cannon balls. This event was celebrated in my history textbooks in school. No one seems to be crying any tears over the loss of that statue. We are not bound to the usable pasts created by people who lived a hundred years ago.

We should view this moment as a time for positive change.
While it is good to tear down monuments to white supremacy, we should be thinking about the usable pasts of this country that would be preferable. For example, Union monuments built in the North were also built during a time of intense white supremacy. While these monuments obviously do not celebrate the defense of slavery, they rarely, if ever, mention it. This is due to the "reunionist" feeling at the time where the memory of the Civil War eliminated its political causes, and instead the reuniting of the country was emphasized. Of course, this meant erasing African Americans from this history, and essentially accept a reunited nation for white people only. In North and South we need more public memory of slavery, and the role of slavery in the Civil War. We should use this moment to create a usable past that is more inclusive and more honest about this country's history.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What I Saw in Bedminster


Saturday morning I drove forty minutes out to rural western New Jersey to meet a group of people participating in the "People's Motorcade." This is a protest where protestors get around the lack of a nearby protest space by driving very slowly past the gates of Trump's golf course, their cars festooned with signs and noise blaring.

I had done it once before, back weeks before during the president's first visit. This time there were fewer cars, about twenty of them. Those participating were almost all from the immediate area, except for a family that, like me, had trekked from Essex County. This is a part of New Jersey that's rather conservative in its politics, especially compared to the rest of the state, so the locals really seemed to relish their event. It was begun by a single person, and is completely and totally grassroots.

In many ways this is a great thing. This kind of grassroots action is the necessary ingredient for successful political movements. However, I found it disheartening as well. Where was the institutional support? Why weren't larger groups coming in to bolster and support this? Since Trump has taken office there has been a massive tide of engagement by liberals and progressives, but the lack of institutional support and organization has made it difficult to sustain.

Our opponents do not make this mistake. Remember the Tea Party? It was astroturfed into relevance with massive infusions of conservative cash. It had a champion, Glenn Beck, on cable news spouting its talking points every day. We, on the other hand, are on our own.

This is why I am taking part in protests like the one I did yesterday. It's not only important as a political act, it is a reminder that I am not alone in this. Just standing there and chatting before we drove to the course was a kind of therapy. In a time when everything seems to be out of my hands, it felt like taking back some power. As I went past the entrance of Trump's golf course the first time I blared the Isley Brothers' "Fight The Power," on the second run it was Public Enemy. It felt good. Did it do anything? Not in the bigger picture, but it mattered for those of us who were there.

My good feeling died pretty quickly since right after I got home I started seeing the news out of Charlottesville. I'm still kind of reeling, to be honest. I only know that we have to get out there. We have to fight. If you ever wanted to know how you would have acted in in other times of moral crisis, now's the time to find out.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

August Dread


We put our daughters in camp this week and next, mostly because my wife's job starts up well before the school year. Last summer was her first in the new position and we didn't do this and I almost went nuts from having to wrangle two hyper and bored four year olds by myself for three weeks. This camp time has been nothing short of blissful. Today I sat on the back porch with a book and a cup of coffee, listening to Tusk as the leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. Earlier I started cranking out an essay for publication. In my relaxed state this week I had already written two others. I don't want these days to end.

But soon they will. For teachers August is the Sunday of months, a mix of relaxation and dread.

Those jerkoffs who always think teachers have their summers "off" never understand that our work is akin to being front line soldiers. Without leave we would lose our minds and the ability to keep fighting. Summer feels less like a break than a rotation out of the trenches. Like a World War I soldier, I am keenly aware when I am away that I will have to go back.

This is not meant to be a complaint. I love my current job more than any other job I've had. This year, as in the others, there were hugs and tears at graduation, and the kind of gratitude that warms my heart like nothing else. But getting to that point requires a truly monumental expense of mental, emotional, and physical energy. In my case I dread not the demands of teaching as much as my commute. It's an hour each way if everything goes right, which would be bad enough, but lately that hasn't been the case. Just getting to the train on time each morning requires a ritual of clockwork precision which includes walking the dog, preparing breakfast for my children, and getting a couple of headstrong toddlers out of bed and out the door before the sun comes up. I am usually worn out even before I get to my train, a train so crowded that half the time I do not even get to sit down.

Between my work, commute, and child care responsibilities on an average work day I get about two hours of free time if I am lucky. Some days it's none. I used to expand that time by staying up too late, but that had a lot of bad side effects, from fatigue to crankiness. Last year I resolved to get seven hours of sleep a night, and I mostly held to that. (Watching the World Series made that difficult, though.)

Soon the cycle will start all over again. As much as I am feeling the dread, I know that on that first day of class that I will answer the bell and will be full of energy and enthusiasm. At the end of the day, that's what you have to do if you want to be a teacher, and why so few people make it past their first few years, even with their "summer off."

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 15


This episode of Old Dad's Records is a "five" episode, meaning that I get to dissect one of my more prized records. In this case, it's Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. With the president threatening nuclear war and tearing apart the social safety net, it seemed pretty appropriate.

https://soundcloud.com/jason-tebbe/old-dads-records-15-nebraska

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Life On Mars


Well, it's been six months since inauguration, meaning that we are only one eighth of the way through the first term of Trump's presidency. Every now and then I force myself to stop and look at what surrounds me and to remind myself the subtle changes that have already happened. We have already come to accept the fact that the leader of our country will go on Twitter to denounce his enemies, intimidate the press, and spew a torrent of lies and bullshit. That has become normal. Hell, it's become the daily entertainment for a lot of people. It reminds me of Kierkegaard's tale about a clown who rushes out to the stage of a theater to tell the crowd that the theater is on fire and they must leave. The crowd thinks it's a joke, and just laughs harder the more that the clown implores them, before it's too late.

We have made the destruction of our own democracy a kind of true life reality show. As I wrote about before, America went through a long Brezhnev period of rot, where the masses stopped actually believing in the system they were living under. I know more than one person who voted for Trump out of a kind of nihilistic glee. (At least one of them regrets it, but too late.) Even people who oppose Trump get fascinated by the show, forgetting the stakes involved. Back in the 2016 election, too many media voices treated him as a joke, and they still do. After all, they're not the ones getting deported, and it drives up their ratings and ad revenue. I get the feeling that Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death will be seen as a work of great prophecy by future generations.

And you what, I play my role in this. I watch Hayes and Maddow way too much. I spend a lot of time on Twitter. There is a difference between being engaged and being distracted, and I think I am becoming the latter. This morning I got a good reminder of that. I went to a nearby town to get some bakery bread, and there were folks setting up what looked like a protest in the small town square against Trump's immigration policies. At that moment I realized that while I had been diligently calling and writing lawmakers for the past three months, I had not been doing anything communal, not since I joined a protest for transgender rights in Austin, Texas, that I happened to run into back in March. That's not good enough.

Salvation is not going to come from anyone near the top. The top-level media still equivocates and still, after all these years, tries to play the false equivalency game. The Republican Party has signed a blood pact with the criminal in chief, and will not turn against him until maybe the 2020 election, if then. On the other side, if political smarts was TNT the Democrats could not blow their nose. Change is only going to come from those of us who take the time and make the sacrifices to act. That's a fact that I am going to try to keep in mind as the world around me becomes increasingly unbearable.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Dialing Back

Let me give y'all a peek behind the curtain.

The small number of people who read this blog on the regular have probably noticed the decreased frequency of posts in recent weeks. This is largely due to the fact that I slept in my own bed in only eight of the 34 days between June 28 and July 31. My travel schedule has made blogging tough, but I am also making a self-conscious decision to dial things back a bit. 

If have kept myself to a very strict pace of posting something every other day. I've been blogging at this pace for most of the past thirteen years. Back when I started, blogs were the cool new thing. Now they have been replaced by tweetstorms and articles on innumerable websites, from the big to the small. I have come to realize that my concentration on this blog has been spurred by a certain amount of cowardice. Here I am my own editor, here no one can reject my work. After years of the hell of the academic job market and publishing worlds, I am still very much afraid of rejection. I need to get over that.

Like the person who cleans their house when they need to be meeting a work deadline, this blog has allowed me to keep intellectually busy in a way that allows me to feel less guilt about my slacking in other areas. I have been working on a book length project for over six years, for example, where I have written over a hundred pages, but none in the past year. I have been able to get things published on much more renowned sites like Jacobin, but my pace of writing things for the outside has really slowed down. 

It's not 2004 anymore, and very few people are reading blogs. Nobody is going to read this and decide to promote me out of the minor leagues. The fact of the matter is that deep down I am a plugger who still believes that excellent work is its own self-promotion. I am aware that in the current climate that is a phenomenally wrong-headed approach. 

So I am going to still keep writing here, but I will be writing less for this blog and more for my other projects, which I will be doing more to integrate into this blog. I'm also going to keep up with the podcast, since that's been providing me with a direly needed creative outlet. And if you are a regular reader, please let me know what kind of stuff you prefer to hear from me, just so I know what to concentrate on.  Thanks as always for listening.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

REM, "You Are The Everything"

1989, When the cover of the Rolling Stone mattered

Back when I was 15-16 years old, no band mattered more to me than REM. In my isolated Nebraska hometown they were pretty much the only band from the postpunk underground that I could hear on my local radio station and see on MTV outside of 120 Minutes until "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped like bomb in the late autumn of 1991.

During the preceding summer a great chunk of my summer job money went to buying the band's entire back catalog. Of all of their albums I purchased that summer, Green is perhaps my least favorite (though I still like it.) At that point in REM's career they had graduated out of the college rock circuit into the arenas due to "The One I Love" off their previous album and "Stand." Green was the last of a trilogy of more straight ahead rock albums (also including Life's Rich Pageant and Document), turning away from the stranger sounds on their early records.

The band would turn from the rock to folky and, ironically, greater fame with 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People. I call those the "mandolin albums" due to Peter Buck's infatuation with that instrument at the time. This missing link is a song on Green, "You Are The Everything."
It is one of my all time favorite REM deep cuts, and brings out an element of the band that always spoke to me: their rural vibe. Much was made of the fact that they hailed from and continued to live in Athens, Georgia, rather than the big city. The Gothic weirdness of rural America is embedded in their best music, and having grown up in a small town, that really grabbed me.

"You Are The Everything" starts with the sound of insects chirping in the dark, and I have always pictured the sound of my parents' back patio on a summer night whenever this song plays. There is an air of mystery in the haunting harmonium and mandolin. For lack of a better word, REM perfected the use of mystery in their music, of creating an uncanny feeling. Michael Stipe's poetic lyrics, never straight-forward and always open to interpretation, were a key element in this. In the early days he mumbled them, making it obvious that feel and impression, and not literal meaning, were what he was going for. By the late 80s the lyrics were easier to make out, but not always to interpret. This song expresses a kind of despair and fear, and has great evocative Stipe lines like "all you hear is time stand still in travel" and "eviscerate your memory." The "you" in the song is amorphous. Is he talking to his sister about a childhood road trip? A friend? A lover? Despite the talk of despair, there is warmth in the music and Stipe's voice. The talk of finding comfort and hope amidst the fear makes this song pretty apt for these times.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Thoughts On A Reunion Of Grad School Friends


I just spent the last three days in East Tennessee in a house with a bunch of my grad school friends (some of whom make up the tens of people who read this blog on the regular!) It was a great experience, and actually got me thinking a lot about the changes in higher education.

We earned our PhDs or left grad school in the period roughly between 2004 and 2008. Some of us are tenured and tenure-track faculty at various universities. Just as many of us are working at universities in another capacity or teaching at the high school level (like yours truly.) Back in say, 2006, when I graduated, I doubt any of us would have predicted any of this. A lot of this had to do with the infamous academic job market, but not in the ways you might think. A lot of the folks who are no longer university faculty were once tenure track professors (like me), or were offered but turned down tenure track jobs. (I am glad to say that while many of us worked for a time as contingent faculty, none of us tried to make a life out of adjuncting.)

It wasn't so much that getting a job was impossible, it was that those jobs were often incompatible with our lives. I am not the only person in my circle who opted out of being faculty to either solve the "two body problem" or (relatedly) live in a place I actually wanted to live in. I had long agreed with the wisdom that academia requires its adherents to be a kind of clergy, whose work is to be a calling demanding great personal sacrifice, rather than just another professional career. Seeing us all gathered together this weekend was a very visceral reminder that so many in my generation of PhDs have not followed the path they worked so hard to forge in grad school.

Until I fell in love with my wife, I was willing to accept the calling and try to make myself happy with the consolation that I was a scholar, even if it meant living in places far from friends and family where I did not truly want to be. Once my life had different priorities, it was inevitable that my academic career was going to end. That's the case for a lot of other people, too, both in and outside of my circle of friends.

While I and my non-professor friends are contributing a lot in our current jobs and get personal fulfillment from them, I can't help but to think of how much scholarly potential was and is wasted by a system completely inadequate to human needs. Of course, as far as the department we graduated from is concerned, those of us who are no longer professors might as well not even exist. And so for those just emerging from my alma mater with their doctoral diplomas fresh in their hands, the cycle continues.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fear Is The Mind Killer

Hunter S Thompson was a prophet

The day after the election was bad, but Inauguration Day was worse. Apart from friends and family dying and 9/11, I can't think of a day where I felt greater despair. I sat up late, drinking Old Grandad straight while watching The Big Lebowski, my ultimate pickup movie. The next day, the Women's March happened, and it became obvious that the new president was not going to get a honeymoon, and that those of us who oppose him already greatly outnumbered his supporters. Since that day, despite all the horrors, I have had a fighting spirit. I have been to many protests, made innumerable phone calls, organized teach-ins, and written reams of blog posts (not that they matter much.)

Yesterday, for the first time in months, the old Fear came shooting right back. I think this week is a turning point. With his speeches yesterday and today, it is clear that Trump has gone back into full-on racist demagogue mode. He is no longer masking his authoritarian longings, and seems poised to fire his attorney general so that he can quash an investigation into his criminal behavior. On top of that, the Republicans in Congress are so desperate and craven to take away the health care of tens of millions of people that they wheeled in an ailing John McCain to get the motion to proceed over the line. This was a motion to proceed on a bill whose contents were still unknown, making a mockery of the legislative process.

Conservatives, who fancy themselves the "real Americans" and people like me to be anti-American, have followed the logic of this stance to its inevitable conclusion: the ends justify the means. It is honestly not hard to be fearful, under the circumstances.

But fear does no one any good. As said in Dune (my favorite sci-fi novel) "fear is the mind killer." I am vowing tonight to maintain my fighting spirit, with the full knowledge that some major setbacks are about to happen. Battles will be lost, but failure to win the war is not an option. To sit by and not fight it, even against long odds, is something that any good-hearted person should be ashamed of.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Preparing For The Pardons

The Poles are providing a good example of how to counter authoritarianism

I try very hard not to care about what the president tweets, but today was an exception. It is pretty obvious that he has been seriously contemplating a blanket pardon of his family members and underlings. This is not a question of if, but when. When that happens, we won't really be living in a constitutional democracy anymore, but living under the thumb of a personal ruler.

Since we know Trump is going to do this, we need to be prepared. But how? Up until now I had been looking to the 2018 elections as the remedy, but a president who is willing to make a mockery of the rule of law in the service of enriching himself and assisting a foreign nation requires a more immediate response, especially if he were to fire the special prosecutor and issue pardons.

Obviously in any healthy democracy such behavior would result in the removal of the chief executive. But this is in no way a healthy democracy. I am still firmly convinced that impeachment is impossible with a Republican congress, no matter what Trump does or what evidence exists. So where does that leave us?

We need to organize so that we are ready to act when this dreaded day comes. Imagine a general strike and a bank boycott coming right after the pardons.  That only comes from organization. While I am skeptical of the chances of something being organized on such a large scale in such a short period of time, I am also tired of the defeatism I am hearing from so many on the political left. I tire of reading folks on Twitter saying "he will get reelected." Whether that's true or not, this is not the attitude we need at this time. This is the kind of attitude that leads to detached thinking, sitting on the sidelines when everyone is needed on the field.

If we think more needs to be done, then we better start doing it, instead of cynically commenting on how nobody does anything. Once we start moving I think we will be happily surprised at what emerges. In any case, it's the only option.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Some Advice For The Democrats

Time to bring back the spirit of George Norris, my home state's greatest leader

So today there was a big kerfuffle online today after a reporter claimed to have heard the Democrats' slogan for next year, and tweeted it. (That tweet was then deleted.) Because it was retracted, I am not going to repeat it, but it does seem to imply (and I don't doubt) that the Democrats are going to 1. still hire lame people to write their slogans 2. try to run on "jobs" and 3. try to be as middle of the road as possible.

All three are massive mistakes. The Republicans have done the best job of sloganeering, since they hire the best PR people to come up with PR stuff. Just think about how "right to work" has become the brand name for union busting. In the second place, "jobs" in the abstract is Trump's issue. The first thing you should do in any debate is to force your opponent to debate you on your ground, not theirs. If you let yourself be pulled onto the ground your opponent has created, you have already lost. And last, going to the middle of the road does not work anymore. Yes, it is very tempting to go to the center if your opponent is going to the extreme, but that formula is outdated. You need to get the base out in the midterm elections. That's how you win.

So what should the Democrats do? They should focus on health care and beat that issue into the ground. The GOP has created a massive self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to exploit. They have learned the hard way that there is a new American consensus on health care: to be remotely acceptable any changes have to expand access to care, rather than restrict it. The Republicans are on record supporting cutting off tens of millions of people from health care. Make them own it, hang it around their neck like a millstone and shove them into the political sea. James Carville has become a bit of a buffoon, but his "it's the economy, stupid!" approach was a brilliant way to nail his opponent on an issue where he was weak that the public also cared about more than any other. Right now that issue is health care.

And yes, Russia should be an issue too, but weaved with health care, as in "Those Republicans are so corrupt that they are letting Trump betray the nation just so they can take away your health care and give the wealthy a tax cut!" Admittedly, it might be hard to get the whole party behind single payer, but they can still easily craft a message based around social class and inequality. The basic message of "The Republicans want you to suffer so the rich can have even more!" is a winning message. The Russia stuff might not play as well with independents, but that's fine, since it will fire up base Democratic voters. Animus against Clinton in 1994 and against Obama in 2010 by grassroots conservatives led to huge midterm wins, it can just as easily work the other way.

Last, and most importantly, Democrats need to focus on the vote. That means getting volunteers to make sure people targeted by suppression can get the help they need to register. It also means bringing all those "resistance" folks into the party. There has been an incredible mobilization by both the left and liberals since Trump's election that has been truly bottom-up. The Democrats need to get these activists coordinated and make them want to be in the tent, especially those oriented towards Sanders. That is where more forceful messaging comes in.

Activists should be taking off work on election day if they can, driving other people to the polls. (I know I want to do that.) Turnout is key in midterms, and the Democrats have a political army that they can call on to get out the vote, if only they would just do it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Television, "See No Evil"


I was thinking about the fact that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the year punk rock truly exploded. 1977 brought a ton of amazing singles and albums by the likes of the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Wire, Clash, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Suicide, Talking Heads, Television, Heartbreakers, Damned, Buzzcocks, Blondie, and more. It was an amazing explosion of music that burned brightly and remade the rules for rock music, even if the initial burst quickly dissipated into a thousand different directions.

It makes me feel old that this happened forty years ago, even though I was way too young to remember it at the time. I discovered the music in the early 1990s, when it felt like this upheaval had happened the day before yesterday. In 1993, when I bought and read and reread an account of the Sex Pistols' ill-fated 1978 tour, it was only fifteen years before. Not recent, but not ancient history. Now the music is old, older than Chuck Berry and Elvis when I was first digging punk rock.

Despite its age, it still holds up. Before punk got ossified into a rules-driven, hidebound genre of music for a very self-enclosed subculture, it had an air of true freedom. If you listen to the earliest punk records, you'll notice that they are not all three chords and a cloud of dust, at least when we are talking about the good bands.

Television are the perfect example of this. They, along with the Ramones and Suicide, were the first of the first New York punk bands. The Ramones set the template of ur-punk in the public imagination, all ripped denim and leather jackets and direct, three chord songs with distorted guitars. They sang proudly about being cretins, their lyrics matching their droogish appearance. Television, on the other hand, had an artistic sensibility. Their lead singer, Tom Verlaine, named himself after a French poet, with lyrics to match. More importantly, the band had a twin lead guitar attack and long songs, not the kind of thing punks were "supposed" to do in later times.

There's no better introduction than "See No Evil," first track on their first album. It drops right into a tight, killer riff, the edgy guitars cutting across Verlaine's oddly contoured voice. The song never fails to get the heart pumping, but when it gets to the guitar solo the song reaches heights of sublimity that fear other rock songs have ever reached. It might be my favorite guitar solo of all time, since it takes such an engaging song and knocks it straight into the stratosphere. The rest of the song afterward is merely comedown.

Is that solo "punk rock"? Not according the Pharisees of punkdom, but who the hell cares what they think anymore? Forty years later we can stop with the orthodoxy and enjoy true musical ecstasy.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pleasures and Pains of Solitude


This week I am in Atlanta at Emory University for a seminar. I basically get to take a class on 70s and 80s politics from a top scholar in the field, but my excitement is heavily tempered by having to be hundreds of miles away from my family for a week.

Moments like these bring me back to my old solitary existence. In college and grad school I mostly roomed with friends, which always kept me from feeling lonely. After that followed two years in Michigan and three years in Texas living in a one bedroom apartment. My first five months in Michigan, which were unbearably lonely, actually prompted me to get a cat. There is an art to being alone, and after awhile, I figured it out. I made sure to go out to the local diner every Wednesday for dinner, where I would sit at the counter and join the conversations. Before I made some great friends I would go to the bar on Saturday and talk with folks there too. Saturday morning also meant a trip to the diner, usually walking while I read from the Times (this was before smart phones.) I spent a lot of time at the local coffee house on the days when I didn't have to teach, and would walk instead of drive. I found these rituals fulfilling, and tried to copy them once I moved to Texas, although walking there was more difficult. Instead of walking to destinations I would take a Saturday morning stroll on a trail by a creek, enjoying the early morning silence and the beautiful East Texas trees.

In both places I had great friends to lean on, but when you live alone and your friends are married, it is not an emotionally equal exchange. You need them more than they need you, which is nothing against them, it's just the way of things. But without those friends, solitude can be really hard. I learned that during my research year abroad in Germany, where solitude was compounded by being a stranger in a strange land. That year, however, I also learned how to live with being alone, which was a great help later on. I also found my mind to be at its creative peak. There were no distractions, just myself and my research. I read more books that year than in any other year of my life, walked more steps, and exposed myself to more new things. When I came back to America I was happy to be back, but also energized by my year of solitude. Solitude can be good in isolation, but wearying as a permanent condition. It can bring almost unbearable moments of self doubt and isolation.

Nowadays these moments are rare, mostly riding the train to work. Because of my wife and daughters, I never have the feeling that I am alone in the world, and it is a comfort that I often take for granted. I was reminded of that today, walking into my absolutely bare dorm room home for this week. The sterile emptiness of this room where I am writing feels oppressive. Where are my wife, the children, the dog, the piles of clutter I normally complain about? There is nothing here but me and my thoughts. I guess the one truly great thing about spending a lot of time alone in my life is that it has trained me to face my thoughts, especially those nagging doubts that bubble up when I have the time and quiet to let them gurgle, as I am sure they do for you. I'll try to enjoy the pleasures of solitude this week, but I am glad that I already had a chance to meet up with an old friend today, and will see more this week.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 14


After a three week hiatus the Old Dad's Records Podcast is back on the air!

https://soundcloud.com/jason-tebbe/old-dads-records-14-i-only-have-eyes-for-you

This episode was inspired by a major jag of listening to doo-wop that I went on recently. I start by talking about "I Only Have Eyes For You" by The Flamingoes. My record of the fortnight is Flowers by the Rolling Stones. I thought I'd switch things up by doing a record by a big time group, but an album that's less well known. I finish up by raving about Sturgill Simpson, who I have recently been spinning quite a lot.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Political Observations After 4000 Miles Of Travel

My wonderful family road trip is now over. We went from New Jersey to Nebraska and back, with plenty of detours in both directions. Politics was one of the many things on my mind during those two weeks, and a LOT happened in Trumpworld. The president went abroad and gave a white identity speech and appeared to unite America's allies against him. The G20 summit looked like another chapter in America's fall from its perch as the "essential nation." Hardly anyone over here noticed, however, because the Russia scandal blew open even further. Junior provided the world evidence that his dad's campaign colluded with Russia. On top of all of that, Trump tweeted gross sexist stuff about Mika Brzezinski and violently threatened CNN in another tweet. He also joked with Putin about the press, the latter a man who has had journalists killed.

I have never seen a president have a two weeks like this, but as recent polling points out, a very high percentage of Republicans think Trump is doing a great job. Some people seem surprised by this, but I'm not. My trip these last two weeks has confirmed my theory that allegiance to political conservatism is primarily a matter of identity. Republicans view themselves as "real Americans," and anyone opposed to them as enemies of the state. Trump is thus ipso facto in the right, no matter what he does. It doesn't matter that he is the kind of wealthy, amoral New Yorker that these heartlanders typically profess to see as the mirror opposite of themselves. He is the chosen leader of their tribe, and as such, MUST be supported. All the talk of "Trump voters" has badly clouded the reality that after the primaries "Trump voters" are basically just Republicans.

At the same time, a lot of folks on the left make the mistake of thinking that this is the dominant identity of conservatives. I was a bit shocked, actually, at how little I heard about the president on my trip. In fact, I heard a lot about Chris Christie closing down beaches, but nothing about Trump. I get the feeling that a lot of conservatives are supporting him out of obligation, rather than enthusiasm. Nevertheless, they still and will always hate and fear liberals more than they will love and support anyone else. In any case, little of the opposing viewpoint will get past their filter. A reminder of this happened when we stopped at a roadside pizza place in rural Pennsylvania and Fox News was blasting away in the corner. This was a very common experience when I lived in rural Texas as well. Many parts of this country have public spaces dominated by what amounts to crass propaganda. Fighting that is an uphill battle, to say the least.

During the height of Jim Crow in the early 20th century any Republican trying to win over masses of white Democrats in the South would be considered a fool. Voting Democrat was a vote for the South, whomever the candidate happened to be. The dynamic today for white conservatives in large swathes of the country is pretty much the same. They might think that someone like Louie Gohmert is a dope, but they'd rather cut off their left arms than vote for a Democrat. Those who think they will get these voters to change their minds by magically making them see their "class interests" are fools. Any money spent on trying to get Republicans to vote for Democrats may as well just be set on fire.

I believe now more than ever that if the Democratic Party is going to win next year it needs to focus on getting its presidential election voters to the polls. This will mean not only a message that appeals to the base, but a massive effort to help voters targeted by suppression efforts to get registered and to get to the polls. (I am contemplating taking election day next year off of work so I can drive people to the polling places in the nearby purple districts currently represented by Republicans.) If the party wants new voters, it needs to find them in the large numbers of independent voters who do not currently vote in midterm elections, but who are not conservative. Again, the party needs to have a compelling message to get those people to want to vote, and "look how crazy those Republicans are" won't cut it.

It needs to be a message about what kind of country they want to build, not just policy wonkery. It should be a country where every person can get medical care, quality public education, and equal rights. A country that values immigrants. A country that protects its black and brown members with the same care as it protects its white members. A country where workers are fairly compensated and protected from exploitation. A country where women will not just be afforded equal rights, but provided the support needed (such as subsidized child care and birth control and protection against sexual assault) for them to lead fuller lives. A country where religion cannot be used as an excuse to persecute LGBTQ communities. A country that values schools over prisons. A country that values sharing wealth so that all may lead a life with dignity over making sure it goes into the hands of a few.

Conservatives, many of them seemingly decent people, are completely willing to support a corrupt criminal maniac in the White House because they see it as a way of asserting their identity and values. The other side needs to have its own values clarification if it wants to win. After this trip, I am more sure of that than ever.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Little Feat, "Willin'"


It's been a week since I've given y'all a post, which is the longest hiatus I've taken in quite some time. I was on the road visiting friends and family, and opted to let my thoughts percolate on the road rather than write hot takes. My more measured thoughts should be available here soon.

In the meantime, I'd like to talk about a song I found singing to myself quite a bit on this trip. Every good road trip needs a good playlist, and I made one for this trip full of country songs about roads and trucking, both venerable subgenres. While Little Feat were more of a funky Southern rock band, "Willin'" stands as one of the greatest trucker country songs ever, a field with some tough competition.

It's sung from the point of view of a tired, world-weary trucker who is nonetheless dedicated to delivering his load. He's also a kind of hippie trucker, singing that "If you give me weed, whites and wine/ And you show me a sign/ I'll be willing/ To be moving." "Whites" in this case means amphetamine pills, sometimes necessary for those overnight trips. The lines are sung with an aching tone, the words of a man who has married himself to the road and resigned himself to it.

In my younger days I often thought of making such a move. Listless and restless at age 24 I thought about spending some years long haul trucking to make some dough and get my life together. I went to get my PhD instead. I still took a lot of road trips, though. For awhile I was even making the trek from Texas to New Jersey and back once a year. I have never been able to meditate more deeply on my life than when I am behind the wheel, watching that old white line dash on by. The trip I just returned from, with my wife and two daughters, was not as meditative, but a whole lot more fulfilling. We sang along to music, played games, and awed at the many wonders outside our windows. Hearing this song along the way was a nice reminder of the pleasures the road, but also the good feeling that comes with having a true home in this world.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Political Weather Report From Nebraska

I am back in my hometown and enjoying some time with my family. I've also been gauging the political winds, curious about the reactions in this state to the president they gave 60% of their votes to. (In my home county, Adams, that number was 68%.) This is, of course, an unscientific study.

What I've found so far is a very quiet and subdued political mood. This is quite different from the hothouse atmosphere I experienced during the Obama years. Now it is to be expected that when the government is dominated by Republicans that conservatives will be satisfied with the state of things. However, I have really been struck by the lack of discussion of the president and his doings. It reminds me of the later Shrub years, when so many wanted to pretend that they were never associated with him.

I have also found it interesting to see subtle signs of critique of the president. Both my hometown paper and the Omaha World-Herald have run political cartoons critical of Trump. In the latter case, the cartoon was by an artist is usually quite conservative in the vein of The Onion's parody of political cartoonists. Also interesting is that both cartoons criticize Trump not for his failures or policies but for his lack of decorum.  Here's the one from the World-Herald for July 4th:

Trump is being unfavorably compared to Jefferson, portrayed as a kind of Dennis the Menace child next to the dignified Founder. (Of course, never mind his owning of human beings and second family mothered by one of his slaves.) While this might seem like a mild critique, it's much more pointed than what I am used to seeing from this artist in depicting a Republican president.

When it comes down to it, the people around here who voted for him were okay with his racism and misogyny, or at least willing to excuse it. In many cases, these things were prime motivators. However, his rudeness and vulgarity have worn thin with a people who are typically polite and value humility. (This is why I expected low turnout in Nebraska in the election, but the anti-Clinton animus and the genuine embrace of Trump's ideas overrode those considerations in November.) For many of these voters an undignified president is a bigger scandal than a bigoted one.

As far as I can tell, there does not seem to be much of a popular groundswell of support for the Republican health care plan, either. My hometown paper had a piece on the opinion page today basically arguing that animus against Obama was clouding the judgement of conservative politicians when it came to Obamacare.

I'd like to think that this dislike of Trump and apathy for the Republican agenda could be translated into electoral victories for Democrats, but I doubt it. Nebraska feels increasingly like a one party state. The locals may not like the way things are now, but outside of parts of Lincoln and Omaha, they'd rather cut off their left arms than vote for a Democrat. In the third district, where my hometown is located, the Democrats did not even run a candidate in the last election. The current representative, Adrian Smith, is a devotee of the Club For Growth, whose version of unshackled capitalism actually isn't all that popular around here. I wish someone would run against him and let the public know that. Then again, that candidate would probably still get clobbered.

The situation in Nebraska is repeated around the country. Party identity is now wrapped up into other identities, and thus voting for the other party is a kind of self-betrayal. I hate to say it, but I doubt that this phenomenon will be getting any weaker.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Letter To Governor Christie


I am writing this letter from a hotel room in Kansas City. I am currently on a family vacation with my wife and two daughters, on our way to visit my family in Nebraska. This is just as well, since if I was in New Jersey for the holiday I would be unable to enjoy many of the great places in the Garden State that my fellow New Jerseyans love to visit this time of year. Of course, that has not stopped you from enjoying a beach that you have effectively banned the rest of the state from due to your obnoxious stubbornness over the state budget, specifically trying to shake Horizon down for money.

My spouse is a public school teacher in New Jersey, which means we will see yet another health insurance premium burden caused directly by one of your decisions. For some reason you have vilified teachers throughout your time as governor. This obsession with attacking people who are building the future while being paid far less than the value of what they are worth has been sickening me for the last eight years. It has been personally painful to watch the woman I love work twelve-hour days trying to teach her students the best she can only to have her treated like dirt by the governor of the state she works for.

It goes beyond that, however. I have lived in many states, but never have I lived in a place where the governor had so directly and negatively impacted my life. My family now pays thousands of dollars a year more in health care premiums because of you. I commute into New York City with New Jersey Transit to work, and every time I have been stuck in yet another delay I immediately think of how you killed a second and much needed train tunnel. I use the Morris-Essex Line to get to the city, and now this summer I will have to find alternate means of transportation, because of you.
This has meant many days getting home later than planned, exhausted from a hard day of work and maddening delays on top of it. Those delays mean even less time spent with my four year old daughters. Not all of us get to take a helicopter home from work.

I have held off on telling you what I think of you because for a long time I legitimately thought that you loved the state of New Jersey, despite your misguided policies. Your behavior over the past two years has disabused me of that na├»ve notion. Instead of leaving the governorship while you ran for president you stayed in office, neglecting your duties and letting the state’s many problems fester. You did this all for a ridiculously failed campaign that did not garner a single delegate, a truly pathetic performance. After the state of New Jersey had long figured it out, the rest of the country finally caught on to what a terrible leader you are.

Of course, you ended your campaign by pulling a hit on Marco Rubio in a presidential debate on behalf of your new buddy, Donald Trump. At a time when many other Republicans were repulsed by his open calls to violence and racism, you embraced them. You and him are really two peas in a pod after all: lawbreakers with an authoritarian streak who are wholly incompetent leaders, burdened by emotional immaturity on a truly frightening scale. I have to say I had a good laugh when fellow scoundrel Jared Kushner pushed you aside because of your prosecution of his corrupt father. Karma can be tough.

So now here you are, despised in your home state, sitting there at Island Beach State Park in a spectacle of absolute contempt for the people that you are supposed to serve. You have given the people of this state the middle finger one more time.  I sure hope it is the last. I cannot wait for the day when you finally leave office and the man who has been a scourge on my state and my family finally moves aside.

That said, I am sure you will find work on Fox News or as a well-paid consultant and lobbyist. You probably will not face any real consequences for your many misdeeds. This is why I am writing you. I want you to know that you will have a legacy, and that legacy is being hated by the state of New Jersey more than any other state politician has ever been hated. Any contempt you show for us we feel for you ten fold. Despite all of your bluster, your governorship has been a complete and utter failure. If history remembers you at all, it will be as a footnote or a punch-line. If there is any justice in the universe, your name will remain spoken as a curse on the lips of the people of New Jersey for decades to come.

However, I do believe in the capacity for people to change. I do hope that in the fullness of time that you change your ways, and apologize to the people of this state for how you have grievously wronged them.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Signs Of The Times In St Louis

Today marked the biggest day of driving on our trip. We went from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to Kansas City, and after three days on the road I am pretty tired. This is fine, because we will be hitting the town in KC tomorrow, instead of hitting the road.

One of the best sights on the road today was crossing the Mississippi River, in St Louis as it perhaps flows mightiest at this point, absorbing the massive Missouri. We are hoping to get a closer look at St Louis on our way back to New Jersey, since I haven't really hit the town there since 1995. A lot of what I saw in St Louis today was a lot less inspiring than the river vistas, however.

My wife and I both like watching the signs on the highway, since they tend to reveal a lot. For example, once we saw a sign for a Joe's Crab Shack we knew that we had entered the more affluent outer suburbs, where the more upscale chain restaurants can be found. In St Louis I was taken aback by the number of aggressively Christian billboards, more than I've ever seen in an American city. In a big surprise, the Catholics seemed to be taking part as enthusiastically as the Bible thumpers, with billboards featuring the Virgin Mary mixed with those decrying evolution. It was at least interesting to see some ecumenicism when it came to simplistic billboard theology for a change.

As common as these religious messages were, they may have been outnumbered by tons of advertisements for casinos. I found all of this rather depressing, as these billboards often overlooked empty warehouses and abandoned buildings. St Louis' population loss rivals that of Detroit, and in the wreckage shysters are looking for easy marks whose despair can be manipulated into church pews or the craps table. Either way, the house always wins. It's also a sign of America writ large, where the search for easy, billboard-length answers to jarring changes has led to the current disaster in the White House.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Across The Appalachians

I've spent the last two days with my family traveling from New Jersey to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where I am writing this from a surprisingly swank La Quinta off of interstate 65. My wife and I are big proponents of having our vacation while we are supposed to be driving to our final destination. Yesterday our big drive was broken up by visiting friends in western Maryland. Today we explored Henry Clay's estate in Lexington and spent a few hours at Mammoth Cave. Tomorrow comes the long haul to Kansas City, and a blessed day of fun rather than driving. Truth be told, I am already getting a little white line fever.

This morning came the melancholy moment that happens every time I drive through Appalachia. All of a sudden, these old wise mountains disappear, the land more subtle rollings hills, and then flat. Appalachia is by far my favorite American landscape. I say this as someone who spent summers growing up in the Rockies. Now I think the Rocky Mountains are beautiful too, but they are extreme, almost anti-human. The Appalachians feel homey and human, lived in and welcoming rather than forbidding.

They are also a strange and unique borderland between the East and the middle of the country. Staying in Charleston, West Virginia, last night I was struck by the southern accents and social interaction rituals, but the weather was northern as can be. At least the biscuits at the hotel breakfast buffet this morning were of southern quality.

Speaking of food, I relished going to a "country store" across from a corn field tonight. I had the best damn fried catfish I've had in many a moon. It was a reminder that the south is the one region of the country with its own homegrown cuisine worth writing home about. Of course, we are now in the bluegrass country of central Kentucky, where the mountains are just a rumor.

Of course, I can't help but to think of politics. There haven't really been any outward manifestations, apart from a couple of random Trump signs. Traveling down the backroads and byways I was able to remember the spiritual mentality of my own rural upbringing, and what it means for the current political situation. For the past two days I have already been feeling cut off from the outside world. I was remembering that it is very easy for folks in rural America to think of themselves as the center, rather than the periphery. That mentality makes denying the will of the masses in the cities out to be a protective measure for those in rural America.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Out Into The Great Wide Open


My family and I are soon taking off on a road trip vacation, part of the reason I have not been writing much. (Lots of prep work to do.) Our ultimate destination in my hometown in rural Nebraska, for a much needed visit with my parents and sisters.

We are also planning on seeing a lot of stuff and old friends between here and there. We first did this two years ago, and it was quite a memorable trip. This time, however, I am approaching things with a bit of trepidation. A lot has happened in the world over the past two years, and much of it makes me feel as if the world I grew up in back in Nebraska and the one where I live and work now in New Jersey and New York City could not be further apart. 

I am in a group I like to call "bubble jumpers." I grew up in a bubble that was overwhelmingly white, Christian, and conservative. I have move to a new one that is more diverse, cosmopolitan and liberal. Neither seems capable of speaking to the other, and both view each other with complete ignorance. I am sometimes shocked at just how little supposedly educated people in both bubbles know about the other parts of the country.

I've been lucky to live in many parts of this country, from big cities like Chicago to midsize ones like Newark, Omaha, and Grand Rapids, from college towns like Champaign to small towns in Nebraska and Texas. During my life I've traveled to 45 of this country's 50 states. I've had Runzas in Nebraska, roadside tamales in Texas, "Italian" hot dogs in New Jersey and fish tacos in San Diego. That experience has given me the knowledge that this is a country of many regions, not a simple "blue state-red state" divide. It is a geographic diversity that I am excited to experience again on my trip.

However, I've been thinking a lot about the fact that many of the regions I will be traveling to -including the one where I lived half my life- voted overwhelmingly for the current occupant of the White House. It's made my relationship with those places, especially my hometown, much more fraught.

But this morning I got a reminder of how much this "red-blue" talk blinds us to the ubiquity of the political poisons in America. This morning, after dropping my daughters off at school, I went to the Italian bakery/deli to get some stuff for our trip. As I came in, I heard a woman finishing a rant (which I couldn't quite make out) angrily mentioning that there is no "White Lives Matter" movement or "White History Month." The hate and bullshit that gave rise to the Trump presidency is not a regional matter, it is deeply woven into White American culture in all the nooks and crannies of this nation, whether they be the on the coasts or in the middle. As I make my trip, I will be reporting back on this blog, hopefully with some worthwhile insights.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Danny and the Juniors, "Pony Express"


Lately I've fallen down into a bit of a musical rabbit hole when it comes to the R&B and rock and roll of the early 1960s. For a long time there was this narrative that both genres were moribund at the time, until Stax, Motown, and the Beatles kicked things back into gear in the mid-1960s. That interpretation, of course, only reflects the fact that those things came to dominate soul and rock. It was different than what came before, but not necessarily better.

I have especially been digging the music on Philadelphia independent labels of the time like Cameo-Parkway and Swan. It tends to be up-tempo, good time dancing music. The world being the way it is, I could use a dose of that. "Pony Express" by Danny and the Juniors is a representative example. The band is best known for the exuberant "At The Hop," but they had plenty of other hot wax singles in their prime. The song isn't about the old west, but dances where girls' ponytails (highly fashionable at the time) are swaying too and fro. There's a swinging, stomping beat and a yakety sax solo and lines like "saddle up buttercup." This year when everyone is touting the fiftieth anniversary of Sgt Pepper it's good to also remember when rock and roll was just dumb good time music, rather than trying to make an artistic statement.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Nancy MacLean's Democracy In Chains Is Required Reading

After hearing people whose opinions I trust talk breathlessly about it, I picked up Nancy MacLean's Democracy In Chains last week and quickly devoured it. It is the kind of book that shows how history can used to fight political battles in the present, and the importance of historical research as a way of uncovering hidden realities.

The book is about James Buchanan, an obscure name despite winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 1986. MacLean essentially argues that while most of us tend to see Milton Friedman as the godfather of modern day right wing (there is good reason not to use the word "conservative") political economy, it is Buchanan who has by far had the bigger impact. A good part of the reason is that Buchanan's ideas were completely embraced by the Koch brothers, who have used their wealth to spread their influence.

MacLean derives her title from one of Buchanan's central tenets, namely that democracy is inimical to freedom. Of course, it is the libertarian notion of "economic freedom," which essentially boils down to the supremacy of property rights. Because those pesky voters want to finance the social safety net with the money of the wealthy, democracy must be limited in the name of "liberty." This is why Buchanan was glad to go to Chile and assist the oppressive Pinochet regime in their neoliberal economic agenda.

Buchanan also vigorously fought against democracy in the United States. MacLean finds that it was the Brown court case that first gave Buchanan, who was Tennessee born and a professor at the University of Virginia in the 1950s, his impetus to apply his ideas to politics. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ordering schools in the South to be integrated, Buchanan argued for a voucher system, and essentially against the entire notion of public education. He approved of poll taxes and literacy tests, which were onerous in Virginia at the time, as a way to prevent the "ignorant" from voting. While he never discussed race itself as a reason to suppress the vote, if it quacks like a duck etc.

Tactically, Buchanan thought it was best not to reveal to the public the true nature of his preferred agenda. Thus attempts to cut back on Social Security would couched as attempts to "save" it. The safety net was to be gradually weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, at which time it would be easy to eliminate. At that point, according to his strict ideology, freedom and liberty would reign supreme. Notice there was no supply-side argument about boosting the economy in his thinking. Allowing the wealthy to have their money was to him a moral imperative, pure and simple.

I am sure that a lot of this is sounding familiar to you. MacLean also shows how, in the past decade, Buchanan's way of thinking has more fully taken over the Republican Party via the Koch brothers and their largesse. This book has helped me understand so much. For example, on the surface it is confusing how eager the Republicans are to slam through a hugely unpopular health care act. However, it is obvious that ideology trumps everything for these people, and that they are relying on self-consciously anti-democratic means (gerrymandering, voter suppression, propaganda) to shield themselves from the effects. Buchanan's proteges openly talked of a "shock doctrine" that would be used when opportunities presented themselves to destroy "collectivism," and the current Trump administration appears to be just one of those moments.

It is obvious from this book, if it has not been obvious already, that an extremist attempt to roll back the 20th century is at the heart of the political party that now controls all levels of government. This book makes me despair, but it does a valuable service by showing us what we are all up against, and that it is democracy itself that hangs in the balance. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose.

Footnote: I was glad to see that this book confirmed an argument of mine, that the current conservative movement is best defined as right-wing Bolshevism. Many of Buchanan's proteges explicitly called themselves Leninists in their internal documents, and deliberately copied his methods.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Bring Superheroes Back To Their Socially Conscious Roots

From the first Superman story, where he fights to save an innocent man from execution

As a lifelong nerd, there is perhaps no more surprising development in our culture than the domination of the movie box office by superheroes. I'm old enough to remember a time when Marvel films in the early 1990s were straight to video or not even released at all.

Some of the films have been great, some have been awful, and many, many of them have been merely forgettable. (The infamous 1990s Roger Corman take on The Fantastic Four is still more entertaining than the recent big budget treatments.) Be that as it may, they remain popular. And the big knock on superhero movies, which I am sure I have repeated at some point, is that they are shallow and escapist and politically problematic.

As we approach peak superhero in an era of political upheaval, I think it's time that superheroes be interpreted in the light of the first superhero comic, 1938's Action Comics #1. This of course was the debut of Superman, and it you read this issue, you might be surprised at Superman's behavior and adversaries. While we often think of him as the establishment superhero, in this book he seems more like a vigilante. He also doesn't just sock it to criminals, he also intervenes to prevent an innocent man from being executed, to protect a woman against a domestic abuser, and to punish a corrupt, war-mongering politician. Slumlords and corrupt politicos also appear in other early Superman stories. Superman was a New Deal superhero in his earliest incarnation, not merely a crime fighter. World War II changed all of that and turned the Man of Tomorrow into a patriotic mascot.

World War II made Superman an Establishment superhero

Of course, plenty of superheroes created in those heady early days lacked any socially conscious component. Just think of Batman, a billionaire playboy who busts the heads of criminals trying to steal jewels from rich people. But also take a look at Wonder Woman, created under explicitly feminist auspices by William Moulton Marston. Her revolutionary and socially critical nature would also be undermined after her more subversive early years. The process started by World War II was completed by the anti-comics scare of the 1950s, which forced comics to be drained of political content.


Flash forward to the so-called Bronze Age of the 1970s, and socially conscious superheroes returned. Silver Surfer was a kind of space hippie critical of war and oppression. In 1975, after the Fall of Saigon, Iron Man questioned his involvement in Vietnam, and remembered witnessing the deaths of civilians at the hands of the American military. After Watergate Captain America threw off his uniform in disgust, working as Nomad. In the early 70s Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil wrote a set of team up stories with Green Lantern and Green Arrow where the former was forced to see issues like poverty and racism, and to question all the work he had done on behalf of the authorities, who now appeared to be the real villains. While those books were a little heavy handed, they still make for good reading today. They feel like they actually mean something deeper than the spectacle of people in tights throwing punches.


So Hollywood, I ask you to take this strand of superhero comics into account with your new movies. The superhero bubble is bound to burst, if you want to keep that cash rolling in, you'll have to do something more meaningful to keep the audience coming. I would love to see the Green Lantern-Green Arrow series adapted for the screen or a socially-conscious Silver Surfer flick. Why not a period-piece superhero movie starring the New Deal Superman? Or how about a plot where Bruce Wayne loses everything in a stock market crash, and is forced to confront the social and economic forces that breed crime?


It would also be worthwhile to see currently existing franchises take these values to heart. Take Wonder Woman, for example. As my friend Chauncey DeVega pointed out in a recent podcast, she is a hero who is new to the world of humans, and in the film thus critical of war and gender inequality. However, when she learns of the racism faced by Sameer and Chief, members of her combat team, her response is muted, rather than enraged. Knowing Wonder Woman's background and her values, would she not be a fiery anti-racist? For that matter, if Batman is a true vigilante, why not have him crusade against corrupt and murderous cops? As a hero who is adamant about not using guns and not killing people, police killings of innocent suspects would surely enrage Batman and cause him to make war on killer cops and those who protect them.

Superhero entertainment can easily devolve into spectacle and empty escapism, but it does not have to. As Grant Morrison, one of the most interesting comics writers has argued, superheroes are modern day mythological figures, and as such their stories can carry great meaning. It's time to remember that again.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Episode 13 of Old Dad's Records: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"


In my latest episode of my podcast I discuss Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" as well as Buffalo Springfield and a mystery artist. I also talk a bit about Father's Day and my daughters' graduation from preschool.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Graduation Is The Sweetest Time For a Prof Turned Teacher

Graduation day is the day when "This Is Where I Belong" by the Kinks becomes my theme song

Today was my high school's graduation, and by that I mean the school where I teach. It is the day of the year, above all the others, that confirms my decision to leave academia to become a teacher.

When I was a professor, attending graduation was a chore mandated by the university. (We had to go to one per year.) While I was always excited to cheer on favorite students who were graduating, the event was mostly a sterile reading of names. (I learned to go to the summer graduation, because it was shorter and because the keynote speech was given by a fellow prof, meaning it was better than the others we usually got.) The last graduation I went to at my university happened right after I had accepted my job offer at a high school in New York, but before I had informed the university and my chair. (I had to wait until Monday.) At this point I was so estranged from my surroundings that I drank two stiff bloody marys for breakfast and drove to the graduation blasting early Fall singles.

Flash forward to today, when I showed up an hour early to mingle with the students before the ceremony. During that time one student tearfully told me I was the best teacher she ever had, and would miss me. Another told me I was a role model for him going forward in life. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of these students, and I almost just started breaking down and crying right there. Afterwards there were not just students but parents hugging me and wishing me well and testifying to how much they appreciated my work. Again, it was hard to keep it together. I finally broke when I got home and opened the card a student had given me expressing her gratitude. I don't want to get into the details, but it was so heartfelt and flattering that I am still shaken by it.

Until I became a teacher I never knew that I was capable of having such an effect on other people's lives. Sure, there were glimpses of this when I was a prof, but nothing approaching this level. I have never felt in my life such a sense of meaning and importance in my work. What happened today, and what I did to build those relationships is a million times more important and meaningful than any monograph I could write, any conference paper I could give, any research that I could do. The connections forged in the high school classroom are of an intensity higher than I imagined possible when I taught college students.

It is on this day when I feel that I do not deserve what I have. I went from being at a job where I was treated as an afterthought to one where my work is valued and recognized. I get a constant sense of appreciation from my students, their parents, my colleagues, and even my superiors. How did I get so lucky? This is why, when people ask me if I want to go back into academia, I just laugh and laugh and say nothing. This is why the old cycle of regret has melted away. This is why I am glad and proud, not sheepish or embarrassed, to call myself a teacher.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cranky Bear On The Current Crisis

[Editor's Note: my irate and impolitic friend has been sending me missives and manifestos from the Cranky Compound for months, but he'd been banned from the site after his last, extremely inflammatory post. I've decided, for sentimental reasons, to have him back.]

Hello there, Cranky Bear here, stone cold sober and in a fightin' mood. Today the magnolia and honeysuckle stench of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III wafted back into the Senate chambers as he obfuscated and lied yet again about his contacts with Russian government officials. This all happened while Senate Republicans were working on their version of the AHCA bill in secret, which it appears that they might put up for a vote before it can even be read.

Now the Crankster here is hardly surprised. As I have tirelessly, time and again tried to get through your thick skulls, the Republican Party is merely the vehicle for an extremist gang of right wing ideologues that will stop at nothing to make their ridiculous ideas a reality. They are right wing Bolsheviks for whom the ends always justify the means. Witness the wave of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and flood of dark money. They know it is not popular to give the rich massive tax cuts, but that's what they want, and come hell or high water, that's what they're gonna get.

Their supporters, fed on a constant diet of lying propaganda and bullshit from Fox News and talk radio, will never, ever turn on the party and its de facto leader, Donald Trump. Those in the liberal bubble have no way of comprehending just how much these people hate and define themselves against their political opposition. They think they are the "real America," and their opponents anti-American. That framework can be used to justify all manner of sins, and it certainly helps to justify breaking the law to maintain power.

There is only one thing to be done, as that is to fight like hell to win in 2018. I don't just mean Congress, I also mean state houses and governorships. In way too many "blue" states conservative radicals have instituted voter suppression, attacks on universities, and destruction of the social safety net. The only way to keep gerrymandering in check is to be in charge of the state legislatures. Those races are vital. They need our time and our money. It is blindingly obvious right now that the only forces keeping Trump in check are the courts and the people. The courts stopped his travel ban, but only after the people took to the streets. WE have it in our power to do something, but we actually have to DO SOMETHING.

So if you spend a lot of time opining on Twitter without ever calling your reps or attending a protest, you need to knock the fuck off. If you are still litigating the election of 2016, you need to knock the fuck off. If you only pay attention to presidential races, you need to knock the fuck off. If you are spending all your time and energy pining for Bernie in 2020, you really need to knock the fuck off. 2018 or bust. If enough of you won't process that essential fact then we as a nation are well and truly fucked.

Cranky Bear out!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sgt Pepper and Boomer Nostalgia


I've been kinda shocked at all the media hype over the 50th anniversary of the of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album. I first remember this nostalgia being hyped all the way back in 1987, when I was first getting into the Beatles. That was during a time of intense 1960s nostalgia. We are now three decades removed from that moment, meaning we are now much further away from 1987 than 1987 was from 1967. (I feel so old writing that.)

This has inspired some "Sgt Pepper isn't that good takes" where the writers think they're original or something. In the last thirty years the critical feeling about that album has tended to put it below other Beatles output of the era, so downgrading it is following rather than bucking the critical consensus.

For that reason I think the hype has little to do with the record itself, and more to do with it as a cultural moment when it was released, a sign of the counterculture breaking into the broader mainstream and defining generational values. It was supposedly the soundtrack to "The Summer of Love," a moment I've had to take other people's words for. (My people were on the farm, in 'Nam, or in the seminary in the summer of 1967.) That's why the Boomers -or at least those who are editors at publications- are still fawning over it.

And hey, I get it. I listened to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time in years recently and felt a chill go down my spine. For a Gen Xer like me it is not a song, it is a powerful memory. I would just like to say that my generation has not been so egregious in inflicting our nostalgia on those younger than us.

And when I get down to it, part of the reason that I resent Boomer nostalgia is that it had such a powerful effect on my own outlook at a formative moment in my life. I kept thinking that nothing in the present could ever be as good as things were in the 1960s. And honestly, hearing that message amidst the vapid cultural and political black hole that was the later Reagan years, it seemed pretty convincing. While I've mostly shaken it off, the notion that I am living in a less interesting time than my forbears will still pop in my head.

My millennial brothers and sisters appear to be much more immune to the disease of Boomer nostalgia. That at least gives me hope.

Postscript: Sgt Pepper is alright, but if you want a truly great symphonic sixties album, go with Pet Sounds.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Thin Lizzy, "Rosalie"


Despite my love of 1970s rock music, I'd never really picked up much on Thin Lizzy, except for the obvious hits. Then last week, in the midst of my continuing obsession with early Bob Seger, looked up "Rosalie," since that was a cover of one of his early tracks.

Well, let me tell you, it pretty much blew me away. It's got the down and dirty rock and roll feel of those Seger tracks, but Thin Lizzy blow it into the stratosphere with their searing twin lead guitars. Phil Lynott also gives the song that cool, tough vocal that he excelled at. Most of all, it's got a bit of sassy groove to it, and for that reason I have not been able to stop listening.

Thin Lizzy might in fact be the ultimate tweener band. They finally hit on the right approach with songs like this in 1975, but had a sound that was not just run of the mill mid-70s hard rock. (Platonic form of this was Foghat.) They dressed like the Ramones, but their more intricate songs and twin lead guitar duels shaded over into metal, without the group ever being a metal band. Nevertheless, they get cited a lot by metal artists as an influence. They also hung out with Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, giving the band some punk cred in the late 1970s. If you want evidence of how good this ecumenical approach could sound, listen to Rosalie.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Protest Has Really Mattered In The Trump Era

When Trump sent Spicer to defend his crowd size on the first weekend of his presidency he was already playing defense

As I was waiting to board my commuter train this morning, a powerful thought struck me: as bad as things are with our authoritarian chimp of a president, they could be a lot worse. Folks keep attributing this to the Tangerine Terror's incompetence, but that's only half of the story.

The big, overlooked story of this presidency is the impact that protest has made. Think back to inauguration day. The white supremacists were openly strutting in the streets. For weeks supposed leftists like Sanders had been talking about how he could "work" with the sociopathic real estate developer as if he would do anything in good faith. Moderate voices urged "give him a chance." The media also started fawning, trying hard to find a way to legitimize this president, which was much easier than facing the awful reality.

On the night of the inauguration I sat in my recliner, sipped on some Old Grandad, and felt scared, depressed, and anxious. As I wrote on this blog, I knew that we were all headed into the fire. Some of us were going to get burned, some were going to be consumed, and no one was going to come out the same. I went to bed that night with a feeling of utter dread.

The next morning, my wife left with a friend to go to New York City for the Women's March. I did my bit by watching my kids. Playing and having fun with them was a nice distraction, but soon I got texts from my wife that the crowds were so immense that she was merely standing in place. I checked out Twitter and turned on the TV, and realized that something truly momentous was happening. 

After my wife and her friend came home, we had pizza and wine and they told us of what happened in excited voices. We also saw Sean Spicer come on the television and try to yell at the press about reports over the protest being bigger than the inaugural crowd. We laughed and cursed at the TV. Soon I was seeing updates from my friends on Facebook, showing photos of protests they attended in "red" places like Amarillo, Shreveport, Topeka, Omaha, and even Nacogdoches, Texas. I had never seen anything like it before.

I will admit I started to cry. For the first time in months I felt something like hope. Later, after we put the kids to bed, I hugged my wife as the protest played in the background. "We did it, we did it, we did it" was what we kept saying to each other. 

The Women's March is not discussed much in the media, but I feel that it was an absolutely crucial moment. Only one day after his inauguration, the president was put on the defensive. It was obvious to the world that there were many more people in this country against him than for him. It also goaded him into that infamous incident in the press briefing room, which helped push the media to be not quite so afraid to criticize him. (They tried to normalize him after the State of the Union and after he bombed Syria, but it never took.)

Following that momentous weekend, Trump tried to put his white nationalist agenda into action by releasing the travel ban. Despite doing so on a Friday night to minimize pushback, his order led to a wave of spontaneous protest, including lawyers rushing to airports to help immigrants and travelers. This was an act of pure people power of the sort so rarely seen in this country.. (I was able to participate in a large protest the next day in New York City in Battery Park.) It also worked. The courts were forced to do something, and they knocked down Trump's executive order. Soon after the Democrats showed a greater willingness to resist and less to equivocate. After those tumultuous weeks, it was obvious that Donald Trump would not be allowed to run roughshod over the Republic.

The Democratic politicians didn't do that. The media didn't do it. Trump's own self-destructive foibles didn't do that. No, we did that. And never forget it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What The Left Can Learn From Macron



I've rarely seen a newly elected world leader hit the ground running the way Emmanuel Macron has. It is especially impressive considering how divided the French electorate was in the first stage of voting. I've sensed a lot of jealousy about this on the Left in this country, but I think there is a lot that the Left can learn from his success.

We are apparently in an era where the old political elites are endangered. Hence the likes of Trump, Duterte, and Macron rising to prominence. While the term "populism" has been bandied about, that's hardly a fit description for Macron's political mode. The current wave favors those, populist or not, who offer an outside alternative to the dominant political order. The French Left had to look on an gnash their teeth while the technocratic Macron and the fascist Le Pen had the second round to themselves.

The Left in America should pay heed. The Democrats could easily be outflanked in the next election by a billionaire with Macron's technocratic bent. Mark Zuckerberg has thrown his hat in, and I wonder if Bloomberg will think about it as well. Now that the parties are at their weakest point since the early 19th century, the path to power may well lie outside of them. I could see the few remaining moderate Republicans joining independents and moderate Democrats to support a candidate like this against Trump. The Left needs to be prepared to be proactive against a candidate like this.

Another thing to be learned has been Macron's stance with Trump. Yes that handshake moment was full of masculine bullshit, but it has electrified the world because Macron treated a bully the only way that works: by hitting back at them harder. It works even better in public, since it is there that the bully is humiliated and often paralyzed by that humiliation. Contrast this with the behavior of folks like Bernie Sanders, who immediately started making noise about working with Trump on things like infrastructure after the election. He and many others failed a crucial test of how to deal with a bully like Trump. Macron has figured that out, and is reaping the reward. Maxine Waters is setting a similarly good example here in America.

I should say that I am not a fan of Macron's technocratic neoliberalism. However, I am a big fan of his vigor and courage. While the Left has a different ideology, it has a lot to learn from the way he performs symbolic politics.