Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Echo and the Bunnymen, "Pictures On My Wall"

There is some music that I associate so intensely with certain periods in my life that the flow of memories when I listen to it can be fearsome. One such band is Echo and the Bunnymen. Despite my love of The Smiths and Depeche Mode, I never listened to them until I started my master's program in Chicago in the fall of 1998, and only because a new friend turned me on to them. It was a very strange time in my life. I had been a stellar student in my undergraduate history classes, but the grad classes were very demanding and very difficult. While I had received a fine education at my undergrad institution, I had not been taught by historians who were in tune with the current state of the field. It was disorienting to feel like I suddenly wasn't good at something that I'd always assumed was the thing I was best at. This led to very high levels of self doubt.

On top of that shock, I was living outside of Nebraska for the first time in a big city, and living alone for the first time in my life to boot. Echo and the Bunnymen's first album, purchased around the corner from my apartment, was the soundtrack to so many dark and lonesome nights. There was something erie and new to me about being alone in a city surrounded by millions of people. In the rural town I grew up in those nights were impossibly dark and quiet, the sound of trains like otherworldly sentinels blowing their horns echoing through my window. In the city the sky was never truly dark due to all of the reflected light, and there was a constant background buzz at all times.

There was an eeriness in songs like "Pictures On My Wall" that spoke to me on those nights. In fact, I can hardly think of music more perfect for such moments. Nowadays, married with kids and a dog in a cluttered house with friendly neighbors, those moments don't come around so often. I listen to this song these days and feel glad that's the case.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Trumpist Politics As Spectacle

I just finished teaching a class on World War I last week, and we ended with the last chapter of Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring, wherein he connects the cultural modernism unleashed by the conflict to Nazism. Eksteins shows how fascism was politics as theater. Outside of its upper echelons its followers were drawn less by ideology and more by membership in a massive spectacle. In those torchlit parades and glittering rituals giving oneself over and turning off one's mind became a whole lot easier. The Triumph Of The Will is to this day a horrifying document in its ability to make evil seem attractive.

As I read that chapter I realized that a lot of people (myself included) who have discussed Trump in the context of fascism have missed the boat when it comes to this particular issue. I was suddenly reminded of the point when I realized that Trump's candidacy stood a good chance of succeeding. It was in September of 2015, when he gave a speech on the deck of the decommissioned battleship  USS Iowa. He did not speak for very long, and he did not seem all that coherent in what he said. The optics, however, were very good. He was positioned right below the massive guns of the ship, leaning over the podium with a red Make America Great Again cap pulled low. This man who dodged the draft bloviated about veterans, the subject of what he was saying, as always, more important than the actual content. Most importantly, he was shot from below, giving this ridiculous figure an air of command. In that moment I realized that the inchoate longings for an authoritarian ruler that have long lurked beneath the surface of American society could be called forth by this man.

Trump is described as a real estate developer, but he is in reality a television personality. His ability to manipulate the levers of television was his huge tactical advantage. He made himself into the spectacle that got the ratings, and so the news stations just aired his rantings unfiltered and unmediated. Too many journalists, happy to cash their checks, failed to take him seriously. I remember watching that speech in September, and Rachel Maddow cutting back in and laughing bemusedly at what she had just witnessed. Too many realized too late that, in the words of Morrissey, that joke wasn't funny anymore.

Trump's obsession with spectacle continues. He still attacks "fake news" even in interviews with the AP and other mainstream news outlets that give him a platform. In his most recent interview he has infamously gloated about how his ratings on cable news were the highest since 9/11. He has defended Sean Spicer's ineptitude by citing his "ratings" as well. He dropped the much-promoted "Mother Of All Bombs" in a military operation that was more spectacle that war. He has called the entire Senate to come be briefed by him in what is likely a photo-op rather than a national security summit.

However, I see signs of hope in all of this. Trump's main avenue of spectacle is indeed cable news, which would have been much more effective in the 1990s. Outside of a campaign, his rallies are only preaching to the converted. Trump may be trying to utilize politics as spectacle, but their effectiveness may have hit their peak in November of 2016. He has built a house on shaky ground, and it is our duty to provide the earthquake.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

We Need Social Democracy, not Sanders Worship

I'll take Bayard Rustin over Bernie Sanders any day of the week

There's been a lot of discussion this week about Bernie Sanders campaigning for a Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha who's sponsored mandatory ultrasound bills and other anti-choice measures associated with the most repressive conservatives. (This is different than maintaining a moral opposition to abortion a la Tim Kaine. If you think otherwise you are blinded by your adulation.)

I find this to be the most recent iteration of a deep problem I have with a lot of people on the left side of the spectrum who support Sanders. They are willing to compromise on or ignore the issues that matter very specifically to women and people of color. (Sanders is also soft on gun control, which is another issue.)  It is the same problem many self-described socialists I know have, whereby they think that if social class is addressed all other inequalities will somehow melt away. It is a narrow and dangerous way of thinking, and it is in fact quite insulting to the people whose grievances are going unheard.

I keep hearing people talk about the Democratic primaries last year as if the party apparatus itself stopped Sanders.


He lost primary votes because he failed to appeal to the specific concerns of many voters due to the narrowness of his message. Most obviously, he failed to get the support of African Americans, who are one of the absolute pillars of the Democratic Party and its most loyal constituents. Those voters clearly perceived Sanders' inability to see their specific concerns as separate from his general bromides about the 1%. While he made efforts to correct this, it was too little too late. His recent support for Mello in Omaha and his assertion that Trump voters "aren't racist" pretty much shows that he is still trapped in a vision of social democracy that is race and gender blind.

We deserve better than this. As loyal readers may note, I have written for both Jacobin and Liberal Currents. I do not see a contradiction, because I define myself as a social democrat, and that is an identity in this country that straddles the line between liberalism and the Left. It's also one that leaves me feeling like a man without a political country. Sanders' message is inherently social democratic, but the cult of personality around him has sucked the life out of any true social democratic movement. Instead, so many people are hung up on supporting Sanders, rather than leading a movement of their own.

That must change, because Sanders' vision of social democracy is wrong and outdated. I want a social democracy rooted in an uncompromising commitment to the rights and dignity of all people. That means treating issues around race, gender, and sexuality with as much seriousness as economic ones, or, for that matter, not treating them as if they are separate, rather than intertwined. (I am not going to say "intersectional" because I want a mass movement on the left that does not resort to grad student jargon.) I appreciate that Sanders has helped popularize a more social democratic politics, but it is time for others to step up and for him to take a step back. If not the current flowering of social democracy in this country will wither and die.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Episode 9 of the Old Dad's Records Podcast, "Signs"

I finally got episode nine of my podcast up. I've decided to go "live on the nines" by having episodes about live music on those ending in a nine. This is partly because so many old cheap records are live albums, and thus deserving of a special place. In this installment I first discuss "Signs" by Tesla, a live acoustic cover of the Five Man Electrical Jam song of the early 1970s. Then I examine REO Speedwagon's double live album, Live: You Get What You Play For. It is one of the finer examples of the double live format, as well as a sign that REO were shedding their hairy hard rock ways for the corporate sheen and big bucks to be had on the FM dial in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971 Project)

The trailer makes the film seem a lot more action-packed than it is

I'd like to start off the 1971 Project with a cultural artifact that is highly emblematic of that year, Monte Hellman's film Two-Lane Blacktop. It came in that truly glorious early 1970s period when Hollywood, desperate to cash in on the success of Easy Rider and to appeal to the younger generation, gave a bunch of aspiring filmmakers money to make low-budget movies that did not fit the norm. It was something that hasn't really happened before or since, and for my money 1971 is among the most fertile years in cinema history.

The film's story is barebones. The Driver and the The Mechanic take their souped-up and stripped down 1955 Chevy across the country engaging in drag races, with very little to be said between them. Along the way they meet The Girl, a young woman who seems similarly lost and looking for meaning, trying to carry on conversation with men who only seem interested in their mission. They also encounter GTO, a middle-aged man driver the car of the same name, who engages them in a race across the country, each betting their car on the outcome. The Driver and The Mechanic were played by neophytes James Taylor (the folksinger) and Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), and their acting, as wooden as the HMS Bounty, somehow works in this understated film. Laurie Bird, who would die tragically young, has a real naturalism about her. Warren Oates, a great character actor of the 1960s and 1970s, plays GTO with a cocky bravado that barely masks his deep well of sadness.

It is a deeply introspective film. As someone who has driven 800 miles at a time, I feel it captures that Zen-like feeling of relaxed concentration that one gets behind the wheel on long road trips. In Two-Lane Blacktop, that feeling of concentration also feels a lot like ennui, and ennui embedded in the world of 1971.

As I mentioned in the post kicking off this series, 1971 to me feels like the true sunset of the 60s counterculture. In this film The Driver and The Mechanic are still devoted to living outside of society, but they seem tired, and a little broken. The Girl has an air of desperation about her. None of these characters seems like they will last too long in the harsh reality of 1970s America. While they represent the counterculture, with their single-minded dedication to outfitting their own car and living outside of society, GTO is the avatar of American consumer society. He seems affluent, though we don't learn where the money comes from. Instead of putting his soul into outfitting a car of his own, he has merely bought the GTO, a mass-produced status symbol. While the trio of youngsters seems spent or lost, GTO seems spiritually adrift, and aware of the emptiness of his lifestyle but without a clue about what else to do.

Hellman seems to imply (at least to me) that America's soul in the early 1970s is empty. The old consumer values are rubbish, but those that oppose them seem headed for a dead end. Appropriately, the movie ends abruptly during a drag race, suddenly cutting out while the last frames of the film appear to burn up. The road goes on forever, as The Allman Brothers once said. Befitting a time of transition and confusion, there's no resolution in Two-Lane Blacktop, and it would feel completely false if there was.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Introducing the 1971 Project

It's been awhile since I've started a new running series on this blog, which is a shame since I tend to write better when I am thinking about a bigger topic than just responding to the events of the day.

I am a sucker for a lot of genres I should not be a sucker for, and one of them is the "The World In Year X" genre. After all, I am a sophisticated historian, and understand that historical events and trends very rarely conform to arbitrary dates on the calendar. That said, I find something satisfying about books that deal with a calendar year, especially baseball books. (At least a sports season puts greater ontological weight on viewing things by year.)

I am currently reading Heather Ann Thompson's deservedly lauded history of the Attica Prison uprising in 1971, and that triggered in me a long-held notion about that particular year. I now see it as the apotheosis of the 1960s in many respects. Not just the sixties as the time of radical protest and social change, but also the sixties as a time of resentment, backlash, and rise of the modern conservative movement. The brutally violent suppression of the Attica uprising, perhaps more than the Kent State shooting the year before, showed the willingness of authority to use its full power to destroy the voices of dissent. After all, it was in 1971 that activists broke into government offices and revealed the machinations of COINTELPRO.

On reason why I keep writing on this blog is that I lack the expertise, talent, and time to write books, but something in me compels me to keep writing. So instead of the book about 1971 I wish I could write, I'll be giving y'all a bunch of blog posts.

So I will leave this one off with "Can't You Hear My Knocking" by the Rolling Stones. It has an air of desperation mixed subtle violence that seems so fitting for the times. There's also an extended solo section in the middle, a sign of changing musical times for a band once known for its compact, explosive singles.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Palace Coup

In the Bible the people of Moab descended from the children conceived incestuously between Lot and his daughters. The MOAB name is fitting for another abomination.

This week saw maybe the most stunning presidential policy reversal I have witnessed. Just days after the Trump administration said that it was basically accepting that Assad would maintain his position in Syria, it ordered a large missile strike and started talking about regime change.

What happened, of course, is that we are currently witnessing a palace coup in the White House. Bannon and his ilk are being pushed aside at the behest of Ivanka and Jared. As I have said before, Trump is really just an old, mad king. He appears to be highly suggestible, and not quite in full command of his mental faculties. He does not want to govern, he wants other people to do that for him. That allows maximum time for television and golf. Because he does not take an interest in anything, he is easily swayed by those he thinks he trusts.

It was inevitable that Jared and Bannon were going to clash. Bannon is an anti-Semite, for one. Kushner is a fellow sleazebag, to be sure, but one gets the sense that he does not buy into Bannon's worldview, which is a mishmash of xenophobic French novels and minor fascist theorists. Throughout his entire life Trump has used people then tossed them aside when it was convenient. Did Bannon think he would be any different than Lewandowski, Manafort, or innumerable contractors? Like the mafia don that he is, Trump will protect and trust his family above all others.

Also, since he is ignorant, suggestible, and lazy, and Jared and Ivanka are equally inexperienced, Trump is now just leaning hard on the military. His statements seem to say that he will let the military leaders do whatever they want, and what they want, as always, is more war. We are killing more civilians and even friendly rebels because the generals have allowed to run wild. Presidents are supposed to be above the military, but Trump has basically let himself be their servant. Ironically, this man obsessed with projecting strength comes across now as a pathetically weak leader. He lets the leader of China tutor him on the things he should already know. He throws a temper tantrum and refuses to shake hands with Merkel. He is so clueless about war that he just lets his generals do everything, and he reverses policy because a different person has his ear.

It would be funny if it wasn't so serious. What scares me is that the current palace coup could solidify his presidency like nothing else. Americans have become so accustomed to war that those in the middle will rally around the flag if Trump makes a bigger military commitment. If you remember, Dubya was an unpopular president with questionable legitimacy until 9/11, and that coupled with the invasion of Iraq ensured his reelection. I fear that unless the pressure is kept on, Trump may well get away with recasting himself as a wartime president. Don't say you weren't warned.