Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Things Have Changed"

That they certainly have, Bob. Sometimes even for the better.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Driver's Seat"

As far as rocking-hot one-hit wonders go, Sniff'n'The Tears perhaps can't be beat.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Shanghai Sky"

Joe Jackson's Big World is 30 years old this year, and just about every song on it (like this one) comes through as a delight. Such a great, great album. Give it time to build; this version is slow, but tremendous.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Free Swinging Soul"

Michael Hedges was a tremendous performer, whose death nearly 20 years ago is one I still mourn on occasion. This was his last great song, which this unpolished, live version of (or one nearly identical to it) is fortunately included on his posthumous Torched

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Wichita Skyline"

What it arguably implies about my city perhaps isn't terribly complimentary, but it's true, and saying (or, in this case, singing) something that is true is a compliment all its own.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Pure"

I owe this delightful, accidental discovery entirely to Chris Bertram's sad recollections of the optimism he felt about politics, ideas, and football twenty years ago. Thanks, Chris!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

This is One Way (Necessarily Incomplete, By No Means Entirely Coherent, But Nonetheless Meaningful) Political Revolutions Can, Just Maybe, Start to Unfold in America

So, Bernie Sanders gave a big speech to his supporters tonight. It wasn't a concession speech--but then again, from his point of view, his candidacy was about building a movement, changing a party, and pushing an idea (lots of them, actually), at least as much as it was about him getting the Democratic nomination and then being elected President of the United States, and so what exactly would he need to concede? As he put it in the very first lines of his speech, "Election days come and go. But political and social revolutions that attempt to transform our society never end." Since there is no ending, there's no conceding.

So yeah, of course, he's not going to be the nominee, and he's not going to be president. To many, that idea was always just so prima facie ridiculous that his whole campaign was assumed to be nothing more than one long exercise in narcissism. But even those who took him seriously we're dubious of his approach. A man who had always kept his distance from the party structure attempting to win the support of that party, and affect change from the top? That's unworkable, and undemocratic too, making the man a confused hypocrite, at best.

There's a lot which can be said about that, and those things should be said, so that those of us who think his candidacy spoke for principles and policies worth pursuing can see the things that Sanders did wrong, and try to correct them, and the things he did right, and try to build upon them. But if we can set aside all the analysis for the moment, and just accept that, for better or worse, Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, really did believe (and act upon the belief!) that, in our present electoral and media environment, someone with the right message could break into the insanely expensive, insular, and by no means transparent or fair presidential nomination contest, and by so doing turn strongly populist ideas into a politically effective and electorally plausible movement...well, as surprising as it may be to those of us who cynically study this stuff, the fact is, he may have a point.  As he put it tonight:

When we began this campaign a little over a year ago, we had no political organization, no money and very little name recognition. The media determined that we were a fringe campaign. Nobody thought we were going anywhere. Well, a lot has changed over a year. During this campaign, we won more than 12 million votes. We won 22 state primaries and caucuses. [Those in green.] We came very close--within 2 points or less--in five more states. In other words, our vision for the future of this country is not some kind of fringe idea. It is not a radical idea. It is mainstream. It is what millions of Americans believe in and want to see happen.

For the most party, Sanders's speech was a repetition of his standard call for greater egalitarianism and a demand for social, environmental, racial, and economic justice--rhetorically speaking, it wasn't anything new. But it did make clear a few basic points, points which I think flow pretty naturally from his own democratic and revolutionary convictions. First, it was a promise that he and his supporters would keep up the pressure on Clinton--even as he said he would work with her to defeat Donald Trump--all the way through the Democratic convention and beyond.

The major political task that we face in the next five months is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly....But defeating Donald Trump cannot be our only goal. We must continue our grassroots efforts to create the America that we know we can become. And we must take that energy into the Democratic National Convention on July 25 in Philadelphia where we will have more than 1,900 delegates.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Secretary Clinton and discuss some of the very important issues facing our country and the Democratic Party. It is no secret that Secretary Clinton and I have strong disagreements on some very important issues. It is also true that our views are quite close on others. I look forward, in the coming weeks, to continued discussions between the two campaigns to make certain that your voices are heard and that the Democratic Party passes the most progressive platform in its history and that Democrats actually fight for that agenda. I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors.

Sanders listed several things that he thought important enough to call out, which made clear where he understands the real popular pressure of his push for changing the Democratic party's platform needs to be: raising the minimum wage, passing a modern version of Glass-Steagall, ensuring a President Clinton doesn't change her mind again about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and signal that she'd be okay with it coming to a vote in Congress during the lame duck session, making sure public colleges and universities move in the direction of free tuition, ending "perpetual warfare in the Middle East," guarantee health care as a right, and--probably most important to him--"break up the biggest financial institutions in this country." Will a Democratic party establishment which supported Clinton strongly all through the primaries be amenable to such priorities? Some of them, surely; but likely not all. Hence, the need to continue to put the pressure on the Democratic party as a vehicle of the movement Sanders has helped spark.

Beyond all that, though, Sanders' speech this evening was also a classic bit of civic republican/participatory democratic encouragement:

We need to start engaging at the local and state level in an unprecedented way. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers helped us make political history during the last year. These are people deeply concerned about the future of our country and their own communities. Now we need many of them to start running for school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and governorships....

And when we talk about transforming America, it is not just about elections. Many of my Republican colleagues believe that government is the enemy, that we need to eviscerate and privatize virtually all aspects of government--whether it is Social Security, Medicare, the VA, EPA, the Postal Service or public education. I strongly disagree. In a democratic civilized society, government must play an enormously important role in protecting all of us and our planet. But in order for government to work efficiently and effectively, we need to attract great and dedicated people from all walks of life. We need people who are dedicated to public service and can provide the services we need in a high quality and efficient way.

When we talk about a Medicare-for-all health care program and the need to make sure all of our people have quality health care, it means that we need tens of thousands of new doctors, nurses, dentists, psychologists and other medical personnel who are prepared to practice in areas where people today lack access to that care.

It means that we need hundreds of thousands of people to become childcare workers and teachers so that our young people will get the best education available in the world.

It means that as we combat climate change and transform our energy system away from fossil fuels, we need scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs who will help us make energy efficiency, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal and other developing technologies as efficient and cost effective as possible.

It means that as we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, we need millions of skilled construction workers of all kinds.

It means that when we talk about growing our economy and creating jobs, we need great business people who can produce and distribute the products and services we need in a way that respects their employees and the environment.

In other words, we need a new generation of people actively involved in public service who are prepared to provide the quality of life the American people deserve.

It wasn't quite Kennedyesque--but it gestured in the direction of that kind of idealism, and we who donated money and knocked on doors and carried signs and signed petitions and wrote blog posts and voted for the man are better for it. If we keep at it, maybe, in some tiny little ways, the country may be better for it too.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Scenes from a Friendship

Note: the following dates and events are approximate, subjective, and possibly in part imaginary. The feelings behind them, though, are not.

Summer, 1991, Provo, UT: There's someone new showing up at the meetings of the staff of Student Review, the unofficial (and eventually to be banned, though briefly resurrected online) student magazine at Brigham Young University, of whom I am one. Or maybe we're all just showing up at the same places where he happens to be. His name is Michael Austin. He's a couple of years older than me, and seems to know most of the people I know, and moreover know them better than me. So I should see him as a rival, but I don't, because he doesn't seem to have any of my nervous ambition, none of my self-critical, conflicted doubt. On the contrary, he doesn't seem worried or engaged or distracted at all--he's the calmest man I've ever met. He's a great writer; his little piece comparing American citizenship to Ben & Jerry's ice cream is a big hit among us insiders. But he's not interested in writing much; he's mostly an absorber, an observer. He isn't married, and there are some women at these gatherings obviously interested in him--but for some reason, whenever we end up in the same place at the same time, he seems to like talking to me. Maybe he likes being around someone more anxiously uptight, more politically radical, more easily enraged than he, or maybe all of his English Literature and Composition peeps already know all his opinions about John Irving (about whom we argue) and Jane Austen (about whom I know nothing), and he enjoys having an attentive disciple-debate-partner-interlocutor. So we start to hang out, sometimes.

Summer 1992: My numerous faults have caught up with me, as they will many times in the years to come, and I'm an emotional wreck. My fiance has broken up with me--a good move on her part, as I was a miserable and manipulative jerk--and I'm wallowing in self-pity, guilt, and despair. I have friends who are unaccountably decent to me, even understanding, but ultimately, it would probably be better for me not to attempt to process and repair everything happening in my life, and instead just enjoy some friendly distraction. That Michael provides. I crash at his rabidly dis-assembling apartment (he'll be moving to Santa Barbara to begin a Ph.D. in English soon) regularly, and we waste time. We watch a lot of bad movies: "Freejack," with Mick Jagger, and "Raising Caine," with John Lithgow. We argue about actors, scripts, and when movie trailers are better than the actual film ("Alien 3"). It helps. He leaves before the summer ends, and I miss him.

Summer 1997-Summer 2001, Washington DC: Michael and I are on a shared e-mail list of Student Review veterans (of which Michael technically never was, but everyone on the list knows him and likes him, and so he's in), and he shares the news: he and his wife Karen will be moving to Shepherdstown, WV, where he's gotten a job right out of graduate school, teaching at Shepherd College. Hey man, I say, that's only a little over an hour from where we live in Arlington, VA; we ought to get together. He says yes, we should. So we do, here and there. We visit Shepherdstown, where Michael's constant calm, his institutional pragmatism, and his clear thinking turn him from the English Department's newest hire to their chairperson in a single year. My wife Melissa and Michael's wife Karen connect--she's whip-smart, unfailingly generous, and über-competent, with levels of engagement and energy that put Michael, me, and any 20 other random people we know to shame. We're not the closest of friends, but we stay in touch. They visit us and stay over for Thanksgiving. Michael comes down to DC for presentations, and I round some friends to come and listen to what he has to say. We visit them as their children are born and one of them struggles long and worryingly with health issues. We swap Harry Potter theories. We're young Mormon families, just starting out (we have a head start on them when it comes to kids, but they have a head start on us when it comes to real-world jobs), and we start becoming a part, however slightly, of the framework of each others' lives.

Late fall 2007, Wichita, KS: I get a phone call at my office at Friends University, not long after the beginning of my second year teaching there. It's Michael. It's been years since we'd last really talked--we'd stayed in occasional touch via e-mail, talked Mormonism and academic gossip and the like, mailed Christmas cards to each other, but that's about it. I knew he'd become a dean at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), and that had made me bitter as I'd flailed through five years of trying to find a lasting academic job. But now, at least, things appeared stable, and Michael has some news for me: he's applied for a job as Provost of Newman University, in Wichita, KS, less than a mile from my office, and what did I know about it? So we talk, and then later talk some more. Soon he's a finalist, and he's flying out to Wichita from West Virginia. And then, the job is his: the Austins are coming to Wichita. Soon they've bought a house--on the same side of the city as us, actually only a mile and a half from our house. By the summer of the following year, we're attending the same congregation, our kids are playing together, Melissa and Karen are part of book group, Michael is giving me rides into work in bad weather, and life is good.

Indeterminate months in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011: Things happen, both good and bad. People get older, priorities change, mistakes get made and repented of, people surprise each other, and life goes on. Melissa and I have a crisis, a doozy, a possible deal-breaker, and I'm at a loss; I have nowhere to do; I've got nothing. Nonsense, says Michael, who picks me up from work and takes me out to eat and keeps me from cracking up, while Karen gives Melissa a place to vent and think and give me another chance. Extended family dynamics on both our parts force changes in the way we think and the way we relate to one another, and to the church and the culture we share, and those changes cause tension between our families, tension that takes months to smooth out. Michael and I travel together to an academic Mormon gathering in Independence, MO, and he wows everyone there, and I wonder, "Is he always going to be the smartest person in every room we visit?" I'm defensive, but also proud to be his friend.

Summer 2012: The Mormon stake leadership in our area changes the geographic borders of all the local congregations, and after four years of regular drop-ins and shared spaces and casual encounters and planned events, the focus of our Mormon lives separate. We still share rides and watch either others kids (though they're all older now) and chat constantly, but now we don't have those same Sunday hours and interpersonal experiences in common any longer. I'm asked to step into a leadership position in our congregation, and now I'm doing something radically unlike anything Michael has ever done. Melissa and the girls find their whole place in our little Mormon world changed, and her closest friend is dealing with the same things from the other side of a congregational divide. It makes for some hard times, and some things begin to fall apart, never (yet, anyway) to be put back together quite the way they were before.

Early spring 2014: After constant cajoling from wards like our own, the stake leadership realizes that the boundaries of our congregation just aren't demographically sustainable, and make some amendments to their restructuring--and as result, the Austins and the Foxes are back together again. It's great, but it's also different. Karen and Melissa round up an old friend and decide to just create their own private book club, doing their own thing. Karen becomes a bit of a savior to our congregation, with her organizational skills and compassion providing immensely needed support to the mostly old, mostly poor, members of our ward. And our bishop finds in Michael the same source of humor, wisdom, and equanimity which everyone has long been drawn to him for. We make him a teacher, and he re-engages in discussing and sharing religious ideas from the scriptures to a greater extent than I've seen from him in a long, long time. In a way that wasn't the case only a few years earlier, I feel as though we're all the shared property of so many others now, and extra work has to be done (or, when we're tired with other things, just isn't done at all) to carve out space for that which once pretty much just our own. Part of me is sad about that; part of me isn't. We couldn't stay the same young Mormon families forever, could we?

Early summer 2015: Michael is brought into the ward leadership along with our bishop and me, and now I'm actually working alongside him in a completely new way. I learn about his anxieties and fears, his priorities and beliefs, his frustrations and faults, his weaknesses and strengths in great detail and in ways that were perhaps more easily hidden before. As the months go by, American Mormonism, both locally and institutionally, seems to be constantly buffeted by controversy or questions or confusion, and Michael earns my admiration weekly for the way he just seems to know how to say--or not say--certain things, whether in private meetings or Sunday school classes or boring leadership training gatherings. He publishes a book which pretty explicitly refutes multiple well-worn and scripturally insupportable folk teachings in our church, and because it's him, even the most conservative members of the congregation are open to it. Melissa and I find ourselves in a position of taking care of a daughter's friend, someone who needs a home and a family, and we need to negotiate both bureaucracies and a language barrier to accomplish that--and Michael's fluent Spanish is essential to the latter. Michael and I drive all the way to Nauvoo, IL, and back in order to attend another Mormon academic gathering, and the whole long drip is a delight. We're all different, I guess, and just becoming more so, but for all our ever-increasing differences, we find we're all also very much in each others' debt.

June 15, 2016: Well, it had to happen; no one can put up with frustration and argument in the workplace on a regular basis forever, not when one has the sort of skills that others are willing to pay good money to make use of. So Michael is leaving Newman University today, and leaving Wichita tomorrow, heading for Evansville, IL, where Karen has already, as is typical of her, taken control of every detail, buying and setting up their new house and making all arrangements necessary, in preparation of Michael beginning a new job at the University of Evansville. It's sad, but we've been separated before, and our friendship survived. It'll change though: as it's already changed, it'll just change more. But hopefully the part that really matters--the part which has endured for more than a quarter-century in one fashion or another--never will.

Joseph Smith, the founder of our shared religious heritage, once called friendship one of the "grand fundamental principles" of our religion, something which can "revolutionize and civilize the world." Michael's and my friendship has been, for better or worse, far more civilized than revolutionary; being comrades in a shared desperate struggle, being BFFs that share every intimate detail and plot out every secret goal, has never really been our thing. (We have other loved ones for that, obviously.) But while militancy and earnest meaningfulness have their place, let me raise my glass here to constancy, compassion, and conviviality. Michael has been that kind of friend to me, and I've been blessed by it, as have many others. Thanks, Michael. Don't be a stranger, you hear?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Drive"

Just a plain wonderful song, and wonderfully sung, though Benjamin Orr remains missed. (Give the person with the camera a few seconds; it straightens out quickly.)

Monday, June 06, 2016

Ten Theses on Our Populist Moment

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Tomorrow, with the California Democratic primary, the populist developments that so many have observed in this electoral cycle will definitively change. Either Sanders will prevail strongly over Secretary Clinton (unlikely, but not impossible), and Clinton will be forced to directly attack Sanders populist and/or socialist and/or radical democratic claims in order to shore up her legitimacy as mainstream progressive liberal Democratic nominee--and hold onto the delegates who got her there--or, more likely (unfortunately), Sanders will lose, or only barely win, Clinton will capture enough delegates to automatically clinch the nomination as well as securing the media narrative of inevitability, and will thus continue to pivot towards attacking Trump's particular quasi-populist appeal. Yes, I know, tomorrow there will also be primaries in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana (all of which Sanders will win), New Jersey, and New Mexico (which Clinton will win), but California will tell. So this is a good moment to sum up some of what all has been going on.

1) Populism, like all ideologies--all "isms"--is a package of ideas, a combination of philosophical presumptions, theoretical claims, and normative or political imperatives. That means the specifics of any iteration of populism will differ, as the package is generated in particular historical and cultural contexts.

2) The one thing any package which can be legitimately called "populist" must include, though, is a focus upon the interests, demands, and identity of a "people"--not people in the aggregate sense, but a defined class or group or type of people who share enough to be able to talk about themselves collectively. So one thing populism can never be is individualistic or libertarian. There are ways in which a concern for the needs of groups can be combined with a prioritization of individual freedom within an ideological construct--libertarian socialism is a real thing, for example--but populism is not one of them.

3) Originally, the people who came together and articulated the sort of group demands which were packaged as "populism" throughout American history have did so along economic lines. Racial and religious and regional lines were often part of the mix as well, for better and/or for worse, but at bottom it was an egalitarian movement: an effort to insist on some economic fairness for that part of the American population being excluded from the sources of wealth. And if the demand for economic fairness and equal access to opportunities for wealth meant restricting or reconceiving the elite generation of it (particularly through financial speculation)...well, it's a price worth paying.

4) For most of the 19th-century history of populism, with the Industrial Revolution transforming and shifting the balance of economic power from landed (often, though obviously not always, yeoman) interests to America's cities and the factories which industrialists--and their supporting corporations and lending institutions--built there, that economic argument was tied up with a kind of agrarianism, or even elements of rapidly disappearing classical republican ideas. So by the beginning of the 20th-century, Thomas Jefferson's suspicion of cities, Andrew Jackson's hatred of banks, and William Jennings Bryan's defense of farmers all seemed of a piece.

5) For the liberal consensus which emerged through the middle of the 20th-century--of which Richard Hofstadter's brilliant but basically tendentious Age of Reform served as a kind of ur-text--the ideas which were threaded through this package weren't nearly as important, though, as the style that was assumed (with admittedly some, but not total, accuracy) to be essential to it. Populism was anti-urban, anti-trade, anti-progress; populists hated intellectuals, hated cosmopolitans, hated foreigners; to be a populist meant to be a redneck, a radical, and a blinkered refusenik.

6) This isn't entirely false--there was plenty of agrarian dreaming and white Protestant defensiveness in the original People's Party. But as a description of ideas, it fails. More specifically, it assumes what it seeks to prove: to declare from the outset that some a particular kind of angry, denouncing, lowest-common-denominator-flattering rhetoric is, by definition, "populist," it to already believe that democratic movements which attempt to connection with a collective popular audience (think Martin Luther King, Jr., and others rousing the African-American population of the South to acts of great sacrifice; think Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others connecting together women's groups into the first wave of feminism in America) are always going to be, at their heart, ultimately kind of mean-spirited and divisive, because that's just how the democratic animal works.

7) All this, of course, supposedly leads us to the apotheosis of Trump, the supposed "populist" of the moment. As Damon Linker, working very much in this tradition, put it:

Trump may be the purest populist to receive a major-party presidential nomination in the nation's history--and certainly since the turn of the 20th century. Populism doesn't have a fixed agenda or aim toward any particular policy goal, like liberalism, progressivism, conservatism, libertarianism, or socialism. It's a style--one that favors paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing, exaggeration of problems, demonization of political opponents (politicians but also private citizens), and most of all extravagant flattery of "the people" (which the populist equates with his own supporters, excluding everyone else).


And this, in accordance with Damon's reading, is the fruit of the Republican party turning to a kind of cheap populism during the Reagan years: "From Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America through the spread of talk radio and Fox News to the rise of Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and Donald Trump, the story of the Republican Party since the early 1990s is an abject lesson in the dangers of stoking populist anger and resentment--and the difficulty in controlling it once it is unleashed."

8) Terms evolve, just as intellectual packages do. So maybe it's too much to hope, in an era where democratic discourse has become debased for a dozen different reasons (the proliferation and privatization of communication technology, the relentless attack on campaign finance laws, the dismantling of the traditional role of political parties as gatekeepers, the unforeseen consequences of over-democratizing mass public education, the abandonment of mediating civic groups and organizations, and more have all played a role), for an articulation of egalitarianism in explicitly populist terms, as was once the case. Maybe populism now, unfortunately, can't be rescued from assumptions about a bottom-dwelling faux-democratic  (but actually authoritarian) style. Senator Bernie Sanders, the strongest voice for economic egalitarian in the 2016, has never particularly identified himself as a "populist," preferring to stick with democratic socialism or radicalism as a way to express what he was all about.

9) And we should not forget--though, perhaps unsurprisingly, we often do--also those terms have their own history, and their history was not untouched by the egalitarianism and communitarianism of the original populists. Hofstadter was, ultimately, quite wrong in his assessment of those early egalitarians: while it is true that some curdled into an angry defense of white male privilege and stoked a bitter nostalgia about how turning back the clock would "make American great again" (sound familiar?), most didn't. Most of those late 19th-century and early 20th-century went on join Progressive movements in the Republican party, lent their support to labor unions within the Democratic party coalition, founded Christian socialist interest groups and denominations, and more. Speaking collectively for a people, for their ability to practice real economic democracy, for their right to claim ownership of their local communities and take it away from the abstract forces of distant capital, can result in divisiveness, jealously, and paranoia. But in needn't. The (perhaps unaware) children and grandchildren of populism are proof of that.

10) Populism--or whatever one wants to label whatever articulation of economic justice, community protection, and local democracy one comes up with--remains discomforting. It is, remember, not essentially about individuals, but rather about people, about groups, which means that there are ways in which those who share its influence (as Sanders does) will be fundamentally at odds with the liberal capitalist mainstream, whether liberal or conservative. It is, in my view, a discomfort we need. But if Trump really has ridden away with the populist label, then I want no part of it, even if the man--perhaps because the rhetoric he has chosen makes it impossible to avoid--sometimes apes some of its community-defending attitudes. Populism, at it's best, gave us an intellectual package which respected both locality and equality; even if, as seems likely, the best populist voice in the 2016 cycle begins his slow eclipse tomorrow (though I'm still hoping for a convention fight in Philadelphia!), let's not, whatever happens, give any intellectual credence or political support to someone whose bombasity may imitate a worthy style, but whose arguments and background provides respect for neither. Even with all the good arguments against it, we can at least still respect the aspirations of democratic government more than that.