Tuesday, February 12, 2019

One Way to Tell Elizabeth Warren's Story

[This began at a Facebook comment Monday morning, and now it's a Politico article. The version below is the one I wrote before it was edited down. One way or another, I hope someone gets it to Warren's hands, because I'd like to believe she might this helpful, or at least food for though.]

Elizabeth Warren’s formal announcement last Saturday that she was running for President of the United States was not, if the world of online activists was any indication, accompanied by an excited rush of progressive speculation. Not that there was a complete absence of such–that was hardly the case. Warren has long had her fans, and campaign consultants, strategic advisors, and fund-raisers on both sides of the political aisle see her as a serious, credible candidate for the highest office in the land. But the overarching narrative of her announcement, the feel it had as the news broke, was not what some once imagined it would be.

Part of this is simply that times change. Warren’s 2014 book A Fighting Chance fervently attacked the rising inequality that, by the end of Obama’s time in office, increasing numbers of Democrats were being forced to admit their president had done little to alleviate, and made her–someone whose ideas were central to Dodd-Frank, one of the very few financial reforms Washington passed in the wake of the Great Recession–the de facto star of what was called, just four years ago, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” Paul Krugman ruefully admired her “enlightened populism”; she was labeled “the most recognizable leader of a resurgent progressive movement” by The New York Review of Books, and compared to Louis Brandeis in The New Yorker. But that was then. Today, it is failed (and maybe once-again) presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, not former President Obama, whom most Democratic presidential aspirants are modeling themselves after, and proposals for Medicare-for-All, minimum wage hikes, and wealth taxes abound among the declared nominees. That’s not to say that Warren’s mix of serious wonkery and "save-capitalism-from-the-oligarchs" ideology wouldn’t be able to distinguish itself from the positions staked out by Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, or anyone else; it probably could. But at the very least, like Sanders himself, she now finds herself occupying some very contested space.

But for all that, the real reason for the perceived lack of mojo for Warren among some of the loudest members of the activist left was the news, which broke just days before, that she had described herself as “American Indian” on her application to the Texas bar in 1986. This wasn’t a bombshell. It has long been known that Warren had for years, on and off, identified herself as Native American, in keeping with family legends about Cherokee and Delaware ancestors. Yet for some, actually seeing that seemingly bizarre claim in Warren’s own 32-year-old handwriting was the end of the line. In the middle of a desire to exorcize the Democratic Party’s racist past, as well as the need to find a presidential candidate whose mistakes won’t provide Trump with a ready-made script of mockery (one that, in Warren’s case, is already much-practiced by our president), more than a few Democrats seem prepared to declare her candidacy prematurely over. She’s damaged goods, this line of thinking goes, no matter how great her ideas are.

In response to this skepticism, some suggest that Warren’s best (and perhaps only) option is to stay away from her past and lock away her family stories, and instead focus her campaign entirely on her attacks on the 1 percent and her proposals for structural economic reforms. But there is, I think, a better alternative. It is risky, and the odds of Warren being able to pull it off are, I admit, not very good. But still, the rewards--both for her candidacy and, for those of us who mostly agree with her diagnosis of American capitalism in 2019, for the country--would be great. I think Elizabeth Warren, an intellectual white female lawyer, a bankruptcy expert and U.S. senator and an emeritus professor at the most prestigious university in America, should tie her Oklahoma history and her life story and her ideology all together. I think she should give her version of “The Speech.”


I refer, of course, to Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union,” the speech he gave in March 2008 when the Jeremiah Wright scandal threatened his run for the Democratic nomination. It was beautiful and audacious, a speech that talked about racial resentments and divisive Christian traditions and the mysteries of faith and the legacy of lynching and the burden of history and the idea of a national community that can include all of the above while still remaining whole. It is the speech more closely associated with his campaign and his vision of politics than any other, and more than a few believe he wouldn’t have been elected president without it. (I was personally blown away by it, as this blog post made clear.)

Now, I am pretty confident that Warren wouldn’t be able give a speech that good. She doesn’t have Obama’s rhetorical gifts, and the context from which she would give it—a 69-year-old white woman discussing her own ethnic appropriation, as opposed to a 47-year-old black man discussing his pastor’s anti-American language—isn’t nearly as open to charitable understanding. Still, it be worth it for her to try.

Why? Because while the story she could tell in such a speech would be even harder--because it would be more personal, more embarrassing, and more complicated--than the one Obama took on, it might, with the hindsight of the past decade, be an even truer one. It would be a story about economics and class as well as race. It would be about Warren growing up aspiring and ambitious in lower middle-class Oklahoma in the 1950s and 1960s. There she was, a smart young woman, a talker and a thinker, far from the easy routes to social acceptance and financial power, working from when she was 13 to help keep her family from falling into poverty. And it would be about--because it would have to be--how a resurgent Native American population unavoidably complicated the question of where an ambitious lower middle-class young white woman in the small city that was Oklahoma City in the early 1960s could socially find herself.

Seeing Warren, the daughter of white Oklahoma, alongside the assimilatory Indian termination policies imposed by the federal government during the years while she grew up would be educational in itself. Those policies led to the end of much of tribal sovereignty and the cutting of funds to reservations. They complemented the well-meant but deeply troubling Indian foster systems that numerous white churches (including my own) set up through these decades. And they helped to flood mostly white urban public schools with Native American children and teen-agers, most particularly in her own home state--Oklahoma having been born, after all, as essentially a glorified holding cell for tens of thousands of Native Americans defeated in America’s genocidal wars against them.Warren could use the speech to ask both herself and her audience: How would all that affect the way you might have received the (apparently mostly fictitious, but treasured all the same) stories of Native heritage which your beloved aunts passed down to you? And what might that history tell us about who was able to use the tools that postwar American capitalism provided to change their fortunes--and who wasn’t?

But that’s just the beginning. Because it’s also a story about growing up a somewhat liberated (going to law school while a young mother, and raising children as a single law professor after her divorce) but nonetheless mainstream Republican in the 1970s. It’s about finding success through that ethic, mastering the arcane topic of bankruptcy law and ambitiously job-hopping, building a new life for herself bit by bit. Yet during these same years, her party was rebuilt along small-government and Christian conservative lines--mostly, as an interesting parallel, by the descendants of white farmers who fled the bankruptcy, poverty, and near starvation they faced in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, and built new lives for themselves in California, a generation before Warren was born.

This could be a striving middle-class story as rich as any John Updike novel. Someone from the edges of the establishment--an Okie, no less!--gets to the center, to the big cities of the East Coast, to Harvard Law School itself. No one could show that kind of determination without being willing to leave behind a lot. And yet, did she nonetheless feel kind of guilty (or maybe kind of defiant) about succeeding? Sometimes did she feel out of place in this social and economic and intellectual world, so very distinct from the one she sacrificed so much to escape from?The centers of elite academia are for the most part racially and economically homogeneous, nothing like the congenially low-rent, mixed-ethnicity, public school Oklahoma world Warren was born into. Once again, Warren could pose a crucial question about America to herself and her audience: What are the costs of an economy that rewards the strivers (sometimes, anyway), but also deepens the gaps between the lives they build and the lives of those they left behind?

In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren co-wrote two important academic books, As We Forgive Our Debtors and The Fragile Middle Class. Both showed in great detail how the loosening of banking regulations and the shift away from an industrial economy made consumer spending and debt central to middle-class life, and how damaging the effects of this change were to those who simply wanted to hold on to the sort of life which, 30 years before, Warren was raised to believe was expected. (The book she co-wrote with her daughter, The Two-Income Trap, makes this comparison even clearer.) All these writings were informed by Warren’s own choices, as well as by the shifting ground beneath others as they sought to follow a similar path. Which presents more hard, yet revealing, questions to ask and answer. How much did her obviously conflicted feelings about her Oklahoma (and, yes, her folkloric Native) heritage, about the distinctiveness of her early years and experiences, and about how (or if) she should express that in an environment filled with trust-fund children and Phillips Exeter or Deerfield graduates, play out in her mind? What did it have to do with her eyes being opened and seeing the real social and familial implications of the data she was researching? And finally, the real political heart of this exploration: how did her life and her life’s work combine to lead her to the political change she went through in the late 1990s?

The progressives of today--and Democrats in general, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat--have little interest in the politics of Clintonian triangulation. But Warren could take that era and present it as a turning point. It may be that this nearly 70-year-old woman, exactly because of where and when she came from, exactly because of the rungs of the ladders she clumsily (and, yes, in some cases wrongly) grabbed at and found comfort in as she moved upwards and away from where she started, was able to see what was wrong not just with the Republican Party she was leaving, but also with the Democratic Party she was joining. That was a Democratic Party which, for the most part, couldn’t present its ideals or its candidates without complicated and, in retrospect, often damaging compromises. Warren’s story could, perhaps, model a new path, in a way that Hillary Clinton’s story never fully could.

At least, that’s a story I imagine Warren might be able to tell. Many wouldn’t find it persuasive, and many others, even if they found it coherent and powerful, couldn’t accept Warren as the vehicle for it. But still, it’s the sort of story that, were it packaged into a campaign speech, could bring the dreams and resentments and hopes and fears of tens of millions of white American middle-class women along with it, exposing their concerns and desires to a probably discomforting light--but also, perhaps, casting them in a new one.

To be honest, I don’t expect this to happen. I expect, instead, that Warren will stick with bashing the billionaires. Heaven knows they deserve it! But if she never thinks enough about her own story, her own choices, and her own mistakes, in order to show us a way of seeing her, at this moment, as someone who could be president, and someone who could make the structural changes she’s promising personally meaningful—well, that would be a loss. Because in following her career, and her scholarship, and maybe most of all her embarrassing mis-steps, I’ve come to suspect that she really does have a story like this in her. My hope is that she, and her speechwriters, suspect she does too.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #1: McCartney and Ram

My pop music project for 2019? Listening to Paul McCartney's entire post-Beatles oeuvre. Why? Well, why not? Is that a good enough reason for you?

The fact is that late last year, around when the remastered 50th anniversary White Album was released, I listened to this delightful interview with Rob Sheffield (whose book on The Beatles blew me away), and it made me realize: man, the post-Beatles McCartney has been making music for nearly a half-century, and beyond the big radio hits, I really don't know it all that well. So, along with my old friend/music guru in Texas, I have a plan to work through every album (well, nearly; probably not the ones full of covers) Macca has put out, either on his own or with Wings. Should be an interesting year. My plan is to post about a couple of albums or more on the last day of every month through the end of 2019. Feel free to stick around for the whole trip, if you're so inclined.

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First of all: McCartney. Honestly, this is a pretty terrible way to start this series out. This album, recorded by Paul and Linda essentially in total secrecy while The Beatles fell apart and McCartney was no doubt feeling all sorts of anger, confusion, and sadness--but also excitement over what was going to come next in his life--is, frankly, barely there; it's like a bit of hurried graffiti by some busy genius that someone packaged to sell to rabid fans who would pay good money for any incomplete bit of errata from their hero...except in this case the "someone" was Macca himself. The majority of its 13 tracks are unfinished collections of isolated riffs and chords stitched together--or not--in the hopes of getting a bunch of "songs" over the two minute mark. This is really kind of sad, because I think "That Would Be Something" and "Momma Miss America" probably could have been, with some lyrical thought and more studio work, really great tunes. There's only two songs on the album that really seem "finished" to me. The first, "Teddy Boy," is solid, but more like an outtake from The White Album than anything else. The other, of course, is "Maybe I'm Amazed," which is arguably McCartney's greatest solo composition from his entire career--a beautiful, brilliant, rocking love song, with passionate vocals and killer guitar solos. That song alone is so good it forces me to grade this D effort as a C.

Next comes Ram, a far more polished effort, and consequently much better. Still not a really great pop music creation, but definitely getting there. McCartney's love of folk and country musical styles (if not actual folk or country-western music itself--basically what John Lennon famously derided as Paul's weakness for "granny shit") really develop on this album, resulting in some pretty fun songs: "Dear Boy," "Home in the Heart of the Country," and "Long-Haired Lady" are all worth listening to a time or three. And there are some tight rock and roll numbers as well: "Too Many People" is probably about as close as McCartney can ever get to building up righteous indignation, "Smile Away" is made to be shouted out to a clapping and chanting audience, and "Back Seat of My Car" is a fine ballad. "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" is, of course, a classic late-period Beatles number: clever, hummable, with peerless musicianship throughout (though I will go to my grave believing that's the voice of John Cleese, not McCartney himself, on the telephone). Overall though, a solid B-, not higher than that. Of course, if they'd put "Another Day" on the album," I'd probably have to score it a whole grade higher--but they didn't. Silly producers. (Oh, and by the way: props to Macca for the whole "Thrillington" experiment; it's actually some pretty great 60s-style jazz orchestra elevator music, if you're into that sort of thing.)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Definitely Not My Favorite Python, But Probably the Most Pythonesque Python for All That

I've talked about Michael Palin's fascinatingly comprehensive and yet un-critical diaries, John Cleese's funny and sometimes scary arguments with himself, and Terry Gilliam's hauntingly familiar and yet frustratingly disconnected ruminations. Since Terry Jones has, tragically, descended into dementia and Graham Chapman is, equally tragically, dead, that leaves Eric Idle, the only musician among the Python's, easily their most savvy, business-smart, and traditionally ambitious member, the one with the strongest sense of old-fashioned showmanship, and by far the one with the most immature and sexist sense of humor, as the final member of Monty Python to produces his memoirs. Now he's done so, and it's great. I'm not certain I have a lot more to say beyond that, though.

Palin's diaries (and I really need to finally get around to reading the final volume) are documents of their time, the impossibly detailed and often quietly funny observations of, so it seemed to me, a smart man to likes looking at and reacting thoughtfully to and learning from the world around him--but not someone who is especially drawn to challenging or questioning or struggling with it. John Cleese's autobiography of his early years, on the other hand, was endless challenges and questions and struggles, mostly with himself and his own prejudices and judgments and assumptions (but often with others' as well, of course). Terry Gilliam's scrapbook-slash-autobiography painted a scattered portrait of man kind of unhappy with himself, but not too much, because he understands his own pre-occupations and the fact that they have driven him all over the map, and only occasionally coalesce around a project or a work of art or a relationship upon which he use his powers to create something great. Idle, though? Idle is man who survived some very difficult times, worked very hard, got very lucky, reaped great rewards, loves all of it, and doesn't think too much about What It All Means. It is probably the closest thing I have ever read to a genuine, straight-up, celebrity memoir, with names dropped on page after page after page, all done with absolute cheer and never a recrimination. Well, that's not entirely true; he really does seem genuinely contrite about the way he cheated left and right on his first wife, but once he gets past his not-particularly-embarrassed confession of having been a sex-obsessed asshole for years, it really doesn't trouble him, presumably at least in part because he was making enough money to sufficiently cover up any regrets that anyone had about his behavior.

Idle is, I think, in addition to all that I wrote above (indeed, probably in ways centrally connected to all of that) easily the most American of all the Pythons. He moved permanently to the U.S. in the early 1990s--and not just America, but Hollywood--after getting annoyed at the response to his latest film, Splitting Heirs ("If that's how you behave when someone brings eight million back to spend in the country, I shall take my flops to America, where they don't even mind if you are successful"--p. 172). And he loves it here--he loves the individualism, the opportunity, the chance to do one thing, and then do a completely different thing, and face no resistance whatsoever (so long, of course, as you're a funny, rich, white male with tons of celebrity friends, which Idle never pretends he isn't). Gilliam came to England and found, for all his frustrations with the way it changed in the 1970s and 1980s, a grounded culture and way of being in the world which spoke to him; Idle, by contrast, the child of abandonment and abuse and relative poverty, never seems at all interested in finding any kind of permanent ground at all. Again, that's not entirely true; he is utterly smitten with his American wife and dearly loves and cares for the many friends and connections he has built for himself over the years. But he's probably never really stopped being the sneaky, on-the-hunt smart-ass which his upbringing taught him to be--and again, why should it? His humor and sense of fun brought him into the orbit of everyone from George Harrison (their friendship is a large and delightful part of the book) to David Bowie to Robin Williams to Michael Caine to Mike Nichols to Peter Cook to Mick Jaggar (lots of guys, you're thinking? yes, I noticed) to dozens and dozens more. Why change--or rather, why change the constant changing--when what you're doing seems to work?

Monty Python was, in the end, a brilliant comedic troupe of people who made smart, snotty, silly fun of everyone. They were not serious satirists (though they could do that, when they thought it appropriate), but rather among the most absurdist snarkers ever. By that measure, hats off to the snarkiest one of them all. He's always looked on the bright side of his life, and good for him. I hope he never stops (and neither does he, that's for certain).