Life Imitating Art: The Russiagate Floodgates

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Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That’s big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.

There’s another scene that succinctly summarizes the film’s central conflict, and how close Serpico is to snapping (also featuring an early and authentic example of Pacino’s peerless ability to explode and implode, simultaneously). He’s already on edge for understandable reasons, but when he discovers the scumbag he just busted (so infuriatingly calm and cocky) is, in fact, a cop killer.

Here he is, an honest cop in a room full of men who’d just as soon drop him off the Empire State Building, unable to elicit the slightest emotion from any of them. Of course, it’s because this slippery felon has bought off practically the entire precinct. They just stand there. Probably embarrassed, maybe even mortified but mostly culpable. They’re in too deep, the money’s too good and plus, this guy’s got the goods on them.

This is how it’s getting to be with the now daily drop of all-things Russia (as the invaluable Charles Pierce memorably puts it, “Right now, there are more Russians involved in this story than there are in War and Peace.”). We hear another unbelievable development, something that the key players?—?following the inexorable script?—?at first deny, then pretend to have forgotten and then, with the assistance of the usual suspects at Fox News, insist, indignantly, is, in any event, not illegal. And each day, the entire Republican party stands mute, impotent. Not because they can’t or don’t want to believe it (if their eyes or actual memories fail them, there’s a trusty paper trail that now resembles a relay race between moist slugs), but because they’re in. Deep. They made their deal and are now obliged to ride shotgun in this clown car.

And just like Serpico’s corrupt brethren, it’s all about money. But at least in the movie (based, by the way, on a true story), the money is coming from illicit activity, mostly drugs and gambling. What we have today is much worse. Republicans are colluding and covering and denying (and, probably at this point, sweating) not so they can merely get a slice of this contaminated pie. No, their motivation, at once more complicated and disgraceful, consists mainly of poaching funds designed for poor people to give to rich people. Oh, and take away millions of Americans’ health care.

You couldn’t make a movie about this. It’s too implausible. Too depressing.

And too real.

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Cruel DeVos

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I.

TRUE STORY. MY WIFE teaches grade school. In addition to the stories I can tell, and the ones my many friends who teach or are married to teachers can tell, during the school year, I hear a new one practically every day.

Here’s one: several teachers noticed that three siblings (third grade and younger) were digging through the garbage at school. Turns out they were looking for food to take home for the weekend since there would not otherwise be enough.

Here’s another: one of my wife’s fifth grade students broke down in class one day, and explained she was having trouble studying for the standardized test—a whole other topic—because she hadn’t eaten and was hungry. A few teachers pitched in to get her fed, and take some snacks home. Turns out her family was homeless and living in a motel.

My wife, a veteran with more than a decade’s experience in public schools, is not easily upset: it’s been her practice for years to keep extra non-perishables in her desk for the kids who can’t concentrate on empty stomachs.

This is not Appalachia, or even the most desperate inner city; it’s a county less than thirty minutes from the nation’s capital (the state of which is itself a never-ending metaphor for all we need know when it comes to equality, opportunity and our collective genius at hurting the most innocent and vulnerable amongst us).

Another story. Several years ago, she noticed one her students hoarding ketchup packets from the cafeteria. He was bringing them home in case there was nothing to eat.

(The Swiftian irony of this last anecdote is one that surely would have Reagan smirking in his grave.)

The worst one? For me, it’s the story of the student who claimed he wasn’t hungry at lunch time. Because he was embarrassed. He didn’t want to admit he had no money. My wife could literally hear his stomach rumbling as he pretended he wasn’t famished the same way Republicans pretend they care about people.

ii.

Never mind Trump. One need look no further than Betsy DeVos to understand the true depravity of the contemporary state of all-things GOP.

(Yes, Trump is the oozing pus from the Id of America’s underbelly, but if there’s any silver lining, it’s that light does expose the rot. Our Toddler-in-Chief has emboldened an element of our society we thought had either fizzled out or at least was content to spew its spleen safely—and anonymously—online. The smart money says this is not a fad or a trend; it’s a virus that’s required centuries to fester and one megalomaniacal half-fascist to bring to a feverish boil. It will, nevertheless, be flushed out and retired to the sewers of our lower frequencies, hopefully forever and sooner than later. Or, even more optimistically, Trump continues to do damage to the “brand” we figured George W. Bush had so indelibly done, and our next contender can do what Obama never had the heart or stomach to bother with: making a compelling case for Democratic politics with a heavy side dish of populism. As we know, first the Tea Party, and then The Donald wormed into the post-2008 vacuum and stole all the oxygen, which halfway explains why we’re where we are, today.)

But to fully understand the next-level sociopathy of our present administration, we must look at DeVos. Unqualified? Duh. Ignorant? Yes. Not only wealthy, but married to the King of Pyramid schemes that prey upon the poor and gullible? Even Dickens at his most heavy-handed would throw this away as clichéd opportunism. But there it is; only in America can we have and know so much and insist on making it worse for everyone but the .01%

iii.

Did you catch any footage of DeVos’s hearing? If you have a strong stomach, you should, especially if you think the criticism of her has been over the top.

How about the footage of her speed-walking away from a group of protestors?

These fanatics have been insulated by their money and blissful ignorance so long they’re flummoxed (and genuinely frightened) by the slightest resistance. And all of them (look at ongoing embarrassment of Republicans scurrying away from their own town halls, or The King of the Cowardly Cretins, Mitch McConnell, doing everything possible to avoid any public scrutiny of his healthcare bill) have no means to debate or defend themselves when challenged. Classic bullies.

Take DeVos’s brief confrontation with some citizens who dared oppose her, on principle. What an opportunity: she was on camera and could have totally owned the moment, engaged these people in conversation and made them look unreasonable if they shouted her down. Instead, she retreated like the rat she is. (By the way, this isn’t just normal political resistance from one party to another; that Trump even appointed her—and she accepted the gig—is an act of aggression, a calculated outrage to dismantle the very department she’s long had her sights on, and intended to demoralize opponents.)

iv.

How is any of this different from the way Republicans have rolled since the day Reagan declared government our enemy? It’s pretty much the same, only more so. And that’s where things have crossed all lines of normalcy and decency. Circa 2017, it’s no longer sufficient to merely reinforce the wealthiest and most powerful; the GOP, with virtually no internal dissension, is on the public record (with votes, statements and, importantly, no comments to the contrary) advocating policy that literally takes away the (drastically underfunded) funds from those with the least, and disguise it as “choice”. Indeed, in another moment that Dickens, Orwell and Kafka, tag-teaming with three typewriters and ten bottles of tequila, couldn’t muster the imagination to invent, DeVos invoked segregated schools as a testament to the empowering benefits of “choice”. (No, seriously.)

Extolling the alleged virtues of the free market, no matter what contrary evidence accrued, mostly worked wonders for the Republican party these last few decades. We now are at a point where they’re acting, in concert, to raid the already paltry provisions of the disenfranchised. And to what end? Funding infrastructure or some national emergency? Of course not. Exactly what they’re after is simple, and truly staggering: to ensure that those born with every advantage will have still more opportunity and money. Revolting in the extreme.

But therein lies an opportunity. Audacity of this level is so breathtaking it’s negligent to become cynical; unacceptable to be indifferent. We’re at a threshold moment, where otherwise apathetic spectators must determine if they are, at long last, disgusted with the direction we’re headed. Doing nothing, at this point, is abetting evil. (And this includes not just going toe-to-toe with the True Believers across the aisle—many of whom, of course, stand to be most drastically impacted by all these reverse Robin Hood policies—but the pampered and recalcitrant nitwits who still insist Hillary Clinton was, at best, the lesser of two evils, or remain third party or bust when we see, daily, the disparity between what Democrats and Republicans do, when in power.) Advice: frame an argument, for once, that puts liberals on the right side of Scripture (what a concept!) and put the stakes in stark relief: it’s no longer a shell game, no more talk of trickle down; this is straight-up thievery, taking from those with the least. I think Jesus said a thing or two about this.

Finally, it’s tempting, even irresistible, to catalog the myriad flaws, hypocrisies, moral failures and rank opportunism that has virtually defined DeVos’s existence. But it’s more effective to look at her as the caricature she is. She represents the faceless figure epitomizing the worst Republican impulses, all untethered by our incurious, incompetent Tweeter-in-Chief. Never mind him, or her, and remember it’s not who she is, but what she represents. DeVos, and her merry band of nihilists, are the boot in the face Orwell warned us about. That is what must be resisted, mocked, defeated.

A final story. One of my wife’s friends, who teaches high school, had a student who was arrested for shoplifting. It turns out he had been doing this from a young age. He was stealing food. To eat.

Think of this kid, and all the other ones, especially the ones with increasingly fewer advocates who can defend or assist them.

Rage against this Machine.

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On Health Care: George Carlin Called It

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Nine years ago today we lost not only one of our better comics, but one of our most vital and intelligent voices.

George Carlin was incendiary, he was hilarious, he was often the smartest dude (and biggest smartass) on the block, and he was a national treasure.

He was a “political” comic the way George Orwell was a “political” writer. And as Orwell famously declared: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Like Orwell, Carlin told big truths, and as we’ve seen throughout our human experiment? — ?especially in America? — ?the truth often falls on obdurate ears.

When celebrating a deceased icon, particularly one as full of wisdom as Carlin was — ?it’s typical to say “we could use that voice today”, or similar such sentiment. And while it wouldn’t suck to have Carlin around, assuming the spectacle of President Trump didn’t make him spontaneously combust like a Spinal Tap drummer, the sad fact is he already predicted much of what’s happened (and what might be coming, soon).

He made a career of putting political weasels and their fake piety and false promises in his sights, but it was toward the end when he pulled the fewest punches and dropped a bomb that’s still smoking, more than a decade later.

Check it out: when this, his last, special aired, I remember critics, even fans, suggesting that maybe George had gotten too cranky; that his cynicism had overwhelmed the better (or calmer) angels of his nature, or worst, that he wasn’t even funny anymore. He was funny, but not quite the way he used to be (some people would call that the evolution of a talent, not to mention an already-awakened conscience). Times were different and different tactics were required. Carlin was on the case.

This bit in particular, about the so-called “American Dream”, made for painful listening, but also essential viewing. Remember, this was in 2005, a few years before the (totally predictable) financial collapse, the subsequent refusal of Obama to do anything of consequence to the bad guys, and the impunity with which the Republicans have mostly acted, ever since.

Full of piss and vinegar, sure, but also prescient. Depressingly on point.

And, not for nothing: nine years to the day after he died, we see footage of disabled citizens being physically dragged away from lawful and peaceful protests. Why? Because the Republican politicians are too cowardly to face them. Why? Because in an act of cynicism that didn’t just jump the shark, but the entire ocean, these cretins are quite aware how deeply unpopular their health care “repeal” is. As such, they intend to pass it as quickly as possible, with little to no scrutiny. The media is finally making some noise, albeit too little and possibly too late. And you’d think something like more than twenty million people losing coverage so the rich can have a tax cut might warrant some headlines. Same as it ever was, only more so.

And here’s the thing. Normally I’d reckon that this footage would make for some pretty compelling political ads, come mid-term time. (Or now, for that matter.) Especially with some stats flashing across the screen that detail the number of Americans who could (or will) be devastated by this hideously destructive policy.

And then I think: they’ll get away with it anyway. They’ll shirk responsibility, or blame Obama, or the Democrats. And the sentient amongst us will shake our heads, either furious or shell shocked (or both), while the Republicans, having retained control of the House and Senate, will set about dismantling Social Security.

And we won’t be able to say George Carlin didn’t call it.

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Donald Trump and Participation Trophy Politics

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I’VE BEEN THINKING A lot?—?since the election and particularly during the past two weeks?—?about the cliché (typically, in personal experience, uttered by my right-leaning friends) involving our so-called “participation trophy” generation and how it’s making everyone so soft, and spoiled. You have to earn it, this complaint implies. You have to understand defeat to fully appreciate triumph. If you expect to get rewarded just for showing up, it cheapens it for everyone, et cetera.

There’s no shortage of context and counterarguments about how a win-at-all-costs mentality translates to society, or if emphasizing sportsmanship is the worst thing, or, finally, how in America we instinctively ignore the fact that all people don’t start from the same place, physically, mentally, economically. Marginalization has historically worked best when the people in positions of privilege don’t acknowledge or even imagine themselves as anything other than fair, objective and industrious folks.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

I find myself at once dismayed, yet not at all surprised to behold the increasingly sorry spectacle of a newly-elected president?—?who has benefitted from virtually every advantage?—?endorsed by those he’s spent his life ignoring, ostracizing, swindling. (Never mind how this pathology of Americans voting against their best interests is a phenomenon that, to an extent, has always existed, but super-sized itself in recent years.) Here’s a candidate who undeniably had outside assistance (Russia, voter fraud, James Comey) to squeeze out the narrowest of “wins”, who is obsessed with approval, not understanding it must be earned, and who inexorably makes every occasion about himself (etc.). None of this is especially perplexing for anyone who’s paid attention over the last several decades. He was never an especially confident or competent man, but he played one on TV.

(And despite the hysteria and hand-wringing that’s followed Hillary Clinton’s loss, the key takeaway seems clear: it’s not that she (or Democrats in general) don’t talk to working class Americans; it’s that she (and they) still don’t know how to. A lot more on that issue, here.)

As we enter a steadily surreal landscape of alternate facts, braindead braggadocio masquerading as foreign policy and daily dumpster fires that titillate social media but also provide cover for the shady shit going on behind the scenes, it’s painful to conclude that idiocy has found an unprecedented symbiosis: only the most eager to dissemble can consistently reach those most in need of being deceived. Donald Trump is not the president most of his voters actually need, but he’s the one a distressing number of them want.

Again, enough can never be said about the myriad ways Democrats (including, of course, Obama and his team) were either too haughty, impatient or sane to belabor how demonstrably beneficial the vast majority of their enacted policies have been. But have we reached a point where a black man providing affordable health care is literally less tolerable than a billion-dollar baby with a bad combover taking it away from them? Are we through the broken looking glass where a tenure without terror attacks on American soil (not counting our homegrown terrorists with unconstrained access to firearms, all of whom tend to skew fascist, I mean conservative) is less savory than an isolationist bellicosity cut with impetuousness and pig-ignorance? Are we, at long last, in an irony-free fantasy land where virtually all regulation (safe drinking water is such a liberal diversion), much of which has been a century or more in the making and inspired by avoidable calamities, is the real roadblock to collective prosperity?

I think, and fear, we are.

And that, more than fake news, bigotry and not-so-quiet desperation, may explain Trump’s atavistic appeal. The red hat brigade is definitely not safer, but they feel safer (they want to); their wages won’t increase but their Dear Leader promises we’ll get tired of winning so much; no immigrants are stealing their jobs, but finally they have a Bully-in-Chief who feels their perceived pain. It’s a new world order of rationalization instead of realization (emphasis on real); it’s participation trophy politics.

With the invaluable assistance of an alternately prurient and supine media, we’ve unleashed an orange genie who reinforces our most brutish instincts. In this less kind and gentle America, it’s those who talk toughest most in need of mollification (it begins at the top and tweets its way to the bottom), who require readymade villains and celebrate their victimhood, who need a Big Daddy to remind them they’re special, that no sacrifice is required on their part.

(Behold, with equal amounts of bemusement and disgust, the way our part-time custodians of culture are submitting themselves (spines and shame not required), excusing and/or overlooking this manifestly unqualified adolescent: a man who proudly declines to read books, or learn, or make efforts to be coached by anyone with insight and experience. A man born rich who refuses to play by any rules (where are those tax returns, genius?), a man whose callousness and incuriosity makes George W. Bush look like Ralph W. Emerson. Behold, with maximum disdain, the way these bought-and-sold bitches live to do the wet work for Big Business. These same frauds, who make themselves arbiters for morality and decency, are entirely enabling this ongoing disgrace, a man they loathe, a man they’d otherwise decry and avoid (#NeverTrump? The only problem with shaming people like this is that they require a sense of shame, and a soul, for it to matter). And make no mistake: it’s all in the name of lower taxes for the wealthiest percentile, as ever, as always.)

In The Donald’s America, everyone can live vicariously, eliminating doubt, self-discipline and consequences. All that’s required is the renunciation of cause-and-effect and Truth-with-a-Capital-T. The only losers are the saps who refuse to trust Trump’s lying eyes. The (White) House always wins, but everyone gets a trophy in this game.

*This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 2/3/17.

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Trump & Co.: The Great Deceivers

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ALLOW ME TO BE contrary for a moment.

That rambling, semi-coherent, solipsistic rant (half campaign speech; half cry for attention) Trump delivered at the CIA fills me with hope and reassurance, not despair.

Only the most recalcitrant die-hards, whom reasonable and intelligent discourse will never persuade anyway, can continue falling in line after this. Imagine if that exact speech, in the exact same context, was translated into another language (say, North Korean): for a movie it would serve as mediocre and ham-fisted satire; as a real life event, if uttered by someone in a different country?—?use your imagination?—?it’s the very type of propagandistic boilerplate that typically makes “serious” Americans (including, if not especially conservatives and certain media types) solemnly shake their heads and thank their (white, Capitalist) God that this type of farce could never occur in America. You know, where paid staffers are brought in to applaud like teenagers at a boy band concert. If, say, we heard someone call out aerial photographs and say “the crowds were much bigger…because I say so”, we’d pity the country that had to put up with such a deluded and sick cult of personality.

However, it’s America, and it’s happening, here.

Doubling down, because that’s what con men always do (they have no choice; when the con’s exposed, so are they, and there’s no coming back from that), they sent the oleaginous Sean Spicer out to parrot the party line, and take questions. Just kidding! You know it’s amateur hour when the press secretary refuses to take questions during the first press conference.

This, from the linked Politico article above, is worth quoting in full:

Spicer: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration?—?period?—?both in person and around the globe.”

While the new administration disputes the count, the visual evidence from overhead photography is overwhelming: Far more people stood on the Mall and witnessed Obama’s inauguration in 2009 than Trump’s inauguration on Friday.

The global viewing audience is nearly impossible to calculate, but at least four previous presidents drew bigger domestic TV audiences than Trump. According to Nielsen ratings, 30.6 million viewers tuned in across 12 networks to watch Trump’s inauguration. That falls well short of the 41.8 million viewers who watched Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, the 37.7 million who watched Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the 34.1 million who watched Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration and the 33 million who watched Richard Nixon’s 1973 inauguration.

Millions of viewers also tuned in for livestreams of Trump’s inauguration, and CNN says that there were 16.9 million livestreams on its site and apps across the day. But Obama’s 2009 inauguration drew then-record online audiences, with CNN reporting more than 25 million livestreams across the day?—?and so much demand during Obama’s speech that many viewers were shunted to online waiting rooms.

But it won’t last and this won’t work. The ostensible incongruity of seeing so many people (of all ages and races) taking to the streets alongside Trump’s surreal outburst du jour?—?albeit his first one as President?—?is oddly refreshing. Yesterday proves there’s simply way too many people who know, and can’t be unconvinced, the sky is blue, 2+2=4, and that Truth, however painful it is at times, takes precedence over sloganeering and facile bromides (what type of person is comforted by impotent assertions like “we’ll win again”? Who doesn’t feel America has been “winning”, whatever that implies anyway? I guess some of it is timing, because I certainly didn’t hear a lot about America “losing” between 2001–2008, at least until the losses became difficult to count and the G.O.P. united to blame it on the next guy. I wonder, incidentally, how Republicans would react if any Democrat ever implied that we haven’t “won” anything since before Vietnam. A military veteran hearing this shit, from a born-rich draft dodger, and the irony doesn’t make his gray matter boil? Tell me again about how Trump’s victory was due to liberal elitism and not racism or willful ignorance mixed with cognitive dissonance…).

Getting back to Trump’s favorite foe, the media: it was called out, entirely, by Trump’s (and Spicer’s even more strident, yet easily disprovable) assertion that his crowds were bigger and, yes, that all American media is engaged in a synchronous scam to embarrass him. First, he embarrasses himself just fine (did you listen to that “speech”?), and secondly, it’s one thing to bully individual reporters or networks?—?itself unprecedented and disgraceful?—?but to in effect call out the entire media (reality) and claim what we all saw and heard is false because he says so, draws a line in the sand. It’s a curious blessing. Because Trump & Co. can’t help themselves, the stakes are already thus: the media will have little choice but push back, their only agenda being…truth, reality. And, fortunately for them, and us, it’s not only imperative but pretty painless to let the truth speak for itself.

Demonstrators protest during the Women’s March along Pennsylvania Avenue January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters spearheaded by women’s rights groups demonstrated across the US to send a defiant message to US President Donald Trump. / AFP / Joshua LOTT (Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)

And that’s why the amazing marches yesterday are so important. At the same time Trump is still stage-crafting psychotic appeals for legitimacy, millions of people are marching, unified by their disdain for the poison and falsehood that’s fueled his short-lived rise. (And proving what’s been lost in the post-election agonizing: the demographic shift of subsequent generations is extremely tolerant and, well, progressive. That’s the future, and it’s beautiful.) The media, no collective profile in courage at any time, has effectively been dared, by Trump & Co., to fall in line or do what they’re already paid to do: report. Refreshingly, they’ve seen these crowds?—?around America; around the world?—?and will feel obligated (more so than they already should, a whole other topic) to report the truth. Seeing Trump’s popularity plummet and hearing his maniacal insistence on bending reality to his will removes the gray area and equivocation that typically carries the day in today’s media environment. Again, this is a blessing. We won’t require reporters to editorialize or embellish, just point the cameras and microphones and allow the accumulating weight of Trump’s duplicity to bury him.

Finally, we should desist from drawing any comparisons to Hitler (aside from the fact that it’s lazy and, at this juncture, historically inaccurate; Trump’s more your average tin-pot dictator wannabe): that cretin was able to convince (or intimidate) enough people to commit the atrocities he oversaw; yesterday proves, undeniably, that Trump will never have anything close to a mandate. Going forward, every subsequent utterance or scripted scene will alienate more folks…and that’s before his (that is, the GOP’s) policies begin actively harming and disenfranchising people who voted for him. We’re seeing how unpopular (and unqualified) he is today, and he’ll never be this popular, again. It’s a slow (or maybe not-so-slow) burn, effective immediately.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 1/22/17.

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Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: 10 Songs of Righteous Protest

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Ian Anderson called it, in ’74:

The ice-cream castles are refrigerated;
The super-marketeers are on parade.
There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck,
As you light your cigarette on the burning deck.
And you balance your world on the tip of your nose
Like a Sea Lion with a ball, at the carnival.

Here are nine other songs of righteous and intelligent fury. Strength in sensitivity will provide both solidarity and sustenance for whatever lies ahead.

And when you lose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone
Dragged down by the stone…

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

We tried to speak between lines of oration
You could only repeat what we told you.
Your axe belongs to a dying nation,
They don’t know that we own you.
You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you.
We’re the slaves of the phony leaders
Breathe the air we have blown you.

In the night he’s a star in the Milky Way
He’s a man of the world by the light of day
A golden smile and a proposition
And the breath of God smells of sweet sedition…

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
Listen to the buyer still
Listen to the Congress
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and wild
Fire on the hemisphere below…

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane, all the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah
There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine…

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

White collared conservative flashing down the street
Pointing their plastic finger at me
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high
Wave on, wave on
Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me
Go ahead on Mr. Business man, you can’t dress like me…
(I got my own world to look through
And I ain’t gonna copy you)

No lyrics necessary; Charlie Hunter’s solemn, elegiac solo at the end speaks volumes about suppression, resistance and bearing witness.

And, of course, always, last and far from least:

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Cheer Up, Trump Haters: It’ll Get Worse!

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WELL, THAT PRESS CONFERENCE was…something, huh? Predictably shambolic to the point of parody. Only more so. Satire and ridicule no longer register; we’re down the faux-golden rabbit hole, and it smells a lot like…urine. The unprecedented combination of incompetence and unscrupulousness on display makes George W. Bush look like Thomas Jefferson. What a national embarrassment. And if we’re counting on the media (many of whom laughed dutifully like dead-eyed show dogs at the appropriate moments, proving the only thing more astonishing than Trump’s truthless mendacity is the imperturbable fashion with which these bootlickers lap it up — for access, for ratings) to hold this buffoon in any way accountable, it’s going to be a long, brutal slog.

Special kudos to Jake Tapper, sitting afterward beside the emptiest suit in modern journalism, Wolf Blitzer, and making a play for his colleague’s crown: that immediate capitulation, equal parts petulant but unctuous, marks a new low in what may become a bottomless pit in the years (months? weeks? days? minutes?) ahead. Like a pathetic nerd willing to endure endless wedgies from the jocks for the pleasure of being in their company, these cowards are pleading with Trump to understand they aren’t the ones pushing “fake news” about a man who started the Obama “birther” conspiracy. For anyone struggling to understand why what Buzzfeed did is not only defensible, but imperative, it’s useful, as ever, to turn to our man George Orwell, who wrote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” That precept, already in grave peril pre-Trump, is going to be tested to previously unimaginable limits in the years (months? weeks? days? minutes?) ahead.

Yet, in a surreal best case scenario for the GOP, even the most plugged-in fanatic can’t keep pace with the outrages and things-that-would-normally-qualify-as-headline-dominating-scandals (Exhibit A: that stunt, during the press conference—with the lawyer spewing falsehood after ruse after gambit to explain why, in fact, there are no conflicts of interest—normally would require, by the laws of irony, a lightning bolt to crash into the room, incinerating everyone present. Exhibit B: the mere fact that a wretched poltroon like Jeff Sessions is being mentioned, in 2017–outside a Top Ten list of most despicable public servants in American history–would usually oblige weeks of discussion and deliberation). We can’t even wrap our minds around the depravity of Trump’s alleged Russian adventures (when The Donald denied being down with water sports because he’s a germaphobe, and some of the press tittered, it was a particularly low point in yesterday’s spectacle), so these types of distractions will likely enable a host of unsavory cretins to coast through their confirmations unscathed, assuming their roles in Trump’s administration.

I’ll confess that after yesterday’s infomercial, I mean press conference, I had a fleeting (however naive) revelation: despite his bluster, once the polling became clear, Trump would not willingly take away health care from so many of the red state suckers. As more folks figured out what’s really going on, and we saw more stories like this, we could count on Trump, quite paradoxically and only because of his colossal ego, to be the unforeseen monkey wrench in Ryan & McConnell’s vision of undoing everything positive, post-FDR.

And yet, we wake up today to discover (once again), by having no shame whatsoever, the GOP is figuring out that in a nation increasingly populated by children, obfuscation without apology (or explanation) is the best way to advance an agenda and suffer minimal, if any blowback. In today’s America, our reality is that a black man giving millions of people health care is many times more politically damaging than a rich white man taking it away from them. Until, that is, they figure out exactly what they had, what’s gone, and the person they voted for did what they thought they wanted

And then, some accountability, at long last? Not necessarily.

Guess what? It can get even worse.

Just after the election results came in, I realized most of what passes for Republican intelligentsia were so many dogs that inexplicably caught the car. Demonizing Obamacare by any means necessary was easy as it was effective, because it didn’t require any action, aside from reciting boilerplate propaganda and whipping useful idiots into the type of frenzy that could make a President Donald Trump possible. But, even the most cynical of these charlatans had to know, once it got down to the nuts and bolts of fucking over tens of millions of citizens, it might prove…complicated. My prediction, cynical in its own right, turns out to have been optimistic (!): I proposed that, if they were smart, Trump & Co. would immediately “repeal” Obamacare, replace it with the exact same thing (never forget, the ACA is a compromise crafted in conservative think tanks), call it Trumpcare, and convert the most spectacular sleight of hand in political history.

But I overlooked one important thing: the current crop of Republicans don’t give the slightest shit about people, or their health care, and we now have the votes to prove it.

It occurs to me that doing this maneuver (in the dead of night, natch), effectively forcing repeal (damn the torpedoes, declare victory, mission accomplished, etc.) without a net — or the pesky collective conscience to fret about how it will play in the media, much less actual peoples’ lives — proves that luck, combined with a brazen will to power for power’s sake, provides (another) miraculous opportunity. If, in fact, today signals the beginning of the end of Obamacare, effective immediately, people will steadily figure out what’s going on (way too late, as always) and they will, of course, be apoplectic. Someone will have to answer for that rage, and it won’t be Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. In a perfect storm so repellent it causes one to ponder the actuality of the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, they’ll use Trump as ballast, impeach him, and tie the repeal of Obamacare to…Trump. And it will work, because enough Republicans (and all Democrats) will relish the idea of jettisoning Mr. Make America Great Again from the Oval Office. A win/win for all involved, right?

Wrong. The unfathomable good fortune bestowed on Pence (and Ryan and Big Mac) will reach wet dream proportions: with Trump gone (and presumably having the stench of failure providing cover) a unified GOP will finally have unfettered access to dismantling anything and everything these sadists deem “progressive”. Worse, they’ll likely have years of accountability-free momentum, because between blaming Obama (duh) and Trump (who, of course, they all hate anyway), they’ll somehow position themselves as the ones who got rid of Obama and saved us all from Trump.

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Trump is sufficiently unconscionable he tends to camouflage the horrifying prospect of Pence as the ultimate GOP fantasy: a perfect amalgamation of Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Jerry Falwell, where mendacity meets opportunism, all gussied up in an aw shucks, superficial piety. He will, without the least reservation, blank-check the most ruthless Ayn Rand fetishists in history, making the Bush/Cheney years seem like a utopia of regulation and civil rights and market stability.

The typically gullible and feckless Democrats will think—abetted of course by an ever-pliant media—that since Pence is calm, soft-spoken and smiles a lot, they can reason with him. And with a shit-eating smirk, he’ll shut them down on every single issue, including ones (privatizing Social Security) that Trump, possibly, would have blanched at. And for every policy that undoes equality or the hope of middle-class advancement (The working poor? Face, meet Boot), credulous sycophants like Chuck Todd will allow weasels like Paul Ryan to frown meaningfully and talk about how none of this is easy, but governing requires difficult decisions and God Bless America.

And best case scenario, in four-to-eight years there’ll be a Bud Lite type of reckoning (the Democrats emboldened enough to campaign on positions that were middle of the road a decade ago), and the GOP (and their enablers in the business community and media—assuming the two entities are distinguishable by this point) will start whining, again, about the debt being amassed to pull us out of the mess, the one no one could have seen coming. That is, unless the hole is not finally too deep, a fantasy that causes so many of our right-leaning members of Congress to arise with Sildenafil-assisted morning wood every day.

Cheer up, things can get worse. Much worse. Impeaching Trump, that big, bloated white whale, may not be the prize we’re after. Indeed, there’s a possibility that keeping him in office may be the only thing preventing the half-ass Ahabs behind him from partying like it’s 1929.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 1/12/17.

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The Weeklings: Solutions for Oncoming Political Darkness

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In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

–Bertolt Brecht

I –and my fellow editors and compatriots at The Weeklings— share thoughts about awareness, resistance and, yes, the ceaseless need to create and proliferate art. My contribution is directly below; please follow the link to see the rest of the excellent pieces.

 

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

This immortal quote, from the always-reliable and never irrelevant George Orwell, is as important today as it’s ever been. Never mind the very real macro concerns about the environment, civil liberties, and crucial social programs, we are already witnessing despicable—and, let’s face it, heretofore inconceivable—signs of impending trouble, on micro levels. Every spray-painted swastika, each threat (uttered aloud or under the cowardly cover of social media) and every implied or explicit appeal to censorship is a sign, a lone holler seeking imitation to serve as oxygen. Intolerance needs collaboration to sustain it, like a carcass feeding maggots. As such, many of the simple acts of personal and artistic expression we’ve been fortunate to take for granted (particularly as whites, most especially as white males) are now likely to be scrutinized, decried and, if possible, curtailed. It goes without saying that any American with a functioning moral compass will confront acts of aggression and intervene peacefully but without compunction. As writers, it’s incumbent upon us to bear witness and engender solidarity, by any means necessary. Creativity in the face of repression is always indispensable, but on a fundamental level, every gesture of ill-will and ignorance must be met with an urgent refusal to countenance it. Retreating into the relative safety of silence (or worse, apathy) is not an option.

In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.

Orwell, again. We’re finding ourselves in a time where we can rely on neither the press nor politicians to inform us or inspire the better angels of our nature. This is a degradation of the American experiment, but it need not be a tragedy. History seems intent on recycling its ugliest examples, and we owe those who sacrificed, then, and those among us, now, who are most vulnerable, to meet this challenge with dignity and resolve. During times of darkness, our best artists have dedicated their gifts, if not their lives, to exposing duplicity and promoting enlightenment. Imitation of their audacity, in the days to follow, will be the sincerest—and most vital—form of flattery.

Read the rest, HERE.

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The Democrats Can’t Win If They Won’t Fight

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i. The Day After the Day After

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE hand-wringing and recriminations. The only time Democrats love firearms is when they enter a circular firing squad. The only time they embrace religion is when they reenact the Stations of the Cross.

Fuck that shit. Not me, not this time.

I mean, don’t misunderstand: there’s tons of blame to go around, and I dread the impending days (months? years?) of analysis, self-pity and castigation as part of the psychoanalysis liberals engage in after every excruciating setback. Since this latest one is the worst kind imaginable, it’s no surprise the predictable sites are piling up with the predictable screeds. You know, if only we tried harder to engage with good old country folk who just want to get their racist on, we’d…what, exactly? Understand their rage? Reconcile? Get them to consider voting for a Democrat?

Please give me the largest possible break, and super-size it.

First and foremost, the big lesson to be learned here is not that Hillary (or any of us) were deluded or nonchalant. I think, misleading polls aside, the reason victory seemed imminent was not because of Democratic overconfidence, but rather a genuine faith in the collective wisdom of the American people. Hillary Clinton, for all her faults (the handful of genuine ones and the myriad manufactured ones), had every reason to believe there was no way enough people—whatever their racial, misogynistic or authoritarian hang-ups might be—could pull the lever for the most spectacularly ill-suited know-nothing to con his way into contention.

And so, shame on all of us, myself very much included, for not doing more to scare the bejesus out of anyone willing to listen about what true monsters Mike Pence and Paul Ryan are. Maybe, and I know I’m going out on a limb here, it may have been useful for Team Pantsuit to make a slightly bigger thing out of Pence’s record, (still and for now) freely available online. And double-fuck the MSM for giving Hillary’s emails approximately one million times the attention they paid to Pence’s role in legislation that obliges aborted or miscarried  fetuses to be either cremated or buried. The revolution, it turns out, was televised. At once explanation and epitaph, the soulless Les Moonves predicted the (final?) nail in the coffin of America’s Empire, in February of this year: “For us, economically, Donald’s place in this election is a good thing. It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in….This is fun.”

With enemies like that, why would Donald Trump need friends?

As for the execrable Ryan, can someone help me understand why (how) he’d already be calling his shot on privatizing (eradicating) Medicare before Trump is even fucking inaugurated? I know these true believers have perpetual hard-ons for all things privatization, but don’t they know this is a non-starter with seniors? Or are they sufficiently cynical and cocky to think being able to tie plundering Medicare with repealing Obamacare (you can practically envision Ryan’s crocodile tears as he solemnly announces that as much as it pains him to do this…) will give them sufficient cover? I’ll concede we liberals have turned the Chicken Little act into performance art, but once we start talking about necessary (and popular!) programs getting gutted before anyone wakes up, shit has officially gotten way too real.

Listen, I expect (and look forward to) the inevitable blowback from the diehards who’ll abandon Trump once beautiful walls aren’t built, millions of men and women aren’t magically deported, and draining the so-called swamp means infesting it with the worst sorts of insider reptiles, etc. And I’ll relish the shit show of that shit stain Reince Priebus having to lock horns each day with Bannon (and Trump)…but I guess I hoped the GOP doesn’t literally bring us back to 1898 before there’s some (thanks again, MSM!!) intelligent and organized resistance.

ii. Those who cannot remember the past… 

To understand where we are, it’s imperative to review where we’ve been. In some ways, confronting the ways this is on us might prove the unkindest cut, but perhaps a full and tardy assessment will ensure we finally learn our lesson.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last eight years was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, (and who all but ran in the opposite direction of the thug who hijacked their party) so smug and certain, all of a sudden. It’s not just that the Dems snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, once again, but that this was at once predictable and preventable. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them free.

My biggest beef with Obama’s tenure (one that we’ll miss and appreciate with greater urgency in a couple of months) is, aside from his not being a more vocal and triumphant advocate about providing health care for millions of Americans, the once-in-a-generation opportunity he wasted in 2009. With a country still smoldering from the predictable catastrophe eight-plus years of free market fetishism wrought, the time was at last ripe to make a case why a no-tax/no-regulation-on-steroids approach never works. More, it was a historical occasion screaming for a straightforward yet forceful defense of Government-with-a-capital-G. This was a gift to grab from the despair: with things bottomed out due to unconstrained conservative rule,  history practically pleaded with sensible leaders to reclaim the word and the concept, not to mention rebrand it.

It’s not so difficult to imagine, and this stuff practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

(He also could, and should, have continually invoked FDR’s famous—and quite effective—“I welcome their hatred” mic drop.)

Obama was either too credulous or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be prepared for the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the absence of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government—instead of the Masters of the Universe, and the Republicans who serve them—was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse. Put simply, the health insurance industry and the pols they have in their pockets are cartoon villains and the Democrats still were unable to game out an effective strategy to expose them as such.

Aside from Obama’s (take your pick) naïveté, arrogance or indifference, it shouldn’t have taken him well into his second term to think about messaging. Priority number one for Democrats, effective immediately, is not rolling in the hay with Br’er Redneck, but crafting a story that’s consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

The reason this is crucial is because the Republicans already did it and, aside from a few hiccups and intrusions of reality, it’s worked swimmingly ever since. In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, once upon a time Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as a constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être. With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new storyline. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to render it sacrosanct.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art. This reached its apotheosis when truth Trumped reality (in every sense of the word) and we ended up electing an actual Gordon Gekko, sans charisma and liquidity.

(That the media, and the Dems, got rolled so historically, by letting Trump get away without releasing his tax returns, is something we should neither forgive nor forget.)

Incidentally, and depressingly case in point: If Trump is smart, he’d insist he is going to repeal and replace Obamacare. The second he’s inaugurated, “replace” it with “TrumpCare” which is the exact same thing as Obamacare. All of his voters, and a vast majority of Republicans, will embrace it and love it. You own the narrative, you own reality.

iii. The Power of Political Narrative, Revisited

In a piece entitled The Power of Political Narrative, I wrote the following:

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on some tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a series of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—except belief is not optional.

The fifth, final and most audacious (of these commandments) involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

Of course, in Democrats’ defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. Particularly as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish: we don’t want any government interference, we don’t want to pay taxes and we demand to see all of these pesky problems go away and take care of themselves. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat. And that in itself is a problem: it allows Republicans to continue to frame the idea of shared accountability and responsibility as an inherently negative or intrusive notion.

Back in 2014, as the Dems, running away from Obama’s accomplishments (obviously) and downplaying the demonstrable good Obamacare had already done (naturally), I wrote the following:

During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is Obama going to start reminding everyone that this Big Bad Government has historically been the bulwark between our people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Which brings us to today.

The Republicans have won a huge battle, to be certain. But there’s a larger war to be fought, on both literal and figurative levels. In terms of the former: life goes on; we live to fight another day, another cycle, another generation (You know, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”). With regards to the latter: there’s a longer game the Republicans would like to win, and that involves impeding a progressive alternative by any means necessary. This is why you have to choose sides. This is why you can ill afford to let current circumstances lull you into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless corporate welfare they’ll fight for, their ultimate ambition is to render the actually literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Get angry. Get involved. Do what you have to do.

*This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 11/15/16.

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Born In The U.S.A. or, Every Day Is Veterans Day (Revisited)

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I. Personal

Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.

I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m On Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.

(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, The Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)

Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.

II. Polemical

Check it out:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

(chorus)

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go…

This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

III. Political

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same armchair generals will once again wrap themselves in the American flag; these same couch potato patriots prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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