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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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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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems (Revisited)

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i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. 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 (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, 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.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit 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.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against 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 lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government 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.

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ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

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iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually 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.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems

obama_superman_statue_by_kindlepics-d5ju8nl

i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. 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 (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, 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.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit 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.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against 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 lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government 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.

sean-connery_richard-harris_the-molly-maguires

         ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

KeepGovtOutOfMyMedicare-sign-cropped

iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually 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.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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The “R” Party Putting the “D” in Dysfunctional (And Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and –of course– George Orwell)

In honor (dishonor?) of our dysfunctional government not doing what it doesn’t do best, I think it’s timely and appropriate to revisit a blast from the past (a blog post that was written in February, 2011). But first, if you want to get up to speed about what is going on and what is driving it (i.e., how it happened and why it’s happening), do yourself a favor and read THIS and THIS.

While the piece, below, ostensibly focuses on a movie and unions (then, now), it is also an interrogation of why those who claim to despise government are incentivized (in every sense of the word) to do so, and why, not-so-ironically, making government fail proves government does not work and hence, their work at preventing work works.

***

 

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: 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 a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually 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 .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell (Revisited)

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: 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 a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually 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 .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell (Revisited)

 

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: 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 a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually 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 .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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A History of Violence*

I.

Fighting doesn’t solve anything. Everyone knows that. But then, the point of fighting is not usually to solve anything, it’s to settle something. There is a significant discrepancy between the two; ask anyone who used to (or still does) get into fist fights.

I was never that guy. Certainly I had some schoolyard scraps, but those were more wrestling matches at recess and I was semi-retired by fifth grade. I don’t believe I’ve thrown or received a punch since I entered middle school. It had a lot to do with self-awareness: I knew I was not a fighter, did not relish the idea of getting into fights, and did not particularly enjoy witnessing them.

I can’t overlook the role my mother played in the development of my penchant for diplomacy. Like most women, and mothers, she had an innate revulsion for cruelty and injustice. But more, she simply detested violence in all forms, the way most sensitive, evolved individuals do. Being a boy I did not, and do not, necessarily share that stance, or I do with some reservations. Hence, my tolerance and, occasionally, appreciation for realistic portrayals of mayhem in movies, or the otherwise indefensible spectacle of grown men trading blows in hockey games. But I did inherit an inability to comprehend brutality for its own sake, or the notion of deriving pleasure from someone else’s pain. Of course there is considerable ground between behavior most rational people abhor and activities (like fighting) that some people can rationalize and even celebrate.

Toward the end of S.E. Hinton’s book Rumble Fish the doomed older brother—a street legend who, like all tragic figures, sees everything clearly after it’s already too late—looks at the Siamese fighting fish and suggests that their violence is territorial, not instinctual. If they existed out in the river, they wouldn’t fight. This may or may not be true, but it’s an allegory for gang violence which is nothing if not a territorial battle.

It also, of course, speaks to the larger theme of violence being—among many other things—a consequence of timing, luck and location. My old man grew up outside of Boston, and all of my extended family still lives less than a half hour from the city. It was, and remains, a very blue collar, ethnic environment. As such, inadequate if revealing descriptors like old school, tough, and real were, and are, invoked. Even though genetics made me inclined to determine that the pen is mightier than the sword, if I had grown up in the same neighborhood my father did, there are ways I would be different. Too many ways to count, certainly. I believe it’s entirely possible I may have turned out much the same as I am today, but I also am positive circumstances would have ensured that I was harder, less reflective and more resilient. Put another way, the fact that I can even formulate such a hypothesis tends to bolster this theory, and was taught –and trained myself– to use my mind instead of my muscle, not as a calculated choice so much as an inevitable outcome of my upbringing. Mostly, I remain grateful I had the opportunity to succeed (and be allowed to succeed) without the old fashioned type of problem solving that impedes evolution.

II.

Writing is fighting, and few writers used their skills with as much focused indignation as George Orwell.

Orwell embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure. Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers; no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. To a certain extent, we counted more on our writers (think Twain or Sinclair, or Dickens) to give us an unvarnished view of what was happening, hidden in plain sight.

In his harrowing essay “How The Poor Die” George Orwell describes his unexpected—and unpleasant—time at a non-paying hospital in Paris. It is a typically instructive discursion on the issues that obsessed Orwell, and which he wrote with more clarity than anyone else in the last century: poverty, class and the cultural machinations that perpetuate these conditions.

Having seen indigent, anonymous citizens carted in (and out) suffering from familiar and inscrutable diseases, one morning he notices that the older man across from him had passed away during the night. It occurs to Orwell, as he looks with pity at the pale, broken-down body, that he is witnessing an example of death by “natural causes”. And this manner of death, which so many of us literally pray for, is, he concludes:  “slow, smelly and painful.” The lucky ones, Orwell notes, die at home (the truly lucky ones, he proposes, die in action, with their boots on).

Well into the 20th Century, hospitals were very much like prisons (in the literal, not metaphorical sense); only worse—particularly for the impoverished. Being there, and bearing witness, made it possible for others to see what they could not otherwise understand. More importantly, it made it impossible for people to pretend that these conditions did not exist. Orwell, like Sinclair, Twain and Dickens, did his part to parade our inhumanity and force us to confront this collective shame.

So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating 1984, for instance.

Orwell had the courage of his convictions: he enlisted, and fought in the Spanish Civil War. He took to the streets and lived as a hobo to better understand (and subsequently articulate) what life was like for those “down and out”. Over time, he learned the hard way that there are no easy answers. Undaunted, he doubled down on his commitment, using these events to solidify a resolve that changing minds was more effective in the long run than bashing skulls.

III.

You can’t combat cancer with fists or poetry; you can try it with chemicals and prayers, but like it is with most of our earthly affairs, it all comes down to timing and luck.

We thought we were lucky, at first. In many ways, we were: the diagnosis was made in time and the operation was successful. The cancer had not spread. Ten years ago, the doctor said, I would have sent you on your way. Now, knowing what we know, we’ll do chemotherapy to be on the safe side.

Better safe than sorry, we all agreed.

We got lucky, we said, a year later when no cancer had come back. We were lucky, we said, all through ’98 and ’99, and we entered a new millennium free and clear, the cancer a thing of the past, like the Y2K bug.

A few months later we were back in the hospital. It had come back.

It was, we all agreed, time to fight. What else could we do?

My sister asked questions, took notes and worried. My father talked with my mother, lived with her and ran point regarding decisions, directions and dealing with the obligations incumbent upon anyone who has repeated the words “’til death do us part”. I did my own note-taking, question-asking and behind the scenes improvising. Above all I envisioned the worst, hoped for the best and lost sleep like it was my job.

During the summer of 2002 when it sometimes felt like the walls were closing in (literally, as anyone who has experienced crisis-induced anxiety can attest), I dropped pounds I did not necessarily need to lose. I ate some good food and I drank some good drinks, but those miserable months frequently felt like one unappetizing, ill-digested meal. The worst days were when your stomach and mind simultaneously conspired against you: not enough nourishment and too much mental unrest will cause side effects even strangers notice.

Still, I knew what was at stake, and my primary responsibility, I felt, was to keep things as upbeat and optimistic as possible. This was certainly for my mother’s sake, but it was also a fairly pragmatic strategy. What good, I thought, could possibly come from giving up hope, or letting my mother see the insecurity and the dread that on certain days reflected the weather: thick and humid and getting hotter as the afternoons dragged on.

But we all reserved the right to despise this disease that was decimating the woman we loved. It’s not especially difficult to describe, and I suppose it’s not hard to imagine the defensive feelings that boil up when you see someone close to you suffering. The fury, at times, impotently craves an outlet.

My most fervent wish, which at times became an obsession, was to swap places with my mother and take her cancer inside of me. Not in the metaphorical—or even literal—sense of preferring to struggle in another’s place, although there was obviously that. It was not merely instinctual; it was personal. It was not simply a matter of wanting my mother’s agony to cease, though there was obviously that. What I felt was an unappeasable compulsion to engage with this enemy. In short, I wanted to kick cancer’s ass.

This was not a case of reactionary bravado or calculated displacement (though there were elements of both, obviously); this was something I would have given anything to orchestrate. There I was, in the very prime of my life, physically and perhaps more importantly, mentally; I was as strong spiritually as I’d ever been. I was ready, and ravenous to step into the ring. It was as though I had been working my entire life to prepare for this, to assume this responsibility.

For the first time in my life I craved violence. I needed to step in and deal with this bullying motherfucker. I wanted to hit it, chew it, swallow it, spit it out and step on it. I wanted to laugh at it, engage it on its own terms while taking everything it had to offer, and then bury it. I saw it and I wanted it.

Of course I knew the first signs of nausea would take considerable wind out of my sails, and because I recognized it I appreciated it, and that was truly what caused me to crave some semblance of satisfaction. I am more positive of this than anything else in my entire life: if I could have done it I would have, and I would have been ecstatic.

And like everyone else who has had these exact same thoughts, I was mocked by the fact that it is impossible. Not just the fantasy of some half-assed exorcism, but the inability to do much of anything about cancer. You can’t put your hands on it; you can hardly wrap your mind around it. It humbles us, eventually (inevitably) in terms of how little we actually control despite the ways we create and organize reality with clocks, calendars, words and games. All the rituals—including faith and love—that we utilize to combat the malevolent indifference of our universe are strategies, not solutions. Cancer reminds us we are ultimately just animals in a world that promises only one outcome, and for the majority of creatures populating this planet existence is cruelly fleet and ruthlessly efficient.

The worst part? You can’t make it personal. Cancer is only an organism, staying alive the only way it knows how. What can we do about that? Make it evil, invest it with the accountability for everything that can’t be reconciled or explained. This is why we created the devil; it is the central reason so many of us must believe there is a benign force supervising our affairs. It explains why, with the best intentions, we determine that each misfortunte is all part of a larger plan; one we can’t begin to comprehend. When you go from wanting to believe to needing to believe (in something, anything) it is easier to fathom how faith can quickly lead to violence. This helps explain how—and why—knowledge was scorned or suppressed, and why men of science were burned at the stake.

It’s Nature. It’s natural. It’s our nature.

Cancer reminds us that we are part of a natural order. Billions of organisms are attacked and invaded each day, all according to the cycle of life and death, the grim ushers in Nature’s play. We are aware of it, we can use science to explain it, we may even write poems about it. But we are pretty much powerless to do anything about it. This does not mean we have to accept it. Depending on how you look at the world, we fight every second of our lives just to live. Each breath we draw defies death; each thought we have outlives oblivion. Each time we give love we are defeating fear and hatred, the twin killers of compassion and connection. When we help others suffer through their final struggle with survival we may be fighting a battle that has already been settled. At the same time, we are solving the ultimate secret of our own existence: we learn how to conquer death by anticipating—and transcending—it. This is the battle we are all born into, and it is one we are fortunate to fight as long as we are able.

*From a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.  –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: 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 a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually 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 .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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Born in the U.S.A. or, Every Day is Veterans Day (Revisited)

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 so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame (and our unrequited affair with Nation Building in Afghanistan chugs along with no end in sight), we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least. (We will concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one pays lip service to soldiers, country and Christ like Republicans, but a checkbook and a soul always trump empty sloganeering.)

Remember this, when the small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same craven war pigs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag; these same armchair generals and couch potato patriots prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash the programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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