Monday, May 30, 2011

Pocketing Diversity: San Diego's 21st Century Tribalism

And my old friends, we were so different then
Before your war against the suburbs began
Before it began

And now the music divides
Us into tribes
You grew your hair so I grew mine
They said the past won't rest
Until we jump the fence and leave it behind.

-- Arcade Fire, “Suburban War

Springsteen-like "indie rock" ingenues the Arcade Fire released The Suburbs last year to great fanfare. Win Butler and crew looked past easy generalizations, suggesting that the suburban experience is more complicated than it has been given credit. As Pitchfork noted approvingly The Suburbs proved "a generously paced collection of meditations on familial responsibility, private disappointments, and fleeting youth, much of which takes place in moving vehicles." The struggles of suburbia provided the group with material rich enough for a Grammy award winning album (followed by confusion - and anger sometimes - over who the band is), but far more importantly a powerful distillation of Arcade Fire's considerable skills. People make place, not the other way around. However, as critics like J. Eric Oliver have pointed out, suburbanization has shifted populations into mono racial/economic communities in which citizens remain unengaged (J. Eric Oliver, Democracy in Suburbia). Importantly, Oliver notes, "most of us are unclear about what exactly a 'suburb' is." Most are located within metropolitan regions but outside the central city, but what if your metropolis lacks a true "central city"? How does urban suburbanization, so common in western and Sunbelt cities, shape human geographies?
Few American cities embraced suburbanized urbanization to the extent that San Diego, California has. The city’s growth remains an encapsulation of sunbelt surburbanization as five lane highways, free market ideologies, New Right conservatism and automobile dependency came to define the city. Municipal policies favoring private market housing have resulted in highly segregated city where much of the city’s white population resides in suburban townships while its lower income residents reside in an ill defined part of the city known as Southeast San Diego. In 1980, nearly 76% of the city’s residents were white, and thirty years later this trend has only intensified, increasing to nearly 80% by 2010. As a 1981 San Diego Union Tribune article noted, despite a battery of state, federal, and local housing programs, the metropolitan area’s pattern of segregation only deepened.

Boosters like Joel Kotkin hail San Diego’s neoliberal approach for its effectiveness in limiting the public sector (“Today San Diego has one of the lowest ratios of public employees per capita in the nation”) and unions (“In the early decades of the century, the city was famed for its hostility to the labor movement, a sentiment that sometimes spilled over into ugly anti-union vigilantism.”), while pursuing what some refer to as the “San Diego Way”: privileging the private sector and personal initiative. For Kotkin, even minorities, which his article seems to suggest are to blame for urban political gridlock in other cities, (“The city lacks the politics of ethnic grievance that has entrenched a costly and divisive ethnic spoils system in so many older big cities”) have “committed to bourgeois respectability”. Kotkin admits San Diego has its “ghettos”, but the struggles of Southeastern San Diego Communities and the historic Logan Heights, home to Barrio Logan (a largely Mexican/Mexican American community home to famed Chicano Park), exist as an anomaly.

How was Kotkin to know that nearly all of San Diego’s net growth in the 1990s was going to be due to black, Latino, and Asian minorities? As Nancy McArdle points out, suburban growth has also been impacted by minority homeownership. However, despite this increase, McArdle notes segregation levels for Latinos, suburban and urban have increased. “It is especially disturbing, therefore, that the largest increases in overall segregation are for suburban Latinos,” she writes. “Indeed, while whites comprise 60 percent of the total suburban population, the average Latino suburbanite lives in a census tract that is just 45 percent white, down from 58 percent white in 1990. Latino/white segregation has also increased in the City, and is now on par with black/white levels.”

Writing in 1996, Kotkin either ignored these developments or was simply unaware. Instead, Kotkin focused on San Diego’s burgeoning urbanity resulting in a city with a “dash of urban excitement.” The popular demographer even suggests that newly constructed Gaslamp Quarter an area “once populated by drunks, homeless people, and sailors who couldn’t make it to the more extensive fleshpots of nearby Tijuana,” represented a West Coast “sun lit version” of New York’s Tribeca neighborhood.

Of course, anyone who heads downtown today will find the snazzy nightclubs, “authentic” pubs, and fancy hotel restaurants/bars Kotkin praises. Yet, they will also find a palpable homeless population, boutique hotels next to neon lit check cashing stores, and grubbiness that in spots rivals the very New York he disparages. Finally, though some of the Gaslamp Quarter shines, it does so in a very unrealistic way: a disneyfied version of the Lower East Side, one might argue, with homeless people. Moreover, this all ignores the fact that in terms of providing housing for its low income populations, the city’s hostility toward public housing resulted in less than 2000 public housing units total. When new pro market private-public schemes developed under the low income tax credit , the city had no infrastructure to take advantage of its vaunted “private sector.” Its resistance to public housing meant it never developed the institutions, connections, and housing knowledge to build even affordable housing. As a result the city relies heavily on section 8 vouchers providing over 14,000 families each month with subsidized housing. Still, there remains 5 -7 year wait for the thousands of families in line to qualify for the voucher. In 2002, the city council declared affordable housing in the area to be in a state of crisis. Kotkin’s 1996 article failed to note this development despite the fact city planning reports dating back to the 1970s pointed out that the metropolitan area lacked the adequate stock of low and middle income housing.

Still, Kotkin does get some things right. For example, he notes the explosion of college diplomas and advanced degrees. Between 1970 and 1990, San Diego absorbed over 300,000 people with college degrees rising from 96,000 in 1970 to nearly 400,000 in 1990. By 1996, over 25% of the city’s population held a BA, which at that time was about 5% over the national average. Additionally, San Diego exceeded all other cities in PhD per capita. Undoubtedly, the establishment of the University of California San Diego (1960) with its elder sibling San Diego State University (established in 1897 as the San Diego Normal School) have contributed to these developments (nor should the private University of San Diego be ignored).

This creation of what Richard Florida would call a “creative class” drove neighborhood change in the Gaslamp Quarter and other areas. Formerly hardscrabble neighborhoods like Golden Hill, North Park, Hillcrest, University Heights, and to a far lesser extent Normal Heights were gentrified in part by these new educated classes but also by Southern California hipsters (sleeve tattoos are the new black and yes, lots of bicycles, no comment on fixies). Hillcrest came to be the dominant gay community (though all of these neighborhoods are very gay friendly). As Josh Sides has recently documented in Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco, SF’s famed Castro district underwent a transformation in the 1970s as gay residents renovated the neighborhood’s run down “Victorians” and reshaped the city’s cultural geography. However, this process also drove gentrification such that at the end of the 1970s “the median value of a Castro home was 37% higher than city wide average.” (111) In San Diego’s Hillcrest, night life centers around the University Avenue strip where one can find everything from dive bars (The Alibi – punky, highly recommended) to live venues (The Ruby Room- really cheap happy hour) to 1970s era lounges like Nunus (red lights and old fashioneds) to the more stylistic grace of the Tractor Room (fancy mixed drinks and a farming motif refracted through 21st century hipsterdom).

With that said, clearly, Hillcrest is not the Castro but a similar process has unfolded, even pushing less prosperous gay residents to adjacent North Park. Today Golden Hill, renamed South Park due to the previous association with the area’s former drug trade, has some of San Diego’s best bars and restaurants including Hamilton’s (Beer - but lots of it- only, shuffleboard, and .. dogs, always dogs), Vagabond (European food and morals, quality), and the Whistle Stop (mixed drinks, theme night, and movie Sundays featuring "classics" like Harold and Maude. Watch out for Fridays, local elementary and secondary pedagogues are known to get their collective drink on.). The aforementioned North Park, whose edges still sometimes harken back to its rougher days, has numerous trendy spots as well including Bluefoot (meat market? Maybe), the Linkery (supra local organic food and sports a handsome bar made by San Francisco furniture maker Forest Dickey – SDSU MFA alum), Toronado (SF based Beer Bar – West Coast IPA - "Danger Will Robinson!") and El Cajon Ave’s goofily cool the Fox Room (you don’t often get serenaded by middle aged lounge lizards these days). Normal and University Heights, though less well off than those already mentioned, have vibrant bar and restaurant scenes from the Blind Lady Ale House (People have been known to crash their bikes after one too many at this pizza/craft beer bar - plus a beautiful Hamm’s mural – Keep it Classy San Diego!),Live Wire(Punk hook ups like nobody's business) and the Triple Crown (Darts, Pool, Ping Pong TVs)to Small Bar (sister bar to Hamiltons but with booze and yes, it's fucking small) and the notoriously weird Lancers (bottled beer, wood paneling, and low low lighting).

It is also in these five communities that one finds the liberal heart of San Diego’s culture. [Editor's Note: Ocean Beach doesn't count here its more about hippies than liberalism, besides its more of a beach town than a urban suburban neighborhood] Kotkin argued that civic culture in San Diego remains very conservative such that even the liberals could be described as more centrist than leftist. Even SDUT journalist, Richard Louv, who Kotkin describes as “the closest thing to a liberal gadfly” San Diego had commented that because of its lack of a Left, the city “really had an opportunity to innovate.” These neighborhoods would strongly disagree. As Stevo proclaims in SLC Punk, “In a country of lost souls, rebellion comes hard, but in a [politically oppressive] city … it comes like fire.” Granted describing San Diego as politically oppressive is undoubtedly overstatement, but as numerous observers have pointed out, it’s certainly not Portland (“Where all the hot girls wear glasses../where young people go to retire...”) or San Francisco.

Likewise, for all Kotkin’s fawning over technocratic advance due to its universities, UCSD has also fostered its share of radicalism. As Jeremi Suri argues in Power and Protest, from his perch at UCSD, Herbert Marcuse helped craft structures of dissent for global leftists that resulted in wide ranging consequences. In the 1970s, a UCSD coalition of Chicano and African American students demanded a new Lumumba Zapata college (UCSD is today divided between six colleges each with a specific focus). Protesters, among them then philosophy graduate student Angela Davis, wanted the college to equip Black and Brown students with the knowledge and skill to more effectively wage liberation struggles. This promotion of transnational identities reflected wider visions of the Black Power and Chicano movements that up to recently have been ignored. Though the coalition collapsed by 1973, it illustrated the countervailing political forces in a region dominated by conservatism (or La Jolla in this example, which is technically part of the San Diego, but possibly even more Republican).

Of course, one would be remiss if one discussed San Diego without mentioning its military presence. In August of 2010, the Navy announced that the San Diego regional military payroll amounted to 11.1 billion annually for active duty personnel. This is not new. As Roger Lotchin has argued, San Diego pursued military dollars better than any other municipality in California and perhaps the nation. Though WWI helped its initial build up, WWII brought and explosion of population and infrastructure. During Vietnam, the military accounted for 30% of all jobs in San Diego County. Today, it represents closer to 7.4% percent as biotech and telecommunication firms have stepped into the local economy. With numerous Marine and Naval installations and 16000 units of military housing throughout the county, the built environment reflects this martial presence. Granted one might suggest that the military also contributes to the conservative hue of the county, but, one should remember the military takes all political persuasions. Also, without a doubt the increased racial and ethnic diversity of the military has helped bring greater variety to San Diego County’s boundaries. With that said, as former UCSD Professor Abe Shragge discovered, when the city pursued the Navy it did so for less then pure reasons. For Shragge, San Diego elites believed the pre-WWII navy lacked radicals, minorities, or “crooks” (Shragee, Abe, "Boosters and Bluejackets: The Civic Culture of Militarism in San Diego, CA, 1900- 1945," dissertation). Dreaming of an upstanding radical free white middle class, San Diego elites would have never countenanced the military’s magnetic pull for native born minorities (both through military service and defense industry jobs) and overseas immigration spurred by American military conflicts in Asia (Vietnam/Korea which resulted in a transnational flow of migrants to US shores through refugee acts and marriage to service personnel).

Still, there are other ramifications from this presence that many find less than attractive. First, disability in San Diego remains a relatively common experience. In addition to veterans from previous wars ranging from Vietnam to the first Gulf excursion, numerous soldiers return from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq with injuries that leave them physically challenged on some level. Second, the burgeoning “Asian massage” industry, one that may or may not hinge on human rights violations, has proliferated. While one may find terrific Vietnamese food on El Cajon Avenue, residents may also indulge their more prurient desires either through the numerous massage parlors or the burgeoning prostitution scene in the same area. Certainly, the military is not wholly to blame, but segments of its large numbers of unattached male service personnel probably dabble now and then in the darker side of the city’s nightlife.

So if San Diego’s human geography illustrates a prospering but divided populace, what does its built environment look like? The metropolitan area’s man-made geography does suffer from interstate gashes across its numerous canyons, but it also provides a multiplicity of landscapes to explore from the cliffs of La Jolla state park to trails of Poway’s Blue Sky Ecological Reserve (watch out for mountain lions) to the kitschy brilliance of Lego Land to the dimly lit bar scene full of neon signage. For those who want to tap into their inner Johnny Utah, San Diego offers quality surf spots as well. If one wants Asian food, you go to Convoy Street, where numerous Korean (Dae Jang Keum), Japanese (Okan and Sushi Ota)and Chinese restaurants abound (The Dumpling Inn is another recommend and numerous people hype Ba Ren ) or El Cajon Boulevard in the “Little Vietnam” neighborhood (Saigon is recommended here). While this diversity is certainly welcomed, much like its human geography, it appears disjointed. The Adams Avenue thoroughfare that runs through University Heights, Normal Heights, and the upscale Kensington seems as much like an agglomeration of random businesses than any coherent plan or development. Body shops sit next to Reggae clothing stores next to transcendental bookstores and yoga centers. El Cajon Boulevard can best be described as a fascinating "hot mess". In letting development take its “natural course” (meaning its hands off pro-market approach) the city has created a compelling but sometimes confusing built environment.

As in the lyrics of Arcade Fire’s “Suburban War,” one of the great regrets regarding San Diego is its divided “tribes.” For all its progressivism, the cluster of neighborhoods (North Park, University Heights, South Park, Hillcrest) lack racial diversity. City Heights, a low income area adjacent to North Park, exudes diversity as Mexicans/Mexican Americans, African Americans, Somalians, and a smattering of thirty something whites (dare I say bohemians?) live in relative content. Vietnamese places and Mexican restaurants provide dining experiences on the cheap (Have you ever had a nine dollar bucket of pork? I think not). However, seen as a “transitional” neighborhood, this variety might be washed away by well intentioned young middle class whites who desire the very diversity they sometimes accidentally drive off. The numerous non profits operating in City Heights have worked diligently to help local low income residents but some must wonder what happens if North Park’s success jumps I-805. Southeast San Diego, City Heights, Logan Heights – all minority dominated communities – are predictably hemmed in by highways, a trick employed perhaps most famously by Chicago’s Dick Daley. This is the larger point. Decades of housing policies that enforced segregation through market based approaches (including racial covenants and redlining), and the very infrastructure that defines Southern California, highways, have created a city of demographic and spatial enclaves. While that’s not a wholly surprising conclusion, it remains a regrettable one. Finding ways to desegregate San Diego in an era of neoliberal municipal government in a region known for conservative political approaches will prove difficult. One hopes not impossible. After all the city has a lot more to offer than beaches, golf courses and Ron Burgundy.

Ryan Reft

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Visions of the “Long Emergency”: How Will We Live After Peak Oil?

Stories about the end of the world are as old as culture itself. While many traditional belief systems posit history as an endless cycle of renewal, humans have often imagined time as having a beginning and an end, an origin story and an apocalypse or day of judgment. In modern society, these stories have often taken the form of dystopian literature; Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World depict a kind of “end of history,” where the despotism of politics and technology have extinguished humanity’s potential for progress, either by grinding people down with pain or numbing them with pleasure. More recently, we have seen tales of nuclear disaster (Cloud Atlas), environmental catastrophe (The Day After Tomorrow), economic and demographic collapse (Children of Men), and the ever-reliable zombie apocalypse (Confessions of a Shopaholic). 
The dizzying number of problems the world faces in the early twenty-first century has clearly prompted a renewed interest in the genres of apocalypse and dystopia. Particularly, climate change offers the same kind of imaginative possibilities that nuclear war once provided during the Cold War, where the threat of radiation made for fictional scenarios both silly and profound. (You had giant ants attacking Los Angeles; you also saw humans fiddle with time travel as they attempted to survive in tunnels under Paris in the 1960s classic La Jetée, the basis for Terry Gilliam’s later film 12 Monkeys). The difference between nuclear and climate catastrophe, though, makes for very different stories – the difference between a sudden calamity that renders the landscape almost unlivable for humans, and a potentially slow, erratic change in the environment that makes life more difficult in a variety of ways, whether rising waters, food shortages, or political conflict. In the dystopia of climate change, the world might look a lot like ours, just without the plethora of consumer goods we have gotten used to or the shorelines we’ve come to expect when we look at a globe. 

 No, you can't have your Medicare Grandma

In part these stories reflect a consciousness of natural limits that emerged with the rise of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s, at a time when the spectacular advances of productivity and living standards in the US, Europe and Japan seemed to augur a future of infinite possibilities. Environmentalists began to question whether endless growth was wise or even possible, but the awareness of serious side-effects from rising temperatures since the 1970s has made such concerns far more tangible than they once were. Whereas the New Left once pondered whether ever-greater consumption would make for a just society or a contented life, we now wonder whether millions in Bangladesh or Manhattan will be able to go on living above sea level. The incredible leaps of productivity in the 200 years or so since fossil fuels were widely exploited for fuel begins to look like an anomalous, if miraculous, blip in the longer history of human drudgery. 
Writers in the peak oil movement believe our era is truly exceptional. They say we are burning through the energy stored in the Earth over millions of years, and once this supply runs out there is no remotely comparable alternative. Authors such as James Howard Kunstler, Sharon Astyk, and Richard Heinberg have tried to warn the public of an imminent resource crunch, arguing that the depletion of oil will have an even more dramatic effect of human society than climate change, although the problems are likely to be felt simultaneously. These critics insist that oil is rapidly becoming scarce even now, and the idea that solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources can provide anywhere near the level of energy of fossil fuels is a dangerous illusion. We simply have to prepare ourselves for a future where much less energy is available, with all the economic, political, and cultural consequences that come with this new reality. 

Astyk in particular has made a salient case about the gender implications of peak oil, asking how a dramatic diminution of living standards will affect men and women differently. For instance, oil is an essential ingredient in countless consumer goods, such as anything mad with plastic, and the lack of fuel to move goods will make many basic necessities costlier or simply unavailable. “I teach classes for people attempting to adapt their lives to lower energy usage, and one of the things I've found startling is the degree to which conversations about ‘men's issues’ and ‘women's issues’ look completely different. When women's issues come up, women are worried mostly about material realities - How will I keep safe?” Astyk writes. “How will I handle pregnancy, birth control, breastfeed, menstruation and menopause? These are the central issues that women perceive as specific to them.” She goes on to describe the implications for men: 

When we talk about men's issues, almost always one of the central discussion points, however, is depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use, and even thoughts of suicide. The difference is startling - and it doesn't seem just to be my audience. In states that have collapsed or had a major crisis, there's considerable evidence that men often have more trouble with the shift in their roles than women, and with heavy consequences. In Russia, for example a combination of poor health care, increased alcoholism, rapidly rising suicide rates and other linked factors created a disparity of almost a decade between the lifespans of men and of women. Both sexes saw declines in lifespan - but for Russian men, the difference was extremely dramatic - 4 years from 1980 to 1999.

Clearly, the possibilities of a dramatic drop in living standards are real and very serious, but Astyk suggests they might not be all bad. The loss of automation and automobility will reintroduce a great deal of drudgery to everyday life, but the shift may bring with it a revaluing of manual labor. Millions of people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by labor-saving technology, plunged into despair, poverty and even incarceration, may find that their skills and physical capabilities have worth again. That world might be one of organized physical intimidation by local gangs or security forces, or even civil war, but Astyk at least suggests that physical work may have renewed dignity in a future where today’s post-industrial service economy is no longer feasible. Critics of capitalism, consumerism, technology and various other ills have long suggested that a life alienated from nature and tradition is profoundly unrewarding; Astyk and her compatriots simply suggest we may not have much choice in the matter of whether we abandon consumer society or not. 

Hollywood liberals have been keen to dramatize the possibilities of climate change on the screen – perhaps because catastrophic weather lends itself to high-tech spectacle better than the grinding poverty of an oilless future. The most vivid fictional vision of both peak oil and climate change may be in David J. Williams’s The Mirrored Heavens. The author is a retired grad student who appears to run a side business as a consultant on the next wave of military technology, specifically the space-based weapons that he believes will become inevitable as the US, China and other nations attempt to cope with environmental crisis. During the depths of the economic collapse in 2009, I compulsively read the book’s timeline of the twenty-first century; its dystopian trajectory seemed well suited to a world that was careening toward catastrophe across the board. (Remember when economists said that if the US government did not step in to rescue the banks “we are then in a world in which the only things that have value are bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition”? The tone is not too different from the prophecies of Astyk and Kunstler.) 

Don't try this at home

Williams’s story is a fascinating one – an alternative history of the future where green technology and Freakonomics can’t save us, where nations pursue various paths to survival that all ultimately lead to famine and authoritarianism. The EU adopts the Helios Project, a battery of solar panels in space meant to beam energy back to Earth. The ironic outcome is that the new energy source simply adds to the rising temperature of the planet, and the project is ultimately abandoned. Japan pursues research on cold fusion, which seems promising until a horrific accident known as the Kyushu Incident unleashes unimaginable destruction in 2049, leading to a near-complete evacuation of the island nation. (A year ago this plot point seemed gratuitous: the always high-tech Japanese are collectively done in by their scientific hubris. Recent events have made this aspect of The Mirrored Heavens seem not so unreasonable.)

Meanwhile, oil grows scarcer and dearer, dragging on national economies throughout the world and mounting debt. The US fights a series of “eco wars” with various developing countries, particularly Brazil, on the premise that their increasing consumption and resource usage is to blame for rising temperatures. With shorelines receding and no new viable energy source coming online to replace fossil fuels, escape from Earth through space travel and colonization becomes a priority, and different blocs fight for access to libation points along the equator as the critical points of departure for the Moon. China and Russia form an alliance, reminiscent of the early Cold War, after the Communists fall in the 2030s and the “Neo Confucians” gain power through a lengthy civil war. Russia has not-unpredictably shucked off the illusion of democracy and come under the yoke of Marshal Sergei Olenkov. 

To make a long story short, the spiraling problems of diminishing resources and environmental degradation bring civilization to the brink of collapse in the 2090s. Nuclear attacks between Jerusalem, Tehran, Tel Aviv and Damascus demolish the Middle East. Food shortages and riots lead to mounting paranoia in the US and Eurasia, where information is scarce because the nations have “cauterized” their Internet systems to ward off cyber attacks. Eventually, the US defaults on its national debt in 2088 and the government collapses; the military seizes power, and a Reformed Constitution is put in place where the departments of the army, air force, navy, space and counterintelligence replace Congress and the courts, the President serves for life, and only military personnel and veterans can vote. If you can think of a more depressing scenario for the twenty first century, let me know. 

The author’s interest seems to be telling the grimmest story possible, outlining a future where the most weapons will be sold. He imagines one human folly after another, with no innovation or creativity or democratic movements to save humanity from its (admittedly staggering) economic and environmental problems. He extrapolates from the worst of current trends; the necessity of telling a plausible story requires leaving out the unpredictable events that actually lend shape to much of history, such as the Egyptian Revolution that caught so many observers off-guard in 2011. Regardless, the author gives us a compelling possible future, a fictional spin on the fears voiced by the writers who try to rally public awareness of climate change and peak oil. It is not the kind of story where the majority of us are wiped out in the blink of an eye by a nuclear bomb, and the survivors envy the dead, but one that forces us to consider how we will react to the slow, unpredictable unfolding of an interrelated set of problems. It is the epitome of "not with a bang, but a whimper."

In considering these baleful prospects, we find ourselves torn, as ever, between the perennial poles of human nature – between the ideas of “original sin” and “the war of all against all” on one hand and the conviction that human ingenuity, cooperation and simple goodness can overcome the insurmountable barriers thrown up by nature. One of the reasons why people do not listen to critics like Astyk and Williams is that predictions of scarcity have been proven wrong as often as forecasts of the Second Coming; from Malthus down to Ehrlich, humans have expected to come up against the material limits of nature only to overcome them again and again. Of course, just because something has not happened before does not mean it never will. People forget that the wolf eventually did show up in the “boy cries wolf” story. I for one am unsure of what to believe: is there simply not enough energy in the world to maintain the American standard of living for long if the oil runs out, or will some geniuses figure out a way to keep the whole machine running through the foreseeable future? The latter will never happen, though, if we don’t consider the former – however unhappy the thought may be.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Great Capitalist/Christian Resonance Machine

Capitalism, particularly over the past three decades, has become a “god” of American society, politics, economics and culture. When capitalism experiences crises (and it does experience many) it is not the system itself that is called into question, but intrusive government, regulators and other violators of the purported self-equilibrating “invisible hand of the market.” Furthering the deification of capitalism is its ties to Christianity. These ties have been examined, perhaps most famously and trenchantly by Max Weber, but the two have become intertwined and imbricated in new and destructive ways in our neoliberal era.

According to William Connolly, it is this assemblage of dogmatic capitalism and right-wing evangelical Christianity that is responsible for much of the economic inequality, environmental degradation, cultural enmity, and myopic parochialism that we are experiencing today. To overcome this “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine,” and produce a more economically and ecologically just, pluralist and tolerant society, the democratic left must manifest an interim and pragmatic vision for the future by not only visualizing such a world but by fostering its own resonance machine composed of non-theists, progressive believers and anyone concerned with the present and future of our world.

In his book, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, Connolly explains how this evangelical-capitalist resonance machine has manifested and proffers an alternative vision grounded in the “meliorism” of William James and the radical immanence of Gilles Deleuze. Connolly’s aim “is to place egalitarianism and ecological integrity more actively onto the political agenda in ways that protect the virtues of a more pluralist society.”[1] Retaining tolerance and pluralism as a new resonance machine is created is of utmost importance to Connolly. As Nietzsche calls for a “spiritualization of enmity,” between those of different faiths and worldviews, Connolly suggests that an assemblage of the democratic left must do the same.

As Connolly notes, capitalism is far too volatile and chaotic of a system, historically bound and affected by culture, religion and politics to be easily confined or described. The “capitalist axiomatic” we live with today “includes the priority of private profit, a significant role for market pricing… the contract form of labor and the primacy of the commodity form.”[2] This capitalist axiomatic, stretched out and altered by its current assemblage with Christianity in its more right wing and vengeful iteration, is what Connolly finds so deep troubling and an obstacle to reducing income inequality and combating global climate catastrophe. 

Connolly does not demonize Christianity as such; indeed, he works to demonstrate the importance of the leftist Christian tradition and the teachings of Jesus. As a self-identified non-theist committed to the Nietzschean “spiritualization of enmity,” Connolly notes the importance of the role of the Christian left in a new democratic left resonance machine: “It is critical for those on the non-Christian left (left-leaning Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and non-theists) to pursue active alliances with Christians in several walks of life who resist the contemporary evangelical-capitalist machine.”[3] An ethos of revenge, animated by the violent eschatology of Revelations and popularized by Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, is a critical component of the Christian Right today. In short, the world is headed for a violent confrontation between good and evil, those who reject Christ (the Christ of their Christianity) are doomed to the fires of hell. Why show care and concern for others while they are on this earth? Furthermore, why even (despite biblical calls otherwise) take care of the earth?

For Connolly, the capitalist axiomatic, the ethos of revenge and other components of “cowboy” capitalism and right wing evangelical Christianity resonate with one another. This resonance in turn amplifies the power of the each. The media plays a powerful in this enterprise and Connolly pays particular attention to Fox News. Evangelicals who go to church on Sunday and listen to a message about the imminent return of Christ then switch on their Monday evening programming to hear Fox’s pundits decrying the faulty science of climate change. These ideas, the return of the messiah and a complete rejection of climate science, resonate with another. This continual reverberation and reinforcement creates what Connolly calls the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. The alliance between “cowboy” capitalism and right wing evangelical Christianity “folds similar spiritual dispositions into somewhat different ideologies and creeds.” The machine is continually augmented by “similar spiritual dispositions,” such as the belief in providence in the marketplace and God’s providential plan for history. Essentially, the machine is manufactured through the articulation of mutually reinforcing creeds and politico-spiritual ideas that resonate with and amplify one another.

One of the critical interconnections between the capitalist and evangelical Christian assemblage is a belief that the capitalist enterprise is “the site where divine providence finds its most salient worldly expression.”[4] As God has a plan for history, revealed in Revelations, the free market is guided by a providential plan and thus better left untouched. Connolly contrasts this notion of the providence of the market and God with what he calls immanent naturalism. For Connolly, “if the world is not designed by god it is apt to be more unruly in its mode of becoming or evolution than can be captured entirely by a set of law like statements.”[5] This is an ontology of becoming in a world of “emergent causality.” Just as a confluence of forces in fifteen century Geneva (Calvinism, the attraction of artisans to the city, and efforts by the Vatican and secular powers to limit one another) converged to form a proto-capitalist system, new systems composed of resonance machines, with parts lacking an intrinsic drive towards a determined whole, can and will be formed through emergent infusions and assemblages. The point, for Connolly, is that we do not fall into the trap of the “hubris of total explicability,”[6] in trying to compose, predict or manufacture a new system. What immanent naturalists can do is “occupy strategic junctures at which new dangers and possibilities appear, intervening in ways that might help to move the complex in this way rather than that, accepting some conditions to ward off others.”[7] There will of course be stumbling blocks and mistakes along the way, but this is what we must accept while militating “for a global equilibrium that supports human life with decency.”[8]

Utilizing the framework of immanent naturalism with an existential focus on becoming, Connolly calls for the democratic left to visualize an alternate future in which substantial progress towards building a more economically equitable and ecologically just society has been made within the capitalist system. The task for the left is then to work back from this vision implementing reforms in an effort to actualize the image. As opposed to the providential image of the market propounded by its most ardent adherents, Connolly views capitalism through the prism of volatility. Indeed, as Magdoff and Yates note, since the mid-1850’s the US system has experienced thirty-two recessions or depressions.[9] This volatility must be recognized and militated against. Connolly’s pragmatic and modest approach is grounded in what William James called “meliorism”, which suggests that “reflective action taken in concert at the strategic moments might, given a measure of good luck, promote a better world or forestall the worst.”[10] From Deleuze, Connolly appropriates the notion of immanence in the world, asserting that the world is a continued process of becoming. Here the democratic left must recognize that which is and work to assemble an alternative resonance machine out of extant elements. In the closing chapter, Connolly asserts “a series of positive existential orientations, relational tactics, local strategies, academic reforms, microeconomic experiments, large social movements, media strategies, shifts in economic and political ethos, state policies and cross-state citizen actions are needed”[11] as components of this resonance machine. This machine must both explicate the dangers our current path may lead us towards while positing a positive interim vision with specific and pragmatic steps to reduce inequality, limit the possibility of ecological disaster and expand pluralism.

Connolly’s approach is decidedly accomodationist and inclusive. The ecumenical approach of Connolly provides the proper ground for those in faith-based communities to work together with non-theists or secular progressives. Jim Wallis, the founder of the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, notes that many secular progressives seem to have an “allergy to spirituality and a disdain for anything religious.”[12] The inability of non-theists, secular progressives, and progressives of all faiths to unite fosters an insuperable stumbling block to the assemblage of an alternative resonance machine. Connolly rejects this bifurcation of faith-informed progressives and secular progressives.

"I. Am. A. Spoken. Word. Robot."

To be sure, these progressive voices exist in the Christian community and they eschew, what Cornel West calls, the “Constantinian Christianity” (or Christianity of the empire) of right-wing Christians that has so often been on the wrong side of history. Conversely, the prophetic tradition of Christianity, which connects to an “earthy Jesus who supports the downtrodden,” most famously espoused by Martin Luther King Jr., has a long history of affecting positive social change. As Bruce Bawer notes, the Religious Right works to “pass laws that restrict other people’s rights and preserve social and economic injustice, by contrast…members of such religion-inspired political movements as abolitionism and the Social Gospel always strove to secure other people’s rights and to improve their social and economic status.”[13] In an American society, where religion pervades, this assemblage, between secular progressive and progressive religionists, is a necessary component of any democratic left resonance machine.

While Connolly’s vision is compelling, enlightening, well-reasoned and pragmatic, it may not go far enough. The United States politico-economic system is profoundly sclerotic and dysfunctional. Our political elites are myopically concerned with re-election and fundraising. They are much more responsive to the dictates and demands of big corporations and moneyed interests than they are to addressing the grievances of their constituents. In a January 2011 New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans overwhelming demonstrated their preference for cuts to the bloated budget of the Pentagon (55%) as opposed to social entitlement programs like Medicare (21%) and Social Security (13%).[14] Yet, most new budget proposals, particularly the highly publicized and lauded proposal promoted by Republican Paul Ryan, call for massive restructuring of social entitlement programs, while barely touching the spending of the Pentagon. Who is it that wields power in America, defense contractors or the people? Connolly’s call for an interim vision whereby reforms can be made that will build a more economically and ecologically just future may simply be too little too late. Perhaps a more systemic revolution is needed.

We had to destroy the budget in order to save it

The gains made during the New Deal and the Great Society in the United States are under systematic assault by those who demonize the “welfare state.” As Connolly himself notes in the preface, the welfare state was once a symbol for economic programs for citizens and those in dire economic straits. Over the past 30 years, our discourse has demonized and stigmatized “handouts” doled out by the “welfare state.” The epithet “Welfare Queen” perhaps best epitomizes this phenomenon. Social safety nets continue to be eviscerated for the sake of austerity and the American working poor continue to suffer. Connolly calls for an interim vision, with steps moving towards a more just economic and ecological future within the capitalist system. Yet, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which this sort of change could be made within our current politico-economic system and cultural climate. Rather than reform within capitalism, we may best be suited by a fundamental departure from it.

The focus on immanence given by both Deleuze and Connolly give us a clue as to how this new system could arise. As aforementioned, who could have possibly predicted the emergence of proto-capitalism arising in 15th century Geneva? Moreover, the emergence of the evangelical-capitalism resonance machine was certainly not inexorable. As such, it is possible to look towards a future where an assemblage of workers, student activists, leftist intellectuals, artists, athletes, human rights activists, progressive members of different faith communities, and the disenfranchised minorities across the United States and throughout the world aggregate into a new resonance machine. This machine would survey the devastation and destruction reaped on so many poor people and the planet and work to create a new system. What would the imbrication and infusion of this assemblage produce? The point of Connolly’s immanent naturalism is to not try to assume total explicability, but rather to see what emerges and how the new system does or does not promote economic and ecological justice and adjust accordingly.

Connolly published Capitalism and Christianity in 2008. There is no doubt that in the three years seen this book has been written the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine has maintained its draconian stranglehold over American society. The election of an African-American President, who came to office on a tidal wave of optimism and hope for a better future, has done nothing to fundamentally change the landscape in which this system operates. President Obama’s election was certainly of symbolic importance. Moreover, the coalition of engaged denizens that united to elect him evidence how a new progressive assemblage could emerge. However, Obama’s policies on nearly every front have fallen in line with the neoliberal economic consensus. Furthermore, his foreign policy has been similar to the truculent American militarism that is ubiquitous in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Many on the left are profoundly disappointed in the ability of the Obama administration to affect positive progressive change. Much of Obama’s campaign rhetoric in 2007 and 2008 was directed in an implicit way towards the interim vision that Connolly writes about so eloquently. Yet, this vision now seems further away than ever.

Nonetheless, Connolly’s call for a piecemeal process whereby an alternative resonance machine assembles is both pragmatic and rational. His immanent naturalism and his emphasis on emergent causality point to a world where change emerges organically through a process of infusion and imbrication of material structures and ideas. His usage of Nietzsche’s “spiritualization of enmity” in regards to partisans of different faiths is a critical concept for those working to build an alternative system. Despite theological or ideological differences those who seek a more economically and ecologically just world, within the confines of the capitalist system or not, must begin to work together to combat the pugnacity and the power of the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. In the bitterly divided and hyper-partisan political climate of the United States, Connolly’s hope for an interim vision within capitalism, a “god” of American discourse, may be the best we can hope for.

Connolly calls for us to accept a tragic ontology whereby we reject providential teleology and the notion that humans can fully master our surroundings. Indeed, what we must do is “cultivate temporal sensitivity to how this or that concatenation of events could issue in the worst.”[15] This tragic vision assumes that humans will never be able to properly conceive of the proper order of things, much less control them. What we can do, and in this notion Connolly is heavily indebted to William James, is essentially accept that we are limited in our ability to affect change, yet at the right moment know that reflective action could “promote a better world or forestall a worst.”[16] It is here where Connolly’s perspicuous pragmatism and intellectual modesty shine through. There is certainly the possibility of a new system that promotes the good life for all, which does not inspire avarice and brutal competition nor pillage the earth of its natural resources. Through reflective action we can hope to promote a new resonance machine that reverberates through the democratic left and helps to create a better world. With this hope in mind, Connolly calls the left to accept a tragic vision to “deepen their appreciation of human limits amid the uncertainty of being” and as such, “heighten care for the world and the sweetness of life amid the dangers encountered.” Ultimately, the left can “draw upon this fund of positive energy to turn things in a more favorable direction.”[17]

Adam Gallagher

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Over 140 Educators, Students, and Allies Sign Letter Opposing HB 87

A coalition of students, staff, faculty members and alumni of Georgia’s colleges and universities have signed a letter to Governor Nathan Deal, urging him to veto HB 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011.

The letter, which circulated online from Monday through Wednesday this week, lays out moral and practical arguments against the anti-immigration measure. The signers suggest that the bill unfairly targets immigrants and could lead to racial profiling of Georgia residents who are suspected of being undocumented migrants based on their physical appearance. The letter questions the constitutionality of the bill, and warns that it will cost the state business and revenue if organizations respect a planned boycott and choose not to hold conferences and other events in Georgia.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Video, Terror, and the Politics of Reality TV

This is the true story... of one terrorist mastermind and his wives and couriers... picked to live in a together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...

Remember when US soldiers found Saddam Hussein in a “hidey hole” in Iraq? He was dirty, bearded, and disheveled after eight months of evading capture by coalition forces, yet US authorities saw fit to release footage of the deposed tyrant being examined by American doctors upon his arrest. The effect and the intent of the videos were impossible to miss. The all-powerful dictator was being handled like a heifer at the state fair, his hair picked through by Army medics, his body probed on camera for an eager, prurient world to watch. One could not help but think of the humiliation of a slave being examined on the auction block. Saddam Hussein, of course, was no slave. You won’t find me shedding a tear for him, given the despicable and horrific things he did as the genocidal leader of Iraq. (Whether one thinks the Iraq War was the right decision or not is beside the point; anyone doubtful about the horror of living under Hussein’s regime should read the essay “Tales of the Tyrant” to get a sense of the capricious power the despot wielded.) 

Still, the way the US government and media used the images of Hussein as a captured animal, broken, shorn of his power and presented on screen as an object of physical examination betokens a desire to put the vanquished enemy on parade.  The images of the medical examination undoubtedly served as a tool of psychological warfare for US forces within Iraq, meant to dispirit the former president's supporters by showing his degraded state, while seeing Hussein this way cheered those who were persecuted under his regime.  The images also circulated widely in the West, becoming the subject of much mockery in the US.

In this context, President Obama’s decision not to release gory photos of a dead Osama Bin Laden seems like a wise one, motivated by a desire not to satiate everyone with every graphic detail of the country’s great and wonderful kill. But still, the impulse to humiliate a defeated foe remains strong in our culture. Osama Bin Laden was a malicious person who undoubtedly had the blood of thousands on his hands, but something still seems wrong about hooting and hollering over the death of another human being. We don’t put bleachers and cheerleaders on death row, even if the worst person is being executed.

There's never anything good on

With this in mind, the government’s decision to release Bin Laden’s “home videos” is a curious one. The footage is clearly designed to make the terrorist seem like a pathetic figure, obsessed with his own image and even neurotic in his hatred of Barack Obama. He sits wrapped in a shawl in a desolate room, watching a tiny TV and flipping the channel whenever Obama appears on screen. Bin Laden’s beard has apparently grayed to the point of whiteness, yet, as ABC News reminds its audience, he dyed it black to appear in videos for public consumption. The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, who wrote an acclaimed book on Al Qaeda, told ABC that the videos reveal Bin Laden as "a guy who wants to be seen and wants to be known" which "is very pathetic in a way." He is like any reality TV star, from The Real Housewives of Atlanta to Big Brother – hungry for attention, living an aimless life in the lap of luxury, as desperate to control his image as Jon and Kate or a Real World cast member justifying his actions to the camera. 

This is the dreaded terrorist: a vain wannabe with a webcam. Former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke sees the maneuver for what it is.  "This is part of a US government effort to discredit him after his death," Clarke said recently, "so that he doesn't become a martyr in the eyes of Arab youth." But it is not just potential jihadis who are the audience for this spectacle. Abbotabad’s Funniest Home Videos allows us to see Bin Laden as a much smaller figure. He is no longer in control of his image, unlike in the past ten years when he dictated how and when the world would hear or see him. He is not the sage-like figure, sitting cross-legged with his aides in a cave, always with a Kalashnikov carefully placed by his side. He is just a couch potato in the suburbs.

The US government has every right to release these videos, but national security cannot be the sole reason why they choose to release some snippets and not others. We would like to believe Bin Laden was as a sad, lonely, desperate figure, as concerned with how we see him as we were with what he and his minions might do to us. The Onion nailed this sentiment with its headline “Osama Bin Laden Killed while Sitting on Toilet, Nation Likes to Imagine.” I certainly wondered what Osama was doing in that compound for the last five or six years. Was he sitting watching Say Yes to the Dress: Big Bliss, eating Cheetos, and laughing at the brides-to-be when they burst the seams of their sample dresses? The US media, as well as the government, would like us to believe Bin Laden was some self-absorbed new media star, a YouTube celebrity obsessed with his own hair.  Video, cell phones, TMZ, and the government's own press operation all help us see the mighty brought low, immortalized in unguarded and embarrassing moments.  That this is how we want to see our official enemy says as much about us as it does about the enemy.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Monday, May 9, 2011

Teachers and Students in Georgia Speak Out Against HB 87

In recent months, legislators in Georgia have aspired to imitate their peers in Arizona by passing a bill that allows state and local authorities to police the immigration status of state residents.  These measures have raised serious concerns about the possibility of racial profiling and the power of state governments to regulate immigration, which has traditionally been a function of the federal government.   The current anti-immigrant agenda among conservatives portends a worrying trend toward the politics of scapegoating in the United States, as immigrants are held to blame for problems such as budget deficits, unemployment, healthcare costs and so forth.  

Governor Nathan Deal has indicated that he will sign HB 87, but many constituencies, ranging from business groups in agriculture and tourism to human rights organizations, have questioned the wisdom of the legislation.   Several educators in Atlanta have drawn up the following statement, which we hope will contribute to the chorus of opposition to HB 87 (you can find a link to sign the petition below):

Members of the Georgia Academic Community Call for Governor Nathan Deal to Veto HB 87

We, the undersigned, would like to express our opposition to HB 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, which was passed by the Georgia House of Representatives on April 20, 2011. We are faculty, staff and students in Georgia’s colleges and universities, and we urge Governor Nathan Deal to veto this legislation. The bill promotes racial profiling, transgresses the authority of the federal government to regulate immigration, wastes badly needed state funds, and damages the reputation and economy of the state. It is a political gimmick designed to satisfy those who would blame immigrants for all the state’s problems, not a practical solution for the economic and social challenges we face in these difficult times.

For years, Georgia’s economy has taken advantage of low-wage workers in a wide variety of fields, from agriculture to construction to services. With little ability to lobby for better conditions, undocumented workers in particular have been exploited by employers who profited from their vulnerability. We recognize that this situation poses real problems for communities across our state and the nation, and we look to the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform that will address the status of the estimated eleven million undocumented individuals in the country. Placing the burden of reform on the workers themselves, though, will do little to change the demand for cheap labor and wrongly penalizes people whose only crime is to work hard to improve the lives of their families. Above all, we reject the punitive spirit and misguided intent of this bill.

The most disquieting part of HB 87, like the controversial Arizona law on which it was modeled, is the prospect that Georgians will be singled out for police scrutiny because they “seem” like they might be undocumented immigrants. Although the bill only permits police to investigate a person’s immigration status when he or she is already suspected of committing another offense, it is not hard to imagine how authorities could use any number of pretexts to demand proof of citizenship from those deemed to be suspicious. The offense could be as minor as loitering or running a stop sign. The likelihood that people will be scrutinized based on their physical appearance remains inescapable, creating a situation in which some can expect to be asked for their “papers” while others go freely about their business. We are troubled by the bill’s potential to deprive Georgians of equal protection under the law, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; we also question the constitutionality of a state government interfering in the regulation of immigration, which, like foreign policy, is a responsibility of the federal government. The state government will likely be forced to spend a great deal of time and resources defending a measure that is sure to face concerted opposition in the courts.

As faculty, staff and students of Georgia’s colleges and universities, we have already seen the harmful potential of such anti-immigrant policies. This bill provides extra money to local authorities to investigate residents’ immigration status and detain those who cannot prove their right to be here, even as the state has enacted year after year of cuts to education and other vital services. It follows in the same counterproductive steps as the recent decision by the Board of Regents of the state university system to exclude undocumented immigrants – many of whom came here through no fault of their own as children, and only want to study and contribute to our society. Such policies are not merely unfair but self-defeating. They deprive the universities of tuition dollars, and they consign a whole group of young people to a permanent caste of lower status, unable to obtain an education and condemned to work for low wages in the shadows of the economy. Their undeveloped talents represent both a practical loss and a moral failure that the state of Georgia can ill afford.

If signed into law, the bill will hurt Georgia’s economy in numerous other ways. Businesses are less likely to invest in a state that is perceived as having a hostile attitude toward diversity, and many organizations will choose not to hold their conferences and other meetings here, depriving the state and countless businesses of revenue and stunting economic recovery. (The Atlanta Convention Visitors Bureau and the Georgia Farm Bureau have already voiced serious concerns about the law’s potential to drive visitors, investors, and workers away from our state.) The US Human Rights Network, based in Atlanta, has announced that it will move its December conference outside of the state if the bill becomes law, and it is working with other groups to enforce a boycott of Georgia to protest the measure. While we regret the impact a boycott will have on the state, we feel obligated to support these efforts. The costs of this law must be felt for its injustice to be understood. We pledge to lobby organizations of which we are members not to hold conferences or other events in the state, and we will support protests of companies and organizations that choose to hold meetings here in defiance of the boycott.

In conclusion, we ask Governor Deal to consider what is in the best interests of our communities, our economy, and the fair treatment of all Georgians, regardless of their race, ethnicity, national origin or immigration status. We urge the Governor in the strongest possible terms to veto this bill and save our state the needless cost that this unjust and unwise legislation will incur.

To sign the letter, follow this link:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Demonizing Don Henley: Unwrapping the Byzantine Politics of a Boomer Icon

As Barack Obama looks to the 2012 election, no matter the outcome, one can assume that the Baby Boomers are slowly exiting state right from the nation’s political theater. Writing in his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama lamented the drift of the boomer generation during the 1990s. Politicians of both parties descended into petty conflicts, epitomized by the Clinton impeachment. For Obama this was a generational fault: “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”

Not that all Boomers are the same. For example, despite similar predilections for infidelity, politicians like Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton are viewed as diametric opposites. Another binary might be Bob Dylan and Anita Bryant. Still, binaries are boring. What about differentiation within the more liberal aspects of the Boomer generation? Take the figure of Don Henley. The former Eagle’s presence in popular music spreads over four decades. An environmental activist and music industry critic, Henley seems to regard himself as an elder spokesperson for his generation. He labeled the election of George W. Bush the greatest boomer “blunder”. Clearly, Henley stands as a paragon of virtue. Of course, anyone listening to his greatest hits album knows Henley is an artist of vision. Unfortunately for Henley, his music attests otherwise.

The Dude vs Don Henley

The Dude: Jesus, man, can you change the station?
Cab Driver: Fuck you man! You don't like my fucking music; get your own fucking cab!
The Dude: I've had a...
Cab Driver: I pull over and kick your ass out, man!
The Dude: - had a rough night, and I hate the fucking Eagles, man

In the 1998 Coen Brothers classic, The Big Lebowski, Jeff Lebowski, The Dude, ends up on his ass, cabless, as result of his hatred of the Eagles. A former 1960s radical who helped co-author the original Port Huron statement (“not the compromised” version, he tells Julianne Moore’s character after a romantic encounter), the Dude represents one segment of the “New Left.” Granted, Lebowski hardly seems the political type, but he claims he once was. His politics seemed to have melted into bowling. In most things, the Dude exhibits a marked detachedness. Yet, the Eagles seem to symbolize all that was wrong with the world. Why?

On the surface, the Eagles seem like your typical early 1970s rock band. An easygoing, country-influenced rock group, the Eagles sold nearly 30 million copies of Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). One would think an individual of the Dude’s persuasion might find the Eagles brand of easy going rock the perfect match to his two favorite products: beer and marijuana. However, the Eagles remain one of the lamest rock bands of all time. Most of their songs consist of tales about dangerous women, “life in the fast lane,” break ups, and cowboy outlaws. Yawn. Just because the Dude is stoned most of the time doesn’t mean he doesn’t have taste. For example, which is cooler: A) Glenn Frey used to be on Miami Vice or B) Glenn Frey used to be an Eagle? Duh. Is it significant that the Dude’s unfortunate cab ride altercation occurs after an unpleasant encounter with a Los Angeles pornographer based on Boomer era icon Hugh Hefner? The larger point here remains that the Dude saw the Eagles for what they would prove themselves to be in the 1990s, a proto-Hootie and the Blowfish without the humility. Sounds a lot like some Boomers I used to know…

Don Henley v. Himself

Out on the road today
I saw a dead head sticker on a Cadillac
A voice inside my head said don't look back
You can never look back
-- Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer” from Building the Perfect Beast

In a 2008 Rolling Stone article documenting the Eagles reunion tour, Glenn Frey was quoted as admitting that Henley made the Eagles what they were. According to Frey, without Henley the Eagles were little more than “Air Supply”. Whatever the Eagles’ musical merits, they were a 1970s “a pop culture institution.” Penning tunes about predatory industry types, hedonistic lifestyles, and feckless Southern Californians, the Eagles cast a critical eye over America, all while indulging in many of very diversions they cautioned against. The ubiquitous Hotel California remains their signature piece. Henley has often described the song as representing the “dark underbelly of the American dream.” For Henley, Hotel California revealed the excess and waste of American culture, a topic the Eagles “knew a lot about.” One might suggest that this sort of social commentary serves as a thinly veiled justification of the Eagles’ own indulgences, but for now Henley’s explanations will serve as a baseline.

So if the Eagles were the proto-typical 1970s album oriented rock band in an AOR era, what does this mean for Henley’s solo work and how does it relate to boomer regret?

Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits provides a useful window into the artist’s psyche. One has to admit that for all his pretensions, the packing for Actual Miles pokes fun at Henley. Fellow T of M contributor (and founding member of the Don Henley Society (DHS), Southeastern chapter) Georgia State Professor Alexander Cummings frequently defends Henley pointing out that from the smarmy car salesman to the discount sticker label proclaiming “Actual Miles", the greatest hits albums illustrates Henley’s self awareness. “It's kind of funny that he called the greatest hits "Actual Miles," isn't it? As in the cheesy, sneaky car salesman trying to pawn off some old jalopy to unwitting consumers? There's a little bit of self parodying going on there” (Professor Cummings related these thoughts in a savagely critical email to the author in which the Georgia State academic compared the author to a “syphilitic Andy Rooney”) Fine. The packaging is great. While one could argue his “Actual Miles” tag was more a comment on greatest hits packages in general, it is reasonable to conclude that Mr. Henley can on occasional laugh at himself.

All that said, the old truism proves accurate, “the truth is in the pudding.” Henley’s pudding coagulates with a pervasive sense of loss and regret. For example, one of his most recognizable songs remains “The Boys of Summer,” (the Ataris recently covered it) a tale on the surface about lost love (and stalking), but also about the 1960s and the ethereal nature of youth. When Henley sings, “I saw a dead head sticker on a Cadillac/A voice inside my head said don't look back/You can never look back” he at once impugns 1960s radicalism and nostalgia. The placement of a “dead head sticker” on a gas guzzling American made corporate behemoth like Cadillac represents the death of the very ideals the Dead and the decade purported to represent. Throughout his sad sack tale, Henley constructs a stalking ex-boyfriend, always in the background, always waiting to step in. It’s hard to not see the symmetry with aging boomers who sometimes let 1960s nostalgia haunt every decision made. Still, a more cynical observer might note the fact that Henley’s popularity in the 1970s resigns him to such viewpoints. If the 1960s has been mythologized as a decade of leftist social change and activism, the 1970s represent the stultification of the New Left. Instead, the New Right and a decade of backlash simmered, boiling over in the 1980s. In this way, Henley’s leadership of the Eagles inclines him to dismiss the 1960s. Unless one considers warnings about the malfeasance of record industry execs political, Henley’s Eagles were decidedly apolitical. The New Left fractured and burst apart into so many directions. The Eagles’ drug-induced haze fit perfectly into this milieu. “Fuck activism, let’s get high.” Really, when did the Eagles ever sing about anything truly significant?

So maybe we should consider Henley’s solo work in a different light. Perhaps, the Eagles’ inability to address social issues bothered the petulant future environmentalist. Maybe this explains the pointed turn his music seemed to take in the 1980s and early 1990s. Songs like “Sunset Grill” and “All She Wants to Do is Dance” skewered society for its delusions, nefarious nature and self promotion. In “Sunset Grill”, Henley narrates the sadness of a local eatery where one can “watch the working girls go buy/Watch the basket people mumble/And gaze out at the auburn sky”. Murders become “more respectable by the day.” Once again, Don sticks it to Socal. “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” attacks the Americans for their feckless lack of attention to world affairs. Henley’s paramour remains ignorant of the local rebellion such that authorities are:

pickin' up the prisoners and puttin'
'em in the pen
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
Rebels been rebels since I don't know when
And all she wants to do is dance
Molotov cocktail-the local drink
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
They mix 'em up right in the kitchen sink
And all she wants to do is dance

Henley's critique of Americans obliviousness regarding international affairs has numerous supporters, but one wonders why didn’t he care about these issues when he was leading the Eagles. Even when Americans do pay attention to global affairs, US news outlets treat foreign conflict or disaster as a money making venture. In “Dirty Laundry” Henley croons:

We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who
comes on at five
She can tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam
in her eye
It's interesting when people die-
Give us dirty laundry

Now some have argued that “Dirty Laundry” is really Henley settling old scores with the nation’s news outlets. In a carefully worded follow up email, the aforementioned Professor Cummings argued that despite having a great “bite”, the song said more about Henley’s “issues with the prying, prurient media,” than it did about real news reporting. For Cummings, “Dirty Laundry” served as another example of a rock star “carping about the media while disguising it as social commentary.” (Professor Cummings also pointed out that Andy Rooney has had a fine career and to his knowledge did not have syphilis) So reasonable people might disagree. Whichever explanation you choose, clearly, Mr. Henley did not like the direction America was heading. Yet, one could argue the Eagles provide a symbol of the very drift that so angered Henley.

Okay, so in the interest of fairness, T of M will concede that Henley at least pretended to care about stuff in the 1980s. Then came the 1990s. Henley donned a ponytail and it all went to hell. Now before you accuse T of M of holding some kind Henleyesque grudge (the man is FAMOUS for his own), let me point out others were no more enamored of the man. Take punk rock hillbilly Mojo Nixon. His 1990 song “Don Henley Must Die” took the former Eagle to the proverbial mat. Nixon also resented Henley’s sudden turn toward the political

He's a tortured artist
Used to be in the Eagles
Now he whines
Like a wounded beagle
Poet of despair!
Pumped up with hot air!
He's serious, pretentious
And I just don't care

Nixon didn’t stop there. Henley was “killing rock n roll” and not because he was old but because the former Eagle had “no soul.” What did Nixon think of Henley’s lyrics? “I love his sensitive music/Idiot poetry, swell.” He admonished Henley to “loosen up his pony tail.” In the end, Nixon concluded: “Don Henley must die! Don’t let him get back together with Glenn Frey!” The 1980s punk rock provocateur hoped in vain that “No Eagles Reunion” would happen.

A year before Nixon’s satire, Henley released the now classic The End of the Innocence. Its title track criticized Ronald Reagan (“They’re beating plowshares into swords/For this tired old man we elected king”) and Ollie North (“Armchair warriors often fail/we’ve been poisoned by this fairy tale”). Granted, Henley’s critiques hit the mark but his mawkish nostalgia for an America that was more pure rings false. His innocent America consisted of segregation and sexism. Moreover, where does a 1970s drug fiend who travelled across America having sex with groupies get off claiming that NOW America lost its innocence? The rest of the album ostensibly explores regret and romantic loss, most notably in songs like “Heart of the Matter,” “New York Minute” and “The Last Worthless Evening.”

Don Henley vs. Corporate Rock (or Don Henley v. Himself, Again)

Fast forward to the late 1990s. The Eagles reunion tour unfolded with a kind of lazy boomer mass nostalgia. Yet, the concerts received more attention for their insanely expensive tickets. Moreover, the overpricing of tickets influenced other boomer reunion acts to do the same, setting into motion a kind of pension fund for over the hill rock bands. Sounds kinda corporate, Don. At least during their 2008 tour they produced an album. Of course, Henley negotiated an exclusive record distribution deal with Wal Mart. One can assume that its okay to rip Reagan but not the modern day business entity that in many ways encapsulates the very values that Henley found so offensive in the late 1980s. All this makes his 2010 tantrum regarding Republican Senate candidate Chuck Devore’s use of the “Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants to Do is Dance” in campaign parodies that much odder. Though he resents conservative appropriations of his music for electoral purposes, Henley aligns himself with entities like Wal Mart that perpetuate the kind of policies and economics supported by individuals like Devore.

In all these ways, Don Henley serves as a useful representation of boomer regret and contradiction. It must be noted that one does wonder about the pitfalls that face subsequent generations. For example, what will Generation X regret look like? (Wait you have to actually have cared about something to have regrets! Hey Now!) Still, in regard to Henley, the romanticization of the past at the expense of the present and the rose colored memories of how that past unfolded oozes through his work and from vocal segments of Boomer America. In a possibly apocryphal quote, Winston Churchill was attributed with saying “any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains. Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains. “ While numerous scholars have suggested Churchill never said this, the sentiment sums up Don Henley and some of his Boomer cohort well. Whatever the case may be, Don Henley probably is not the devil. Instead, he is just another boomer trying to come to grips with his present on the basis of his past. The hardwired positions of youth, the reliance on strict moral codes or ideologies, fade as people age and encounter the grey areas that make up most of life. Henley has proven no exception. In the end, T of M still digs his work, but his vision of the present and past could use some adjusting.

(Note: T of M would like to point out that only SOME boomers suffer from the “Henley affliction”).

Ryan Reft