Monday, October 31, 2011

The Big Lie of Neoliberalism

If you have received a tuition bill lately, or looked for a job in academia, you are bound to have noticed that higher education in this country is in crisis. Much of this is supposedly the result of the economic recession that began in 2007. Some say it’s the result of the housing bust—the consequence of irresponsible actions by homeowners and banks—or the financial meltdown on Wall Street in 2008. Sometimes immigrants are blamed as a drain on public resources, in order to justify budget cuts and tuition increases and layoffs.

They say there’s just not enough money in the state coffers to sustain public universities as we have known them. This is a contemporary crisis, we are told, unique to the last two or three years.

Actually, it’s anything but. The recent attack on public education—on students and teachers and government workers in general—is only the latest and nastiest episode in a long-running movement against all things public.

Since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, progressives have struggled to define this movement and these policies. It was hard to call it conservative, because both Republican and Democratic, Labour and Conservative parties have embraced parts of this platform over the last thirty years.

The word that activists and scholars eventually came up with to describe these policies is “neoliberalism,” which refers to a new version of classical economic theories based on the idea of the free market and laissez faire.

Neoliberalism is often understood as an assault on the state—policies that advocate privatizing schools, Social Security and all kinds of public services, while cutting taxes and deregulating the economy. Its rallying cry has been opposition to “Big Government.”

In some ways, this program looks real and inexorable. The policies have been exported to other countries in the form of the “Washington Consensus,” whereby developing countries have been forced to cut their expenditures on health, education and other public services in order to qualify for loans from the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions that are controlled by the US and Europe. Such polices have, in turn, generated real social turmoil and discontent in countries such as Argentina and Egypt over the last ten years. It is not a popular program.

At home, we have seen this ideology put into place with the deregulation of Wall Street and the media in the 1990s, with the ending of welfare by Bill Clinton in 1996, and with the Bush tax cuts in the last decade.

For education, this neoliberal idea has taken the form of steady declines in state support for public universities, which used to depend for much more of their budgets on state subsidy. The original idea was that a public university would be primarily supported by taxpayers, to provide access to education to the broad citizenry who could not afford an expensive private education at Harvard or Duke or Emory. Tuition would be charged in most cases, but the majority of resources would come from the public purse.

In New York, you even had City College, which was free for all city residents until the late 1970s. Some of our greatest writers, scientists and artists rose up from poverty to attend City before going on to do great things. In 1976, the City University of New York (CUNY) began charging tuition, and the possibility of a free, public higher education disappeared.

Since then, colleges have increasingly been remodeled to run like businesses. University of Florida President John Lombardi proudly said in 1997, “We have taken the great leap forward and said, ‘Let’s pretend we’re a corporation.’” I’m not sure Mao’s Great Leap Forward is the best frame of reference, but then again, based on what has happened to our colleges and universities in the last twenty years, maybe Lombardi was right.

Mitt Romney: putting your money where his mouth is

Some college presidents have started calling themselves CEOs. Private corporations give millions of dollars to fund research, and expect to get the patent rights for the discoveries that are created by departments where our professors and grad students work on public salaries, often with considerable support from federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation.

Meanwhile, state governments tell us that we need to cut back—we have to pull up our socks and pay higher tuition for the ever-rising cost of college, even as the state cuts its share of financial support. Professors have to accept declining wages, and fewer full-time professors are hired.

Perhaps most shockingly, this education that keeps getting more and more expensive is increasingly farmed out to grad students, adjuncts, and temporary professors who get paid peanuts and often have no benefits. It’s the Wal-Martization of education.

This means that those grad students will not find decent-paying, secure jobs to apply their knowledge and training when they get out of graduate school, because all the teaching is being done by grad students and adjuncts. The product is getting more expensive, the quality is arguably getting worse, the labor relations are more exploitative, and we are told that that’s just the way things have to be.

It is not just a reaction to the current fiscal crisis. This is all part of a general movement to undermine public institutions, particularly schools, that has been going on for decades. The budget deficit is just the latest pretext.

We are told everything that is public is bad. Anything that won’t turn out a patent and profit is viewed as useless. Goodbye English and History and Sociology. Hello corporate-funded research and faculty chairs sponsored by the very same rich businessmen who are buying our elections.

What do you think a professor whose job is sponsored by the billionaire Koch brothers is going to teach? The party line, parroting the same neoliberal talking points and conventional wisdom that make our institutions so anemic, dysfunctional, and profoundly unfair.

It does not have to be this way. They say there is not enough money. They say privatization is inevitable, and public education is on the way out. This is nonsense.

The big lie of neoliberalism is that it’s about reducing the state. It’s not. It’s about using an anti-public rhetoric to stop the government from doing certain things—educating the poor, the working class, the middle class, immigrants; taking care of the sick and indigent and elderly—and directing those resources to projects that serve the rich and powerful and well-connected.

Politicians who support this idea have done nothing to shrink the size of government overall or cut down the deficit. It is piquant concidence that the godfather of neoliberalism, Ronald Reagan, has his name on the biggest federal office building in Washington, DC (other than the Pentagon).

Despite the government’s continuing penchant for lavishing largesse on certain favored interests, they say there’s not enough money for your education. But there’s plenty of money for prisons. We incarcerate more of our people than any country in the world. There’s plenty of money for a fence on the border. No one so much as batted an eyelash about whether there was money for the war in Iraq, though its cost has been immense.

When Wall Street destroyed itself, there was no trouble finding $800 billion for the banks. But they say you need to learn to live with less, and take on ever more debt to have a chance at some kind of decent life—an increasingly elusive possibility in today’s low-wage, low-price, low-tax society.
This is not about numbers or money. It’s about priorities, and we have a choice. I would rather build public schools than private prisons, but they say one’s possible and the other isn’t. Don’t believe the superficial rhetoric of neoliberalism, privatization, and the free market. This is all about picking our pockets and then telling us its our fault that we’re broke.

It’s not about the size of government or how much government we have, but what we want government to do. The first thing we have to do to save our universities is to reject the false choice between fairness and fiscal responsibility.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Our Path-Dependent Future: What Happens When Change and Habit Collide?

In 2007 and 2008, then Senator Barack Obama ran on a campaign slogan: “Change you can believe in.” Obama’s campaign asserted that his election would rectify the metastasizing wealth gap between the rich and the poor, address the high unemployment rate, and restore America to the “shining city on a hill” that it once was. While one can debate whether or not Obama used cynical sloganeering or if he earnestly intended to implement such change, the study of change in political science could have served President Obama well. Within the political science discipline there are several schools of thought regarding institutional change. Mahoney and Thelen and the broader rational choice school of institutionalism present a starkly different account than the work of Pierson and other historical institutionalists who employ a path-dependency approach. These differing approaches have important consequences for those who desire to initiate or foster institutional or systemic change. Ultimately, the insights of Pierson and historical institutionalism provide more compelling arguments than those proffered by Mahoney and Thelen or the rational choice institutionalists.

According to Mahoney and Thelen, institutions, once created, tend to change “in subtle and gradual ways over time." Harnessing the example of the British House of Lords, the authors explain how these piecemeal changes can, over time, lead to the fundamental restructuring of institutions, political outcomes, or human behavior. Most of the pre-existing literature on institutional change indicts “exogenous shocks” as the cause (IV) of institutional change. The main institutionalist schools—historical, sociological, and rational choice—all explain continuity well, Mahoney and Thelen suggest, but provide little in the way of understanding how gradual institutional change occurs. Mahoney and Thelen conceive of “institutions as distributional instruments laden with power implications." Institutions are replete with contestation over resource allocation and attendant distributional consequences, both in an inter- and intra-institutional sense. For Mahoney and Thelen, institutions “contain within them possibilities for change." “What animates change is the power-distributional implications of institutions,” they aver.

Mahoney and Thelen place paramount importance on the role of compliance amongst actors within an institutional context. This power-distributional approach is buttressed by an emphasis on compliance because “institutional ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ have different interests when it comes to interpreting rules or dedicating resources to their enforcement." Mahoney and Thelen posit four types of change that are all initiated by efforts of different actors through their degree of compliance. The four types of institutional changes are: 1) displacement- when existing rules are replaced by new ones; 2) layering- new rules are attached to existing ones; 3) drift- rules remain formally the same but their impact changes; and 4) conversion- rules remain the same but are interpreted and enacted differently. These different types of institutional change are affected by “differences in veto possibilities and the extent of discretion in institutional enforcement and interpretation.” In other words, veto players or veto points affect which type of institutional change may occur. For example, if veto possibilities (strong veto actors and/or numerous veto points) are high, then displacement change is highly unlikely.

The authors also add four types of change agents to their schema: 1) insurrectionaries- they seek to eliminate existing institutions; 2) symbionts- they thrive on institutions, but not of their own making; 3) subversives- seek to displace an institution but their actions do not break the rules; and 4) opportunists- actors with ambiguous preferences about institutional continuity. Change agents exploit differences in levels of discretion in the interpretation or enforcement of rules in order to meet their goals. Each type of change agent is also likely to pursue different types of change. For example, insurrectionaries are generally linked to efforts at outright displacement.

If one looks at the interpretation and enforcement of various institutions across different presidential administrations, Mahoney and Thelen’s account appears compelling. One administration more zealous in its enforcement labor laws may staff an organization like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with pro-union officers, while an administration less friendly to labor may appoint pro-business officers. The mandate of the Board remains the same, however, the enforcement and interpretation, or the willingness of the officers of the organization to comply, may change the way the institution operates. Over time, this may lead to any of the several different types of change Mahoney and Thelen describe.

The rational choice approach to institutionalism utilizes a set of assumptions regarding human behavior and imposes those assumptions on the study of institutions and change. Adherents to rational choice institutionalism view actors as having a “fixed set of costs or tastes” who behave strategically to acquire these preferences. They see politics as collective action dilemmas where the decisions of utility-maximizing individuals produce outcomes that are “collectively suboptimal.” Actors’ behavior is driven by strategic calculations based on expectations of others’ actions. Institutions work to, and in fact originate as, mechanisms for creating stable expectations and structuring interactions.

The work of Anthony Downs on political parties epitomizes the rational choice model. He constructs a model where rational citizens seek to maximize their self-interest and rational politicians aim to acquire and maintain power. The calculations of rational, utility-maximizing individuals determine institutional changes. Changes in party systems or specifically to the party in power are driven by strategic calculations to attain one’s preferences. Another influential rational choice theorist, Douglass North, couches the discussion of institutional change in economic terms. North asserts, “ a change in relative prices leads one or both parties to an exchange, whether it is political or economic, to perceive that either or both could be better with a negotiated contract.” The successful re-negotiation of the contract results in institutional change. Conversely, institutional stability “derives from the fact that there are a large number of specific constraints that affect a particular choice.” These myriad constraints impinge on the type of actions that an actor can undertake. Therefore, “only when it is in the interest of those with sufficient bargaining power to alter formal rules will there be major changes in the formal institutional framework.” In other words, North asserts that those with the greatest leverage will only work to modify, supplant, or create new institutions if there is a rational calculation on the part of the hegemonic actors that they can form new, more beneficial institutions.

In his essay “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics,” Pierson argues for the concept of path dependence and adds an important concept, that of “increasing returns,” to the study of change and institutions. According to Pierson, path dependence is rooted in several particular claims. In sum, history and temporal sequence matter; “large consequences may result from relatively ‘small’ contingent events;” particular courses of action can be irreversible; and as a result “political development is often punctuated by critical moments or junctures that shape the basic contours of social life.” To these traditional tenets of path dependence, Pierson adds the concept of “increasing returns” which contains “two key elements central to…path dependence.” First, increasing returns helps to explain how the cost of switching from one institution to another can be very high. Moreover, the longer an institution operates the higher the transaction costs of the exit option will be. Secondly, issues of temporality and sequence are important: “it is not only a question of what happens but also of when it happens.” Increasing returns assumes that the further down an institutional path the more likely it is that that path will continue to be used. This cultivates a self-enforcing, positive feedback process. Critical junctures and initial decisions have a much larger impact on the trajectory of an institution. The farther along the trajectory, the less likely decisions or events are to have impact.

Pierson’s argument has several important implications regarding the nature and study of change in institutions. For Pierson, “public policies and (especially) formal institutions are change-resistant” because both are “generally designed to be difficult to overturn.” This is because those who design the institutions wish to enshrine certain immutable features that will handcuff their successors. Secondly, “political actors may wish to bind themselves” because they may perform better “if they remove certain options from their future menu.”

The path dependent, increasing returns approach that Pierson utilizes is both historical and institutional. Institutional change is a difficult process that, depending on the timing and sequence, can have nearly insuperably high exit costs. Such costs can often lead to inertia as the positive feedback processes reinforce equilibrium and militate against the possibility of change. Moreover, relatively small events prove to be critical junctures that shape institutions for years to come. Pierson provides the example of comparative political economy and the varieties of capitalism to illustrate his point. He asserts that the literature in this field positively identifies the manifold distinctions between capitalist economies but does not address how these equilibria emerge. National economies are embedded in their social context, varying modes of production, “formal and informal arrangements (both public and private) that help structure their interactions,” and particular national institutional matrices. Thus capitalism in different states, and national economies in general, are “highly path dependent. They are likely to exhibit substantial resilience, even in the context of major exogenous shocks…”

In a more specific contemporary context, Herman Cain, an aspiring Republican presidential nominee, has tabled a new tax reform plan called “9-9-9” (it calls for a 9 percent sales, income, and corporate tax across the board). This plan would obliterate the current tax code. The problem with the plan is that it would not provide enough revenue that the federal government requires. Current federal government outlays for entitlements, defense, and discretionary spending require far more revenue than this plan could generate. Therefore, Cain would not only need to restructure the tax code to implement his plan, but fundamentally alter how the federal government operates. Say what you will about the current byzantine tax code, but the exit costs of dismantling the current institution, from a path dependent standpoint, strongly work to produce policy inertia in this regard.

Mahoney and Thelen and rational choice institutionalists provide a starkly distinct account of institutional change from that of Pierson and others who employ historical institutionalism. Whereas Mahoney, Thelen and North suggest that change is incremental, historical institutionalists tend to see periods of punctuated equilibrium where “change takes place thereby creating a ‘branching point’ from which historical development moves onto a new path.” I find the path dependent approach most compelling and useful. A particularly pertinent example of the convincing nature of path dependency is US tax policy. The United States was founded in part as a country opposed to “taxation without representation” that was imposed by King George III. This aversion to taxes still resonates with the citizenry today as politicians appeal to American history in order to garner support for particular policy outcomes. Efforts to create fundamentally new institutions, such as a single-payer healthcare system, are often disrupted by existing institutions that would experience high transaction costs (such as the pharmaceutical or health insurance industries) from exiting the current system. New institutions, such as the emergence of social security in the United States, have frequently emerged in response to or during critical junctures. Moreover, the debate as to what to do with social security, as it may potentially run insolvent in the decades to come, is colored with the language of increasing returns. Advocates for the current system essentially appeal to the argument that the exit costs to senior citizens and the national economy are simply too high to change the institution.

It seems to me that Mahoney and Thelen and the rational choice school in general have a tendency to overemphasize the role of individuals in affecting, producing or initiating change. There are larger historical and structural factors from war to international trade to ideology that can prevent individuals from not only acting strategically or rationally, but also render them incapable of fostering institutional change. Individuals, even powerful individuals like Presidents and Senators, frequently have their agendas or policy prescriptions thwarted by institutions whose perpetuation is a far simpler course of action to take. While I sympathize with Mahoney and Thelen’s argument and see its utility in regards to smaller institutional issues of enforcement and interpretation, I do not think that it can adequately account for fundamental institutional change. Institutional change may be piecemeal, but that does not necessarily mean it is because of the compliance of change agents. External historical and structural factors play a role in institutional change as well. Presidential candidates would be well served by understanding this model of institutional change. Such understanding could potentially prevent candidates from promising transformational change in a four-year term.

I would like to end by referring back to Pierson’s cursory discussion of varieties of capitalism and national economies. Capitalism is an historical institution that is highly path dependent; despite its manifold negative consequences (economic exploitation, rampant consumerism, environmental degradation, etc.) it remains the dominant political economic force in the world. How does a change in such a world-system occur? The path dependency argument would postulate that only through change implemented during a critical juncture, such as continued environmental catastrophes or a people’s revolution, could change occur that would cultivate new economic institutions. Perhaps, this is what we are beginning to see with the proliferation of the “occupy” movements.

Adam Gallagher

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Shot in the Arm: The 21st Century Evolution of Wilco

Tweedy’s being pissy because he doesn’t want to play any Black Eyed Peas songs. What the fuck? People love that shit.

Not saying they’re a good band – they’re fucking terrible – but if you want people with money to give that shit away, play the Black Eyed Peas.

But no Tweedy’s pulling this fucking “I’m in Wilco, so I’m going to play Wilco songs” bullshit, like he knows anything about fundraising.

So it goes without fucking saying that he’s going out there and playing “I Gotta Feeling” right fucking now.

Also, would it fucking kill this motherfucker to smile every now and then? Cheer up, Tweedy!

-- from Dan Sinker, The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel, p. 135

When Dan Sinker incorporated Rahm Emanuel’s favorite band into a faux-twitter feed he had set up for the future mayor, few observers would have expected Jeff Tweedy to actually perform the cheesy pop songs mentioned in the tweets. At a release party for Sinker’s Twitter opus (and TofM can’t recommend the book highly enough as a satire of both politics and the power of media to shape political narratives), Tweedy arrived guitar in hand and performed his rendition of “I Gotta Feeling,” as well as a spoken word version of “My Humps.”

That Tweedy could poke fun at himself might seem surprising to those who attended pre-2003 Wilco shows or saw the excellent documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. At a late 1999 show at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom, Tweedy appeared disaffected, selecting Wilco’s best dirges for the occasion, casting a dark pall over the show. In the documentary, infighting with former bandmate Jay Bennett left Tweedy irritable and anxious. He seemed a man beset by industry intrigue and battling over the direction of the band. When, after a brief creative skirmish with Bennett, Tweedy announces, “I think I’m going to go throw up,” the viewer simply thinks he’s being hyperbolic. Of course, then he actually throws up, telling the camera that he was hospitalized several times for this kind of thing as a child. Long story short, Tweedy and his bandmates seemed far from happy.

Yet, in many ways, Wilco’s evolution from 1995’s A.M. to the recently released The Whole Love seem to parallel American consciousness in pre and post 9/11 period. Wilco themselves matured from their early status as minor-league spinoff of the legendary alt-country group Uncle Tupelo. Though gifted with a tangy-sweet voice and a knack for catchy songs, Tweedy generally played a spry sort of sub-McCartney to the brooding genius of his Tupelo bandmate Jay Farrar. Soon enough, Farrar’s post-Tupelo band Son Volt blew up with the grungy-country hit “Drowned,” and few expected that great things lay ahead for Tweedy’s own project, Wilco. A.M.’s charms were little appreciated at the time, though the sprawling follow-up project, Being There, a double album that stretched to encompass white noise, bluegrass, classic country balladry, and crunchy power pop, prompted critics to take a second measure of Tweedy’s abilities.

Wilco continued to expand its range with the Beatlesque orchestral pop of Summerteeth and the gauzey, ramshackle brilliance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, both of which seemed not only to move forward musically but also emotionally. Each new album combined the band’s keen melodic instinct to a widening repertoire of textures and instrumentation, even as their lyrics increasingly centered on themes of despair, violence, and self-loathing. Yet by Wilco’s last album, the formerly depressive Tweedy seemed downright jubilant. The title track of the self-titled Wilco even meditated on the darker parts of the band’s catalog, albeit with a knowing smile:

Are you under the impression this isn't your life?
Do you dabble in depression?
Is someone twisting a knife in your back?
Are you being attacked?
Oh, this is a fact that you need to know
Oh, oh, oh, oh
Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will you love you baby

So how did Wilco become so cheerful and reliable? How does a band once seemingly consumed by the darker sides of life emerge in a post 9/11 America as a beacon of good cheer? After all, at their New Year's Eve show in 2004 at Madison Square Garden, Tweedy came on stage in pajamas, taking their encore to cover songs like “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest.

 "The new Wilco is so good it's like fucking a thousand puppies in the mouth"

Tracking the meaning of Wilco’s career means more than chronicling the many moods of its lead singer. In fact, the band provide a valuable window into the vast number of technological and political changes that unfolded over the past decade. Technologically, Wilco embraced the Internet, even streaming its controversial Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album months before its release. Politically, Wilco seemed to draw strength from its opposition to Bush. At a October 2004 show at Radio City Music Hall, Wilco ended the concert with a plea to the crowd, as Tweedy begged the NYC audience, “Don’t be controlled by fear” – followed by the band ripping into “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed,” a none too subtle dig at the administration at the time.

First, the Music
Released two years prior to 9/11, Summerteeth served as “Jeff Tweedy's statement of purpose,” according to one critic. Though the characterization seems laughable today, the album did strike observers at the time as a major artistic leap for the still-unproven band. Drenched in pop that many likened to Pet Sounds and Revolver, the pop leanings of Summerteeth masked a dark interior. As Pitchfork reviewer Neil Liebermann noted, “Undermining this sticky-sweet pop party in a delicious irony, and ultimately supplying Summerteeth with its depth and success, is Tweedy's dark contemplation.” The album’s narrator proves unreliable as he struggles to deal with a failed relationship, balancing images of domestic violence, jealously, and anger with moments of elation and optimism. Much like pre-9/11 America, the surface layers appeared perfectly healthy, but dig a bit deeper and trouble was brewing. Perhaps no two songs best represent this dichotomy than the tracks “Via Chicago” and “ELT.” Lieberman says it best:
The album's confusion climaxes during its keystone, the majestic "Via Chicago", and its counterpart "ELT". On the former, a scorned lover stews, "I dreamed about killing you again last night/ And it felt alright with me." Then, a couplet of unsettling stream-of-consciousness lyrics give way to Tweedy as he tears into a disturbingly deliberate, off-key guitar riff that might very well be the musical moment of 1999. Interestingly, the celebratory "ELT" finds our sad psychopath repented and healed: "Oh, what have I been missing/ Wishing, wishing that you were dead." Taken on its merits, the song is almost unimaginatively sincere, but in context, it becomes enigmatic. As the narrator shuffles his story for our approval, which spin are we to believe? Brilliantly, the album leaves such questions unanswered.

The contrasts between such radically different emotions laid the groundwork for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot soon after, an album that’s far removed from the orchestral pop of Summerteeth. Shrouded in ambient clicks, beeps, and hisses, YHF seemed the perfect post 9/11 album: hazy, anxious, and reflective. When Tweedy sings “I would like to salute/The ashes of American flags/And all the fallen leaves/Filling up shopping bags” at the conclusion of “The Ashes of American Flags,” it felt like a remorseful summation of our lives: patriotic consumerism in the face of terrorism. The fact that Wilco recorded YHF before 9/11 made the album that much more eerie. On “Poor Places,” Tweedy describes a recent beating that has left at least one man in poor shape, bandaged and emasculated, “His jaw's been broken/His bandage is wrapped too tight/His fangs have been pulled” and yet a sense of hope seems to filter through, as he follows this bleak portrayal with “And I really want to see you tonight.” Yet, Wilco saved perhaps the most resonant lyrics for “Jesus, Etc.,” where “Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad sad songs/ Tuned to chords /Strung down your cheeks/Bitter melodies turning your orbit around.”

 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001-2)

The reception of YHF might have been quite different if not for the controversy and hoopla that surrounded its release. Major label Reprise refused to release the album, claiming that its ambient textures were too weird and experimental to sell in the pop marketplace. Such claims perplexed many fans once the album was released by label Nonesuch (ironically, a smaller subsidiary of the same company that owned Reprise); apart from a brief period when “Outta Mind Outta Site” played on modern rock radio in 1996, Wilco had never been a radio band, and YHF actually contained some of the poppiest and most melodic songs in the band’s catalog, such as “Jesus, Etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer.” The kerfuffle over the album, though, postponed its release until April 2002, even though the songs had been written and recorded in late 2000 and early 2001. When Americans finally heard about the tall buildings shaking, the ashes of the flags, the wounds of 9/11 were still raw and very fresh in their memories. It was comforting to reminisce about “the innocence I’ve known, playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned” as the war party dragged America into its catastrophic response to the terror attacks during the Spring of 2002.

As the band pushed forward, they released A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky, and Wilco (the Album), each on Nonesuch. Though on A Ghost is Born, the haze of YHF remains, the album offers glimpses of youthful hope in songs like “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and the self parody of “Late Greats” (The best band will never get signed/K-Settes starring Butcher's Blind/Are so good, you won't ever know/They never even played a show/You can't hear 'em on the radio). With many observers looking to see how the band would expand the experimental gestures of YHF, these albums seemed to indicate a contentment with their existing sonic palette – or at least a steady scaling back of any arty ambitions. Ghost contained the widest divergence between poppy singalongs and epic, extended song structures, while Sky Blue Sky – Tweedy’s first release after his battle with painkillers – was scorned by some critics for its easy-going, 70s rock vibe. The subsequent self-titled album  included country-rock stompers of the Being There variety, like “You Never Know,” although “Bull Black Nova” offered an intriguing excursion into dense, oppressive dissonance.

Mostly, the band seemed content to enjoy its new independence from major labels and drug addiction, pursuing a reliable middle path of country-inflected indie rock. At the same time, though, the depression and anxiety that haunted Ghost Is Born melted away over time – a result of Tweedy’s overcoming addiction, no doubt, but also of the changing mood of American life. Ghost was recorded in late 2003 and early 2004, when the US was definitively enmeshed in its Iraq disaster and the nation was heading toward a grinding election battle between irreconcilable political forces. By 2007, when Sky Blue Sky was released, the darkest depths of the Bush years seemed behind us, although the collapse of the subprime market that undermined the entire economy was just beginning. The sunnier Wilco came out in 2009, reflecting both the sorrows of the recent past ( “Country Disappeared”) as well as a flinty determination to survive in the face of continual crisis (“You and I,” “Wilco (the Song)”). “Every generation thinks it’s the worst,” Tweedy sang, “thinks it’s the end of the world.” After the war on terror, two endless wars in Asia, and the near-total destruction of the world financial system, Americans could be forgiven for thinking the apocalypse was upon them.

Learning to Live with the End of the World
Wilco’s discography certainly parallels the changing fortunes of America around the turn of the twentieth century, but it also tells an interesting story about the fall and rise of the music industry during the same period. On one level, they represent a familiar story about major labels picking up subcultural movements and packaging them for broader consumption. Uncle Tupelo won fame for popularizing a return to American roots music in the late 1980s, a conscious reaction of slick Nashville country and the pop mainstream in general that came to be known as “No Depression” (after the 1936 Carter Family tune that the band covered on a 1990 album of the same name). As Tweedy recently admitted, Tupelo “hated everything that wasn’t a field recording from Appalachia, anything that wasn’t raw and amateur-sounding,” and the band refused to seek mainstream success, quitting at the height of its influence, shortly after the release of the 1993 classic Anodyne. Tweedy and Jay Farrar went their separate ways, and Farrar’s Son Volt became an unexpected (albeit short-lived) sensation amid the mid-90s gold rush of alternative, grunge, post-grunge, and indie rock. Wilco had even less success on commercial radio, but the steady rise of its reputation among critics through the late 1990s ensured a devoted following.

Uncle Tupelo (left to right): Farrar, Tweedy, and another guy

That following was not devoted enough for Reprise Records not to shed the band for its unruly, slightly arty ways in 2001, at a time when the mainstream industry was still lurching to respond to the threat of online file-sharing, and many labels were dropping indie-leaning artists from their rosters that had outlived their usefulness. Bands like Luna and Wilco commanded a tiny but consistent market share; the major labels, though, saw little advantage to keeping them around as record sales continued to slide in the aftermath of Napster, 9/11, and the recession of the early 2000s. AOL’s controversial 2001 takeover of Time Warner resulted in the Internet giant ordering the latter to clean house at its record division, cutting six hundred jobs. Supporters of Wilco were among those cut, though the efforts at shoring up Time Warner’s music business accomplished little in the long-run. And the whole saga offered a preview of the problems that would beset the new megacorporate behemoth; after all, the company gave itself a PR black eye by rejecting and postponing Wilco’s album only to have one of its own subsidiaries, Nonesuch, sign on with the band shortly after.

The story captures not just the suicidal tendencies of the mainstream record industry – the YHF episode also exemplified the new ways music would be distributed in the years to come. Tweedy had originally hoped to release the album on September 11th, 2001, of all days, but the label confusion set the date back. As leaked versions circulated on the Internet, the band took the nearly unprecedented leap of streaming the entire album on its website, beginning September 18th. (Two years earlier, Tom Petty had run into trouble with his label just for posting an mp3 of his new single, “Free Girl Now,” online, which over a hundred thousand fans promptly downloaded.) As Greg Kot observes in his book Ripped, the band’s site received huge traffic and, on the subsequent tour, fans were seen singing along to songs from an album that had not even been properly released yet. All of us have witnessed the stony stares of the faces of concertgoers who wait through a new song the band is trying out live for the first time, unable to relate with the music because it was unfamiliar. Wilco’s decision to “give away” the music (in a sense) likely bolstered the success of their tour, which may not have generated as much interest if fans had no access to YHF.

Wilco has continued to offer new music as streams and downloads on its website, NPR, and other forums, while Tweedy has voiced support for file-sharing. “I look it as a library,” he said in 2005. “I look at it as our version of radio” – an outlet for artists who do not have the marketing or mainstream backing to get on Clear Channel-controlled broadcasting. The band recently took the final leap by setting up its own label, a tactic that artists have favored from the Beatles to Black Flag and Ani Difranco, but which is perhaps more viable than ever with electronic distribution. Indeed, they follow in the footsteps of Radiohead, who famously gave their 2007 album In Rainbows away on an NPR-like donation model (also known as “for free”) and continue to chart their own label-less course.

Critics have pondered whether such a go-it-alone strategy can work for bands who do not already possess the loyal fan-base and name recognition that Wilco and Radiohead enjoy, and the question remains open. What is beyond question is that Wilco’s path from the highly likable, alt-country non-geniuses of 1995 to the zeitgeist-defining art rockers of 2002 to the beloved independent institution of today encapsulates much of what has happened in American life and music over the last decade or two. Tweedy and his compatriots were there for both the No Depression and alternative music bonanzas of the early 1990s, and they survived the music industry crunch of the early twenty first century by chronicling America’s larger sojourn from disaster to disaster. They came out on the other side with a body of work most recently topped off by The Whole Love, an album that seems to encompass many of the styles and moods that marked their career. Its first single, “I Might,” muses on the frustrations of parenthood (“you won’t set the kids on fire, oh, but I might”). More telling is the b-side – a cover of Nick Lowe’s sardonic 1977 track “I Love My Label” – released, of course, by the band’s very own dBpm.

So when Dan Sinker incorporated Wilco into his @MayorEmanuel feed, it seemed appropriate. Emanuel’s election as mayor ushered in a new age for a city long dominated by machines, Irish pols, and the indomitable Daleys. Like Wilco, which was rejected by the record industry behemoth, Emanuel found himself and his campaign on the outs when rival candidates challenged his residency status. (The lawsuit was later overturned by the Illinois State Supreme Court -- an entity that, like Chicago’s city government, is beyond reproach). Yet, in part through new media like Sinker’s Twitter feed, and the strength of Emanuel’s personality, the former Obama confidant emerged victorious, much like Wilco several years earlier. That new media like Twitter subsumed a former neo-folkie/alt-country militant like Tweedy no longer seemed so surprising considering Wilco’s own turn to technology – both in terms of distribution and the enigmatic, electronic haze of YHF, Ghost Is Born, and The Whole Love.  Sinker’s feed expressed pathos, rage, resistance and humor, the very components that have made Wilco so resonant for the past seventeen years. With The Whole Love, it’s like Wilco’s back in the kitchen again, cooking up something special -- maybe not YHF special but special nonetheless.  Or, as @MayorEmanuel put it, “Jeff Tweedy showed up with a giant plate of motherfucking brownies. Game on, bitches.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Decide Yourself if Radio’s Gonna Stay: A Post-Mortem of R.E.M.

The first and most iconic R.E.M. record of all, “Radio Free Europe,” came at a time when the music industry was in turmoil, in 1981. The long boom of record sales began to flag in the late 1970s, amid grinding recession and the transition of the baby boomer demographic into adulthood. The brief efflorescence of punk proved to be a momentary and luckless fad for the music industry, which soon moved onto smoother and poppier offerings, leaving punk to evolve into the niche subculture it has been more or less ever since. MTV was just emerging on the horizon. Its earliest hit declared, “Video killed the radio star,” but R.E.M. had different thoughts on the matter. “Decide yourself if radio’s gonna stay,” Michael Stipe insisted on the Georgia band’s first single.

The lyrics of “Radio Free Europe” paint an impressionistic view of the world of 1981, when the fate of music remains in question and the Cold War world itself is in transition. It evokes an image of mobility and change – “straight off the boat, where to go?” – familiar to both the immigrant and the Southerner who first goes “abroad,” beyond the bounds of the former Confederacy. Equal parts New Wave spunk and Sixties psychedelic pop, with a touch of jagged punk spirit, the song seemed to be an anthem for the possibilities of independent music and the power of media to open up a new world. The incessant refrain of the song is “Decide yourself.”

Kudzu is a social construct
I was reluctant to write anything about the recent demise of R.E.M., despite the fact that they were one of the bands nearest and dearest to my heart since I was thirteen years old. This reluctance derives in part from the flood of glowing encomia that have issued from Salon, Slate, and so many other media outlets in the last few weeks. R.E.M. “invented alternative rock.” They led a music revolution. They were, we are told, the greatest American rock band of the last thirty years. In other words, they still find themselves mired in second place after U2 for world’s greatest/most gigantic/longest-lived band of recent decades -- an honor most other big bands were either too self-destructive or idiosyncratic to hold.  Long ago, a drunken Edge told an interviewer that if U2 were the Beatles, R.E.M. were the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young of their day. Whatever the merits of CSNY, it is hard to say that is “Judy Blue Eyes" was more influential than “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." I don’t think that backhanded compliment ever stopped stinging.

Cut your hair and get a job, kid

Still, the now exalted status of R.E.M. is jarring. Boomer rock critics gave their work the benefit of the doubt in recent years, with the ever-credulous Rolling Stone giving praise to the so-so likes of 2001’s Reveal, while a younger generation of critics at SPIN and Pitchfork have looked at their efforts since the mid-90s with a less forgiving eye. Among people my age and younger, at least, the band was more often mocked for its “Shiny Happy People”/“Everybody Hurts” period than appreciated for setting the template of brainy, independent, college rock in the 1980s. They were technically influential – artists such as Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Thom Yorke cited them as major influences, and their mark was unmistakable on both the brilliant (Pavement) and the less-than-brilliant (Hootie and the Blowfish) – yet they found it hard to escape the impression of a has-been group incapable of matching the heights of their increasingly remote early days. Even when they put out an album as excellent as Accelerate, which ranks, with Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) and Reckoning (1983), among my favorite R.E.M. records, they still gave the impression of a band well past its prime. The lyrics of Accelerate’s first single – “Nobody cares, no one remembers and nobody cares” – always seemed to me a plaintive rumination on a heyday long since past, for a band that could no longer find its audience.

When I first heard the news R.E.M. was breaking up, I was disappointed. They seemed to be in the middle of a late-career renaissance akin to Bob Dylan’s remarkable run from Time Out of Mind to Modern Times, and the declaration seemed to come out of nowhere – ending very much with a whimper. R.E.M. had previously pledged to break up if any member left the band (they didn’t), and rumor had it they would part ways in the year 2000 (ditto). Now they decided to break up for no apparent reason, in the wake of a solid and fairly well-received record, 2011’s Collapse into Now. As Louie C.K. says, no one ever gets divorced at just the right time.

Given the outpouring of respect and love for the band since their breakup, though, it seems like a shrewd move. Like an artist whose works shoot up in value after his death, the band’s premeditated demise has prompted people to recognize their immense contribution to music of the indie, college, southern, and general “modern” or “alternative” rock varieties.


The R.E.M. century: dune buggies, pink feather boas, and Jimmy Dean

I hope this sudden departure from the scene will lead critics and other listeners to discover the charms of underappreciated albums like New Adventures in Hi-fi, the epically dour follow-up to Monster that inaugurated the band’s slide into commercial oblivion, thanks in no small part to the near-suicidal choice of stream-of-consciousness ramble “E-Bow the Letter” as a first single. I hope Accelerate will get a second look, as well as the handful of terrific songs from Reveal and Collapse into Now.

The R.E.M. story is an invaluable one for the recent cultural history of pop music. With less militance than, say, Fugazi, and less angst than Pearl Jam or Nirvana, they grappled with the problem of translating independent music for a large audience, in an age when big rock bands with near-universal appeal became increasingly scarce, even extinct. It is the story of a band marrying a grab bag of disparate influences – the chiming Byrds guitars, the guttural, ragged baritone that Michael Stipe stole from Patti Smith, the lyrics that blended psychedelia, Southern Gothic and punk poetry – into a uniquely regional variant, plying their craft in the independent circuit for years before managing the transition to the mainstream success and megamillion record deals, and still finding a way to experiment and put out smart, thoughtful, adventurous music even when it meant sacrificing their mainstream popularity.

The wonderful mystery and ambiguity of early records like Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning was never to be recaptured, but that was all thirty years ago. What the band continued to represent, in spite of their missteps and mainstream popularity, was the possibility that the South might have a different face – a few arty guys from Georgia, with a penchant for punk and ambivalent sexuality, a fact that was crucially important for “Southern boys just like you and me,” as Steve Malkmus once put it – and rock could remain open to the eccentric and obscure, while working within a familiar template of melody, harmony, and noise that appealed to a wide range of listeners.

R.E.M. departs the stage at a moment when the music industry is again in crisis, just as when they arrived. The question of whether radio’s gonna stay – whether it can still “polish up the gray” – is uncertain, between the many competing and uncertain experiments in internet and satellite radio, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, the revival of vinyl, and so forth. Rather like the Great Depression, when broadcast radio seemed to offer free music to all and poverty threatened the record industry with annihilation, we are in a moment of transit and anxiety – just what R.E.M. captured so aptly with “Radio Free Europe” thirty years ago. We can hope, perhaps, that another band will appear before long to capture the uneasy vicissitudes of this moment and write music that shows yet another way forward.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Erasing Race: Whiteness, California, and the Colorblind Bind

Whatever their defects as historical analysis, [multiracial and multicultural] have become obligatory public gestures. Among breaches of propriety, defining race in 'bipolar' terms ranks well ahead of wearing animal fur. During a symposium at a university in southern California, a senior historian of white women rebuked me for emphasizing the historical origin of American racial ideology in the enslavement of Afro-Americans--not, apparently, because she judged the argument invalid, but because she thought it unseemly to make in California. 
– Barbara Fields

Legendary Marxist and Columbia professor Barbara Fields sounds simultaneously bemused and frustrated by overly politically correct constructions of race that eschewed any kind of binary considerations. Though it remains unclear whether or not Fields would like to take a meat ax to perceived notions of multiculturalism, she clearly holds reservations. For Fields, the move toward the study of “whiteness” and how other groups relate to this concept seemed questionable. What about class? Despite Fields’s caustic protestations, the shift toward the study of “whiteness” unfolded.

Certainly, while scholars' intentions may be good, Fields has not been the only academic to raise a skeptical eyebrow. Recovering the histories of marginalized groups often emerges from an impulse within a historian toward social justice or even some sense of solidarity. While such intents may be laudable, they do not necessarily make for great history. Richard Kilminster cautioned academics that the infection of politics in their work could lead to the establishment of arguments that could not be proven or disproven. Daniel Wickenburg shares Kilminster’s concern over the shifting of the study of identities to those of social constructions such as masculinity or whiteness. Though some argue that this move toward defining and analyzing whiteness and relations to it enables white people to reinsert themselves into the discussion, Wickenburg’s main reservation revolves around the role of social history practices, especially in regard to “reading the absences.” Wickenburg wishes not to turn back the clock on these recent “historiographical inversions” but he does plead for cultural historians to break from the methodology of their social history predecessors. “My particular claim … is that cultural historians need to be more like intellectual historians and less like social historians,” writes Wickenburg. “They need to take ideas and language a lot more seriously than they have been willing to do.”

Undoubtedly, due to discriminatory government policies like segregation and America’s long history of racial hierarchies, many ethnic and racial groups struggled to reconcile their own identities with that of the dominant white one. Numerous historians and sociologists have explored divisions within the nation’s Mexican American population that led older Chicanos to identify more closely with whites rather than with their fellow minorities and in some cases other Latinos. Scholars like Lisa Lowe point to the impact of the “model minority” construction in shaping Asian American communities and their relationship to Blacks and Latinos. Lowe and others have argued that seen as politically silent and passive, Asian Americans provided conservatives a model that promoted racial liberalism but only for worthy groups that aligned with various American values. This construction framed protesting Blacks and Chicanos of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s as unworthy malcontents unwilling to commit themselves to the proper ethics and tenets of American society. Still, the determination of what groups qualified as “model minorities” and what those qualifications consisted of remained defined largely by whites. Thus, it should come as no surprise that segments of numerous ethnic and racial communities have sometimes positioned themselves distantly from Blacks and other minorities while attempting to shore up their own alleged “whiteness”. After all, the benefits of being white in American history, economically, politically, and socially, remain rather obvious.

Even as American shores become increasingly diverse, whiteness continues to define political discourse. Polyglot states like California promote a sort of “racial liberalism” that argues for tolerance but in actuality masks inequalities. The aforementioned Lisa Lowe castigated multiculturalism for similar faults. For Lowe, it is through contradiction that the systematic inequalities embedded in “cultural institutions, economies, and geographies” are revealed. In many ways the problem arises from how we view difference. Long positioned as a negative, multiculturalism attempted to solve such pejorative views by suggesting a pluralist cultural vision in which all cultures interacted on equal terms. Lowe and others view this as a dodge; multiculturalism levels differences and papers over real inequalities that prevent groups from interacting on equal terms. The subsequent conflict calls attention to pluralist multiculturalism’s role in obscuring such unevenness. In this way, Lowe suggests that culture must be reimagined not in the language of “identity, equivalence, or pluralism but out of contradiction, as a site for alternative histories and memories that provide the grounds to imagine subject, community, and practice in new ways.” (96)

Whatever one thinks of multiculturalism, no other state in the nation the represents the multicultural vision of twenty first century America more than California. However, despite this apparent diversity, political scientist Daniel Martinez HoSang illustrates how California’s vaunted referendum/proposition system has promoted “political whiteness” at the expense of anti-discrimination and civil rights legislation. In HoSang’s eyes, California presents an intriguing paradox: an avowedly blue state, characterized by wide spread racial and ethnic diversity that clings to a conservative vision of race. In Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California, HoSang explores how the ballot initiative system proposed and generated “racial meaning [while] forging racialized political communities.” (4) These propositions then contributed to the construction of a larger political framework “about human possibility, which marks some claims, experiences, and harms as legitimate and recognizable while stigmatizing others as specious or irrelevant,” writes HoSang. (4)

In Racial Propositions, HoSang charts the trajectory of ballot initiatives from the 1946 defeat of Prop 11 – which sought to create a state Fair Employment Practices Commission that would police racial discrimination by unions and employers - to the first ballot initiative victory by civil rights advocates in 2003 – a rejection of Ward Connerly’s Prop 54 attempt to ban state and local governments from compiling racial data. For much of the book, HoSang recounts how civil rights advocates continually foundered in their attempts to pass ballot initiatives in their favor and reject those to their detriment. Moreover, HoSang reveals the odd discourse that emerged. Paradoxically, ballot initiatives with clear racial impacts were increasingly discussed, promoted, or critiqued in language that avoided nearly all mention of race. In the defeat of 2003’s Prop 54, civil rights advocates and others constructed a successful opposition campaign by focusing on the proposition’s impact on health professionals and services eschewing all mention of race. The larger theme coursing through Racial Propositions relates to this central issue: racial liberalism and the idea of tolerance rested on a foundation of racial logic that reduced racism to a disreputable personal act attached to individuals rather than the institutional variant that remains pervasive today. In this constellation of race, debate regarding discrimination becomes increasingly difficult as civil rights proponents continually found themselves on their heels politically in attempts to appeal to the mythical white suburban voter who no longer saw a society stratified by racial divisions.
Opposition to Prop 14

If many scholars have presented the success of ballot initiatives like Prop 14. which nullified the 1963 Rumford Fair Housing Act and exempted many real estate transactions from civil rights legislation (1964) as “white backlash” (one might point to Rich Perlstein’s recent Nixonland as evidence of this narrative), HoSang suggests another view. HoSang argues that the backlash school, for lack of a better term, treats these developments as accomplished fact because they insist on the “particularity and distinctiveness of ‘nonwhite’ consciousness, interests, and demands, thus ignoring the contingencies of “historically specific events, claims, and struggles.” (18) The problem lay not in the “distinctiveness of ‘non white consciousness,” but rather the instutialized structures of racism that portrayed demands by minorities as selfish or extreme. Paraphrasing the aforementioned Barbara Fields, HoSang points out racial prejudice arises out of historical conditions not genetics. “To posit, then, that ‘race’ or ‘racial prejudice’ functions as a motive force of history does nothing ‘more than repeat the question by way of answer,’” writes HoSang. (18)

So what exactly does HoSang mean when he employs the term “political whiteness”? HoSang’s definition parallels similar arguments regarding debates about masculinity. For example, many scholars argue that a “heteronormative gaze” has functioned to establish an accepted discourse regarding sexuality, stressing monogamy and male dominated heterosexuality while marginalizing those who inhabit sexualities outside of this public sphere. This results not only in a marginalized identity but a liminal or nearly invisible figure. Historians like George Chauncey have illustrated the complexities of early 20th century sexuality where a burgeoning lexicon attempted to create a public space, admittedly encoded, for what observers today would describe as homosexuality. However, though homosexuals successfully constructed a veiled public life, certain concepts like gay marriage remained not only unspoken, but non-existent. For example, in City Boy, literary critic Edmund White notes that despite the proliferation of gay rights movements, none of White’s peers ever considered matrimony: “Back then we had no notion of ‘gay marriage,’ partly because may of us were equally opposed to marriage for straight people.” (99)

Perhaps White’s sample group—bohemians and others who fancied themselves avant garde—was a bit skewed. One could also suggest, as White does, that the broader society had begun to question the validity of marriage or at the very least aspects of it. Clearly, as White articulates and Josh Sides has illustrated, in its early stages after decades of closeted or encoded behavior, the gay liberation movement saw open sexuality and expressions of this sexuality as a political right to be deployed. Yet, few gays pressed for marriage rights. Perhaps, marriage seemed like a cage to the newly out gay community. Yet, it might also be because the idea itself, squashed by heterosexual norms, could never emerge. The rules and limits of discourse, set by a dominant heteronormative society, would not allow it. Breeders viewed such ideas as so impossible as to elicit comedic disbelief. White admits that this discourse impacted gay men psychologically. “We ourselves still thought it was pretty strange being gay, and half the time we were claiming our gay rights we were really whistling in the dark,” reflects White, “trying to convince ourselves we weren’t really public menaces or monsters either pitiable or frightening.” (99) HoSang’s political whiteness parallels this “heternormative gaze”—each dictates the terms of debate and marginalizes or obscures those who fail to reside within its boundaries.

Drawing upon writers like George Lipsitz, Raymond Williams, Cheryl Harris, and W.E.B. DuBois, HoSang’s “political whiteness” operates as identity and a “property interest.” Through norms, “settled expectations” and investments, political whiteness sets the boundaries for “political communities,” the meanings of “political interests” and the “source of political power” for those actors who situate themselves as white. Critically, it does not limit itself to the “interests and politics of ‘white people’”, writes HoSang, “it instead concerns the process by which some political claims and interests come to be defined as white. “ (20) For HoSang, political whiteness acts as an umbrella, drawing in diverse groups under its identity. When discussing the debate over Proposition 187, HoSange argues political whiteness functioned to suture “a range of identities – taxpayer, homeowner, American – which made the distinctions between worthy and unworthy subjects recognizable.” (167) As much of Racial Propositions illustrates, political whiteness is a big tent concept with both liberals and conservatives retreating under its auspices.

Relatedly, in many ways, political whiteness’ main characteristic is disingenuousness. As HoSang notes, “like whiteness in general, political whiteness is a subjectivity that constantly disavows its own presence and insists on its own innocence.” (21) None of its practitioners admit its existence or even the existence of motivations driven by race. It is as if race does not exist. In the words of Usual Suspects’ Verbal Kint, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.” Instead, invested political actors employ a language of inclusion as represented by appeals to “our rights”, “our jobs”, “our schools” and so forth. As HoSang points out he is not the first to explore the role of political whiteness. In recent years, writers like Kevin Kruse, M.D. Lassiter, and Mike Davis have examined similar developments even if none them used the term “political whiteness.” In Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, M.D. Lassiter explores how the role of a white homeowner taxpayer identity employed race neutral rhetoric, which defended “the class privileges and consumer rights of the middle class suburbs.” (122)

Like HoSang, Lassiter finds the backlash narrative racially reductive. Labels like “Southern Strategy” and “Republican South”, Lassiter argues, downplay “the centrality of class ideology in the outlook of suburban voters and ignores the consistent class divisions among white southerners evident throughout the civil rights era.” (4) Again like HoSang, Lassiter notes that middle class white suburban homeowners recast civil rights debates establishing a national discourse of racial moderation, which advocated a gradual integration (though the degree depended on specific localities) that cast massive resisters and civil rights reformers as equally extreme. “The stance that moderation represented the position of reasonable people under attack by ‘extremists on both sides’ – a formulation that lumped massive resisters and civil rights activists together against the middle,” writes Lassiter, “emerged as a popular viewpoint in the rest of the nation before it became the dominant ideology in the metropolitan South.” (99)

Moreover, the discourse of racial moderation viewed integration as required by law, but not necessarily morally correct; in this way it failed to address the underlying tensions that created segregation. Charlotte Brooks found similar developments in the integration of Los Angeles and San Francisco by Asians and Asian Americans. Brooks points out that many whites “accommodated racial change in ways that preserved their racialized self esteem.” (Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 221) Though many white residents viewed the presence of Asians as a drag on property values, they justified integration by commending Japanese and Chinese families for their “values.” “As Asian Americans gained greater access to formerly all white areas,” writes Brooks, “a growing number of white Californians began to speak of them as people who shared the kinds of values that whites usually identified exclusively with themselves and their neighborhoods.” (221) Moreover, whites explained that American treatment of Asians and Asian Americans had Cold War implications as domestic America could provide a transnational example promoting the nation’s tolerance of minorities. According to Brooks, California homeowners viewed integration as a sacrifice they must bear for a larger purpose: Cold War efforts in Asia.
Integrating Atlanta

Still this allegiance to whiteness had boundaries. In White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Kevin Kruse explores the role class played in Atlanta’s white community during mid twentieth century desegregation efforts. When HoSang identifies the language of “political whiteness” as a collective “our [insert noun]”, Kruse illustrates a similar process in Atlanta. “For local Atlanta white communities, the language of community, community protection, and freedom of association,” notes Kruse, “became buzzwords for resistance. Initial resistance focused on constructing an “established white community” then using the language of community protection to prevent integration. Yet, as in Lassiter’s account of suburban school desegregation, class intervened as working class whites watched middle class families move to the suburbs, accelerating black encroachment into their neighborhoods. Of course, even within the Atlanta white middle class, divisions emerged. Local groups such as Help Our Public Education (HOPE) or Metropolitan Association for Segregation Education (MASE) formed to respond to the degrees of difference arising among whites resistant to integration. For many HOPE became “the unofficial voice of official Atlanta on the topic of open schools,” Kruse notes. “The Hartsfield coalition and its allies in the press portrayed HOPE as the voice of the respectable middle class and dismissed segregationists as uncultured rabble rousers.” (138)

Conversely, MASE represented a more militant strain of this middle class orientation that politely rejected black requests for inclusion. Draped in respectability, their leadership “spoke softly, with reserve and intelligence and in a language that accentuated middle class ideals of family, individual rights, equal opportunity, and upward mobility through hard work.” (140) The division between HOPE and MASE illustrated the fractured nature of middle class identities, but also illustrated the kind of rhetoric of political whiteness that HoSang explores, one that clothed itself in middle class respectability, individualism, and race neutral language. To be fair, one could argue that the “values” Brookes, Lassiter, and Kruse point to relate as much to bourgeois class based sensibilities as much as whiteness or some combination of race/class intervention rather than “political whiteness.” Ultimately, HoSang’s sharpest critics will no doubt raise these complaints.

As evidenced by these examples, the negation of race through a color blind rhetoric employed during ballot initiatives and school desegregation debates has become a defining characteristic of post war American public discourse. However, HoSang observes California’s ballot initiatives through a different lens. While certainly not a rebuke of works like Kruse’s White Flight and Lassiter’s The Silent Majority, HoSang’s account refuses to accept that the white racial identities ascribed to participants have been fully realized and defined. Nor are they “constructed outside the field of politics,” argues HoSang. Rather, this identity moves. “White political identity, is hardly static; it also becomes renewed and transformed through struggles such as ballot initiatives.” (21) Through ballot initiatives, HoSang cleverly flips the discussion on its heads: initiatives have little to do with the rights of “racialized minorities,” they do however represent “contests over the political authority and ‘settled expectations’ of whiteness itself.” (21) In other words, Why does this identity move? “But white political identity is hardly static; it also becomes transformed and rewnewd thorugh strudgges such as ballot iniative campaigns.” (21) To paraphrase Gramsci and numerous others who invoke his name, because “hegemony takes work.”

Ballot initiatives also reveal a compelling dynamic about political whiteness: the appropriation of civil rights rhetoric by often conservative forces. For example, in the battle over the passage of Prop 14 (this measure sought to defang the Rumford housing act, which more or less promised open housing), the California Real Estate Association (CREA) painted open housing acts like Rumford as intrusions on long held political freedoms. “Situating Proposition 14 in the spirit of an inclusionary Americanism built upon freedom and opportunity over exclusion and hierarchy,” HoSang points out, “the CREA’s Property Owners Bill of Rights asserted that Proposition 14 was indeed the rightful heir to the nation’s history of pluralist inclusion.” (68) However, the right that such organizations and those that supported them fought for was one couched in racial context. Race may have never been mentioned but as HoSang suggests, Prop 14’s protection gave whites the “right to discriminate against and exclude people of color in general and black peoples in particular.” (70) Even when articulated in terms of individualism and property, these ideas “referenced particular historical constructions and narratives,” writes HoSang. After all, if property rights proved to be the real issue, HoSang astutely points out that racial covenants, corporate agreements, and homeowners associations long circumscribed property rights through their racial restrictions. Instead, opposition to laws like the Rumford Act turned logic on its head, as developers and homeowners claimed its provisions illustrated that racial liberalism had run amok.
Busing in LA

In this context, homeownership became a social and political identity fueled by race, class, and gender normatives. This identity did not remain confined to proposition debates; instead as Eric Avila has argued, it pervaded popular culture. In Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, Avila pursues a task similar to that of William Deverall in Whitewashed Adobe, exploring the construction of a “privatized, consumer oriented subjectivity premised upon patriarchy, whiteness and suburban home ownership.” As government policies attempted to reconstruct American identities along consumerist lines, white suburbanites attempted to build a “classless” ideal that separated them from the “darkened” inner city. For example, the post war decline of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Watts, a decline due in great part to HOLC/FHA policies, and the rise of suburban enclaves like South Gate meant suburban residents hoped to differentiate themselves from the evils of urban living. Thus, as “the expansion of suburban California provided a mythic space for the construction of a new 'white city',” Bunker Hill, Boyle Heights, and Watts provided convenient straw men for the emerging “cinematic vision of a black and alien Los Angeles.” Here Avila juxtaposes the portrayal of the inner city in Los Angeles film noir with the rise of Disneyland, each representing an idealized/demonized version of metropolitan regions. Undoubtedly, Los Angeles’ role as cultural producer influenced such developments. The suburban, decentralized nature of Southern California, when portrayed in movies, television, and via Disneyland reinforced such conceptions of post war America.

Throughout Racial Propositions, HoSang acknowledges the mistakes of civil rights advocates. Few organizations could claim experience with direct democracy electoral politics. Repeatedly, organizers made the same mistakes. First, too often, civil rights and related advocates mobilized too late, allowing opponents to dictate the terms of debate. Second, direct contact approaches rather than public events that frequently drew those already in agreement proved more effective in gaining support. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, never mention race. Here HoSang presents a provocative and some might argue polarizing argument: civil rights advocates and others ended up reproducing normatives through their method of opposition. The message opponents of Proposition 187 (1994 - declares undocumented immigrants ineligible for public, social , and health services, public education) and Proposition 209 (1996 – ends affirmative action in public hiring, contracting, and public education) adopted a campaign in which they openly admitted that they agreed that affirmative action and immigration were problems but that the propositions’ solutions would only exacerbate each issue. Thus, though their intentions remained pure, their efforts furthered the underlying message of those who supported the propositions. HoSang points out that in regard to immigration reform, it failed to dominate concerns in California or nationally, but that the passage of Prop 187 and the debate that emerged in connection with it established a discourse around immigrants the served as dress rehearsal for the more polarizing, demonizing immigration controversies of recent years.

As noted earlier, conservatives do not monopolize the concept of political whiteness. HoSang identifies the left or mainstream left’s role in perpetuating the very political whiteness that conservatives embraced. In relation to Proposition 187, HoSang argues Democrats did as much damage as Republicans. “While leading Democrats did not endorse Proposition 187,” he argues, “they fully participated in constructing unauthorized immigration as a political and economic crisis that required uncompromising action, essentially affirming the rationale that fueled Proposition 187.” (187) Take the example of Senator Diane Feinstein. The California Senator may have had more compassionate reasons for her concern regarding undocumented residents, but her prescriptions, like those of other prominent Democrats including Barbara Boxer and President Clinton, adopted many of the solutions from New Right figures. “Feinstein insisted that she was raising the issue in order ‘to avoid a serious backlash against all immigrants’ and to forestall more extreme proposals emanating from the ‘far right’,” observes HoSang. “But her policy prescriptions were largely taken from these same groups – her solutions mirrored those made by Pat Buchanan just one year earlier – and focused almost entirely on punitive measures.” (172) In the case of both propositions, the debates that unfolded shaped the discourse and understandings attached to each.
The man, the myth, the magic?

While critics may argue that actions matter more than discourse, HoSang’s examination of Prop. 209 illustrates the power of language to shape or influence voters. Proponents of the proposition labeled their movement the California Civil Rights Initiative. They argued that dismissing affirmative action fulfilled the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s provisions regarding gender and racial preferences. According to supporters, affirmative action programs promoted unqualified women and individuals of color while discriminating against hard working, better qualified citizens. Of course, this then stigmatized “any signs of Black advancement in education or employment as undeserved and unwarranted,” notes HoSang. This discourse also functioned to obscure the long history of preferential treatment for white men. The proposition passed rather easily yet exit polls suggested a paradoxical complexity. One exit poll found that 54% of voters supported affirmative action programs meant to help women and minorities find better employment and education. A second poll argued that as much as 80% of those individuals who voted yes on Prop 209 acknowledged that discrimination remained common. Whether these voters professed such opinions as a form of self therapy or had simply been confused by the rhetoric and language surrounding the proposition remains uncertain but clearly discourse helped to shape the final outcome in significant ways.
He doesn't see race

Despite the prevalence of loss, HoSang ends Racial Propositions with a victory for civil rights advocates, though one tinged by normative limitations. When Ward Connerly attempted to follow up his Prop 209 victory with the 2003 Proposition 54 – an effort to ban race data collection/analysis conducted by state and local governments. By this time, opponents had formulated a game plan. They engaged the proposition early to prevent supporters from controlling the message. Second, they avoided, at all costs, any mention of race, choosing to instead garner the support of medical professionals who opposed Prop 54 because it threatened health care services. Opponents of 54 emerged victorious but like early efforts, they refused to challenge the implicit underlying normatives. “Nor did the measure’s opponents feel they could prominently defend anti-discrimination or civil rights principles to the white electorate,” writes Hosang. “In choosing to emphasize the dangers posed to health care in general and in highlighting the investments of white votes in maintaining the collection of racial data in particular, the [Coalition for an Informed California] concluded that it had little choice but to defer the norms of political whiteness.” (261-262)

If one accepts HoSang’s conclusions, California’s identity as the American multicultural capitol deserves serious revision. Granted, most observers acknowledge that discourse impacts actions, but to what extent? HoSang impressively charts how discourse can be employed to undergird real political change. Clearly, the language and legacy of civil rights battles no longer belonged to the left. Ward Connerly (Prop 207/Prop 54) and Ron Unz (Prop 227– ended bilingual education in public schools) utilized “claims to fairness, empowerment, and inclusion that justified support for programs like affirmative action and bilingual education could also be used to discredit them,” HoSang points out. (262) Nor was political whiteness property of whites alone. If HoSang illustrates this phenemona with examples so have other writers. The aforementioned M.D. Lassiter recounts the reaction by some middle class black homeowners in Charlotte to the suggestion of busing. Many Blacks openly resisted as one resident explained, “if I wanted my children to attend school with kids from the projects, I’d have moved next to one.” (218) Still, the question remains, is political whiteness really white or actually an amalgamation of class and race based sensibilities? HoSang effectively illustrates the dynamics of discourse and political movements that accompanied ballot initiatives. Undoubtedly, participants on both sides viewed race as a central issue, yet eventually all parties obscured its realities, thus relying on appeals to abstract ideals. Perhaps, the need to draw in wide ranging interests that traversed numerous classes, religions, ethnicities, and in some cases race, required this umbrella of whiteness. Apparently, political whiteness truly is a big tent -- but one constructed by the white majority to house all those willing to abide by its rules.
Ryan Reft