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“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, December 03, 2016

RFK, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Chicago in the 60s

In 1968, Robert Kennedy made a much heralded visit to Eastern Kentucky. He’s interviewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1DK2hiEm1g It is a flashback to a time when Democratic politicians were not full of mush in their mouth (human capital, retraining, green jobs), but said things like look at how wealthy we are, and look how poor our citizens live, and this reflects on all of us.
At the same time, of course, popular culture was nattering on libidinously and nastily, as it does. In 1968, the Beverly Hillbillies was in its sixth season. What Amos and Andy was to African Americans, the Beverly Hillbillies was to poor white folks.
In Chicago, Studs Terkel had found thousands of poor white folks from the South crowding the North side. They lived below the belt of affluent white suburbs – where Hillary Clinton grew up. The mainstream idea is that black and white are two lumps, each homogenous in itself. But we know that this isn’t so – we’ve seen the Beverly Hillbillies, for instance. Clinton’s problem with a certain group of white midwesterners is always approached in term of the white working class, and never approached in terms of the relatively recent relocation to the Midwest of millions of Southern and Appalachian whites, just in time for the great slowdown of the seventies and the great trade sellouts of the nineties.
Racism becomes a variable that reflects the resentment of a white working force that started out as a disdained but useful working force for the white middle class. In reality, those wealthy suburbs have long found ways to protect themselves from integration. Terkel interviewed one ostracized Evanston homeowner, Mrs. James Winslow, who, with her husband, fought to integrate the more prosperous neighborhoods of Evanston – but in vain: “The Winslows were becomoing profoundly disquieted, especially in the matter of housing. One of his Negro clients  - there  were few Negro lawyers in the suburb – was denied the right to add a bbathroom to his house by the zoning board. “Why in the world would the board not allow a Negro to upgrade his home?” Further study revealed that not one Negro block was zoned for single-family dwellings. “Yet this was Evanston’s great drawing card…’”

The million and one tricks of deniability have become familiar and wearisome to us all. It is a system that points to the dissipation of the feeling of race hatred while, at the same time, creating a labyrinthian structure to maintain racism’s historic product.  So, at the same time this structure deflected racism into a matter of sentiments – of heart – it sought out the actors of that hate and found them in poor whites. Meanwhile, poor whites saw that they were being systematically excluded from the neighborhoods and institutions by the movers and shakers of such places as Evanston, and came to the conclusion that these people were making the “government” for the blacks. Illusions and delusions in social life have effects that are as real as any other social force.  In many ways – and here I am going to engage in pure speculation – Clinton’s difficulty finding the correct tone in the Midwest and Pennsylvania (a state where her family had a summer house when she was growing up) can, perhaps, be tied to the perplexities of trying to navigate the conservative but happy and prosperous upbringing she had in an all white upper middle class Chicago suburb and the reality of the Chicago of which it was a satellite. We all know the literature produced by the Midwesterner who goes to the East Coast – Sinclair Lewis,Scott Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, and even Jonathan Franzen. But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast? This was the story – or one of the stories – in which Clinton was entangled.    

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

the low use population of chicago, or the long roots of the Clinton debacle

A couple of months ago, we were riding on the new tram which goes from Santa Monica to downtown LA. The route passes by the USC campus. A guy on the tram began to talk to us about the neighborhood. He was a young black guy, who’d been raised in the USC neighborhood. If you have seen the neighborhood around USC, you’ll be struck by the fact that it is very multi-ethnic and working class. According to the guy on the tram, there used to be a pro-USC spirit in the neighborhood. It isn’t that a lot of people could afford to go to USC – but they could afford to go to USC games, and they felt like USC was part of the neighborhood. USC, however, had other thoughts, and has begun a process that rich universities love to engage in, of expansion and squeeze. You can no longer go to USC events, and you can go and shout at meetings against USC plans for expansion but those meetings are run by supposedly “liberal” types who are totally psyched about the prospect of gentrification and USC expansion.
There’s been a lot of political archaeology done about the connections between slavery and certain US universities. But the urban “renewal” of the 50s and 60s in which universities were weapons aimed at cleaning out neighborhoods on a vast scale has not been given its due. If liberal elites live in a “bubble”, the armored part of that bubble is the physical facility of the university and the insatiable drive to expand.
In Chicago, the Daly administration, in the early sixties, felt that the city deserved a great public university. Not surprisingly, the site chosen for the new University of Illinois – Chicago was not among the wealthy neighborhoods or sububs – there was not a chance that Park Ridge, where Hugh Rodham, Hilary Clinton’s father, and his family lived,  was going to come under the gun. Park Ridge had in fact grown up in the comfort of racial restrictions that were put in place in 1926 and kept in place since then that essentially barred black homeownership. As a result, the band of wealthy suburbs north of Chicago was almost entirely white. A recent study claimed that even now, the wealthy suburbs are 2 percent black. Diversity there is almost entirely due to a large increase in the Asian population.  http://patch.com/illinois/winnetka/bp--african-americans-remain-few-in-the-northern-suburbs
What happens when a supposedly liberal city government proposes to bulldoze a multi-ethnic neighborhood with, at its symbolic center, one of the great monuments of the progressive era, Hull House? What happens, as the residents were shocked to discover, is that the board members of Hull House, who didn’t live in the neighborhood and were, for the most part, affluent liberals, would side with the city and promote the destruction of their own monument.
The reverberation of that struggle begins Division Street. Terkel signals what he is doing by interviewing Florence Scala, the woman who organized the neighborhood against its multi-ethnic cleansing, and who later ran for office as an independent against the district’s council member. Interestingly, the working class John Bircher that Terkel interviewed, Dennis Hart, voted in that election for Florence Scala, who by any measure was to far to the left on the political spectrum. In miniature, what Terkel was looking at in 1966 has been playing itself  out nationally in our politics  for decades.
What Scala says at the beginning  of her interview is a sort of creed that must have resonated with Terkel and his whole reason for doing the book:  “I grew up around Hull House, one of the oldest sections of the city. In those early days I wore blinders. I wasn’t hurt by anything very much. When you become involved, you begin to feel the hurt, the anger. You begin to think of people like Jane Addams and Jessie Binford [an activist associated with Hull House who fought with Scala] and you realize why they were able to live on. They understood how weak we really are and how we could strive for something better if we understood the way. “
There is something of the clash between the centrists and the left in the Democratic party now in this long ago drama. This is how Scala discovered that liberals are not your friend:
“A member of the Hull House Board took me to lunch a couple of times at the University Club. My husband said, go, go, have a free lunch and see what it is she wants. What she wanted me to do, really, was to dissuade me from protesting. There was no hope, no chance, she said.
I shall never forget one board meeting. It hurt Miss Binford more than all the others. That afternoon, we came with a committee, five of us, and with a plea. We remended them of the past, what we meant to each other. From the moment we entered the room to the time we left, not one board member said a word to us.
Miss Binford was in her late eighties. Small, birdlike in appearance. She sat there listening to our plea and then she reminded them of what Hull House meant. She talked about principles that must never waver. No one answered her. Or acknowledged her. Or in any way showed any recognition of what she was talking about. It's as though we were talking to a stone wall, a mountain. The shock of not being able to have any conversation with the board members never really left her. She felt completely rejected. Something was crushed inside her. The Chicago she knew had died.”
Neighborhoods with European immigrants of all kinds like this one were thrown on the trash heap by urbanists in the 50s. There was an overriding, but unpronounced, idea that the cities were vast targets – as they had been in the War – and you had to separate out what the AEC at the time, in a secret memo, called the “low use” population from the high enders. Whether it was the low use population getting whacked with fallout in St. George, Utah, or the Greeks, Blacks, Italians etc. in the Hull House neighborhoods, the same logic applied. A stone wall indeed.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Medium cool: the Chicago Clinton grew up in, and Obama organized

In the documentary American Revolution 2, there is an incredible scene in which a white Appalachian labor group hosts a speech by a Black Panther, Bobby Lee. The time is 1968, and the place is Chicago. And this isn’t an accident.  Nor is it an accident that these were white Appalachians. We all know about the Great Migration, where black people fled from hard apartheid in the South to soft apartheid in the North. Less vivid in the national imagination was the flight of the white proletariat from the South – West Virginia, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, etc.  In the 1960s, this was not a blank in our national imagination, but a reality that any community organizer had to deal with, and any business, small or large, took the opportunity to exploit. In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (which my friend Scott Saul, the guy who wrote Becoming Richard Pryor, had me watch), one of the enduring motifs is the relationship between the reporter and this very southern accented poor white woman. I’m pretty sure Wexler must have read StudsTerkel’s Division Street, since the sociological spread in the film uncannilyparallels the book.  

It is more of a coincidence, perhaps, that our last election, the Democratic candidate,  Hillary Clinton, was born in a Chicago suburb, Park Ridge.  And that our current president, Barak Obama, was a community organizer in Chicago. It is odd that this has gotten so little play, as there are differences in styles between Clinton and Obama  which, to my mind, evoke the different voices that Terkel captured in his book, and which have falsely been generalized as simply feminine and masculine (as though these large structures thoroughly capture a negative twenty questions space – the space of identity). In Terkel's book, you get a strong sense of the difference between growing up in a wealthy Chicago suburb and organizing a working class Chicago neighborhood. Which I want to get to.


Terkel begins his book with some interviews connected to a community issue that makes stark divides that cropped up in the Democratic primary. In the early sixties, Chicago boosters wanted a state university in Chicago. They settled on a multi-ethnic neighborhood that was around the Hull House complex, famously associated with Jane Addams. You couldn’t get more symbolic in pitting the technocratic liberal against the old movement liberal. Terkel interviewed a remarkable activist, Florence Scala, who campaigned vainly against the urban clearing.  And I’ll take it from there in my next post. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

studs terkel and negative 20 questions liberalism


There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their object. So say x has chosen a matchbox and y has chosen a sofa, if the questioner asks x if it is bigger than a breadbox (to which x says no), then y has to quickly chose some other object (which may be the matchbox or may be a match, etc) in order to remain consistent with the line of questioning.
To my mind, conventional wisdom in the 20th century in America was largely concerned with the orthodox 20 questions game. In this game, identities of race or gender or class were agreed upon tacitly by everyone – or so the conventional wise men, the press guys, the politicos, the influential sociologists and economists, claimed. But we have reached a point that the recent election has made clearer. All the time, we have been playing negative 20 questions. Our assumption, for instance, that women identify with women, is an orthodox 20 questions truth, which is shattered in a negative 20 questions world.  
However, the counter-cultural narrative in America has long been one in which it is obvious that we are a negative 20 questions nation. The most interesting liberals – people like Ralph Ellison or John Kenneth Galbraith or Rachel Carson – saw this clearly. So, in fact, did certain rightwingers, even as they held to a creed that said that the negative 20 question world was the world turned upside down, one without a natural order. The rightwing text par excellence, here, was Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Wheeler claimed that the most common pattern, in negative 20 questions, was for the answering side to break down. Imagine that the answerers are expanded to 3 or more and you can see why. The answerers must not only process new information, but they must perform that rarest of human abilities: logical improvisation.  In our own lives we invariably trade freedom for routine. Humankind seems not able to withstand too many negative 20 questions sessions. And yet, routine isn’t easy. It is based on agreements that we tend to believe are solid, but that can vanish in the space of a lifetime, or even a fashion season.

One of the great decades in the 20th century – the 60s – seemed, to those most politically or culturally active in it, to be a vast negative 20 questions session. I’ve been thinking about the liberal response then, and now. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Studs Terkel’s Division Street (1967). Terkel began  working on the book at the suggestion of a publisher who had read Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village, which consisted of oral accounts of the Cultural Revolution in a Chinese village. Terkel at this time was a well known figure in the Chicago media world. He had a regular radio show. He was a bit afraid that he was too well known, but found out that, fortunately and humblingly, he was not as well known as all that. His plan was to find one street that would go through rich neighborhoods and poor ones, black and white ones, etc. He discovered there was no such street. So, he divided the oral histories up into both the sociological litany of class, race, sex, and the geography of the city of Chicago, wherte there were distinct differences between, say, the South neighborhoods and the North. I’d urge you to generally skip the fast sociology of trumpland now being conducted in the papers and go to Division Street to get ahold of phenomena that have been with us at least since the sixties – the working class Goldwater freak, the activist who came up against liberal blindness when it came to “urban renewal”, etc.  I think I’m going to write at least another post about the book, cause it is of a richness...

studs terkel and negative 20 questions liberalism


There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their object. So say x has chosen a matchbox and y has chosen a sofa, if the questioner asks x if it is bigger than a breadbox (to which x says no), then y has to quickly chose some other object (which may be the matchbox or may be a match, etc) in order to remain consistent with the line of questioning.
To my mind, conventional wisdom in the 20th century in America was largely concerned with the orthodox 20 questions game. In this game, identities of race or gender or class were agreed upon tacitly by everyone – or so the conventional wise men, the press guys, the politicos, the influential sociologists and economists, claimed. But we have reached a point that the recent election has made clearer. All the time, we have been playing negative 20 questions. Our assumption, for instance, that women identify with women, is an orthodox 20 questions truth, which is shattered in a negative 20 questions world.  
However, the counter-cultural narrative in America has long been one in which it is obvious that we are a negative 20 questions nation. The most interesting liberals – people like Ralph Ellison or John Kenneth Galbraith or Rachel Carson – saw this clearly. So, in fact, did certain rightwingers, even as they held to a creed that said that the negative 20 question world was the world turned upside down, one without a natural order. The rightwing text par excellence, here, was Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Wheeler claimed that the most common pattern, in negative 20 questions, was for the answering side to break down. Imagine that the answerers are expanded to 3 or more and you can see why. The answerers must not only process new information, but they must perform that rarest of human abilities: logical improvisation.  In our own lives we invariably trade freedom for routine. Humankind seems not able to withstand too many negative 20 questions sessions. And yet, routine isn’t easy. It is based on agreements that we tend to believe are solid, but that can vanish in the space of a lifetime, or even a fashion season.

One of the great decades in the 20th century – the 60s – seemed, to those most politically or culturally active in it, to be a vast negative 20 questions session. I’ve been thinking about the liberal response then, and now. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Studs Terkel’s Division Street (1967). Terkel began  working on the book at the suggestion of a publisher who had read Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village, which consisted of oral accounts of the Cultural Revolution in a Chinese village. Terkel at this time was a well known figure in the Chicago media world. He had a regular radio show. He was a bit afraid that he was too well known, but found out that, fortunately and humblingly, he was not as well known as all that. His plan was to find one street that would go through rich neighborhoods and poor ones, black and white ones, etc. He discovered there was no such street. So, he divided the oral histories up into both the sociological litany of class, race, sex, and the geography of the city of Chicago, wherte there were distinct differences between, say, the South neighborhoods and the North. I’d urge you to generally skip the fast sociology of trumpland now being conducted in the papers and go to Division Street to get ahold of phenomena that have been with us at least since the sixties – the working class Goldwater freak, the activist who came up against liberal blindness when it came to “urban renewal”, etc.  I think I’m going to write at least another post about the book, cause it is of a richness...

Sunday, November 27, 2016

visions of atlanta have now conquered my mind

Back from Atlanta. Something weird was going with Nature so far as we saw it driving from our rental in Decatur to Gwinnett to visit my brothers: although I was assured on all sides that Atlanta was dry as a bone and undergoing a drought; though Stone Mountain park, for the first time in my memory, was banning grills, bringing about a once in a lifetime event of a hotdog and hamburgerless Park; though I’d been told of ominous fires in the forests north and east of the Metro area; the leaves were spectacular. In the Vermont category. Supposedly, leaf color depends on a well watered spring and summer, or so I’ve been told. Nonetheless, everywhere (and I mean everywhere, as Atlanta sometimes seems more like an inhabited forest than a metropolis) trees were flaunting extraordinary yellows and oranges and reds.
I’m not complaining, mind. I loved it. This was planned to be a heavy family week, Thanksgiving and a memorial service for my old man. Both, against the betting, went off splendidly and even – another anomolous event for a Gathmann gathering – with little discussion of politics. I guess it was a case of what’s to discuss, since nobody in my family voted for Trump and even those who voted for third parties expected Trump to lose. But we did discuss our dad, digging up some good memories. And we ate, all too much. It is hard to visit with one’s extended family without every meeting devolving into breakfast, lunch or dinner. I imagine that if there was some large scale that we could have all stood on, we’d judge this family gathering as a fifty pounder, that being how much extra weight all fourteen of us probably put on – or even a hundred. We did make time to go to our fave breakfast place, the Flying Biscuit, which is a little too enamored of its clever way with grits – but they are excellent grits. Adam had a very good time with his uncles and aunts, and entertained them with his one joke, which has to do with the similarity in sound between scrambled eggs and crème brule (you have to hear it as Adam does) by repeating it a hundred times.
Generally, I think Atlanta is a much  better place now  than it was when I was a sullen teen caught in its precincts. And Gwinnett becoming a multyculty democratic voting county does blow my mind. Gwinnett has roads and parks named after Ronald Reagan – a slap at Jimmy Carter – which were so denominated by the GOP dominated County commission. But now that the Dems are on top, it won’t be long until cracker heads are blown by Obama roads and Obama parks.

Remember, Trump is an interval of winter, and not the ice age. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Kardashians: one billion sold since 2002!

I did get a smile this morning on the Kanye news front. Ah, those Kardashians! They are to scandal like Ray Kroc was to the hamburger. Kanye, admittedly, spoils it somewhat by having a talent. But as a crooner, he was never going to get flashed on US, People Inclose and numerous others. I've noticed, however, that the K's have peaked - I think probably it was Kim's butt pic, which made her the toast of the Miami-Basel art fair. However, by number of covers or even inset cover stories, I've noticed a really sharp fall in Kardashian stories. Kanye's Trump love might revive the spark for a moment. Maybe it is time for Kim to argue with him, in some swank restaurant, and then the separation, and then the divorce. Of course, they are being overshadowed by the Angelina Brad divorce, and we have to remember that their string is old. The shows canceled, Bruce's sex change is last year, and we have put in power a reality tv guy whose staff and cabinet are looking like an old Jerry Springer special (Neo Nazi bikers and their cheating wives!), I've grown fond of Kim - the other Ks are, lets be frank, pretty minor. On their own, the weight, the divorces, the fashion lines would all flop. Britney Spears, another crooner, was really complexed by the scandals she caused. They dug into her life and she was hurt. The remarkable thing about the Kardashians is that you can dig into their life as much as you like, but you'll find it is pretty numb - in fact, tv and life have merged here.
So, anyway, Kanye has done his bit. It is a reminder that the American carnival is still going strong. It has to be good for our Balance of Trade!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

rule by humiliation: whose next to lick Trump's asshole?

The press still doesn't have a clue about our Grand Wizard. Their normalization of Trump is par for the course: the media bends over backwards to power. The kind of court society that La Bruyere anatomized in Louis 14th's day is alive and well in D.C. But the press's impulse is to attribute everything to being right or left, to having a theory. Trump don't play that game. His game is: humiliation. The subgroup of Romney voters who voted for him have long sought this, above all things - to humiliate their opponents. The deal is, the thirst to humiliate your opponents, after a while, becomes a whole politics of humiliation. It isn't enough to humiliate your opponent, you crave humiliation in itself. Thus, whether Ryan gets through his plan to privatize medicare depends less on whether he can convince the Kluxxers about Trump of its benefits, than upon whether Ryan needs another dose of humiliation or not. Christie, for instance, has staked his political life upon Trump. Alas, Trump decided he needed to be humiliated. Without warning, hey presto, he's fired and Pence is put into place as head of the transition team. I wonder if Trump even bothered to call him. It isn't just the Dems, or the nation, that is now Trump's bitch. Its the GOP. There are stories of Huey Long's love of humiliating his allies, and of LBJ. Supposedly, LBJ liked to humiliate Bill Moyers, then his aide, by commanding hims to give a report to LBJ while LBJ sat on a toilet and unloaded his barbecue. Trump is, of course, dumber than shit. LBJ was smart, and concerned with politics, But if you can imagine Trump as calling in all of us, every American, to surround him while he takes a dump - you'd have an accurate image of how the next four years will go, And, due to the spending Trump seems apt to spring, we will at the same time have a boom, which GOP people will point to to say, the Grand Wizard was right! Bush engineered one via the same means. Suck out the credit of the masses, then bust em - that is the game that is going to be played at a faster tempo, especially since they don't have that many assets left. Meanwhile what happens at least on the GOP side will depend on who needs to be humiliated next. I don't see Ryan faring very well in this environment, unless he can make his act of licking Trump's asshole extremely convincing.