Springtime for Donald*

What a beautiful spring day in the Northeast yesterday! The kind of day that makes you, right now, wherever you are, city folks or out in the country, snuggled in quilts or riding the bus, just turn to the nearest Real American around you, even your own reflection in the mirror and . . . just . . . sing:

It’s springtime for Donald and Vladimir!
Winter for NATO and Ukraine
Putin’s Manchurian Candidate
Is helping Make Russia Great Again!

Oh, it’s springtime for Donald and Vladimir,
Winter for Syrian refugees
Sorry if your doctor’s Iranian,
And judges belong on their knees

Yes, it’s springtime for Donald on Twitter
Please get your facts from Kellyanne
Congress had better just smile and nod
When Spicer says it’s not a ban

It’s springtime for Donald and the alt-right!
The Times and the Post are fake news
Read Breitbart so you’ll be the first to know
When Bannon puts a ban on the Jews!

Now ev’rybody –

*Apologies to Thomas Pynchon (from whom I stole the intro) and Mel Brooks (who gave us this):

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Music For Marchers

1. The Opportunity

In mid-September 2001, about a week after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center towers, Laurie Anderson played a concert at Town Hall in New York City. Here is what she said when she began:

We want to dedicate our music tonight

to the great opportunity that we all have

to begin to truly understand

the events of the past few days,

and to act upon them,

with courage and with compassion,

as we make our plans

to live in a completely new world.

Opportunities we didn’t ask for, opportunities that we fear, are still opportunities. We missed the one we faced back then, but let’s recognize the one we face as a country today — and act upon it.

2. Let’s Renew Ourselves Now

Leonard Cohen, improvising in front of perhaps 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970:

I know it’s been cold, and I know it’s been damp.

I know you’ve been sitting all night long.

But let’s renew ourselves now, let’s renew ourselves now, let’s renew ourselves now.

3. Marchons, Marchons

I don’t care how many times you’ve watched this movie or this scene, it’s impossible to see it without feeling something. So watch it again. And march on, march on.

Then They Came for my Job — and No One was Left to Speak for Me

Everybody loves Martin Niemoller. Wikipedia will tell you he is famous for his “provocative poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.” Here’s the original form of that poem, in case it hasn’t come across your Facebook feed lately:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

It’s a lovely piece to quote: it reckons with the past, signals enlightenment and moral clarity, and challenges us all to live up to its ideals. You pretty much can’t help feeling a little more ethical and upright when you read it. Still, before we get too complacent, I’d like to ask you to accompany me, and Niemoller, on a short tour of recent American economic and political history. I want to see if we’ve really learned to speak up for others as well as we think we have. Humor me, you don’t really mind, do you?

First they came for the Socialists — this feels like a quaint anachronism now, but the Socialist party was highly relevant politically in the United States in the early 1900’s. The Socialists had two representatives in Congress and high water marks of 6% of the popular vote in the 1912 presidential election for socialist Eugene Debs and almost 17% in 1924 for socialist-supported progressive Robert LaFollette. (By contrast, Gary Johnson won 3% and Jill Stein won 1% of the popular vote in 2016.) Within 25 years, discredited by American politics and world events, the Socialists were more or less irrelevant in the U.S., winning less than 0.1% of the presidential vote from the 1950’s on. Some people did speak out, but the tide was against them. You and I weren’t around then, in any case.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists —  much of this happened in our lifetimes. Labor unions were highly influential in the United States for most of the 20th century, especially during what’s known as the Great Compression, the period following the New Deal reforms when income inequality declined dramatically. From Wikipedia:

This “middle class society” of relatively low level of inequality remained fairly steady for about three decades ending in early 1970s, the product of relatively high wages for the US working class and political support for income leveling government policies.

This is clear in this chart that tracks income inequality over time. This income leveling correlates well to labor union membership, which grew steadily during the New Deal, and eventually reached almost 35% — more than 1 in 3! — of salaried workers in 1954. Union membership gradually declined from that point. The best statistics start in 1983, when around 20% of the work force still belonged to unions, and they show another 50% decline to just 11% of the work force in 2015. For my generation (I am in my mid-40’s), and for the so-called new economy, I think we can say that we’ve played out Niemoller’s script pretty much as written: few of us were unionists, and few of us have paid attention as union influence declined throughout our working lives. (Uber rides are cheap and convenient, so who cares if the drivers have no rights and the company can raise its take from fares at will? I bet a hundred years ago there would have been a strike.)

Then they came for the Industrial Cities. Here I am talking about both big (Detroit, MI, population 1.85M in 1950) and small cities (Youngstown, OH, population almost 170K in 1960). Since then, both cities have shrunk by about 60%! The history of these cities (and many more like them) in the 20th century is a complex mix of economics, sociology, and racism, but here’s the world’s shortest introduction:

U.S. cities and industry in the North and Midwest grew rapidly in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, powered by a huge wave of  European immigrants. Then World War I created a labor shortage, and blacks from the South migrated north to fill the gap. This began the Great Migration of blacks to cities in the North and (eventually) the West. Apart from a short break during the Great Depression, the migration continued for the next 40-50 years, transforming the black population from 80% rural-20% urban to the exact opposite — 80% urban-20% rural — in little more than half a century.

As they came to the white-dominated cities, incoming blacks were steered to neighborhoods with lower economic opportunity and investment, away from whites, a morally bankrupt process known as redlining. (For a history of redlining that goes beyond Wikipedia, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s mighty essay, The Case for Reparations.) Meanwhile, whites tended to concentrate in their own segregated parts of the same cities, and eventually to move away from the cities altogether as road networks improved (white flight). Some of the industrial jobs that brought blacks to the cities went to the suburbs with the white population, some began to go overseas, and some were lost to automation, with the latter trend showing no signs of abating. In just 20 years (1967-1987), Philadelphia, New York City, Detroit, and Chicago all lost over 50% of their manufacturing jobs. Some cities managed to reorient around the technology or financial sectors (Boston, New York), while others lost significant population and income that they’ve never regained. (For more on the relationship between lost industrial jobs and inner city poverty, you can read William Julius Wilson; here is a short summary paper.)

Who spoke out for these cities, for their minority populations and for their financially starved schools? Not those whites who moved to the suburbs to get away from blacks, and not the mainstream Democratic party of the 1980’s and 90’s, which decided it needed to distance itself from inner city concerns in order to win elections. Maybe you did?

Then they came for the Heartland. Or perhaps for the U.S. manufacturing economy, depending on whether you prefer to view things geographically or economically. This has been the subject of much debate since the election, because Trump’s margin of victory came from three “Rust Belt” states (PA, MI, WI) that he had been expected to lose, and because it’s believed that his margin of victory in those states came from dissatisfied white working class voters either seeking change or lashing out either at bullying elites or at bullied minorities or immigrants. (This is probably a lousy explanation of voter dynamics in Pennsylvania.) Frustratingly, these discussions have devolved into arguing over whether these voters are motivated by economic or social-cultural factors (as though it were easy to separate the two) and whether they deserve sympathy (as though we’ve never seen anyone bully others while being bullied at the same time).

No matter how you view the politics here, we should be able to come to some kind of agreement on the economic facts. Here’s a recent article suggesting that the Rust Belt is not a struggling region, because other parts of the country are worse off: the states we are talking about are all in the middle third of U.S. states by median income. Sure, they’re not Connecticut or California, but they’re not Arkansas or Mississippi either. This is true enough as far as it goes, but it fails to consider decline. As a quick back-of-the-envelope exercise, I pulled up the income data and sorted the states top to bottom by median income as of 2015 and as of 1995. Here’s what I found:

  • The state with the biggest decline in ranking over the last 20 years (from #5 to #28)? Wisconsin.
  • The state with the second biggest decline (from #14 to #31)? Michigan.
  • Five of the ten states with the biggest drop in ranking form a contiguous region at the heart of the Rust Belt: Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. (There are no other clusters; the other five states are completely non-contiguous.)

At this point, these Rust Belt jobs are more likely lost to automation than to other states or countries (though there is some of the latter) or incoming immigrants from lower-income countries (virtually none coming into the Midwest). So it’s hardly clear what to do. Still, there’s not much sympathy for these people’s plight on my Facebook feed, where most people (1) have college or graduate degrees and professional occupations, (2) live in desirable areas, and (3) are frustrated and terrified, as I am, to see Trump in power.

Then they came for — OK, who’s next? Are you? What job will you have in twenty years, or what job will your children have, when:

  • Economic opportunity appears to be declining, not increasing, across generations.
  • The technology sector, which is not very labor intensive, and also finds it easy to move jobs around or offshore, is coming to dominate the (non-service) economy. (Just to give you an idea, Facebook is the 7th most valuable company in the world and employs only 13,000 people, a fraction of the workforce of the industrial behemoths of 50 years ago, whose employees numbered in the hundreds of thousands.)
  • Automation is increasing, and potentially applies to more and more jobs, both in and out of the tech sector, as technology itself becomes ever more capable.
  • The gig economy is rising, and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious limit on what kind of jobs can be gig-ized. (Gig workers have even less leverage than long-term employees.)
  • The financial industry, which has grown rapidly over the last several decades, provides relatively little economic value relative to the human capital invested in it, and might be ripe for contraction. You could speculate that the same might be true of marketing as well (another industry where too many of the well-educated settle), or at least that it could be done more cheaply. If our news stories can be replaced by crap written on the cheap in Eastern Europe, why not the ads?

Shifting into my ominous Rod Serling voice: with the manufacturing economy gone, both in the cities and out, with more and more people shifted into low-wage service jobs, with labor as powerless as it seems it’s ever been, with our economy sliced up into strata, and the humans in each one of those strata cut away in turn — who will be left to speak for you when they come for you? And how will you feel with Niemoller’s warning, turned into prophecy now, running on a loop over and over, not just on your Facebook feed but inside your head?

Elvis Costello Resists

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At the start of October, I went to see Elvis Costello at Town Hall, a small theater near Times Square with a history of hosting political meetings. You can see framed programs from some of those meetings, hazy, fading memories of the past, as you walk into the building:

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The show had been loosely billed as a review of Elvis’s life and career, aligned with the memoir he released last summer, and I was looking forward to a few hours spent listening to him resculpting his songs in new and deeply satisfying ways. (I still felt warm from the time I saw him carry this off several years ago, at Carnegie Hall of all places, when he opened the show by playing the entire first side of My Aim is True, sang songs from all over the map, and told the kind of stories you might hear from the cool uncle you wish you had.)

For the first half hour, the show felt much like that night at Carnegie Hall. The stage was dominated by a giant TV, which showed 80’s Elvis videos as we waited for him to come on, then, once he did, ran a slide show of old family photos (hazy snapshots from the past again) and pictures from his early tours behind him as he played (solo, with acoustic guitar). He gave us both old and recent standards, culminating in a lovely rearrangement of Everyday I Write the Book. But as I burrowed deeper into my plush chair, getting comfortable for a couple more hours with Elvis’s fabulous songbook, he walked stage right, sat down at the piano, and smashed the time machine to bits.

In a halting, almost shattered voice, accompanied by the most austere, jagged piano figures you could imagine, he sang Shipbuilding, perhaps his greatest song. Written at the time of the Falklands war, Shipbuilding is a biography of out-of-work men in the English shipyards, waiting for the war to restart the shipyards and bring them jobs,

A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

and also for the warships that emerge from the shipyards to take those boys away, and bring them to their graves. “Is it worth it,” Elvis asks, and then asks again in a later verse that I hadn’t known before,

A small bunch of flowers is all that you get
And a box to bury the baby

I had heard Elvis sing the song before, but not like this. I wish I knew how to describe the cocktail of regret and loss and compromise and inevitability I heard in his voice, but all I can do is point you to another song: if you listen to Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman, you’ll catch the same emotions when you hear Bruce’s voice trail off as he sings When it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way at the end of the second verse. Hearing Elvis now, you could see shipyards, but also car factories on the outskirts of town, and mom and pop stores on Main Street, all of them filled with people’s dread of decisions they might know they’ll come to regret but still can’t avoid making. By the time the song’s resolution — diving for dear life, when we should be diving for pearls — exploded from the stage, you felt the full weight of the present day, of this election. Somehow, in just four minutes, Elvis had managed to make you feel the dilemmas of Trump voters deep down in your bones, more convincingly than any analysis I’ve read before or since the election. But he was only getting started.

He sang Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, an answer record in some ways, about facing up to the consequences of whatever choices you’ve made. Then, still at the piano, he started to tell us about a musical he was working on with the playwright Sarah Ruhl. It is an adaptation of the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, which tells the story of the media-driven rise and fall of an American demagogue. If hearing Elvis sing Shipbuilding wasn’t enough to convince you he was addressing today’s political climate, the new songs he had written for the musical made it even plainer. He sang as the anti-hero, promising the angry and ignored to be their champion. He sang silly jingles that scoot back and forth across your screen and sell you silly things. And he sang for and with the faces in the crowd, all of us looking ourselves in the mirror and trying to find some common ground. The songs were theatrical, raw, maybe still works in progress — but they felt necessary and Elvis got them across. I am no fan of musicals, but I can’t wait to see what these songs will be like, and what they will mean, by the time they hit the stage, in the full blossoming of Trump’s America.

And then the finale. Given the range of Elvis’s songbook, it’s ironic that the song  he is most associated with in the public imagination, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding, is one he didn’t even write. But it is, and you won’t feel like you got your money’s worth unless you hear him play it, will you? Still, I’m not sure the song ever felt like it had more at stake than when Elvis sang it at Town Hall to close this show. And, as he sang it, the giant TV behind him projected a late 70’s, Armed Forces-era poster with the headline of the evening, Elvis’s answer to the America of Donald J. Trump, the next president of the United States: DON’T JOIN!

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Soon it was over, and it was hard to believe we actually had to leave the building. But we did, and as I walked downstairs, the faded programs on the walls, from Town Meetings of long ago, were suddenly as sharp and timely as anything you might see on TV or on your Facebook feed. The past is not dead, not even past, as Faulkner said, and now all of us have many more town meetings to go to.

Three Election Thoughts

I went to bed around 11 when the outcome seemed obvious, woke up around 2 and couldn’t resist making sure it was really true, then lay awake in bed for the next few hours trying to process it. I can’t remember another time when I found it so hard to even catch hold of a coherent thought. Here are my three best attempts.

  1. A lot of us are saying this isn’t the country we thought we knew. Look, here’s what you thought you knew a day ago: if you picked 100 people across the country at random, about 49 would vote for Hillary, about 46 for Trump, the remaining 5 or so for someone else, and things would trundle along as usual. Now it turns out that one or two of those people that you thought would vote for Hillary actually voted for Trump. That’s a big deal, and it has huge consequences, but it’s not like you were wrong about all, or even most, of those people, your fellow Americans. This is still the same country that voted for Obama twice. You were just wrong about one or two people out of 100, and anyway you don’t know what they were thinking.

  2. One thing that *is* different is that the world looks a lot more uncertain now than many of us are used to. So let’s stop saying, like we know for sure, that Trump won because of racism, or misogyny, or stupidity, or whatever you’re absolutely sure is the reason. You were absolutely sure yesterday that Hillary would win, and look what happened. If we’re entering a very different world, let’s not reduce it to easy judgments, or leave the responsibility to figure out that world to other people.

  3. Let’s not forget too that the level of anxiety that many of us are feeling now is closer to the level of anxiety that many other people feel, and cope with gracefully, every day. Yes it sucks to lose your Certainty Privilege, but we’ve probably been unusually lucky to have had it up until now. Right now I am coping with my own uncertainty by hanging on to the things that I am genuinely certain of, like how my sons, age 9 and age 7, deserve better than Trump. Going to try to make this a better world for them. Onward.

Do The Right Thing (with a Crosspost from Navalny.com)

In the Soviet Union, the big winter holiday was New Year’s. The idea was to replace Christmas, which the authorities outlawed because it was a religious holiday, with a secular version. The basic traditions and symbols (Santa Claus, gifts, and, yes, the New Year’s tree) carried over with only minor changes. I have very nice memories of New Year’s trees, both from the Soviet Union, where I lived until age 7, and after, in Boston, where for many years my parents would take me to festive New Year’s Eve gatherings complete with Russian food and drink, marathons of top 40 music videos while you waited for midnight to arrive, and the smell of the tree.

Now that I have kids, we’ve revived the idea of a Russian-themed gathering celebrating the New Year. We mostly stick to traditional Russian food, though sometimes we have to improvise a bit to accommodate gluten-free diets, as well as current events:

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Oh right, Putin. So much for holiday cheer: his government came up with its own twist on the traditional New Year’s celebrations. As the Russian opposition planned large rallies to protest the trial of anti-corruption crusader and dissident Alexey Navalny, as well as his brother Oleg, on trumped-up charges, the authorities moved up the Navalnys’ sentencing date at the last minute. Instead of waiting till the scheduled date of January 15th, already targeted for demonstrations by the opposition, the court rushed to read the verdict just a couple days before New Year’s, so that the least number of people possible would be paying attention. Recalling the Stalinist tradition of sending relatives of imagined opponents to labor camps, the government’s version of a Solomonic decision was to give Alexey Navalny, the actual dissident, a suspended sentence (let’s not risk turning him into a martyr), but to throw his brother Oleg in jail for three and a half years. Happy New Year to all.

You can and should read all about this in the Times. But, like Dostoyevsky, it’s even more powerful in the original Russian, in this case Navalny’s excellent Twitter feed and blog, where it feels like you’re watching and feeling events unfold in real time. To give you a feel for it even if you don’t speak Russian, I’ve translated Navalny’s New Year’s Eve post (published a day after he watched his brother carted away to Butyrka prison in the morning, and tried and failed to reach a rally supporting both brothers in the evening) into English below. It is a message of keeping hope alive and doing the right thing during what feels like a dark time, which is a good way to start the New Year. Best wishes to all, and now here’s Navalny in his own words:

Happy New Year

Many thanks to everyone who came out into the street yesterday in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and other cities, across Russia and worldwide.

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Participating in these kinds of actions, each of which usually looks hopeless at the time, is an important moral choice for anyone. And our moral choices are more important right now than ideological or political ones.

After all, what criteria can guide how we live our lives, which today are being turned into a dystopia based, literally, on the principle “lies = truth”? Only right and wrong.

It’s even worth it, if you’ll forgive my primitive understanding of philosophy, to follow our countryman (born in Kaliningrad!), old Immanuel Kant, and ask, “Am I acting in a way that can become a universal law for everyone?”

“The categorical imperative is ours.” There’s the right slogan for modern times.

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Returning to yesterday: without morally right but hopeless actions, there can be no triumphant and invigorating ones. Without the few who are desperate, those who are more cautious, and can only walk an already cleared path, won’t turn up. Without individuals there can be no masses, and I’m glad that yesterday I could be one of those individuals, however briefly.

I think our next step has to be organizing and executing a set of truly large, simultaneous actions in Moscow and five or ten other large Russian cities. Definitely in St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, which were both magnificent yesterday. This has to be planned and organized diligently and well, so we have tens of thousands people participating.

The organizing themes should be fighting corruption, the justice system, the right to vote, and direct elections of governors and mayors across the country. That is, those issues on which 85% of the population supports us.

Yesterday I was riding in a police van by fighters from the 2nd regiment, and we talked about the same things as always. I tell them about Suchin’s salary and theft at Russian Railways, and they say, “Sure, and I’m stuck with my family and two kids in 200 square feet in Lyubertsy.

We’ll have to wait and see who ends up with more percentage points.

665acd6a57f245ec90445c876482807fPutin has now been in power for exactly 15 years, elevated to the top by the drunken head of the village committee, in exchange for a guarantee of safety for his corrupt family.

I wish everyone a Happy New Year, and wish for us to never lose faith that Russia isn’t a deficient country, and that people who live in Russia aren’t deficient people. They don’t need a king. They too can build a society where power changes through elections, and monarchs, Boyars, feudal lords, attendants, and serfs are encountered only in history books.

There has been no contact with Oleg so far (though MK News somehow already managed to interview him in Butyrka), but I’m sure that he also sends everyone his regards, thanks, and best wishes for the New Year.