An Open Letter to Greens Across the United States

July 24th, 2014 by Phil No comments »

I’ve been involved with the Green Party for 14 years. I’ve been co-chair of the Green National Committee, long-time chair of my state party, and a multi-time candidate for public office. I’m now an elected member of my Local School Council.

I’ve put a lot of time in. I won’t dwell on what all has been involved, but it’s been a lot. I’ve done it because I’ve believed in the Green Party as the apparatus for the kind of change I think our communities, our states, our country, and our planet need.

I’m a father now. There are a lot more demands on my time. So it would be easy for people to dismiss what I’m saying here as fatigue, or burnout, or whatever else.

The bottom line is, I don’t want to do it anymore.

I’m tired of losing, but that’s not really the issue. I’m sick of the constant struggle just to be a recognized legal entity, but that’s not really it either.

I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m sick and tired of the party itself. The complacency, the disrespect, the utter refusal to change: I simply don’t believe that the Green Party, as currently constituted, can be the apparatus for change I’ve long maintained it will be.

I do believe the party can change. I believe the concept is solid and I believe there are a lot of other alienated people at the edges, people who would welcome an opportunity to reinvest themselves if the party presented a space where things could actually be accomplished, and where work was treated with respect.

But as time has gone on, it seems the party has moved further away. And I can’t keep dealing with it. It’s been too stressful for too long with far too little to show for it. Losing is no fun. But it’s even worse when we keep undermining ourselves. For all of the hard work that so many of us have put in, it’s clearer than ever that we can’t continue the way we’ve been going and ever expect success.

The Green Party has a choice right now: evolve or dissolve.

I know that sounds over-the-top, but hear me out:

If the best we can hope to be is an anti-corporate version of the Libertarians, then to continue would be an act of delusion. Is our goal to save the planet, or is our goal to feel good about ourselves because we’re participating in something which is ostensibly about saving the planet? It’s not that feeling good is a bad thing. But if what we’re doing is largely for show, and we’re more interested in maintaining a club, then let’s be honest about it.

I’ve struggled in recent weeks trying to write this. On the one hand, if I write too much, people won’t read it. But if I write too little, then there’s not enough substance and it’s easier to brush it aside. If I use examples of behavior and actions I’ve seen in the party, the discussion will focus on what I’m saying about other people, and it’ll be easy to dismiss everything as my having an axe to grind. But if I don’t use examples, then it’s going to be hard for a lot of people to understand what I’m talking about.

In the end, I’ve decided to make it a little long, but not as long as it could be, and to not talk about any specific people. If the potential is there for things to change, then I need to approach it in terms that a former national party co-chair who presumably has built up respect over the last 14 years will be listened to without having to point fingers.

Here are several of what I feel are our gravest problems:

The Meeting Culture. Meetings are the places where people should come together to talk about the work they have been doing, and what work should be done next. Attending a meeting is not the same thing as doing work. But we as a party glorify the meeting, and disdain the actual work. Democracy takes work. Democracy is not simply the act of making decisions – that is only one component. Some aspects of process are very loose, while others are very strict, and it all comes off as very arbitrary – and highly alienating to new people. We make a huge deal out of trying to get new people to show up, and then make them sit through highly tedious things, like crafting the perfect sentence in a bylaws change. It is not somehow egalitarian or democratic to include everyone in everything and in the process make them sit through everything. It is alienating, and it drives people away. That can’t be what we mean by Grassroots Democracy!

The Way We Treat Members. Our members are gold. But we treat them like crap. When people don’t show up for meetings, it’s like that’s somehow a black mark against them. Here in Illinois, for years, when people would donate money, they wouldn’t even so much as get an email of acknowledgement back. No, we’re not going to have thousands of Green Party members show up and participate in every petition drive. We need to make it a lot easier for them to participate a little, though. We have to stop making them sit through painful meetings just to be part of what’s happening. We have to stop treating people who say they’re willing to help a little like potential super-volunteers who within a month of first showing up for a meeting will wind up nominated for some ill-defined party office.

Responsibility and Accountability. One of our Ten Key Values is “Personal and Global Responsibility”. To me, one of the aspects of “personal responsibility” is that when you say you’re going to do something, you at least make some effort to do it. I’ve seen innumerable situations where people have signed on to be party officers or candidates or whatever else and have simply not done anything. And the party coddles this behavior! How many times have we heard the old chestnut that “Well, everybody’s just a volunteer….” It sends a terrible message to the people who are actually doing the work, and to officers who are really trying, when there is absolutely no culture of accountability. Worse, for years I have seen truly disruptive people be endlessly coddled for one reason or another, and I’ve seen a lot of people driven away because of it. A lot of it has to do with the party being incredibly conflict-averse, but I also think a lot of it has to do with a thorough misunderstanding of what Respect for Diversity means. Respect for Diversity does not mean that we are supposed to tolerate abusive behavior.

We Keep Getting Older. I know a lot of people don’t want to read this and will get upset, but this is something which absolutely has to be confronted. We have done a terrible job of attracting young people to the party, and when they come in, they are often made to feel very unwelcome. Now, I think we make almost all new people feel unwelcome. But for 14 years, I’ve particularly seen how younger people are disregarded, blown off, even insulted. I’m 37, and it’s inexcusable that I’m still one of the youngest people in the room when a meeting is held. The majority of the people in the room should be younger than me. I have been talking about this problem for a long time, and it never gets addressed, and I think one of the big reasons why is that young people threaten the Meeting Culture I talk about above. We’re also too white, too male, and too middle-class, and the Meeting Culture and other things I’m saying here speak to all that as well.

Too Few Candidates – Especially for Small Offices. The general public won’t take the party seriously so long as we run so few candidates. When we do run candidates, we disproportionately run for offices we can’t yet win, like Congress or statewide office. I’m not saying we shouldn’t run for Congress. But I am saying that when it’s the only thing we’re running for, it’s foolish. Here in Illinois, in 2014, we have zero candidates for County Board anywhere in the state, for the first time since we started running candidates. What this signals to voters, media, even our own members, is that when we run, we’re running for show, not running to win. You can’t hold interest that way. And small offices matter – if we had 10 times as many Greens elected to small municipal, school board, park board, library board, and similar offices – never mind if they’re nonpartisan – then our communities would be in better shape for it! Isn’t that why we’re doing this?

Territorialism. Rarely will I see people drive 10 miles over to the next town to help the only Green candidate running for office anywhere near them. At the same time, people have treated local chapters like fiefdoms, driving away other people in the area so that a small group can maintain “local control” over some swath of geography. This is all anathema to what the Green Party is supposed to be about. And yet I’ve often seen this behavior coddled as well. Tremendous deference is paid to people who have been around for a long time, whether they’re actively building the party or not. This ties in to both the Meeting Culture and our inability to attract and keep young people.

Obsession with Identity. This manifests itself in a lot of ways, but the main one is what I might call Beacon Syndrome. The idea is that the party is a shining beacon of light which will naturally attract people – and by corollary, if people aren’t coming, there must be something wrong with the platform, or the bylaws, or something else like that, so we spend countless hours and involve dozens if not hundreds of people to tweak some sentence or another. All of this is especially bad at the national level, where for many years we’ve had more committees focusing on internal affairs than on things like candidate support or external work.

Listservs. I’ve used listservs – majordomos, mailing lists, Yahoo! groups, whatever else you want to call them – for 20 years. I think they’re a terrific tool. But most Green Party listservs are horrible, absolutely repellant to most people who make the mistake of getting on them. A person can write a long, thoughtful message about an issue, and get a quick nasty response that complains about a single sentence, and then the discussion is magically over. The worst part is, this is our primary means of communication.

Bureaucracy. For a party which trumpets Grassroots Democracy as one of its four pillars, it’s sad to see that when this is put into practice, it’s often in the form of a flattened bureaucracy whereby if a single person expresses misgivings, a decision won’t be made. The party gives incredible negative power to people who don’t do work but are happy to show up for meetings and shoot down everyone else’s ideas, and then somehow calls the whole thing “democracy”. Bureaucracy is in particular the foe of competent administration. Minor decisions wind up being subject to “committee review” and so basic administrative things like maintaining membership lists don’t happen. This is closely related to a long-standing reticence to actually empowering individuals over a supposed fear that a person might become too powerful. One of the reasons people sign up for positions and don’t do anything is because they find themselves quickly hamstrung, unable to do anything because they have to conduct “business” on a listserv with 27 people “monitoring” but not actually helping!

Amateurism. In the past I’ve tried to emphasize the need to be professional, and what I’ve found is that the word has such a negative connotation to so many people that they just won’t listen. So I’ll approach it from the other direction: We have to stop acting like we don’t know what we’re doing. Voters want to vote for people who they think can actually handle the position. But we have a bad tendency to field candidates who will do things like not return phone calls or questionnaires. This hurts us way more than it would hurt one of the corporate parties, because they can just disown a particularly poor candidate. Another issue is that a lot of our websites look like they were made 10 years ago (they were) and were last updated six years ago (they were). It makes us look really bad.

And this is me being brief! This only scratches the surface of the problems I’ve seen over the last 14 years.

The point is that there are many, many problems, and there has been very little willingness to deal with any of this. For all of the work that so many people have put in over time, we institutionally have little to show. Our national party’s budget is less than that of a decently-run neighborhood organization in Chicago, most state parties don’t even have budgets, and most local chapters don’t even maintain treasuries. We’ve gotten some good people elected, like Gayle McLaughlin in Richmond, California, but almost all of our successes have been in nonpartisan elections and our officeholder number has been fairly flat for years.

I could say “Things can’t continue like this!!” but the reality is that they absolutely can. Just look at the Libertarian Party. It is absolutely possible to maintain as a marginal entity which every so often generates a little bit of excitement in a couple of states. But is that really what we’re here for?

I can imagine a lot of pot/kettle arguments in response right now. I’m not going to claim that I haven’t been part of many of these problems. We all have been, to some extent or another. It is in large part because I have been around for so long and have come to recognize many of my own shortcomings that I have the vantage point from which to articulate all of this.

Here is a very short list of improvements which could happen immediately:

* Stop holding so many annual business meetings. Conduct most “major party business” (like bylaws changes and internal elections) by email or web.

* Hold more informal gatherings – small events that will include people rather than alienate them. We need to build relationships with each other!

* Make a concerted national effort to help build campus organizations.

* Any party official who does not actually do anything: You need to resign. Today. Please.

* Start treating rank and file members like cherished assets.

* Make a national priority of running candidates for small offices – especially school boards.

My hope is that as people read this, if they agree with 90% of it, they’ll focus on the 90% they agree with and not the 10% they disagree with (which is another common problem in the party – focusing on our disagreements and not coming together on everything we do agree with.) I hope that I hear back from people around the country who agree that things need to change, and that many of them will take action within their state parties and local groups.

What we have been working for has been too important for it to either burn out or fade away. But if it has to be one or the other, then let it burn out, and let’s rebuild from the ashes. If we refuse to evolve, then we should just dissolve.

Evolution can mean a lot of different things. I don’t really want to try and lay out a comprehensive blueprint and say it all has to be the way I say – that’s never going to fly. The thing is, I don’t think the list of improvements I offer above are likely to stir controversy. I think almost everyone will agree with almost all of them. (I can offer a lot of other suggestions as well – ones which wouldn’t be so universally accepted! But I want to focus here on changes which I think will unite the vast majority of Greens, and quickly.)

If the Green Party can truly be a vehicle for change, then we have to be the change we want to see. We have to be effective, respectful, and hard-working. If we can’t be those things, then there are a great many positive things that we can go out and do in and for the world, and it’ll be time to move on to something else.

Personally, if I’m going to talk the talk, I’m going to walk the walk. If we have not begun to address our cultural issues by the end of the year, then I will move on. I am willing to try new approaches, but I am not willing to just keep hacking through the same problems to such little effect. I don’t see how people can take what I’m writing here seriously unless I’m serious about being willing to leave.

And I think other people need to speak up and say so as well. I think we need an outpouring of sentiment from across the country that we must evolve, and if we don’t, a lot of us are prepared to move on.

Let’s be blunt here: The planet is under attack, and will continue to be under attack. Whether it’s through war or privatization or deprivation of services or whatever other instrument, people’s lives and livelihoods are under constant threat. I have maintained for years that the Green Party can, and must, be a primary vehicle for change. But I need to see a lot happen to continue to believe it, and I know I’m far from alone.

So I’m asking that you contact me. You can email me at phil.huckelberry – at – Or find me on Facebook. I would like to hear from up and down Illinois and from all across the country. In turn I’d like for us to collectively take that outpouring of sentiment and use it to make things happen.

The tired, spent, long-time party activist in me absolutely needs to see things change. The eternal optimist in me, though, is the one who wrote all of this, believing that there are enough people out there who agree that we can see this evolution through. Prove me right, friends!

Life as a series of unread periodicals

May 4th, 2014 by Phil No comments »

There are 4 periodicals larger than newsletter size which I read on a consistent basis:

Chicago Reader.  Publication frequency:  Weekly.  If you’re in Chicago, this needs no explanation.  If you’re not in Chicago, it probably still needs no explanation.  It’s the city’s main weekly paper.  I read most of it.  I don’t tend to read the theater reviews or things having to do with visual art or dance, and I don’t read Dan Savage’s column.  I tend to read pretty much everything else.

MAGNET.  Publication frequency:  Monthly.  This is a music magazine.  It published either quarterly or bimonthly from the mid-late 90s until about 2009 or 2010.  Then it stopped.  Then, inexplicably, it returned a couple of years ago, and suddenly publishing monthly.  It is basically an indie-rock magazine.  There are short articles on about a dozen bands each month, a mid-sized feature, a long feature, a couple of regular columns, and a boatload of album reviews.  I read it almost word for word.

Preservation.  Publication frequency:  Bimonthly.  This is the official publication of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Ostensibly the writing is mostly about American historical treasures which have been saved or which are in danger of being demolished.  It’s very well done.  A large chunk is devoted to place-specific advertising; I don’t read that.  I read everything else.

Journal of Illinois History.  Publication frequency:  Quarterly.  A typical volume of JIH has 3 pieces about 25-30 pages long and then about 8-10 book reviews.  At least 2 of the book reviews are always for books about Lincoln.  This is the last vestige of scholarly interaction I have with my once-chosen field.  I read everything.

At any given point in time, I can assess “how far behind” I am relative to “the world” or “whatever” by counting the stack of unread periodicals.  Now, since the Reader is weekly, it’s a bit preposterous to declare the current week unread as of 7:00 on a Wednesday night.  But if I get to the weekend – yeah, then it’s unread.

Right this very minute, I have no backlog of unread periodicals.  It is liberating!

This is a stupid way to approach existence, of course.

Here is the thing:  I simply have a hard time reading books anymore.  Five years ago, I kept track, and I read something like 50-60 books that year.  Four years ago I was at maybe 40.  Last year I maybe read 4?

There are a lot of factors that play into this.  I used to read primarily on the train, and I used to have a longer overall train ride.  I spend a lot more of that train time jacking around on my phone.  And the periodicals always seem to get in the way of books.

But the main thing is that I can’t just sit down and absorb a book.  My attention span is shot.  The phone is definitely part of that, but the phone is symptomatic at least as much as it could be considered causal.

I especially can’t read at home.  I used to read before bed.  I can’t do that anymore.  I can mess around on the computer for a long time but it’s incredibly difficult to stay focused on a book for a long time.  If it’s a book of essays or short stories – especially if it’s sort of light, something like David Sedaris or Chuck Klosterman – then it’s all potentially a little easier.  But I still just can’t seem to sit down and read.

In my mind, it would even be hard to go to a movie anymore.  That would require sitting there for 2 hours.  That’s not how we watch movies at home.  Hell, we don’t even watch movies at home!  It’s too involved most of the time.  We watch TV on DVD or Roku but those are all like 45 minute episodes.  We’ll watch a documentary, but most documentaries are in the 60-75 minute realm, and even then, we’ll probably get up at least 2-3 times each.  And we were doing that before there was a baby involved in the process.

And so in the context of all this, the periodicals take on a weird, strangely heightened importance.  They become actual tasks.  Sometimes I really have to buckle down and focus to finish an issue of MAGNET.  It’s not that I don’t like what I’m reading – it’s just that even the feature-length articles can sometimes seem too involved to sit down and read at once.  They’re like 6 pages!

I have seriously been thinking about the idea of hauling this tiny family off to some place for 4-5 days of reading and not much else.

Part of the problem, and this is a long-standing problem, is that if I do read something, there’s no followup, nobody to talk to about it.  I’ll read a Nelson Algren novel, and it’ll be amazing, and there’s so much in it to talk about, and it’s all about Chicago, and I’m, you know, in Chicago, and there are thousands of people somewhere around me who have read Algren and have things to say about it, and I know like 1 of those people and I don’t know that guy well at all and how can this possibly make any sense?  A few years ago I blitzed through 3 of Fitzgerald’s novels back to back and somehow had nobody to talk to it about any of them.  This isn’t some random schmuck writing some weird YA fiction that might vaguely involve wicca.  This is F. Scott Fucking Fitzgerald, and I can’t actually talk to anyone about this?

We’re a very fragmented culture.  I don’t mean that entirely in a bad way.  I think it’s fascinating and interesting that everybody seems to be interested in very different music or books.  Now, yeah, it seems like everyone is interested in the same television shows.  But there’s really a rich diversity of thought and taste when it comes to so many things and I think in a lot of ways this makes for a stronger society and it is indicative of how much better a world this is than it was for my parents.  And yet, there is something really bizarre about feeling culturally isolated when I’m reading books straight out of the decades-old established canon.

The culprit, and the savior, is the Internet.  The Internet has been this amazing engine of allowing people to pursue their own tastes.  It brings ideas together in unquantifiable ways.  But it also boils so many of those ideas out to tiny nuggets, often hyper-disposable.  People become united in weird ways, pushing into greater abstraction.  It’s like a Big Bang of Culture – the universe keeps expanding and things are flying all over the place and it’s all terribly exciting but it’s so chaotic.  In the midst of the chaos we seem to be able to be transfixed by things like major sports and political stories but there’s precious little depth there.  The Internet holds us together, but in the loosest possible way.  We’re so fractured now that if not for Facebook we’d be lost.

And so the impending arrival of another issue of MAGNET provides cohesion and regularity.  The two primary touchstones of the week are Monday morning when we go back to work, and Thursday morning (or Wednesday evening if lucky) when the Reader magically appears.

The rumours of print being dead?  Don’t believe the hype.  Someone, somewhere, is going to keep printing something on a periodic basis, and it’s going to provide an important serving of mental fiber for our bizarrely constipated existence.  They – in some form – will never stop arriving, and so life will truck along, perpetually a series of unread periodicals.

Now, if I could just find somebody to talk about that article from JIH about horror movies being broadcast on Quad Cities television in the late ’70s, I’d be all set.

the long Obama vs POTUS evaluation

November 15th, 2012 by Phil 8 comments »

This isn’t exactly what I was asked, but in essence, I’ve been asked to justify my persistent argument that Barack Obama is one of the worst Presidents in American history. I think it’s a fair thing to be asked, and it deserves some real thought, and some self-challenging.

To that end, what I’m offering here is basically a comparison between Obama and every U.S. president of the 20th and 21st centuries, where my evaluation will be that Obama is a better president, an equal president, or a worse president than his predecessors. I need to preface all this with some basic notes about how I’m approaching this and where some of my up front biases are.

Before I do that though… some of the pieces of this were written kind of fast, in a hotel in Cleveland or something, or maybe on an airplane. I could say a lot more about a great many things but haven’t. One thing I notice is that my explanations for my final judgments get a lot better the closer to the present day I get. It’s just a lot harder to compare eras than it might seem.

I’m choosing to start at McKinley (POTUS 25) for a couple of useful reasons. First, starting at the very beginning would make this too arduous for all but about four of you to read. Choosing McKinley means evaluating a total of 20 people, which is a nice round number. Second, I think 1898 is what we can really point to as the time that the United States became a recognized world power; and I think that there were so many lifeless presidencies in the years between Lincoln and McKinley that this is just a good fit generally.

In evaluating a President, I want to stress a couple of things. I do think it is relevant to compare someone against his peers (and, since we’re talking U.S. Presidents, we’re only talking men, which I’m going to note here and then move on from.) If I think anyone else in a person’s shoes would have made the same (bad) decision, I don’t knock that person so much. It’s when I think a President made decisions that someone else would not have made that my ire is particularly raised. Some of you will have a hunch where this is going.

I also, in evaluating the long haul, am simply not going to be that harsh on some war-related decisions. It’s a gross oversimplification, but World War II was contextually unavoidable, whereas Vietnam was utterly avoidable. Some of the judgments I make here may not please some hardcore peace activists, but, contrary to what some might think, I am a relativist and a pragmatist in a lot of ways, and that’s one of the reasons why I think this exercise is useful.

And just to kind of wrap up these disclaimers and such, for me, the biggest presidential crime of all is selling the general public out to the corporations and the warhawks, and in particular doing so in a way that profoundly moved the country toward a corporate state. If it was a weak executive and this stuff just sort of happened around him, then that’s not as bad as if he took major steps toward making such things happen himself. This probably also gives you a hunch where this is going.

Finally, as ever, I reserve the right to change my mind on a lot of this, but I’m not all that likely to.

POTUS 25 – William McKinley (1897-1901) – McKinley was largely a hack. He was deeply in the pocket of moneyed interests of his time. Unlike certain later Presidents, though, I don’t feel McKinley was very instrumental in moving the discourse one way or another. He was a soft puppet. The Spanish-American War would have happened with just about anyone in power, and the subsequent Filipino-American War was something I perceive McKinley to have rolled with more so than instigating. Judgment: Better president than Obama, but barely.

POTUS 26 – Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) – Men aren’t saints, and Presidents certainly aren’t saints. There are a lot of negative things that could be said about TR. But he was the first President to intervene on behalf of organized labor, he founded the National Park Service, he pushed the Pure Food and Drug Act through, and in my mind, he’s probably one of the five greatest Presidents. Judgment: Definitely better than Obama.

POTUS 27 – William Howard Taft (1909-1913) – Taft’s presidency was mostly a flop, but it’s hard to say that a lot went wrong. Taft should have pursued the TR agenda with vigor, but he didn’t. And yet I don’t think he was anti-progressive either. I just think he was a poor fit for the office. Not a lot to be said here. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 28 – Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) – Wilson is one of the more contradictory men here, and one of the hardest to evaluate. He was an extreme racist, and his handling of international affairs in non-white parts of the world was especially awful. But his championing of the League of Nations was correct. He didn’t do a damn thing to help women gain the suffrage, and yet the 19th Amendment passed during his administration… as did the 16th Amendment (Income Tax) for which he deserves some credit, the 17th Amendment (Direct Election of Senators) for which he deserves some credit, and the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) for which he deserves a great deal of scorn. In so many respects he is the opposite of Taft, who did nothing and therefore you can’t say much about him. We got the Fed under Wilson. But we also got the income tax. How do you evaluate this? Judgment: Better president than Obama, but barely.

POTUS 29 – Warren Harding (1921-1923) – Well, this one’s easy. Harding is widely considered one of the worst chief executives. He let his cronies get away with all kinds of shit, and it was under his administration that a lot of the seeds of the Great Depression were planted. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

POTUS 30 – Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) – A surprisingly difficult call. Look: Coolidge was fucking terrible. He was Reagan’s favorite President! But there’s a critical distinction here between Coolidge and Reagan, and this distinction will better help some people understand where my inherent biases are and what I value and don’t value. Reagan was an extremely active President, who brought in people who did some really awful things. Coolidge was a do-nothing President, but unlike some do-nothing predecessors, he very much saw his role as doing nothing. He’s the inspiration for what Tea Party people claim their movement is about, but Coolidge was actually quite sincere about simply getting the hell out of the way. Regulations weren’t particularly enforced and the bubble grew under Coolidge, but Coolidge was a man of intentional inaction. Contrast this with later Presidents who made the problems much worse because of the extent of the regulation they scaled back. We also have to evaluate whether someone else in Coolidge’s shoes would have made much of a difference, and I think the answer is No. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to simply pin the Depression on Coolidge because the Depression was global and involved factors well beyond what anyone in Washington was prepared to control. In all of these respects Coolidge is perhaps the hardest President to compare with Obama because the circumstances are maybe the most fundamentally different available. Judgment: Just as bad a president as Obama, but for very different reasons.

POTUS 31 – Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) – Hoover was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The stock market crashed six months into Hoover’s term. Many of the policies that FDR subsequently enacted were developed during Hoover’s administration but inadequately implemented because, let’s be realistic, American government had never done so much, and had never been expected to do so much. I think this is an example of a situation where you have to compare the man within the prevailing context, and I think pretty much anyone would have been doomed. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 32 – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1993-1945) – Not a lot of need to dwell on this one. The stuff about men not being saints definitely applies here. But FDR was the greatest politician of the last 150 years, and if you’re going to give anybody positive marks on the whole, of course it would be FDR. Judgment: Much better president than Obama.

POTUS 33 – Harry Truman (1945-1953) – The Nagasaki bomb was absolutely inexcusable, a decision Truman should long be rightly condemned for… except that I sincerely believe that anyone else in his shoes likely would have made the same horrific decision. We might say the same thing about Korea, which was an extremely stupid situation to have gotten into, but if you look at the Red Scare of the time, who short of Henry Wallace would have kept us out? Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley, desegregated the military, and in general, I think mostly positive things about him. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 34 – Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) – Eisenhower had similarities to Coolidge, but sending troops into Little Rock in 1957 demonstrated the limit of those similarities, and Eisenhower’s farewell address on the military-industrial complex demonstrated the intellect of a man who understood that limited government pointedly meant limited government interference with people’s daily lives. The Vietnam mess did start under him, but it was so limited at that point, and containment theory was so dominant, I’m not sure how harshly he can be judged for that. Guatemala is another story, but I think Guatemala really brings into sharp focus how fucked up American foreign policy and economic might had gotten by 1953, and I question whether anyone would have made much of a difference there. In the end, I like Ike. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 35 – John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) – Bay of Pigs, no real motion on civil rights, significant expansion of involvement in Vietnam with no coherent plan. The Cuban Missile Crisis was handled well, but it should never have happened in the first place. But would Nixon have been better in 1961? Johnson? I don’t know. The counterfactuals are difficult here. In the end my assessment is pretty harsh though. Judgment: Better president than Obama… maybe.

POTUS 36 – Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) – The ultimate dichotomy, part one. This is the man who bears the lion’s share of responsibility for Vietnam. This is also the man who rolled out The Great Society, and who got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. Medicare came into being under Johnson. On domestic policy he could potentially have been our greatest President! And in the end, that matters, a lot. When you stack LBJ up against his peers, his share of the debt for Vietnam is immense, but the good he did amounted to more good than almost all of the rest. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 37 – Richard Nixon (1969-1974) – The ultimate dichotomy, part two. Here we first need to take pains to separate Nixon the man from Nixon the President, and by this I mean two things. Nixon was a total asshole, okay? I think we can all be clear on this. And Nixon was a total asshole as a President too. Nixon was responsible for things like HUAC… but that was before he became President. His administration needs to be regarded straight up. On foreign policy, he and Henry Kissinger were responsible for the “incursion” into Cambodia, and for the overthrow of Allende in Chile and all of the ramifications thereof. But he was also responsible for detente, and for finally actually acknowledging that the world’s largest country actually existed. So even on foreign policy, Nixon was a mixed bag. On domestic policy… well, Nixon is the man who signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The EPA came into being under Nixon. Nixon actually spoke in favor of what he called a “guaranteed minimum income”. Was he a racist shithead? It’s a little hard to say, because he was a shithead so generally. I actually believe that Nixon cared greatly about America, and not just his conceptualization of it. He was, ultimately, a lot like Johnson. He also brought great shame to the office, which I do think matters (and this is going to come up again – twice. Guess where?) Ultimately it’s a difficult argument to say that Nixon was one of our better Presidents. But he wasn’t one of the worst either. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 38 – Gerald Ford (1974-1977) – Look: Ford inherited an impossible situation, one where he had little power. He was saddled with Kissinger and the legacy of Watergate. He was more or less an honorable man, I suppose, whose presidency was essentially impossible. As such he wasn’t a particularly negative force, and by now I think it should be clear how much that matters in my evaluations. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 39 – Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) – Carter was the best President of my lifetime, for whatever that’s worth. He had his missteps, including jacking around in Nicaragua, but his foreign policy was predicated on the primacy of human rights, and shit, what other President can we say that about? The economy didn’t go so well but was that really Jimmy Carter’s fault? He was a good man, in a position ill-suited for him, and he did what he could, and it wasn’t a great time, and Iran took all those hostages, and… sigh. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 40 – Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) – Let’s begin with an anecdote. I took a class in college on recent U.S. history – basically 1945 to the then-present – and so unlike a lot of history classes, we actually got all the way up to the original Iraq war (which, then, was only about six years in the past.) As a class exercise there was going to be a debate, four people pro and four people con on whether Reagan was a good president, more or less. Keep in mind that I went to a college with kind of a heavy frat / business conservative slant. The pro side was well prepared. The con side… the best argument they had was The War on Drugs. That was their BEST argument. Rampant unemployment? Unprecedented peacetime deficits? A foreign policy based on maximum supply of arms to what were essentially terrorist states? Dismantling of the regulatory state? Trickle-down economics? In terms of a break from what came before, and in terms of fundamentally altering the political direction of the country for the worse, it’s hard to find anyone who can compare. Even the people who were the worst at being President didn’t have this track record to show for it. Franklin Pierce? Andrew Johnson? We’re so far in the dregs here it’s hard to make sense of any of it. While I try not to evaluate Presidents based on prevailing circumstances which they were simply part of, if the prevailing circumstances are your cabinet and your government and you’re simply checked out of what they’re doing but it’s all happening in your name, well, that’s still on you. These were my formative years, and I surely didn’t see it or understand it then, but in retrospect, it’s not just that Reagan was the worst President of my lifetime. He was arguably the worst President of all time. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

POTUS 41 – George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) – Now dig this big crux: The expansion of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act came under Bush 41. Some of the more extreme foolishness of the Reagan years were quietly shown the door. Yes, some of the more extreme foolishness was elevated in rank. But remember that for me, a major thing I look at is, did a President dramatically move the country increasingly into being a corporate state? GHWB is in a series of corporatists, but he was far from the biggest, and arguably did the least to actually move the country in that direction. He was definitely more moderate than Reagan on most of these measures. Ultimately, and sadly, for the majority of you actually reading this, this man was the best President of your lifetime. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 42 – Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – These were the last true American boom years and I think that it could be argued that Clinton was a very good manager of the good times. But there’s a difference between managing the good times and being responsible for the good times, and I’ve never seen any real evidence that Clinton deserved much credit for that. So let’s give the credit where the credit is due: The repeal of Glass-Steagall. NAFTA and WTO. So-called welfare reform. The littering of depleted uranium in Serbia. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a repulsive piece of legislation which remains very poorly known but which basically opened the door for extreme consolidation and corporatization of media, which in turn has been like a deth knell for democracy. And lest any of you forget, his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, said that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children were “worth it” – those are children who died under Clinton-era sanctions. The inimitable Carroll Cox once described Bill Clinton as “a fucking mass murderer” and that pretty much sums it up. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

POTUS 43 – George W. Bush (2001-2009) – I don’t think much needs to be said about these pathetic years, but I will say this: Many of the most extreme and stupid things that happened under GWB were linear continuations of things which started before him. He’s too much of a lightning rod, because in the process, it lets some of his predecessors off the hook. Without Reagan and Clinton, the disasters of this presidency wouldn’t have been possible. Unfortunately, too many of those disasters are still with us, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the erosion of civil liberties. If you’re going to dump on Bush, then you’ve got to ask questions like… When Obama had Democratic majorities in both houses, why wasn’t Glass-Steagall reinstated? Why wasn’t Taft-Hartley repealed? Why wasn’t the Patriot Act repealed? The answer is that the Democrats were complicit in all of these travesties. While I can’t really argue that most things have gotten worse in the last four years, I do have to ask, when the Republicans eventually win back the White House – after all, the longest the Democrats have gone in power is 20 years, and that was with FDR winning four terms – isn’t Obama having failed to full back on so many of the excesses of the administrations before him just going to lead to worse things happening down the line? Isn’t Obama equally complicit at this point? Or at least, wouldn’t he be, if his second administration does nothing to arrest these things? Still… Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

Final tally:

Just as bad: Coolidge
Worse: Harding, Reagan, Clinton

This means that of the last 20 chief executives, I’m putting Obama at a tie for #17. Maybe after having a rambling conversation about McKinley and Wilson and Coolidge at some point I might make some reassessments, but I don’t really see it. For the most part, we’re talking about men who had some redeeming qualities but almost all of whom I feel like I have more bad to say about than good. If that doesn’t show here, it’s because with many of them, I’ve felt like I’ve needed to put more time into explaining what those redeeming qualities are, because the shit qualities tend to be better known.

I think Obama, so far, has been a terrible President as regards foreign policy, financial policy, energy policy, civil liberties, and health care… to name a few. Because I believe different Presidents need to be evaluated in terms of different eras, I think that the moderate social gains so far need to be put in context, so Obama saying he supports gay marriage, while clearly an overall positive, still has to be regarded in the context of his having instructed the Justice Department to fight to maintain the Defense of Marriage Act and his couching his support for gay marriage in bullshit states rights language. He’s mostly following on this, and yet this is the only thing where it feels like he’s been a leader at all. I hear the argument that Obamacare brings us closer to where we should be, but I’m damned if I can see that. The good aspects of it – and there are indeed good aspects of it – are countermanded by the manner in which it is a complete sell out to health insurance companies, and by how it’s doing so little to throw any checks up against the actual cost of health care. At best, it’s a gamble on a future where the Republicans never again regain power, which is historically absurd. And the National Defense Authorization Act – I mean, he’s gone above and beyond the Patriot Act in terms of curtailing civil liberties. Why are people okay with this? The only other Presidents who have been behind anything as blatantly unconstitutional along the lines of NDAA were GWB, Wilson (First Red Scare, Sedition Act, etc.), Lincoln (under very, very different circumstances which I’m not going to debate here), and… well, we get back to what, the Alien and Sedition Acts? On top of all this, Obama is the one who is truly leading the way with massive attempts to privatize basic social services, notably public education. He installed Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and Race to the Top is largely about excessive standardized testing and establishing charter schools, which means rerouting of public dollars to less accountable private hands. Again, why is this defensible? And who before him, besides Bush, was doing stuff like this?

So. I’ve written a lot and I’m going to piss some people off with it, but at least here I’m laying it all out. I know some people will be beside themselves with some of the Presidents I identified as better than Obama (I can imagine the complaints about the likes of Hoover and Nixon) but if you’re going to argue with a lot of what I’m saying, you’ve really got to take on my core reasoning, which is that Presidents who are directly responsible for moving the country to being more of a corporatist and/or militarist state are the ones who have done the most wrong to the country.

Let the arguments begin.

Football, America, and the Frontier

May 4th, 2012 by Phil No comments »

I don’t know when it was exactly, but at some point, football overtook baseball as my sport.  I don’t think it was anything baseball did wrong.  I think it’s just that the nature of football, and the nature of America – of the media, of the workweek, of other aspects of mass culture – those things just made it inevitable that football would be our sport.

One thing we can lose track of with football is how at a base level it requires so little equipment.  All you really need is the ball.  When I think about recess from fourth to sixth grade, I remember playing 500 and kickball and basketball but when the weather got cold it was mostly football.  And the other weird thing about football, I think, is how you just didn’t need to be that athletic to play football at recess.  Basketball took a lot more coordination.  Even kickball did more to separate the athletes from the wannabes.

The idea that you could get injured playing football – I think it’s always been easy to think of that as a known risk.  Even the idea that it could really mess you up… that’s a tradeoff in the eyes of people who think about it at all.  Football screwed up your brain because you got hit so many times in the head?  Well, what did you expect?

While it’s true of all professional sports, and for that matter of a great many other things, football in particular embodies the idea of pushing boundaries without acknowledging the consequences of pushing those boundaries.  In this sense, football really is the quintessential American sport.  The boundaries that are pushed in football are largely individual and physical, with payoffs coming in terms of boundaries in media and money.  Similarly, the American approach to mass energy consumption has largely been about pushing the boundaries of energy extraction.  The American approach to finance has largely been about pushing any boundary you can imagine.  The last two presidential administrations are fascinating case studies in pushing boundaries – and in seeing which boundaries they really aren’t that willing to push.

Is it possible that football is reaching a breaking point?  It may not get there this year, but there’s this sense that football has gotten too fast, too powerful, too violent.  Of course it’s always been fast and powerful and violent.  Dick Butkus was a previous generation’s Junior Seau.  But Dick Butkus went on and did whatever kind of goofy acting Dick Butkus did.  Junior Seau shot himself in the chest at age 42.

Roger Goodell seems to get it.  The Bountygate suspensions are evidence that he gets it.  The growing number of casualties – he sees this.  But isn’t there an irreversible trend here?  How can you tell football to stop being even faster?  How can you tell football to stop being even more powerful?

Isn’t the NFL just a manifestation of that simple game we played as kids, pushed to its logical extremes?

Isn’t America’s excessive energy usage just a manifestation of everything America has been for two-plus centuries?

Isn’t Wall Street exactly what we should expect from the continuing evolution of an economic system based in a heavy mythology of capitalism?

Aren’t all of these things basically just examples of the Frontier Thesis in operation?  Specifically, the idea that there will constantly be new frontiers, that there will always be an aggressive push toward being smarter, faster, more powerful, etc.?

And at some point, does that push reach a breaking point?

The conundrum that faces the NFL, and, I’d argue, the conundrum that faces America, is that there are such breaking points.  Again, Roger Goodell seems to get it.  His approach seems to be to try and steer the NFL away from some of these breaking points – maybe even to the idea that the product really doesn’t need to evolve much more at this point, except in terms of safety, and that instead of the product evolving, the focus can be on pushing its reach internationally.  But this is really just a recognition that one frontier has been met, and an attempt to try to find another frontier, another direction for growth.  I’m not convinced that direction for growth is going to work, because I feel like the inherently American nature of the game will tend to undermine that growth.  And so I think what we’re actually witnessing right now is the beginning of the peak of football.

Similarly, it’s fairly obvious that the American economy is in some really deep shit, whether people in Washington want to admit it or not.  It’s not just America, of course.  A lot of the Euro zone is experiencing negative growth.  Well, gee, maybe there’s something inherently flawed with the idea of a constant-growth-economic model.  But of course we can’t talk about things like that.

And also similarly, our energy situation is pretty damn hosed.  We’re at Peak Oil.  Why else would there be attempts to do such insane things like hydrofracking through the slate of Southern Illinois?  It’s just an attempt to pick up the frontier boundary and go somewhere else with it.  There’s no serious discussion of scaling back on energy usage.

The thing is, I like football.  It’s my sport.  It has been since I was young.  And I like making money.  I think I’m worth more money than I’m currently making, so why shouldn’t I try to make more?  And I like using energy.  We pretty much all do.  It’s about as unrealistic to think that I could “break up” with football as it to think that I would somehow go off the grid, or that I would be content to stay at the same or a lower salary for the rest of my life.

But I know those are the directions we collectively need to be headed.  I might fall short on a personal level in some ways, but the deeper into all of this we get, the more I think in terms of somehow needing to challenge the Frontier Thesis.  In simplest terms, the Frontier mentality is not sustainable.  This is a brutally difficult thing to get across to people.  It might not be so hard for some of us to accept it on an intellectual level, but let’s face it, a lot of the endeavors we think of as sustainable are really just an attempt to sustain the Frontier mentality.

Will it take more suicides like Junior Seau’s to fundamentally alter the way people approach football?

And what will need to happen in society more broadly that can fundamentally alter our Frontier outlook?


awww yeah

April 28th, 2012 by Phil No comments »

So.  This blog has been moved, and has been switched over to WordPress, and I am trying to make something coherent happen with it.  I’m downloading something called GIMP to try and accomplish something graphical.  We’ll see how all this goes.

the day I came down with the chicken pox

March 7th, 2012 by Phil No comments »

This was spurred on by a recent discussion I randomly started about 11th Street in Rockford. This is the story of the day I came down with chicken pox. I am not sure if I should say the chicken pox.

I want to stress, though, that this story is not really about chicken pox. It is about 11th Street. Really, it’s more about 20th Avenue, and important lessons people learn in their lives.

So. I was in third grade! We had a substitute teacher that day – a substitute we’d never had before, and by my recollection she was kind of cranky.

I can’t remember exactly what happened, if I said I was feeling bad, or if somebody asked why I had red bumps all over me, I don’t know. School had only just begun, or maybe it hadn’t even begun yet, who’s to say. But I was in my classroom and all of a sudden it was like, oh hey, you’ve got chicken pox. I don’t really remember anything else about all of this except that I remember putting my coat on and the substitute was cranky and was all like, you should be doing that out in the hall. Okay.

So, my dad came and got me. At this time our car was a Ford Pinto. I don’t know what year it was and I doubt it mattered. The reason we had a Ford Pinto is because our AMC Gremlin had been totaled in the previous year. The Gremlin had been brown, kind of a metallic poop color. The Pinto, I think, was kind of a faded orange-brown, but I may be getting the exact color confused with my grandfather’s Mercury Bobcat, which was kind of a burnt orange. The Bobcat, of course, was the step up from the Pinto. I swear I am not making any of this up.

Now my school was King, and King was on the west side. We lived on 6th Street. So for us to have been on 11th Street doesn’t really make sense – we must have stopped somewhere else.

Anyway, it was a school day, and it was the morning, and it was cold enough for me to have a coat, so it was probably early in 1985 though maybe it was late in 1984, and I had come down with the chicken pox, and my dad picked me up, and now we were driving south on 11th Street, just past Bowl-Mor, and yes, that was the actual name of the bowling alley. And so we turned right onto 20th Avenue.

And as we turned, my door flew open. Not like, immediately it was wide open, just like, it came unlatched, and just kind of started to open. So when I say flew, I mean “fly” in the graceful, birdlike sense, not in the speedy, timelike sense.

We were not going that fast. As the door started to fly open, and I think I said something, but who knows for sure what was or was not said, and my dad realized that my door was flying open, he naturally stopped the car. That is when I fell out of the car.

I really do not remember if I had tried to reach for the door at some point and failed… I just know I fell out of the car, onto the street. It was not a violent fall. I was not injured. I did still have the chicken pox.

And so all of this is how I came to be sitting on the street, on 20th Avenue, alongside my father’s stopped brown/orange/tan Ford Pinto.

All of this was not far from our house. I am pretty sure that I got up and back in the car, and we locked the door, and I held onto the door as we continued slowly home.

Several important lessons were learned that day:

First, wear your seatbelt! In 1985 this was not exactly standard practice, not even for an 8 year old in the front seat. I know this sounds crazy but I was wearing my seatbelt long before most people I knew.

Second, do not drive a Ford Pinto! Now, this was before it was widely known that upon side impact a poorly located fuel tank would cause such vehicles to explode. Pintos were still common then, even though they hadn’t been made since 1980.

Third, maybe do not drive a Ford at all!

Fourth, quarantine yourself when you have the chicken pox! Or, alternately, visit people who wish to receive it themselves, or who wish to have others receive it. My mother was keen on having me give chicken pox to my sister, then age 3, and she did indeed receive it. She therefore missed out on ever getting to go home from school because she had come down with the chicken pox. Jessie, I am sorry.

All of you fall into three camps: those of you who know nothing about Rockford, those of you who know precisely where I’m talking about but haven’t seen the area in many many years, and those of you who are intimately familiar with the area as it stands today. 11th Street, in the vicinity of 20th Avenue, is a post-industrial hovel. Bowl-Mor has been shuttered for years. Most of the nearby factories are not operating. It is not the worst part of the city by far, but it is, as was pointed out earlier tonight, “vaguely creepy”, and this is the case both by day and by night.

Whatever else may happen, though, that corner, of 11th Street and 20th Avenue, that part of 20th Avenue specifically, from now until the end of time, it can be said, Phil Huckelberry Sat There, and I can say, Yes, I Sat There, The Day I Came Down With Chicken Pox.

Being Phil

November 16th, 2011 by Phil No comments »

We finally saw the Phil Ochs documentary tonight. I recommend it, but I recommend it from the perspective of having read all of the biographies, and I encourage people to read the biographies too.

Phil, in my mind, was the quintessential actor of the Sixties. For what it’s worth, historians think of “the Sixties” as either 1961 or 1963 through about 1975 – you pick either JFK’s inauguration or JFK’s assassination as the starting point, and the end in Vietnam as the end. Phil, who wound up in New York in 1961, and who died in 1976, pretty much fits the era exactly. He rose and fall as the era rose and fell. In this respect, I’ve always found him to be a more fascinating figure than, say, Bob Dylan, who was always more of an iconoclast, someone who was (and still is) fascinating for ahistorical reasons.

Phil died in April 1976. I was named after him (or at least, the genesis of my name came from him) seven months later. He was 35 when he died. I’m 35 now.

One thing the documentary brought up, which I think is very important but easy to lose sight of, is something Sean Penn addressed in talking about Phil’s outlook on the war: the idea that no matter how horrific Vietnam was, it was more ridiculous than it was horrific. The terror, the tragedy, the destruction – and all of it had no real point. That distinction, that understanding, it’s an important one for me as well. The gubernatorial races in 2006 and 2010 are best understood as these utterly ridiculous fragments, things that don’t really make a lot of sense and which need to be adapted to.

I think if I got caught up in the horror of existence without being able to step back and regard the sheer absurdity of it all, it would just drag me down. And I think what happened to Phil and to the Sixties more broadly is that people couldn’t help but get caught up in and dragged down by the horror. It’s the absurdity which is easier to fight than the horror. The horror makes you despondent. The absurdity makes you feel capable. It’s a hard thing to explain. But I think complacency comes when you accept the absurd, and despondency comes when you get caught up in the horror, and I don’t want to be complacent or despondent.

I wish I knew others who had read the biographies and seen the documentary. These are things I’d like to talk about, but I feel like I’ll inevitably do all of the talking.

if I could settle down

July 21st, 2010 by Phil No comments »

When I was in college, I legitimately thought that I would “grow up” surrounded by peers who were from all kinds of different backgrounds from me but who all had similar tastes as me. I thought my musical opinions said more about who I was than pretty much anything else I could think of. Look: I’d spent pretty much my entire life surrounded by Midwestern white kids my age. They were almost all Protestant. They were almost all from wealthier families – especially when I was in grade school, and then again when I got to college. And since I went to a rural high school, and then I went to a small college, I never got any kind of urban studies education or anything like that. I didn’t think in terms of my whiteness, or in terms of my protestantness, or anything like that. By the time I was 20, what was pretty clear was that what distinguished me the most from most of the people I knew was my music, and what created connections between me and other people was mostly music (and computer-geekdom a close second.)

For reasons which will be immediately obvious and understandable to some of you, and completely obscure to most, the band which I most closely identified with at the age of 18 was Pavement. Either you know what I mean or you don’t, and if you don’t, it’s hard to explain it. But there are literally tens of thousands of people who know exactly what I mean. There’s a broader connection there than maybe any other connection I’ve ever really felt, and I say that fully conscious of the inherent outlandishness of the idea.

The 1960s – by which I really men about 1963-1975 – were a reaction against the 1950s, and the 1980s were, sociopolitically, a reaction against the 1960s. The 1990s were not really reactionary in that sense. I went to a college in 1996 where there was no organized College Democrats group, let alone anything to the left of that. But there was real change afoot, and I was part of it, it’s just that it wasn’t really discernible as change then and it’s still hard to discern that change now. Toward the end of the decade irony became hip. The reactions people were making against the dominant paradigm that surrounded them were more subtle. In some ways it was all like a really pleasant nihilism, everybody watching Seinfeld, a show supposedly about nothing, and then in turn Friends, which actually was, in retrospect, the show that was about nothing. And yet profound meaning was gleaned from this nothingness. The nothingness, of course, had this amazing political undertone that was semi-corporate but also profoundly liberal, so in reality, even the most vapid nothingness was still about something. We were groomed to embrace the vapidity and find the delicious irony in it.

Pavement was, I guess, ahead of the curve, though it’s hard to say how conscious this ever was. The touchstones which supposedly explained Pavement’s appeal don’t objectively sound remotely appealing: their lyrics didn’t make a lot of sense; some of the songs didn’t sound like they were completely constructed from start to finish; their original drummer was maybe a burnt-out hippie; their album titles rhymed; the music didn’t sound super-professionally recorded; one of their members didn’t exactly play instruments so much; the list could go on and on. All of these things are of course among the reasons why they were such a great, amazing, important, influential band. But I can’t really expect most people to understand that.

The word most closely associated with Pavement was the word “slack”. I think people were and would still be remiss to simply conflate slack with laziness or with some sort of laid-back California mentality. This is the best way I can explain it: I believe that I grew up with very strong senses of symmetry, of completeness, of geometric order. Taken to a clinical extreme, that might be seen as obsessive-compulsive. Taken to a societal extreme, I think it explains a lot about the world of the 1980s. I was very interested in collecting things. I collected collections at one point, and I was very keen on completing sets whenever possible. I was imbued with a very strong sense of order, which was naturally reinforced by all of my WASP surroundings, and which probably reached its zenith when Van Halen released “Right Now” and we got to hear pieces of the song every morning in school while watching Channel One since it was the theme song for Crystal Pepsi. Van Halen, Channel One, and Crystal Pepsi had a lot of things in common, after all. They were all supposedly about change and freedom and individuality at some level (“Hey! It’s your tomorrow!” “Hey! Anderson Cooper is in Cambodia!” “Hey! This cola is clear!”) and yet of course all were really primarily about conformity (and no, I’m not claiming that David Lee Roth era Van Halen was conformist, at least not yet.)

Slack, see, was all about throwing off that sense of symmetry, that sense of completeness. The idea wasn’t that you accept imperfections, but rather that you embrace imperfections, without passing judgment on the perfect or the imperfect. “Forklift” is no “Hallelujah”, but it doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be expected to be. But more importantly, “Forklift” is no “Right Now”. And it’s no Crystal Pepsi. And it’s sure as hell no Channel One. What’s most interesting in retrospect is to understand that slack culture was really a reaction against not only the Republicans but also the Democrats, but it was a very antipolitical reaction, and as such, it was powerless in the face of a political entity like Bill Clinton. What I find in retrospect is that slack culture was sort of a cultural gateway to a more profound sort of anti-corporate critique; it’s not a coincidence that my own journey into anti-corporate political ideology went through music.

Everything I’ve written up to this point is an attempt to provide some sort of tremendously profound context for having seen Pavement at Pitchfork on Sunday night, so I suppose I should get on with it.

Pavement broke up at the end of 1999. I saw their then-final show in North America, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. It was the fifth time I’d seen them, in five different cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, and, of course, Camden, New Jersey. That Milwaukee show, in June 1995, was the first club show I’d ever gone to, where by “club show” I mean a) a rock show held in a rock club as opposed to an arena or whatever and b) that I hadn’t seen with my father. It remains one of the five best shows I’ve ever seen, from the early Wowee Zowee tour, with the Dirty Three opening. In a lot of ways it set the parameters for what I thought a real rock show ought to be: minor chaos on stage, a crowd of people packed in looking like they were all on heroin, swapping instruments in the encore, driving to Milwaukee… that was rock and roll.

Sunday night I found myself half-assedly waiting until near the beginning of the set and then squeezing in as close to the middle front as I could. Most of the people I squeezed past were notably younger than me; contrast this with the Milwaukee show, where most people there were older than me. I swear that I can not remember seeing a single black person in the crowd. These were, by and large, young white people, probably mostly raised Protestant, probably mostly from the Chicago area… basically the same people I spent the first 21 years of my life surrounded by, except that now I was older, and… well, just older, mostly.

Since that Pavement show in Milwaukee in 1995, I’ve long since lost count of the number of rock shows I’ve seen. I know people who have seen a lot more than I have (especially my father), but I’d say that in the last 15 years, I’ve probably seen 200+ concerts, which is way more than most people. I’ve seen phenomenal performances and I’ve seen some absolute crap. I’ve been to shows where I was the youngest person in the audience, and I’ve been to shows where I figure I must have been one of the oldest people. I’ve been to shows where there were only white people, and I’ve been to shows where I was in the racial minority.

This was the first show I’d ever been to where, when the band took the stage, I thought to myself, these guys don’t look like a band, they look like a bunch of uncles goofing around. Then I thought about it later and thought that what they really looked like was a pickup basketball team. Then I thought about it some more and figured that what they really looked like was a bunch of guys who played basketball together at some rural high school (like my own) and maybe won some games because they had a tall guy but in general weren’t that good overall but all got along real well. They certainly did not look like any kind of rock heroes.

About halfway through the show it dawned on me that it’d been 16 years since I’d been at a concert where I was so well-versed in the songs that were being played. The last show like that, for me, was seeing Pink Floyd in 1994. I still don’t know what to make of that.

The crowd around me seemed to be at least fairly familiar with most of the songs, but clearly nobody else in my immediate vicinity was as pumped up as I was about all of the songs. I was actually a lot more excited than I thought I’d be. Where else could I be in the middle of a park and be screaming “FORTY MILLION DAGGERS!” and have it be considered reasonable?

I didn’t really feel like anything especially profound was happening, and I’m still undecided as to whether that was me just reacting strangely, or whether that meant it was some kind of let down, or whether it just is what it is and means pretty much nothing at all. Unlike 1995, when I had to drive two hours to some place in Milwaukee I’d never been, on Sunday night, I rode my bike to a park four miles from my house, after having spent a chunk of the afternoon using the Social Security Death Index to try and see if people whose names were on some list has passed away in the last two years. I suppose that as much as anything I miss that sense of momentousness that used to come with seeing a concert. Or maybe I’m just saying that.

I don’t know what place Pavement has today, for me, for society a a whole… it seems weird to think that they should, or that they would, or that they wouldn’t. What seems profoundly odd to me, though, is how my life today seems to be so distracted from what I thought it would be when I was 18. The person I hung out with before the set used to be my girlfriend… in 1997. I did see a couple of other people there, but the only other person who texted me back and forth was my assistant music director… in 1997. Most of the people I see on a regular basis outside of work – they weren’t there, and they wouldn’t have been there. I mean: shouldn’t my 50 best friends or so have all been in that crowd somewhere on Sunday night? I’ve given a lot of myself over the last 10 years to trying to build a political alternative for this country, but my real connections, aren’t they with the people who were there on Sunday? Isn’t that how I always thought it would be? And if not, then who were those people there on Sunday, and what were they doing there?

Am I just a character on Friends too?

For a lot of reasons, over the last few years, I’ve increasingly lost touch with what’s happening in new music. I managed to hold on during grad school, and then hold on after grad school when I got a show again at my old college radio station. But as I got more involved in politics, and started seeing less shows, it kind of slipped. And then I didn’t do the show anymore. And I saw even less shows. And I got more consumed by politics. And every so often I would think to myself, gosh, have I lost part of who I am? Is it possible to get that back? Have I screwed up?

Back in 1995, on a Saturday, I think, a couple of guys were with me, and I went to the front desk of our dorm, and checked out one of the games, and went outside with it. And instead of participating with me, those two guys just stood there and watched as I lobbed horseshoes at the street sign pole at the corner of East and University. In retrospect, that’s got to be one of the most slack things I’ve ever done. And I hope that that’s still how I am. And I hope that the people I’ve surrounded myself with are like that too.

I think I need to make even more of an effort to simply be me. And if that’s what I have somehow gotten out of seeing a bunch of guys who look like basketball playing uncles crank out intimately familiar songs in a park in the middle of the City on the Make, then thank god I was there.

here come the painbirds

March 17th, 2010 by Phil No comments »

Somehow a week, almost two, went by before I heard about Mark Linkous. Here is the incredibly short version: Mark Linkous fronted/was Sparklehorse. He was, at his best, on a level almost with practically nobody else. And he apparently went outside, sat down, and shot himself in the chest with a rifle on March 6.

Three months ago, Vic Chesnutt did just about the same thing. Vic was also one of the great ones. I really wanted to say a lot about it, write a lot about it, and I guess I just never did. I never really could figure out what to say. I guess I’m mentioning Vic now as a way of apologizing for not having said what I should have said before, even though I still don’t know what that was.

I feel a little better equipped to talk about Mark Linkous, for a few reasons, including that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen him, and because I feel like I can much more directly explain where and when and why he mattered most to me.

The first Sparklehorse album was Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. It came out some time in 1995 but damned if I know when. There was a minor hit from it in “Someday I Will Treat You Good”, which managed to get airplay a couple of times on 120 Minutes, which we watched fairly religiously, at least in so much that freshman in college do anything religiously. I don’t really remember what the reason was, but at some point in 1995, or at least I think it was 1995, maybe at the beginning of the summer, I was with my dad, and we were going into Evanston, or at least into somewhere near Evanston, and we stopped at a record store, and they were selling Vivadixie with a free t-shirt to go with! So that’s when and where I got that album.

I listened to it fairly frequently over time. “Someday I Will Treat You Good” and “Rainmaker” were frequent plays over time on my radio show (GOAT-SPIEL for those of you who don’t know). Honestly, the album didn’t sound like anyone or anything else. In fact, it made almost no sense at all that this recording existed like this. Inexplicably, it was released on a major label (Capitol), even though half of the songs sounded like they were recorded in caverns, and the entire album was basically conceived by and recorded by Linkous; I’m not even sure there were any other musicians on the album. I’ve seen some strange words used to describe the sound, like “psych-folk”, but really, it’s a pop-rock album, sort of schizophrenic, sort of reminiscent of some of Tobin Sprout’s songs for Guided By Voices, but the recording itself has this completely different quality to it. A lot of the album really sounds like context to the parts of the album which we’re supposed to listen to most closely, if that makes sense.

It took a long time for the second album to come out, because Linkous managed to almost kill himself along the way. Technically the report is that he was officially dead for two minutes, stemming from some mixture of chemicals/drinks/prescriptions/whatnot. This all happened while I was in college, during a time when all kinds of tastes and interests come and go, where the pantheon of greatness expands beyond any point which makes any sense. Over that time I managed to find crazy 7″s – not that I owned a turntable to play them on – and in general I would say that I was very pumped about Good Morning Spider finally coming out. That Linkous almost died along the way just added to the mystique.

I’ve long held two critiques of Good Morning Spider, the two things which I think keep the album from being considered one of the pinnacle, greatest albums ever recorded. First, it’s simply too long, and it loses steam toward the end. Second, I still really do not so much care for “Sick of Goodbyes”, which screams of David Lowery being involved. If if there were just something else there, then the first half would be just about perfect.

Having said that: Good Morning Spider is a masterwork. It’s an incredible album in a lot of ways. There’s an actual band backing Linkous on much of it (though not all of it), and it provides a lushness to what otherwise seems almost too stark to handle.

The album starts off with a noisy, pissy mess in “Pig”, which features one of the greatest pair of lines in rock history:

I want to be a stupid-ass shallow motherfucker now
I want to be a tough-skinned bitch but I don’t know how

Then the song ends, and the next song, “Painbirds”, is completely the other direction. In some ways it feels even more defiant, like it doesn’t want to be treated as the fragile, delicate thing that it is. The combination basically demands that the listener pay attention to what’s going on, because the tone, the sound, and the melody can be almost completely misleading. Remember, this is the album recorded in the wake of the man almost dying.

Now, here’s the story as I understand it. Capitol wanted to release a single, so they picked the obvious choice – the catchiest song, the biggest rock song on the album. And Linkous was adamantly opposed to this being the single – so much so that he literally destroyed the song by overdubbing it with radio static and turning it into this amazingly fucked up song-within-something-else in the middle of the record. On top of that, he took the original recording and mangled or destroyed it outright, so it couldn’t be reissued separately. Capitol wound up going with “Sick of Goodbyes” as the single. Although there was some very strange attempt to salvage “Happy Man” which did get reproduced on some weird promotional EP – and which in and of itself is really quite an amazing recording – the final result would up being the centerpiece of the record, and what I still feel is one of the ten indispensable songs ever recorded.

“Chaos of the Galaxy / Happy Man” manages to be transcendent because the power of the song itself is refunneled into a different medium altogether. I realize this doesn’t make any sense, but it’s hard to explain why what he did actually works. It’s a variation on the idea of trying to tune something in on the radio, and getting static along the way, in that buried in the static seems to be something more cosmic. It’s not like the radio band is being scanned, it’s like the galaxy itself is being scanned, and in the middle of it is this man desperate to be happy, with that desperation somehow coming off as some sort of representational statement of the galaxy.

Linkous put together a tour, and I managed to see Sparklehorse, with Varnaline opening, in Cleveland, at the Grog Shop. This was one of the ten best concerts I’ve ever seen. It was the best Varnaline set I think I ever saw, and Sparklehorse was really incredible. Linkous had to work leg braces from his accident – he’d nearly died, and in the aftermath came out somewhat crippled – and he still fronted what proved to be this tight band really just pouring themselves out. He used two microphones – one normal, one distorted – something I’ve never seen before, and have never actually seen since.

It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 2001. There are moments I really like – “Piano Fire” is a duet with PJ Harvey, and you can never go wrong with that. I have to confess that it never really grabbed me, though. It wasn’t really a great time for me to be listening to music and making sense out of any of it, maybe. It just sort of got consigned to the shelf, rarely to come off. When the followup, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, finally came out in 2006, I bought it almost dutifully. I’m not even sure I can tell you anything much about it, except that Danger Mouse was somehow involved.

The first two Sparklehorse albums remain important albums in my collection, though, and whatever distance there might have been between my ear and whatever Mark Linkous has done the last few years, it is really a jolt to find out that another important voice in my life saw fit to off himself. Vic and Mark, of course, had a lot in common – they were both Southerners with weird musical sensibilities, Vic being crippled and Mark having been somewhat crippled for quite a while, Vic having appeared on two Sparklehorse records. They actually seem to share a lot with a third musical icon, David Berman. Thankfully, Dave didn’t use a gun, so he’s still alive.

At times like this I really feel like I got off track at some point. Even when I was at my most depressed, the primal presence of music – and new music for that matter – was this vital, incredibly important aspect of living. It just doesn’t seem right to me that I would have lost that. It makes deaths like Mark’s and Vic’s feel almost like warnings to me. I don’t mean that in the overly stark sense it might seem. But I still mean it. I wish I knew what I meant when I say that I mean it.

ranting, rambling

November 30th, 2009 by Phil No comments »

You asked! Okay, really, you didn’t ask. But you asked!


The Tiger Woods thing is ridiculous. Nobody else seems willing to say why it’s ridiculous, though, so I will: because the man is a @#$%&@! golfer. There, I said it.

Jay Mariotti says “the public deserves to hear exactly what happened” on the grounds that “if Woods is going to market his image so aggressively and relentlessly, part of the deal is addressing a negative issue when it surfaces.”

Yeah, so… that’s not how it works, Jay. The public doesn’t “deserve” anything from a celebrity in a situation like this, except to be spared from having to hear about it everywhere they go, as though it’s something that matters to them. The public deserves to be told the truth: that this is all meaningless. If Tiger “coming clean” is going to make or break Bubba’s decision on whether to buy an Altima or a Regal, that’s between Bubba and the voices in his head. If anybody “deserves” anything in that exchange, it’s probably Buick, and… I don’t give a damn about Buick.

The man is an excellent golfer. Splendid. Some people may actually believe that his seven-iron is a source of white hot excitement. Terrific. Now leave the rest of us alone so we can read more about Charlie Weis, who is the third-most important person in my life right now.


It’s a good thing I’m around, otherwise Canadian pop-punk bands from the ’90s would go largely unremembered.


Here’s my suggestion for how to keep college football from being so stupid. Please note that I am well aware of many of the numerous logistical problems with this. I simply think they can all be overcome.

Institute something similar to the Bracket Busters that they use for men’s basketball. Instead of having two teams sign a home-and-home contract to play each other in back to back years, teams would sign home-and-home with ESPN or whatever, to play an unspecified opponent. The games would occur on one or two weekends at about the three-quarters point of the season, and the matchups would be announced three or so weeks earlier, based roughly on lining teams up with fairly equivalent BCS ratings profiles.

So, for example.o o This past weekend there was a mostly meaningless Cincinnati-Illinois game. What if that game had been scheduled three weeks earlier, and instead of Illinois, it was Iowa? What if Boise State and TCU could have played in the regular season? Just as a couple of examples?

Yes, there are obvious flaws. You’d wind up with something wretched like a Syracuse – Akron game in the middle of the season or something. But those games happen anyway.

Yes, it would give fans not a lot of time to figure out how to travel to a place which might be a long way away. But this would only happen once every two years. And it’s not like this is much different from what happens with half of the bowl games.

You could add some wrinkles to the whole thing if you wanted, to prevent, say, an Alabama-Texas game in the middle of the season when you’d want to save that for the BCS championship. But maybe you could have had an Alabama-Cincinnati game at some point. And maybe by creating more situations where teams in power conferences play each other, then there wouldn’t be as much guessing and confusion over whether the SEC is really down and the Pac-10 is really up and so forth.

I am happy to go pitch this to ESPN, the NCAA, the BCS, whomever. We don’t even need to call it the Huckelberry Challenge.


The way I see it, every home needs a good battery tester around. Preferably it would be in a kitchen drawer with other oddities such as grandfather’s old lighters.


I understand that there is a distinction between a person being talented and a person being an enjoyable performer. I understand that there are some technically wonderful singers out there with beautiful voices, and that they would all bore me to tears, while David Berman would make millions of people amble in a slow panic. Really. I get it.

I also realize that some huge stars are legitimately talented and some are not. The example that keeps getting brought up – not by me – is that Christina Aguilera is a much better singer than Britney Spears. Okay, fine. This doesn’t mean that Christina is more entertaining than Britney, or vice-versa. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot overall, I don’t think.

Having said all this… can anybody vouch for Taylor Swift being talented and/or entertaining? I don’t mean, would I find her entertaining, because I don’t. I’m just fishing for some sort of objective logic that would help me to understand why this scary little woman is some sort of sensation. No matter how hard you pay attention it seems like you only ever hear a maximum of 12 seconds of a song. I assume that she has performed complete songs, but I’m not about to go looking. It takes less effort to post a stupid blog comment about it than it does to hunt down a song and spend the time listening to it when I assume I will find the song morally reprehensible in some way anyway.


When we were young and went back to school after Thanksgiving break, did the teachers actually try to teach us anything? If so, why?