Monday, September 26, 2016

Living for the City


Here is Stevie Wonder's 1973 song "Living for the City".  I've recently realized that this is one of my favorite songs.  It is so moving, and captures both hope and suffering, perseverance and despondence.



I feel that the song captures a huge part of the 20th century experience in the US, and specifically the trials and tribulations of blacks in the Great Migration.  The song's protagonist leaves oppressive conditions and poverty in the South, only to be thrust into the penal system and homelessness in the North.  It seems that those "other suns" Richard Wright sought in the North weren't always so warm.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What's the matter with kids today (90s redux)

I recently read a book called Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws, written by two criminologists/sociologists.  It details the different white teenage subcultures in the late 1990s USA, from punks to skinheads to taggers and a few others.  It was enjoyable and interesting to read, though sometimes the authors lapse into equating lurid outward signifiers, like tattoos or piercings or dyed hair, with criminal behavior.  Despite their repeated caveats that it is normal for teenagers to act out, and that the majority don't cross the line from being mere rebels (which is natural) to outlaws (which is not), they too often discuss aesthetic choices as if they are somehow causal of real problems like drug use, self-injury, or criminality.  Their advice and discussion thus at times centers on how to keep kids away from punk clothes or heavy metal music, which is of course a distraction from what they themselves admit are the real issues, namely parental abuse and neglect leading to self-destructive behaviors in kids. 

I get where they're coming from; all three of our older kids have dallied to varying degrees with these subcultures in Colombia, and also with self-destructive behavior, and we've worried about both things.  But the bad behavior did not always track with how "into" the punk or ska or metal or hiphop scene they happened to be at one time or another.  Often Caro and I would get pissed at the apathetic, nihilistic, antisocial attitude evinced by the punks in our small town, and of course such attitudes must have some influence on promoting antisocial behavior.  But in the end our small, somewhat depressed city is full of people doing antisocial things, and by no means all of them are part of the punk scene.  There is drinking, drugs, violence, promiscuous (sometimes forced) sex, even incipient Fascism that goes on among youth in our town in Colombia (not to mention among adults and politicians), but plenty of those kids engaging in these things are dressing "normal" and listening to Latin pop music, vallenato, or Justin Bieber.  Just as there are plenty of kids who dress in ugly ripped punk styles that are staying out of trouble.  So while aberrant aesthetics like punk or metal may draw more attention to themselves, I think that aesthetics and music styles are less responsible for delinquency in our town than are poverty, a culture of violence (fueled by a 50-year war), misogyny, broken families, etc.  None of these latter factors were invented by Sid Vicious or James Hetfield or Tupac Shakur.

But the biggest kick I got out of this book was to go back in time while I read it.  The book discusses with great concern the seeming anomy of late Generation X and early Generation Y kids, fearing for the future of our nation.  In other words, it was fretting about me as a dangerous element within society.  It was fascinating for me to read this now at the age of 33, since I often grumble similarly about "the kids these days", but in this case the kids the authors are grumbling about are now adults like me that seem to have turned out more or less well.  It was like a time warp to remember Columbine and its aftermath, the heightened security forced on Chicago Public Schools (though seemingly not on the wealthy suburban school districts, whose students looked a lot more like the mass school shooters than did my mainly brown-skinned, urban classmates).  In short, I remembered the frustrating time of adolescence before I'd been fully accepted into respectable white adulthood, and was being lumped in with the rest of the rabble that Middle America is supposed to be afraid of.  Another wild thing about reading this book from the year 2000 was its declaration that my generation's anomy was likely in part due to the lack of a galvanizing, difficult event to define us.  If they'd waited a year or two, the authors would have gotten their galvanizing moment in a massive coordinated terrorist attack, a 15-year-long pair of wars and an almost equally long-lived economic crisis.

Around the same time I read this book I saw two movies from precisely this era.  One was Reality Bites, which again was funny for me to watch at my current age, because its characters are framed as aimless young drifters.  The film came out when I was in grammar school, so the characters were older than I was then, and they rock the styles that I still consider cool, so now when I see the film I have contradictory thoughts, on the one hand thinking of them as grownups like I'd like to be like someday, but at the same time now seeing them as young and unvarnished.  Another weird thing is the film's setting in Houston, which actually comes off looking like a normal big city instead of the sprawling mess we usually think of.

The most striking thing for me though about Reality Bites is how infused it is with the tacky, throwaway pop culture that so defines our collective identity in the US.  The characters reminisce about old sitcoms from the 1970s, they watch a lot of TV, they eat mass-produced junk food, they watch Home Shopping Network at night.  I feel them on this, and the references they make resonate for me.  I too sometimes delight in talking with my friends about stupid episodes of Family Matters or Suddenly Susan, or silly Vince Vaughn movies, or 1980s wrestling feuds. 

An even more extreme manifestation of this came when I re-watched the movie Clerks recently.  This film perfectly captures the zeitgeist of cynical, bored young adults reared on tacky pop culture.  The filmmaker and all his characters seem to actively eschew deep consideration of meaningful things, opting instead on the one hand to ignore important issues like world events, local politics, or social injustice, and on the other to celebrate and over-analyze trivial ephemera like Star Wars movies and local gossip.  I don't fault them for this; in fact, the movie spoke to me in a very special way when I first saw it at the age of 16, and continues to do so now.  In my recent viewing I even waxed nostalgic about living in this setting of pop culture references, cynicism and wit, and youthful aimlessness.  Growing up in the States I often bemoaned people's fixation on the shallow aspects of life, and I have since opted for what I consider to be a deeper way of living and being aware of the world.  But I can't deny the pull and resonance for me of the zeitgeist in which I grew up.

At the same time I realize that these things are a huge waste, and they ate up large swathes of my free time and intellect growing up.  So at once they are things that I repudiate rationally, but without which I would be less able to relate to my compatriots and find common ground.  I don't know what to think about that.  I mean, for me it's fine because I now have that accumulated cultural baggage, so I can avoid TV (as I have since I started college) and still relate to the people I want to.  But I wonder if my kids, who are already growing up outside of the US for the most part, will be at a loss when trying to relate to other kids from the US, because they simply don't consume as much of the throwaway commercial culture that serves as a validating membership card for so many social interactions in the States.  I don't want to deprive them of social graces, but my conscience can't brook actively exposing them to the toxic sludge of most pop culture.

Of course maybe now in the internet age it's not such a big deal anyway.  My impression is that most kids (and maybe adults too) these days get a lot of their media exposure through custom-tailored content, ie the Internet, Netflix, videos, etc.  If this is true, then there is no longer that shared experience of everyone watching the same two or three programs on TV, seeing the same commercials, etc., so in this sense my kids would be little different from other kids watching Netflix and Youtube.

Which brings me to another point.  A lot of Reality Bites shows (I think quite accurately) people alone, killing time by getting high or reading or writing or watching TV.  It made me remember long afternoons and sometimes even late nights of just being on my own, either before my folks got home from work or after they'd gone to bed.  I watched a lot of TV in these times (just network, since we didn't have cable), but also did my fair share of reading, writing, piano playing, and the like.  Such times were often lonely, achingly, existentially so (the worst was knowing when MASH or Night Court aired after the news that this meant a long succession of bad late-night syndicated programming), but they were also good for thinking about who you were, building your character, being at ease with yourself.  I would have loved to have had Internet back then, because I could connect with others, and read about or watch things that interested me, instead of settling for Home Shopping Network or watching Tha Crossroads for the 50th time on the Box music video network.  But if I had had the Internet, I wouldn't have been forced to face my own boredom, my own demons.  I wonder if today in the age of Internet and smartphones we may lose some little degree of our own character and fortitude, because there are no longer these silent, lonely moments without custom-tailored distractions.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Chicago Olympics

This is a funny, very genuinely Chicago-style article and associated video about Chicago's failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.  Given the problems that Rio had getting ready for the event, and the huge costs inevitably associated with staging the Olympics in your city, it seems in retrospect that it was better in the long-run for Chicago to have lost.  I remember in 2009 when I heard that Chicago would not host the Olympics.  I was really sad, but I can understand what this article is saying, and they're probably right.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Segregation and Portland and Socialists, Oh My!

I have been reading long-form articles in the Atlantic Monthly lately, because they tend to be such good, in-depth explorations of very important themes.

Of these, I particularly enjoyed an article that looks at the brief dismantling of segregation under Brown vs. Board, and the resurgence of segregation since the 80s, using the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama as a case study.  The impression one gets from the article is that most states (both Southern and Northern) had long put up legal, social, economic, and other barriers to school integration, were forced by Brown vs. Board to integrate, dragged their feet on this for a few decades, finding new ways to segregate without outright Jim Crow laws, and are now dismantling the legal obligations set out by Brown vs. Board in the first place, since it's been 60 years already and the Justice Department should just give them a break.  This amounts to states' and municipalities' finding every possible way to maintain and even deepen segregation before, during, and after the 1954 decision, and then claiming two marginally contradictory things to finally effectively overturn the decision, namely that A) ending segregation is difficult because it's an intractable problem, and B) segregation isn't that big of a deal anyway, and should be allowed to stand now that there are no explicit pro-segregation laws on the books.  But this all misses the point of Justice Warren's reasoning in the Brown decision, which was that segregation is inherently damaging to education, and if states are to ensure quality education for all, they must do what is necessary to make it an integrated education.  If people really believed this or cared about it, it wouldn't matter if segregation is or is not sanctioned by law; if it exists de facto, then it must be combatted.  Of course [white] people pretty clearly do not care about or believe in this, since they have not only simply allowed resegregation to happen, but have actively promulgated laws to speed resegregation along.  It's all a pretty depressing story, but I'd highly recommend you read the article.

On a related note is this shorter bit on Portland, Oregon's white supremacist history.  I have long caricatured the "new" Portland as a place where nominally progressive, alternative white folks can go to have fun without having to come into contact with the people of color that they at heart don't really like to be around.  It's like Brooklyn, but without the minorities.  And indeed, when I briefly visited Portland last year, I was struck that, outside of its trendy center, it felt like a depressed Great Plains small town of the listless, beaten-down white proletariat, just multiplied into an entire big city.  A friend of mine who was working there in the family law sector confirmed that the pathologies of the oppressed, permanent underclass, things like drug abuse, domestic violence, criminal activity, were all alive and well in Portland, just that this permanent underclass was mainly white, again closer in this sense to the all-white depressed towns of Middle America than the bigger industrial cities where the role of entrenched lumpen class is filled by blacks and other ethnic minorities.

All this is to say that I never understood the craze about Portland.  On the one hand it seemed like a playground for faux-progressive closet racists with money, and on the other like a city with all the problems generated by inequality and hopeless poverty, just with a mainly white cast of characters.  The latter can draw my sympathy, and if I were from there I would do my all to work with the underclass to improve life, just as I try to do in my own hometown of Chicago.  But I would never think of Portland as some amazing destination just calling me to live there.  This Atlantic article confirms my suspicious curiosity about the fact that such a supposedly great place to live and work was not drawing black migrants en masse.  Again, for me segregation doesn't just happen, so when you see de facto segregation somewhere, there must be a more active, malicious racism operating below the surface.

One last thing, only tangentially related to Portland.  A few years ago I watched the 1981 movie Reds.  It follows the life of John Reed, a super-radical socialist journalist of the early 20th century.  (He was originally from Portland).  I would highly recommend this movie.  It's a long slog at 3-plus hours, but it is a fascinating account of people, places, and issues that don't get much play in your typical textbooks about US history.  I also find it amazing that this absurdly long film about an obscure Communist sympathizer born 100 years before would have been made and won quite a few awards at the beginning of the sunny consumerfest Reagan era.  Anyway, check it out.