Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Handicapping the Kansas Governor's Race

Back to blogging? Well, I'll try.

So a little over a week ago, the day before Governor Brownback's final State of the State address, I gamed out some possibilities for Kansas's 2018 gubernatorial race on Facebook. The post attracted a fair amount of attention, and let to a couple of long private conversations with some campaign insiders. I'm posting an updated version of my post here, adjusted some things I've learned and by the latest campaign fund-raising numbers, which were released just a couple of days after my original post.

1) The longer Sam Brownback remains as governor--meaning the longer the Republican leaders in Congress fail to take a simple vote on his nomination to an put-him-out-to-pasture ambassadorship--the harder it will probably be for any Republican gubernatorial hopeful who isn't Secretary of State Kris Kobach to put together a financially and electorally successful coalition of "of-course-I-reject-Brownback-but-of-course-I-embrace-the-Kansas-Republican-majority" GOP primary voters.

2) Why doesn't Kobach have to thread such a needle? Because his name recognition and his small-but-disproportionately-powerful-and-well-connected base of GOP true believers (not just in Kansas, but among Trump-supporters and immigration-bashers across the country) make him the prohibitive favorite for the nomination already, especially assuming a large and divided field, and in particular if Brownback remains governor for weeks (or months?) more to come, forcing all of his other Republican competitors (with the possible exception of Wink Hartman, who is essentially self-funding and will appeal to the libertarian faithful and probably no one else) to dance among each other while he focuses on winning the general. His comparatively low campaign fund-raising numbers thus probably worries Kobach only a little; through his association with President Trump, his talk radio show, and his constant inserting of himself into battles over voter rights across the country, his narrative--one which is guaranteed to be persuasive among at least one segment of Kansas Republican voters--has been set.

3) Kobach being chosen as the GOP nominee is probably Greg Orman's only actually plausible route to the governor's mansion as an independent candidate. To win the governorship, he will need to capture both Democratic voters (which will be a much harder proposition in 2018 than it was when he ran, without any Democratic competition, against Republican Senator Pat Roberts in 2014, but ultimately probably not all that hard; being a young, moderate, self-made millionaire will always appeal to some) and, more importantly, Republican voters. Why more important? Because there is simply no evidence I am aware of which plausibly suggests that there are enough actually "independent" (however you define that) voters in the state of Kansas to carry him to victory, even if he also won every single vote cast by Democrats. State-wide, registered Republican voters often outnumber registered Democratic voters by 2-to-1, which means his winning over GOP voters is crucial. (Might we have a repeat of 2014 with the Democratic candidate pulling out? That seems to me astonishingly unlikely, given the rise of activism and energy among Kansas Democrats since Trump's election, to say nothing of the excitement of the blue wave that has been slowly building for Democrats all through 2017).

4) In other words, if the polarizing, extreme, no-daylight-between-me-and-Trump Kobach is the GOP nominee, then Orman just might, perhaps, have a real shot of picking up enough alientated segments of the Republican electorate in November.

5) Which puts the ball in the Democrats' court. The Kansas Democratic party may yet be years away from fully shifting in a metropolitan, diverse, progressive/populist direction, but it has definitely at least begun to do so; James Thompson's win back in March of the Democratic to run in the special election over Dennis McKinney, who as a perfect example of a traditional, socially moderate/conservative, rural-based, New-Deal-appealing Kansas Democrat, proves that. All of which means that if former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty gets the nomination, who hues to that old model at least insofar as his religious opposition to abortion rights is concerned, then part of the state Democratic base will likely fracture at least slightly, even despite the momentum which the nomination of Kobach will inspire locally. The pro-choice Orman would be the obvious beneficiary of any such fracturing, assuming he reaches out to the right women's groups and says the right things (which he surely would; I think he's politically naive, but he's definitely not politically stupid).

6) That means you're going to see some Kansas Democratic activists playing some three-level chess if Svaty seems to be hanging on in the run-up to the convention over the next few months. (Which he might: more than one local Democratic insider has pointed out to me the decent number of millennial activists, who played a big role in Thompson getting his nomination, who are trumpeting Svaty's youth, as well as the fact that he seems to be taking the Sanders approach when it comes to fund-raising; he had the greatest number of small individual donations of any candidate, Republican or Democrat, who reported.) The question they'll ask themselves is simply: do they want to stop Kobach more (which an Orman win would do), or want to elect a Democratic governor more, especially if the unlikelihood of that, thanks to a nominee with little name recognition and with a divisive impact on the party, was increasing? I could easily see Orman managing to poach for his team a number of prominent Democrats if Svaty seems capable of capturing the nomination.

7) But such three-level chess won't only happen among some Democrats in the (I think ridiculously unlikely) case of Svaty going all the way. Every serious Democrat knows the registration disadvantage in Kansas, and every one of them knows that none of the alternatives for the Democratic nomination--former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, Kansas state senator Laura Kelly, and Kansas state representative Jim Ward--can remotely compete with Kobach's name recognition. (Fox News watchers from Idaho or Indonesia know the man, for heaven's sake.) They also know Orman has the money to make the run, and thus they know Democratic vote poaching will happen no matter what they try to do. And finally, they will also know that, among Republicans who don't like Kobach, Orman will, on average, have a much better shot of grabbing them than any Democratic candidate would, for all the usual partisan tribal reasons. So which gubernatorial candidate, they may think to themselves, will best be able to control the bleeding and do some triangulation in a three-way race that will likely be Kobach vs. Orman vs. a Democrat? (Obviously if Kobach's people fail to carry him through to the nomination, and the GOP gubernatorial nominee turns out to be an establishment Brownback-clone like current-Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer, this calculation will change...though perhaps not that much. Though if the Republican primary electorate somehow, bizarrely, actually manages to nominate a moderate without ties to either the Brownback legacy or the exciting-but-distasteful-to-many Kobach machine--say Kansas Leadership Center president Ed O'Malley, another relatively young man who is wildly popular among Wichita's donor class--then not only does this whole calculation get thrown out the window, but both the Democrats and Orman might as well just call it good and head home.)

8) Wasn't all this Orman-inspired angst--in the midst of what, in the wake of the unpopular Brownback administration and facing the polarizing Kobach juggernaut, was supposed to be year of hope for state Democrats--going to be avoided by Kelly's late entrance to the race? Her fund-raising numbers support that: after announcing only a month ago, and having to report her donations after only two weeks, she had still out-raised both Ward and Brewer. More than a few observers declared her the prohibitive Democratic nominee the day she announced, and with good reason; after all, she's from northeast Kansas (it has been more than a half-century since either state party had a successful flag-bearer who wasn't part of the Lawrence-Topeka-Kansas City nexus), and she has former governor Kathleen Sebelius--and her donor list--on her side. But worries remain. Her name recognition is minuscule (less than half of either Ward's or Brewer's). And her getting into the race so late smacks of...well, of a bunch of people getting desperate, fearful that the wrong candidate will result in the Democrats losing their best shot at the governor's mansion in years. Ward, despite his tireless efforts on behalf of the Democratic party and progressive causes, has a personal history that will likely make at least some Democratic donors and activists leery, with their memories of how 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis was treated (one meeting with a client at a bar/strip-club = Davis, lifetime pimp and pornographer) driving them to aforementioned game of three-level chess. And Brewer?

9) Well, here is where my somewhat adjusted predictions come into play. Moving from the city level to the state level (or higher) of government makes good sense in terms of policy experience; less so in matters of politics. For better or worse, voters think about local and city politics differently than they do about the much more partisan levels of politics above that. And here in Kansas, especially in terms of trying to organize a financially and electorally plausible route to a major party nomination and then a general election win, while being from Wichita (which is already often seen as conservative also-ran city by many state Democrats) as opposed to being from metropolitan Kansas City poses...well, some image problems. Still, Brewer was basically a successful mayor of the state's largest regional economic urban engine, and as a consequence--and given the fact that the Wichita media market has far more penetration throughout the state than anything from the northeast corner--he has more positive name recognition than any of his Democratic competitors. Yes, his fundraising numbers have been terrible, but there have also been shake-ups in the campaign to get things going...and more importantly, Brewer's strongest financial basis will likely be, frankly, moderate Wichita professionals and business-people, and so long as there's a shot that an O'Malley, or even an establishment Republican like Colyer, could win the nomination, many of them will be keeping their pocketbooks closed.

10) So, my conclusion? So long as Orman moves forward with his plan for a no-holds-barred run, and so long as Kobach seems on track to be carried over the finish line to the Republican nomination (likely against the wishes of at least a few major figures in the Kansas GOP) by his devoted fans, you'll eventually see certain Democratic players and donors looking more and more at Brewer. Why? Because despite not having the same organization or base of support that Kelly and Svaty and Ward all do, and despite being from the wrong part of the state, he has two things going for him. First, there is very little evidence that any remotely sizable portion of the Democratic base would be turned off by his candidacy (and the fact that it was apparently African-American turnout that made the difference in Doug Jones's recent election in Alabama will not be lost on the people who seriously contribute to the local Democratic party, I think). Second, his leadership record, because he's been out of state politics, will lack the sort of red flags which might prevent a disaffected moderate Kansas Republican who really doesn't want to vote for Kobach from considering the Democratic alternative, and turning to Orman first. (And that goes double, obviously, for moderate Kansas business-people who liked and worked with Brewer in Wichita, and basically don't have any problems with Democratic priorities, but could be scared away from donating to his campaign by anything that looks, or could be painted as, too extreme.)

11) Long story short? I wonder if perhaps the single greatest variable as to whether or not the state of Kansas might actually elect not just a Democratic governor (we've had those), but a black governor (we've never had one--in fact, so far as I've been able to discover, no African-American has ever been elected to any state-wide office in the entire history of Kansas), is whether or not Trump and the Republican majority in DC, in whose hands Brownback's nomination rests, continue to be a bunch of Keystone Kops, thus Kobach's path to the Kansas GOP gubernatorial nomination through a crowded, divided field that much more likely.

Okay everyone, have at me.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Cloud Nine and "That's What It Takes"

Well, it's my birthday; I'm 49 years old. Looking forward to hitting the half-century mark in just a year's time, I'm wondering a lot about how I got here, and where I'm going to go, and whether I have the strength or time or resourcefulness to get there. And so, of course, in a mystical coincidence that George Harrison himself wouldn't have been surprised by in the least, I end this journey through albums of 1987 that still mean a lot to me 30 years on with a beautiful, reflective, wise, and ultimately upbeat work that was released late in the year, one that I listened to endlessly as winter settled in all around me towards the end of my first semester at BYU: Harrison's awesome Cloud Nine.

I wasn't a huge Beatles fan as a kid, but I heard them; they formed part of my earliest rock and roll consciousness, listening to the radio and being overwhelmed by music from these bands and performers that, in later years, I'd come to recognize as giants. Of the solo work by the individual Beatles, I probably was more likely to identify something by McCartney or Lennon than Harrison. I really didn't know much about him, truth be told. But then this album hit, and "I Got My Mind Set on You" was all over the radio, and I had to give it a listen. And what an ear-opener it was. By turns jangly and smooth, atmospheric and blusey, echoing all of (what I later came to recognize as) Harrison's loves from rockabilly to Indian mysticism, I adored it. Most of all, I guess, I loved how song after song struck rueful, introspective, but never despairing tones. This was an album that owned up to the passage of time, the passing away of things--yet kept its eyes focused straight-ahead nonetheless. In the decades since 1987, as small triumphs and smaller tragedies have piled up and shaped me, this album's sounds have meant more to me all the time.

How to pick one song off it? I'll go with "That's What It Takes," a song I can't find any live recording of anywhere, but whose sound--with Eric Clapton and Harrison trading guitar solos, and Gary Wright's keyboards, under Jeff Lynne's direction, providing a dreamy synthetic undercurrent throughout--is one of the greatest pop creations I've ever heard. "Don't let it stop / never fade away" indeed.



Friday, December 29, 2017

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2017

In alphabetical order. Remember, these are the best the movies I saw for the first time this year, not necessarily the best movies that were new this year (though four of these were):

Dunkirk. This movie was superb in every way: visually, aurally, narratively, dramatically, the whole package. If forced to choose, I would have to call this the best movie I saw this year, and it stands, I think, with masterpieces like Paths of Glory, Das Boot, The Big Red One, and Apocalypse Now as one of the greatest movies ever made about war. I've never seen the chonologically-uneven-but-still-overlapping-storylines method work as cinematically well as it did here; through that means, Christopher Nolan could show us desperation and heroism, selfishness and sacrifice, in equal measure, with none of those messages every undermining the other. An exciting, sobering, thrilling, inspiring film.

Foxcatcher. There are a lot of ways in which I wonder if this movie might have been even better if this strange story of muscular connection, miscommunication, and mental illness had been kept more intimate, on a smaller scale. After all, far and away the best stuff in the movie were the close, loving scenes between Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as the wrestling Schultz brothers who found themselves caught in the creepy machinations of John du Pont (with a wonderfully weird performance by Steve Carrell). But then, you're dealing with a real-life story that involved the U.S. Olympic team and one of the richest men on the planet, so keeping is small-scale probably wasn't an option. Anyway, a captivating, tragic, strangely mis-sized story.

Locke. Now, talking about a mis-sized movie, here's the complete opposite: a film that, except for a few minutes at the very beginning and a final shot or two at the end, takes place entirely within the driver's seat of an automobile being driven by Tom Hardy over a period of several hours to London. Through it all, we're watching the face of Ivan Locke (up close, in profile, through the front windshield), as he makes and receives phone call after phone call, from his wife, his child, his co-worker, and from doctors and an old tryst of his, and as he tries to hold together a life that, thanks to both his own choices and the randomness of fate, is flying apart in desperate fashion. A fascinating movie, one that Tom Hardy did incredible work in.

Logan. I saw a half-dozen superhero movies this year; of them all, Spider-Man: Homecoming was without doubt the best. That movie was a perfect genre delight; it was exciting, affecting, funny, tragic, and outrageous in exactly the way a superhero movie should be. But it didn't make my list. Why not? I suppose because it simply, superbly, fulfilled my hopes and expectations--whereas the two superhero movies that did make list did so not only because they were good movies, but because they did something with the superhero genre that I found moving and thrilling in unexpected ways. Logan is one of those two. Anyone old enough to remember what a stunning revolution the character of Wolverine was in the American comic book world when Chris Claremont and John Byrne re-invented him in the early 1980s has probably been, at best, ambivalent about the way old Logan was been used and abused in the comics, on tv, and in the movies in the decades since. Hugh Jackman himself made it clear how tired he was getting of the character, and that he was hoping to walk away from Wolverine on a high note. Well, with Logan he got that. At least as much a dystopian Western as a superhero movie, with near-Tarantino levels of violence, but violence that was (with maybe only a couple of exceptions) never distracting or exploitative, but rather inherent to the ugly, emotionally draining story being told, this was a movie that transcended its genre, and deserves all the praise it received.

Mr. Turner. I'm not a huge fan of Mike Leigh's work--he is, as I think any movie-goer will admit, not the most audience-pleasing director out there--but I'm glad I gave this movie the time to work on me. His and Timothy Spall's depiction of the painter J.M.W. Turner was never in-your-face ugly, but neither was it prettified; rather Leigh and Spall and everyone else involved in the movie's set design and cinematography found a wonderful, subtle quality in how they presented this gross man, living in his dirty world, and drawing out of that personal and environmental ugliness a light and color which endures. There was a great, clever carefulness to how it was all put together, and probably not the sort of thing most movie-goers are looking for. I don't know how I would have responded to the film in the theater, but in the quiet of our living room, watching it slowly on Netflix, its magic, its pathos and occasional quiet wit, really worked on me.

Rififi. One of two movies on this list that I watched this year and kept hitting myself while doing so: "How could I have not seen this movie already?" Anyway, at some point this year Melissa and I rewatched Ocean's 11, and while it remains as fun as ever, I found myself mildly turned-off at just how smooth the whole story was; I felt like I needed to see a caper where the cleverness comes at a cost. So that led me back to the acknowledged classics, and when I saw this movie--with its brilliant, 33-minute-long, dead-silent, perfectly executed heist, which is then followed by an ever-more raucous and desperate collapse of their whole criminal conspiracy--I knew why it had always been included as one of the very best.

Run Silent, Run Deep. This was the other movie that I could have slapped myself for having missed for all these years. Yeah, it's a submarine war movie, with all the tropes we've become familiar with: diving deep, cutting the motors, running silent, trying to listen through the murky depths, hoping to fool the other submarine or the battleship above. Did those tropes originate with this film? Probably not, but man, did it hit every genre note and then surpass them. I've got to give credit to the wonderful alchemy of Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster as the leads: you can't help (or at least I couldn't help) reading Gable's performance as stagey and melodramatic, while Lancaster's seemed to feature a hyped-up, ostentatious naturalism. Yet, in a way, they made that work for their characters: the old captain, holding on to his command, and the young officer, torn between duty and instinct. A great, fun, passionate film.

The Secret in Their Eyes. It might be easy--and perhaps not inaccurate--for the mostly white, mostly upper-middle and upper-class, critical film audience in the U.S. to downgrade this movie slightly as stereotypically misogynistic and "Latin." To be sure, machismo plays a big role, one that the leading lady (the beautiful and compelling Soledad Villamil as Irene Menéndez, the American-trained judge returning the post-Dirty War Argentina) not only doesn't object to, but in fact happily employs in pursuit of her goals. But there's more than sexual stereotypes in this film; it is, besides an intriguing romance, a taut, politically realistic police procedural, one that begins with a shocking act of violence and ends with one of the psychologically creepiest scenes I can remember. This film deserved its Oscar, that's for sure.

Their Finest. Not many people saw this movie; I think it hardly played in any American theaters. I only knew about because someone online mentioned that Dunkirk wasn't the only movie about the drama of Dunkirk in 2017, and I only saw it because it showed up as an option while I was flying to (or maybe when I was flying back from?) Singapore. Anyway, it's sort of a romantic comedy, but it's also a scrappily un-American and un-Hollywood movie about movies--which becomes one of the great in-jokes in the film, when for political reasons the English film brass decide that the war-propaganda Dunkrik movie that the stars of this actual movie are making--titled "The Nancy Starling," the name of one of the little boats that assisted in the evacuation (though actually it didn't)--needs to have an American character show up for some reason. The movie is alternately quietly witty and an outright tear-jerker; sometimes manipulative and sloppy, with a couple of utterly out-of-place performances, it's nonetheless a wonderful movie about myths and their importance: the stories we tell ourselves when we're young and our plans aren't working out, and when we're old and need to be reminded of why we made the sacrifices we did. A charmer (and frankly, I'd watch "The Nancy Starling" in a heartbeat if it actually existed).

Wonder Woman. Of course, the other superhero movie which broke genre expectations was the wonderful Wonder Woman. Not as good a movie as either Logan or  Spider-Man: Homecoming, it had some real weakness (I'm looking at you, Steve "the Hollywood suits told director Patty Jenkins that she had to give Diana a love interest so here I am" Trevor), and some of its plot points just fell plain flat. So why is it here? For the obvious reason: this is a major studio, summer-blockbuster, superhero-genre release that starred a female character. And fault my feminist cred or attack my gender essentialism all you want: it is, I think, simply indisputable that there were scenes in this movie--narrative choices, dialogue, jokes and thrills and emoting all alike--that simply could not have been done with a male lead. The fact that the story was solid, the acting generally excellent, the special effects and visual style all engaging are important, but more important than any of that is that Wonder Woman carried this movie. That's not only important, it's good.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2017

Here's my list, in authorial alphabetical order:

33916061Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I've read Coates's essays for years, but it was this book, which puts together some of Coates's best work for The Atlantic and, more importantly, ties them together through multiple mini-essays by which Coates himself reflects, both critically and autobiographically, on what he was trying to do in those essays and what that effort says about where he was, intellectually and politically, at the time, which truly captivated me, and made me realize what an intellectual treasure he is. Coates has been subject to a huge amount of debate and argument in the wake of Trump's election, and I have some conflicted opinions about all that. But as to the question of whether Coates is a writer absolutely worth reading, I'm not conflicted at all.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityMatthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. This is a detailed, careful, but also (I think) compulsively readable work of sociology, and that in itself is a rare enough thing that it deserves celebration. But this book deserves a wide readership not just because of the author's skill, but also his subject. Desmond's years of enthographic investigation and diligent research as produced a close, unsparing study of one rarely examined (or, at least, I hadn't ever examined it before) aspect of American poverty: the role played by substandard housing, and the whole range of laws, practices, and assumptions which make stable housing so precarious, and its loss so devastating, for the American poor. I found it a blistering, relentless work of exposure, one that anyone who cares about economic justice should read.

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. It would be very easy, and not especially wrong, to present Dreher and Coates as perfect antagonists: Coates is both utterly secular and convinced that white supremacy, under many different guises, best explains America today, whereas Dreher has made himself notorious this year for publishing, after many years of argument on his blog and in other writings, what many people have read as a manifesto for white conservative Christians who feel themselves under attack in an America far more secular, and far more diverse, than it was a generation or two ago. But I'm going to stand by the importance of Rod's arguments, and not just because I consider him a friend (full disclosure: I'm listed among those Rod thanks in the foreword); in the midst of his--self-confessed!--tendency to apocalyptic thinking and us-vs.-them hysteria, he is working out here an argument about modernity and its discontents, and how both conservative Christians, as well as anyone who cares about their received traditions, should respond to the arguably destructive "mobilities"--in terms of technology, economy, and identity. It's not a message that speaks to everyone equally, including Christians; those whose religious doctrines differ from his--the books is far more dependent upon certain specific political-theological claims than I think Rod realizes--aren't really his audience. But many besides that audience have read the book this year nonetheless, including myself, and I'm glad I did.

The detective novels of Tony Hillerman, particular The Fallen Man. We've had a paperback copy of Hillerman's Dance Hall for the Dead on our downstairs bookshelf forever; I think I might have inherited from my maternal grandmother, who has a big fan of Hillerman's detective stories. For whatever reason, at the beginning of the summer I pulled it off the shelf, read it, and found it a delight--and quickly grabbed another four Hillerman novels (The Blessing Way, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns, plus the above) from out of our university library, which I then read one after another over the summer, enjoying them all (though some more than others). Hillerman wrote 18 novels starring Sheriff Joe Leaphorn and his assistant Officer Jim Chee, so I haven't even gotten a third of the way through his corpus; maybe I do another Hillerman run next summer. For now, I'm going to put The Fallen Man up as the best of the five I read; it's a compelling mystery, all the more mysterious because, in the midst of all the tradition and tension on the Navajo reservation where these stories are set (and which Hillerman regularly used to great, spooky effect), this is a surprisingly straightforward story of human passions and jealousies gone wrong.

Image result for Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy image David Imbroscio, Urban American Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy. David Imbroscio himself gave me a copy of this book around a year and a half ago, and to my shame I've only gotten around to reading it now. Why to my shame? Because it's excellent. David makes an clear, careful, and (I think entirely) persuasive argument against the liberal assumptions underlying both urban regime theory and liberal expansionism, two dominant theories in urban sociology. More importantly to my mind, he puts into the context of urbanist arguments about state-market relations, community development, and a host of other concerns the ideas of Marxist, localist, distributist, social-democratic, classical republican, and numerous other critiques of liberalism. I've been able to recognize those connections before, but I lacked the language to properly describe those connections, and that's a language David provides for me here. The fact that these connections range widely might be considered a flaw, but I don't see it that way; this is a book about asserting the plausibility of a new context for thinking about city problems, and, as the final words of the book say, starting a conversation within that context. For my part, I've been flailing around in that context for a few years now, but now I've been given a map, to help me better understand where I've been, and what areas of exploration remain open for me.

Leigh Jenco, Changing Referents: Learning Across Time in China and the West. Years ago, I assumed that I was going to make my career as a scholar of Chinese political philosophy and intellectual history. That, obviously, didn't happen, for a lot of reasons. But despite my lack of linguistic expertise or even much by way of a publication record, I've somehow been able to keep at least one toe in the scholarly world of East Asian thought and comparative political theory over the years, so much so that I keep getting invited to conferences to speak on matters I really don't know that much about. Leigh Jenco's wonderful, challenging, and partly exasperating book--a superb intellectual exploration of the ideas of Chinese radicals in the early 20th century, and how those ideas arguably challenge many theoretical presumptions about how we compare ideas across cultural and linguistic worlds--provided an opportunity like that for me this year, in which I traveled to Singapore and discussed matters philosophical with a lot of scholars way above my pay grade. That trip, and the book which prompted it, provided me some of the headiest intellectual experiences of my year.

Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed. This is one of those classic sci-fi novels that I should have read decades ago, but never did. I'm grateful for whomever it was that planted into my head the idea of teaching an Honors Seminar on speculative fiction, and focusing on the work of Le Guin as a way to do it, because as a result I read not only this book, but also The Left Hand of Darkness and a dozen short stories of hers, and I basically loved them all. But if I had a choose one for this list, it has to be The Dispossessed, because of its incredibly detailed imagination of a radical anarchist world, but also because of the compelling way in which that act of world-creation gave force to the equally compelling character development which takes place throughout the book. An awesome sci-fi tale, one worth treasuring.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I've read Pollan's work for years, but like with Coates above, I'd never sat down and read through any long, detailed argument of his before this one. I am glad I finally did! Pollan not only reminded me why he's one of the best scientific journalists writing today, but he also enabled me to see how thinking about cooking--in all its chemical, nutritional, historical, and social aspects--isn't just an side-issue to his long pre-occupations with food, health, and agriculture, but rather an essential continuation of it. We are, and have been ever since that key moment in human evolution many thousands of years ago, cooking animals, and understanding how so much of everything from our taste buds to our civilizations are wrapped up in transforming the animals, plants, earth, and air around us into bread, brisket, and beer is both deep and fascinating. A wonderful, thoughtful, and mouth-watering book.

Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles. I'm pretty certain that I didn't read another book this whole year that gave me as much unmitigated, geeky, fascination-filled pleasure as this book. I'm not the greatest Beatles fan in the world, but I'm enough of a fan that Sheffield's delightful semi-stream-of-consciousness "history" of the Beatles captivated me with its musical minutiae, its sharp commentary, its frequent laugh-out-loud moments, and its plain, unapologetic fan-boyishness. He makes the case that we all, every one of us popular music-consuming inhabitants of the modern Western world, can't help but be "dreaming" the Beatles whenever we strive to make any sense of all of our pop world; as far as I'm concerned, he makes his case very well.

The Tolkien Reader J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader. Not being satisfied with one Honors Seminar on speculative fiction, I decided to teach another, this one with a focus on Christianity and fantasy literature, particularly as represented by the Inklings, Tolkien being the most famous member of that group. As part of this class, we read a lot of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams (plus some Dorothy Sayers and Madeline L'Engle as well), much of it new to me. None of it, however, hit me as deeply as some wonderful essays and short stories by Tolkien, stuff that I've known about forever but had never taken the time to read. I'm not talking about his justly famous "On Fairy-Stories"; I mean "Farmer Giles of Ham," which I found terribly sardonic and witty, "Smith of Wootton Major," a simply delightful and thought-provoking fairy tale, and most of all "Leaf by Niggle," which is hands-down the best, most haunting and revealing, short work of Christian fiction I've ever read. Tolkien was not just the author of so many of us geeks' imaginary lives; he was a damn fine writer, and this collection proves it.

Honorable Mention: Edgar Cantero, Meddling Kids. Not by any stretch one of the best books I read this year, but this close (but not nearly close enough!) parody/re-imagining of the Scooby-Doo gang investigating an old, mystical, eldritch horror-mystery years after their retirement was a fun summer read. More importantly, it got me thinking about Scooby-Doo stories in general, which--thanks to the help of some FB friends--got me hooked on Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated (by far that best television-watching experience I had all year), and that in turn got me fascinated by great cartoons of my past and opened me up to some great current cartoons, Samurai Jack, Gravity Falls, and (especially) Over the Garden Wall in particular. So, this was a book that revealed to me (or reminded me of) a whole world of imagination, and for that I must give it credit.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Nothing Like the Sun and "Straight to My Heart"

Coming almost to the end here of my series of great albums that I still listen to, 30 years on. I started with U2 in March, then there was Prince in April, Suzanne Vega in May, Level 42 in June, The Grateful Dead in July, Def Leppard in August, INXS in September, and Bruce Springsteen in October. And what now, on the 30th of November, as winter finally begins to really set in here in Kansas? Sting's majesterial Nothing Like the Sun.

Yes, that's right, Gordon Sumner himself: Sting. You liked him, once. Oh, I know, you don't believe you ever did; you've forgotten, or you might even actively insist that you remember hating the man. Especially late 1980s Sting, with his seemingly aristocratic flirtations with Latin American and North African rhythms and jazz instrumentation, with his oh-so-enlightened devotion to protecting the rain forests, with his casual referencing of how his records were banned in Chile by Augusto Pinochet, and most of with his long hair, right? I swear, Sting probably even beats out U2's Bono for the title of major recording star whom everyone insists they never liked these days.

Well, anyway, the point is, you're delusional. You may not have been the man's greatest fan ever, you may have never really forgiven him for breaking up The Police, but you bought his albums, and put up with his world-beat noodling and mediocre poetry and jazz affectations because the results were so much more than the sum of their parts. This album, in particular, was fantastic, filled with clever, engaging, challenging, fun, moving, thoughtful music. Everyone was listening to it, myself included, and we kept on doing so, even as tastes changed, because some of its tracks were just so infectious. And then, I guess sometime around 1995 or so, everyone suddenly decided Sting was a pretentious hack, and had always been a pretentious hack, and the love we all had for this album dropped out of sight. (The only time I saw Sting was when he was on tour for his later album, Mercury Falling, in 1996, when we were living in Washington DC, and I can still remember the gleeful, vicious snark that the Washington City Paper employed in talking about his show. Which was awesome, by the way. Natalie Merchant opened.)

Anyway, here we are, 30 years on, and I love this album still. What track to choose? My favorite (or, at least, my favorite original composition from the album; I confess I really adore Sting's cover of "Little Wing" on Nothing Like the Sun, as overplayed as it definitely became), "Straight to My Heart." Something about this tune just grabbed the college-freshman me: it was a goofy paean to a surprisingly ordinary romance ("Come into my door / Be the light of my life / Come into my door / You'll never have to sweep the floor"), and yes, sure, it made me feel sophisticated and worldly and fine. Watch Sting sing it live from 1988 in Verona; maybe all the annoyance will come rushing back--but the coolness of the song will too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sure He's Heavy, But Still: He's My Brother


Hey everyone! No, no, calm down, it's just me, your Uncle Russell. Don't freak out; here, let me close the window behind me. Is everyone here? Great!

Now, I know your mom and dad are out, and you're planning a special surprise party for Daniel's 50th birthday when they return--what do you mean, how do I know? Well, I'm the author here so, duh: I'm omniscient. No, that does not mean I've been spying on you. Please, put down your phones. Look, I just figured this would be a good time to let you in on some secrets about your dad.

Yeah, that's right: secrets. What kind of secrets, you ask? That's a good question, actually. I mean, I haven't lived with your father for more than 30 years--though there was that time he lived with Melissa and I on and off for several months, but I'll get to that later. Oh wait, you already knew about that? Hmm. Well, the truth is you all know much more about Daniel than I do. As do your uncles, our Utah brothers who have worked and played and worshiped and vacationed alongside you all for decades. And then there's all their wives and children, all your aunts and cousins; they also all have far more immediate knowledge of Daniel than I. And then there's all his business partners and neighbors and fellow ward members from over the years. And then there's your grandmother, of course; our Mom knows us all very well, better than mere brothers ever could. And finally your mom, Lori--well, she knows Daniel the very best of all (she ought to, after 22 years!). So what do I think I'm doing here, anyway? I live in Kansas, and before that was Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi, Washington DC--all of them far away from you all. Months go by without my so much as talking to Daniel on the phone; sometimes years have gone by without me seeing him in the flesh. Given all that, what kind of secret knowledge could I be talking about?

(Stop recording me. Yes, I know this sounds like a speech. Didn't you know I talk this way? Don't you read my blog? No, I said "blog." It's short for "weblog," and--oh, forget it, never mind, just sit down, I'm getting to the point.)

Thing is, there's something special, or at least potentially so, about the early years of sibling-hood. Yes, I know that sounds pretentious and romantic, but it's the truth, and your dad and I are evidence of it. We're only 13 months apart in age, and we were usually inseparable for our first 15 or 16 years or so. Sure, we always had our own interests and our own private lives--no one really ever knows another person, not totally--but still, you can pack an awful lot of memorable experience into that kind of intense time. Camp-outs and Scouting together, Dungeons & Dragons games together, milking cows and bailing hay together, movies together, Especially For Youth and other church conferences together, and more. Believe or not, that sort of stuff stays with you, coming back to your mind when you least expect it, even 30-plus years of adult life later. And some of it, well, is kind of secret. As in, never before shared. Oh, you don't think that's likely? Maybe so, but let's see. You all just sit there, while I, in honor of his 50th birthday, lay on you all some heavy stuff about your dad.

(Someone give me a had with this slide projector, would you? Don't worry how it works, just plug it in. No, not to the USB port, to the wall outlet. It's over there. Thanks.)

Daniel Fox, Defender of Nerds and Children
First off, keep in mind that while only 13 calendar months separated us, physically Daniel and I were seemingly many years apart while we were young. Your dad went through puberty early, I went through it late. (How early? Um, maybe age nine? Something like that. And me? Oh, that's easy: twenty-three.) But even before puberty and young adulthood changed us, when we lived in our prepubescent and adolescent worlds, Daniel was still big, strong, skilled, talented at sports, unafraid of risk and danger (has he told you about the time he dove headfirst off the barn roof into a huge tumbleweed? he got a branch stuck in the back of his throat), the sort of kid that teachers pushed into football, wrestling, anything physical--in other words, everything that I wasn't. And bless his soul, as nerdy and incompetent and embarrassing as I was on the schoolyard during recess, he protected me. Sometimes physically, like the time a bunch of older kids thought it would be fun to terrorize me because I was this weird shrimp who would wander around the playground equipment, day-dreaming and picking my nose, and they wanted to force me to eat my boogers. (Daniel and I both got wedgies that time, because he couldn't fight all those fifth graders off.) More often, he would protect me simply by being, for a little kid, amazingly loyal and decent and sacrificing, like another time one of the teachers organized a big kickball tournament during recess, with Daniel (of course) and another kid being assigned as team captains, everyone else lining up to be chosen, and when it literally came down to me and one of the aforementioned tough fifth-grade bullies as the only choices left, and Daniel's turn to choose was up, he chose me, which led the other team to whoop in celebration as the other guy ran over to their side. (They slaughtered our team, as I recall.)

Why did he spend so much time with his scrawny, sarcastic, whiny little brother? Maybe it was self-interested: I was the Dungeon Master after all, and I was happy to read big, thick, fantasy books out loud to him all the way through elementary school and beyond (Watership Down was one that took us a good long time). But no, mostly it was genuine friendship. As much as we sometimes clashed, we truly loved each other's singular companionship: getting away from the noisy house and all our immature brothers (yes, that's right, I mean your uncles: they were all so small and annoying) and developing our exclusive dream worlds: Star Trek, Tolkien, and making plans to fight the Russians when they invaded Spokane, WA, Red Dawn-style. (We wanted to believe we were Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, but I think we both kind of knew that, at best, I'd probably lose it and go out like C. Thomas Howell. What's that? Oh, they were actors; one's dead now, and another has gone crazy. Just Google them; I don't have time to explain.) On camp-outs--both with the Boy Scouts and sometimes just on our own somewhere out in the woods around our house--we'd use a little two-man tent, and stay up all night talking--mostly Daniel asking some question or throwing out some idea, and me spinning some elaborate fantasy or detailed pseudo-scientific BS to complement it. It was great, geeky, embarrassing fun. Dad was my giant, that's for certain, but it was Daniel's shadow that I most often sought shelter in. He was the reliable one, the older brother everyone ought to have, the force of nature that, I knew, would always be on my side.

Daniel Fox, Guilt-Ridden Destroyer of Worlds
And I'm glad he was on my side, because as gentle a soul as Daniel truly was, there was a good stretch of time there where it was pretty clear, in the context of the desperate hierarchy that emerges among young people everywhere, that you didn't want to be on any side opposing him. Sometimes this was pretty obvious, like the time when, in the midst of one more of the innumerable fights all us brothers got into all the time, Daniel was locked out of the front door, and he promptly smashed open the front door window. Or the time Daniel sneaked out late at night, against Dad's orders, to hang with some kids that were staying with us during a church conference, and in response to his grounding he literally tore his bedroom apart in anger. He even ripped apart our copies of The Lord of the Rings; that really ticked me off. And I haven't even touched on the holes punched in walls or the time he accidentally broke my collarbone. (What do you mean, "Did all that really happen?" Of course it really happened! For the purposes of this essay, I have a photographic memory and am a perfectly reliable narrator. What? Oh, just shut up and keep listening.)

Sometimes the physical menace Daniel embodied was more subtle, though: like the way he treasured his .22 rifle and hunting gophers for Grandpa Bill (25 cents for every tail he brought in!), or his bow and arrow set and the hay bales he set up for targets in the back yard (we had a fun time imagining various different identities for those targets...), or the working--and, frankly, pretty spooky--crossbow that he build in shop class in junior high. (No kids, I am not kidding; he made a genuine recurve crossbow, with a draw weight of probably 200 lbs. I could barely pull it; it was a monster. No, I don't think he ever killed anything it. He just liked it hanging there on his bedroom wall. Right beside his 18-inch machete. Yeah, he just liked that too.) Just about everything about Daniel, for a good long while, anyway, all through years of junior high sports and general rough-housing, suggested toughness, aggression, and a don't-mess-with-me attitude.

But I, you see, also knew the other Daniel. The Daniel who felt so guilty about shooting a pigeon with his rifle one winter that we brought it back to the house, bandaged its wing, put it in a cage, and tried to keep alive feeding it corn kernels and grain. The Daniel who felt bad about slamming his opponents to the mat during a wrestling match, or knocking a less-heavy kid to the ground during football practice. The Daniel that I'd join in long lines with other fellow nerds to watch Return of the Jedi or The Search for Spock on opening night (there was a fight which broke out at the latter, so remember: don't mess with ushers!), or, conversely, spent afternoons with nearly getting thrown out of mostly empty theaters for manically laughing and hooting during matinees of dreck like Young Sherlock Holmes or King Solomon's Mines (though, truth be told, that movie has the funniest quicksand joke ever). This Daniel was really a quiet, simple, non-violent soul on the inside, your classic gentle bruiser. Good thing he discovered dance, something that turned his physicality into something he could embrace fully, though also something a nerdy kid like me couldn't follow.

Daniel Fox, Dancer and Lady's Man
So here's something only someone like me who lived through it all can really honestly speak to: your father, Daniel, the BYU accounting major, the businessman and house-flipper and debt-spinner and real estate maven, was probably the Fox child that came closest to an actual artistic career. No, really! Forget about Stuart's piano-playing or Marjorie's theater experience or Baden short-lived emo band; through his high school years, your dad traveled around the United States and Canada in a semi-professional dance troupe that he'd auditioned for and ended up dominating, performing folk dances and all sorts of choreographed routines for other high school audiences and senior citizens and who knows who else. They loved Daniel; he was strong and could lift up the ballerinas and other female dancers the way a proper danseur should. He absolutely could have turned that into his professional focus: he had the strength, grace, rhythm, and sense of style to pull it off. (You've heard about Grandma's many stake musical theater productions, from way back when? Your father was the lead dancer in and did the choreography for Fiddler on the Roof and Oklahoma. What about me? Don't worry: Mom made me the geek "Harvey Johnson" in Bye Bye Birdie. Oh yeah, she knew my quality.)

Thing is, as this all comes down to me through decades of memories, this was also Daniel's entrance into the dating world, and it was a world into which I couldn't follow him. Did I resent the fact that, when we went to BYU together to attend EFY, or spent a weekend together in Idaho for some regional youth church conference, that your dad concentrated so much on the nightly dances and hanging out at the girls' dorms that he basically forgot I was even there? Maybe. On the one hand, no: that space allowed me to polish up my loner/intellectual/misplaced-liberal/malcontented-high-school-debater shtick, after all. (Hey, forget all those social activities; I could spend hours hanging out at the BYU Bookstore or the stake center's library.) But at the same time, maybe yes? Time changes everything, as Climie Fisher once sang. (What? They were a band. Just Google it. What do you mean I got the title wrong? Sorry, but in this essay, I'm right, and Wikipedia's not, okay? Fine.) I mean, we weren't going to stay 8 or 11 or 14-years-old forever, were we? There was probably real envy and resentment mixed in with admiration and bemusement as the 17-year-old Daniel emerged as both a lady-killer and an independent adult, while I, deep within myself, knew I was probably just going to go to college and then never, ever leave. (Which is what happened, mostly.)

I have no idea what Daniel felt as he left childhood behind. My self-indulgent narrative was always: thank goodness I'm finally growing older, thank goodness I'm finally getting away from bullies and losers, thank goodness I'm walking away from childish things. But that narrative of distance and separation carried within it real pain. I was evolving away from my best friend, my only friend, my brother. (Yes, I know I had other brothers, but cut me some slack here. I mean, they didn't have the dialogue from whole episodes of the original series of Star Trek memorized, and they didn't help us build forts out of hay bales in grandpa's grey barn. Why didn't they? Because they were tiny, that's why.) Did he feel the same way? I don't know; the kind of conversations we'd had as 12 and 13-year-olds, milking cows by hand across from each other in a cold barn on a dark winter's morning, just weren't happening when both of us knew how to drive, Daniel was practicing clogging, and I was listening to Casey Kasem while reading George F. Will. Anyway, it was complicated, it was the 1980s, there was going to be a nuclear war, our Dad was reading Cleon Skousen and storing silver ingots in the basement in preparation for the End Times (don't worry, he got over it), and both your father and I, at one point, got our hair permed with frothy curls like Michael Jackson. It was a different country, the world of my youthful memories with Daniel. I didn't know how much I missed it until it was gone for good.

Daniel and Russell: The Return
You know, I wrote one of these essays for your father ten years ago, when he turned forty. (You should read it. Yes, right now; I gave you the link, didn't I? Hey, I'm a college professor, kids; believe me, I can stare you down silently far better and for far longer than you can stare blankly at me in return.) I talked in there about how, post-mission, your Dad and I really became very, very different people, with very different psychological and philosophical trajectories in our lives, though how much of that was a function of any actual mental state we possessed and how much was just a handy intellectual demarcation on my part as I did my usual deconstruction-and-reconstruction thing in the face of my own bad behavior is impossible to say. (Yes, even for me. Even authors have limits, you know.) Some of what came to fruition during our college years was probably just what had always been there, only now exacerbated by living on our own and the pressures and temptations and goals and failures of adult life. But part of it, surely, was also new: we were, for the first time really equals, in the sense in which Daniel's achievements and my resentments (or, rarely, the other way around) couldn't immediately be plugged into a hulking-older-brother-wise-cracking-younger-brother trope. We became, through our missions, through our educational journeys, and especially through our marriages--and particularly through Daniel's first failed one, after which he ended up living with the newly-wedded Melissa and I for a while--our own distinct, broken-yet-still-standing, still-striving, sovereign selves.

Does that mean your Dad and I are now better friends than ever, separate but stronger? Perhaps not. Life's a long time, kids; a half-century doesn't just happen without lots of other stuff--secret stuff, heavy stuff, stuff that even a personal essayist imagining an impromptu presentation in his brother's living room can't describe--happening along the way. And while some of that stuff lightens your load, some of it doesn't. Thankfully, the shared context of sibling-hood, of the ties bound up in all these secret and not-so-secret memories from 30 and 40 and more years past, outweighs everything else. As I wrote a decade ago, "the weight of brotherhood is great, giving force to the decisions one makes (both the good ones, and the ones you need to repent of)." There is probably still stuff I ought to repent of when it comes to my brother Daniel. But 50 years into this brotherhood thing, from across a thousand miles of mountains and prairie, I have to say: there's a lot more to celebrate than regret.

Yeah, I'm done. Cripes, would someone wake up Jadan, please? How long have you been asleep? Whatever. I'll let myself out. Give Daniel and Lori my best, would you? And thanks for listening! Seriously, you kids are great. No, don't worry, you don't need to save me any cake.

Monday, October 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Tunnel of Love and "Tougher Than the Rest"

The year so far (with apologies for having missed the first couple of months) in my list of 30 year-old albums I still listen to: The Joshua Tree (March);  Sign 'o the Times (April); Solitude Standing (May); Running in the Family (June); In the Dark (July); Hysteria (August); Kick (September). And October? Bruce Springsteen's somber, beautiful Tunnel of Love.

I was in my first year at BYU, leaving on my own for the first time, experiencing at least a small dose of adult independence for the first time as well. And if you know anything at all about BYU's Mormon-marriage-happy social culture, it shouldn't be hard to figure out that dating and romance was both strongly expected of everyone but also fraught with all sorts of weirdness. No doubt many tens of the thousands of students over the years--mostly my co-religionists, but one old good friend of mine, a man who was at the time completely irreligious, attended BYU, with a dorm room right next to mine our freshman year, and he had a grand time dating all the Mormon girls--have enjoyed themselves immensely in that environment, but I didn't. Almost from the start, I found myself vaguely confused and disturbed by the mix of romantic motivations all around me--and, of course, being a mixed-up not-quite-20 year-old myself, I could hardly be expected to make any sense of it anyway.

But I could spot good music--and when Springsteen's latest album hit the airwaves in the fall of 1987, and I borrowed a copy from another student who worked out BYU's student newspaper (which I volunteered at that first year, later worked for, and then was fired from, but that's another story) and listened to the whole thing through, I knew I'd found some. I hadn't been a huge Springsteen fan before, though it's probably just about impossible to be a white American male in the 1980s and not have at least enjoyed some of the cuts off his monster success, Born in the U.S.A. Tunnel of Love, though, convinced me in way the previous album hadn't that Springsteen was a tremendous talent, a man who could plaintively sing one sad, defiant, humble, dark, yet powerful even perversely hopeful love song after another, the whole album through. It spoke to me. I think the whole thing is brilliant; in my opinion, there isn't a single weak track on it, which Springsteen hasn't ever accomplished, I'd argue, on any other album he's ever released. Does that mean I think this is his masterpiece? Kind of, yeah.

What track to choose? Any of them, of course. But how about this?



Saturday, September 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Kick and "Need You Tonight/Mediate"

Six months now of 30-year-old albums that, I think at least, are still worth listening to--and that I still do: U2's The Joshua Tree; Prince's Sign o' the Times; Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing; Level 42's Running in the Family; The Grateful Dead's In The Dark; Def Leppard's Hysteria. And for September? Another great rocker that stands the test of time: INXS's Kick.

The half-dozen people or so who still read this blog probably already know the story, but just in case, here it is one more time. In the fall of 1987 I was a freshman at BYU, and one of the many things I found I loved about college life (yes, even in Provo, UT), was the music. Specifically I loved college radio stations, and even more specifically the groups of people who listened to them, and who thus were able, through their enthusiasm, to inculcate into newbies like myself the ways of a wider world of music. I've detailed this at greater length elsewhere, but suffice to say, the only problem with my musical horizons opening was that, having grown up with a passion for pop music but without any real knowledge of where its various 1980s currents--whether New Wave or synthpop or post-punk--began or ended, lots of this new stuff I was hearing at dances and from roommates, even the stuff that was cracking Top 40 radio (as Kick definitely did!), kind of left me confused. Who played that? They're from where? I was drinking from a fire hose, and there was no internet in those days to help me straighten out the streams. So, to cut to the chase: I knew about this terrific Australian band called "In Excess," and I also knew about--because I'd seen their albums on sale at the BYU Bookstore--another Australian band, that was apparently doing really well, called "Inks," which the weirdly spelled "I-N-X-S." Cool, huh?

I'm pretty sure it wasn't until months after Kick was released, maybe not even until the summer of 1988, when someone finally took pity on me and explained my mistake.

Oh well. It was, and is, an awesome album, one that induces in me no embarrassing flashbacks whatsoever besides this one, and considering that most of my freshman year was just one long embarrassment, that's saying something. Enjoy this live performance; these guys were certainly something, back in the day.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

We Were Eight Years in Power, and Other Thoughts from Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi was on NPR this morning, talking about his latest Atlantic essay, "The First White President," as well as his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, and President Trump, and many other sundry things. It was a good interview--but the book, the epilogue for which is a version of the just published Atlantic essay, was even better. It's the best thing I've ever read from Coates, in fact, despite the fact that the bulk of the book is a collection of eight major essays by Coates written during the eight years of Obama's presidency.

What makes the book so good is not just the mostly excellent, well-sourced but always introspective journalism those pieces provide (including reflections on the achievements, limitations, and legacy of such individuals as Bill Cosby, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Malcolm X, as well as Barack and Michelle Obama), but also the fact that he has strung these articles together with multiple, context-and-reflections-providing mini-autobiographical essays. The book, then, is a record of a writer finding himself, struggling, through his engagement with his subjects (the endurance of black conservatism, the question of reparations, the legacy of the Civil War, the costs of mass incarceration, the cultural impact of the Obamas, and more), to interrogate and understand his own hopes, ambitions, and limitations in turn. It is a great record of a public intellectual at work, and much worth your time.

But what about the epilogue, that Atlantic essay? Coates is harsh in his judgment of both the president and the country which elected him, but that harshness is earned, backed up as it is by a strongly constructed historical argument, on that moves from immediate post-Civil war America (the title of the book--"we were eight years in power"--was taken from an 1895 speech by Thomas Miller, a bi-racial South Carolinian who identified as African-American and was able to build a brief political career for himself in the Reconstruction-era Republican Party) all the way up to the endless--and, I think, mostly, if not entirely, fruitless--arguments over the role of the white working class in the 2016 election. (I think they're mostly fruitless because what those arguments are fighting over is understanding the actions of fewer than 80,000 voters in three states, and as Jacob Levy put it, "an 80,000 vote margin in a 137 million vote election, about .05%, is susceptible of almost endless plausible explanations.") Coates sees the Obama administration has having accomplished the one thing American adherents to white supremacy (here he quotes W.E.B. Du Bois) fear even more than being subject to what they imagine to be the irresponsibility and corruption of "bad Negro government"--namely, "good Negro government." The fact that Obama conducted himself--by the admittedly corrupting standards of the office of the presidency in an era of state violence, bureaucratic overreach, and imperial economics--in a basically responsible and moderate way was, in Coates's view, unacceptable to a critical mass of white voters. That, and only that, in his view, was enough to make a ridiculous man like Trump a viable presidential candidate:

It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint....

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy--to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible....

Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new--the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific--America’s first white president.


Do I think Coates's race-centric interpretation of Donald Trump's rise to power is correct? If by "correct" you mean "the entire story," then no. Obviously I don't carry with me the burden of the exploitative, oppressive, and violent racial history Coates knows and weaves into his journalism so well; there are things which I simply don't see, and whose significance I don't automatically incorporate into my judgments. Reading people like Coates is an important way of compensating for that. But similarly, anyone schooled in the history of American political parties, the construction of our political culture, and the institutional structures which politically motivated individuals both perpetuate and are shaped by in turn can recognize patterns of interest which others may not notice. The Republican party in the U.S. is, indisputably, a party, in part, of white identity politics. It is also many other things--some of which, most particular the upper-class-multiculturalism-friendly globalist capitalism which more than a few of its most powerful corporate and Wall Street donors accept as essential to modern life--are hardly friendly to the interests of white people qua white people.

And yet, that itself is part of the argument, isn't it? Regarding the mostly fruitless arguments I mentioned above--the part of them that are not fruitless is the fact that they oblige us to struggle with the way class is interpolated with race throughout American history; the way lower-income and working-class white people are the recipients of a kind of capitalist valorization, accepted as carriers of authentic labor, while lower-income and working-class people of color by and large do not receive the same sort of cultural construction. (One of the reasons Coates, despite his suspicions about and disagreements with Cosby, couldn't help but write, back in 2008, somewhat sympathetically about the man is because he understood his career as involving, at least in part, an effort to provide black people in America some portion of this myth of American capitalist authenticity.) The whole visible structure of Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign revolved around working-class job-providing factories, businesses, and towns which had suffered from globalization, with globalization being coded as "those things which Wall Street elites do too you." There's no actual economic reason why that kind of argument couldn't have been equally persuasively embodied through campaign events in majority African-American communities and job sites. Coates is relentless on this point:

It’s worth asking why the country has not been treated to a raft of sympathetic portraits of this “forgotten” young black electorate, forsaken by a Washington bought off by Davos elites and special interests. The unemployment rate for young blacks (20.6 percent) in July 2016 was double that of young whites (9.9 percent). And since the late 1970s, William Julius Wilson and other social scientists following in his wake have noted the disproportionate effect that the decline in manufacturing jobs has had on African American communities. If anyone should be angered by the devastation wreaked by the financial sector and a government that declined to prosecute the perpetrators, it is African Americans—the housing crisis was one of the primary drivers in the past 20 years of the wealth gap between black families and the rest of the country. But the cultural condescension toward and economic anxiety of black people is not news. Toiling blacks are in their proper state; toiling whites raise the specter of white slavery.

The long and the short of it is simply this: Coates's journalistic achievements, highlights of which are organized and presented in this book as if a single argument, climaxing in a ferocious attack on President Trump and those who voted for him, are making me reflect deeper upon, and change some of my thinking about, how I put race and class together in my head and in my political preferences. Does that mean I'm taking a position on (the latest round of) arguments about identity politics on the left today? Coates definitely has his opinions--mostly very negative--about the liberals (Mark Lilla, George Packer) and leftists (Bernie Sanders) that have stirred up the most animosity in suggesting that the actions of Black Lives Matter, or the idea of transgender rights, or the defense of President Obama's DACA order, or simply a lack of rural small-town or mid-sized-city respect, have all conspired to deprive Democrats of (white) votes that they needed to win. I'm not sure his opinion are my own (and I don't know how much his opinion guides his own political actions; if you read his book, you'll see three times as many criticism of Hillary Clinton and "Clintonism" in general as you will of Sanders--who, please note, Coates voted for in the Democratic primary). This is partly because I think there is probably something to the complicated rural-urban divide in the U.S. which cannot be entirely reduced to race, and partly because--as I alluded to above--I am unconvinced that this is actually a politically meaningful fight to have anyway. And even if it is a meaningful argument, it is, I suspect, an argument that has far less to do with the evolution (or deformation!) of the liberal tradition of equality, and far more to do with the structural causes of party polarization in America today. After all, in an environment where political elites usually find rewards in sticking as close as possible to their respective ideologically (and, yes, racially, ethnically, and economically) pure electoral bases, and usually find failure when they attempt to employ a language or advance an agenda which is nominally designed to appeal across all those ideological (as well as racial, ethnic, and class) groupings, then why wouldn't we expect tall those same groupings to go all in finding argument to advance their specific identitarian interests? (What do we think the Tea Party was doing with the Constitution, anyway?)

In the end, I think that in so many ways these arguments, whatever their intellectual merit, are incidental ones, retroactive arguments over strategy and intention, which arose almost solely because of the larger phenomenon that Coates is a superb chronicler of: namely, the many social and cultural questions which the eight-year administration of President Obama over a (still, for now!) majority white country gave impetus to, and the big historical question of how much President's Trump's administration should be understood as a bitter response to those eight years. His detailing of those questions, the small ones and the big one, make me, I believe, a better thinker about class and race, about economics and culture, and for that I'm grateful. Coates himself is obviously thinking about them too, so I'm in good company. I finish with a quote from the epilogue, which didn't make it into the Atlantic version:

There can be no conflict between the naming of whiteness and the naming of the degradation brought about by an unrestrained capitalism, by the privileging of greed and by the legal encouragement to hoarding and more elegant plunder. I have never seen a contradiction between calling for reparations and calling for a living wage, on calling for legitimate law enforcement and calling for single-payer health care. They are related--but solving for one does not automatically solve for the other. I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and so on finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal--a world more humane.


Me too, Mr. Coates; me too.