Sunday, July 9, 2017

Book Review - In Search of the Lost Chord

It has been said that history is written by the winners, but one massive exception to that rule is the hagiography associated with the hippie movement of the 1960s. And I do not say that lightly — as someone who followed the Grateful Dead in the 80s and 90s and believes in social justice and equality — the idea that peaceniks were a failure is not a conclusion I come to lightly or happily, but in reading Danny Goldberg’s In Search of The Lost Chord a gauzy, Pollyanna-ish remembering of the 1967 Summer of Love,  much of the falsity of what we have come to think of and know about that time in our country’s history is exposed as more pipe dream than reality. 

The saying “If you remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there,” is a ha-ha shorthand for an era of peace, love, and lots of drugs, but the goals of the movement - ending the Vietnam War while striving for social, racial, and gender equality - have a shaky track record. Goldberg has his rose-colored glasses firmly in place and as a 101-level survey of the time when our country metaphorically went from black and white to technicolor, when the Beatles went from lovable mop tops to auteurs who created Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and the promise of JFK dissolved in the rice fields of Southeast Asia, the reader is well-served. 

Goldberg has all kinds of interesting little nuggets about the musicians, intellectuals, and scenes spread throughout the country and across the pond into London that formed the backbone of the hippie aesthetic. The people and their mission were both loosely affiliated and at times at odds with one another (the battle between San Francisco bands who eyed L.A.-based producers of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival with antipathy is nicely sketched) and the push and pull between them is palpable. There is struggle for authenticity, of leadership (or if there should even be leadership), and defining goals and objectives that help explain why “the hippie idea” quickly became a spent force.

Even as the embryonic stage of the movement was gathering force, its limitations were already being exposed. In early 1967, hippie leaders convened in San Francisco, debating, among other things, what it meant to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” The author of that quote, Timothy Leary, was challenged by the beat poet and nascent hippie icon Allen Ginsburg, who asked: “what can I drop out of?” Leary retorted, “Your teaching at Cal (the University of California-Berkeley).” Ginsburg demurred, stating simply, “But I need the money.” And while Leary was wildly off base when he predicted deer would graze in New York City within 40 years, he was unintentionally spot on when he observed that “If Pepsi-Cola can be marketed around the world, so can hippie ideas.” The only thing he was missing was the fact that it would be used by Coca-Cola and not Pepsi-Cola in service of selling the soda not the ideas.  

Ultimately, many of the broad societal goals the hippies sought to achieve were unrealized. The massive rallies against the Vietnam War failed to end it; indeed, the war escalated and expanded into other countries after the protest movement gained speed. Far from being repudiated, Nixon tapped into the “silent majority” of Americans to win the Presidency in 1968 and one of the largest landslide reelections four years later. 

In the inner cities, from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967 and other cities in between and beyond, rioting exacerbated white flight to the suburbs, resulting in de facto segregation that would last for decades. Indeed, comments Goldberg discusses from a report issued by the Kerner Commission (a group commissioned by LBJ to study the underlying causes of these urban riots)  in 1968 could have just as easily been written today. Goldberg notes, “the main conclusion was that the riots resulted from black frustration at the lack of economic opportunity” and recommended things like “more diversity on police forces, stronger employment programs, and the creation of housing opportunities in the suburbs . . .” Sound familiar? 

Gender equality would make important advances with the passage of Title IX and a dawning awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, but the Equal Rights Amendment ran aground in the late 1970s while equal pay and fiery debates between women who opt for careers over home making have stoked many a book, thought piece, and online battle five decades after seminal works by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem reached a mass audience. 

But Goldberg has little time to consider the shortcomings of the movement, he is too busy ruminating on his own experiences and that is understandable. An era that coined the term “free love” and had reporters avoiding drinks offered to them for fear they were dosed with LSD was surely a good time, but the lament that the “chord” was lost is overwrought. As Joan Didion is quoted as saying at the time, “we were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a vacuum.” 

What we are left with is a Madison Avenue-invented nostalgia that attempts to short hand the hippie movement via tie-dye t-shirts and VW buses, fossilized classic rock acts and advertisements that take what were once clarion calls for rebellion that are now used in service of selling investment accounts and Cadillacs. Of course, this should not be surprising, the ideals that animated Baby Boomers in the late 1960s transformed into a “greed is good” ethos by the time they hit their 30s and 40s. Indeed, once in power, what defines the Baby Boomer generation is a massive redistribution of wealth upward at the same time massive borrowing has taken place to finance it. Having railed against the establishment, Boomers not only became the establishment, but looted the bank and will leave the rest of us to pay the bill. 


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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

This Is Not How A Presidency Ends

When Frank Rich was at the New York Times he was the best columnist in America. Now that he is at New York magazine, he is the best long form essayist in America. He is a superior writer whose gifts extend to placing contemporary political events into historical context and he writes with precision and insight that is rare among his peers. His cover story for New York entitled “How A Presidency Ends” is certainly eye-catching, but his thesis, which is that Trump’s disregard for basic political norms and the rule of law will create a critical mass so great Republicans in Congress will eventually toss their leader overboard in order to secure their own political survival, is unrealistic.

Rich connects many dots between Nixon and Trump’s behavior. It is entirely possible that like Nixon, Trump will be undone by a cover-up (firing Jim Comey to snuff out the FBI’s investigation into Russia and potential ties to the Trump campaign) and not a crime. And there is a lot of smoke around Trump’s actions toward Comey, no more damning than the fact that two of the meetings Trump held with Comey look suspicious — the first was held the day after Acting Attorney General Sally Yates advised White House Counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn had been compromised and the second took place the day after Flynn resigned as National Security Adviser. In the former meeting, Trump supposedly asked for Comey’s loyalty and in the latter, that he drop the investigation into Flynn. 

But that is public record and while a few Republicans harrumphed over the timing of Comey’s dismissal, none suggested this rose to an impeachable offense. And short of evidence being produced showing Trump directing or being involved in Russia’s hacking of the DNC and Clinton Chairman John Podesta’s email accounts (a la Nixon’s recorded direction to cover-up Watergate) there is no chance a majority of Republicans in the House, much less two-thirds of Senators would remove Trump from office. 

But there is a larger divergence between Nixon and Trump that eludes Rich’s usually scrupulous eye. Trump’s crude attacks on the press are an uglier version of Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativity,” and the amen corner both he and Nixon preached to has an ingrained suspicion of and disdain for east coast elites at the New York Times and Washington Post. But unlike Nixon’s time, when right wing media was still in its embryonic phase, Trump is buttressed by a legion of genefluctors from Fox News to online Reddit trolls who protect him. 

He and his communications team have effectively neutered the White House press corps by limiting on-air press briefings, seeding the press room with more right wing voices, and keeping their boss away from anyone but sympathetic journalists in the Fox News-iverse for interviews. Trump has only conducted one solo press conference since being inaugurated and shows no signs of caring that he is stiff arming the press. When he needs to get his message out, he can always pick up the phone and call one of his preferred reporters (Bob Costa or Maggie Haberman) who will dutifully act as stenographer and put his words and thoughts on the front page of their respective papers. 

The spread of right wing media outlets also serves to discredit so-called mainstream media outlets who do themselves no favors when they have to retract salacious stories (as CNN did recently) and inoculate Trump among the faithful by throwing out red herrings like pointing out that lawyers working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller have made political donations to Democrats. They also serve to solidify antipathy toward the same elites Nixon railed against and rile up the base so they do not rest on their laurels, as Democrats did in both 2010 and 2014. 

This accrues to the benefit of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Not only is the party more conservative (and largely purged whatever moderates it once had), but state legislatures effectively gerrymandered Congressional districts in 2010 to such an extreme that in 2012, Democratic candidates in the House of Representatives won 1.2 million more overall votes than their Republican opponents yet that only translated into an eight vote swing, well short of what was needed to put Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker’s chair. In 2016, Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by more than 3 million votes but House Democrats only picked up six seats. 

And while it is true that there are twenty or so congressional districts that elected a House Republican while going for Hillary Clinton, voters have yet to reach a tipping point where Republican candidates have to fear being associated with Trump. Further, the 2018 Senate map is challenging for Democrats, who will probably lose a few of their 48 member caucus because unlike the apathy shown by Democrats in recent off-year elections, the few races held this year suggest Republican enthusiasm is close enough to the Democrats to protect their turf. 

And there is one other thing progressives and liberals need to be wary of. Just as right wing media has hustled conservatives with fevered dreams of faked birth certificates and nefarious dealings in backwoods Arkansas, progressives need to be attuned to, and temper, expectations that Trump’s departure from the White House will be forced. Hashtag 25th-the-45th all you want, the similarities between Watergate and whatever is going on with Trump only stretch so far. And this is not to suggest Rich is a charlatan — far from it; however, the reality is that today’s GOP is a far cry from its 1974 iteration. For all the hand wringing about Trump’s tweets, his attacks on the media, and general disdain for political norms and the rule of law, these are precisely the things his most ardent supporters like about him and unless and until Republican voters indicate they will punish their Congressional representatives for it, Trump is not going anywhere.


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