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Ireland and the Wobbly World

I am so excited to be giving a paper at this conference in Galway on November 11! The program is here: program and this is the nifty poster: wobbly-poster

Marah and the Angels of Redemption

I went to see my favorite band play last Friday night. On Saturday, I rode my bike through the Prospect Park trails and was literally still dancing, Angels of Destruction in my earbuds, as I rode. I probably looked like a dick but I don’t care. Anyway, I’m still buzzing from the show. That’s partly because now that I’m sober I get a way more intense and lasting buzz off extraordinary moments in real life. Everything seems new somehow. When I was drinking, every day was groundhog day. With alcohol, nothing ever fucking changes. Sobriety is painful, but at least every moment is unique. Even, maybe especially, when it kind of rhymes with other times.

Reading somewhere a couple of years ago that Dave — one of the brothers who together are Marah — quit drinking, was a pretty big inspiration to me. That’s putting it somewhat mildly. Even when I was drinking, Dave headed up the little list I kept quietly in my head of people who don’t drink but who I still thought were cool. Dave’s the coolest one of all of them; drinking Coke onstage he makes sobriety look like the hardcore rock and roll hell and back badass fucking beast that it is. Thanks to Dave, I see being sober as even more rock and roll than I used to tell myself being a drunk was. Anyway, these are the kind of things that people who are trying to stay off alcohol think about.

So back to the buzz. I’ve always thought that there was no such thing as good taste or bad taste in music. There is only resonance. Waves, like sound waves, that resonate. People and music that go together. That rhyme. It’s like when you can hear what’s playing in someone’s headphones and it just totally matches them. Or like the vibe between a band and their longtime hardcore fans. It’s a coming together of energies; the waves complement each other, and the fans surf the band and the band surfs the fans and everything just feels alright. This is a resonance built of rhymes in time and space; moments and places that feel like home.

Marah is animated by the very texture of my home town. What it smells like, what it feels like to live there. The songs make art of the grubby punk ass streets of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia that has a bad attitude (that’s pronounced at-eee-tood). Yo let’s cut the crap and hook up later on tonight, that Philly. It sounds like my neighborhood, Roxborough, where my dad grew up too. But theirs was actually Christian street and Point Breeze, near the docks. Basically, Rocky’s route through the city all the way to the steps of the Art Museum. He made it up top but the bourgie folks didn’t want his statue there, marring all that classical symmetry with junky ass pop culture, so they stuck him at the Spectrum. He wouldn’t stay, though. He wanted back and the compromise was to put him at the bottom of the steps. Very Philly. The bottom of the steps, looking out. Reaching the top is possible, but it’s going to fucking kick your ass, kid. And later on the people in charge will decide that you didn’t belong there anyway. Keep those arms up, though.

I love Philadelphia so much that I literally yearn for it. Which is so stupid because I am there all the time. I don’t actually remember why I ever left. Probably something about the citywide inferiority complex about New York — the idea that people with dreams, leave. Stupid. I moved out but still managed to pass up a lot of great opportunities, fuck up a lot of good chances, anyway. I think that might be Marah’s story too (but that part of their story is not mine to tell). But the band’s got a second wind now. Rocky didn’t win until the second movie anyway. Rocky II, which I am so proud to say I was in, running with the Italian Stallion and all the other public school kids who got the day off that day, down the parkway, toward the steps. At one point, I am the kid closest to Rocky. I am running my fastest, first in line, but in an instant I’m overtaken and lost in the crowd. That’s my flash of glory. The Rocky theme playing in the background, me running my fastest and for a moment, it was fast enough.

Still, I left, moved to Brooklyn when there was still affordable housing to be had. Years after I did, the band moved there too, to my neighborhood. They made Angels of Destruction in an amazing studio, with our friend Hugh, the coolest cat in Brooklyn. The old Excello studio is getting torn down now as we speak. To make room for shiny condos for rich assholes, the kind of people who have no shame at all when they use corporate speak really loud on the subway. I miss the old Williamsburg, a lot like South Philly in a way. Old Italian folks and young punks. Now both are colonized by yuppies and it’s gross. Anyway, I felt some kind of resonance when the band moved to Williamsburg from Philly, just like I had done. Maybe I was on a parallel path with them, and since they were about to make it big, maybe so was I.

It was not to be. They broke up after they put out Angels of Destruction the first time. And before that, the record that was supposed to put them over the top, bombed. In an otherwise rave review of the band, Rolling Stone recently called the Kids in Philly follow up, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods,  a “fan-alienating disaster.” I totally disagree. It’s a great fucking record. It did a groovy pop thing on the band’s already sweet tunes, and it did fit, and it sounded cool as shit as far as I’m concerned. The lyrics are depressing but the beats and riffs make you dance: very British, in the good way. All of the streets are lonely, all of the faces are cold. They recorded it in England, and Oasis was involved somehow as I remember. I dig Oasis. But I also really dig music that rhymes with a place. And the band didn’t go to England without bringing something back, into their music. Plus they made a couple more kickass records after that one too.

When I was floating away with the Friday night gods at Bowery Ballroom last week, Dave asked quietly from the stage at one point, what songs do you guys want to hear. I called out, “Love Train” because at the Tin Angel once Serge took the harmonica and danced through the crowd, and because it’s the “Philadelphia Sound,” the sound of Broad Street all dressed up to go out, and because I love that song. But who the hell calls out a cover when one of the greatest rock songwriters of all time asks what you want to hear? When the band just got back together and is playing tracks off a rereleased album? Loser. Happily, Serge grabbed his harp and got down in the crowd later anyway, playing and dancing, and then Dave and Christine came down too, and they played acoustic, with the amazed and overjoyed crowd all around them singing along, for a couple of songs. A better writer than me could put words on that moment. It was really beyond.

Resonances move through time as well as space. When you’ve been loving a band for sixteen years, it turns into a whole life thing. For me, Marah rhymes with my adult life. This whole pathos of the passing of time is heavy but it’s a gift. You feel temporal resonances that you would have missed when you were young. And it’s part of what makes the experience of seeing Marah play now, so intense. They are not the same band they were when they first played that showcase at the Mercury Lounge all those years ago. (They’re better). The band feels this time stuff too — they got back together for a 15 year anniversary rerelease of Kids in Philly, they are revisiting their past with the rerelease of Angels. And it’s all on vinyl so you have to take your time with the records, slow down, open em up, chill out and fucking listen.

Time’s a bitch too though. As you get older, it’s disappointing that not all things are possible any more. Your fuck ups and shortcomings really have closed off some options. Some of my dreams are just going to stay dreams. And although I always fully expect that Marah has got to be on the verge of becoming the most massively adored iconic rock band ever, just around the corner, maybe they feel that heavy part too. The thing is, when that wide openness changes, it makes what is happening in front of you, right here, right now, in this very time and this exact place, all the more precious. So precious you can’t even stand it. The sound of the show was the band’s commitment to every single moment of it. That’s what matters. It’s like what Joey says at the end of The Commitments, after they break up — “The success of the band was irrelevant. Sure we could have been famous… and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.” Or even better, like what Dave said from the stage the other night: “the world is a fucked up place… so I’ve decided that if you have a great rock and roll band you may as well play.”

Amazing the words that fall from that dude’s lips, easy as the sweat falls from his hair and his face onstage, giving every fucking thing he’s got to the song, the lyric, the riff, the moment, like it’s his last act on earth. Funny, spot on, true. Like when, after the show, a drunken adoring fan, sloppy and silly but pure somehow, came up to Dave and started freaking out over him. Dave goes, real monotone, jaded but with kindness: “dude, you remind me of every person I’ve ever known.”

I know he said this because I was standing near him, listening, sidling up, after the show was over and everyone went outside to smoke. Some moments in the continuum of time and space have more intense contents than others, they’ve concentrated time, place, resonance, your whole fucking life, all of it, somehow, in one moment in one particular place. Bowery Ballroom, New York City. I got to talk to my sober rock idol, and of course I just went on and on about how much I loved the band like a goddamn moron. I’ve been similarly idiotic other times I’ve met him — introducing myself to him on Bedford ave, him looking strung out, me with a stroller, the whole thing awkward as fuck. Or like when I was the only fan attending an interview at Tower records in downtown Manhattan, the band in a glass booth with the great Vin Scelsa, me probably looking like some kind of stalker in a long black leather coat, standing there, watching, thinking, yeah this band rocks but what the hell is going on with my life that I am standing here right now?

Always I’ve been a geek around these guys, and this time was no different. (When I met the shining light that is Serge, I could only say “you guys are fucking insane” over and over again.) So I told Dave how I had tickets to their reunion show in philly and I couldn’t go and I also had tickets to the stone pony and then I couldn’t go to that either and you guys are my favorite band of all time and I’m just so happy you came to new york and bowery ballroom is the greatest place to see a show and this was the greatest show of all time and I just want to really thank you guys so much for getting back together and playing new york city and god knows what other stupid shit tumbled out of my mouth. Dave just gave me kind of a heavy lidded look and said, “it’s kind of like it all happened for you.” Maybe he was making fun of me. But hey, maybe that whole dot in the space time fabric did happen for me. I mean, for all we know, we’re dreaming.


Slackers, Sabotage, and Syndicalism

I gave a talk this morning at the Marxist Summer Intensive on slacker politics and the IWW. Not the top of my game as far as the presentation itself (I should have stuck with my notes) but the question and answer session was freaking awesome. It starts about half an hour into the video. Check it out! Big thanks to the Marxist Education Project for inviting me to speak.

Marxist Summer Intensive

I’ll be leading one of the sessions at the Marxist Education Project’s Summer Intensive next week. Looking forward to it, and especially to digging in to the racial politics of the syndicalist labor strategy I will be laying out. Here is the info:

Situations interviews Dan Georgakas

Check out this new interview that the Situations collective did with the totally amazing Dan Georgakas, poet, co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, and founding member of Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker. We talked about Detroit, Greece, austerity politics, capital abandonment, and working-class leverage in the face of it.

Dan invites us to imagine a counter-history in which the UAW hadn’t been so racist or class collaborationist, and had instead embraced the black liberation politics of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Think about what the labor movement could be today if the UAW, instead of stealing elections from DRUM, had invited DRUM activists to run the union paper, help fight legal battles, and organize the South.

The story of the League is a perfect example of the fact that the fight for black liberation is central to American class struggle; without the first, the second is ultimately a loser. And this fight is not about feelings. It’s about wages, state policies, patterns of capital investment and disinvestment, discrimination both inside and outside working-class organizations. And Dan’s work helps us to see how central cultural interventions are to interrupting business as usual about class and race. Read it and be inspired.

On Hurtful Words

It’s been a crazy fucking week.

Left Forum happened last weekend. I helped organize four panels and was asked to give a little wrap-up at the very start of the closing plenary on Sunday. About half an hour before the plenary, I got a text from the conference coordinator asking if I could emcee the whole shebang. Amy Goodman was scheduled to be the moderator and interlocutor when the second speaker, Slavoj Zizek, gave his talk, but she’d apparently told the organizers last minute that instead, she was going to give a speech and then leave. So I thought I’d be a good sport and help out, even though I’d never really read any Zizek.

I had looked at some material sent by an anti-Zizek activist to the Left Forum board. It contained a couple of obviously taken out of context quotes that he’d either written or said, and I did know that folks were already angry about what they thought he’d said about refugees. When I investigated, I disagreed with the critics. Looking at his stuff on refugees, my sense was that Zizek was making the exact opposite point than what he was being criticized for. I honestly did not think his work was anti-refugee, and I still don’t.

Zizek says that refugees need open borders and an end to the imperialist wars that drive them from their homes; they need our solidarity, and we need theirs,  but they don’t need us to think that everything about them is perfect. In fact, seeing them as outside “normal” humanity, with its, you know, both bad and good people, is an obstacle to real material solidarity, to actually struggling side by side to forge a less horrifying world.

Other quotes in the materials sent to the Left Forum board included Zizek recounting a time he’d tried to connect with a black male acquaintance by telling a dirty joke about a black sexual stereotype, and, according to Zizek, his new friend started cracking up laughing and said, “now you are my n*” or something. I did not read the telling of this story as anti-black racism. I still do not. It seemed like an idea you might disagree with — that solidarity flows not from treating people with kid gloves but from mutual transgressive bawdy-ass laughter and the subverting of moralisms about what it’s ok to say and what it’s not ok to say — but not one that necessarily has to be stopped. So I wasn’t sure what to say when a questioner asked me to account for why Zizek had been invited to Left Forum given the fact that he’d used the N word publicly in the past. I thought it was part of his performance. He was using it to make a case, and a case against not only bourgeois liberal white piety but also against racial oppression. It seemed like the opposite of an epithet in that context.

And now a whole online discussion has emerged to challenge this idea, and to excoriate my response to Zizek’s critics. My own work is not well-known, but to my chagrin, now I am known to some strangers as Zizek’s defender rather than for any of my own interventions. Or as moderator of a panel in which I criticized Bernie Sanders for not coming out for reparations for black people, or another panel dedicated largely to discussing Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Now there are people who know me as a defender of the right of white men to use the N word publicly. Oh, and folks are making fun of my surfing book a little bit.

Two wealthy white women are leading the charge against me on twitter. To me, this actually reinforces Zizek’s notion that all this kid glove correctness is just bourgeois discomfort with what they see as the slobby incivility of the working class. These women challenged Zizek and me at the end of the Q and A, and there is without question a prurient Puritan sick kind of relish with which they read and then tweet all these “shocking” things that he says. It’s classic repression rage fascination stuff. And it’s funny, they keep calling me a suburban Valley Girl on twitter. But I’m actually from Philly, where, when we are being harassed by insane people, we say things like YOUSE ARE FUCKING CRAZY.

But the wealthy white saviors are not the end of the story. Because when I tried to move past my own defensiveness after a full week of relentless assault on me on twitter, I had to rethink a couple of things. Even if I did think that the witch-hunter language police types were nutty and were misinterpreting Zizek, policing his language without engaging or opposing his actual ideas, there is another issue.

Elijah Anderson gave a speech recently in which he addressed all the pc language safe-space stuff on campuses and came out on the side of the students. In his words, what black students are protesting when they talk about Halloween costumes and building names and all the rest, are “acts of acute disrespect reminiscent of America’s racial past. Among themselves black people call such incidents “n* moments,” and generally interpret them as deeply racist attempts to put them back in their place.”

The idea that I might have caused a moment like this for anyone is profoundly mortifying to me. I did not mean any disrespect. So this apology goes out to anyone who might have been offended in any way by words I said. I still think that what Zizek was saying on Sunday night was true, and I think the rich white savior types are impeding the progress of interracial side by side struggles for justice for black and brown folks, and for freedom and a better world for all of us. Bourgeois piety is an obstacle to real solidarity. And I do think that there is a difference between using a racial slur as an epithet — which is a tool of race oppression — and uttering it in order to mount a challenge to a new, politically correct form of the segregationist ideology without which capitalism and imperialism couldn’t survive.

The thing is, in regular life, if I make someone feel shitty, whether I meant to or not, I tell them I’m sorry. I do know that words can hurt. God knows the cesspool that is twitter has taught me that this week. So if you are a person of color and what I said or did offended you, please accept my apology. Somehow, though, I suspect you’re not nearly as concerned about all this as the Grey Gardens squad would have us believe.

***For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here are two clips. The first is Zizek’s speech, and a lot of the question and answer session. The second clip finishes the session and has the part where the N word controversy comes up.

And last, here is one article that references the twitter insanity:

The Radical Imagination

My comrades in the Situations collective have a TV show and I’m the guest on this episode. Check it out!


wow, I never used to understand the big deal about Zizek, pro or con. But last night at Left Forum, I got it. He’s brilliant and funny and his energy is actually really fun to be around. He gave a well-argued and super smart defense of coarse language as part of what solidarity looks like. (Then of course dumb people said, how dare you use coarse language!) He talked about not fetishizing the oppressed and their roots or their “essential goodness” but struggling in solidarity with them for the commons of humanity.

For instance, refugees — it’s not because they are perfect humans that we demand open borders, but because mobility is everybody’s right. And when everybody can go everywhere, then we talk about the cultural issues and clashes that are real and that come up when we treat people like our fellow human beings and not like fetishized objects of our white savior complexes.

I disagreed with plenty that he said, but Zizek is provocative and funny and I am surprised how much I enjoyed his talk. It could have been called “against paternalism, for solidarity.” Or “against bourgeois middle-class bullshit moralism and for laughter.” I highly recommend your watching it on youtube and the Left Forum website when it goes up in a day or two.


the patron saint of slacker politics

nice interview with my all time film idol, Richard Linklater. a couple of highlights:

“After Slacker, he was regarded as a spokesman for Generation X, but Linklater never saw the slacker generation the same way as the establishment did. “Slacker means two different things to me and the rest of the world,” he says. “The slacker world was the world I found myself living in. The 1980s underground was pretty interesting. Everyone I met was an artist of some kind, a musician or writer or painter; lovers of life, appreciators, and punk rocker-type people, who you didn’t know what they did but you could tell they sure liked their music. Nobody talked about their jobs, what they had to do to pay their rent. It was no surprise that mainstream culture decided these were a bunch of lazy do-nothings, because, by their judgment, they were not productive. They weren’t fitting into the free-market society…”
“I’ve waited for a candidate like Bernie Sanders my whole adult life, so when there’s a guy there who’s actually professing it, you have to support him. I’m a natural socialist.”

Scary Indeed

I guess I must have a number of Facebook friends, acquaintances from high school, who are stay at home moms. Because I constantly see posts about the hellish everyday life of these frazzled ladies, and all of them, without fail, frame the issue as though the sadomasochistic nightmare they describe is the only possible way that Americans in the twenty-first century could go about the business of raising and loving our little ones. Consider the blogger “Scary Mommy,” just one representative of a cry for help from every desperate corner of the internet:

What a goddamn nightmare. And the really scary thing is, in neighborhoods all over this country, the very same thing is happening (read the comments section if you don’t believe me). Which is crazy, because without a doubt the kids would be so much happier in a group setting with lots of other kids and the mom would be so much happier doing something more fulfilling than cutting plums and trying not to yell. This is a structural problem in our society, and until we all figure out together that the old immigrant urban extended family had something right — with a bunch of mixed age kids hanging out pretty independently, playing together and learning from one another, with parents, grandparents, and neighbors nearby to mellowly supervise and also enjoy each other’s company — these little hells will be all too common. It’s such a bad scene, for the moms and the kids. In the meantime, perhaps this unfortunate person could think about getting a co-op going with other parents, and trade off so that a couple of the parents take all the kids one day and the other parents can do something else on their “off” days. And then there’s always the demand for free high-quality European-style subsidized day care, which would solve this lady’s problem straight out.

What these bloggers and their commenters never seem to acknowledge is that the isolation of the nuclear family, especially in its super privatized suburban iteration, is a stupid way to raise children and a waste of (largely) female energy. They ought to be reminded that in the 1970s, women realized that this was a fucked up situation for all involved, and they fought to transform it. Not successfully enough, since what most women got instead of liberation was the chance to be doubly stressed at home and now at some stupid job too. So lots of (mostly upper) middle class women decided just to stay home and here many of them are, back in the 1950s. But this is a retreat from women’s liberation that is bad for everyone.

All of us need to take up the fight for a domestic life that breeds happiness rather than neurotic people — cuz if you think these kids aren’t internalizing your repressed resentment, Scary Mommy, you’re dreaming — and the first thing we have to do is to stop pretending that this state of affairs is anything but a defeat of liberatory feminist political struggle. Mommy bloggers, like so many today, are incredibly good at articulating the minutiae of the personal. Sadly, far too many seem to have missed the memo that the personal is political.

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