Well-meaning people may have assured you that rappers and other practitioners of styles with a tradition of dissent (punk rock, theater, graffiti, etc.) are bound to meet the challenge of this national disaster with an retaliatory outpouring of exemplary art. You may have given voice to this yourself. If you have, I understand: it is natural to try to find silver linings. But I need you to cut it out, right now. It is an insult to rappers, who do not and never have needed any help from ignorant bullies to find their voices, and an insult to the many artists of all kinds who are about to suffer the real material consequences of our terrible decisions.
A bunch of bilge has been dumped into the wellsprings of creativity. Please recognize this and adjust your expectations accordingly.
It’s the morning of November 10, and as far as I can tell, none of the editors and publishers responsible for the clickbait style of Internet reporting have fallen on their swords. I’m not sure what they’re waiting for. It’s possible, I guess, that they’re feeling triumphant today, and that they view the election of a human piece of clickbait as a sick validation of their methods. But that kind of self-aggrandizement would be unlike journalists, even terrible ones. If they’d had any imagination or mental agility or even pride, they wouldn’t have been pumping out clickbait in the first place. I think it’s more likely that they’re still in shock; slow to realize the depth and dimensions of their public humiliation.
So to all you clickbait-site editors and publishers, content aggregators and Facebook share-hunters, let me make this crystal clear: everybody hates you. Everybody. The people who lost this election hate you for sullying journalism and making it impossible for real reporting to flourish. The people who won this election hate you, too — in case you didn’t notice their rhetoric, they think journalists are lowlifes who ought to be abused and/or jailed. People who are apolitical hate you; you’re ruining their Internet experience. The celebrities whose asses you kiss in your attention-grabbing headlines hate you — they see you as toadies and pushovers, and they’re right to. Your own writers toiling away on the content farm especially hate you. They’ve got brains and voices and critical faculties, and you’re wasting all of that in your single-minded pursuit of clicks. You’ve taken journalism to the lowest point it’s ever been in my lifetime. Nobody respects you, nobody trusts you, nobody thinks you’re irreverent or funny or ahead of the curve or even a part of the future. You’ve got to go. Now.
A real journalist doesn’t care about likes. A real journalist doesn’t even care if she is liked. She is chasing the story not because there is audience demand for it, but because nobody has told it yet and it deserves to be told. This is what we depend on her for. Your job — your entire job — is to facilitate that chase. You are there to help her bring what she’s found to the attention of the public. If your new business model won’t allow you to do that, or if it directs you to engage in some other distracting, smoke-blowing b.s. practice, or if, God forbid, it forces you to get in her way, then it is worthless and you are worthless.
It is true that the media biz has always needed to grab the attention of reluctant readers, and has often resorted to gauche methods for doing so. But the sensationalism of the past always had something real at its root: an urgent desire to get the public to pay attention to whatever the journalist had learned. Extra extra read all about something you don’t yet know, not something calibrated to reinforce your own poorly-informed beliefs. What has happened in digital newsrooms, if you even want to call them that, which I certainly do not, is that the old, responsible model has been stood on its head. Instead of the reporter using her judgment to tell you the story she wants to tell, the editor identifies a trending topic that has already been discussed to death and then assigns the reporter to generate still more digital copy on a subject that guarantees pageviews. In the first model, the reporter is the agent; in the second, she has no latitude other than her own flailing (and usually unsuccessful) attempts to avoid redundancy. The first model depends on a reader who is engaged and curious; the second on a reader who is bored and looking to fill his time with prefabricated outrage. If you’ve wondered why every headline on the Internet for the last fifteen months has featured Donald Trump’s name, here’s your answer. It’s no conspiracy. None was necessary. All that was needed was a bunch of nervous editors and publishers with click-quotas to meet and who, therefore, couldn’t stop assigning stories on the hottest trending topic. Unless we want to be governed in perpetuity by depraved celebrities — the Real Housewives of American Politics — the editorial star-chasing has got to end.
We can all acknowledge that “the world has changed”, whatever the heck that means, and that the media business ought to integrate new technologies and new methods of distribution. No reader, no matter how antiquarian, realistically expects the news to be delivered the same way that it was in 1953. But publishers have adapted to the present moment by mimicking all of the worst elements of social media: the rampant conformity, the celebrity-worship, the obsessive need for popularity and “likes”, the tendency to preach to the converted and to reinforce rather than challenge the assumptions of the audience. This, not the mythical decline of attention spans, is the real reason for shrinking readership. Nobody likes a damned suck-up. The hunger for genuine journalism among genuine readers is still there, and it’s always going to be. If you can’t or won’t serve these people, you’ve got to get out of the way and turn the podium over to those who want to figure out how it can be done in a year as as as contentious as 2016 was (and 2017 is sure to be.)
This is not a partisan piece. I would have written the same thing if Hillary Clinton had won the election. But Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the most powerful position on the globe makes it incontrovertible. Editors and publishers, unless you’re still in a punch-drunk haze, I know you know it. You didn’t cause this cataclysm, but you sure greased the gears, and you sure cheered it on. We’ve tried it your way. It was a spectacular failure. You’ve let down your readers, you’ve let down your country, and you’ve let down yourselves. If you’ve got any decency left, you must know there’s only one thing for you to do. Go.
Donald Trump reminds me of every bully I’ve ever had to stand up to. That’s a personal statement, not a political one, but as there’s been very little actual politics in this horrible election, it’s one that I don’t hesitate to make. Trump opened this campaign by calling people names, and he’s gone right on doing that, straight to the bitter end. His behavior is familiar to me: just like every other petty tyrant I encountered while growing up in New Jersey, he’s punched down and lashed out at everybody he could. When I watch him in action, I get flashbacks to abusive little league coaches, older boys who liked tripping younger ones just to see them fall, foul-mouthed jerks who used verbal and physical intimidation to make girls uncomfortable, playground shysters and lunch-money stealers, greasy back-of-the-classroom know-it-alls who spoke over the teachers and demonstrated contempt for anybody who actually wanted to learn something, brutal born-rich ignoramuses whose final answer to every question was either money or power.
None of this is new. As a person who has always lived in Jersey, I have become painfully familiar with Donald Trump’s operations. To me, he will always be the obscenely rich playboy who used Atlantic City to launch his personal brand and then tossed the city away like a fast-food container when he was finished. In the process, he bilked Garden State taxpayers for millions upon millions of dollars. What he did with that money is anybody’s guess. I presume he used some of it to pay down the enormous debts that people who live recklessly, and selfishly, and pompously, always accrue. But since he won’t share his finances with the public, we can only speculate about what he owes to whom. My guess is that it is plenty. Otherwise, he would not be dragging America through this charade — a nuisance campaign that has somehow taken on a scope as big as the globe, and which has reverberations that have already been felt by everybody on the planet. A man as self-involved as Trump does not suddenly catch the religion of public-spiritedness after seventy years of hucksterism.
There are people who will vote for Trump because they believe he’s a great businessman. I’m forced to the conclusion that they don’t know the first thing about Donald Trump. Elevating Trump to the presidency would not be like electing Steve Jobs, or Henry Ford, or even the owner of a corner store who plays fair and does what he can to turn a profit every month. That’s not who Trump is. Over the years, he’s primarily demonstrated skill in throwing away other people’s money, stiffing his creditors, doing everything he can to avoid contributing a cent to the commonwealth, threatening litigation, and puffing himself up.
American business is loaded with sharks, but even the most ferocious honor their debts and pay small contractors for the work they do. They recognize that the entire system they depend on would topple if all of its rules were flaunted. We’ll never know if Donald Trump could have become one of those real businesspeople, because it’s never been his intention to make himself one. The telos of the Trump enterprise has always been for Trump himself to gaze upon the Trump name in lights, and, in pursuit of that vanity, he has burned through unbelievable amounts of money — money that a true businessman would have salted away. Although he has no talents to speak of, he did have two advantages that the average limelight junkie did not: complete amorality, and a multi-million dollar bankroll. As such, he is much closer to Paris Hilton than he is to Michael Bloomberg, and come to think of it, that’s a terrible insult to Hilton, who, as far as I know, didn’t ruin anybody’s life or bankrupt herself in a ferocious pursuit of celebrity. Trump, on the other hand, has always been a fast-acting poison. We should not have to get stuck in his mile-wide trail of slime to recognizes him for what he is: one of the most transparent con men in American public life.
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When I write that everything about Donald Trump ought to be anathema to Republican voters, I do it from personal experience. I was brought up in a large, traditional, mainly working-class Catholic family, in a conservative automobile suburb, at the height of the Reagan era. Republicans speak wistfully of the Reagan Eighties, and for good reason: it was the high-water mark of postwar Republicanism, an ideology so pervasive that it felt to young me like its hegemony would never end. For better and for worse, upright Republicanism was everywhere around me, and from family members and other authority figures, I was taught about traditional values as if the fate of my immortal soul depended on learning them. Humility, honesty, studiousness, marital fidelity, attention to detail, keeping your word, fiscal prudence, religious piety, courtesy, respect for women, distaste for braggarts and complete disdain for rich people who showboat around and piss away their money — all of this was hammered into me ferociously at elementary school, at CCD, at the town recreation center, and at countless family dinners. Since Reagan, Republicanism has fallen on rough times, so maybe its adherents can be forgiven for taking desperate measures. But the fact that so many traditional Republicans have declared support for a guy who represents the opposite of everything they purport to stand for — well, this makes me suspect that there was always something deeply dishonest about both the lessons I was taught and the people who were teaching them.
So just in case any of those people are reading, let me make this completely clear: it’s because of how I was raised — by Republicans — that I have always considered Donald Trump unqualified for any position of authority. By 2014, I’d already made the determination that Trump was just about the last person in America I’d ever vote for, and that was before he opened his mouth and a whole bunch of bigoted nonsense about Mexicans and Muslims came out.
Millions upon millions of Americans feel otherwise, and will vote accordingly on Tuesday. In the name of camaraderie and common American-ness under the flag, I’d like to extend a hand of friendship to these people, respect their struggle and treat them as worthy adversaries, but I know too well that they’ve been playing themselves. Should Donald Trump win this election, he isn’t going to lift a finger to help any of the chumps who got him there. Bilking people and breaking promises — those are the things his whole life have been about. In the more likely event that he loses, he will deliver the White House to an entirely beatable Democratic candidate who’ll absolutely accelerate the concentration of wealth and influence in the major urban centers — the exact thing that the Trump movement is supposed to be dead set against.
This should have been a big Republican year. The Republicans have a legitimate case to make: rural America really has been getting hammered, and drugged, and condescended to, and ignored by wealthy people on the coasts. Small towns and small businesses really are struggling, and power has, increasingly, come to rest in the hands of an urban elite that turns its nose up at the unwashed. The state is increasingly enormous, and increasingly authoritarian, and increasingly comfortable peeking into your phone records. When Trump and his surrogates have pressed this case in coherent language, they’ve been moderately successful.
Unfortunately for America — and all too predictably for anybody who knows Trump’s act — he’s wasted his podium time pulling faces, running down his perceived enemies, airing bad Breitbart conspiracy theories, and promising to jail his opponents just like a tinpot dictator might. The crass public persona he’s cultivated — a bizarre fusion of Andrew “Dice” Clay, Benito Mussolini, and a masher at a sleazy bar — seems so perfectly calibrated to repulse educated female voters that I have believe it it’s an intentional affront and part of a perverse brand-building strategy. He’s made it impossible for anybody to hear any traditional Republican arguments over the pink noise of his own monstrous ego, and win or lose, the American conservative movement is going to be in an absolute shambles after this election. If the party had nominated a reasonable adult, rather than a clown who casually alienates huge segments of the electorate, they’d probably be coasting to victory. As it turned out, they were less interested in winning the election than they were in pissing me, and people like me, off. Mission accomplished, guys.
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In the torrent of bad news that has accompanied election 2016, I’ve clung to a few branches. I’m proud of the campaign Senator Sanders ran; I don’t always agree with him, but I am glad he showed that it’s possible to lead a successful political movement based on humility and compassion. He’ll be coming out of this election with his decency intact and his reputation elevated, and that’s not nothing. It also cheers me to learn that most young people find Trump, and Trumpism, repellent to its core. Our elders have been loud and cranky and ready to torch the village out of spite, but they’ll be out of the picture soon enough. The future belongs to voters who have no appetite for bigotry or scapegoating, and who largely see Donald Trump for what he is. I’ve read pessimists who argue that the Trump ascendancy proves how easy it would be for a genuine fascist — rather than the pathetic, self-parodic, cartoon version we’re currently coping with — to attain power in the United States. I don’t believe it. I think Trump is the death rattle of something terrible that we’re getting out of our system, and which is, even now, receding from the body politic.
Most of all, I’ve been comforted by precedents in American history. Although the language has been uncommonly coarse and the show worthy of a fierce tomato-chucking, there is nothing particularly new about the Trump phenomenon. Donald Trump is hardly the first candidate for office to resort to bigotry on the stump, or the first public figure to harness white working-class resentment against coastal elites. Huey Long did that, too; so did George Wallace. Trump’s plan, if you even want to call it that, feels like little more than a patchwork of discredited ideas from long-gone reactionaries. He has pinched his defeatist isolationism (not to mention his America First slogan) from Charles Lindbergh, his flirtation with scary foreign autocrats from Father Coughlin, his nativism from the Know-Nothings, and his vindictive paranoia from Joe McCarthy. All of these men had their day. Some of them even won elections. But eventually they were all swamped by the rising tide of justice, and we now remember them, correctly, as the heavies in the American story. I am certain that the same fate eventually awaits Donald Trump. We’ve beaten back much smarter and much more capable villains. This inarticulate buffoon is not going to be the one who breaks the pattern and, in the process, cheapens and humbles America.
Yet while he’s up, and he’s got the cameras on him, he can do a heck of a lot of damage. He already has. If you think you’ve been on edge about this election, consider how a devout American Muslim must feel. Imagine the anticipatory anxiety that undocumented immigrants have had to deal with for the past twelve months. You’ve probably heard from women who’ve had post-traumatic stress attacks because of the Billy Bush tape and the parade of accusers who’ve found it necessary for their own self-esteem to testify to journalists that Trump sexually assaulted them. Engendering those feelings of destabilization and alienation in Muslims, and Mexicans, and women, and people like me who are no fans of the patriarchy is, without a doubt, part of the point for many of Trump’s supporters. Donald Trump is the sharp end of the same stick that they’ve always shook at us. They really do believe that if they push us, we’ll fold.
They’ve made their usual mistake of underestimating us. What they fail to realize is that we’ve been dealing with bullies all of our lives. We don’t win the fight every time we’re provoked, but we learned a long time ago that backing down is never an option. On Tuesday, we’re going to stand up for our mothers, our sisters, our girlfriends and wives, for our neighbors, for our communities, for everybody who believes in the republic, for Latin Americans, for African Americans, for queer Americans, for Muslim Americans, for Jews, for all sincerely religious people, for scientists whose life’s work has been trashed by ignorant partisans, for nerds pushed around and shouted over by anti-intellectuals, and for everybody who is sick of the belligerence, the trolling, the name-calling, and the neverending disrespect. We’re going to look the villain in the face and show him that we are not intimidated by his threats. We know what to do. Let’s go beat this bum so badly that he never gets off the mat again.
I notice that Our Turn JC doesn’t bother to deny Paul Fireman’s intention to add another soulless skyscraper to a city that’s overburdened with them. Instead, the Our Turn campaign circular I just got in the mail assures me that Fireman’s gigantic proposed Jersey City casino won’t lay a glove on Liberty State Park. I’m not sure I buy this. Given its location — just south of Morris Pesin Drive — it’s hard to guarantee that a massive construction project would leave the park unmolested. Liberty State Park is one of the best things this greenspace-challeged city has going for it, so forgive us, Mr. Fireman, if we’re a little defensive of it.
Regardless, that’s not the real reason why Jersey City doesn’t need a casino. Jersey City doesn’t need a casino because nobody needs a casino. A casino is a poor tax. Casinos are designed to shake the pocket change out of people who can’t afford to be transferring any of their money to huge corporations and their owners. True, a private corporation can’t levy a tax directly — but casinos in the Garden State work so closely with can-shaking politicians that the distinction is purely technical. Gutless leaders love casinos because they’re an underhanded way to shift the burden of public finance onto people with the least amount of political clout. Grandma chucks the money into the slot machine, the casino owner rakes it in and adds it to the pile, the government takes a big bite out of the profits — and fails to address the tax inequality that continues to bedevil this state.
Casino construction would indeed bring new jobs to Jersey City. But so would extending the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail to new neighborhoods, fixing the roads and sewers, expanding service on the PATH system, insuring that NJ Transit trains don’t jump the rails, etcetera. Many programs that offer benefits to poor people would bring jobs to Jersey City. Replenishing our transportation trust fund — which has been stripped bare — would do more for the state’s economy than a thousand casinos. There are a thousand and one ways to support local enterprise that don’t encourage addictive behavior or benefit ludicrously wealthy people at the expense of society’s most desperate.
Often it is said that casinos bring an unsavory element to town. I strongly agree with this. My problem, though, isn’t with hookers or two-bit schisters: those are generally just working stiffs driven by circumstances to unpleasant ends. No, the people I’d like to keep on the other side of city limits are the guys who run and own casinos. Casino magnates are some of the most loathsome, amoral individuals in the country, and that’s because in order to do the business they do, they’ve got to be okay with stripping the life savings from the bored/elderly and encouraging destructive habits in everybody else. It takes a special kind of person to be a casino owner. If you, like me, have no appetite for Donald Trump or Sheldon Adelson-types in positions of authority or influence, let’s agree to keep their no-less-ruthless imitators from getting a toehold here.
Atlantic City said hello to casinos in 1976. I am sure that the people behind the casino drive touted the economic benefits of gambling. Today, Atlantic City is a municipal basket case, a byword for mismanagement, and (still!) a playground for wealthy scumbags. Every shark in the New York City area descended on Atlantic City in the 1980s, and those bloody teeth-marks are apparent all over town. You may or may not feel the same spiritual malaise that I do when I walk around Atlantic City, but I’d wager you’re willing to call it one of the saddest spots in the Garden State. In plain view of some of New Jersey’s poorest, hungriest people, visitors are handing massive amounts of money to fat rich guys. It’s a sick parody, a cartoon version of heartless capitalism — accelerated, and exposed, as the exploitative wealth-transfer mechanism it is.
Gambling is a seductive vice. Those who push it on you try to pretend that it’s a skill game; a battle of wits in which you will triumph and it’ll be that loser over there who goes home with empty pockets. I have seen intelligent people sucked into this hole, lured by their own pride and their belief that they’ve got the system outsmarted. Sooner rather than later, they learn the same cold lesson every other gambler has: the house always wins. If it didn’t, there’d be no industry.
This is the nasty game that Paul Fireman has decided he’d like to play. It doesn’t have to be our game. Jersey City doesn’t need a casino. The Meadowlands doesn’t need a casino. The Garden State doesn’t need another casino. No place on earth needs another casino, so please, on Tuesday, vote no on ballot question #1.
It’s come to my attention that quite a few Bernie backers are seriously considering a third-party choice or sitting this election out. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a wasted vote, and I’m not going to pretend anyone has a moral obligation to settle on the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, I am puzzled by this.
Bernie people shouldn’t be gloomy. They ought to be feeling confident and proud. Senator Sanders ran a model campaign: he raised his national profile considerably and forced Democratic Party leaders to confront issues that they would have preferred to ignore. Bernie did the sort of broad, generous coalition-building that American electoral democracy is built on, and he was rewarded for his efforts with platform planks that wouldn’t be there if he hadn’t run. Success for Bernie-style ideas and Bernie-style politics is more attainable now than it has been at any point in my lifetime.
All of that is contingent, however, on beating the stuffing out of the other side.
I, too, doubt that Hillary Clinton has genuine enthusiasm for the Sanders agenda. But with a Democrat in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate (and Sanders himself as chair of the Budget Committee) we’ve got a better-than-decent chance of realizing some of Bernie’s ambitions. If the Republicans win control, we have no chance. This shouldn’t be a difficult decision.
By many measures, Senator Sanders is the most popular person in American politics. Crucially, he’s also the best understood: because of his evident integrity and the clarity of his voice, everybody knows what he stands for and why. President Hillary Clinton is not going to be able to belittle his objections — or pretend to misapprehend them — as if he’s some lone backpacker with a bullhorn making a nuisance of himself on the White House lawn. She knows he stands with millions behind him. He has become an integral part of the Democratic coalition, and if she pisses him off, that’s going to have practical political consequences. She may or may not share Bernie’s egalitarian ideology, or his reflexive compassion, or his distaste for oligarchy or violent solutions to international problems. But she certainly understands practical politics.
You helped put Bernie in this position: your votes and your support gave him the clout he’ll have within the ascendant Democratic Party. If this election goes the right way, Bernie won’t be a gadfly from a cold Northeastern state anymore. He’ll be a figure of real significance — one who’ll be able to help shape public policy.
Bernie Sanders’ whole Senate career has been an object lesson about persistence and the value of working within a compromised system to achieve positive ends. That makes it strange to see some of his backers demonstrating the kind of impatience and foot-shooting impracticality he’s never shown. I’m disappointed by how many Bernie people seem willing to sacrifice leverage — hard-won leverage, I add — on behalf of purist principles that the Senator himself wouldn’t, and won’t, even endorse.
Look at it this way, Bernie-or-Busters: a politician committed to decency, humility, and fairness (how many of those are we even working with?) is on the verge of attaining real institutional power. That’s meaningful. Every Bernie supporter ought to be putting his or her back into the final push to get him there. Remember always that millions of Republicans are about to go vote for a person they find both morally repugnant and wholly unprepared to hold office, and they’ll hold their noses and do this because they understand how coalitions work. They’re no fools. They realize what’s at stake. We need to come at this election with the same ruthlessness — and the same faith in the persuasive power of our arguments to carry the day within the party. If we abstain, we might feel virtuous and unsullied. But we also risk tossing away everything we’ve worked for.
Senator Sanders is not Che Guevara. He’s a sitting U.S. Senator and career politician who has gained seniority by working and occasionally compromising with mainstream Democrats. He’s under no illusions about who the Clintons are: he’s had to deal with them for two decades plus. He’s not telling you to vote for Hillary Clinton out of the kindness of his heart, or because of some misplaced sense of propriety. He’s doing it because he’s made a cold calculation that that’s the best way he — and you — can gain power in a complicated and difficult system. If you trusted him in February, you ought to trust him now.
Friends, we’re almost to the finish line. Let’s not screw this up.
facebook is the greatest engine of conformity i’ve ever seen. it beats the television by a mile, which i didn’t think was possible. the network is currently designed to —
— feed its users with a constant stream of reductive, decontextualized propaganda that reinforces a cartoon version of what they already believe,
— trick them into thinking that they’re doing something by forwarding this propaganda, when really they’re just wasting time,
— get those users to volunteer oodles of personal data, connections, geographic positions, etc., to a huge corporation that works hand-in-hand with the surveillance state, in exchange for low-wattage ego strokes in the pathetic form of like-clicks,
— encourage psychological dependency on the service. how many people do you know who can’t go a hour without checking in?
if an authority figure had come to you in 1984 and asked you for a list of everybody you knew and their associations and relationships to you and each other, you would have correctly understood this as a fascist move. you would have resisted it. yet in 2016 we are all eager to volunteer those same lists. we are willing to do countless hours of unpaid labor building the database of a huge corporation that is absolutely positively monitoring everything we do online. that’s not a conspiracy theory. that’s their business model.
anybody serious about intellectual independence and reclaiming the autonomy of his or her own personality will steer clear of this poisonous service. it’s a big internet. there are alternatives.
Terrence McDonald reported a few weeks ago that the plans in the works for three new residential towers in Journal Square have been approved by the city. Perhaps you aren’t queasy about this. You may feel instead that congestion is the price to pay for Jersey City’s emergence as a regional powerhouse. Or maybe you’re okay with the towers but you abhor the abatements that the city is likely to offer the developers. You might damn this an extension of the same fiscal irresponsibility that has howled around Hudson County like a cold wind off the river for the past thirty years.
I can’t speak upon that fiscal irresponsibility or the ultimate price of all the can-kicking governments do around here. I don’t have the ledger in front of me, so I won’t try to guesstimate the dimensions of the hole we’ve dug ourselves. I fear we’re all about to learn the hard way when the revaluation bill comes. I do know what it’s like to live in Jersey City, though, and if you’re reading this, you probably do, too. You might not be able to calculate the financial cost of our abatement policy, but you probably know the personal cost of overcrowding on the PATH platform, or construction-driven road closures, or the traffic congestion on the Square or on Christopher Columbus Drive. You’ve probably driven around on a cold night looking for a parking space in a neighborhood where there suddenly aren’t any, or ridden on bike lanes that have been chewed to pieces and reduced to rumors by cranes and bulldozers, or made a terrified Frogger run across Grand Street while rush hour drivers are treating it like the Autobahn. You may have noticed deterioration in basic services, or the dip in air and water quality, or the spike in noise pollution, or the lousy sewers, or strained police-community relations, or the offensive ugliness and imposing neofascist quality of nearly all the new towers, each of which stands as a mockery of the planning department’s alleged commitment to human-scale architecture. In short, you know as well as I do that this town is now overbuilt, woefully so, and that our policy of sticking a massive residential tower on every vacant lot is putting an unbearable strain on the quality of life of the people who call this town home. Because no matter how many hyperbolic articles get written in the out-of-town press, those of us who actually claim Jersey City addresses know that it has not been easyliving here lately. We’ve got to stop doing what we’re doing before the asphalt cracks under the weight and the whole place turns into a giant sinkhole.
Since the special election to replace McCann, there have been five mayors of Jersey City. Even as the temperaments of these five bosses have been pretty different, the prime operational directive — the bedrock upon which every other policy decision is built — of each administration has always been the same. Jersey City attempts to solve its problems by cramming into town as many new residents as possible. That’s it; that’s the only trick in the playbook. Shoehorn them in and try to tax them — unless you’ve enticed them here with a tax break, in which case the aim is to someday tax all the imaginary folks who are going to follow their lead. Those who attempt to dignify this policy will sometimes talk mistily about ratables and the ratable chase, as if there’s a shrewd, sophisticated fiduciary design behind it rather than a failure of imagination. Really it’s about as rudimentary as strategies get, and what was dim but vaguely defensible (and only somewhat insulting to longtime residents) in 1992 is downright preposterous a quarter-century later. Just look around you, neighbor. Jersey City does not need more people. Jersey City needs to start taking better care of the people who already live here.
That pivot should have happened decades ago. Instead, we’re all still waiting for it. Because he is young-ish and had a background in the finance industry, there was reason to believe that our current mayor would be the man to make it happen — when he first stood for office, you may recall, he promised to wind down the tax abatement policy. Instead of recalibrating our priorities, Mayor Fulop has presided over an unprecedented acceleration of the same overbuilding he once ran against. Fulop’s Jersey City is a nonstop construction site where the road-closing, traffic-clogging, jackhammer-pounding, street-rattling demands of developers, most of whom come from out of town, always take precedence over the desires of ordinary residents. Not content with tax abated towers by the waterfront, he now looks to greenlight them all over the city. He’s never met an ugly hi-rise he doesn’t want to add to our already aesthetically challenged skyline. His million-dollar destination marketing campaign is designed to funnel humans into new developments. Jersey City, to him, is like a balloon he wants to inflate larger and larger, pump full of more and more hot air, and all the stretch marks on its surface aren’t enough to convince him that it’s going to pop.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Fulop appears to see wanton overdevelopment and payments in lieu of taxes as the quickest way to close holes in the budget, and this does make a sick sort of short-term sense, just as stuffing rat-holes with old rags might buy you a few rodent-free nights before the foundation crumbles. But the mayor is also committed to a tiresome dick-slinging contest with the city of Newark about which city is destined to be the state’s biggest. (Perhaps it’s not fair to call it a contest; there’s no evidence that Newark is playing along.) I am not sure whether he believes that this will enhance his chances for the governorship, or if he simply has an Instagram-era fetish for numbers and gets off when more people “like” his city than his neighbor’s. In either case, I really wish he’d cut it out. As a chief municipal executive, it shouldn’t matter to you how many people you stuff within city limits. All that should matter is the quality of the life of the people who are here on your watch.
Those who push new tower construction and tax abatements for areas like Journal Square like to argue they are extending the prosperity of the Downtown to other parts of the city and reinvigorating areas that need a boost. I find this unconvincing. For starters, prosperity is a relative thing and is by no means general across the Downtown. The wild hike in property values around here hasn’t been an unmitigated good — it’s chased people out of town and closed the doors of retail outfits that operated on a human scale. I am not sure that it’s in the best interest of Journal Square or Bergen-Lafayette to copy our morally iffy example. I am absolutely sure that the erection of massive residential towers in the middle of a neighborhood that otherwise consists of two- or three-storey buildings will do nothing to precipitate camaraderie among people who live here. These aren’t buildings that contribute to a clubby, cheery, neighborhood feel; they’re the kind of buildings that obliterate any sense of continuity between city blocks. Of course, now we’re taking seriously the claim that these people really want to help the neighborhoods they’re building in, and I don’t think there’s anything to indicate they’re after anything but a buck. I don’t really want to get into the background of the guy who’s funding this new expansion, because he’s already gotten more press than he deserves, but it’s a matter of public record, and it’s easy enough to look up if you’re curious.
I’m not a zero population growth person, and I know you aren’t one, either. If you’re here, you’re stimulated by change and creativity; that’s why we don’t live in Saskatchewan, as Scott Miller memorably put it. But not all urban design is intelligent, and not all growth represents municipal improvement. There comes a point where development visibly outpaces a city’s capacity to comfortably integrate it into the fabric of our communities — when the fabric gets all ripped up and shredded and dragged through the mud after a long night at the bar. Jersey City passed that point a long time ago. Our leaders need to acknowledge the problem, and our citizens need to demand that those leaders do something about it. We’re way overdue for a course correction.
When I was a young person taking piano lessons, dutifully and klutzily doing my scales and listening to Keith Emerson in my spare time, I always hoped that one day I’d play synthesizers on an album like this one. But I didn’t think I ever would. I didn’t think I’d be good enough.
Most childhood hopes come to nothing: for instance, I never did get to pitch for the Mets. My chances of becoming a caped avenger are getting slimmer by the day. And I still don’t think I’m good enough to play on an album as tight and musically adventurous as The Well-Tempered Overlord. But my bandmates sure are, and I’m happy they’ve kept me around for the ride.
The Well-Tempered Overlord is out today, and it’s available through the usual channels — iTunes, Amazon, etc. Since we’re an old-fashioned bunch, you can even get a CD from us if you want one. But that’s not why I’m writing today. Although I’m certain you’re going to like The Well-Tempered Overlord as much as I do, I don’t want you to order the album over the Internet and admire us from afar. That’s boring. I want you to come to Cake Shop on Saturday, September 17 and get a copy from us in person as we celebrate its release with the best and most cathartic show we’ve ever done. I know we’ve got it in us. Doors are at 8, music starts at 9, tickets available at the door or here through Ticketfly.
If you haven’t yet seen the video for “Mission To Mars”, you really should. Trust me. It’s right here.
Cake Shop has always been Overlord’s home away from home, and we love it like Kirk loves the Enterprise, like Kathy Lee loves Regis, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti loved City Lights. If you’ve seen us play, there’s a very good chance it’s been in that basement room. If you haven’t and don’t know where it is, but you’ve always wanted to visit New York City’s premier spot for cupcake pop, swirly/jangly/echoey guitar psych, and fuzzed-out melodic nonsense, direct yourself down to 152 Ludlow Street between Stanton and Rivington. We’re sharing this bill with our friends in Pale Lights. We’ll see you there.
No song from the first three Tris McCall albums has a music video. Jay and I made a clip for “Sugar Nobody Wants” from the fourth album, but I never publicized it, and everything about it is intentionally understated. I like it a lot — it’s footage of Jersey City and Bayonne shot from Jay’s car on Jay’s iPhone, and then spliced together afterward, and we took a memorable trip over the Outerbridge Crossing together while we made it. But there are no people in it. I think my shadow snuck in there, but my mug never did. The Replacements’ clip for “Bastards Of Young” notwithstanding, I’ve always felt a little leery about videos in which the principal songwriter didn’t appear. Especially if I didn’t know much about the artist. It’s like getting a cautiously worded letter of introduction rather than a firm handshake.
I love music video. I grew up cutting class to watch MTV, and if the TV is on in our house and I’m paying attention to it, it’s probably on BET Jams or VH1 Classic. Should you be foolish enough to ask, I can re-create the choreography in both the “Thriller” clip (representing my childhood) and Beyonce’s extended version of “Get Me Bodied” (representing my perpetually arrested adolescence). As a storytelling medium, music videos beat movies and serial television with a baseball bat. It is possible to pack all the meaning and provocation you need into three minutes and score a pop song at the same time. How can film directors, what with their biopics and tedious special effects and interminable romantic comedies and redundancy epics, ever compete with that? They can’t, I tell you. Stop calling me shallow. I may or may not have learned more from a three minute record, baby, than I ever learned in school, but I know that my conception of romance and male-female relationships was established by ZZ Top in their key-throwing clips and reinforced thereafter by Rihanna, Missy Elliott, et. al.
What impresses me most about George the Monkey’s video for “Mission To Mars”, which I hope you’ve seen by now, isn’t the elaborate set he built from scratch from antique components he purchased from collectors via eBay. It isn’t even Matt Houser’s performance as a NASA scientist, although he looks the part so precisely that I believe that there’s a parallel universe where he’s in command of a Cape Canaveral mainframe. No, what I like best is how fully he incorporated the fatalistic themes of The Well-Tempered Overlord into the clip. For instance, on “Give Up Your Dreams”, a song you might not know yet but hopefully soon will (album’s out September 9), George sings “why do you want all the things you want/what comment in what tender year shifted your drives into gear?”, and this question hovers over all of the stories on the set. This is exactly what is dramatized in the video: childhood experiences prompt the protagonist to do something that is inscrutable to everybody else but him. You can draw your own analogies to the artist’s struggle, or you can let George do it for you, on the other nine songs on the album maybe.
The point is that the music video allows the artist to deliver a concentrated emotional experience — one that’s hopefully enhanced by the song — that makes other forms of filmed entertainment seem ponderous in comparison. I’ve done a lot of talking about the way in which the webcomic improves on the storytelling experience of the book, stuck as books are with beginnings and endings that you can constantly (and boringly) orient yourself to just by checking how many pages you’ve got to go. Music video is a big improvement, too, because it cuts out all the respiration and glossy time-killing that I associate with the movies. By now, music video has its own long tradition, its own conventions, and its own set of classics — yet it feels like it’s still a fertile area for formal innovation.
All of which brings me back to my strange reluctance to pair my own songs with videos. I’d like to say I have some principled objection, or some aesthetic preference for obscurity and shadows, but I really don’t. I’m just shy. The Favorite Color, my postcollegiate band, made a few videos, and I found my face so unsightly and my bearing so unpleasant that I wanted nothing more than to destroy all the VHS evidence. Even at the time I recognized this as a kind of body dysmorphia incommensurate with showbiz ambitions, and I tried to talk myself out of it, but it never went away completely. In my twenties, I told myself that I was still filling out, so to speak, and even if I’d never get my heart’s desire, which was to look and act on camera like Whitney Houston in the “How Will I Know” clip, I figured I could still attain Jackson Browne Lawyers In Love status or something like that. Now I know better. But I’ve decided to bite the bullet anyway, indulge my love for the format, and make some videos for these new numbers I’m cooking up. Which means you’ve got to watch. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.