Mike Davis on COVID-19

Few historians (by trade) have been more influential under the Big Top of critical geographical thought (especially the Urban side) than Mike Davis. His book City of Quartz remains one of the most cited cautionary tales about the civic and social costs of privatization, especially considering how he arguably anticipated the 1992 LA Riots.

This essay he wrote came to me via social media, which (as much as I’ve been saying this for years, what with the failure of ‘the global village’ and all) we need to be vigilant about how we use. Under ideal circumstances, yesterday was the peak of what can only be referred to as “a productive hysteria.” The American Association of Geographers announced that their Denver meeting was cancelled, which has changed the layout of my spring a bit (more announcements soon). The NBA announced that their season is being suspended and the NHL is likely taking similar measures. To their benefit, I would absolutely watch a televised sporting event with nobody in the stands (The Three Stooges were out ahead of this 86 years ago, but I digress).

As I said, hopefully, as we learn more about COVID-19 and continue our collective efforts to mitigate its spread, the small bouts of hysteria I’ve witnessed will calm down and people won’t let it ruin their lives. Naturally, the relative paucity of gatekeepers to differentiate between valuable information and thoughtless pablum (mostly in the form of tired, regressive jokes about beer brands and 37 unique of Smash Mouth lyrics under a hand-washing diagram) has diluted what should be a teachable moment. That being said, I do find it ironic that 3/11 was the day for the greater public to suggest that we DO stay home, but again, I digress. Maybe there is something in using humor to battle something we might feel powerless against (not that it hasn’t been a primary function of comedy for thousands of years).

Without further ado, here is Mike Davis discussing important points about COVID-19 in light of the 21st century’s precarious balance of resources, growing population, and neoliberalism. Enjoy and feel free to pass it along or share your thoughts.


COVID -19 is finally the monster at the door. Researchers are working night and day to characterize the outbreak but they are faced with three huge challenges. First the continuing shortage or unavailability of test kits has vanquished all hope of containment. Moreover it is preventing accurate estimates of key parameters such as reproduction rate, size of infected population and number of benign infections. The result is a chaos of numbers.

There is, however, more reliable data on the virus’s impact on certain groups in a few countries. It is very scary. Italy, for example, reports a staggering 23 per cent death rate among those over 65; in Britain the figure is now 18 per cent. The ‘corona flu’ that Trump waves off is an unprecedented danger to geriatric populations, with a potential death toll in the millions.

Second, like annual influenzas, this virus is mutating as it courses through populations with different age compositions and acquired immunities. The variety that Americans are most likely to get is already slightly different from that of the original outbreak in Wuhan. Further mutation could be trivial or could alter the current distribution of virulence which ascends with age, with babies and small children showing scant risk of serious infection while octogenarians face mortal danger from viral pneumonia.

Third, even if the virus remains stable and little mutated, its impact on under-65 age cohorts can differ radically in poor countries and amongst high poverty groups. Consider the global experience of the Spanish flu in 1918-19 which is estimated to have killed 1 to 2 per cent of humanity. In contrast to the corona virus, it was most deadly to young adults and this has often been explained as a result of their relatively stronger immune systems which overreacted to infection by unleashing deadly ‘cytokine storms’ against lung cells. The original H1N1 notoriously found a favored niche in army camps and battlefield trenches where it scythed down young soldiers down by the tens of thousands. The collapse of the great German spring offensive of 1918, and thus the outcome of the war, has been attributed to the fact that the Allies, in contrast to their enemy, could replenish their sick armies with newly arrived American troops.

It is rarely appreciated, however, that fully 60 per cent of global mortality occurred in western India where grain exports to Britain and brutal requisitioning practices coincided with a major drought. Resultant food shortages drove millions of poor people to the edge of starvation. They became victims of a sinister synergy between malnutrition, which suppressed their immune response to infection, and rampant bacterial and viral pneumonia. In another case, British-occupied Iran, several years of drought, cholera, and food shortages, followed by a widespread malaria outbreak, preconditioned the death of an estimated fifth of the population.

This history – especially the unknown consequences of interactions with malnutrition and existing infections – should warn us that COVID-19 might take a different and more deadly path in the slums of Africa and South Asia. The danger to the global poor has been almost totally ignored by journalists and Western governments. The only published piece that I’ve seen claims that because the urban population of West Africa is the world’s youngest, the pandemic should have only a mild impact. In light of the 1918 experience, this is a foolish extrapolation. No one knows what will happen over the coming weeks in Lagos, Nairobi, Karachi, or Kolkata. The only certainty is that rich countries and rich classes will focus on saving themselves to the exclusion of international solidarity and medical aid. Walls not vaccines: could there be a more evil template for the future?

*

A year from now we may look back in admiration at China’s success in containing the pandemic but in horror at the USA’s failure. (I’m making the heroic assumption that China’s declaration of rapidly declining transmission is more or less accurate.) The inability of our institutions to keep Pandora’s Box closed, of course, is hardly a surprise. Since 2000 we’ve repeatedly seen breakdowns in frontline healthcare.

The 2018 flu season, for instance, overwhelmed hospitals across the country, exposing the shocking shortage of hospital beds after twenty years of profit-driven cutbacks of in-patient capacity (the industry’s version of just-in-time inventory management). Private and charity hospital closures and nursing shortages, likewise enforced by market logic, have devastated health services in poorer communities and rural areas, transferring the burden to underfunded public hospitals and VA facilities. ER conditions in such institutions are already unable to cope with seasonal infections, so how will they cope with an imminent overload of critical cases?

We are in the early stages of a medical Katrina. Despite years of warnings about avian flu and other pandemics, inventories of basic emergency equipment such as respirators aren’t sufficient to deal with the expected flood of critical cases. Militant nurses unions in California and other states are making sure that we all understand the grave dangers created by inadequate stockpiles of essential protective supplies like N95 face masks. Even more vulnerable because invisible are the hundreds of thousands of low-wage and overworked homecare workers and nursing home staff.

The nursing home and assisted care industry which warehouses 2.5 million elderly Americans – most of them on Medicare – has long been a national scandal. According to the New York Times, an incredible 380,000 nursing home patients die every year from facilities’ neglect of basic infection control procedures. Many homes – particularly in Southern states – find it cheaper to pay fines for sanitary violations than to hire additional staff and provide them with proper training. Now, as the Seattle example warns, dozens, perhaps hundreds more nursing homes will become coronavirus hotspots and their minimum-wage employees will rationally choose to protect their own families by staying home. In such a case the system could collapse and we shouldn’t expect the National Guard to empty bedpans.

The outbreak has instantly exposed the stark class divide in healthcare: those with good health plans who can also work or teach from home are comfortably isolated provided they follow prudent safeguards. Public employees and other groups of unionized workers with decent coverage will have to make difficult choices between income and protection. Meanwhile millions of low wage service workers, farm employees, uncovered contingent workers, the unemployed and the homeless will be thrown to the wolves. Even if Washington ultimately resolves the testing fiasco and provides adequate numbers of kits, the uninsured will still have to pay doctors or hospitals for administrating the tests. Overall family medical bills will soar at the same time that millions of workers are losing their jobs and their employer-provided insurance. Could there possibly be a stronger, more urgent case in favor of Medicare for All?

*

But universal coverage is only a first step. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that in the primary debates neither Sanders or Warren has highlighted Big Pharma’s abdication of the research and development of new antibiotics and antivirals. Of the 18 largest pharmaceutical companies, 15 have totally abandoned the field. Heart medicines, addictive tranquilizers and treatments for male impotence are profit leaders, not the defenses against hospital infections, emergent diseases and traditional tropical killers. A universal vaccine for influenza – that is to say, a vaccine that targets the immutable parts of the virus’s surface proteins – has been a possibility for decades but never a profitable priority.

As the antibiotic revolution is rolled back, old diseases will reappear alongside novel infections and hospitals will become charnel houses. Even Trump can opportunistically rail against absurd prescription costs, but we need a bolder vision that looks to break up the drug monopolies and provide for the public production of lifeline medicines. (This used to be the case: during World War Two, the Army enlisted Jonas Salk and other researchers to develop the first flu vaccine.) As I wrote fifteen years ago in my book The Monster at Our Door – The Global Threat of Avian Flu:

Access to lifeline medicines, including vaccines, antibiotics, and antivirals, should be a human right, universally available at no cost. If markets can’t provide incentives to cheaply produce such drugs, then governments and non-profits should take responsibility for their manufacture and distribution. The survival of the poor must at all times be accounted a higher priority than the profits of Big Pharma.

The current pandemic expands the argument: capitalist globalization now appears to biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare.

Sonic Sunday Clips 01.26.20 (MLK, Istanbul, and Stars)

Happy Sunday. I’ve got about 3 new posts brewing at the moment, but returning to a regularly scheduled life has been my first priority of late. I’ll get those out soon, though. For now, here are a few things of interest from this week.

  • Derek Alderman on MLK Streets
    My friend and former PhD Adviser Dr. Derek Alderman has made yet another major news appearance talking about the geographic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Obviously, this segment aired last Monday on ESPN. Derek shows up at 2:02, right after RFK announces MLK’s assassination.
  • History of Geography & Gender Conference, Istanbul
    This conference in August looks great, and it’s in Istanbul, too. Easily in one of my top ten cities yet-to-visit. Either way, if you’re able, drop a submission, and even see if you qualify for one of their paper awards.

Here is your weekly affirmation: a teenage choir from Vancouver that covers of Canadian indie rock anthems. This one may be my favorite.

 

The City is an Open Score (Crafting a Sonic Urbanism, Paris 2019)

1213191128_hdr

Hey, I’m back. I also gave no real indication that I was gone, since finals made that fairly difficult. I’ve also been working on my end-of-decade music lists, which I’ll post here next Monday. A lyric in one of my top 10 records of the decade says, “the city is an empty glass,” but this week’s retrospective says that “the city is an open score.”

Last week, I was privileged to join Theatrum Mundi for their annual Crafting a Sonic Urbanism conference at EHESS (Campus Condorcet) in Aubervilliers (Paris) on Friday. It was exactly what one would want out of a conference: laid-back, collegial, thoughtful, and concluded with a mind-melting talk by Saskia Sassen.

1213191855_hdr

Saskia Sassen at EHESS (Aubervilliers, France 13.Dec.2019)

At the beginning of my talk, I cited a portion of my 2016 interview with Ian MacKaye where he reflected on Fugazi’s success in France. He said (to paraphrase) that he felt like the French and some other European punks had a certain appreciation for what artists were doing outside of the capitalist paradigm of production, and that finding that appreciation for your efforts was simply a universal human desire. For similar reasons, I appreciated the opportunity to present my research across the pond.

Theatrum Mundi have no qualms about pushing various envelopes, drawing heavily on abstract thought and experimental art to propose new ideas or ways of thinking about landscape. Even if some of it went over my head (especially as a ostensible non-musician), everyone there was eager to learn from one another. I was grateful to be able to join some of the conference family on Thursday for a “Scoring the City” workshop:

1212191158_hdr

Scoring the City workshop, Porte de la Chapelle (12.Dec.2019)

The main colloquium on Friday ran from 9.30 until 17.00, with Dr. Sassen’s presentation ending the evening at 20.00 (I’m still somewhat on the 24-hour clock). I was introduced to several musical experiments, thought exercises, and moments in sonic political history, among the most notable being Lin Chi-Wei’s Tape Music (Jonathan Packham) and Ella Finer’s discussion of the use of vocal noise at the 1982 Greenham Common protests. It was also my first bilingual conference, including a handful of talks and presentations in French. I wish my French comprehension were better, but it forced me to practice, at least.

While I was in town, I also had the chance to catch up with a pair of my top Capitals of Punk informants (though of course I won’t play favorites). With new things coming for the book and the greater surrounding project in 2020, it was rewarding to hear more stories and approach future collaborations that may actually bring me back to Paris before too long.

I’ve also been fortunate to experience Paris in moments of political upheaval: one was an isolated incident (anti-austerity, Greek solidarity protests in July 2015) and the other was a protracted mass-scale industrial action this past month. Due to the strikes, almost all of the Metro lines were closed or profoundly compromised, and the (limited) buses were rolling sardine cans:

1216191122_hdr

Still, save for a handful of participants who had difficulty making it into Paris from elsewhere in France (the SNCF was on strike as part of the greater grève), the Sonic Urbanism conference went off without a hitch and I was able to get around the city and Ile-de-France with little incident. I joked with one friend that being an American used to relying on public transit in a variety of cities back home had prepared me for bad public transit. Even on Paris’ worst day, it was still not that bad, comparatively. I did not come across any protests around Les Halles, but I did not spend too much time down around there. The footage from cities like Bordeaux on the news every night was pretty harrowing, though, and it was a welcome change to see protesters presented in a marginally positive (or at least objective) light on a National platform, which is more than can be said for most any 24-hour American news outlet.

1215191638b_hdr

Paris, December 2019

All that being said, and despite how lovely France was in the Holiday Season, I’m grateful to be back in the States. 2019 was an amazing year for me. Cumulatively, I spent over a month of it overseas, and coupled with an affiliation switch and big move, suffice it to say I’m still exhausted as I write this. It’s a good exhausted, however, and I’m eager to relax over the Holidays and return to Central Michigan in 2020 with a head full of steam.

Thank you for reading and thank you for your support through this past year! To you and yours, I wish you:

1214192101_hdr

Mantes-la–Jolie, Île-de-France (December 2019)

 

Recommended Sunday Reading & Viewing

Happy Sunday. It’s a rainy and cold day here in Michigan, and I’m taking advantage of that to catch up on a few things I’ve neglected over the past couple of weeks. I don’t have time to write a proper entry (yet) about my Ben Irving Postcard searching in Detroit, but it was a successful start. In the meantime, I wanted to signal-boost a great article in Sports Illustrated and a great new documentary. I don’t know how valuable my endorsement here is, but I wanted to at least commend the respective producers for jobs well done from this geographer’s perspective.

Recommended Reading : THIS IS BRAVES COUNTRY / THIS WAS BRAVES COUNTRY

1013191142_hdr

I’ll be honest; I subscribed to Sports Illustrated following the Caps’ Stanley Cup victory so I could get an Ovechkin print and a limited-edition Washington Capitals Collectors’ edition. I only care about a few sports, and my short list doesn’t include the gambling-heavy ones the magazine usually focuses on.  All that being said, Sports Illustrated deserves a LOT of credit for elevating their topical writing and specialized coverage in an age when some magazines (which shall remain nameless) have turned into tabloids in an act of desperation to retain physical sales. For one thing, their 2019 swimsuit issue made a point to feature an ethnically and physically diverse set of models, focus on the models’ lives and thoughts, and address the elephant in the room about why the swimsuit edition even exists.

For another thing, the latest issue (October 7th, 2019) includes an excellent article about race, class, and baseball in Atlanta. Brian Burnsed takes a critical look at how the Braves’ move from Fulton County to Cobb County is not only a gigantic middle-finger to the team’s middle- and under-class African-American fans, but also microcosmic of Atlanta’s accelerating privatization and segmentation of population along racial and political lines in its unyielding sprawl. Though several of my best friends live there, I would never consider Atlanta among my favorite American cities, and I’m hardly familiar with the MLS stars Atlanta United, but Burnsed’s article makes me want nothing more than to go and hang out with the team’s fans in “the Gulch.” I had the “privilege” of going to a Braves game at Suntrust Park last season, and (to give the most insightful, academic analysis) it sucked. We parked in a lot adjacent to an office park, paraded over one mile with thousands through at least one or two other office parks, and sat in a sea of fans who, following a spirited video of Jason Aldean telling them to do so, did the tomahawk chop (in 2018). It’s all disenchanting, and a little dispiriting, particularly considering the angry letters I’m sure SI is receiving from “100% not racist” white Braves fans in the wealthy, season-ticket holding pockets of Cobb County upset that Sports Illustrated had to “make everything about politics.” I’d be interested in seeing what happens when Atlanta beefs up and privatizes the Gulch around Mercedes-Benz stadium.

Recommended Viewing: PUNK THE CAPITAL, BUILDING A SOUND MOVEMENT IN WASHINGTON DC (1976-1984)

1011192116a_hdr

The post-screening Q&A panel for Capitals of Punk. (L-R) Moderator Otto Buj, Andy Wendler (The Necros), director James June Schneider, Tesco Vee (The Meatmen/Touch & Go zine), Jeff Nelson (Minor Threat/3/Dischord Records).

Though I’m still processing the fact that it happened in the first place, on my way out of Detroit, I stumbled upon a screening of James June Schneider’s new Punk the Capital documentary at Third Man Records. I met James a few summers ago when I was in DC to do some zine research for my dissertation, so I wanted to say hi and congratulate him on completing the thing. I knew that the film’s release had been delayed for some years. On Friday night, I found out that he had been working on it for over 15 years, and it showed.

Punk the Capital is a MASTERPIECE, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I don’t think I had seen as much as five seconds of the footage, most of which came from Paul Bishow’s treasure-trove of Super 8 footage from the proverbial ‘back in the day.’ I can’t remember the last time a documentary made me smile and tap my foot this much, and in a strange way, it made me feel even more validated in devoting so much of my own life to studying and writing on how harDCore has seismically changed the world.

Also, the Q&A was a lot of fun, replete with stories from the handful of punk legends sitting on the stage. Tesco Vee mentioned the latest price tag he spotted on one of those /100 Necros Sex Drive EPs on eBay: $5,300. That’s not a typo. Five thousand and three hundred dollars. Good luck if you spot one for sale and have a 401k sitting around you can cash out.

James was joking with me after the screening that he and I would be competing on google now. I don’t imagine that will actually happen, but on the off chance somebody stumbles onto this website or Capitals of Punk, I’ll copy and paste the slew of upcoming Punk the Capital screenings here, in case you’re in one of these cities so you can drop whatever plans you have to go see the film (if isn’t already sold out).

  • October 13th, Milwaukee WI, Real TinselQ and A with Jeff Nelson ( Dischord Records / Minor Threat ) and filmmaker(s)
  • October 14th, Kansas City MO, Record BarQ&A with Jeff Nelson ( Dischord Records / Minor Threat ) and filmmaker(s) – co sponsored by Oddities Prints!
  • October 15th, Iowa City IA, Film Scene Q&A with Jeff Nelson ( Dischord Records / Minor Threat ) and filmmaker(s)
  • October 16th, Omaha NE, The Union for Contemporary Art Q and A with Jeff Nelson ( Dischord Records / Minor Threat ) and filmmaker(s)
  • October 17th, Denver CO, Aztlan Theatre 7:30 pm – no advance sales 
  • October 18th Reno NV, (flash screening! TBA)
  • October 19th, San Francisco CA, Artists Television Access Q and A with Chris Stover (Void), filmmaker(s) + bonus Void short film!
  • October 20th, Oakland CA, Land and Sea Q and A with Chris Stover (Void) and filmmaker(s) + bonus Void short film!
  • October 21st, Los Angeles CA, The Regent Q and A with Henry Rollins, filmmaker(s) and others moderated by Ian Svenonius
  • October 23rd, Tucson AZ, The Screening Room Q and A with co-director James June Schneider
  • October 24th, El Paso TX, Alamo Cinema Drafthouse (listing TBA) Q and A with co-director James June Schneider
  • Phoenix AZ, October 26th, Film Bar, Facebook Q and A with co-director James June Schneider
  • October 27th, Albuquerque NM, The Tannex, Facebook Q and A with co-director James June Schneider
  • October 28, Tulsa OK, Circle Cinema (POSTPONED BY VENUE!)
  • October 29, Memphis TN, (flash screening! TBA)
  • October 30th, Asheville NC, Grail Moviehouse – Q and A with filmmaker (s)
  • November 9, Washington DC area, AFI Q&A with filmmaker(s) and special guests TBA
  • November 10, Washington DC area, AFI Q&A with filmmaker(s) and special guests TBA
  • November 11,Washington DC area, AFI Q&A with filmmaker(s) and special guests TBA
  • November 17, Leeds, UK, Leeds International Film Festival
  • November 19, Leeds, UK, Leeds International Film Festival
  • November 23rd, Amsterdam NL, Occii

AAG 2019: Ian MacKaye Q&A, DC Punk Walking Tour, and the First Ever Academic Talk on Florida Man

The long wait is almost over: AAG DC starts this week! Because the meeting’s in the AAG’s (and my former, for a while) home base this year, I’ve been working to arrange a few special events that I’ll be announcing here, on twitter, and via the AAG’s social media as well.  It’s going to be a busy but good time. You can find me at one of the following three events (or of course by just hitting me up).

FRIDAY: A CONVERSATION WITH IAN MACKAYE

ian-mackay-john-frusciante-ultimate-guitar-interview-may-29th-2012-500x2871:10 – 2:50pm
Washington 1, Marriott, Exhibition Level
AAG Session Page – Event Page

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be moderating a discussion with Ian MacKaye for the keynote session of the Media and Communication Geography Specialty Group. Thank you to Ian for his interest as well as to my friend Emily Fekete at the AAG for making this happen. We’ll be talking about the relationship between the city and punk history, as well as the history of Dischord Records and his own musical career (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Embrace, The Evens, and more). Get there early to get a good seat!


SATURDAY 4/6: DC PUNK WALKING TOUR [SOLD OUT]

0524180827_hdr_film3Meet at 12pm
Marriott 24th St Entrance

I’ll be honest: I wrote a long, fun draft entry to publish closer to the event for a last-minute push in case it didn’t fill up, but it did. I’m grateful and humbled that this tour has generated as much interest as it has. I’m sorry if you missed a chance to register for a spot, but as with any walking tour, there’s a reasonable chance for a few no-shows. If any spots do open up, I’ll make sure to announce it on twitter and contact those registered.

For now, here is the gist of what I wrote originally. I’ll wait to divulge more details until we’re closer to the event, but there will be surprises, some brought to you by our good friends at Palgrave Publishing, and others brought to you by our tour sites.  You’re probably wondering, “AAG members offer plenty of great walking tours every year; why should I, a person of [indeterminate] interest in punk rock, be looking forward to this one?”

  1. You’ll have time built-in to enjoy some of the best Falafel, Empanadas, or food of your choice that DC has to offer. 
    We’ll be walking through a gastronomic epicenter toward the beginning of our tour that includes a couple of places I absolutely cannot miss when I’m in town. I’m building in some free time for eating and shopping, so you don’t need to eat a gigantic brunch beforehand. But if you do, you’ll have more time to focus on…
  2. Shopping for records, clothes, and other merchandise. 
    Get your souvenir shopping out of the way while learning about DC culture. Why spend your money on some Washington Monument snow globe when you could have something from a boutique where locals actually hang out? Grab that Fugazi record for your turntable or that photo book for your coffee table.
  3. You’ll meet luminaries of the DC punk scene. 
    Any stroll through Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant on a Saturday afternoon affords you plenty of chances to bump into somebody who played (and still plays) a key role in the DC punk story. For this tour, I’ve been coordinating cameos from some of my favorite people I knew from the scene when I lived there as well as some great folks I met while working on the book.
  4. You’ll get those steps in.
    Many landmark sites in harDCore history are right down the street from the conference hotel in Adams-Morgan and around the corner in Mount Pleasant. In other words, no hopping on and off of a shuttle, dealing with traffic, or battling tourists on the Metro. That being said, if you have a disability and require transport assistance, please notify us in your registration. From what I remember, all of the key sites we’ll be visiting (and most lunch/shopping options) are accessible.
  5. I will be leading it.
    Not that I would be the biggest selling point, but I’d be grateful to have you along for my first AAG walking tour, in a neighborhood that was so important to me when I lived there (and still is).  Over my time there, I heard so many stories and have so many great memories (not included in Capitals of Punk) I look forward to sharing.

Let me know if you have any questions [sonicgeography at gmail]. We will take off from Marriott Wardman Park’s 24th St Entrance on Saturday 4/6 at Noon. See you there!


SUNDAY: LIGHTNING TALK ON FLORIDA MAN

2f83:55 – 5:05 PM
Contemporary Issues in Human Geography
Washington 6, Marriott, Exhibition Level

You read that right: I’m engaging with some  research on the Florida Man. This is a topic that, as a cultural geographer with a soft spot for Florida (that I catch heat for, no pun intended), I’ve been interested in for some time. It seems that every six months or so, the internet breathes new life into this apocryphal character. Recently, a meme went around imploring people to google “Florida Man” and their birthday. Much of my research focuses on circulation, and internet-mediated phenomena like these work wonders(?) to perpetuate (inter)national perspectives on what makes Florida assume the mantel of “our weirdest state.”

I understand many of you may have skipped town by Sunday afternoon, but this session looks like it will be amazing: talks on Kingston, Cincinnati, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), Climate security, and Uttarakhand.


0524180822a_hdr_film3

Anyway, see you in DC. If you’re not going, you’ll be missed and I’ll be happy to give you all a rundown of the highlights from this year’s meeting on this site sometime after I get back to Knoxville. I’m still reeling as I write this from a great time in Memphis at the Balancing the Mix conference, in fact. Thanks to Mark Duffett and Amanda Nell Edgar for putting it together. If I have time this week (that’s a big ‘if’), I’ll post an update or two about the conference as well as the West Tennessee chapter of the Ben Irving Postcard Project.

Black Lives: Struggle (St. Louis)

 

Thanks to my friend Ben for bringing this to my attention. The Russian news network RT recently released the first episode of a brutally honest and thought-provoking look into America’s black communities. This episode focuses on St. Louis, a city with a deep catalog of problematic (to say the least) policies in the areas of population retention, law enforcement, and of course, urban planning:

feat_art_11_03_14

It was a real privilege to teach a summer course on human rights and genocide. I’m always grateful to provide a forum for people to flesh out their understandings of how and why people’s relationships with the state become contentious, who benefits (if anyone does), and what we as individuals can do in our communities to help spread hope. Genocide and ethnic cleansing aren’t one-dimensional processes or isolated events, and we cannot build anything while people remain active proponents of either (and self-identify as such, very openly, in comments sections).

The Flaming Lips, Mick Cornett, and the Selling of Oklahoma City

[I wrote this a few months ago upon hearing about my former colleague’s passing. Due to travel and teaching commitments, I unfortunately never completed it. In the interest of getting this out of my drafts folder, I’ve decided to publish it and give you all some reading material for this Monday morning. This may become a paper about the US Mayors’ Conference and “the selling of” cities on day. We’ll see. – Tyler]


I received some very sad news recently from some colleagues from my DC life. John, our longtime Managing Director at the PR firm where I worked passed away from cancer at age 70. As tragic as the news was to hear, it was nice for us to share some memories of perhaps the best person I  ever have been so fortunate to work under. I went through old files to see if I had any mementos of John, with no luck. However, it did lead me down a rabbit hole of memories from my twenties, some stories which would find a good home on this site now. I don’t think I’ve shared this story anywhere online, either, so here we go.

CIMG7419

A good way to get a photo op with Mayor Steve Benjamin was to show up in the same suit. I had no idea that Columbia, SC would eventually become one of my favorite southern cities, and this photo would become a running joke between me and friends I would make there. Strange.

The best assignment I had for that job sent me to Oklahoma City in 2010 for the US Conference of Mayors. Twice a year (once in DC and once in a roving location), leaders of towns and cities from across the country meet to trade tips on civic programs, navigating political minefields, image curation, and other tacit knowledge. Despite the number of big-name politicians in attendance (some of whom are currently countenancing Presidential campaign rumors), I don’t remember the meeting getting much national media coverage outside of our radio campaigns. Since few of these mayors are real celebrities, it didn’t get the slathered attention of an election-year Democratic or Republican National Convention. That being said, CNN was on hand, going live with then-LA-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who deflected rumors that his city was considering bankruptcy. What was going on in LA in 2010 that would have generated such rumors is beyond my immediate knowledge.

As one might expect, the host mayor is keen to show their city off to visiting dignitaries quite enthusiastically. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was that host, and show the city off he did. In 2010, he was in the midst of a banner era in his mayoral tenure. He appeared on Ellen in 2008 on the success of his anti-obesity campaign, giving Ellen Degeneres her own holiday in the city. The next year, the Thunder rocketed into playoff contention, bringing the city and state onto the national basketball stage and facing the Lakers in a contentious playoff series. What Cornett had going for his spectacle, though, was something intangible that his fellow Mayors would have killed for: the cool.

Most Mayors, especially for non-Major cities, are very down to earth. Their governance does not span an insurmountable area, so it’s easier for them to be on the street, interacting with their constituents and actually functioning like the citizens they need to impress. Though there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with corruption, the instances seem fewer and farther between; they are still beholden to their neighbors. It also follows that Mayors are predominantly Democrats, people of color, and in some cases LGBT.

CIMG7463Cornett was none of those things, but coming from within Red-State political hegemony didn’t prevent him from charming everyone by propping up his city’s greatest counter-cultural export: The Flaming Lips. His committee arranged for the band to play a private concert for the conference attendees and their families. All of the conference contractors got passes, too. As a music nerd who came of age when the Lips were at their creative and critical peak (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots mobilize something of a consensus here), imagine my excitement when I read that they were in the program for the third night.

I’ll get to the concert shortly. On the first night, the coordinating committee set up a private tent near the Sonic headquarters in Bricktown, the finely redeveloped, expertly walk-able downtown area. The party’s location came at the hands of some meticulous planning. It gave them an excuse to show off the relatively flashy downtown district (which, according to members of Red City Radio, the city paid for with a 1-cent sales tax hike).

CIMG7413

On the river-walk next to the Sonic headquarters. I don’t remember what this band sounded like, but judging by the cargo shorts, I’d say Jimmy Buffett got covered at some point.

On the second night, the conference piled everyone onto chartered buses and, with an roving wall of police escorts, led us out to a big warehouse in the city’s hinterland. Before we got a taste of Cool Oklahoma, we were to indulge in every Cowboy stereotype imaginable. A country string band played on a stage built on the opposite end from the entrance. A electronic Buckin’ Bronco ride sat immediately to the right, and a set of lanes for tossing Horseshoes sat between bales of imported hay to our left. In all fairness, “played Horseshoe against my boss in Oklahoma” is a claim few DC yuppies ever got to make. The well-orchestrated hoedown was fun, between the two-stepping lessons, barbecue, and open bars that surrounded us. I vaguely remember having a wonderful conversation with Mitch Ward, a retired actor and then the mayor of Manhattan Beach, CA, while standing in line at one of them.

 

On the third night, everyone headed over to the Ford Center (then in its final year with that name; it’s now named Chesapeake Energy Arena). We waited in the concourse, where they set up snack and drink tables, along with (from what I recall) showcases of local students’ artwork. I snapped a photo of a big mural they had painted that said, in airbrush-novelty font, “Rock and Roll with the Flaming Lips.” At the time, it seemed somewhat tacky and off-putting, but in retrospect they probably employed a local artist and some printers for a few days in order to make it, so who was I to hurl judgment? It was eye-catching.

CIMG7459

After an incongruously formal dinner program, a succession of mayors took the stage to make a succession of presentations. By this point, many of us were excited for the musical program to begin, so it started to feel as if it was dragging. Granted, it was entertaining to see public officials let loose and make speeches at varying levels of intoxication. Once the dinner program ended and the staff cleared the tables up front, Cornett got back onstage to introduce the band. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic filed into their seats. My coworkers and I migrated towards the stage, hearing a commotion coming from the bleachers a couple stories above our heads. We looked up to our left to see the 300 level filling up with hundreds of people who had just been unleashed from the concourse.

It had somehow eluded me that so many of the volunteers we had met in the course of the three activity-filled days, the local welcoming committee and the cogs who made it possible for Cornett’s machine to operate through the conference, were paid with free passes to this show. “Huh,” I thought, “That’s actually kind of brilliant.” I felt guilty being on the floor while the volunteers were sequestered up in the nosebleeds, but at least they all had a clear sight line down to the stage for what would be a 20-minute set. Also, the band (Coyne and Drozd, at least) came down to hang out and take photos with conference attendees for a long while after their set, so it would have been chaos if they’d allowed all of the volunteers onto the floor, too.  There were already enough indie dorks telling Wayne Coyne about how long they had been fans, how cool it was that the band did this gig, and other niceties. The best part was that Coyne and a couple of his band mates were so nice to everyone, no matter how monopolizing particular fans attempted to be.

CIMG7467

CIMG7477

Just a couple of similarly dressed guys with ambiguously pronounced last names.

My boss and I got to chat with Steve Drozd, and we both took photos with him and his baton. He had just conducted an orchestra for the first time, and the excitement that he radiated was hilarious. My favorite moment of that whole week came when he looked at my name tag and asked me how to pronounce my last name. “Sonic-sun,” I replied, “How do you pronounce your last name?” “Draw-zid” he replied, answering a question I’d had wandering in my head ever since I first read his name in the pages of SPIN a decade earlier. Drozd’s prior decade, given his recovery from a somewhat well-documented heroin addiction, represents one of indie rock’s great redemption stories.

I witnessed an even greater fan-moment nearby a minute later. My friend/coworker Rebecca got Coyne to pose for a picture where they were both running a hand through their big, curly manes. There was nothing of deeper significance to this, but it was satisfying how Rebecca saved the rock star from a trio of bro’s who were monopolizing his time, prattling on about their cultural capital as Lips fans.

Whenever I’ve recounted this weekend to friends, I often pinpoint a few specific moments of epiphany, and Mick Cornett featured in all of them. After the concert ended, they arranged for a private after-party on the roof of a highly-regarded Italian restaurant in Bricktown whose roof patio overlooked Flaming Lips Alley. Later in the night, I wound up chatting with Cornett’s son (around my age), and Mick came over to join us. Within a few minutes, Cornett was proudly telling me how he pushed to help both name that alley after the Flaming Lips as well as help name “Do You Realize!?” Oklahoma’s State Rock song, both in the face of adversity from some real squares.

This made perfect sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if his kids left for college in the late 90’s and reported back to him about this band from OKC that everyone loved.  Additionally, The Flaming Lips are nothing if not prolific collaborators. Wayne Coyne has been vocal about his dedication to Oklahoma City, too, fighting to make the it less of a flyover and more of a destination. Conference attendees walked away with a free copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on CD, left in our hotel rooms by the local welcoming committee. The committee also left us limited edition copies of No Fences. I never imagined that I would own a Garth Brooks CD, but here we are. It’s good; I understand why it sold over 10 million copies.

Anyway, here is the video I discovered in the course of my archival search that sent me down this detour of memory lane. Wayne Coyne thanks Mayor Cornett, has the crowd congratulate Steven Drozd on his orchestra conducting debut, and introduces the Yo La Tengo cover. Enjoy everything coming together in a strange way.