Jul 03, 2014, 09:31AM

He's Looking Through You

An interview with historian/author John McMillian.

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My first encounter with John McMillian, the acclaimed academic, journalist and historian, wasn’t particularly convivial. A few years ago I reviewed his Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America for The Wall Street Journal and was unsparing in my criticism. McMillian, not surprisingly, wasn’t at all pleased, and complained about the review on Facebook. It was no skin off my nose—tame, really, compared to the verbal and written abuse I received while writing the MUGGER column for New York Press in the 1990s—but fair is fair, and McMillian, born in 1970 (15 years my junior) threw a good intellectual punch. As it happened, since then we’ve developed a friendly virtual rapport (we’ve never met), and though we diverge on all sorts of topics, especially politics, I find his observations quite keen. He was kind enough to answer many questions via email for the following interview.

SPLICE TODAY: You’ve taught at Georgia State University for four years now. As someone who went to college in the 1990s, what differences do you see between your students and your own experience as an undergraduate?

JOHN McMILLIAN: In some respects it’s hard to say, because my undergraduate experience was rather different from that of my students. I went to Michigan State, a well-established Big Ten school, with a lovely campus and a college town. And I was in a residential program, the James Madison College, which had a cozy, liberal arts vibe. Georgia State feels completely different. We graduate more minority students than any other school in the country. We have a lot of part-time students, a lot of commuters, and alas, there isn’t much of a campus to speak of.

Having said that, I have a couple of observations. One is that standards are loosening, and grade inflation is rampant. Both trends are a result of the corporatization of higher education. I don’t think most people realize how much teaching nowadays is done by contingent laborers—grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, visiting professors, and so on. They’re all vying for more secure and better paying jobs as tenure track professors, but those jobs are in very short supply. And I think lot of instructors are privately frightened much of the time—they dread the possibility that their students might give them negative evaluations at the end of the semester—and so that leads to a lot of mollycoddling.

And for better or worse, the hookup culture is real. Back when I was an undergrad, if you liked someone, you had to summon up the wherewithal to invite them out on a date. Nowadays people just thrust themselves into social situations where everyone gets drunk and hopes for the best. I realize I sound like an old man right now. One really neat difference from back then is that homosexuality has been so widely de-stigmatized among young people. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that, and it’s been great to see.

ST: As your books suggest, you’re a dedicated historian focusing on the 1960s. When did this intense curiosity begin? As a teenager in the early 80s?

JM: Pretty much. I grew in a small town (Essexville, Michigan), and although I wasn’t a good student, I got hooked on Beatles biographies. And that led me to other topics—hippies, the Black Panthers, that sort of thing. I didn’t plan on studying the 60s professionally though. When I started graduate school in the mid-90s, I wanted to write about race relations and slavery.

ST: As you know, I enjoyed your book on the Beatles and Stones. In the book, you recused yourself from revealing a preference: can you spill the beans now?

JM: I’m afraid I still don’t want to say. That’s not to say that I don’t hold a preference (of course I do). It’s just that the debate about the two groups is often so polarizing, and I didn’t set out to pick a side. The book is about how the rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones has been constructed—by fans, the media, and to some degree by the groups themselves.  

ST: What are your general tastes in music?

JM: I listen to all kinds of music (even classical, lately) but mostly I enjoy rock ’n’ roll. I’ve coined a phrase to describe a subgenre that I particularly like; I call it “endorphin rock.” It applies to groups that specialize in loud, angsty anthems. The Clash, in their early days, were pioneers of endorphin rock, followed by the Replacements, Husker Du, and Sleater-Kinney. Now Japandroids and The Hold Steady are leading the way. And lately I’ve been obsessed with the new album from Fucked Up, a Canadian hardcore band.

ST: Tell me about your book tour for Beatles Vs. Stones. Did you take a semester off from GSU? What’s it like to appear at signings and events at so many cities and towns in the country? What was your favorite stop?

JM: Well it was a tremendous amount of fun! I’ve heard authors complain about various indignities they’ve suffered while on book tours, and that sounds like so much humblebragging. I think it’s okay, after you’ve worked that hard on something, to want to bask in a bit of limelight. I had a great event at the Half King, in New York City, with John Strausbaugh. And it was fun to finally appear at the Harvard Book Store (they wouldn’t have me before).

ST: Did you have any dates that attracted just two or three people?

JM: Most of them were well attended, but I had one in Boise, Idaho, where only one person showed up. So I bought her a copy of the book and we went to a nearby bar. And I bought pitchers of beer for a whole group of strangers who came to my reading in Philadelphia. That’s one of the benefits of coming to my bookstore appearances—after it’s over, I’m liable to invite you out for drinks, and I’ll pick up the tab.  

ST: You’re a fairly regular Facebook user. Is that the only social media you participate in? What are your pros and cons about Facebook? Personally, I sometimes like the long threads of comments on articles, but it often gets repetitive and I drift away. It’s too time-consuming.

JM: I have various strategies for keeping Facebook manageable and enjoyable. Lately I’ve been keeping exactly 500 Facebook friends. That means that if I add someone, someone else has to go. All of my Facebook friends are people I know and like in real life, or else they’re people I genuinely want to stay in touch with. And I’ve stopped taking friend requests from relatives. I suppose that may have caused some hurt feelings, but it’s for the best. They’d be appalled by some of my Facebook behavior.

ST: I know you’re a huge New England Patriots fan, which perhaps developed when you taught at Harvard. Have you taken a liking to the Braves (despite the franchise’s outrageous new, taxpayer-funded stadium)?

JM: I moved to Cambridge in 2001, the year the Patriots won the Super Bowl after beating the Raiders in the Tuck Rule Game. And over the years I’ve become a real big fan. They’re obviously poised to have another great season (and the season can’t get here soon enough).

I saw the Braves play the Mets just the other night, and it was my fourth game this season. But I’m not a big baseball fan. I just find the ballpark an enjoyable place to sit and chat with friends. (Sometimes I’ll even bring a newspaper.) I used to love going to Fenway, and Turner Field really pales in comparison. Also, Atlanta is a lousy sports town. Still, the fact that the Braves are moving to Cobb County—and that the decision was made in secret, and then presented to the city as a fait accompli—is just deplorable. (Meanwhile, everyone involved keeps insisting they’re opposed to wasteful spending.)

ST: College basketball or football?

JM: I don’t make a lot of time for college sports, but of course I support Michigan State. My immediate family is nuts for MSU (the four of us plus my brother-in-law have seven degrees from there). And anytime I want to get an expert opinion on how their teams are doing, I can call my Dad.

ST: What is your reading regimen? Do you still subscribe to any print publications, and if so, which ones? Have you succumbed to digital book-reading or (like me) still prefer print copies? At one point in the 90s, I subscribed to about 75 magazines, which is now down to maybe a dozen, and I don’t often get to them all, save The New Yorker, UK Spectator, Weekly Standard, New Criterion and The New Republic.

JM: I read a lot, and lately more than usual because this summer I’m subleasing a house that doesn’t have a television. I thought that would be a huge drag, but in fact I’m loving it. I have four good books going right now: novels by Jim Harrison and Stephen King, a book about urban planning, and a breezy cultural history of New York City in 1977.

And like you, I strongly prefer print. Sometimes I’ll show up at a coffee shop or the Wrecking Bar with a shopping bag full of newspapers and magazines, and I think people may wonder whether I’m homeless. I read The Wall Street Journal on the weekend (I like the “Review” section, and the “Five Best” column), and I carry subscriptions to The New York Times (daily), Harper’s, The Atlantic, New York, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Oxford American, The Baffler, Rolling Stone, Runner’s World and Outside. And usually when I’m reading I have a notebook nearby, which I fill up with fancy words and finely wrought sentences.   

ST: As a longtime (starting the 70s) journalist/publisher, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the days when print ruled. But there’s no sense in complaining, you adapt and try to make sense of what really is a still-unsettled media environment. Do you prefer today’s media to what you grew up with? What websites do you make a point of checking out on a daily basis? If you say BuzzFeed, this interview may be terminated.

JM: Our current media environment is certainly challenging. The clickbait, the listicles, the sponsored content, the malicious gossip sites—all of that stuff can be so frustrating.  But sometimes I can’t turn away from it. The main thing I’m concerned about is this phenomenon of epistemic closure—the tendency of people to only consume news and information that supports their existing worldview, and to shun anything they might find discomfiting.

You see it everywhere, but it seems more pervasive on the Right. That’s why most Republicans think the deficit has been increasing under President Obama, when in fact it’s shrinking. They're apoplectic about these unilateral decisions coming from the Executive Branch, and they don’t even know that Obama has issued fewer executive orders than all of his recent predecessors. They think Obama’s a socialist even though he rescued Wall Street, and the stock market is going strong again. Nearly 40 percent of the people who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 also think that Saddam Hssein attacked us on 9/11. They think man-made climate change is some kind of fringe theory, or a hoax. I don’t know how we’re supposed to proceed as a country with so many people who are untethered from reality.

ST: You’ve mentioned that you’re not a diehard Hillary Clinton partisan for 2016. Can I assume that you’re hoping for an Elizabeth Warren run? I find her to be an almost certain loser, unless, which is very possible, the Republicans tap a kook like Ted Cruz. As a historian, do you believe the by-now trite view that today’s politics is more polarized than ever, or do you think it’s just a cyclical period we’re in?

JM: I dislike Hillary Clinton, for all the obvious reasons. The thought of her running for president makes me queasy. And fact that she appears to be the inevitable nominee represents a profound failure of imagination among Democrats. But you know what? If she does get the nomination, I’ll certainly be supporting her. As Andrew Sullivan said the other day, she’s our best hope for keeping the lunatic party out of the White House.

Besides, I can see a potential upside to a Hillary Clinton presidency; she’d make a lot of Republican heads explode. Perhaps even more than Obama, she really pushes the buttons of grassroots conservatives, many of whom are obviously suffering from status anxiety (in Richard Hofstadter’s sense of the term). They’re just so profoundly culturally aggrieved—by demographic trends, by the rising visibility of gays, and by the possibility that certain types of people might be condescending to them.

But who knows? Maybe, over time, they can learn to accept certain realities. I have a fantasy that one day Hillary Clinton will nominate Barack Obama for the Supreme Court.  That would be great to see.

I think you’re right that Elizabeth Warren probably isn’t electable right now. But I like much of what she stands for. And I do think that we’re going through an especially rancorous and polarized time. Once again, I suspect that the Right deserves the lion’s share of the blame.

ST: Your views on immigration?

JM: You mean the immigration debate? I suppose it’s another one of those issues where both sides are being unreasonable. In theory, I don’t have a problem with voter ID laws. It’s really not that onerous to hold some form of official identification, and if getting an ID really is a hardship for some people, I’m sure we could make it easier. I can likewise see why people have problems with amnesty bills.

Having said all that, the nativism and xenophobia that you see on the Right today is unconscionable. I don’t believe it’s just a perception—the GOP, on balance, really is hostile to minorities. And that’s going to cause them a lot of problems down the road. My heart goes out to people who come the U.S. to try and improve their lives, and I think we’d be all better off if we thought of ourselves as belonging to a global community. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect American interests. But we ought to have a greater degree of ethical worry for the plight of people who weren’t lucky enough to be born here.

ST: How would you compare the editorial pages of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (arguably the only U.S. dailies that matter anymore)? What columnists—from any outlet—do you like and despise?

JM: My enthusiasm for the Times’ editorial page has been steadily ebbing away. I realize I’ve just been venting a lot about the GOP, but I likewise get frustrated with liberal orthodoxies. It’s just not very fun reading any newspaper when you already know what it’s going to say on almost any given issue.

But The Wall Street Journal’s page is far worse. The disingenuousness you find in that paper on a daily basis is staggering. Last weekend it was raising alarm about the incursions that ISIS is making into Iraq, and I absolutely agree that we need to counteract Muslim extremists. They’re dangerous motherfuckers! And it’s easy to see how a caliphate in Iraq and Syria might eventually pose a threat to the US. But the gist of the piece was to point out that this was happening “on Obama’s watch”—that he was to blame. Nowhere in the editorial did the WSJ make the elemental point that radical Jihadists had no presence whatsoever in Iraq until after we invaded in 2003. That sort of thing drives me nuts.

And that’s probably why I loathe Bill Kristol the way I do. In addition to being disingenuous, he has terrible judgment (that’s been proven) and he’s power mad. He doesn’t have any problems saying whatever he thinks he needs to say to advance his agenda. But I critique Glenn Greenwald along the same lines. I’m always telling progressives, if you don’t like it when conservatives play fast and loose with the facts, then don’t let Greenwald get away with it as well.

A short list of non-fiction writers (not necessarily “pundits”) that I admire would include Tom Frank, Tom Bissell, Ron Rosenbaum, Caitlin Flanigan, Jill Lepore, Louis Menand, Chris Caldwell, Leslie Jamison and David Remnick. Andrew Sullivan is perhaps my favorite thinker right now. He can be frustrating at times (he gets fixated on things), but he’s normally sensible in his judgments and I’m impressed by his wit and erudition. And I miss Christopher Hitchens.

I’m also a big fan of Frank Rich. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but back when I was in Cambridge and New York, he and wife would occasionally find time to get together with me and another friend. And we both agree: he’s the kindest and most enjoyable famous person we’ve ever met.

ST: Your opinion on “trigger warnings”?

JM: It’s absurd to think that professors should be forced to include them on their syllabi. I’m also opposed to the fashionable idea, at some campuses, that certain types of people (white males, I suppose) should be told to “check their privilege.” If anyone asks that of me, I have a ready three-word retort.

ST: What are your favorite five movies and TV shows?

JM: Very quickly, off the top of my head. Movies: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, and Good Will Hunting. TV shows: The Wire, The Sopranos, The Newsroom, Veep and NFL football.

ST: Finally, if you had to pick one pivotal moment in the 1960s, what would it be? 

JM: Historians have this concept of “the long sixties,” which runs from 1955 (when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began) to 1975 (the Fall of Saigon). And man, it’d be hard to identify just one pivotal moment. But probably it was the Beatles’ arrival in America. If you think about it, Beatlemania was really a singular phenomenon in this history of the world. Nothing like that had ever happened before, and it’s never been duplicated.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • McMillian's point about the WSJ is so spot on, and applies to most conservative pundits. There is a non-veiled racism in all that anti-Obama junk - the "status anxiety" they're experiencing is driving them mad, and it scares me, personally. People that are losing power and status, being backed into corners, you don't know what they will do. They act irrationally and violently, as we've been seeing since Y2K.

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  • Yes, the WSJ has its conservative agenda, like the Times has its liberal agenda. And you're right, Kodak, that a percentage of anti-Obama antipathy is due to racism. But WSJ isn't in that corner; if you read the paper's editorials you'd see that.

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  • Interesting man and an interesting piece. Although the thought of President Obama one day being on the Supreme Court is one of the stupidest ideas I've ever heard. If only other interviewers did half as good a job as Russ.

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  • Thanks for the kind words. The trouble with Obama being a Justice is that no decisions would ever get reached since he has a problem making up his mind.

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