A horrible image

 

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Since this is the 4th of July weekend, I pulled a copy of “Masterpieces of American Literature,” published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1891, off my bookshelf about an hour ago. I once bought it for 50 cents at an estate sale, and have found interesting things in it from time to time. I wanted to see what insights it would offer me this evening, so I started paging through its contents.

I came upon an essay written by James Russell Lowell for The North American Review in January of 1864. For some people, anything written that long ago has nothing to say to them. A world without the internet, or even indoor plumbing, holds nothing of interest to those who think that the 20th century was a long time ago. But the historian I’ve always tried to be takes the opposite approach. As Patrick Henry once said, “I know of know way to judge the future, but by the experiences of the past.” And 1864 certainly qualifies on this front.

Lowell was an influential poet and an abolitionist, and his writings received considerable attention at the time. Something that he wrote, in the midst of a lengthy election-year defense of President Lincoln, made me realize what a horrible candidate–and person–Donald Trump truly is.

In describing Lincoln, Lowell wrote that “he has always addressed the intelligence of men, never their prejudice, their passion, or their ignorance.”

I stopped when I read this, because Donald Trump’s appeal seems rooted in a continuing appeal to all three elements. The historic stereotypes about Jews and money seem to be on full display in the image above. And if replacing the image of a six-pointed star with a circle instead is all it takes for Trump to avoid responsibility for this image, that will be the most stunning example yet of what Trump has been allowed to get away with in this campaign.

How about passion? Consistently referring to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” instead is about as low as it gets on this front. People don’t want crooked politicians, in any form or fashion, and attempting to use this term to create an automatic, unthinking association to his opponent is a manipulation of people’s passions about politicians.

The third element Lowell refers to is ignorance. Is Hillary the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever”? How would that ever be quantified or proven? The point is there’s no desire to do so. Trump says it, so it must be true. That’s about as ignorant as it gets.

For James Russell Lowell, who lived during Lincoln’s time as president, there were some appeals that simply weren’t made. And we continue to love Lincoln for exactly the reasons that Lowell described. So when Donald Trump–or any of his supporters–attempts to lay claim to Lincoln’s political party as his own, his routine appeals to prejudice, passion, and ignorance must be pointed out. He’s no Lincoln, as this affair makes perfectly clear.

 

No More Guns Over People

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I’ve never held a gun, owned a gun, fired a gun, or had the first thing to do with a gun. They aren’t my thing, but they are many people’s thing. That’s fine. I’m not here to pass judgment on anybody for that. But the Columbine shooting happened just a few days after my older daughter was born, and how many mass shootings have happened since then? Sandy Hook hit me hard, and Orlando did too, but there are probably a hundred others where I shook my head and moved along until it happened again. That can’t happen anymore.
 
I’m quite comfortable with the 2016 elections being a binary propositions about guns in this country. Either we do nothing at all to limit people’s access to guns–the NRA model–or we do something in the hope that it saves even one life somewhere. If your home is on fire, you don’t passively watch it burn. But that’s what our Congress is doing, and will continue to do. The NRA owns them, and their inaction on this matter is entirely by design.
 
So vote guns this fall, or don’t. It really is just that simple. Mark Kirk, my senator in Illinois, broke ranks with his party (the GunsOverPeople crowd) but it won’t be enough to get him re-elected, not when his war hero opponent was on the House floor during yesterday’s sit in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are indeed desperate times. Grieving families from coast to coast will attest to that.

American Ugly

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This is what Donald Trump appeals to. This big scary guy filled with rage wants to intimidate anyone who he doesn’t see as “American.” This guy is only one Trump supporter, but he’s also a symbol for the dark, destructive urges that Trump plays to. If Trump wins, this guy wins, too. That simply can’t happen.

The video is filled with as much ugliness as you would expect, so watch at your own peril. But the picture and the story are enough to paint a very disturbing picture. Silence in the face of this is not an option, either.

I’ve been struggling with the idea that one of the two main political parties could nominate Trump to run this country. I’m still convinced they’ll snap out of it before it’s too late, and throw the nomination to someone else. That person could even be worse than Trump, but the folly of putting Trump on the ballot should be clear for everyone to see, except for maybe this guy. And that’s precisely why Trump is so toxic for this country.

Sign O’ the times, mess with your mind

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Learning that Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl makes his death harder to deal with than ever. I’ve forgotten by now what the original cause of death was reported to be, but people swore up and down that his religion and/or his healthy lifestyle meant that drugs could not have played a role. But that lie has now been exposed for what it is.

When I was in graduate school a quarter of a century ago, I was given an assignment to find artifacts from different periods of history. The artifacts I used were a metallic bell that purported to be made from the USS Maine as a relic from the 1890s, the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter as a relic of the 1940s, and Prince’s song “Sign O’ the Times” as a relic of the 1980s. We were hardly even out of the 1980s at that point, and it already felt like Prince had encapsulated that decade as well as anybody could.

The lyrics to the song addressed everything from AIDS (“a big disease with a little name”) to crime (“being ‘ in a gang called the Disciples high on crack, totin’ a machine gun”) to the space shuttle disaster (“when the rocket ship explodes”). It was a snapshot of, well, the times we were living in back in the 1980s. I knew it then, and am even more aware of it now, all these years later.

But a line from it foreshadows Prince’s own death. Anyone familiar with the song knows what it is, but since many aren’t familiar with it, I’ll spell it out here as a public service. Think of it as my good deed for the day. Prince sings the following line:

In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time

Now he’s doin’ Horse, it’s June

“Horse” was a reference to heroin, and the idea Prince was getting at was marijuana was thought of as a gateway to harder, more serious drugs like heroin. It’s beyond ironic, then, that a man who sang about heroin addiction could one day become a victim of it, himself. But what’s even more telling is that a gateway to heroin does exist, but it’s not marijuana at all.

The gateway that led Prince to heroin and fentanyl was opioids, and Percocet in particular. It needs to be pointed out that these drugs are legal when prescribed by a doctor. They aren’t illegal street drugs, the way that marijuana and LSD are. They are what’s known as Schedule II drugs, meaning they are entrusted to the medical community for the purposes of treating and managing pain. But once they leave the medical community, havoc ensues. And the path from there to heroin–a Schedule I drug which is cheaper and easier to obtain than the prescription drugs–is all too well-traveled.

If Prince– with all of his fame and notoriety–could not escape the clutches of these drugs, it highlights the challenges the rest of us face. We’re all just an injury or a surgical recovery away from having these things given to us. And it’s all legal, right there before us, with a doctor’s approval and an insurance company co-pay to soften the financial blow.

Congress and the individual states have at last grasped the seriousness of the heroin and opioid epidemic. May prevention and treatment be the leaders of the pack in this regard, instead of a “tough on crime” approach that our legal system isn’t ready to support. That was tried once already, and it simply hasn’t worked.

Maybe the best thing to come from Prince’s death, if anything positive is to be found, is a realization that “horse” and the drugs leading up to it are not a joke, and that those of us who have been lucky enough to escape their clutches must not judge those who are in their grip. We should instead help them in whatever way we can, which will help our society rise above the damage these drugs have wrought. If this should happen, we’ll all be much better off.

To close with another Prince lyric, in the outro part of “Sign o’ the Times” he sings

Sign o’ the times, mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late.

It’s not too late to address the issue of heroin and its related drugs, but we do need to have some urgency as the death toll continues to rise.

Time….

 

Unleashing my inner History teacher

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The room where it happened, 1860 style

I was a history teacher in a previous life, as I like to think of it. It was all during the same life I have now, of course, but it feels like I’m not that person anymore. Will I ever teach again? Who knows? But yesterday I presented something of a lesson to a small section of the internet. The results have been pretty gratifying, too.

On Friday, I was paging through a book by Dale Carnegie titled “Lincoln the Unknown.” I bought it at an estate sale some time ago and, like many of the books I have acquired that way, I didn’t read it right away. My thinking is you can always read a book later, but you have to first acquire them whenever you can.

On the pages of the Carnegie book, which was published in 1932, I found a story about Lincoln’s nomination at the Wigwam in Chicago, shown above, in 1860. I knew that it was the first “western” nominating convention, and Lincoln’s supporters used this to wrest the Republican nomination away from William Seward. I knew that fake tickets had been printed up, and used to pack the house with Lincoln supporters. But every story has details that can add a new wrinkle to what is already known, and this was no exception.

What I learned I tucked away in my brain, and when I saw a post on a Facebook wall from the Bernie Sanders campaign for president, I decided it provided a parallel that could apply to the present. That’s why history matters so much, after all. Patrick Henry said he knew of no way to judge the future but by the events of the past. And here was a moment to put this philosophy to work.

In reply to a post suggesting that Senator Sanders’ wide lead over Donald Trump in public opinion polls makes him a better candidate to face Trump than Hillary Clinton, I wrote the following blurb:

There once was a senator from New York who went to a party convention expecting to win the nomination. But a challenger was able to successfully make the case that he would be a stronger candidate against the nominee from the other party. The year was 1860, the party was the Republicans, the presumptive nominee was William Seward, and the eventual nominee was Abraham Lincoln. I don’t think anyone would have rather had Seward prevail, simply because that was the expected result. Fight on, Senator Sanders. You have millions behind you.

I am a Sanders supporter, and I know that his uphill climb has been sandbagged by a media and a party establishment that has opposed him at every turn. The Clintons are a known quantity, and they are the establishment of the Democratic party in every way. But Senator Sanders has tapped into a wide vein of resentment for this establishment, and has come very far to get to the point, like the Cheers theme song says, where everybody knows his name. He’s won more states, and earned more votes, than anyone imagined he would. But the headwinds against him have reached a gale force recently, and I wanted to help out.

Carnegie’s book pointed out that dissatisfaction with Seward–who was well-known and had the kind of political advantages that Lincoln never did–came from the idea that Stephen A. Douglas was a formidable opponent in the fall election. Lincoln had already run against Douglas in 1858, and was better suited to defeat Douglas than Seward. The persuasion paid off, and Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot in Chicago. And we all know what happened after that.

My post seems to have resonated pretty well, gathering over 1,700 Facebook likes in the 20 hours or so since I posted it. There have been hundreds of replies as well, both pro and con,  and the notifications of all this activity have exploded my email inbox. Let’s say I now understand why many posts don’t allow for comments. They can get messy.

And, in response to someone’s suggestion that my post seemed like a Limerick, I came up with this beauty:

There once was a Senator Will

Who thought a convention was chill

But Abe came along

And proved Will was wrong

Just like Bernie will do unto Hill

That bit of online freestylin’ got another 50 likes, and I’m preserving it here because I’m happy with how it turned out. I’m not Lin-Manuel Miranda or anything, but a rhyme written to inform about the past came to me, and I like the way that feels.

There’s a ton of pressure on Bernie Sanders to drop out, based on the idea that he’s hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances by staying in the race. Seward, back in 1860, rented a cannon and brought it to his estate in New York. The idea was to announce his nomination to the world by firing off the cannon, but he never had the chance to do it. And would the Civil War have happened, and slavery been brought to its much-needed end if Seward had fired off that cannon? We can’t know that, but we can say that Lincoln’s election changed the course of history in a very profound way.

I don’t want Hillary Clinton to fire off her proverbial cannon this summer. I’m convinced that her vote for the Iraq war, and her bellicose actions and language, reveal her to be far too hawkish for my comfort. She’ll speak the language of the Republicans in Congress by leading us into a foreign entanglement somewhere, which will require weapons being used and soldiers being killed. A cannon is a perfect metaphor for her candidacy, actually. Trump, on the other hand, is a horrible danger to life on this planet, and I realize that he must be stopped. But Hillary Clinton is not the way to do that.

There are many reasons not to like her, and my point here isn’t to go through those reasons. For me, she’s a hawk who will lead us to war, which will have disastrous consequences. And I can’t vote for her for that reason alone.

How will this all play out, over the summer and into the fall? I don’t know. But the idea that a candidate should give up when they are behind, in the name of “party unity,” is not an idea that Lincoln went along with in 1860. There’s an election that must be won in the fall, but there’s still a fight to be waged over the summer months. Or, to put it in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s HamiltonWhen you got skin in the game, you stay in the game But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. So why not keep on playing?

 

A Freudian Slip

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It’s fitting, in some way, that the trial I served as a juror for ended on Tax Day. I realize that taxes aren’t due until the 18th of April this year, but everyone knows April 15 is the day that we’re supposed to settle up with the IRS by filing our tax returns. Money changes hands on that day, generally in the form of a tax refund that people use for whatever they need some extra money for.

That didn’t happen for me this year. Instead of a healthy refund, I owed something to Uncle Sam, and not a trivial amount, either. But I paid that amount because, well, that’s just what you do. It keeps the National parks open, and pays for social programs and military defense and all the other places our tax dollars go to. Living in America is a privilege that I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t lived anyplace else. But that privilege comes with a price, and the IRS is there to extract part of it from us all, whether we want to pay it or not.

Another price of citizenship in this country is jury service. In my many years of living, I had never served on a jury, of any kind, until this past week. The right to a trial by jury is an enormous gift, and that entails giving up your time when called by the courts to do so.

The trial I served as a juror on wrapped up yesterday, and I made a point to ask the judge if I was allowed to write about the case online. Writing is a form of free, self-induced therapy for me, and I needed to put a few things out into cyberspace, before the experience fades away into memory. I expect jury service to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and after this trial, I very much hope that’s the case.

Part of me wants to get into the specific facts of the case, but that’s not really going to help anything. Painting in broad strokes about what happened is probably good enough, at least for my purposes. I could write a long treatise about the case I was charged with deciding, but the end result wouldn’t change, not even the tiniest bit.

The case had to do with a fraud, pure and simple. The federal government rooted out the defendant’s misdeeds, which were filing tax returns in the name of people who had no idea they were having returns filed on their behalf. Their names and social security numbers, and access to online tax filing software, are apparently all it took to set these wheels into motion.

So prisoner A (We learned his real name and saw him testify in court, but his first name began with A so I’ll call him that here) is doing time. I learned what it was for, but it really didn’t matter that much. He’s serving time, and not receiving any Social Security benefits from the government. But a tax return was sent to the IRS, indicating that not only was he receiving these benefits, but he had a portion of those benefits withheld by the IRS, and he wanted the withheld portion back. It’s a classic case of turning nothing (as in the Social security benefits which were never paid in the first place) into something (as in a few hundred dollars that wound up in the tax preparer’s pocket.

This happened for hundreds of prisoners, and the IRS paid off like a slot machine by depositing the money in waves. There were hundreds of prisoners, and thousands upon thousands of dollars being shoveled out for this scam. The legal term is “scheme,” which sounds a hair more respectable than a “scam,” but this was the scammiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it makes a mockery out of those who pay taxes and wouldn’t think to  run a fraud like this.

At the close of the trial, on Thursday afternoon, the jury received instructions from the judge about what the relevant law is. We were told to follow those instructions, whether we agreed with them or not. One juror failed to do so, and that vote was enough to result in a hung jury. Our romantic notions of “Twelve Angry Men” and the noble juror who spares a defendant from being wrongly convicted by standing up to, and ultimately persuading, his fellow jurors didn’t apply in this case. Life didn’t imitate art, at least not in this instance.

But the two sides had to give closing arguments before we could begin deliberating, and the otherwise masterful defense attorney nearly gave away the game with one small, practically imperceptible slip. I may have been the only one that noticed it, but it was very telling. It didn’t make a difference, in the end, but I wanted to preserve it here, anyway.

A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is when someone gives away their inner feelings by accident. As the defense attorney was summing up the defects in the government’s case–since they have the burden of proof, his job was to point out the ways they haven’t done so, regardless of whether any such defects actually existed–he said “They have fooled–failed–to show….”

The “fooling” that the defense attorney referred to, in his moment of unintended candor, wasn’t the government’s doing, but his own. He was there to fool the jury into believing that his client had been wrongly accused of defrauding the government–and by extension the taxpayers on the jury and all over the United States–out of withholding proceeds from prisoners who had not receive any Social Security benefits while they were behind bars. All he had to do was fool one juror, and the week’s worth of trial would have gone for naught. And that’s exactly how it played out, too.

I put a picture of Frederick Douglass in this post, because the holdout juror bears a strong resemblance to him. I even thought of him as Fred, though his real name was something else. Frederick Douglass became friends with Abraham Lincoln, and their unlikely rise from the circumstances they were each born into has always inspired me. I will always admire Frederick Douglass, but I’ll probably see pictures of him now and think about the juror who wouldn’t agree with the rest of us on the jury. Life takes some strange twists sometimes.

On my way home from the courthouse, after the verdict had been read and my fellow jurors and I were excused with the thanks of the court, I took a train to a bus in order to get home. The transfer point from train to bus led me to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which I’ve written about before in this space. I looked up at Lincoln, who is depicted not as the bearded president we all know, but as a clean-shaven Illinois attorney, which he was for many years before he was elected president.

As I looked up at Lincoln’s representation, I tried putting my frustrations with the case into some type of order. And I realized that our legal system, for all of its imperfections, is still something to be proud of. The defendant wasn’t set free by my jury, and he still has to face the prospect of perhaps another trial in the weeks and months ahead. We as jury did what we had been charged with doing. I didn’t like the final result, but it was far from the first time where something I was involved with didn’t end up the way I wanted it to. Those are the breaks, whether in the courthouse or anyplace else in life.

The Lincoln statute reminded me that our legal system is worth preserving and supporting, even if it isn’t perfect. It won’t ever be perfect, but it will always seek to do justice. The truth is  that I’d rather live in such a place than anywhere else.

Everybody wants to rule the World

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A song by Tears for Fears encapsulates the 80s for me like few others do. And the irony now, all these years laters, is that it was probably in the air when a high school teacher and coach named Hastert was doing some terrible things to trusting young kids.

He went from Yorkville High to third in line to the presidency. He literally did help to rule the world, at least in theory, and made millions in the process. Some of those millions would later be funneled to those who he abused when nobody knew his name. That’s punishment enough for what he did, right? If only if were that simple.

I never knew any of the people involved in this tale, so perhaps it’s not my place to say anything about this. But the good teachers and coaches who want the best for the kids they work with will bear the brunt of Hastert’s actions, far more than he ever will. And that is beyond unfortunate.

High school sucked for me, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. When adults in position of authority and trust use the circumstances of this difficult age of transition for their own benefit, in order to sexually prey on those who are still trying to figure out their own place in the world, all of us suffer, in ways that we may never realize. I’m grateful that nothing like this ever happened to me, but I can easily understand why others were not so fortunate.

After a long and financially rewarding stretch in the halls of power, Coach Hastert’s past finally caught up with him. He paid off his prey, but money alone can’t make everything OK, either for those he molested or the rest of us, as well. He’s old and going to die soon, so perhaps he’ll get what’s coming to him when that happens. But here on earth, his request for probation is an affront to anyone who’s paying attention.

His “family values” and likely unstated opposition to the very behaviors he engaged in as a wrestling coach makes him an outsized hypocrite. Sending him to prison won’t make him any different, but the idea that he can do this and slink off with nothing more than his own shame and humiliation seems wrong, on some level.

I have no doubt he feels bad about what he did, but this is only because it came up again. The abuser can forget his actions however he wants to, but the abused cannot. And to protect those who need it, neither should the rest of us.

The First Amendment, UIC, and Donald Trump

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I earned my Masters degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, or UIC for short, back in the early 1990s. I never really considered it as my alma mater, because I didn’t live on campus and my degree only took two years to complete. I was working full time and going to school at night, so my heart was never completely invested at UIC. But I am glad to have an affiliation with them, all the same.

I didn’t like the fact that Donald Trump had planned a rally on the UIC campus for the Friday before the Illinois primary. I wrote a piece for HistoryBuff.com, pointing out that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was at odds with the life’s work of Jane Addams, who ran Hull House for decades in the neighborhood where UIC now stands, as a place where immigrants could feel welcomed into Chicago and the United States.

If you were to strip away everything else from this country, you would find that immigration is what makes the USA great. Trump simply doesn’t understand this, and it’s one of a long list of reasons why he’ll never be president.

But before tonight’s rally at UIC could commence, there were tensions both inside the venue and out. Trump called off the rally, and his supporters cried foul. They wanted to hear their guy speak, and those who opposed him had denied them of their opportunity to do so. What the protesters did, at least according to Megyn Kelly of Fox News, was deny Donald Trump’s rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

At the risk of sounding crass, I’m calling bullshit on that argument.

Strong language is needed here, in order to fully address the claims that have been made. The suggestion that Donald Trump has a First Amendment right to make a speech at any public venue of his choosing is simply false. It reveals an ignorance of what the First Amendment actually says, which is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment, as adopted more than two centuries ago, restricts the actions of Congress. That’s all. And Congress has made no laws restricting what Donald Trump says,  either in Chicago or anywhere else.

Donald Trump can say just about anything he wants to say, and so can the protesters both inside and outside the building where the rally was scheduled to take place. Nearly everyone feels passionately about Trump, either in favor of him or against him. And Congress should have better things to do than sorting out what Donald Trump and his protesters have to say.

If Trump didn’t speak tonight, it was because he decided not to take the stage. Trump let down his supporters at UIC, but Congress had nothing to do with this.

Freedom of speech is alive and well tonight. But as for an understanding of the Constitution, that’s a different story.

Governor Snyder, you can’t fix this

When I think about what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, I get really angry. Whoever thought that giving poisoned water to the public–in order to save money over clean water taken from another source–needed to be reined in by the person who had the authority to do so, and in this case it was the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder.

But Snyder let the deed go down, and the people of Flint have paid the price. A legionnaire’s disease outbreak has already killed 10 people, and everyone who drank or used that water–which had been tested at elevated levels of carcinogens–did damage to themselves that we won’t see for a long time to come.

We need water to live, and as citizens we have a right to expect our water to be safe to use. If government is to have any purpose at all, that’s one of them. And when the water is unsafe, those who approved of giving it to the people cannot be trusted to clean up the mess themselves.

Rick Snyder and anyone else who knew that Flint was receiving poisoned water–but did nothing to warn the people about its dangers–needs to be removed from office and prosecuted for a criminal act. Terrorists would love to poison a city’s drinking water, so why do the people who actually succeeded at doing so get a chance to “fix” their mistake? It won’t bring back those who have died, nor will it remove the nasty chemicals inside the people who drank or bathed in this toxic stuff.

The solutions to this situation are very pricey, and for a city and a state (and a nation, if we’re being honest about it) that doesn’t have the money to spare, things can look pretty dire. But as long as the governor who allowed this to happen remains in charge, nothing will truly get solved. Step one is to remove the present governor, and let someone else try to fix the damage from there.

May we never see anything like this ever again in an American city.

2016 and the USA

 

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The upcoming presidential election is going to dominate the news, as it should. The person who emerges from the grotesque carnival we have constructed for this purpose will be able to make decisions that may seem important, but in the end life is going to move forward, no matter who it is.

I have my preferences, and I won’t be shy about sharing them here as the year goes on. But it’s not a process I’m going to want to watch too closely, because it seems to appeal to what’s worst in us, when it should be anything but that.

Yesterday my younger daughter was at the orthodontist’s office, and I was in the waiting room while they were doing what they do with her. Good Morning America was talking about the Republican debate from the night before, and they labeled it as “Showdown in South Carolina.” And the whole evening seemed to turn on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and whether Cruz could serve as President because he was born in Canada. It made me sick to realize that the combative, frivolous nature of that moment was all that the media saw fit to show to We, the people. Grown men in engaged in a glorified schoolyard squabble. It made me ashamed for this country.

Republicans can say whatever they want to say, and do whatever they want to do. Unless they can cure cancer and bring David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Dan Haggerty back for an awesome episode of Grizzly Adams on the run from Professor Snape with a cool soundtrack and cameo appearance from the Thin White Duke, I won’t be buying what they’re selling. But that’s beside the point.

The media can play this from whatever angle they choose to, but what they give us instead is “Showdown in South Carolina.” It’s a good thing that Montreal isn’t this country, because we would have had the “Brawl in Montreal” if it was.

Someone in the bowels of ABC had to think this one up, and they were probably very excited to see their idea up on the screen for the morning audience to absorb. But it’s a terrible reflection on us all that they feel empowered to give us that.

We deserve media coverage that befits our country, and if “Showdown in South Carolina” is truly what that is, we’re a global laughingstock for reasons that don’t have a single thing to do with ISIS or al Qaeda.

Rant over.

Thanks to the President

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It’s clear to me that no amount of bloodshed or carnage would ever move Congress toward restricting guns in this country. Dead citizens are the price of having access to guns, in the minds of the people who make and sell guns. And the politicians who feed at the trough of their largess aren’t going to say otherwise.

So when Barack Obama–who could just be coasting to the finish line of his presidency, but is not–signs executive orders to close gun show loopholes and require background checks of people wanting to buy guns, that’s a ballsy thing for him to do. He knows the price that guns have extracted from our society, and he knows it’s too high.

There’s many Ammosexual types who get thrills from the power a gun provides. But they look the other way or shrug their shoulders when children are shot and killed. The never-ending gun violence in this country demands a response, but it will never, ever come from Congress.

Thanks for saying enough is enough, Mr. President.

Art 1, Lego 0

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Until I stepped off the boat at Alcatraz last April, I had no idea who Ai Weiwei is. But I’m glad that I found out.

Weiwei is an artist and a political dissident in his Chinese homeland. He created an exhibit that was on display inside Alcatraz, but was not allowed to leave China to see it for himself. He’s not a physical prisoner the way that Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island, but when your freedom of movement is curtailed you are, in fact, a prisoner.

I probably would have enjoyed Alcatraz well enough if the exhibit had not been on display, but its presence made it mean so much more. It opened up new parts of the island that I otherwise would not have seen, and it raised issues about incarceration and why governments engage in it. Sometimes violent crimes are involved, but other times a criminal’s only real crime is opposing the powers that be.

To make this point the likenesses of dozens–176, to be exact–of political prisoners were rendered in pixilated fashion, as shown above. It was possible, for those who wanted to, to learn more about the identities of these prisoners, why they were being held as prisoners of conscience, and to write to the governments and make a plea for their release. I’d be lying if I said I remembered who I wrote a postcard for–it seemed like a compelling enough story, though–but it felt like something concrete that could be done on behalf of personal and intellectual freedom around the world.

The pixilation effect was created by using colored Legos against a white background. I realized from the exhibit that Legos have an artistic function that I had not considered before. And the plastic composition of the blocks gave the art a sturdiness that other mediums could not match.

When Weiwei attempted to place a bulk order for Legos in advance of his upcoming exhibit in Australia, the request was denied by he company who make the blocks. They claimed that their products could not be used for making a political statement, and filling the bulk order would signify their endorsement of Weiwei’s message.

The purpose of a business is to sell their product to whoever wants to have it. And bulk orders are the best thing, because it means more sales. Or at least it does unless the block-sellers are themselves trying to send a political message of not wanting to offend the Chinese government. It’s an act of expediency on their part, perhaps, but it will also bring lots of condemnation, as it should.

Art is vital for furthering the human condition on earth. It calls on people to think, to question, and reevaluate the things they either actively do themselves, or passively allow to be done in their names.  I’m certainly willing to say that incarceration is abused in this country, given that more people are behind bars in this country than any other nation on earth (including China, which has several times the population that the U.S. has).  If 30 years of the War On Drugs has proven anything, it’s that legalizing and regulating marijuana might have been part of the solution all along.

Over the next couple of days, I plan to go through my house and see what we have in the way of Legos. My 12 and 16 year-olds aren’t going to play with them any more, and sending what I can find to Ai Weiwei for his purposes will be a tangible effort to aid the cause of artistic expression, and prevent the type of corporate grandstanding that the Lego people are engaging in. And it may also save me the trouble of donating them to a thrift shop someday. It seems like a winning proposition, all the way around.

UPDATE: Lego has admitted the decision not to sell their product was a “mistake” in this instance. I wasn’t able to find any Legos to donate, as I had indicated in my post, but many others did, and I was glad to write whatever I did about Lego’s actions. Chalk one up for freedom of expression.

A day to honor Lincoln

image150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in Chicago. For those who waited in long lines, there was a chance to move past the president’s body and make the tragedy seem real. I’m sure nobody who made this wait ever regretted doing it.

I hoped there would be some kind of acknowledgement of this fact today, but if there was, I completely missed it. Instead, everything was about the NFL draft, which brings tourism and attention to this city. I understand this, but feel as though a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed. Lincoln deserved better than to be ignored.

I’ll write up everything I did someday, but for now here’s a sample image. I call it “two Lincolns” and there are others where this came from. I even cobbled together a few readings and posted it to my Facebook page. My Lincoln tribute was something I’ll always remember, in part because it came from my own actions. Since nobody seemed to be interested in commemorating Lincoln, I stepped up and did it myself. We cannot do enough to honor his memory.

O Beautiful

Obama Selma 50th (18)

I witnessed a moment of history today, watching President Obama’s speech at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. In a nation still marked by racial strife–witness the Ferguson report and the killing of Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin–the president did what presidents are supposed to do: lead and inspire the people.

The entire speech is as good a history lesson as you’ll ever find. America is always striving to better itself, instead of returning to an idyllic past that never existed in the first place. The president has rhetorical and oratorical gifts, and he turned them all the way up to 11 today. The moment demanded nothing less.

Thank you for your words, Mr. President. You brilliantly captured the importance of the day, both in recognizing the struggles at Selma and elsewhere, and challenging us to press ahead with the work of making America better in the days ahead. We will all do well to take your words, and the sacrifices of John Lewis and others, to heart.

Paying the price

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

The decision by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri to not indict officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown last summer ripped the scab off a wound that hadn’t healed up yet. It’s a wound that can never heal, not so long as young men can be murdered in a public place, in broad daylight, and left to decompose in full public view for more than four hours. That should never happen in a respectful, civilized society.

In the interregnum between the killing of Michael Brown, and the prosecutor’s decision that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for his actions, there wasn’t much in the way of constructive dialogue about the situation that exists between black and white in this country. The gulf between the races feels wider than I’ve ever known it in my lifetime. And the increased sense of drifting apart concerns me even more.

For every Michel Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, there are many more names that aren’t reported in the media. And each and every time it happens, the names change but the equation never does: Black man+white man+physical altercation=death. And the white man is then believed in court, while the black man has no chance to tell his side of the story. Why? Because dead men make terrible witnesses.

It felt as if the prosecutor in this case couldn’t stomach the idea of putting a white officer on trial, for the act of shooting an unarmed black kid. He was big, he was high, he was a thief, and he got what was coming to him. A hundred witnesses, each one telling exactly the same story, wouldn’t have made a difference to him. In his mind, Darren Wilson was allowed to play the role of judge, jury, and executioner. The platitudes that he spouted off while reading his statement to the media don’t change this inalterable fact: Michel Brown is still dead, and Darren Wilson now walks free.

The shooting and its aftermath have already exacted a heavy toll on the financial resources of Ferguson, St. Louis County, and the state of Missouri. Insurance monies will be paid out to the businesses that were destroyed, and that won’t be cheap, either. But all of those things–whatever their final costs end up being–can be tabulated. Damaged or destroyed property can always be repaired or replaced, provided that there is the money and the will to have it done. Parts of Ferguson probably resemble a war zone right now, and they will continue to for a long time to come.

But the real price of the shooting and its aftermath can’t be measured in terms of money. Rather, it is the value of Michael Brown’s life that has been lost, and there’s no way to know exactly what that would be. Maybe he would have done good things with his life, and maybe he wouldn’t. We’ll never get the chance to find out.

But even more impossible to measure–and ultimately repair–is the damage that has been done to people’s faith in the judicial system. If people, whether black, white, brown, or any other hue don’t trust that the system works for them, there’s nothing that will bring that back. So they rage against everything and everything that they can. CNN brought proof of this into our living rooms all night long.

I’ve heard and read the term “exoneration” applied to Darren Wilson, but I don’t think it applies here. Yes, he has cleared a legal hurdle in front of him, thanks to a sympathetic prosecutor.  But the blood of Michael Brown will be on his hands for as long as he walks the earth, though not in a literal sense.

For all the damage he has done, both to Michael Brown personally and to everyone who has been disillusioned by the grand jury’s decision, Darren Wilson cannot possibly atone. He was allowed to walk free in a legal sense, but our society will have to pay the ultimate price for what he did that afternoon.

An idling bus

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Yesterday I came upon a bus, idling away as it was waiting to pick up passengers at a community center suburban Chicago.

I walked past the bus, and as I did I felt its large exhaust pipe, spewing warm fumes into the air. I asked myself why the bus was left running, as nobody had gotten on board yet, or was even in sight at that moment. But the engine kept on running, and whatever the combustive process was, it kept on spitting out its results.

This week, a report was issued by the government, confirming what most of us already know: this planet is in trouble. Emissions, in the way of greenhouse gases, are threatening our long-term survival. And yet the bus keeps on idling, and we keep on doing what we’ve always done.

The bus began loading maybe four or five minutes later, and within ten minutes it was on its way. The fumes were still escaping from the bus, but it felt less wasteful because at least people were going from one place to another.

One bus won’t spell the difference between saving the planet and seeing 125 degree temperatures on a regular basis. But the symbolic meaning of an idling bus might be significant. All of us can make decisions to reduce emissions and/or waste. We can’t do anything more than that, but we can do something. And if we want to continue living here, we must.

He loved Big Brother

big-brother-watching--large-msg-123619735565

George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. I first read it back in high school–and it might actually have been in 1984–because a teacher assigned it to me. In fact, I still have the paperback copy that I acquired in the bookstore of a high school that no longer exists. It followed me to college, and has remained in my book collection ever since. It’s not the longest-standing book I have, but it’s certainly one of them.

I read the book again in the mid-1990s, because I was tutoring a high school student who was also reading it at the time. The book had more meaning to me in my 20s than it did in high school. I found that it was still an engaging read.

Yesterday I finished reading the book for a third time, in preparation for a book club discussion at work. I think of this as a perk of working in the publishing industry. The bound version that I have also includes Animal Farm, and I intend to read that shortly, as well. But 1984 was the title at hand, and I re-re-read it, with twenty years of life experience that I didn’t have the last time around.

The funny thing is that I relate to the book’s principal character, Winston Smith, in a way that I never could before. He seemed like a broken-down old man the first times that I read it, and now I’m closer to being him myself. And I found myself frightened of the world Orwell describes, in a way I had never been before.

A world where love and independent thought and departure from social norms aren’t allowed to exist–and the impulses for these things are stomped out through physical torture–is completely abhorrent to me. And yet, as I was reading the book, I found that human apathy and passiveness are the conditions which would allow such a state to take hold. And there’s plenty of those to go around.

Things like science and literature were anathema to the world of Ingsoc, and the ruling Party that Winston upholds before straying from it. The Thought Police was the mechanism that was used to rule society, by any and all means necessary. Winston and his girlfriend Julia hated the Party, and they hated Big Brother, but the Party could not allow them to stray from the societal herd. It’s a vision of society which every single dystopian novel, from The Giver to Divergent, owes an enormous debt.

The book is divided into three parts, and I devoured the final part over the course of a few hours yesterday. I hurtled through the last few chapters, reading of the extreme cruelty inflicted upon Winston in the Ministry of Love. And the final few pages, when the story comes to its heartbreaking conclusion, were read amid the tumult of intermission at a high school talent performance. The bedlam of teenagers greeting the friends and family who had come to watch them perform was exactly the sonic background needed to bring such a compelling read to its conclusion.

At one point in the book, before things go bad for Winston, he states that “Truisms are true, hold onto that!” The book uses the example of “2+2=4” over and over again to impress it’s point on the reader. If the Party says that 2+2=5, loyalty demands that this point be believed. 2+2 could also equal 3, if that’s what the Party decides. And nobody is allowed to think any differently, lest they be tortured as Winston was.

The book broke my heart, particularly when Winston and his former love Julia meet near the end of the book. The Party did a number on both of them, and the result is the type of a numbed existence that no one would ever want to experience for themselves.

Truisms are true, and independent thought–even if it means deviating from what the rest of society believes–is essential. A dying George Orwell posited this many decades ago, and we would do well to keep his words close to our hearts today.

 

How about some Mitch Dogg?

https://twitter.com/rlincolnharris/status/444699995086655489

http://www.youdubber.com/index.php?video=nrdTX8m5G98&video_start=0&audio=JXIUIFI1gWk&audio_start=0

In response to the #mcconnelling challenge from Jon Stewart, I found one that really seems to work. Depending on where it starts, McConnell’s fist pump with the two older ladies is either at “Swisher sweets” or “ball out.” You can’t lose either way, really.

Thanks to Snoop Dogg, Ray J, Slim, and Nate Dogg, as well as Mitch McConnell and Jon Stewart. It all came together quite beautifully.

Fun with the internet

mitch

It’s late and I need to sleep, but this is too funny. The recent campaign ad for Mitch McConnell was 2 minutes of scenes without any words, just a weird music soundtrack. But thanks to something called YouDubber, the soundtrack can be varied to suit your tastes. Try it for yourself by clicking on the link below:

http://www.youdubber.com/index.php?video=nrdTX8m5G98&video_start=0&audio=Gs069dndIYk&audio_start=35

When the screen comes up, leave the top link alone (That’s Mitch, and it’s his party) and paste in a youtube link on the bottom. The start time on the audio can be manipulated, if desired. Then it’s just a matter of hitting the combine button and enjoying the show!

Make sure to put the link on Twitter with the hashtag #mcconnelling. Or just follow the link and see what the online community has already come up with. It’s as much fun as can be had with Mitch McConnell’s visage, that’s for sure.

Jon Stewart nails it

WeakestLincoln

I admire Abraham Lincoln like no one else. I think he is the reason that slavery came to an end in this nation, and he took a stand that ultimately cost him his own life in order to see to it that slavery disappeared. And suggestions to the contrary never have–and never will–make any sense to me.

So when someone comes along to suggest that Lincoln did something wrong by fighting the Civil War to end slavery, that person needs to be called out. That person needs to understand things that they either didn’t learn or have chosen to deny, for whatever reason. And Jon Stewart, with some help from three History professors, did exactly that. It’s a joy to watch.

Say it again!

Over the weekend, my little one took part in an ice skating competition in the suburbs of Chicago. She was in an event called “interp” where the skaters are given a piece of music and told to come up with moves to go along with the song. More often than not, the music selections–which are something the kids don’t have any control over–are radio songs that I’m already sick of. But this weekend was a pleasant surprise.

For some reason, my little one drew the assignment of skating to Edwin Starr’s “War” and she nailed it. She was angry and strident, just the way that the song was meant to be played. She’s normally all smiles on the ice, but the thought of war just blows her mind. She won first place, and she deserved it because she channeled Edwin Starr perfectly.

I was reminded of how I wrote something in this space last fall, when some people were calling for war against Syria for some reason. I expressed the hope that President Obama wouldn’t take that bait, and with hindsight I’m pleased this was the case. And now, just six months later, the John McCains of the world are again calling for war–or something pretty close to it–with Russia over Ukraine.

But this president doesn’t do wars, and for that he gets called “weak” by some people. It wasn’t long ago that any dissent against George Bush and his wars was labelled as treason, but now the shoe is on the other foot. You can parse the differences between President Obama and his political enemies all you want, but the bottom line is that he ends the wars he inherited, and avoids getting caught up in new wars. And if this drives Lindsey Graham nuts, so much the better.

Edwin Starr may or may not have been smiling down on my scowling ten year-old as she was skating to his song last weekend, but he definitely would approve of the president’s actions to this point. After all, War ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker. 

My Facebook gets it right

Palin Facepalm

When I read that Sarah Palin hijacked Dr. Seuss in her speech at the CPAC conference this weekend, I wanted to reply in this space. Writing about her seems like a waste of time, generally, because so many more important things are out there to be commented on. But 4 million people like her Facebook page, and she has a platform in the right wing noise machine, so we who are of a different mindset will ignore her at our own peril.

Rather than writing hundreds of words, or even thousands of words, which ultimately won’t change anyone’s mind about her, I’d rather just show the pairing that my Facebook page presented to me tonight, and let the images do the talking for me.

If he were alive today, Dr. Seuss wouldn’t allow such a hateful person to steal his message of tolerance and understanding to suit an agenda that promotes neither. But since he isn’t here, something must be done in his stead. I hope that this plays some role in calling out the vacuous nature of her remarks.

Sweet irony

BeFunky_Patriotic_5

I don’t get into politics that much here, but it’s not off-limits for me, either. I’m a proud member of what Paul Ryan refers to as “the Left” and I can’t resist the urge to take a whack at him for his recent speech in front of the CPAC gathering.

“The Left” offers an full stomach and an empty soul, in Ryan’s words. He made this point by telling a story of a young child who wanted his lunch in a brown paper bag, because this meant that someone cared about him. A hot, government lunch didn’t do that for him, apparently. Pity the poor child who has to suffer through a hot meal provided by an uncaring government agency. Or something like that.

But the story never happened. It was based on a scene from a book called An Invisible Thread, meaning that a story designed to provoke outrage from the well-heeled audience he was addressing actually provoked outrage from anyone who values intellectual honesty, instead. And also from anyone who is paying attention, which probably isn’t that many people. But that’s a post for another time.

By suggesting that feeding hungry children is the mark of an “empty soul,” Ryan revealed himself as someone who’s lacking in the soul department, himself. And by using a story that he cribbed from someone, who cribbed it from a book herself, he revealed himself as a fraud, too. And some people will support this man’s ambition to become president, if not in 2016 then at some other point down the road. It’s no wonder that this nation is so incredibly screwed up.

They had me at #Starbucks

image

I’m sitting in a Starbucks, with some time to kill as my daughter works with her tutor. It’s mundane now, but these are moments I’ll probably miss some day in the future. So I’ll spend a moment capturing it before it slips away.

Since I gave up drinking coffee a few weeks ago, going to Starbucks feels a bit strange. It is as much a player in the coffee business as anyone, yet they want people who don’t drink coffee to come on in, too. So the result was “Starbucks Coffee” is now just “Starbucks” instead. And evidently that is enough. They had me at “Starbucks,” it would appear.

In appreciation of FDR

inspirational-quote-tie-a-knot

It would be difficult, and even a little foolish, to argue that Franklin D. Roosevelt was not the most consequential president of the 20th century. He successfully guided the nation through World War II, and kept the country afloat financially during the Great Depression. His legacy is everywhere.

If you don’t believe this, pull out the change in your pocket and look for the dimes. His face is on them, and if that’s not a testament to the outsized role that he plays in our nation’s history, please tell me what is.

I had always wondered the origin of the quote shown above, and it turns out to be FDR. This is the man who also said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and “A day that will live in infamy” and many other inspirational things.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for another person is to inspire them, and it seems clear that FDR had the ability to do that. His life story is inspiring, too. The fact that his paralysis was hidden from the public shows me just how important he was. And it could never happen in the world we live in today, either.

On his birthday today, I salute him for inspiring a nation that needed to have inspiration. This alone puts him into the pantheon of great Americans through the centuries.