Time to give a history lesson to Donald Trump

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The man seems to be unaware of what the reason for the Civil War was, so here goes:

In 1860, there was a presidential election held. In that election, there were four main candidates: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John C. Breckinridge. Here’s a primer on Breckinridge, in case anyone hasn’t heard the name before.

Lincoln got a majority of the electoral votes, so he was declared the winner. I’m certain Trump knows all about that. Lincoln won 59.4 percent of the electoral vote, a landslide in comparison to Trump’s 56.5% in 2016. But 50% plus one is really all a candidate needs, Trump’s braggadocio aside.

Presidential inaugurations didn’t happen until early March in those days, so some Southern states–slaveholders all–decided they were not going to wait around until Lincoln took the oath of office. By the time Lincoln arrived in Washington,  seven states had already gone ahead and left the Union. They believed they could do it, and so they did. Election results be damned.

When Lincoln came into office and said that he was not going to interfere with slavery where it already existed, the die had already been cast for those seven states. How Andrew Jackson could have prevented this is unclear, because he had already been dead for over ten years, but Trump isn’t one to give any details, is he?

Lincoln never considered secession to be a legitimate course of action, because there is no mechanism for it spelled out in the Constitution. He always considered South Carolina and the others as part of the Union, even as they had soldiers in arms trying to destroy it.

Virginia and three other states left the Union after the Confederacy opened fire on federal troops at Fort Sumter, in South Carolina. Lincoln said there would be no armed conflict without the South being the aggressors, and he was right about that.

Flash forward 156 years, to the election of 2016. Trump got a majority of the electoral college votes, and he took office as president as the result. I really don’t like typing out those words, but that’s what happened. The issue of whether California or New York or my home state of Illinois would be allowed to disregard the election results and just walk away was definitively and forever settled by the 600,000 soldiers who died on the battlefields of the Civil War. States like mine would just have to live with the results.

The fact that this country is still united today, in the face of such overwhelming opposition to the policies of Donald Trump, is a testament to the finality of the Civil War’s outcome. But how many of those seven states who didn’t even give Lincoln a chance to take office first did Trump win in 2016? All seven. And how many of the other four states that seceded did Trump win? All except Virginia. Maybe it’s no accident that the man who won 92% of the old Confedercy’s electoral votes is ignorant about why the Civil War broke out.

The electoral college–the sole reason why Trump holds office today–was Lincoln’s key to the White House in 1860. The rash and impulsive decision by eleven Southern states to withdraw from the Union–absent any Constitutional authority for doing so–was the reason for the war’s outbreak, not any failing by Lincoln or anyone on the Northern side of the conflict. The backhanded suggestion that Lincoln should have tried to negotiate away an election that he won fair and square is outrageous, and needs to be labeled as such.

Elections have consequences, as Trump supporters are quick to remind us. If the Southern states had acted upon this conviction back in 1860, perhaps the war could have been avoided. But the Southern states are the ones that started the war, and any responsibility for the conflict and the suffering it caused lies squarely on their shoulders. Or, to put it another way, with the states that form his 21st century base.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

It’s gotta be rock and roll music, if you wanna dance with me

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I’ve been writing this blog for almost six years now, and have put more than 1,500 posts up for the world to consider. I do it because I know that we’re all mortal, and when we leave this world there will be few traces of us left behind. Whether anyone alive today reads these things or not, I want future generations to have some insight into the life that I lived, in the early 21st century in the United States of America.

My main writing muses became pretty clear early on in the development of this blog. Baseball and the Chicago Cubs were one, and just behind that came a music genre known as rock and roll. I’m not a musician, so my interest in this music comes strictly from a consumer standpoint. I admire musicians a great deal, because they have a talent that I wish I had.

Rock and roll first entered my life back in late 1976 or early 1977, in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois. We had recently moved into the house, and their old turntable–along with a few LP albums–took up residence in the basement. When my siblings and I and our neighbor from across the street figured out how the thing worked, we immediately gravitated toward Side 1 of Beatles ’65. It was filled with two-minute songs that opened my world up like nothing ever had before. They were catchy, which was the essential part of the music, but they also told stories that went beyond “The Farmer in the Dell” and all the kiddie songs I had known before then. It was the first step in the transition away from childhood and into the world of adolescence. It truly did change my worldview in a way that nothing else had before.

My favorite song on Side 1 of Beatles ’65 was “Rock and Roll Music.” This song not only introduced me to the music I loved, but it gave it a name, too. “Just let me hear some of that Rock and Roll music…” was sung by John Lennon, but it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he didn’t write those lyrics. Chuck Berry first wrote and recorded the song in 1957, and it ushered in a musical wave that I caught on to some 20 years later.

The first record that I ever bought for myself was the Grease soundtrack in 1978, and even though it had no Chuck Berry songs on it, it was filled with the music that he had inspired. Disco was also on the airwaves back in 1978, and I heard plenty of it on the airwaves of the AM hit music station where I lived. But it was a fad, which fortunately passed away in a few years’ time. While other genres have met with a similar fate, rock and roll has endured for me. As AC/DC once proclaimed, “Rock and Roll will never die.” And that’s exactly what Chuck Berry’s legacy will be.

If you ever wanted any perspective on how important Chuck Berry was in rock and roll’s history, consider that he opened up the Rock Hall in Cleveland back in 1995. Without Chuck Berry, the music–and the building that honors it–would not exist.

From the time I began purchasing music for myself–when I started to view the world through something other than a child’s eyes–I’ve wanted to hear some of that rock and roll music. My gratitude to Chuck Berry for creating it–and for giving it its name–is beyond my ability to describe it here. But the effort is one that must be made, so let’s just turn up his music and appreciate it for as long as we can.

Failing Hamilton, Failing us all

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These crazy and terrifying political times have caused me to dust off my old copy–or more accurately, my father’s old copy–of The Federalist Papers. The paperback edition I have was published several years before I was born, but the issues described within its covers are timeless.

Tonight I pondered, as I have on many occasions over the past month, the subject of impeachment. A president has never before been successfully impeached and removed from office. It’s a rare and, quite honestly, a desperation tactic. It’s the “In case of fire, break glass” tool that should never need to be used. But these are not normal times, and we should be grateful that Hamilton and the other founders gave us this tool.

The tail end of Federalist #77, written by Alexander Hamilton, puts a very fine point on the reason for having a check on the authority of the president:

“The election of the President once in four years by persons immediately chosen by the people for that purpose, and his being at all times liable to impeachment, trial, dismission from office, incapacity to serve in any other, and to the forfeiture of life and estate by subsequent prosecution in the common course of law. The precautions, great as they are, are not the only ones which the plan of the convention has provided in favor of the public security. In the only instances in which the abuse of the executive authority was materially to be feared, the Chief Magistrate of the United States, would, by that plan, be subjected to the control of a branch of the legislative body. What more can an enlightened and reasonable people desire?”

Speaking strictly for myself–a fairly enlightened and reasonable citizen of the United States–here’s one thing that I want in America, 2017: a Congress that isn’t afraid to exercise their right to “control” the president and remove him from office. It’s not a question of whether he’s disqualified himself from office: The refusal to release tax returns, the backchannel discussions with Putin while President Obama was still in office, and the attacks on the legitimacy of the judiciary are all enough, taken by themselves, to establish that the current president has crossed a line and must leave office immediately.

The process for impeaching the president relies on the House of Representatives approving articles of impeachment against a sitting president, and then a vote in the Senate, after a public trial, to convict and remove the president from office. But Paul Ryan and his republicans in the house, and Mitch McConnell and his republicans in the senate, will not lift a finger to remove Trump. At least a few of them probably believe that they are sufficiently “safe” from any meaningful opposition in the 2018 elections. So instead they leave Trump alone and let him do whatever damage he wants to do. It’s a complete and utter abdication of the responsibilities entrusted to them by the Constitution.

Here’s what I’m asking for, Mr. Hamilton: A congress with integrity and courage. The congress we have now will not act, since they are clearly unwilling to give Trump his walking papers. Hamilton couldn’t see this situation coming back in 1787, so now it’s time to hunker down and hope we can survive until the 2018 midterm elections. Once those elections get here, we better damn well make sure that all politicians with an R next to their names get voted out of office. They have failed Hamilton and, by extension, they have failed us all.

Hamilton and what makes America work

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I’ve written before of my fondness for Hamilton: An American Musical. I’ve listened to the songs–over and over and over again–but haven’t seen it on stage, and don’t think that I will for a long time, if ever. Not because I don’t want to, but the price of tickets precludes that from happening right now. But maybe someday…

It’s beyond ironic to me that Hamilton’s life story has been ignored for so long. There was talk of removing him from the ten-dollar bill before this musical came along, but it’s pretty safe to say that it won’t happen now. In fact, if Hamilton wasn’t already depicted on our currency, we might be calling for his inclusion somewhere. But he’s there, and he’s not going away, nor should he.

Hamilton was an immigrant who contributed mightily to the birth of the United States, both on the battlefield and as a political mover and shaker. And, as the Ron Chernow biography of his life–which inspired the play–points out, it’s quite possible that he was powerfully attracted to John Laurens, a fellow revolutionary. Two of the groups that Donald Trump and Mike Pence have targeted can claim Hamilton as one of their own.

So when Mike Pence went to see the show on Broadway yesterday, it’s possible that he understood this about Hamilton’s own life story. But then again, perhaps he did not. I certainly did not know either of these things before 2016, and I’m glad to have a fuller understanding of who Hamilton was and how he contributed to the country I call home.

When immigrants, gay people, and those who support and love them have an opportunity to address someone who is on the record as opposing them, they must seize it. They must not, in the words of one of the show’s main songs, throw away their shot by remaining silent. They waited until the show was over, and then addressed the vice-president elect with warmth and hope. Nothing disrespectful was said, or even suggested, by the remarks delivered from the stage. It was a message on behalf of Americans, who may not have voted for Trump and Pence but will still be affected by the decisions they will make.

But the Trump supporters went bonkers. Perhaps they want actors, musicians, poets, and everyone else who creates art to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. But our Bill of Rights unequivocally protects their right to speak their minds freely. To misunderstand that is to miss what America is all about. And Trump’s demand for an apology would be laughable if it weren’t so clueless. Who has more to apologize for that Donald Trump? Yet he won’t do it, so why should anyone else? Particularly when nothing improper or offensive was done or said.

I’m not looking forward to a Trump presidency, but I’m expecting all Americans who oppose him to feel empowered to protest and speak out, because that’s what make America what it is. Silence and acquiescence are not American values, and shame on us if we ever allow them to become so.

So I will apologize to Donald Trump, since he seems to need one. My apology to him is that America will not be bowing down to him, his family, his cabinet members, his advisors, his donors, or the thugs who now feel like it’s open season on the Other in this country. We’ll reserve our rights, and exercise them freely, at every opportunity over the coming four years. Sorry if you don’t like that—well, on second thought, nevermind.

No apologies will be forthcoming. If Pence and Trump want to lead America, they must accept that Americans are going to do the American thing and speak out. And any attempt to vilify that course of actions is where a true apology would be needed. Not that we should ever expect to see one, of course.

Something never seen before

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As the Cubs’ season to remember keeps rolling along–and the team continues racking up victories like only a few living Cubs fans have ever seen–I’ve become more focused on the W flag. I have also written a piece about its history and significance for the Gamehedge blog. But I essentially see the flag as a validation that this year’s team is good, and has some great things in store for us over the next month or so.

According to a very good book I’ve read on the subject, the practice of running up flags at Wrigley Field after a ballgame began in the 1940s. The idea was to let the people riding the CTA’s elevated line past the ballpark know if the Cubs won or lost. That’s all. No game highlights or descriptions, just a binary result: W or L.

But from the early years of the practice until sometime in the 1980s (and the book isn’t any more specific than that with the dates), the color schemes of the flags were the opposite of what they are today. It makes sense, actually, because the Cubs team color is blue, so if they win perhaps the flag saying so should also be blue. And if the white flag symbolizes surrender, perhaps its fitting for the L flag to be that color, too. But they got switched somehow, and here we are.

This means one of two things, with regard to this season and the last time the Cubs had a similarly good season, back in 1945:

  • The Cubs hadn’t yet started flying flags after the games in 1945, because “the 1940s” is a wide span of time that may or may not include that season, OR
  • The flags that were flown in 1945 were either blue with a white W or white with a blue L, depending on the game’s outcome.

So even if the team had started with the flags in 1945, they didn’t look like the ones they use today, as shown above.

Either way, it’s worth pointing out that a white flag with a blue W on it has never flown over Wrigley Field before, when the team has 98 wins on the regular season, as they do today. They should easily reach 100 wins in the regular season, and have an outside chance to get there at home by beating the Cardinals on Saturday and Sunday. Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate that 100th win with a W flag high above the ballpark? I know I’d love to see it.

The season really doesn’t begin until the postseason starts in October, but there’s still some dreaming left to do before that moment arrives. Go Cubs Go!

It’s her moment now

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Photo credit: TheAtlantic.com

As Hillary Clinton gets ready to accept her party’s nomination for the presidency tonight, I think back to the Spring of 1987 and a moment that opened my eyes to gender matters like nothing else ever has.

Freshmen students at Northwestern–I don’t remember now whether it was only the Arts and Sciences students or everyone in the class–had to take two Freshman seminars. In the spring, I registered for a course that had something to do with gender and science. Perhaps it fit into my schedule, or perhaps I thought there would be a lot of girls in the course. Either or both reasons sound legitimate to me.

On the first day of class, which was held in a conference room in the library, I walked in and grabbed a chair. The room filled up, and the hour for starting the class came and went.

One of the cherished rules at Northwestern was the “ten minute rule,” which stated that if a professor had not arrived within ten minutes of the class’s scheduled start time, everyone could leave. So we all started watching the clock, hoping that 2:10, or whatever the magic moment was, would arrive soon.

At eight or nine minutes past the hour, the teacher spoke up. She had been seated around the table with the rest of us, and we didn’t know she was in our midst. She pointed out, to the 15 or so students seated around the table, that the seats at the ends of the table were being occupied by the only two male students in the class, because we had been raised to assume that we were entitled to have them.

I shot a frantic look at the guy at the other end of the table, as if to say “What have we gotten ourselves into?” For the rest of the course, I was convinced that everything I turned in started at a “C” and became either a C+ or a C-, depending on whether it made any sense or not. It was a long course, and not a particularly enjoyable one, but I remember it more clearly than any other college course I ever took.

I remember it because it made me realize the effects of gender-specific language. For someone who grew up in a less-than-progressive time (the 1980s) and a less-than-progressive place (Springfield, Illinois), the idea that calling a doctor “he” and a nurse “she” helped to perpetuate gender norms was a revelation to me.

It’s now three decades later,  and I rarely see much of this anymore. Ironically enough, it happens a lot in education, where teachers are routinely referred to as “she.” As a male who taught in the classroom many years ago, this rankled me a bit. Even though teaching is, and probably always will be, a field with many more females than males in it, I realized that sending a message that an unnamed teacher would likely be a woman isn’t good. Men can be teachers too, and the language used to describe teachers should reflect this fact.

Scientists were once overwhelmingly thought of as “he,” but the course taught us of the contributions of Barbara McClintock.  We read a biography about her, and I remember coming away with the idea that telling young girls that scientists were supposed to be men was not helpful to them, or to science itself. Even though I found the class uniquely discomforting as a male, as a person I walked away with an understanding that I didn’t have before.

I say all this because the text of the U.S. Constitution, and specifically Article II, refers to the president as “he” on several occasions. For example, Article II, Section 1 states “He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years,” I’m sure that the Founders, as enlightened and as forward-thinking as they may have been at the time, were still a product of their 18th century upbringing, which wasn’t so dissimilar to my late 20th century upbringing. Boys got to sit at the head of the table, and girls didn’t.

I’m not thrilled with Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and I toyed with the idea of not voting for anyone in this presidential election. I would never vote for Trump, nor would I vote for a third-party candidate if it helped Trump to win. But even with these misgivings, I’m very glad that Hillary Clinton is being nominated for president tonight.

Girls should see themselves as entitled to those seats at the head of the table, just as much as boys already do. And if tonight’s events, and the election that is coming up in November, helps to move that needle then I’m all for it, in the name of my two daughters, my wife, my sister, my mother, and every female classmate and colleague I’ve ever had or ever will have. New possibilities have been opened up, and we’re all better for it.

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.

 

In the #HamZone

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The Tony Awards are tonight, and I plan pay attention to them this year because of the Hamilton phenomenon. I’m surprised I haven’t written about it here, because I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for months on end. If Prince hadn’t died in April, it would now be month three of solid Hamilton listening for me.

The music tells a fantastic story, and has succeeded in bringing history into the mainstream and–more importantly–making it relevant to schoolkids. That’s something of a miracle, in its own right. I taught history for several years in the Chicago Public Schools, and always tried to make the past interesting. But music has charms that I never possessed, either.

So I’m figuratively in the Hamilton zone, for sure. I think this will last through the end of the year, at least, because the first Hamilton run outside of New York opens in Chicago this fall. Hamilton will open in other cities after that, and the diffusion of this show will bring new excitement along the way. How lucky we are to be alive to see it.

But I’m literally in a Hamilton zone of a different sort. I’ve written before about outliving people–usually writers–and musing about the random nature of life and how much of it each of us is allowed to have. Whenever someone dies now, the first question I ask is how old they were when they passed. For instance, I am younger than Muhammad Ali, and older than Christina Grimmie, when their days came to an end.

Ali himself said “Don’t count the days, Make the days count”  so age isn’t a measure of very much. But in terms of sunrises and sunsets, I’ve had more than Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Albert Camus, and many others. And I’ll keep having them until further notice, however long that may be.

But whether I’ve passed Hamilton or not is an open question. Everyone knows Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr in the summer of 1804, but when he was born isn’t so clear cut. He considered his birthday to be 1757, and gave that as his birth year when he immigrated to America in 1772. By this count, he would have died at the age of about 47 and a half.

But the official documents from the island of Nevis tell another story. They indicate he was born in 1755, making him two years older than he told the world he was. We would all, at a certain point in life, like to be two years younger than we really are, and Hamilton lived his life this way.

So the birthday I have coming up in two days is the first of two in what I’m calling the #HamZone (Hamilton has devised all sorts of interesting hashtags of this variety, so I’m running with it here, as well). I’m already older than Hamilton told the world he was at the time of his death, but still younger than what he may actually have been. And in a year when Hamilton’s life has become relevant through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing show, it’s a pretty cool place to be, I must admit.

 

 

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?

 

Pick up a pen, start writing

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My heroes are writers. I’ve come to realize this in recent years, probably in some small part because of my experiences with this blog. It will be five years next month that I took the plunge and started collecting my thoughts and stories in one place. And I wish I had started it earlier than I did. But it has taught me a couple of things.

The first thing is that it takes a willingness to open up with yourself. Finding an idea to explore is not hard, but turning it over and spinning it around takes some time and some extra thought. The time is something I don’t always have, and that’s the main barrier to writing more often. But going beyond surface-level thought isn’t easy, either. And writing that which deserves to be read, as Pliny the Elder once called it, requires this step to occur.

The second thing I’ve learned is that inspiration is a funny thing. It strikes at odd hours, and it doesn’t linger for too long. It’s essential to capture a thought and preserve it in the moment, because going back to it an hour later doesn’t work. The thought, whatever it is, won’t wait until you decide to address it. Like a deer staring at you from a distance, once it takes off you won’t be seeing it anymore.

The other day I had occasion to meet a fellow left-hander who enjoys writing. I told her I find writing to be therapeutic, and she indicated that it’s cathartic for her. These ideas both come from the notion that writing is beneficial. As the Beastie Boys and Nas once counseled, if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out. My experience is this is reason enough for writing a blog, or anything else.

When I suggested that writers are my heroes, I was asked for examples. I mentioned Lincoln’s name, along with Alexander Hamilton’s. The amazing musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has inspired me to pick up an old copy of the Federalist Papers, and his writing is exquisite. But there are many more that I wish I had also mentioned, and here are a few: Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, John Muir, Ernest Hemingway, and Rachel Carson. There are hundreds more, and in three hours I would come up with a list of different names than the ones here. That’s the nature of writing, after all.

I’m not far from the library at Nothwestern where I worked when I was in college. “Library” in an abstract sense for me is pretty much what the old Deering library looks like. But it’s a repository for the work of thousands, if not millions, of writers who managed to create something that endures. I used to handle books written on vellum in the Middle Ages, as well as comic books from the 20th century. The creators of these books, and all the others, committed their ideas to paper, and created something that endures after they’re gone. That’s what writers do. And for five years of my life, I’ve been doing that in this new electronic medium of a blog. It’s been an enjoyable, therapeutic, and cathartic experience, and I’ll keep on doing it for as long as I can.

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.

A Lincoln gallery

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One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, Abraham Lincoln began the process of righting America’s greatest wrong. Slavery had existed for centuries, sanctioned by law and practiced by many of the men who spoke of human liberty when they applied it to white folks, but were more than willing to deny it to those who did not look like them. Hypocrisy at it worst, it appears to me.

But Lincoln upset that apple cart. He said that slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. He was elected president, and the slaveholding states (most of them, anyway) decided to leave the Union before they accepted him as their leader.

Lincoln held firm to his position that secession was not allowed for in the Constitution, and was therefore not a legitimate course of action. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and the rest did not leave the Union, because they could not leave the Union.

The first year-and-a-half of the Civil War was a fight about preserving the Union. But in the fall of 1862, Lincoln gave the abolitionists what they wanted. It’s true that not one slave was freed as a result of this action. It’s also true that slaves in Missouri and the other border states were not affected by Lincoln’s action. But the die had been cast, all the same. Slavery became the war’s defining issue, from that moment forward.

We can never do enough to honor what Abraham Lincoln did. I have tried many times to explain what Lincoln means in this space, and here’s a sampling of them on this day.

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I’ve said many times that Lincoln is with us still, so long as we want to see and acknowledge him and the new America that he brought about. May we never lose sight of this.

September Redux

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Making predictions, or at least trying to divine what the future may hold, is a tricky business. The end result can either make one appear to be prophetic or stupid. That’s the peril of hazarding a guess about something that hasn’t happened yet, and might not ever happen at all.

The Chicago Cubs have been my principal muse, ever since I started writing this blog in the summer of 2011. They put the blue in my batting helmet.  And blue has been an apt metaphor for the sadness and frustration that has come from following a losing baseball team for forty years.

Even when the Cubs win in the regular season–and it has happened a few times over the years–they find some way to make it hurt even worse in October, when the playoffs come around. And the World Series? I see it every year on television, but never once have I taken an active role in cheering on my team in it.

Three years ago, the Cubs were in a terrible state. They had decided to rebuild the franchise by jettisoning their highest-priced players (Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and so on) in favor of developing younger talent, instead. It wasn’t something I wanted to see, because losing isn’t fun. Believe me when I say that.

At the beginning of the final month of a lost season back in 2012, I reminisced about an unusual September of success in 2003, when Dusty Baker was managing the Cubs. That was twelve years ago, which in a player’s years is a lifetime. The aforementioned Ramirez is the only player from that team still playing at the major league level, and at age 37 his career is winding down. But for a fan, twelve years can disappear in the blink of an eye.

So I used a happy memory from a rare good season for the Cubs to help me get through a particularly bad season. And at the end of the piece, I tried to strike a hopeful note when I wrote this sentence:

But the memory of that September from almost a decade ago lives on,

sustaining me in the hope that a similar September will come along someday,

and then give way to an even more glorious October.

Today the Cubs are trying to sweep a three-game series from the Cardinals in St. Louis. They’re six-and-a-half games behind the Cardinals in their division, with just three-and-a-half weeks left in the regular season. But they’re surging at the right time, as September comes around.

This year appears to be the September I was hoping for, when I wrote that post from three years ago. This time it appears that I’m prophetic, or at least partially so; the glories of October have yet to be determined. But for now, I plan to dance as much as I can in the coming weeks.

Go Cubs! 

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.

Taking John Brown from coast to coast

FullSizeRender (21) April of 2015 was the first time that I went to both coasts in the same month. The beginning of the month was Spring Break, and a week in Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, and points in between. We ended our trip in San Francisco, and that’s where this story picks up.

City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco is what a bookshop should be: independent, progressive, and enduring. Most other bookshops have one of those three, if they’re lucky. It was on my list of things that I wanted to do, and it didn’t disappoint.

I knew I would be flying back home shortly, and I wanted a book to help pass the time (no e-reader for me, thanks). I gravitated toward History, as I always do, and found Tony Horwitz’ Midnight Rising to be just what I was looking for. I’ve written of John Brown here before, and Confederates in the Attic was an unsettling but effective read, so the book practically sold itself to me.

I read what I could on my flight back to Chicago, and stuffed the book into my work bag as the plane touched down at O’Hare airport. Since I don’t commute into an office anymore–thankfully–the half-read book sat in my work bag until the end of the month, when I headed to New York for a few days on business. My traveling partner on the way was John Brown, as told through the lens of Tony Horwitz. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to pass the time.

John Brown made it to New York with me, waited in the hotel for a couple of days, and then accompanied me to LaGuardia for the return flight. And then, somewhere over Michigan, the tale was finished. On the final day of the month, John Brown and I parted ways.

I had never traveled more than 3000 miles in the air with a book before, but John Brown and his story were the ideal companion. He shook things up with his ill-fated attack on Harpers Ferry Virginia, and nothing that followed after that was ever the same again.

Although John Brown was unsuccessful in freeing and arming a large band of former slaves in 1859, he did succeed in forcing the issue of slavery into everyone’s consciousness. And if that’s not worthy of being read from sea to shining sea, you’ll have to tell me what is.