Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day

I’m not really sure who this is.

It's someone on my dad’s side of the family, that much I know.  I never knew most of those people – until I started digging into my own family history the only people on that side of the family I’d ever heard of were my grandmother and my dad, since those were the only ones I’d met.  It turns out that there were a lot of people on that side of the family, back in the day.  I’m still working through all of them.  Someday I suspect I’ll figure out which one of them this is.

On the back of the photo it says only, “August 1918.  American E. F.  France.”

This man fought in World War I.

As a historian, I have tried to explain the significance of World War I to my students in a number of different ways, and so far the one that has worked best has been to compare time to a river (original, yes, I know – sue me).  “Most events are just pebbles tossed in the river,” I tell them.  “They make their splash and they’re gone and the river flows on mostly unbothered.  Some events are boulders.  They sit in the middle of the river and force the river to work around them, and if you look you can see the ripples and eddies where this is happening.  They change the river for a while.  But once in a while you get an event that is a dam.  An event like that changes the entire course of the river.”

World War I was a dam.

Pretty much everything that happened for the rest of the 20th century can, in one way or another, be traced back to World War I.  The culture.  The economics.  The politics.  The wars – there’s a reason why some historians don’t really differentiate between the two world wars of the 20th century and simply refer to them collectively as “The Second Thirty Years’ War,” after all.  Pretty much everything, really.  We live in a post-World-War-I world.

It was a brutal and bloody war, the first major industrial war, one that took in men and machines and spat back wreckage and bodies, or often nothing at all, and did so in quantity.

That war ended a hundred years ago today, with an armistice.  On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – a fine bit of poetry that no doubt cost some poor soldier his life in the closing moments of the war, waiting for the final bell to sound – the fighting stopped.

An armistice is not a peace treaty.  It does not formally end a war.  It just says, “Enough.”  Not everybody was happy about that.  General John Pershing, commander of US forces in Europe during the war, complained about the armistice being too soft on the defeated Germans.  “They never knew they were beaten,” he said.  “It will have to be done all over again.”  And two decades later he was right.  But for most people an end to the butchery was enough.

Take a good look at that man’s face.  An armistice was enough.

This summer we went to Ypres – Ieper, in Dutch – which was the scene of some of the most prolonged and brutal fighting of the war.  We walked around through what once was No Man’s Land, the churned up ground between trenches that were often no more than a two-minute walk apart.  It’s peaceful now, covered in grass and – when we were there – a public art piece that our friend Veerle had contributed to.  You’d never know what it was a century ago unless you did the research.

In Flanders fields, where the poppies grow.

All that fighting.  All that destruction.  It was hard, even then, to understand what had been achieved by it all.

In 1920 an Austrian newspaper ran a contest to determine what the most dramatic conceivable headline would be.  It could be anything at all, really.  “Man Walks on the Moon!”  “Second Coming of Christ!” (you can adjust that number to suit your own religious views, of course).  “Humans Learn How to Talk to Animals, Discover They’re Boring!”  Whatever.  Hundreds of entries poured in from all over the country.  The winning entry simply said:

“Archduke Franz Ferdinand Alive.  War Fought by Mistake.”

Do you have any idea the depths of the despair in that?

It’s Armistice Day today, one hundred years after the guns fell silent in the trenches and the soldiers could come home.  In the US we call it Veterans Day now, but that’s really a different holiday.  Veterans Day celebrates people who go to war – and really, if anyone should have a day set aside to honor them, they certainly do.  But Armistice Day isn’t that.  Armistice Day celebrates the people who come home from war when we finally say “enough.”  I think that’s an important distinction to make.

There are lessons to be learned from all of this, of course, though what those might be varies with the teller. 

Happy Armistice Day.


Friday, November 9, 2018


It snowed today.

It’s early for snow, even in Wisconsin, though not eerily so.  We’ve had snow on Halloween, after all.  It doesn’t usually snow on November 9, but then again it can.  It’s Wisconsin.

When I woke up this morning the grassy places were covered in white and big soft snowflakes were still drifting slowly toward the ground.  They didn’t do that for very long.  It must have been the tail end of whatever storm had gone through in the night, the last bit to be sent earthward.  The roads were clear and most of the wooden areas like our back porch were bare, but there was a lot of snow cover this morning on the way to work.

I like the snow.  I like how it covers things up and makes them silent, makes them simple.  For a brief moment the world is a more beautiful place.

It can be that way, you know, if we let it.

We haven’t had a lot of letting it recently.  These are hard times even in the midst of plenty, which somehow makes them just that much harder.

We are led by an idiot and his followers, burrowing like termites into the joists of the republic.  We face a future of wildly shifting climate that nearly half of the country refuses to recognize.  Economic inequality is now at levels last seen in 1929, and that didn't end well last time.  The American war on anyone not white, male, wealthy, and evangelical continues with a vengeance.  Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – by all accounts a perfectly decent human being – nevertheless continues to make movies. 

But for a little while the snow covers it all and reminds us that there is more to this world than those things.

I like the snow.

It’s nice to have that here, now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Hold Onto Your Hat

So now comes the dangerous part.

With the loss of the House of Representatives, der Sturmtrumper may have finally figured out that there are people in this nation who not only have the power to stand up to his thuggish misrule but may – the jury is out, but given the election results and the anger behind them the possibility does exist – also have the backbone to do so.

This is not going over well with the petit-Fascist in the Oval Office.  No, not one bit.  He is, according to news reports, “very depressed.”

The House of Representatives will soon have the power to investigate all of the criminal acts that the GOP willingly accepted as the price of their absolute rule.  They will have the power to subpoena all of the records that the GOP tried to hide – der Sturmtrumper’s tax returns, for example.  They will have the power to hold public hearings that the GOP cannot squash, hear witnesses that the GOP can’t silence, and enforce laws that the GOP was happy to break.

There is nothing so dangerous as a cornered rat.

Der Sturmtrumper has already started the process of disintegrating.  He fired Our Confederate Attorney General today – the worst AG in modern history, according to the ACLU, but one who at least had the legal acumen to recuse himself from the investigations into Russia’s ownership of der Sturmtrumper and allow Mueller’s investigations to proceed largely unhindered.  In his place, der Sturmtrumper has appointed a “loyalist” – a strange word to be applied to an American official, and one that is usually found in the context of tin-horn dictatorships in the dark corners of the world.  Said “loyalist” is on record as being one of the stupidest, least informed people in America.

The “loyalist” thinks Marbury v. Madison was wrongly decided, for example.  For those not up on their foundations of American legal practice and Constitutional thought, Marbury v. Madison was the case that confirmed the Founding Fathers’ express intent that the federal courts could judge the constitutionality of legislative and executive acts and overturn them if those acts were found wanting.  This power is central to a well-founded republic, and to repudiate this is to admit that tyranny is your goal.

He also thinks that Mueller’s investigation is illegitimate, because reasons.  Apparently presidents are supposed to be allowed to commit any crime they want without repercussion, at least as long as they are Republican presidents.  In this he has the support of new Associate Supreme Court Justice Party Boy, so that ought to be interesting when it comes before the Court.

This is only the first assault by an increasingly desperate president on the forces of law and order that are closing in on him, and it won’t be the last.  He is frantic to stop the Mueller investigation before it can make its findings known.  He has already demonstrated a willingness to use the US military as a political pawn (anyone want to take a guess as to whether those troops will actually head to the border now that the election is over?).  He has already shown an utter disregard for the law, for the Constitution, and for basic human morality.

One of his first acts today, in fact, was threatening the House of Representatives with political retaliation and fabricated investigations should they choose to look into his crimes, a bald-faced attempt to intimidate federal investigators that is itself a criminal act.  But hey – live by racketeering, die by racketeering.

It’s only going to get worse from here.  The rat is cornered and lashing out.  He still commands the support of the nearly 40% of the American public who apparently approve of lawless dictatorships, many of whom have publicly stated that they were willing to use violence on any who disagree with them.  Der Sturmtrumper is on record as encouraging violence against people he regards as political threats, and federal law enforcement agencies are publicly warning that this has already led to an unprecedented increase in right-wing terrorism in this country – a threat they classify as more serious to national security and stability than any foreign radicalism.

Watch your back, folks.

It’s about to get ugly.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


I voted today.  I always do.

I stood in a line, the first time I have ever had to do that for a midterm election, and I did my bit to try to reverse the slide into petit-Fascism that this wounded republic has been on ever since der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, cronies, enablers, sycophants, and cheerleaders took over and began systematically dismantling everything about the United States that made it valuable to humanity.

I stood behind a guy who was 28 years old and who had never cast a ballot before.  I have no idea who he planned to vote for and I don’t care.  It is an unmitigated good to have people vote.  If there is any silver lining at all to our current state of political degradation it is that more and more Americans are getting angry enough at what is being done to them and their nation that they are exercising the right of suffrage – a right that Americans have fought and died to obtain, protect, and pass on to the next generation of Americans.  It is a moral failure that there are so many people in this country – so many of them in the GOP – who see voters as a swarm of pests who need to be eliminated rather than as a group of Americans who need to be persuaded of the justice of their cause.

I handed over my proof that I had, in fact, paid my unconstitutional poll tax and was thus fully qualified to cast my ballot in Governor Teabagger’s (a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) pet state.  Wisconsin has been a national leader in voter suppression – working hard to keep up with North Carolina, watching Georgia creep slowly up behind it – and it is a just and moral thing to trample such efforts in the dust.

I filled in the little ovals on the big sheet of card stock that Wisconsin uses for its ballots – no electronic voting machines that any random eleven-year-old with a jail-broken phone could hack, but instead a physical sheet of paper that can be recounted accurately as long as there is the political will to do so.

I got my stamp – we don’t get stickers anymore. 

I will await the results.  Turnout has been high, and that can only hurt the GOP, as they well know.  There is a reason why they work so hard to suppress the vote.  They know they cannot win a free and fair election.  They have known this since Paul Weyrich, one of the originators of the New Right back in the 1970s and one of the founders of ALEC (the right-wing extremist legislation factory that produces laws for GOP state legislators to approve without reading) put it bluntly for anyone who would listen.

"So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down," he said in 1980.

They’re pretty open about it, for those who care to listen.

At this point I have no particular faith that the GOP won’t try something spectacularly stupid to try to invalidate the election if it doesn’t go their way.  This is a party that fundamentally does not believe in democracy as anything other than something to manipulate on their way to absolute power, and it is led by an openly authoritarian bully who sees laws and Constitutions as mere obstacles to be worked around as needed.  If they manage to get through this week without setting the republic on fire, I will be pleasantly surprised.

I have voted. 

I am an American.  I am not afraid.  These colors do not run.

I will stand, and I will be heard.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

News and Updates

1. The problem with working for a living is that you end up working a great deal because there is always another bill to pay and then you realize that there really isn’t much time left for anything else and there is a Sadness Unto the People.

2. Students need to understand that there are consequences to their actions, though pointing this out to them is not one of the things that makes teaching a rewarding profession when you get right down to it.

3. On the plus side, yesterday was Halloween and it was a nice, crisp fall day.  Lauren and her friends decided that they were going to be Miss Frizzle and the entire crew of the Magic School bus, so they spent much of this past weekend putting together a bus and getting costumes assembled.  It went pretty well, all things considered. 

You could follow them by the cacophony.  They had a very good time, though.

4. It was also Lauren's birthday, and now she is another year older.  The Magic School Bus crew stayed over for dinner and a small bonfire in the portable firepit that we have, and a good time was had by all.  Happy birthday, Lauren.  I’m proud of you.

5. We spent several hours on the road last weekend to see the Small Liberal Arts College musical, with Tabitha on spotlight.  They did a very nice job with it, and we got to have dinner with our college student daughter and a couple of her friends, so win all around.

6. The election is next week, and I am very much looking forward to not having to deal with the avalanche of right-wing trolls that has taken over social media and made me question the wisdom of not only the internet but of any form of communication more advanced than a quill pen and a sheet of parchment.  Seriously – what do these people do all day when they don’t have the good people of the world to vomit nonsense upon?

7. So let me get this straight – we’re spending millions of dollars to send thousands of heavily armed troops to the border to protect us from unarmed women and children who are still a thousand miles and several weeks' travel south of us, and this is acceptable?  Of course, nobody’s talking about der Sturmtrumper’s support of Saudi Arabian executioners anymore, or the fact that Robert Mueller’s investigation is turning the heat up enough that right-wingers are plotting to smear it with half-assed conspiracies, or the rapid slide of the United States into both Fascism and unprecedented fiscal irresponsibility, so perhaps it’s doing what the GOP wants after all.

8. I need a hobby.  I need time to have a hobby.  I don’t even read much these days.  This must change.

9. I got thoroughly Warehoused on my Halloween candy this year.  We usually get about a hundred kids at the door, so I bought two bags of candy and figured that was enough, except that a) we only got about half that many kids this year, and b) they were Big Mega Warehouse Store bags of candy, the kind that look like they contain a reasonable amount of product when you’re in the store but once you get them home you realize that you have entire burlap sacks full of the stuff.  I think I’ve got candy through the next millennium.  I will file this under Not Such Bad Problems To Have.

10. It’s tea weather, and I am gladly partaking thereof.  One needs small comforts these days.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Baseball and Nothingness

I’ve been watching a lot of the baseball playoffs, because if I pay too much attention to the intensifying slide of the United States into full-blown Fascism it will make me crazy.  All I’m going to say right now about that slide is that if Americans look at what is going on around them and reward the party responsible for it with continued control of the government next month then the country probably deserves to burn and I have no doubt that it will.  I’m a historian.  I’ve seen this movie before.  It doesn’t end well.

Baseball is a nice break from that, really, even if the World Series is being contested by two teams I actively dislike.

It’s the most zen-like of our major sports, in that not much actually happens.  You can let your mind wander and focus on deeper things or on nothing at all without fear of missing anything important, and there is a virtue in that I suppose.  This is especially true for this post-season, where pitchers are being put in and pulled out like toddlers in a wading pool and balls that the fielders actually have to deal with are at something of a premium.  The games are slow and long – last night’s 18-inning marathon was actually longer in hours and minutes than the entire 1939 World Series combined – and they could probably just get rid of everything outside of the space between the pitcher’s mound and the catcher’s mitt without anyone ever noticing.

It gives you time to chat with whoever’s watching with you.

Lauren has gotten interested in the games, so all three of us will sometimes sit and watch.  She had never seen the Green Monster at Fenway before and the whole idea that baseball fields aren’t uniform across the league still comes as a bit of a surprise to her.  And it is a strange thing, when you think about it.  There’s a part of the wall in deep center field at Miller Park in Milwaukee where because of the way that wall bends back on itself a ball can be a home run if it’s hit a certain distance, a catchable out it it’s hit five feet further, and a home run again if it’s hit five feet further than that.

I’m not sure that’s what Abner Doubleday had in mind.

My team didn’t make the playoffs, as they are in year eight of a multi-generational rebuilding process.  I checked in on them now and then this summer, just to see where they were in the standings – they actually did pretty well and were in contention for the playoffs as late as September, which as a Phillies fan was a pleasant surprise.  I’m not much of a baseball person in general anymore, but I do cheer for the Phillies whenever they bob up to the surface of my mind.

Here in Wisconsin, the Brewers finally achieved relevance by making it to the NL Championship Series.  The Brewers are the third team in a two-team state – once you get past the Packers and the Badgers the drop-off in interest and attention paid to sports by Wisconsinites gets dizzyingly steep (and don’t even get started on the Bucks, which I am told is an actual professional sports franchise here in the state).  We watched them play their post-season games for as long as they were alive, and it was fun.  They’re an interesting team to watch.

But mostly I watch it because it isn’t the news.  Because in the end it doesn’t actually matter who wins or loses, or even how they play the game – the sun will rise on the morrow regardless, and the republic will soldier on unchanged by the results.

And that in itself is a valuable thing, in these parlous times.