Monday, February 28, 2011

Home Economics

So we did the math here in our household and figured out exactly how much Governor Teabagger is going to cost us with his plan to balance his giveaways to the rich and powerful on the back of the middle class.


This will necessitate a certain number of serious lifestyle changes, yes it will. We’re still better off than many in this new age of Social Darwinism, but that’s not saying a whole lot now, is it?

The problem with this is not just that it is going to make our lives less comfortable. Really, the problem is that it is going to make a whole lot of people’s lives less comfortable, even those whose paychecks have not been unilaterally slashed by a guy who spends $70,000 a year out of state funds for a chef.

Supply-Side economics do not work in a Demand-Side economy.

Back in the Gilded Age that Governor Teabagger and his cronies are trying to hard to recreate, most economic activity was conducted between producers, at what we would likely call the wholesale level today. Only a small amount of the overall economy was driven by consumers. Imagine a pyramid labeled “Economic Activity.” Only the tip would say “Consumer.” The rest all says “Producer.”

For example, there was a lot of steel manufactured in the late 19th century in America. Most of it went into things like ships, railroad tracks, locomotives, machine tools, and other things that were not likely to be purchased by the likes of you and me. They’d be purchased by other manufacturers and industries.

In this kind of economy, the trick to prosperity is to maintain production. So you adjust your policies accordingly. You want high tariffs, to protect domestic manufacturers. You want low inflation, which favors creditors and keeps prices stable. You want low wages, since they are an expense and a drain on producers (though not as low as the Gilded Age manufacturers pushed them, which made it impossible to support a family of four by working 80 hours/week – that just leads to well justified hostility from workers that will, in the end, depress productivity). Having a society with a few obscenely wealthy manufacturers and a population deeply enmeshed in poverty is a social problem but not an economic one, since most of the prosperity is driven by the few anyway. You want to arrange your tax policies to benefit the manufacturers.

And if times get bad, you want to do whatever you can to ensure that productivity does not lag. Put money into the hands of producers, since that’s where most of the economic activity lies, and you will shortly return to prosperity. In other words, take care of the Supply Side of the equation, and the rest will take care of itself.

This is what the Teabaggers want us to return to.

The problem is that we don’t live in that economy anymore. We haven’t for nearly a century.

Sometime in the 1920s, as the end result of decades of shifting economic trends, the United States went from being a Producer Economy to being a Consumer Economy.

In this economy, the pyramid looks a lot different. Only a thin band at the bottom is labeled “Producer.” The bulk of the Economic Activity – the majority of the pyramid – is labeled “Consumer.” Most economic activity in this type of economy is driven by consumption, not production – by the Demand Side, not the Supply Side.

In this economy, most of the steel goes into things like automobiles, washing machines and other things that you and I would buy. Producers buy steel too, but the balance has shifted.

In this sort of economy, the trick to prosperity is to maintain consumption. You want low tariffs, to keep the cost of goods low. You want inflation, which favors debtors and encourages people to buy things on credit. You want high wages, since those get used by their recipients to buy things and drive the economy forward. Your society should strive to have a fairly even income distribution, because the more customers you have the better your demand will be. Prosperity is driven by the comfortable many, not the obscenely wealthy few, and if the many are in poverty they won’t drive anything anywhere. You want to arrange your tax policies to help the people in the middle and at the bottom, not the people at the top, since there are more of them and there are only so many consumer goods the wealthy can buy.

Prosperity in a Demand Side economy rests on maintaining demand, not supply. You can produce all you want, but if nobody can consume it your stuff will just sit there and rot.

So when times get bad you want to do whatever you can to keep consumption up and put money into the hands of consumers. Take care of the Demand Side of the equation, and the rest will take care of itself.

Note that this switch happened in the 1920s. This tells you two things.

First, it tells you why the Great Depression lasted as long as it did. Hoover and, at first, Roosevelt, tried the old remedies that had worked in previous economic downturns – boosting the Supply Side. And they didn’t work. In fact, they made things worse. It’s only when Roosevelt gets serious about putting money into the hands of consumers that the Depression starts to ease, and every time he tried to back off from that (1937/38, anyone?) it would return. When the war came and all sorts of money found its way into consumers, that’s when the Depression ended.

And second, it tells you why Governor Teabagger’s policies are not going to work very well.

Because faced with this income reduction, we will do what responsible people do and cut our expenses.

Which means the businesses that depend on our patronage – and the patronage of others like us – will see their income fall, perhaps to the point of driving them out of business, perhaps not.

Which means the state will derive even less income from taxes than they were doing.

Which means the cycle gets to start all over again.

Even for the private sector business leaders who are so eager to cut my wages now.

I am petty enough that I will enjoy that last part of it, at least.

But that’s really not what I’m here for, and I would think it wouldn’t be what my government is here for. Apparently I’m wrong about that.

It’s going to be a long few years.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Books Raining Down

It has been a good time to be a reader around here.

Now, on the one hand, it almost always is a good time to be a reader around our house. There isn’t a room in the house that doesn’t have books in it, and we are never happier than when returning from a looting and pillaging expedition to the nearest bookstore to add to that collection. So there’s something just a bit, I don’t know, mundane about that opening statement.

On the other hand, it has been a particularly good time to be a reader even so.

Autographed books are flying in. Free autographed books. Life is good.

Yesterday we got a package in the mail from Canada. It was simply addressed to us as a family, from someone that I had never heard of, and inside was a book. There was also a note congratulating one of us – the note did not say who, as the author apparently did not know which one of us to congratulate – on solving a puzzle in a previous book of his and apologizing for taking so long to get back to us, the publisher having taken its sweet time in forwarding along the solution to him.

It turned out this was Tabitha’s doing.

Last summer as her big prize in the library summer reading program she chose a book on codes and ciphers. At one point, the book got onto the subject of pinhole codes, where a seemingly normal bit of text is altered with pinholes above or below certain letters, and if you connect the letters you get a message. And lo and behold, there was indeed a pinhole code in that paragraph instructing whoever noticed and decoded it to send a note to that effect to the publisher.

Apparently Tabitha was one of six people – two of whom were adults (one being a US Army Intelligence officer) who caught that and sent in the note.

The author was so tickled by this that he sent an autographed copy of another of his books.

So. Cool.

Last month it was my turn.

Not that I won anything or figured out any puzzle the way Tabitha did. No, I just sent a request for information to the far side of the globe and scored.

A number of years ago I had discovered a wonderful book – a delirium of a book, one that is probably on my top ten all time even if it was the sort of thing you had to think twice about who you would recommend it to, as it was clearly not designed for everybody. It was also the first of a series and when each subsequent volume appeared I would rush out to buy it.

But the fourth and concluding volume never did come out here. It was published in its native Australia three or four years ago, but the American publisher still hasn’t done anything with it and at this point I doubt they ever will. They certainly weren’t interested in returning my calls, anyway.

So through the magic of the internet I tracked down the author.

The fact that he has his own website, livejournal and blog did make this easy, I will admit.

And I sent him an email asking what plans might be afoot for publication here in the US of A.

Several weeks went by, and then I got a very friendly reply explaining how the fate of the American edition of this book was a particularly sore point for him, that he didn’t know any more than I did what would happen, but if I would send me my address he’d send me the Australian paperback, signed and everything.

So I did. And so he did.

No, I’m not going to give out his name. He did me a nice thing, and I don’t want it to get out of hand.

But it is a good time to be a reader, here in Our Little Town.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Snippets Amid the Furor

Amid all the hoopla here in Baja Canada it is easy to forget that life does go on, and I don’t want to let a few things slip by without mentioning them. Because it’s my world being chronicled here, and that’s just how it goes. With apologies to Casey Kasem, we will return to the stylings of Governor Teabagger and The Cronies right after this break.

So, a few snapshots of a life in progress:


We are now down to one hamster, as either Hammy or Vee expired last week. I’m still not sure which one was which, but now there is only one so it doesn’t really matter.

On the one hand, whichever one it was had long exceeded its expected lifespan – we had them for as long as they usually live, and they were full grown when we got them – so there is only so much one can say beyond “fare the well, good rodent, you had a full life.”

On the other hand, ick.

Let’s just say that the deceased chose an inconveniently narrow place to expire and that the survivor really had to find a way to get from being on one side of the deceased to being on the other side of the deceased, and leave it at that.


We had our parent-teacher conferences for both of the girls on Wednesday, and they went well. We always look forward to these things, since the girls are both good students and their teachers have been consistently wonderful. And we were not disappointed.

Both Lauren and Tabitha had excellent report cards in all subjects – some room for improvement here and there, but by and large a job very well done – and the teachers report that they are good to have in class – helpful, fun and interesting.

I am immensely proud of them.


My classes are going well – even the hybrid, which had been a source of worry. I have great students.

The only problem is that I am teaching the same class – Western Civ II – three different times, and all three classes are now at different points due to snow, barrages of questions, and the accelerated schedule of the hybrid. The upshot of that is that I often have to ask myself whether I have already said this or that to this specific class. It’s a good thing I write stuff out.


One of the most difficult tasks facing any teacher is to stand in front of a class and not fart.


I find that I have changed my leisure reading (or, more accurately, my “I need to preserve my sanity and that’s more important than sleep” reading) to reflect the current political situation.

I normally tend toward rather bleak stories, often with anti-heroes, where being right and good and just is no predictor of victory, comfort or even survival. This hits a bit too close to home these days, so I’m working on lighter fare for a while.

Well, relatively, anyway.


I think 3-D movies have played themselves out again. We took Lauren to see the current animated 3-D movie a couple of weekends ago, when Tabitha had a sleepover with a friend, and I have to say that it would have been no different as a normal movie, and a lot cheaper.

I already wear glasses. I don’t need to buy another pair every time I go to the movies.


And now, back to your regularly scheduled blogging…

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Further Reports from the Front Lines of the Teabagger War on America

I spent a good portion of today walking in circles and talking to cops. It wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon.

It’s been a long week or two here in the Badger State. The situation in Madison has not gotten much better over the last week, and in some ways it has gotten worse.

For example, Governor Teabagger, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, was caught on tape the other day discussing his plans to seed the peaceful demonstrations with troublemakers. The only reason he has so far not sunk quite to this level is not – as you might expect – because putting the citizens and law enforcement officers under his jurisdiction at risk of their lives and safety to advance a political agenda would be a morally bankrupt and legally actionable dereliction of duty, but instead because he feared that the justifiable outrage at such a tactic might cause the public to demand he actually govern instead of just making peremptory demands and expecting obedience.

The Madison Police Department has noted its displeasure with this rather casual approach to their health and well being, and it will be interesting to see where this ends up.

There was more on the tape as well – threatening to go after demonstrators with a baseball bat, agreeing to take illegal quid-pro-quo donations from a supporter, discussing how to trick Democratic state senators into coming back to Madison under pretext of negotiation and then ramming through his bill unchanged once they showed up, and on and on. What a piece of work, this guy. What astonishes me is that the guy didn’t have the brains to deny he said any of it – that he seems proud of himself for thinking up these kinds of penny-ante tin-horn dirty tricks.

Nixon would have eaten this guy for lunch. And then he would have conceded on collective bargaining, taken the financial concessions offered by the unions, declared victory and figured out some other way to get exactly what he wanted while leaving his opponents with the shell of what they thought they had. Say what you will about the man – say that he was a certifiably paranoid schizophrenic, a divisive and damaging political strategist, a drain on the Constitution, and, alas, a crook of the highest order and lowest character – but very few American politicians could operate the way he could.

Seriously, Teabaggers – this is the best you can do? This guy is your standard bearer? All of the division and damage, with none of the gains? This is the guy you’re hitching your wagon to? And you wonder why civilized and decent people hold you in such disdain and contempt.

So, needless to say, the protests continue.

Madison is on my way home from Not Quite So Far Away Campus, and I decided I’d stop by and spend some time expressing my Constitutionally-protected rights of free speech, freedom of association, and the freedom to petition my government for redress of grievances.

I got there just as the firefighters were leaving.

You have to understand, the firefighters were explicitly spared Governor Teabagger’s axe in this bill. The fact that they are there anyway, standing with us, is a thing of beauty. Perhaps it was just because they knew they were next. Perhaps it’s because firefighters spend their lives bailing others out of trouble. Who knows. When the bagpipes skirl and they march by in full turn-out gear, you just have to be glad they’re there.

I marched around the Capitol for a while, holding my sign. It turns out that wearing my Philadelphia Flyers cap was a good plan, since the color for this rally seems to be orange. Many of the protesters and remaining Democratic legislators wear orange shirts. It was nice to be on the correct side of fashion for a change.

It was a smaller crowd than last time, as befit a grey, wet Thursday afternoon – maybe three or four thousand people, roughly split between those making the circuit around the outside of the Capitol and those in the Rotunda. Once again I was impressed with how clean the place was – it looks worse on most Farmer’s Market Saturdays, and everywhere I looked there were people carting things to the trashcans.

I actually made a point of stopping and talking with the police officers standing watch over all this. They were friendly and willing to talk, and every single one of them – EVERY SINGLE ONE – made a point of saying how civil this all was. How there had been no complaints, no troubles, no real need for them to be there at all up to that point, other than to give people directions and point them away from restricted areas.

There is no “riot,” folks. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you and trying to sell you an agenda. I was there. I spoke with the people who would know. It’s loud. It’s raucous. But so far Governor Teabagger has not succeeded in making it violent.

Eventually I went inside to the Rotunda, since it was cold and it seemed like that was where the action was.

It was packed.

This is what democracy looks like.

At one point some of the Democratic House members came out, to thunderous applause, but for the most part it was just the crowd itself, speaking, listening, and upholding the highest standards of American citizenship.

There are times when I find the actions and attitudes of this country appalling, but I am always proud to be an American and it is moments like these that confirm that.

It got even louder when the cops came in.

There was a lot to see. From clever protests to impassioned signs to doors covered in thank-you notes, there was simply a lot to see.

Just about the time I was ready to leave, Wisconsin’s senior Senator, Herb Kohl, arrived. I almost walked right by him – an easy thing to do, as he is not much taller than Tabitha and had arrived without media fanfare or security entourage – but he was gracious and shook my hand, and I thanked him for coming out.

I made a few more circuits of the Capitol, and then it was time to leave. I can only hope that somebody will take Governor Teabagger aside and talk some sense into him sometime soon. Otherwise it’s going to be a long winter.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Actual Conservatism in America, Concluded

One of the questions that comes up about Liberalism is how it survived the nineteenth-century assaults on the Enlightenment. And the answer to that question – or, more accurately, the current condition of the answer to that question – bodes ill for our world.

If Lockean Liberalism were just the political expression of the Enlightenment, it would have died in the nineteenth century.

Especially after 1794, when the French Revolution had conclusively proven that the Enlightenment, like everything else devised by human beings, could be taken too far, you began to see a backlash against it. This backlash took many forms.

Sometimes it came from people using the structures of the Enlightenment – reason and natural laws – to question the progress that was the purpose of the Enlightenment. Thus you got thinkers such as Thomas Malthus and, to some extent, Charles Darwin. Both of these men used their reason to uncover natural laws that seemed to deny the very possibility of progress and thus undercut the whole rationale for the Enlightenment – and, by implication, anything that came from it, such as Liberalism – in the first place.

Sometimes it came from people who disagreed with the structures of Enlightenment thought themselves, who felt that the world was not predictable in the way that natural laws said it was and that reason was not the way to truth. They favored intuition, emotion, faith and other irrational or anti-rational ways of looking at the world. Thus you get Romantics, Transcendentalists, Revivalists, and the like.

Given this, it would make sense that Liberalism would decline, that it would wither under the assault on its Enlightenment foundations and fade away in the face of other ideologies.

But it didn’t.

And the reason for this was the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution was more than just an economic development. It did more than create new products, new manufacturing methods, and new wealth. It was a social movement, and it created new kinds of people.

Specifically, it created winners and losers.

The losers were many and varied – the old elites of the pre-industrial ancien regime, the industrial working class (ironically enough) and so on – and each group has a separate tale to tell. This is not their story. Not until the end.

The winners were the industrial middle class.

The winners of the Industrial Revolution were the white collar workers who ran it – the managers, the executives and so on, who harnessed the power of workers and machinery, organized it into coherent enterprises, and were well paid in both money and time for doing so. They were the professionals that those managers required for their services – bankers and financiers, doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on, the people on whom the industrial middle class relied and who were also well paid in both money and time for their services. They were the shopkeepers and other buyers and traders who served as the middlemen between those managers and professionals and the goods and services they needed and wanted.

These are the people who had the disposable income to buy the mountains of consumer goods being produced in the factories and the nice housing in which to put them. If you ever look at an interior photograph of a middle-class Victorian home you will understand as if for the first time the true meaning of the terms “clutter” and “firetrap.”

These are the people who had the leisure time to go to the new amusement parks and spectator sports and dance halls that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution’s plenty.

These were the winners.

And good for them, I suppose.

This industrial middle class was new, though. Obviously it did not – could not – exist prior to the Industrial Revolution. This was an entirely new kind of person.

One of the charming features of human nature is that groups need ideologies to justify their world – to explain the world in terms of their own experience, to justify their position in that world, and to tell them that their experiences are good, just and right. And new groups, not having one, need to find one.

To this end the industrial middle class adopted Lockean Liberalism.

It spoke to them.

With its emphasis on individual rights, on private property, on liberal democracy, on progress, on freedom from restraints, it seemed to describe their world fairly well.

For the industrial middle class, things were getting better. They did have private property – lots of it. They were the individuals who were allowed to vote and be represented in the democracies of the west. Their restraints were being lifted. Their world was, in fact, a Liberal world. Of course they became Liberals. Liberalism spoke directly to them, explaining their experiences, justifying their positions and telling them that their experiences were in fact good, just and right.

It was because of this that Liberalism became the default ideology of the Western world. The winners of the most important and powerful movement in the history of modern Western Civilization adopted it as their own. It became what you believed if you were, or considered yourself to be, or had aspirations of being, middle class.

And as more and more people began to move into the middle class, they too adopted Lockean Liberalism as their ideology.

As the old elites merged into the industrial classes, they saw how this could speak to them as well. Over time they tended to abandon the Conservatism that they had codified in response to the Liberal threat and instead worked to make Liberalism work for them. Conservatism fades away as a coherent movement when the old elites join the middle class, in outlook if not in finances.

As industrial workers unionized and began to earn real wages, wages that could support their families and buy some of those consumer goods, they tended to abandon the Socialism that had spoken to them in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and see themselves – or at least their children – as part of that broad middle class that Liberalism justified and defended. Socialism never really gets anywhere in the United States because American workers get good at winning the Liberal game and adopt the outlook of the middle class.

We all think we’re middle class today in the United States. If you don’t believe me, go out into the streets and start asking. See if you can find ten people today in America who don’t think they’re middle class.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

The guy working third shift at the gas station thinks he’s middle class. The local mechanic thinks he’s middle class. Your doctor thinks he’s middle class. You think you’re middle class. I’d be surprised if professional athletes, US Senators, corporate CEOs and other millionaires also claimed to be anything other than middle class.

In a world defined by the middle class, Liberalism wins. It really is that simple.

But the middle class has been under assault in this country for decades now.

At this point I could drown you in statistics. Real wages haven’t increased in the US since 1973. The gap between rich and poor is now worse than it has been since the late 1920s, and getting bigger. And so on. Finding such statistics is not hard. Following where they lead, that’s the trick.

Because the sad fact is that the United States is on track to become an ancien regime society of wealth and poverty, with little to buffer the one from the other. It is working toward becoming a society without a middle class.

This is one of the many reasons why Governor Teabagger’s frontal assault on Wisconsin’s unions is so worrying. The net result of this will be to shrink wages, lower working standards and remove large numbers of people from the economic world of the middle class that has made this country strong - and not just in Wisconsin, but, as other states follow this lead, across the US as well.

And eventually, after a while, even Americans will figure out that most of us are not middle class anymore.  We will go back to the social world of the ancien regime, of nobles and peasants, with a thin band of others between them.

We will be separated into a society of elites and the poor.

Where the poor will go for their ideology, I do not know. In a post-industrial world, I’m not convinced that Socialism will reappear among them. It might. I can’t say.

But I can say from simple observation that we are seeing a resurgence of Conservative thought among American elites. That authoritarian, hierarchical, anti-Enlightenment thought that says, “Obey your betters and stop trying to reach above your station,” that group-oriented, anti-rational appeal to tradition and obligation that does not seek to free the individual but bind him in chains of responsibility – that’s what you get when the middle class succumbs to attack.

In a world where the middle class disappears, Liberalism goes with it.

And what happens next does not look promising.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Rise of Actual Conservatism in America

I have long maintained that there are no real Conservatives in America. Lately, I’m not so sure.

The political ideology that the United States was founded upon in the late eighteenth century – “classical republicanism,” sometimes referred to as “Neo-Harringtonian republicanism” – no longer exists. It died a long, slow death over the course of about half a century, and by around 1820 it was no longer a viable force in American politics. If it hadn’t been enshrined in the structure of government outlined in the Constitution it would have been forgotten. And indeed, most Americans have no idea that it ever existed.

This is why every four years we get puzzled over the existence and function of the Electoral College.

Since the early 19th century, all of American politics has taken place within a very narrow band of Lockean Liberalism. Derived from the writings of John Locke, entering into American political discourse in a significant way in the 1770s, Liberalism is the default ideology of America. It took on classical republicanism and beat it over a fifty-year span. We are all Liberals in this country.

At least I used to think so.

Liberalism is a complex ideology, but one that can be boiled down to a few basic principles fairly easily. For one thing, it is the quintessential form of Enlightenment politics. As such it draws from the three fundamental principles of the Enlightenment:

1. It is based on reason. Liberals are great ones for starting from first principles and working out from there.

2. It is based on the idea of universal natural laws. Liberals firmly believe that this is the proper form of politics for all humanity, regardless of history or culture.

3. It is based on progress. Things can and will get better. The Golden Age is in the future. Using our reason, we can figure out the natural laws that govern human society and politics, and we can use them to make this a better place.

From there Liberalism adds three more principles, things that all Lockean Liberals have in common:

1. The individual is the fundamental building block of society.

Lockean Liberalism is the only major political ideology in the West (and to my knowledge, in the world) that makes this claim. All others are based on the primacy of the group, although which group (the social class, the “nation,” the order, etc.) varies. Liberals believe that it is the individual who is the basic unit of society and therefore that all of society must be set up to benefit and protect this individual.

Now, who counts as an individual varies over time. It wasn’t until the 20th century that women, people of color, or the poor were defined as “individuals” in this sense. But that is an issue to be discussed, not a difference in principle.

2. The primary function of a society is to free the individual from restraints.

Liberals buy into the rather optimistic Enlightenment view of human nature as basically good, rather than depraved. Therefore the job of society and government is to get out of that individual’s way and let him (again, mostly “him” for a long, long time) get on with his life. And the primary purpose of that is:

3. Equality of opportunity.

Liberals believe that all individuals, however defined, should have equal opportunity to get ahead. Note that this is an equality of the starting line, not the finish line – Liberals assume that there will NOT be equality at the end, because people will use their opportunities differently. But a well-ordered society will level the playing field for all by removing restraints on the individual so that that individual can succeed.

These principles can be spun in two different ways, depending on what playing field you want to level.

If it is the political playing field, this leads to a belief in the existence of civil and political rights inalienable from the individual, rights that must be protected by an active government. And everyone who counts as an individual must be given a voice in this government, thus leading to liberal democracy.

Americans tend to call this position “liberal.” It is the position of Progressives, of FDR, of the Great Society and legislation like the ADA and the Voting Rights Act.

If it is the economic playing field, then this ultimately leads to a belief in the sacred nature of private property, the primacy of private interests, and the general worthiness of laissez-faire capitalism, where the atomized individual is freed from governmental or societal restraints to maximize his equal opportunities in the marketplace.

Americans have for generations – perhaps for rhetorical convenience – called this position “conservative.” It is the position of Gilded Age politics, of Barry Goldwater, of Taft-Hartley and small-government activists across the United States.

But it’s all Liberal, in the original Lockean sense of the term.

Real Conservatism exists in opposition to this. It was codified as a coherent ideology in the late 18th century explicitly as a reaction against this – notably against the radical extremes that Liberalism was taken to during the French Revolution.

It is an anti-Enlightenment ideology.

1. Rather than reason, Conservatism stresses tradition and authority. It is not for you to question things and work them out for yourself. It is your role to accept what tradition and authority dictate, because those things are there for a reason. Things don’t become traditions, people don’t become authorities, for no good reason, and you are not fit to question that.

2. Rather than universal natural laws, Conservatism stresses specific histories. The idea that a single ideology could be stretched to cover all peoples the way scientific laws such as gravity cover all reality makes no sense to Conservatives.

3. And rather than progress, Conservatives see the future as grim and fearful. The Golden Age is in the past, and the job of the Conservative is to conserve as much as possible against degenerative change.

From there, Conservatives reject all of the principles of Liberalism.

1. The individual is not the basis of society. Society is based on groups and institutions.  

These things  were there before you were and will be there long after you are gone. You don’t count. You should sacrifice your private interests to the good of the groups and institutions to which you belong.

2. Individuals should not be freed from restraints but bound by responsibilities and obligations. 

Humanity is depraved and cannot be trusted on its own. It must be firmly ruled and tightly bound or it will degenerate into chaos and anarchy.

3. And there is no equality of opportunity. The world is hierarchical. Those at the top belong there. Those at the bottom belong there.

For the latter to attempt to become one of the former is presumptuous and can only end in disaster. You owe responsibilities and obligations to your betters, and questioning them is treason.

For most of American history, nobody believed this. Not on the left. Not on the right. In fact, the most Lockean Liberal group out there in the original sense is probably the Libertarians, long considered the hard right of American politics.

But over the last decade or two I have noticed a disturbing resurgence of true Conservative values.

Here in my own state, Governor Teabagger has been very clear about his role in the decision-making process versus my own. He feels it is his job to dictate and mine to obey. He seems to get very angry when people dare to question his commands.

He has a compliant group of cronies in the legislature that is willing to bend over and take this.

This is why they refuse to discuss the current abomination of a budget bill in Madison – they simply declare their power and expect obedience.

The bill was not shared with opposition lawmakers until last Monday, which is why several of them found out about it on the radio, listening to commercials made by the extremist group “The Club For Growth.” Apparently special interest groups get to hear these things in advance, but elected representatives don’t.

Governor Teabagger insisted that the bill be rammed through the legislature in four days – a 144-page bill overturning nearly a century of successful Wisconsin practice in the name of a radical agenda. That this left no time for lawmakers to seriously consider the bill is obvious. That they were not supposed to consider it is equally obvious.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when the Republicans in the Wisconsin House told Democrats to show up at 5pm on Friday to begin voting on amendments to the bill, they actually began voting at 4:45 and were just about to wrap up and vanish when Democrats arrived and found out about this illegal move. I hope there are impeachments that come out of this.

That the public was to have no role in this – that our role is to accept the diktats of authority – goes without saying.

This is an abomination.

There is no Decider in the American system of government. It is not my job as an American citizen to accept uncritically the vomitus of authority. It is my job as a Lockean individual to question it. To ask for reasons. To express my equality and my views. And to remind our leaders that there are other aspects of Lockean Liberalism that they may not care to hear.

Aspects that did play a role in the founding of this country.

As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

If Governor Teabagger insists on becoming destructive to the ends of government, he may find that government altered or abolished around him, and a new government instituted.

This may take some time. A peaceful shift in governance always does.

But it’s the American way.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Break in the Action

I need a break.

For the last week I have obsessed over Governor Teabagger’s War On American Values and it is bringing me down. Surfing the net is getting worrisome. I’m getting snappish at my children. I commented on a friend’s blog and managed to convey precisely the opposite of what I meant to convey. The book I was reading for relaxation made me stressed and there is no quiz at the end of it. Even my chai spice tea tastes bad.

It’s a good thing I’m not grading papers, is all I’m saying.


It is time for a story, one that has nothing to do with anything.

When I was in college I did a lot of technical theater work. I did lighting mostly – hanging, cabling, focusing, that sort of thing. My specialty was follow-spot, which was not only fun but allowed me to see the show as well.

The problem was that as a general rule, anything that runs on electricity is considered part of the lighting crew’s province. Including fog machines.

It was a dance show. There were about ten or fifteen individual dances, one after another, with an intermission roughly halfway through. There were some interesting challenges in this show, most of which were directly connected to the fact that dancers are only graceful onstage and no matter how many times you tell them that the lighting instruments on the offstage booms are heavy, sharp and hot they still bash into them with disconcerting regularity. But at least one was entirely my fault.

I was told early on in production week that it would be my task to take a fog machine and sweep the stage with it just before the beginning of Act II, so that the first dance number of that Act could start in an appropriately atmospheric manner. Okay, fine. But I had never actually operated a fog machine before – never even seen one in front of me – and thus I had no real idea how this task was to be accomplished.

“No problem, Dave,” said Josh, the Lighting Designer. “It’s just a box with a hose. You hold onto the box and swish the hose back and forth and the fog goes where you point it. Do that while you walk slowly across the stage and then slowly back, and you’ll be fine.”

It certainly sounded foolproof.

The fog machine didn’t show up until the night of the first dress rehearsal. Traditionally that night was reserved for cast members of other shows going up at the same time, so we had an audience – and not just any audience, but an audience of people who actually knew theater and could appreciate the difference between what was going on in front of them and what was likely supposed to have been going on in front of them. Most audiences do not make that distinction, which is a life-saver in theater.

We got the fog machine plugged in and filled with the oil it needs to create the fog, and we let it warm up all through the first Act. Intermission came and went, and just before the lights faded for me to begin my fog-making journey I had a thought: Nobody had ever told me what level to set the fog output for.

So I looked at it.

The theater was a decent size. It could hold about 500 people, as I recall. That’s a lot of airspace. Fog machines, for those of you who have not had the privilege of running one, are not very big – about the size of a small toaster oven. Comparing the two, I figured, “Well, how much fog could this thing put out?” and cranked the knob up to 10.

For reference sake, on opening night the knob was set at 3.

So the machine starts cranking out fog and I start slowly working my way across the stage, emitting fog in all directions as instructed. I got all the way across and had just started the return trip when I heard Josh’s weary voice call out to me.

“Too much, Dave. Too much.”

The lights came up.

At least I think they came up.

Have you ever seen photos of Pittsburgh at the height of the steel mills? Where the air is so brackish that you can’t even see across the streets?

Yeah, like that.

There was a general movement toward the exits.

It took about twenty minutes for the fog to lift in that theater, but the show went on and eventually, as I said, we did settle on a more appropriate level of fog.

The real kicker of this whole thing, though, came about a year later, when I was walking down to another show I was working on. I was running the lighting board for that one, and I was with the Stage Manager for that show – a woman I had just met on that show – and she was telling me this great story about how some idiot had smoked out a dance company last year.

“Hi,” I said.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Old Bay Seasoning in Wisconsin

In Unseen Academicals, one of his lesser novels, Terry Pratchett talks a lot about crabs in buckets.

Crabs in a bucket scrabble around a lot, trying to get out of the bucket before they are turned into someone else’s dinner. They all know what will happen to them if they don’t get out. They all desperately want to get out. They all want to be in a better situation than they are in now.

But none of them will ever make it out.

Not all of them can, you know. There are too many crabs and too much bucket for that. Only a few can better their lot. The rest are stuck. But you would think that some of them could get out at least.

And you would be wrong.

Because the crabs at the bottom won’t let that happen. Whenever they see some of their own doing better for themselves, better than they are doing, they reach out and pull them down, down to their level. Rather than look at the ones who are rising up in the world and being glad for them, or trying to emulate them, they declare that such crabs have no business being better than those at the bottom. They insist on an equality of misery rather than an equality of opportunity.

And they all die.

I’ve thought a great deal about this over the last few days, as I have listened to the chorus of the ignorant complaining about how Wisconsin state employees have such nice benefits.

The fact that those benefits are there to make up for the lower pay than those employees get compared with private sector employees is never mentioned, nor is the fact that even with those benefits the total compensation packages of most state workers is still 10-20% less than what they could get by walking off their jobs and into private sector employment.

The fact that such employees are willing to make that trade – to take stability and benefits over total compensation size – is not mentioned.

The fact that those employees – through their unions, often – fought long and hard to get those benefits in the way that private sector employees used to do before they were crushed, that those benefits were not given but earned through hard work and sacrifice – that’s never mentioned either.

All that is mentioned – screamed, hooted, chanted, whispered, broadcast over the vast conservative media establishment – is that state employees don’t deserve those benefits, because private sector employees generally don’t have them. That Wisconsin state workers should be punished for daring to improve their lots in life and brought low in an equality of misery with those who have already conceded their fate, or who do not have the power to better it.

That state workers should remain in the crab bucket with everyone else.

But crabs in buckets die.

And perhaps private sector employees ought to be asking how they can escape the bucket too rather than pulling down state workers. Perhaps they should be trying to figure out ways to earn benefits, even if that means taking less money up front. Perhaps they should be figuring out how to revive their own collective bargaining and union rights rather than trying to crush those who still have them.

In the meantime, there is always the bucket.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Wisconsin: A Report From The Front Lines of the Teabagger War On America

The girls and I spent this afternoon engaged in participatory democracy. You should have been there.

It is now a week since Governor Teabagger introduced his plan to gut collective bargaining rights for public workers in the name of a fiscal crisis that he managed to create all by his little old self. It has not gone quite as he suspected it would, I’m guessing.

Rather than standing idly by while this bitter assault on an already diminishing American middle class was ramrodded through the legislature, Wisconsinites have gotten organized, vocal and demonstrative.

After the Republican majority in the Senate refused to make anything but minor cosmetic changes to the bill, all fourteen Democratic State Senators left the Capitol and went out of state, denying the radicals the quorum they needed to shove this down our throats. Of course Governor Teabagger has complained about this in much the way that a spoiled child does when the kitten he was about to stomp is pulled away by a nearby grown-up. He has called for these legislators to return to Madison and “do their jobs.”

Uh, Mr. Walker? They are doing their jobs. They are preventing your radical right-wing assault on American values from being enacted and thus are representing their constituencies in the only way they have left to them. As a member of one of those constituencies, I applaud them.  They represent me just fine.

In the meantime, demonstrations continue in Madison.

Thousands of people – tens of thousands of people – have shown up to the Capitol every day for the last week to let Walker and his little cabal know that what they are trying to do to Wisconsin is wrong. It is participatory democracy at its finest.

And we were part of it.

The schools closed here in Our Little Town today, as most of the employees took the day off to protest. And good for them. A true education does not stop at the schoolhouse doors. Sometimes you have to go out and do for yourself.

So the girls and I made signs expressing our views of the current situation and headed on up.

When we got there, we joined a slow-moving parade of citizens around their Capitol building, each there to support the other and most with signs of their own. There was some chanting, the most commonly repeated one being something along the lines of “Tell me what democracy looks like! THIS is what democracy looks like!”  Mostly the folks were just talking and walking.

The mood was cheerfully defiant and quite friendly. There was no hatred, though there was anger at injustice. There was no sense of danger, nothing to suggest that any of the hundreds of children there were out of place. It was more orderly than most sporting event crowds I’ve been in. There were even people walking up and down with trash bags to keep the place clean.

Honestly, the most hostile looking people I saw were the journalists, who had the look of people annoyed at not having much drama to report.

At one point the crowd knotted up in front of a small stage where several men were slowly climbing up and toward the lip. One of them turned out to be Jesse Jackson, who waved and said a few inaudible things before climbing down again. I’m not sure how to take that. On the one hand it’s nice to have a high-powered guy like that on your side. On the other, well, his success rate at backing causes has not been all that great of late. But he is out there trying, and it was good to see him. I wonder what he said.

At one point we passed a small counter-demonstration of five lonely-looking people holding signs in support of Governor Teabagger. They were up on a staircase leading to one of the side entrances of the Capitol, and were humorless enough to be dressed in dark business suits. The larger crowd was carefully ignoring them, and several people had posted themselves nearby to let people know that giving such folks attention would only encourage them. So the crowd flowed by them, and they looked sort of disappointed at not getting much reaction.

Eventually we went into the Capitol itself, which was packed with people.

We made it into the Rotunda just as a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner broke out, a reminder that it is the protesters, not the Teabaggers, who are standing up for Americans here.

It took some time to navigate through the crowds in the Rotunda – a lovely space, really, and worth a visit in calmer times just for that alone – and finally we were outside. A band followed us out the door and last I saw they were dancing in the street, demanding to be told what democracy looked like.

We didn’t stay too long. After leaving the building we marched our way back to the side street up which we had come and made the long walk back to our car (parking in Madison is never easy, even on normal days).

Kim is up there now.

So far, the people of Wisconsin have successfully made their voices heard and blocked the implementation of Governor Teabagger’s lunatic fringe extremist agenda.

So far.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Greetings From Teabagistan

This is a very interesting time to be living in Wisconsin.

Governor Teabagger, having broken the bank with a reckless spending bill in January – one that did a masterful job of both rewarding his political supporters and converting a projected budget surplus into a massive deficit (gee, where have we heard that tune being sung by right-wingers before?) – has declared that in this fiscal crisis he must take drastic action.

Isn’t that convenient? You create a crisis and then declare that in times of crisis drastic action is necessary. Next thing you know he’ll be declaring war on Minnesota, looking for weapons of mass destruction, and arguing that criticism of elected leaders in wartime is treason.

So far this drastic action has not encompassed anything that will actually reduce costs or generate income, though.

I am not surprised by this.

This is the same guy who spent a large portion of his campaign crowing about his “68-page” job creation report. He called it all sorts of things, but the fact that it was 68 pages long was always prominently mentioned, always with the implication that this was a policy document so massive and thorough that no argument could possibly be made against its validity.

I downloaded it from his campaign website – straight from the source. It was indeed 68 pages long.

It was also printed in the kind of banner-headline-sized font that newspapers tend to reserve for major wars ending or astronauts landing on the moon. Seriously – there were single words that had to be broken into two lines because the font was that big.

And it had pictures.

Do you know how many words were in this “68-page” report? Even with the generous inclusion of one iteration of the “paid for by” disclaimer that all campaign literature is required to have these days, the report weighed in at a grand total of 1,027 words. In a normal font, that’s roughly four double-spaced pages, or slightly less than the amount of writing that I expect from my college freshmen students in History 101 for a single essay.

So I should not be surprised at the sheer ignorance, thoughtlessness, stupidity and arrogance with which this guy has conducted himself since being inaugurated.

Drastic action, he says.

This includes destroying the unions that protect state workers, without even bothering to talk to them about possibly working together to make the state function. Because this destruction will create jobs and balance the budget somehow. Because having people make less money and have less job security will make them somehow more likely to spend what money they have to drive the economy - an economy based mostly on consumer spending since the 1920s - forward and get us out of the recession. Because a shrinking economy is just what we need to boost revenue. Because a downward spiral of misery is Just. So. Patriotic.

Not really. The truth is more straightforward.

It’s because his political pals don’t like the fact that real people need real wages and benefits to survive. It’s because they regard me and the people I know as expenses to be cut rather than citizens to be served. It’s that whole “political units as profitable businesses” mentality thing. This is what happens when that misconception gets applied in real life.

Governor Teabagger’s idea of drastic action also includes threatening American citizens with military force if they should happen to disagree with this boneheaded policy.

I can’t respond to that any better than Dave Cieslewicz, the mayor of Madison, did on Monday: “Here’s one reliable test of good public policy: You don’t have to call out the National Guard when you propose it.”

Drastic action also includes the governor refusing to present his budget to the Legislature in person, the coward. Instead he will give what is billed as a “speech” to a local business and present his budget there. I’m not sure about the legality of presenting substantive legislation in such a setting, but I don’t think that matters to Governor Teabagger.

Rules are for other people.

That is the Teabagger motto.

That’s why the Republican majority tried so hard to limit the public access to the hearing for it – attempting to cut off debate long before most people had gotten a chance to speak. Democratic legislators managed to beat back that idea, but it almost worked so you have to give them credit for trying.

That’s also why the Republican legislators are meeting in a “secret site” off of the Capitol grounds to plan their next moves, open meeting laws being prominent among the rules that are for other people.

That’s also why they want this bill voted on by Thursday, before people have read it all. Because while they know what else is contained in this abomination of a bill, the rest of us are still trying to wrap our heads around the fact that this was seriously proposed as something Americans would do to other Americans and that it has a better than even chance of being enacted. Best to let the details come out afterward, really.

Interesting times indeed.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Political Correspondence

To the idiot who insisted that my city should be run “as a profitable business,” greetings:

I have long maintained that if I ever heard anyone say something that stupid again I would go spare, and I suppose you are just today’s lucky winner. I don’t know you well enough to make this personal, but I have to say that in light of the intellectual bankruptcy of your position, this could be arranged if you so desire.

Now. Repeat after me, slowly, please:

“A city is a political community, not a business. They are founded upon different principles. They exist to serve different ends. They are not interchangeable. They are not transferable. And the methods used to run the latter are destructively inappropriate when applied to the former.”

For “city” you may insert “county,” “state,” “country,” or any other self-governing community in which actual people live, and repeat the previous paragraph for each substitution.

I’ll wait.

You see, a business is an economic unit. It is designed to turn a profit by providing goods or services at rates slightly higher than it costs to provide them, and this profit is meant to accrue to the leaders of that business. The people served by that business – its customers – are instruments to that end, and no more. Now, a smart business takes good care of its customers, just as a smart craftsman takes good care of his tools, and for precisely the same reason: they are what you have to make use of in order to achieve the desired goal, and the better they are treated the more likely it is that this goal is to be reached. But never let it be forgotten that customers are simply a means to an end, not the end itself.

My apologies for explaining this at such a simplistic level, sir. I merely infer from your comment that you are stupid and require basic instruction. And thus we proceed to the next step.

A city is not an economic unit. It is a political unit. These are not the same things.

No. Really. They are not.

A political unit is expressly not designed to turn a profit. It is, instead, designed to serve the needs of the people it governs, by providing them with services they cannot individually provide for themselves, such as social order, infrastructure, police and fire protection, social services, and the like. The people served by a political unit are not customers. They are citizens. Thus, they are not tools or means to an end but are, instead, the end themselves.

This has a certain number of implications, all of them contrary to your position.

Among them are these:

1. That the profit motive is not a valid way of conducting political affairs.

Cash is not an appropriate measure of cost/benefit analysis when discussing politics. Politics is about lives, not goods or services or money being exchanged for such things, and accordingly one measures costs and benefits in terms of social well being rather than mere cash. A successful government measures its outcomes in terms of the good of the individuals and groups that it serves. This is a tricky thing, one that requires no little balancing – not all citizens can be served at all times in precisely the way they would like to be. But a government that ends up with excess money but poorly served citizens is a failure. To put it another way,

2. That in a political situation the point is to accrue benefits toward the citizens rather than toward the government. This is the reverse of the point in business, where the point is to accrue profits toward the business rather than the customers.

A business is accounted a success if it produces wealth for its leaders and owners, wealth that – in a well-run business – can and likely should be distributed down to its workers to ensure their continued productivity. Whether its customers are poor or in bad condition is not the province of a business to concern itself with, so long as it is meeting its market and producing wealth for itself.

A government that enriches its favorites and lets the rest of its citizens fall into poverty and decay, that does not provide protections and services for all, is a failure. It is a kleptocracy, one that provides benefits only to a few while everyone else declines. That this has become common in this country over the last three decades does not justify it.

Please note that it is, in fact, the province of a government to concern itself with the welfare of its citizens. That is its market, and its only wealth.

3. That a business can cut its losses and bail out whenever its economic conditions demand that it do so, but a government cannot.

As noted above, businesses deal in cash, but politics is about lives. On a strictly cash-in, cash-out basis it is often cost-effective to let people die. This is why health insurance is such a tricky thing when entrusted to the magic of the free market, and why it tends not to be a very effective long-term political strategy either.

4. That a political unit, at least as it is constructed in the United States and most other Western nations, depends for its legitimacy on the consent of the governed, whereas no such consent is demanded in a business.

This is a very different management style. Business leaders have authority to issue commands and are not constrained by the demands of others. While it is smart of them to listen to others, there is no structural requirement that they do so. Political leaders, however, must bow to the source of their sovereignty, a source that issues enough conflicting demands that compromise and negotiation are the primary skills required of such leaders, not command and control.

Business underlings may ask, “How high?” when commanded to jump, but political rivals tend not to, nor should they. The skills required to run a business, in other words, do not translate very well into the political realm.

This really should not be as much of a surprise as it apparently is. There is no particular reason to assume that the skills necessary to be an athletic superstar translate very well onto the theatrical stage. They are separate endeavors. The same is true here.

Please keep that in mind.

Hoping that this has cleared things up, or at the very least you will stop being so loud about your intellectual shortcomings, I remain,

Yr. Humble Svt.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Where Does The Time Go?

Do you know anyone with free time anymore? I don’t. Not really.

Even the people I know who are unemployed really don’t have free time – they rush around trying to find employment (which, I realize, is a politically incorrect observation in these hard-hearted right-wing times, where the unemployed are supposed to be lazy and sponging off the public dime – all I can say is that having been there, I wish) and generally have less time than the rest of us.

And that’s not an easy thing to do.

I teach three classes this semester – one face-to-face at Home Campus, another face-to-face at Not Quite So Far Away Campus, which is still an hour and a half of highway driving each way even if it isn’t quite as far as Far Away Campus was, and the last that odd hybrid of face-to-face and online that I finally got running last month. Teaching is one of those jobs that is hard to explain to those who don’t do it – most people look at the 3 hours/week I’m in class for each course I teach and think that’s what I work. No, no, no – the time I spend in class is the reward for the time I spend working.

I also run the performing arts series at Home Campus, at least the day-to-day stuff. I report to a committee that tells me what to do, but I’m the one that goes and does it. We had 150 people show up to our last show, not one of whom was a committee member.

Kim used to teach – she’s a very good teacher – but in the Peter Principle way of things she got promoted to Associate Dean and so cannot do what she loves and is good at. Instead she does what she finds no particular pleasure in, but is still pretty good at. For this reason they may promote her again. And in the meantime she is Doppler-shifted – sometimes blue, sometimes red, depending on whether she is coming or going.

And there are the girls, who take up much of our time because that is why we have time in the first place. We run around to Not Bad President Elementary a lot, because we are lucky that way and can arrange our schedules to allow us to do that. They have homework every night, and music lessons and 4H and Girl Scouts and a host of other things that require a presence at specified times and places.

It’s all so busy.

And nobody I know is any less busy, either. We'd sympathize with each other if we had the time to do so, I'm sure.

When I was about Lauren’s age, there was a company called “Jack and Jill” that ran ice cream trucks through the suburbs of Philadelphia. In those largely pre-central-air days the windows would be open throughout the neighborhood, and you could actually hear the little bell ringing as the truck cruised slowly through the streets.

Sometimes we’d be inside when it came by, and there would be an explosion of motion as kids ran out the door with nickels and dimes to catch the truck when it stopped. There were certain places it would stop, so you knew where to head to.

But other nights were different.

I grew up on a one-block-long street. Nobody – not even the furniture delivery people – knew where we were. So nobody ever drove down our street unless they knew someone there. The Jack and Jill people didn’t even drive down my street – they went up and down the cross streets. We had the street to ourselves, we kids.

Sometimes, when we would be running around in the summertime chasing bugs and waiting for the Jack and Jill bell to ring, our various parents and neighbors would gather onto someone’s lawn – sometimes with folding chairs and sometimes just in the grass – to pass time and talk, the way grown-ups do.  Those were slow, graceful evenings, with nothing to do and all night to do it.  And if the ice cream truck didn't make it that night, there would be other nights to sit up and wait for it.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever done anything similar since I became one of the grown-ups.

Maybe a couple of times.

This is not progress.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Word to the Wise

And so it has come to this.

Barely a month into his term, the august person of the Governor of Wisconsin has threatened me with military force if I dare to disagree with his plan to strip state employees of their collective bargaining rights.

It’s nice to see all that talk about “freedom” and “individual rights” so popular among Republicans and Teabaggers (as if there is a difference anymore) being exposed as the nonsense it is in the hands of right wing extremists, people who define “freedom” as “the right to do as you are told by right wing extremists” and “individual rights” as “the responsibility to do as you are told by right wing extremists.” At least it’s out in the open now.

I’m not going to get into the actual policy decision here, the brazen power grab that is the destruction of the rights of the men and women who actually make this state function. There is enough anti-union hysteria in this benighted country that I am sure you could find a whole lot of idiots who have forgotten that it was unions who brought them the 40-hour workweek, the entire concept of the weekend, the idea that workplaces should not be deathtraps, and the concept of a living wage. It is unions who have made sure that American workers could afford to buy the things that drive the consumer economy forward and make this country prosperous. Americans as a group have for decades shown themselves eager to cut their own economic throats in the name of an ideology that will never benefit them or their children and nothing I say will change that, so I will skip that here.

But to threaten military action against American citizens based on policy disagreements strikes me as a betrayal of all that this republic stands for.

It strikes me as something more appropriate for a tin-horn dictatorship than for the supposed Land Of The Free (tm).

And it strikes me as just the sort of thing that is going to be very popular among the kinds of people who gladly trade their rights for the illusion of security, not understanding that they haven’t been spared the axe so much as had their turn delayed by the sufferings of others.

I am apparently a dangerous man.

A thinking man.

A man who knows the history of this country, the values of this country, and the truths that have made this country great.

Remember that when the troops march through Wisconsin.

Remember what this country once stood for.

And hang your heads in shame, because it not only can happen here but it has happened here and nobody did anything about it.

You’re next.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Roughing It

I am now finished slogging through the new Autobiography of Mark Twain. You would not think it possible to make Twain – this country’s most emblematic and original writer – into something that had to be slogged through, but that is what happens when editors run wild.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the book, those parts of it where it was Twain speaking to me rather than the editors. But this is not the sort of book that is designed for a popular audience that just wants to sit down with a compatible beverage and read it straight through. It instead an academic monograph, complete with a long introduction about textual provenance, 150 pages of preliminary material that Twain wrote in earlier attempts at writing his autobiography, any number of catty asides from the present editors regarding the shortcomings of the previous editors of earlier volumes of Twain’s works, and several hundred pages of endnotes explaining what all the things Twain mentioned – and I do mean all of them – were, for the benefit of the rest of us who no longer remember any of them.

I’m a professional historian – I study the history of the United States for a living – and a lot of the things Twain mentioned were unknown to me. He knew that would happen – he even devotes several pages’ worth of discussion to the larger meaning of that, pages that are well worth reading. Much of what was important in the world of 1906, when he was dictating the Autobiography, or the world of the late 19th century, when most of the events he describes from the perspective of 1906 were happening, is long gone now, forgotten and passed over.

But you know, sometimes I think that’s not such a bad thing.

Twain is Twain – his writing style never changes, his opinions are delivered in the kind of vibrant prose that you would expect of him, even though most of this book consists of things he dictated rather than wrote out – and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s discoursing about. The joy of it is listening to his voice tell the stories.

This would have been a better book if the editors had stepped back a bit and let that happen.

I think they should have published two editions – this one, for the literary scholars and historians who like this sort of stuff, and another one that just has Twain, for people who want to sit and read it and listen to his voice.

I suppose I could create that edition myself, just by ignoring all the editorial intrusions, and perhaps someday I will go back and do that – probably when Volume 2 comes out and I want to catch up.

It will be nice just to listen to his voice.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lauren! Of! Science!

Lauren may have a career in theater ahead of her. As someone who has spent much of the last three decades backstage, I’m not sure whether to congratulate her on that or console her.

This weekend we had a show down at Home Campus. It was a science education and comedy show, one that I had been looking forward to for a while. I saw the guy in a showcase setting when I was at a conference in 2009, and he was really funny. Plus, if you’re not careful, you might end up learning something from his shows. Can’t beat that combination, now, can you?

As the guy in charge of these things on a day-to-day basis down at Home Campus, it is my job to make sure that everything is ready for them. This is not as glamorous as you might think. It involves such things as buying sandwiches and bottled water for the performers, picking them up from the airport if necessary, ferrying them about town, opening the theater on show days, locking it back up again afterward, and so on.

It’s actually a lot of fun when the shows roll around – we’ve had some great acts come in, and they’ve been uniformly wonderful people to hang around with. I’ve even managed to stay in touch with some of them since then, a fact that both surprises and delights me.

Part of my job is also to make sure that the lighting and stage are set up the way they want it. So I spent some of Saturday down at the theater cobbling together a rough front wash of lighting and getting various curtains and travelers set up. The girls came in with me to help out – Kim spent the weekend doing Associate Dean things, so really they had little choice in the matter – and they had a great time running around on stage while I brought lights up and down. Being able to see bodies on stage helps immensely, so I was glad to have them.

Sunday I had to go in early to finalize the lighting and help the performer get situated, and Lauren said she wanted to stay with me. So after a few hems and haws, I told her okay, but she would have to be on her best.

And she was.

She helped me with the lighting again, and was interested to see how the board worked – she spent a happy time learning the dimmers and bump buttons.

She helped me check lighting levels.

And she hit it off pretty well with the performer, who it turns out has a daughter about her age.

So when the show started, guess who got picked as one of the volunteers.

It just made her day.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

We Just Got Served

I don’t think McDonalds is even trying anymore.

We almost never went to McDonalds when I was a kid. “Those are not hamburgers,” my dad would insist. He felt they were hockey pucks, drink coasters, base-metal medallions, and any number of dark-colored flattish round objects, none of which qualified as hamburgers. Hamburgers in my dad’s estimation were thick, almost spherical objects, covered with toppings and containing within them any number of adventuresome ingredients the memory of which will to this day give my brother palpitations.

Go ahead, ask him about the “parmesan cheese” phase. I dare you.

On those occasions where we could prevail upon my dad to take us to a fast food burger joint, there were other, less noisome alternatives in the Philadelphia area.

I remember going to Roy Rogers a fair amount. Like its namesake, it was a cowboy-themed attraction. One of my earliest restaurant memories was sitting at a table in one of those establishments while my brother – nearly three years my junior – got to sit in the horse-shaped child seat with the tray attachment in the front. I suppose at some point I had been in one of those too, but it did seem an injustice at the time that I had grown too big for it.

As I recall some friends on the backstage crew of the high school theater made off with the wagon-shaped sign when they closed. I have no idea what they did with it – for all I know it’s still sitting in someone’s garage.

There’s a bank there now.

When Roy’s wasn’t feasible we would sometimes go to a chain called Gino’s, which had two accomplishments that made it memorable to me. One was that they were the first fast-food place in the area to have a salad bar, and if you think teenaged males can’t make a salad that is less healthy than anything else on a burger joint’s menu, think again. The other is that for a while their advertising people insisted on supplying everything in the restaurant with labels. The napkins were imprinted with the bright red word, “Napkin,” in case you couldn’t recognize it for what it was. Similarly, there were objects labeled “Straw,” “Cup,” “Hamburger,” “Fries,” and, I have no doubt, “Cash Register” and “Employee.”

Gino’s folded when I was in college, and now there’s a McDonalds there.

And thus the story comes full circle.

There were any number of McDonalds restaurants around the area when I was a kid, not going to any of them. They all had bright red signs with the standard yellow arches, and underneath the arches was a proud little caption advertising how many billions and billions of people had been served by the McDonalds chain.

It was always fun to see when the number would change. How would they know? Was there somebody counting? Who reported that information, and to whom? It just fascinated me to think that it was somebody’s job to keep track of that sort of thing and then direct the far-flung minions of the empire to change the sign from, say, 87 billion to 88 billion.

And when we’d drive by McDonalds that had different numbers on the sign, well. Somebody surely was in a heap of trouble over that, I thought.

But they don’t do that anymore.

Here in Our Little Town – a decent-sized place by Wisconsin standards, though a rounding error in Philadelphia – we have four McDonalds, none of which are in any danger of shutting down any time soon. When the girls were smaller we ate there quite a bit – predictable mediocrity being a comforting thing for small children – but they’ve kind of outgrown the place now and there are better fast food places in town when we’re in the mood for that sort of thing. So we tend to drive by them.

And you know what?

The signs just say, “Billions and billions served” now. There’s no number. Nobody’s keeping track. Nobody cares about accomplishments anymore. There’s just a vague and unsatisfying hand-wave in the direction of quantity, and that’s it.

They’re not even trying anymore.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On the Current Stormy Weather

It’s snowing sideways out there.

We’re in the middle of what is supposed to be historic blizzard, and I can believe it. But I am inside, where it is warm and snug, and I plan to stay here.

It wasn’t as bad as they said it would be this morning, so I jumped into the buggy and drove to Not Quite So Far Away Campus, which is a good hour and a half on a sunny day. Having a semi jack-knife across the highway about halfway there added another hour, so my students were treated to the slightly condensed version of the Crisis of the 14th Century (Plague! Famine! War! Death! Bundled together and sold at a discount!), but they seemed okay with it. They talked about Boccaccio and what they would do if they had been there, in plague-ravaged Florence, and it was fun.

The textbooks never put the good parts of Boccaccio in for students, though. Someone once made a movie of The Decameron, back in 1971. Few of my students are old enough to rent it given the rating it got. My guess is that Day Three, Story Ten played a prominent role in the screenplay. I would bet that if students understood that sex was not invented in the 21st century but has a long and glorious history, they’d be more interested in the study of the past.

Just saying.

I made it back home without any difficulties, puttered around for a bit and then went to pick up the girls from Not Bad President Elementary. Just as I pulled into line outside, the winds started.

When Elvira Gulch pedaled by, I knew we were in for a storm.

But everyone is now home safe and sound. There are potatoes baking in the oven, tea brewing in the kettle, and books a-plenty on the shelves.

Sometimes I think this is why they have winter storms – to force us to sit still for a while and think and observe, instead of running frantically about the way we often do these days.

We need that, now and then.