Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Lifetime in Libraries

I stole this idea from John Scalzi.  I don’t think he’ll mind.


I have always been a library person.  It is bizarre to me to imagine someone who isn’t.  I’ve been this way my whole life, and I almost literally cannot conceive of how to live any other way.

The very first library I remember using was the Penn Wynne Library, part of the Lower Merion Township library system, just outside of Philadelphia.  It was the smallest library in the system – even as a child I knew it was small – but it was within walking distance of my house when I was little and my mother would walk there with me and my brother fairly often. 

You walked in just about at the midpoint of the place.  Right ahead of you was the main desk – a large wooden fortress behind which the librarians sat and checked out the books you brought them.  Each book had a card in it, and they’d slide the card into a small machine that would take a bite out of it with a satisfying KA-CHUNK and then print out the due date so you’d remember it.  I got my first library card at that desk – a credit-card-sized piece of pink cardstock with my name carefully typed at the top and with a metal ID number crimped just above the bottom corner.  It came in a manila envelope, and it was just the coolest thing in the world to have when I was a kid.

The kids’ books were over in the corner on the left, and I went through them fairly quickly.  The rest of the left-hand room was adult books, but most of the adult books were in the big room to the right of the desk.  I spent a lot of time reading books about shipwrecks there, for some reason, taking them down from the shelf, one after the other, and reading them on the six-foot white wooden tables set up for just that purpose.  Also, I read pretty much everything they had on birds by the time I hit fourth grade.  How these things meshed I will never know, nor will I care.  The whole point of libraries is that things don’t have to mesh – they just have to be interesting.

If you wanted something odd, sometimes they’d let you climb up the narrow stairs to what was, more or less, an attic, directly over the front desk.  It was hot and stuffy up there, and clearly not meant for anyone who wasn’t looking for something very specific.  Mostly they kept back issues of periodicals there, and if you were doing research for a school paper it was a fun place to hide.

The Penn Wynne Library opened my eyes to the concept that there was a world of books out there beyond my house – a fairly bizarre concept, since I couldn’t imagine that our book-laden house didn’t have them all – and I have never forgotten the joy of searching through all those books for something new to read.

I spent a lot of time at the library of the Penn Wynne Elementary School as well.  It was almost as big as the public library, which says more about how small the public library was than anything else.  I got to know the librarian there – Mrs. Okanski – and she’d find books for me now and then.  I must have checked out Daniel P. Mannix’s book, The Last Eagle, a hundred times.

In fifth grade, we used the library as a study space.  It was the Bicentennial, and we were studying the Constitution.  At one point all eight or ten of us, as if on cue, suddenly launched into the Preamble song from School House Rock.  Nobody complained.

By the time I was in high school I had memberships in two different library systems, which is what you can do when your house is maybe ten paces from the county line and your mailing address says you live in a different township than you actually do.  The nice thing about the Haverford Township library system is that they had just finished a new library not all that far from my house.  Part of it was an old bank – the bank where I had gotten my first glimpse of a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin when they were issued a couple of years earlier – and the rest was a new addition.  It was maybe four times the size of the Penn Wynne Library, and it had an upper floor that you could actually go to without asking permission first.  The Haverford library was where I checked out The Lord of the Rings for the first time, thus finding a comfortable home in a genre I still read intensively. 

I worked at the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania when I was a student there.  It was huge, but only one of several libraries on campus.  It was a great place to explore when you were trying to find refuge from the stresses of everyday life and you never knew what you were going to find.   A good third of the books were in languages other than English – many in the loopy scripts of South Asia, which the library seemed to specialize in for some reason.  There was a whole world of knowledge out there, in other words, that remains even to this day a mystery to me.  That kind of knowing one’s limitations is important in life, I think.

Even when you could understand the books there was no guarantee that you could understand the books.  I remember in particular one by a guy named P.N. Oaks – a book that was so comically bizarre that it set me and my roommate to wondering just how the library selected its books or whether they had any real knowledge of what was on their shelves at all.  This, of course, led to a plan to have our own writings professionally bound and stamped with a call number.  We would then take them into the library and put them on the appropriate shelf.  Eventually someone would try to check them out and, finding no computer record, the books would be sent down to tech services and entered into the database for all the world to look up – after all, it must have just been an oversight not to have the books properly catalogued.  Look – they’ve got call numbers and everything.  Who would break into a library and leave things?  It was the only way we could think of to explain the presence of Mr. Oaks’ book, though, with its lurid and absolutely serious descriptions of nuclear wars occurring over a billion (yes, with a “b”) years ago, and it gave us a sense of how random cultural immortality was.  It’s been a quarter of a century and I still remember Mr. Oaks’ book.  If we had actually gone through with our plan there might be undergraduates even now citing us in their papers.

The year I spent working there I was a shelver.  There was a bookshelf right by the elevators on most of the floors, and my job was to go from floor to floor taking the checked-in books off that shelf and putting them back where they belonged.  By the time the year was over, I did in fact have a pretty good idea of what I was going to find when I was browsing, because I’d handled a good percentage of it.  You get to know a place well when you’re one of the minions who keep it running.  To this day I retain a healthy respect for the folks who make institutions run, even when they were not the ones people ever notice.

My use of public libraries began to decline while I was in college, mainly because it was about this time that I discovered used book stores.  The fact that I could buy and keep the books I wanted and generally pay less for them than the overdue fines I normally accrued was an eye-opening thing, and I took full advantage of it.  Libraries became places I needed for professional reasons.

Graduate students live in libraries, often in carrels that are specifically reserved for them.  I had such carrels at the libraries at Pitt and Iowa when I was in graduate school there – small tables with shelves where you could store books you were working on.  If you had good carrel neighbors it could be festive, in a nerdy sort of way.  Community is where you find it.

The Iowa library was also where I found the internet for the first time.  They had computer labs on the second floor – Windows labs and Mac labs, since the difference was unbridgeable at the time – and it took me until well into my first year there to figure out how to hook my little Mac Plus up to the network from home.  So that was where I first used email on a regular basis.  And where I discovered this new thing called the world wide web – at the time you could still log into Yahoo and find out every new web page that it had catalogued in the previous 24 hours.  It was a list about two screens long, most days.

After I moved here to Our Little Town I continued to use the Iowa library, since that was where I was enrolled, but I also made good use of the library system at UW-Madison.  I spent much of my time there with the microfilm collection, scanning through things for my research, and I got to know the head librarian in that section pretty well.  You make friends in interesting places, in libraries.

I also spent a lot of time at the UW-Whitewater library because they had a microfilm reader/printer that nobody ever used so I didn’t have to wait in line like I did in Madison.  They also had a microcard reader that nobody had used in over a decade, and maybe two boxes of microcards – Nixon-era technology that has since been largely phased out – to go with it.  The librarian there – only a few months before retiring – decided I was not a threat and even if I were the consequences would be minimal, so she let me take the machine home.  I kept it for three years and became an expert at its mechanical needs (a month-long search eventually revealed that the highly specialized bulbs it needed were just tail-light bulbs that could be purchased at Auto-Zone for $3/pair, for example).  Eventually I gave it back, much to the confusion of the staff there who had no idea that such a machine had ever been theirs.  Generosity is a marvelous thing, and responsibility – taking care of what people give you, giving it back in better condition than when you received it – is an important part of life.

When my children were born I got more into our local public library, here in Our Little Town.  This had its good and bad points.

On the down side, I worked there as a check-in clerk and shelver for three years – a fact that does not appear on my resume anywhere because my supervisor for most of that period was so detached from reality that I wouldn’t trust anything in my personnel file even if it were positive.  Someday I will detail the nonsense that went on there, but not now.  If nothing else, I learned how not to manage an organization while I was there, and this lesson came in handy when I moved on to run the museum.

On the plus side, there were a lot of things.  For one thing, the folks who managed the collections were marvelous.  The books that are in that library are astonishingly varied and not just the usual collection of romance novels and best sellers.  This thoroughness was especially true in the children’s section, which – as first Tabitha and then Lauren came along – I got to know very well.  For another thing, the people who actually did the work – the folks who actually handled books, as opposed to those who handled personnel files – were uniformly conscientious, friendly, and good at what they did.  That library functioned (and still functions) at an incredibly high level, often in spite of its management, and it is a jewel here in this town.

Both of my children had library cards before they could talk.  Both of them learned as infants that books were fun – that even if they didn’t care about the story, when they turned the page something interesting appeared.  We’d zip through board book after board book, picture book after picture book, kid’s book after kid’s book, and now YA book after YA book, and something interesting always appears on the next page.

It is a world of interesting things.

Libraries are places where people learn, communicate, come together, fall apart, and grow into who they will become.  I like libraries. 

There should be more of them.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Deconstructing the Unreconstructed

It’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – has been for a couple years now – and you know what that means, don’t you? 

If you guessed “persistent efforts by unreconstructed traitors to claim that the South 1) was justified in seceding, 2) tried to destroy the Union for some other reason besides the preservation of human slavery, 3) could/should/would have won the war based on unwarranted extrapolation from extraneous data, and/or 4) actually did win the war,” then congratulations – you win a prize.  Make sure to claim one that is good and sturdy so when you hit yourself with it right between the eyes you will actually lose consciousness and not have to deal with the idiocy that such persistent efforts display.  Otherwise all you’ll do is give yourself black eyes and you’ll still have to listen to the unceasing flow of nonsense from the unreconstructed, because they’re not really good at the whole “shutting up” thing.

It’s been a century and a half.  The South lost.  It deserved to lose.  The world is a better place because it lost.  And by all that is good, true and holy, its supporters should be over it by now.

But they are not.

Recently I had the dubious privilege of reading an announcement from The Tenth Amendment Center that accused Lincoln of starting the Civil War for his own nefarious purposes.  He “brutalized the country and shredded the Constitution,” announced The Tenth Amendment Center in the sort of hyperbolic and breathless tones employed by those who believe that manufactured outrage can overcome the sheer stupidity of their positions.

In today’s political climate, such people are common.  We live in an era that has no regard whatsoever for facts, evidence or truth so long as the outrage moves units and sells advertising.  There is, after all, no other explanation for the fact that Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the rest of the Teabagger media machine continues to exist.  Outrage sells and reality doesn’t, and if you keep that in mind you will find that a lot of what passes for politics in this country makes a whole lot more sense.

But that doesn’t mean I have to put up with it.  It doesn’t mean I have to respect it.  And it sure as hell doesn’t mean I have to take it seriously.  I know too much about American history to give to such nonsense anything other than the contempt it so richly deserves. 

Even so, it really is worth looking at The Tenth Amendment Center’s announcement in some detail because it is a sterling example of what happens when the willfully uninformed are given access to a list of historical terms and a keyboard.

Let’s examine this collection of words (many of which are correctly spelled), shall we?

First of all, you know you’re in trouble simply from the source.  Anything that names itself after the Tenth Amendment is immediately suspect because such a name is simply a dog-whistle to the sorts of people who think the Founders were Ayn Rand libertarians such as themselves.  Somehow – and it is never fully made clear how – I am supposed to believe that the Founders spent several months if intense and often contentious debate coming up with a plan for a new national government with the capability of playing an active role in American society, one specifically designed to replace the powerless one that preceded it, debate which took place at a Constitutional Convention specifically called into being because the previous government was too powerless to govern effectively, then spent several more months strenuously fighting for its passage against entrenched opposition by states’ rights advocates who still wanted the Articles of Confederation and its powerless national government, then moved into positions of authority within that new federal government so they could turn this blueprint into a functional state by using the power they had specifically designated the federal government to have, all in order to have a new government that could do nothing. 

It boggles the mind.  Seriously, it does.  You’d almost suspect that such people had never actually read the Constitution or studied its history, but instead have had specific talking points drilled into their heads by commentators.  Imagine!

I know!  Who would do such a thing?

Don’t even get me started when such people start yammering on about “original intent.” 

First of all, the Founders had a number of original intents – that’s why they spent most of the 1790s fighting about what the Constitution meant.  And unlike the self-professed clairvoyants of the modern age, the Founders were there at the time!  You’d think they’d know what they meant better than The Tenth Amendment Center does.  And you’d be right!  Go reward yourself with the tasty beverage of your choice, informed person!

Second, none of the intents bandied about by the current crop of malcontents are among the options presented by the Founders.  It’s like these people went to a fish-shooting contest and couldn’t even hit the barrel.

So right off the bat a thinking reader approaches this press release with some trepidation.  But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so perhaps this document has something worthwhile to contribute to our current understanding of the Civil War.

As if.  Although it does a masterful job of contributing to our understanding of just how misunderstood that event remains today and how twisted for current political purposes it has become among a certain subset of right wing extremists, so that might be worth a look.

Let’s start from the top.

Right at the beginning – the very first sentence of this diatribe, in fact – there is this observation:

Up until Lincoln’s war, the states assumed they had the right to leave the Union, and, in fact, they did have that right.  Neither the 1777 Articles of Confederation nor the 1789 US Constitution prohibited secession.

Leaving aside the fact that the US Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, this is still a bizarrely inappropriate view.

For one thing, what relevance the Articles of Confederation have here is a mystery.  The whole point of the Constitution is that it replaced the Articles, rendering them null and void.  To appeal to the Articles for any judgment on the nature of the Union under the Constitution other than “this is what the Founders were trying to fix by writing the Constitution” is thus at best a red herring and at worst – i.e. most likely – an attempt to confuse the issue with irrelevant nonsense.

Further, the author has it entirely backward – the Union is permanent.  The relevant fact here is that the Constitution has nothing in it that authorizes secession.  Short of the successful use of armed force to destroy the Union and undo the work of the Founding Fathers (which the author seems to venerate as a shiny but incomprehensible thing in much the same blind and uncomprehending way that a beetle might venerate an iPad), there is no legal way out of the Union as the Constitution was constructed in 1787, as it existed in 1861, or as it exists today.  Now, it is possible at some future point to amend the Constitution to allow secession – the Founders specifically built an amendment process into the Constitution and did not declare such an amendment off limits – but until that happens secession is treason.

This was something clearly understood by most people at the time.  Not all, of course – the Fire Eaters and the Calhounites and their misguided brethren operated on a level of ignorance that conflicted directly with such understanding, but to argue, as this author does, that states assumed without contradiction that they could leave any time they wanted to and that only Lincoln saw it any other way ignores the rather pointed evidence of the Nullification Crisis of 1832. 

When South Carolina seemed to be headed down the road toward secession in 1832 – in theory to protest high tariffs but, if you actually go back and read what they were saying, in fact because they feared that a federal government strong enough to raise such tariffs would also be strong enough to abolish slavery (it always goes back to slavery, every time, no matter what the rhetoric) – President Andrew Jackson flatly declared, “Disunion is treason!” and very nearly led the US military into South Carolina personally in order to crush this rebellion before South Carolina backed down.  Jackson was not known as a man who disparaged the rights of states.  But neither was he known as a man who tolerated treasonous assaults on the Constitution.

The press release continues: Slavery was not the reason for the War Between the States.

First of all, note the rhetorical card that has been palmed here: “War Between the States,” as if this were some kind of random conflict between sovereign nations.  The Civil War was not a war between states.  It was a war within a nation.  If you can’t figure that out you have no business making comments on anything related to the conflict.  But the unreconstructed often use this phrase to hide the treason of the South, to elevate its actions into something approaching respectability, and to divert attention from the fact that this was a civil war and not an international conflict.  As such it is an immediate indicator that anything that follows (or in this case, precedes) ought to be viewed with deep skepticism.

This is especially true for claims that the Civil War was not, at its root, caused by slavery.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, the single most overriding fact about the Civil War is that it was, in fact, about slavery.  Northerners knew it.  Southerners knew it.  It wasn’t a secret, for crying out loud.  It was shouted from the rooftops.  It was written in proclamations.  It was declared for the world to hear, time and time again.  All of the other things that the unreconstructed claim are the root cause of the war instead – tariffs, politics, even the supposedly sacred notion of states’ rights – are, at their roots, about slavery.

The South seceded in order to protect its right to keep human beings in chains, to live off the product of their uncompensated labor, and to spread this evil beyond its borders into places where it was neither welcome nor economically viable. 

They weren’t ashamed of this.  By 1861 the sense that slavery was a necessary evil – tolerated because it was the foundation of Southern culture, wealth and society but due to pass unmourned in the way of such things, a view not uncommon even among slaveholders in 1787 when the Constitution was written – had long since vanished.  The Pro-Slavery Argument that emerges in the second quarter of the 19th century established in the minds of most Southerners the notion that slavery was a positive good, a benefit to both master and enslaved, and as such it was the duty of Southerners to protect and promote it.  Read George FitzHugh’s Cannibals All! if you think I’m kidding.

Northerners, correctly sensing the hypocrisy and double-think that this line of argument rested firmly upon, didn’t buy it – Abraham Lincoln once noted, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” – but it wasn’t meant for their consumption.  It was an argument designed by Southerners for Southerners in order to make those Southerners feel better about the fact that their entire culture rested on what Thomas Jefferson (himself a Southerner and slaveholder) had referred to as a violation of fundamental moral truths.  Recognizing this, Jefferson – a “liberal Christian” in the eighteenth-century sense of that phrase, like most of the Founders, and man who was repeatedly accused of atheism during his presidential campaigns because of it – wrote in 1784 an astonishingly Calvinist lament for the nation he had helped to create and which was so mired in slavery.  “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probably by supernatural interference!  The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

By 1861, Southerners had become convinced that Jefferson was wrong – that slavery was a moral duty, that they had the right to destroy the Union created by the Founders if that was what it took to defend slavery, and that their version of God would in fact take side with them for doing so.

“We went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about,” said John Mosby, one of the most feared Southern military commanders during the Civil War.  “I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.  Men fight from sentiment.  After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine they fought.”  Mosby later changed his views on the justness of slavery, but he never apologized for fighting to defend it, nor did he ever see a need to do so.  And he certainly wasn’t going to use a fanciful theory to cover his tracks.

This fanciful theory, invented after the fact, is the notion that the South fought for states’ rights, a view that emerged after the Civil War as a way to justify the treason of the South in more high-sounding terms.  It was invented by Southerners as a way to hide the fact that they had attempted to destroy the Union in order to preserve slavery.  It was accepted by Northerners who simply wanted to move on and – so long as the South acknowledged defeat and did not return to its secessionist ways – were happy to let the South have its fiction.  And it has been propped up by apologists for slavery and treason ever since.

In 1907, disgusted by such posturing, Mosby wrote an angry letter to Samuel Chapman setting the record straight.   “The South went to war on account of Slavery,” he flatly declared.  “South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln.  South Carolina ought to know what was the cause of her seceding.”

And indeed South Carolina did.

South Carolina was the leader of the treasonous movement to destroy the Union and had been since the Nullification Crisis.  The rest of the South was simply following South Carolina’s lead.  And it is therefore instructive to look at South Carolina’s explanation of it own actions, a document rather straightforwardly entitled “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”

After some pro-forma preliminary recitation of the prevailing theory among Southerners that the Constitution was a compact among sovereign states, as the old Articles of Confederation had been, rather than the much broader and stronger declaration of the people of the United States that it actually was, South Carolina gets down to business.

The only cause given by South Carolina to justify secession is the notion that the North has been insufficiently protective of slavery.  Really – the only one.  Even if you drink the Kool-Aid and accept the whole “sovereign state” theory of how the Constitution came about, the pointed fact here is that this particular “sovereign state” cared only about its right to own slaves and was seceding solely because it felt that right to be threatened.

A full quarter of the document is devoted to Northern efforts to thwart the capture of fugitive slaves in the years leading up to secession.  A quarter!  No other single issue described in the document takes up that much space. 

Finally, its careful rehearsal of grievances finished, South Carolina comes to the point: slavery will be threatened under Lincoln’s administration, and therefore it is seceding. 

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Mississippi’s explanation of its actions – a document with almost the exact same title as South Carolina’s, oddly enough – was also clear:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

The only right the Southern states cared about enough to destroy the Union over was the right to own slaves.  The Civil War was about slavery.  You either know that or you don’t, and if you don’t know it by now there is no reason for anyone else to take you seriously on the subject.

Thus we move on, although to be honest this has gotten quite long – we’re over 3000 words into this and we’ve only looked at the author and first 47 words of the press release!  At this rate I’m going to be spending the rest of my days unpacking the nonsense within the views of The Tenth Amendment Center for all to see, and life is just too short.

We’ll skip ahead, then.  One more example to go into in some detail, perhaps?

But what?

Well, we can skip lightly over the attempt to pin the deaths of over 620,000 Americans on Lincoln – “even as high as 850,000”! – because despite the fact that those numbers are indeed horrific, the idea that this is Lincoln’s fault rather than the fault of the treasonous South for trying to destroy the Union in the first place is ludicrous and can be dismissed out of hand.  If you commit a crime and people get killed, don’t blame the law for damages sustained in bringing you to heel.

We can also safely ignore the contention that a low-tax Confederate States of America would have siphoned off European trade from the North.  The paragraph containing this assertion has three sentences, not one of which have anything to do with either of the other two, with that one being the most flat-out weird of the bunch.  Other than cotton – which European nations had no trouble whatsoever finding alternate sources for once the Civil War started, much to the dismay of Southerners who had rather counted on their importance to European economies as a way to entice them into supporting the treason of the South – the South had absolutely nothing of any value that anyone in Europe wanted, nor were European powers likely to invest in Southern manufacturing at a time when they were busily building their own manufacturing economies.

Perhaps the idea that “Lincoln … provoked the Confederacy into firing on federal tax collectors at Fort Sumter in South Carolina”?  Well, not really.  Other than the sheer idiocy of describing the US military personnel manning Fort Sumter as “tax collectors,” is there anything of interest in that statement?  I suppose the rhetorical slight of hand used by The Tenth Amendment Center in referring to the assault on Fort Sumter as coming from “the Confederacy” – as if this were a legitimate organization – rather than the more accurate “Southern traitors” is interesting.  One wonders what The Tenth Amendment Center would call a bunch of similar folks firing on a US military base today.  “Terrorists,” no doubt.

Part of the problem with trying to narrow down something to focus upon is that this document is a target-rich environment for stupid.  Non-sequitor follows non-sequitor, error follows error, weirdity follows weirdity, until finally the intelligent reader comes to the sad realization that there really isn’t any there there.  It’s just a pastiche, a collection of half-remembered buzzwords and poorly constructed paragraphs, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And the thing about it is that it isn’t even directed at Lincoln.  Not really.  Oh, that’s what the surface is all about, but again – it’s just a dog-whistle to the Ayn Rand libertarians who make up the core audience for nonsense like this.  The real target of all this is the New Deal.  The real target of all this are the Progressive reforms of the 20th century, the ones that reined in the brutal excesses of the Gilded Age, set the foundations for the broad middle class that dominated the 20th century, and made this country the most across-the-board prosperous nation on earth for decades before the World War II generation began dying off and people forgot that such things were accomplished by government action, not by the grace and generosity of the private sector or the magic of the free market.

If people like that can rewrite American history to suit their own partisan agenda, then they can claim a legitimacy that they otherwise do not have.  They know this, which is why their efforts have been so unstinting.  And in some ways they are succeeding – there are a lot of Americans who buy into the myths and fairy tales spread by the extreme right wing about American history.

But I’m not one of them.

No, I am not.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Keeping Down the Noise

So now I feel like a heel.

We’ve had Midgie for about a year now, ever since we liberated her from the local pound and brought her home in an old shopping basket.  And she’s been a fun cat to have around, in many ways.  She likes to sit on your lap and bump heads with you.  She’s affectionate, playful, and sweetly dim in that way that cats often are.  Mithra just flicks her tail at her in disdain.  Actually, that’s not quite true – Mithra usually hisses, bats, and runs either at her or from her.  It’s been a year, you want to say.  The other cat is here to stay.  Get over it.

Midgie does have her down sides, though.

For one thing, she is the worst smelling animal I have ever owned.  That cat has breath that could melt Kevlar, and since cats clean themselves by licking she pretty much stinks from head to tail.  She has a clean bill of health from the vet, including her gums.  We can’t figure it out.  And this is in addition to the random assortment of additional odors she seems to give off just because she can, as if she were some 14-year-old boy having a contest with his buddies, with the winner claiming the last slice of pizza.  Not that I would know anything about such contests.  Not at all.

For another thing, she squeaks.  She has this weird purr that starts like an unoiled fan and then – because she opens her mouth a bit when she purrs, thus creating something of a subwoofer (or sub-meower, I suppose) – gets loud enough to hear from several rooms away.  It’s a fun trick when you’re on the phone and she’s sitting in your lap.  People ask, “Are you grating aluminum?”  “No,” you reply, “that’s just the cat.”  “Right,” they say.  “You can get good money for grated aluminum, I hear.  Dinner’s on you.”

She’s also a mess.  I’ve never seen a cat throw her food around with such abandon.  She actually prefers dry food, and we’ve tried to make it challenging for her because she spent the first three months with us parked in front of her food bowl and slowly inflating to the point where we were going to tattoo “Brunswick” on her butt.  Making it difficult has worked – she’s back to looking like a cat now – but she just takes that dry food and flings it all over the room before methodically hunting it down and eating it.  I suppose it’s a sport to her.  She’s an indoor cat.  Other than randomly annoying Mithra it’s pretty much the only sport she has.

The key problem recently, however, has been that she has become very vocal. 

This wouldn’t be a problem if she were vocal at, say, lunchtime.  Or when the girls get home from school.

But at 5am?  Yeah, that’s a problem.

For a while we figured that it was because she was prepping for treats.  Tabitha had gotten into the habit of giving Midgie these special treats that were advertised as “breath cleansing” (and in truth they were, as Midgie’s breath improved from lethal to merely offensive) in the morning.  But we stopped that a month ago, and nothing changed.

Then we tried shutting our door, which became problematic when Mithra decided that was unacceptable and began clawing at it.  This also happened around 5am, strangely enough.  It’s like the feline witching hour or something.

Finally we have decided to shut Midgie in the basement overnight.  She has her litterbox, and we’ve moved all her food and water onto the landing at the top of the stairs.  There are rabbits to play with and places to hide.  She’ll be fine.

Have you ever seen the look of betrayal on a cat’s face when you shut the door on them, though?  It’s just heartbreaking.

But we’ve already done the whole “sleepless nights” routine with two infants – we’re not doing it again with a foundling cat.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

I May Have Already Won

You may be reading an award-winning blog.

For the last couple of years the performing arts folks here in Our Little Town have been giving out awards to people in various and sundry categories.  It’s a nice program, and they do a good job of spreading things around – last year I was even a judge for the Creative Writing category, and it was kind of fun to go through the nominees and figure out which one I thought was the best.  There are some talented people floating about this place.

So I was flattered when I was nominated for the Creative Writing award this year and asked to submit a post for judging.

Flattered, but also a bit taken aback.

I thought about whether I wanted to be considered for the award at all, as it does come with at least a bit of publicity and I do write an awful lot about my family here.  The internet can be a strange place sometimes, and you have to think about that sort of thing when the issue of recognition comes up.

Eventually I decided that it would be okay, and I picked out several posts that I felt broadly represented the writing I do here.  Picking just one felt kind of skimpy – I write about a lot of different things and it seemed appropriate to have a range of things to be judged upon.  I sent back the list, and I figured that was that.  They’d let me know how it all came out in due time.

Sure enough, I saw a steady flow of traffic from the performing arts folks’ web site after that. 

And then it hit me – I wonder if I’m supposed to go to the award ceremony? 

On the one hand, you do feel a certain obligation to go, since people have gone out of their way to say nice things about you and consider you for an award.

On the other hand, the whole thing is designed as a fund-raiser for the performing arts folks – they sell tickets, and there are raffles and assorted other things – and while I understand the importance of such events, the fact is that they have always given me hives.  I never liked going to fund-raisers when I was running the museum and was the primary beneficiary of the fund-raising.  It was always a trial going to them when Kim was Interim Dean down at Home Campus and I had to tag along as the First Mate.  They’re full of well-intentioned people and all sorts of things that are supposed to be entertaining and fun and which, properly considered, no doubt are.

But these events are just not for me, and I’d much rather just stay home and read.  There is a reason why, back in graduate school, we used to describe our fellow grad students as having “all of the social skills required to be a historian.”  It’s a pretty limited set of skills when you get right down to it.

So I asked the person who had informed me of my nomination, and he replied that they were “encouraging all of the nominees to attend”.  This made sense, given that a) it’s a fund-raiser and every ticket sold means more funds raised, and b) it’s always nice to have the nominees there, just on general principle.  But his response also told me that my presence fell into the “desirable but optional” category – they’d be glad to have me, but the world would not end if it didn’t work out.

I tried.

I tried long and hard to convince myself that I should go, that these people were bestowing an honor upon me and it would be good for me to be there for it, no matter who actually won.  In the end, though, my sense of obligation was not enough to overcome the hives, and I sent what I hope was a polite note declining to attend.

So I don’t know if I won or not.

I suppose I could find out by the simple expedient of checking their Facebook page, and I will do that soon enough.  But for right now it is enough to know that there are people out there who think this blog was worth recognizing in the first place, and were kind enough to let me know.

Thank you for that, performing arts folks.

I do appreciate it, even from afar.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Populists and the Wizard

Today we discussed the Populists in my compressed video class.

I always enjoy talking about the Populists, because they have a certain zip to them and because you can have fun with them.  We go through the basic history, and then I always stop and ask my students, “Do you want an easy way to remember the Populists?”  And of course they always say yes, because there is nothing a student likes better than an easy way to do anything that they think will be on the exam soon.

And when they say yes, I tell them a story.  It’s a fun story, though it is not one I came up with originally – I got it from a professor back when I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, and where he got it from he couldn’t remember.  It goes back a ways.  But it’s still fun, and as a mnemonic it really does help you remember the Populists.

This is the story, more or less as it was told to me.

For those of you who don’t know your late-19th-century US political history, the Populists were a rural, agrarian protest movement that arose in the 1880s and 1890s as a response to the farm crisis of the 1880s.

Times were good for farmers in the 1870s.  Crop yields were good, prices were high, and farmers scrambled to cash in on the good times while they lasted.  Often this meant buying new machinery, land and equipment to maximize their yields, and this in turn often meant mortgaging their farmhouses.  Most of these mortgages were held by banks in the big eastern cities, since that was where the money was.

But in the 1880s, the bottom fell out of agriculture in the midwest and south.  A series of droughts and insect infestations devastated farmers there, even as farmers in other areas had record yields – so even if midwestern and southern farmers could grow anything, they didn’t get much money for it.  Combined with a few other things, this left the farmers deeply in debt – to the point where their farmhouses were often repossessed by the eastern bankers who held the mortgages.

The farmers sought relief through the political process, but this was the Gilded Age – the brief period when Laissez-Faire ruled unchallenged in American politics, and it was assumed that failure in the marketplace was always deserved and that it was certainly not the role of government to step in to correct that.  Both Republicans and Democrats refused to help the farmers.  So the farmers organized their own political party.

It started out small, with Farmers’ Alliances sponsoring farmer-friendly candidates for office.  By 1890, these Alliances were scoring fairly broad successes, and in 1892 they organized into a formal political party – the People’s Party.  Nobody ever really called them that.  Everyone just called them the Populists.

The Populist platform called for a great many things, all of which amounted to a rejection of Laissez-Faire and a call for the return of an active, Hamiltonian federal government that would step in to guide American society and solve its problems.  For those of you who think that active government is an invention of the New Deal, think again – it goes back to the roots of the federal government in the 1790s.  It is something that many (not all) Founding Fathers sought.  It is Laissez-Faire that is the brute exception, the outlier in American political history, not active government.

The Populists also called for the US to abandon the gold standard – where every dollar in circulation is based on a certain amount of gold sitting in a Treasury vault – and replace it with the silver standard, which is the same thing only with silver instead of gold.  There’s more silver than gold, so you can have more dollars out there in circulation.  This causes inflation, which makes debts easier to pay.  Farmers liked this.  Others – notably the industrial workers of the cities (who got paid by the hour and didn’t want inflation) and the eastern bankers (who wanted their loans repaid in uninflated dollars) – did not.

The election of 1896 killed the Populists, in large part because the silver standard had taken over their platform and the issue was then stolen by the Democrats.  The Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, made it a centerpiece of his campaign.  This left the Populists with a choice.  They could either go with Bryan – and lose their identity as a party – or they could run their own candidate on the same platform, split the vote, and lose for certain.  In the end they gambled on Bryan, and lost.  William McKinley, the Republican nominee who ran on all of the usual Gilded Age policies that both parties had agreed to since 1877 (including the gold standard) defeated Bryan, and the Populists faded back to the midwest.

And if you want to remember all that, you need only consider The Wizard of Oz, which was written in 1900 at least in part as political satire.

Dorothy is the Populists.  Who is she?  She is a farm girl from Kansas, from the midwest. 

Oz is the never-never land of American politics, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.  And how does Dorothy get into Oz?  How do the Populists get into national politics?  Bad weather.

The first person Dorothy meets in Oz is the Wicked Witch of the East, whom she kills.  The Wicked Witch of the East is the eastern bankers, the ones who have been repossessing all those farmhouses when the farmers can’t pay their mortgages.  It is therefore fitting that she dies by having a farmhouse dropped on her.

The munchkins are the politicians – small, petty little creatures mindlessly repeating the same phrase over and over again: “Follow the yellow brick road!  Follow the yellow brick road!  Follow the yellow brick road!”  And what are the yellow bricks?  Gold!  Follow the gold standard!

In the book Dorothy’s slippers are not ruby – ruby just showed up better on film.  In the book they’re silver.  And Dorothy rides those silver slippers all the way to the capital, the Emerald City, just as the Populists ride the silver standard all the way to Washington DC.

Along the way she meets the Scarecrow, who is the farmers, who have no brains.  If they had any brains they’d be doing something else.

She meets the Tin Woodsman, who is the industrial workers, who have no heart.  If they had any heart they’d be supporting the Populists.

And she meets the Cowardly Lion – William Jennings Bryan.  All talk, no action, and no good will possibly come from relying on him.

She is opposed by the Wicked Witch of the West, who is the drought.  How does she die?  Just add water.

The Wicked Witch of the West also has her minions, the flying monkeys – the locusts and other agricultural pests who took such a toll on midwestern and southern crops.

But in the end Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch of the West and goes triumphantly back to the Emerald City where she meets the Wizard: William McKinley.  Who is a fraud.

And realizing that there is nothing for them in the capital city, Dorothy (and the Populists) clicks her silver heels three times and goes back to the midwest, where she belongs.

No, I don’t know who Toto is supposed to be.  We never covered that.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

News and Updates

1. Once again, I am confronted by the fact that this whole “working for a living” thing just gets in the way of my blogging.  On the one hand, people are paying me to teach history, so life is good.  On the other hand, there is only so much time and space in life, and when one thing expands something else must contract.  I’m not sure why the things that contract are invariably the things I want to do most, but there you have it.  Blogging is one.  There are others as well.  Whine whine whine whine.

2. The minor league hockey team here in Our Little Town has acquired cheerleaders.  Most of them seem to be about high school age, which is kind of appropriate since most of the players are about that age or only a year or two older – I’m not sure what the general scale is for minor league hockey, but if this were baseball it would be a Single-A club.  The cheerleaders spend a fair amount of time shouting and waving pom poms, and a small amount of time clearing the snow from the ice between periods, after the Zamboni makes its run.  I am not sure what to think of a hockey team with cheerleaders.

3. I have not posted much about politics recently, in part because I can’t figure out a way to think about modern American politics that doesn’t make me want to nuke the place from orbit.  And who wants to read that?  I don’t even want to write it.  After suffering a convincing loss in November – and admitting publicly that the only reason they still control the House of Representatives is their brazen gerrymandering in blue states – the modern Republican Party has not done any serious examination of the causes of their loss but has instead doubled down on its batshit insanity and subversion and continue to threaten the survival of the republic by its very existence.  Sad times.

4. At least Wisconsin spread its snow out a bit.  I had to clear the driveway five times in a ten day period this month – and the over/under on shoveling at all in Wisconsin is 2.5” so these weren’t dustings – which is more than I had to do that all winter last year, but at least it didn’t all fall down in one yard-high clump like it did in the Northeast this weekend.  Plus, the new snowblower we got last year way on sale due to the unusually warm winter has been a marvelous bit of machinery this year.  It starts right up on the first pull, which automatically makes it an improvement.

5. Now that my “Re-read the Discworld” project has concluded, I am working through my to-read pile.  I’ve started with gift books – if you’ve given me a book in the last eight months, chances are I’m going to get to it by the end of this one.  What a wonderful world it is where people send me books.

6. The check-engine light in my car continues to come on at random intervals.  The engine is still there.  I finally did take it in to my mechanic, who has taken extremely good care of several different cars of ours over the last couple of decades.  He found one problem and thought that was it, but the light continues to come on.  Finally he just said, “Well, at this point the prescribed procedure is to start replacing parts and see what happens, which is expensive and may or may not help, so why don’t you just keep driving it until something becomes obvious.”  On the one hand I appreciate the honesty, since he could have just gone ahead with the manual and cost me a lot of money for nothing.  On the other hand the whole notion of things becoming more obvious does worry me.  But in the meantime, it runs perfectly fine except for the random flickering of the check-engine light.

7. If the cats don’t stop waking us up at 5:50am they are going to find themselves duct-taped to the wall overnight.  In the basement.  Food and water will be provided.

8. Already the summer looks full.  This is a good thing. 

9. Some day someone in the university system will explain to me why they maintain two entirely different online systems – one for Online classes and one for add-ons to regular classes – that a) have the same name, but b) are incompatible and you can’t get from the one to the other.  The initial access pages are different, but they both take you to the same log-in page where you enter your ID information.  From there they take you to different places.  Those places have the same components, but arranged slightly differently and with a different color scheme.  I don’t get it.

10. Still waiting for that serious, thoughtful conversation about guns in the United States in the wake of the slaughter of the innocent.  Which slaughter, you ask?  There are so many!  Pick one – any one.  The innocent dead are just as dead, and all that happens is jumped-up wannabe militiamen insist their fantasy resistance cells are more important than the actual lives of children.  And maybe to them that is the truth, but for the rest of us nothing changes. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pass the Chips

It’s been almost a week and I think I have finally recovered from the Super Bowl.

Not the game.  It was a good game, but I didn’t really have a dog in that fight so I wasn't all that stressed out about it.  I don’t especially like or dislike either of the teams that were playing and all I was hoping for was a decent contest.  And it turned into one, eventually, and the 35-minute blackout that shifted the momentum from one side to the other and nearly changed the outcome of the game was interesting in itself.

Has anybody verified the whereabouts of Karl Rove during that blackout?

Just asking.

No, I don’t need to recover from the game.  I need to recover from the food.

I refuse to eat a nutritious dinner on Super Bowl Sunday.  It’s just wrong.  Unless you are actually playing in the game itself, Super Bowl Sunday exists for the sole purpose of discovering precisely how much junk you can consume before being legally declared a dump site.  It is meant as a celebration of salt, fat and sugar, a noble paean to the art of stacking paper plates so full of things that have no nutritional value whatsoever - things that actually suck vitamins out of your body, things that make a small red bar labeled "Health Points" appear over your left shoulder and dwindle visibly with every bite - that you could use those plates as barbells.  There should be chips, popcorn, buffalo wings, sweets, and one of every kind of dip.  There should be a vegetable tray that nobody touches, just to remind everyone that this day, of all days, is not supposed to be good for you.

Once a year you should be able to ignore the demands of good health and just eat.

The problem, of course, is that I am reaching the age where the demands of good health no longer are content to ignore me.

Gone are the days when I could eat like that every day.  Gone are the days when I could eat like that with impunity even once in a while.  These days, I feel it when I eat like that.

It doesn’t stop me, not completely, but it does make me ration those days out a bit.  I am no longer young, as my recent doctor's appointment confirmed, and everything becomes a balancing act.

So I spent my Super Bowl happily munching on things that could be considered food only by virtue of the fact that I was eating them.  And it was glorious.

But all the week since then?


Friday, February 1, 2013

Magnum Trivium, Omnium Trivium - Redux

Don’t mess with academics when it comes to trivia.  We invented it.

Last night was the annual trivia contest and fundraiser for the local symphony orchestra, here in Our Little Town (and thereabouts).  Every year we try to get a team together to represent Home Campus, and we’ve been on quite a winning streak – four straight years going into last night’s competition.  We would be short our best player, however, as she had class scheduled for the night, and the other teams were getting kind of tired of coming in second so they were focused and ready for us.

As if.  At the end of the night, dear old Home Campus got to keep the trophy for another year.

It was close, though – closer than any of the previous years.  We led wire to wire over the five rounds of 30 or so questions each, though our margin was as low as one point and never got any larger than eight.  Those sharpers down at Blessed Catholic School darn near beat us.

And to be honest, part of me was rooting for them.  Not enough that I stopped trying to win, but enough that I don’t think I’d have been upset if they’d pulled it off.

You kind of worry, after a while, what this sort of winning streak will do to the event.  It’s a fundraiser after all, and you don’t want people to get discouraged and drop out.  We’ve already chased off Local Tech and Nearby Private College – it looks bad to lose to us, I suppose – and it would hurt the orchestra to lose more teams.  It might be nice to have someone else win for a change.  On the other hand, well, they knew the job was dangerous when they took it and it would probably be even more discouraging – not to mention a bit insulting – if we just retired so someone else can win.

You want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ.  That’s how it goes.

So for another year we reign supreme, the masters of minutia, the greatest of the least.  The big trophy gets to stay in the Home Campus trophy case and we all get little trophies to keep, as well as Fabulous Prizes donated for the cause.

It was a good night.