Monday, November 30, 2015

Reflections on the Seventeenth Century

When we were in San Francisco last Christmas we stopped at City Lights Books.

Really, what else would you expect?  The place is kind of a shrine, as bookstores go.  It’s cramped and twisty and overstuffed, exactly as a bookstore ought to be.  It has a history that includes any number of former customers who were famous for certain values of famous, at least among those who actually read books, a group which includes me so it’s all good.  And it’s in San Francisco, which is as pleasant a place to hang out as you will find in the continental United States.  So of course we went to City Lights. 

I found a book I wanted to buy.  Naturally I did.  You may not think a book entitled Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, by Geoffrey Parker, is the sort of thing you’d like to read for fun, but to me it looked like precisely the kind of big synthetic history that I tend to enjoy – the kind that weaves together a great many strands in ways that connect vastly disparate things into an overarching story.  I’ve read a lot of books like that this year, actually.  This was indeed a book I felt I ought to have.

Except that it is a brick of a book – well over 700 pages of what might as well be etched granite – and a rather daunting thing to schlep halfway across the country in this era of exorbitant “excess weight” fees on airline baggage.

I considered this for a while, there among all the shelves at City Lights.  Eventually I decided that I did indeed want this book enough to overcome that objection and therefore I had no real option other than to figure out a way to make it work without having to sign over any internal organs to the airline taking me home.  I think I ended up taking it in my carry-on bag, which for some reason they don’t weigh.  You could have lead ingots in there, but as long as you can walk erect with it and fit your bag into the little template sitting there by the gate, you’re good.  And it did feel that way after a while – we didn’t get home until nearly 2:30am, as I recall, and it’s amazing how much heavier a bag gets as a long day of travel goes on.  But the book was mine.

It was a good call.

I started reading it a couple of weeks ago and finally finished it recently.  It was not a fast read, being both long and rather densely written, but it was utterly fascinating.  And not a little depressing.

The message of the book is threefold:

First, that good times come to an end good and hard, often for quite a long time.

The sixteenth century was apparently a pretty happy one in most places on the globe, at least if you were not a Native American.  There was good weather, abundant crops, and no more than the usual level of warfare and violence.  None of that applied to the seventeenth century, which was nearly the full hundred years’ worth of pure distilled misery.  Parker’s chapters jump around from China and India to various places in Europe (there are separate chapters on Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia/Poland/Lithuania, and, because it is so unusually well-documented, two chapters just on Britain, which gave me a rather different perspective on colonial American history than I’d had before), to colonial North America, and Japan while he makes his case.  He doesn’t spend much time on Australia or Africa – documentation in those places being sparse – but he does bring them up to point out that what documentation that does exist tends to reinforce his overall argument, which is pretty simple: the seventeenth century was just every kind of awful mixed together into a bucket.

Good times come to an end, and they can do so with a jarring suddenness and a sickening finality.  This can be very hard to foresee.  And the bad times can last for longer than people think possible.  There is very little that can be done when that happens except try to ride out the storm and hope there will still be some of your descendents around to enjoy whatever good times may eventually come after.  Apparently the population of the world dropped by about a third in that century, with only Japan and colonial New England bucking that trend, so even that may not be a feasible goal.

Second, that when the climate turns against you there isn’t much you can do to make it better.

Many of the problems that arose in that deeply calamitous century had as one of their basic causes the climate shift known as The Little Ice Age, which had the drastic effect of shortening growing seasons, drowning crops in rainfall or blasting them with drought, often in successive seasons, plunging much of the earth into extended and historically bitter winters, and generally wreaking havoc on the settled patterns of civilization.

In many places there was no food.  None.  People sold their children for handfuls of rice, when rice was available.  There was often little fuel to burn to survive some of the coldest winters ever recorded in human history.  It is not an accident that so many people died – that so many lives were blighted, shortened, erased.  You can’t fight the climate.

And third, there is no crisis that cannot be made worse by human activity.

Maybe you can’t fight the climate, but you can certainly make its effects worse.  The seventeenth century was a time of incessant warfare almost everywhere on the planet, most of it for little or no purpose and few beneficial results.  Rulers insisted on waging wars that were increasingly counterproductive and refused in many cases to end them when they had the chance.  Even in the best of times and with the best of reasons, wars are destructive and expensive, and these were not the best of times nor were the reasons generally sound.  Hard times – often starvation – coupled with increasing state demands for taxes to fund ever-increasing warfare destabilized much of the world, and this left few unaffected, even those who themselves managed to have enough to get by.

When the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat the rich.  This is something that we forget at our peril.  This is something we may be about to learn again. 

Because the modern era is not special, really.  Oh, we think we are.  We look back on the people of past eras and centuries and feel smug about what we know that they didn’t know.  We congratulate ourselves on our achievements, and to be fair we have many things that previous generations did not have.

But we don’t really use them well.

We have technology and science, which we often insist on using in counterproductive ways and which a large and increasingly vocal percentage of our population regards as witchcraft and magic to be either avoided or embraced in turn but not understood or furthered.  We have raised the Malthusian limits on population, but we haven’t eliminated them.  We have increased our understanding of climate change, but half of the most powerful nation on earth stubbornly refuses to believe it and likely won’t be convinced until they die of it, if then.  We have a far greater understanding of genetics and evolution, certainly enough to let us know how similar human beings are across almost any division you care to name, and yet we live in a world saturated by racism and on constantly on the brink of war.  We can make those wars far more devastating, in fact, thanks to all that technology and science.

We are still human beings, in other words, prone to doing the worst things possible in any given situation until enough of us die off that the few that are left are pretty much forced to do something right.  We always have, at least, since otherwise the species would have gone extinct.  That’s not a guarantee of future performance, though, just a historical note.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from this for the modern reader, it is the simple fact that civilization is a fragile and widespread net, one that can be unraveled at a moment’s notice by things that have little or nothing to do with the people who will be harmed by that unraveling, and in all likelihood human action will make the situation worse before it will make it better.

We live in a world whose fragility we seem incapable of comprehending.  Our civilizations are interconnected in ways that most people cannot even grasp.  Problems in one corner of the globe often distort life in other corners of the globe that may or may not have even heard of the first corner.  It’s a constant battle to keep it all tied together.

The things is, though, that we have kept it together for the most part, for much of the recent past.  There is cause for optimism in there.  Global life has gotten better in the last half century or so for most people in most places.  Lifespans have improved.  Material standards have risen.  Fewer people live in abject poverty.  Famine is now rare and remarked upon rather than accepted as a normal part of life.  Education is fairly widespread.  In many societies women are no longer treated as a particularly expendable form of property.  Violence, for all of the headlines it grabs, is less common now than it has been in almost any other period of recorded history.

Oh, there are still problems, don’t get me wrong.  Things have been improved, not perfected.  There are exceptions to every improvement I just mentioned.  Every single one.  Often big exceptions.  We notice them a lot now, in part because they stand out against the general run of things.

It can all come crashing down in a heartbeat.  We can make it crash, simply by caving in to our worst instincts, by waging endless stupid wars, by ignoring the climate, by forgetting the simple truths of what happens when enough people suffer enough deprivation to make them not care what happens next so long as they survive to see the sun rise tomorrow, even if what happens next guarantees that they and most of the world don’t get to see the sun rise the day after tomorrow.  Indeed, sometimes it seems as if there are vast numbers of people whose only purpose in life is to guarantee that this will in fact be our future.  They wear nice clothes and travel in respectable circles and speak in reassuring platitudes about traditional values and in strident tones of national pride and their impact will be no less catastrophic than the brigands and bloodthirsty hordes of old because we forget that what humans have traditionally valued includes some pretty squalid things.  We are a predatory species, really.

We live in a world of unimaginable plenty and prosperity, especially people here in the United States.  A lot of people have worked long and hard to make it that way.  Generations have labored to build a stable and relatively affluent society, one where food is taken for granted, material wealth is readily available, and public safety is assumed to the point where it surprises most people to find where it doesn’t apply. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  And if we keep going the way we’re going, it won’t.

That’s a hard lesson.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Good People

We were up at my brother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving yesterday.

For a lot of people I know, this would be the dictionary definition of Hell.  Not visiting my brother-in-law specifically – most of those people have never even met him, and really, he's a perfectly fine person – but rather the idea of spending an entire holiday with their own family.  For many of my friends that would be a minefield of political arguments, general insensitivity toward food allergies, passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive treatment, and other forms of grinding aggravation that all adds up to a general wish to be anywhere else with pretty much anyone else, up to and including Congressional hearings.

Me?  We had a fine time.

Of all the things I am thankful for in this world – a long list, actually – the fact that I actually enjoy spending time with the many branches of my family ranks right up there at the top.  My various in-laws are great people.  They have accepted me into their lives and I enjoy seeing them.  There are things we have in common and things that we don’t, but we don’t get too worked up over the latter stuff.  People are people.  If you treat them well and they treat you well in return, the rest is just details.

There was a horde of folks there yesterday, actually.  My brother-in-law and his wife and five kids.  My sister-in-law’s parents and siblings.  Various cousins whose relationships I have never been able to keep straight.  Kim’s parents.  The four of us.  It was a full house, and as you’d expect with that many kids running around, a loud one.

We ate and were glad in each other’s company.

And next month I will get to do it again, this time with my side of the family as we gather together for Christmas.  My parents are the sort of people I would want to hang out with even if we weren’t related.  My brother and his family are wonderful.  Sometimes my brother’s in-laws come down and we enjoy spending time with them too.  I miss the years when my uncle’s side of the family would join us – the group simply got too large to get everyone together like that for holidays, as we kept adding marriages and children, so mostly they gather in Tennessee these days – but that’s how it goes.  We have a good time when we do get to see each other, whenever that may be.  There isn’t enough time in the day to have all the time I’d like to spend with my family, and we are too far apart these days.

I am surrounded by good people.

I am related to good people.

And if there is any gift I would like to pass along to my own children, it is that they continue to be surrounded by good people.  That they know how their family is fun to be with and they actually would look forward to spending time with their various family members as much as I do.

It’s a hard world sometimes.  Having family you enjoy being with – who are a refuge from that world rather than a representation of it – makes all the difference.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Twenty years is a very long time in the context of a human life.

As a historian I sometimes get caught up in thinking in terms of centuries or dynasties, but few people ever get to see the full span of those.  We are finite creatures, we humans, and the world in front of us slips away faster than we can grasp.  This is why it is important to hold on to the things that matter, even as the rest of it slides away.

Twenty years ago today Kim and I got married.

One of the best lines from When Harry Met Sally (aside from “I’ll have what she’s having”) was the simple observation that “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”  We were engaged eight months after we started dating, and married a year later.  It couldn’t happen soon enough.

It’s been a full life since then.  We bought a house.  We had our daughters.  We moved up and through a great many professional opportunities and way stations.  Loved ones have come into our lives and left them.  We have been to more than half the states and three different foreign countries together.  We’ve raised vegetables, chickens, and eyebrows.  We’ve had five different cats, two of which still live with us.  The entire Harry Potter series came out as books and then finished up as movies and now recedes into the collective memory, a monument to a time.

Through it all there has been one constant: we have faced it all together.

We thought about going away for a vacation to celebrate, just the two of us, in January – the traditional time for academics to do anything that doesn’t involve grading papers.  It turned out that a) I am a terrible person to ask to help plan any kind of getaway, as it genuinely doesn’t occur to me where to go or what to do after arriving there even when I am sincerely trying to figure it out, and b) Kim took a new position within our institution that starts in January anyway.  We may yet do it – holidays and celebrations happen when you have time for them, after all, and it will be our twentieth married year all year long. 

But really, the celebration is here, every day.

Every day I get to wake up with the woman I love, who is more beautiful to me now than ever, and to go through the day knowing I am loved in return.  We share our news, our ups and downs, our lives.  It gets no better than that.  In a world where things slide away so easily, I hold on to this.

Twenty years is a long time.

But not long enough.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


It snowed here last night.

That happens in Wisconsin, from time to time.  You get used to it.

The problem, however, is that while the weather outside may be frightful, there are still places we need to go.  Let it snow, my foot.  Which, it turned out, was about how much snow we got here.  (See how I made that transition?  That's how you know I'm a professional.  Don't try that kind of rhetorical trickery at home, kids!) 

I think that’s some kind of record for a “first measurable” snowfall.  Yay, team.  It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to sit down with an appropriate beverage and a good book.

Except that there are still chickens that need to be looked after, out at the barn.  We haven’t had the time to work on getting the hens into town, now that the ordinance allowing us to do that has passed, and the roosters wouldn’t be allowed here anyway.  So every day we drive out to the barn and toss some food at them, collect whatever eggs they have decided to give us (sparse recently, with the diminishing daylight, but probably more coming as they get used to it), and generally amuse ourselves since there is just something inherently ridiculous about chickens.  Plus now there are a couple of stray kittens in the barn, giving Bristol the barn cat some competition, so there’s that too.  They’re adorable in the way kittens are, and gradually they are beginning to be more sociable with us.

Lauren and I got out there in mid-afternoon, after the snow had stopped falling but before anyone had plowed the street the barn is on or made any attempt at the long driveway that leads from the one to the other.  My little car is not exactly the sort of thing that would feature in advertisements where powerful motor vehicles routinely burst their way through snowdrifts the size of Donald Trump’s ego, spraying snow like so much foam-flecked campaign drivel.  It’s more the kind of vehicle that eases up to such things, carefully tests one tire, and then goes back home to read a good book with an appropriate beverage near to hand.

And thus the circle of life is complete.

The driveway was not plowed.  I knew from experience that even with half that much snowfall it would have been whipped up by the wind into mountainous drifts that would suck my car in and keep it there until spring.  So rather than take that chance, I carefully turned the car around in the entryway and parked on the side of the road.

Next to the ditch.

Can you see what’s coming next?  Because I didn’t.  Although really, I should have.

Yes, when I went to go home the car resolutely refused to go back onto the road no matter how much I rocked it back and forth, hit gas and brake in turn, turned the steering wheel this way and that, and carefully refrained from giving voice to the Full Profanity Experience in deference to my daughter sitting beside me, who would probably not be surprised by any individual component of that experience even if the totality would likely have struck her as somewhat awkward.  Eventually the car slid most of the way into the ditch and stuck there.

Kim came to collect Lauren, since the two of them had already made plans to go see the latest dystopian movie thriller now in cinemas near you – definitely a “coals to Newcastle” kind of experience here in the modern US of A, I suppose, but a good story is a good story.  The book was quite good, as I recall.

I called AAA and settled in to wait for the tow truck.

Almost every single car that passed me stopped to ask if I needed anything.  Most of the people driving trucks looked at my car appraisingly, trying to figure out if there were something they could attach a towrope to (answer: no, not really – best to leave that to the professionals).  We’d chat for a few minutes, and I’d reassure them that someone professional was coming, and they’d wish me luck and head off down the road.

It was nice, really.

It's so easy to get caught up in the nonsense that defines so much of the public sphere in this country these days – the rhetoric, the insanity, the proposals quite literally stolen from the Nazis that are inexplicably popular with far too many people – but when you do you forget that most people are decent sorts.  That the Dismal Tenth may be loud, aggressive, and dangerously close to taking over, but they are not most people.

It’s nice to be reminded of that, on a cold snowy day by the side of the road.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Nullifiers and Refugees

We went over the Nullification Crisis in class today.

For those of you not up on the latest installment of Episodes of 19th-Century Treason, the Nullification Crisis essentially boiled down to a dispute over the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832, both of which South Carolina did not like and tried to shirk, much to the outrage of President Andrew Jackson who at one point came very close to invading South Carolina and executing the ringleaders of this little plot personally.  You know he would have, too, if South Carolina had not backed down.

The central question at the root of this dispute – once you have gotten past John C. Calhoun’s specious theory of “concurrent majorities,” which for some reason retains a certain amount of popularity among those who have little to no understanding of American constitutional theory or practice – is the precise nature of the Union established by the Founders when they wrote the Constitution in 1787.

There were three basic positions taken on this issue during the Nullification Crisis.

Nullifiers, such as Calhoun, insisted that the states were sovereign and their authority outranked that of the federal government in all things.  If that were so, they argued, the states could then veto – or “Nullify” – any federal law that they did not like, and once that happened that federal law would be unenforceable on that state’s territory.  In essence, Calhoun was arguing that the Union was still what it had been under the Articles of Confederation – a loose confederation of sovereign states much more like the modern UN than an actual nation – and that the Constitution had never really happened or, if it had, that it hadn’t actually changed anything. 

Why the Founders had gone to the trouble of creating the Constitution at all, if that were so, he didn’t say.

Nationalists, such as Daniel Webster, argued that the federal government was absolutely sovereign.  Its power outranked the states in every particular, and therefore the federal government could do anything it wanted to the states.  In essence, Webster was arguing for a Union along the lines of the Virginia Plan that had been introduced at the Constitutional Convention and had nearly carried the debate there, a Union that would have preserved the states as mere administrative units in a nation run entirely by a dominant central government. 

Webster managed to overlook or forget entirely the fact that the Virginia Plan did not actually emerge victorious from the Constitutional Convention, however – that it was met first with the New Jersey Plan, which proposed a new constitutional arrangement remarkably similar to the Articles of Confederation that already existed, and then with the Great Compromise, which gave us the Constitution we actually have.

Moderates, such as Andrew Jackson (and really, how often does Jackson get to be described that way?) argued that the Constitution had created a government where the states had a certain amount of sovereignty and the federal government had a certain amount of sovereignty and you had to look to the Constitution to figure out what was what. 

On state or local issues, Jackson and other moderates argued, the states retained their sovereignty and the federal government had no right to interfere.  What counted as a state or local issue was a matter of some debate – roads and banks were controversial in 1832, for example, though criminal justice was generally seen as well within the sovereignty of the states – and on pretty much any matter where there was doubt Jackson was willing to default to the states in a way that, say, John Quincy Adams (his predecessor as president) had not been so willing.  The principle remained, however: some things belonged to the states, and on those issues the federal government did not have jurisdiction.

On things that the Constitution defined as national issues, however, the federal government was sovereign and the states had no authority whatever to modify or reject what the federal government mandated.  It was simply not the place for the states to interject their views into issues such as defense, international affairs and diplomacy, interstate commerce, or – in the most relevant issue at hand – tariffs.  Those belonged to the federal government.

Jackson was right, of course. 

The Virginia Plan had been rejected and never put into place.  And the whole point of the Constitution was to reject the Articles of Confederation and its notion of state sovereignty.  The national government of the 1780s had foundered on the rock of states’ rights, and the Constitution was written specifically to rein them in.  Article 6, Clause 2 (known as “the Supremacy Clause”) states that “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”  Federal law trumps state law in all areas where the federal government has the right to make law, in other words.

The Constitution also explicitly grants to the federal government the power to levy tariffs, thus correcting one of the other flaws of the Articles (which did not actually give the national government any source of income).  And according to the Supremacy Clause, no state has the right to disobey or Nullify that law.

The Constitution, it turns out, also grants to the federal government complete sovereignty over all aspects of foreign policy, both  military and civilian.  There is one United States, and it presents one face to the world.  You can’t run a nation with 13 different foreign policies.

Or fifty.

Because foreign policy also includes immigration in all of its many forms, which was not a great concern in 1832 but which seems to have become one here in the 21st century in our current disgraceful controversy over accepting Syrian refugees.  And the lessons of history have been forgotten in more ways than one.

The federal government has absolute sovereignty when it comes to immigration.  The states have no say whatever over who gets to come into the United States, and this has been repeatedly confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Hines v. Davidowitz (1941), for example, notes that:

[T]he supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution was pointed out by authors of The Federalist in 1787 and has since been given continuous recognition by this Court.  … The Federal Government, representing as it does the collective interests of the [then] forty-eight states, is entrusted with full and exclusive responsibility for the conduct of affairs with foreign sovereignties…. Our conclusion is that appellee is correct in his contention that the power to restrict, limit, regulate, and register aliens as a distinct group is not an equal and continuously existing concurrent power of state and nation, but that whatever power a state may have is subordinate to supreme national law.

This was confirmed in Arizona et al v. United States (2012):

The Federal Government’s broad, undoubted power over immigration and alien status rests, in part, on its constitutional power to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” Art. I, §8, cl. 4, and on its inherent sovereign power to control and conduct foreign relations, see Toll v. Moreno, 458 U. S. 1, 10. Federal governance is extensive and complex. Among other things, federal law specifies categories of aliens who are ineligible to be admitted to the United States, 8U. S. C. §1182; requires aliens to register with the Federal Government and to carry proof of status, §§1304(e), 1306(a); imposes sanctions on employers who hire unauthorized workers, §1324a; and specifies which aliens may be removed and the procedures for doing so, see §1227. …

In other words, for those slow on the uptake, mere governors do not get to have any say over who gets to come to the United States.  It does not matter how many governors make that claim, nor does it matter on what basis they make that claim.

And no, the Tenth Amendment does not apply here, thank you.  I’m familiar with the Tenth Amendment.  It’s a lovely Amendment, yes it is.  Power over immigration is, in fact, “delegated to the United States by the Constitution,” however, which means that this Amendment is not the controlling legal authority in this matter and no amount of wishful thinking, hand-waving argument, or Fox News propaganda will change that.  Please don’t send me Tenth Amendment nonsense.

The power to regulate all aspects of immigration – including refugees – rests solely with the federal government.  Specifically, the statute that currently governs this issue is the 1980 Refugee Act, which gives broad powers to the president to make decisions regarding the acceptance and settlement of refugees in the US.  Congress can take that away and make new policy, should it actually decide to be anything other than the dysfunctional sinkhole of taxpayer money and right-wing ideology that it has become since the GOP took it over, but the governors don’t have any role to play there. 

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, people, when even Florida Governor Rick Scott can figure that out (“It is our understanding that the state does not have the authority to prevent the federal government from funding the relocation of these Syrian refugees to Florida even without state support,” he wrote on November 16 in a letter to Congress asking them to do something about it), how hard can that point be?

Nor do governors get to have any say over where immigrants (including refugees) go once they get here.  There is nothing in the Constitution or American law that says states have the right to close their borders to people who have committed no crimes in that state.

And thus we come to the depressing situation the nation finds itself in now, with 26 governors by last count – all but one of them Republican, oddly enough – loudly pandering to the ignorant and the fearful by declaring that they will not accept Syrian refugees into their states.

I’m not going to go into the obvious parallel with the American refusal to accept Jewish refugees in the years leading up to the Holocaust.  The conclusions there are pretty straightforward, and if you want to be on the side of the Nazis well you just go right on ahead and do that, but don’t expect much sympathy from the rest of us.

Nor am I going to discuss the pernicious and hollow meme that floats around conservative circles these days about how we should be putting our efforts and money toward the care of veterans rather than refugees.   Honestly, given the consistent track record the GOP has for gutting and blocking any piece of legislation designed to help veterans once they are no longer blowing things up in foreign countries – well over a dozen different pieces of legislation in the last eight years, all of which are easy to track down and verify – I’m genuinely sick and tired of hearing it.  They didn’t give a damn about veterans before the attack on France, and they don’t really give a damn about them now.

I don’t really want to go into the issue of how the fears of terrorism compare to the actual reality of gun violence in this country.  As one C-SPAN commenter named Robert Walker posted on November 15, “Terrorist?  We had someone walk into a school and kill 20 little children and we did nothing about it.  What could terrorist[s] do to us that we don’t do to ourselves?”  And it’s more than a little ironic how all of the Syrian refugees are being blamed for the terrorism of a few (who it turns out might not have been Syrian anyway) by the same people who insist that you can’t blame all gun owners for the actions of a few madmen.

I suppose I could go into the sickening cowardice that these governors and their supporters display, running in blind terror from widows and orphans.  Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted people in the world, which is why not a single one of the more than 700,000 refugees settled in the United States since 9/11 has been arrested on terrorism-related charges, according to The Economist.  (The Cato Institute - one of the more right-wing institutions in the US and one that gets a lot of funding from the very same Koch Brothers who own my governor - puts those figures at over 850,000 refugees and three arrests, which frankly doesn't change the situation much at all.)  And yet we fear.

This fear is unworthy of us as Americans.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Mostly it is the issue of governors usurping federal power, of claiming authority that they do not have under the Constitution, that I choose to discuss here.  These governors, most of whom would like you to believe that they worship the very paper that the Constitution was written upon, have clearly never read that document and have no use for it other than as a club to beat opponents with.  They and the horses they rode in on are hereby cordially invited to find other ways to entertain themselves.

We are surrounded by Nullifiers, political leaders who in the best case scenario are willing to pander to the fearful and the ignorant by openly defying the Constitution and the law, and in the worst case scenario actually believe the nonsense they spout.  Those Nullifiers, like the ones in 1832, are woefully out of step with American values and institutions, but nevertheless popular among those of similar inclinations.

More and more I fear for the survival of the American republic.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Random Thoughts on the Recent Atrocity in France

1. After spending an entire post talking about how I really don’t do much political blogging anymore – and in the privacy of my own head being not upset in the least by that fact, since political blogging generally only occurs in reaction to something happening that simply should not happen in a just or proper universe – I find myself being drawn back into political blogging tonight.  I realize that on the Crisis Scale this rates somewhere between Negligible and Non-Existent, but it’s still annoying.  I would like the world to stay sane for a while, and it insists on not doing so.  Let this be one more featherweight added to the heavy burden of damnation on those who carried out this atrocity.

2. There are way too many well-armed assholes out there in the world.  There are way too many well-armed assholes here in the USA, frankly, and don’t even get me started on that fact.  All of these well-armed assholes seem to caress their grievances and their fears like lovers until those grievances and fears become the most important parts of their lives.  And then they insist these grievances and fears become the most important parts of other people’s lives.  I find this reprehensible.  You want to die for your gripes?  Go right ahead.  Dig a hole, stand at the bottom, have at it, and leave the rest of us alone.

3. Anyone stupid enough to blame this on all Muslims is too stupid to be walking the streets unrestrained and unmedicated.  Do the math.  There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.7 billion Muslims on this planet, and if they were all terrorists you’d have died a long, long time ago.  No, the truth is far scarier.  You can’t identify a Demon Group – we’re all the Demon Group, or at least that group doesn’t have very clear boundaries.  I have long maintained that 10% of humanity isn’t worth the space it takes up on the planet, and that this percentage crosses all boundaries of faith, ethnicity, race, geography, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and intelligence.  The demons look a lot like the rest of us, regardless of what we look like.  On the one hand, nine out of ten is pretty good odds.  On the other hand, there are still a lot of assholes and you can’t blame everyone in a given group for the actions of the dismal tenth. 

4.  While those currently taking responsibility for the carnage in Paris claim to be Muslim, most Muslims don’t really seem to see them that way from what I can tell – and I’m inclined to take their word for it.  In this regard those assholes are roughly the equivalent of the twisted ghouls who kill doctors in the name of some bastardized degradation of Christianity.  There are a lot of people out there claiming to be part of my faith – who do sickening and evil things that they seek to justify using my faith, in fact – who do not speak for me or represent the vast bulk of Christianity in any meaningful way.  If you feel you have the right to slaughter the innocent to appease your god, don’t be too surprised if the rest of us call you infidels and discount your ravings as lunacy.  And if you feel you have the right to blame everyone of a given faith for the actions of the dismal tenth, you'd best keep in mind the actions of your own dismal tenth and be prepared to accept the blame for them.  Not going to happen on my watch, from either end.

5. The drums of war beat louder, mostly from the same nitwits who have been calling for war for the better part of a decade now because they lack the backbone to do anything other than what calls for the least thought and the most shiny toys.  Most of those nitwits show no signs of actively volunteering to put their shiny asses on the front lines but are happy to send other people’s children to die for their cause and to kill other people’s children who had nothing to do with this particular atrocity.  To those drummers, I give a heartfelt two-handed one-finger salute.

6. If we do get maneuvered into war over this, as I rather depressingly think we might, I demand that it be paid for up front, with a specific dedicated tax levied by Congress and signed by the President, one that will rise as the expenses of the war rise and will last for as long as there is any debt to be paid from any war that results from this.  No other revenue source can be considered.  None.  Wars are expensive in blood and treasure and we have been stealing from social programs for too long in order to fund our adventurism.  We’re too damned cheap to pay for it and we’ve been billing our grandchildren for it – and yes, I’m looking at you, George W. Bush and all the wannabe patriots who supported your Freudian farce of a foreign policy and still do.  You embezzled $1.7 trillion from the Social Security trust fund to pay for your wars, and now your spiritual heirs are working to cut benefits for American citizens rather than pony up their fair share of your adventurism that we continue to pay off.  Look - you want a war?  You should damned well pay for it, up front and in cash.  No tax, no war.  Let’s see how quickly that calms things down in this skinflint nation.

7. I don’t want to know the names of the perpetrators.  I don’t want to know why they thought the slaughter of the innocent was something the world needed more of.  I don’t want to know what tinpot ideology they sought to inflict on the rest of us.  There are paid professionals who should know those things for the express purpose of putting a stop to it – and I for one, respect those professionals and would be happy to see them paid far more than they probably are being paid for that task.  I’m not one of those professionals however, and I do not need to have television stations, newspapers, bloggers, or random streetcorner heralds telling me who they were.  I will remember the victims and honor their memories and names.  The perpetrators can fall down a black hole of oblivion for all I care.

8. That said, let us not forget that this kind of assholishness comes from somewhere and if we want it to end we need to figure out where that somewhere is and stop making it happen.  Suicide bombers do this because they have nothing better to live their lives for, and the solution is not to make more people’s lives hell but to find a way to make sure there are better things to live for.  Otherwise it never ends.

9. This was one tragedy among many this week, and that fact should not be forgotten.  The world bleeds from the wounds we inflict on ourselves as a species, and most of the victims are not affluent Westerners.

10.  But this time they were, and they should be remembered.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


It appears my post on why I’m not about to vote for a Republican anytime soon is making the rounds again, if Blogger’s hit-count tracker is to be trusted.  While that post has been a reliable backlist hit machine since I wrote it back in 2012, logging on average about a hundred hits a month, nearly a thousand people have landed there in the last five days – mostly from Facebook, though some from Twitter.

For those of you who have found your way here because of that, welcome.  Feel free to look around the place.  I hope you like it.

I just hope you won’t be too disappointed in the fact that I don’t do much political blogging anymore.  It got old.

Once in a while I do, though, and I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should revisit that post for the 2016 election cycle.  Maybe when the election is closer.  Maybe not at all.  We’ll see.  But mostly the political stuff I’ve been writing of late has been more analytical, more historical, and less focused on the day-to-day travesties that appear like clockwork in the news. 

This is a change.

There was a time when it seemed like every other post I wrote was a description of some outrage perpetrated by the right-wing fanatics who took over the once-proud GOP and transformed it from a responsible purveyor of conservative opinions and policies into a demented howling wasteland of Gilded Age Social Darwinism and Dominionist blasphemy.  I live in the blinking warning light that is Scott Walker’s Wisconsin – it’s been fascinating watching this process up close, in a Pyrrhic sort of way, and for a while it seemed worthwhile to argue against it.

But after a while even the choir can’t stand the preaching.  Those who could see the blisteringly obvious didn’t need me to point it out.

Also, it became clear that – far from being horrified at what the party claiming to represent their interests had degenerated into – the Republican base saw that transformation as merely a down payment on the level of batshit insanity that they required.  And as every assault on American morality and values perpetrated by the leadership of that party was greeted with strident calls for further assaults and condemnations that those assaults hadn’t gone far enough, it stopped being either entertaining or educational to point out how far down the rabbit hole that party had gone.

I think they’ve figured it out, though.  The sane ones, anyway.  The reality-based conservatives.  The ones who understand the actual history of this country and who draw conclusions from that history that are simply different than most of the ones I draw.  There are a few of them left out there, I know.  I’m friends with some.  I read others.

I feel bad for them.  There’s nobody out there advocating for their interests.  There is nobody out there representing their views.  They have been abandoned by their own party.  Only recently have they finally figured out that their party has been consumed from the inside by the cancerous rot of the Teabaggers and their fetid ideology.

I think it was the current crop of GOP presidential nominees that finally brought that home.

Seriously – Ben Carson?  He’s your front-runner?  A man whose defense against charges of fabricating his own life story is to double down on claims that he actually did stab someone?  That’s the guy you want with his finger on the nuclear button?

The fact that the guy he bumped down to the number 2 slot was notorious blowhard and serial bankrupt Donald Trump only makes that more ridiculous.

But really, how often can you write about that without depressing yourself into a coma?

So while the politics appears now and then, mostly I write about other things these days.  If you like what you see, you are welcome to stick around.  If you don’t, well, the internet is a big place and I won’t be offended if my corner of it is not to your tastes.  I’m not for everyone, even if you agree with my politics.  Move on to other, more congenial places, with my blessings.

For those who choose to stay, welcome aboard.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Call Me, Maybe

I have been upgraded.

I’ve had an old flip-phone for the last few years.  I don’t remember how long, really.  At least since 2010, since that’s where all of the entries in my Contacts list came from.  If you called me in the summer of 2010, I have your number.  Of course few of those numbers remain the same anymore, and at least one person on that list passed away years ago.  So it’s been a while.

But the phone did everything I wanted a cell phone to do, such as:

1) Make and receive phone calls.

Other than that, I really didn’t need it to do anything.  I already had a camera.  I can waste hours surfing the internet at home on my desktop computer.  I have no interest in paying for things by swiping my phone at a gizmo, given the inherent security risks of such things.  I was good.

Except that my family insists that I text.

Texting with a flip-phone is kind of like writing a book by carving words into granite blocks with a chisel.  It can be done, but it’s not really convenient.  Nevertheless, texting is the only way most people use their phones anymore, so I was forced to comply.

It’s utterly astonishing how ten or fifteen text messages spaced out over a quarter hour can often save you the inconvenience and bother of a two-minute phone call.  Such is progress.

Recently it was decided that I needed a new phone, one that would do everything up to and including land the space shuttle, and also text.  Phone calls optional.  So sometime this summer, one came in the mail.

Except that I still had a lot of money left on my flip-phone.  I had one of those plans where you stock it up with money every so often and they charge you an exorbitant fee every time you use it – in my case, twenty cents/minute for both incoming and outgoing calls, and about that much for each text.  I usually went through about $40 a year, which should give you some idea of how useful cell phones are to me. 

Having just re-upped, we figured I should burn some of that off before I switched over.

And now it’s November, and the switch has been made.  I’m sure my old phone company is thrilled, since they stopped offering my plan sometime in 2012 and have had to carry me along as a grandfathered-in customer ever since.

On the plus side, it’s a nice phone as these things go.  It seems to make phone calls most of the time, though not all of the time – I still haven’t figured out what the dividing line is.  And it has room for a micro-SD card, so now it has more memory than I do.  And it is a whole lot easier to type on the thing, on the off chance that I actually did manage to send a text message this morning.

On the other hand, it’s not really a phone.  It’s a small computer that, if you insist, will grudgingly make phone calls for you.  It has a user manual that I downloaded (onto my desktop – no way was I going to try to download it onto the very phone I needed the manual to figure out) that runs to about a hundred pages, more or less.  If I printed it out it would probably weigh more than the phone, though I’m not sure about that – flip-phones are very light, but this new one feels like it weighs more than my head.  And it’s big, which means I have to figure out how to carry it.  I can’t just slip it in my pocket with my car keys the way Paul Simon taught me to do with my flip-phone.  That’s already meant missing texts that were headed my way and landed on my desk at home.

Those things I can figure out, given time.  I’m not worried about those, really.

What bothers me is that it is anchored in the Google world and therefore wants me to make use of all these Google products that I have no use for.  It wants my Google+ information, for example.  I have no idea why.  I don’t even want my Google+ information.  I got an account about four years ago when Facebook did one of its periodic “let’s annoy the hell out of all our users in an attempt to monetize this turkey” moves, but have never actually figured out how it works.  There’s something about circles in circles, wheels in wheels, and that’s just too much like real life for me.  It also wants me to have a Gmail account, which I steadfastly refuse to do just because Gmail irritates me.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, folks, all I want to do is make phone calls and, under duress, text to my family.  I neither need nor desire to be further immersed in the Googleplex.

But here it is.  The number has been ported over.  The old phone is dead.  It’s time to figure out how this works or doesn’t.

If you don’t hear from me for a while, now you know.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Flying Dutchcart

I can’t find anything in the supermarket anymore.

It’s not just me, either, which may or may not be a comfort.

I’m the one who goes grocery shopping in our household, mostly because I’m the one who actually enjoys it.  I like being surrounded by food.  I like running across new and interesting things to eat, even if I’m not really much of a culinary adventurer.  I come from a long line of people who like to feed other people, and being in a store dedicated to just that sort of thing is a marvelous time as far as I am concerned.

The main grocery store here in Our Little Town is roughly the size of your average local airport.  It stocks more varieties of more things you’ve never heard of than you can possibly imagine.  The potato chip aisle alone goes on for about a quarter of a mile, and even that is dwarfed by the dairy section (as you would expect here in Wisconsin). 

Once in while I can even get escarole, so I can make real Italian wedding soup, but not often.

So it’s big, but I’ve been doing the grocery shopping for a long time now.  The girls used to come with me when they were little, when it was an adventure, and once in a while Lauren still does, but it’s pretty much me.  I had my coping mechanisms.  I had my routines.  It was a smoothly oiled machine, really.

But for the last few months they have been Expanding the place.

Oh, the actual parade-ground-sized building hasn’t changed, but they’ve been reorganizing the usable space so as to allow for more actual aisles of stuff, so it feels much bigger.  I'm not sure where they're putting the stock anymore.  They've probably drilled into a parallel universe where it is both colder and less populated, so they can just leave stuff there where it will stay fresh and not be stolen.  And if the employees never seem to age, well, that explains that.  It certainly isn't because I'm getting older.  Can't be.

Naturally, all of this reorganizing has entailed a tremendous amount of moving things around.  Not much of what you want to buy is where it was the last time you saw it – just enough, really, to be confusing, since you think to yourself, “That can’t possibly be still there, right?  Nothing else is.”  And there it is.  Sometimes.

I’m not alone in my confusion, either. 

Every week I go to the grocery, grab my cart, and walk aimlessly around with my cohorts – a glassy-eyed food-shopping army of the damned, doomed to spend eternity (or a rainy Sunday afternoon, whichever is longer) roaming the aisles looking for canned goods.

At least we won’t starve along the way.