Monday, December 19, 2016

Random Meds

I have reached the age where doctors prescribe me things based solely on my demographics.

I had my annual physical last month – it keeps sliding later and later into the year because of insurance restrictions, and eventually it will cycle all the way around and they will have saved the cost of one whole visit – and it went pretty well.  Nothing of any problematic nature, really.  I’m in about as good a condition as I was this time last year, though I need to schedule some Unpleasantness at some point next year.

Which is, in itself, a demographic decision rather than a personal one.

“Oh, you’re a fifty year old man?  Well, have we got a treat in store for you!”

So there I was, being poked, prodded, fondled, and generally examined in that full-contact way that doctors have, when my physician paused and said, “Wait, you’re how old again?”  And when I answered he said, “Oh, well in that case you should be taking a baby aspirin every day.”

What, does my odometer roll over when I hit 50?  Have I returned to all zeroes, just like the ’64 Malibu my parents owned when I was a kid?  I know what happened to that car not long after that - this is not a reassuring thing.

Well, apparently yes it does mean that.  This advice was not anything to do with me, personally, so much as it was something he felt a man of my age should do.

So I went out and bought some.

The stuff has not changed since 1971.  It still has that same chalky texture.  It still has that same pastel color.  And it still has that odd vaguely orange flavor that I have never found outside of chewable aspirin tablets and Irn Bru.


So now I add that to my daily inventory, and I hope that it can make up for the various unhealthy habits that I have, such as sitting too much, using my brain for more than just keeping my ears from colliding, and generally being too aware of my surroundings for the good of my blood pressure.

When I hit 80, I will ask for a prescription for fine whiskey and drink it wherever I want, because medicine.

Until then: baby aspirin.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Faces of Lauren, 2016

Every year I take a look through the photos I’ve taken in order to document what happens when you point a camera at Lauren.

She’s a lot of fun, that one.

I’ve been doing this since 2010.  When she was younger it was my project, but now it’s as much hers as mine.  She gets final say over what appears here.  Fortunately she has a good sense of humor about it all and thinks the whole thing is as funny as I think it is.

I didn't take as many photos this year as I normally do.  It's been that kind of year.  But there were still a few good ones to share.


Friday, December 16, 2016

A Night at the Ballroom

We’re the cool parents.

Well, no.  I wasn’t cool when I was young and cared.  Nor have the intervening years made me any cooler, to be honest, and I stopped caring long before I graduated from high school anyway.  Kim insists that she was cool once, but I’m sure I have leached that right out of her simply by my presence in her life.

So we’re not cool, not really.  But we can do cool things, and that’s about as good, I think.

Last night we took the girls to see Panic! At the Disco in Milwaukee.

Naturally yesterday was the day that winter well and truly arrived here in Wisconsin.  The high temperature was in the single digits, Fahrenheit, and Wisconsin winters are pretty clear about which digit that is most of the time – sometimes with both hands.  Plus it was windy enough that the schools here in Our Little Town opened late that morning to give the wind-chill a chance to get within hailing distance of 0F.  So: cold.

But we were undaunted!  We are hardy souls!  Besides, we’d paid for these tickets and by all that was sweet and holy we were going to use them.

The Rave is one of those venues that was clearly built for better times early in the last century.  It’s a monstrous pile of a building not far from the interstate in an area where the streets are narrow, jumbled, and impassable if there are more than half a dozen cars moving at once.  Naturally there were about 3500 people there last night, all of whom drove at least one car and from the looks of it possibly several at once, perhaps by remote control, and my guess is that this was not all that uncommon of an occurrence at Rave events.  Fortunately the Milwaukee PD understands this and was there to direct traffic, although if I might be so bold as to make a recommendation I would suggest that they wear white gloves next time so you can actually see the hand motions before there is any need to go all single-digit on people.

Kim dropped me and the girls off near the entrance and went in search of parking, so the three of us found a door and walked in.   She joined us later, and if you’re not impressed by the sheer improbability of that achievement in a place as dark and crowded as this one was, you’re not thinking clearly.

The lower levels are an odd cross between ‘70s Italian restaurant (all dark brick and neon) and 80s mosh pit, with signs discouraging crowd surfing and telling you to leave cameras, video-recorders, and weapons elsewhere.  They don’t say anything about phones, though, and since most people under 30 have no idea that there are cameras and video recorders that don’t also text or surf the web I’m not sure how effective that policy is.  They certainly didn’t try to enforce it.  There weren’t any weapons that I saw, though, so at least that one was good.

You climb up a few flights of stairs, go through a line or two, get patted down and wanded by security (which I did twice, since I went back downstairs to check in our coats), and then you walk up the final set of stairs to the ballroom.

The ballroom is exactly what it says it is – a cavernous space roughly the shape and twice the size of the Goodyear blimp, lined with pillars and box seating on the second level, that no doubt was jammed with dancers during the Coolidge Administration.  It looked like the sort of place where a decaying aristocracy would waltz away the night in order to ignore the oncoming war.  There were no seats on the main level.

As soon as we got there the girls disappeared into the crowd on the floor of the ballroom.  They spent the concert out there in the center of things, doing whatever it is teenaged girls do at these concerts.  As a parent, you learn not to enquire too closely about things sometimes.

It was an all-ages show so the level of nonsense was a bit muted from what it might otherwise have been, however, though they did serve alcohol to those who were of age.  I decided to pass on that, though Kim did give me some of her cider and it was quite nice.  If I can forgive that particular company the smugness of its advertisements I may in fact buy some myself in the near future.

Kim and I found a spot way over on stage right.  This was a nice place to land for several reasons.  For one thing, it was on the far side of the room from the main entry point, so relatively few people actually made it that far into the room.  Most people got bogged down in the middle, in front of the stage.  This meant that we could stand right up close to the stage, without being pressed in by bodies.  We were about fifteen paces from the singers most of the time.  For another thing, the stage thrust out a bit from the proscenium arch, and we ended up actually behind the singers most of the time.  We couldn’t see them if they went upstage of the proscenium, but most of the time they were out there on the lip of the stage, working the crowd, and we had a pretty much uninterrupted sight line the whole night except when the guitar player would wander by.

This also meant that we were behind the speakers.  They had a LOT of speakers (“Meet my friend, Marshall Stack!”) and they used them hard.  I was wearing a fairly heavy sweatshirt and we were a good fifteen feet behind the speakers, and I could feel that sweatshirt vibrate just from the noise levels.  The hell of it was that we could see the levels on the sound system from where we were – they never got anywhere close to red.  They could have easily doubled the decibel level of that concert, though the building would likely have fallen down if they had.

There were two opening acts.

The first was a jaunty young woman called Charli XCX, who had a minor hit a few years ago about driving her car into a bridge abutment.  I have to say she was a lot of fun.  It was just her and a DJ providing instrumentals as far as I could see from my vantage point, but she bounced and whirled and generally got things up and lively.

At the end she did another of her songs that most people in the crowd seemed to know – Kim and I were rather toward the older end of this audience’s age range, and they were much more familiar with her stuff than I was – and everyone who had such a thing on their phones cranked up the flash app and swayed back and forth.

The next act, however, was a drag.  The guy was some kind of DJ, apparently from France of all places, and he spent about an hour playing other people’s music in increasingly distorted and random contexts.  I suppose if this were a party where you could dance if you wanted or just wander over and get some food it might have been worthwhile, but in a concert setting he was just a parasite on other people’s talent and I was glad when he finally wound down and went away.

And then the main act came on.  You could tell because all of the sudden the audience was shouting louder than usual.

Panic! At the Disco used to be a band, but now it’s just one guy – Brendon Urie, the lead singer – and whatever musicians he tours with.  He’s a thin man with an unruly mop of hair, and forty years ago he would have been David Byrne except with a much better voice than Byrne ever had.  His music ranges from fairly heavy duty rock/emo sorts of things to songs that are essentially Sinatra updated for the new millennium.

He certainly had a grand time up there – one of the things about being where we were was that we could see the expressions on his face pretty clearly – and I think he got a kick out of the fact that the audience would sing along with him.  He also managed a complete backflip from a platform about two feet above the stage, which I’m sure gives his manager nightmares every time he tries it.

The radio station that sponsored the concert had some nice photos up on their website too, and since I was there I figure I can post some of them.  All credit goes to 103.7 KISS FM out of Milwaukee, so the copyright lawyers can rest easy that I am not trying to steal their stuff.

This was Charli XCX.

I’m not too worried about getting pictures of the second act, to be honest.  I couldn’t see him from where I was standing and I never saw any reason to fix that while I was there. 

But there is a part of me that wishes I had seen Panic! At the Disco from up front, even though I liked where I was and would probably have been rendered clinically deaf in half a chorus if I had.  Noise is for the young, at least at those levels. 

If you look behind the small box in back of the guitar player in the next picture, that’s pretty much were I was most of the night.  The green dot would be just above my head.

It took forever to get out of the place – the coat check room alone was an exercise in barely controlled chaos far more unruly than the concert itself – but eventually we found our way to the car.  And after some sociologically fascinating experiences driving away from the venue, we hit the interstate and were homeward bound.  We got home around 1am, which is pretty late for a school night.  But sometimes you do things because they are worth doing, and the next day can take care of itself.

We took our daughters to a concert, and it was a grand and lovely time.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Juuuuuust a Bit Inside

Have you ever made a joke that was just too damned subtle for its own good but it was still worth it to you, even if nobody else got it?

Welcome to my world.

I live in what I consider to be a small town.  Lauren disagrees with me whenever I say this, pointing out – accurately, it must be said – that it is legally a City and that it is the most populous human settlement in the county, but I grew up in and around what was then the fourth largest city in America, a place where the population of Our Little Town would be considered a rounding error, so a small town I continue to regard it as.

This has its plusses and minuses, as most things do.

One of the things that could be either a plus or a minus depending on how it plays out is that it’s remarkably easy to get into the newspaper here.  There aren’t many professional historians living in Our Little Town, after all, so once you become known as someone who can reliably comment on stories that require historical knowledge, the reporters tend to remember you.  Between that and my stint running the museum in the next town up from here, I’ve somehow managed to become a regular in the local press.

This is one of the weirder parts of my life, really, but not a bad part for all that.

I once got interviewed for a story on the local public garden, for example – a garden that had a space dedicated to the sorts of things that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello.  It was fun talking about Jefferson that way.  Not much call for it in most classrooms, sadly enough.

I ended up back in the paper this week, though this time for something that the Founding Fathers probably wouldn’t have known too much about.

It was an article on Christmas letters.

We write a Christmas letter most years, whenever time and patience allow.  We try to keep them interesting, because it is my firm belief that authors must justify taking time out of readers’ lives.  It’s not the job of the reader to prove himself to the author.  So we write in various different formats – last year we did it as a Playbill, one year it was the Declaration of Independence, and some years we just do charts and graphs of the year – and we try to make it fun.  The reporter interviewed me and several other people who also do Christmas letters and wrote an article with helpful advice for those who might also wish to write such letters.

This particular reporter is one of the funnier ones at the local paper, and it’s always worth reading her stories for that alone.  As part of the humor of this piece, she described us as “one of those perfect families with high-achieving children, award-winning pets and a dust-free home,” which I thought was funny.  Yes, our children are pretty high-achieving people – a testament to their character more than anything else – and our pets have in fact won any number of ribbons down at the 4H fair, depending on how far you stretch the definition of “pet,” but dust-free we are not.

I’m a historian.  Dust is my milieu.

Someone clipped that paragraph out of the paper and posted it to my Facebook page as a photo, which of course engendered all sorts of conversation from people who know us and were, shall we say, deeply amused by the notion that we’d be dust-free.

Naturally, I had to make that my cover photo.

And while I was at it, I thought I’d put up a new profile photo, since Facebook has been on my case about that for months now.  Facebook puts angry little red marks on your page whenever they decide you’ve had your profile and cover photos for too long, and to be honest this just made me not want to change those photos ever again.  But opportunities arise, and so here I was.

What should I put up?

Eventually I chose a photo of a cartoon character from a show that the girls used to like back when they were little.  It was a show about a vaguely dark-ages family, set in a bizarre little castle in a run-down kingdom far from the centers of whatever civilization existed in this world.  There were sorcerers, warlords, and the usual quasi-medieval trappings that one associates with fantasy as a genre these days.  The humor was clever and the animation exuberant, and you could sit there with your child and enjoy it as much as they did for what were probably different reasons.  It was a fun show, really.  I was kind of sorry when they outgrew it.

The show and the character were both called “Dave the Barbarian.”

I thought it made a nice contrast with the notion of us being dust-free.

I am no doubt the only person who got the joke, and that’s okay by me.  Sometimes you just have to keep yourself amused in this cold, cold world.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


For those of you who have never completed a PhD program, which statistically speaking is most of you, there are a number of tasks you have to complete before they turn you loose and call you Doctor. 

The most obvious, of course, is the defense of your dissertation – a strange experience where you sit in a room with your committee, most of whom have read your dissertation and repeatedly offered criticism and advice by that point, and they grill you on it for a couple of hours.  It’s the final hurdle, and while it is a pile of work to get there and a fairly intense experience while you’re going through it, the fact is that your main advisor won’t let you walk into that room unless they’re pretty sure you’re going to pass.  Plus, the simple fact is that you’re the expert in the room – you’ve spent several years researching  a fairly narrow issue and become the foremost authority in the world on it by that point – and you really should be able to handle whatever they throw at you.

Comps are different.

Your comprehensive exams are the final hurdle before you embark on your dissertation, where you need to demonstrate that you’ve learned everything there already is to know about your subject so you can go out and find something that people don’t already know and write about that for your dissertation.  In history this means reading – lots of reading.  I got three lists of books and articles from my comps committee members and then spent slightly more than a year reading a book every other day, on average.  And then they test you on all of it.  It’s a gate-keeper assignment – everyone who wants to move on to the next level has to go through it, and if they don’t think you’re up to that next level they will take the opportunity presented here to shunt you off the track and into some other career.  It is entirely possible to fail, in other words.

How they test you varies from place to place, but where I went for graduate school the standard format was three take-home exams, one for each list, spaced over a two-week period.  You showed up at the department office around 8am, picked up your exam – usually three broad, integrative questions designed to get you to synthesize your readings around some of the more important issues in the field – and went back home to work on them.  You spent the day writing essays – maybe 25-30pp total – and then returned the lot of it to the office by the time it closed at 5pm.

The rest of the day was yours.  There was an oral exam on the lot of it a week or so after the last written exam was turned in, but that was so far into the indefinite future as to be unimaginable while the written exams were still going on.

Each time I would walk out of the office secure in the knowledge that I had nothing left of any importance to do until the next morning, which was good because my brain was pretty much mush by that point.  So I’d walk slowly up the main drag there in Iowa City and randomly poke through the shops along the way, because retail is soothing sometimes.

This was back in the early 90s, when CDs were still relatively new and wonderful, and there was a nifty little CD shop on the second floor of one of the buildings that I would stop into on my way home from the exams.  And after each exam I would buy one CD as a reward.  The first one I bought more or less at random – I went into the general section labeled “Music Dave Might Like” and leafed through the bins until one caught my eye.  For the other two I just cleaned out the remaining two CDs by that same artist, since I liked the first one.

I’d never heard of Kirsty MacColl before that first exam.

Clearly I was missing out.

There were a lot of great songs on that first CD – which turned out to be something of a Greatest Hits collection for an artist who tended to hang out somewhere off to the side of the Top 40 charts and therefore could be construed as either ironic commentary or just hopeful marketing – and there are a couple of songs from that CD that stick with me even now, but the one that I make a point of pulling out every year around this time is the duet she did with the Pogues on a song called Fairytale of New York.  I've been listening to it a lot this week.

Fairytale of New York is perhaps the greatest Christmas song written in the last few decades, a sad, bitter, and oddly comforting story of two outsiders at each other’s throats and the dreams they had once.  Not everything works out. 

“I could have been someone.”
“Well so could anyone.”

It’s a story of love and broken dreams and cherished memories, and it is, as Michael Brendan Dougherty once said, “a salve to the soul.”

Happy Christmas to all who celebrate it, and to all who would just like to have a good day even if they don’t celebrate it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

News and Updates

1. Yesterday was officially our 21st anniversary, although we have often counted “the Saturday after Thanksgiving” as the day of observance so today will work just as well.  Our marriage is officially old enough to drink!   If you had to hang around with me for that long, you’d be glad for that too.  Here’s to Kim and all we share, and to many more such anniversaries.

2. We had a pretty low-key day of it, really.  We dug out the Settlers of Catan game that our friends Joshua, Abby and Zach gave us this summer and learned how to play it (finally).  Tabitha won, in the end.  And all four of us went out to dinner at the HuHot Mongolian Grill that opened recently here in Our Little Town.  We like that place because the food is tasty and it’s fun to watch them make it, and they are very conscientious when it comes to food allergies – they have a whole system in place just for that.  So, a good day.

3. We had a lovely and politics-free Thanksgiving over at my brother-in-law’s, where most of Kim’s side of the family (and much of my sister-in-law’s as well) gathered for food and conversation.  I am thankful for many things, and it is good to be reminded of that these days.

4. It is a bit melancholy to eat an animal that you raised yourself, though, even if it was livestock and that’s why you raised it.  Popeye was one of my favorites of the turkeys this year – she was the adventurous one who could be counted on to explore her surroundings when the rest of them were huddled in a corner.  But, as the Native American tradition has it, you need to honor the sacrifice of the animal with gratitude, and so we did.  She was, it must be said, delicious.

5. As was Jamaica, another of my favorites, who had been in our freezer since last year and who we finally got around to cooking in October.  So to all the militant vegetarians out there, yes, I know where my food comes from.

6. You would think with all the money that they had available for the new Harry Potter film they could have sprung for some light bulbs on set, but then you would be wrong.  I’m not sure why everything has to be half-lit and moody these days – perhaps a reflection of the times? – but it does make it harder for us middle-aged folks to follow the action.

7. Ewan, I’m not sure when I will get to revising that list of books for the early American republic that I posted a few years ago (thanks, Lucy, for reminding me of that one).  Here’s the link to the old post, though.  Since then I have read Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty and it was every bit as informative and illuminating as I had thought it would be, and I would definitely start there.  The bibliographic essay alone is probably worth the price of the book if you want to follow up on things – it’s a very good survey of the literature worth reading in that field that way.

8. The failed Trump administration is already setting new lows for presidential conduct and he hasn’t even been inaugurated yet.  In the three weeks since the election he’s gotten into a Twitter spat over a Broadway play (sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, won’t some grown-up please take away his Twitter account?), been forced to settle a lawsuit for defrauding thousands of students at his sham university (and bragged about how he got off cheap), named an outright white supremacist as his top advisor, nominated for Attorney General a man the GOP itself said was too racist to be a judge back in 1986, and named a Secretary of Education who is openly hostile to education for anyone other than people as wealthy as herself.  His most avid supporters, meanwhile, have been painting swastikas across the US like the neo-Nazis they are, and demanding that the rest of us fall in line.  Fuck that.  Fuck that sideways.  This nation fought for four years to stuff the Nazis back into Hell where they came from, and to tolerate their re-emergence would be treason to America.  It’s going to be a long four years, but what else can you expect when your nation is in line to be headed by a 70-year-old toddler?

9. I’m not a Mike Pence fan – anyone who seriously argues that American citizens should be treated as second-class creatures because his personal religious beliefs somehow matter more than the Constitution is a danger to the republic, as far as I am concerned – but credit where due.  He was the one in the audience for that Broadway play and his reaction to it (“that’s what freedom sounds like”) was entirely appropriate.  Now if he can only explain this to his boss.

10. All of the appliances in our kitchen have decided to die at once, possibly in response to the political situation, and so it has been an expensive fall.  But now we have a new refrigerator to replace the one we got second-hand when we got married – it will probably pay for itself in reduced electricity costs in about eighteen months, if my calculations for the old one are correct – and we have a new microwave to replace the one that suddenly didn’t have a door one morning.  Fortunately the new microwave fit onto the wall bracket for the old one, so there’s that.  Now everything is sleek and stainless steel and it’s going to take some time before I feel hip enough to go into my own kitchen.

11.  We got our passports renewed this week, because this is not the time to be without a passport.  Apparently we were not the only people who had this notion, as the County Clerk was doing land-office business in that regard.

12. It still amazes me that there are people who have never seen the WKRP in Cincinnati Thanksgiving episode.  Yes, it originally aired in 1978, but still – c’mon, people, it’s a classic of American arts!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Small Mysteries

As part of my ongoing campaign to maintain what little sanity I have left at this point by trying to find ways to escape, however briefly, the headlong rush into actual Fascism that the United States seems to be on these days, I decided to reread Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently series.

It’s a short series, after all – he only wrote two books about that character before he died an early and much lamented death.  And BBC America is running a series that they claim is “based upon” the books, though to be honest as far as I can tell the only things they took from the books are the name of the title character and the phrase “holistic detective.”  It’s not a bad series, don’t get me wrong.  It just has nothing really in common with the alleged source material.  It’s like powdered iced tea that way.

As a historian, I am trained to go to the sources.  Especially if they’re funny.  There are some good jokes hidden away in the Federalist Papers, but you need at least a Master’s degree to understand them, and if you try to explain them to outsiders the historians’ guild will send people to come by your house and discuss post-modernist readings of the Code of Hammurabi until your ears bleed.  We keep those jokes to ourselves.

So to the books I went.

The first Dirk Gently book went by pretty quickly and confirmed my general feeling that the television show was both enjoyably humorous and something else entirely from the television show, so I moved on to the second one.  The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul starts with a disaster at an airport that gets labeled an Act of God, and figuring out which god becomes important as the story progresses.  By the time it wraps up (somewhat hastily, as if Adams had gotten tired of the whole thing) you have also learned a great deal about why you do not want an angry eagle in your living room.  This is good advice, I think.

Tucked into the back of my copy of the book was the receipt from when I bought it, which I no doubt used as a bookmark the first time I read it.  Apparently I purchased my copy at a Barnes & Noble in New York City on May 1, 1990.  Paid cash for it, too.

This, of course, raised the question of just what I was doing in New York on May 1, 1990, other than buying this book.  I had no idea.

I have friends and family in New York these days, but they either didn’t live there at the time or I didn’t know them yet.  I have several other friends who have lived in New York but have moved on to other places, but most of them weren’t there at the time either.  There’s maybe one other friend who might have been there and who I might have visited – I do remember doing that at one point – but I had no idea if that was this trip or not.

I was finishing up my first year of graduate school in Pittsburgh at that point in my life.  Classes probably ended the week before, and I was about a month or so away from my first trip to England (indeed, my first airplane ride of any kind).  How I might have ended up in New York between those two events was unclear.

So it was a quandary.

It is a strange thing to find irrefutable evidence that you were at a given place at a specific time and have no recollection of this at all.

Eventually I worked out that the choir I was in during my time in Pittsburgh went on a tour around then, and we did in fact stop in New York.  I did get to see my one friend then, too.  I even have photos of some of this, though none of them include me (which is not unusual, really).  I will just have to trust that I took them, and that I did not just arbitrarily end up with someone else’s photos.  We even went to Philadelphia on that tour, and my dad came to one of our concerts.  We had a good time.

It was a pleasant mystery while it lasted.

Though it still leaves the mystery of just why I decided to take time out of a choir tour in New York City to buy a book.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Final Thoughts on the Election

I suppose I could spend the rest of the next four years outlining all of the many and varied ways in which the recent election will turn out to be a horrifying prelude to all sorts of trouble, but then the people who read this blog probably already know and the people who don’t know rarely read this blog.  And I need to write about other things, at least for a while.  I’m sure I’ll get back to the subject, as this space is here for me to write about whatever crosses my mind and it will cross my mind fairly often, but there you go.

So, for now, a few more or less final thoughts on the late unpleasantness:

1. There have been four times in American history – 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 – where the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote and still became president.  Every single time it was a Republican snatching the office from a Democrat.  Every single time.  This does not include 1824, where the eventual president lost BOTH the popular vote and the electoral vote but still was declared the winner.  The Republican Party that we have today did not exist in 1824, but it was the Democrat who still lost.  One begins to sense a pattern.

2. As a straight white middle-class man I am well aware that this election will not affect me as much as it will many Americans, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to stomach or any more acceptable.  It is morally bankrupt that the progress of the last half century in treating American citizens as American citizens is now being threatened by a violent and ignorant minority.  Privilege is knowing that this can pass me by if I let it.  Responsibility is using that privilege as a platform to do whatever is in my power to resist this immoral and un-American slide into monstrosity.  I was raised to be responsible.

3. Rest assured that I will treat the incoming president and his supporters with the same respect, dignity, and civility with which Barack Obama and his supporters were treated when the shoe was on the other foot. 

4. Apparently the incoming Trump Administration is so woefully unprepared that they may have to postpone the apocalypse by as much as a year.  Trump clearly never expected to win, and I rather doubt he wanted to win.  But here he is, dragging the swamp behind him, and utterly bewildered as to what to do now.  It is a sad thing that gross incompetence and dysfunctionality is the best we can hope for.

5. They’re already planning to eliminate Medicare and Social Security.  Do these ignorant buffoons not understand why those programs were put in place to begin with?  Do they not understand the consumer economy and how it functions?  Do they not have any sense of the history of the ancien regime and how it ended?  Apparently not.  For people who insist on being called conservatives they have very little grasp of the past they are claiming to conserve.  Also, given that so many of the people who voted for Trump are the ones most dependent on those programs, I wonder how it will turn out for them. 

6. The fact that Obama has said he would be doing extra tutoring for Trump has been the only silver lining in this dark cloud of post-election crisis.  Obama handled this nation with grace and effectiveness despite mindlessly fanatical opposition that bordered on and occasionally crossed over into subversion, and if there is anybody who might conceivably be able to keep the wheels from falling off the United States entirely at this point it would probably be him. 

7. Joe Biden memes: proof that comedy can survive even in the oncoming darkness.

8. The incoming Trump Administration is Not Normal.  It will never be Normal.  It can never be allowed to be Normal.  It represents a direct threat to the survival of the republic, a repudiation of everything the Founders strove to achieve, and a moral blot on the American character that will take generations to remove if it can be done at all.  Normalizing that is not an option.  It must be treated as the abhorrent aberration that it is, at all times.

9. You are who you associate with.  Enjoy the KKK and the Nazis, Trump supporters.  They speak for you now, whether you want them to or not.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On the Petitions

Folks, stop.  Just … stop.

The Electoral College is not going to pick Hillary over the Donald.  You signing a petition is going to do exactly nothing of any value to anybody other than perhaps making you feel better for a tiny little space of time until you realize that you’ve been had. 

Plus now you’re on the watchlist of troublemakers when the transition to full-blown right-wing insanity is complete at the federal level in January.  Don’t believe me?  Ask those of us who signed the recall petition against Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) here in Wisconsin.  Once the recall was declared to have failed and the party in question continued in power, that petition was used as a handy checklist of people to strip of appointed positions, refuse to admit to taxpayer-funded functions, and otherwise deny political freedoms to here in the land of the free.  It’s a vengeful and petty lot, over there on the far right wing.

And Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) is a reasonable man compared to what’s coming down the pike.  Bear that in mind as well.  I’m already on enough of those lists, I suppose – that’s why I continue to write here, and will continue to do so until the First Amendment is repealed in practice or in actuality.  I’m not very bright that way.  You may or may not want to join me.

Look, I get it.  Handing over the most powerful office in the world to a man who is grotesquely unqualified, who has promised to destroy the global financial system, who has worked – to the extent he works at all – to weaken our national security and strengthen our enemies, who has never read the Constitution let alone has any intention of following it, who seeks to impose religious tests on both citizen and immigrant alike, who was publicly endorsed by every major neo-Nazi group in America and the KKK, who has already named a flat out white supremacist to lead his transition team, whose followers are even now harassing and bullying anybody who isn’t Just Like Them, is a frightening proposition and you’re grasping at any straw that provides hope.  I feel your pain.  I’ve spent the last week with a hole in my gut the size of the number of ballots that Hillary won the popular vote by.  These are dark times.

But this isn’t helping.

First of all, the whole idea is based on irrational thinking.  There aren’t that many faithless electors in the world.  Electors are chosen by the parties on the basis of party loyalty, and the GOP caved in like a cardboard submarine when it came to supporting a nominee that every living American president and ex-president including two of their own – three if you count their last unsuccessful nominee – publicly declared to be unfit for office.  They’ll line up, bend over, double-check the logo on their party membership cards, and shit out their vote for the guy holding their testicles in hock, and that will be that.

Second, it’s a stupid idea even if it works.

Yes, the Electoral College can vote for anybody they want.  They can vote for Hillary.  They can vote for Bernie.  Hell, they can vote for Cher, Madonna, or any number of people even if they have more than one name.  Having two or more names is not a disqualification under the Constitution!  They can do it!  They have the power!

But can you imagine the result?

There are no possible circumstances under which a president can come to power with less chance of preventing national collapse than those.  If the oil supply ran out on exactly the same day that everything and everyone in the capital were swept out to sea by a freak tsunami leaving only the Junior Undersecretary of Agriculture to lead this once-great nation in its darkest hour, that person would still have a better shot at putting together a functional government than a president chosen at random by the Electoral College.

That president would have no – zero, zip, nada – legitimacy whatsoever.  Nobody believes in neo-Harringtonian republicanism anymore.  Damned few people have ever even heard of it.  To overturn the results of an election that was decided by the rules of the game at the time the game was played and justify it by appealing to an ideology that died out in 1820 would just be inexplicable to most and flat usurpation to some.  The “most” would regard the new president as an interloper to be ignored and that president’s party and agenda would be destroyed by association.  The “some” is the same group of violent small-minded thugs who were already threatening revolution if the Donald lost normally.  This would just send them over the edge.

They’re not that far from the edge at the best of times.

The best a president chosen under those circumstances could hope for is a government meltdown that would make the last eight years of GOP-imposed obstruction, subversion, and stagnation look like the golden age of politics.  The worst would be straight up civil war.

What’s your Plan B for that?  Everyone has Plan B for when Plan A fails, but what about when Plan A succeeds?  What then?

There are people out there who think this is acceptable.  Who look forward to a meltdown, a crisis, a cleansing that would sweep out the old and leave a space for a new and brighter future.  Who want to see it all come crashing down so they can build something else back up that will meet their exacting specifications.

Those people are all over the internet.  And they are idiots.

Once you start a meltdown you have no control over it.  Once the cleansing begins you have no say over where it goes and who it declares to be in need of cleansing.  Once the violence starts you have no idea who will die – and die they will, make no mistake – nor do you have any idea when, if ever, there will be any semblance of stability afterward.  One of the great lessons of history is that things can get very ugly, very quickly and stay that way for a very, very long time.

And when that elusive stability is achieved?  Good luck telling me what it will look like.  Those who live by the crystal ball learn to eat ground glass.  The odds, however, are that it won’t be anything good.  Liberal democracy is a rare and recent idea, and the chances of it emerging spontaneously from a meltdown are slim indeed.

We have forgotten how fragile this all is.  How close it has come to collapse over the course of American history – more times than most people realize.  How easily it can still.  There is nothing inevitable or necessary about the United States.  Nothing at all.

It is easier to tear down than to build.  Never forget that.

I have no solutions to offer at present.  The next four years will be a time of trouble and tribulation for all who value the United States, the world, and the human beings who live there, and there is very little that I can see that brings me any consolation right now.

But frittering around with petitions to the Electoral College is just pointless and distracting.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fragile Things

The Founding Fathers never thought the American republic would last very long.

They were good historians, the product of an age and culture that valued the lessons of the past – the actual past, rather than the hallucinatory wish-fulfillment fantasies masquerading as the past that are so popular these days – and if there was one undeniable fact about republics it was that they were not known for their longevity.  Indeed, depending on your definition of republic, at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 the American republic may well have been the only one in the world.  The Founders certainly thought so.  As far as they were concerned, they looked out from their outpost on the western fringe of a broader trans-Atlantic civilization to find themselves alone, all of the previous republics having lived their brief candle-flicker lives and guttered out, leaving only a residue of monarchies, tyrannies, empires, and anarchies.

There are a lot of reasons for this, of course. 

For one thing, republics are complicated things. 

To check power and preserve liberty requires sophisticated political machinery, while most of the other alternatives simply require somebody with the power to order people around.  There will always be people willing to order people around, and there will always be people willing to be so ordered.  “The historian,” said Brian Tierney, “cannot fail to discern that the normal story of human government is indeed one of alternation between different forms of tyranny, with occasional interludes of anarchy.”  Tyranny and anarchy are what we do as human beings, because it’s easier than the alternatives.

For another thing, republics require virtuous leaders. 

“Virtue” didn’t mean then what it means today.  We regard virtue as a private quality, one that more or less equates to “without sin.”  Or at least as close as one can get to that.  Call it “avoiding sin” or “rejecting sin” if you want, which is close enough in this fallen world.  We also regard it overwhelmingly as a female quality for some reason, possibly because the concept was sexualized in the 19th century and became a synonym for virginity.

The Founders would have been greatly puzzled by this definition.  For them, virtue was a masculine characteristic – it comes from the same root stem as “virile,” after all – and it was a public quality or it was nothing.  For them, virtue was the ability of a man (and it was, pretty much by definition, a man) to put aside his petty private interests and work for the public good.  Private virtue was a contradiction in terms.

Few men could handle that kind of moral burden even then, and they were easily identified and eagerly sought.  But eventually a republic would run out of them, or simply not have enough of them at a critical time, and the whole thing would come crashing down.  Leaders would succumb to the temptation of their own private interests, power would run amok, and liberty would die.

We live in an age that worships private interests, one that regards the entire idea of the public good as suspicious and, in some loud and vulgar circles, un-American.  The GOP worships private interest in a frankly idolatrous manner – openly so – and while the Democrats tend to temper it with at least some nods toward the larger community, they don’t really contradict the basic point.  We are Lockean liberals, not republicans, and private interests and private virtues are the cornerstones of our world.

For a third thing, republics depend on well-informed and active citizens.

A republic needed citizens who could understand the issues at hand and act on them in appropriate and timely ways.  This is where the entire notion of a liberal arts education comes from, after all – the arts appropriate for a free citizen rather than a slave, the education of one who has earned and would keep his liberty.  For my dissertation research I read almost every issue of almost every newspaper published in Philadelphia between 1787 and 1801.  It was an era of vitriolic rhetoric and often violent disagreement.  Dueling, remember, was still legal in many places and rarely condemned even where it wasn’t.  And the one issue where the Federalist and Democratic Republican newspapers would reprint each other without snark or disapproval was their calls for public education, to create exactly the citizens necessary for the survival of the republic.

“Let the education of children become a common charge,” wrote Benjamin Franklin Bache – the editor of the Democratic Republican Aurora and General Advertiser and a man named after his grandfather.  “If a man has property and no children, still he should be taxed to pay for the education of other men’s children.  The more knowledge, the safer his property.  It is better protection than armies.”

It took until well into the 19th century for this to become common, but the seeds were there from the get-go.

We have done our best to dismantle this over the last few decades, however.  Public education is being systematically starved of funding, money which is diverted to charter schools which by every statistical method are either worse or at best no better at educating students, and education is once again on its way to becoming the province of a small elite.  Teachers are vilified – we’re the new welfare queens with part-time jobs that pay six figures annually while the good people of the nation go beggared and starving, if half the accusations I have had thrown at me here in Wisconsin by the government supposedly representing me are to be credited.  I live in a state that has taken more than two billion dollars out of k-12 and university education since the Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) came to power.  They’ve also taken money from libraries, public radio and television, and pretty much any institution that might create the well-informed and active citizens the Founders understood were critical to the survival of the republic.  One begins to see an agenda, after a while.

The Founders understood this would happen.  They knew that republics were fragile, ephemeral things.  They had hopes that this one would outlast its predecessors, that it would flourish and provide a beacon for liberty in a benighted world at least for a while (and if they did this in a nation economically dependent on race-based chattel slavery, well, irony is a right bitch isn’t it?).  But they knew it couldn’t last.

“Can it be supposed that this vast country, including the western territory, will one hundred fifty years hence remain one nation?” asked Nathanial Gorham, a representative to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

No, his colleagues would have replied.  Obviously not.  Not united.  And not a republic.

Demogogues – unvirtuous men who flatter the fickle Many into giving them absolute power, pandering to their worst instincts and promising them that only they could magically solve every problem and make things great again – would arise and the republic would fall.  That was how it would be.  The only question was when, and the Constitution was written in an attempt to forestall that eventuality as long as possible.

This week I have thought long and hard about whether our time as a republic will continue.

Thanks to the intricate and unwieldy system of selecting presidents that the Founders put in specifically to ensure the selection of a virtuous leader for that most important office, the United States will soon be in the hands of the most grotesquely unqualified person ever to take the oath of office – a wannabe petit-Fascist with precisely the wrong set of personal attributes and political skills necessary for good governance and continued safety, and by any definition of the term an unvirtuous man.  The fact that he lost the popular vote and still won the election – the second time his party has benefited from this particular quirk in our system in sixteen years – is not relevant.  He’s the next president.

A disturbingly visible percentage of Donald Trump’s supporters have already gone on rampage, emboldened by the hatred he spewed across the American political landscape.  I’m sure they’re not the majority of his supporters, but they are the ones making themselves known the most, and I am inclined to take them at their word.  They have harassed and threatened those who are not straight white men and scrawled Nazi graffiti across the land of the free, seventy-five years after this country fought in the biggest war in human history to eradicate that ideology.  They have promised to undo a century of reforms and lead us back to an age when American citizens were treated as subordinate creatures based on their race or gender or specific religious beliefs.  They have confirmed every stereotype, every accusation, every fear from the campaign, and they seem to be glorying in it.  Like Vandals at the gates of Rome, they slaver in anticipation of the destruction of what they cannot understand or control.

And then they get pissy about why the rest of us aren’t just falling in line and uniting behind their candidate.  Given that a) these are the same folks who spent the last eight years fanatically and often subversively opposing the current president (a man who has twice actually won a majority of the popular vote – the first president to do that since Reagan), b) these are also the same folks who were threatening violence and revolution two weeks ago if their candidate didn’t win, and c) they were the ones promising violence and discrimination against anyone Not Just Like Them and have now demonstrated that they intend to carry out those promises, well, they can just continue to wonder because if they can’t figure it out there is no help for them.

This isn’t about right or left.  Not really.  Not particularly.

Had John Kasich or Marco Rubio or Jeb! Bush or even Rand Paul won the presidency, I’d be unhappy but resigned.  Had Ben Carson or Governor Teabagger of Wisconsin (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) or that raging narcissistic theocrat Ted Cruz won, I’d be horrified but still not worried about the republic long term.  But neither of those things happened.

Donald Trump and the forces behind him represent an existential threat to the survival of the American republic.  He is a classic demagogue – the precise reason the Founders knew the American republic would not last – and he is shortly to be in power.

The Founders knew this would happen.

It took longer than they thought it would, and for that I suppose we should be grateful.

I am a pessimist by nature.  I’m from Philadelphia – it’s my birthright.  I can always hope I’m wrong here.  I make no claims to infallibility when it comes to forecasting the future.  Trust me – I’m a professional historian.  It’s hard enough to know the past.

I suspect it’s going to be a long four years for the republic, however.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Thoughts for a Dark Time

I voted weeks ago.

There was no way the GOP could say anything that would convince me to vote for its candidate, not after the embarrassment, subversion, and outright criminality that brought that candidate to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.  Further, given the threats his thuggish supporters were making to intimidate voters so that they could steal the election for themselves, I saw no reason not to vote early.  Why deal with idiots when I don’t have to?

The irony, of course, is that stealing the election is precisely what they accuse my side of doing.  Over the last decade or two, I have found that looking at their accusations provides an uncannily accurate guide to what the GOP itself is actually doing.  Remember when they nominated a draft-dodging chicken-hawk who somehow managed to go AWOL from the Texas National Guard and ran him against a genuine combat veteran by impugning that veteran’s war record?  Remember how much they have whined about this election being rigged while at the same time enacting laws to suppress the vote of minorities, college students, and anyone not statistically likely to vote for the GOP? 

I do.

They’ve even bragged about that last point.  Just today, in fact, the North Carolina GOP put out a press release highlighting the success of what a Federal judge ruled was “insane” Jim-Crow-style racial restrictions on voting.  “This sounds like something that was put together in 1901,” said the judge, and he is absolutely correct.

But that’s what a party does when it understands that it cannot win a free and fair election.  They rig the game.  And then they scream about how it's the other side doing it.  It's tell-tale, for those who care to notice.

Four years ago, in what remains the most popular post ever on this blog, I went into some detail about why I would not be voting for any Republican candidates for the foreseeable future.  I did have some thought about revisiting that post for this election, just in case anything had changed.

But two things kept me from doing so.

First, nothing had changed.

I have a file of several hundred news articles, studies, surveys, and direct quotes – that’s called “evidence,” boys and girls, and even if it is an unpopular thing to bring up in today’s post-factual political environment some of us are just old-fashioned that way – that detail exactly how the GOP remains an existential threat to the survival of the American republic.

It remains a fiscal nightmare, perfectly willing to spend tax money but utterly incapable of overcoming the simple greed that animates their platform to chip in for anything themselves.  Nobody who believes in fiscal responsibility can possibly vote GOP.

It remains the party working hard to weaken the military.  They have rejected every single veterans’ bill offered in the last eight years, because that would make them have to reach into their own pockets to help the people they falsely praise.  They have worked hard to undermine national security, treaties, and allies.  Their conduct has, on occasion, approached uncomfortably close to treason, a word I do not use lightly.  Nobody who supports a strong military or values the security of the United States in a troubled world can possibly vote GOP.

It remains the party of community destruction, diligently working to turn Americans against each other by playing on fear, ignorance, and bigotry.  I will not be afraid.  I’m a goddamned American.  These colors do not run.  Nobody who values communities can possibly vote GOP.

It remains the party committed to the subjugation of women, to the creation of a blasphemous Dominionist theocracy erected on the ruins of American constitutional law, and to the destruction of public education.  It has intensified its attacks on democracy through gerrymandering, vote suppression, intimidation, and outright fraud.  It continues to assault the separation of powers, and it justifies the deliberate sabotage of the American government.  This, for example, is the group that refuses to do anything about the vacancy on the Supreme Court despite clear Constitutional requirements that it do so.  Nobody who values the survival of the republic can possibly vote GOP.

Don’t you hate it when people sucking on the taxpayer’s tit do no work?  Let the Senate know!

So nothing has changed.  Nothing was going to change.  And those who saw nothing wrong with that in 2012 weren’t going to be convinced by anything I wrote in 2016.

Second, they nominated the most grotesquely unqualified candidate for higher office ever put forward by a supposedly major party in American history.  This is a phenomenal achievement, in a way, given the parade of charlatans, boobs, halfwits, and mediocrities that have been foisted off on the American people for their judgment.  It’s not an achievement to be proud of, but it is an achievement nonetheless.

There are simply no words left to describe the Abomination Unto The Founders that is Donald Trump. 

He is a bloviating con artist who has proven utterly incapable of telling the truth about, well, anything – his factual accuracy rating from Politifact (a nonpartisan, Pulitzer-prize-winning source) was 9%, last time I checked.  Hillary came in around 50%, which is about average – that’s where Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders all were.  That’s where Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Mitt Romney were too.  It’s higher than Ben Carson and Scott Walker, because those two are a drain on humanity, but overall 50% is the bipartisan norm for politicians.  Not the Donald.

He is a sexual predator with a court date in December for raping a child, and a petty racketeer with a November court date for fraud.  He is a serial bankrupt who has managed to take a fortune and make it worth 1/3 of what it would be worth if he had just left it alone in an index fund.  He makes cheating small businesses part of his basic strategy. 

He is so mentally unstable that his handlers finally had to take away his Twitter account.  Seriously – is this guy 12 or something?  As Barack Obama said, “If somebody can’t handle a Twitter account, they can’t handle the nuclear codes.”  Anyone who can be baited with a tweet does not have the maturity to be president.

He has set new standards of bigotry, which is hard to do in a country whose wealth was founded on slavery.  He has mocked the disabled, bragged about sexual assault, and made racism his calling card.  He has been endorsed by the KKK and by every major neo-Nazi organization in America, and one imagines such folk can recognize their own.

The fact that his supporters think this is perfectly fine is just another reason why nobody should ever forgive the Republican Party for bringing this pus-oozing sore on the ass of the American body politic into the mainstream.

He has worked diligently to weaken America’s strategic interests around the globe, praising dictators, alienating allies, and undermining the military.  I doubt he’s actually on Vladimir Putin’s payroll because Putin’s not that stupid, but he certainly is a willing stooge – what the Russians call a “useful idiot.” 

He has refused to release his tax returns, in violation of decades of tradition of American transparency.

He has yet to put forward a coherent idea or platform.  And the one they saddled him with at the Republican convention?  Don't make me laugh.  How can anyone take seriously a party that declares, in its platform, that pornography is a national crisis and then nominates for president a man who has appeared in a porn flick and whose wife has naked pictures all over the internet?  I don't criticize Donald or Melania for that, by the way - they're grown-ass adults and can do what they want with their bodies as long as I don't have to think about it too much - but the sheer blind hypocrisy is gut-wrenching.

And yet with all that, he remains their candidate, and 40% of America will vote for him.  That may even be enough for him to win.  If that doesn’t make you weep for the future of the American republic, you’re not thinking clearly.

Seriously – anyone likely to vote for that level of destruction isn’t going to be convinced by anything I write.

Tomorrow it will all be over.

And then the next crisis will start.  Because if, as every responsible poll and statistician says, Clinton wins, the GOP will go into full toddler-level meltdown and do everything in its power to destroy functional government in the United States.  They may succeed.  They mostly already have.  It's not that big of a step to finish the job, really.

And if the Donald is declared the winner?

All bets are off.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Wait, Who Won? Seriously?

So the Cubs have won the World Series.

Think about that.

I’m not really a Cubs fan, even if I do live in a house full of them.  Whatever attention I care to devote to major league baseball these days goes to the Phillies, my hometown team.  But the Phillies haven’t been relevant since 2011 and were eliminated from contention for this year’s playoffs sometime in August 2015, and I refuse to cheer for the American League on principle, so you make do with what’s in front of you, I say.  Also, Bill Murray is a national treasure and he is a Cubs fan, so there’s that.  Go Cubs.  Why not.

This was a Series guaranteed to produce a strange outcome regardless of who won.  The Indians hadn’t won since 1948, despite going to the Series a couple of times in recent memory.  The Cubs hadn’t appeared in a World Series game since 1945 and hadn’t won since 1908.  A partial list of things that weren’t around the last time the Cubs won the World Series would include pre-sliced bread, World War I, paved interstate highways, the NFL, and the Soviet Union.  There were 46 states, and Teddy Roosevelt was still president then.  It’s been a while.

Statistically, one of those teams would have to win this year.  That’s how the game is played.

Kim is a Cubs fan.  It runs in the family.  Her brother Dave is actually in the Cubs Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, and the Smithsonian Institute for being such a diehard Cubs fan – he was at almost all of the playoff games this year, even the ones in Los Angeles.  Lauren will watch and cheer for the teams we like because she is polite that way, and even Tabitha got into it by the end.  It was nice to share the experience with them – going over the rules of the game (because baseball has some weird ones), answering questions, and enjoying the games together.  Bedtime was suspended for the duration.

We watched most of the Series, and I got to see the final out even if an extra-inning Game 7 rain delay made me question whether the baseball gods really wanted either of these teams to win it.  The fact that two franchises with such a long and rich history of heartbreak and failure were playing for a championship that one of them was guaranteed to win was clearly a violation of natural law and something fundamental in the universe would break if that happened.  This was the universe trying to save itself.  But they were good games, really.  Well played, generally tense and interesting, and entertaining even when the other guys won.

The Cubs have won the World Series.

Think about that.

Whatever they’re paying Theo Epstein it isn’t enough.  This is the guy who turned the Boston Red Sox around and built them to win their first World Series in 86 years, and then jumped ship to the Chicago Cubs and did the same thing for a franchise that hadn’t won in 108 years.  I hope he has business cards printed up that list his title as “Reanimator.”

It’s been a good century for the Losers, actually.  The Red Sox have won it three times since 2004.   The White Sox won in 2005, snapping a drought that was longer than Boston’s. The Phillies won in 2008 for just the second time in their 133-year history.  And now the Cubs.  Surely the Indians will win it all next year.  They must.

Baseball has long since fallen down the list of sports I watch and care about, but it can be a great game and it is nice to be reminded of that now and then.  It has a history unmatched in American sports, and as I get older I appreciate a game where so much of what matters is what isn't happening at any given moment.  One of the many things I don’t like about basketball is that it is essentially Short Attention Span Theater – bounce, bounce, score; bounce, bounce, score; bounce, bounce, score.  You have to watch a baseball game carefully and plan a few moves ahead in your mind.  I can see why Americans don’t like it as much as they used to.  But perhaps we should.

The Cubs – the Cubs, of all people – have won the World Series.

Think about that.

I wonder what John Scalzi is going to do now.  He writes SF/F books that are generally light, enjoyable reads.  His most popular series – the Old Man’s War series – is a thoughtful and not terribly jingoistic military space opera set several hundred years from now, and one of the running jokes in it as that the Cubs have still not won the Series.  And now they have.

There may well be something fundamentally broken about the universe now.  It's possible.  I look forward to earthquakes, plagues of locusts, and the return of Elvis to judge American Idol.  Weirder things have happened.  I saw one live last night.

The Cubs have won the World Series.

That’s a lot to think about.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Birthday on Halloween

It’s Lauren’s birthday today.

Lauren loves her birthday, though this year has been a bit more low key than usual.  She’s reaching a busy stage of life, after all – friends swirling around, schoolwork piling up, clubs and activities making demands in the background, and so on – and our family is generally pretty low key about birthdays anyway.  I tend to forget mine, more often than not, though I like that she enjoys hers so much.  It’s a nice contrast.

We are spreading it out a bit more this year than we used to do as well.  Tonight she had a couple of friends come over after school and they handed out candy to the trick-or-treaters.  There was pizza and ice cream cake, and it was a good time.  Wednesday we’ll go out to dinner with Kim’s parents at a place of Lauren’s choosing, assuming she chooses one by then.  Maybe this weekend there will be more friends over.  It’s still up in the air.

But it is good to celebrate, however one does it, because Lauren is worth celebrating.

Happy birthday, Lauren.  You make me proud.

Love, Dad.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Founding Fathers Did Not Trust You: The Electoral College (Part 2)

Last time we looked at the complicated and yet ill-defined nature of the Electoral College – an institution that every four years, like clockwork, emerges out of the depths of the Constitution and into the conscious minds of Americans to confuse them about how the president and vice president are actually chosen and then, having done its duty, disappears back into the mire where important things go so we can all get back to focusing on sports.  It’s a system that does not apply to any other elected officials in the US, and it is one that seems, on the surface, to be completely insane.

Who thought this was a good idea?

The Founding Fathers, that’s who.

And the question that we left off with last time, of course, is: why?

You really want to know the answer?  The Founding Fathers did not trust you. 

That’s it!  That’s all it was!  Isn’t that simple?  Doesn’t that make you proud to be an American?  Honestly, I can feel my internal organs turning into bald eagles and assault rifles even as I type this.  It’s kind of uncomfortable, really.

To put it in the simplest of terms, the Founding Fathers did not think that you – the mass of the citizenry of the United States of America – were capable of selecting a proper candidate for the most important single office under the Constitution, at least not without an intermediary body there to make sure you didn’t louse it up.

Every four years Americans rediscover the Electoral College, and every four years there are anguished calls to get rid of it because it is undemocratic because it sits athwart the will of the people like some giant boulder in the path of democracy, limiting the ability of the Common Man (and, since 1920, the Common Woman) to select the leader of their choice. 

To which the Founding Fathers would have responded, “And?” 

To them this was a feature, not a bug, and for us to understand why requires a long hard look at the mental world the Founders inhabited when it came to their politics, and how that world differs from ours.  Because contrary to what so many loud and irritating voices insist when bludgeoning you with their political views, it does differ.  It differs in broad and fundamental ways, and until you understand that simple fact the rest of it isn’t going to make any sense at all.

All of modern American politics takes place in within a very narrow spectrum of Lockean Liberalism, which doesn’t mean what most people think it means. 

There are no Conservatives in America, not really.  Conservatism is a very specific ideology, one that first gets codified in Europe in the late 18th century as a reaction against Liberalism and one that never gains any real following on this side of the Atlantic.  Here in the United States we have left-wing political liberals and right-wing economic liberals, and we call the latter “conservatives” largely, one suspects, for the sake of rhetorical convenience.  But they’re all Liberals, in the sense that the Founding Fathers would have understood the term.

Liberalism is the quintessential form of Enlightenment politics, and as such it draws from the three fundamental principles of the Enlightenment.

It is based on reason. Liberals are great ones for starting out from first principles and working out how reality ought to function from there.  The importance of equality is perhaps the greatest example of this.  Equality is found nowhere in nature, but it is something that all Americans today believe in their bones and we insist that our society reflects this value even when it clearly does not.

It is based on the idea of universal natural laws.  Liberals firmly believe that this is the only proper form of politics for all of humanity, regardless of history or culture.  That’s why we tried to install democracy in Iraq, for example.

And it is based on progress.  Things can and will get better.  Using our reason, we can figure out the natural laws that govern human society and politics and use that knowledge to make progress.  Got a problem?  We’ll invent our way out of it.  All Americans believe in progress, even if we disagree vociferously over what constitutes progress and what doesn’t.

From here Liberalism adds three other principles.

First, that the individual is the fundamental building block of society and all of society must be set up to benefit and protect this individual.  Most political ideologies are based on groups.  Conservatism, Socialism, Nationalism, and so on – all are group-oriented ways of organizing the world.  Liberalism is all about the individual. 

Now, who counts as an individual varies over time.  At the time of the Founding Fathers “individual” meant “adult white man with property.”   That was the individual society was set up to benefit and protect, and if you didn’t qualify then, well, you didn’t qualify.  You start to see the property restrictions abolished in the early 19th century, and technically the racial restrictions were eliminated in the 1860s even if it did take another century for that to become anything even remotely like reality (and it’s disturbing how ferocious the war to reimpose those racial restrictions has become here in the 21st century).  Women don’t count as individuals until the 20th century, and children still don’t.  But that is a matter of negotiation, not a difference in principle.  It’s the individual, however defined, that counts in Liberalism in a way that is essentially unique among major world political ideologies.

Second, that the primary function of society is to free this individual from restraints.  Humans are basically good, says Lockean Liberalism, and the job of society and government is to give them the freedom to do the right things without interference or coercion.

And third, that the most important thing individuals need is equality of opportunity, a level playing field to use their individual talents, free from restraints, to get ahead.  This is not equality of condition, mind you – there is nothing here that says individuals will end up equal.  It’s simply equality of opportunity – the equality of the starting line, not the finish line.  This, more than anything else, is the mainspring that makes liberalism work.  It all follows from this one principle.

These ideas can be spun in two basic ways.

If the playing field you want to level is economic, then eventually, if you follow the logic long enough, you will end up with a firm belief in the sacred nature of private property, the importance of private interests, the need for small and passive government, and the general rightness of laissez-faire capitalism, where atomized individuals are freed from restraints to maximize their equal opportunities in the marketplace.  Americans have for generations called this sort of economic liberalism, “conservative.”

If the playing field you want to level is political, you will eventually end up at a belief in civil and political rights that must be protected by a firm and active government that has the power to step in and take substantive action in both the marketplace and society at large, and a strong emphasis on popular participation in this government being extended to the widest number of individuals practicable.  Americans have for generations called this form of political liberalism, “liberal.”

But either way, these forms of liberalism all depend on the worth of individuals, individuals who must be given an equal say in their own fates.  Liberalism, in other words, insists on democracy as the proper form of government.  There is a reason why it is called “liberal democracy” – it’s because they go together.  Liberalism assumes that the only proper form of government is a democracy, where the will of the people is the only thing that matters. 

Vox populi, vox dei, and all that jazz.

Under such a system, the Electoral College is an anomaly.  It is undemocratic.  It puts an unaccountable body between individuals and their choice of rulers.  It represents a check on the power of the citizens of a liberal democracy to select their own leaders.  And every four years, like clockwork, Americans look at the Electoral College and complain about all this, because it does not fit into the political world we inhabit.  It does not fit into a world defined by Lockean Liberalism.

The Founding Fathers, however, were mostly not Lockean Liberals.  This is the place where the political differences between them and us manifests most clearly.

They did not, as a rule, believe in that sort of politics in general – and most of them certainly did not do so in 1787, when the Constitution was written.  They didn’t set up the United States to be a democracy.  They set it up to be a republic. 

Their world was defined not by liberalism but by republicanism – “neo-Harringtonian republicanism” or “classical republicanism” if you want to get precise – and in that sort of world, the Electoral College makes a lot more sense than it does in ours.

Republicanism is an older ideology than liberalism. 

Where liberalism comes out of the Enlightenment, republicanism was a response to the political crises of England during the 17th century, particularly the English Civil War of the 1640s, a vicious struggle between the Puritans who ran Parliament, on the one hand, and the Anglican monarchy on the other.  The short version of this includes such things as the overthrow and execution of the king, followed by ten years of Commonwealth rule that was so badly mismanaged that eventually the Puritans themselves asked the son of the late and now lamented king to come back and restore the monarchy in 1660. 

English political thinkers looked at those upheavals and the big lesson they got out of it was that if any one person or group got too much power in a government, they would destroy liberty.  Where the idea of equality of opportunity is what makes liberalism go ‘round, the core of republicanism is the notion that there is an eternal conflict between liberty and power.  They are opposites in a zero-sum game, and where one wins the other – by definition – loses.

Imagine a pie cut into two pieces, one labeled “liberty” and the other labeled “power.”  You can divide that pie any way you want, but the overall size of the pie never changes.  So if one piece gets bigger, the other must get smaller.  That’s what it means to be a zero-sum game – all of the changes sum up to zero.  If you have +2 power, you must also have -2 liberty.

Republicans believed that of the two, it would always be power that was going to get bigger at the expense of liberty rather than the other way around.  Power is always engaged in conspiracies to destroy liberty, and those who would enjoy their liberty must be constantly on their guard against even small movements by power against liberty.  Power therefore must be checked – otherwise it will eat up all your pie of liberty, leaving you with nothing but crumbs!

You can have a lot of fun with the pie metaphor.  Don’t even ask what the whipped cream stands for.  Even trained historians sometimes have to be hospitalized if they think about that too much.  Best to leave that sort of thing to the professionals.

Republicanism is thus a very dark, very conspiratorial, almost paranoid view of history, government, and human nature, one very different from the more optimistic ideas of Enlightenment liberalism.  Those who believe in this sort of politics, such as the Founding Fathers, are not people who are going to be very trusting when it comes to government and political power.  Power must be checked, so that liberty can be preserved.

Okay, fine.  You have to check power in order to preserve liberty.  Fine.  Got it.  But how do you do that?  How do you keep power in its place?

In order to check power and preserve liberty, you must have what republicans called a balanced government.  Power must be divided, and the pieces balanced against one another.

That doesn’t really answer the question, though, does it?  All that does is move the question down one level.  Okay – a balanced government.  Great.  What’s that?  And more concretely, what are you balancing in a balanced government?

There are two answers to this question.

In classical (or traditional) republicanism – the views that drove the Revolution – what you are balancing are the orders of society.  Republicanism, unlike liberalism, assumes a social hierarchy.  People are not equal.  They were not created equal, they do not end up equal, and they do not deserve to be treated equally.  Society is instead divided up into three groups: the One – the most powerful person in the society; the Few – the small group of elites who occupy the next level down; and the Many – the great unwashed, otherwise known as you and me. 

In a properly balanced republican government, each of these would have a branch of the government. 

The One would be the monarchy – the king and his representatives, such as governors, ministers, the military, and so forth.  The Few would be the aristocracy – the nobility, the lords.  The many would be the Democracy – the rest of us, as embodied in the legislature, the Commons.  A properly balanced government would have all three of these branches and when they were balanced, when each branch stuck to its own turf and did not infringe on the rights of any of the other branches, then power would be checked and liberty would be secure.

This changes somewhat after the Revolution.

We didn’t really have a One or a Few in the new United States.  All we had was the Many.  The liberals were right about that, which is one of the reasons why liberalism will eventually win this contest.  But a good republican had to find something to balance, and if social orders wouldn’t work then something else must be found.  So the Founding Fathers eventually worked it out to balance the functions of government rather than social orders.  Government should be divided by what it does, not by who it represents.

So the One becomes the Executive Branch – the President.  The Few becomes the Judicial Branch – the courts.  And the Many remains the Democracy, which in this case becomes the Legislative Branch – the Congress.  This is the system put in place in the Constitution, and the one we all learn in 5th grade civics class.

Notice that Democracy here is only one third of a republican government.  Under Lockean liberalism, the ideology we all subscribe to today, Democracy is all of the government.  There’s no room for anything else, and anything that interferes with this – anything “undemocratic” – is automatically problematic.  But to a good classical republican thinker, that view itself is problematic.  Democracy – however you define it – was only one of the three branches of a properly balanced republican government and it, like the other two, had to stay within its proper bounds, otherwise the whole system would come crashing down.  It has to be checked, lest it get out of hand, assume absolute power, and eat your pie of liberty.  And the whipped cream, too!

This becomes important when we get back to the Electoral College, so hold onto that thought.

Because that is the main question, after all: what happens when those branches are not balanced?  What happens when one branch of the balanced republican government tries to take over, tries to stomp on the turf of the other two?

When that happens, republican thinkers called it “corruption.”  That was a technical term back then – when you see 18th-century writers complaining about corruption they’re not complaining about bribes or nepotism as such.  They’re complaining about one branch of a balanced republican government becoming unbalanced and invading the turf of one or more of the other two.  Because when that happened, power was no longer checked and liberty would die.

It would die in different ways, depending on what branch got out of hand.  If the One got out of hand then you had Tyranny, a dictatorship.  If the Few got out of hand, then you had an Oligarchy, which is sort of dictatorship by committee, where a small number of powerful elites run things – small being defined as “more than one but less than a bunch.”  If the Many got out of hand, you had Anarchy.  Where everyone’s in charge, nobody’s in charge and the powerful then swoop in to crush everyone’s liberty.

The bottom line here is that you have to have all three parts of a republican government – One, Few and Many, whether the traditional or separation of powers variations – and they have to be balanced.  They have to stick to their own turf and they have to have some way to check the power of the other two. It’s a very complicated bit of machinery, republican government – much more complicated than a simple liberal democracy.

So, let us consider the Electoral College in light of the republicanism that defined the mental world of late 18th-century politics for the Founding Fathers.

When you look at it through this lens, it quickly becomes clear that the Electoral College is not the anomaly that it is under the liberalism that currently defines American politics.  It is, instead, a perfectly reasonable body to have, one whose purposes are fairly clear.

The Electoral College serves an ideological function: it is a check on the Many.  Remember, power must be checked in order to preserve liberty and the definition of corruption is for one branch of a balanced republican government to stomp on the turf of another.  For the Many to be completely in charge would be corruption, after all.

This becomes relevant when it comes down to the question of how one goes about selecting the One, which you have to think about with a President in a way that you really don’t with a king.

This is a very different question from how you select the various members of Congress or the judges.  The One is the most powerful individual in government, and both the Few and the Many must have some say in choosing such a figure.  To leave such a momentous decision entirely in the hands of the Many would be unbalanced – it would render the One simply a creature of the Many, and that is corruption. 

So the Electoral College is a temporary Few whose purpose is to make sure that the Many do not have complete control over who gets to be the One.

As such it is in fact explicitly anti-democratic.  It is a check on the Democracy, keeping it in its proper place and avoiding the Anarchy that you would get if the Many controlled everything.

Even if you could figure out a good way for the Many to pick the One on their own, the Founding Fathers simply did not believe that the Many could be trusted with such a decision without oversight.  The Founders firmly believed that the Common Man (and now Woman) would be easily led astray by silver-tongued demagogues and fear mongers pandering to the worst instincts of the insensate rabble, rousing the mob to dangerous and violent excesses which, left unchecked, would destroy the republic.  There is no “vox populi, vox dei” in republicanism.  The people are fickle, subject to irrational passions and inexplicable enthusiasms, and easily herded by those who would prey on their anxieties and appeal to their base nature. 

If you doubt that, please cast your mind back over the 2016 presidential campaign and then try to tell me the Founders were wrong.

Go ahead.  I dare you.

The job of the Electoral College is to prevent this, to interpose a body of (presumably) wiser and cooler heads who can ensure that the most important position in the balanced republican government is not going to be given to an unsuitable person. 

This also helps to explain the practical nuts and bolts of the way the Electoral College was designed – or, more accurately, not designed.

First, it explains why there is an Electoral College at all.

Okay, you need a check on the Many, but why not just use one of the existing bodies in the government?  Why not use the Few you’ve already got – the judiciary – or give it to the House of Representatives, since that’s where it will end up if the Electoral College can’t decide, instead of creating this temporary Few for this one purpose?

The answer is that having a separate institution cuts down on the conflicts of interest.  Just as Constitutions are supposed to be written by a special temporary body elected just for that purpose – a constitutional convention – and not the sitting legislature, who would write it to suit their needs, so too do you need a special temporary body to select the One. 

As Alexander Hamilton explained in The Federalist Papers – specifically Federalist #68, which dealt with the Electoral College – the temporary and specific nature of the Electoral College means that there would be no time for outside forces or inside agents to arrange secret deals, nor would there be any temptation on the part of the President to curry favor with them for the next election since there would be an entirely new body of Electors by then.  The Electoral College exists for one purpose only and then they go away, thus reducing the temptation to usurp power and destroy liberty.

Second, it explains the astonishing flexibility that is built into the Electoral College by the Constitution, particularly the freedom that electors have to vote the way they see fit rather than being bound by the will of the Many in the selection of the One.

The Electoral College – those calmer, wiser heads – is designed specifically to judge the person whom the will of the Many has designated to be the One and if that person is deemed to be unfit for the office, it is the job of the Electoral College, this temporary Few, to overrule the fickle passions and interests of the Many, to overrule the Democracy itself, and pick someone worthy. 

It isn’t democratic. 

It’s not meant to be. 

It’s meant to be a check on the Democracy, on the Many, so that the Few can have a voice in the selection of the One.  Alexander Hamilton also declared this publicly in Federalist #68.  “It was … desirable that the … election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

The Founding Fathers did not trust you. 

They put the Electoral College in there to make sure that you didn’t screw up the most important office the Constitution has to offer.  They wrote that into the foundational framework of the new nation so that it couldn’t be removed lightly.  They really, really, genuinely did not trust you at all.  And they had very good reason not to do so.

We don’t really get this anymore.  We don’t live in a republican world, and we haven’t for nearly two centuries.  Those concerns are not our concerns, though whether they should be anyway is an interesting question.

Republicanism was already being contested in 1787, when the Constitution was written and the Electoral College was created.  Liberalism begins to emerge as a counterforce in American political thinking in the 1770s.  It gains strength throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries and much of the immediate post-Revolutionary period in American history can be seen as a contest between liberalism and republicanism over which ideology would claim the allegiance of the newly independent United States.

By 1820 liberalism had triumphed and republicanism was effectively dead.  It would fade from the scene, leaving only the balanced republican government set up by the Federal Constitution of 1787 as a residue.  For the rest of American history most Americans would have no idea that there ever was any other way of looking at politics besides liberalism and they would wonder, every four years, why we have this thing called an Electoral College.

Now you know.