Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Vistas in Automotive Life

Somewhere along the line over the last few months, I got the back seat of my car back.

Those of you who have had children in the last fifteen years or so will appreciate that.

When I was a kid, back in the dark days of the 1970s, when my family wanted to go somewhere we’d just get in the car. The grownups would sit up front, and the kids would sit in the back. We had a succession of odd cars when I was a kid – several 1963 Novas in the full spectrum of bruise-like colors, for example, and at least one dark blue VW hatchback with an improbably white interior – but the one thing they all had in common was that whenever we would go on a trip my brother and I would just rattle around in the back seat like a stray thought in a cat’s mind.

You can’t do that anymore.

These days you have to have carseats for small children. Carseats that were designed by NASA to withstand shuttle launches and are about that complicated. Carseats with five-point NASCAR-approved harnesses in them. Carseats that take up pretty much all of the real estate between the driver and the trunk.

It’s a wonder my brother and I survived at all without them.

Now, I appreciate the safety aspects of the new carseats, really I do. I spent five years with a rescue squad way back when, and despite performing exactly zero acts of heroism in that time I did come away from it with a clear sense of just how much damage you can do to yourself inside of a car wreck.

That and an inexhaustible supply of off-color jokes, none of which I can remember now.

So when Tabitha was born I dutifully set up the carseat in the back of each of our cars, and when Lauren came along I added one for her. And having done so, the back seat became the exclusive province of the children. Adult passengers were simply not worth the trouble of taking out the carseats, especially the infant ones that you have to anchor to the car with rigging modeled on that supporting a frigate’s sails.

Eventually the girls graduated to booster seats, which were a whole lot easier to take out and put back in, so I got some flexibility there. And then Tabitha outgrew the booster seat, which meant that the driver’s side of the back seat looked pretty normal once you got past the layers of books and Ritz cracker crumbs.

Somewhere in the chaos of the last few months Lauren has outgrown her booster seat too. It has been relegated to a spot in the garage where we could get to it if we wanted, but likely won’t. And when I travel on my own, as I do every Tuesday and Thursday morning to Not So Far Away Campus, I look back there and see – well, the back seat.

It seems so forlorn.

Fortunately I still have that protective layer of books and Ritz cracker crumbs to keep me grounded, and on both sides of the car too.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Further Thoughts on the Rule of Law in Teabagistan

Article IV, Section 4 of the United States Constitution begins with the following clause: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”

This has nothing to do with the modern Republican Party and therefore does not mean that the Teabaggers get to do what they want and the rest of us have to bend over and take it. Not that you would know that, given the general arrogance and tendencies of the Teabagger movement, but there you go.

Someone had to say it.

No, this particular requirement is what keeps the separate states from becoming communes, aristocracies, or even direct democracies. It is meant as a structural safeguard of the liberties of American citizens against the depredations of their own state governments – and in point of fact, regardless of what any pundit will tell you, a quick look at American history will conclusively demonstrate that the states have always been the greatest threats to individual liberties in this country, not the federal government. With a few notable exceptions, it is the federal government that has had to force the states to recognize the rights and liberties of American citizens, not the other way around.

We have no idea what this clause in the Constitution means anymore.

Republicanism – “neo-Harringtonian republicanism” or “classical republicanism” or any number of other subvariants of the term – is what this country was founded upon in the late eighteenth century. Nobody believes in it today, nor have they since the 1820s or so, when Lockean Liberalism won its half-century-long struggle for dominance in the American political mind. And yet it remains a powerful force in American law, for the simple reason that it is enshrined in the structure of government erected by the Federal Constitution of 1787, the one we still use.

Republicanism is a complex and subtle thing and even its adherents often found it difficult to define, but at its core was the simple idea that politics was an eternal struggle between Liberty and Power. It was a zero-sum game – where one gained, the other lost. And the central task for any properly constructed republic, therefore, was to set up a system whereby Power could be checked and Liberty secured.

There are any number of ways one could do this, theoretically, but the one favored by eighteenth-century republicans was structural – arranging the institutions of government so that they would check each other and prevent each other from crushing the Liberties of citizens.

A properly constructed, balanced republican government had three branches. In England, where this theory originated as far as the colonies were concerned, they represented the One, the Few and the Many – the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the democracy. In the new United States, which was for all practical purposes all Many, they represented functions rather than sociological groups. Instead of the One, the Few and the Many, we got the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature.

In its most simplistic form, that’s what you need to comply with the structural requirements of Article IV, Section 4.

But there’s more.

Each of these three branches must have the power to check the others, otherwise the whole point is lost.  That's what the whole "checks and balances" thing you learned in fifth grade is all about, after all.

Moreover, when one or more branches begins to overstep its bounds – when they stomp on the turf of the others – that is “corruption” (a jargon term back then, not a catch-all condemnation of moral or financial sins) and that undermines and ultimately destroys a republican form of government.

A “corrupt” government is not a republican government. In order to comply with the full breadth of the requirements in Article IV, Section 4, the State government in question must not be “corrupt” in that eighteenth-century sense. There must, in other words, be a strict accounting to the rule of law – one where each branch is tightly bound by legal and constitutional principles, particularly those which force it to respect the rights and prerogatives of its sister branches and those of the citizens as well.

Which, once again, brings us back to the disgracefully un-American banana-republic junta running Wisconsin at the moment.

That this group has no respect for the rule of law has been made manifestly clear over the last two months.

They have forced through bills in the legislature without letting opponents vote.

They have forced through bills in the legislature without giving legal notice, as required.

They have violated ethics laws, electioneering laws, and campaign finance laws, even after being elected.

They have instituted their own palace guard in the Capitol to enforce their will, in opposition to the Sheriff and State Police.

They have violated the First Amendment rights of American citizens by forbidding political speech in public areas, the one thing that the First Amendment unequivocally was designed to protect.

They have violated the Wisconsin Constitution’s provisions regarding fiscal bills, quorums and legislative votes.

They have violated the Wisconsin Constitution’s provisions regarding the open access of the Capitol, not only to the citizens of Wisconsin but also to opposing lawmakers.

And they have done so in violation of court orders.

In fact, their latest stunt was such an egregious violation that it rises to the level of a fundamental crisis.

To recap:

The main thrust of the plan instituted by Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) was never financial. It was political. By destroying public-service unions, he simultaneously rid himself of an organized opponent and weakened the Democratic Party in the process. But in order to get this through the legislature, he spent weeks claiming that this move was an integral part of the budget process – that it was, in other words, a purely fiscal bill.

Under the Wisconsin Constitution, all fiscal bills must be passed with a quorum of legislators in attendance. Democratic senators withdrew from the state, making the quorum unreachable, and so the situation remained for some time.

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) then had his cronies, minions and lackeys in the legislature strip out the union-busting parts of the budget bill, repackage them into a separate bill and pass it without the quorum necessary for a fiscal bill. Leaving aside the obvious question as to whether this was constitutional (which could only be true if it were not a fiscal bill and the Teabaggers had been lying all along) or not, the fact is that they forced this bill through the legislature without complying with any number of open meeting laws.

Laws passed by the legislature and signed by the governor do not go into effect in Wisconsin until the Secretary of State – an elected official – has them published in the Wisconsin State Journal, the newspaper of record in this state.

Given the momentous issue at hand and the shady, underhanded way in which it was foisted off on the citizens of Wisconsin, a Wisconsin state court agreed that the methods involved in the passage of the bill raised serious questions of law, and ordered the Secretary of State not to publish it.

Cue the Teabaggers.

The Senate Majority Leader, in what he has publicly and proudly labeled an end run around the courts, ordered the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau to publish the union-busting bill on the legislature’s website on March 25.

The Secretary of State - who should know, after all - has clearly stated that only he has the statutory power to “publish” legislation in the Constitutional sense of the term. The Legislative Reference Bureau itself agrees, noting that its putting the bill on the legislature’s website was a “ministerial” act, essentially notifying the Secretary of State of the existence of the bill officially, and therefore did not rise to the Constitutional level of “publishing” the bill.  In other words, the people who actually know what they are talking about all agree that the union-busting bill is not legally valid and won't be until the restrictions imposed by the judicial branch of the Wisconsin state government are lifted.

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys in the legislature disagree and intend to move forward enforcing the provisions of what is not, legally, a law.

All of this means that they have deliberately and knowingly violated a court order to get their pet project forced into law, and will now deliberately and knowingly force Wisconsin citizens to conform to what is merely their diktat, in violation of currently valid law and court decision.

This, in eighteenth-century republican terms, is corruption.

It is one branch of the government stomping on the turf of another, with the explicit consent of the third.

As such, it is a violation of the republican form of government demanded by Article IV, Section 4 of the United States Constitution.

And it is typical of the way this banana-republic junta operates.

At some point, given current trends, the State of Wisconsin will no longer have a republican form of government, and at that point it would be appropriate for outside powers to step in and remove those who have brought this upon the Badger State.

And won’t that be interesting.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Things That Annoy Me: A Sampler

It’s been a stressful 2011 so far, what with the various and sundry assaults on American values perpetrated by the banana-republic junta running Wisconsin these days. And stress only exacerbates my normal bent toward sarcasm, cynicism and refusing to suffer fools gladly.

So I’ve been a real treat to be around these days, let me tell you. Ask anyone.

As I do not anticipate this changing anytime soon (hey, just this weekend Governor Teabagger’s chief minion violated both the Wisconsin Constitution and a court order in his quest to get his union-busting bill turned into law, and neither he nor Governor Teabagger [a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries] can understand why anyone finds this objectionable), and as I have become more aware than usual about just how many things there are in the world that have no business being in a well-constructed universe, I have decided to present a list of non-political things that annoy the hell out of me.

Just to shake things up, you see.


1. Jewelry made by cutting up old coins.

I collect coins. My entire collection might buy a night at the local Holiday Inn here in Our Little Town, so it’s not like I’m cornering the market on numismatic treasures here, but I do rather like old coins. They have an artistry that you don’t generally find in modern ones and they are a bit of portable history – you can pick them up and wonder where they’ve been and how they got to you.

Destroying them in the name of costume jewelry is just morally febrile.

2. Waking up at 7am on a Sunday morning when there is no earthly reason to do so.

I have never liked mornings. Well, no, that’s not quite right. Mornings are fine, from midnight to 4am. It’s the 4am to noon shift that bothers me. And since morning people have taken over the world and demand my presence during those hours during the week, I look forward to not seeing those hours on weekends.

Seeing them anyway, with nobody forcing me to do so, is therefore Right Out.

This was never a problem when I was younger. I once spent an entire semester with my alarm set for 1pm to avoid sleeping through lunch, in fact. But that was a long, long time ago.

Man, this getting old thing really stinks sometimes.

3. Being asked to do useless work for free.

I don’t mind volunteering my time for worthwhile causes – I’ve done that all my life. And while I have no particular driving need to engage in productive labor at all times, I have always tried to give value for wages received. Further, if my employer prefers I waste my time doing useless things for wages, that’s their problem not mine.

But when I am required to I do useless things on my own time – time I am not allowed to work but must still account for, without receiving compensation for such accounting – that I find objectionable.

I don’t think that plan was very well thought out.

4. The sheer cussedness of small plastic objects.

Ever since my children were born, the house has been inundated by small plastic objects of dubious value, many of which came with meals. And you know, I could handle those.

It’s the ones that are supposed to be useful that really tick me off.

For example, we have a drawer full of plastic containers – the sort of things that you use to store leftovers in while they rot and then you have to throw them away. This drawer is full to the brim with such containers. No matter how you stack them, no matter how you arrange them, there is always one that sticks up and prevents the drawer from closing. And if you take that one out, another steps up and takes its place. I think I could take all of them out and the drawer would still stick on something.

Don’t even get me started on the vegetable crisper tray in the fridge that twists like an Escher print whenever you try to close it.

Someday I’m going to slam the fridge door closed anyway and just accept picking plastic shards out of my food for the rest of the afternoon as the price I had to pay for that moment.

5. The grocery store shrink ray.

When did food packagers decided that the proper response to rising costs was not to raise prices but instead to keep prices the same and shrink the package? All that happens is that the packaging-to-food ratio gets higher and higher and the usefulness of each individual package gets lower and lower.

And have you ever tried to make an old recipe based on those new packages?

A new can of tuna is 5 ounces. The old ones were 6.5 ounces. Chocolate chip bags are now 12 ounces instead of 16. And so on. So now I either make do with less or buy two packages and try to figure out what to do with the leftovers.

Just raise the prices.

That’s enough for now.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Judge Me By My Fur, Do You?

We spent today at the 4H cat show. It was an experience.

The 4H club the girls belong to is fairly typical of such things in that it offers its members a number of Projects with which to occupy their time. There are drama Projects, photography Projects, and even – for the more rurally-inclined – farm animal Projects. But for anyone who knows Tabitha at all, it should come as no great surprise that she chose to do the cat Project.

And a good thing, too, since we happen to have a couple of those laying about the house, which is not something we could say about farm animals.

Today was the “fun show” – a sort of trial run where the judging would be a bit less harsh and the categories a bit less strict. Mostly it is intended to get the kids used to the idea of how these shows run and get the cats used to the idea of being in them.

Last night we went over to the County Fairgrounds and helped set up the show in one of the buildings – tables, chairs, and an astonishing number of wire cages, mostly – after which we came home, cornered Mithra like a rat in a trap and gave her a bath.

This morning we took our still annoyed cat over to the building and deposited her into her cage, where she plotted ways to exact revenge while the rest of the place got organized.

In the next cage over was Madame Lace, Lauren’s stuffed kitty. The younger 4H-ers were allowed to bring their toys in for a separate contest, and they were treated just like the big cats, with judging and everything.

Madame Lace came home with a silver medal, which isn’t bad for a stuffed animal.

The judging for the actual live cats was rather drawn out – Tabitha had to cart Mithra to three different judging areas over the course of the morning, and at each one the judge would pick her up, maul her up and down and then deposit her back into a cage, whereupon Tabitha would extract her from that cage and put her back into her original cage.

Still, when all was said and done everybody had the same number of fingers and eyes as they did when they woke up that morning, and with that many cats in an enclosed space you have to count that as a victory.

Mithra didn’t win any medals, unfortunately, though she was named “Miss Bashful” and awarded a ribbon. Tabitha handled her quite well, and we just might survive the more serious cat show scheduled for next month.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Meet Me In St. Louis

The Gateway Arch is both bigger and smaller than I had thought.

This week being Spring Break, we decided that it would be a good idea to get out of town for a while – to forget about the madness that infests the government here in Wisconsin and just try to relax a bit. Of course given said madness and the upcoming raid it is launching on our household income, we couldn’t get too, too far out of town, nor could we escape for very long. But every little bit helps, and to be honest you don’t need a year at a private island in the tropics to have a good time.

And three cheers for that, I say.

Ever since Christmas 2009, when saw the Gateway Arch in the distance as we drove back from Chattanooga, Lauren has wanted to go to St. Louis. St. Louis, it turns out, is not all that far away from us – certainly doable in a day’s drive with time left over to have some fun once you get out of the car. And there’s more than the Arch, so you can have all sorts of good times there.

Sounded like a winner.

So we packed everybody up into the car and headed south through Illinois toward Missouri.

Illinois is a long state. A very, very long state. Long and flat. Flat and long. It has untamed vistas of flat land, where you can gaze long into the distance at how flat and long it is. It is the Mount Everest of flat. It is the lightning flash of long. But we were well stocked with books, movies, snacks and – as a last resort – conversation, so it went well.

We got to St. Louis well before our hotel check-in time, so we decided to go straight to the Arch.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to find.

You don’t realize until you get right up onto it, but the Arch is phenomenally big – 630 feet tall, according to the many and various pamphlets, signs and rangers all eager to impart this particular bit of information, and with a fairly mighty cross-section at ground level. And so full of Teh Shiny! Its stainless steel coat glistens in the sun and provides all sort of dramatic camera angles for the curious.

We got there in time to buy tickets to go up to the top, but we had a couple of hours to kill before our scheduled tour time. Fortunately they’ve thought of that and had several well-stocked gift shops for us to browse through (both girls bought necklaces with Arch-related pendants) as well as a nifty little museum of western expansion that you could wander around in for free.

Eventually they let us in.

To get to the top of the Arch you have to wait in a series of lines, each one just long enough to make you wonder about the whole idea. And then you watch a short little film about the railroad bridge just to the north of the Arch – why they choose that moment to watch a video about that particular subject is just one of those National Park Service mysteries best left unexplained – and then you get into the elevator/tram thing that takes you up.

Here is a hint: do not go to the Arch if you are claustrophobic.

The tram car that takes you up is a cylinder about four or five feet in diameter and about that deep, with five seats arranged around the edges. If your group is less than five people, they will assign you new friends for the trip in order to fill up the car. You will get to know them fairly well in the five minutes it takes to get all the way up to the top.

You can spend as much time as you want up at the top, but really about twenty minutes is all you need. For one thing, it’s a lot like Niagara Falls in that it truly is spectacular and awe-inspiring, but after a while you realize that nothing changes. You’ve seen it. And for another thing, it’s very small up there. The floor is arched – it follows the exterior contour – and the top is only about eight feet across from window to window, which seems like the world after the tram car, but still.

It also sways noticeably in the wind, of which there was a copious supply that day.

We spent our allotted twenty minutes up there and then trammed our way back down and out, off to the hotel.

The hotel we stayed at was a fine place and one that catered directly to families with children, to the point of providing not only free breakfast but also free dinners with everything a child could want (hot dogs, chicken tenders, nachos, baked potatoes, carrot sticks, and so on) as well as free drinks for mom and dad, which somehow we never got around to trying.

There was also a pool, which for Tabitha and Lauren is just the acme of the travelling experience, and so they spent several hours each night splashing about in the pool along with enough other kids to open a private elementary school. There was fun to be had.

Wednesday we went to the City Museum, and for the record if you have children between the ages of 4 and 12 and you have not been to the St. Louis City Museum then you should drop whatever you are doing immediately and – RIGHT NOW, I said – book travel arrangements to correct this situation.

It’s not really a museum so much as it is an exploration center. Every nook and cranny is filled with tunnels, passageways, and slides. The airspace is glutted with wire mesh tubes – thick wire, almost rebar in some places and actual metal tubes in others – that take you from one room to the next and one floor to another, although if you want to go floor to floor there are slides that will do that faster, some of them three or more floors long.

It is impossible to keep track of people in this place, and after a while you just stop trying.

There is a room set up to look like a skateboard park where the kids can slide around and run along the world’s biggest pencil – maybe thirty feet long, with an actual rubber eraser.

There’s a room full of sponges that you can stack up into towers and encase victims within.

There’s an entire section set up like a carnival storefront, and another corner of the building dedicated to architectural decorations – giant metal, marble or concrete letters, gargoyles and entire facades, plus stained glass windows as well.

There is a human-sized hamster wheel.

There was a darkened maze full of people that we could see through a window but never did figure out how to get into.

There was a magic show. Tabitha got to be an assistant on one of the tricks, which pleased her no end. She took a magic class a couple of summers ago and has since developed a nice little routine of her own, so it was fun for her to be part of a professional show.

And if the inside isn’t enough, there’s always the outside – a tangled web of towers, stairs, passages, wire mesh tunnels and assorted multi-story slides, at the bottom of which is an immense ball pit where the brave and hearty might try their mad dodgeball skillz.

It was while we were outside that Lauren convinced me to go up to the airplanes.

The museum has two light aircraft mounted about fifty feet in the air, and when you see the insides you realize that they are reminiscent of nothing so much as the wreck that features so prominently in Madagascar. They are accessible only through the aforementioned maze of stairs, ladders and wire mesh tubes. Indeed, to get from the one to the other, you have to crawl through one of those tubes – and then to get to the nearest slide back down to earth you have to crawl through another.

It was an experience.

And we didn’t even make it to the rooftop displays, which were closed for the season.

We spent the whole day there, really, and we could have gone back the next – at least Lauren could have. Tabitha is just getting to be on the tall side for some of the exhibits, which she found a bit off-putting, but even so, she’d probably have gone back if we had asked.

But we didn’t ask, because we had only one more day in St. Louis and there were other things to see.

We spent Thursday morning at the Old Courthouse, which is right across the street from the Arch and thus visible from above when you’re up top.

It’s a lovely building, really, with a giant Rotunda full of art and glory. If you stand exactly in the center on the floor the acoustics are such that you can speak to every part of the building without really raising your voice. You can hear the difference just by stepping on the spot and then stepping off of it.

The Old Courthouse is famous in part because the Dred Scott case started there, and the girls got to sit in the actual courtroom.

Most people who take American history classes are familiar with the outcome of the case when it hit the US Supreme Court in 1857 – how Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion declared that blacks could never be citizens of the US and how they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect. It’s quite possibly the most appalling decision ever made in an American court, and the main impetus for the Fourteenth Amendment a decade later (you know, the Amendment the Teabaggers are trying to repeal because they find it inconvenient).

Few people remember that when the case was first tried in front of a St. Louis jury, they found for Scott and set him free. Not that it helped him, of course, but it is worth remembering anyway.

On the recommendation of our friend Pat who grew up in St. Louis, we had lunch at a place called Amighetti’s, in the Italian neighborhood known as The Hill (which is, as advertised, on a large hill). It was a capital suggestion – great food at reasonable prices in bulk quantities.

The “gooey butter cakes” we got from Gooey Louie’s afterward are apparently a St. Louis delicacy, and having finally had enough room to eat mine only 24 hours later, I can see why. They are exactly what they sound like, and they are good.

We spent our last afternoon at the St. Louis Science Center, which I am sure is a fine museum but by that point we were all rather tired, and the place was packed. A good time was had nonetheless.

Lauren already wants to know when we’re going back to St. Louis.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Of Thee I Sing

The Wisconsin State Capitol Rotunda has excellent acoustics.

As it is Spring Break here in Baja Canada for both us and the girls – the first time our Spring Breaks have coincided since Lauren started school – and since Kim and I are forbidden to do any work today under pain of administrative exile and mountainous paperwork should we be discovered trying to be productive, we figured we’d go up to Madison and participate in some democracy.

It’s an American thing.

The crowd was fairly small, as befit a Monday afternoon – most of them were people similarly forbidden to be at work and therefore free to express their views to their elected representatives. There were a couple hundred of us, all told, and we marched around with our signs again, to a fairly appreciative audience it must be said. This crowd was a bit more academic than most, so they got my joke. Of course, half the fun of an obscure sign is explaining it to people, and I have enjoyed doing that over the last few weeks. So it goes both ways.

After a bit we went into the Capitol, which has descended into the welter of paranoia that defines the American condition these days – despite having exactly zero arrests for violent offenses over five weeks of protest involving hundreds of thousands of citizens, Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, Inc.) and his cronies, minions and lackeys have ordered the installation of metal detectors that the citizens of Wisconsin must now pass through to gain access to their own Capitol building. It’s all a painfully ineffective thing, if security is the actual aim, but it does do an effective job of reminding the citizenry of how little control we have over the government that supposedly represents us.

But the charade went quickly and then we gathered in the Rotunda, mainly to sing protest songs.

I know.

But unless you’ve actually done something like that, you really can’t understand the power the human voice has when lifted up with its fellows. There’s a reason why protest songs exist and continue to be sung even in this technological age – they speak to things beyond mere individual grievances, to our aspirations, our hopes, and our dreams. Lift up your voice and sing, oh people, until the heavens quake and the afflicted earth is healed.

It’s even better in harmony.

Eventually we cycled through most of the little book of songs that the organizers of today’s rally had for us and we went back outside and back to the spoken word, which for all its limitations is still better than silence.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I have put my hybrid course to bed.

After two years of training, planning, beating my head against the wall of my own technological limitations, frantically scrambling to make up for lost time and occasionally watching the wretched remnants of false starts waft satisfyingly skyward in plumes of ash, I finally got the class up and running with two whole days to spare. It was not an auspicious beginning.

But it turned out just fine.

Between a productive if not very happy experience with Online U and some rather more pleasant and equally productive experiences with the online wing of Home Campus, it turned out that I was better trained to put together a class with a significant online component than I had thought. And if the work my students turned in is anything to go by, it turned out to be a fairly effective class. I love it when students get what I'm trying to do - it makes them happy and me seem a lot smarter than I might otherwise appear.

And the students were an awful lot of fun.

I posted their grades today and spent much of the evening clearing away the debris on the folding table that serves as a second desk in my office in order to get it all packed away. It’s a satisfying feeling, especially since I took the time to get my other two classes organized as well.

Nothing like a little temporary organization to give you the illusion of progress, I always say.

And with reality of late here in Baja Canada being something that would bring tears to the eyes of a bluebird, I’ll take the illusion for a little while.  Can't hurt.  Might help.

The odd thing about the class was that it was so compressed. It crammed a full semester's worth of work into half a semester's worth of time, which - if you do the math - meant that it felt like two classes for that period. And now?

I don’t know what I’ll do with my newfound time…


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Happy 500th!

This marks the 500th post here at 4Q10D. I think that deserves some kind of celebration.

I started this blog back in 2008 as a way to write things down that I didn’t want to forget – to mark the passing of time, particularly in the lives of my children, and to put down thoughts on whatever was going on in the world. Since 1999 I had maintained an earlier blog-like thing devoted to the tribulations of being a new parent but in 2004 I ran out of time to write the massive chapters that it was divided up into and had let it lapse, and Kim finally convinced me to give the standard blog format a try.

Being unemployed in the fall of 2008 helped. The stereotypes come from somewhere, after all.

But since then things have changed.

I have become employed again, and like most bloggers I have found this to be no real obstacle to continued blogging. I have broadened my subject matter in some ways, and – especially lately – narrowed it in others. And I have gained something of an audience – not the massive collection of minions eager to do my bidding that I might dream of in my more grandiose fantasies, but a nice collection of readers who seem to enjoy what I write, even if they don’t always agree with it, and who occasionally take the time to let me know. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.

I am a historian. Historians remember. That’s what we do, and that’s in large part what this is for. To remember what happened, to remember how I felt, to remember the days as they passed by, one after the other in their ceaseless blur.

The dirty little secret about historians, though, is that as a discipline we are very good at remembering the big things – the broad sweeping movements, the earth-shaking events, the rise and fall of empires and so on – but really not so good at remembering the little things that make life worth living.

As a historian, I can tell you all about mid-late 20th-century festival rituals among the American middle class – where they came from, the economic and social conditions that made them possible, and so on – but it is only through personal memories that I can tell you what Christmas looked like, sounded like and smelled like in my family when I was a kid in the 1970s, and it is only through memories that my children will know what those things were like growing up in the first decade or two of the 21st century.

That is the difference between history and memory. And that is why I do this.

There is history here – I am a historian, and I write from that perspective.

But this is mostly about memory.

Thank you for coming along with me on this ride, and I hope the next 500 posts live up to the first 500.

Friday, March 18, 2011

On the Use of the Word "Teabagger"

I choose my words carefully.

I have never been a great fan of false modesty. I have enough flaws and problems to be genuinely modest about that if there is something that I can actually do well I see no reason not to acknowledge that fact. Some things I’m good at. Some things I’m not.

Writing is one of the things I’m good at.

Yes, I know I just ended that sentence with a preposition. I am also aware of the history and purpose of that particular rule and so choose to ignore it as being an unnecessary restraint on clear prose. Your mileage may vary.

Everything I post here has been read through at least four times. I don’t always catch all of my mistakes, but you can, as a rule, be assured that the words used here are the ones I intended to use, particularly if I make a point of using the same ones repeatedly in the same situations.

I am well aware of the words I choose. I am aware of their history, their denotations and connotations, and the effects that they may have on readers.

Which brings me to the word “Teabagger.”

Several people have complained about my use of that word, either directly to me or to friends who have been gracious enough to link to things I have written here. They find this word offensive. They say it belittles people who are actively engaged in trying to change the country to reflect their politics. They think it shows contempt for those so described.

To which I respond, “why yes, yes it does, and thank you for noticing.”

I am very well aware of the history and meaning of the term, probably more so than those criticizing me. I know that it describes a sexual act – the dangling of one’s testicles in the face of someone else, possibly into their mouth, depending on how the term is used – and that this act can be an erotic thing, a prank, or a power play depending on the situation. I know that it is used as a slur based on that. I am also aware that in the Wisconsin prison system it is used to describe the act of defecating in another prisoner’s personal coffee mug.

Please note that I do not accuse the political Teabaggers of those acts. I have no idea what Governor Teabagger does in his spare time, for example, nor frankly do I care. When he is off the clock, he may do what he wants with his testicles or his coffee mug, and more power to him. I will, in fact, go on record as saying that the frequency of such acts among political Teabaggers is probably no more or less than it is among the general population.

So why use the term at all, then? Why describe this political movement and its adherents with this word?

There are a couple of reasons, actually.

For one thing, it is the word that they chose when they first metastasized onto the American political scene a few years back. They proudly called themselves Teabaggers and insisted that I do the same. And so I have obliged.

The fact that eventually somebody stopped laughing long enough to explain to them what the term meant, which in turn caused them to demand to be called something else, I find irrelevant. I will not allow them to revise their own history in the same way that they casually revise the history of my country to suit their own personal fantasies. That would be irresponsible.

For another thing, the term as I use it is in fact meant to be belittling, contemptuous and offensive.

This movement – and to the extent that they subscribe to it, the people who support it – is a dangerously ignorant attempt to drag my country into a nightmare of authoritarian theocracy, a second Gilded Age of poverty and plutocracy in the name of “individual freedom” and an utterly hallucinatory version of American history, and it should be treated as such.

I am aware that it started off as a quasi-libertarian movement. Leaving aside the stupidity of that position – libertarianism being an ideology designed by Nature and Nature’s God to be subsidized by the government and one that has failed to achieve even its own blinkered goals whenever it has been attempted – the fact is that the Teabaggers are no longer such a movement. They seek power. They seek control. They seek to impose their narrow theocracy and authoritarian rule on the majority who rejects these things.

And they have the flat out arrogance to do so in the name of a long tradition of American history and values that utterly rejects such ideas.

It is our responsibility to treat the contemptible with contempt.

It is our responsibility to treat the ridiculous with ridicule.

It is perfectly appropriate to describe the pejorative in pejorative terms.

I use the term Teabagger because it fits my purpose. I use the term because every time such people try to betray the American past, sell out the American present and impoverish the American future I want other people to see how contemptible and ridiculous they are.

To those who would rather I not use the term, I simply say this:

I will worry about defending my children, my values and my country from this plague.

You can worry about making sure that they are not offended by the contempt and ridicule that they so richly deserve.

And we’ll call that even.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In Search of Lost Time

Can we really call it Standard Time if we're only on it for five months of the year?

Somewhere over the weekend the Daylight Savings Time fairies came by and stole my hour, and the fact that they will return it in the fall is really not all that helpful when you think about it.

For one thing, they get all the interest on that time. They probably put it into some kind of time bank where they earn extra minutes that they can put toward living longer or making the good times last. Meanwhile I just get my principal back. My undergraduate university used to do that with a $50 fee that they charged us when we got there – they’d give it back to us when we graduated (although they strenuously argued that we, as newly minted alums, should donate it to them, an argument that my friends and I greeted with howls of laughter), but they got to keep the interest for four years. And that was just a few bucks – a cheeseburger and a soda, maybe. Here we’re talking about time I could be spending with my children.

Stupid DST fairies.

For another thing, this year is the first time in my memory that I really can feel that lost hour. For most of my life I kept student’s hours – up late, up early, sleeping in, doing whatever needed to be done whenever I had the time to do it. It was an erratic schedule, and an hour one way or another really didn’t matter all that much.

But recently I find that my world is settling down more. My “staying up until 2am for the fun of it” days are dwindling in the rearview mirror of my life, and my “getting up on a regular schedule” days have long since taken up residence in my routines, painted the walls, re-arranged the furniture and settled in for the long haul.

That hour suddenly matters more.

Oddly enough, I’ve noticed the difference in my students, too. Don’t today’s students keep student’s hours? Not from what I can see. This week’s classes have been moribund, and I don’t think it’s just because they’re not that interested in Klemens von Metternich or Charles Darwin. Metternich is a fascinating guy once you get past the fact that he was a bit of a jerk, and around here you can almost always be assured of strongly held reactions whenever Darwin’s name comes up.

Almost. Not this time.

And don’t even get me started on my children. The people who run Daylight Savings Time don’t have children who need to get to bed on a schedule and get up for school the next day, no they do not. Seriously – it’s been like Easter morning, every day this week, as the dead are resurrected, fed breakfast and sent off to Not Bad President Elementary.

I think we should just go back onto Standard Time and be done with it. If I wanted to live my life an hour later, I’d move back to Philadelphia.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On the Rule of Law

Winning the Revolution was the easy part for the Founding Fathers, which should tell you the level of difficulty of what came next.

Somehow, in the wake of defeating the most powerful nation on earth in an eight-year war that stretched over thousands of miles – in a world where nothing moved faster than 3mph – and divided families, communities and regions far more than the later Civil War did, they had to figure out what kind of government they wanted to put in place of the one they just threw out. Tearing down is always easier than building back up.

It took them a couple of tries to do this.

The first attempt, the Articles of Confederation, was a dismal failure. Building a national government on a foundation of states’ rights is sort of stupid when you think about it, and eventually it foundered on its own contradictions. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.

Eventually they came up with the Federal Constitution of 1787, which seems to have done the trick. We’re still working with that framework, as it has been amended from time to time, and it has done a masterful job of guiding this country through its many and varied trials.

These were two very different models of government, and yet they had one thing very much in common: they were based on the idea that there was a single guiding principle that would enable the citizens of a well-founded republic to preserve their liberty in the face of grasping power, one that would override all other concerns put forth by political leaders and force them to respect the rights of the people who were their sovereigns.

That principle was the rule of law.

“[T]he very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men,’” wrote John Adams in 1776.

Nobody in a well-founded republic was to be above the law. All political power was to be exercised in accordance with laws and procedures that applied to everyone, that were clearly laid out and that were rigorously enforced.

The American political system is based on this. It is enshrined in the Constitution. It is embedded in the government of the states, the counties, the cities and the townships. There is no “decider” anywhere in the American system at any level, and any elected official who makes that claim should be immediately jailed as a traitor, or at the very least tied to a chair and painted in rainbow hues by a large class of kindergartners. This is an empire of laws, not men, and nobody in power can put their whims, vendettas, agendas or desires above those laws and still call themselves an American. Such are the actions of despots, tin-horn dictators, and tyrants.

Such are the actions of the banana-republic junta currently ruling Wisconsin.

I live in a state where the Republican Senate Majority leader has decided on his own whim not to count the votes of Democratic Senators until such time as he deems it appropriate. He has given no just cause for this violation of law and practice beyond the specious declaration that the Democrats remain in contempt of the Senate, a contempt they were declared in because of their legally-permissible absence and which – even if you buy the rather unconvincing arguments made to justify that declaration – is now rendered moot by their return. Nor has he given any indication of what conditions he will deign to recognize the right of elected representatives to vote in their designated chamber – a right that does not evaporate when ignored, contrary to his assertions. Apparently all this guy thinks he needs to do when he has power is declare his displeasure and suddenly the voice of the people is heard no more.

That is government by men, not laws. And that is un-American.

I live in a state where the Attorney General, rather than upholding his oath of office and investigating the obvious violations of law and constitution, is instead holding a call-in poll to determine what he should do next. Seriously. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t called his office to confirm it myself. Apparently he feels that it is his choice whether to obey the most solemn oath he has sworn – that his personal preference is to be above the law. And the poor guy doesn’t even have the backbone to have a personal preference. He’s going to figure that out by counting the whims of those who know his phone number.

That is government by men, not laws. And that is un-American.

There are a great many people in power in the United States right now who seem to think that the mere fact of being sworn into office gives them absolute authority to do whatever they want, without need to consult anyone or anything beyond their own personal interests.

That is government by men, not laws.

And that is un-American.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Further Reports from the Front Lines of the Teabagger War on America: The Protests Continue

They thought we’d go away.

When Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys shoved the union-busting bill through the Wisconsin legislature last week in a blatantly unconstitutional maneuver worthy of the most primitive petty tyrannies, my guess is that they thought they’d won. That the protests would come to an end now that the battle was lost. That the people of Wisconsin would cringe like whipped dogs in the face of their power and accept that they no longer lived in a democracy.

They were wrong.

The battle may be over, but the larger war continues on.

One hundred thousand citizens – citizens, mind you, not subjects – showed up at the Capitol yesterday to explain to that petty dictator what democracy looks like and to demonstrate just how misinformed Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys were. There were farmers on tractors. There were firefighters in uniform. There were teachers. There were students. There were people from across the state and from across the social divisions that usually keep us apart, united in favor of the rule of law, the rights of the middle class, and the future of both Wisconsin and the United States.

We were there. Of course we were there. What choice did we have? When the foundations of American democracy are threatened by the authoritarian few, the only thing responsible citizens can do is witness, protest, and make their voices heard.

We drove up after lunch and, after a good half an hour looking for a parking place, we marched up to the Capitol, where a sea of citizens were already circling the building in a slow procession of democracy in action, waving signs and chanting. We managed to make it once around the Capitol in the two and a half hours we were there. It was that crowded.

Part of that was because we stopped about halfway around to listen to the returning Democratic Senators speak. They were appropriately angry at what was done to Wisconsin in their absence, and at the arrogance and abuse of power that caused them to be absent in the first place. They lifted up their voices in calls to action – to recall Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys through the ballot, to stand firm in opposition to the destruction of Wisconsin’s values and history, to be true Americans. And the crowd responded with cheers and chants.

It must be said that this is perhaps the politest mass rally in human history. Listening to one hundred thousand people chanting “Thank you! Thank you!” to their Senators, to uniformed firefighters, to the police, to the farmers, to all who stand with them – that is not something you hear at most rallies. There were children everywhere, and nobody felt this was inappropriate (though there were occasional calls for lost parents to come to the microphone to be reunited, as one often gets in large crowds like this). In the crush of people there was no pushing, no shoving and no verbal abuse that I encountered.

And according to today’s paper, there were no arrests.

Consider that.  Consider what isn't there, and how important that is.

On the way off the Capitol grounds we stopped at the Episcopal church on the corner by the Capitol to warm up a bit – it had been a blustery, grey 33-degree day, something that did nothing to slow down the crowds at all. It was a good way to pause and reflect as we warmed.

As we walked back to our car we were repeatedly serenaded by car horns rapping out the distinct staccato rhythms of the most popular chant of the month’s protests: “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

And indeed, this is what democracy looks like. This is what democracy sounds like. This is what democracy is.

I hope those in power are listening.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Open for Business

It was 44 degrees here in Our Little Town today, and technically still winter. So naturally we went out for ice cream.

The local soft-serv place always opens up around this time of year, with a fresh coat of lurid pink paint and a few new benches to replace the ones that get worn down over time. Never mind that it’s March in Wisconsin and that this means there is still snow on the ground. People in this state just don’t care about such things.

Do not stand between a Wisconsinite and a source of ice cream. This is one of the first things I learned after moving to this state, along with the Sports Pecking Order (Packers, Badgers, Brewers, Bucks) and why Tom & Jerry isn’t just a cartoon. The ice cream freezers at my local supermarket are longer than some runways and far more crowded, even in the dead of winter when you have to get the stuff into the house before it freezes into granite.

So when the girls and I passed by and saw that the place was open, as we headed home from Not Bad President Elementary, what else could we do but stop?

Lauren and I each had chocolate malts with extra malt, and Tabitha had a “dad sundae,” which is just another of the various “dad foods” that are all, uniformly, bad for you. This particular dad food has vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and marshmallow sauce and can cause tooth decay at ranges of up to three hundred yards. But sooooo goooooood.

It’s nice to take a break like that.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Further Dispatches from Teabagistan: On the Constitutional Process

The Federal Constitution of 1787 is a model of concision.

It is all of four pages long in its original handwritten form, though when you print it out in a textbook that doubles to eight pages. They wrote small back then, and the pages were bigger. In any event, you’re looking at a shade over 4400 words all told.

The Wisconsin Constitution, on the other hand, covers a much smaller political unit in every conceivable way and still manages to run to 65 pages in the Wisconsin Statute Book, as of January 31, 2011. It’s far more detailed and specific. I don’t even want to know how many words it has.

Perhaps for this reason Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys might be excused for not conducting themselves in accordance with its demands. It’s a complex document, after all, and one not suited for toddler-scale-simplistic worldviews of the sort they profess.

For those of you who live under rocks, last night the Teabaggers in the Wisconsin State Senate passed a bill destroying collective bargaining in Wisconsin for public employees.

Some people out there are no doubt honestly in favor of such a step. I have nothing to say to those people, nor will I waste breath or energy lowering myself to that level. But whatever moral, ethical or practical economic concerns such a position raises, at least it’s a legally valid one.

The same cannot be said about last night’s actions.

I will skip lightly over the many and numerous violations of Wisconsin’s Open Meeting laws, Sunshine laws, and other laws designed to keep a scheming cabal of conspirators from operating in secret to destroy good government. On those grounds alone those actions were both morally repugnant and legally invalid, and I do hope that criminal charges will be filed against those responsible and that such people rot in the lowest dungeons of the Wisconsin criminal justice system for the rest of their shriveled little lives.

But here’s the thing.

The Wisconsin Constitution is very specific about the procedures for passing “fiscal bills.” Article 8, Section 8 specifies that any such laws must be passed in a recorded vote with at least three-fifths of the elected members of each chamber of the legislature present to constitute a quorum. This is, after all, the section of the Constitution that the Democratic senators relied on when they left, thus denying the radical lunatic fringe the opportunity to shove their agenda down the throats of Wisconsin citizens without public input. Any budget bill must have that quorum present in order for any vote taken on it to be legally valid.

Throughout this ordeal, Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys have insisted that the portions of the Budget Repair Bill relating to the destruction of public sector unions were an integral part of the budget, that their primary purpose was fiscal, and that without them he would not be able to balance Wisconsin’s books.

That this was a transparent lie was obvious from the start. These portions of the bill were clearly designed as a political power grab and a way to weaken the Teabagger’s opponents going forward. For crying out loud, even Fox News – the Teabagger In-House Cheerleading Service – conceded that much weeks ago.

So when the Teabaggers divided out those sections and passed them as a separate bill, it does set up a quandary that I don’t think they anticipated.

The only way that this could possibly be legal would be for them to concede the point that this is not, has never been, and could never be a fiscal bill. That its sole purpose was political. That it constitutes a deliberate, premeditated attack on the middle class in the name of partisan advantage. That the Democrats were right all along.

This they have not been willing to do. Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) in fact spent much of today arguing that his bill was still an integral part of his budget plan and that it was all about the money, not the politics.

Which, of course, makes the actions taken last night illegal under Section 8, Article 8 of the Wisconsin Constitution, as amended to January 31, 2011.

Those are the options. Either the Teabaggers have been lying all along, or they have illegally passed this bill. There are no other options.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick – my state is controlled by criminals or liars and I don’t know which one is worse.

I’m guessing that any halfway competent lawyer could string together enough quotes from Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys to hoist them with their own petard and get the law overturned.

Not only do we have criminals or liars, but we have stupid criminals or liars.

It is a sad, sad day for American democracy, values and future prospects, whatever one’s position on unions might be.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What Isn't There

When I was a kid I loved the old Battlestar Galactica series. Not the new one, which I have never seen and therefore cannot comment upon. The old one, with Lorne Greene. Yes, I was that uncool. No, I haven’t changed. No, this doesn’t bother me a bit. Thanks for asking.

I never missed an episode. I bought the trading cards. At one point I had one of the plastic toys that they made, the replica fighters that actually shot little plastic laser beams. I probably still have it somewhere.

I even bought the novelization. It wasn’t great literature, but it was exactly the sort of thing a nerdy 7th-grader needed to get through the late 1970s.

And it taught me something useful. You take your life lessons where you can find them.

Throughout the book the Lorne Greene character muses into whatever passed for a diary in his society – every chapter is preceded by a snippet along these lines – and one of those times has always stuck with me. In that entry he elaborated on what wasn’t there.

“When everything appeared to be in place and everything was placid, it was time to consider what was absent.”

I have found this to be good advice, even in less than placid times.

Often what isn’t there is far more important than what is there. Often what isn’t there tells more of the story than what is there. Often you miss what really matters when you focus only on what is in front of you rather than on what might or ought to have been in front of you.

I have been thinking about this lesson a great deal during the Wisconsin phase of the Teabagger War on America. And it doesn’t seem to me that many other people have.

The protests have been going on for over three weeks now. There have been hundreds of thousands of people up at the Capitol, all told – tens of thousands on most days, over a hundred thousand at least once. I’ve been there, and I’ve seen how they have gone. I’ve spoken with protesters. I’ve spoken with police officers. I brought my children with me and never felt this was in any way uncomfortable or ill advised.

The protests have become the focus of national attention, with leaders from all over the country weighing in. There have been speeches and rallies all across the United States supporting the protesters, urging us to stand strong against Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries). There have been editorials and programs on networks and publications across the political spectrum doing the same.

There have been intense passions raised.

And yet, and yet, one must pay attention to what isn’t there.

In three-plus weeks of protests in Madison, involving hundreds of thousands of people and a police presence more appropriate to a Papal visit than a political rally, there have been a grand total of fifteen arrests. None of them were for violent offenses. Not. One.

Not a single political leader on the protesters’ side has ever once mouthed off about “Second Amendment solutions” to the current situation. Not. One.

The violence, real and threatened, from the right wing that we have come to expect as normal political practice these days - the phony-warrior rhetoric and the assault weapons carried into demonstrations and the assassination attempts that the deluded are inspired to try because of such practices - that’s what isn’t there.

Instead there has been a successful effort to maintain decorum and civility that the right wing in this country would do well to emulate.

The Capitol has been cleaned by the protesters, and the professional cleaners were left with little to do. The building itself – a historic site – has been treated with a respect that has impressed the National Trust for Historic Preservation, no matter what lies Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) has tried to spread.

There has been volume and passion, but no violence or threats. There have been shouts and chants, but no violence or threats. And when national talking heads have claimed victimhood for such things, they have been conclusively shown to be lying.

Notice what isn’t there.

It isn’t there, no matter how much the right-wing noise machine tries to make it seem as if it is. Perhaps they cannot imagine a protest without it. Perhaps they have forgotten what it means to be a citizen of a republic, to face opposition and respond with ideas and argument instead of threats and violence.

Perhaps they should learn. Because this is what democracy looks like.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

English As She Is Spoke

Back in January, Kim went off to San Francisco for a conference.

To make up for the fact that the rest of us had to stay here in Wisconsin, even before the current time of troubles, when she returned Kim brought us Goodies. Among them were two Japanese-style soup bowls that we have come to call “Ponyo bowls,” after the movie in which we first saw them.

They’re beige earthenware bowls about eight inches across and maybe a couple inches deep, with flanges so you can carry them without burning your fingers. They also come with a dome-shaped lid that fits nicely onto the edge of the bowl and has an indentation for chopsticks, should you be inclined to eat soup with chopsticks.

So perhaps it is not surprising that these bowls came with instruction sheets.

Instruction sheets that were clearly written originally in Japanese and then translated into English by someone who regarded the English language as an enemy to be outwitted rather than an ally to be pressed into service.

“The earthen pot is brittleness, please be more carefully when you carry.”

And isn’t that the truth?

I think this is good advice in general, actually.

Soup bowls are not the only things that can be more brittle than they appear, that are subject to fracture when treated without respect.

Public trust, for example.

Republics. Democracies.

All sorts of things.

You take your life lessons where you find them, and sometimes you find them in just the oddest of places.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Needs of the Citizenry of a Properly Constructed Republic

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many accomplishments.

He was, by almost any definition, one of the most successful political leaders of his day. He was a member of the Second Continental Congress and the Virginia House of Delegates in the early years of the American Revolution, and served as the Governor of Virginia during the later years of that conflict. He served in the Continental Congress after the war and was appointed Minister to France from 1785 to 1789. George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of State under the new Federal Constitution of 1787, and from there he went on to become the second Vice President (under John Adams) and the third President of the United States.

He was also an accomplished architect, a successful inventor, and one of the few American natural philosophers (what we would today call “scientists”) to gain the respect and admiration of his European peers.

Not a bad resume, really.

And yet, when given the opportunity to design his own tombstone, none of these accomplishments were sufficiently important in his mind to ask that they be carved there for future generations to remember him by. Instead, he asked that posterity remember him for three other things.

One was that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, the document that more than any other we have since adopted as an American creed. Do you ever wonder what it means to be an American? Read the second paragraph, and wonder no more.

Another was his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a bill explicitly designed to separate church and state for the benefit of both. We as Americans would have a much-improved civic climate if that bill were made required reading for all voters and candidates in every political campaign.

The third was his founding of the University of Virginia. And that bears some explanation.

Jefferson was a firm believer in education, particularly primary education. It was, in his opinion, the cornerstone of a republic’s survival. Ignorance and self-government were contradictory things, and the only way a republic could survive was to educate its people. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” he said, “it expects what was and never will be.”

Similarly, if a despot – the preferred term for “dictator” back then – wanted to keep his people in chains, he could do no better than to attack the educational system by which people maintained their liberties.

To counter this, Jefferson proposed a system of public education. “[D]emocracy cannot long exist without enlightenment,” he said. “[I]t cannot function without wise and honest officials, … talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth or other accidental condition, … [and therefore] the children of the poor must be thus educated at common expense.” The system was never approved by the Virginia legislature, but he did manage to get the University of Virginia through. At least that was something.

In 1806 Jefferson even went so far as to propose a Constitutional Amendment requiring public education. For a Strict Constructionist like Jefferson, that was the ultimate in approval.

This desire for public education was actually a fairly common position among the Enlightenment thinkers who founded the United States. You would be hard pressed to find any significant figure among the Founding Fathers who disagreed.

In graduate school I read every issue of every newspaper published in Philadelphia – the nation’s capital for most of the early republic – between 1787 and 1801, and in an era where an explicitly partisan press was considered healthy the need for public education is perhaps the only issue that they all agreed on.

"Let the education of children become a common charge,” said Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora 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."

And thus we come to the situation at hand here in Wisconsin. Again.

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) released his budget the other day.

This is not the Budget Repair Bill that sparked all the protests – the one that sought to close a budget shortfall that he caused giving away millions in tax breaks to his wealthy supporters by destroying unions and cutting the pay of the middle class.

That’s a separate crisis.

No, this is his proposal for how Wisconsin should spend its money over the next two years, and as such provides a clear blueprint for what he wants this state to look like when he finally slinks back to whatever rock he crawled out from under. It’s an astonishingly barbaric document, even if you ignore the provision allowing animal shelters to sell strays for medical experiments after as little as three days.

What caught my eye, of course, was his concerted assault on the educated and informed electorate that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers considered so important to the new American republic.

He proposes to cut a quarter of a billion dollars out of the University of Wisconsin System, even as he separates the main campus at Madison off and ensures that what money does go to the UW gets wasted by duplicate administrations.

He proposes to cut nearly a billion dollars out of the public schools. Wisconsin’s public schools are consistently ranked among the top in the nation, precisely because the citizens of Wisconsin have declared that they support public education and consider it a worthwhile expenditure of tax dollars. It’s not a coincidence that the worst-ranked public school systems are precisely those starved of public support by the greedy and the powerful. That’s what he wants for us.

He further proposes to cut funding for public libraries, where those who are not formally students may educate themselves and those who are may enhance the education they are already receiving.

In other words, if you buy the inflated budget deficits that this guy keeps hawking, nearly one third of the cuts are going to fall upon those institutions designed to educate and inform the public.

Clearly this guy has figured out that an educated and informed citizenry is the last thing he needs.

But it is the first thing Wisconsin needs, if it wants to keep its liberties and its prosperity.

Educated citizens are not easily duped by tin-horn dictators peddling false solutions to made-up crises. Educated citizens know when they are being lied to, and what to do with the liars when that happens. Educated citizens are what republics need to survive, if they are not to degenerate into tyranny.

No, educated citizens are not what Governor Teabagger (a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) needs. A functioning republic is not his goal.

Educated citizens are also what Wisconsin needs to remain prosperous. This is not a ditch-digging economy, here in the 21st century. High-paying jobs are high-qualification jobs, and those qualifications are earned through education. If we in Wisconsin want to support a prosperous and profitable business community, we will invest in our schools. It really is that simple.

That apparently isn’t what Governor Teabagger (a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) wants either. Widespread prosperity is not his goal either.

But it is what Wisconsin needs. It's what America needs.

And it’s not what we’re getting with this guy.

Consider that.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Note on Blogging

It has been a very strange week here in Baja Canada, and an odd one for writing about.

I started this blog as a way to write things down that I wanted to remember, tell a few stories and keep myself and whatever readers I acquired along the way entertained. I like telling stories – it’s what I do for a living.

But recently all of the stories have been grim.

I live in a nascent police state, with a governor who is clearly out of control and bent on destroying a century of successful tradition and progress in the name of a lunatic fringe ideology. One who does not value education, perhaps because he never really took his own seriously, and who has decided that the children of this state shouldn’t even have the option to do so. One who does not see any particular need to follow laws that restrain his whims, or even the Constitution of his own state.  One who is aided and abetted by a network of similarly radical cronies with similar disregard for decency, law and history.

Things are now so bad that firefighters responding to emergency calls in the Capitol are denied admission by hired goons with badges.

Things are now so bad that the Sheriff of the county has publicly labeled Governor Teabagger’s excessive police presence a “palace guard.”

Things are now so bad that the head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association called the governor’s plans “insanely wrong.”

Things are now so bad that Teabaggers in the Senate have passed a law calling for the arrest of Democratic Senators despite the fact that such action is clearly unconstitutional.

It’s all about power. It’s all about greed. It’s all about forcing an extremist agenda down the throats of the rest of us in complete disregard for American values, history and law.

And it’s not much fun to write about.

That’s just one more offense to be laid at the feet of this tin-horn dictator, and nowhere near the biggest, just the most personal.