Black Thursday?

I will not be shopping on Thursday. Let’s give the working class a holiday from the consuming class. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

“When Black Friday comes, I’ll stand down by the door, and catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor”–Steely Dan

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Press the eject and give me the tape

“Appreciate every mixtape your friends make, you never know, we come and go like on the interstate” — Stereo Hearts by Gym Class Heroes

Well, there’s finally something noteworthy out of the White House to comment on: President Obama’s staff released his campaign’s Spotify playlist the other day.  We’ll get to the critique in a moment; first, a couple words about Spotify and similar services.

I’ve only recently warmed to the idea of music subscription services, mainly because it’s clear I’m never going to be able to afford to own all the music I’d like to listen to.  And really, if you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, what does the added cost of actual ownership get you, anyway?  I don’t pretend to be an audiophile; I’m still listening to some stuff on crappy cassettes from the 1980s—digital at any bitrate is pretty much an upgrade for me.

The key for me is the size of the catalog the subscriber can access.  Spotify boasts 15 million songs.  I enjoy it a lot, but it’s still plagued by glaring omissions (only 2 of the crucial first 4 Public Enemy albums?), seems overly-heavy when it comes to greatest hits compilations, and obscurities are under-represented.  So it’s not as if I can just jettison my physical music collection.  For instance, I have 30 Pharaoh Sanders CDs.  Spotify offers 14.  If you want me for life, you’ve got to offer me everything I already have, plus all his mellow 80s and 90s Evidence albums I’d like to listen to but will never blow my hard-earned cash on.

I like to imagine a future where everything ever recorded is available to everyone (including all 300 Acid Mothers Temple albums), where rights holders get compensated, the public doesn’t get gouged, and fans no longer have to scrounge estate sales for scratched copies of vital vinyl.  We’re moving in that direction, and I’m sure Spotify and its competitors will continue to expand available offerings, but we’re not there yet.

So, I’ll take Obama’s list with a grain of salt.  Maybe in his study he’s got a killer stash of rare groove Spotify just doesn’t offer.  More likely, the staffers who assembled his list just need to up their game.

The mixtape (whatever the format) is an artistic assemblage governed by its own idiosyncratic set of rules.  Destined to become an artifact of living memory, forever fixing a time, a place, a person in the heart.  Designed to provoke a response in the listener, the selections also act as a psychological reveal of the curator.

Let’s also ponder the purpose of the mixtape as a public entity.  If it’s not created for your own private enjoyment, you’re either giving it to your hipster friends to impress them with your musical knowledge, or you’re giving it to a girl to win her heart with your soulful taste.  Scanning the songs, I don’t see too much out of the mainstream.  This is not a hipster playlist.  Obama’s going for the girl.  And the girl in this scenario is you, the average American voter.  So how well does he do?

Raphael Saddiq, “Keep marchin’” is the first pick, a contemporary neo-soul song that I feel sets the tone for the whole thing.  Stirring at times, but not transcendant.  Nick Hornby’s fantastic novel “High Fidelity” lays out some mixtape rules.  First and foremost, he argues, you should start off with something that grabs the listener’s attention.  I’ll give Obama marks for trying.  At least, I’m not ready to hit pause yet.

Next is “Tonight’s the kind of night” by indie folk-rock group Noah and the Whale, followed by “We take care of our own,” a single from Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming album.  The Springsteen song is a patriotic rocker similar to “Born in the U.S.A.” in that it can be heard simultaneously as ironic or optimistic depending on one’s own views.  “Wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own” goes one line.  The problem with Bruce’s stuff is it too often gets stripped of its irony by literalist yahoos.  I don’t think that’s Obama’s purpose, but I think he’s probably trying to have it both ways by appealing to that element as well as his natural liberal base.  I’ve been more impressed with the latest offering from one of our other troubadors, Tom Waits, whose martial stomp on “Hell Broke Luce” makes the sharper point: “How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?”  After ten years of war in Afghanistan, it’s a fair question.

Next up is “Keep me in mind” by the Zac Brown Band, designed to be heard as “Keep Obama in mind.”  Four songs in and we’ve established the basic parameters of the whole list: some soul (mostly classic), some indie songs, a little Boomer-oriented rock, and a fair amount of contemporary country.

By this point, Obama’s already violated one of Hornby’s major rules of mixtapes: no white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music.  Since my mixtapes invariably also violate this rule, I’ll give us both a pass on this one.

Aretha Franklin, “The weight,” done originally by The Band.  Offbeat covers are a hallowed feature of the mixtape, multiplying the sentiments of the original with a musicfan factor proportional to the uniqueness of the cover.  Kudos to Obama.

Pick six is “Even better than the real thing” by U2.  Apart from the naked need conveyed by the song (“give me one more chance, you’ll be satisfied”), U2 hasn’t really put out any decent songs since The Joshua Tree.  This is the aural-political equivalent of sticking “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” on your mixtape in hopes you’ll get lucky when Jenny goes parking with you in your dad’s Z28.

This is followed by Ricky Martin’s “Best thing about me is you” a poppy duet with Joss Stone, with the not-so-subtle message “Don’t say no, just say yes.”

This is followed by “Home,” a wistful, contemporary country ode by Dierks Bentley filled with the sort of gag-inducing nationalism I thought we left behind once George W. Bush moseyed off the stage.

The next song, Ray LaMontange’s “You are thest best thing” is an R&B-ish singer-songwriter piece that unfortunately only partly redeems the previous offering.

Then comes Earth Wind & Fire doing a live version of the Beatles’ “Got to get you into my life.”  As an R&B cover of a rock song goes, it’s not bad.  But wait—this is a 2010 version by the Earth Wind & Fire Experience.  Their first version, from 1978, has better guitar licks and a little more oomph and would have been the better choice.

Booker T & the MGs “Green Onions” is a bona fide classic, and I always like to throw at least one instrumental into the mix, so thumbs up here.

Wilco, “I got you,” is a solid piece of alt-country featuring Jeff Tweedy channeling Big Star.  This is followed by the Impressions “Keep on Pushing.”  A great song, and blog-appropriate, so I can’t argue with this.  Rather than Wilco, however, I might have gone with Six String Drag, a lesser-known alt-country band whose own, completely different song called “Keep on pushin’” would have provided an interesting counterpoint to the Impressions.

Fourteenth is Jennifer Hudson’s “You’re the perfect man for me,” a contemporary R&B track that doesn’t do anything for anybody.  At this halfway point in the playlist, it’s become clear that while press coverage suggests some of Obama’s favorite songs are contained herein, this is largely a creature of his political campaign staff.  I have to hope.  I mean, we all know a mixtape to a girl is designed to convey one’s own desirability, but you can’t come right out and announce that, it’s a conclusion that has to emerge organically.  If you’re going to be all blatant about it, you might as well just copy “I’m sexy and I know it” 20 times and give her that.  If this is Obama’s personal mix, it’s narcissist and slightly creepy.

Fifteen is “No nostalgia” by the indie band AgesandAges which seems all about nostalgia.  Reaching out to the Tea Party, are we?

Number sixteen is the country anthem “Stand up” by Sugarland.  “Won’t you stand up and use your voice?”  Isn’t that what they were doing when they they all got teargassed in Zuccotti Park (and Oakland, and everywhere…)?

Seventeenth is Al Green’s “Let’s stay together.”  It’s a fine song, but like all the other soul selections on here, it’s not a deep cut or anything.  Just about everything here is familiar-sounding even if the songs are not individually familiar.

Which brings us to the first of the two Darius Rucker songs, “This.”  Nick Hornby has a rule that says you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side except under special circumstances.  I would go further and say you probably shouldn’t have two tracks by the same artist on the same mixtape.  And two Darius Rucker songs is two too many.  At least there’s no Dave Matthews Band on this playlist.  If you want some twangy alt-country, try the Bottle Rockets.

“We used to wait” by indie superstars Arcade Fire.  I find Arcade Fire vastly overrated.  I’m much more enamored of their sometime collaborator, bass saxophonist Colin Stetson, who’s doing a solo show at the Walker in May.  There wasn’t much I liked about Bill Clinton, but one thing he did have going for him was a healthy respect for free-jazz saxophonists like Peter Brotzmann.  If Obama harbors a similar love for the avant-garde, you wouldn’t know it from this playlist.

“You’ve got the love” by Florence + the Machine is another indie pop number.  I didn’t like them on SNL and I don’t like them now.  If you have to play them, the country might prefer to hear that “the dog days are over” instead.

James Taylor “Your smiling face,” live.  The best James Taylor song I’ve heard on Spotify lately is the Isley Brothers’ cover of “Fire and rain.”

REO Speedwagon “Roll with the changes” could certainly be Obama’s theme song.  I prefer “Riding the storm out,” while “Follow my heart” is probably better advice all around, for the President and the voters.

Sugarland, again, (sorry Nick) with “Everyday America,” contemporary country pop that reminds me exactly why I hate contemporary country pop.

Darius Rucker (again) with “Learn to live.”  The less said, the better, and as far as songs about grandpas giving advice go, “Ooh la la” by the Faces is far superior.

ELO “Mr. Blue Sky” is a Beatlesesque tune from 1977 and probably Obama’s most intriguing choice musically.  With its upbeat tone and orchestreal flourishes at the end, this might work better as a playlist closer.  28 songs gets to be a little long, anyway.

Montgomery Gentry, “My town”: Mr. President, this song about small town life in one’s hometown just doesn’t fit you.  Your town used to be Chicago and now it’s D.C.  Claim it, baby.  May I suggest “Chocolate City” by Parliament instead of this vanilla country?

No Doubt, “Different people”: Didn’t there used to be a punk band in River Falls that sang a song about how much Gwen Stefani sucks?

Ledisi,”Raise up”: The closer, a contemporary R&B/jazz vocals song of forgiveness, in the same earnest spirit as all the other soul songs on the playlist.  I’d honestly prefer “Shut up” from the same album, with the lyrics “Shut up, I’m moving up.”  Show some guts, Mr. President.  Show some fire.  Show some funk.

My own choice for Obama’s campaign song, which Spotify doesn’t offer, is “Paint the White House Black” from George Clinton’s 1993 “Hey man, smell my finger” album with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Public Enemy.  Which brings me to the subject of omissions.

It’s hard to fault a mixtape for what it doesn’t have (but I’m going to do so anyway, why else would I be writing this).  There’s so much good music out there, and everyone has different tastes.  So what am I tasting here?  Mostly bologna on whole wheat, fried bologna if I’m feeling charitable.  As musical meals go, it’s edible but not real tasty, presentable but no pizzazz.  We’ve got mainly well-known classic soul and contemporary country with a little indie mayo and a Baby Boomer pickle on the side.  And no hip-hop.

Not that there has to be hip-hop because he’s the first black president.  No, there has to be hip-hop because in December the Roots put out their best damn album yet and any 2012 mixtape without “Kool On” is egregiously incomplete if not utter crap.

So, after listening to your playlist, Mr. President, I confess I’m disappointed by the anticipation of a boldness of vision never realized—much like your first term.  And while I still might vote for you (or let you pick the radio station in the car before I would Rick Santorum), I don’t think I want to date you.









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My Vineyard, Which Is Mine, Is Before Me

“Now, sex. Sex, sex, sex. Where were we?” — Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

I read an article today about a new bill introduced by Wisconsin Republicans which would change the way sex education is taught in the state. Now, I’m not here to debate about abstinence vs. contraception. But, as an aside, I will say contraceptive information should be taught plainly and accurately. I remember once in elementary school some guys started talking about using “rubbers” to prevent pregnancy. No one ever explained to me (and of course I didn’t ask) the concept of a latex sheath and I spent the next couple years imagining something the size and shape of a pencil top eraser that functioned like a cork.

No, what really caught my eye was a sentence about the composition of the school district advisory committees which develop the curriculum. From 118.019 of the State Statutes: “the school board shall appoint an advisory committee composed of parents, teachers, school administrators, pupils, health care professionals, members of the clergy and other residents of the school district.”

I have to say I’m pretty amazed, given the long-standing doctrine of separation of church and state, that state law guarantees clergy a place at the sex-ed table. Tantrism notwithstanding, I would venture to say most clergy in America are against premarital sex and probably not real fond of comprehensive sex education. It seems sort of like stacking the deck to me.

I guess we should be thankful this approach hasn’t been expanded to, say, giving creationists a spot on the school science curriculum panel. On the other hand, religion has a lot to say concerning many areas of social policy the state plays a major role in. Jesus aided the poor, healed the sick, forgave criminals, spoke against the rich and powerful. Maybe we’d be better off if we had clergy helping to set health care policy, or welfare policy, or debt and bankruptcy law, prison reform, or taxation.

I just find it fascinating that of all the areas out there for clergy to play a role in, sex is the one they get. And of all the things for churches to be involved in, policing sex is still what too many of them seem to want to do the most. It was just a couple weeks ago that the Minnesota Catholic Conference announced a major effort to support passage of the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in our neighboring state. Really? You’ve got massive unemployment, increasing poverty, skyrocketing foreclosures, and your top legislative priority is gay marriage?

Jesus preached the social gospel, not the sexual gospel. When it comes to setting sex ed policies or proclaiming standards of sexual behavior, most clergy would do well to follow their own advice: abstain.

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No War But the Class War

“I want a war between the rich and the poor, I wanna fight and know what I’m fighting for” – “Class War,” D.O.A.

Asked the other day about the Occupy Wall Street movement, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney remarked “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.”

One might express some surprise at this, as the galvanizing grievance of Occupy Wall Street would appear to be the bank bailouts, also a near-and-dear symbolic cause of the Tea Party movement Romney tries to court.

Perhaps Romney’s upset because Occupy Wall Street doesn’t simply criticize government spending per se, but frames the bailout as just the latest example of government action on behalf of the ruling financial elite.

I happen to think the bank bailouts were absolutely necessary to keep our particular capitalist economy functioning—and with it markets around the world.  I think taking the conservatives’ “let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may” approach to the financial crisis would have provoked economic armageddon.  And I think it’s ironically dismaying that the neo-libertarians who gain the most from America’s economic supremacy are the most eager to disavow the efforts that have kept them on top of the heap.  But saying the bank bailouts were necessary doesn’t mean I agree with how the economy is organized.  Far from it.

The fact that such bailouts were necessary shows the complete interdependence of the modern world and puts a lie to theory of rational, self-interested actors producing beneficial economic outcomes.  If the risks taken by the wizards of Wall Street cannot be assumed by them alone, if they can collapse the economy, make markets tremble on a whim, ruin me and my family, my hardworking friends and neighbors, then the wealth they make shouldn’t belong to them alone either.

Because this, too, is class warfare.  It is class warfare when banks take public bailouts and pay bonuses after ordinary peoples’ livelihoods are destroyed, jobs lost, homes taken away, retirement funds vanished.

It is class warfare when 1% of the population owns over one third of the country’s total net worth, nearly 50% of the financial wealth, and garners 25% of the annual income.

It is class warfare when the 500 richest individuals have more wealth than the bottom half of Americans.

It is class warfare when corporations make billions in profits, send jobs overseas and avoid taxes while our true unemployment rate is anywhere between 9-16%

It is class warfare when the richest country in the world still has 46 million of us living in poverty and 50 million of us uninsured.

It is class warfare when we have hundreds of thousands homeless and hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes sitting empty.

Yes, Mr. Romney, this class warfare is dangerous.  For the last few hundred years, though, it’s mostly been dangerous for the working class.

Maybe Occupy Wall Street can change that.  As it says on their website: “We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%”

This week the movement spreads out to other cities.  OccupyMN begins Friday at the Government Plaza, 300 South 6th Street, Minneapolis.  I’ll have more to say about what it might accomplish next time.





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Crackpot History and the Right to Lie

“America has got the blues. It’s got the blues because of partial deification of partial accomplishments over partial periods of time” – Bicentennial Blues, Gil Scott-Heron

Several weeks ago the National Assessment of Educational Progress released the results of its 2010 U.S. History Assessment.  As per usual, the report set off a round of hand-wringing and head-shaking over the ignorance of the younger generation, bemoaning their lack of historical knowledge.  The past always seems more important to those who have more of it behind them.

One example in particular occasioned a great deal of comment.  A majority of fourth-graders were unable to identify a photo of Lincoln and give two reasons why he was important.

As someone with a degree in history and a fourth-grader in the family, I thus have two reasons to be interested in this story.

First, the fourth-grader.  I decided to quiz him on my own and see where he stacked up.  Could he identify a photo of Lincoln?  Yes he could.  (That’s my boy!)  Could he tell me why Lincoln was important?  No he could not.  (Obviously, the schools are teaching him nothing!)  However, thanks to repeated viewings of Pawn Stars on the History Channel, he could tell me that Lincoln had been assassinated in a theatre.  (Thank you, cable TV!)

You might expect me to be more upset by this, being a history major and all.  Actually, I’m not all that worked up, precisely because I’m a student of history.  To understand why, let’s look at the responses the NAEP was expecting.  They gave credit for students who answered: He stopped slavery/freed the slaves; He led the Union to defeat the Confederate States; He gave the Gettysburg Address.

History is a complex discipline, events are open to a wide variety of interpretation as to cause, effect, and meaning.  But our kids are still being given a dumbed-down, Great Man version of American history as a steady rise towards exceptionalism.

Take Lincoln and the freeing of the slaves.  The Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves.  It freed some slaves in some formerly Confederate areas under Union control.  Most slaves in the Confederacy would have to wait until the end of the war for their freedom.  Slaves in the Union states would have to wait for the Thirteenth Amendment, which didn’t take effect until December, 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s death.  Did Lincoln free the slaves, or did a majority of legislators at the federal and state levels free the slaves?

And when you simplify expected historical knowledge down to “Lincoln freed the slaves,” what else about Lincoln are you leaving out?  Lincoln’s racism. (“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races– that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”)

When you simplify expected historical knowledge down to “Lincoln freed the slaves,” who else are you leaving out?  Nat Turner.  John Brown.  Harriet Tubman.  Frederick Douglass.  All the unsung heroes of the slave rebellions, the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad.

Lincoln winning the Civil War could also do with some further discussion.  For instance:  His suspension of habeas corpus.  His overseeing of America’s largest mass execution after the 1862 Dakota uprising.  Sherman’s scorched earth policy in his march to the sea.  Additionally, as a Colvill Elementary alum, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Civil War was actually won by the First Minnesota on the second day at Gettysburg.

I know that when you’re teaching kids something, it’s hard enough to drive one point home, much less introduce complexity, nuance, impersonal forces, and moral grey areas.  Part of me is disappointed that so many kids don’t even know these base simplifications.  But part of me thinks these base simplifications are also a problem, that they tend to get in the way of deeper understanding later on.

Personally, I’m more concerned with what a presidential candidate like Michele Bachmann says about history than what fourth graders do or don’t know about Lincoln.  Consider her statement on the Founding Fathers: “We also know that the very founders who wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”  Really?  In fact, a significant number of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington (“Father of our Country”) were slaveholders.  Some eventually freed their slaves, and some were anti-slavery, but I think it’s safe to say that all were dead by the time slavery was actually abolished, 78 years after the Constitution they created first enshrined slavery in the three-fifths compromise.

One might argue her lack of savvy about the Founding Fathers is further evidence of the decline of historical knowledge indicated by the NAEP report.  I disagree.  I think the simplified view of history preached in the schools–the rah rah America version of our founding, the kind that can be easily answered by fourth graders in a single sentence–is what’s responsible for her views, not the lack of it.  If you’ve been spoon-fed a version of history since kindergarten that says the Founding Fathers delivered us from evil King George and gave us our freedom, then, never delving any deeper into the past, the logical conclusion would be that, why yes, the Founding Fathers must have been against slavery also.

For Christ’s sake, I’ve got a degree in history and I’m a rabid leftist and even I didn’t know until my 30s that the British promised freedom to slaves who joined the Loyalist cause—an offer thousands took advantage of, including one of George Washington’s own slaves.  Take that, Crispus Attucks!

As another Independence Day settles upon us, those who favor a soundbite history, a fourth-grade version of history, will insist our children learn that July Fourth signaled a glorious revolution for freedom and democracy that merely needed a bit of tweaking to get right.  Only the unpatriotic could possibly characterize it as a glorified middle-class tax revolt followed by 200 years of racism, sexism, exploitation and war.

Let’s conveniently forget that it was a Parliament we were really up against, not a tyrannical King George.  And isn’t it funny how our discussions of democracy’s roots always harken back to ancient Rome, with its slavery and territorial expansion, rather than the Levellers of the English Civil War or the Pilgrims’ experiences in the Dutch Republic.

I’m rarely of the opinion that ignorance is bliss, but if the alternative is a willful distortion of America’s racist past (a la Bachmann) or an all-consuming knowledge of it (yours truly), maybe my kid’s better off not knowing anything at all.

A quarter of my son’s life has been spent under a black president, the artists on his ipod are black, as are the heroes on his sports jerseys, and he’s been blessed with a variety of multiracial friendships.  150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it means more to me–much more than him knowing how we got to this point–that his life is at the moment unencumbered by either racial hatred or racial guilt.

So teach him your trite little history lessons.  But don’t be saddened if he forgets most of them.  For one day he’ll learn the truth about America’s past, and if he’s taken any of your cheerful lies to heart, it will just make his sense of betrayal all the greater.






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A Red White’s Blues (for Gil Scott-Heron)

If Gil was here
he’d have a trenchant comment
concerning House Republicans who fulminate about deficits and debt limits
and then pass $690 billion dollar defense budgets

If Gil was here
he might mordantly mention
so-called Democrats of the Senate who vote for
and a black president who magically signs
from an ocean away
a Patriot Act extension
to secretly snoop at your library records
(no-knock, anyone?)

But Gil is gone

Gil is gone to join Lady Day and John Coltrane
and we can no longer call on Gil to pierce our hypocrisies
and wash our troubles away with righteous rhymes

If Gil was here we could ask him
about Arab revolutions Facebooked and Twitterized

But Gil is gone

It may be spring in Wisconsin
but Gil is gone
so it is still winter in America

They may be fighting in Libya
in Syria in Yemen and Bahrain
but Gil is gone
and ain’t nobody fighting here
’cause Gil is gone

Gil is gone and we are sad
because Gil was the only brother among us
who could write a song about a hundred-and-five-year-old drunk man
getting arrested
and make it sound like the second martyrdom of Dr. King
inspiring a room full of twenty-something white boys
to shout “Old People Power” along with him on the turntable

Gil is gone and we are mad
we are mad because Gil told us to kick it and quit it
and we feel betrayed to hear
fifteen years on
that he has been arrested for cocaine possession
and twenty years on
that he is smoking crack

So we find ourselves here in the Bottle
mad at Gil
and mad at ourselves
mourning until midnight
listening to a little Small Talk at 125th and Lennox
through Pieces of a Man, It’s Your World, Reflections, Bridges, Secrets,
From South Africa to South Carolina, Real Eyes, Moving Target, 1980,
and Spirits
mourning until midnight
and the first minute of a new day

We are mad that
Gil is gone
so we can no longer be mad at him

And normally this is the part of the program
where we say something like…
we say something like…
something like…

Gil is gone
but his music is not
and we dedicate “Let Me See Your I.D.” to prospective Wisconsin voters
or “Shut ‘Em Down” to the Japanese earthquake victims

But Gil is gone
and nobody knows what to say

You tell me that
“There must be something we can do”
but Gil is gone
and if we were going to do anything
we would have done it a long time ago

Gil is gone
and it’s a blues year.

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Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam

“Don’t step on the grass, Sam” – Steppenwolf

While everyone else is busy dissecting the outcome of last week’s election, I’d like to look farther back to last November and some little-remarked-upon results in the City of River Falls.

The question on the ballot was: “Should the Wisconsin Legislature enact legislation allowing residents with debilitating medical conditions to acquire and possess marijuana for medical purposes if supported by their physician?”

The answer was a resounding Yes, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, 2,722 votes to 1,270.  I find that a pretty striking result for an average Midwestern small city like River Falls.

The results in the Pierce County portion of the city were even starker: 2075 yes, 883 no.  A full 70% of River Falls voters in Pierce County are in favor of medical marijuana.  With 3,141 Pierce County voters casting ballots in the election, 94% expressed an opinion on the issue.

One might argue that this result is mainly due to River Falls being a college town, with hard-partying college students leading the charge for legalized dope.  But—as was noted nationwide—youth voter turnout was low in November of 2010.  Only 619 voters came from the group of three wards that included campus, Ward 9, not enough to give the ballot question its victory.  This ward group was majority Democratic, but in line with the vote percentages experienced by the other River Falls ward groups.  One might expect college voters, who trend Democratic, to have pushed the margins of Democratic victories in their ward higher than the other wards.  Since this didn’t happen, I see it as further indication that college turnout was not the key to this ballot question’s success.

Rather, I would argue instead the margin of victory is so high due to Republican* voter support for medical marijuana reform.

Conventional wisdom would put Republicans in the anti-drug camp, Democrats in the pro-legalization camp.  Let’s start from that perspective and see how far we get.  In the Pierce County city wards, Republican candidates Walker and Johnson lost, but nonetheless garnered 1348 and 1332 votes.  Democrats Barrett and Feingold received 1664 and 1693 votes respectively.  I doubt this is the case, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume every Feingold voter was a die-hard liberal Democrat who also voted yes on medical marijuana.  2075 (yes votes) minus 1693 (Feingold votes) leaves 382 non-Feingold supporters who must also have voted yes.  Or, to look at it another way, even if all the no votes came from Republican Walker supporters, 465 Walker supporters either abstained or voted yes for medical marijuana. 1348 (Walker votes) minus 883 (no votes) = 465.  A minimum of 34% of otherwise Republican voters either supported or were neutral on the issue.

In the St. Croix County wards, overall support for the measure was lower, but we can also see a steep drop-off in Republican opposition.  In St. Croix, the ballot question was answered by 1034 voters, 647 yes and 387 no.  This is a margin of 62%, lower than the 66% overall and the 70% in Pierce.  This is perhaps not surprising, as St. Croix skews Republican.  I don’t have the total number of voters at the polls in the St. Croix wards, but the most votes (1408) were recorded in the State Treasurer race, so we’ll take that as a floor.  1034 of 1408 means a much lower percentage of voters, 73%, had an opinion on the question.

The total St. Croix votes for Republican candidates in the major races ranged from 680 to 816.  If we again (for the sake of argument) assume Republican voters made up all the no votes, remember that only 387 voted no.  This means somewhere between a minimum of 45% (293/680) and 52% (429/816) of Republican voters either voted yes or abstained.  I find this pretty astonishing.  And encouraging.

A few years ago, if you’d have asked me what the Tea Party was, I would have said it’s that annual rally at the Minnesota State Capitol for marijuana legalization.  Nowadays, of course, if you mention the “Tea Party” it calls up a host of different associations.  Nevertheless, it could be that November’s results concerning the River Falls ballot question are due to the libertarian instincts of otherwise Republican Tea Party voters.

Whether you drink your tea, dump it, or smoke it, on issues of personal liberty—such as medical marijuana–our opinions just might be closer than you think.


*I’m using “Republican” and “Democrat” here in the sense of citizens voting for the candidates of that party, not necessarily being formally registered Republicans or Democrats.  While perhaps not as precise, it’s a little more elegant than to continually phrase my words as “voters for Republican candidates” or “voters for Democratic candidates.”

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Know Nothing

“Don’t look to me for answers.  Don’t ask me.  I don’t know” – Ozzy Osbourne

Your regularly scheduled blog for the week has been cancelled because this author has no firm opinion on the pressing issues of the current moment.

For instance, I don’t know if we should be involved in Libya or not.  Unlike many U.S. military interventions, the motive seems hard to question.  Protecting Libyans from mass slaughter at the hands of their own government seems a morally justifiable aim.  Of course, the nature of military action itself tends to result in innocent deaths.  Can our precision airstrikes guarantee we aren’t the cause of civilian casualties ourselves?

The political equation seems propitious also.  The UN Security Council and the Arab League have signed off on the action.  I’m not one to believe America can never act unilaterally, but it certainly helps to have most of the rest of the world in agreement with you when you are out launching missiles.  More importantly, the Libyan rebels have asked for the international involvement.

Which brings us to the third dimension of the conflict, the actual situation on the ground.  I’m a firm believer that revolutions have to be, and deserve to be, made by the people themselves.  Regime change engendered by outside forces usually fails to result in a clear political solution and leaves a sour aftertaste of foreign occupation in one’s mouth (Iraq, Afghanistan).

This doesn’t mean people should do nothing.  At the very least outside actors can refrain from helping the Libyan regime—arms embargos, sanctions, asset freezing are all part of this package.  Diplomatic efforts and moral support have their place (although they should fall short of cheerleading foreign rebels onto suicidal resistance—remember the Marsh Arabs).

My concern, which so far has been borne out–is that when the Libyan rebels asked for assistance, it was from a position of weakness, not of strength.  It was not the case that the rebels only needed a no-fly zone to protect their inexorable advances from a desperate Qaddafi’s airborne massacres.  The fact that they needed our help so badly may turn out to be the main reason we shouldn’t have given it to them.

This has not unfolded like Tunisia and Egypt.  Whether this is because the rebels do not have the overwhelming support of the country (or key components of the population) or because Qaddafi is willing to do anything to maintain his power I can’t say.  Possibly it’s both—people are taking a wait and see approach in the face of Qaddafi’s brutality, unwilling to risk failure.  The dilemma is they will never own their revolution if they don’t go all in.

We can hope more Libyans will be emboldened by the no-fly zones as time goes on.  But we already see the mission creeping from protection to something resembling air support as the rebels fail to make headway.  I don’t know what the answer is.  I don’t know what the endgame will be.  If I had to pick an analogy I would still say this resembles Kosovo more than Somalia.  Will it drag on for months, years?  Will it take intervention on the ground to get anywhere?  In my fantasies, a joint Tunisian-Egyptian intervention pincers Tripoli as all the Mideast rebels join forces.

In less sanguine matters, I also don’t know what to think about the school referendum.  As someone with kids at Greenwood, I’m convinced the deferred maintenance and energy efficiency portions of the project are needed.  These things are probably needed at the other schools also.  My dad has spent most of his career in facilities management; I know that all too often systems maintenance is allowed to lapse until matters reach a crisis.  We should get ahead of the curve on these things.

I don’t know where I’m at when it comes to the Academy.  I’m not from River Falls so I don’t have a deep emotional connection to the building.  I believe in historical preservation, but I don’t know how architecturally unique and valuable this particular building is.  I do know the City can’t afford to preserve it as a museum piece.  If it’s going to remain, it has to serve some function (relocating the classes and sporting events shifts costs, it doesn’t do away with them).  But it can’t continue to function in its current shape.

I haven’t been in the older classrooms, but as a veteran of youth basketball I can tell you the bathrooms remind me of a borstal and the flickering atmosphere in the lower gym is like a horror movie right before the bodies start dropping and blood oozes from the walls.

I do support the idea of the Renaissance  program and the public Montessori; I think students learn best in a variety of ways and our graduation rate is something to be extremely proud of.

On the other hand, 38 million dollars is a significant chunk of change to shell out in the middle of the worst economy in my lifetime.  I understand that also makes it a good time to invest, given interest rates and building costs.  But it’s hard to swallow a property tax hike when the governor’s about to raid my paycheck.

Which brings up another question: it’s predicted the energy efficiency improvements will save the school district a substantial amount of money.  Fair enough.  But the governor’s budget slashes aid to schools and makes it harder for districts to replace the cuts with locally raised funds.  Won’t all the building expansions in the referendum mean higher operating costs?  How will these be paid for?  Again, I know from my dad that it’s not sexy to budget enough money for upkeep.  Will this referendum mean we are expanding facilities we cannot afford to adequately maintain?

It would be nice if we could pick and choose, or somehow rank, the portions of this referendum we support.  The drawback of democracy writ large is the all-or-nothing approach.  I’m guessing it didn’t start out like this, but due to the financial situation and the project’s scope, it ends up feeling like a shoot-the-moon hand.  If it doesn’t pass, what’s the fall-back plan to fix the things that absolutely have to be fixed?  A scaled-back referendum a year or two down the line?

Meanwhile, as the glaciers finally recede, my backyard stands revealed as a muddy pit littered with animal droppings.  Why is there poop all over my yard?  I don’t know; I have two indoor cats.  Perhaps it’s that dog I always hear barking at 5 a.m.  Perhaps this morning’s sleet will cover everything up again for a while.  Snow and freezing temperatures from November to April.  Why do I choose to live here?  Oh, that’s right–I don’t know.

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“As the Polish workers fight to make their stand, and behind them every honest working man, in unity there’s each other and your friend becomes your brother, and in the tyrant’s heart will be a lesson learned” – Solidarity, by Angelic Upstarts

The whole prank call from “David Koch” to Governor Walker was pretty bizarre, but the strangest part to me was where Walker starts comparing himself to Ronald Reagan when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.  According to Walker, “That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall [and] the fall of Communism because from that point forward the Soviets and the Communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn’t a pushover.”

This may have shown the Soviets that Reagan was a hardass, but firing and permanently banning the PATCO union members hardly helped bring about liberation in Eastern Europe.  Rather, along with Thatcher’s crushing of the British miner’s strike, it proved to the world working class that the heads of state, whether East or West, were merely two sides of the same coin, alike in wielding the heavy hand of government to crack down on the labor movement in the 1980s.

When Walker talks about putting down the unions  as a step towards freedom he’s on the wrong side of history.  The same year Reagan busted the controller’s union, Jaruzelski imposed martial law in Poland to break the Solidarity trade union.  But Solidarity survived and went on to lead the movement that eventually forced negotiations with the Communists and won Poland’s liberty.

Throughout the Soviet era, the workers and their independent unions formed an important part of opposition to states that falsely claimed to rule in their name.

The landmark Charter 77 of the Czech dissidents bemoaned a state of affairs that “prevents workers and others from exercising the unrestricted right to establish trade unions and other organizations” and “from freely enjoying the right to strike.”

Going further back in history, during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, it was the self-organizing workers of the Csepel factories which fought the hardest and held out the longest against the Soviet invasion.

Finally, even at the dawn of Bolshevik rule in Russia, there were plenty of workers resistant to the Soviet model.  One of the major demands of the 1921 Kronstadt uprising, after all, was for free trade unions.

Walker has it backwards.  It is the resistance of unions to government, not the crushing of unions by government, that leads to freedom.  This may be his Reagan moment, but like Reagan it’s a moment that positions him alongside the Soviet rulers, not against them.

Certain sectors of the American right try to cast public sector workers as the ancillary wing of an oppressive government, as if your average federal, state or local wage slave is setting policy—outlawing gay marriage, for instance, or starting imperialist wars.  But when a strong and independent labor force flourishes—contrary to Reagan, contrary to Thatcher, contrary to Walker, and contrary to Soviet communism—I believe it is much more likely to be a counteracting force to the arbitrary power of  the state.

The truth is, ordinary working people of all nations have more in common with each other than with the people in power, whether capitalist or communist.  Which is why, for example, the very same Solidarity trade union that prevailed against communism recently issued a statement to public service workers in the state of Wisconsin expressing “our solidarity and support for your struggle against the recent assault on trade unions and trade union rights unleashed by Governor Scott Walker.”

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Billyuns and Billyuns

“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required” – Jesus Christ, Luke 12:48

As we all know by know, the State of Wisconsin is facing an expected budget deficit of $3.6 billion.  That’s not chump change, but it’s not necessarily the fiscal apocalypse Governor Walker and the Republicans make it out to be.  Remember, this is for the next biennium, so it’s actually $1.8  billion a year.  In a state with over 5.6 million people, that’s about $315 per person.  Contrast this with the federal debt, which is over $14 trillion, or around $45,752 per U.S. citizen and a true catastrophe.

When the governor says the state is broke, it means there’s a mismatch between state revenue and state expenditures.  His approach is to start cutting, and to start with state employees.  I’m not here to defend everything the government spends money on as worth doing at the price we’re doing it, but I think the magnitude of the cuts will negatively impact the quality of life we enjoy in Wisconsin, and I think the less fortunate among us will find their situations in general worsen under a budget plan that relies on cuts only.

An alternative approach would be to preserve existing services by raising taxes.  As I said at the start, this amounts to about $315 per year per person.  Everybody ponies up, we continue on as we have been, equally sharing the burden of a balanced budget.  A significant objection to this approach is it fails to take into consideration ability to pay.  Infants, people on fixed incomes, prisoners, the long-term unemployed, etc.—where are they going to come up with the money?

Fortunately, I have a solution.  To say that the State of Wisconsin is broke is not to say that everyone in the state of Wisconsin is broke.  To the contrary, some people are doing quite well.

According to “Pulling Apart : Wisconsin’s Growing Income Inequality,” a 2008 report put out by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families,(available at, the average real income of the top 20% of Wisconsin households grew 36% from the 1987-89 period to 2004-2006 such that by 2006 the top quintile of Wisconsin households earned $120,440 per year (a number undoubtedly larger now, five years later).

With over 2.1 million households in Wisconsin, that gives us roughly 420,000 in the top fifth.  If one were, say, to attempt to balance the budget by raising taxes on these folks alone, these households could expect to pay about $4285 more in taxes.  Which comes out to a 3.5% tax increase, or roughly ten percent of the gains they’ve made as an economic class in the last two decades.

Maybe you don’t consider these folks well-off enough to bear the budget burden.  If so, most likely you are one of these folks.  You probably consider yourselves middle-class, maybe upper-middle-class, certainly not wealthy.  So maybe we should turn our attention to the truly rich.

Also according to the report, in 2005 dollars the richest 5% of Wisconsin households pulled in $198,767.  Again, this number has almost assuredly gone up.  For ease of calculation, let’s call it $200,000 a year for the 105,000 or so households at the top of the income ladder.  Asking them to balance the budget would require a sacrifice of $17,142 apiece.  “My God!” I can hear you saying, “That’s 8 ½ percent of their income, and almost as much as the poorest fifth makes in a whole year ($20,073)!  Downright confiscatory!”

Well, I don’t have the exact numbers, but a middle ground suggests itself to me.  The top 10% of households, all 210,000 of them, earn somewhere between $120,000 and $200,000 a year.  The straight average of $160,000 is probably not strictly correct, it’ll be lower since the income curve steepens as we near the top.  But it is, as they say, close enough for government work.  Balance the budget on these people and you’re talking an additional contribution of $8,571.  This is almost, but not quite, 5.8% of their income.  You might call this solution socialist class warfare.  I prefer to call it poetic economic justice.  And if my plan happens to increase taxes on some overpaid fat cat public employees, that’s OK by me.  Financing the social safety net is the responsibility of the rich for the privilege of living in an economic system that fosters arbitrary inequality.

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