Small Town Wisconsin Needs To Know We Have Been This Way Before

We have been this way before.  That is the message we need elected officials and politicians to impart to citizens from coast to coast.

After reading the excellent reporting from Tim Sullivan of the Associated Press, featured above the fold on the front page of Thursday’s Wisconsin State Journal, it goes without saying there is a lot to unpack.  Since 2016, I have been trying to better understand what very conservative, Trump-type people, are thinking and more to the point, why they view government and society as they do. The AP news story was insightful.

This is not the first time that citizens in our nation yearned for Washington to rise to the challenges of the time. If we put aside the notion that some on the far-right fear government and disdain it at every turn, it is safe to say that the majority of people, including Republicans want their government to function at a higher level than what we have witnessed for several years. Voters want pols to be reasoned and wish the buffoonish ones would give way to effective representatives in office. We have long had political and legal scandals, though the Jan 6th insurrection was an event without parallel in our nation.  There is nothing new in racial reckonings or having splintered and highly politicized and partisan news media. The idea that elites rule or are too well connected or wealthy as opposed to the masses of workers striving to just get along is as old to our national dialogue as anti-immigrant rants. What I just wrote in a few sentences sums up the tensions of the time which followed the Civil War.

We have been this way before.

Failed reconstruction, economic turmoil, pols not rising to the demands of the time and a sagging enthusiasm about our role on the international stage was part of the decades that followed President Lincoln’s assassination. Over the years, just to press down on the latter point, I have read several books where it was stressed no real foreign policy success came to the U.S. between William Sewards’ famed Alaska deal and the construction of the Panama Canal. Our current mood as Americans is not new. 

We have been this way before.

What we never reflect upon in these rancorous and often highly bombastic times is that we succeeded as a nation after a long period of upheaval, and triumphantly so. Railroads and oil and stronger governmental institutions and stronger financial systems added layers of credibility. 

We must be reminded of having been this way before with rebounds and great national success.

While economics as a science confounds me, economic history is rather compelling.  By looking backward as the national story of our advancements, be they canals or trains or the industrial revolution, is examined comes a bottom line of truth.  One that is playing out today with the information revolution. We know how fast and seemingly abrupt certain new innovations have landed in our workplace or home, from how x-rays are now read from afar, or how technical assistance via phone places our call to Southeast Asia. Changes come fast as do the implications and side effects from jobs, wages, or cultural impacts, while the political institutions make slow and stodgy adaptions. This leads back to one of the complaints from the Civil War generation who also yearned for pols who would more readily address the needs of their time.  

I can understand how the people in the AP story think they have lost faith in technocrats.  I would argue that if a litany of ‘internet news’ from podcasts and those who push conspiracy theories is how one gains a view of the nation and world the issue may not be with skilled and educated bureaucrats or elected pols but rather by not accessing credible news sources. The world might look less dim if the lights were turned on with sound journalism. Without a foundation of facts and data from which to start a dialogue with the rest of the nation, we are witnessing populism running amok.  

So, what hope can we give to the voices from the front page of the WSJ? History says there is always a need for new thinking and modern political designs and solutions, whether in banking, diplomacy, or law. Consider that if the WSJ had printed a front page after the Civil War about farmers, and the numbers needed to feed the nation, they would have been frothing at the mouth to know their numbers in the nation would be narrowed to the single digits, percentage-wise, their land sold for urban sprawl, and the industry transformed beyond their recognition.  Change is always tumultuous, and we are in such a time now.

We need to be reminded we have been this way before. 

Another Low In American Politics, But We Now Expect Such Behavior From Donald Trump

Once again America was lowered to the basement of human depravity.  

While most of the nation spent days leading up to Thanksgiving making pies and perhaps polishing some silverware Donald Trump was rubbing shoulders with Nick Fuentes, a Nazi sympathizer, and holocaust denier.  When not chatting it up at his Florida home with someone who has equated 6 million exterminated Jews with burned cookies in the oven, Trump was breaking bread with another dinner guest, Kanye West, who is an acknowledged antisemite.  

It does not take this little site on the internet to remind readers that President Jimmy Carter built homes in his post-White House years. Or that his fellow officeholder, George Bush, takes an empty canvas and creates painted art, while Bill Clinton focuses on world problems, and Barack Obama works to create his presidential center as an engine for economic gain on the South Side of Chicago. All that is in sharp contrast to Trump intentionally stirring the vilest stew of violence, hatred, and bigotry that was unleashed in the 20th century.

When I heard the news over the holiday weekend, I wish able to say I was stunned.  Or surprised.  I wish there was a reaction other than feeling, well, this is the latest bizarre and tragic consequence of elevating Trump in our political culture. The thought that came to mind upon hearing the NPR news report was recalling a book published this summer that reported about Trump’s desire to have generals like the ones who had answered to Adolf Hitler.  The following quote comes from “The Divider: Trump in the White House,” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.

“Why can’t you be like the German generals?” Mr. Trump told John Kelly, his chief of staff, preceding the question with an obscenity….”

I pondered the impact of Trump’s dinner last week on the nation.  What it says about our citizenry where there is still a very sizable and energized segment who would follow him off a cliff if he said to do so.  (No one should assume he would lead the way, however.) Historians will long study how so many susceptible people were lured into the bizarre cult of Trump.

Trump’s base supporters over the past days in rural America are deflecting from his actions, trying to spin them into an event where he was hardly even aware of it having happened. It is absolutely perplexing how Trump can still command their allegiance when it so sharply flies in the face of a chapter of history that is devastatingly painful.  Yet for Trump, it just was something else to cheapen with his disdain and low-brow character. It is almost chilling to consider that Trump would not even know how to talk about the memories and messages of those who walked to their deaths in places like Auschwitz or Dachau.  

I still believe in a political class that is defined by character, ethics, morals, and values. I guess that results from when I was born and the history I read and better try to understand. We can have sharp clashes over fiscal policy and the size of our footprint on the international stage, but when we witness the vilest and most absurd behavior from a pol as we did last week, and especially one who sat in the Oval Office, there is no other path the majority of the populace can take than one of complete and utter repudiation.

A few notables within the Republican Party found their resolve on Monday and spoke to the deplorable behavior of Donald Trump. We need an avalanche of their fellow party members to do the same, Every reporter needs to press elected officials to go on the record and speak about an ex-president sitting for dinner with a holocaust denier.

Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy stated: “President Trump hosting racist antisemites for dinner encourages other racist antisemites. These attitudes are immoral and should not be entertained. This is not the Republican Party.”

“There’s no bottom to the degree which he’s willing to degrade himself and the country for that matter. Having dinner with those people was disgusting”, said Utah Senator Mitt Romney.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune said of Trump breaking bread with a Nazi and Holocaust denier: “Well, that’s just a bad idea on every level. I don’t know who was advising him on his staff, but I hope that whoever that person was got fired.”

Many in the nation will wonder why an aide needs to be upbraided when we all know the only reasonable reaction Trump need to have taken upon seeing a Nazi sympathizer in his home was to point to the door and say, “get the HELL out!”

Taste For Freedom in China Directly Challenges Autocrat Xi Jinping

There comes a time when autocrats and their tired regimes become a focal point of disgust and derision by the people being controlled. A time when the masses of people say there must be something better, or at least conditions not as oppressive and numbing to the soul.  Everyone desires freedom, even if their entire life has existed under a footprint on their brow, as the human spirit knows what it needs.

This morning the first news story I heard from NPR was the reports of protesters who have staged significant marches by gathering in at least eight major cities in China to bring loud and burly attention to the strict anti-Covid measures that have been enacted for months. The protests this weekend erupted after a fire broke out Thursday and killed at least 10 people in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi with the concern being registered by the populace about whether firefighters or people trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other restrictions.

That aspect of the protests was not what stunned me as they have been brewing and simmering within China for some time. Rather what took me aback was the protestors calling out China’s leader and telling him to resign and even calling for an end to one-party rule. In a video of the protest in Shanghai, verified by the Associated Press, chants against Xi, the most powerful leader since at least the 1980s, can be heard without equivocation. “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” While I know the Iranian women who are bravely protesting their own backward and male-dominated government are absolutely profiles in courage, I must place the courageous ones calling for a direct challenge to the ruling Chinese Communist Party on the same par.

History long shows that there comes a time when people just strike out at the nut that has long been in place and when the shell seems more brittle than once assumed there is an attempt by the eager people to make for a larger crack and then more and more until the shell is removed. I was one of those hopeful for a sea change with the Arab Spring in 2011 when a series of countries made an uplifting challenge to the ruling governments by calling for democracy as they envisioned it, human rights, and religious tolerance.  The fight is always uphill in such cases and the failure of Egypt’s short-lived experiment in democracy, for example, is a classic example.

Every nation has its own dynamics at play and there are no playbooks that guarantee any degree of success for such movements. Given China has a bloodthirsty desire for not only power but also revenge for those who cross it means that no one can pretend the current protests and tongue-lashing of Xi Jinping will have much short-term impact.

But that does not take away the feeling of some hope at the fringes with the simmering discontent in China at not only repressive state policy but an economy that is stagnating.  What is now happening does plant new seeds for continued rebellion in the near future.  That is the main worry for autocrats.  That is why they bluster so and turn to tanks and guns.  That is all they have and while that power is often overwhelming and the factor that prevails for the time being, there is one very important thing a bullet can not stop.

Once the yearning for freedom is tapped into and vented if only slightly, it does not then slink backward and stay dormant.  It continues in new ways and grows among more people.  It was reported today that protesters spoke out about the ‘must never talk about topic’ of the 1989 bloody and violent government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. Those protests decades ago are surely part of the energy and forerunners of what erupted today in cities across China. What follows is likely to be harsher crackdowns and repression for protestors as the Covid restrictions ease. But what concerns an autocrat late at night is the protestors who want a taste for more freedom of expression and concrete changes. And are willing to make their case even under a repressive regime. Tick, tock, tick……

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing my readers a Happy Thanksgiving! Caffeinated Politics returns following the holiday weekend.

Respect for Marriage Act Moving Towards Passage, Harsh Vitriol From Right-Wing Continues

Last week, when I heard on the radio leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had added their support for the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill enshrining protections for marriage equality, I said to myself ‘wwhhhaatt?’  I recall the strident opposition the Mormon Church had employed for years as gay Americans sought their civil rights in relation to marriage equality issues. I lamented on this blog how large donations from the church to anti-gay rights groups in various states were aiding in the placement of marriage amendments designed to further solidify the notion of ‘one, one woman’. But at the end of 2022 that once-hefty roadblock in Utah to social progress has relented and shortly after Thanksgiving Congress will codify marriage rights for gay couples.

I do not take such political moments lightly, or in any way assume that the blowback will not be vigorous or the outrageous comments less than numerous.  At age 60, I can vouch for the reason we work hard for our rights and know full well why hope is ever important in politics. I have praised forward-thinking pols who stood for the expansion of rights in the nation and have strongly rejected the harsh and vile rhetoric unleashed by those who wish to demonize gay people. Once again, I am heartened by champions who know the need to codify gay marriage rights, and also sad, given that this is 2022 that some in the right wing have not moved the needle whatsoever in their thinking.

It should be noted that this bill, which now heads to the Senate floor has been fashioned akin to the ones Congress could engineer with regularity before it became so constantly dysfunctional.  The bill contains plenty of exemptions for religious groups, making it the type of moderate compromise that allowed 12 Republican senators to move the measure forward with a procedural vote.  

Even with the buy-in from many senators within the GOP caucus I read the following comment about the bill and knew that for some in the nation accepting social progress has been slow and all uphill. “HR 8404 will force every state to honor and obey the insane marriage laws of any other state—even if that state allows pedophilic marriages.”

This type of outlandish bombast is not new. We can recall that in 2010 then-Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch made the stunning statement that extending domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples could lead to allowing people to marry tables and dogs.  That those words were a wildly inaccurate interpretation of the facts goes without saying.  She knew better than to say what she did.  She knew full well they were not grounded in reality.  I also know that in some parts of the country, and even in some areas of Wisconsin, rancid anti-gay slurs and outright bigotry are easily spewed. They continue to do so, in part, because of the reckless rhetoric that is used by some conservative politicians such as Senator Mike Lee of Utah, along with political activists.

Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center warned that the legislation “disrespects the religious liberties of millions of Americans who may face judicial assault if they refuse to oblige the left’s tyrannical narratives.” The Freedom Center’s Ryan Helfenbein retweeted its claim,adding, his own warning that “We are opening the door for massive religious persecution on a scale never seen before in America.”

Concerned Women for America called it an “attack” on people “who affirm Biblical morality when it comes to marriage and sexuality.”

Pundit Todd Starnes denounced the Republican senators who “just declared war on the church” by voting to allow the bill to move forward, and he claimed that the bill would “put a target on every Christian church in America.”

Even though we have been down this road many times it is concerning that the same worn-thin lingo and unreasonable fears and relentless attempts to undermine and demean gay Americans still have enough of a well of support to allow bandwidth for those who champion hate. I know the bill will pass and President Biden will sign it into law.  It will be a meaningful and needed move given the stated inclinations from the Supreme Court which were made known in the Dobbs decision and put into clear wording by Justice Clarence Thomas.

It is most clear that a continuous pressing forward by gay Americans will be required to further close the gap between the vast majority of the nation supporting gay rights, and that segment that seems determined to reject modernity.

Where Did President Lincoln Stand For Gettysburg Address?

Several years ago, during a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C., James and I took a bus tour to Gettysburg, the most iconic Civil War battlefield. I recall as a teenager reading about the high numbers of battlefield casualties in some of the fighting during the Civil War.  I recall my sensations upon learning for the first time about the piles of bodies at Gettysburg, reading journal entries from the townspeople about the stench and the burial trenches. Trying to process the enormity of the number of deaths is something that we all came to terms with during our history classes.

Over 50,000 Americans were killed in those massive battles that spanned for days on a plot of land in Pennsylvania. Over the decades the war, and the cause for it, have become better understood with many books and lectures.  When I had the opportunity to walk the battlefield and listen to a Civil War military expert speak of the efforts to secure a victory for the North the weight of the war from those days in 1863 when the heat of the sun and the smell of cannons along with the sound of muskets firing as men groaned in death came very much back to life.  It is impossible to stand on that ground and not feel it all.

James Wilson at Gettysburg

I had read long ago of the moldering bodies that still were present from the July battle when President Lincoln gave his address in November 19, 1863. (I write this post on the anniversary.) We passed the hotel where he stayed and saw the second-story window of the room where he finished his short speech. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.

While I have always loved history, my least favorite part of the past is the military engagements that occurred on the battlefield. How the people of the small town felt and reacted, or how the news of the battles was sent to Washington, and of course, the simple short, and exceedingly powerful message from President Lincoln afterward are the aspects of the story that most interested me. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.

Like everyone else that day as our tour bus moved about and made for stops the question most asked was exactly where did President Lincoln stand when he delivered the Gettysburg Address? The speech, which ran a mere 272 words, took about two minutes. It went so fast that the three photographers in attendance, “with their clunky wet-plate cameras, missed the moment entirely”.

The most famous of the photographs is attributed to David Bachrach, who was positioned in front of the speaker’s platform. Discovered in the 1950s by Josephine Cobb, an archivist at the National Archives, it remains the only undisputed image of Lincoln at Gettysburg — seemingly taking his seat on the platform hatless, his head bowed.

The photographers may have missed Lincoln’s speech, but sometimes they inadvertently captured one another, providing clues to their exact position. During a preview of his research, Oakley pulled up one of Gardner’s shots, zooming in on a window in the Evergreen gatehouse to point out a blurred figure and a box: the photographer Peter Weaver with his camera, he said.

Since the 19th century, scholars and armchair obsessives alike have pored over every aspect of the Gettysburg Address, from the meaning of its soaring rhetoric to the kind of paper Lincoln drafted it on.

Now, a researcher claims to have settled a question that can be seen, quite literally, as foundational: Where exactly did Lincoln stand?

Since the 1990s, visitors to Gettysburg National Cemetery have been told the hallowed spot actually lies just over an iron fence, in Evergreen Cemetery, the town’s burial ground. But Christopher Oakley, a former Disney animator turned Civil War sleuth, has combined intense analysis of 19th-century photographs with 21st-century 3-D modeling software to argue that Lincoln was standing inside the national cemetery after all.

To build his 3-D model, he entered a 3-D map made from geographic information system, or G.I.S., data and a Google satellite map into Maya, and then layered in the historical photographs. After years of trial and error, he said, when he toggled between each photograph and the corresponding camera positions in his model, everything finally lined up.

His research was unveiled on Friday at the Lincoln Forum, a gathering of some 300 scholars and enthusiasts who meet in Gettysburg each year, during the run-up to the official commemoration of Lincoln’s address on Nov. 19. As he clicked through his presentation, there were whispered “Wows,” capped with a standing ovation.

A diagram by Oakley, showing where the photographers who took four of the six known photographs of the cemetery dedication were standing. The indicate the positions for Peter Weaver (1 and 2), Alexander Gardner (3) and David Bachrach (4). Oakley’s placement of the platform is visible in the center.

The skillset and determination that Oakley has employed allow for countless history buffs to take another large step forward in better understanding a question that has long been the center of debate in academic circles. There have been more books written about Abe Lincoln than any other president, and something tells me this research and its conclusions will make for yet one more. As it should!

Gregory Humphrey and his favorite president.

An Uplifting American Story: Gay Immigrant Congressman

Rep.-elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), center, arrives at an orientation meeting Nov. 14, 2022, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Our political leaders should reflect the diversity of the nation. Our legislatures should be a mirror of the diversity of our people, and our growing ethnicity.  It is repugnant when there is open disdain for the inclusion of all within our elected class, or when rancor is churned up within the populace for the partisan aim of excluding the largest possible makeup within our legislative bodies.

This year with all the bombast and willfully created chaos in the midterm elections so as to ram through several seriously flawed Republican candidates, comes uplifting news from the other side of the political divide. Robert Garcia, the 44-year-old former Democratic mayor of Long Beach, California won his election to the House of Representatives.  That, in and of itself, would not be remarkable enough to garner a post on this site.  What makes him a real American story is that he is gay and came to these shores as an immigrant.

He came to this country at the age of 5 from Peru and will now sit in Congress.  This week I heard him speak in an interview and was most taken with this portion of the broadcast.

“Too many people think that patriotism is about individualism or about taking care of your family or this whole ‘America First’ mentality. What being a true American patriot is, is making your country a welcoming place.”

“There’s a lot of things I am: Yes, I’m gay. And, yes, I’ve been a mayor. But there’s nothing that makes me more me than being an immigrant. I’m very proud to be an immigrant, and that has defined me more than anything else in my life.”

It is most apparent that I love politics and the percolating issues of the day.  But I admit this election cycle to feeling very dismayed about the messaging from too many candidates who spoke against democracy and threatened to undermine future elections by enacting new laws and holding key offices in states that could undermine Electoral College procedures. I come from an understanding, using a rather extreme and perhaps odd example, where South Carolina’s Senator John Calhoun was terribly wrong about his theories of Black people in the 19th century, but he was a well-written and learned man about the formation of the nation and the ideas surrounding our national purpose. Contrast that with what passed for acceptable candidates within the GOP primary process this year, ones who were not only wholly wrong on the issues but dreadfully lacking in any fundamental education about the office they wished to be elected to or the basic constructs and ideals of our nation. So, yes, the election left me feeling rather uneasy about where we find ourselves in 2022.

And then, I learned of the election of Robert Garcia.

Against the grievance mindset which now makes up the GOP is this fresh and strong personality from Gracia with his sure-footed understanding of our nation, our purpose, and our ideals. I like the theme of optimism in our politics and gravitate towards that uplift. Give my sails a lift in the wind about inclusion and the greater good and the many months of anger and resentment from baffling candidates floats off and away. Our nation has always done better, much better with an array of Americans who know the real purpose and value of our nation. Travel bans and border walls are flawed concepts that are poison to the root story of our nation. This story of one man underscores why our nation needs to secure the future of young minds who arrive in our country, allowing them to become a legal part of our national fabric, and end the shameful antics of those who harbor bigotry.

The midterms did have a hopeful ending.

Thanks, Speaker Nancy Pelosi!

By the time I was a high school freshman Speaker Carl Albert was the first House leader I was aware of, but it would be Speaker Tip O’Neill who I simply adored. When it comes to where policy and political acumen hit the road at just the right speed and location, however, none was better in my lifetime than Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I reveled in her being a strong woman at a time when too many mostly white men thought it was still their time to always be in power. What rankled them even more, when it came to Pelosi, was that she was successful over and over and over again.

On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi told her colleagues she would be stepping down from the leadership of the House come January.

With Pelosi in a leadership role, Democrats challenged President George Bush over the invasion of Iraq and thwarted his plan to privatize Social Security. For me, the most powerful moment that will have a historical memory always associated with it was her skills and relentless attitude to win the approval of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. It will always be her supremely greatest legislative achievement. She helped steer the nation through a grave economic crisis in 2008 and this session racked up the much-needed climate change legislation. Pelosi proves what an educated purpose-driven life can achieve, and we are all the better for it.

Pelosi well-knew a key rule of politics is to never enter a battle without knowing the next possible hands to play. During Donald Trump’s one term in office, we soon realized that he was unaware of how to play the long game. He was a transactional personality, often referred to contemptuously as a ‘day-trader’, and not known to think strategically.  In January 2019, the federal government shutdown continued, the economy was suffering as a result, and the polls proved Trump along with the Republicans in congress were paying the price.

But Trump wished to head to Congress anyway and give his State of the Union Address.  Speaker Pelosi, citing the government shutdown, told Trump in so many words to either reschedule his upcoming address or to deliver it in writing to Congress.  Left unsaid was that he was not going to be allowed to stand before the nation from the House to spout lies about the shutdown. That was not happening on her watch.

In a pithy and perfect comment, Pelosi said, “He can make it from the Oval Office if he wants.” 

I will miss her strength and common sense. And what we know is most vital in politics.  Perfect timing.

Thanks, Speaker Pelosi.