UW-Madison Professor Places Gun Culture Roots In Post-Civil War South

The first thing I ever wrote to be published was a Letter to the Editor of my county newspaper lamenting the lack of gun control. I was a high school teenager who found it hard to fathom the stunning number of handgun deaths in the nation.  Several decades later and the search for an understanding of our gun culture continues to vex me.  I still am not able to square the tens of thousands of lives killed each year due to guns with a legislative process impotent to enacting meaningful corrective measures.  

How the culture for gun madness was born and how it took root in such a powerful way has intrigued me since I used a Smith Corona to type (or was that pecking) my letter to the Waushara Argus. On Sunday, an insightful and thought-provoking article from Nick Buttrick, assistant professor of psychology at UW-Madison, was published in the Wisconsin State Journal which demonstrates from a data-loaded historical perspective how and where our national gun culture took birth.

The South was a very dangerous place after the war. More than half a million men, with their weapons, returned to what rapidly became one of the most heavily armed societies in the world, and one of the most violent: The murder rate in the South during the 1870s was an estimated 18 times higher than in New England — largely driven by white men killing each other.

Elite white Southerners considered the empowerment of the previously enslaved population an existential threat and worked to repress Black political power as completely as possible.

As part of that project, white Southern leaders explicitly anchored the protection of their way of life in the private ownership of firearms, arguing that guns protected white people from an illegitimate government unwilling to keep them safe. The huge supply of firearms from the war made this argument salient.

Using data from the 1860 census, nationally representative survey data from more than 3.5 million Americans, and records of every death in the U.S. from 1996 to 2016, we found that the higher the rate of enslavement in a county in 1860 — i.e., where nascent Black political power was more threatening to post-Civil War white elites — the higher the rate of gun ownership today.

In other words, counties with a historical prevalence of slavery had both the most guns and the tightest link between guns and feelings of safety. These are the places where contemporary American gun culture took root.

Mass shootings and obituaries from gun violence are now part of the fabric of daily life in this country. While it is important to place our current dilemma into a historical construct the lay of the land does not allow one to think it leads toward an enlightened and credible congressional majority that works in concert with needed gun control measures.

There was no way as a teenager to imagine that mass murder from high-powered military-type rifles of the kind used in Las Vegas when 58 people were killed could ever occur. When I sat at our family kitchen table and typed out the newspaper letter it would have been hard for me to believe that, Telemachus Orfanos, a man who escaped with his life from that mass shooting would die in another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. The fact that a person can find themselves in the midst of two separate mass shootings in America underscores where the gun culture born in the South has placed our nation.

UW-Madison Protestors Missed Chance For Critical Conversation, Matt Walsh Got What He Wanted

Here we go again. A person who desires to create controversy is paid to stir up a university campus, and a small segment of the student body creates headlines in a weak attempt to prove some ‘enlightened’ point. This storyline is getting very, very stale.

Every time there is a ‘fire-eater’ invited to a university campus there is another round of discussions about either the value of hearing ‘the other side’ or why shutting down ‘hate-speech’ is a necessity.  This week attention is being given to UW-Madison where a conservative campus group thought it important to pay for a bully against transgender people to speak and also show his documentary. Call me old-fashioned or just way out of step, but bringing Matt Walsh, who only wishes to needlessly provoke and alienate, seems like a waste of money when a conservative scholar might have been invited that would have afforded truly engaging conversation. I find it difficult to explain why college campus groups would not invest in truly weighty thinkers, a modern-day version of William F. Buckley Jr. I desire this from both sides of the divide and then let the issues and dialogue flow.

As I surveyed the news reports from the UW campus today it was not the first time I knew there are many students and others in the community who want diverse thought presented in an adult fashion. That is not, however, what the university or this city is experiencing today. I know I am over-simplifying matters by putting Walsh, an extremist and self-promoting individual, at one end and the erudite world of the Buckley types at the other.  But as one who does enjoy listening to speakers at UW-Madison I am not pulled in by the ‘hair on fire’ types but instead find the words from the likes of George McGovern or Robert Novak to have real appeal.  (I was most fortunate to walk with the slow-moving Novak due to his recovering from a hip operation down the length of Memorial Union and ask about how he actually wrote columns–he told me he wrote them in one sitting–akin to one take if it were a movie production.) 

What I found troubling about the local chapter of Young America’s Foundation is that while they speak loudly about ‘free speech’ what they really desire is the dissemination of harmful lies and bogus arguments that would not stand up in a robust give-and-take dialogue of ideas. I was reminded today that this grand freedom we all have of speaking freely comes with the responsibility to speak responsibly.

Free speech also allows for the ones who might be offended to counter with even better speech. That seems to have been totally lost on the ones who seemed to buy spray paint by the gross and then harm numerous places on the campus. It was more than sad to see, it was simply pathetic. Those many years ago after Novak finished with his remarks the floor was opened in the Great Hall to questions. He faced some tough attacks and verbal volleys as he sparred with students about the role of journalism and preemptive wars. Those occasions on campus when robust and sharply divided views can be talked about and debated are what truly constitute part of the educational experience.

Instead of engaging with the buffoonish Walsh in a lively debate inside the Hall about his absurd views, protesters to his appearance gave a low-brow performance on the public square with a mindless tantrum of graffiti—the very type of outlandish behavior the YAF were hoping their dollars would buy. As Monday comes to a close Walsh won this day as he wanted exposure and an angry reaction. Meanwhile, the art of dialogue and conversation, something a university should excel at, took a loss.

Tommy Thompson Would Have Been Formidable Candidate For Governor

One of the constant refrains I have heard from people who teach or work at UW-Madison is how Tommy Thompson rose to the occasion as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System. The former governor cemented himself as a reasoned statesman for the higher educational ideals of our state.

When liberals in Madison are praising Tommy Thompson it proves not only the continuing legacy of this man but something deeper about politics and governing. We desire competence and gravitas from our leaders. When people watched Thompson do his work with clarity of purpose and determination during tough and challenging times, while a pandemic raged, they paid attention. They also applauded.

Thompson made an announcement Monday that his four terms as governor, starting in the 1980s, will not be extended by another four years. There are surely varied reactions to the news as some in the Republican Party would prefer to see a powerful and robust candidate take the state into the fall election. At the same time, Democrats are pleased that Governor Tony Evers will only need to deal with the current lineup of GOP candidates who have yet to find an energized pace.

For politicos, however, the loss of Thompson as a candidate has deprived this battleground state of what would have been a grand election experience.

There is something that changes when Thompson enters a room or takes to a stage. One does not need to be a Republican to feel that charge in the air, as no one can doubt a sense of pride when the former governor speaks inspirationally about the state, our workers, and the future.

And then there is the handshaking campaign style of Thompson who seemingly never forgets a name or the son or daughter who is taking classes at Stevens Point or Eau Claire. He is the consummate campaigner.

Thompson made a tremendous impression on me in 1987, one that encompasses his abilities and personality.

An employee of the famed Door County eatery,  Al Johnson’s Restaurant (with goats on the roof!), fell ill with hepatitis contracted during a vacation.  The establishment closed down for an extended period of time, and when reopening called in none other than Thompson to create the needed favorable headlines.

A number of elected officials were standing in line along with local citizens galore, waiting for the Governor to arrive.  When Thompson’s car arrived and he set foot on the ground his smile and outstretched hand never stopped.  He greeted people by first names, and if he did not know it he still bantered like they had been college buddies.  His one hand rested on a shoulder as he pumped a handshake and looked into a person’s eyes, as opposed to the too-often ‘political scan’ over the shoulder to see what else is happening.  He was truly present with the folks in that restaurant.  That morning has never been forgotten for how the art of politics can look and feel.

I regret Thompson’s decision not to run as he is perhaps the only one in our state who has that larger trust from a wide segment of the state. If anyone has bi-partisan regard from the electorate it is Thompson. Yes, Thompson is a solid conservative, but he also has proven to operate above deeply partisan rancor and tribalism of the worst kind.

There are few Wisconsin personalities that match his dynamism or scope of service.  He is a Republican, through and through, but has that essential quality of honesty and fair-play that allows him to have true friends from the entire political spectrum. And that counts in politics!

As such, Thompson would have been a formidable candidate for Wisconsin governor.

And so it goes.

UW-Madison vs. Michigan Basketball Brawl Was Over A MERE Game!

This weekend many people were often checking the news headlines to find out the latest information regarding the massive Russian build-up on three sides of Ukraine. Had the rhetoric ratcheted up to tanks rolling and missiles being launched? Had Putin unleashed a European War? There are really large international consequences to the outlandish military campaign Putin is envisioning.

So when many Wisconsin residents tuned in to their local Sunday evening news broadcasts to discover the fate of the world they were doubtless taken aback to find the top story was not from Kyiv, but from UW-Madison’s Kohl Center.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard appeared to throw a punch after arguing with Wisconsin coach Greg Gard during the postgame handshake line following the Badgers’ 77-63 victory. Howard appeared to take that swing at Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft. Then it was like a hockey game broke out with players from each side getting involved in the shouting and shoving.

Now, let me be very honest. I do not care a whit about the last minute of play in the game, or the time out, or even, frankly the final score. None of that matters to the content of this post.

Juwan Howard told reporters he did not like being touched by Gard. Meanwhile, Gard told the press he was trying to explain the reasoning for decisions he made in the game.

But I strongly suspect a large portion of the television audience was saying to all involved, ‘Grow the hell up!’

There are real people who are packing up belongings in case they need to flee from Ukraine. There are many who know that should Russia invade the loss of life will be high in Kyiv. There are many who have loved ones in that country and worry about them from homes around the globe.

Meanwhile, at the Kohl Center, two teams had the chance to play a game, while thousands watched the players go back and forth between baskets. The most anyone had to contend with was to wonder what they might eat for dinner after the final buzzer.

Then after playing the game the coaches and players had to fight about it!? Really?

We like to talk about the role of sports and how it supposedly engenders good sportsmanship. We all pay a lot of money with taxes so sports and the benefits from the games can make an impact on people.

In high school sports, I recall that it was often stressed the behavior of the coaches set the tone for parents who would be at times highly vocal in the bleachers. We know from little league through college sports that young athletes need to be able to look at their coaches and witness behavior that will fit with the vision we have for sports participants. Anger and shouting and the throwing of a punch are just totally and completely unacceptable.

If this brutish behavior today is the result of a MERE basketball game among college coaches and athletes what message does that send for how differences are to be resolved on the inner-city streets when young people confront challenges with other people?

Or for a large nation like Russia?

Once again, there needs to be a stern message sent SOON so that neither basketball team can miss the point.

Grow The Hell Up.

And so it goes.

Wisconsin Can Be Proud Of UW System President Tommy Thompson

All across Wisconsin, one thing can be said with a high degree of certainty. Parents of kids attending state universities, professors and staff at the state schools, and communities who are proud to be home to these centers of higher education are all cheering UW System President Tommy Thompson.

And I suspect cheering loudly, too.

The reason is that Thompson directly challenged the Republican leaders in the state legislature who insist they must have control on COVID-19 policies within the UW System. The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted earlier this month in favor of a requirement that the System submit any plans for COVID-19 policies to the committee as emergency rules within 30 days. Failing that the System would need to drop mandates for any such measures.

Over the decades we have watched, again and again, how unsuccessful it has been to force Thompson to take actions contrary to common sense. Such was the case Tuesday when the former Wisconsin Governor and former Secretary of Health and Human Services rebuked the legislative leaders, informing them university leaders don’t need legislative approval to manage the schools.

Left unstated, at least out loud, was “Case closed.”

The reason for the cheering from Sturgeon Bay to Cassville is that people understand the severity of the fourth wave of the pandemic and the woefully inadequate and anemic response from the Republican-controlled legislature. After having watched like everyone else in the state how the pandemic has run wild and now morphed into a deadly variant, Thompson is not about to allow those who are partly to blame for the current situation to have full control over the System’s plans.

When the counter-punch from the legislature was delivered Tuesday by State Senator Steve Nass, who threatened a lawsuit, Thompson was ready to stand his ground on behalf of those he has dedicated himself to fight for.

“I’m not going to be intimidated. Even though I don’t want to pick a fight with the Legislature, I’m going to stand my ground.”

The applause one hears for Thompson this week is not new when it comes to his position.

When Thompson was named the UW System’s interim president there was statewide applause, from all points of the political compass, and all sectors of the state economy.  There was not only optimism about his selection but a deep conviction that Wisconsin’s senior statesman was the person with the skills and steady hands that could guide the UW-System through very challenging times.

From budget fights to the crushing pandemic Thompson reminds us that he is not behind his desk just to make a cameo appearance every now and then. He is invested in the fights so to make our university system stronger and smarter. And with his actions this week he is ensuring that the importance of higher education does not get mired down in the political theater of the anti-mask and mandate crowd who love to create smoke and rhetoric at the statehouse.

Thompson is again proving to be the right person, for the right job, at the right time.

And so it goes.

John Dean Recalled Gordon Liddy During UW-Madison Law School Speech

G Gordon Liddy in 1977 after his release from prison: he had served four years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping CREDIT: FRED R CONRAD/NYTNS/REDUX/EYEVINE

As a Richard Nixon history buff, I would be remiss if not commenting about the death of G. Gordon Liddy. It was, after all, his character, or lack thereof, which dealt one of the harshest blows to the Nixon White House. He masterminded dirty tricks and created the upside-down burglary in the Watergate complex. Others were also more than complicit in a series of crimes and attempts to undermine the law, but Liddy holds a special place for being ruthless. I have always questioned if he had a moral anchor. He seemed to relish in the wildly absurd, without a care about the institutions of the nation that were being damaged.

As my mind flashed back over the decades of Nixon, Watergate, and the newly departed I landed on a memory from 2013. John Dean—yes, that one–spoke at the UW-Madison Law School. I attended and was really pleased to have first-hand proximity to a central figure from a chapter of history that simply enthralls me. He was White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973 and would be found guilty of a single felony of obstructing justice.

John Dean October 2013 at UW Madison Law School Credit: Gregory Humphrey

As John Dean started his presentation late that afternoon the lady introducing him had a typical-sized microphone that she was to hand over for his use.  Dean grinned, and said he had one attached to his jacket, and “my voice seems to be able to be picked up by small microphones.”

That set the tone for the time he was on stage. By being smart, agile with words, and comfortable in his own skin Dean held everyone’s attention.

Recounting Watergate to an audience that was largely older and informed made for some of the events in the mid-1970s seem almost a comedy routine.  If it all had not been so serious it might have made for a slap-stick movie.

Using a power-point style of presentation Dean showed a picture of the desk in the Watergate complex.  It was when he said this was the sight where the burglars were crouched while wearing suits and plastic gloves that made the audience break into laughter.  The fact they had large amounts of cash on them, and tell-tale signs that led them to people who worked in, or were connected with the White House, made it seem even more illogical.  No matter how many times the story is told it still seems utterly absurd.

No one could hold back, however, when Gordon Liddy was referred to by Dean as someone “not up to the Maxwell Smart test.”   

Dean concluded his remarks on a tougher and more biting topic. It was the fact that at least 21 lawyers were on the wrong side of the law in the Nixon Watergate mess that should be a prime lesson recalled about that entire episode. The reason for the high numbers of otherwise smart men being pulled so far astray, Dean noted, came down to incompetence, the arrogance of the law, and too much loyalty to President Nixon

Liddy was one of those lawyers.

I do wish to leave this post on a lighter note about Liddy. Wednesday morning on NPR someone quipped a person has to be over 60 to recall Liddy as the mastermind of the Watergate break-in, let alone that he held his hand over a flame. So the last memory from Liddy is that be made some of us feel old(er)!

Power Of UW-Madison Vote In Dane County For Biden Makes National News

Dane County can break a Republican campaign if voters are determined and motivated to make a difference. That is precisely what happened in November when a concerted effort was made to get as many Democratic voters to the polls as possible. With phone calls and over-the-fence conversations, from social media to the woman who drove up and down our neighborhood with a bubble machine pumping forth fun while urging voters to get out and cast a ballot–it all added up.

Wow, how it added up.

But it was the young voters at the UW-Madison, like other counties in Michigan and Pennsylvania with a powerful higher-education beacon, that allowed for swing states to line up for Joe Biden. Today The Wall Street Journal called attention to the power of these voters, noting that when compared to 2016 this demographic came out in higher numbers. It would have been hard not to show up this year given the bizarre and dangerous behavior that has been constantly exhibited by Donald Trump. As the newspaper reported young voters backed Biden nationally by 61% to 36%, according to AP Votecast.

College towns opened up the win for Biden in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Younger voters were energized by the year’s dialogue over racism and police practices. The slurs used by Trump about this transformative time in the nation did not fall on receptive ears in college cities. In fact, it propelled them further to the Democratic ticket. When Trump used scare tactics in the campaign to foster more resentments among older white voters, college students knew they had to cast a ballot for a more reasoned approach to our future dealings with racism.

It needs to be noted in Dane County the number of additional votes for this year’s Democratic ticket was higher, when compared with 2016, that it resulted in a higher number than the margin of victory Biden had over Trump in the whole state.

Dane County delivered! UW-Madison proved even in a tough school year they know our country comes before pretending that the work of the citizenry can be carried by others. When Dane County wishes to, we can send Republicans packing their bags!

In the case of Donald Trump, his diaper bag.

And so it goes.

Deep Concerns About COVID Spread During UW-Madison Football Weekends

The front page of Friday’s Wisconsin State Journal underscores the angst and concern that is building within Madison about the potential spread of COVID-19 once university football games begin in October. The growing list of public voices being registered about the real likelihood of additional caseloads in our city and across Dane County resulting from parties and football gatherings is suspected to increase in volume. As it should, given the consequences to our public health. At the same time we need to be honest about the lessons the football players need to learn about this moment in time.

Two city council members registered their dismay along with questions about the proposed games, and in so doing have made it clear this needed discussion and will continue.

District 5 Alder Shiva Bidar and I have raised questions about Badger home football games and the potential impact on nearby neighborhoods. These questions are being posed to UW-Madison and the Chancellor’s office, as well as to Public Health and the Mayor’s office. We want to know if fans will be allowed to attend and how many home games would be played.  We are concerned about possible beer gardens and tailgating, the congregate activity that could occur along Regent and Breese, and the blow

The new cases that are being reported across the state are reaching the highest levels yet, and the reason for this stems from the caseloads being reported at college campuses. UW-Madison has a growing problem which even required quarantining two dorm buildings, and yet the administration voted to start football in late October. Just at the time, it needs to be noted when health professionals are concerned with not only COVID-19 but also when the flu season will start to tick upwards. As was noted in an editorial cartoon within today’s paper, sadly, that makes for the perfect storm.

Former Madison city Council member Brenda Konkle has been steadfast in her reporting and amassing of data to show the pitfalls that Dane County is experiencing in combatting the virus. She placed the following graphic on her page this week. No one can be pleased with the steep direction of the caseloads.

It is most disheartening to ponder how the football program at UW-Madison cannot comprehend the moment in which the state now finds itself. Everybody is doing less than they did a year ago, staying at home more than they wish, and restricting themselves not only for their own health but for the greater good. I find it hard to imagine how the coaches and administrators of the sports program cannot instill within those fine young men who we hear so much about the need at times to act for the greater good. That needs to be the priority. It is that lesson that would be much more important for these student athletes to now learn as they move forward with their adult life.

Make no mistake that city and county officials have every right to demand accountability from the university. They also have a right to demand that those who wish to participate in game day activities do so in a restrained, manageable, and public health oriented manner. If they cannot abide they must be ticketed. The gravity of the situation is too great to allow for the greed from those who wish to pursue football games to endanger us all.