Sunday, June 26, 2016

The summer before everything changed

     The presidents were not all men of greatness. The briefest stroll through the Smithsonian National Museum of American History;s exhibit on the presidents confirms that. There was dim party tool Warren G. Harding and crony catspaw Ulysses S. Grant. The feckless and imbecilic James Buchanan and the tragically twisted Richard Nixon. 
    You couldn't be blamed for thinking, "Donald Trump will fit right in with these clowns." 
    But I didn't think that. Instead I focused on the pillars of greatness: George Washington offering his resignation when he could have been king (told that Washington was returning to private life, George III quipped, "If he does that, sir, he will be the greatest man in the world.") Abraham Lincoln holding the nation together with his honesty and his Biblical eloquence. 
     Britain pulled out of the European Union my first morning here. The news filled with the spectacle of a nation submitting to xenophobia and fear, leaping off a cliff at the behest of mavericks who had no plan other than to trash the system and see what happens next.
    And I couldn't help but feel: we're next. It's in the air, madness. Like before a war. "The lights are going out, all over Europe." 
     It was scary to walk through these wide federal plazas, with their gleaming beige stone buildings, and think, "This is the Department of Commerce that Donald Trump will be responsible for. This is the White House where he will live." 
      With the bad news from Britain, as the country, in an act of collective derangement it instantly regretted, voted to be a smaller, more cut off and less prosperous nation, it was easy to think we had now entered a world gone mad, that the populist rage that has for so long simmered under our politics had truly exploded. Angry people don't weigh their best interest. They knock over lamps.
     Brexit is strike two -- strike one was the Philippines electing that murderous madman, Dutarte. Will Trump be strike three? Intelligence is out of favor. Sacrifice is out of favor. Trump's jaunt to inspect his property, his crowing that the collapse of the pound will help drive tourists to him, would look exaggerated in the Onion. I would have thought that such a performance would send Trump's fans away, shaking their heads. No, they love him even more, for being so self-centered, just like they would love to be, if only they had selves.
     That sounds alarmist, maybe even hysterical, and probably is. I hope it is. But the vendors are selling Trump t-shirts on the mall. A Trump sign is on display at the Smithsonian already. Vanguards of his arrival, perhaps, and reminders that he is already here, now, running somewhere. Donald Trump is a factor of history now. Even if he is—please God—defeated, he still ran.  No so deep a shame, really. Nobody walked around mourning that Barry Goldwater ran as the Republican nominee in 1964.
    But it could be worse. Maybe will be worse. Definitely could be. 
    The British leaving the European Union shows that people will act contrary to their self interest if you poke at their fears. The prospect of having some Turks move in down the street was enough to make regions opt out of something that was giving them economic benefit now, and they are only now realizing it, in what has to be the worst hangover ever. 
    The Washington Post ran this tragic paragraph Saturday:
     Polling showed the areas that had the most to lose and the least to gain from the Brexit are precisely those where the referendum saw the most support. In other words, the places — the most export-heavy regions —most hurt by the economic disruptions caused by Brexit could be the places that pushed hardest for it...
     The people who will be hurt most by Donald Trump — the uneducated, the poor — are those who most want him to wave his witchdoctor's wand over their problems and make them go away. Like those who got health insurance through Obamacare and still hate Obama, their passions and fears overwhelming everything else.
     This is probably the last time I'll be in DC before the election. And I don't want to give the impression that I stumbled through the place in an agony of dread over Donald Trump. I had fun, as I always do. But those Trump t-shirts, and the enormous "TRUMP" sign outside the old Post Office, being developed into yet another one of his properties, no doubt using someone else's money. They seemed like warnings. The smart money says he'll give us all a good scare and then go away, leaving us sadder and wiser. But then, the smart money also said that Europe would stay in the European Union.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Regular readers have probably figured out that I'm out-of-town. And while it once would have struck me as unfair to use a photo from outside the Chicago metro area, given the 100 percent success rate of readers solving the Saturday Fun Activity, not matter how opaque the image, nothing strikes me was unfair at this point.
     So where did I spot this young man—Ray Mills, of Washington, D.C.—in such an appropriately Rodin-esque pose? Place your guesses below. The winner receives my not-artistic-itself-but-trying 2015 blog poster. Good luck. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Exit 9

     I could not get a photograph of the highway signs in Indiana. Which is too bad. Because while I can describe them, no words can capture the mournful feeling, almost a shock, of seeing these worn blue signs, half the letters fallen away, saying, you finally figure out, "EXIT 9." 
     I'll try to get pictures on the way back.
     Yes, we've heard the cliche "crumbling infrastructure" for years. Yes, Indiana is a little slice of the Southland right here in the Midwest. Yes, they privatized their tollway in 2006, selling it to a company that promptly went bankrupt. 
    Still, to see the decaying signs. Seeing an illegible highway sign in America—it's unnerving, like passing Elkhart and noticing an exit for Kinshasa. 
    It shouldn't be like this. Not here. The weeds growing taller than the guardrails. The hastily patched roads. The shift to Ohio was dramatic—thank you fracking.
      I think all Americans can agree we want to have good roads. Without them, we can't get around, can't do business, and can't look at ourselves in the mirror. Even Donald Trump spoke of the importance of fixing our roads and bridges Tuesday—though in typical fashion, got the solution wrong, our only hope for improvement, he claimed, being to elect him and "only" him.
    Trump even running is a sign that America has gone into the ditch. That "Exit 9" sign is another. I'll never forget the surprise, the puzzled disappointment. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dunk Tank

     Mark Twain said many clever things. So there is a tendency for the public to assign anything witty and not already identified with another author to Twain. Kurt Vonnegut gets the same treatment.
     With that in mind, I don't know if my former city editor, Don Hayner, actually said everything I credit to him, or just enough that I began connecting sharp lines to him, because I worked for Don longer than any other city editor in my nearly 30 years at the Chicago Sun-Times.
     He certainly gave the always useful advice, "Don't let him live in your head, rent-free," referring to one of my more odious colleagues. It doesn't always drive out whatever jerk is currently squatting in the back of the brain, snarling. But it helps nudge him toward the exit.
    And I'm fairly certain it was Don who explained the notion of the columnist as Dunk Tank Clown. We've all seen Dunk Tank Clowns, at county fairs and church picnics. A bum in crude face paint, sitting on a collapsible bench, usually smoking a cigarette, hectoring the passersby, goading them into investing a dollar or two or five for three bean bags or softballs to hurl toward a ring target—hit the target, the clown goes in the water.
     I admit, I do not often envision myself that way. Reality is a confusing whir and I'm trying to organize it, explain things, and bring readers places they didn't know were there. I try to run a classy shop. 
     But the Dunk Tank Clown aspect of my job is always lurking. You catcall the mob, they gather and put their money down, grumbling. A lanky lad winds up and throw. He misses, usually, you cackle. "Is that the best you can do?"
     Now and then, though, you end up in the tank, dropped into cold water. Such as when Friday's column on trying to buy a semi-automatic rifle ricochetted around the sphere of gun lovers, then echoed off into the reality distortion field of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. 
     Splash! Hundreds of emails and tweets. Maybe thousands, I lost count. All saying the same thing, more or less. I don't know why it was stressful: these people don't know me, don't have the facts. 
    But it was. Every single message reflected the Slasher Movie ethic that grips much of our country—identify a bad guy then go after the fiend with all the savagery you are supposedly condemning him for in the first place. And I understand that my critical view of guns in American removed me from the realm of humanity in their eyes and made me fair game. I brought this on myself, offered myself as someone they could gleefully abuse.  
     I won't quote any of it.  But I will observe that, if one person had a Christian thought that this supposed drunk and wife beater was also a human being who's been through difficulties and worked to redeem himself and thus, despite taking a dim view of high powered weaponry, might be deserving of some small sympathy, I missed it. Not a word. 
    That was not the worst part. As familiar as I am with the bottomless dishonesty of the right wing press, to see it in action was stunning. Rush Limbaugh's report was a babbling conflation of me and—wait for it—Kim Kardashian. He imagined that my boss forced me run the story -- the facts are exactly opposite. My editor suggested that I spike it, to spare myself. Smart guy. I would have listened, if I thought this avalanche would come down on me. But I'm a small potato, in a Midwestern field, with my familiar audience around me. I write for them. It never occurred to me I would be giving comfort and pleasure to the nation's bitter right wing, that I would give them reason to glory in themselves, damn me, and be more secure in their error. I could have crafted my argument better, to use what happened to open the question of who should buy guns. Instead I went for easy pyrotechnics. Maxon's reasons were so grossly unfair, in my view, dredging up this decade-old stuff, I eagerly put my arm into the cage. I never thought Fox Nation would take up the cause with a howl and claw at me.
     Fox molding this into a neat little tale, looking inside my brain and deciding I wanted to show how "easy" it was to buy a gun. Every conservative report echoes that word. Easy. The truth is just the opposite. Since a Philadelphia paper had bought a gun in seven minutes, there was no point in breaking that record. I told my boss we'd see what transpired, and made him promise that, if nothing worthwhile occurred, we'd swallow the money spent and run nothing. But it was indeed interesting. Illinois has a 24-hour waiting period for rifles, 72 for handguns. That seemed responsible. I signed up for a gun instructor. I went to Maxon because I had gone there before, three times, renting guns and shooting. I had written positively about Maxon. My central worry, as mentioned in the story, was that I would end up writing a valentine to guns in the wake of tragedy. I spoke with the clerk for an hour. This was no sting. If I was trying to scam a gun shop, I could have just left when they recognized me as a columnist, gone somewhere else, and bought my gun, as I can do perfectly legally — a fact lost in all this. A gun store can deny you for any reason, so yes, they can deny me for the reasons they stated. But nothing in my record requires I not be sold a gun.  I have a valid Firearm Owner's Identification Card. I have no convictions, no criminal background at all, no arrest record. The slurs the gun shop used were lifted off the Internet, including, in that note of horror that makes the nightmare complete, a quote from Carol Moseley Braun, who called me a drunk and  a wife beater on television in 2011 when I dared suggest in print that she would not defeat Rahm Emanuel.  
     The nuances of the story—a completely honest story that I stand by—were lost. If I could change anything, I would have recast that last graph, written after Maxon told the paper I was a danger to the community, after offering to let me rent the gun and shoot at their range instead of buying it. I shouldn't have snapped at their bait. 
     I'll be honest. As this enters into its ... geez ... ninth day, including researching the piece, it does grind me down. It's dispiriting, debilitating. I can feel it in my jaw, in my sternum. A misery, not about myself, though there is that, but for how my true self is distorted in the funhouse mirror of these hateful people, to see the jeering contempt in their eyes, licking their chops, delighted at their full permission to sink their teeth into this pathetic libtard. Me, apparently. 
    No, not me. That's just the straw man they've cobbled together with trash plucked from Fox News. I've got the real me right here. There's a beauty in knowing who you are. I'm proud of myself; my wife of 25 years is proud of me, every day, my family is proud of me, and actual people in my actual life tolerate me, more or less. I think it's far better to be a recovering alcoholic with an incident of domestic violence in my past than be some troll hanging around the internet, searching for stragglers from the herd. Half the time, when I looked at their IDs to see who was writing this stuff, they were some Aryan Nation sort bemoaning the brown faces they see at Walmart as a White Genocide. Of course they're aquiver to find someone lower than themselves.  
      Enough of this. I'm taking a few days off, not as a result of this tempest, but a trip planned weeks ago. I'll be back early next week. As with everything I write, this was educational. I continue to try to have sympathy, even for the terrible people who wrote to me so unkindly. I'll still shoot guns, now and then, because it's fun, but I will also still promote a more sensible gun policy than the insanity we have now.
     Okay. I'll go back to being as curmudgeonly as I pretend to be. Sometimes the cowboy hits the bullseye and you go into the water tank, and there's nothing to do but climb carefully out, maintaining whatever dripping dignity you can, settle your ass on the bench, find a dry cigarette and start the heckling anew.
     Hey, Reichmarshal! Don't you know when you've got "White Power" on your Twitter ID, it sort of takes the sting out of your comments? Here's an idea: if you actually accomplished something with your life, maybe you could be proud of it, instead of having to be proud of being white. You were BORN white, remember? It's not like you had to work hard to get it....

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Plan the peace before the war

     This week the hollowness of the Donald Trump campaign came into focus. His effort lacks organization, staff and is wildly underfunded — $1.3 million, 1/30th of Hillary Clinton’s war chest — a result of traditional Republican donors shrinking away in revulsion.
     The Cleveland convention remains a looming disaster, an epic train wreck unfolding in slow motion as Republican stalwarts flee for their political lives.
     Trump’s promise to build a wall and make the Mexican government pay rings increasingly hollow. Maybe Trump can get Mexico to fund his campaign instead.
     No glibness. Trump’s dismay is nothing to celebrate.
     First, the prospect of a Trump presidency is so disastrous — think of him as climate change in a toupe — there can be no assumption of victory, no pulling up short of the finish line. The prospect is as serious as death, the death of America that patriots love, the land of freedom for everybody. If you still sigh for Bernie Sanders, get over it, support Hillary Clinton, and you can go back to dreaming of the New Eden come Thanksgiving.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

When in doubt, dig out the Whitman

      There's a lot of crazy in the world, and from time to time, the on-line world funnels a few quarts of it in your direction. Imagine every junior high school bully who ever lived, packed into one scrabbling sulfurous snake pit in hell, all snarling with one voice.
      The experience was a little ... dispiriting. That's the word.  Not just to see hundreds of trolls prancing about, waving my old dirty laundry over their heads, convinced their worldview is proven, which would be the outcome no matter what I wrote. 
     But to think about what they represent. Something deeply sad about America, about its current moment of paranoia, fear and self-hatred. Shake it off. We should never be sad about America, what Abraham Lincoln called "the last, best hope of earth." 
     So I turn to the nation's supreme poet, Walt Whitman, as a boost. Uncle Walt never disappoints. I pulled down "Leaves of Grass" and was immediately rewarded: "We are not merely a nation, but a nation of nations." He knew that in 1855. The Republicans still haven't figured that out, to their sorrow. Looking to share something more substantial, I poked around Nexis and found this old column, ironically prompted a decade ago by a different terrorist.  It was from when the column was run as a series of small items. I can't remember who the pal was in the second bit.


     "I want to kill Americans," said Zacarias Moussaoui, "I believe every American wants to kill me."
     "I loaf and invite my soul," wrote Walt Whitman, "I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."
     It would never occur to me to juxtapose the would-be Muslim terrorist and the 19th century American poet, except they share one unexpected common aspect: Moussaoui is identified in press reports as "the 37-year-old al-Qaida conspirator." And Whitman refers to himself, in "Song of Myself," as "thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin/Hoping to cease not til death."
     So two men, both 37, separated by a century and a half of time and an enormity of culture. One an American, drunk on life, wandering the docks and alleys, his heart athrob with goodwill and not a little lust for his fellow man, savoring the sweat of work, the warmth of the sun.
     "Clear and sweet is my soul," he writes. "And clear and sweet is all that is not my soul."
     The other -- and let's all say this together out loud, shall we? -- is a native FRENCHMAN, born in FRANCE, of Moroccan parents. Twisted into a knot of hate, contemptuous of this great nation and its people, facing a quick death strapped to a gurney, or a slow death in a tiny metal room.
     "We want to inflict pain on your country," said Moussaoui.
     I hope you read Moussaoui's comments carefully, as I did. Because to see the lunatic hatred of Moussaoui and to compare it to the expansive humanity of Whitman, the poet of the American soul, is to be reassured.
     Yes, the future is uncertain. There will be dark days -- the armies of Moussaouis still out there will see to that.
     But the spirit of freedom that was rattling around Walt Whitman's head in 1855 has spread across the globe, toppling dictatorships, striking fear in the hearts of repressive parodies of faith.
     We are winning -- in fact, have already won. That's why they hate us so much, though the hate -- as hate inevitably does -- only pulls them down faster.


     Did the word "juxtapose" in the above upset you? Did it cause you to turn the page (it did? But you're still here!) Did you know the meaning? Or take a guess? Did you look it up in a dictionary?
     It's a good word -- it means "to place close together for contrasting effect." I didn't use it to show off, but because it seemed the right word. Nexis says it was used 114 times by U.S. newspapers in the past month. So I'm not alone.
     I say this because you can't imagine the crap I get for using big words ("crap" -- now there's a good short Middle English word for you).
     The common wisdom is that this is a newspaper, where the average reading level is about 12 years old, and thus nothing complex or difficult should be offered. Put the slop where the pigs can get at it.
     I reject that. I think you're smarter than that. I've been fighting this battle for years. I still remember our beloved, regal city editor, Dick Mitchell, rising up from his desk, pointing at me across the newsroom, and shouting, "Polygonic? Polygonic Steinberg!?!" Then a shivering shake of the head and shoulders, as if disgusted to his core. "Nooooooo!"
     Just today, I was walking with an old pal.
     "I've stopped reading your column," he announced.
     "Because you used 'soliloquy' yesterday. Who are you writing for, ancient Greeks?"
     "It was clear in context,'' I stammered, defensively. "Hamlet's soliloquy."
     "Doesn't matter," he said. "Nobody knows what it means."
     "Let's find out," I said, desperate, marching us into a shop and approaching a man in a blue work shirt with his name embroidered over the pocket.
     "Excuse me, we're from the Sun-Times," I said, "and we were wondering, if I referred to 'Hamlet's soliloquy,' would you know what I'm talking about?"
     "Sorry, no" he said, grinning uncomfortably and edging away from me.
     "See?" my pal said. "But is that going to influence you? No way. You're going to cling to your 'soliloquy' " -- you can't imagine the sarcasm and contempt in his voice -- "and your 'ubiquitous' and your 'anachronism' until you don't have any readers left at all!"
     I like to think of myself -- whoops, two syllables, too long -- I like to think of Neil as a guy who can change. So I want to know: is my friend right? Do you find big words bad? Or is the occasional -- whoops, four syllables -- or is the rare hard word good?
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 16, 2006.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Great Britain exit from European Union could hint at Trump victory

    Americans generally believe in “exceptionalism.” We are not just another country on a planet chocked with other countries. Instead we are the best country, maybe even the only country. A mythical city on a hill. The storms that rock lesser places mean nothing here. That others do things differently and perhaps better doesn’t even merit a shrug.
     That most of the civilized world has national health care or greater restrictions on guns is meaningless. It’s like suggesting that soccer has interest as a professional sport.
     Like much self-flattery, it just isn’t true. We are part of the world, and the same shifts that occur elsewhere are at work here, too, whether we know it or not. I would bet that if I asked Chicagoans what enormous international event happens Thursday, June 23, very few would say, “Duh, Neil. Great Britain votes whether to Brexit, short for ‘British Exit,’ aka, whether to leave the European Union.”
     The European Union began after World War II as an attempt for nations to stop slaughtering each other by binding together, politically and economically, to give Europe some of the advantages we in the United States enjoy. A truck can travel from California to Maine without being stopped at one border crossing or dealing with currency that isn’t dollars. That’s good for business. Meanwhile Europe had francs and marks and kroner, with each country guarding its borders and sovereignty. The idea was....

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