Monday, February 6, 2017

Symbolic battle brewing over NEA and NEH

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2017 at 8:13 AM

Symbols matter.

Just ask the One Who Must Be Obeyed (OWMBO), Donald Trump.

Consider The Wall. Whether this turns out to be an actual structure remains to be seen. But that may not matter. It is a potent symbol that resonates with many Americans (although not enough of them to win him the popular vote — another symbol, for legitimacy, that apparently rankles the OWMBO no end).

Engaging in symbolic acts, like barring people from a select group of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, is called “sending a message.” Never mind if the odds of being killed by someone from one of these countries is mathematically meaningless. This so-called Muslim ban is a symbol: action has been taken.

Given the propensity of the OWMBO and his Republican allies for symbolism, it was merely a matter of time before their sights zeroed in on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA and NEH). Funding for these agencies appears to be missing from a proposed Federal budget.

Founded in 1965, during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the Endowments had a game-changing effect on American life. Before the NEA and NEH, creative people throughout the country moved to New York City or tucked themselves away on college campuses. This was a classic American story.

The Endowments, which made Federal money for cultural activity available to all 50 states, changed that scenario. Regional theaters, orchestras, dance companies and visual arts organizations gained traction in medium-size cities across the nation, enlivening communities and providing work for talented people who preferred staying put.

I worked for the Indiana Humanities Council and saw firsthand how a state-based satellite of the NEH helped public libraries, local historical societies and other community-based institutions unearth and share the kinds of stories that perpetuate and sustain community identity and sense of place. Later, Indiana Humanities commissioned me to travel the state in order to document our burgeoning food scene.

Republicans have been out to get the Endowments since the early ‘90s. They seem not to understand that, when it comes to the arts and ideas, a lot of valuable work gets done that doesn’t make people famous or rich. Therefore, they argue, such work must be a waste of money.

Between them, though, the annual budgets for the NEA and NEH total slightly less than $300 million. This is less than the $1 million per day it reportedly costs New York City to provide 24-hour security for a year at Trump Tower. Cutting $300 million is a teardrop in country’s fiscal bucket.

Which brings us back to symbolism. Cuts aimed at creativity and scholarship dovetail with recent attacks by the OWMBO on the intelligence community and news media. These attacks are designed to belittle rigorous thinking and personal expression — and to discount the worth of jobs associated with nonprofit fields.

Indiana needs these jobs. In many cases they are the only means of livelihood keeping talented professionals in our state. They also enhance our communities in ways that are no less important for their being hard to measure.

The irony here is that, instead of trying to do them in, Republicans should be celebrating the Endowments. Rarely do Federal agencies accomplish so much with so little. The NEA and NEH should be held up as symbols of fiscal restraint.

But what would be the symbolic value of that?

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What democracy looks like

Posted By on Tue, Jan 24, 2017 at 3:39 PM

  • Leah Tribbett
“This is what democracy looks like!”

Of all the words and slogans filling the air on the national day of protest following Donald Trump’s inauguration, this one rang me like a bell.

What began as a national women’s march in Washington, D.C. wound up becoming the mother of all demonstrations as people of every gender, age, color and creed turned out by the thousands — in some cases, the hundreds of thousands — in at least one city in every state across the country. Over a million showed up nationwide. Even more, if you count those who marched in solidarity through world capitals like London, Sydney, and Cape Town.

Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Not on the day after the inauguration of a new president.

I happened to be in Florida, in West Palm Beach, no more than a five-minute drive from Mar-a-Lago, the Spanish-deco fantasia built by Marjorie Merriweather Post (of Post cereals). Trump bought the place a while back; it figures to be his Winter White House. But such close proximity to the Trumpticon did not inhibit Trump’s nearby neighbors. They started arriving at an amphitheater on the other side of Lake Worth before noon and were still coming at two o’clock. They brought their kids, their dogs, their friends and their parents. Some were in costume, others hoisted signs. There were thousands of them.

Defiance, it seems, can be as good for you as sunshine or wild caught seafood. I say this because defiance seemed the prevalent mood among the folks in West Palm Beach. The mayor of that town (a woman, by the way) opened things up by assuring us her city would continue to be a place where women’s health was protected, immigrants welcomed, bigotry spurned and common sense gun laws advocated. Community, in other words, upheld.

Hard to imagine, but upholding community represents defiance in America, circa 2017. The people assembled in West Palm and, I imagine, in Indianapolis and Chicago and Washington, D.C. seemed heartened by being among so many spirits who were, at once, like themselves, yet different. Not all one, but willing and able to get along. Invested, that is, in building a common space where strength is measured not in terms of who’s kept out, but who’s included.

It is not just that we know Trump lost the popular election by three million votes. The unprecedented demonstrations the day after his inauguration pose a stark question aimed at the heart of our country’s clearly tattered politics: What’s wrong with this picture? This is not, as Trump and Pence would have it, a matter of sour grapes or sore losing. It is peoples’ unfiltered response to nonrepresentational government. That Trump should triumph by the very means he spent his campaign attacking puts irony to shame.

But then there’s plenty of shame to go around. Too many of us either didn’t vote, or considered our vote too pure to cast for a candidate who seemed less than perfect. Too many of us, it seems, no longer like democracy’s looks.

So we made a beauty pageant barker president. May the demonstrations continue.

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

What The Donald has in store

Posted By on Sat, Dec 31, 2016 at 10:59 PM

Several protests were held during ALEC's annual meeting in Indianapolis in July 2016. - NUVO FILE PHOTO
  • NUVO file photo
  • Several protests were held during ALEC's annual meeting in Indianapolis in July 2016.

So just what are we in for once The Donald takes the Oath of office?

I am not a betting man. Let me hasten to say that if I suffered from that predilection, I’d be broke today. Last November’s elections would have filleted my bank account like it was a rainbow trout.

But this doesn’t mean I haven’t been trying to read the bones about what the Trump Administration has in store. I mean, what else is there to do before the Cubs show up for spring training in Arizona?

Throughout the holidays, over flagons of grog, I’ve heard all sorts of conjecture about what Trump and his minions will do. The spread seems to run from the merely dire to apocalyptic.

My best guess, though, can be summed up in a four-letter acronym: ALEC.

ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a deliberately forgettable name used as cover for a lushly funded network dedicated to turning elected lawmakers into surrogates for private industry. ALEC does this by writing bills that advance corporate agendas, from dismantling regulations and labor laws to undermining local government controls. Those bills are then handed to ALEC-owned legislators, who introduce them into their respective states, as if they had thought these things up all by themselves.

If you wonder why The Donald chose Mike Pence to be his rightwing majordomo, consider The Mike’s ties to ALEC. Last July, after joining Trump on stage at the Republican convention, Pence hurried back to Indianapolis, for ALEC’s annual meeting, held in the blue tower of downtown’s JW Marriott hotel. There, The Mike all but redefined the meaning of hip, telling the crowd that he was for ALEC “before ALEC was cool.”

According to the Indy Star’s James Briggs, Pence also assured the ALEC gathering: “You are the model for Washington, D.C., after this election.”

That model, it should be noted, is bankrolled by the likes of Koch Industries and Peabody Energy, tobacco giants Altria and Reynolds American, as well as Pfizer and local favorite Eli Lilly in the big pharma category.

So what has these corporate megaliths licking their implanted chops? Early in December, ALEC met in Washington, D.C. to frame its Christmas list, er, agenda for the coming year. On the docket were ordinances and legislation aimed at weakening public employee unions, and making it easier for individual parents to challenge public school systems over instructional materials. There was a resolution that would make it possible for state legislatures to disallow efforts by cities and towns to raise the minimum wage. But then another initiative would give the regulatory standards of cities and towns preference over those created by federal agencies, like the EPA.

Other ALEC ideas involve empowering telecom companies over municipalities regarding broadband deployment; blocking implementation of the Clean Power Plan and EPA rules protecting clean water from pollution caused by coal mining; turning protected federal lands over to the states; and imposing restrictions on tax revenues and government spending.

What’s The Donald have in store? My guess is he won’t even have to think about it. That’s what ALEC and The Mike are for.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Democrats better answer the bell

Posted By on Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 6:09 PM

  • wikimedia commons
There’s no joy in Democratville.

Barely a month ago all the talk was about whether or not the Republican Party would even survive this year’s election. Would Donald Trump, after his almost certain defeat, start a third party, with the likes of Sarah Palin and David Duke? Or maybe his own TV network, with the help of fellow groper Roger Ailes?

There was so much to look forward to, Democrats, as well as many others, missed a much bigger picture: The Donald might turn out to be The Boss.

The tables have not been turned, so much as turned over. In a single election day, the Democrats went from licking their chops in contemplation of what they might do with a new president and a majority in the Senate plus, possibly a few extra seats in the House, to wondering WTF went wrong.

There’s plenty of finger-pointing going on. It begins with the belated recognition that Hillary Clinton was a singularly uninspired choice to anoint so early in the primary process, includes a heavy dose of soul searching over the party’s reflexive dependence on so-called identity politics, and finally peters out over a perceived failure to adequately address the cascade of insecurities being experienced by an ever-shrinking middle class.

Almost lost in the strobing fury of the Dems’ freak-out is the fact that Clinton actually beat Trump by well over a million votes. Whether the results of recounts in some states, where the initial outcome was close enough to appear bizarre, will do anything to spritz the taste of ash in Democratic mouths remains to be seen.

The real trouble for so many of us is that we rely, by default, on the Democratic Party to represent our interests. Anyone truly invested in reforming health care, slowing the effects of climate change, or trying to figure out how to make capitalism work better for people has very little practical choice but to hope Democrats get their sorry act together. Given the structural realities of our two-party system, Libertarian and Green options amount to little more than a parlor game for those who think of voting not in terms of collective self-interest, but as a hermetically personal form of self-expression.

But then a need for self-expression seems to be what motivated so many unhappy citizens to vote for Trump, a candidate with little more than a slogan and only a passing allegiance to the party whose nomination he managed to hijack.

While Democrats are bound to feel traumatized by what happened in the election, they need — and quickly — to regroup and focus on what’s ahead. Job No. 1 will be to vociferously call attention to and limit the damage aimed at what’s left of the country’s social contract. But then they will have to own up to their own failings in this regard, which means committing themselves to principles and policies that show a demonstrable path toward making this a fairer, healthier and more sustainable place.

This will take leadership. For all our sakes, the Dems had better answer the bell.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

An open letter to Trump supporters

Posted By on Tue, Nov 15, 2016 at 1:17 PM

Dear Trumpers,

How does it feel?

Your man has won. He and his newfound friend from Indiana are huddling in that hotbed of populism, Midtown Manhattan, in the upper reaches of Trump Tower. I suspect they are still slightly bedazzled by the good fortune you have thrust upon them. Imagine: a few short weeks ago they were weighing the odds of impeaching President Hillary Clinton.

Now she is an afterthought.

Yes, Trumpers, you gave that rigged system of ours a swift kick in the (pardon my Spanglish!) cajones. In the end it didn’t matter that Hillary won the (ahem) popular vote by two million — a larger margin than Nixon had when he won the presidency in ’68, or that Kennedy could claim when he won it in ’60.

You certainly taught cityfolk a thing or two. So what if that’s where most people live. You’ve heard enough about how it is cities that keep the nation’s economy churning, and city people who pay the bulk of federal taxes — taxes that help pay for your cops and firefighters, schools and healthcare services. Are they even Americans?

Not according to the Electoral College!

And speaking of colleges, it was high time all those brainiacs in their ivory towers were bumped a peg or two. First they talked like The Donald was a joke, so much raw material for late night comedy.

Then they said he was faking it, didn’t really want to get elected.

Finally they made the biggest mistake of all — thinking that they, with their round-the-world travel, finicky diets and tenure, had so much as a clue about what makes you tick.

Showed them!

It’s almost funny. You helped elect our first Black president (at least you say you helped, so many of you claim to have voted for him). But did he ever thank you? Hardly.

In Elkhart, where they make those big RVs, the town was going down the drain until Obama came along. Now that everybody’s making money again and it seems like he was never there.

I can relate. It feels like all we hear about is how much everything is changing. Machines are taking peoples’ jobs, and what we used to think of as countries, with borders and flags, are little more than names on a map.

You didn’t ask for this.

It probably feels pretty good to have stopped all that dead in its tracks.

But here’s the deal: Now that you’ve done this thing, I want you to be as hard on The Donald as you were on Hillary and Obama. After your man is inaugurated, I want you to start keeping time, counting the days, the weeks and months.

And a year from now I want you to tell the rest of us:

Is there more money in your wallet?

Do you have a better job?

Are your kids better off?

And how’s your healthcare?

I’ll want to know if you feel safer.

Do your groceries cost less?

Is your house worth more?

Now that you’re a winner, what’s changed?

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Welcome to Trumpland

Posted By on Thu, Nov 10, 2016 at 9:54 AM

  • Photo by Lora Olive

We were halfway through the afternoon on election day when a flock of crows began making a commotion around our house. I was indoors, but could practically feel the thrum of their wings, beating beneath the eaves, as the birds sounded an alarm. I went to the window in time to see a red fox, its long, furry tail like a streak — now you see him, now you don’t — headed round a corner wall and out of sight.

I didn’t think it at the time, but in light of subsequent events, it feels like that fox could have been carrying my country between its teeth.

I am writing this less than 24 hours after Donald Trump has been elected to serve as 45th President of the United States. There is still a weightlessness about this fact. It has not yet come to ground, been fully absorbed.

Tomorrow, Mr. Trump, as even his closest advisors are careful to call him, will visit President Obama at the White House. I imagine the optics of this encounter — posing in the Oval Office, the ceremonial handshaking — will finally bring home the surreal gravity of our altered situation.
A year ago last August, Donald Trump took center stage at the first Republican debate. He made headlines by refusing to say he would promise to support another Republican nominee and, with that, began a months-long process during which he demolished not just numerous Republican rivals, but all previously held understandings about presidential campaigning and party unity.

For one thing, while Trump made many promises (to build a wall, create a “terrific” health care system, clean up crime, wipe out ISIS, bring back high-paying manufacturing jobs, etc.), he said very little about how these things would be accomplished. Instead, he talked about himself. As one of his commercials put it: “Donald Trump will protect you. He is the only one who can.”

Now we find out what this means.

If Trump’s upset comes as a shock, you are not alone. At this writing, Hillary Clinton appears to have won the popular vote. This makes her like another hapless Democrat, Al Gore, who garnered more votes than George W. Bush, but lost the election in 2000. Talk about a “rigged” system.

Indiana’s part in this electoral debacle has been particularly ignominious. Not only have we given the country the unctuous Mike Pence to play the part of Mr. Trump’s earnest factotum, we served as a kind of bellwether on election night, as Hoosier voters made short work of the state’s Democratic slate. Evan Bayh can go back to D.C.; his name is mud in these parts. John Gregg was undone by lumbering party hack Eric Holcomb. As for Glenda Ritz, about all you can say is that Republicans won’t have her to kick around any more.

To all those across the country who are wondering what Trump’s America will be like: Take a look at Indiana. We’re addicted to coal, are bottom feeders in terms of environmental standards and public health, love low wage jobs, religious bigotry and guns. But our budget is balanced.
My son lives in North Carolina — another state that seems hellbent on being like Indiana. I called him when it appeared Hillary’s campaign had run aground there. He sounded desolate, and with reason. His sense of America was shrinking as Trump’s election totals mounted. He, like so many of us, wonders where and how he will fit — if he can fit — in Trumpland.

I wish I had an answer for that. All I can say is reach out. Hold those you love as close as you can. Pay attention when the crows start calling in your neighborhood.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Freedom to Hunt? You've got to be kidding!

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 11:43 AM


Leave it to the law-faking members of Indiana’s state legislature to take a word most people think they understand and turn it upside down.

That word is freedom.

First we were told that Indiana needed a special amendment to its constitution to protect the “freedom” to farm — a thinly disguised effort to make it impossible for rural towns to protect themselves from the environmental hazards posed by industrial-scale livestock facilities known as CAFOs.

Then we were presented with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This euphemistic exercise was designed to give business owners the “freedom” to discriminate against fellow citizens they considered sinful.

RELATED: Renee says vote NO and help protect our wildlife

Now we are being asked to enshrine the “freedom” to hunt in our state’s constitution. You heard that right. When you go to your local polling place in a few days you will not only have the chance to vote for the first female president in the history of this republic, you will also be asked to make the freedom to hunt part of Indiana’s Constitution. This question, as it is called in legislative parlance, has been quietly approved by two General Assemblies. This means it is now ready for the rest of us to decide its fate. Here is the question you will be asked to vote on come election day:

“Shall the Constitution of the State of Indiana be amended by adding a Section 39 to Article 1 to provide that the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife shall be forever preserved for the public good, subject only to the laws prescribed by the General Assembly and rules prescribed by virtue of the authority of the General Assembly to: (1) promote wildlife conservation and management; and (2) preserve the future of hunting and fishing?”

If you’re like me, you are liable to read this and say, “Well, shucks, I’m all for promoting wildlife conservation. Where’s the harm in that?”

But before we say “Yes” to this amendment, let’s pause for a moment of reflection.

Let’s recall how last March, our soon to be ex-governor, Mike Pence, signed a bill into law allowing for the expansion of what some people call “canned” hunting in Indiana. Likened to shooting fish in a barrel, canned hunting uses privately-owned animals and takes place in a fenced-in preserve. Some people like this sort of thing because the bucks they kill have been specially bred to grow racks of antlers larger than are usually found in what some folks call “nature.”

The canned hunting bill was enthusiastically supported by the Indiana Farm Bureau (also a backer of freedom to farm legislation), suggesting it has more to do with farming than hunting. Worth noting is that the Indiana Deer Hunters were among the groups expressing opposition to this bill.

Which brings us back to that constitutional amendment we’ll be asked to vote on. You will note that, in addition to its feel-good language about wildlife conservation, it also mentions harvesting. Makes you wonder: Since no one in this state is beating the drum to outlaw hunting or fishing, just what, exactly is this amendment supposed to protect?

Besides, that is, farmers wanting the freedom to turn their acreage into shooting galleries.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Clinton, or else

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 9:01 AM

So the first debate’s done. Hillary, by almost all accounts, won in a walk. At times she actually appeared to enjoy herself — a performance that said more about her so-called “stamina” than it did about what might actually make her happy.

The Donald played himself: boorish, breathtakingly uninformed and failing, as usual, to distinguish the difference between “winning” and actually having to govern.

If you think this assures a Clinton victory in November, think again. Early polling suggests that while she may have done herself a favor in this first confrontation with Trump, their race is still too close to call. We could wake up on the morning of November 9 in a country where Donald Trump is President-elect.

During the primary season, this prospect seemed a kind of joke. Comedians chortled about how thankful they were for all the material Trump provided. Cultural critics burnished their imagined street cred by stating the obvious: Donald Trump was turning politics into a new form of reality TV. Fans cheered when he bragged about his wealth, made fun of fellow candidates, attacked ethnic minorities, Muslims, women, and our allies. Gaping journalists sounded like Gen. Custer, wondering where all those angry Americans came from.

No one seemed to believe Trump could get this far.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was steamrolling her way to the Democratic nomination, a process as seemingly inevitable as it was joyless. This has turned out to be a major problem for Clinton — and for the rest of us, as well.

Although the very idea must offend the know-it-alls in charge of the Democratic Party, it turns out Hillary Clinton is not universally liked. There are reasons for this, including (but not limited to) her indulgent affinity for military-industrial power, and the ponderously self-serving way she has of rationalizing howling gaffes, like her support for the Iraq War or her failure to appreciate the conflicts-of-interest presented by the Clinton Foundation.

But as damaging as these things may be for Hillary, they are worse for us because they make her someone that even a sociopathic blowhard like Donald Trump might manage to beat.

This is a real threat — and we better take it seriously.

No, that doesn’t mean voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. Anyone who does that isn’t voting for principle; they’re voting against Clinton, which, under the circumstances, is the same as voting for Trump.

People, myself included, have reason to be frustrated with government. Sometimes you’d like to start over. But electing Trump won’t do that. It will, instead, guarantee a Supreme Court religious zealots like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz can celebrate. This will almost certainly stamp out social progressivism for another generation — while encouraging delusional attempts, ala Brexit, to make America white again.

You might think this can’t happen. It’s too late. But what’s not too late is for all those angry white Americans to try and make it happen, doing incalculable damage to all of us in the process.

That’s why I’ll be voting for Clinton in November. I’m hoping against hope you will, too.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Indiana Democrats: More of the same

Posted By on Tue, Aug 30, 2016 at 12:14 PM

This shouldn’t be difficult.

An Indiana Democrat, John Gregg, ought to win the governor’s race in this year’s election. This is as true now that Gregg’s opponent is Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, as it was when it appeared Gregg would be running against incumbent Mike Pence.

Pence’s gift of gaffe was almost limitless. Let us begin to count the ways: Whether he was defending discrimination against the LGBT community as religious freedom, enabling the state’s degrading addiction to coal, or earnestly signing off on one of this country’s most oppressive laws regarding women’s reproductive rights, Pence seemed determined to build a wall around Indiana.

It’s no wonder he won Donald Trump’s vice presidential sweepstakes.

By the time Trump plucked him from a freakishly narrow field of ne’er-do-wells, Pence had so thoroughly managed to reinforce every negative Hoosier stereotype that many voters seemed ready to vote against him, if only to stop his ham-handed assault on the state’s national reputation.

Enter Eric Holcomb, a Republican hack, whose career in politics has never included actually being elected to anything. Short on both time and money, his campaign, thus far, has amounted to his saying, “more of the same.”

In most elections, in most states, this situation would represent a golden opportunity for the opposing party, a chance not just to compete, but win a coveted office. But this is Indiana we’re talking about — and the Indiana Democratic Party — which makes predicting what happens in November a decidedly slippery proposition.

This starts with John Gregg, the Democratic nominee. Gregg is a longtime Democratic pol, whose greatest claim to fame may be that he almost beat Mike Pence in the last election. This, in spite of a cornpone campaign that managed to alienate many urban voters, most of whom happen to be Democrats.

As long as he could play the anti-Pence, Gregg’s prospects were bright. But, like so many Hoosier Dems, Gregg’s record is pro-life, pro-gun and pro-coal. His ads feature Republicans applauding him for being a fiscal conservative. He appears, in other words, to be just like a Republican — only competent.

This approach may work for Gregg. But it does nothing to enhance how we think about Indiana, or address the ways life is changing here. Unfortunately, its lack of imagination is characteristic of the Hoosier Democratic Party’s MO, which has been to accept and thus perpetuate clichés about how retrograde and reactionary we are.

And herein could be John Gregg’s undoing. Our state’s lack of genuine political competition — not just among candidates, but ideas — has led to almost unprecedented levels of voter apathy and political participation. In 2014, 43 percent of state house and senate races were actually uncontested. Voter turnout, unsurprisingly, was the lowest since World War II.

Bernie Sanders has called for an initiative, “Our Revolution,” aimed at recruiting, training and even funding new generation progressive candidates to run for state and local offices. It’s a provocative idea that has yet to find its legs. But something like it could reinvigorate Indiana’s Democratic Party. Unless, that is, the state’s Dems like things just the way they are.
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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Trump’s got their tongue: Journalism’s new irrelevance

Posted By on Thu, Jul 28, 2016 at 10:02 PM

If there’s one clear thing to be gleaned from this year’s Republican and Democratic conventions, it’s that American journalism is doing a good job — of making itself irrelevant.

This became apparent last summer, during the initial round of Republican debates, when Donald Trump emerged like a brilliantined boulder among a slurry of would-be candidates. Treated at first as a novelty, Trump was mostly belittled by many professional observers, who assumed his bombastic lifestyle, dodgy business practices, and penchant for mean-spirited outbursts were sure to turn off potential voters.

Something similar happened during the Democratic primaries, as Bernie Sanders (“a self-proclaimed democratic socialist!”), whom most pundits figured to amount to little more than Hillary Clinton’s sparring partner, turned out to be the plain-spoken spear point of an unexpectedly popular progressive groundswell.

In both cases, the people whose job it is to keep an eye on such things and, through their commentary, suggest the broad outlines within which the candidates are expected to color their respective visions, were late in seeing the phenomenal character of what was taking place in front of them.

They seemed taken aback that Hillary Clinton, rather than some kind of charismatic juggernaut, appeared to have lost a step, and that the historic nature of her candidacy would be understood by many as less a rallying cry about the country’s future than a personal form of wish fulfillment.

As for Trump, most journalists have substituted rolling their eyes for analysis. The Donald refuses to play by their rules, refusing to articulate policy positions and saying things that are verifiably untrue (that, for example “thousands and thousands” of Muslims were dancing in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11). As for the time-honored ritual of turning over his income tax returns: forget about it.

If this behavior confounds the press, it endears Trump to a constituency that has made its disdain for reported “facts” and “evidence” superabundantly clear. The press keeps labeling these folks “angry,” but that’s the kind of understatement that reveals just how inadequate our political journalism has become.

At the Republican convention, has-been boxing promoter Don King was blunt in singing Trump’s praises: “He will create a whole new system. He will tear this system apart.” Anyone who has paid attention to Trump’s pronouncements over the past year knows this pretty much sums up his idea of governing. It’s not that Trump’s followers are angry with our system of government; they’re demanding something altogether different. Something we’ve not seen before — at least in this country.

This makes Trump’s candidacy, unlike, say, Sanders’, truly radical. His revolutionary rhetoric aside, what Sanders wants is to reform our system. Trump wants a quicker, more ruthless, reboot. It’s an important distinction but, so far, the press has been unwilling to make it, hoping instead that Trump will eventually apply for membership on a more familiar reservation, and, it should be noted, revealing their own, innate conservatism.

In the meantime, Trump makes the most of our journalism’s inability to find a vocabulary capable of adequately describing his radical ambition. This keeps him one step ahead, while making this election season feel like a car crash that can’t stop repeating itself.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The trouble with beautiful places

Posted By on Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 11:36 AM


I live in a beautiful place.

In my experience, most Hoosiers are only dimly aware of the part of their state that runs from Michigan City east to the Michigan border. Mileage-wise, it doesn’t amount to much; you can cover the distance on a bike and hardly break a sweat.

But, with its singing sand beaches and old oak woods, not to mention the vastness of the freshwater sea that shapes our days and cools our nights, it is easy to see why some people want to protect what’s here.

The trouble with beautiful places, of course, is that they are beautiful. Anyone can see it. It doesn’t take a lot of experience, education, or even good taste to get the beauty of a Lake Michigan sunset.

People wanting a piece of this is nothing new. Folks have been building homes and cottages here since the 1920s, when the area was promoted in Chicago. My grandparents found out about it in the late ‘40s; I’m living in the house they once rented.

The middle class was flourishing then. Not so much now. The gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is larger than it’s been since the Gilded Age.

This being a beautiful place, it figures that people with seemingly bottomless bank accounts have decided they’re entitled to own as much of it as possible. The thing is, apart from its obvious beauty, there doesn’t seem much else here that suits them. The houses aren’t big enough. Local ordinances and building codes are too strict.

Environmental concerns are, well, somebody else’s problem.

And when locals have the temerity to suggest that the design of a seawall might cause the public beach to erode, or that locating a septic tank on the lake side of a new conference center-style house with multiple bathrooms could be a problem, the response is often not to ask what might be done to conform to local standards, but to sue.

Lawsuits intended to silence, harass or stiff-arm local town governance and the community feedback also known as free speech are called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). SLAPPs amount to legalized bullying. They are aimed at private citizens, advocacy groups and small town governments lacking the resources or nerve to put up with the threat of a prolonged court fight.

According to an article in the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, these suits rarely win on the merits. But this doesn’t make them any less intimidating. Money doesn’t just talk, it threatens.

That’s the way things were going in these parts. Then a grassroots citizens’ group enlisted the State of Indiana to help fight a lawsuit by beachfront homeowners claiming their private property went to the water’s edge. And a homegrown slate of candidates swept last year’s town council election by making an issue of local code enforcement.

This hasn’t stopped the bullying lawsuits. Not yet. But responsible governance and free speech are trying to make a comeback — which seems like the least we can do for a place as beautiful as this.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Letter from the Region: Keeping it local

Posted By on Tue, May 24, 2016 at 11:38 AM

If all politics, as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, is local, politics up in Northwest Indiana’s Michigan City is also microcosmic.

Take, for example, the coarsening of political discourse that’s been on rambunctious display during this year’s election cycle. On May 18, Michigan City’s local paper, the News-Dispatch, reported that “politics may have been at the root of an alleged altercation” that saw a 55-year-old woman arrested and charged with battery after her roommate was hit in the forehead with a cup of coffee, requiring 13 stitches.

The incident was apparently sparked by an argument over whether Barack Obama was president when stimulus checks were issued, as the arrested woman maintained, or whether George W. Bush was president at that time — the position favored by her roommate.

It seems that in the course of this debate, the roommate splashed Obama’s advocate with cold tea and then flung the can, at which point, the Obama supporter let the woman arguing for George W. Bush have it with her caffeinated drink of choice, coffee, plus the cup used for its conveyance.

The News-Dispatch story helpfully provided the answer to this question, the fact that might have saved both women a whole lot of trouble: the checks were issued after the Economic Stimulus Act of February 2008, when G.W. Bush was president.

I guess this is why we have Google. So we can look up stuff before we start throwing things — or beverages (coffee beats tea!) — at one another. It might be helpful if more of us (voters, that is) took a little time to check assertions made by candidates, especially in a year when campaigns are likely to be remembered for bombast and fear-mongering.

Fear, of course, has played like elevator music during much of this campaign season. This has been particularly true in the wrangling over what constitutes U.S. responsibility in the case of Syrian refugees.

Now Michigan City is a relatively small town, with less than 40,000 people. And, like so many Midwestern communities, it has struggled with the complicated challenge of reinventing itself as structural changes to the economy hollowed out its traditional reliance on manufacturing.

But this didn’t keep over 200 citizens from buying benefit tickets and showing up in a local church basement for a dinner to support Zakat Foundation efforts to bring food and supplies to Syrian families displaced by their country’s civil war.

As it happens, Michigan City has a history of Syrian and Lebanese settlement; its mosque, dating back to 1914, is one the oldest in the country. In March, Michigan City’s Common Council passed a resolution condemning violence, bigotry and hateful speech toward Muslims. The recent benefit in the church basement raised over $10,000 for Syrian relief efforts — that’s a significant sum here.

You can Google the Zakat Foundation, by the way. It’s an Islamic charity, based in Chicago. You’ll find a predictable dose of paranoia among the many, many glowing reviews of its work. We live in a big and scary world, for sure.

Which is why keeping things local makes sense. It may not keep somebody from dousing you with coffee, but it keeps the world in scale.

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