Alabama and Mississippi: It’s Like Looking in a Mirror

If you look at a map of the United States and focus on the southeast portion of the country, you might notice something kind of unusual. Look directly at Mississippi and Alabama. See anything strange or interesting. If you see that the two states are near mirror images of each other, you’re seeing what I’m seeing. There’s a story behind why these two states look so much alike.

At one point in our country’s early history, Georgia was three times the size it is now. It encompassed the land we now know as Georgia, as well as modern day Alabama and Mississippi.

After the Revolutionary War, Georgia was financially and militarily weak. They had trouble protecting the western part of the state, known as the Yazoo Lands, named after the river that runs through the area. The state legislature tried a couple different times to establish settlements in this area, but they were unsuccessful. A third attempt ended when the state demanded that land speculators pay for their land in gold and silver, rather than in the depreciated paper currency. The speculators balked and Georgia was back at square one.

In 1794, Georgia reached an agreement to sell 35 million acres (the size of present-day Mississippi and Alabama) to four companies for $500,000. But to get approval for the sale, the state had to “gift” substantial land holdings to US Senator James Gunn, several state legislators, state officials, newspaper editors, and other influential Georgians. When word got out, angry Georgians protested the sale, claiming bribery and corruption.

When US Senator James Jackson learned of the sale, he returned home from Washington, determined to overturn the arrangement. He held hearings that led to the 1796 Rescinding Act, overturning the sale of the Yazoo Lands. In 1802, the Yazoo Lands were sold to the federal government, who quickly extinguished any claims to the land by Native Americans.

The land speculators were not anxious to give up their claim on the land, but the federal government resisted their efforts for reparations. The land speculators sued the government and in 1810, the case of Fletcher v Peck was heard in the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the 1796 Rescinding Act was an unconstitutional violation on the right to contract, and the federal government eventually paid the land speculators $5 million of the proceeds of land sold in the Mississippi Territory.

In 1803, the United States made the Louisiana Purchase, buying a large swath of land from the French. The United State now owned all the land east of the Mississippi River, with the exception of a small area to the south of the Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico, leaving the Mississippi Territory landlocked. The land, which was claimed by Spain, was desired by the United States to give their new territory access to the Gulf.

In 1812, the military was sent to the Mississippi Territory to confront the Spanish, who ceded the land along the coast without a fight. The Mississippi Territory now had access to the Gulf, making distribution of cotton and other crops by boat much easier and more profitable.

Five years later, in 1817, The Mississippi Territory was separated, with the Alabama Territory to the east and the Mississippi Territory to the west. Each territory was roughly the same size, and each was given 60 miles of shoreline on the Gulf.

Although Mississippi and Alabama were split equally, the Alabama legislature wanted more land. Between 1811 and 1901, Alabama tried several times to annex the land in the western panhandle of Florida. The Florida territorial government, and later, the state legislature, rebuffed these attempts. But after the Civil War, it became obvious that the western panhandle was much more connected to Alabama both spiritually, and by infrastructure, than it was to Florida. For instance, Pensacola was connected by train to Mobile and Birmingham in Alabama, but to get to the Florida capital in Tallahassee required an arduous journey through swamps and thickets.

Florida finally relented and set the price of giving up the western panhandle at $1 million. The Alabama legislature agreed, but the citizens of Alabama, who initially approved of annexing the western panhandle, thought the price was too high and fought the legislature’s efforts, stopping them from raising the funds needed for the purchase. A railroad line from Pensacola to the interior of Florida was constructed in 1883, and serious attempts to annex the western panhandle ceased shortly thereafter.

I find this type of history fascinating. It’s easy to take something as mundane as a state’s shape for granted, but there’s almost always a story of corruption or intrigue from long ago that led to what we now take for granted. The shape of the states of Mississippi and Alabama is one such story.

Facebooktwitter

Almost Heaven: Where Are John Denver’s Country Roads Really Located?

People of a certain age don’t even have to think about what words come after the phrase, “Almost Heaven.” The obvious answer is, “West Virginia.” But is that really correct?

There’s fairly strong evidence to suggest that the words following “Almost Heaven” are, “west Virginia.” In other words, the western part of the commonwealth of Virginia as opposed to the state of West Virginia.

In case you’re unaware, the line in question is the opening line to John Denver’s 1971 hit, “Take Me Home Country Roads.” The following line is, “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.” It’s this second line that gives us some insight into exactly what Denver was singing about.

The Blue Ridge Mountains run north-south from Pennsylvania to Georgia, barely encroaching over the West Virginia state line. Conversely, the Blue Ridge are prevalent in western Virginia.

The Shenandoah River runs for 150 miles, from it’s headwaters near Front Royal, VA to the Potomac River near Washington DC. Again, the Shenandoah barely crosses into West Virginia, running for about 20 miles through the eastern panhandle.

Despite these facts, it’s unlikely that Denver knew which state he was signing about. At the time he recorded the song, he had never set foot in either Virginia or West Virginia. His co-writers, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nifert, claim that the song was inspired by a drive they took on Interstate 81, which runs primarily through western Virginia.

But to make thing more complicated, Danoff and Denver said in an interview that they wanted to write the song about two completely different states. Danoff wanted to write the song about his home state of Massachusetts but couldn’t get the cadence right using that state. For his part, Denver said that he was inspired by Maryland, but just as with Danoff, couldn’t get the state name to work in the song.

Despite the controversy, West Virginia doesn’t seem to care much about which state the song is about. They’ve adopted it as one of four state anthems, and when the University of West Virginia football team wins a game (which they often do), the marching band launches into “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

So, which is it? Is the song about West Virginia or west Virginia? We may never know.

Facebooktwitter

Gone Far Too Soon – RIP, Brett

I met Brett when we were both in fourth grade. He had a curly mop of hair, a crooked smile, and a mischievous personality. He liked to have fun and didn’t take much of anything too seriously. We became fast friends.

We remained close through grade school and junior high, then Brett went off to a private high school while I stayed behind in public school. Even so, we saw each other often, especially in the summer.

Brett went to three different colleges. He started at St. John’s College in Winfield, KS, where he got a baseball scholarship to play soccer. I don’t remember all of the particulars, but Brett was a really good soccer player and St. John’s wanted him to play for them. Unfortunately, they were out of soccer scholarships. Brett was also a decent baseball player, so the school gave him a baseball scholarship to play soccer for them. He was on the baseball team, but he was there to play soccer.

After two years at St. John’s, Brett moved back home and took classes at Waubonsee Community College. I didn’t see him much while he was in Kansas, but once he came back to Illinois, we saw each other much more. I was at Western Illinois University at the time along with several other friends, and I talked Brett into joining us there the following year. Five of us, including Brett, lived together in a house on the east side of Macomb. What a crazy year that was. We had a lot of fun.

After college, Brett moved to St. Louis where he got a job with an insurance company. He had been there a couple of years when I talked to him about my plans for the future. I was having trouble finding a job and decided I would join the Air Force if I didn’t find work by the end of the year. Brett encouraged me to apply for a job with his company, but I didn’t know anything about insurance. I resisted him for a while, but as the year wore on, I applied. I also set up a date to take the test to get into Air Force Officer Candidate School. The test was scheduled to take place on January 4. On December 30, I was hired by the insurance company. I’ve been there ever since, thanks in large part to Brett.

When Brett got married, his life changed again. The fun-loving, gregarious guy was replaced by a married homebody. He really took to marriage. My former partner in crime transformed into an adult. He was a different guy. Of course, we were still friends, but I was immature and single, while he became mature and married. The dynamic had changed.

Brett moved back to Illinois and settled into marriage. He and his wife bought a house, had a couple of kids, and generally moved on with life. We didn’t talk as often or see each other as much. But when we did, it was clear Brett had changed. He was more introverted with his thoughts, quieter. Even though we remained friends, it was hard to get too close to him. I think I knew this was happening at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s much easier to see now. 

Several years later, Brett was divorced, and the experience broke him. He never recovered. Despite not easily sharing his feelings, I could tell he was hurting. When the pain became too much, he quit his job, moved away from his family, and left for California. I think the big draw to California was that it was far away from the pain he experienced in Illinois. Of course, it’s impossible to run away from pain, so Brett carried his with him to California.

He met a woman in San Francisco and they were together for a while, but the relationship didn’t last. Brett moved further north in California and bought a rundown cabin in the woods. I never saw the cabin, but I envisioned him living there like a recluse, alone with his dog and his thoughts.

It was at the cabin that Brett got seriously ill, beginning the final chapter in his life. He reached out to his family to let them know he was likely to die, but almost miraculously, doctors were able to save him. Unfortunately, the illness left him with badly damaged kidneys, and he was put on a kidney donor list.

Brett continued to work as much as he could, but his illness took its toll on him. He was often sick, and didn’t have anyone nearby to help him. He did the best he could, but life really became a grind for him. During this time, when I’d talk to him, Brett was rarely happy or hopeful. I don’t think he saw any brighter days ahead for himself.

A year or two ago, that changed. Brett moved back to Illinois where he could be closer to his daughter and grandkids. He established a relationship with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and for the first time in a long time, had hope that his health situation could improve. I had high hopes that the move to Illinois was going to be a new start for Brett.

And then he got sick again. For the next year, he was in and out of the hospital, and he was removed from the kidney donor list. He was just too sick to undergo a transplant.

I had the opportunity to see Brett about a year ago, at the start of the COVID pandemic, along with friends Keith Johnson and Paul Baudouin. Brett had just been released from the hospital the previous day and looked drawn and tired. I hugged him and he felt smaller, diminished, as if life had ground him away. Regardless, it was good to see him.

We ate and talked for a few hours. It didn’t dawn on us that the restaurant had closed and we were holding them up from locking the doors and going home. We said our goodbyes, thinking we would see each other again soon. Sadly, that will never happen. Brett died this past weekend. He was just 61-years old.

While I grieve his loss, I can’t help but remember all of the fun times we had together. The memories have been flowing the past 24 hours since I learned of Brett’s death. Let me share a few of them.

We were both good kids, but we could be troublemakers too. For instance, we liked to throw snowballs at passing cars. One winter day, the temperatures turned bitter cold, and we didn’t want to be outside. So, we filled several buckets with snow, brought the snow in the house, and threw snowballs out of Brett’s second-floor bedroom window at cars passing below on Fifth Ave, the busy street that ran in front of his house.

Another time, we were throwing rotten apples at cars, near our friend, Paul Bettcher’s house. The idea was to allow the car to pass, then step out of the bushes and launch a throw as the car drove away. This seemed like the safest way to do it. Brett had other ideas.

As a car approached, Brett stepped out of the bushes and rifled an apple directly at the front of the car. The apple splatted on the car’s windshield and the driver slammed on his brakes. Paul, Brett, and I took off through the bushes and sprinted down the street to Paul’s house, the driver in hot pursuit. We ran down Paul’s driveway, burst through his back door, and locked it behind us. The driver must have seen us, because he pulled in the drive, got out of his car, and began pounding on the door. We hid in the dark, along with Paul’s mom, who quickly became a co-conspirator. After several minutes, the driver gave up and left. Once the coast was clear, we headed back to the bushes and our rotten apples, making sure Brett better understood our strategy.

I spent a lot of time at Brett’s house when we were kids. His mom became like a second mom to me. But that doesn’t mean she was always happy with me. One time, Brett and his brother were wrestling in the house when they crashed into a table, knocking over and breaking a valued hurricane lamp. When their mom found out, they both blamed me, saying I broke it. The truth was, I wasn’t even there when it happened. Even so, for years, Faith, Brett’s mom, was upset with me for breaking her beloved lamp.

One of Brett’s favorite places in the world was at his family’s cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan. I joined the family there several times and completely understand why Brett loved it up there so much.

Near the cottage was a breakwater wall at the mouth of the canal leading from Lake Macatawa into Lake Michigan. We fished there a few different times. Brett was a fairly serious fisherman. I was not, so I screwed around while Brett actually tried to catch fish.

At one point, my lure got caught on something at the foot of the breakwater wall. I couldn’t get it unstuck, so I began climbing down the face of the wall. After a step or two, my feet went out from under me, I fell hard on my back, and slid down toward the water. My body froze, and I was sure I was going to drown. I hit the water and came to a dead stop. Somehow, I didn’t plunge into the lake.

As it turned out, there are big metal plates at the foot of the wall about six inches below the surface of the water. I had landed on one of those plates. I was relived I wasn’t going to drown, but having had the air knocked out of me, I laid there, unable to move. I looked up to Brett for help. He was staring down at me, unamused.

“Would you get up here?” he said.

Not wanting to irate him further, I stood up on the metal plate, dripping wet, and made my way up the side of the wall.

The year that Brett went to Waubonsee Community College, I went to WIU. It was Friday, and we had just started spring break. When I got home to my parent’s house, I was tired and just wanted to chill in front of the TV. But Brett called, excited. He said he met this girl in one of his classes and was going to go out with her that night. He also said he had gotten a date for me. I told him I was too tired, plus I didn’t have any money to go on a date. Brett said he would pay for both of us. Having Brett say he’d pay was akin to hearing the Pope say, “Don’t worry about those commandments. Go have a good time.” In other words, it never happened. I knew he must really want to see this girl. I agreed to go.

I met Brett and the two girls at a local bar. To my surprise, my date was actually very cute. She was the sister of the girl Brett was dating. After the bar, we went to get something to eat. As we waited for our food, we talked, and during the conversation, my date revealed that she was just 14-years old. I was 21. Earlier, I had scooted up close to her, but now I moved away. I said I was tired and thought it was time to head home.

Later, I confronted Brett about setting me up with a 14-year old, who I had been buying drinks for at the bar. He didn’t see the problem. It wasn’t my money, he reminded me. He had paid for the whole date. It seemed lost on him that he had set me up with a minor.

In his defense, I doubt Brett knew she was so young when he set her up with me. He just wanted to date her sister, and getting her a date was a prerequisite. And considering that she didn’t look fourteen or act fourteen (she was at least as comfortable in the bar as we were), I’m sure her age was as much of a surprise to him as it was to me.

There are so many other stories I could tell. We grew up together, lived together in college, Brett was best man at my wedding, and we were lifelong friends. I’ll miss him, and I pray that he truly is in a better place, free of the heartache, the health issues, and the daily grind that wore him down far too soon. Rest in peace, my friend.

Facebooktwitter

Update on My Writing

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been writing much in recent months. Actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve been writing a lot about our current political reality, but I haven’t been able to make any progress on the two books that are in process.

The truth is, I’ve been consumed by politics for the past 8-10 months. That’s not like me. I like to think that I am politically aware, but I’ve never let politics take over my life before. I spend good parts of my day scouring the Internet, following social media, reading books and articles, and keeping an eye on TV news. I feel a bit like a political junkie. That’s not the person I want to be, but recently, I haven’t been able to help it. As a result, I’ve made precious little progress on Second Chances and Paris, the two books I’m working on.

They say the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. Trust me, I have a problem. I also have a plan to pull myself away from politics and start spending more time on writing.

For the next several months, I will be working on revising short stories and submitting them to literary journals. I find it easier right now to focus on smaller projects, so I’ll focus on essays and short stories. In time, I should be able to start focusing on larger projects, like the two books I’m working on.

The deadline for my first project, a nonfiction essay, is February 22. I plan on meeting that deadline, then revising and submitting one short story a month for the next four months. That will take us to the middle of the year, when I should be ready to return to my longer works.

Let’s put some dates to these smaller projects:

  • 2/22/21 – Revise and submit “The Greatest Catch”
  • 3/31/21 – Revise and submit “The Art of Charcuterie”
  • 4/30/21 – Revise and submit “Little Bass Lake”
  • 5/31/21 – Revise and submit “Pie”
  • 6/30/21 – Revise and submit “The Barking Dog”

That’s the plan. Now it’s time to get busy.

Facebooktwitter

Lincoln’s Philosophy of the Purpose of Government

In early July 1854, Abraham Lincoln took some time to prepare for his upcoming campaign by writing down some thoughts he could use in speeches on the campaign trail. At the time, Lincoln’s political philosophy of the purpose of government was considered radical in comparison to his contemporaries. No other president before him took such an activist approach to governmental purpose as Lincoln did.

It is believed that the following fragment that was written in early July 1854 was composed in preparation for a lecture, although there is no proof that such a lecture was ever given. What is known is that Lincoln never shared these thoughts as part of a campaign speech while running for president, or in campaigns prior to his presidential run.

This is what Lincoln wrote about the purpose of government:

“The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.

“In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

“The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

“The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

“From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.”

Before Lincoln, most politicians, including presidents, felt that the purpose of government was to not intrude on the life of the individual, other than to protect them from foreign invaders and provide them a freedom from government interference. Former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, who was a well-regarded Lincolnphile, had this to say about Lincoln’s thoughts on the purpose of government:

 “Some said government should do no more than protect its people from insurrection and foreign invasion and spend the rest of its time dispassionately observing the way its people played out the cards that fate had dealt them. He [Lincoln] scorned that view. He called it a ‘do nothing’ abdication of responsibility. ‘The legitimate object of government,’ he said, ‘is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves. There are many such things…,’ he said.  So he offered the ‘poor’ more than freedom and the encouragement of his own good example: he offered them government. Government that would work aggressively to help them find the chance they might not have found alone. He did it by fighting for bridges, railroad construction and other such projects that others decried as excessive government. He gave help for education, help for agriculture, land for the rural family struggling for a start.  And always, at the heart of his struggle and his yearning was the passion to make room for the outsider, the insistence upon a commitment to respect the idea of equality by fighting for inclusion.”

As I said, Lincoln’s approach to government was fairly new and out of the ordinary. In his life, Lincoln’s philosophy never got a fair hearing. He was too busy running a government engaged in a civil war, and he didn’t live long once the war was over. However, his words found a home with Theodore Roosevelt who became the father of what is generally known as “progressive Republicanism,” a term that seems like an oxymoron to us today, but which was popular with conservatives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Just as Theodore Roosevelt borrowed his philosophies from Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt borrowed his philosophies from his cousin, Theodore. In other words, the philosophy of government that led to the New Deal, found their origin in a fragment that Lincoln wrote back in 1854.

I’m really interested, not only in Lincoln’s philosophy of the purpose of government, but also in the way that philosophy inspired Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and how it led to one of the most progressive policy proposals in our country’s history. If you have any suggestions on readings (books, articles, etc.) that deal with this topic, please let me know in the comments.

Facebooktwitter

The Best Books I Read in 2020

As you’ve probably heard, 2020 was a strange year. In addition to a worldwide pandemic that changed all of our lives, we had an economy in ruins, country-wide protests for equal rights for black Americans, and a dysfunctional government that became more and more authoritarian as the year progressed. As a result, my reading habits were a bit different than usual.

For one, I read a lot more nonfiction in 2020, especially books about Donald Trump and his attack on our government. As you’d expect, some were good, some not so good, and some were exceptional.

I also consumed many more Audible Originals (AO) in 2020. These are audio books produced by Audible and available only to Audible members. Last year, I debated whether or not to include AO with other books. This year, I decided to include them. Even so, none of them made it into the top ten. There were several excellent AO books (along with a few duds), but in the end, the best ones fell just outside the top ten.

In the interest of transparency, the two best books I read this year are not on the list. Those books are 11-22-63 by Stephen King and Deadwood by Pete Dexter. I re-read both books this year, and since both were on previous top ten lists, I didn’t include them here. However, they are both excellent and highly recommended.

Unlike previous years, I did not read any books this year that I was really disappointed in. To be sure, I read a few books I didn’t like, but I wasn’t disappointed in them the way I have been in some books in the past. Part of that is that I didn’t have high expectations for the books I ended up not liking.

Without further ado, here are the ten best books I read in 2020:

10. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris – What our country went through over the past four years with Donald Trump had me thinking about the purpose of government. I heard historian Heather Cox Richardson mention that the purpose of our government was viewed differently by Abraham Lincoln than it ha been by any president before him, and that his views were, in essence, handed down to Theodore Roosevelt, and then to his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I found this intriguing, and the comment reminded me that I had heard great things about Morris’ books on Theodore Roosevelt (he wrote three), but I had never read them. Finally, I took the time to read the first of the three, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and was not disappointed. If you’re interested in reading the book, let me warn you, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is extremely detailed. Some would say, way more detailed than necessary. While the book did get bogged down from time to time with too many details, overall, I came to enjoy the little facts, comments, and interactions that, while not necessarily moving the story forward, added color and depth to an already interesting story. If you read it, give yourself some time. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is long (816 pages)

9. A Day in the Death of Walter Zawislak by Molly O’Keefe – All I knew about this book before I read it was what it said in the book’s description. I can’t remember who recommended the book to me, although I’m fairly certain it was recommended. Otherwise, it would not have been very likely that I would have read it. It’s just not a book that would have come up on my radar. However, I learned about it, I’m glad I did. In A Day in the Death of Walter Zawislak, author Molly O’Keefe tells a story, not of redemption or second chances, but of seeing our lives in a new perspective. As the protagonist, Walter, is about to die, he is given the opportunity to relive one day of his life. Problem is, Walter doesn’t want to relive any day of his life. He feels he’s wasted his life and doesn’t want to relive any specific day. Even the thing he cherishes most–his marriage to Rosie who predeceased him–doesn’t inspire a certain day to relive. With the help of Peter, a kind of benevolent angel of death, Walter comes to see that he didn’t waste his life, and helps him to choose which day to relive.

8. Chances Are… by Richard RussoChances Are… is the most recent book from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. It’s a quiet book without a lot of action (no car chases or shoot ‘em ups) and is a good example of the saying that in literary fiction, not much happens, but what does happen happens in great detail. Russo has a unique way of telling a story. I saw this same skill in Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. He tells a leisurely story, introducing us to the characters and unobtrusively brings us into their lives. Most of all, he takes his time to make us care. In the first half of his books, you’re hooked, but you’re not exactly sure what the story is about. You have an idea, but you can’t pin it down precisely. In the second half of the book, he delivers the goods. All of the questions you had are answered and all of the care you’ve built up is rewarded. Chances Are… is no different. The story is about three college friends who get together after many years of separation, and re-visit a mystery that helped shape all of their lives. The mystery, the disappearance of a woman they all loved, was never solved. But at their reunion, they learn the truth of not only what happened to her, but what happened to each of them.

7. Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes – I don’t think I was supposed to like Evvie Drake Starts Over. I mean, I don’t think it was written with me—or my demographic—in mind. Evvie Drake Starts Over is a book for women, what some might call Chick Lit (a term I understand, but don’t really like). Even so, I really, really liked it. It is one of the few books that stuck with me months after I read it. That is unusual. One of the things that I like about Evvie Drake Starts Over, and which I admire about a lot of books, is the way the author takes a relatively simple story idea and turns it into a captivating book. I don’t need a plot that contains a convoluted set of circumstances. Maybe it’s that I’m simple-minded, but if you want to impress me, take everyday humdrum life and make it interesting. That’s what Linda Holmes did with Evvie Drake Starts Over. The story centers around Evvie Drake, a woman whose husband has died and who, for the first time in her life, is truly on her own. At times, she navigates her new reality with all the grace of a water buffalo, but through it all, maintains a charm and sense of humor about herself and the world, until she doesn’t. Sometimes, life’s hardships are too much even for Evvie Drake.

6. Beneath A Scarlett Sky by Mark T. SullivanBeneath A Scarlett Sky is based on a true story that took place in Italy during World War II. Pino Lella is a typical Italian teenager at the start of the war. He has no interest in the Nazis or politics. Instead, his concern is first and foremost for the ladies. Although Pino ignores the Nazis that have taken over his town, his parents haven’t. They worry about their son and eventually convince him to join the Nazi army. They think he’ll be safer being in the army, rather than in the resistance. They don’t support the Nazis. In fact, just the opposite. But they want their son to stay safe. Pino lives a double life, escorting Jews out of Italy, across the Alps, to safety, while also serving as the driver for a mysterious Nazi officer. His position as a driver allows him to spy on the Nazis and funnel information to the resistance. His work helps defeat the Nazis, but has dire personal consequences for Pino. Author Mark T. Sullivan does a masterful job of keeping the reader engaged and turning pages. If you enjoy World War II era stories, this is the book for you.

5. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson – Brad Watson was a highly respected literary writer who died in 2020 at the all too young age of 64. I had heard a lot of good things about Watson over the years. My friend, Nick Rupert, even studied with Watson at one point, and spoke very highly of him. Until his death, Watson taught creative writing at several different schools, including the University of Alabama, Harvard University, University of West Florida, University of Mississippi, University of California-Irvine, and since 2005, at the University of Wyoming. Sadly, I had never read any of Watson’s work, so I made a point after his death to read one of his most popular short story collections, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. The bad news is that I bought just the story, not the story collection by the same name. The good news is that Watson’s writing was every bit as good as I had been told it was. I very much enjoyed the story, and now want to make sure that I read the entire collection. Maybe I can get that done in 2021.

4. (tie) Lake Life by David James Poissant and Bosses of Light and Sound by Nick Rupert – You could say this is a bit of a cop out on my part. Jamie and Nick are both friends and I would feel a little strange claiming one was better than the other. But their place on the list is not a cop out. Both of their books are terrific. Not only is it hard to separate them on the list, it is also difficult to compare them. Lake Life is a fully-realized debut novel. Bosses of Light and Sound is a wonderful short story collection. In fact, I gave input on several of Nick’s stories. He ignored my input, and the collection is better for it. Lake Life follows a dysfunctional family as they navigate the potential sale of their beloved family lake house. The characters are richly rendered, and Jamie describes their flaws and struggles with wide open eyes and a healthy dose of compassion. He does a masterful job of weaving together disparate stories into a wonderful novel. In Bosses of Light and Sound, Nick gives us quirky characters living lives of largely unseen struggles. Whether it’s an older woman seeking a sort of cockeyed redemption at a miniature golf course, a potentially suicidal man who is the unofficial savior of others wanting to commit suicide, or a pair of friends reliving a night they’d rather forget as a sort of tribute/apology to their dead compatriot, Nick offers his characters in all their flawed, all-too-human glory. Bosses of Light and Sound is Nick’s first publication, but it certainly won’t be his last.

3. Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore – Here’s the deal: You get to live up to 2,000 lives in order to perfect yourself and become enlightened. It usually doesn’t take all 2,000, but if you need that many, you can have that many. But no more. Milo, the protagonist, is getting dangerously close to having lived 2,000 lives. He’s down to just a few, and he doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to perfection. With the help of Suzy, a sort-of-god and sexual partner, Milo makes his way through his final few lives, learning along the way what it really means to live a life of sacrifice and service. Reincarnation Blues is not for everyone. At times it is confusing and chaotic, skipping around from life to life, never stopping to explain how one life impacts another. But if you’re willing to open your mind and do a little of the heavy lifting, Reincarnation Blues is a terrific, deeply philosophical novel.

2. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder – I mentioned earlier that I spent a lot of time reading nonfiction this year, especially as it related to Donald Trump. On Tyranny is not specifically about Trump, but the book did an excellent job of pointing out the authoritarian action he was taking and gave the reader a roadmap to follow to avoid authoritarianism and fascism in the future. Snyder is a history professor at Yale University who specializes in the rise of fascist regimes. His insights, while not taking aim directly at Trump and his administration, laid out a strong, detailed case that what we saw during Trump’s four years in office was a progressively strengthening authoritarian administration hellbent on betraying our democracy for their own political gain. I turned to Snyder’s book several times in my own political writing to better explain what we were witnessing. I found On Tyranny invaluable as a resource, and as a ray of hope that we would find our way out of one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history.

1. Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior – The best book I read all year was Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Kendzior. Unlike On Tyranny, Hiding in Plain Sight took aim directly at Donald Trump and explained, in no uncertain terms, what he intended to do to the United States. Kendzior was not alone in her warnings about Trump, but she was on the record long before others sounded the alarm, and she was as prescient as anyone about what Trump held in store for our country. One thing that separated Kendzior from other writers is that, unlike those other writers, she was not ensconced in Washington D.C politics. Kendzior wrote from her home in St. Louis where she had a clearer view of what was happening in the heart of the country. Too often, we forget that, while our politics often emanate from Washington, lives of ordinary Americans are lived outside the beltway. From her perch in the Midwest, Kendzior saw the shift to authoritarianism taking place, and understood the danger of such a rise. She also identified early on what kind of harm someone like Donald Trump could do with this burgeoning authoritarian bent taking hold around the country. Hiding in Plain Sight is a must-read for anyone who wants to not only understand Trump, but also understand the movement that brought him to power and empowered him to threaten our democracy.

Facebooktwitter

Want Unity? Stop Lying

The violent, bloody siege of the Capital on 1/6/21 was the logical conclusion of the big lie Donald Trump has been telling in one form or another since last summer. The big lie, that the election was stolen from him, has been amplified by Republicans and right-wing media incessantly since Trump first broached the subject. The claim was ramped up following the election, and was bolstered first by frivolous lawsuits, then by calls to ignore or replace certified electors from swing states that voted for Biden, and finally by an attempted takeover of our government by extremists who heard the big lie, believed it, then acted on it.

During yesterday’s House impeachment debate, Republicans, one after the other, stepped up to the microphone and continued lying to the American people. They claimed that Trump didn’t incite the crowd and that it wasn’t Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol. They re-hashed arguments from the first impeachment, saying that the Mueller Report exonerated Trump and that it didn’t find any evidence of collusion.

On the way to his speech in Alamo, TX yesterday, Trump told people on Air Force One that he won the election in a landslide. Then this morning, Trump aid, Peter Navarro, told Fox News morning propogandist, Maria Bartiromo, that Donald Trump won the election, and he excused the insurrectionists who took over the Capitol last week, saying that they were simply standing up for election integrity.

Can we just stop with the lies already? Millions of Trump supporters are all ginned up because they think that their chosen candidate had the election stolen away from him. They believe this despite there being no evidence to back up their belief. They believe it despite more than 60 election-related lawsuits that were dismissed for lack of evidence. They believe it despite the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security conducting investigations and both finding there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

So, why do they believe the big lie? They believe it because Trump says it, Republicans amplify it, and right-wing media repeats it, over and over again.

The facts are not in dispute. All evidence indicates that the election was free and fair. Chris Krebs, former Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security, stated that the 2020 presidential election was the fairest and most transparent in our country’s history. That didn’t square with Trump’s position, so he fired Krebs and doubled down on the big lie.

According to Timothy Snyder, history professor at Yale University and expert on authoritarianism, this is how the big lie works:

“The claim that Trump won the election is a Big Lie.

A Big Lie changes reality. To believe it, people must disbelieve their senses, distrust their fellow citizens, and live in a world of faith.

A Big Lie demands conspiracy thinking, since all who doubt it are seen as traitors.

A Big Lie undoes a society, since it divides citizens into believers and unbelievers.

A Big Lie destroys democracy, since people who are convinced that nothing is true but the utterances of their leader ignore voting and its results.

A Big Lie must bring violence, as it has.

A Big Lie can never be told just by one person. Trump is the originator of this Big Lie, but it could never have flourished without his allies on Capitol Hill.

Political futures now depend on this Big Lie. Senators Hawley and Cruz are running for president on the basis of this Big Lie.

There is a cure for the Big Lie. Our elected representatives should tell the truth, without dissimulation, about the results of the 2020 election.

Politicians who do not tell the simple truth perpetuate the Big Lie, further an alternative reality, support conspiracy theories, weaken democracy, and foment violence far worse than that of January 6, 2021.”

We all want unity and healing. Our nation is hurting, and we need to come together to address the many challenging issues we face. But unity can not happen, and healing can not begin, until the people responsible for the attempted coup on our government are brought to justice. They must be held accountable before we can move forward. That accountability starts by telling the truth.

If Republicans’ calls for unity and healing are to carry any weight, they must first accept that the election was free and fair, and that the results are credible and accurate. They must announce this fact to their followers, and they must do it in a way that their followers can hear and accept.

They must denounce the terrorist attack on the Capitol, and they must announce that it was right-wing Trump supporters, not Antifa, that carried out the attack.

They must accept that Trump and many Republicans in Congress shared the big lie and incited the insurrectionists. The only way to undo the horrible damage done by the big lie and all of the lies that were told to support it is to tell the truth.

Telling the truth is just the first step, but it is necessary for other steps to follow. We cannot have a strong democracy and a thriving nation when half the population lives in a fantasy world devoid of verifiable facts and disconnected from reality. They trusted Trump, they trusted Republicans, they trusted right-wing media, and they were fed one lie after another. It’s understandable why they believe what they believe, and it’s logical (although unforgivable) that some acted on the lies they were fed. The only way to de-escalate the situation, to bring us all together, and to move forward as a unified nation is to provide all citizens with a shared reality. That can only happen when the lying stops, and the truth-telling begins.

Facebooktwitter

Things Will Never Be The Same

In the hours after terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center in New York, I was sitting at my home in Wisconsin watching it all unfold on TV. At the time, we were hosting a foreign exchange student from Germany. She was a pretty cool customer, but I could tell by her fascination with the images on the television, that she was concerned, maybe even frightened, by what had happened earlier that day.

As we watched the news coverage and listened to journalists and pundits try to dissect the attack, Sophie, our foreign exchange student, asked me the question that was on everyone’s mind.

“What’s going to happen now?”

I was sitting in my favorite chair, holding my young son, and I remember thinking how badly I wanted to tell Sophie that everything was going to be alright. After all, she was just eighteen years old, and in the middle of a heinous, devastating terrorist attack, she was far away from home, far away from her parents, and far away from the things that anchored her in life. I wanted to reassure her, but I wasn’t willing to lie about what had happened that day.

“I don’t know what comes next,” I said. “But things will never be the same.”

That’s how I feel today about the insurrection that took place in Washington, DC this past week. I don’t know what will happen next, but I’m certain that things will never be the same.

Americans have been blessed with a stable, if imperfect, government for nearly 245 years. We’ve weathered depressions, pandemics, and wars, including a Civil War, but our country has survived, and at times, thrived. We can be forgiven if we’ve taken for granted the blessings of our enduring democracy, and the rights and freedoms that come with it. They are our birthright. What we’ve failed to understand is that these rights and freedoms are not automatic. They must be protected. If we don’t remain vigilant, they can be lost.

Because of our good fortune of living in a free, democratic country, we weren’t prepared for the rise of authoritarian sentiment. Many of us thought it couldn’t happen here. We knew the term coup d’état, but we thought it was reserved for other less enlightened countries. The thought of a coup in America never crossed our minds. So, when it walked up in broad daylight in the person of Donald Trump, most of us didn’t recognize it. Even as he violated democratic norms and bent the Constitution to the point of breaking, we still didn’t recognize, or couldn’t admit, that Trump was an existential threat to our country and our way of life.

Even now, after he incited a bloody insurrection that claimed the lives of five people, caused significant damage to the Capitol, and disrupted the workings of the Congress, many people still refuse to admit that what Trump and his supporters did to try to overturn a free and fair election was an attempted coup. These people make excuses, and lies, to deflect the fact that their favored president, on U.S. soil, called for an insurrection and led a bloody coup.

But there’s another aspect to what happened at our Capitol that I’m just now starting to come to grips with. It has taken a few days, but the emotions from the attack on our democracy are now running full speed.

I’m a proud American who loves our country and our democracy. I can be critical of our government, often harshly critical. But that’s only because of their failures to establish a more perfect union. I hate to see potential wasted, and often, our government fails to realize the potential that our American values and institutions promise. Even so, I am a proud American who marvels at our history (as flawed as it is at times) and has great hope for our future.

As a proud American, I was horrified watching our Capitol come under siege. It wasn’t just that insurrectionists had taken over the building. It was what the building represented. The Capitol is a symbol of freedom, a sanctuary of our republic, the cradle of our democracy. It is the People’s House, and represents, in all its monolithic splendor and architectural glory, our American ideals and the hopes of our nation. To see it overrun and desecrated by faux patriots, many of whom were hellbent on killing elected officials, including the Vice-President, was shocking and disheartening. This was not supposed to happen here, yet it was happening.

Since then, I have alternated between feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, and anger. There’s been a lot of anger, enough for everyone involved.

  • I’m angry at President Trump, who has consistently violated his oath of office, has fomented chaos, division, and violence for four years, and who has diminished the presidency and our country in the process;
  • I’m angry at the politicians who coddled the president, who lied (and continue to lie) about voter fraud, who worked to overturn a free and fair election, and who incited violence and insurrection;
  • I’m angry at the traitorous seditionists who defiled our Capitol and threatened (and continue to threaten) our democracy;
  • I’m angry at the law enforcement authorities who botched the job of protecting the Capitol;
  • I’m angry at our government, who still, five days later, has not held a press conference to tell us what’s going on with their investigations and what they’re doing to prevent a similar attack in the future.

My initial thoughts upon seeing the insurrection was about what we should do about it. I became analytical and thought about how we should punish those involved and make sure something like this never happens again. It was only later that the shock of what had happened wore off and I began to allow my emotions to come out. I know that seems backwards, but that’s how I’m built. Once the emotions started to flow, they flowed like a torrent.

I suspect it will be a long time before my emotions subside. As long as politicians keep trying to avoid responsibility for their actions and right-wing extremists continue to threaten our country and our democracy, I will remain angry and persistent in my hostility to their efforts and goals. They are antithetical to the values and ideals that built this country, and it is imperative, if we are to save our democracy, that we remain keenly on-guard to protect it from these anti-American, traitorous hordes.

Just like our nation, I want to know what comes next. Of course, that answer isn’t forthcoming, not anytime soon. But the one thing we can be sure of is, no matter what the future holds, things will never be the same.

Facebooktwitter

Where Do We Go From Here?

After a day like yesterday, how do we, as a nation, move forward?

This morning, I am struggling to find the words to adequately explain what we saw yesterday in DC. It’s easy to use words like “coup d’état” and “insurrection” to describe what happened in the Capitol, but those words only scratch the surface. To be sure, the words are accurate, but they fail to describe the emotions associated with the acts.

I am on the verge of disbelief. I know what I saw with my own eyes, but even after four years of the worst president in our country’s history, I was still unprepared to process what happened. I’m still trying to come to terms with how and why a putsch like this could happen in the United States. What I feel more confident about is how we must move forward if we are to avoid similar attempts to overthrow our government.

First, every single person who can be identified as involved in yesterday’s takeover of the Capitol must be tried, and if convicted, punished severely for their illegal actions. If anyone in the future thinks about following in the footsteps of these insurrectionists, they should know that they could pay a very high price.

Second, we need to know how security at the Capitol failed so miserably. Not only did Capitol police not prevent insurrectionists from entering the Capitol, in many cases, they assisted them. I’ve seen videos and photos of police taking selfies with the mob, moving barricades to make it easier for the mob to enter the Capitol, and helping people up the Capitol steps. This was a massive failure. Why did it happen? How did it happen? These protests were not a surprise. They had been planned for weeks. We need to know what happened so we can make sure it never happens again.

Third, politicians who shared easily debunked lies with the American people, and encouraged their supporters to rise up and “Stop the Steal” must be held accountable for spreading misinformation.

As an example, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) knew that there was no widespread voter fraud. He knew that courts across the country had already ruled on lawsuits claiming fraud and unconstitutional vote counting methods. He knew that objecting to electors from Pennsylvania would not only cause damage to our democracy, but that such objection would fail. Yet, he moved forward with his objection, even after insurrectionists had taken over the Capitol. His actions accomplished nothing other than ingratiating himself with Trump supporters. It was a cynical ploy that violated his oath, but Hawley moved forward with it anyway, putting his own selfish interests ahead of the needs of the country.

Of course, Josh Hawley wasn’t the only Congressperson spreading misinformation and inciting rioters. There are hundreds of them, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA), Louis Gohmert (R-TX), etc. They must be held to account. It may not be possible to remove them from office until the next election, but in the meantime, they must be marginalized. The actions they took to destroy our democracy is a stain they should never be allowed to wash away.

Finally, Donald Trump must be held to account for his lies and criminal actions. In the short-term, he should be impeached (It’s probably too late) or removed under the 25th Amendment (more likely). After yesterday, we can not have a president who encouraged violence against the Congress and our democracy, and who still refuses to accept the results of the election. He’s only in office for two more weeks, but he can cause considerable chaos and damage to the country in that time. He has to go.

In the long-term, Trump’s time in office must be investigated and he must be held accountable for any illegal activity he participated in. Even if the incoming administration decides not to punish Trump (something I suspect Biden will do), as a nation, we must still have a full accounting of the actions, legal and illegal, that occurred on Trump’s watch.

These are easy and obvious calls to make. What is more difficult to figure out is, how do we as citizens move forward. At the moment, we live in a country where half of the citizens don’t share the same reality as the other half. Democracy cannot survive in a country where the citizens cannot agree on objective facts.

Trump and his supporters in Congress have spread misinformation that has disconnected half the population from reality, and which have radicalized a large group of people who are willing to attack and destroy our democracy. They have done this for selfish political purposes, and as of now, they have not had to answer for it.

Calling out and punishing politicians is the easy part. It should be the job of our elected officials to tell us the truth. Failing to do that should carry a high cost. But what about those of us not in Congress?

It would be easy to say that we need to tone down the rhetoric and accept the opinions of our fellow citizens. It seems nice, but how can those who love democracy co-exist with those hellbent on destroying it?

Our democracy is a fragile thing. We are only one election away from losing it. Those who would prefer an authoritarian government, such as those supporting Trump, can not be allowed to get a foothold in Congress or in the White House.

In other words, we should not endeavor to make a compromise with those that would damage or destroy our democracy. Rather than come together, we must crush the forces that push for authoritarianism, including far right-wing groups, white supremacist groups, neo-nazis, and others, including those who would prefer a kleptocracy, that would benefit the wealthy and burden the rest of us. We can give no quarter to these people. We cannot compromise nor can we attempt to appease. Our democracy cannot survive any accommodation with those that would destroy it.

Facebooktwitter

What is Socialism?

Leading up to the 2020 Presidential Election, I wrote a Facebook post explaining socialism. I was frustrated that so many people labeled almost every proposal they opposed as socialist. It had gotten so bad that TV news interviewers were beginning to question Democratic politicians as if they were socialists.

After making my first post on socialism, I thought of a different way to address the issue, so I wrote a second post on the definition of socialism. I’ve re-printed those posts below in hopes that it will help anyone who reads them better understand that not everything called socialist is actually socialist.

WHAT IS SOCIALISM (Part 1)

If you Google “What is socialism?” this is the answer you get:

“Socialism is a political, social and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management of enterprises. It includes the political theories and movements associated with such systems. Social ownership can be public, collective, cooperative or of equity. While no single definition encapsulates many types of socialism, social ownership is the one common element.”

The reason I ask the question is because it seems a lot of people don’t know the answer. When discussing Medicare for All or extending public education through college or universal basic income (UBI), people opposed to such programs will often voice their opposition by calling the programs “socialist.” But are they really?

Compare the programs listed to the definition of socialism. Do any of the programs involve “social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management of enterprises?” The answer is “No.”

Take Medicare for All as an example. The same businesses that own the hospitals today will continue to own the hospitals, the same doctors will treat the patients, the same companies will produce the medical instruments and medicines. Unlike the Veterans Administration, in which the government owns the facilities and employs the doctors, nurses, and other staff, Medicare for All is simply a way of paying for healthcare. It removes the profit incentive of and government subsidies for private health insurance companies, but it doesn’t take ownership of those companies.

What about extending public education through college. If public K-12 isn’t socialism, how can extending it four additional years be socialism? It doesn’t involve taking over ownership of an industry (public schools exist alongside private schools) or having workers self-management of the enterprise. Again, not socialism.

Does UBI meet the definition of socialism? I’m not sure how it could. There is no social ownership of the means of production, no workers’ self-management of enterprises. Verdict: UBI is not socialist.

Programs many people term “socialist” are really just proposals designed to help citizens, paid for using taxpayer funding. That’s not socialist. Everything our government does, from the military to social security to the courts to the EPA, and everything in between, is paid for with taxpayer funding. It’s virtually the only way the government can pay for anything.

There may be reasons that people—conservatives in particular—can’t support these programs. I think they might be surprised to learn that there are good conservative arguments to support all three. That’s a discussion for another day. For today, I just want to make it clear that the programs that are being labeled as socialist actually aren’t socialist at all.

If you’re opposed to these or any other policy proposals, explain your opposition. But please, don’t label them as socialist. They’re not, and doing so does more to reveal your lack of understanding than it does to describe the proposal.

WHAT IS SOCIALISM (Part 2)

Yesterday, golfing legend Jack Nicklaus endorsed President Trump. This is not surprising. Nicklaus and Trump are friendly, and the golfer endorsed Trump in 2016 as well. In his statement endorsing the President, Nicklaus said that a Trump victory will prevent a “a socialist America and have the government run your life.”

Just a couple of nights earlier, CBS News reporter Norah O’Donnell, while interviewing vice-presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, asked the Senator if she would bring a “socialist or progressive perspective” to the White House.

If you’ve watched TV at all in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably seen Trump campaign commercials referring to the Biden/Harris ticket and their “socialist agenda.” Trump further warns during his rallies that Joe Biden is just a trojan horse for Harris and her “socialist allies” in Congress.

All of these instances reveal America’s enduring ignorance of socialism as a political philosophy. In an earlier post, I detailed the necessary elements of socialism, but let me go over that again quickly here:

“Socialism is a political, social and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management of enterprises. It includes the political theories and movements associated with such systems. Social ownership can be public, collective, cooperative or of equity. While no single definition encapsulates many types of socialism, social ownership is the one common element.”

For more than a century, Americans have feared the introduction of socialism into our system. The closest we ever came to electing a socialist leader was in the 1912 presidential election, when Eugene V. Dabs, an openly socialist candidate, won 6% of the vote. Not exactly a popular uprising. And to be fair, although Dabs was a self-proclaimed socialist, even he didn’t advocate for the government to take over the means of production in any industry.

Despite their never being a real threat of socialism grabbing a foothold in the United States, Americans have remained obsessed with the idea that socialism hides behind every progressive idea, which has allowed candidates from both parties to weaponize the word “socialism,” swinging it like a sword, while rendering it meaningless.

After the Civil War, in the 1870s, politicians warned that giving the vote to blacks was just a step on the road to socialism. They claimed that blacks, most of whom struggled through poverty, would vote for candidates who promised to give them money from the public coffers. This money could only be raised through property taxes, and property owners were almost exclusively whites. Politicians claimed this was a form of wealth redistribution, and called it socialism. But it wasn’t socialism then, and it isn’t socialism now.

As an aside, throughout American history, this idea that wealth redistribution equals “socialism” oddly only goes in one direction. When the government takes taxpayer money and gives it to corporations, no one yells “socialism.” When the administration in power changes the tax laws to benefit the wealthy, allowing them to pay less than their fair share in taxes, no one makes the charge that it is “creeping socialism.” They only cry “socialism” when the program or proposal benefits ordinary Americans.

Perhaps the most famous charge of “socialism” came after the Great Depression when FDR proposed New Deal legislation. Opponents cried “socialism” for every New Deal program, including Social Security, price supports for farmers, labor rights, public power (like the TVA), and FDIC insurance on bank accounts. In defending these programs, President Truman said “Socialism is their (conservatives) name for almost anything that helps all the people…(it’s) a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.”

Truman wasn’t wrong. A few years later, when Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, Democrats in Congress proposed a federal program to distribute the vaccine free of charge to American schoolchildren. Conservatives, led by the unfortunately named Oveta Culp Hobby, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, protested, saying such a scheme was socialized medicine.

Eisenhower himself was charged with the sin of socialism when he proposed the interstate highway system. Critics referred to the proposal as “creeping socialism” and said it was a slippery slope to removing authority and responsibility from the states.

In later years, conservatives railed against the introduction of Medicare, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and LBJ’s Great Society legislation. It’s somewhat ironic that when Trump—who accuses Biden of being a socialist—promises to protect Medicare, Social Security, and the ACA’s mandate to waive pre-existing conditions, he’s promising to protect programs that were once themselves called socialist programs.

The fact is, none of these programs are socialistic, nor is Medicare for All, expanding public education to college, universal basic income, nor the “Green New Deal.” They are progressive to be sure, but progressivism is not the same as socialism. In fact, progressivism is a capitalistic, democratic construct. These type of progressive programs seem far-left in the United States, but in Europe, they would be center-left, barely liberal at all.

We in the United States need to get over this idea that any proposal designed to help middle- and lower-class citizens is socialistic. These proposals are very much in keeping with our democratic ideals and traditions. There is nothing about democracy that says legislation can’t help ordinary citizens. In fact, that’s what democracy is all about.

So, the next time you hear the word “socialism” being lazily throw around to describe a proposal the speaker doesn’t like, just remember that socialism requires social ownership of the means of production. If the proposal doesn’t require that, then it isn’t socialism.

And continue to enjoy the interstate highway system, FDIC insurance on your bank accounts, Medicare, Social Security, and any number of other programs we take for granted in 2020. They didn’t usher in socialism to America once they became law, and neither will new proposals conservatives brand with that scary “S” word.

.

Facebooktwitter