Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Democracy in Clinton, Iowa

Life isn’t but a moment’s beautiful dance through time.
Caught in the past, present, and futures’ constant intertwine.
For the past, I am proud it’s made me what I’ve come to be.
For the future, I am hopeful it’s where I’ll reach the dreams I see.
For the present, I am most thankful, it’s where in this moment’s dance,
I live, I exist, I am me.

- Poem on a mural in downtown Clinton,
signed by “EB” on July 7th, 2008

I. The Why
And so, sitting in the passenger seat in Clinton, Iowa, overlooking the calm of Lake Clinton, the widest point on the Missisippi River according to Gary Herrity, former middle school teacher and principal, now local historian and (by his own description) professional retired golfer who is driving me around on day one at 20 miles per hour, rarely more, sometimes far less, so as to be sure that he has adequate time to draw upon over one hundred and fifty years of history to illuminate what we see around us, such as this lake, “one of the most beautiful spots in America.” Or the fact that four hundred people were not killed by the flood of November 11, 1940, as he was told confidently by another Clintonian. It was actually just two people, stranded for twenty hours, both rescued. These facts were easily established by reviewing the appropriate day’s edition of the Clinton Herald newspaper at the Clinton Public Library, which Herrity did (and his associate had not), the front page of which was lacking in any reference to a tragedy which, had it unfolded, would have undoubtedly been "one of the top stories of Clinton history.”
Recounting the conversation rhetorically, he asks, “You going to believe your microfiche twenty feet away from you, or me, city historian, or you going to believe someone who told you? Someone who told me has a lot more impact.”
A friend of mine, a sociologist by training, told me that whatever I chose to write about Clinton would be a lie, that no conclusions could be drawn that weren’t the witting or unwitting result of bias or ignorance or simply not having the whole story. I think that’s probably right, both for those reasons mentioned, and because it’s impossible to honestly tell a singular tale about something like a city, regardless of how relatively small it might be.
It is dishonest to say Clinton represents an America that no longer exists, one whose obsolescence is threatening to drag the town into memory with it – though that’s partially true, as many people here partially acknowledge. Nor is it accurate to say that Clinton’s residents have given up, that they’ve turned their backs on politics and politicians – though many evoke such disappointment with both that even the effusively optimistic 26-year-old Jacob Couppee (who this fall took some time away from his Masters degree and unpaid internship with the Regional Development Corporation to run for City Council) told me flatly as we sat in an ice cream parlor (soon to close for the winter) that as things stand, “Hope is beginning to fade.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thoughts on Tim Hetherington

A friend of mine served two tours of duty in Iraq. When WikiLeaks released its Apache attack video one year ago, he expressed surprise at the attention it received. Before his second deployment, he had spent hours watching recordings of IEDs exploding in and around American military convoys. They had been freely posted online by insurgent groups in Iraq. During a visit, he showed me some of them, explaining the type and origin of the bombs being detonated, weapons which he would soon be the target of. For him, the violence of the war had long been available for viewing. What was missing was a desire among the general public to see it.
A few weeks ago, I watched Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated documentary filmed and directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. (For nearly a year, I had made a point of avoiding it.) The film was often described as a-political in orientation, and indeed, it proceeds without commentary or narration, allowing those in the audience to draw their own conclusions from the images seen. That said, conclusions aren't hard to draw. Hetherington and Junger produced a simple document, one which, at its core, portrays a group of young men attempting to fight off madness on a mountaintop in the far eastern reaches of America's war in Afghanistan. Their transformations convey a much more complex picture of contemporary military service than the sanitized, stock language routinely used by elected officials who speak of "heroic" troops "performing brilliantly." In his second State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned our wars only in passing. "Look to Iraq," he said, "where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high." In 2010, 343 American service members had committed suicide, 69 more than the previous year. Obama's words were an obfuscation of the reality of these wars, of their consequences on those who fight them and those who attempt to survive in their midst. And they were certainly not applicable to the world shown through Restrepo's unblinking lens.
Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya yesterday. In response, the White House issued a statement:
We were saddened to learn of the death of film director and photographer Tim Hetherington while working in Misrata, and we are deeply concerned about the well being of other journalists who were wounded alongside him. Journalists across the globe risk their lives each day to keep us informed, demand accountability from world leaders, and give a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard. The Libyan government and all governments across the world must take steps to protect journalists doing this vital work. The United States will work to do everything possible to assist those who were injured in getting the care they need. Our thoughts are with these brave journalists and their loved ones.
"Journalists across the globe risk their lives each day to keep us informed, demand accountability from world leaders, and give a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard." It was the first time I had heard an administration official publicly mention Hetherington's name. Is the White House comfortable with the voices his work amplified, with the stories it told, with the accountability it demanded? More importantly, are we?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Chicago Runoffs Feature Limited Turnout

14 Chicago wards hosted an aldermanic runoff on Tuesday, April 5th, determining close to a third of the City Council's composition. On average, voter turnout in these races was down 32.8 percent from February levels, according to official statistics from the Board of Elections. This was a greater decrease than in 2007, when, among wards with runoffs, turnout in the average second round contest dropped by about 10 percent.
On Tuesday, Debra Silverstein ousted incumbent Bernard L. Stone in the 50th ward, which featured February's highest turnout (74 percent of those officially registered went to the polls). Silverstein received 61.6 percent of the vote, but with a 16.2 percent decrease in turnout, this translated to just 22.8 percent of the ward's registered voters. The average aldermanic runoff victor secured votes from 15 percent of their ward's officially registered residents. In ward 16, which had the city's lowest turnout in February (28.9 percent), Alderman JoAnn Thompson was sent back to City Hall after receiving 2,037 votes, 9.2 percent of officially registered voters.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wisconsin: Right Fight, Wrong Tactics

The Democratic members of Wisconsin's state senate made the wrong decision when they elected to leave the capitol ten days ago. They are using procedural obstructionism in an anti-democratic way, preventing the majority party from enacting its legislative agenda, much as Republicans in Washington have abused the filibuster to nearly eradicate majority rule in the U.S. Senate. It is illogical to defend one action and decry the other. Last November, 52.25 percent of Wisconsin voters selected Scott Walker as their choice for governor. His party controls the state's government. If we believe in democracy, his agenda should be permitted to pass into law.
In a similar way, the conduct of some of the protesters and democratic legislators still in Madison is troubling. The chants rained down on Republican state representatives after they passed Walker's budget (using an admittedly objectionable procedure) are reminiscent of the group intimidation present at town hall meetings in the summer of 2009. Also questionable is the decision some protesters have made to sleep in the capitol building, a statement implying future civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is justified by a lack of democratic alternatives. The United States is not Egypt, where under Hosni Mubarak, political opponents of the ruling class were imprisoned. Again, Scott Walker was elected by a majority of Wisconsin voters. As such, disruptive tactics of any nature designed to prevent his agenda from being enacted are not in keeping with democratic governance.
To support such tactics, we must argue that Wisconsin's system of state government is in actuality a false democracy - that it is instead a plutocracy where the will of a well-connected, rich minority is foisted on the vast majority of an effectively disenfranchised populace. There is little doubt indeed that American democracy is fundamentally flawed. The collusion of money and political power in the United States exists to such a degree that comparisons of our system to authoritarian ones abroad have legitimacy. (Glenn Greenwald recently made an astute observation along these lines.) Within this framework, the actions in Wisconsin take on a heroic nature: the people versus the rapacious Koch brothers.
But it should also be clear that in a stronger democracy, the campaign contributions and slick propaganda rich donors pay for would hold far less sway. An electorate primed to be influenced by the vapidity of the average thirty second TV spot is one profoundly distanced from the independent thought meaningful democracy demands. And the legislator who feels so insulated from public accountability that they are unafraid to cast votes unabashedly aligned with the interests of their biggest campaign financiers reveals a voting public which has failed to protect its own self-interest.
The largest threat to our democracy remains voter apathy. Consider the opportunity missed when we realize that the statewide turnout during Wisconsin's midterms was just under 50 percent, nearly 20 points lower than in November of 2008. The previous March, 62 percent of Iraqis went to the polls, including 53 percent in Baghdad despite a five hour militant attack which had taken place the morning of the election. In 2006, as the Iraq war and corruption scandals raged, just 40.4 percent of Americans voted in the congressional midterms. And here in Chicago, the supposed return of democracy following the retirement of the dynastic Mayor Daley was celebrated by a mere 41.8 percent of the registered public.
The proceeding is not intended to serve as an argument against the substance of the protesters' objections. Nor should it be taken as a justification for the distorting influence money, lobbying, or legislative abuses of power have on our politics. My intention, rather, is to question the tactics on display in Madison, and to argue that the emotional catharsis they have produced should not distract from the work of sustained political organizing and democracy building that are the only means of addressing the root causes of problematic policymaking.
Rapidly developing technologies are making such organizing ever easier, and the dis-empowerment of the public, especially when it is self-induced, less and less justifiable. If the work of Governor Walker is as demonstrably dangerous to the interests of Wisconsin residents as his opponents claim, then the goal of those opponents should be to construct a system of democratic accountability which will remove him from power at the next election. Adopting such priorities will prove far more effective, and democratic, than obstructionist and theatrical tactics alone.
(This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The guy who discovered @MayorEmanuel

The following piece explains how Chicago's Seth Lavin discovered the identity of the individual behind the @MayorEmanuel Twitter feed before anyone else:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chicago According to Patricia Watkins

This article explores the 2010-2011 mayoral candidacy of Patricia Watkins. 

Patricia Watkins wasn't invited to the televised January 17 debate between the candidates for Chicago mayor, but that didn't stop her from declaring herself the winner in a statement released after it was over. The Watkins campaign held a "virtual" debate in its South Side office at 79th and Ashland that was broadcast online, during which the 53-year-old candidate answered the same questions Rahm Emanuel, Gery Chico, Miguel del Valle, and Carol Moseley Braun had faced. "Chicago voters need to hear from all the candidates, not just the ones the media has chosen for the spotlight," Watkins said in the statement. "So I'm not going to let something as silly as the lack of an invitation stop me from talking about the issues."

Watkins entered Chicago's most watched political race in November with minimal city-wide name recognition. As of January 20th, she had 1/20th the money of the fund-raising leader (Emanuel) and consistently anemic polling numbers (around or less than one percent in major surveys). But in the narrative she has worked to craft, none of that matters. She wants voters to see Chicago's political life as she does: an illegitimate charade played out by the news media, powerful corporate backers, and the occupants of City Hall, all of whom do little more than perpetuate an equally illegitimate set of economic, legal, and educational policies that have driven the city to the brink and forced misery on the struggling citizens who populate its forgotten, failing neighborhoods. And into this farce, Watkins argues, have now ridden a set of characters vying for control of a reality they've assiduously avoided dealing with, one they neither understand nor truly care about.

On January 31 she was expounding on this message during a candidate forum on 95th Street, one she had been invited to, when Carol Moseley Braun levied the instantly notorious charge that Watkins was unfamiliar with her record due to the "20 years" she had spent "strung out on crack." Braun's intemperate accusation came in response to Watkins' scornful dismissal of Braun's resume. Despite "all the violence running rampant," Watkins had said, "I did not even know the woman lived in the city of Chicago. I have not heard her voice out there on the streets."

"I am tired of seeing people missing in action, come showing up from nowhere," she said after the debate. "It's confusing people. And these people have been confused enough. We've suffered enough."