Category Archives: America

Reader In Chief

As a reader, librarian, and citizen, I’m going to miss this “reader in chief,” as John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chronicle calls him:

As is amply manifest in his writing, Obama is someone who has done a lot of thinking about his place in the world, his upbringing, his uniquely American story. And, as president, he has proved himself to be just as reflective, viewing the world, as he says, in shades of gray, with nuance — qualities enhanced by a lifetime of reading.

It’s been really nice having a president who not only knows who Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, but can have intelligent, in-depth conversations with her and him. (It’s also really nice to have a new Librarian of Congress now, rather than next year or beyond. Don’t want to think about who PEOTUS would have nominated.)

And what of Obama’s successor? McMurtie:

Despite all the books that bear his name, the next president, in fact, seems to care very little about books. He tweets obsessively, at all hours, about the most trivial matters, yet he claims he doesn’t have the time to read.

“I’m always busy doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post in July. “Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”

When asked by Megyn Kelly of Fox News to name the last book he read, he answered, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters. I don’t have the time.”

God help us all.

Gentleman Boss

“His political experience had been restricted almost exclusively to one state, and his knowledge of national and international affairs was limited to what any reasonably curious New Yorker might cull from local newspapers.”

“His nomination had been entirely unexpected, and was commonly interpreted as a device for placating the most opprobrious forces within the GOP.”

“His presidency was almost unanimously dreaded. There were those, however, who contended that he would change dramatically once he found himself in the White House.”

“It is out of this mess of filth that he will go to the Presidential chair.”

“It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.'”

Oh, you thought I might be referring to our incoming forty-fifth president? Good guess. But these quotes were instead written about Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first president and the subject of the latest presidential biography I decided to tackle: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves.

Why Arthur? I remember reading in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which is about the assassination of James Garfield, about how as Garfield’s vice president and successor, Arthur was considered a corrupt spoilsman, a GOP hack subject to the whims of nefarious party strongmen. He’d never held public office before being named vice president as a consolation prize for his wing of the Republican Party. He was New York’s quartermaster general during the Civil War but otherwise hadn’t served in the military. His sudden ascension to the presidency was greeted with a mix of dread and low expectations, and yet when he became president he managed to surprise everyone with his dedication to reform and respectability.

800px-20_Chester_Arthur_3x4.jpgHope, then, is why Arthur and why now. After the 2016 election I wanted to learn more about the man whose presidency made a good many people scoff and wring their hands in despair, yet who proved them wrong by being better than he had been—or at least clearing the low bar that was set for him.

The comparison only goes so far. Arthur practiced law, was involved in GOP politics politics for years, and proved a capable and well-regarded quartermaster during the war. He wasn’t the moral vacuum his 2016 successor is, though he also didn’t leave much time for family and was an unabashed beneficiary of the privileges his positions afforded. If anything the current president-elect compares just as much to Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child, had hired a convict as a “substitute” in the Civil War, and was “supposed to have enjoyed hanging two criminals” while serving as sheriff in Buffalo.

(Hints of Obama surfaced too: Arthur was accused by rivals of being foreign-born, first in Ireland, then later in Canada, and thus ineligible for the presidency. He also had to retake the oath of office after having first done it with a New York state judge at 2 a.m. the morning after Garfield died.)

More an exhaustive overview of Gilded Age politics than an Arthur biography, the book often felt like Reeves was more interested in tariff debates and who got appointed to which middling position than in talking about Arthur, who admittedly isn’t the most rousing historical subject. It felt a lot longer than it was, though it did drop some interesting Arthur Nuggets™ like:

  • He was one of a few first-generation presidents: Jackson, Buchanan, and Obama’s fathers and Jefferson, Wilson, and Hoover’s mothers were foreign-born
  • He spoke at the capstone ceremony of the finally completed Washington Monument in December 1884, which had been under construction since 1848
  • His younger sister Mary served as First Lady because his wife had died before he entered office

As Reeves writes, the presidency during the Gilded Age did not have the power it now has. Congress controlled the political movement of the day; the president was a vetoer and just kept the federal machine running by filling positions with supporters and other eager office-seekers. There also weren’t the cascading foreign crises we’re used to presidents having to manage today. “From Appomattox to the sinking of the Maine,” Reeves writes, “the nation was preoccupied with its own internal developments.” Moreover, Arthur didn’t really want the job. He was forced into it and surprised everyone with how he handled it.

Someone who understood this at the time was Julia Sand, a young disabled woman from New Jersey who began writing to Arthur after Garfield was shot to encourage him and offer unsolicited political counsel. She knew Arthur’s reputation, but eloquently implored him to overcome it:

Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims. It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time—when you have given reason for it—the country will love & trust you. … It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.

Let’s hope this history repeats itself.

Who I’m With

Just over a year ago, I was lying on a hotel bed in Peoria, Illinois, after a day of attending sessions at a library conference, and planned to finish off my evening reading. But instead I turned on the TV (always a big mistake) and was immediately thrust into the Select Committee on Benghazi’s marathon grilling of Hillary Clinton. Watching the final two hours of this grotesque circus, I realized then that I was seeing the future.

Clinton, congenitally unable to be honest yet enduring the pressure with aplomb, battling a Republican Congress, congenitally unable to be sane. I knew then that the “Learn Nothing, Do Nothing” Republicans would hound her, right or (mostly) wrong, to infinity and beyond. I also knew then that Clinton would be our next president.

Back in March I was fairly determined not to vote for either Clinton or Trump and laid out my reasons why. I stand by them now, but wished circumstances had remained the same. In the seven months since I wrote that, the primaries concluded, leaving us with the most unqualified presidential candidate the republic has yet seen. One who, since the general election began, has proven that point over and over and over again.

So I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m not happy about it, but I’m also OK with voting for the first female president and one who is at least attached to reality. It’s cold comfort for what will be in store these next four years, which won’t be pretty, but will be a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

UPDATE: Welp, guess not.

Hugging, No Learning

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in 2011 at the ceremony for the new CBA.

I remember back during the 2011 NFL lockout, a Packers.com columnist kept writing to the fans not to get invested in the heated rhetoric between the players and owners, because once an agreement was reached—and it would be reached—the representatives of the players and the owners would be hugging on stage, all would be well again, and the fans who’d so adamantly taken sides would be wondering why they invested so much energy and partisan passion into a PR battle. And sure enough, a new CBA was reached, football started on time, and all those months of tit-for-tat suddenly seemed far less serious than diehard fans would have believed.

I was reminded of that time and feeling while listening to David Axelrod’s conversation with Karl Rove on Axelrod’s podcast. As the two chief political operatives for the campaigns of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, they are each other’s political opposite and rival, representing the ideologies of the two primary political parties in the United States. And here they are, chatting about life and politics like old college chums. If you didn’t know which party they worked for you might not even know they were opponents.

So when the fire-breathers on either side of the aisle get fired up on cable news or talk radio, excoriating the Other Guys for the sin of not agreeing with them or even viewing them as downright evil, I get to wondering if they’re just being played for suckers.

If Karl Rove and David Axelrod—the guys whose job it is to convince voters in strong terms that the other guy is absolutely wrong and must be stopped—if they can sit and have a laugh together, why can’t the people whose votes they seek?

If Trump toady Sean Hannity can hang out at a baseball game with Keith Olbermann, his arch media rival for a time, or harass Megyn Kelly—also a Fox News commentator—on Twitter and then literally hug it out, why don’t Hannity’s wound-up followers see through the pablum he’s peddling for views?

Sports and politics are similar in that they involve intense gamesmanship, strategy, and a struggle of power and will and performance in a high-pressure environment. Obama even compared politics to football in a chat with Jerry Seinfeld. So why is it NFL players can play the game intensely, trying desperately to defeat their opponent, but still converge on the field after the game for hugs and handshakes and prayer circles? And why can’t voters?

The easy answer is that sports don’t matter, ultimately. They matter to the players, whose livelihoods are affected by their performance. But when a fan turns off the TV after a game, his life is the exact same as it was when the game began. Conversely, politics do matter. People’s lives are affected by legislation and the action or inaction of leaders.

But I don’t think it has to be that simple.

If voters and pundits actually cared about winning—i.e. getting legislature through Congress or changing their opponents’ minds—they wouldn’t demonize the people whose votes will be needed in order to achieve that desired victory.

If voters and pundits actually cared about winning, they should read and view things outside of their ideological media echo chamber to better understand why some people have different opinions.

But it seems like people just want to act angry. Settle scores. Humiliate whoever their Other is. And all the while the TV networks, talk radio, the NFL, or whoever has something to gain from outrage, rakes in enough revenue through clicks, ads, and eyeballs to self-justify, rinse, and repeat.

I’m not doubting the sincerity of those with strongly held beliefs, or those who go public with them. In a democracy, that should be encouraged. I only wish to avoid the scorched earth that comes of it, because I, speaking for those of us who aren’t holding the flamethrowers, am not interested in getting burned by someone who doesn’t know how the game is played.

The Man In The High Castle

Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.

Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.

In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”

To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.

What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.

It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.

(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)

How to Win My Vote

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My first presidential vote was in 2008 for Barack Obama. It’s a vote I will never regret, despite the mixed results of the Obama administration. But in 2012 I didn’t vote to re-elect Obama, despite being generally supportive of his presidency and against the prospect of Mitt Romney. I voted for the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson—largely for the reasons Conor Friedersdorf laid down at the time—and wrote-in my deceased grandfather for some of the smaller offices.

All this to say: winning my vote in 2016 has become an uphill battle for the major parties. The specter of Hillary Clinton from the Democrats and (vomits) Donald Trump from the Republicans has further galvanized my already enhanced reluctance to vote for either corrupt, craven, duplicitous party.

Being a resident of a solid-blue state, my vote won’t count for much come November. But here are my (non-exhaustive) conditions for each party if they want it. I await their thoughtful reconsideration of misguided priorities having to pick between a douche and a turd.

Republicans

Stop clinging to your guns. I’m a hunter; I get it. I’ve shot and killed deer and ducks, and felt the awesome power of a gun’s blast. To a certain type of person it’s intoxicating. But saying “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” completely misses the point, which is that people are dying needlessly and at a historical rate because of them. Your Baracknophobic obsession with owning guns and proselytizing for them has become pathological. You’ve lost touch with reality, which is that literally the only purpose of a gun is destruction. This reality supersedes the cultic devotion you’ve imbued in the Constitution, which believe it or not has not existed forever and was not chiseled into stone on Mount Sinai. Besides, the Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment.

And religion. America is not a Christian nation. I say that having been a Christian all my life, one who’s frustrated with the corporatization of religion and unjust wielding of power from the pulpit. You’re not helping people of faith by crying martyr and holding hands with Kim Davis. And you actively hurt people of other faiths or no faith at all, who are citizens deserving just as much representation as you do. I strongly support religious liberty and gladly practice it, while at the same time acknowledging that other religious people around the world experience actual life-threatening religious discrimination.

Start actually, you know, conserving. Treating the earth like a garbage dump is not conservatism. Laughing at climate science is not conservatism. Bowing down to the Koch brothers is not conservatism. How about let’s just work on those three things before moving on to advanced concepts like “Oil is not a renewable resource” and “Snow does not prove global warming is a hoax.”

Acknowledge that black lives matter. “But all lives matter!” Yeah, no. Maybe in your utopian dreams. In reality, where deeds matter a whole lot more than words, black lives have been enslaved, oppressed, incarcerated, ignored, and killed a whole lot more than others. The first step to changing this is admitting that’s a problem.

Don’t nominate Donald Trump. Which is a sentence that in saner times would seem self-evident, but alas. I started writing this post in the summer of 2015, when the campaign was still young and uncertain and when Trump seemed like a fad scripted by late-night comedy shows that would eventually burn out. Now here we are in March and Trump has the Republicans by their Grand Old Parts. Part of me wants him to get the nod, just so he can push the red button on the GOP implosion and hopefully begin the process of restoring the party to something resembling respectable. But if we’re looking at the big picture, having a short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office would most decidedly not make America great again.

Democrats

At least pretend like abortions are bad. Because they are. Regardless of the circumstances that lead to the pregnancy, abortion is the gruesome slaying of a nascent life. Trying to defund Planned Parenthood is a stupid, short-sighted gambit by the Republicans, but the spirit behind it isn’t. Stop treating abortion as if it’s like ordering a latte and maybe its opponents won’t have to make such desperate, futile, attention-seeking ploys to stop it altogether.

Stop treating religious people like they’re all Sarah Palin. Because they aren’t. Dan Savage likes to call quiet, non-polemic religious folk NALTs, as in “Not All Like That”—like the Palins and Cruzes and Santorums of the world, who lack any discernible shade of grey in their worldview. To the skeptical outsider, a global religion like Christianity may look like one big blurry ball of bigoted buffoons; but anyone who assumes that, and can’t or won’t see the spectrum within, isn’t qualified to say so.

Put down your pitchforks. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a great primer on the internet’s outrage-industrial complex and the irony of low tolerance among well-intentioned liberals who preach tolerance themselves. However sympathetic I am to historically oppressed people getting a voice, I cannot get behind any ideology prone to stridency and self-seriousness. Take a breath, and stop tar-and-feathering technocrats and small-town pizzerias.

Acknowledge that police lives matter. I wouldn’t want to be a cop; would you? Every one of those police shooting videos sickens me, and I almost always sympathize with whoever was the victim of overreaching power. But I never forget how fraught with danger the lives of law enforcement are, that they chose to be the person called when something bad could be happening. Please: let’s get the bad ones off the street and restrict their use of deadly force, but never forget their humanity.

Don’t nominate Hillary Clinton. I’d love to vote for a female president. Just not this female. Sure, she’s qualified and acts the part: like everyone, I loved watching her own the Republicans during the Benghazi circus of cynicism hearings and imagine we’d see a lot of that Hillary during her presidency. But that’s the problem: I prefer presidents whose lives aren’t telenovela-level public dramas, and have at least a few core beliefs they stick with even when it’s inconvenient. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton: when all is said and all is done, Sanders has beliefs; Clinton has none. (And no, I don’t “feel the Bern”… I just don’t want to climb the Hill.)

The Big Short

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The scene in The Big Short that encapsulates the entire sad, tragic, enraging economic failure it covers is a short one. After Lehman Brothers collapses, the dejected horde of laid-off employees are shown streaming out of the building, bewildered and holding their bankers boxes of personal items, as an executive (which in the script is described as “diminutive”) shouts robotically:

“Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press! Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press!”

I don’t know if this actually happened or not, but it sure sounds like it could have. The Move along, nothing to see here attitude pretty much sums up the events in the film, and the Great Recession in general. Malfeasant banks, obeisant credit agencies and watchdogs, reckless homebuyers, deceitful executives all agreed there was nothing wrong, that bad things are only done by bad people and not Good Americans just doing their jobs.

I was a junior in college when the crash hit in September 2008, so I was largely (and luckily) isolated from its worst effects. By the time I was looking for a “real” job, after a gap year and two years in grad school, it was 2013 and economic conditions were much more favorable. Still, I remember that time very well: GOP presidential nominee John “The fundamentals of our economy are strong” McCain, the bailout, the bonuses, Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer.

People my age have witnessed many events over the last decade and a half that I think will remain deeply instructive for our foundational understanding of the world: 9/11, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Church sex abuse, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, Trayvon Martin, and the NSA a few among them. Controversies like these often reveal the partisan fault lines that determine what you ought to believe about them, depending on whether your county is red or blue. But to me they all proved, just as The Big Short proves, that the game is rigged, that the truth is not as it is reported to be.

Move along, nothing to see here.

This is a lamentable conclusion. The film dresses it up with good actors delivering savvy exposition at a caper’s pace, but it is there nevertheless. At the heart of this film are farsighted money-men trying to profit off the greed of shortsighted money-men. This makes them no better than Captain Renault in Casablanca, and yet we root for them because they’re not Major Strasser.

I wasn’t planning on getting so down while writing about this film, but the underlying melancholy that pervades it stuck with me, and ought to. Perhaps that’s why I responded to this much more than The Wolf of Wall Street, which treads similar territory yet repulsed me. (I get that Scorsese was trying to do that: congrats, I feel disgusted by Belfort and his life; now I will never watch it again.) The Big Short made me understand and made me give a damn; The Wolf of Wall Street spat in my face. Who would have thought Adam McKay would create a more well-rounded take on American avarice than Martin Scorsese?

Guns Kill People

It is right and good that the New York Times chose, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial on Page 1. “End the Gun Epidemic in America” captures the zeitgeist well, at least that of reasonable human beings without a vested, monied interest in seeing the NRA-sponsored carnage continue.

“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment,” the editorial reads. “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” Indeed, it seems the only right in the Constitution that has found itself immune from debate is that of the Second Amendment. The beneficiary of a modern-day gag rule, wherein even researching the causes and effects of gun violence is outlawed, our supposed right as American citizens to own unlimited military-grade weaponry is considered as self-evident and God-blessed as our country itself.

We need a John Quincy Adams. An incorrigible ramrod of righteousness with nothing to lose. Smart enough to use the system to the cause’s favor and intractably annoying to its enemies. We also need the truth to be spoken through the research—research!—that we’ve consistently denied because denial is bliss. When enough people finally open their eyes to this culture of death we’ve protected, the delusional, cowardly mania for guns will compare in the future’s unfavorable eyes to the same delusional, cowardly mania for slavery that gripped this country for far too long.

Little Big City

Imagine my surprise when fellow high-school classmate and garage band musician Aaron Shekey was mentioned in John McPhee’s latest essay for The New Yorker. McPhee quoted Shekey’s own essay from a few years ago called “It’s What You Leave Out”, about the curious case of the Madison skyline. “One of the more interesting things about the layout of my hometown,” Shekey wrote, “is a simple rule the city planners made around 1915: No building can be taller than the base of the pillars surrounding the capital building’s dome—that’s only 190 feet.”

This mandate, now 100 years old, is still in place, leaving us with a skyline a Madisonian who was around at the time of the edict’s passing would still recognize.

It’s a view I’ve grown used to, even bored of, having lived there until I left for college. But when I compare it to other lakeside skylines I’ve come to know, like Chicago’s, where even with the Sears Tower there is no clear focal point or guiding architectural principle except how high the buildings can reach and how many condos they can cram into the air space, I see the value of the Madison experiment—the “century’s worth of restraint” as Shekey called it. You could almost call it a civic humility, thought that’s not quite right. Not when the capitol building, the literal civic center, is the legally mandated center of attention.

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A bird’s-eye view tells the same story: the Capitol sits in the middle of the downtown square, in the middle of the isthmus that splits the lakes Monona and Mendota. You could loop around the Capitol all day on the one-way streets that revolve around it. And that’s OK, because it’s a beauty. Shekey again: “If you let your eye wander along the horizon, you’d see it—The capital. A tiny white light shining above everything else. You can see it for miles. Even from there it was breathtaking—a skyline defined by what it isn’t.”

I suppose it makes sense the center of government should be the nucleus of the city, the standard by which everything else is judged and modeled. But one person’s civic restraint is another’s stunted growth. Chicago is a storied architectural wonder (I’d highly recommend taking an architectural boat tour if you can), but that wouldn’t have been so if after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the city planners had imposed a vertical quota on the Loop.

When I tell people I’m from Madison, they often ask what it’s like and how I liked it. If they’re familiar with the area I tell them I’m actually, like Shekey, from the western suburb of Middleton, though I was born and raised in Madison through elementary school. But if they’re unfamiliar, I say it’s a typical college town: liberal (in Madison’s case very much so), lots of bars and bikes, and has lots to see around it if you know where to look.

I also like to call it a “little big city.” Like any big city it has a bustling downtown with distinct neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs, but it’s no Chicago or even Milwaukee. Driving on University Avenue through the Isthmus you can get from the westside of town to the east in 15 minutes if the stoplights and traffic are friendly. Besides the capitol building itself, the biggest things about Madison are the lakes it’s squeezed between—and the world renowned farmer’s market during the summer.

I’m sure Madison has “little big” friends in Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg, Missouri’s Jefferson City, Washington’s Olympia, and other cities: state capitals that aren’t their state’s biggest city. They don’t have the skyscrapers of Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Seattle, but they have beautiful capitol buildings visitors like me would love to see. This is even true in Washington D.C., where the U.S. Capitol, larger but almost identical to Madison’s pillared dome, sits atop a hill overlooking the National Mall and the much smaller yet more iconic White House.

It takes high regard for the built beauty of one’s own place to preserve the arrangement Madison has over a century of constant change. Perhaps one day Madison’s glass (or ice) ceiling will shatter and the capitol dome will shrink into a much taller skyline than it’s accustomed to. But until then it will remain a little big city with a little big horizon that ain’t bad to come home to.

(Photo by Steve Wetzel)

Refer Madness: Let Your Free Flag Fly

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Refer Madness is a new feature that spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk. 

The patron is a regular. He usually asks for pictures of movie stars or the address of a celebrity he can send a picture to for an autograph. (The V.I.P. Address Book makes that pretty easy.) One time we looked up the schematics of the Ghostbusters proton pack so he could make one at home. But this time he came in with a more abstract question: Does the American flag stand for freedom or does it stand for communism?

I quickly surmised his question was rhetorical. He hadn’t talked politics with me before, but political patron pontification—ask any librarian—is as old as Melvil Dewey. Customer service circumstances like these almost always call for the ol’ reliable smile-and-nod, so I pulled that out as I led him to Saga of the American Flag: An Illustrated History by Candice DeBarr and The Care and Display of the American Flag. They won’t help him ward off the Red Menace, but they have pretty pictures, so he has that going for him, which is nice.