Category Archives: America

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.

The Spirit of American Experience

This might be one of my all-time favorite things. It’s an older version of the American Experience opening and theme (composed by Charles Kuskin) that so beautifully juxtaposes things I love dearly: film, American history, and music.

One reason I love reading about American history is this country’s ability to make music out of dissonance. The diversity of stories and characters in this video’s parade of images is but a dip into the great lake of trial and triumph this country and its people have swam in since the beginning. We’ve been at war with ourselves in a million little ways since before we were even a country. The producers of American Experience got that, and illustrated that in this montage.

A buffalo stampede and a Native American, followed by a white pioneer. A nineteenth-century African-American couple, followed by footage of Jackie Robinson. Theodore Roosevelt’s kiddish grin dissolving into the Sierra Nevada, followed by footage of the Dust Bowl, a factory, and a steam engine. Abraham Lincoln split-screened with Martin Luther King. A triumphant General Eisenhower fading to troops in Vietnam.

But the most poignant moment for me is toward the end (at :36 in the video). After a few soaring orchestral lines, the piano takes over the plaintive melody that underscores footage of kids chasing and waving goodbye to a passing vehicle, and then a swooping shot of the Statue of Liberty, America’s long-serving Greeter-in-Chief.

Goodbye and hello. Division and duty. Dissonance and harmony. In documenting this nation’s formative moments and movements, this wonderful PBS program (along with its celebrity brother Ken Burns) has captured the spirit of America. Likewise, this beautiful theme has captured the spirit of the show it represents, and I’m happier for it.

Where There’s A Willard…

I’ve recently started volunteering at the Frances Willard House Museum, specifically in the archives/library, which holds material from and related to the life of Frances Willard, the suffragist and temperance advocate who led the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the late nineteenth century. I got to see the museum’s recent exhibit, titled “Rights or Responsibilities? The WCTU and Woman Suffrage in Illinois”, which documents the development of the women’s suffrage movement in Illinois and the many players involved.

The exhibit spotlights an occurrence, documented in Willard’s journal, that she said helped to “stir up my spirit into a mighty unrest.” It’s 1856 and Willard, who was 17 at the time, along with her sister saw her brother and father off to vote while they had to stay at home:

This is election day and my brother is twenty-one years old. How proud he seemed as he dressed up in his best Sunday clothes and drove off in the big wagon with father and the hired men to vote for John C. Fremont, like the sensible “Free-soiler” that he is. My sister and I stood at the window and looked out after them. Somehow, I felt a lump in my throat, and then I could n’t see their wagon any more, things got so blurred. I turned to Mary, and she, dear little innocent, seemed wonderfully sober, too. I said, “Would n’t you like to vote as well as Oliver? Don’t you and I love the country just as well as he, and does n’t the country need our ballots?” Then she looked scared, but answered in a minute, “‘Course we do, and ‘course we ought,—but don’t you go ahead and say so, for then we would be called strong-minded.”

Willard did say so. She made saying so her life, which ended in 1898, before the women’s suffrage movement hit its crescendo but not before she had made an indelible impact on it. In addition to the Frances Willard House becoming a National Historic Landmark, she was posthumously honored as the first woman to be represented in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.

Amazing what you can learn from museums (and archives and libraries), huh?

Seeing In Black And White

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Rod Dreher recently wrote about Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s comments about, essentially, how happy he believed Black Southerners were in the 1950s before the civil rights movement. To Dreher, Robertson’s comments demonstrate the power of narrative, of the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect how we see the “truth” of our own situations, even when we don’t see the whole truth:

You can tell a lot about who has the power in a particular culture by what you are not allowed to talk about without drawing harsh censure. And in turn, the thoughts you are not allowed to have become internalized, such that you train yourself not to see things that violate those taboos. In the 1950s rural South, a white man was not allowed to speak out against the injustices inflicted on blacks; is it any wonder that he wouldn’t “see” them?

This is a very insightful way at contextualizing Robertson’s ignorant and hurtful comments. Dreher spotlights Alan Ehrenhalt’s (excellent) book The Lost City to add further context to Robertson’s remarks, but I’m finding just as much relevant background and insight in my current read: The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

This amazing book takes an angle I’d never considered before when thinking about and studying the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — that of the journalists, publishers, and other press figures who were instrumental in wrestling the civil rights struggle to the front page as the movement simmered after World War II to its boiling point in the ’60s. In newsreels and history books we’ve seen a great deal of the figures directly involved in the decades-long civil rights fight: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the Little Rock Nine, Bull Connor, George Wallace, and many others. But what of the people behind the cameras, the ones braving the fire hoses of Birmingham and angry mobs in Greensboro right along with activists to capture the moment for print, radio, or the nascent television news?

For a thesis statement of sorts, Roberts and Klibanoff go back to what they view as the foundational work from which all academic and journalistic interpretations of the postwar civil rights movement emerged: An American Dilemma, a comprehensive study of race in America underwritten by the Carnegie Foundation and spearheaded by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist. The study found the central problem to be an overwhelming ignorance among Whites (in the North and South alike) about the lives and living conditions of Black Americans. It was easy for Whites to ignore the discrimination Blacks faced every day because they didn’t see it. White newspapers completely ignored the Black community and the Black press along with it. Myrdal believed that to overcome “the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance,” the Black community needed one thing: publicity. “There is no doubt,” he wrote, “that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”

Facts, they say, are stubborn things. But so were the segregationists. And the thought of high-minded out-of-towners coming into the South to tell good Christian people what’s wrong with them and upend generations of tradition didn’t sit well with angry sheriffs and townspeople, who would have every judge and jury (all white, of course) on their side should they decide to teach someone a lesson, or worse. As a Mississippi attorney put it to Freedom Summer volunteers venturing into the South: “a dark highway at midnight was no place to lecture a Mississippi deputy sheriff with a second-grade education on the niceties of constitutional law.”

Still, the whole point of the civil rights movement, and one that Martin Luther King understood deeply, was to shine a light into the dark places. To walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and bring reporters along for the walk. King knew, as did the other movement leaders in SNCC, CORE, and NAACP, what Myrdal knew: publicity meant power. The more White America would be exposed to the everyday injustices Black Americans faced, the more likely they would be to sympathize and inspire positive action. The Emmett Till trial was the catalyst. That gruesome murder and clear miscarriage of justice coupled with the earth-shattering Brown v. Board of Education decision to start the movement snowballing toward bus boycotts and Little Rock, through the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins and Ole Miss, each encounter seeming to attract more attention than the last.

While the Freedom Riders and marchers were enduring fire hoses and batons and angry mobs, journalists were close by to report on it. They understood as much as their subjects the power of the pen and camera, and had to wield that power in unexpected ways. Peter Kihss, a New York Times reporter who was reporting the Autherine Lucy saga at the University of Alabama, decided to abandon traditional journalistic remove and intervene when an elderly Black man became surrounded by an unruly mob. “If anybody wants to start something, let’s go,” he told the crowd. “I’m a reporter for The New York Times and I have gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama. Now I’ll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time.”

A similar situation involved John Chancellor, newspaperman turned NBC broadcaster, in the infancy of television news. Chancellor was gathering reactions in Mississippi after the Till trial when “a flying wedge of white toughs” descended on him and a Black woman he was interviewing:

Chancellor squared off against them and held up the only object he could find to defend himself, an object whose power he had not, until that moment, truly fathomed. Thrusting his tiny microphone toward the men, Chancellor blurted out, “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.”

He later called his microphone “the technological equivalent of a crucifix.” The microphone and the newspaper and the camera collectively became a tool and a weapon. They performed the basic service of documenting reality, ugly and unvarnished as it was, while also fighting back against the South’s deeply entrenched culture of silence and racial hegemony. Their power seemed to coalesce in the fall of 1963 when they broadcasted Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and then the news of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black children. Having the nation witness events like those up close, according to Jack Gould of the New York Times, was a major hurdle overcome for the Negro race as a whole, because until then its biggest challenge had been “communicating and dramatizing” its struggle: “Not to the integrationists, not to the unyieldingly prejudiced, but to the indifferent white millions for whom integration or segregation was of scant personal concern.”

In other words, to the Phil Robertsons of the day. The story White Southerners like him had been telling themselves (and anyone else who had dared to disrupt the narrative) about race and their culture disagreed with the reality of being Black in America. It took over a decade of protests and violence and struggle and political hand-wringing, but finally, Myrdal’s prescription for publicity was working. It wasn’t a panacea, but it was progress. However, when hit with the reality of someone else’s story, some, like Gov. George Wallace, ignored the cognitive dissonance and dug in their heels. While Phil Robertson is no George Wallace, their shared inability to see beyond the stories they told themselves left them blind to what the cameras were showing in bright lights.

It’s easy to judge from afar in situations like this without thinking about the blind spots we’ve self-imposed today. Racism isn’t over, nor discrimination writ large. The press is different today, as is its power. We’re not so enthralled by television or newspaper editorials anymore. Publicity itself seems an inadequate solution for dealing with the problems we face today when all people do in our selfie-obsessed world is publicize. Simply getting a hashtag trending on Twitter won’t solve homelessness or end abortion. In that way, our problem is the same as that of generations before us: we need the courage to hear new stories, to not wait for tragedy to spur us to action, and to follow the Atticus Finch model of walking (or marching?) a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The Race Beat goes into great detail about the individuals and institutions involved in this decade-long story. Courage, cowardice, and great copy abound on every side of the tales told that, all together, paint a lush picture of how the movement and its press worked together to change the country forever.

(photo via NYT)

Information In The Little Way

Rod Dreher, in his new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, writes about his sister Ruthie’s fight with lung cancer and about his complicated relationship with his family and small-town life in Louisiana. After her diagnosis, Ruthie told her doctors and loved ones not to tell her specifics about her condition, nor even how long she should expect to live. Dreher didn’t understand why:

If I had cancer, I’d demand to know everything at once, on the theory that information is power. And then, me being me, I would surely brood over it incessantly. Ruthie, on the other hand, figured that information would be disempowering. She understood that she was in some respects living an illusion, but if she was going to live at all, she had to be able to curtain off the terror of death.

Dreher later expands on how Ruthie’s way of dealing with information that collided with her worldview or pre-existing opinions was often handicapping to her and harmful to him, but this is an instance where it seems her ruthless resolve served her well. Like Dreher, I am someone who values information-gathering for a number of reasons: to expand my mind, to gain sympathy for the other side of an argument, to weigh all consequences of a decision or action. I’ve found this trait has served me well in a number of ways.

But I also get stuck in my own head, and the constant theorizing and hand-wringing and countering my own inner arguments gets very tiresome. In a situation like Ruthie’s, throwing on more hard truths wouldn’t have helped: “All the extra information could only sap her will to resist. The truth — the whole truth, that is — would not set her free, but would make her captive to anxiety, and tempt her to despair.”

Though I’m not battling cancer, I know that the more voices and information I add to my thought-stream, the more overwhelming it seems to get. (Maybe I’m the type of person Matthew 11:28-30 is talking to.) Sometimes I would love to be more like Ruthie Leming — sure of my life’s purpose, simple in my goals, and sacrificial above all. But I’m not. At least, not always. This has been Dreher’s discovery, documented in Little Way, and will continue to be part of mine. The book contemplates what made him eager to leave his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, and decades later what brought him back. Ruthie’s way is central to this story, and it’s one that will stick with me for a long time.

(Meanwhile, Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative has become essential reading.)

12 Years A Slave

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I was having a bad day. And then I saw 12 Years A Slave and regained some perspective.

Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s incredible memoir was remarkable in its restraint. Though a strange thing to say about a film that has been lauded for depicting the horrors of slavery accurately and harrowingly, it’s not surprising given McQueen’s adeptness in showing versus telling, and capturing a moment’s deeper truth without resorting to platitudes or judgement.

An example (with spoilers): years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Northup meets a white man who is serving as an indentured field hand on the same plantation. Downtrodden after years of humiliation and forced labor, Northup finally works up the courage to ask the white man whether he would be willing to send a letter for Northup without telling his plantation master. The man agrees but quickly betrays Northup, which almost gets him killed by his sadistic, mercurial master if not for Northup’s quick wit and evasion. Nonetheless, McQueen shows Northup burning the letter, focusing on his face as the light from the alit letter — his desperate grasp at liberation — slowly extinguishes, along with his dwindling hope.

It’s a small moment, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that in other directorial hands could have been something lesser, like the protagonist shaking his fists at the sky or angrily monologuing. Instead, it was the perfect image of what slavery’s power did to beat down the slave’s hope and determination for freedom. Northup overcomes this oppression, but he was fortunate compared to his fellow slaves. The film is full of other subtly strong moments like this, driven by a cast of heavy-hitters. It also follows Northup’s memoir very well, though I hope viewers will be compelled to go back to the book to read the details of this story in Northup’s strong literary voice.

Flag Abuse

Responding to the anti-shutdown right-wing protest in front of the White House on Sunday (which featured the Confederate flag and a rebel yell), Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at something that has long gnawed at me:

If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word “patriot” has no meaning. The Nazi flag is offensive because it is a marker of centuries of bigotry elevated to industrialized murder. But the Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery, of “useful killing,” but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.

I am a Yankee through and through, born and raised in the liberal hotbed of Madison, Wisconsin, and a denizen of Obama’s Chicagoland. I’m self-aware enough to acknowledge my lack of understanding for the Southern mindset in all things politics and culture. But for the love of Ulysses S. Grant, I refuse to give any credence whatsoever to the belief that wielding the flag of Dixie so loudly and proudly represents a mere appreciation of “heritage” and “freedom” and not what it actually represents: treason.

Let’s not forget: Robert E. Lee and his Confederate military colleagues were traitors. Not grand heroes of a glorious rebellion against the forces of evil, as their past and present acolytes believe, but willing participants in a war against their own country. Lt. Col. Robert Bateman writes in Esquire that Lee, “as a traitor and betrayer of his solemn oath before God and the Constitution, was a much greater terrorist than Osama Bin Ladin… after all, Lee killed many more Americans than Bin Ladin, and almost destroyed the United States.” It’s staggering to see Robert E. Lee, hero of Dixie, compared to Osama bin Laden, chief executive terrorist and national bugbear. As a genteel general Lee wasn’t a terrorist, but on both points Bateman is nevertheless correct: Lee willingly betrayed his solemn oath and went on to kill thousands more Americans than bin Laden ever did.

I think of Robert E. Lee because people today who wave the Confederate flag and tell the president to “put the Quran down” and “figuratively come out with his hands up” are him. They are him for inciting a destructive rebellion (Civil War, meet shutdown) that was 100% caused by their own party. They are him for scorching the earth to grandstand against laws they don’t like. They are not freedom fighters, nor righteous citizens. The Confederate flag stands not for freedom, but for the abuse of it. In their minds they are still Johnny Reb, fighting a battle that is long over yet insisting that his side won and remains the true keeper of the flame of freedom.

The line between protest and rebellion is wide. Crossing that line requires a deliberate jump that most incidents of dissent don’t make (Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, I think, are included). Properly registering dissent in America is relatively easy. Elections are the clearest means of making one’s voice heard (although apparently these protestors don’t agree with that given their obduracy toward the legally enacted and upheld health-care act). When that doesn’t work, civil disobedience is next (see The Civil Rights movement). But once you make the leap from civil disobedience to contempt for the law, you’re dangerously close to the precipice into which our country fell once before.

The Dixie flag-wavers don’t seem to understand this. They’re off in la-la land where the Confederacy was a great place with “honor” and “heritage” before those damn Yankees ruined everything.

I’ve been to the South. The South has friends of mine. South, you’re no Confederacy. So why do you act like it?