You Have The Right To Free Speech, So Long As You're Not Dumb Enough To Actually TRY It

Estimates of yesterday's crowd have ranged from 70,000 to 120,000, but everyone I spoke to who'd been to the protest on previous days said it was by far the largest crowd yet. (AP Photo.)

My favorite sign (if not the most astute political commentary) of the day was held by a hangdog-sort of fellow in a brown coat: "I'm a huge a--hole, too. Can I be governor next?" (AP Photo)


Second to 100,000 voices singing the national anthem, the second most moving moment of the day came at an SEIU rally in the Inn at the Park, when JoCasta Zamarripa (representing Milwaukee's 8th Assembly District) broke down while recounting the manner in which she was prevented from casting a vote in the seconds-long voting process at 1 a.m Friday morning, after 60 straight hours of "debate" on the Budget Repair Bill in the State Assembly. Zamarripa and her colleagues had gone practically without sleep for three days, proposed 86 amendments (all of them cast aside by the Republican majority), and stood in heroic solidarity with Wisconsin workers, and she and the 24 other Democrats who missed the brief opportunity to vote should be given the opportunity to make their "NO" votes part of the official record. (This is not Ms. Zamarripa, just to clarify. This is Ms. Liberty, silenced and wearing mittens.)


Later in the day, she was blindfolded. (A lot of signs, by the way, really depended on how you pronounced the name "Koch," but all of them to great effect.)


In a crowd filled with teachers, it was fun to watch as a portly middle-aged woman approached a man whose sign read "We took down Nixon" -- spelled with a swastika in place of the X, by the way -- "and we'll take down these motherf-ckers, too!" (Elision mine.) "I don't think it's constructive to use that kind of language," she told the man. "If you don't like it, look away," said the man, who was clearly mad as hell and not taking it anymore. They went on talking for several minutes, peacefully and amicably.


The line to get into the capital rotunda stretched out of the one set of doors they were allowing to remain open, around about a third of the capital, and then out to the street.


When Jimi Hendrix played over the loudspeakers, one old hippy in a puffy blue coat asked us to take his picture while he absolutely shredded on air guitar. While Peter Yarrow played "Blowin' In the Wind" a little later, the sixties vibe was only diminished by winter coats, a complete lack of freedom dancing, and inadequate drugs. It would have been pretty easy to find cholesterol pills and serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors, but LSD was scarce, man, scarce.


Mr. Walker, you're dealing with a class of people who have not only read George Orwell, but know to correctly source their placards.


I would stress here that it was REALLY cold on Saturday, and still all these people came out, and stayed out, for HOURS.


A big thank you, by the way, to Grampa Jim and Grandma Cathy who offered to watch our kids for the day so that we could go stand with our fellow citizens in Madison. It does indeed take a village to raise a child, and I hope those villages will be able to retain the level of public service that any state or local municipality needs in order to assure the health, safety, and education of its villagers. Solidarity, grandfolks!

One last picture, provided by Prescott, as a shout out to my late and lamented hero.

"And so now I'd like to say - people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. People are running about following their little tracks - I am one of them. But we've all got to stop just following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything - this is something that I'm beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other. That's because they've been dehumanised. It's time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain't going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you're nothing. That's my spiel." -- Joe Strummer, 1952-2002


What A Comfort To The Widow, A Light To The Child

This is a photograph of students from Rufus King High School, a Milwaukee Public School of which I am a proud alum, protesting today at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, of which I am a proud alum and current staff member.

This is Part Two of a screed. Part One is here.

I am not currently a member of a union. I was once, as academic staff at another institution in another state, and I wasn't entirely happy with it. I was uncertain, at that time, of the value I received in return for my dues and disappointed with the lack of transparency and member-focused service in that particular organization. I have never been opposed to unionization, and I have multiple Billy Bragg and Pete Seeger records that prove it, but neither was I eager to be a member of one. You can insert in here that one line that Woody Allen paraphrases from Groucho Marx in Annie Hall.

But here's what I am: I am a big fan of rights. I just love the things. I try to collect all the rights I possibly can, even if I'm not sure I'm going to use them. The right to say things I want to say, that's a good one, and the right to assemble peaceably is fun to enact at parties. I'm even a fan of the right to bear arms, except in cases where those arms are plastic swords in the hands of my four-year-old boys. Miranda rights really liven up TV cop shows. And I'm particularly enamored of the rights of the employee to have some say in the conditions of their employment. I think that one's just the bomb-a-lomb-diggity.

In the previous post, I mentioned how it makes absolute logical sense for the state to abuse its employees to the extent its laws and ethics will allow. To counter that, then, it should also make sense that those employees attempt to curtail that abuse to whatever degree they are able. A good way to do that, history has shown, is to band together as a group, such that an abuse against the one is an abuse against the many. And the individual can rest easy with the protection of the many.

Sometimes this right has been hard to establish. It might take a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, or it might take weathering a few murders by Pinkerton thugs. Some employers aren't keen to give up their ability to abuse folks. It's a right that is often what you call "hard won."

The folk-singer and labor agitator Utah Phillips once suggested that work essentially meant leasing your brain to an employer for eight hours a day on the presumption that at the end of the day it would be returned to you in an unmutilated condition. What I have loved most about university work is that there seems to be a root understanding of this, that many people are interested in returning your brain in a state that, one hopes, in a better condition than when you left it. That is the purpose of the university, really: to improve your brain. That, and be midwife to low-interest government loans so that you can pay for the privilege.

Many public employees rely upon their union and their collective bargaining rights to make their jobs fair, equitable, and unmutilating. I -- and all other academic staff and faculty at Wisconsin universities -- earned the right to collective bargaining only very recently, with the passage of the 2010-2011 budget. I hadn't done much with that right. If it were an action figure, it would be Mint-In-Box, waiting in the closet either to be played with or to be sold to the highest bidder on eBay. But I very much like having that right, now that I do, and don't particularly want to give it up because our Governor (and who knows how mutilated that brain is?) feels it would save him some money if I gave it back to him. Thanks, but it is mine, the precious, it is mine.

More seriously at risk, though, are all those who absolutely depend on collective bargaining to remain unmutilated. Graduate students who work as researchers or teaching assistants, for example, collectively bargain. This assures that, despite low salaries of around $7000 per year, they aren't burdened with more classroom responsibilities than they can handle, that they are guaranteed work, and that the state -- in recompense for their duties and the bit of rent money they provide -- allows them a break on tuition costs. Custodians can assure, aside from their salaries, that they have reasonable work hours and aren't asked to do more than what is safe or reasonable for them to do. These are rights beyond dollars, and they are worthwhile. Our Governor, in his Budget Repair Bill, intends to strip all of these rights (but for the one that allows workers to ask for more money, and the bill even institutes limitations there). One suspects that he wants to strip these rights because he has a greater interest in abuse than one would want to see in a state leader.

Note also that the legislators who are asked to answer these very real and very significant questions about conditions of labor reply by redirecting to issues of pension and healthcare costs, as if this were all a bunch of "melodrama," as one state legislator called it, about a couple of dollars in lost wages.

There are those, friends of the private sector or the party of the teabag, who need protections more than we do, and we'd be wrong to assume that they are just as protected as we. This is a core component of the job of teaching -- to try to assure that no harm is done -- and so therefore it is to my mind right and fitting that a public school teacher might seek to advocate on her own behalf, if not that of her colleagues and charges, even at the expense of a day or a week of school.

That is why we fight. That's why we're marching. That's why they call it the blues.

One last note. As I was writing the previous post, my son Sam asked me what I was doing. I did my best to explain all of the above in terms he might understand, basically substituting the language of cartoon superheroes. Of our Governor, Sam asked: "Is he a bad-guy?" He may well be, I said, but what makes you think so? "Bad-guys steal money," Sam said, "and they hurt people."

Help Save The Youth Of America

For most of my friends and family, any attempt to explain what's happening here in Wisconsin would amount to preaching to the choir, but I'd like to try to explain things to those friends out of state, those of different (though wrong) political leanings, and who may feel similar to a high school friend who posted this somewhat jumbled message on Facebook today:
i dont think its unreasonable for "public"(state and local) employees to pay 5.8% towards there own retirement and the 12.6 % of health insurance. for many this is all free and others pay very little. its better than huge lay offs. and for the jag off teachers that didnt show up for your kids,YOU SHOWED THEM WHY YOU NEED A RAISE,IDIOTS!

It's about rights, stupid.

What you've been seeing, or reading about, or hearing about is a reaction by public employees (and their supporters) to a Budget Repair Bill introduced by our Republican Governor very late last week, with the intention that it would be swept through the Republican-controlled state senate and assembly without anything in the way of significant public debate. Among other things, the Governor asked public employees to pay 5.8% towards their pensions and roughly doubled the amount we currently pay for health insurance. Concurrently, Club For Growth-sponsored 527 ads began airing in the state suggesting that the populace call their legislators to demand that public "pay their fair share."

This is infuriating enough in its own right. Any public employee has made some sacrifice just by becoming a public employee. Because we are paid largely through funds collected from the people of Wisconsin (in the form of taxes, tuition, cost recovery, etc.), the state must feel some responsibility to pay us the absolute minimum it can get away with while demanding the most it possibly can from us as employees. This is only logical, and its why certain policies and protections need to be put in place -- more on this in a moment.

Given the above, we can concede that it is unlikely that anyone could ever grow rich in the service of the state (barring those who both control and are willing to abuse fiscal power). Salaries necessarily lag behind those of the private sector -- somewhere between 4.8% and 25%, depending on one's job/education level/theoretical economic approach. On top of this, any salary increase in the last six years in which I've been a public employee has lagged behind the increase of the cost of living. Increases have wavered between 0% and 2% throughout budgets between 2005 and 2009. Further still, public employees lost out on a previously promised 2% increase in 2009, and suffered what amounts to a 3% pay cut through mandatory unpaid furlough days in 2010 and 2011. So we came into this mess having sacrificed, almost entirely without fuss, roughly 5% of base pay.

The two new sacrifices requested of public employees (increased payments to our pensions and health care) essentially create a pay cut of about 13% off of what we should have been making in that alternate 2009 where Bush and unethical bankers and "Flip This House" didn't ruin everything forever and ever in perpetuity. Let me be somewhat gauche and put this in terms of real dollars and real people. Last year, according to taxes recently filed, the state paid me $40,600. If furloughs and rescinded raises weren't in place, that should have been $42,650 or so. Next year, with the Budget Repair Bill enacted (and the 2011-2013 biennial state budget yet to be set, but almost certainly set to include further cuts), I will make $37,082. This is a loss -- and my math was taught to me by a Wisconsin public high school teacher, so I'm pretty confident in it -- of 13% from what was, at one time, promised me. Lecturers in Math and English, custodians, and sign language interpreters already make pretty inexcusably low wages at the university where I work -- next year their salaries are due to shrink from about $24,000 to $22,800. And these are people who either have Master's degrees, clean public restrooms, or both.

Okay, you may be thinking, but what about the layoffs and unemployment in the private sector? Shouldn't we be framing these public cuts in what has happened to manufacturers and corporations all across these United States? Shouldn't the ill treatment of laborers justify the ill treatment of the middle-class, or vice versa?

Well, sort of, except for that last point. It's true that my particular position within the state comes with a great deal of job security. I don't need to worry about company profits (or didn't, until earlier this week), and I have enough protections to know that I will not be the first or second or third to go should layoffs happen. I also have a relatively low-stress job, working roughly 39 hours per week, year-round, with little take-home work or worries. Last year, I probably worked six Saturdays, and had more time off work due to me than I was able to take. (Some other time, I will explain how that vacation time does not really factor in salary, but it's a bit too complex and beside-the-point right now.) I also work for a university, which means its an atmosphere that (generally) values critical thinking, creativity, diversity, a quest for knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and the incubation and exploration of new ideas. This is no little thing, when it comes to morale and purpose, fit and lifestyle, and the balance of ones work with one's life. (We can also discuss -- maybe, some other time -- the false dichotomy of the university and the "real life" that many feel is outside of and/or opposite to the university.)

So, yeah, back to the pension and health care issues. It is very true that others pay more for such things, but the fact that public employees have recently paid less for them does not mean that sacrifices haven't been made in other ways. If nothing else, I'm sure it seems reasonable to you that someone who is forced to take a pay cut of between 8% and 13%, depending on how one counts, is allowed to grouse a little bit, and maybe hold up a sign and shout and take a sleeping bag into the capitol rotunda if the mood g*ddam strikes.

But you're falling prey to a very crafty bait-and-switch if you think that is really what all this Madison (and State-wide, let's emphasize) hubub is about.

Again, it's about rights, stupid.


There's A Brand New Dance But I Don't Know Its Name

Oh, I totally forgot to tell you: one of the stories in Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad is written in PowerPoint, the first such short story I've seen. You can "read" it (or, you know, click-through) on Egan's website. I think it's really well-done, although it carries more weight if you've read the rest of the book leading up to it (as this is, I believe, the second-to-last chapter), even though its link to the other chapter/stories in the book is slight. (This is the aftermath, in a sense, of the life of an important Goon Squad character, and so it kind of backwards-informs -- or absence-informs, if you follow from the previous post -- the previous chapter/stories.) The PowerPoint worked particularly well, I thought, on the Kindle, where it was in black and white and sometimes hard to read, but somehow justly so. When I looked at the website version, I was surprised by the garish colors, though I suppose it could be read in a way that made those just as apt as the fuzzy and washed-out version I "read" on my Kindle. (And read it I did. It may seem weird to "read" a PowerPoint presentation, but I think I'm done putting problem-quotes on the word "read" to denote that. Hard to stop, actually.)


Don't let the appearance of a stylized guitar on the cover of Egan's book mislead you. Fiction about bands or musicians are almost always bad -- I 've never read a good one and now avoid them, to the extent that I've never even attempted reading the about-a-band books of Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Lethem. There are musicians in here but Egan gets around the can't-hear-'em problem, or the dancing-about-architecture problem, by largely ignoring the music. In one story, a character tries to describe a particular piece of music to a chapter/story's narrator, and the narrator finds the description inscrutable. So in a way, A Visit From The Goon Squad kind of takes on, thematically, the inability to put creative music into words.


Here's a little glimpse into my working life:

-----Original Message-----

Sent: Thursday, February 03, 2011 2:38 PM
Subject: appointment


my name is XXXXXXXXX, and i believe i have a scheduled appointment with you this afternoon, and i will be unable to attend. i apologize for the short notice, something came up. when would be a good time to re schedule if possible? sorry again for any inconvenience.



Your e-mail arrived 38 minutes after your appointment was scheduled to begin, so your notice was not so much "short" as it was "late." This is particularly notable in that we were to meet to discuss your academic probation, particularly with regard to time management and your commitment to a college-level education.

I'm sorry to hear that your something came up -- I know how difficult somethings can be, always coming up when you least expect it, and when you have all these other plans that need to be dropped immediately so as to devote all of your attention to the something.

Please call us at ______ to re-schedule just as soon as your something goes down again. Or, if you donut have time, don't worry about it -- what's the worst that could happen?

Best Regards,



They Pat Some Good Boys On The Back And Put Some To The Rod

I last wrote about books in September, but with thanks to the Milwaukee Public Library's online request capabilities, I can accurately reconstruct for you an auto-bibliography of my last four months. I read:

--Thirteen volumes of the collected Fables comic book, covering about 98 issues of Bill Willingham's stories of fairy- and folk-tale characters living in exile in New York City. What starts out as a kind of pastiche of noir detective stories develops over several volumes into compelling and rich stories about connections to family, place, and belonging. It also, in places, draws a clear analogy to the modern state of Israel, as the Fables are besieged by the malevolent forces that keep them from their homelands. Unless you feel that sort of thing is too much for colored drawings about blind mice and frog princes, in which case: "Hey Kids! Comics!"

--Six volumes of the Fables spin-off, Jack of Fables, which concerns Jack (of the candlestick and the beanstalk and the frost nipping at your nose, here all the same Jack). More satirical and meta-fictional than Fables, and has some excellent daydreaming-Snoopy-like single page strips featuring a miniature Babe the Blue Ox, but sort of drops off in quality late in the run.

--Eleven volumes of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, a zombie comic that has lately become an AMC television series, which I read in one giant burst (70 or so collected issues) in order to stay current with my friend Jason's Walking Dead podcast. The Walking Dead is essentially a storyboard to a zombie movie that does not end, and the stark and sketchy black-and-white artwork give a look exactly tuned to George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. (For an excellent, delightfully academic, and wonderfully over-long examination of the zombie genre as a gloss on racism and xenophobia, go here.)

--Our Hero, Superman on Earth, Tom DeHaven. Hey Kids! Actual pictureless text! About comics! DeHaven, an author of novels about the funny pages and a novel about a 1930's WPA-era version of Superman, sets out an assignment to determine why (or if) Superman matters. As a history -- an account of the development of Superman, the poor treatment of the character's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the expansions and reboots of the mythos -- its quite a well-done book. The larger purpose, though, seems to get a bit lost in the history. Superman, it seems to me, is particular to the mid- to late-twentieth century. The man who can do anything, the schlub with the secret and powerful inner life, the alien who becomes the ultimate American -- these are stories and motifs that are pretty well tied to 1938, 1957, 1964, 1978, 1986. I don't know that they carry into a landscape of reality television, event disasters, and shock doctrines. (On the other hand, Superman as a concept is worth to much to shelve -- I read earlier this week that a new Superman has been cast for a 2012 movie.) What do you do with an icon whose day has passed? The Statue of Liberty surely knows, but she's not telling.

-- Peter & Max: A Fables Novel, Bill Willingham. Yeah, so I got a bit obsessive with the Fables stuff. Peter & Max is a (non-graphic) novel that in, you know, words, deals with a set of brothers who had not previously factored into the comics series. Peter Piper (of the pepper pickles) and his brother Max square off in both fairytale- and modern Hamlin. Bo Peep factors in, too, and it's a pretty decent adventure yarn.

-- The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the 19th Century's On-Line Pioneers, Tom Standage. A light history of the telegraph, somewhat tangentially related to the internet as it stood in 1996, when this book first appeared. (Remember when "online" was two words? Remember when we capitalized The Internet?) I was hoping for a more steampunk-y, Difference Engine type of approach, but it's always fun to read about 1800's Morse Code-related gambling scams and wire fraud.

--The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Guide to Narnia, Laura Miller. In the late 90's, I read salon.com all the time, until they started trying to charge for content or forcing me to watch ads, etc. (Oh, those early days On-Line the Internet, when content was briefly king: Suck.com, Michael Kinsley's era at Slate. Remember how the early "issues" of Slate -- called, then, an "eZine" --were also available, printed and a week later, at Starbucks? I bet stuff like that happened all the time on the telegraph wires.) Anyway, this is Laura Miller's atheistic/agnostic reader response to C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and I read and enjoyed the first half without ever having read Lewis. (Possibly I read the Lion/Witch/Wardrobe, and I certainly saw the movie.) Second half is a walking tour of Ireland crossed with a history of Lewis' complicated friendship with Tolkien, and my attention wavered. But I still love you, Laura Miller, and I seek out your byline in the NYT Book Review.

--Nobody's Perfect, Anthony Lane. A collection of New Yorker movie reviews and celebrity profiles from the 1990's. Lane is such a good and funny writer that it is well worth picking this up to see what he made, at the time, of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. There's nothing better than reading Lane try to make sense of a big dumb action film. I know while I was reading this I was keeping a list of excellent one-liner take-downs to either post on this blog or e-mail to Sullivan. I wish I remembered where I put it.

--Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, Lee Sandin. I have a hard time passing up books on the Old Man of the early American centuries. It's a thing I have, about a girl. I met her accidentally in St. Paul, MN, and it tore me up every time I heard her drawl her Southern drawl. Then I heard my dream was back downstream, cavorting in Davenport, and I followed you, Big River, when you called. But, yeah: more graft, drifters, drunks, and rabble rousers.

--Richard Stark's Parker Vol. 1: The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke. A graphic novel (more comics!) adaptation of the late Donald Westlake's first crime novel written under the name of Richard Stark. Cooke, who created an outstanding reinterpretation of "Silver Age"era DC Comics in the graphic novel The New Frontier, has a flair for illustrating this piece of violent noir from the early 60's setting. Something about his angular lines and two-color offset shading brings to mind the Playboy cartoons of that era, or Airstream aluminum campers, or Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat.

--NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Everything you thought you knew about parenting? Wrong! Bronson and Merryman review recent studies to determine that telling your kids that they are smart makes them risk-averse, ignoring issues of race leads kids to draw negative conclusions about other races, siblings aren't fighting to get their parents' attention but to establish their own relationship, etc. Interesting reading for any parent, mostly to disabuse you of the notion that what works for sensible, logical adults doesn't work for child rearing.

--A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. This is the first book I read on the Kindle I received for Christmas, if that counts for anything. I use the Kindle mainly at night, when my wife and kids are asleep and the world is quiet. Goon Squad (two words I was once within moments of tattooing on my right arm, before changing my mind/chickening out, and thanks for that, winds of fate!) is a novel created from inter-connected short stories, much like S. Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming or D. Johnson's Jesus' Son. I can appreciate, in this era of the slow death of print, why the novel-by-linked-stories is a popular form -- it's more economically feasible in that stories can be sold first as stories and then as a novel. And when done well, as it is in Good Squad or Jesus' Son, the disconnection between stories (the parts that are absent between "chapters") becomes a kind of additive force, so that its possible to feel more deeply the lives of characters. You respond, as in life, to what isn't there as much as what is. These particular stories cover a small group of tangentially-related characters, ranging in time from the west coast punk scene of the late 70's/early 80's and into a not-too-distant, post-war future of a second baby-boom (and the child-focused culture change that comes with it.) Some stories are Alice Munro-like stitches back and forth in time, another is David Foster Wallacian in its footnotes and linguo-psychological exactitude. The NYTimes Book Review listed Goon Squad as one of the ten best books of 2010, and I'm on board with the choice.

--Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt. Oswalt's ruminations about growing up the eighties were strong and evocative, as is his suggestion that nerds typify into the three categories of his title, and that these categories inform how they respond to the world around them. There are set pieces, similar to those you find in other books by stand-up comedians, that aren't as successful. I could have gone on reading his more memoir-ish pieces for another two or three hundred pages, though.