Saturday, January 30, 2010

Thank You Howard Zinn

When I think of all the people who have influenced my politics, civic life, and approach to teaching, the late Howard Zinn is near the top of the list.

Lots of obits and tributes can be found on Zinn's site.

I attended some great schools over the years (Archbishop Molloy High School, St. John's University, Central Michigan University, Wayne State University), and was lucky to learn from some fabulous teachers, yet I never remember Zinn's name coming up even once; not even in history classes.

My serious introduction to Zinn came around 1990. On a road trip back to Oshkosh from Brooklyn, I decided to stop in Erie, PA to visit good friends Tim and Dee Thompson. Leaving their place, I put public radio on. The station was playing a talk called "Second Thoughts on the First Amendment" by someone named Howard Zinn. I was so impressed by the talk that as the station signal began to fade I pulled into some fast food parking lot just to be able to continue listening.

When I returned to Oshkosh I went to UWO's Polk Library and scooped up everything by Zinn that I could find. Eventually I would make Zinn's A Peoples' History of the United States required reading in my History of American Public Address course.

One experience I will never forget was Zinn's visit to Oshkosh a few years ago. I had the chance to interview him for the "Commentary" television show, introduce him to the audience for his Reeve Union talk, and talk to him privately for a bit. He was a "gentleman" in the best sense: interested in others, radiant smile, brilliant without making others feel lesser than; I remember thinking "I wish I could have taken a class from this guy."

Because Zinn took pacifist views on issues of war and peace, it was easy to forget that he was a World War II fighter pilot. One of my favorite Zinn writings is his "Dissent at the War Memorial." Excerpt:

"I'm here to honor the two guys who were my closest buddies in the Air Corps--Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin, both of whom were killed in the last weeks of the war. And to honor all the others who died in that war. But I'm not here to honor war itself. I'm not here to honor the men in Washington who send the young to war. I'm certainly not here to honor those in authority who are now waging an immoral war in Iraq."

I went on: "World War II is not simply and purely a 'good war.' It was accompanied by too many atrocities on our side--too many bombings of civilian populations. There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought.

"Yes, World War II had a strong moral aspect to it--the defeat of fascism. But I deeply resent the way the so-called good war has been used to cast its glow over all the immoral wars we have fought in the past fifty years: in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan. I certainly don't want our government to use the triumphal excitement surrounding World War II to cover up the horrors now taking place in Iraq.

"I don't want to honor military heroism--that conceals too much death and suffering. I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Former City Manager Was Not Fired

One of Gannett's questions to this year's common council candidates starts off with "When the Council fired the former city manager . . ."

For the record, the Council did not fire the former city manager. He retired. Yes, his retirement followed much public, press, and council scrutiny of his performance, but it's simply not accurate to say that he was fired.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review of Going Rogue

Over 40 people showed up at the Appleton Public Library last night to discuss Sarah Palin's Going Rogue: An American Life. After Brian Farmer and I spoke for about 15 minutes each, there was some very thoughtful commentary and discussion.

I spoke extemporaneously about Palin's book. Here's a summary of what I said:

1. The book's 6 chapters are not a VP campaign memoir.
  • Chapter 1, "The Last Frontier," is mostly early biography and Alaska history.
  • Chapter 2, "Kitchen-Table Politics," is about Palin's years as a city councilor and then mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.
  • Chapter 3, "Drill, Baby, Drill" is about Palin's gubernatorial campaign and what she sees as her accomplishments in that office.
  • Chapter 4, "Going Rogue," deals with the trials and tribulations of the VP campaign.
  • Chapter 5, "The Thumpin'," is about what Palin perceives as unfair press and leftist attacks on her that led to her decision to resign as Alaska governor.
  • Chapter 6, "The Way Forward," presents Palin's general political beliefs; what she calls "Commonsense Conservatism.
2. Even though I am mostly critical of Palin and her book, there's much in it that I find appealing.
  • As an elected member of the Oshkosh City Council, I find Palin's description of local government political dynamics to be insightful and accurate.
  • The section of the book dealing with her discovery that her son would be born with Down's Syndrome is enough to move even the most strident Palin haters to tears.
  • I like the fact that Palin writes admiringly about Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for Bush #43 who has written an excellent book establishing respect for animals as a conservative principle. (Palin says of him: "A political conservative, he is a bunny-hugging vegan and gentle, green soul who I think would throw himself in the path of a semitruck to save a squirrel."). [Note: I interviewed Matthew Scully for Radio Commentary several years ago. That interview can be found here.]
  • I like the notion of the "rogue" politician; someone who isn't predictable and doesn't always follow the party line.
3. I believe the purpose of this book was/is to restore Palin's credibility; a credibility badly damaged as a result of the VP campaign.
  • She wants the book to help make people comfortable not only in voting for her, but in listening to her as serious voice on national policy issues.
  • The Greek philosopher Aristotle (see paragraph 3) said that restoring or establishing credibility is essentially a matter of an audience perceiving a rhetor as intelligent, of good moral character, and of goodwill.
4. For four major reasons, I don't believe the book succeeds in raising Palin's credibility.
  • First, in the book one finds a pattern of resignation and withdrawal when the heat gets too hot. Resigning as governor is the obvious example, but she also writes about resigning from her position with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission when she could not get governor Frank Murkowski to act in a way she saw fit. Palin's resignations may or may not have been the proper course of action, but she seems to have difficulty imaging other ways of resolving intense political conflicts. She concludes that to be governor in the face of a mountain of investigations, much of it frivolous, you "either have to be rich or corrupt." Are those really the only choices?
  • Second, the book features much petty defensiveness. She complains incessantly about a left bias in the media, and goes to length to take shots at Katie Couric. But her defensive complaints are not only about media; she complains about the way her family was treated by higher ups in the McCain campaign, about being "forced" to wear expensive clothing, and about not being able to deliver a speech on the night of the general election. She even includes a bizarre story about McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt interrupting her during her prep for the debate with Joe Biden to say that the campaign would be flying in a nutritionist (who never arrived) because of a concern that a high protein/not enough carbs diet was leading to some mental lapses. You read these complaints and cannot help but say, "isn't it time to move on from this nonsense?"
  • Third, when it comes to political discourse Palin is still mostly stuck on the low road. She does not regret the "palling around with terrorists" remark about Obama, and without a shred of evidence suggests that his performance as president proves that the comment was appropriate. (Low road politics have been her MO outside of the book; nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize winning outfit--called her "death panel" assertions the "lie of the year.")
  • Fourth, there does seem to be quite a bit of "culture war," red-state posturing in the book. She tells us, for example, that after she resigned from the Alaska Gas Commission and wondered what to do next she thought of a passage from Jeremiah 29: 11-13. Much of that kind of thing can be found in the book; kind of like an attempt to out-Huckabee Mike Huckabee for the red state vote. In fairness to Palin, she's hardly the first politician to pander in a memoir.
5. Has the book made Palin a credible figure outside of a segment of the Republican Party? No.
  • In November, during the special election to fill New York's 23rd congressional district seat, Palin overtly endorsed the conservative independent Doug Hoffman over the Republican nominee who she thought too liberal. Bill Owens ended up being the first Democrat elected to represent that part of New York since the mid-19th century.
  • Scott Brown's historic upset in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's former seat in Massachusetts was accomplished without help from Palin. Indeed, the Brown campaign studiously distanced itself from Palin.
6. Can Sarah Palin be elected president in 2012?
  • I can envision a scenario where she enters the Republican primaries and battles with Mike Huckabee for the red state conservative vote.
"She is someone who has a passionate base that constitutes millions of Americans. But in the year since the election has ended, she has done nothing to expand her appeal beyond that base into the middle of the electorate, where elections are decided. In fact, were she to be the nominee we could have a catastrophic election."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Discussion of Palin Book at APL Wednesday Night

Political activist Brian Farmer and I will be leading a discussion of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue tomorrow (Wednesday) evening from 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. at the Appleton Public Library (225 N. Oneida St.). The event is free.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Deer Cull: Firearms Were Discharged Illegally

Because neither the public at-large, the press, nor the city council were warned of the imminence of a deer cull, no one was in a position to make sure the procedure was done to the letter of the law. We are all in the unfortunate position of having to ask questions after the fact. As an example of the kind of mishaps that result when government intentionally chooses to implement its actions secretively, today the city attorney confirmed for me that the sharpshooting did in fact occur in violation of the city code that prohibits the discharge of firearms within the city of Oshkosh. Some background:

On January 13, 2009, the city council passed ordinance 09-12, "Approval of variance to deer feeding ban and firearm discharge ordinances/culling of urban deer/Osborn Ave. area." The ordinance specified that the granting of a variance to allow for the discharge or firearms would be for the time period from January 14, 2009 through April 1, 2009. Thus, when Urban Wildlife Specialists discharged firearms in late December, they did so illegally.

That the council had passed ordinance 09-12 occurred to me last night when I went over my notes relating to the deer cull issue. I immediately emailed city attorney Lorenson to ask if the council had renewed the ordinance, since I had no recollection of us having done so. Here is her response:

"I checked and I do not believe that the variance was ever renewed. As a practical matter we would not pursue citations in this instance for violations of this ordinance though; as the individuals that would be cited under the ordinance are the persons who discharged the weapons, and in this case they did so at the City's direction."

The most charitable explanation of the situation is that it was a bureaucratic mishap; the city manager, attorney, and chief of police somehow forgot that the variance had expired. If that is in fact what happened, it reinforces why it's so important to have a council and press ready to serve a watchdog role. (Unfortunately the secrecy did not allow the council or the press to serve that role.).

Someone less charitably inclined might suspect that the failure to renew the variance was done willfully. To renew the variance would have meant, for one thing, that the city council would have had the opportunity to deliberate about it. Unlike last year, when only I spoke in opposition, this time the deliberation would have included the voice of Bob Poeschl. Mr. Poeschl openly opposed the deer cull during his campaign, and I believe he received one of his highest vote totals in the ward affected by the culling. No doubt citizens pro and con would have came to the council to speak on the issue.

More important, if we had had the opportunity to deliberate about the variance and if the public had had the opportunity to comment, we would no doubt have insisted that firearms not be discharged without public notification.

Regardless of how one feels about deer culling (or fire trucks and pump stations), I hope we can all agree that a city manager ought not have the power to direct an organization or individual to discharge firearms in violation of city codes. Giving a local executive that kind of power is more in line with the old Soviet Union than the US Constitution.

Lamb Not Sheepish About Transparency

The C-Span icon wants the congressional Democrats and president Obama to hold true to their pledge of maximum transparency in health care deliberations. See Lamb's letter here. Money quote:

"President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank and file members, and the nation's editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation's health care system. Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation through the Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American."

Monday, January 04, 2010

So Much For Transparency

All members of the City Council received this notice today from city manager Rohloff: "Chief Greuel reported to me that Urban Wildlife Specialists harvested nine deer in the Armory area last week. This was done prior to the expiration of their contract on December 31, 2009."

There was no public announcement that the culling was to take place, and to my knowledge no member of the council was apprised in advance.

So much for government transparency.

I've asked to have this situation placed on the agenda for the January 12 meeting.