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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Election Day here in the United Stasis of America

Well, if you read my post from the other day, you know that I’m happy with yesterday’s presidential election result. But I greet it not with a sense of elation, but rather a sense of relief. And a bit of resigned foreboding, for in the end, after all those hundreds of millions of dollars spent in campaigning up and down the ticket, very little has changed.

The best news: The Tea Party-infused ideas that the Romney-Ryan ticket brought to a national referendum were rebuffed, and one can only hope this means the end of it. Though I doubt it, and that brings us to the bad news. The Senate remains Democratic, and the House remains Republican with no meaningful shift in the ratio of seats. More significantly, the Tea Partiers retained their clout within the Republican caucus in the House, even if they lost some seats, or chances for seats, in the Senate.

What this suggests is that across a broad electorate, the hard-right positions that cropped up during the campaign were rejected. But with the inherent corruption of gerrymandered Congressional districts, those ideas stay alive. If we’re ever going to find a way out of this morass of partisanship in Washington, we’re going to have to find a way to blow up the redistricting process, end the gerrymandering of safe seats for both parties, and move to a open primary system across the nation in which the top-two vote-getters in a primary face off in a general election in non-gerrymandered districts.

Otherwise, the system remains locked in stalemate here in the United Stasis of America.

Ironically, the framers of the Constitution saw the House as being responsive to the mercurial whims of the electorate, as the members face election every two years. The Senate was the to be the chamber of stability, with members selected every six years on a rolling schedule (one third up for election every other year). But with gerrymandering of Congressional Districts - unanticipated by the framers - the House members are now nearly as stable under a system in which the only real change seems to come from political pressures within the two major parties (Tea Partiers winning primaries in GOP-heavy districts, for example).

And so the nation toddles dysfunctionally on. And, as Billy Bragg sang, all we get is the sound of ideologies clashing:
While we expect democracy
They're laughing in our face
And although our cries get louder
The laughter gets louder still
Above the sound of ideologies clashing

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In defense of some fellow undecideds, as I vote by mail

Well, we sat down Friday night for our annual date with the election guide, and to fill out our absentee ballots. It was finally time for this undecided voter to decide, and decide I did. But my indecision was not what you might think.

There's been a lot of noise about those who remain undecided in what has been a presidential campaign of stark contrasts. And a lot of mockery of us undecideds, from our purported stupidity to our lack of a political gyroscope. To which I call bullshit. For two key reasons. One, we aren't all centrists wavering between right and left. And two, some of the most unthinking people I've encountered during my many years of political campaign coverage are those who make up their minds early, and for irrational reasons. Talk about an unthinking engagement with the political process, how about all of those folks who vote Democratic or Republican simply because that's what they always do? Even when their candidate lacks the credentials or credibility to hold public office?

I'm quite certain I follow political campaigns and issues much more closely than the average person, and more closely than many of those who've disparaged us undecideds for our perceived lack of engagement. So my ballot was not cast in a fog. It was well thought out.

In fact, I knew early on who I would not be voting for: Romney. Naked political ambition unleavened by a discernible philosophical framework is a recipe for leadership disaster. He persuaded me during his rightward lurch in the GOP primaries that he was indeed the Etch-A-Sketch candidate, and as a result not someone to be taken seriously sitting in the Oval Office. I became convinced that if he was sincere about many of the positions he had taken, he would lead this country into a Depression-style crisis domestically, and into warrantless wars overseas.

My indecision came over Obama, for whom I voted with pleasure in 2008 (note: as a matter of professional habit I did not vote in elections I covered; I stopped covering the 2008 race in September, so felt free to cast a ballot in that one). He could have been an agent for real political change, but over three years Obama proved to have been a much better campaigner than leader, and to have been co-opted by the Clinton-style pro-corporate centrist policies of the core Democratic Party. He entered office with serious political capital but squandered much of it. It wasn't all bad. The auto bailout was a significant success, and I believe some of his other policies mitigated the economic disaster brought on by the Republicans.

But there's more at stake than money. The health care plan, lauded by Democrats, was too little for the problems we face. Obama could have done better. He was slow to get us out of the wars he promised to get us out of (and added troops to Afghanistan); Guantanamo Bay is still a prison for suspected terrorists (many of whom are being held on the sketchiest of evidence); the National Defense Authorization Act that Obama signed is chilling in its unconstitutional throwback to the McCarthy era; the Obama administration has been even less open than the Bush Administration, as hard as that is to conceive; and Obama is still campaigning about the need to close loopholes that reward corporations for shipping jobs overseas - something he campaigned on the first time around, to little effect.

So my indecision was not between Obama and Romney, but between Obama and someone else. I often turn to the Peace and Freedom Party for my protest vote, but they nominated comedian Roseanne Barr, a joke I can't go along with (and, frankly, destroying its credibility as an alternative party). The Green Party has put up a serious slate led by Jill Stein. And I almost sent my vote there. But in the end I went with Obama essentially as a loud rebuke - well, as loud as a single vote can be - to the Republican Party and its policies, and to the Machiavellian candidacy of Romney/Ryan.

But I'm not happy about it. I may have voted for Obama, but I'm still ambivalent about his leadership, and stand in stark opposition to what the one-time Constitutional law college instructor is doing to our civil liberties.

So in the end, I guess I took the turn Ralph Nader has cried against for years: Don't vote against something, vote for something. This time, I voted against. And while four years ago I voted with a sense of hope, this time it is with a nagging fear that I may have made a mistake. I hope Obama wins, but more significantly, I hope he proves that my fears are unwarranted. Read More 
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A reminder: Detroit-bound for Wednesday talk

I'm looking forward to heading to Detroit this week for a talk at the Detroit Public Library on Wednesday, then to sit on some panels at the annual North American Labor History Conference at Wayne State University.

The book talk is self-explanatory. We'll be in the Friends Conference Room, starting promptly at 6:30 p.m., where I'll talk about the book and then, I hope, lead a conversation with audience members about their experiences with Detroit. We'll discuss the need to overcome the legacy of racism and governmental/corporate policies to take advantage of what really is a yawning opportunity - a chance to rebuild a city, neighborhood by neighborhood. (And we'll be done in time to catch the Tigers-Yankees baseball playoff game on TV at Honest ? John's bar).

Thursday morning I'll give a reprise of the book talk to launch the Labor History Conference at 9 a.m. in McGregor Hall on the Wayne State campus, with comments from Beth Myers, director of the wonderful Walter Reuther Library; and two Wayne State professors, Steve Babson and Tracy Neumann.

That afternoon, I join Jack Lessenbery and Barb Ingalls to listen to Chris Rhomberg talk about his history of the Detroit newspaper strike, The Broken Table (Barb and I were active participants in that), and then give our take on the book (hint: I think Rhomberg did a solid job).

Saturday morning I'm back to talk about "The Legacy of the Ludlow Massacre" (the subject of my first book, Blood Passion) with Rosemary Feurer from Northern Illinois University, Anthony DeStefanis from Otterbein University, and Jonathan Rees from Colorado State University.

It's an academic conference so there's a registration fee, but I believe they also offer day fees. There should be details on the website somewhere. But the Library talk on Wednesday is free to the public. Read More 
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A great idea for Detroit that I hope really happens

One of the most visible of Detroit's many wasted opportunities, I think, is Henry Ford's former office building in Highland Park, an island city surrounded by Detroit, where his ideas on the assembly line took root and revolutionized the industrial world. The building has been essentially unused for years, and I've thought for more than two decades now that the Albert Kahn-designed building would be the perfect anchor for a Detroit auto-tourism industry.

And now it might be happening.

Crain's Detroit reports that the local Woodward Avenue Action Association is negotiating to buy the building from owner National Equity Corp. From the story:
The association hopes to restore the building and eventually host public tours at the site as an automotive heritage welcome center, commemorating its important role in the automotive industry and in the region’s past, (association Executive Director Heather) Carmona said.

Other possibilities include incorporating mixed-use aspects by hosting tech start-ups from the site and/or turning parts of it into housing.

The site is why Woodward is a National Byway and All-American Road, Carmona said. It’s one of the most historically significant buildings on Woodward, and some would say, one of the top five historically significant buildings in the country.

“It’s literally our story … the story of the manufacturing economy, the $5 dollar day, middle class. It’s a historic resource and economic development opportunity that we cannot let slip away,” Carmona said.
I really hope this works out. Detroiters learned long ago not only to not count a chicken before it's hatched, but probably best to wait until it's fully fledged. Detroit's history is full of failed dreams and frustrated ambitions, and this could still wither and die.

But I hope not. Detroit has a lot of things going for it, and industrial history is high among them. Converting some of these decaying survivors of a great past won't save the modern city, but it can add another dimension to a broad, diverse sweep of positive steps. Read More 
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On global warming, presidential politics, and irony

As you know, we spent most of the summer on the road driving cross-country where, as you also know, the weather set all sorts of records for heat. We encountered 107 degrees in Austin, 102 in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and high 90s just about everywhere else. You all sweated through it, too.

A couple of weeks ago, scientists reported that the Arctic ice cap had reached a modern low as a result of global warming, and one expert predicted it could melt completely by the time of the next presidential election. Some 4.6 million square miles of ice melted, with 1.3 million square miles to go, all over the course of a summer. Yes, it will refreeze, but the issue is the thaw's devastating effect on Arctic life and its unknown influence on the world's weather patterns. And the receding ice means more of the environment exposed to human degradation. Where environmentalists see disaster, capitalists see dollar signs.

Yet, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in a New Yorker blog post, the single biggest threat to our health and safety is an asterisk during the presidential campaign. We focus on the inane (exercise routines and gaffes) over the insane (our environmental and energy policies) at a moment of great world peril. From her post:
You might have thought that with the Arctic melting, the U.S. in the midst of what will almost certainly be the warmest year on record, and more than sixty per cent of the lower forty-eight states experiencing “moderate to exceptional” drought, at least one of the candidates would feel compelled to speak out about the issue. If that’s the case, though, you probably live in a different country. Remarkably—or, really, by this point, predictably—the only times Mitt Romney has brought up the topic of climate change, it has been to mock President Obama for claiming, back in 2008, that he was going to try to do something about it.
Romney's election, I think, would be a disaster for the country, but he's right to mock Obama's environmental policies. More drilling in the Arctic and piping crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico are not only risky, they continue our dependence on fossil fuels.

Here's where the irony comes in. As temperatures increase, more people use more electricity to run air conditioning systems, which means burning more coal, which adds more crud to the atmosphere exacerbating the global warming that makes us turn to the air conditioning .... you see where this cycle leads. And no, the irony hasn't escaped me that we encountered all that summer heat while driving cross-country, adding our own little puffs of carbon emissions to the weather engine (we don't have air conditioning in our house).

There are a lot of incidental arguments for not dealing with this problem - we need power for industry, jobs, etc. - but none of them come close to the argument for doing something. The earth will go spinning on. The mountains will rise and erode. The seas will surge and churn.

We're the ones making that environment more and more inhospitable to human life. And we're the only ones who can do anything about it.

So let's talk about that. No, let's do something about that. Read More 
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On Aurora, and our history of violence

We tend in this country to live in the moment, looking neither to the future nor to the past with much insight. The killings early Friday in Colorado - where I spent a fair amount of time researching my first book - will prove that to be the case once again. Hands will be wrung, demands will be made, counter-arguments will be lobbed that the Second Amendment guarantees killers the right to their weapons.

And nothing will change. Because we, as a nation, really don't want it to.

If Columbine couldn't spur a move toward sane gun-control laws, the shooting up of a movie theater certainly won't do it. In fact, none of these killings in the list below - all since the year of alleged Aurora gunman James Holmes' birth - managed to do a thing to move the nation to act. Which says more about us than it does about the killers.

This partial list of mass shootings in the U.S. is gleaned from a range of online news sites. I count more than 200 people killed, not including the gunmen. And I repeat, it is a partial list:

May 30, 2012: Ian Stawicki killed five people, including four who were sitting in a Seattle cafe, before killing himself after a police manhunt.

April 1, 2012: One Goh opens fire at a small Christian college in Oakland, California, killing seven.

October 12, 2011: Scott Dekraai, 41, allegedly enters a Seal Beach, California, hair salon where his former wife works and opens fire, killing eight people.

January 8, 2011: Jared Lee Loughner opens fire at a political gathering in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and wounding 13 others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabbie Gifford.

August 3, 2010: Omar S. Thornton, 34, leaves a disciplinary hearing at Hart­ford Dis­trib­ut­ors in Connecticut, where he is a driver, and opens fire, killing eight people.

November 5, 2009: Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opens fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 12 people and wounding 31 others before he is shot and wounded.

April 3, 2009: Jiverly Wong opens fire into a Binghamton, N.Y., community center, killing 13 people before turning the gun on himself.

March 29, 2009: Robert Stewart, 45, shoots and kills eight people at Pinelake Health and Rehab in Carthage, N.C. before a police officer shot him.

March 29, 2009: Devan Kalathat, 42, kills his two children and three other relatives, then himself in Santa Clara, Calif.

March 10, 2009: Michael McLendon, 28, kills 10 people in rural Alabama before killing himself.

Feb. 14, 2008: Former student Steven Kazmierczak, 27, opens fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, killing five students and wounding 18 others before killing himself.

Dec. 5, 2007: Robert A. Hawkins, 19, opens fire with a rifle at a Von Maur store in an Omaha, Neb., mall, killing eight people before taking his own life. Five more people were wounded, two critically.

April 16, 2007: Gunman Seung-Hui Cho, 23, kills 32 people in a dorm and a classroom at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, then himself in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Oct. 2, 2006: Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, kills five girls at West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, then shoots himself.

March 21, 2005: Student Jeffrey Weise, 16, kills nine people, including his grandfather and his grandfather's companion at home, and five fellow students, a teacher and a security guard at Red Lake High School in Minnesota. He then kills himself. Seven students were wounded.

March 12, 2005: Terry Ratzmann, 44, guns down members of his congregation as they worship at the Brookfield Sheraton in Brookfield, Wisconsin; he kills seven and wounds four before killing himself.

March 5, 2001: Charles "Andy" Williams, 15, kills two fellow students and wounds 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, Calif.

Nov. 2, 1999: Copier repairman Byran Uyesugi, 40, fatally shoots seven people at Xerox Corp. in Honolulu.

July 29, 1999: Former day trader Mark Barton, 44, kills nine people in shootings at two Atlanta brokerage offices, then kills himself.

April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, open fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school's library.

May 21, 1998: Two teenagers are killed and more than 20 people hurt when Kip Kinkel, 17, opens fire at a high school in Springfield, Ore., after killing his parents.

March 24, 1998: Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, kill four girls and a teacher at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school. Ten others are wounded.

Oct. 16, 1991: In Killeen, Texas, George Hennard opens fire at a Luby's Cafeteria, killing 23 people and wounding 20 others before taking his own life.

June 18, 1990: James Edward Pough shoots people at random in a General Motors Acceptance Corp. office in Jacksonville, Fla., killing 10 and wounding four, before killing himself. Read More 
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Irony, and the notion of drilling in the arctic

(AFP photo: Saul Loeb)
A news item this morning, complete with beautiful photos of the arctic, caught me up short, and I really hope the irony here hasn't escaped policy makers: Global warming has opened up polar regions so we can drill for more oil, whose burning in large part is how we got into this environmental mess in the first place.

So how about instead of careening down this foolish and self-destructive path, we agree internationally to leave the arctic alone and spend more serious effort in developing alternatives? Which brings me to a Twitter exchange I had yesterday with an old friend and current business journalist. She tweeted a link to a Los Angeles Times story about state regulators requiring new and renovated buildings be more energy efficient.

A noble idea, that. But we should go one step further and require solar installations in all new buildings, especially in the Sunbelt. It's mind-boggling that here in the high energy-consumption Southwest and West Coast, we burn fossil fuel instead of converting sunshine for the energy to light and cool our homes.

Requiring solar installations on new construction would add some initial costs to the buildings, but if we added incentives to install American-made solar panels, we could goose the domestic manufacturing economy, and over time the solar units' cost would decline. And the property owners would have lower utility bills, further reducing the cost.

It seems like a wasted a opportunity. And drilling in the arctic is foolhardy, at best, beyond the environmental risks it would entail. Same with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Why would we want to make it easier to keep burning fossil fuels, instead of harder? It's like a drug addict burning through his family's money who, instead of getting help, looks for a cheaper drug dealer. What will it take for us to get more sensible about how we generate energy? Read More 
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A fascinating time-lapse video of earth

Every now and then you stumble across something that is just so compelling you have to share it (hmm, I wonder if we could build a social-networking site around that idea?). This is a time-lapse video of photos taken from a Russian satellite about a year ago. The photos are fairly high-resolution - one kilometer per pixel - for the amount of terrain covered, which gives the video a heightened sense of sharpness. The orange is vegetation, the color a result of the infrared cameras used.

The rest of the technical details (121 megapixel cameras, photos taken every 30 minutes, etc.) are on the Youtube page where I found this, but I thought the video remarkable enough to share here. This really needs to be done as a screensaver, no?

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Doing some good for my neighbors

Albert Ezroj
Another side benefit of publishing Detroit: A Biography: Keeping neighbors like Albert Ezroj occupied. Because, as we know, idle hands are the devil's playthings ....

I'm also pleased to note that Hour: Detroit, a magazine in Metro Detroit edited by former colleague Beck Powers, included Detroit in a roundup of new books in the May issue. They wedged me after a book on morel mushrooms, and just above The Skeleton Box, the newest mystery by old friend and former colleague Bryan Gruley. He'll be in Los Angeles on June 13; I'll be buying my copy then. Read More 
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A well-traveled friend buys a well-received book

Paula Dear could well be the most-traveled reader of Detroit: A Biography.

Paula and her husband, Jeremy, are from England, and visited with us for a couple of weeks last summer as they prepared for the trip of a life-time. Both had pitched their jobs (he as general secretary for the National Union of Journalists, she as a journalist for BBC news), packed up their keepsakes with family, came to the U.S. and went shopping for a sleeper van. The plan: To spend a couple of years driving around the Americas (which they're chronicling here).

Oh, and neither spoke Spanish.

They've been marooned for a bit in Honduras, awaiting delivery of a new transmission (a long story amusingly told on their travel blog). But they took a planned break last week, Jeremy to head to Havana for May Day (as close to a religious holiday as he celebrates), and Paula to New York City for some facetime with old friends to celebrate her birthday.

And there, in a Barnes & Noble, she bought my book. Thanks, Paula. And for any others with photos of the Big Purchase, email me and I'll try to pop the picture up here on the blog.

Now, back to John Paul Jones. Where is that body? Read More 
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