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Remember When Michigan Was Great?

Remember When Michigan Was Great

I have something of a Wikipedia problem. In idle moments in between tasks, I tend to wander over to the website for a quick nip — the plotline of a half watched movie here, the defining geographic features of an obscure African country there. I’m in, I’m out, and I’m back to the task at hand. No big deal. I can quit at any time. Really.

Except, not really. Sometimes I get caught up in one of those link rabbit holes. Like when the first article links to a second one, which links to a third, and so on. I’m particularly susceptible to the “On This Day” area, which lists articles about events that happened on that day. On June 20th, there was this one: “1943 – The Detroit race riot breaks out and continues for three more days.”

I was aware of the event, but knew little about it. It had some similarities to the 1967 uprising (competition for jobs and housing), but was really unique to itself. The most fascinating thing to me was the timing: Here we were in the throes of World War II, patriotism arguably running at an all-time high, a concerted focus on defeating the enemy, and we still managed to let our greed and prejudice and tribalism get the best of us. So the first takeaway is: “The good ol’ days are not always the good ol’ days.”

The second is: “We should be able to learn from history, but we don’t.” There we were in 2016, living an economic expansion after having survived the Great Recession. Sure, it wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but times were relatively good. But again, we now seem to be letting our greed and prejudice and tribalism get the best of us. You all just experienced the same week I did, so no need to relive it here. Let’s just maybe resolve to remember the positives of the past without repeating the mistakes.

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The Colbeck Curriculum

The Colbeck Curriculum

Michigan state Senator and gubernatorial candidate Patrick Colbeck has been involved in recent efforts to update the social studies curriculum for K–12 public schools. Colbeck’s stated goals are to “remove partisanship from the classroom” and move students towards a more “politically neutral” dialogue that offers a balanced view of historical issues. Perhaps he is sincere, but few promulgate a more politically non-neutral agenda than Patrick Colbeck.

Bridge Magazine has a very thorough article about this and one of its authors, Lindsay VanHulle, discussed it on Michigan Radio’s Stateside earlier this week. One of the more revealing examples of Colbeck’s ambitions is his assertion that the term “democratic” implies partisan leanings. As a result, 13 references to “core democratic values” have been deleted or changed to “core values.” Politicians defining word usage for all has “dystopian” written all over it. More chilling, Colbeck confided that he only got about a 10th of what he wanted.

Colbeck reminds me of Frank Burns, the character played by Larry Linville in the 1970s sitcom, M*A*S*H. Specifically, the episode in which the 4077 is preparing for a visit from General Douglas MacArthur. The scene opens with Frank merrily tossing items into a fire as fellow doctors, Trapper and Hawkeye, approach:

Trapper: Frank! What are you doing?
Frank Burns: Burning books.
Hawkeye: Oh. Any special reason, Dr. Hitler?
Frank Burns: One of the greatest living Americans is coming and I’m not going to let him see some of the trash that’s read around here.
Trapper: Plato’s Republic? The Life of Red Grange?
Hawkeye: Revolutionaries.
Frank Burns: Right!
Trapper: Robinson Crusoe?
Hawkeye: Everybody runs around half naked.
Trapper: Norman Mailer.
Frank Burns: It’s got *that word* in it.
Hawkeye: Frank, you burn one more book, I’m gonna give you a dancing lesson in the mine field.

Can we at least agree that the last person we want our next governor to emulate is Frank Burns?

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Strange Customs and Rituals

Strange Customs and Rituals

It happens more or less on a regular basis. Somebody with too much time on their hands will point to the large Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in Southeast Michigan and declare their suspicions of nefarious activity. They typically have no real understanding of the nuances — some are Muslim and some are not, some are Arab and some are not, some have been citizens for generations and some have not. But the numbers get lumped together to make the fear more plausible.

It’s bad enough when it’s a low level political operative or a barfly at your local watering hole, but in this case it was Fred Fleitz, the recently appointed Chief of Staff and Executive Secretary for the National Security Council and also Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump. The Detroit Free Press reported this week that Fleitz had given an interview last year to Breitbart News where he shared this little chestnut of wisdom:

“…there are some communities in the United States that have not assimilated. I’m not concerned about Amish or Jewish communities, but I will tell you that there are enclaves of Muslim communities in Michigan and Minnesota that concern me. The problem with these Muslim communities is that it is making them susceptible to this radical worldview that wants to destroy modern society, create a global caliphate, and impose sharia law on everyone on Earth.”

Look, I do understand the possibility of danger — every group of people has potentially bad elements. (As a middle-aged white guy from Michigan, I bear the burden of never knowing what stupid thing Ted Nugent is going to do next.) But I also understand the greater harm of disparaging an entire community. Or more to the point, the overwhelming benefits the people of these communities provide Michigan.

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The Michigan Death Penalty Scale

The Michigan Death Penalty Scale

We can get so caught up with on on-going issues here in Michigan (roads, water, schools, etc.) that it’s easy to forget some of the reasons we have for taking pride in our state. Recently we marked the 172nd anniversary of Michigan becoming the first English-speaking government to abolish the death penalty. Even more impressive, we have not changed our minds about this since.

Sure, there have been periodic efforts to legalize capital punishment in some shape or form. But to our credit, Michigan has resisted the emotional appeal and stayed the course. As the cartoon illustrates, there are many practical and moral reasons to be against capital punishment. While reasons to be for it are largely emotional.

That said, I can totally understand — even empathize with — how weighty those emotional feelings can be. The Larry Nassar case provides a perfect example. After reading about and listening to the testimony of his victims (and considering their ages and sheer numbers), I have to admit the death penalty crossed my mind. (That’s a caricature of me, by the way, jumping up and down on the FOR side.)

But it comes down to this: How can we write the laws so they are air-tight? How can we apply them evenly? How exactly would the convicted be executed? How much would it all cost? And how can we be absolutely sure?

It says something positive about our state and ourselves that we have decided to go with reason over emotions. Because at any given moment we all can feel very pro-capital punishment for, say, slow drivers in the passing lane.

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E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum

It may seem a little odd, but this started out as a Memorial Day cartoon. Late last year, a former neighbor passed away. He was in his mid-90s and a well-decorated World War II vet. He never talked about the medals and rarely about the experience, except to explain the significant scar on his left bicep from a sniper’s bullet.

(He told me once that he felt obligated to explain his arm if somebody’s eyes got stuck on it — he didn’t want people to worry about him.)

On Memorial Day mornings, we would walk out to the city cemetery behind our houses to gather with the entire community to honor our soldiers, sing with the marching band, and listen to the presentations. It always made me feel connected (especially with him there) to our country. All sorts of people have come together to make America what it is. Some who fought, some who died, some who lived on and made it a better place. Out of many, one. E pluribus unum.

The cartoon made a pivot last week when the Michigan Civil Rights Commission approved a statement to legally interpret an existing law (the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act) that bans discrimination based on sex to also mean sexual orientation and gender identity. There was immediate pushback from state Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. He says the commission is “outside their rails on what they’re authorized to do,” and he’s not wrong. But that’s kind of the point.

The statement will allow the Department of Civil Rights to accept discrimination complaints from the LGBT community and move the process along so laws can be amended and courts can make rulings. It’s an audacious move, but not out of line for a country based on audacious moves to fight injustices. Some will have to fight, some will fail, and some will move our country forward to make it a better place. E pluribus unum.

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Not Learning Any Lessons

Not Learning Any Lessons

“You’re an editorial cartoonist? Wow, you must really be loving the current political climate! So much to draw about!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this in the past two years. And while, yes, there is plenty of material, it often comes out like a fire hose — too much, too quickly (and in many cases already beyond satire).

Patton Oswalt has the best take on this. In his comedy special Annihilation, he explains this feeling of helpless exasperation using a brilliant analogy involving defecation and traditional Mexican headwear. I won’t tell you any more for two reasons: He uses words I cannot, and he is infinitely funnier.

This was that kind of week for me. Just when I thought I had a story I could grab hold of, another rushed in and pushed it out of the queue. Finally I settled on the ongoing catastrophe that is the current head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt. Again, so much to choose from, but what caught my eye was a story first reported by Politico:

Earlier this year the EPA helped to bury a federal study that would have increased warnings about toxic chemicals found in hundreds of water supplies across the country. That report showed Pruitt’s senior aides intervened in the release of the Health and Human Services Department assessment into PFOA and PFOS after the White House warned of a “public relations nightmare.”

So here we are again dealing with poisons in our drinking water — this time chemicals that have either been dumped as waste (as is the case in West Michigan near Grand Rapids) or actively spread as an ingredient in products such as fabric protectors and fire-fighting foams. And the officials in charge see this first as a public relations issue, not a public health issue? Have we learned nothing from the Flint water crisis? Apparently not.

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Just Trying to Kill You — Nothing Personal

Just Trying to Kill You — Nothing Personal

I may have gone a bit deep into the weeds on this one, but if you hang with me a minute, I do have an actual point.

There has been a growing dissatisfaction in Michigan regarding how our state and federal voting districts are decided. Currently, the majority party gets to draw the maps and as you can imagine, that party has taken advantage to create districts that disproportionately favor itself. This is known as gerrymandering, and in Michigan’s case, it’s the Republican party taking advantage. (In other states, like Maryland, it’s Democrats.)

Because the Republican-dominated state legislature has had no incentive to address this issue (other than, you know, actually doing its job), a grass-roots group called Voters Not Politicians was created to find a solution. Over the past few months, they have collected signatures to get a proposal on the November 2018 ballot that would make redistricting fair, impartial, and transparent. They have collected well over the minimum number of signatures to qualify, so it’s moving forward. But not without a challenge.

It seems the Michigan Chamber of Commerce has a political action committee (PAC) called Chamber PAC II, which has made contributions to an affiliated PAC called Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which is opposing the Voters Not Politicians efforts because (ostensibly) they feel a ballot proposal is not the right way to amend the Michigan Constitution. And then this week there were some additional shenanigans with the Detroit Free Press reporting that Embridge Energy has made significant and timely contributions the Chamber Pac II, which brings all sorts of potential environmental questions into it.

See what I mean? Weeds.

But my point is: The Michigan Chamber of Commerce clearly has no direct conflict with fair, impartial, and transparent redistricting. It is making the calculation that its influence may be reduced if the new redistricting plan results in less Republicans being elected. That isn’t necessarily true. But even if it turns out that way, the Chamber would still be better served by promoting the value of Michigan commerce instead of trying to game the system.

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Fixing the Soo Locks

Fixing the Soo Locks

It was an interesting week to be in both the worlds of political satire and journalism. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, specifically Michelle Wolf’s stand-up, dominated all flavors of media — traditional, social, and otherwise.

If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage all to listen to the whole routine and not just somebody’s opinion of what might offend you. Or if you don’t prefer Wolf’s voice, read the whole transcript (which includes a hilarious, self-effacing joke about her voice). There’s even a shout-out to Michigan in referencing the 2016 presidential race: “It is kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan.”

I thought it was very well done. You can hide hurt feelings behind discussions of appropriateness — it’s expected from politicians, it’s disappointing from journalists — but to me it was a fine example of what a satirist is supposed to do: Present an edgy, well-crafted piece that speaks truth to power.

President Trump hid from the WHCD by scheduling himself a rally in Michigan. Feel free to experience his entire routine through video. But here again you may prefer the transcript — not so much to avoid Trump’s voice, but all those Benito Mussolini poses he throws when he thinks he made a good point. One such point had to do with the Soo Locks:

“You know what the Soo Locks are?” Trump said to cheers from the audience. “Well, the Soo Locks are going to hell. You know that, right? And we’re going to get them fixed up. We’re going to get them fixed up.”

First of all, asking a Michigan audience whether they know what the Soo Locks are reveals that Trump probably has no idea where they are let alone what they do. I’d spot him Lake Superior and the Straights of Mackinac on a map and still feel pretty confident he couldn’t find them. And the fact that he thinks they are going to hell, well, more federal money for maintenance would be welcomed I’m sure, but the real need is for a bigger lock to accommodate bigger ships.

But, who knows, maybe this obvious bit of audience pandering is what is needed to move the Soo Locks project forward. Maybe if Brian Calley goes to Washington to pay homage and stroke the President’s ego, we will get the money. But that’s exactly why we need satire — somebody has to speak truth to power.

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I Hate Wasteful Government Spending!

I Hate Wasteful Government Spending

There are two types of people in this world: Those who like black licorice and those who must be punished for not liking black licorice. This is because (1) black licorice is delicious and (2) it is the one true licorice.Twizzlers, Red Vines, and other so called “red licorices” are abominations. And other flavors are worse. Do you know what’s infinitely better than chocolate licorice? An actual piece of chocolate!!! There ought to be a law.

Of course there are those who would love nothing more than to persecute us black licorice aficionados. They are tired of having to pick out the black jellybeans. They are weary of being tricked into thinking that Good & Plentys might somehow be delicious. They have nothing but disdain for those of us who consume candy they think has the taste and consistency of a driveway. They think there ought to be a law.

Emotions, especially strongly held emotions, can easily be translated into legislation. But is it a good idea to do so? Just because we feel strongly about something doesn’t mean a law is a practical or functional (or moral) way to act on it.

And so we have the Michigan Senate passing a bill to require “able-bodied” people to work for their Medicaid benefits. I get it. It comes from an understandably human place: We don’t like to see other people get something for nothing.

The problem is that it just won’t work. Other states have tried it. You can either be totally draconian and cut so many people that you appear to save money. (But in truth, all the money saved on Medicaid will be lost manifold when these people start showing up in terrible shape at Emergency Rooms.) Or create so many rules and enforcement mechanisms that money is lost on the subsequent bureaucracy bloat.

So here’s my counter-proposal: From this day forward, all Michigan legislators who propose laws that restrict access to medical care have all of their healthcare benefits replaced with a bag of discarded black jellybeans (or chocolate licorice, depending on what side they are on).

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We’re in a Pickle — Get me John Engler!

We're in a Pickle — Get me John Engler!

The second best advice I ever gave my kids: “Remember to do the things you’re supposed to do and don’t do the things you’re not supposed to do.” Pretty sound, right? Covers the bases, for them and for me. Of course it helped they all had (and still have) really good moral compasses.

But the best advice I gave them was this: “Don’t stake the success of any relationship on your intention to change the other person — you can’t ‘fix’ people, so don’t try to fix them.”

So, is everybody familiar with John Engler? He was the governor of Michigan for quite some time. He also was a legislator. I’ve never met him, but I’ve drawn a lot of cartoons about him. So I feel fairly confident in saying the second of the two scenarios I presented in the cartoon is the more likely. This is not a criticism, it’s an assessment based on loads of evidence.

I leave it to you to judge. But if it was the objective of the Michigan State University Board to appoint an interim president who would work tenaciously to minimize the impact of the Larry Nassar case and related issues, then they made a logical choice.

But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking Engler is something that he is not. He’s not nuanced. He’s not subtle. Often he’s not particularly nice. He’s a doer, a dealmaker. He operates forcefully for his team. So if that’s what you want, that’s what you got.

My advice, then, to the MSU Board would be: Don’t stake the success of your relationship with Engler on any intention to change him. I would also hasten to add that they should take care to do the things they are supposed to do and not do the things they are not supposed to do.

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