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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


Snyder Endorses Calley. Calley May Wish He Didn’t

Snyder Endorses Calley. Calley May Wish He Didn't

I don’t blame politicians for avoiding the “politician” label. Politician, after all, is a dirty word. They are all rotten, lying, cheating, crummy, crooked politicians, right? Well… maybe not all. In this representative form of government we all profess to love so much, good politicians are critical to its success. Good politicians are advocates of the people. They listen, they understand, they form consensus, and then they lead.

Last week the Snyder administration announced that the state would no longer supply bottled water to the people of Flint. Governor Snyder can reasonably argue that tests have shown Flint water meeting safety levels. He can tell us the state has spent a lot of money on providing bottled water over the past few years. He can talk in glowing terms of moving forward. So he tried to do the “leading” bit, but not so much with the listening, understanding, and forming a consensus with the affected community — a community he represents.

Politicians often make the “right” decision, but fail in how they implement it. Yes, of course, at some point the bottled water program for Flint needed to be phased out. But shouldn’t that wait till more than 1/3 of pipes and service lines have been replaced? Till safety is assured and a real trust is built?

So despite what he might say, Rick Snyder is a politician. Sure, he’s a former CEO and successful businessperson and all that. But he has also been a two term governor of Michigan, so by definition he is a politician. Just not a very good one.


Hail to the Victor

Hail to the Victor

I saw an interview with John Beilein after the Michigan loss to Villanova in the men’s NCAA championship game on Monday. It was a fairly standard “what went wrong, what would you do differently, how do you feel about it?” sort of exercise, which Coach Beilein handled graciously. But when the interviewer asked Beilein about his team, he visibly brightened.

He talked about what a tremendous group they are. How they were a team of growth, of “no nonsense,” meaning they took it upon themselves to make the right decisions on and off the court. He acknowledged how fortunate they were in avoiding injuries but their success was do primarily to the players practicing hard and being smart.

I’ve always liked Coach Beilein, but after watching this I thought to myself, “Wow, what a thoroughly decent human being. …I’ll never draw an editorial cartoon about him.”

Well, I was half right. Obviously I did draw him (no, seriously, that’s supposed to be Beilein), but I wouldn’t necessarily call it an editorial cartoon. Typically editorial cartoons challenge power and call out hypocrisy. Current leadership in politics and business seem to provide plenty of that — from fear-mongering to gaslighting to unabashed lying.

So I quickly changed my mind about drawing Coach Beilein to demonstrate the contrast. Recently I did a cartoon about a member of the Trump cabinet and opined in the commentary that at a certain point competency should have a higher value. I would like to add that decency should count for something, too.


Trying Not to Be Killed

Trying Not to Be Killed

Among the many things to admire about the youth who led the March for Our Lives events this past week is their patriotism. That may sound a little off because their detractors have gone to some lengths to question that very thing. But the reality is, they were acting on the very lessons taught to us all about what it is to be Americans: stand up for what’s right, encourage participation in our democratic system, communicate with your representatives, strive to make your country a better place.

But what struck me as maybe most patriotic was the emphasis on inclusion. Before the march, several of the Parkland students visited an inner-city public school in Washington DC to let those students tell their story of gun violence. Inclusion, making sure all voices are heard. What is more American than that?

And what awful and compelling stories they had to tell about gun violence — the same stories kids from places like Flint have been telling for too long. That definitely needs to be part of the bigger conversation.

Look, I don’t want to make these kids out to be perfect. They are people after all, and they are bound to become distracted, get off message, maybe make some political misjudgements. Just like, you know, former Supreme Court members do. (Old people these days! Amiright?)

But so far I’d say they have been impressively on task. Fifty years ago the message from youth to adults could be summarized as, “Get out of the way, your time is over!” Today their message is really more of a practical challenge: “Do your job!”


The First Sign of Spring in Michigan

The First Sign of Spring in Michigan

The songwriting credit for the majority of Beatles songs is listed as “Lennon-McCartney,” but in truth most of the songs were composed individually by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. One of the more famous examples of actual collaboration in the later years of the band is the song “Getting Better.” In the refrain, the more optimistic and positive McCartney wrote the lyric, “It’s getting better all the time,” and the more pessimistic and negative Lennon contributes the next line, “Can’t get no worse.”

This week Governor Snyder signed a new bill to add $175 million to the current year’s budget for road repair. In the signing ceremony he was, well, Rick Snyder: a corporate coffee mug of bubbling, artificially sweetened enthusiasm. A paraphrase of his speech, “The pothole situation in Michigan is just getting better all the time.” To which I say, “Well, it couldn’t get much worse.”

And yet, with the news this week of Ford Motor Company looking to purchase the Michigan Central Station building and property in Detroit, I find myself at an “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” level of McCartney sunshine (which is to say, sort of sickening). The Michigan Central Station is an architectural marvel. But where once it was a majestic point of entry to a thriving Motor City, it now has sat derelict for 30 years as an albatross and an eyesore.

Ford, which was founded in Detroit, is looking to return and invest. It is already committed to moving a couple hundred workers to a Corktown neighborhood location nearby. Buying, renovating, and then using Michigan Central Station would be an enormous boost for Detroit.

Now I hear all you Lennons out there, “Ford is only doing it for the PR.” “It’s all about profit.” “It’s just further gentrification that doesn’t help the people of Detroit.” I get that. But you know, sometimes the two sides can coexist. Sometimes Lennon and McCartney work together to make a pretty good song.


Having to Explain Betsy DeVos

Having to Explain Betsy DeVos

When I was in college, I played broomball. Broomball is basically ice hockey but instead of skates, sticks, and a puck you use tennis shoes, brooms, and a semi-deflated volleyball. It was a way for Michigan Tech students without winter sports skills to play a winter sport. Because there is a LOT of winter in Houghton.

Each section (or “house”) of the dormitory had a team. So other than my roommate (who was friend from high school), my teammates were basically randomly selected by the universe. This was fine except for one guy — he was one of our better players and nice enough to everybody on our team, but he would go out of his way to hurt players on other teams.

During games I would, of course, support and defend him when the other team got angry at him. That’s what teammates do. And outside of games when somebody from another team would see me on campus and say, “Hey, what’s the deal with that guy?,” I’d make excuses, “Well, he’s good player, he’s just a little intense.” But after awhile, that wore thin. The truth was, he was not a good person. Probably a sadist. I still feel bad that I defended him.

So here we find ourselves with Betsy DeVos, randomly selected by the universe to be on our state of Michigan team. You saw her performance earlier this week on 60 Minutes. You saw her performance at her confirmation hearings. You’ve seen her performance as Secretary of Education. I cannot explain or excuse any of that.

Being a “member of our team” by geography or even “on our side” politically makes some sense, but it really should be a secondary consideration. At some point a lack of competence has to be the more important consideration. At some point the indefensible must actually, you know, not be defended.


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