‘Don’t worry about them – the rest of us feel great!

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

A doctor walks into a town of one-hundred people, and finds that half of them are pale, feverish, and vomiting blood. The physician calls out to a community leader, “Send for help, you have an epidemic on your hands.” The community leader replies, “Oh no, don’t worry about them – the rest of us feel great!”

There one sees the self-regard and self-promotion of some, while ignoring the condition of others.

Over at the Janesville Gazette, that paper’s editorialist feebly tries to divert attention from the fundamental problems of his community, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports them (and as cited at FW on Tuesday. See Contrast). First a portion of Rock County’s many struggles, then highlights from the Janesville editorialist’s reply —

Reporting from the Journal Sentinel (‘Wisconsin childhood trauma data explodes myth of ‘not in my small town’):

Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Rock County falls into the highest tier of overdose deaths, hospitalizations and emergency room visits linked to opioids and heroin, as ranked by state health authorities….

Once solidly middle-class Rock County today harbors the state’s highest scores for childhood trauma, the deepest plunge in income since the turn of the century, and one of the most extreme drug epidemics.

Of the state’s 72 counties, Rock County is home to the fourth-highest share of single-parent households (17.6%) behind Menominee, Milwaukee and Kenosha counties (28%, 23% and 18.4%, respectively). In the last 20 years, households in the county accepting FoodShare entitlements rose 310%. In the last 15 years, childhood poverty surged 150%, the second fastest increase in the state. The rate at which babies in the county are born with opioids, heroin or other addictive drugs in their bodies more than tripled from 2013 to 2016.

“Soon, we’ll have a whole generation of grade school kids who all have in common a parent who overdosed and died of heroin,” said Janesville police officer Justin Stubbendick. “It breaks my heart to think”….

Editorial reply from the Gazette (‘Our Views: Outsiders get the region’s story wrong again‘):

….This is the sort of one-dimensional portrayal of the region we’ve come to expect from outsiders (Mother Jones magazine did the same thing in 2009). It’s a cliché to characterize Janesville in a downward spiral since the closing of the GM plant nearly a decade ago. It’s a cliché, too, to dismiss the expansions of other manufacturers, the region’s surging tax base and downtown Janesville revitalization efforts.

To be sure, this region has many challenges—heroin being one of them—but these gloomy narratives emerge only by their authors ignoring positive developments….

W.W. Grainger on Janesville’s east side has hired hundreds of employees over the past two years and recently began in-house leadership training programs to help employees advance in the company.

Dollar General’s distribution warehouse has hired hundreds of workers, and while it doesn’t pay GM union levels, workers average $16 to $17 an hour to start, according to company hiring fliers.

Plastics company GOEX is in the process of expanding its warehousing and clean room facilities on the city’s north side to meet booming demand in markets it serves.

In southern Rock County, Pratt Industries opened a $52 million box plant this year.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation remains committed to the Interstate 90/39 expansion project, even as the agency has shelved other Interstate projects (including in the Journal Sentinel’s own backyard). Officials have made I-90/39 a top priority because they recognize the corridor’s and this region’s economic importance….

We refuse to allow pockets of instability to define us. The Journal Sentinel piece is a reminder that we as a community must take responsibility for telling our own story, especially if outsiders seem bent on casting this region as a failure.

1. Outsiders! Many have written serious critiques of Janesville, including Pulitzer winner Amy Goldstein, but they’re mere outsiders to the editorialist. (At least he refrained from calling them rootless cosmopolitans.) These many and solid critiques are all from Americans: established, serious, thoughtful, relying on actual conditions of thousands of local residents.

So provincial is the Gazette that Milwaukee – part of the same state, not far at all from Janesville, is somehow a distant land. There’s wagon-circling, and then there’s this: a small-minded, xenophobic rejection of anything outside the county.

2. Parachuting! Easier said than being able to refute a single statistic JS reporter John Schmid offers. Truly, the Gazette‘s editorialist doesn’t refute any of the statsitics about Rock County’s troubled state – instead, he implores readers to look at the positive.

The supposedly positive (as the editorialist sees it) has not, and will not, compensate those who are now suffering for their actual hardships.

What does it profit a family to gain an interstate if it shall endure childhood poverty? What does it profit a family to gain a nearby warehouse if they struggle with addiction?

These supposed achievements have not brought widespread community uplift. They’ve brought, instead, leaders’ self-serving entreaties to accentuate the positive. (“Look, we have a box plant! Over here, pay attention!”)

Developments that allow a large underclass to grown within a city serve to distract from actual suffering to the benefit of aged leaders’ vanity and pride.

3. Refuse…to define us. These aged self-promoters – whose public lives have witnessed only community decline – have no power to define. Their refusals mean nothing – they’re too weak, too dense, too selfish to persuade anyone except a small number of that same ilk.

These few are not, even now, writing the story of their community. It’s written by men and women more thoughtful, more persuasive, more principled.

In any event, the future will write the history of the present. It will be harsh with the anything like the editorialist’s outlook.

That will prove true in small & beautiful, yet struggling, Whitewater, the city from which one daily views the world beyond.

Contrast

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin Consider the contrast between how the Janesville Gazette‘s publisher want his city to be seen, and how an economics reporter describes the Janesville area:

Janesville Gazette editorial, A question for Janesville to consider:

[James] Fallows and his wife learned the differences between success and failure during a 54,000-mile journey across the United States in a single-engine plane. They hopped from city to city (though didn’t pass through Janesville) and wrote several pieces for The Atlantic. We examined Fallows’ criteria and, from our admittedly biased vantage point, are happy to report Janesville meets many of them.

Perhaps the one exception is the first sign on Fallows’ list: Divisive national politics seem a distant concern. But in all fairness, how many cities have a Congressional representative who is speaker of the House? Furthermore, many locals are less obsessed about national politics than outsiders who occasionally parachute into Janesville to protest, study the city or otherwise seek attention.

Much of this attention is out of Janesville’s control, but residents and local leaders should take to heart Fallows’ assessment: “Overwhelmingly, the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.”

Janesville does better with other markers on Fallows’ list. Fallows says successful cities have a downtown, and they have big plans and public-private partnerships….

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, John Schmid, Wisconsin childhood trauma data explodes myth of ‘not in my small town’:

Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Rock County falls into the highest tier of overdose deaths, hospitalizations and emergency room visits linked to opioids and heroin, as ranked by state health authorities….

Once solidly middle-class Rock County today harbors the state’s highest scores for childhood trauma, the deepest plunge in income since the turn of the century, and one of the most extreme drug epidemics.

Of the state’s 72 counties, Rock County is home to the fourth-highest share of single-parent households (17.6%) behind Menominee, Milwaukee and Kenosha counties (28%, 23% and 18.4%, respectively). In the last 20 years, households in the county accepting FoodShare entitlements rose 310%. In the last 15 years, childhood poverty surged 150%, the second fastest increase in the state. The rate at which babies in the county are born with opioids, heroin or other addictive drugs in their bodies more than tripled from 2013 to 2016.

“Soon, we’ll have a whole generation of grade school kids who all have in common a parent who overdosed and died of heroin,” said Janesville police officer Justin Stubbendick. “It breaks my heart to think”….

I  invite readers to read Fallows’s original Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed. (Two posts about Fallows’s article appeared here over a year ago: Part 1, Part 2.)  If there’s anyone who sees Janesville in Fallows’s article he or she needs critical assistance in reading comprehension.

For the Gazette, careful consideration looks like troublesome news from “outsiders who occasionally parachute into Janesville to protest, study the city or otherwise seek attention.”

Actual conditions – of so many in Janesville, Whitewater, Palmyra, Milton – fall below what one might expect in a successful, prosperous community.

A community cannot fix what its leaders will not acknowledge is broken.

The Somber Trio

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin Among the most serious harms are those to liberty and physical well-being. One can compensate adequately for many injuries, but damages at law are slight compensation for lost liberties and physical injuries.

We’ve a new national environment, in which actions once impermissible are now encouraged, and redress once required is now no longer recognized. If asked to list the three gravest concerns for this small town, these come to mind, in no fixed order:

Harm inflicted intentionally against immigrants peacefully settled in their communities,

Harm inflicted through overzealousness against other residents (often disadvantaged) but peacefully situated in their communities, and

Unacknowledged harm from sexual assaults against residents on campuses or nearby.

There’s an obvious difference between risk (the chance that something might happen) and harm (what results if it does happen). The harms that might befall some in this community have always been clear; the risks of these harms has grown as Trumpism encourages force where it was once properly discouraged, and discourages peaceful resolution where it was once encouraged.

These greater risks did not begin with Trump. In towns across America, including Whitewater, one can see That Which Paved the Way. Those who have ignored or denied past wrongs have left their communities vulnerable to those who would, with satisfaction & delight, commit new and worse injustices, all the while declaring their actions the very height of order and propriety.

The worst risks, of the worst harms, fall on some of our fellow residents more than others. The moral burden of lessening risks, and of redressing harms, falls on all of us.

‘Can Conservative Journalism Survive?’

Conservative Conor Friedersdorf, now at the Atlantic, asks whether conservative journalism can survive. See, entitled just that wayCan Conservative Journalism Survive?

In truth, he’s writing about traditional conservatism (and not just journalists), and the generation of traditional conservatives that brought Reagan to office. I’d recommended the whole essay.

Friedersdorf asks:

….If conservatism is to survive as a constructive force for the moment when Trumpism ends in another bankruptcy, and the country needs a healthy left and right to recover, conservatives need not only to learn from the flaws that caused their countrymen to lose faith in their project; they must openly and explicitly break with populism [Adams: that is, Trumpism] and its excesses, bringing a conservative critique to bear upon them. “America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it,” George F. Will recently declared, “and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking.”

Who will point out populism’s flaws by drawing on conservatism’s best insights, attack its hucksters as much as the left, and fight for the right as if conservatism could win?

There’s an answer to Friedersdorf’s question: if traditional conservatism cannot see that Trumpism is now a greater threat than the left (rather than deserving of attack merely ‘as much as the left’), then traditional conservatism will continue to whither, declining from kindling to tinder to dust.

The local version of this is believing that hyper-local coverage, ignoring national forces that now reach into every town, will satisfactorily get one through this darker era. Indeed, it’s holding to hyper-localism as if that view were a political party, ideology, or faith. Paine was right, in his Epistle to the Quakers:

Ye appear to us to have mistaken party for conscience; because the general tenor of your actions wants uniformity: And it is exceedingly difficult for us to give credit to many of your pretended scruples; because we see them made by the same men, who, in the very instant that they are exclaiming against the mammon of this world, are nevertheless hunting after it with a step as steady as Time, and an appetite as keen as Death.

There will be a time after this time, of course, but some will come through it so poorly and so dishonorably that they’ll come to regret having come through it at all.

Priorities: Fighting Bigotry Over Babbittry

local sceneCommon men and women can learn from the examples of great men and women. In this way, one can learn how to prioritize between concurrent challenges, applying lessons from a prior and intense conflict even to present but lesser conflicts. Some threats are worse than others, and so our it’s reasonable that one places more effort there.

It makes sense to me that the most intense focus should be on the most intense challenges, and that those challenges are national ones first, local ones embodying national ones second, and purely local ones third.

The national challenges of Trumpism (viz., authoritarianism, bigotry, nativism, mendacity, conflicts of interest, ignorance, and subservience and dependency on Putin’s dictatorship) are a greater threat to communities than purely local buffoonery and grandiosity.

In this way, one would, so to speak, prioritize the fight against bigotry over babbittry. (One sees well, to be sure, that years of local babbittry erode the standards of a community, making it more susceptible of national illnesses. Only scorn is owed to those who wasted a generation glad-handing through town.)

Three confident assumptions undergird my thinking —

First, Trumpism should go, consigned to a political outer darkness, and the ruin of that way will be a thorough good. The next generation will ask: What did you do to oppose Trump? Those who supported him will then be silent; those who were silent will then be ashamed. Those who openly defended centuries of liberty and constitutionalism on this continent, however small their own efforts, will enjoy settled consciences and the thanks of a free people.

Second, there will still be time, during this national conflict, to combat local embodiments of the national challenges that face us. There are, for example, lumpen nativists, local show-us-your-papers men,  who deserve more criticism than they’ve yet received. That’s a fight worthy fighting, and one happily joined.

Third, most of those responsible for our local challenges have no future in any event — they were irreversibly in decline in Whitewater even before Trump came to power. If the pharaohs, with all their wealth poured into the pyramids, could not thereby prevent the decline of their way of life, then one can be sure that today’s local grandiosity and boosterism will not do the trick.

Fight and prevail through collective, nationwide efforts in the greater challenge, and the local challenge will be even more easily won.

The Existential (Imagined and Real)

It was Michael Anton (writing as Publius Decius Mus) who exactly one year ago famously declared that 2016 was “The Flight 93 Election,” an existential fight for survival for state-loving conservatives:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!….

The Flight 93 Election, Claremont Institute, http://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/the-flight-93-election/

Anton now serves in the Trump Administration (“Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications”), so he may content himself with avoiding a figurative plane crash at the price of electing a man who received three million fewer votes than the leading candidate.

Anton saw an existential threat, with conservatism on the brink, yet he should have stopped at the observation that others might see his claims as histrionic: they were and are exactly that. Had Clinton won, conservatism would have gone on well enough, perhaps even a bit better, in a politics of sometime gridlock and sometime compromise between a Democratic executive and a Republican legislature. America would have seen a world of conventional politics, not of existential threat to either conservatives or liberals. For better or worse, Clinton (and Ryan and McConnell) would have held office in times mostly of business as usual, not of extreme dangers.

Contra Anton, whose false claims of existential threats look truly histrionic a year later, it’s Trump’s election that now brings America to an existential crisis: Trump daily manifests authoritarianism, bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, subservience to a Russian dictator, and serial conflicts of interest and self-dealing.

Those who opposed Trump, had we seen Trump defeated, would have been no dire threat to anyone who supported him. Now in power, Trump and his remaining cultish operatives are, however, manifestly a threat to American liberty, to centuries of constitutional and political development on this continent.

Anton had it exactly backwards: it’s Trump’s rise to power that represents an existential threat to our ordered and civilized way of life. We are now in an existential struggle, one that Trump has forced upon us.

This struggle is fought daily in the vast space between two great oceans, gripping over three hundred million within that territory, and billions beyond for whom the outcome matters immensely.

While the field of conflict is continental, it is not – indeed cannot be – national everywhere and yet local nowhere. Much of the decaying matter from which Trumpism springs (a love of authority, entitlement, grandiosity, mediocrity, conflicts of interest) exist in even the most beautiful small towns. It’s a candid admission that many of us – and here I count myself – have not done enough to challenge these local vices that have engendered a national sin.

No doubt we had excuses for our indolence even as we saw the local fuel that now feeds this national fire, reassuring ourselves that those of that ilk were doddering & bumbling, irritating & ignorant, yet mostly harmless.

We were unwise – foolishly rationalizing our neglect as generosity. We’ve now local and national hazards before us, with neither setting able to compensate for the challenge of the other. One would think, as was rightly said during another national conflict, that ‘one war at a time is enough.’ We’ve not that compensation; we’ve both problems now, both of our own neglect.

Multitudes will see loss and suffering before all this is over. Innocent people ruined at the hands of a bigoted, fanatical nationalism.

There is, however, this advantage: those of us in opposition and resistance are holding our own even now, and we have not yet given our best. Principle and perseverance will favor us.

However late to having come to see it, this threat is unmistakable now.

Trumpism Down to the Local Level

I wrote last week, in a post entitled ‘What Putin’s team is probably telling him about Trump,’ about five degrees of culpability for Putinism’s insinuation and degradation of American politics.

One could modify that list only slightly, and thereby describe Trump’s present influence in America:

(1) those who have served the Trump as operatives and surrogates to advance his agenda in opposition to America liberty and sovereignty, (2) those sympathetic to Trumpism (including white nationalists, anti-Muslim bigots, and theologically-confused & intellectually-stunted Americans who ludicrously think that Trump’s a moral exemplar), (3) those who wilfully refuse to see the damage Trump has done, (4) those who for years have maintained the low standards that have allowed Trump-style lies and misconduct to flourish (including every glad-handing Babbitt in every town in America), and (5) those of us who should have seen more clearly, and dealt with the rest more assertively & decisively, all these years gone by.

Most people, facing a conflict not of their wishes, would yet prefer to fight on only one front. America has not had that luxury in prior conflicts, and those of us in opposition do not have that luxury now. Some might have hoped to fight only nationally, and others to do so only locally. However one might apportion one’s time, there is a need to engage on both fronts.

Those supporting Trumpism declared boldly (and falsely) in 2016 that theirs was an existential struggle. I don’t believe for a moment that their situation was such; I’ve no doubt that they’ve now pushed those in opposition into such a conflict. What they unreasonably feared for themselves they’ve now unjustly inflicted on others.

So be it. Americans have faced secessionist slaveholders, copperheads, klan, and bund. Each threat we overcame, each danger in its time we consigned to the outer darkness.

We will slog through this time, through its dark politics, by use of law and a better politics, until it is no longer necessary to do so.

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 8 of 14)

This is the eighth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter from Part Four (2011) of Janesville (The Ambassador of Optimism). I’ll cover the chapter in detail because it’s so perfect in its account of boosterism, as though Sinclair Lewis’s protagonist George F. Babbitt overtook a Janesville resident and spoke through her.

Goldstein’s account of banker Mary Willmer (co-founder of Rock County 5.0) is utterly devastating. Willmer’s sure that sunny optimism will lift Janesville’s condition from that of a near-depression:

On the first Tuesday of the year, Mary Willmer is in a cheerful mood. This morning, the Gazette has published a guest column she has written in hope of setting the proper tone in Janesville for 2011. The column is featured in the upper right corner of the newspaper’s Opinion page. It reminds people of the efforts Rock County 5.0 has been making to lift the local economy, but the message is less about strategy than about state of mind. “We need to be proud of our community,” Mary has written, “and we need to all be ‘Ambassadors of Optimism.’?” This mantra about being an ambassador of optimism is an idea that Mary came up with during the early weeks of Rock County 5.0’s existence.

Willmer’s also excited about her new-found friend, rightwing billionaire Diane Hendricks:

Seeing her words in print is not the only reason that Mary is pleased. She got home late last night from downtown Madison, where she was because Diane Hendricks snagged her a ticket to the inaugural ball of a governor who is, Mary can see, as determined to set a new tone for Wisconsin as she is for Janesville.

Predictably, those in Janesville who are struggling feel they need more than an ‘ambasssador of optimism’:

The anger that rises against Mary is local. It rises because she has neglected to notice a basic fact: talking up a town to people who can still afford to go out to eat, to travelers checking into the Hampton Inn or the Holiday Inn Express, is not quite the same as telling everyone who reads the Gazette that the only thing they need to do for the economy to recover is to become an optimist. And telling them this near the start of a month during which Rock County’s unemployment rate, even two years after the assembly plant shut down, stands at 11.2 percent. Not the same at all.

(Astonishingly, and cluelessly, Willmer is “slow to sense the anger rising against her.”)

Meanwhile, Mary Willmer’s new pal takes a moment before a meeting to ask recently-inaugurated Gov. Walker a question:

Diane [Hendricks] asks, could they talk for two seconds about some concerns that are best not to raise in front of the group? “Okay, sure,” the governor says. Diane stands close and looks him straight in the eye. “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions and become a right-to-work? What can we do to help you?” “Oh yeah,” Walker replies. “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.” “You’re right on target,” Diane says, as Mary looks on.”

Goldstein saves the best for the end of the chapter: “Mary types on her BlackBerry a message that she posts on her Facebook page: “Great morning with Gov. Walker. We are so lucky to have him.”

It’s familiar: the insistence on optimism (the myopic role of boosters), the reliance on a local, poorly written but ever-so-obliging publication to carry water for the effort, and the search for a few well-placed pals to reassure that one has arrived….

Goldstein’s accounts in the chapter are, of course, all from 2011. They’re striking. Yesteryear’s mirage of arrival (for one never arrives) seems, from our later date, less arrogant than it is impossibly sad.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 9 of 14).

Margaret Sullivan on Great Local Reporting

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist observes that Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing. (Sullivan was formerly The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of her hometown paper, The Buffalo News.)

Sullivan explains what great local reporting means:

“In only 15 years, American newspaper companies slashed their workforces by more than half — from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But that troubling trend wasn’t on the minds of journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year as they dug deep into the prescription-drug epidemic that was inflicting mortal wounds on their community.

No, what motivated them was the West Virginia paper’s unofficial motto: “Sustained outrage.”

That phrase, coined by former publisher Ned Chilton, “means a lot to people here,” executive editor Robert Byers told me last week, shortly after the 37,000-circulation paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The family-owned paper (Chilton’s daughter is the publisher now) has a newsroom staff of about 50.

“You can do a hundred stories” on the opioid crisis, Byers said, “but we wanted to know where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street.”

Needless to say, not all communities have newspapers like this. On the contrary, in the Whitewater area, we have papers so weak that they’d never come close to a serious journalistic nomination, let alone a real award. Many of them give each other prizes at local press gatherings, for third-tier work, on a participation-trophy theory of life. Indeed, the local climate is so weak that a small-town politician can brand his own website a news source, cover for years the political projects in which he’s been directly involved, and expect to be taken seriously for it.

If  one can say of the admirable Charleston Gazette-Mail that its unofficial motto is sustained outrage, one can say as easily of the Gazette, Daily Union, Register, and Banner that they might as well have a common, unofficial motto of sustained boosterism.

This local problem has been part of That Which Paved the Way to the weaker economic, fiscal, and social conditions that plague nearby communities. The way out will not come neither from more of the same ideas nor the same people pushing the same ideas.

‘The Closest Thing We Have to State TV’

In the clip above, Seth Meyers considers the relationship between Fox News and the Trump Administration, concluding that Fox News is ‘the closest thing we have to state TV,’ represents ‘sycophantic coverage,’ and that ‘instead of a Bible, Trump should have been sworn in on a TV Guide.’ (H/t to Raw Story for the pointer.)

Small towns across America are familiar with publications that are – in support and in effect – quasi-government publications. In the Whitewater area, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Daily Union or Banner as offering anything other than sycophantic coverage. It’s fair to qualify this as nearly impossible, as ever so rarely one of these publications will stray from an insider’s line, for reasons of personal pique if not actual substance.

We’ve had years of coverage like this, weakening the quality of our politics and thinking, so much so that those in authority sometimes (but not always) seem like parodies of ill-preparation and weak analysis. Low quality of this kind is That Which Paved the Way, enabling a federal government led by the very worst among us.