First Serving


The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin
Whitewater’s longtime politician, current school board member, and ersatz newsman Jim Stewart has published an update on candidacies for upcoming school board, city council, and county board races.

A few quick comments:

1. Stewart’s Update on Compensation. Stewart has an update to his post, or rather UPDATED, on the compensation for each office. Why he thinks that matters he doesn’t say. If the sums he lists are an enticement to run, then he’s enticing the wrong candidates. No one should be running for the money. If Stewart thinks these sums are high, well, they’re not half so high as the millions that Stewart authorized for wasteful projects while on Whitewater’s city council: TID 4, an ‘Innovation Center,’ etc.

If Stewart had voted for even one fewer failed project while in office, he might have saved enough to fund politicians’ salaries for decades.

2. County Board. One reads from Stewart’s website that Whitewater resident Jerry Grant is running for the Walworth County Board of Supervisors: “Jerry has the desire to return to the County Board and continue to serve the constituents of District 4, which is most of the City of Whitewater.” No other candidate Stewart lists – there are over a half dozen – receives this positive explanation of desire. It’s not quoted, it’s simply stated. That’s why Stewart’s not a newsman, never was, never will be. He can’t distinguish between his views and objective, indisputable fact.

3. School Board. Stewart spent many years on the board, left over a decade ago, tried to return but lost a competitive race in 2015, and then returned to the board in 2016 after submitting his name as the only interested candidate. Whitewater has a school board that is established on a principle of collective governance, but a single board member who speaks as though he were all the board, all the administration, all the district, as an official spokesperson. Whitewater’s common council endured a similar situation during Stewart’s tenure there.

These are among the weak local practices, as one finds in other small towns, that have preceded the worse national ones that now beset us.

Because the community’s politics is weak and poorly ordered, these collective bodies lack the strength to reject a conflict-riddled approach from even one striving politician.

There’s a saying that to serve slices of a pie fairly, one should make the server take the last piece. Whitewater’s situation represents the opposite approach, where one politician out of several takes first, leaving what’s left on the plate for the rest.

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Rabbi Sharon Brous’s Advice for Small Towns (and Everywhere, Really)

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

Over at The Atlantic, there’s an interview with Rabbi Sharon Brous, the senior rabbi at IKAR, a non-denominational synagogue in California. See ‘I’ve Spent My Life Studying These Books That Say Decency Actually Matters.’ Rabbi Brous describes religious belief among progressives in contemporary America, and two of her observations are particularly suited even to Whitewater (or other small towns). Emma Green conducts the interview —

On the need for interfaith outreach:

Emma Green: You’ve been hanging out with William Barber, right? Wasn’t he recently at IKAR?

Rabbi Brous: Before launching the Poor People’s Campaign, he did a series of massive town halls around the country. They called to ask whether I would speak the night before Rosh Hashanah. And I said, ‘I’ll happily do that if William will come to share a little bit of his Torah with us the next day.’ It was an incredibly powerful moment for our community, and I think for him, too.

There is a bigger national conversation happening right now, and Jews are a part of it. It is about progressive religious voices not being afraid to say there’s decent, and there’s indecent. There are people who are fighting for dignity, and people who are fighting to deprive other people of their dignity. We have to be willing to stand up and fight with a prophetic voice.

One unites and allies with others, including new friends from faraway places, to a general advantage.

On faith and political controversy:

Rabbi Brous: I went to give a talk at a [synagogue] in the early spring, and I asked the rabbi in advance of the talk, ‘Are there any hot-button issues I should avoid?’ I don’t really go there to get them in trouble; I want to make sure I know where the community is. And he said, ‘You can talk about anything you want, but not politics.’ He said, ‘We have three Trump supporters in the community’—three, out of a community of 1800 families—‘and they will go ballistic.’ He was told, after the inauguration, not to say the word ‘Pharoah’ because it seems political, like an attack on Trump. Rabbis are being told, because there are three people who think that the most profoundly indecent candidate for president that we have ever seen, and the most unqualified, reckless, bigoted and indecent candidate has risen to power, that now we can’t speak Torah anymore because it might make people think we’re uncomfortable with that person and his values.

For me, I say what I need to say. I’m not looking to build the biggest, widest tent so that any person with any political perspective should and could feel absolutely comfortable here. I think in those environments, we become so neutral and so numb that we can’t actually say something.

The new normal is not normal. I’m glad I’m not in an environment where I’m afraid to say out loud, ‘This is not okay.’ I say that not because I’m a political pundit, but because I’m a rabbi, and I’ve spent my life studying these books that say decency actually matters….

There’s great truth, and sadness, in her observation. Formerly, in a place like Whitewater, a few local notables – mostly mediocre and wholly entitled – expected and received undeserved deference for their ill-considered positions and self-promoting claims. Theirs was a kind of big-government conservatism, with public resources disproportionately controlled and unevenly distributed. They walked around like they owned the place.

Their own errors were That Which Paved the Way for something worse, and beyond their control: a brassy, loud, ignorant nativism that doesn’t think – and so doesn’t care – about anyone outside itself. See Old Whitewater and Populism.

Neither Old Whitewater nor a new Populism deserves deference and appeasement. These Old Whitewater men and women who are silent in the face of Trumpism either implicitly support its aims or are too weak to resist.

Men and women, having as children graduated from crawling to walking, shouldn’t willingly return to their original method of locomotion.

Rabbi Brous wisely offers a better way: say what one needs to say.

‘Backed themselves into this corner’

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin There are local versions of the problem Fox News now faces as a flack for Trump. First, the Fox situation, then the local equivalent —

Nationally, the Daily Beast website writes of remarks from a former Fox News contributor & panelist:

[Andy] Levy, who served for 10 years as “ombudsman” and nightly panelist on Fox News late-night show Red Eye until its early 2017 cancellation, added: “Fox News should disavow it, but it kinda can’t because, with a couple of exceptions, they’ve backed themselves into this corner and they’re now the Trump News Network, and that’s their life blood.” Levy is now a regular panelist and senior producer of Cupp’s show.


Locally, both established newspapers (Gazette, Daily Union) and websites (Banner) have a similar problem: they’ve tied themselves to an economically ignorant boosterism, now to find that actual conditions undeniably lag local claims. Their own mediocre grasp is That Which Paved the Way for an even worse local, nativist impulse. (It’s also a nativism that doesn’t give a about damn hierarchy, forcing publications to pander, or at least stay silent, in an effort to hold on. See Old Whitewater and Populism.)

These nearby publications share this characteristic with a national one: they’ve backed themselves into a corner, on behalf of bad ideas and bad policies. One may be daily thankful for not making a similar mistake.