Politics Writing

Grass Roots or Participatory Democracy?

Prairie Grasses in Late Summer

It is a commonplace that effective organizations, especially political ones, should be “grass roots” driven. It is so commonplace the words are virtually meaningless.

Let’s think about this. What drove the election of the current president was a strong movement fed by the fertilizer of unlimited free speech in the form of dark money from a billionaire-led network. It was a grass roots movement supporting a demagogue. It yielded a predictable result, one we’d convinced ourselves wasn’t possible.

The basic validity of the movement to elect President Trump is hard to question. People are free to support political candidates and elect them to high positions including as president. The underlying efficacy of such movements is mitigated by deception and lies told to further its intent. Despite the number of presidential lies and false statements, people persist in their support of the president and the right wing propaganda machine provides many handles for voters to hold fast to the Trump train.

People mistake a participatory democracy as being grass roots driven. It isn’t necessarily. As Thom Hartmann points out in his book The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote — And How to Get it Back, about six percent of eligible voters nominated Trump as the Republican candidate, eight percent nominated Hillary Clinton as the Democratic one. Hartmann’s message is more people should participate in elections.

Grass roots movements are important. Whether they can make needed changes in our governance is an open question. In our current right wing media-dark money-oligarchical society participatory democracy and being grass roots driven aren’t the same thing.

Our recent school board election is an example of a grass roots movement with more positive results. We had six candidates and the community joined together to vet them and pick two to serve. Our collective actions during the run up to the election made a change in the board’s composition. We elected a woman to serve with four other men. She has deep roots among families in the district and the electorate believed the board would be better for her service.

Does characterization of support for a political candidate as “grass roots” make a difference? Probably not. It becomes one more meme in a media environment of too many memes and not enough thinking. I get that tallgrass prairie plants have deep roots. If we hadn’t decimated the ecosystem in which they thrived it might be a more appropriate metaphor. Just like native prairies of Iowa meant something a hundred years ago, grass roots politics are rooted in an era of progressive politics no longer relevant in today’s ubiquitous right wing media and dark money environment.

Instead of coming up with descriptors, politically active people should encourage more people to participate in elections. What we know with some certainty is if everyone votes, common sense solutions to our problems are likely to prevail. Participatory democracy is the way to go.


Book Review: The Hidden History Of The War On Voting

The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote — and How to Get it Back by Thom Hartmann is a quick but important read for people who want or need to review the history and origins of today’s concerted, well-organized campaign to make it more difficult to vote for some while making it increasingly convenient for others.

It answers the question what can we do to ensure everyone has a voice in our democracy? It’s a page turner intended to teach us things we didn’t know about voter suppression.

Hartmann takes readers through the founders’ reasons for curbing the right to vote for Native Americans, women and slaves, the growing influence of moneyed interests beginning with the U.S. Supreme Court case Buckley vs. Valeo, the impact of Brown vs. Board of Education on voting, and more. The final section of the book offers solutions in the form of points of action to protect our fundamental right to vote.

“But isn’t Hartmann preaching to the choir?” engaged readers might ask.

What’s important about this book is it retells the story of voting in America from an actionable perspective. It is easy to read and understand with a focus on how to increase voter participation, eliminate political gerrymandering, end “voter caging,” and more.

Many of us are familiar with Ari Berman’s 2015 book Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. It is a history of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which people interested in politics should read if they haven’t. What Hartmann adds to the discussion of voting rights is the history of voter disenfranchisement that is baked into our constitution, along with what readers can do to protect and restore voting rights going forward.

Thom Hartmann

In the final section of the book, Hartmann puts potential solutions to voter suppression efforts in high relief. Many may understand aspects of his narrative already. The benefit of reading the book is its long-form and coherent narrative.

So often our ideas about voter suppression are formed by snippets of information in various media about specific aspects of the overall effort. Increasingly social media is a key driver for informing our opinions, yet it presents an incomplete picture. It is not enough. What has been lacking is a more comprehensive look at voter suppression efforts and how to combat them in easy to understand language. Hartmann delivers that and more.

I found the book empowering. Last week I met a woman advocating for D.C. statehood for a group called Iowans for D.C. Statehood. I signed up as an endorser yet told her D.C. was not enough and explained the logic Hartmann put forward in his book about adding additional states. The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote — and How to Get it Back well prepared me for the conversation.

Below is a clip of Thom Hartmann reading from his book. It will be available on Feb. 11, 2020. Click here to order your copy.

~ First published on Blog for Iowa


Letters Home

Woman Writing Letter

Among the things I received from my late mother’s estate was a box of letters I wrote her.

A lot of my letters were from the period 1976 until 1979 when I was stationed in a mechanized infantry division in Mainz, Germany.

I read them last night. The topics were pretty mundane.

12 Nov 78
APO New York 09185


Just a short note to let you know that I completed French Commando School without serious injury and in good spirits. In case you didn’t get my last letter I arrive in Moline 20 Dec 78 at about 8:30 p.m. on Ozark flight #873 from Chicago. I hope to be going to France again in the time before I return to Davenport. I will visit Normandy Beach and a number of the famous cathedrals. Til then keep the faith, drop me a line to let me know how things are going on the home front.

Love, Paul

I wrote her as much as she wrote me. I kept all of her letters and someday I’ll be ready to read those too.

As I followed the vein of letters over the last 24 hours I found a series written by my maternal grandmother while I was in Europe. They were mostly responses to mine, although what I wrote her did not survive. She was very good about writing me, and explained her health issues in great detail. She wrote often about my cousin Linda who was stationed in Spain at the same time I was in Germany. While Grandma was being treated for a heart attack her physician had a heart attack so she had to get a new doctor, she wrote. I like to think her writing letters to me helped her understand her condition. I know writing has that effect on me.

There was a flurry of letters from friends during the investigation to secure me a top secret clearance. I warned people the feds were coming and most of them wrote back after their interview. I got the clearance, although the information I was able to access was pretty dull. Just because it’s top secret doesn’t mean it’s that interesting. I remember their letters more than the secret stuff.

We are out of the age of many hand-written letters. With “forever stamps” I don’t even know how much posting a first class letter costs. Email is quicker, cheaper, and we get to save a copy if we choose.

Phone calls are also inexpensive. In Germany I did not have a telephone until my appointment as battalion adjutant. More people had to reach me after hours. If the balloon went up (meaning the Soviets crossed the border), we would be rounded up from the compound where Americans lived by knocking on doors.

How to use this archival material is an open question. I’m still trying to figure out what I have, what warrants writing about, and what fits in a 100,000-word autobiography. Some of the memories have me returning letters to the box to save for another time.

Whatever the outcome of this autobiography, the writing of it will be the thing. Part of the journey of life. A way to escape from the pressing society around me that doesn’t know when to relent.

Politics Writing

Freezing Rain

Freezing Rain Jan. 11, 2020

It’s been tense the first days of 2020 as Iowa voters prepare for the upcoming election cycle.

I’m temporary chair of our precinct caucus and there is a lot to pull together before Feb. 3, including finding a new location after one was cancelled last week. There are 23 days left until the caucus yet that’s just the beginning of what is expected to be an absorbing political year.

Politics will dominate social discourse if we let it. The U.S. Senate trial of the president, the remainder of the current session of the U.S. Supreme Court, the June primary elections, the Democratic National Convention, and then the November general election will make the time pass quickly. In the middle of that, our country’s foreign policy appears non-existent, creating tension in the Middle East, South Asia, and with China and Russia. It is the second session of the 88th Iowa General Assembly where Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature. They convene on Monday and are expected to further their conservative agenda. That’s only politics. I haven’t forgotten about climate change.

I also have a life with a to-do list filled with many items that are not optional. If 2020 has been tense at the beginning, it will continue to be so throughout the year.

That’s not to say we should all freak out!

The tips of long evergreen boughs touched the ground near the lane leading to the highway. Because of immeasurable leaf surface, they collected more weight in freezing rain than they could handle. Some broke from the trunks of trees and were scattered along the lane.

It’s expected to warm above freezing again so the count toward fruit tree dormancy will have to be reset before pruning. Maybe by the end of this rapidly filling month.

Meanwhile, snow has begun to fall.

Local Food Writing

Local Food System Fragment

Winter lettuce salad.

When I left a 25-year career in transportation and logistics, food occupied part of my attention. Over the years my blood pressure and cholesterol levels had increased, and when I left transportation they quickly returned to normal, mostly by eating more regular food as opposed to restaurant food.

When we moved back to Iowa in 1993, growing a large garden was part of what I wanted to do with the land. We couldn’t afford an acreage, but managed to find 0.62 of an acre not far from the trail around the north shore of Lake Macbride.

I was ready to produce some of our own food, more than we had in Indiana, but not really ready to embrace local food as anything other than a kitchen garden.

The local food movement was a growing group of individual operators struggling to make a living and an impact in a turbulent world. It remains a nascent system directly tied to our consumer culture, dependent upon disposable income and open mindedness in meeting humankind’s most basic need.

I spent seven years working and living in our local food culture and can say food we consume is not all local and needn’t be. At the same time there are benefits of a local food system beyond living within the season, better taste, and knowing the farmer who produced what we eat.

In our home fall canning leads to a pantry full of soup, tomatoes, hot peppers, sauerkraut, vinegar, apple sauce, pickles and sundry items from the garden and farm. The freezer gets filled with bell peppers, kale, sweet corn, apples, broccoli, blueberries and raspberries. It is food – as local as it gets – driven by what is fresh, abundant and on hand.

Along with home processed goods our pantry has bits and pieces from all over the globe, with each serving a purpose in our culinary lives. Combining ingredients and recipes in a personalized cuisine is where the local food movement lives or dies.

More people seek processed or precooked food because of a perception there is too little time for cooking. If adding kale to a smoothie seems easy, making a stir fry using it is less so. Contemporary consumers want a quick and easy path to making meals and snacks, and don’t have the patience it requires to add many new recipes to their repertoire. Cuisine as an expression of local culture has been tossed out the window by many.

Having worked in the food system, whether at home, on a farm, or in a retail store, has been an important part of my life since retiring in 2009. I found it is a way of life to grow food for direct consumption or sales. It also became clear the local food system is a jumble, even if farmers and consumers want it to be more organized.

One operator runs a community supported agriculture project where members pay in the spring, then share in the luck of the farm, good or bad. Another sells chits to be used to buy farm goods at a local outlet framed as a “store.” Another grows specific crops to sell to restaurants, absorbing any financial risk. All of this and more leads us to a point where an onion isn’t only an onion anymore. In the end it’s not about the onion but the culture.

If someone could organize a local food system, they might make a living. That would miss the point. Local food systems are intended to cut out the middlemen in the food supply chain. At the same time, faced with a need for scalability and the tick tock of the growing season, operators might use the help of an intermediary for marketing and sales.

While some of the trail blazers of a sustainable, local food movement are well known – Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, Fred Kirschenmann, and others – a sense of coherence or agreement on basic terms seems missing among local producers. It is as if operators would rather work inside the bubble of what works for them personally as long as the farm to market system seems to work generally. In a way that is not much different from how corn, soybean, egg and livestock producers view their operations.

Where we go from here is uncertain, although I have some ideas about that based on my experience in our food system.

Politics Writing

It’s Not Really Winter

Roasted Root Vegetables: potatoes, rutabaga, turnips and carrots.

On Wednesday morning the ambient temperature is in the teens. By tomorrow at this time it will be in the mid-forties. I’m looking forward to a week of freezing temperatures so I can get tree pruning done.

Not yet.

What gripes me is there is limited work to do outside yet it feels like I should be spending more time there. Instead I write, cook, read, and do chores. It’s a winter life without the winter part of it.

I spent time Tuesday night following events in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic of Iran retaliated for the U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani by firing a 15 or so missiles in two volleys into Iraq where U.S. forces were staying. After the launches an Iranian government spokesman said they were done unless the U.S. retaliated with additional military action. They threatened to destroy the Israeli city of Haifa as well as Dubai where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed if we retaliated. It appears the president and his key leadership team stood down after the two volleys and neither Iraqis, U.S. troops, nor coalition forces suffered any casualties. Unrelated to the missile attack, a Ukrainian airliner crashed in Tehran last night killing all 176 people on board.

The Middle East action is a distraction from the president’s Dec. 18 impeachment. Senate Majority Leader McConnell announced yesterday he would proceed with the constitutionally mandated impeachment trail without an agreement to call witnesses. At present he has the votes to support his position although that could change.

Donald Trump is the 13th president in my lifetime and I don’t recall any predecessor who appeared so disorganized and superficial in their approach to international affairs. The conventional wisdom is he won’t be impeached, despite clear evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors, because his supporters in the U.S. Senate hold the majority. Based on everything we know, the two articles of impeachment, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, are rightly promulgated. I was surprised other articles were not drafted, particularly one related to the emoluments clause of the constitution. My position is the president is as guilty as hell of the two articles of impeachment and I would like to see him removed from office even though from a policy standpoint, Vice President Pence could be a worse president.

The Republican Party has become the party of Trump and that’s not good for regular people like us. The corruption from money in politics has become overwhelming and it’s hard to see an end to it. Moneyed interests have a well-developed infrastructure to support what they want to achieve. Democrats have no equivalent response to it. If we can’t slow their progress by winning the presidency in November, it will be generations before a progressive agenda can be advanced.

What stood out to me over the weekend is about 100 people gathered in the county seat to protest the U.S. slaying of Soleimani. At the same time, that number and half again gathered for a nearby event with author Marianne Williamson who laid off her presidential campaign staff a few days previously. That tells me the populace is not engaged in the Middle East or in Trump’s incompetence.

Alice Walker wrote, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” In a scenario like yesterday, where Iranians seem like reasonable people, it seems like we’ve given the president a blank check to have his way with the Middle East. I’d feel better about that if there was any shred of evidence he or his staff knew what they are doing.

It’s winter in America, but not really. Without it it’s an open question whether we will make it until spring with necessary chores completed. We will do the best we can.


Fragments in Search of a Narrative

Draft in a Time of Typewriters

(Editor’s Note: Robert Caro instructs us to turn every page when writing biography. I don’t remember writing these fragments found in a folder with multiple typewritten drafts of each. Today they make me groan a bit. They are fiction with one foot in reality).

Fragment 1 – Jan. 9, 1980

Father was a union man. He forged implements of the modern farmer at the J.I. Case plant in Bettendorf, Iowa. He was a proud man, proud of his family and heritage; he stood with both feet on the ground.

The union offered him a job as chief steward once. He took it for a while, but ultimately declined it. He went back to school to get out of the plant and be his own boss, to establish himself.

He graduated in 1968, but death in the form of a 1959 Ford struck him as he walked out of the plant after his shift.

Those were hard years, but Jim Peterson was convinced his father knew who he was, and where he was going.

Fragment 2 – 1974

Danny Dziabas shut the door of his upstairs apartment and began walking to the sound of night creatures chirping near the house.Walking under the starlight of Orion rising. Walking from his apartment on Walling Court, near where Bix Beiderbecke had lived. Walking toward Locust Street where revving of car engines and laughter of young people muffled the night sounds. Where headlights and streetlights dimmed the rising hunter. Danny Dziabas walked to the Deep Rock Station and placed a call while a Corvette and a G.T.O. lined up at the intersection for a drag race.

As he finished his call, the traffic light changed to green and the two cars squealed away from the corner.In hot air, smelling of burnt rubber, Danny Dziabas began walking, away from the noise and light of Locust Street toward his nearly empty apartment on Walling Court near where Bix Beiderbecke had lived.

Fragment 3 – Dec. 25, 1974

When the time came Danny began looking up his friends. The first was Milton Murphy who was in possession of Danny’s books and record albums.

Danny and Milton had played together in a band called the Milton Murphy Moose Manglers. It lasted about nine months. Just as they were about to collect their pay from a party on a farm near the Wapsi River, a band mate carried the P.A. head 100 yards and threw it over the bluff into the river, ending both the evening and the band.

Remembering this and other episodes in the Manglers’ history, Danny questioned the sanity of leaving his possessions in Milton’s care in the first place. He knew it would be alright when he heard the dull beat of the base coming through the floor above the entrance hall.

Fragment 4 – Iowa City, 1973-4

In act of simultaneous co-creation Danny Dziabas skied the snow-covered slopes of Washington Street, mountainous mathematics to the left, his just crashed 1965 Volkswagen cavernous time away and in a ditch. Pirouetting on Madison Street, his toe reveals a greenery hidden by newly fallen snow.


Pre-Caucus Politics

Yard tractor waiting to go to the shop for winter maintenance.

Yesterday a political canvasser rang our doorbell and was halfway down the street before I made it to the door. I can hardly hear the doorbell from my writing table. She came back to talk.

“I noticed your Elizabeth Warren bumper sticker,” she said hopefully.

I asked her to whom she had talked and reviewed the status of a few neighbors with her. We live in a bedroom community for larger urban areas surrounding Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Coralville. More weren’t home than were on a Monday. Those who were are retired or work from home.

There are some Trump supporters in this neighborhood registered as Democrats,” she exclaimed.

No surprise. It’s a free country and in this white enclave in rural Iowa we get separated from labels like party preference that seem more relevant in urban areas. I didn’t ask her who it was.

There is no guarantee Democrats will win key federal offices in the 2020 general election. Even if we do, the rips in society seem beyond mending.

At a local level, regardless of party, voters can find common ground and get things done to improve our governance. Once we get beyond our rural school district borders, finding common ground becomes more difficult. The divisions and animosity that culminated in the election of this president seem likely to continue for years after the next general election regardless of who wins in November.

On Dec. 9, a white, 42-year old woman went on a crime spree near Des Moines, striking two people with her vehicle in separate incidents, and allegedly shoplifting and displaying public intoxication afterward at a local convenience store. She drove her vehicle on the sidewalk to hit a 14-year old girl walking to see a basketball game. The woman did it because the girl was Hispanic, she told police. Earlier in the day she struck a 12-year old black boy. The woman is charged with attempted murder.

Maybe this is an isolated incident. Justice will take its course as we expect in a society with laws. Yet maybe it isn’t isolated, but a sign of what’s to come, especially if President Trump loses the 2020 election. The steady escalation of tension in the Middle East by our government is sure to divide Americans even as it served to unite the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I admire people who persist in political organizing in our current social environment. They haven’t given up. They inspire hope. Although I signed up for six shifts of door knocking and am the temporary chair of our precinct caucus, I want to do more. At the same time I know my limits and want political work to be meaningful to our community. I want it to endure beyond the Feb. 3 precinct caucuses.That makes me a rough gear in the machinery of precinct-level political organizing.

I asked our local organizer what they were doing after the caucuses. They are sworn to secrecy. To be honest, they may not know what’s next other than brief respite before New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and then Super Tuesday on March 3. By then the Democratic presidential candidate field will be winnowed to a couple of candidates. There is little doubt who will be the Republican nominee.

The challenge is the broad context of the society in which we seek to live. Presidential politics is part of it. Yet as Barack Obama’s administration demonstrated there is little permanency unless the electorate hands the new president an enduring mandate. As divided as we are, that seems unlikely. Somehow we must navigate our lives out of the tar pits in which we find them. It will be sticky and messy. It will take generations to clean up. All the same, we must persist. If we don’t, what would be the point?

Cooking Home Life

Cavendish Banana Bread

Banana bread made with Cavendish bananas

Three bananas were going bad on the counter so I decided to make banana bread. That’s what people do, or at least did when I was still at home.

These were Cavendish bananas as most commercially available ones are. They were also organic although I’m not sure how cultivation is different.

Like its predecessor, the Gros Michel banana, the Cavendish is susceptible to  a fungus that could wipe out the variety. If that happens as expected, diets will change.

For a recipe I got out my copy of the Holy Family School PTA cookbook. I like this book for the familiar names of the recipe authors, some of whom I knew. Monsignor T.V. Lawlor served as the church’s second pastor from 1943 until 1961 and his photograph is printed inside the front cover of the book. This dates the cookbook in the 1950s most likely, after the school moved to the location I attended a couple of blocks south of the church on Fillmore Street.

I chose a banana bread recipe contributed by Mrs. H.A. Tholen. It called for shortening, although I substituted butter and kept everything else the same. Here are the ingredients as written:

1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup shortening, 2 eggs, 3 bananas mashed, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon soda, 1-3/4 cup flour, and a pinch of salt.

Instructions are, “Mix in the order given and bake in a slow oven.”

Well that won’t do. Looking at other sweet breads in the book I decided on a 350 degree oven for 50 minutes. It turned out great as you can see in the image.

Making banana bread from overly ripe bananas is a cultural inheritance not only from my mother and maternal grandmother, but from a broader society where fruit like the Cavendish banana is readily and cheaply available. However, like most mass marketed fruit and vegetables it is subject to change from climate and from other pressures, forcing old habits and patterns to change.

There was something positive in yesterday’s bakery. It was a warning too, that life is fragile and ever changing. We seek comfort in what we know, delaying the embrace of what is coming. I don’t just mean what’s coming for Cavendish bananas.


Book of Mormon

Wise County Virginia Civil War Group

I’ve been using the free, on line service FamilySearch to research parts of my family history. It is funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I call it, in a respectful way, the Book of Mormon.

My reference library has a copy of the actual Book of Mormon, replete with a photo of the prophet Joseph Smith from whose translations it was made in 1830. I’ve already opened FamilySearch many more times than the worn copy of the religious text.

Stories about early gatherings of my paternal ancestors include one about the funeral for “Aunt Stella.” I have a photograph of Stella in her coffin with someone identified as “Granny Reed” nearby. Stella was my grandfather’s sister. Oral history is no one knew anything about Granny Reed except that’s what they called her. According to FamilySearch, in the 1920 U.S. Census she is listed living in the household of my great grandfather as his mother-in-law, with an estimated birth year of 1864. Her complete name was Josephine Reed. It has bothered me we didn’t know more. Now thanks to the Mormons there is a better narrative of who she was.

When I write “better narrative” I mean the story is and continues to be a human creation. While there are “facts” to support it, there are vagaries in the U.S. Census data and oral tradition that went unrecorded. The temptation is to take a fact like a U.S. Census entry and make more of it than it actually is. As I wrote this post I found myself rewriting that paragraph time and again to refine my understanding of who was Granny Reed. I’m not sure how much more this discovery changes things.

I love the name Josephine and had we known about it when our daughter was born, it may have been entered into the pool of family names from which we selected hers. Granny Reed was our daughter’s great, great, great grandmother. It’s a fun fact yet not that relevant to our daily lives.

Somewhere in box-storage is a trove of genealogy documents collected from a man named Howard Deaton during a trip to Saint Louis. His focus was on our surname, Some of his work is relevant to our line and some isn’t. Robert Caro advises us to turn every page when researching biography. I don’t know I will have time to go through documents I have, let alone the entire Book of Mormon.

These are decisions one makes in compressing the story of a life into a hundred thousand words. If anything, the challenges of crafting a story come into high relief. What I’m writing will by its nature be a story built today with a perspective of right now. I don’t see how any biography or historical work can be anything else. There is a politics of history, a minefield of historian’s fallacies. There is also a poetry of history. What we hope to do is create a narrative grounded in something real that transcends the lived life upon which it was based.

At age 68 there is an urgency to get something down, edited and finished.