Y Spy: Save the Warehouse

Warehouse Stairs

There was a great era in my life, between living in California and Washington, when my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin was amazing in ways it wasn’t before. I’ve lived in La Crosse for a total of 27 years, and for a majority of that time my hometown has bored me to tears. There’s a carefully crafted sense of belligerent apathy in La Crosse, an omnipresent boredom coupled with a refusal to do anything to erase that boredom. Don’t rock the boat, the apathy has always said. In La Crosse, this leads to a chicken and the egg question where I have to ask: is La Crosse boring because it’s drowning in alcohol, or is La Crosse drowning in alcohol because it’s boring and doesn’t know what else to do?

            Whatever the answer may be, hail to the heroes who fight that apathy. In the four years of my return to La Crosse, I saw my hometown in a completely different light. This change wasn’t just in my head, though. In this era, there was a seething underground punk scene, the development of creative venues like the Root Note that weren’t just watering holes that incidentally played music over the fog, the renovation of River City Hobbies from a good comic book store into an amazing one, and the evolution of the Second Supper from an Onion also-ran into a weekly newspaper with gigantic balls. (Appropriately enough, the first Supper issue I read in the new style had a cover story about this story’s subject.)  I wrote for the Supper for three of my four years back, and as a result I saw and did things I never expected I’d see or do in La Crosse.  It was a time when I truly fell in love with my town like never before.

            But like all things La Crosse, entropy and apathy reasserted themselves. Many of the upstarts were phased out or absorbed into the status quo. The Second Supper got bought out and completely lost its edge. It now has a fourth of the page count it boasted in its heyday, it comes out monthly instead of weekly, and the precious little material left isn’t much more than an events calendar and a syndicated advice column. The guys who all but ran the house show punk scene in La Crosse moved out to Washington, and knowing a sinking ship when I saw one, I moved out here with them. Here, I found improv comedy and stand-up scenes – two scenes which will almost certainly never take root in La Crosse – and now I can’t see myself ever coming home to stay.

            It’s getting worse. Now, even the few old, fun institutions are fading. River City Hobbies recently closed following the death of owner and all-around amazing guy, John Vach, leaving La Crosse, a moderately sized city, completely without a comic book shop (and no, Barnes and Noble doesn’t count). Now, the Warehouse, which has for decades served as the stalwart enemy of La Crosse apathy and the city’s only music venue for people who aren’t into bar blues and jam bands, is days away from closure.  Should this happen, La Crosse loses its only all-ages hangout for people who don’t want to be barraged with Jesus pamphlets, and La Crosse as a whole loses a vital part of its culture that never gets replaced.

            Here’s what you can do to help. Go to Indiegogo’s “Warehouse Rescue Campaign” page.  Donate anything. Share this with your friends. Tell everyone you know. Become the Girl Scout cookie entrepreneur you were always meant to be.

           Because on August 23rd, it’s over.  Done.  And if the Warehouse doesn’t meet its goal, La Crosse, Wisconsin gets even more boring.  To those of us from La Crosse, the Warehouse seems like it has always been around, but if you and I do nothing, it won’t be anymore.

            THIS IS IMPORTANT. I dare you to give a shit.

            Warehouse owner and all-around amazing guy, Steve Harm, recently talked to me about the details of the Warehouse’s financial woes, what he plans to do about it, and why he never regretted standing apart from the typical La Crosse apathy and creating something difficult and beautiful.

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Y Spy: So let’s start with the basic question: what’s the current fundraiser to save the Warehouse all about?

Steve Harm: Well, we have been successfully amassing a pretty serious amount of debt over the past 5 years, which really started when we got conned into buying the building next door by the tenant who quickly filed bankruptcy and took off leaving us with a huge amount of commercial space to rent. The original idea was that the 2nd building, a school of cosmetology, would fund the Warehouse. All ages no alcohol venues don’t survive as independent entities anywhere, but the Warehouse has always had the caveat of a first floor commercial tenant and 4 more band tenants in the building. That’s how we have squeaked by for 22 years.

But the guy who ran the beauty school approached me in late 2007 about buying the building he was in from the owner in Minneapolis. He was afraid that a local developer would buy it and move him out or seriously jack his rent. He offered us a solid 5 year lease, which meant we’d have consistent income for 5 years minimum, allowing us to have extra money each month (unheard of for the Warehouse) AND be able to put in new windows, upgrade the sound system, do a bunch of brickwork, etc. All we needed to do was take ALL of the equity that had been built up in the WH over the past 17 years, borrowing 100K more for roof work and electrical improvements and a new HVAC system for both floors, and we’d have that constant stream. Something we had never been able to count on. What could go wrong?

What went wrong was that the guy cleared out all the student loan deposits and tuitions from the school here and his school in Madison, ran to Florida, bought a house in the Florida Keys, and filed bankruptcy. Untouchable for us, leaving us 6 months into 2008 in the middle of the real estate bust, with a giant commercial building surrounded by a downtown full of empty buildings.

So our first plan was to try to find another school of cosmetology to move in. We spent a couple months cleaning and upgrading. We marketed the space to all of the cosmetology schools in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, but in that economy, no one was biting. Selling that building has been problematic, because developers (the only people who would pay for commercial buildings right now) want to pay pennies on the dollar.

Y Spy: Are developers being cheap because of the downtown location and the cost of renovating old buildings, or is this just the general nature of the beast these days?

Harm: Developers are cheap because developers are efficient. At least until recently there has been a glut of property downtown. The City of La Crosse even added to the problem by building the Transit Center a block away, with 12000sq. ft. of commercial space available. So property owners were basically competing with the City to lease property, on a City-built property that we paid for.

On the fundraiser end, we’re trying to raise enough to pay off the property taxes, catch up on several months of mortgage payments and pay a little on the loan to get the payments down a little, pay off other various debt (contractors, city fees, state inspection fees, insurance, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, water bills, accountant fees), replace some critical parts of the sound system, and do enough renovation work on the leasable space to make it more attractive so that it can again be what keeps the Warehouse running.

Y Spy: Have there been any other problems lately?

Harm: About 8-10 years ago, the payola practice of “buying” on to big tours for smaller bands started working its way down to smaller venues. It became normal for local bands in Minneapolis and Madison to have to buy $500-$750 worth of tickets to a show just to be able to play that show. That made things harder for us with agents, as Minneapolis or Madison could always offer substantially more for a tour, because they had $1500-$2500 to work with right out of the gate — they were taking no chances, they had guaranteed income from local bands. I would not, will not ever do that to local bands. Young bands have to pay for equipment, rehearsal spaces, vehicles, trailers, promotional materials, recordings… they should never have to pay to play.

Y Spy: Is touring for most bands even worth it, when practices like this are becoming the norm even at the ground floor?

Harm: No! It is getting SO hard for young bands. First, there are too many of them, and it is really easy to tour because of the internet. That is a problem. Pre-internet, it took at least a morsel of brains to put a tour together. Actually, it was a tremendous amount of work. Now, bands have it really easy. So that clogs the highways of America with vans and trailers. But because of the tremendous amount of bands, there are also a tremendous amount of shows. When we first started, the only places you could see all-ages shows in Wisconsin were in Green Bay at RockNRoll High School, in Milwaukee at the Rave, and at the Warehouse.

That was actually a GOOD thing, because it made every show an event, unique, special.

Y Spy: Now there’s a surplus of disposable labor.

Harm: Yes there certainly is. And they are all hungry to play, so all those hungry guys are chewing off their own legs by overplaying and not making shows an event.

Y Spy: Didn’t you have another recent fundraiser?

Harm: There was a fundraiser last year to help pay for our cabaret license. Those only cost around $125, but the City ties in a tax called the “Personal Property Tax” with it. The Personal Property tax is a tax on everything besides income. A tax on every chair, table, microphone, light, etc. etc. etc. It is not a very high percentage tax. Ours should be around $200. But you file it by April of the previous year, and if you miss the filing, they decide that you need to pay a “doomage”.

Y Spy: Sounds ominous.

Harm: We missed the filing 2 years in a row (my mistake), but on this year’s filing, we would normally owe around $200. The City billed us… hang on to your britches… $6,900. A penalty of almost THIRTY FIVE times the actual tax.

Y Spy: Wow. Do you feel like the city is trying to shut you down on purpose?

Harm: I tried to get the Assessor to come down on that $6,900, tried to get the City Attorney to intervene, nobody gives a shit. “It will be lower next year” was the best I could get. They did give me the option of “making payments,” but is making payments on something I should not have to pay really doing me a favor? I’ll bet you if any of the big players downtown made that filing mistake, the City would take care of it mighty quick. Me, I’m a nobody. I don’t show up at City Hall screaming, I don’t call the mayor and get something changed, I don’t have secret meetings with the old boys’ club. I work ridiculously hard, and so does everyone else here, to provide an alcohol free venue for kids that no one in this damn town will appreciate until it is gone. Like us here or not, no one ever fell in the river and drowned from too much music at the Warehouse.

Y Spy: This isn’t the first time people have gone after the Warehouse. The guy from Fayze’s, the lady running Jules, a few other locals, I’m sure ‒ you’ve racked up a few complaints over the years. I’ve always felt that La Crosse’s reaction to the Warehouse was never that different from the plot of Footloose. Those damn sinful kids and all that. “Why can’t they be satisfied with Crossfire?”

Harm: Yeah, we’ve been a pariah sometimes, but not really for any legit reason. I know Chris from Jules gets pissed when her all-day coffee customers can’t park on Pearl because we’ve got some band vans parked. But those band guys, and concert kids, get a lot of coffee there. Even when there is a tour bus parked out front, it does not deter people from going to Jules. If anything, it attracts some curious people who end up getting coffee. Fayze’s… I think that was a misunderstanding that we probably could have rectified with a more open discussion with the Wakeens. They’ve turned out to be some very nice people. But it turned into Footloose at a City Council meeting; that was actually kind of awesome. Yeah, I always hear about “the Warehouse Kids”, when they really mean “those Crossfire Kids”.

I don’t want to rip on Crossfire too much, I get that they are trying to save troubled kids with Jesus. And you know, if they can save troubled kids, I really don’t care HOW they do it. But that place got over $800,000 in renovation donations, plus most of the contractors worked for free. Have they had more effect on kids in this area than The Warehouse? Less? The same amount? Or the real question: Have they had a million dollars more of an effect?

Y Spy: But they have the Looooord! It is an unfair double standard, regardless of their intentions.

Harm: Yes it is. We get “Jesus” bands all the time, bands that preach at length during their set. As long as the kids aren’t booing, I don’t care. But I have a talk with them after the show. I tell them that instead of preaching to the kids from the stage, they would be better off setting a good example when they are meeting kids at the merch table or anywhere else in the Warehouse.

We are built on the most important part of Christianity ‒ treat people like you want to be treated. I think teaching kids that is more important than teaching them anything else. Everyone knows morals ‒ they are mostly inherent. But I always tell Christian bands that Christians are the ones who give Christianity a bad name, so try not to talk down to kids or force-feed them Bible verses. Instead, be good examples.

Y Spy: Is this desire to teach kids the reason you’ve never sold alcohol?

Harm: Well, not entirely. It is a MAJOR misconception that I hate alcohol. I don’t. I love a well-crafted small brewery beer. I just never have time and am perpetually so overworked that one beer will knock me on my ass. But La Crosse has a rich brewing tradition. Turn of the century, this town had more breweries per capita than Milwaukee. I understand where the drinking culture, and with it, the alcoholic culture, came from.

Kids are going to drink. It is unavoidable in this town.

Y Spy: The problem is that there’s little else to do in town but drink. And it makes La Crosse incredibly boring.

Harm: We just try to delay that for a few years by providing over a 100 sodas that are from all over the world, to show them there IS interesting stuff to drink out there. Australian root beer, for example. It’s delicious.

Y Spy: I had way more adventures before I started going to bars. I felt really boring once I started barhopping. The way they are used in La Crosse, bars really suck the joy and fun out of a place. Drinking in bars has a lot of ritual and habit to it, and I’d call La Crosse a town drowning in ritual and habit. Your place is one of the few places in town which goes against that.

Harm: Well I see that, because “Warehouse kids” invariably “grow up.” I see them hitting 21 (or 20, it seems anyone can get into bars downtown if they put a little effort into it). Some of the kids complain that they don’t see their friends anymore, because “everyone goes downtown”, but the reason everyone goes downtown is because everyone is going downtown. I understand the need to have a few drinks socially once in a while. But La Crosse… damn. Who exactly “has a few drinks” when they go out? They might DESCRIBE it that way.

Y Spy: Alcoholism created out of boredom and a lack of imagination and options.

Harm: And APATHY.

Y Spy: It’s so goddamn hard to get people to care about anything there. It’s why I left.

Harm: La Crosse has a great “arts” scene. Pump House, Community Theater/Weber Center for the Arts, Jason is giving is a go at the Cav, Root Note does some great shows for their clientele, Popcorn is always jamming with jam bands jamming their jams… and we do metal and acoustic and hip hop and rock and pop and punk and wrestling and freakshows and industrial and gothic and ska and such.

I expect that if we go down, some local bars will attempt Sunday or Monday night “teen nights”, maybe with bands. Those are always the worst idea ever, because they are designed to make those teens feel comfortable in that bar atmosphere specifically, so that when they hit 21, they know where they are going. I hate that bullshit. It is so obvious.

It will be interesting/embarrassing to see who the vultures are. That’s for sure. Who has the least class first. Because you know that someone is out there right now planning on capitalizing on our 22 years of ingraining booking agents with the knowledge that La Crosse is a good stopover, even if what they actually mean is that The Warehouse is a good stopover.

Y Spy: So financially, musically, and culturally, what would the Warehouse have been if it wasn’t an all ages venue and instead sold alcohol?

Harm: If we were a venue, but we had sold alcohol the entire time?

Y Spy: Yeah.

Harm: I don’t think we would have lasted. I think the supply of locals would have dried up, because that “drinking age” band would not have wanted to haul their gear up 49 steps. Not when they are already playing that week at the Popcorn, next week at Stein Haus, tomorrow at Del’s, then at JB’s. There would be no point to add one more location to their schedule, especially if it was up 3 flights of stairs. We’d probably have a way-above-average amount of customers going to the hospital from falling down the stairs drunk. That front door wouldn’t be glass anymore; it would be half metal like Top Shots. I just don’t know if it would have worked at all.

I know we would have had a hard time getting many of the bands we did, because many of them insist on an all-ages crowd. Bands aren’t dumb − they know who buys Tshirts and hoodies and shorts and, yes, sometimes music (vinyl these days): teenagers. Bands can tell you what it is like trying to get bar customers to part with $10 for a band shirt when they can get a $2 PBR instead.

Kids don’t come here to hang out. You can see that. They come to see bands. They are attentive. They WANT to see the band do what they do. Bands love it.

Y Spy: True. When I lived in California, shows were little more than a forum for preening, bored douchebags who have nothing else to do that night but be seen. I’ve always argued that kids in the sticks are way more excited about shows than people who can see amazing shows any day of the week in big cities.

Harm: Well, that’s another angle on our financial woes too. Let me explain.

As I lecture bands constantly, booking agents have gotten lazy. It used to be, 2 bands would go on tour; the local promoter could add 1 or 2 or 3 locals. Makes a great show, and local bands would get all their friends to come. They could do these shows in any sized market.

Now, agents put together 6,7,10 band shows that are so big and need so much money that it completely prevents the show from happening in small markets. Agents just run them through the same 30 promoters in major markets, and they no longer have to think about routing or secondary markets. This causes a hardship for us, because those 2 national band/3 local band shows can be house-fillers. And what is even worse for the national bands on those megatour packages is they end up only playing in major markets, where kids are going to see ANOTHER 10 band package next week, and another the week after, and that band who thought it was great to get on this “big” tour finds out they are just a cog in the machine.

Take the same band and run them through smaller markets, their shows are huge, because EVERY kid there loves them and becomes an honest-to-god fan, as opposed to the 10 band shows in major markets where they are just one more band of the 60 that played that month. BAD FOR EVERYONE.

Y Spy: Once again, nothing but disposable labor.

Harm: Yup. I explain that to bands who are on labels and are parts of those big tours; they don’t really get it. Then they play a Warehouse show, and they sell more merch per capita than ANY of the big shows. They sign more autographs. They even sell MUSIC. THEN, they get it.

Sometimes, I feel like we are a music school on so many different levels.

Y Spy: Well, and you’ve hosted actual courses on touring, too, with Martin Atkins.

How sheltered and insulated do touring bands get?

Harm: They definitely get into a routine. Just to back up and relate: If we can get this fundraiser to work, we are going to try to find a way to set up the Warehouse as a non-profit (my accountant already calls me “anti-profit”) and get access to various grants etc. that would let us bring in lots of national speakers like Martin Atkins, host monthly musician’s meetings, bring in musicians for music clinics (why have a guitar clinic at Dave’s when he could set it up here in a performance space), make the building available for local film students to shoot band performance videos, learn location recording, etc. I see a lot of expansion possible with reorganizing.

Y Spy: Nice. So not just treading water. How is the fundraiser going so far?

Harm: Definitely not treading water. With a more secure future, we should be able to do some really creative, beneficial things. The fundraiser is at $20,000 with a loooooooong way to go. But only until Aug 22. After that the bank is going to come down on me with a furious wrath.

Y Spy: So it’s pretty much do or die?

Harm: It is definitely do or die. It was “die” when I walked out of the last bank meeting. To tell you the truth, we started this fundraiser to throw a wrench in the machinery because that was the only option other than handing over the keys. The bank has backed off, because they are watching this to see what kind of support we get.

Miracles have happened in the past couple months. [Refers to articles discussing Jack White and The Killers donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to save hometown venues.]

Y Spy: Any ideas for provoking said miracles?

Harm: Last night I wrote to NIN’s manager, a friend who sets up the piano every night for Elton John, and Fall Out Boy’s manager for the third time. The tough thing is actually getting through to these people. There are thousands of people in the entertainment industry for whom the entire amount of our fundraiser would be a throwaway for them, no sweat at all. But regardless of how it seems like people use twitter or facebook, when they are at that level, they have people managing their social networks. The level of insulation between common folk and Robert Downey Jr., for example, is astounding. So just getting one of those people to read a letter or look at a video is damn near impossible. But I see kids who are posting on pages every day that I never would have thought of. And I think that kind of appeal, from kids who come here, is really important.

I am hoping that 22 years of treating bands fairly will generate enough karma. If I was not an eternal optimist, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been here living day to day for 22 years, fighting bill collectors, tax collectors, and the Man. I always have hope.

I will maintain that hope until 11:59pm, August 22nd. Then, we shall all watch the vultures.

 Warehouse Stairs 2

Please Help. Donate anything. Spread the word.  On August 23rd, one way or another, this ends.

Advertisements

Election 2012 Fake News

 

“The Million Dollar Man” Ted diBiase and “The Genius” Lanny Poffo Engage in Spirited Final Debate in the Race to be President of Pro Wrestling

 

PARTS UNKNOWN, UT ‒ The race to be the next president of pro wrestling came to its final stop last night, as “The Million Dollar Man” Ted diBiase faced “The Genius” Lanny Poffo in their last debate.  Held in the Ultimate Warrior Fine Arts Center at Parts Unknown University, the candidates faced a night of tough questioning from moderator George “The Animal” Steele.

Each candidate restated his platform and agenda for the wrestling universe with little deviation from their established stances.  The Genius once again expressed dismay at the state of pro wrestling’s education systems and poetic abilities, whereas the Million Dollar Man, flanked by his running mate and manservant Virgil, fell back on promoting tax cuts for pro wrestling corporations and outsourcing national security to Andre the Giant.

While the details broke little new ground, the drama between the candidates hit a fever pitch, during a particularly testy exchange on the subject of marriage equality between tag team partners.  Within his statement, Poffo read a particularly nasty limerick concerning the size of diBiase’s liquid assets, provoking The Million Dollar Man’s rebuttal with a steel chair.  The candidates were quickly separated by the referees at ringside, though each was clearly dazed from the melee.

The crowd, whipped into a frenzy, chanted “USA!” at both candidates.

 

 

 

 

Scott Walker has Bad Dream, Mistakenly Campaigns for Self

 

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO ‒ When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker ran into a room of Republican businessmen in the conference hall of the Sheraton Hotel in Colorado Springs, he launched into a stump speech which would have been appropriate but for one detail ‒ he was campaigning for himself.

Governor Walker, who survived recall in June, launched into a presentation in which he promised “his fellow Wisconsinites” that they would “beat back this pointless recall effort and get Wisconsin on the path to big business.”

Though the audience initially received Walker’s speech with loud enthusiasm, confusion soon set in.  Eventually members of the audience spoke up, letting the governor know that the recall was long over and that they were, in fact, in Colorado.

Sheepishly, Governor Walker rubbed his eyes and yawned loudly before looking down and realizing that he was dressed in feetie pajamas covered in teddy bears and the words “UNIONS SUCK!”  Muttering a brief apology, he shuffled off the stage and went back to bed.

When later asked about this strange display, a more rested governor Walker responded: “You ever have that dream where you’re back in middle school?”

Y Marks the Spot: Occupy the Bottom

Viva la Revolucion!

I want to preface this rambling piece by saying that, in over three decades of my existence, this is the first and only year that I’ve been genuinely interested in where America is going.  Sure, seeing Obama get elected was great, but it was still the usual game of token democracy trotted out with Leap Year regularity, and I don’t get involved in that (and I didn’t).  This year, I suddenly found myself bearing an overabundance of newfound pride in Wisconsin as hundreds of thousands of my fellow Midwesterners rose up to tell their tin pot dictator to go to hell.  And then, I’d say almost as a direct consequence, the Occupy Movement turned the greedhate nationwide.  It is simply breathtaking to see Americans get so pissed off that they’re willing to inconvenience themselves to pay more than the usual lip service to our ideals of freedom – and no, joining the Tea Party and trolling the rest of the country doesn’t count as this.

I hope we’re seeing the dawn of the next economic civil rights movement, but I have one pretty big problem with all the uprisings I’ve seen this year.  Okay, two; the coordinated police brutality of recent times has been pretty upsetting.  And while we’re on that subject: who the hell gave bike cops the authority to pepper spray protesters?  Has the world suddenly become a mad version of Pacific Blue?  Is Mario Lopez the new face of the modern police state?

Deep breath.  Back on topic.  Just about every time I hear otherwise wonderful economic insurgents discuss the menace of the current climate of unchecked corporate greed where damn near everything under the sun has been made for-profit, the fears and worries usually end up in one place.  The problem, they usually say, is that the middle class is in danger of disappearing.

I don’t know about you, but my heart doesn’t exactly bleed for the middle class.  It’s a nice enough concept, a subtle endorsement of share the wealth that we peasants could use a lot more of.  It’s also a pretty meaningless term.  In a parallel reversal of the truism that none of the insufferable hipsters think that they are insufferable hipsters, a whole lot of Americans seem to regard themselves as middle class when they aren’t even close.  I’d say that middle class ranges between affording a house and a quarter million dollars, but I think the popular definition has become being able to sleep in your own room, no matter how large or small that room may be.  I disagree.

More importantly, when I think of the victims of capitalism, my first thoughts aren’t of people who can (or who used to be able to) afford a house.  It’s of people who everyday are starving to the brink of death, who can’t afford even the most basic of health care, who live in Third World conditions in a First World country.  It’s the people who live under bridges because the government refuses to divert a cent of defense spending toward feeding and housing the people supposedly defended.  You’ll forgive me if my sympathy for the so-called middle class comes a bit late.

As one of these broke-ass people who live one disaster away from financial collapse, I can say that when I see these well-meaning people wringing their hands and loudly wailing about the gloomy future of the middle class, I get a little pissed and I feel a whole lot left out.  This is, of course, unless we’re fighting to expand the cushy middle class to encompass everybody, which would be a very comfortable brand of communism.  (We are the 100%!)

I know – and yet, still, I hope – that the American protests of 2011 are based on community and kindness and wanting to help out one’s fellow man.  Yet every time I hear the term “middle class,” my certainty fades a bit.  I wonder if these aren’t movements based on social justice but on envy.  I wonder if the suburbanites are just using the proles to skim more off the top of the pyramid.  I wonder whether the poor will once again be the dupes.  In the same vein, imagine bitching about the cost of your rent in front of a person who hasn’t lived indoors for years.  Could the homeless become the dupes of the minimum wage slaves?

One of the genius rhetorical moves of the Occupy movement has been moving past this potential class infighting to paint the conflict as everyone against the super-rich.  “We are the 99%” is a much more inclusive catchphrase than “Save the middle class.”  And as much as people think they’re unwavering bastions of conviction, well, they aren’t.  We’re usually stupid, malleable sheep in public, and as such words and tone matter big time in a mass movement.

Side note: As much as I love the idea of a horde of people shouting down public displays of aristocracy, I still cringe every time I watch a repeat-after-me Mic Check, even as I cheer.  I suppose synchronized disruption is better than blind obedience, but still.

Deep breath.  Back on topic. Summation: If you say you’re going to stand up for (almost) everybody, then stand up for (almost) everybody, even the middle class.  In America alone, that includes the millions of people that you don’t know, have very little in common with, and may in fact dislike intensely.  It’s damn near impossible to maintain that level of idealism.  If you want to get anything done, attempt it anyway.

Y Marks the Spot: Choke Back

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, and his bitch-chokin' hand.

 

I don’t really care who David Prosser is as a person, any more than I have any concern over who any public figure is in real life.  Being that Prosser is a politician affiliated with one of the big two political parties in America, his identity is even less relevant.  I know that America pushes its ideals of individualism to ridiculous heights (see: giving corporations the rights of people), but its citizens are fantastically deluded in thinking that candidates matter.  If there’s a D and an R on the ballot, you’re voting for a party and not a person.

Justice Prosser, recently reelected (in theory) to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, is an R, and he’s jumped right into line with the rest of the Rs who have lost their minds and are dead set on imposing Dark Ages corporate Sharia law upon all us unworthy plebeians.  The Republican Party hates the Taliban for its freedom.

I’m no fan of violence in the workplace, but if Justice Prosser wasn’t one of those hard Rs the recent allegations of him choking his fellow justice would have flown past all of our radars and remained a quiet matter for the authorities to deal with.  As it stands, Prosser is a key part of the Republican Party’s attempt to create a one-party system in Wisconsin, which is a key part of the Republican Party’s attempt to create a one-party system in the United States, and so on.

So I’m going to say something that goes against the spirit of American justice: whether Prosser choked his colleague or not, I hope the allegations ruin his career.  I hope David Prosser becomes the O.J. Simpson of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  Because as a judge, he’s not a person, but an R, and right now the Rs are the arrogant, entitled, aristocratic, authoritarian enemies of freedom, and their rampage must be stopped.

In one thing, all the right wing hate speech is absolutely correct: at the moment, we’re living in a culture war, and there are only two, individual-less, sides to the conflict.  There are the Republicans, fueled by aristocrats, zealots, and lackeys – and there is everyone else.

Everyone else, this is a fight, so fight to win.

You know who’s doing it right?  Minnesota.  Instead of doing the time-honored Democrat Kowtow, Governor Mark Dayton stuck to his guns, refused to budge on taxing the rich, and let the Republicans shoot their hostage.  And good for him.  Let the Republicans expose themselves as bastards so fixated on giving the rich a free ride that they’re willing to destroy the entire Minnesota government to get their way.  Shit, the national government almost went into the same hole because the Republican Party hates women (see: Planned Parenthood).  Why not defuse the Republican bomb by calling its bluff and blowing it up?  What leverage does shrapnel have?

(Update: Never mind.)

Still, I hate placing my faith in any person in any position of power.  So you know who else is doing it right?  Every person who is still sufficiently pissed off in Wisconsin to keep fighting Scott Walker’s hostile takeover of the state.  It’s goddamn disheartening to see that the Governor is so callous and programmed that the shouting of hundreds of thousands of angry protesters has rolled off his back like oil off a BP duck.  It’s infuriating to see the Wisconsin R continue its unlubed gangbang of the state’s civil liberties and its citizens’ way of life (see: proposed redistricting, concealed carry).  But getting infuriated has led to the people of Wisconsin standing up, getting awesome, and becoming the pinnacle of today’s American Dream.

By the way: hey, James Smith, you fucking scumbag, how’d sabotaging La Crosse’s recall election work out for you?

But here’s the problem: all of us in the way of right wing treads are facing some seriously crooked opposition who will destroy anyone in their way (see: Andrew Breitbart vs. Anthony Weiner).  Against such ruthless assholes, we kind of have to take our victories where we can get them.

So when the swing vote in the Wisconsin Supreme Court goes to a dubiously-elected R who immediately smacks down a good chunk of the protesters’ progress, a well-timed story about said Justice Prosser, as the slang goes, choking a bitch provides great ammo that we’d be fools not to use.

Am I wrong for hoping that he actually did it?

My fellow Anti-Republicans, whatever you do, don’t quit.  Don’t stop fighting.  Fight clean if you can, but don’t be afraid to fight dirty if you must.

Mom Goes to the Protest

 

My mom, Barb Emerson

My mom tends to be a conservative without a party and a Christian without a church.  She has strong opinions on issues that tend to find voice among the right wing, yet she’s also the sort of person who believes that humanity, community, and compassion ought to trump any sort of social dogma.

My mom also voted for Governor Scott Walker.  It’s a decision she now regrets.

As an employee in Wisconsin’s public school system and thus a prospective victim of Governor Walker’s hostile takeover of the state, my mom has been forced to get off the fence and join the protests against the blatant power grab undertaken by state Republicans.  A few weekends ago, she attended a protest at the State Capitol in Madison, and I thought it would be a good idea if she wrote a few words about what she saw that day.

Considering how level-headed she usually is, I honestly didn’t expect the following piece to be this angry.  Then again, she’s had good reason to get angry.

 

 

It’s difficult to have a united front when the very politicians you vote for have as their main agenda, shredding the opposition party’s character, views and supporters in lieu of finding a common ground and then proceed to work together from that base forward.

What they (the politicians) are failing to remember is that they are our representatives, our voices, not our leaders or in some recent events, our dictators. Through all the mudslinging that is taking place they are forgetting their place. No amount of personal assaults will cover up for the brutal, unashamed, dictatorial manner that the budget bill for Wisconsin (and many other states) was handled and presented to the people.

I feel the 14 Democratic Senators who left (not “fled”) in protest to the atrocity of Scott Walker’s (I refuse to address him with the honor of being called Governor) “budget” proposal. In fact, they were indeed representing the needs and voice of the people who elected them to represent and protect the rights of. Scott Walker simply was not listening and as far as I can tell, still isn’t.

 

Taking away our right to protect our work environment such as:

1. Our scheduled work hours (respectively overtime, comp time or flextime)

2. Banked sick days we have already accumulated in case any major catastrophe might befall (Our union gave up pay increases for 6 years for the privilege to finally earn sick days)

3. Rights of seniority (protects current job and offers a chance to bid for posted jobs allowing the only avenue for advancement)

4. Leaves of absence (especially family medical leave)

5. Requirement for certification (protecting students’ right to receive quality assistance by their educators)

 

I ask: what about these things have any impact on lowering the monetary deficit of the “budget”?

The comments I hear most often, not only from a variety of overheard conversations, but from Walker’s crew as well, has been ”Just listening to the tax payers of Wisconsin”…”We’re the taxpayers not them”…”The rights of the taxpayers”… “They are getting everything handed to them”….

Well, guess what… I am a taxpayer too and so are all of my colleagues!!!

I believe if Scott Walker would have investigated a little more into the individual school districts of Wisconsin, he could have seen that, as an example, in my school district we have made approximately 14 million dollars in cuts and concessions over the last two years. But of course, he’d either have had to cover it up or let the general public know his findings. And since it seems he is so against educating the people, he surely wouldn’t want them to be made aware of those sacrifices would he?

We the people are getting ourselves educated Mr. Walker. We are uniting not falling apart. We do see your ulterior motives. We do see the breaks you’re giving industries (5 years worth of tax breaks is it?) while taking aid away from the elderly, help for the underprivileged (such as availability of birth control) and opening the art of educating to people who don’t even have a degree.

I don’t get it. Well actually I do.

If you want to privatize the University of Madison…why are you putting millions into buildings and reconstruction? Why did you put the sale of our power plants in your bill? Why take our collective bargaining away? The more questions I ask the more I come up with….China! Is that it?

Industrialize (privatize, whatever term works) everything (including our government), increase the population by taking away their opportunity for birth control, keep them undereducated so they don’t ask questions (brainwashing),  take away their bargaining rights so you can have them work for your cohorts for $4 an hour (or less) or maybe just food and rent vouchers.

Yep…sounds like China!

 

I went to the rally in Madison on March 13, 2011. I was excited with anticipation of being with the people. Getting to feel the strength and dedication that is still in the hearts of people trying desperately to do the right thing. Agreeing to make dollar concessions but at the same time willing to stand for what we have worked hard to achieve, our bargaining rights, for as long as it takes.

Although I found the strength and dedication, I also found something I was not expecting. I found a profound sadness. When there were cheers of camaraderie, I also heard the moans of distress, of worry for the future generations and mostly of questioning our own belief that we can trust our fellow man. Even though our spirits are dampened and on the surface it looks as though we are defeated, we are not! We will continue to voice our pride of being citizens of Wisconsin and the United States of America, of our humility at being given the amazing gift of teaching and caring for others, of our dedication to not letting go of what is truly humane, honorable and simply, the right thing to do.

If Walker campaigned saying what is happening now was what we could expect, he only divulged half the truth. And half the truth is still equal to a lie!

I was prepared to make sacrifices but I am sure not willing to give you my soul. All we, the people in the unions, are asking for is to let us protect our jobs and conditions so we are able to produce and give the best performance we can. We are not slackers. We love our work. Right now…I don’t love you Scott Walker, but I will continue to keep you in my prayers. God knows you’re going to need them.

I hope you find your heart again and see that the money, power and notoriety are not worth it to you. And you learn the lesson that you could have had so much more given freely from the people if you would have only handled this in an honorable fashion.

If all this is what you aimed for, then…

You are a success Scott Walker.

 

You succeeded in dividing the people of Wisconsin.

You succeeded in being the one who finally broke my spirit and belief that there is good in every person.

In my eyes you personify cold, calculating arrogance beyond measure.

 

Remember, the puppeteer will eventually cut the puppet’s strings when they no longer find you useful and they want a new one.

Y Marks the Spot: The Payoff

This is what freedom looks like.

The great thing about cynicism is how sensible it is.  The old adage that life sucks and then you die is as truthful as it is cliché.  I’ve long been a resigned believer in Thomas Hobbes’ idea of the State of Nature, in which every living creature is eternally at war with each other.  In his philosophy, that war is avoided by becoming a monarchist buttlicker.  I only disagree with the last part.

Living creatures may not spend every moment engaged in conflict, but it certainly seems as though it’s our default setting.  The history of humanity is essentially one of murdering the hell out of everything in our way, and once all the competition was out of the way, humanity turned on itself.  Hobbes may have felt that civilization was the remedy to the war of All against All, but I think civilization is simply the stage for the war’s next evolution.  Destruction has just been upgraded to less violent forms of exploitation.

If Hobbes’ war is to end at our hands, and if humanity’s existence is to serve any positive purpose, humanity must turn its back on its history and instincts.  We must replace destruction and exploitation, in all forms, with all their inherent neediness and weakness, with systems that are a little more constructive and self-reliant.

Until that happens, cynicism is smart business.

A few weeks ago, writing in regards to the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, I once more played the devil’s advocate.  In that article, I sniped that it would take a lot for Americans to set aside their toys and gadgets and stand up for their rights in the same way that those impoverished citizens did.  I believed in what I wrote.

I’m going to let all of you in on a secret, one probably held by most, if not all, chronic cynics.  When I howl about how humanity is a willfully ignorant, spoiled and murderous species that more often than not is unworthy of its existence…

I’M ASKING YOU TO PROVE ME WRONG.

Last week, I discussed the two moments when I was embarrassed to be from Wisconsin.  Now, let me tell you of the moment when I was the most proud of my homeland.

The way I’ve been explaining the madness of recent Wisconsin politics is as follows: last November, Wisconsin shit the bed, and now it’s trying to clean the sheets.  I’m not forgetting that Dubya Walker was elected by the people of Wisconsin, but as I’m a person who views voting as token liberty it’s probably unsurprising that I feel that democracy doesn’t begin and end with elections.

Last week, thousands of Wisconsinites proved me wrong and stood up against unbridled corporatism.  There’s little need to recap the events, but I will say this to the Wisconsin protesters: what you’re doing is everything I’ve ever wanted to see in my fellow man.  What you’re doing is the greatest, truest exercise of American liberty in my lifetime.  I’ve been waiting my entire life to see this moment, when my perpetually frustrated idealism concerning the potential of my neighbors was finally justified.  As a result of the Wisconsin protests, I’ve spent the past week in a state of fixated euphoria.  I’m so proud of the brave people of my home state for being the ones who delivered the payoff and started a movement that will become much larger than Wisconsin.  I really, really wish that I could have been there to be a part of it.

I hinted at this in last week’s column when I – using logic! – called Scott Walker a motherfucker, but allow me to fully explain my personal stake in the Wisconsin protests.

My mother does not toe a party line, a quality which she passed on to me.  She’s usually pretty right-wing and solidly Christian, though in that whole compassionate, Golden Rule style that’s so unpopular among modern conservatives.  We disagree on many things, but we can usually find a consensus.

My mom is an education assistant in a Wisconsin public school.  She works with the angry kids in a high school, which essentially boils down to her trying to get them to stop freaking out and do their homework.  It’s not easy work by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a job which gives her the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile.  In fact, she gave up a career setting up million dollar contracts with major corporations to do it.

After over a decade, my mom now makes a little over $15 an hour.  Not bad, but not exactly aristocratic.  Really, the big financial payoff to the job is the benefits package, which includes a pretty reliable medical plan.  A reliable medical plan comes in handy when a person develops a degenerative disease in one’s neck and requires periodical injections, delivered via huge goddamn needles, into one’s spine.  Which is what is happened to my mom.

Another thing that comes in handy is a stockpile of sick days which one can use if a medical condition – like, say, a degenerative disease in the neck – renders that person unable to work.  If Walker has his way, both the reliable health plan and the sick days are gone, and if my mom – who just turned 60 – suffers some medical catastrophe, she may well lose everything she has.

If that happens, Scott Walker will have truly fucked my mother.

To the Wisconsin protesters: you are fighting for my mother.  You are fighting for yourselves.  And you are fighting for the better nature of humanity.

Thank you.  Don’t give up.  And stand up for yourselves more often!

Y Marks the Spot: Power Corrupts

There have been but two times in my life when I was embarrassed to be from Wisconsin.  Not just homeland angsty and wanderlusty, but full out What the Fuck.  The first time happened during Brett Favre’s final year with the Packers, when I had to deal with hordes of weepy Sconnies who lined up for hours and rampaged through my store every time Sports Illustrated released a commemorative issue with the QB on its cover (this happened three times, if I remember correctly). To be diplomatic, it got pretty out of hand.  This statewide mourning is made all the worse when I wonder how many people tossed their memorabilia once Favre went rogue and rendered all that weeping and wailing pointless.

But my pretty intense annoyance during the Favre Funeral is small potatoes compared to the shame I felt when Wisconsin went insane and jumped on the Tea Party bandwagon in last year’s elections.  The most embarrassing of these contests saw Russ Feingold, the only senator who voted against the Patriot Act in the knee-jerk of 9/11, a senator whose recently castrated McCain/Feingold Act attempted to stop the wholesale purchasing of elections by corporations, beaten by Ron Johnson, a Tea Party stooge who fully subscribes to the repressive solipsism (translation: Fuck the world, I’ve got mine!) that’s so popular among good, moral conservatives these days.

As I watched Wisconsin lose its shit on Election Night, I watched Johnson say something in his acceptance speech that really stuck with me and set the tone for where Wisconsin is likely headed.

“Our nation has dug itself a very deep hole,” Johnson said, “and we’re just simple Wisconsin folks here; we know what needs to be done trying to get out of a deep hole.  You first have to start digging.”

Aside from the fact that I really hate the stereotype that all Wisconsinites are aw-shucks bumpkins, I’d think that the best way to get out of a hole would be to give climbing a try.  Apparently, Wisconsin’s new senator believes in digging deeper.  That will end well.

Johnson certainly talks a good game of batshit.  In terms of action, however, it seems as though the senator is getting overshadowed by the state’s new governor – or as I’ve come to refer to Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s Dubya.  Running a campaign based on a promise to kill off any chance of Wisconsin getting a respectable mass transit system, one of Walker’s first acts upon winning the election – not even waiting to take office – was to pull the political equivalent of a child throwing himself on the ground and screaming its head off.  The light rail project, Walker demanded, would die, on the sole reason that he said so.  As a result, then-governor Doyle totally lame-ducked and abandoned the project.

Now Little Dubya is going after public unions, stating that he will completely destroy their right to negotiate the terms of their employee’s working conditions.  And if anyone disagrees with him, tough shit.  Once again, Walker is attempting to push this through with absolutely no respect for process.  Apparently he believes that “because I said so” is an adequate form of governance.

I’d call that a form of dictatorship.

Scott Walker is a motherfucker (and being that my mom works for peanuts in Wisconsin’s public school system and is part of one of the unions he’s going after, I feel rather justified in calling Scott Walker a motherfucker).  But let’s not pretend that this jackoff’s blatant power grab is unique to his position or political ideology.  No person in any position of power, whether it lies in business, politics, the media, or even those very unions, should be viewed as anything better than a potential bastard.

I know that America’s collective attention span runs about as strong as the amnesiac from Memento, but I think it’s pretty ridiculous that some on the left end of the fence, people for whom the excesses of the Bush administration should still be an open wound, find fault with Obama for not acting more like his predecessor, as though tantrum government can be excused for the right cause.  Why couldn’t Obama ram through a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or a health care plan that isn’t completely profit-based?  Well, because if he did that, who’s to say what else he could get away with?  Lefty as I may lean, as much as I think Obama’s brand of political cool is the best thing to happen to politics in ages – and as much as I’d like to live in a country without second-class citizens and a little Canadian-style health care – free reign is something that nobody, anywhere, ever, should have.

While I’m far from being a Founding Fathers fetishist, I strongly feel that the concept of checks and balances, popularized in its current form by Montesquieu and implemented by America’s creators, is the most brilliant aspect of American government.  That said, the idea can’t be limited to branches of government alone (or Democrat vs. Republican).  The potential tyrannies of business and media are just as dangerous as those of any politician.  In the case of information, the internet has become the counterbalance to centralized propaganda.  In that of business, the counterbalances to corporations are governmental regulation and the unions.  They’re all necessary.

If you like not living like a serf, if you like working only 8 hours a day, if you like whatever meager benefits you have left, please don’t delude yourself into thinking that your standard of living was gained without a fight.  The people pulling the strings never just give up that control out of the goodness of their hearts.  Where the bottom line is concerned, there is no such thing as goodness.

Either Wisconsin’s governor feels differently and is an idiot, or he knows this and is an asshole.