Friday, January 20, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: President Trump

Every formal occasion that puts a new person in the position
of president of the United States brings with it an
accompanying and need-to-get used-to usage of juxtaposing
the person’s name with the title of office. In 2001, it was not
quite so because in spite of the closeness of the race, and the
delay in deciding who had won, the new president had the
same surname as his father who had been president only
eight years before.

It will take some time for many Americans to become
accustomed to “President Trump” --- especially so because
his election was so unexpected and controversial.

If anyone doubted that he would not arrive with such
surprising force as he did during his campaign for the
Republican Party nomination, and later in his campaign
against the Democratic party nominee Hillary Clinton, they
were disabused of this by the new president’s bold and
clear inaugural remarks following his swearing-in.

His speech might have lacked the memorable eloquent
phrases of a Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy
opening address, but it was in its simplicity and directness as
notable a speech as most others.

The aforementioned presidents each ushered in a new political
era, and so does President Trump. What made his remarks
distinctive was their lack of traditional partisanship, and their
notice to the establishments on all sides, that a serious reform
approach was coming across the national board.

Nevertheless, any speech is just so many words, especially if
behind them in due course there is not a performance of change.
In the case of the new president, he creates high expectations for
his performance even if there has not yet been a high expectation
for ability to be a strong and effective president.

The hostile media which so unseemly opposed his candidacy, and
even more unseemly has attacked him before he took office, wished
for another speech --- a speech which in effect he confessed that his
campaign for president was not going to be like his actual service
in the office. His answer to them, and all others who wished for
something conventional, was to declare that his goals and concerns
expressed in running for president were the same as his program
for being president.

Many Americans do not agree with President Trump, just as many
Americans did not agree with Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt and
Kennedy. The burden of proof now shifts to the new president,
his administration and his party majorities in Congress, to justify
their words and the expectations those words created.

It is no small task to change the trend to over-centralization of
U.S. government in the nation’s capital, to reform a growing and
intrusive federal bureaucracy, and most of all, to revive a
sluggish economy in which so many vulnerable Americans are
unemployed. It will be no small challenge to navigate the vital
interests of the nation through a complex and dangerous maze of
global interests and forces.

President Trump has his strong supporters who are confident he
will deliver on his promises. He also has strong opponents who
are confident he will fail. But most importantly, there are even
more Americans who simply, and out of understandable
self-interest, wish him well, and the skills to succeed. Those
performances are now immediately ahead.

Let this new show on the national stage begin.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Circus Finale

In 1951, my older brother took me to see my first circus.
Our home town was Erie, PA, and the Ringling Brothers
Barnum & Bailey Circus had stopped in Erie almost every
year since it was founded at the end of the 19th century.
(I knew that because in the pickle cellar of the house I grew
up in, my grandfather had posted a color poster of a
local Ringling circus visit at the turn of the century.)
Before that, Erie County had been the birthplace of sorts
of the modern American circus when the originator of the
first U.S. touring circus, Dan Rice, had made a suburb of
Erie the winter home of his famed traveling enterprise in
1853.

I was less than 10 years old, and of course I was dazzled
by the extravaganza in three rings under a huge tent with its
clowns, acrobats, exotic animals and spectacular feats on the
ground and in the air.

One of the acts featured was the trapeze artistry of a young
man from Arkansas who had grown up in a circus family
that went back five generations to pre-World War I England.
The reason I know and remember this was that 20 years later,
I became friends with that trapeze artist, then retired from the
circus and now the impresario of two theaters in Minneapolis
where, among other matters, he had become one of the
inventors of modern improvisational comedy. His name is
Dudley Riggs, and his 1950s Instant Theater company (later
the Brave New Workshop), along with Second City in Chicago,
introduced a new comedy form that is still big entertainment
today all over the nation. (Riggs’ autobiography, Flying Funny:
My Life Without A Net
, will be published in April.)

When I re-met Dudley in Minneapolis 20 years after seeing him
perform in Erie, and he told me that he had been there, I went
back into my fastidiously kept collection of printed programs,
and found the one from the 1951 circus with a full-page photo
of young Riggs on the trapeze.

Thereafter, when the Ringling Circus and other circuses came
to Minneapolis, I often attended their performances with Dudley
(who seemed to know everyone in the circus companies) and
learned much about its fascinating and epic lore.

I mention all of this because of this week’s announcement that
Ringling Brothers Circus, after 144 years, is closing at the end of
this coming season. Other, smaller circuses still will be touring,
although it might be problematic in the coming years for them,
too. As the largest and most famous circus in North America, the
Ringling institution had become perhaps too big and too much a
spectacle of the past. Enormous payroll, maintenance and
transportation costs kept rising, and one of the unique features
of any great circus, its trained animal acts, had become very
politically incorrect as they were constantly criticized by animal
rights groups.

The circus has been one of the iconic institutions of human
civilization. Its extinction should not surprise us in an age of
predominately digital experiences and virtual gratifications.

The romance of sounds, smells, and colors of the circus amazed
generation after generation of audiences all over the world. Now
the artifice of the computer can outdistance these sensual
phenomena just as a computer can defeat the world’s best chess
player.

There is no going back, but the passing of a great circus must
be noted --- if only as another marker of the transition of a known
age to an unknown other one.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Hours Away

With only hours to go before dramatic political climate change
will occur in Washington, DC, there is very little that can be
“exactly” said about events ahead. For some, there is going to be
national cooling, if not a massive freeze, of the public policies
of the past eight years. For others, there will be a national
warming, if not a heat wave, of conservative initiatives. This
new political environment will be judged in the minds of the
millions of beholders or voters over the coming months and
years.

There can be no doubt that, leading the way, is an almost
entirely new political personality. Groping for useful past
precedents is, for the first time in memory, an unsuccessful
quest. For some the circumstances are dire; for others they are
quite hopeful. As usually happens in a democratic republic,
reality will turn out to be less in the extreme. The founders of
our republic devised an extraordinary system that averts worst
case outcomes.

As I have been suggesting for months and years, there are much
larger forces in the world than a single political administration.
Some of these forces originate elsewhere in the world, and some
of them originate in the natural world. The complexity of the
U.S. national government with the interaction of elected and
bureaucratic institutions and personalities is further altered by
a federal system that devolves much to the individual states.
There is always an historical tension in the U.S. between those
forces of centralization and those of decentralization. The
former have been highlighted by the past eight years; now we
will have a period of the latter.

The U.S. political system wisely allocates a period of transition
between an election and an inauguration. Originally, this period
was four full months; now it is two and one-half months. It might
be decided in the future to make it shorter, considering the
extraordinarily increasing velocity of the pace of public life,
but there can be little doubt that an “interregnum” of some
time is useful, a time to lower the temperature of the political
campaign just past, and prepare for the heat and cold of the
storms and battles ahead.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What Is History?

As we are about to enter still another era in U.S. and world
history, it seems appropriate to ask again the simple
question with the always seemingly confounding lack of a
simple answer, that is: What is history?

When we’re young, and in school, history appears to be the
story of the past, moreover the true story of the past. As we
get older, we discover that not only does each place or nation
tell its own story of the past, but that these stories can be, and
often are, in conflict. As we get even older, we often learn that
different generations from the same place or nation can see
history quite differently. Particularly in our own time, it is
reported to us that, in the quest to be politically correct, history
can be described by anyone to suit their predetermined
assumptions.

With the technological advance of photography, films, radio,
television and newer devices, there are now certain limits to
how to tell the stories which are history. (Earlier history is alas
less subject to visual and aural “proof.”)

In totalitarian societies, only one story of history is allowed,
and inevitably it is an untrue story. In a free society such as
ours, various stories are allowed, which is a vital element of
our freedom, but paradoxically does have the lack of certainty.

Even history most of us have lived through together, and in the
same place, is subject to the telling of a different story about
what happened. Events can be very complex matters.

Examine the whole catalogue of books of history, and you will
observe so many different and often conflicting stories. How
then is history able to be useful to us, and to those who follow
us?

I think one of the realizations of contemporary life at the
beginning of the 21st century is that for history to be useful to
us, we need each to be more our own historians than we ever
needed to be in the past. Instead of turning away from the news
of the world around us, or depending on a few others for that
news, we have to learn how to use wisely the devices and
forms of communication which bring us news.

The past did happen. There are “facts” of history. History
might not repeat itself, yet it can instruct us. But today, as not
ever before, we are flooded with more data, statistics,
contentions and whole news stories that are conveyed with
points of view which are intended to make us believe that they
are objectively true. Some of them are. Some of them are not.
Each of us needs to develop the skills to discern how useful and
accurate any bit of information, and any story which purports to
be history, truly is.

This might seem to be an insurmountable task, especially with
amount of information and news now reaching us increasing
exponentially. But there is a new tool we can demand in the
reporting and storytelling of history. That is the transparency
or the provenance of what we are told. By that I mean, knowing
more about from where and whom the information comes.
Demanding new and greater transparency in what is taking place
around us will enable to assess history better, including and
particularly the most important history of all, the history we are
now living through every day of our lives.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What's Important

As we approach the inauguration of Donald Trump as the
new president of the United States, there is an unusual
preoccupation with the individual and personality of this
businessman from New York City, and it exist on both sides,
that is, those who voted for him and those who did not.

This preoccupation is quite understandable considering the
unprecedented nature of Mr Trump’s candidacy, both his
extraordinary success, his verbal controversies, and the
passions, both positive and negative, that he aroused. It has
already been pointed out by others that much of the divide
is not so much ideological (since Mr. Trump’s ideology is yet
so undefined), but more whether he is taken literally (as do
many of his opponents) or not (as do many of his supporters
who were looking for a champion to deal with their concerns).

Of course, it is inevitable that such a strong and volatile
personality that Mr. Trump projects will be a major focus of
public attention, but I suggest that as his administration
begins and takes the wheel of governing, we turn our attention
also to the issues and problems the nation as a whole faces,
and which frankly are bigger than Mr. Trump’s personality
and his Twitter account.

Incidentally, those who want President Trump to cease and
desist from twittering, I think, will be disappointed. It was a
a tremendously successful communications tool for him
during the campaign, and enabled him to speak directly to
voters without interference from a hostile media. It can also
be a useful tool for him as president. That does not mean all
of his Twitter comments were correct or laudable (I criticized
several of them during the campaign), but as I previously
pointed out, it gives Mr. Trump direct access in the same
manner that President Franklin Roosevelt achieved with his
periodic and now legendary fireside chats; and photogenic
President Kennedy achieved using televised press
conferences.

There will now be a reset of many domestic and foreign
policies. They will include tax reform, a new healthcare
program, redirections in education, immigration, defense
spending and alterations in our international relationships.
Most of these changes will come as a result of discussion,
negotiation and compromise between the new president
and the leaders in the U.S. house and senate. Democrats
will, and should, be part of this process.

As I have mentioned so many times, and others so much
more knowledgeable than I am about technology have
predicted, there is a new world unfolding, not far ahead of
us, but right now --- under the feet of our daily lives. This
new world brings with it many benefits, but also problems
and unintended consequences which should concern us ---
all of us, whether we are liberals, conservatives or centrists.

The shock of the 2016 election should now give way to less
emotional considerations than our disappointment or joy
about who won and who lost. National elections will follow
in 2018 and 2020 --- soon enough to pass judgment on what
will now soon take place.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Biden Shines

For those who have been disappointed in the comments and
behavior of some elected Democrats following the 2016
presidential election (for example, efforts to needlessly
promote state recounts, sabotage the electoral college vote,
and finally, thwart the congressional certification of the
election), there was the exemplary and dignified model of
outgoing Vice President  Joe Biden presiding over a joint
session of Congress that made the presidential and vice
presidential election final and official.

Some Democratic U.S. house members tried to force
prolonged debate by contending that some electors were
ineligible, but Mr. Biden calmly ruled them out of order,
even though they were members of his own party. At the end
of the session, when more objections were made, the vice
president good naturedly and decisively said, “It’s over.”

There were the predictable radical protesters in the gallery
who tried to disrupt the proceedings with slogans and
yelling, but they were promptly ejected.

At one point, a U.S. house member pleaded for a single U.S.
senator to join with the house petitions, and to their credit,
not one Democratic senator came forward.

I think this session and Mr. Biden provided a turning point
in the post-election trauma of many liberals and Democrats
who have seemed in self-denial about the results, not only in
the presidential election, but in the congressional,
gubernatorial and state house races which turned out so
poorly for the nation’s oldest political party.

This does not mean, of course, that Democrats will now go
along with President Trump and his policies, nor that they
won’t criticize his action nor vote against him. They are,
after all, the opposition party now at every level, and in our
political system, they are expected to oppose or present
contrasting policy ideas.

At the same time, a new president deserves to name his own
cabinet and presidential staff with positive U.S. senate
confirmation (except in egregious cases). Early in his term,
he merits approval of his federal judgeship nominees (again,
excepting improper choices), and that includes any U.S.
supreme court nominees. As a president’s first or second
term nears its conclusion, both Democrats and Republicans
have established the precedent of often delaying some of these
confirmations until the election. It’s a political precedent, not
a constitutional one, but both parties seem to believe it is
proper. It is now a political reality.

There are going to be political battles ahead. Contrary to the
rubric that both parties are the same, the reality is that today
the Democrats and the Republicans hold very different views
on most public policy subjects. This is also true in each
party’s intraparty debate. Republicans have won the most
recent election, but now they must deliver successful
programs based on their ideas. If they do not, the voters will
put the Democrats back in charge.

Vice President Biden has charted a course for civility in the
current transition. His colleagues should take note of this,
and he should be remembered for his graceful final act in a
long and distinguished pubic career.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Jarring Action, A Reassuring Response

The day before the new Congress was sworn in, the Republican
house members met behind closed doors, and took an unexpected
action, voting to eliminate the independence of the house ethics
investigative process. The GOP house leadership opposed the
move, but 60% of the Republican members voting (about 50
members were not present) defied the leadership and voted to
change the ethics committee accountability.

The reaction to this move was swift and overwhelmingly negative.
By the next day, and after GOP President-elect Donald Trump
weighed in with strong criticism of the move, the conservative
caucus changed its collective mind, and abandoned the effort.

The independence of the ethics committee investigations was
established by then Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2006,
and continued under GOP Speaker John Boehner in 2011. Many
members, Democratic and Republican, complained about it,
contending that it permitted anonymous ethics complaints
which denied them their civil rights, and called for reform.

With all the perks, pay and privileges given to lawmakers in
Washington, DC, this complaint has understandably found little
sympathy among voters both on the left and the right. Public
opinion regarding Congress remains at or near its all-time low,
and lack of accountability is part of the reason for it.

That U.S. house members felt that this was among their first
priorities in the new session indicates that many remain frankly
politically tone deaf following the recent election.

It is to the credit of the president-elect that he promptly and
unambiguously criticized the inappropriate action. It is also
somewhat ironical because so many had previously expressed
their hope that the Congress would act as a watchdog on the
new and controversial president --- and here was the
president-elect acting as a watchdog on the Congress.

New members, as well as house veterans, should take the
incident as importantly instructive. Voters want some significant
change and reform in Washington, and that should be the only
real priority in the new Congressional session. Preoccupation
with themselves and their prerogatives is not what voters in 2016
had in mind for  U.S. house members this session of Congress.

The entire U.S. house will be up for re-election in less than two
years. The voters have already indicated they want results, and if
they don’t get them, they will express themselves forcefully once
again.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.