Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

A brief note on farts

Evidently farts might be silent AND deadly.

I learned this recently coming across a piece in the New York Post detailing work done by researchers in Australia as to whether the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted through flatulence.

“Luckily, we wear a mask, which covers our farts all the time,” said Dr. Norman Swan on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Coronacast” podcast, referring to the protection pants, underwear, and other coverings provide.

In essence, we are all wearing “ass masks.”

“I think that what we should do in terms of social distancing and being safe is that … you don’t fart close to other people, and that you don’t fart with your bottom bare.”

This is a relief – presumably, most farting is now done in homes with people you know. If I find myself in a situation where someone unfamiliar to me is dropping ass while pantless, I have a lot more to worry about than catching the virus.

But the “posterior pandemic panic,” as the Post puts it, touches on one of my greatest fears – smelling anything that recently came from inside the body of another human.

If I walk into a bathroom that smells like a warthog died in it, I will immediately turn around and walk about. Because the same molecules that made the bathroom stink were only recently nestled in the anus of another human being. We try to pretend that once it escapes, it’s not as bad, because it has mixed with other air molecules and hopefully weakened. But this is a technicality – if you smell anything at all, you are ingesting molecules from a stranger’s rectum. It’s basically the same as you walking up, putting your nose right up to a stranger’s buttocks, and inhaling deeply. The only difference is the amount of their airborne fecal matter you inhale.

Backing up my point, some scientists recently said coronavirus can be transmitted through “aerosolized feces.”

This makes total sense. For example,  I have recently taken up bicycling, and I often ride past people on the bike path, which is supposedly safe. But every now and then I fly by a person who I can actually smell – whether they are wearing perfume, or cologne, or whatever.  And I know that if their smell molecules drift far enough away from them for me to notice, then their COVID particles damn sure could, as well.

This should not scare anyone into drastically changing their lifestyle. New laws are not needed, such as the lawmaker in Nairobi who suggested criminalizing farting on planes. (On the bright side, it is comforting to see the real problems of Nairobi have been completely ameliorated.)

But it is a reminder, even if you are in public and your money maker is fully covered, we are all just living in one giant Dutch oven.

An Open Apology to Those Who Won’t Get to Meet Me Because of COVID-19

A SHORT STORY

We can all agree – since the virus hit, we’ve been missing out on a lot. No symphony of clinking cups in our favorite coffee shops. No eye contact with strangers, as sidewalk passersby treat us with suspicion. Some of us won’t even have a job to return to when we all escape home confinement.

But trust me – the thing you’ll miss most is meeting me.

I am so sorry.

Sometime next week, we were both going to lock eyes at a show put on by an up-and-coming singer-songwriter at a tiny local bar. You were going to stroll up to me and compliment my ironic “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40” t-shirt I bought last week at Goodwill, hoping it would draw attention from someone just like you. We would have begun talking, and you’d strategically never ask my real age (26), impressively ducking the most obvious conversation starter.

Instead, I would have casually mentioned I have a podcast and pretended to accidentally throw out my Instagram handle. You would have then walked back over to huddle with your friends, obviously perusing my Insta feed to confirm I wasn’t a creepster. My phone would then buzz with your friend request, and I would know I had earned the votes of the valuable concerned-best-friend demographic.

A week later, we would have met up at a grimy local restaurant, pretending it was fine dining. You’d say “no” when the gum-snapping waitress offered you gravy on your fries, which was standard at this hole-in-the-wall.

That night, we would have kissed for the first time, but you wouldn’t have let me stay over. Two nights later, I would have slept at your apartment, and the next morning we would have laid together all day talking – you’d pretend you like dogs and I’d pretend I care about the environment. I would have teased you for how you arranged the books on your shelves by color; you would have joked that I was just lazy.

I would have held your hand over the weeks as we took walks on the lakefront, watching the weather turn from summer to fall. I would have eaten with your family at Thanksgiving, even though your brother, Brad, who I just met, would have kept calling me “smelly nuts.”

That is SO Brad.

We would have gone ice skating together, even though my balance is awful and I wobble terribly.

You would have put on my long-sleeved shirts when you got cold, a thing that turned me on, but which I would never admit to you.

One night, we would have settled on the couch and I’d suggest we watch something by noted film actor Edward Norton.

“Oh, we should watch Keeping the Faith, the one where he plays a priest,” you would have said. “That’s his best role.”

“Wait a minute,” I would have said. “Clearly, Ed Norton was best in Fight Club.”

“Fight Club is flaming garbage,” you would have said. “Who wants to pay money to watch a cinematic ode to white male rage?”

“I do,” I would have said. “I enjoy the film’s commentary on the perils of rampant consumerism, I never see the surprise ending coming, and I also believe Meat Loaf is excellent in it,” I would have said.

“The surprise ending?” you would have yelped. “The idea that one person is actually two people is one of the oldest literary devices in history. Have you ever read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double?’ Were you aware that in medieval times, seeing one’s double was a sign of impending death? Your ‘surprise’ ending is about as old as the discovery of gunpowder.”

“I was just saying Ed Norton is wonderful as the neurotic narrator,” I would have said.

“Ed Norton isn’t really that great,” you would have said.

“What?” I would have said. “Ed Norton is one of the finest actors of the past two decades,” I would have cried.

“He is fine in Rounders,” you would have said. “And passable in The Illusionist.”

“He was the best Hulk – way better than Mark Ruffalo,” I would have said. “And, of course, that doesn’t even account for his three Oscar Nominations, one for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), one for American History X, and one for 1996’s Primal Fear.”

“He lost to that goofball Italian guy in the Holocaust movie in 1999,” you would have said. “He was just nominated for American History X because he put on so much weight.”

“You’re putting on a lot of weight and I have yet to see you give an acceptance speech,” I would have said.

“You’re an asshole,” you would have said.

“How can you not enjoy the everyday charm of Ed Norton!” I would have pleaded. “He was so endearing in Grand Budapest Hotel. And as the voice of Rex the dog in Isle of Dogs!”

“Do NOT act like he is Meryl Streep!” you would yell. “He was in Death to Smoochy for the love of Christ!”

“That is it!” I would have screamed. “I will not stand here and listen to America’s most relatable and versatile acting talent be disparaged in such a manner! You are even forgetting his comedic turns in 2012’s The Dictator and as Sammy Bagel Jr. in the groundbreaking animated film Sausage Party! You must leave!”

Over the next few weeks, the issue of Edward Norton’s merits as an actor would continue to burn inside you as you begun to slowly poison my food. When I was finally rendered incapacitated, you would saw off my arms, legs, and head, put them all in a garbage bag, and drive them out to a marsh to bury my detached body.

Rather than haunt you for eternity (you were right about me being lazy), my ghost would have avenged my death simply by turning you in to the local police, at which point you would be arrested without incident. After weeks of testimony, you would have been sent to prison on a light sentence from a sympathetic judge who was ambivalent about Edward Norton’s performance as a scoutmaster in Moonrise Kingdom.

Upon release from prison, the only job you would have been able to procure would be at a local drive-in theater selling popcorn and hot dogs. One night, the theater would have showed Fight Club, at which point you would have realized that Ed Norton is, indeed, one of the finest film actors of our day and that I was completely right.

And as I said before, COVID-19 has robbed you of the glory of this realization.

And for that, I am so sorry.

In 2020, Leave No Good Deed Unpunished

Last Thursday afternoon, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was handed a small index card, peered through his glasses while reading its contents, and set it aside.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” Roberts said.

It was the second time Senator Rand Paul had submitted a similar question to the Chief Justice, who was presiding over the question-and-answer portion of the Senate trial to remove President Donald Trump. Paul was hoping Roberts was like Ron Burgundy reading from a teleprompter – that he would read aloud, on television, anything put before him.

In this case, Paul was trying to get Roberts to read the name of the intelligence-based whistleblower whose report of Trump trading military aid to Ukraine in exchange for domestic campaign assistance started the whole impeachment imbroglio. On Wednesday, Roberts had said he would not “out” the whistleblower. But Paul tried again Thursday.

Of course, by that point, the identity and motives of the whistleblower were completely irrelevant to determining Trump’s guilt. The whistleblower could be Michael Moore disguised as a tray of cold cuts in a CIA conference room and it wouldn’t change the facts of the case.

No, the only reason to announce the name of the whistleblower would be to exact vengeance for the temerity he or she demonstrated in reporting Trump’s wrongdoing. The message is clear: Do the right thing, and you will pay for it.

Other Senators followed Paul’s lead in filling Justice Roberts’ mouth with a bouillabaisse of nonsense. Subsequent index cards were sent to Roberts containing statements rather than questions, accusing former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter of corruption.

This, too, is a distraction – if anything, Joe Biden was trying to root out corruption. As Vice President, Biden actively sought to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin from his position investigating the oil and natural gas company Burisma, on whose board his son sat. Biden believed Shokin was ineffective at fighting corruption – a position held by many U.S. allies at the time.

The reward for Biden’s trouble? Being smeared in an impeachment trial that has nothing to do with him.

No matter how pure one’s motives, simply crossing Trump is enough to earn you social media humiliation, or even worse, a meeting in a tiny room where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yells at you to point at an unmarked map.

Ironically, Trump and his allies’ strategy of trying to drag people for doing the right thing is borrowed straight from the Wokeness Blueprint, where cabals of the theatrically aggrieved take to social media to condemn the insufficiently pure.

On Thursday, tech billionaire Jack Ma donated $14.5 million to help develop a vaccine for coronavirus, which has killed at least 170 people and sickened over 7,700. Website Gizmodo snarkily condemned Ma, pointing out that the donation amounted to an equivalent of about $33 for the average U.S. family.

The website also rapped Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos for recently donating $690,000 to fight the out-of-control wildfires in Australia, noting that the contribution was less than a dollar when compared to the average American income.

“How generous, coming from a guy who says he doesn’t know how to spend his money,” Gizmodo cracked.

Naturally, there would be one way for both Bezos and Ma to avoid the scorn heaped on them by social media warriors: Don’t give any money at all. You’re better off staying quiet and avoiding the risk to your business. The social media axe never swings in the direction of those who decline to present their necks.

Earlier in the week, actor and sporadic cartoon giraffe David Schwimmer waded into the political correctness thorn bush wearing only his underwear. In an effort to preach the values of diversity and condemn his “privilege as a heterosexual white male,” Schwimmer suggested there should be an “all black” or “all Asian” version of his hit show “Friends.”

Woke TV enthusiasts quickly reminded Schwimmer of the presence of the show “Living Single,” which featured six African-American actors and predated “Friends” by a full year.

“Apparently, David Schwimmer has no idea he was on a white reboot of ‘Living Single,’” tweeted Michael Harriot of The Root. Schwimmer quickly tweeted a response to the criticism he had received, saying me meant “no disrespect” to the show.

Also playing The Game That Can’t Be Won is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who on Wednesday tweeted that we need a president “whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect.”

That brought a quick response from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who questioned whether Buttigieg had the right people in mind.

“Respectfully, where is the American Heartland located exactly in your mind as you write this tweet?,” Duvernay wrote. “Does it include Compton and other places like it? Because us folks from those places would like a president shaped by our vision too. Serious question. Would love an answer.”

This week also saw the cancellation of the much-anticipated book “American Dirt,” which promised to take an uncompromising look at the plight of Mexican immigrants at America’s border. The problem? The book’s author, Jeanine Cummins, is white.

This week, Flatiron books, canceled 13 remaining book tour stops to allegedly ensure Cummins’ safety. Hispanic groups outraged over “cultural appropriation” have objected to Cummins’ book, raising questions of whether a white woman should be allowed to share the experiences of Mexican immigrants.

Every one of these examples features a person staking out an upstanding, moral position and paying a price for it. If you think you can sate the mob, think again – the more you feed the Scylla and Charbidis of outrage and piety, the hungrier they get.

This even applies to dead people who can’t defend themselves. As the helicopter crash that tragically killed basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight others on Sunday still smoldered, a Washington Post reporter tweeted a story pertaining to the sexual assault lawsuit Bryant had settled in 2003.

By all accounts, Bryant had turned his life around and became a dedicated husband and father, devout Catholic, and successful businessman. But to some, none of this mattered – no matter how much he good he did in the ensuing years, he would always be known primarily for the worst thing he ever did.

Whether it’s a government whistleblower, a politician seeking racial justice, or an author wanting to bring attention to a moral cause, the lesson is written in neon letters: Don’t even try.

Whether Republican or Democrat, the purity police is coming for you. Your good deeds cannot purchase you a place in the good graces of the moral gatekeepers – that is solely their bailiwick.

And the consequence to our culture will be obvious: Nobody will miss the opportunity to do nothing.

(IMAGE: YouTube)

My Favorite Albums of 2019

Time for the annual “favorite albums” list. Admittedly, this year’s list is heavily influenced by bands I saw at SXSW in March, but they’re all worth checking out.

10. Dehd – Water

Song: “On My Side”

A Chicago band fronted by erstwhile lovers, Dehd is perfectly melodic, stripped down guitar rock. The spareness of the sound pulls the hooks to the front where they belong.

9. King Princess – Cheap Queen

Song: “Prophet”

The only artist on my list that is currently opening worldwide for Harry Styles.

8. Cherry Glazerr – Stuffed and Ready

Song: “That’s Not My Real Life”

Was front row at one of her bigger shows at SXSW – loud and uncompromising, yet catchy and hook-laden.

7. Bleached – Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough

Song: “Somebody Dial 911”

6. Anemone – Beat my Distance

Song: “Sunshine (Back to the Start)”

Psychedelic pop from Montreal – also, their band name is pronounced “ah-ne-MOAN,” not “uh-NEM-uh-knee,” unless they are playing a joke on all of us.

5. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

Song: “Everyday”

4. Stroppies – Whoosh

Song: “Cellophane Car”

3. Palehound – Black Friday

Song: “Aaron”

2.  Moving Panoramas – In Two

Song: “Baby Blues”

You probably won’t find this album on many Top 10 lists, but it is impossibly shimmering power pop. I listened to this song more than any other this year.

1. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel

Song: “Boys in the Better Land”

Sensational Irish punk – in this video, take note of the guy in the plaid shirt wearing a backpack in the second row on the left hand side of the stage. For it is me.

How Not to Get a Book Published

Given how much I’ve recently thought about how hard it is to get a book published, I considered writing a book called “How Not to Get a Book Published.” But that seemed fraught with contradiction: If the book actually was published, it would undercut its whole premise and render it useless. If it wasn’t published, it would simply remain the private rantings of a crazyperson.

So I wrote this.

If you’ve followed me on social media over the past couple of years, you know I’ve been writing a humorous novel that I think has a great premise. In fact, I became more confident in what I was writing the further I got into it. It’s basically the exact book I would want to read as someone who likes history and jokes. (I refuse to use this post as a blatant platform to advertise for it, so go to the book’s website for that.)

A few weeks back, I finally finished my manuscript (although it is still being read by people I’ve asked to help me edit it.) Yet without an agent and a publisher, it will remain destined for release straight to PDF. The only publishing company currently able to produce it will be the prestigious bubble jet printer in my office. (Which, honestly, is pretty exclusive – it can only print one book every two days, at best.)

The key to being published, of course, is to get yourself an agent. This involves untold hours of combing through literary agency websites, trying to discern which agent would be just the right fit for you. At that point, you must craft your book pitch into the exact format the agent uses to take submissions; some ask for one chapter, some ask for your first five pages, some ask for your first three chapters, and so on and so on. But you have to acquiesce to their wishes – if they asked for the first three chapters in Sanskrit, you better spend the afternoon familiarizing yourself with the language of classical Indian epic poems.

Of course, for most authors, the first five pages don’t even begin to set up the book. One presumes this request is solely to ascertain whether the author can use word processing, spell correctly, and avoid libeling someone for at least 1,000 words consecutively.

The reality, however, is that you will never hear from 99% of these people ever again. Sending manuscripts cold to agents is like sending your bank information to a Nigerian prince, then sitting back and waiting for your $50 million to show up. (It’s almost to the point where I actually enjoy getting rejection e-mails – at least that’s one more potential lead I don’t have to stress over.)

This is especially true of first-time authors. A few years ago, when a friend referred me to one of the country’s most prominent humor agents, the agent told me he liked what he saw, but he only represented “established brands” – properties that had made a name for themselves either by going viral online or by working their way up through the comedy scene. This is why Grumpy Cat has a book and I don’t.

So, in short, the best way to find an agent is easy – all you have to do is already be famous.

Then again, if you have famous friends, this is where you can lean on them for advice. Maybe they’ll give you a referral to an agent they know, which is better than just blindly firing off manuscripts – although chances are, they won’t link you up with their agent, as that means less potential customer service for their books. The “famous friend” strategy is particularly perilous if you’re shy about asking friends for help or even introducing yourself to people you “internet know” and asking for help.

Another friend offered a more helpful tip: Go to Barnes and Noble (they still exist), pick up books in your subject area, and flip right to the “Acknowledgements” section. Authors almost always thank their agents in these sections, so write the agent’s name down, go home, look him or her up, and send them a query.

This has been helpful, although it is a bit emotionally draining to flip through shelves of books you know aren’t as funny as yours. It is a bit of an eye-opener to see what sorts of humor books make it to the shelves; typically, they are nonfiction memoir-type books adorned with some big, cathartic hook as a title. For instance, it appears the most recent trend is to write comedy books about how much you want to punch people:

Yet this strategy assumes your book falls into a specific category – a tricky proposition, as many agents represent different styles of books. They say they’re looking for middle-grade fiction, or narrative nonfiction, or literary fiction, or science fiction, or romance novels, or LGBT-based fiction, or whatever.

I’m not exactly sure where my books falls into these classifications. It’s an alternate history, but it’s also a comedy book. It’s technically a work of fiction, but pretty much every story used in the book is something that really happened. It’s essentially a work of true fiction.

In these classifications, “humor” is always included in “nonfiction” – in agent-world, fictional humor appears not to exist. Which is why I am taking this afternoon to punch random people in the face and include their reactions in the first chapter. (If a book company wants to front my bail money as my advance, we can work that out.)

Naturally, sensitive writers trying to classify their works is always an exercise in self-delusion. “How DARE someone ask me to distill my genius into a crass ‘category?’ you might say. “How does one classification do justice to the genius that is ‘Downton Tabby?’”

Of course, while this is all going on, you have to ask people to read the book to see if another living human being other than you can stand it. This is always awkward – when you ask a friend to read your book, you’re asking them to give up hours and hours of their time to help you out. So choose who you give it to carefully. (And if you are one of the people chosen, please note that “will you read my book?” really means “please uncritically tell me how great it is.”)

Further, you should know that once you foist your book on someone to read, that person will likely disappear completely to avoid having awkward conversations with you about your novel. In fact, you should really ask people you hate to read your stuff, as it will guarantee you will never hear from them again.

“AHA!” you’ve probably already said to yourself, preferably aloud and at a salad bar: “Can’t you now SELF-PUBLISH?”

It is true, this is an option in the world of the intertubes. Not only do you make all the money yourself, you’re completely in control of editing and promotion of your work. You also don’t have to wait a year for your book to go through the complete publication process.

But then again, e-books still do have the taint of not having been accepted by a real, live book company. The fact that a publisher saw what you wrote and stamped it with its imprimatur is a big selling point; by releasing an e-book, you are dropping a teaspoon full of words in an Atlantic Ocean of literary excrescence. It just feels like throwing three years’ of work out on to the internet is like giving your book a Viking funeral without the flaming arrows.

So I’ll keep at it the traditional way. Best case scenario, I finally find an agent, the book sells well, and this post ends up making me look stupid. Until then, I will continue to endure this soul-deadening experience with the knowledge that even J.K. Rowling was turned down by dozens of agents and publishers before she finally got her break.

Which is why, if my current book falls flat, you can look forward to by new illustrated book of cat wizards, “Hairy Potter.”

A Letter From the Battlefield

Digging through some of my great-grandfather’s old personal belongings, I found the following note:

December 17, 1918

My dearest Mabel:

I hope this letter finds you in good spirits. For nearly a year here on the Western front, I have longed to once again gaze upon your honeyed visage. As the nights fall to below freezing in our fetid trench, my memories of you are all I have to warm my heart. And I cannot say how long that will be enough to keep me alive during this, the greatest of all wars.

As we continue to pound away at the German lines, the unmistakable specter of death has us surrounded. The food we are being fed isn’t for consumption by any living thing. My company loses a dozen men a day from German cannon fire, sniper attacks, disease, or from the cold. The only positive thing to happen in the past month was the time a barely-clothed woman leapt from our trench and defeated an entire German battalion by herself armed with only a shield, a sword, and some bullet-resistant arm cuffs.

Otherwise, the smell of corpses is beginning to overwhelm our trench. Desperation has taken hold of our men – even late at night, we can still hear the cries of our brothers left wounded on the battlefield, begging for their mothers and wives. Their final pleadings are close enough to hear, yet they are too far to attend to. It is almost enough for some healthy men to wish for a swift death themselves, rather than having to endure another day in this nightmare.

Perhaps I should provide some more clarification about my previous reference to the comely, near-naked woman who ended up killing hundreds of Germans by herself. It was a very curious event; she shed her jacket, then walked straight into no-man’s land while donning a glittering crown and some very alluring boots, all while defending herself against thousands of bullets being sprayed her way. Having drawn the attention of the Hun, we were able to then attack and defeat their heavily fortified line, providing the Allied powers with a rare victory indeed.

Yet despite this temporary victory, few men have hopes of ever winning the war. The Germans will stop at nothing to crush France, Britain and the United States on their path to world domination. To many, this was a war begun by the assassination of a worthless archduke nephew of an equally worthless emperor; and yet troops are seeing their best mates cut down in the prime of their lives. We can only hope that the Lord blesses our mission with his divine grace to stop the barbarism being inflicted on Europe by the Kaiser.

The weird thing is, why were the Germans shooting at the most beautiful woman in the world while she was completely unarmed? I mean, she’s twice as hot as any of the flamethrowers they’ve been using on us. If you looked hard enough, you could see a pretty solid side-boob – why would an entire battalion rain all their gunfire on this glorious figure while completely ignoring the hundreds of Allied troops carrying their own guns and rushing towards the German trench?

Anyway, I may have gotten sidetracked there for a moment. It is a question left only for the history books. Hopefully future volumes will tell of the heroism of the men fighting in the Great War and the blood they have shed to free the world from the shackles of imperialism. I am willing to die for our cause – with God on our side, what glory awaits!

My pencil is getting dull, so one final note – once the war is complete, my commander has commissioned me and several of my comrades on a mission to Themyscira, an island that is…um… evidently very dangerous and is of vital strategic importance. As it is the birthplace of this wondrous woman, it must be defended at all costs, as there are no men on the entire island. It is a mission of such prestige, literally every man in my battalion has volunteered for service! What a brave sacrifice we are all willing to make!

I must leave you now, dear Mabel. Please do not weep if you do not hear from me again. In my remaining days, my mind will be busy thinking of you, my own mortality, the morality of war, and what it would be like to perform battlefield CPR on literally the most unbelievable woman in the world.

U.S. Corporal S. Schneider

Veld, France

Time to Put the “Social” Back in “Social Media”

A couple years back, a liberal writer friend of mine suggested we work together on a project: we’d take a cross country trip and keep a journal of our discussions. His elevator pitch: “What would a conservative and liberal talk about in the car on a road trip?”

I told him I presumed I would talk about the usual things I discuss with my liberal friends. Sports, movies, music, sandwiches, girls, work, funny drinking stories, how I got the scars I have, why dogs are great, mustaches, World War I, Twitter, Harley Davidson motorcycles, what animals you think you can beat in a fight, etc.  All the usual stuff.

In short, everything but politics.

(Also, this “cross country, cross-ideology road trip” idea was the conceit behind Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain’s book, “America, You Sexy Bitch,” which I keep on hand in the event I ever plunge into depression thinking nobody will ever publish my book.)

The lesson, of course, is that as regular people moving around in the world, we all have interests that may overlap or diverge, but that have nothing to do with political affiliation. It’s find to have an ideology, but honestly – people who identify themselves politically before everything else are a total bore.

I was just thinking about this in the wake of rock star Chris Cornell’s shocking and saddening suicide last week. On social media, Cornell’s fans began to emerge to express their sadness and pay tribute – and it crossed ideological and cultural lines in way few things on Twitter or Facebook do.

I was particularly struck by an ode to Cornell written by conservative Weekly Standard writer Mark Hemingway, who I’ve always enjoyed following on Twitter. On most things we align politically, but sometimes we don’t.

But aside from politics, who knew Hemingway played in a rock band in Seattle in the early 1990s, or that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of grunge music? How many conservative writers can painstakingly break down the unique time signatures of Soundgarden’s biggest hits?

As a lifelong Cornell fan, I immediately felt a kinship with Hemingway in a way I never had before. And the same goes with progressives that began popping up on my social media timelines telling their stories about their Chris Cornell fandom. I’ve reached out to some of them and been able to talk about a common interest I never expected to share with them. (In 1992, I saw Soundgarden in Milwaukee when they shared a bill with Blind Melon and Neil Young; it was just after Cornell shaved off his famous long locks of hair, and thinking he looked awesome, I went right home and did the same thing. He looked like a badass – I looked like an eraser.)

That’s what makes Twitter and other social media venues such an odd thing; people are so desperate to lord their moral superiority over others, we miss out on the things we actually have in common. How many of the same people out there that are quick to slam my politics would have fun sitting and talking about how I think Pee Wee’s Great Adventure is the pinnacle of American movie making? Or my theories about how one day plastic surgery is going to be so good, we won’t be able to tell the young from the old, and people who look like teenagers are just going to start dropping dead in the streets? (That one’s kind of a thinker.)

I mean, I’m proud of being a libertarian-leaning conservative; but it’s really a small part of the things that comprise my brain. It seems we spend most of our time fighting over a small percentage of who we are, and we’re missing out on all the other connective tissue that makes us a society. We’re neglecting the “social” part of “social media.”

Of course, there are no people more irritating than the “can’t we all get along” hippies that complain about gridlock. It is incumbent on people who have ideas about government to fight for their convictions, and conflict is an important part of the system of checks and balances. As the saying goes, if you think government runs too slow, wait ’til you see the damage done by one that acts too fast.

But for too many people, politics is now all we know about them, and it makes them far easier to dismiss. Cardboard cutouts are easy to knock down – if you think people aren’t interested in your thoughts about culture or movies or music, you’re wrong. And you might be missing and important connection with someone who shares your thoughts, as weird as they may be. We’re all riding in cars of our own ideologies, never slowing down to meet the other travelers on the road to ask what they’re listening to.

In the early days of the internet, scientists marveled at its potential to bring people together; instead, it has fractured us over political lines. Or, as David Burge put it in a profound set of tweets in January, “10-15 years ago, the internet connected me with best friends I never knew; now it’s the least pleasant thing in my life.”

As Burge correctly counseled, “Shared politics are shitty basis for a friendship.” So stand up and fight for what you believe in, but always remember – literally the least interesting thing about you is your politics.

My Best Albums of 2016

Another year, another list of my favorite albums.  As always, these have been carefully selected through a strict scientific method; now that I have taken the lab coat off and turned off all the Bunsen burners, these are the 10 albums the formula yielded.  It’s just science.

10. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”

All year, friends had been telling me to listen to this album, and I’m really happy I finally gave in.  A groundbreaking album in the “gospel hip-hop” genre, it’s steeped in the optimism America needs right now.

“Summer Friends”

9.  Laura Gibson, “Empire Builder”

My love for Laura Gibson is well documented.  Over a year ago, her New York home burned down, taking many of her valuable instruments with it.  I contributed to the fund to replace her belongings – now I’m just hoping I make her year-end Top 10 list of favorite fanboys.

“Caldera, Oregon”

8.  Mitski, “Puberty II”

This song will make you cry. That is all.

“Your Best American Girl”

7. Thee Oh Sees, “A Weird Exits”

Unapologetic psychedelic rock devoid of nuance.  They manage the rare feat of capturing the frantic energy of their live shows on their recordings.

“Gelatinous Cube”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nOMKIo_sH0

6. Petal, “Shame”

Catchy guitar-driven pop from singer-songwriter Kiley Lotz of Scranton, PA.  Came out in January of 2016 and remained a lock for my Top 10 all year.

“Heaven”

5. Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”

Tribe has been out of the public spotlight for more than a decade, so it’s not like the public was clamoring for a new album.  But that makes “We got it from Here…” all the more impressive.  They had something to say and came back to say it – it doesn’t feel at all like a cash grab that you see from lesser acts.  Plus, the world needed to hear the late Phife Dawg one last time.

“We the People”

4. Russian Circles, “Guidance”

Instrumental, emotional nerd metal.

“Vorel”

3. Bleached, “Welcome the Worms”

Another stellar guitar-pop album from L.A. based Bleached.  Every song an earworm, front to back.

“Wednesday Night Melody”

2. Avalanches, “Wildflower”

A sprawling album in which each song winds into the next, mixing disco, hip-hop, soul and general silliness.  While not quite as good as the Australian band’s 2000 debut, it’s great to have them back after 16 years.

“Because I’m Me”

1. Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”

I know, I know – “White Guy in 40’s Likes Radiohead Album” isn’t exactly breaking news.  But the album deserves all the praise heaped on it during the year – it checks all the boxes that make an album great. And the fact that Radiohead is still breaking new ground after two decades makes it all the more remarkable.

“Burn the Witch”

The Perils of Being “Almost Famous”

Almost_Famous

The first Sunday I appeared on television as a political commentator, I was also scheduled to attend a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game later in the day.  It was March of 2008, and the show was on in the morning, while the game was in the afternoon.

Before the game started, I wondered whether anyone would actually recognize me from the show – it was, after all, on one of the four major networks in the Milwaukee TV market.  What if I said something someone didn’t like and they took a swing at me?  What if people wanted to talk to me about politics?  I briefly considered wearing some sort of disguise.

When I got to the game, in looking for my seats, I walked from one end of the stadium to the other.  I received not a single look, not a comment.  I then retraced my steps, walking the length of the stadium and back again.  Still nothing.  It appears my instant fame had somehow gone missing.

I would soon join a small, but interesting subset of people in the media: those who work in the public eye, but aren’t actually “famous.”

Humorist John Hodgman describes himself as a “minor celebrity.”  This is apt – he has a small, but intensely loyal following (among which I count myself).  But on the rungs of fame, there are people who are even below “minor.”  They are the people who live normal lives, who have regular jobs, but whose faces are in public from time to time.  They aren’t “famous,” they are merely “recognizable.”

Until last week, I hadn’t even been in the “hey, you’re that guy from that thing” crowd.  But a dad at my daughter’s basketball game started pointing at me and saying my name over and over.  It was the first time I had ever been recognized in public, and I pray that it’s the last.

I’ve had friends point out that complaining about being noticed in public is a “humblebrag.”  But being a marginally notable person is frequently unsettling.  Before people meet you, they often have preconceived notions of what you’re like and how you think.  I’ve had total strangers recite back personal facts I’ve written in my blogs that I had forgotten I long ago disclosed.

For the few people who know who you are, your public persona always precedes you – and you never know who might admire your work and who can’t stand you.  But they’re out there in the public, walking among us, and it’s impossible to tell who they are.

I’ve had local TV reporter friends tell me horrifying stories of people approaching them in the grocery store, commenting on their appearance or on-air demeanor.  Lisa Manna, who used to be a morning anchor in Green Bay, told me she once received a manila envelope filled with pornographic pictures.  The eyes were scribbled out and her name was written on the women.  The pictures were accompanied by a letter detailing the things this man would do to her, which earned her a police escort to work. And of course, this is all for a job that doesn’t pay a great deal – working in TV news isn’t exactly a license to print money.  Stations know there’s always someone else coming up the ranks willing to do your job for cheaper.

One female reporter who does frequent live reports from downtown told me there are some people who will watch the broadcast, then rush over to where she is to confront her about something she reported.  The most annoying thing, she said, is being recognized when she’s in an awkward place – like, sick at the doctor or at the gym after working out.

And, of course, in my line of work, not everyone is favorably inclined to your work.  Small cadres of anonymous critics frequently whip up online fiction in an attempt to demean me.  The comments sections on my stories are always full of people thinking I’m corrupt, or bought and sold by this group or that group.

Would they say that to my face?  Do I actually unknowingly talk to any of these people on a regular basis in real life?  It’s entirely possible – I’ve had creepy anonymous commenters say they’ve known me from working with me in the past, before they rip me in their diatribes.  Did I ever actually really know that person? I’ll never know – but they’re using our alleged interactions to bolster their supposed knowledge of how I “really” am.

These are the times when I think it would be nice to have a job that wasn’t so public.  I’ve often dreamed of a life just making sandwiches at Cousin’s Subs, where people wouldn’t flock to the internet to deride my hoagie making skills.  Would be nice to be able to accomplish something at work without being accused of being under the influence of Big Mustard.

Typically, being a notable person is seen as a trade-off; you put up with people recognizing you in exchange for wealth or influence.  But trust me, the marginally recognizable enjoy neither of these advantages.  Surely, Leonardo DiCaprio has his critics – but he can blow them off by spending a weekend churning through a private island stocked with super models.  The merely notable are resigned to having a drink, rolling up in a blanket, and watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, helping him in his quest to buy an extra island.

I do have several advantages, however.  The picture that accompanies my photo in the newspaper was taken before I needed glasses.  And as Superman has taught us, throw on a pair of thick rims and literally nobody – not even your love interests – can recognize you any more.  Also, I am frequently unshaven, looking as if I was off to do some modeling for the “JC Penney for Hobos” catalog.  (I also look like a lot of other people – if I ever got any public comment, I assume it would be someone saying, “man, Keanu’s really let himself go.”)

Oddly, enough, ancillary stardom is something more and more people now seek.  Young women armed with only cell phones now become “Instagram models,” which seems a little bit like being a “Twitter comedian” or “Facebook novelist.”  It used to be that one would create something worthy of notoriety, then benefit from that exposure.  Now, more people seem to believe fame is an end in itself.  Not for me.

Of course, none of this is enough to keep me from doing what I love for a living.  But being someone that other people form public opinions about is something I’m still getting used to – maybe I never will.  Until then, I’ll keep being a walking contradiction – a newspaper columnist that doesn’t particularly like attention.

Why I Love Being Old

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“Youth,” Oscar Wilde once said, “is the one thing worth having.”

As I exited my youth and aged into my thirties, and now forties, I felt much the same.  How nice it would be to once again get out of bed without my ankles shooting pain through my legs.  My belly button has begun to flee my abdomen as if it had just robbed a bank.  At age 42, a good bit of every day is devoted simply to being a human in the world – exercising, trying to eat well, finding new places I need to shave – all things one takes for granted in the prime of youth.  I feel like they should build a statue of me outside my house every time I successfully get my socks on.

But while most of our culture is geared towards making me feel terrible about succumbing to the horrors of aging, I’m starting to feel good about getting old.  In fact, I wouldn’t swap being 42 for being 21 for anything in the world.

So I thought I’d jot down some of the benefits of being a near-senior citizen.  Y’know, before I forget them all.

Having Money

Most of my early 20’s were spent with all my possessions in the back of my car, and all my money paper-clipped together in an envelope.  I worked primarily as a waiter, stuffing dollar bills in my back pocket after a shift.  I had no credit, no bank account, and couldn’t afford to pay attention.  The extent of my money management skills was knowing it was better to bounce one big check rather than a series of smaller checks, since you only have to pay the one-time bad check fee.

When you’re old, those days have passed – you typically have savings, can afford to eat, and can pay for a stable roof over your head.  I can buy the car I want, rather than my dad paying the neighbors $200 for a rusted-out 1981 Chevette with a bumper sticker that says “I Brake for Unicorns.”

And, of course, having money leads to…

Drinking Better Alcohol

There’s a reason I perfected the art of bonging cheap beer in college – because it was typically terrible, and I wanted to get it in my stomach with as little interaction with my taste buds as possible.
But when you’re old, you have no time for bad alcohol.  (That is, unless you are trying to be an Ironic Drinker, in which case the worse the beer, the higher your stature.)

The secret of “old drinking” is that the more expensive the booze you buy, the less of a hangover you end up with.  Drink all the 12-year old scotch you want – a couple of ibuprofen before you go to bed, and you wake up ready to wrestle an alligator.  If college students figured this out, it would bankrupt them all.

Old drinking is also preferable because people don’t judge you nearly as much for engaging in it.  If you drink a lot when you’re young, people worry about its long-term effects; it could cost you jobs, relationships, and keep you from reaching your potential.

However, once everyone sees you’ve pretty much maxed out on the potential scale, you’re free to pickle yourself as you see fit.  When you’re young, you drink to make new memories.  When you’re old, you drink to forget the memories you’ve made.

Once you hit 40, drinking at home isn’t a sign of loneliness, it’s an adorable personality quirk that doesn’t really hurt anyone.  People aren’t like, “aw, now poor Christian’s never going to be an astronaut,” they’re more like, “yeah, seems about right.”

Aristotle once said that “young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication.”  Clearly he said that before he turned 40 and he was in a state of actual permanent intoxication.

Knowing Things

Whenever I go back and read a column I wrote just a week earlier, I think of all the things I learned in the days since it was published.  And it feels like someone else entirely wrote the column.  I picture myself just a week earlier, being naïve about how the world works and not really knowing what I was talking about.

Now multiply this by a thousand weeks, and you get a sense of how much I feel I’ve learned in the past 20 years.  Would I give up all the things I’ve seen, all the events I’ve experienced, and the books I’ve read just to be young again?  Of course not.  To surrender my experiences would be to entirely change who I am now, which is way too risky of a proposition.

That’s not to suggest young people don’t know things.  I’m just partial to the things that I know.

The Wooderson Effect

Everyone remember the famous Wooderson line from Dazed and Confused – “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man – I get older, they stay the same age.”

What Matthew McConaughey’s creepy-but-still-cool character doesn’t realize at the time is that his own perception of the opposite sex will change as he gets older.

When you’re a young man, you’re obviously attracted to girls your own age – older women seem out of reach. (This seems different for young women, who are more open to dating older men.)  If you’re a 25 year old guy who prefers 40-year old women, you’re viewed as kind of a weirdo. But as you age, you begin to find women your own age attractive – your preferences grow older along with you.

So when you get to your 40s, more people are attractive.  Younger women are attractive, older women are attractive. Part of it is, the older you get and the more flaws you recognize in yourself, the more accepting of other peoples’ flaws you become.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where “My Cousin Vinny” Marisa Tomei and “The Wrestler” Marisa Tomei can exist in harmony?

No Wasting Time

In my 20s, I spent a lot of time experimenting with things out of my comfort zone.  I listened to all the music I could get my hands on, no matter how avant garde; at one point in college, I found myself listening to a CD of a German band who made music by banging on shopping carts with spoons.

When you’re old, you no longer need to pretend to be into things you’re not.  You are free to do what you wish with the few remaining years you have on this earth.  If all your young hipster friends demand that you like The National, you just shrug, and say “not for me” and move on.  Your time left on this mortal coil is too valuable to dabble in ephemera.  And especially not when “The Bachelor” is on.

Kids

When you’re older, you get to have children.  And the wonder of having kids narrowly cancels out the glory of not having them.

People generally think that having and raising children is a selfless act.  But it’s the exact opposite – having children is the ultimate act of vanity.  For old people, making children is the eternal selfie; you’re cementing your legacy for eternity with little people who look just like you.

Further, having kids immediately brings clarity and focus to your life.  No matter how disjointed or scattered your life was up to that point, once a child emerges, you know exactly what the purpose of your life is.  From then on, you cease to be the author of your own biography – your life story is being written by a 10-pound human.  And your only reason for existing is to take care of that mini-you.  You could pay a life coach a million dollars and they wouldn’t convince you to get your shit together like a baby does.

Feigning Ignorance of Technology

Even if you’re old and technologically savvy, you can always use your age to get you out of uncomfortable situations.  If someone from work texts you with immediate instructions, take your time – you can always say something like, “all these blinking lights confuse me!” or “what’s this internet I read about in the newspaper?”

People Listen to You

For some reason,  when you’re old, people automatically assume you know what you’re talking about.
It is true, that when you age, you have perspective.  If any one emotion characterizes youth, it is the belief that one is the axis upon which the universe turns.  But the older you get, the more you see the world around you and grasp your relative insignificance.  It’s nice knowing that fads will come and go, and the world will not cease to exist.  You just sip your expensive alcohol and enjoy the ride.

Connection to a Specific Time

Perhaps this one is more personal, but not only do I like being old, I like being old exactly at this time in history.  It means I got to be in college during a revolutionary era in popular entertainment – the “grunge” era – when artistry and skill was actually valued.  I wouldn’t trade the experience of being body passed to Jane’s Addiction at the first Lollapalooza for Mumford, his Sons, or his Grandsons.

I love that I grew up before the internet, so I know what it’s like to not have to feel like I’m missing out on every news story, joke or meme.  I can find my way to places without using GPS, and I can have arguments without having to dive into my iPhone for information to back me up.  I love that when I was ten, my parents would kick me out of the house with instructions only to be back by dinner time – a practice that led to a great deal of tree climbing, garter snake handling, fort building, and basketball shooting.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.”  It is true, nobody will know you like the friends that you had when you were kids.  They’ve seen you at your best and your worst, and kept you around for all of it.

But being older and having a strong connection to a specific era with someone else is actually a pretty decent stand-in for long-term friendship.  Meeting someone your age and realizing they, too, thought Pearl Jam was overrated is a solid foundation for future friendship; and the older you are, the more cultural touchstones you are able to share with other people.

So yeah, being old is good, but being old in 2016 is even better.

George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying something along the lines of, “youth is wasted on the young.”  But I, for one, refuse to accept this as my fate.  The young can have their youth – I have my memories. If only I could remember them.

On March 5, I appeared on the live half hour “JS on Politics” show.  We talked primarily about Gov. Walker’s presumptive presidential race – check it out here:

Albums of the year, 2014

Well look at that – it’s album of the year time again already.  My full discussion of these picks will soon be up at our podcast website, but here’s a quick look at my list.

10.  Grouper – Ruins

9. Beck – Morning Phase

8. Ex Hex – Rips

7. Jeremy Messersmith – Heart Murmurs

6. Alvvays – Alvvays

5.  St. Vincent – St. Vincent

4.  Wye Oak – Shriek

3.  Real Estate – Atlas

2. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

1. Ty Segall – Manipulator

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O99Id3Iq2fw

Some First-Rate Detective Work

As part of a potential work project, I’ve been going through some old newspapers from 1916.  Of course, there are plenty of odd anachronisms that catch one’s eye while reading papers from a century ago.  But this story, which is absolutely true, really caught my eye.  It’s from the February 11, 1916 Milwaukee Sentinel.

According to the article, Milwaukee police detectives Jacob Laubenheimer and Harry Ridenour were paging through the newspaper one day when they saw the following advertisement:

“Wanted: Strong, husky young men as private detectives.  Opportunity to travel all over the world.  Apply at Asiatic Pacific Detective agency, Room 713, Majestic Building.”

Thinking the ad was a bit too good to be true, Laubenheimer and Ridenour headed down to the agency to pose as potential enrollees.  There they met Brightley Severinghaus, who claimed to be the head of the agency. “You look like a detective and where it usually takes us a month to train candidates for our private force, I think I can get you through in about three weeks,” Severinghaus told Laubenheimer.

“Fine,” said Laubenheimer.  “When do I get my first lesson?”

“You will have to put up $5 and then the same amount every week,” said Severinghaus.

Laubenheimer fumbled around and found $2 in his pocket – Ridenour fronted him the remaining $3.  Laubenheimer then paid Severinghaus, and after receiving a receipt, put him under arrest.

“I thought you would make a good detective when I first saw you,” said Severinghaus.

Later, a court sent him to an emergency room to have his sanity tested.

For some reason, this made me laugh for a good couple of hours.  I’m sure Laubenheimer felt good about passing Severinghaus’ class so quickly.

How a Bill Does Not Become a Law: An activist Dane County court has brashly upended the rules of lawmaking

Schneider22.1Every two years, the Wisconsin Assembly issues an activity book for schoolchildren. The book includes a cartoon called “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” which details the happy life of an ebullient piece of legislation named Bill.

Bill leads a simple life — all he wants to do is one day earn the governor’s signature on his belly and become law. The cartoon follows his traditional journey, from hearings held on his merits, to committees voting him out, to both houses of the Legislature passing him before sending him to the governor to become law.

Such has been the legislative process since Wisconsin’s inception in 1848. Yet in recent years, Bill’s celebration upon being signed by the governor would be a bit premature. Having lost control of the Legislature and the governorship, Wisconsin Democrats have added another step: To become law, Bill must first pay a visit to the Dane County Circuit Court.

Dane County has the distinction of not only being the home of state government; it is also indisputably one of the most politically liberal counties in America. And despite being only one of Wisconsin’s 69 state circuit courts, it has essentially become a second legislature.

Our friend Bill may have earned the imprimatur of legislators elected from all over the state and the signature of a governor elected by a majority of Wisconsin voters, but a single Dane County judge can derail Bill’s attempt to find a cozy home within the pages of the state’s statute books.

This is a problem not just for poor Bill, but also for the unfortunate citizens around Wisconsin who elect Republicans to the state Assembly, Senate and governorship. The ballots of millions are counteracted by the vote of one robed master elected by a strongly progressive electorate, whose elevated position is not earned by any specific legal skill or expertise, but instead his or her proximity to State Street. In fact, until recently, any lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin had to be filed in Dane County, giving its Circuit Court an elevated importance over any other local court in the state.

And thus, the Dane County Circuit Court has become a legal ATM for the state’s progressives: Insert a court challenge, and out comes a favorable opinion that will cost your opponents buckets of cash to appeal.

So-called “venue shopping” like this isn’t all that new. For instance, the federal court in Marshall, Texas, has been traditionally known to be friendly to those seeking money for patent infringements, and large companies from around the nation typically end up in this small Texas town. Quick trials and plaintiff-friendly juries are the norm in Marshall (as is its annual Fire Ant Festival), making it a popular vacation spot for lawyers.

Of course, picking a friendly federal appeals court is tricky, given that you have to predict what the lower courts are going to do. But those looking for anti-business outcomes are generally served well by filing cases in the jurisdiction of the notoriously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers nine western states. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court either reversed or vacated 19 of the 26 cases it reviewed from the 9th Circuit; two years earlier, the supremes shot down 94 percent of its cases.

The Dane County Circuit Court has proven itself another great haven for liberal venue shoppers. In March 2011, it found itself in the middle of a national controversy when Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed a lawsuit attempting to block implementation of Gov. Scott Walker’s new law restricting public sector collective bargaining. Unable to prevail legislatively, Democrats attempted to sink the bill in the courts. And they found a very sympathetic ear in Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi.

It was important that Democrats get a lawsuit moving quickly; on April 5, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was up for election in a race that would decide the high court’s ideological balance. Having a case pending in a state court would bolster the impression that the Prosser election was really an election about whether Walker’s broadside to the public unions would stand.

On March 16, seven days after the Wisconsin Senate passed the collective bargaining bill, Ozanne filed a lawsuit seeking not to overturn the law, but to prevent it from being published in the first place. Two days later, Sumi heard one day’s worth of testimony, issued a temporary restraining order stopping publication of the law and quickly left town on a weeklong family vacation.

On his blog, Marquette University law professor Rick Esenberg said he was “astonished” at Sumi’s ruling, noting that in 1943, the state Supreme Court held that judges may not enjoin the publication of a law on the basis that it is or might be unconstitutional. “A bill, in the court’s view, is not enacted until it is published such that publication is part of the legislative process with which courts may not interfere,” noted Esenberg.

On April 5, Prosser narrowly defeated his liberal challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg. On May 25, attorneys at the state Department of Justice sent Sumi a letter indicating that they might seek her recusal. The very next day, Sumi issued her opinion striking down the law in its entirety.

Within months, the state Supreme Court assumed its role as the state’s legal janitor and cleaned up the mess Sumi had made. (She ruled that the state Senate violated the open-meetings law, but failed to acknowledge the pertinent exemption for legislative actions.) In a contentious decision that led to accusations of justices choking each other, Prosser excoriated Sumi, writing, “In turbulent times, courts are expected to act with fairness and objectivity. They should serve as the impartial arbiters of legitimate legal issues. They should not insert themselves into controversies or exacerbate existing tensions.”

While the Supreme Court vacated Sumi’s decision, the pro-union litigants were not done. On Sept. 14, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas once again struck down Walker’s law, this time based on a challenge from Madison schoolteachers and Milwaukee city employees. The ruling blocked the law from being applied to school and local government workers, but it remains in effect for state workers and employees of the University of Wisconsin System. The case is being appealed.

Yet another case of “Walker nullification” took place when Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan, who had signed the recall petition against Walker, struck down a Walker-approved law requiring photo identification to vote. Inexplicably, Flanagan did not disclose that he had signed the petition.

While the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar voter-identification law in Indiana, Flanagan ruled that his opinion should effectively trump the Supreme Court because the Indiana law allows a voter 10 days after casting a provisional ballot to produce identification, while the Wisconsin law allows only three days.

The fact that Dane County always got the first crack at adjudicating lawsuits against the state clearly irritated Republicans, who in 2011 passed a law allowing plaintiffs suing the state to pick venues other than Dane County. Legislative Republicans took advantage of this new law during the Walker recall process, when they sued the state Government Accountability Board in Waukesha County, which they considered a friendlier venue.

This new law, however, does nothing to stop liberal groups from filing suits in Dane County. Esenberg noted that constitutional challenges to enacted legislation are “nothing new,” and that challenges aren’t always illegitimate. But he notes that cases filed by Democrats in Dane County have become uniquely problematic, given that Dane is a “company town.”

“You have exceptionally politically charged cases being brought in a county which has this sort of this toxic combination of being both politically homogeneous and politically aroused,” said Esenberg. “You had these pieces of legislation coming before elected judges in a county where people were marching in the streets, pretty much all in opposition to these things, which raises questions about the political pressures that may be brought to bear on a judge who finds himself or herself in that situation.”

And while the ability of circuit courts to strike down state laws is not new, the recent hyper-partisan way in which the courts are being asked to function will have long-lasting impacts on Wisconsin law. Scott Walker and the GOP Legislature may only be with Wisconsin for the span of a few years; the precedent of litigating everything as a political weapon may be with the state forever.

Those ideological pressures placed on circuit courts will likely boil up again now that the Legislature has passed a much-discussed bill to allow an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. Environmental groups are expected to file suit at some point to block the mine. And that move for an injunction will almost certainly be filed in Dane County.

Some judicial observers have argued that it doesn’t matter where cases like this begin, as long as the Supreme Court is there to serve as a backstop to Dane County. For conservatives, this reasoning is problematic.

First, while the makeup of the court currently leans conservative, the court is usually only one April election away from switching ideologies. Liberals need but a single seat, in other words, to turn the court from a stop sign to a green light for Dane County opinions.

One thing is certain — the more the lower courts are seen as mere political arms, the worse it is for the reputation of the Supreme Court. Some conservatives have grown frustrated that the Supreme Court hasn’t yanked jurisdiction away from the appellate courts and struck down Flanagan’s photo identification ruling, for example.

But as one justice told me, that’s not at all how the Supreme Court should work. The court, instead, should almost always let the process work itself out. Setting a precedent of clutching politically expedient cases away from appellate courts could be terrible for the right, especially if liberals regain control of the Supreme Court.

In the wake of the recent Dane County decisions, the Republican Legislature has also proposed changes to how cases are handled. One proposal, for instance, would have prevented circuit courts from blocking duly enacted laws. Esenberg believes this would be a mistake, not only given that some laws should be invalidated, but also because politics are cyclical, and one day Republicans will need lower courts to block the actions of a Democratic governor.

Esenberg proposed a potential remedy for over-politicization of the courts: If a circuit court wants to issue an injunction to block a state statute, the party opposing the injunction has 10 days to appeal.

According to Esenberg’s proposal, if the ruling isn’t appealed in 10 days, the stay is lifted and the injunction is effective. If the ruling is appealed, the stay would remain in place, and the appeals court would have to lift it. If both the appeals court and circuit court agree on the injunction, then it stays in place.

But regardless of what reforms might pass, Republicans will not be able to legislate Dane County out of existence. Challengers to Scott Walker’s agenda will continue to look to the Dane County courts to block the will of the people. And liberal judges will continue to garner awards like Sumi’s for being the State Bar of Wisconsin’s “2011 Judge of the Year.”

And this will be bad news for our good friend Bill, who will have to routinely pack his bags for Dane County. Maybe the state can get him some Badger football tickets to make his frequent stays more pleasant.

Walker or Ryan? Here’s the early line on their 2016 chances

Schneider-Walker-RyanEvery now and then, two major talents emerge in close proximity. In 2011, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers finished first and third, respectively, in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting. Twelve times, two actors (including, in one case, three) from the same movie have been nominated for Oscars for Best Actor. (The most recent was 1984, when F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both nominated for “Amadeus.” Abraham won.)

In politics, Wisconsin is experiencing such an embarrassment of talent. Virtually every other part of the country is honored to have one elected official with the chops to be considered presidential material. Yet in the Dairy State, the only debate is over which of its two top Republican stars would make a better commander in chief.

So who has the better chance? Gov. Scott Walker or Congressman Paul Ryan?

Walker and Ryan grew up within a car drive of one another. Ryan lived in Janesville, while Walker was raised 20 miles away in Delavan. Each considers Ronald Reagan a key figure in his political development. And both dominated national news in 2012 on their way to becoming national GOP stars.

Ryan, of course, had his taste of a presidential run, having served as Mitt Romney’s capable vice presidential sidekick. While the party faithful initially worried about how Ryan’s aggressive plans to scale back Medicare and Social Security would play with voters, it appears that Ryan may have been a net boost to the Romney campaign. While Romney lost the election by a wide margin of electoral votes, his slim margins of defeat in key states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida show those states ended up being closer than the polls indicated before the Ryan pick. He most certainly didn’t harm his status with the party faithful, who now know Ryan can stand up to the pressures of a nationwide campaign.

Yet with congressional Republicans faring so poorly nationwide, many party faithful think it is time to look for a governor like Walker. He’s taken his licks and won a recall election by a larger margin than he won his first gubernatorial contest; his toughness is appealing to a party that currently lacks it.

Of the two, Ryan is the better public speaker. His 14 years in Congress have honed his skills; he can speak knowledgeably and extemporaneously, no matter how arcane the topic. Walker has improved as a speaker, but he is cautious and more reserved than Ryan. His appeal is immense with Republicans, but he still makes progressives scream at their televisions.

Walker has history on his side. The only president elected directly from the House to the presidency was James Garfield in 1880 — a singular event that solidified Garfield’s status as either the best campaigner or worst president of all time, depending on one’s perspective. Governors, on the other hand, routinely ascend to the presidency, as voters appear to see their executive experience on the state level as a plausible dry run.

Of the two, Walker also appears to be the more ambitious. Following the November election, Walker went on an aggressive speaking tour around the country and has coyly avoided ruling out a run in 2016 (assuming he is re-elected in 2014).

Conversely, despite being a key player in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Ryan has disappeared from the public eye and has uniformly downplayed his desire for higher office. He genuinely seems to enjoy policy over politics.

For Wisconsin Republicans, it is an impossible choice. Eventually, it may be up to the other 49 states to decide for them.

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