Growing Hope for America: An anniversary revisit to the 25th Farm Aid in Milwaukee

It’s one day removed from the date but I am honoring the anniversary of a great concert in Milwaukee history by posting my review of Farm Aim 25,  at Miller Park on October 2, 2010.

October 2, 2010 

Farm Aid 25 Does Heavy Hauling for America’s Family Farmers

MILWAUKEE — It took a quarter of a century for the players in this farm system to make it to the majors.

But Farm Aid 25 proved it ain’t no game though, heck, it was at least as fun as any Brewers outing, to judge from the 35,000 who rocked Miller Park Saturday, along with the many dedicated musicians who filled the ten-hour event.

Farm Aid 25 at Miller Park. Courtesy Onmilwaukee.com

The first Farm Aid drew 78,000 in Champaign, Illinois in 1985. Today it’s the longest-running concert benefit in the U.S, having raised $37 million over those years. And co-founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp – who all performed Saturday with style and passion – have been stars for decades. So the event’s 25th anniversary in its first major league stadium only served to remind people of a team effort as heroic as a two-outs, walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

The hero’s stance is somewhat different now. Farm Aid now does heavy work on the promotional tractor hauling the local sustainable food movement to public awareness. They’re helping push for organized family farming and healthy food choices as refurbished tools for economic revitalization of America through “family farm food systems” based on alliances, economic stewardship and well being of community and public health (see farmaid.org for more information on this)

They still proselytize for the ongoing plight of America’s family farmers in the face of corporate farming’s razing of the small farm business model. In the pre-concert press conference, Neil Young, Farm Aids’ resident corporate gadfly, asserted that big-business farms “create and spread disease and are inhumane to animals” and ravage the ecosystem.

Yet, as perennial good guy Nelson says, “We started out trying to save the family farmer and now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.”

Farm Aid to mark 25th anniversary at Miller Park

Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 25 in Milwaukee OnMilwaukee.com

With a majority of this huge throng appearing to be under 30, the message seemed to connect with the generation that must take up the mantle of leadership.

Many of them sang along from memory to lyrics of musicians old enough to be pa or grandpa. While Mellencamp did his harrowing farm tragedy saga, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” even a young stadium security guard sang along, with his back to the stage and eyes diligently scanning the crowd.

Yes, there’d been plenty of tailgating beforehand, which kept attendance at a slow trickle-in though the early afternoon acts like Randy Rogers, Robert Francis, Jamey Johnson and the Blackwood Quartet. Among those, the act too many missed was Johnson, whose Moses beard and hair hang as long as his foghorn voice resounds deep, seeping into the darkest caverns of the heart, with deftly self-deprecating storytelling. His Depression-survivor song “In Color” deserves to be a widely-covered classic, though I doubt anyone could deliver such craggy authenticity as does Johnson.

Though now middle-aged thick and lovable-attire slob, Mellencamp can still ignite and work a crowd – into what Quakers call (not so) gentle persuasion: At one point he asked all of the cell-phone toting fans to immediately call a friend to “thank them for supporting Farm Aid.”

He even grabbed one fan’s phone and thanked a doubtlessly startled “Steve,” on the call’s receiving end.

Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp at Farm Aid 25. Courtesy milwaukeejournal-sentinel.com

By then, the crowd seemed primed to attack the back forty, after a bracing but short set from Milwaukee’s own seminal roots rockers The Bo Deans, and a beguiling one from Philadelphia folk-soul troubadour Amos Lee, and another by the appealingly high-energy alt-roots rock Band of Horses, who are galloping up record charts these days.

Milwaukee’s own, The Bodeans, at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel.com

Yet the crowd perked up for the almost effortless charm of two young pop music phenoms, Norah Jones and Jason Mraz. The line-up’s only female act, Texas-raised singer-songwriter-pianist-guitarist Jones recently relocated to New York. She captivated with her sophisticated new look – punky page boy and fishnet stockings — and fluent eclectic flair, shifting from her sultry sweetheart mega hit “Come Away With Me” to Johnny Cash’s honk-tony beer lament “Cry, Cry, Cry” to her own increasingly dark and thoughtful originals.

Norah Jones at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel

By contrast, Mraz seems like his own brand of endless sunshine with a voice as boyish as Paul Simon’s but stadium-impact strong and with songs carrying a high melodic calorie count. He woos the listener like the boy Romeo next door, or the strapping young farmer down the road. He actually runs an avocado farm in California when not doing music or surfing. Too cool.

Between the Jones and Mraz sets, Jeff Tweedy — leader of the immensely popular and arty roots-rock band Wilco – delivered a curiously tepid solo set that suggested his true gifts are as a musical conceptualist/bandleader/songwriter.

You get the stylistic gist here — Farm Aid welcomes virtually all American music genres under its big farmer’s market tent. And to wit, many fans also partook of the outdoor Homegrown Market and chatted with farmers about their issues and tasty wares even through cold wind and some rain. That interaction is part of the important underlying purposes of this musical harvest.

Back inside, time-conscious bandleaders too infrequently introduced their faithful band members. But the show rarely dragged with Willie Nelson stepping in to add his “Texas herb” aroma to the sets of Jones and Lee, and with contemporary country star Kenny Chesney showing gleaming vocal pipes and sporting a New Orleans Saints cap instead of the expected ten-gallon hat.

And few complained about nepotism when Willie’s son Lukas Nelson scored a set, because he’s inherited the old man’s showmanship. No knockoff though, the younger Nelson’s style strives to virtually channel the ghost of short-lived blues rock guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. His guitar-string biting impressed some, but made you wonder if Willie feeds the kid enough.

Dave Matthews, the Gen-X rock star who joined the Farm Aid board of directors in 2001 and is the fourth perennial headliner, started his duo set with guitar ace Tim Reynolds by unleashing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which felt like a man reliving the song’s wild tale as a primal-scream dream. His intensity cranked the crowd up to a level that Mellencamp rode masterfully.

Yet, for this baby boomer, and surely many others, this all climaxed with Young’s set. He remains an uncanny blend of wizardly yet unpretentious song-storyteller/melody-spinner prone to deft feedback theatrics and spontaneous speeches. Few seem to care about farmers as much as he does. But an eloquent riff on being an aware consumer for small farm support –“read the label” is his mantra – immediately lost any hint of browbeating when Young launched into “Long May Young Run.” This is a gloriously warm-hearted salutation to a friend he last saw alive “in Blind River in 1962.” The winsome melody and sentiment seem to suggest – with a new line crucially added to the original lyrics – that the never-forgotten friend was a farmer.

Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel 

Young’s always had a quirky a genius for balancing his fiery social consciousness with mournful, humane soul. Accompanied only by his own scruffy-scarecrow presence and solitary electric guitar, Young’s “Ohio” still seared into memories of the Vietnam war-era killing of four Kent State University student protesters by National Guard members.

Of course, Farm Aid always provides the salve of Willie Nelson to top off even reopened psychic wounds, and to send everyone home buzzed on musical vibe. That’s from toking up on ol’ Willie, twirling his smoky, behind-the-beat phrasing around another blessedly-crafted song. His concert-closing set ranged from tough blues-rock led by son Lukas, to reggae rhythms, to “one for Waylon.” On cue, all the headliners joined onstage to sing “Good-Hearted Woman,” a comfortable-as-worn-blue-jeans song by Nelson’s fellow progressive-country “outlaw,” the late, great Waylon Jennings.

Concert epics like this don’t get much more golden.

It was well after 11 p.m. and co-sponsor Direct TV had been telecasting the concert since Mraz’s set at 5, so one hoped the ideals and passion of this extraordinarily well-conceived and executed effort may spread like the winds of change, rather than like locusts or chemical farming-borne disease.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, long may Farm Aid run.

_______________

This review was originally published in YourNews.com, Madison edition

For videos about the Milwaukee event, go to www.farmaid.org.)

In a new biography, hip-hop artist Klassik emerges transcendently talented, but still rooted, a native son of Milwaukee

Book review: The Milwaukeean: A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph by Joey Grihalva

Joey Grihalva will present SONSET — a book reading by the author and solo improv by Klassik — for The Milwaukeean, at a new venue, forMartha, 825 E. Center Street, from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday. The event will follow the Center Street Daze street festival. Cover is $10, or $25 with book.

Is a thirty-ish hip-hopper with only regional renown worthy of a biography? In his new book about Klassik (Kellen Abston), author Joey Grihalva forges, in effect, a freshly painted, still-mutating portrait of a creative man, of Milwaukee and of contemporary times, with all the urgency and potential for tragedy and agency that all implies. In that sense, Klassik emerges as a comparatively humble embodiment of a Black Milwaukeean, even as he manifests genius that might characterize the city. The painfully enlightened and haunted saga – he watched his father die of bullet wounds at age 11 – bends toward the arc of triumph, if justice remains elusive.

The victory comes, in one sense, because the personal is still political. Klassik is one of many who’ve grown as the art of hip hop has grown – fitfully, defiantly, and dynamically – to where Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. If there’s a connection, Klassik has much more in common with Lamar’s 2015 jazzy masterwork To Pimp a Butterfly than with Lamar’s ensuing album Damn.

It might also be the cultural difference between Compton, California and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Maybe, ultra-hipness vs. a kind of ultra-hopeness? As in “keep hope alive.” As this book reveals, Klassik’s deep troubled history with, and vision of his hometown, sets him apart. It’s partly why he’s watched many Milwaukee area rap artists become bigger names than him.

Standing over his hometown’s skyline, Kellen “Klassik” Abston says he thinks of Milwaukee as a character more than a place. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 

That does not mean they’re better. That’s why, among increasingly aware Midwesterners, Klassik is as essentially Milwaukee as contemporary hip-hop gets. Grihalva captures a nearly lost Midwestern bonhomie, a pan-racial faith in humanity, hidden beneath the grime of post-industrialism and the crime of racism.

Klassik, who studied jazz saxophone with Milwaukee master Berkeley Fudge, was an early musical prodigy. To the degree he manifests his own filtered amalgam of jazz, classic R&B, and hip-hop, I hear and feel how much he makes good on the thoughtful presumption of his name, Klassik. His previous album, American Klassiks, demonstrated how he can reinvent classics of American vernacular musics, and make them present, alive for today and pointing a beacon forward, musically and spiritually. The artist in him won’t do it any other way.

“This is the problem with Kellen’s stuff – it’s too smart,” says his friend Jordan Lee, a DJ, and a former station director at 88/Nine Radio Milwaukee, who’s also a member of the jazz-hip-hop trio KASE, with whom Klassik as recorded and collaborated. 1 “It was never going to work at the beat battle,” referring to a competitive hip-hop event Lee produced from 2005 to 2015, known as the Miltown Beatdown, which brought together produces rappers, and hip-hop heads from all over the city.

Rather than always “on the beat,” that can be as delimiting as it is compulsively attractive, Klassik’s music unfolds with an almost Midwestern shapeliness, as if informed by the Kettle Moraine as much as by the staccato pulses of the urban environment. As a primal Klassik source, I’ve always heard the soul-praying-to-the-moon existential angst of Marvin Gaye, whom he shouts out on “Black-Spangled Banner,” on American Klassiks, recorded live late one night in Bay View’s Cactus Club.

Klassik’s expressive power dates back to, among other things, Marvin Gaye and the hauntings of his childhood. Courtesy IAMKLASSIK.com.

He’s also decidedly more improvisational than most hip-hop or pop. “Maybe it’s the jazz purist in me,” he muses to Grihalva. “When you think about live music and playing an instrument, even the most rehearsed and refined part has its own idiosyncrasies or little inflections that make it human. I’m making something, I’m adding layers and depth.” 2

Klassik performs at Pianofest, at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a few years ago. Singer Adekola Adedapo recalls, at age 10, Kellen played “Over the Rainbow,” on saxophone at a Heath Brothers jazz workshop at the Wisconsin Conservatory, one of the first discoveries of his talent. Photo courtesy JGCA

The book, a prime example of “new journalism,” is also the author’s own story, about his relationship to his subject and their shared hometown, “an eternal tie that binds.” Abston and Grihalva are virtual contemporaries and Grihalva teaches at Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts, which is Abston’s alma mater.

Part of Abston’s burden is that he feels he could have done more than simply freeze up, to possibly save his father from dying, and that, 20 years past, Robin Abston’s murder remains unsolved. That’s plenty to drive a young man to drink and drugs – a large part of his struggle, aside from his often-exquisite peculiarity as a young, gifted, and black man, within our race-obsessed culture. And yet he won’t leave Milwaukee, as partly a spiritual detective still on a homicide case grown cold for most others. His relationship with police is deep ambivalence, hardly hatred. But he’s also doing close investigation of his own identity, which messes with him, with ghosts of what he’s been, shouldn’t be, won’t be, and can be.

Klassik’s bling always includes the dog tags of his father, veteran Robin Abston, who was murdered 20 years ago, in a crime that remains unsolved. Courtesy Milwaukee Magazine

Ultimately the redemption and triumph of the story is the hard-earned wisdom that arises from it, in the experiences and voices of both author and subject, as well as a choir of street-sage homies. The way that choral mosaic enlightens the story, like a vast stain glass window, is Grihalva’s achievement, his crafting of a sense of authenticity by finding common cause with your roots. One of Klassik’s defining ventures into communal creativity was his key role, in the summer of 2016, in Milwaukee’s Strange Fruit Festival, named for the searing anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” popularized by Billie Holiday. The festival was spurred in response to two police killings of unarmed black men on back-to-back days: Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, killed in his car in St. Paul Minnesota.

“That was one of the first times where I felt pulled artistically, in terms of feeling a responsibility with my platform,” Kellen explained. “It heightened this desire to wield it, almost like a weapon, for good.” Kellen’s profile was rising, as he was performing in New York City during the first two nights of Strange Fruit. Kellen flew back to Milwaukee for the final night of the festival.

Then, that weekend’s Saturday afternoon, Milwaukee police shot and killed Sylville Smith in the Sherman Park neighborhood. The incident sparked riots that culminated in the burning of a gas station, a bank, and a beauty supply store, images seen on international news the next morning.

As for the festival, Kellen said, “Everybody was on their A-game…It was such an amazing event. You could tell everybody was there for the betterment of the community in whatever small or large way they could. And was just crazy timing that we had this festival amid the madness that ensued.” The event played again the next two years, and Abston wrote a manifesto for a potential relaunch of the festival, though it never got off the ground.

Much chaos and transformation has come down since then, the era of Trump and George Floyd, and Klassik has achieved a kind of personal-is-political triumph of textured passion on his last album QUIET, with assists from Milwaukee artists who’ve gone to greater renown, SistaStrings, the multi-talented singers-string-players, and folk-rock artist Marielle Alschwang, among others.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about protest in the form of joy, specifically Black joy,” Abston says. “With the new stuff I’m working on, there is this element of defiance in being happy and free. That’s like the most powerful thing you can do as a minority in this country.”

The power, he understands, also derives from accepting himself as a Milwaukeean, “The Milwaukeean.” He’s lucky to have a biographer as attuned as this one, who can tell his story so tenderly and beautifully. Abston reflects on the notion of faith: “If I hit a good note or I’m writing a good melody or these chords have a certain color or have the ability to stir up emotion from thin air, that’s magic. That’s God. It’s all those things. It’s being connected to something greater than ourselves.”

Almost two years ago to this day, he meets with Grihalva at Kilbourn Reservoir Park, which overlooks downtown where North Avenue curves into Riverwest. It’s one of his favorite places in the city. “I would go up to that hill over there when I was super-fucking depressed. I would just sit and cry, let it out and wipe them tears off. Then this warmth would come over me, especially at night. Something about the lights. It’s weird because it’s not a spectacular skyline. But it’s mine, you know?” He continues, “In all my videos, I’ve always thought of Milwaukee as a character, not a location.”

That idea of making a city a living, breathing character – a father figure? – seems to speak volumes about Klassik’s genius, as an archetypal son of a quintessential American city, in all its grit and glory, it’s patriarchal sorrow and shame, its defiant brotherhood and sisterhood.

________________

  1. Klassik’s most recent appearance on a recording is his largely wordless vocalizing on KASE + Klassik: Live at the Opera House, on B-Side Recordings.
  2. Grihalva’s previous book was Milwaukee Jazz, a photo history from Arcadia publishing’s Images of America series.

It may start in a small town but this movie’s heart grows as big as Milwaukee

In one of the toughest scenes in “Small Town Wisconsin,” alcoholic Wayne Sobierski, pounds down liquor while desperately searching for overnight accommodations for the night in Milwaukee. badfeelingmag.com

Small Town Wisconsin runs only through Tuesday, June 21, at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, but continues through Thursday at Marcus Theaters in Franklin, New Berlin, Delafield, and Saukville. For times and tickets: https://mkefilm.org/oriental-theatre/events/small-town-wisconsin 

Small Town Wisconsin is now available for purchase or rent on YouTube, here:

As was my mother, I consider myself something of a movie buff. As a professional arts journalist, I have only occasionally reviewed films, as I’ve worked for publications with designated film critics, per se.

But the new film Small Town Wisconsin hit me pretty hard, partly because it is a small-town Wisconsin story (my folks are from Two Rivers) that strives, like a salmon swimming upstream, towards a big spawning ground of dreams, the big city of Milwaukee Wisconsin (my hometown).

Director-turned-executive producer Alexander Payne understood the qualities he values in this film. He’s provided some of the richest indie-courting-the-mainstream films we’ve had in recent years: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and Downsizing. So, he produced Small Town, which was written by Jason Naczek and directed by Milwaukee-native Niels Mueller and has racked up a slew of film festival awards. I suspect Payne saw the heart he brings to all his films even though this, to my eyes is, more than his satires, among other things, a gentle poke at small-town manners.

Producer Payne is also an actor’s director, having elicited some of the finest roles of various actors’ careers, including Laura Dern, Bruce Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Oh, Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Will Forte, (Aaron Rodgers-ex-girlfriend) Shailene Woodley, and character actor June Squibb, among others. So, there’s the imprimatur.

The biggest name actor in Small Town Wisconsin is Kristin Johnson, the Emmy award-winning actress for Third Rock from The Sun.

What we have here is a sort of fish-out-of-water story, times two. The main character Wayne Stobierski (Daniel Sullivan) is slowly being reeled out of his comfort zone — as a failing divorced father virtually immersed in alcohol, literally kicking and screaming — up into the harsh reality of losing any custody of his adorable son, Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman). He seems basically a good guy and an extremely sympathetic character, but Wayne also has anger-management issues. So, it’s obvious to everyone how he’s floundering as a father.

Wayne’s only daily responsibility is to one goldfish, Buster, who also is symbolically forced out of his little water bowl simply by Wayne’s inebriated neglect. So, we fear Wayne will meet a similar fate, which hangs over the story. Point beer tall boys, with occasional whiskey shots at the local bowling alley bar, seem to be his primary fuel (the small town’s street scenes are in Palmyra).

So, the writer and director proceed to force Wayne up on a tight rope, in varying degrees of intoxication, with the poor schlep tottering between high-spirited comedy and utter pathos. Bowling scenes seem a variation on those of The Big Lebowski and provide the most notable cultural context for small-town Wisconsin — easygoing solo and team sport play to sustain folks through the state’s long, cold winters. The director strives for balanced political context by including cardboard cutouts of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton observing the bowling matches. Wayne’s comical lane mishaps extend to an offbeat scene of him driving around drunk with his bowling ball, another symbol of self-destructiveness.

It is only Wayne’s fundamental if dysfunctional decentness that persuades his ex-wife Diedra (Tanya Fischer), to warily allow him one last weekend with his son, on two conditions: that he explain to Tyler that he’ll be moving to Phoenix with her and her new husband, and that Wayne be accompanied by a chaperone, his best friend, Chuck (Bill Heck), an archetypal clean liver. Tyler clearly loves his father even though he realizes he’s an alcoholic and understands, at a basic level, what the word means.

Wayne struggles to break the news to his son Tyler — that the boy will be moving with his mother and stepfather to Arizona. wsaw.com

That relationship provides most of the film’s heart squeezing and tear-jerking which is, in my book, hard earned, but with golden aspects, like the humble luck of finding a great baseball card in a random gum pack and making hay with that card. In fact, Wayne shows his true colors by financing his last big bid for his son’s heart (and perhaps more) by selling his baseball card collection, including his Hank Aaron rookie card. Though he pitches the weekend to Deidra as a typically rustic fishing and camping outing, Wayne’s secret idea is grander: give Tyler something he’ll always remember his dad by, a trip to Milwaukee, and the boy’s first major league baseball game.

Indeed, it’s a small odyssey with one eloquent classical allusion. Wayne declares Milwaukee’s baseball stadium as what “the ancient Romans called a coliseum.” Wayne, a drinking-on-the-job car mechanic, plans a night or two in Milwaukee’s finest hotel the Pfister, and the big game, “Milwaukee versus Chicago” (curiously the Cubs and Brewers are never specifically named). Sullivan, and increasingly Heck and Johnson, carve out richly-textured characters. Chuck’s personal situation almost drives him to find some new solace, on this trip. They end up at the Milwaukee home of Wayne’s sister Alicia, played by Johnson in one of the most substantial and affecting roles of her career.

Despite all the things working against him, Wayne is lucky to have a sister like Alicia (Kristen Johnson).  screen daily

One curiosity is that a movie this excellent has only earned about 80% Rotten Tomatoes critics rating, though a 95% audience score. As I see no real flaws in it, I might only speculate that it was victimized by our cultural schism between rural and urban. Milwaukee itself is somewhat idealized and the movie provides a rich panorama of the city’s diverse virtues, including a Lake Michigan boat tour of the lovely cityside, a visit to Usinger’s sausage retail outlet, and an impulsive quest to the McMansion of ex-Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas. I must leave the wiggling storyline in the water at that. Suffice to say, sister is the better angel on bro’s shoulder, in a story of redemption as tough-minded as it is bighearted.

So, I wonder if those less taken by it adopt the small-town viewpoint, as defensive about the characterization of the lead as an alcoholic, with little apparent self-awareness. Of course, alcoholics exist in big cities at least as much, if not more, than small towns. And the film’s makers walk their own tight rope of avoiding precipitously heavy-footed political commentary.

After all, ex-wife Deidra, Chuck and Alicia are fully sober and reasonably intelligent. And Wayne himself, in his lucid moments, displays a distinct sensitivity, especially interacting with his son. Is there a small-town critique that isn’t only defensiveness, and is this the posture of dissenting critics? The movie strives also for an overriding cultural point: We need to start bridging the gap of rural and urban, red and blue, because our commonalities as Americans are quite evident and valuable in such things as baseball games, road trips, fishing and bowling, and the gratifying and heartbreaking dynamics of nuclear families.

To me, a film like this also allows us to see our humanity shorn of illusions created by politicians promising the moon and snookering those who desperately grab onto, what appears to them, the fading American dream. Facts and stats bear it out: Urban minorities still have much more to overcome in America.  Yet a film like Small Town Wisconsin suggests that even a decent white man, with black heroes, can lose his grip and must, at some point, do something other than blame others for his apparent fate.

A final symbolic pattern surfaces: Two people, who help open Wayne’s eyes in Milwaukee, are black. A third black person, with a “halo” for a name, grew up in Milwaukee, and shows him a possible way to a new start in life.

 

___________

 

How has capitalism worked out for you? Socialism is not a dirty word. Even less so is democratic socialism.

If a political novice like Donald Trump can become president, why not give a political novice, like New York Senate primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez –  with the energy, sharp intellect and vision of youth – a chance to apply her ideas about democratic socialism? We are, after all, a democratic society. Medium

Perhaps the most naked and time-worn example of American “anti-intellectualism” is the demonizing of the word “socialism.” Even some educated and seemingly thoughtful people instinctively react as if even the scent of socialism robs them of their precious liberties.

But the freedom capitalism promises – and now delivers so pathetically to “we the people” – is to empower or enrich persons or corporations in isolation, leaving distribution of wealth up to the enriched.

Yet in the United States, a person is almost invariably part of some community, if they admit it or not. Even a hard-working farmer, living perhaps a mile away from a neighbor, is sorely dependent on an economic system that runs fairly to compensate and support his labors. This means that a socio-economic system that balances the needs of individuals, as opposed to greedy wants, with the needs of the community makes sense. Why? Because trickle-down theories of capitalism rarely actually deliver to the people, whereas a social-minded system strives to assure the individual gets back something from the communal system.

I think a more socialist-oriented America can help redirect appropriate percentages of taxes on the rich, help close the terrible income equality gap, and stimulate the economy with greater consumer-spending power. Democratic socialism can co-exist with our capitalist system, in a dialectical tension, a check and balance, if citizens and our leaders do their jobs.

Bret Stevens, a conservative New York Times opinion columnist, reacted recently with condescending, patriarchal tone to the win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old newcomer to politics who beat out an old Democratic Party insider, Joseph Crowley, in New York’s senatorial primary, and who has captured the imagination of a lot of America. She’s a self-described “social democrat.”

Stevens then trots out examples of how a few socialist governments in Mexico and South Africa have been corrupted. In Europe, democracies have consistently strengthened or formed since World War II, based on socialist principles. But their current struggles with reactionary politics are due to mainly to massive refugee flight from wars elsewhere. The problem isn’t the democratic socialism of, for example, Germany where, despite her challenges, chancellor Angela Merkel is now, in effect, the leader of the free world, now that President Trump his virtually abdicated such a role, with his anti-allies and pro-dictatorial perversities.

His disgraceful post-Summit press conference performance beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday is only the latest (and perhaps the worst) example.

It’s true that any political system can be corrupted. That is why democracy can never be a spectator sport, and part of the people’s role is remain vigilant about keeping our politicians honest. And Mr. Stevens, what about the gross corruptions that capitalism has wrought, time after time after time? We live in one of the worst ever –  the reason why American people across much of the political spectrum want meaningful change, not the same old same old. 1

More in America’s societal key, Stevens sings the grindingly tired “left-center-right” song that has not an ounce of intellectual creativity in it:

“If Trump is the new Nixon, the right way to oppose him isn’t to summon the ghost of George McGovern. Try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change: working-class affect, middle-class politics, upper-class aspirations.” 

First of all, Trump is proving far worse than Nixon, who at least had intelligence for political and policy nuance, and a sense of shame. And Nixon actually accomplished some policies that provided ordinary people social and economic benefit, unlike anything Trump has done. And summoning “the ghost of George McGovern” is lamely poking at a straw man.

As for what we should agree on, we do need finally “working-class affect, middle-class politics,” and even “upper-class aspirations.” Those are all things that a well-run government that functions for general societal benefit can provide, with good faith and creative collaboration. You might notice how Stevens’ historical cherry-picking ignores the historic elephant in the room, the most relevant history in modern America. Of course, that’s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which produced the most successful and extended period of across-the-board prosperity in American history.

As John Nichols points out in his history of American socialism, Roosevelt “drew inspiration from the platforms of the Socialist party that (Eugene) Debs handed off to Norman Thomas. But Roosevelt, a lifelong reader of (Thomas) Paine quoted the pamphleteer’s fireside chats (‘So spoke Americans in the year 1776. So speak Americans today!’) borrowed at least as much from the distant revolutionary’s canon.” 2

We know that when social-minded policy is put on the table, conservatives often start bleating about profligate hand-outs to the needy. However, thinking of American farmers, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice”:

“But it is justice, and not charity, that is the principle of the plan. In all great cases it is necessary to have a principle more universally active than charity; and with respect to justice, it ought not to be left the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not… It ought to be the act of the whole growing spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution, and the reputation of it ought to be national and not individual.” 3

I want to draw an arc from Thomas Paine to the New Deal more pointedly, to one of the most explicitly acclaimed examples of socialist success in American history – in Milwaukee – which Nichols details in his book. But it was a column on this very topic this week by Shepherd Express writer Joel McNally which actually inspired this blog.

The longtime journalist has also taught a class on urban history of Milwaukee at UW-Milwaukee. His column notes the swelling energy and activism begat by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and concisely delineates how the three consecutive Socialist mayors of Milwaukee, from 1910 to the 1960s, succeeded.

McNally explains that “there is a reason why young activists don’t consider socialism to be a scary word. They’re well-educated.” McNally then demarcates a history he taught his students, about what he calls “Milwaukee’s Socialist example.” The city’s three socialist mayors over that time were Emile Seidel (1910-1912); Daniel Hoan (1916-1940); and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960). The first, Seidel, helped clean up Mayor David Rose’s corrupt government, and Zeidler lives on as far more than a historical entity to those old enough to have witnessed his successful mayoral terms.

“But it was Hoan – the crusading socialist city attorney left standing after the 1912 purge of socialists who was elected mayor in 1916 and held the office for the next 24 years – who defined lasting contributions of Democratic Socialists to democracy itself,” McNally writes.

Socialist Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan on the cover of TIME magazine in 1936. Courtesy TIME

Daniel Hoan was so successful with a socialist Milwaukee government that he was “recognized nationally for its sound financial management while expanding public employment for those out of work.” The New York Times praised Hoan in December 1931, two years after the stock market crash of 1929, for paying its bills, delivering unemployment relief to hundreds of thousands, “and at the end of the year will have about $ 4 million in the bank.”

And TIME magazine, run by conservative Republican publisher Henry Luce, put Hoan on its cover in April 1936, reporting: “Under him, Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the US.”

McNally then describes how, despite The Democratic Party’s successful undermining of The Socialist Party, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt  “used public employment, unemployment benefits and other social safety net programs to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and become the most popular president in history.”
Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid,  Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act similarly are socialist programs, McNally notes.

“It’s as American as apple pie to elect a bright, new generation of Democratic Socialists. They’re fighting to preserve the American ideal of sharing the economic benefits of democracy with everyone, not just the wealthy.” 4

And we’re likely better off with more women public servants, like Ocasio-Cortez, baking America’s apple pie, because they’re often more skilled and experienced in the societal kitchen than men, and know how to slice and distribute the pies, to Make America Socially Equitable Again. How great would that America be?

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1 Bret Stevens,

“Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/06/opinion/democratic-socialism-alexandria-ocasio-cortez.html, The New York Times, July 6, 2018

2. John Nichols, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, Verso, 2011, 46

3. Nichols, quoting Thomas Paine in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, 50

4. Joel McNally, Democratic Socialists Aren’t Demons; They’re Just Energized Democrats, The Shepherd Express, July 12-18, p. 10, 2018