The Astral Log

10 May 2016

The West Virginia Presidential Primary

Filed under: The World In Which We Live, US-West Virginia — Andrew T. @ 23:00

Spend ETERNITY in West Virginia!

As you may have heard, Bernie Sanders won the presidential primary election in West Virginia. You might also be wondering why on earth a Jewish self-described democratic socialist could make headway in an small-minded, bigoted strip mine of a state that pulled for Mitt Romney in every single fucking county in 2012; where politicians routinely brag about being more conservative and more Jesus-soaked than their opponents, any concession towards environmentalism or a diversified economy is assaulted as a "war on coal," and almost every one of Sanders' financial and social policy points is unmentionable anathema.

I was born in West Virginia, I lived the first 22 years of my life there, and I feel qualified to comment about the state, its problems, and its peculiarities. The state is extremely rural and isolating. Most people regard church as their sole avenue of social interaction. People like the things that they're used to, and are extremely hostile about anything that challenges their 1950s-era preconceptions about the world. White people run the country, queers and atheists don't exist, coal seams will always be there to be mined, and you'll burn in hell if you disagree.

For decades, the Democratic Party dominated sub-national politics in the state...largely due to inertia; though also due to an older generation that remembered West Virginia's labor history and the corrosive effect that Republican policies have on human lives. Suffice to say, there's little of that generation left...and the shift in party identity among racist white conservatives that began with Nixon's Southern Strategy of 1968 has taken hold here, too. The Christian-nationalist Republican party now holds all three of West Virginia's congressional seats, the state Senate, and the House of Delegates.

Every change in West Virginia happens a little slower than in other states, though. Through the duration of the state's period of Democratic Party dominance (1932-2014), most critical elections happened at the primary level. West Virginia also has a semi-closed primary system, and changing party affiliations is cumbersome. Thus, it was advantageous for voters to register themselves as Democrats...even among staunch conservative people who would be Republican fringe in any northern state.

What this means is that many or most Democrats in West Virginia aren't liberal, and don't support the national Democratic Party. They didn't support the party in 2000, when they directly made George W. Bush President of the United States. Since 2008, every Democratic presidential primary result has been an act of spite: They voted for Hillary Clinton in 2008, when Barack Obama ran a superior campaign and was close to clinching the nomination. In 2012, almost half the state voted for a convicted felon as a protest vote for no reason other than to spite President Obama. And in 2016, they voted for Bernie Sanders.

For all his "socialist" credentials, Bernie Sanders' campaign has quite a few flaws. He responds to questions with vague generalities, not plans that can be implemented. He's done a poor job courting nonwhite voters. His view on gun safety (or the lack thereof, as people die) is a colossal blind spot. His ability to enact progressive legislation is contingent upon Democratic control of Congress, yet he refuses to raise funds for downlevel elections. He parrots right-wing talking points against his primary competitor. Six months ago, I was a Sanders fan...but over the last six months, Sanders' campaign has become so contradictory and corrosive that it's made my head spin.

As all this raged, Hillary Clinton supported Democratic congressional and state-level candidates, withstood adversity, and courted the diverse coalition that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. She's outlined plans to support clean energy and combat anthropogenic climate change. She's also attracted more than 2.7 million votes more than Sanders, she's the stronger and most electable candidate, and is well on her way to clinching the Democratic nomination.

West Virginia Democratic-registered voters aren't voting for Sanders because they expect him or want him to be President. They're voting for him because he's the weaker and less electable candidate. They want him to lose...because they've already made up their mind and the man they want to be president is Donald Trump. They want to vote for a man who plans to track and label Muslims in a Nazi-style database. They want to vote for a man who brands Mexicans as "rapists" and yearns for a wall along the border paid out of Mexico's pocket. They want to vote for a man who incites hatred and racial violence at his rallies. They want to vote for a man who earns endorsements from white nationalists...and reciprocates by selecting white nationalists as delegates. They want to vote for the frontrunner in the Republican Party...who embraces and crystallizes every position Republicans have strove to endorse in the last 50 years, and who epitomizes everything that is insidious and evil about mankind.

And that, in conclusion, is my two cents on the West Virginia primary.

29 February 2016

Back to License Plates Once More

Filed under: License Plates, The World In Which We Live, US-Illinois — Andrew T. @ 08:00

My license plate collecting interest waxes, wanes, and shifts. I find it impossible to be enthusiastic about the license plates of a state unless I'm enthusiastic about the state...and any last vestige of enthusiasm for Wisconsin was torched and burned when my adversaries spent three times handing the state to Governor Voldemort for the kill.

It had been a very long time since I had last attended a regional plate meet...since September 2014, to be precise. But when an invitation appeared on the license plate collectors' listserv to attend "the largest MAPA meet ever" in the northern Illinois map-speck of Peotone, I figured...why not? After all, it would be a chance to get out of town, showcase a display, be around people with similar interests, and find a few things for the themed runs I've been trying to put together. Right?

This is what a plate meet looks like.

I pulled myself out of bed at a ridiculous hour (4:20 in the morning) and pointed the car in a direction somewhere between Chicago and Kankakee. The temperature hovered around the zero mark (in the sensible Celsius system), with no snow visible until I was south of the Windy City. After three and a half hours, I was there...just in time to find people rushing into the building and snapping up all the closest tables before the "official" 8 a.m. opening time had even begun.

I lugged my two-panel display out of the back of the car and set it upright so that I could free my hands and fetch something else. Suddenly there was a gust of wind, and...CRASH! The display landed face-down on the pavement. Fortunately the license plates on it were little-damaged, suggesting that my decision to overbuild the display with thick rubber washers and protruding sheet-metal screws wasn't in vain.

Andrew in Illinois

To make myself easier to spot, I had dressed in a bright green T-shirt and bright green shoelaces. I wound up back-to-back with Roy Michalik, a collector from Michigan who outdid me in both wardrobe (his was a bright pink T-shirt) and travel distance. A third collector admitted to actually driving overnight to get to Illinois from Virginia; a sleepless shot from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. It wasn’t fun getting up at 4:20 in the morning, but the tenacity that other collectors have in getting to their destinations continually surprises me.

What else went on? I was able to plug the most embarrassing hole in my Marriage Equality Run (Illinois) and found a few ancillary things to work into the birthyear collection. I was tormented by an equal number of near misses; including Nebraska and Ohio plates with expirations one month off from the DOMA strike-down of June 2015 and an Iowa that was three off from containing my ALPCA number. Unfortunately, close only counts in horseshoes. It only took an hour for me to comb through all the tables and traders ("largest meet" pronouncements notwithstanding), and by lunchtime, it was over.

The silver lining of the day? I actually sold license plates at this meet; enough of them to more than offset my admission fee and travel expenses. I don't know if I'll come back to Peotone, but maybe I should dress in bright green more often.

Wallace should stay dead

While I was there, one attendee went on a minute-long rant about her contempt for the poor and how much she hated the homeless and jobless people who beg for food on the streets of her city in Wisconsin: It's people like her who vote for Walker, applaud his sadistic food-stamp cuts, and measure the worth of politicians by the amount of cruelty they can inflict on "undesirable" demographics. A second collector made the point of sticking a "NOBAMA" bumper sticker prominently to the side of his trade box...a personal affront, considering that the target of his vitriol has done more to support my health and civil rights as a queer guy than any president in history. A third person was selling memorabilia from the 1968 presidential campaign of George Wallace...the opportunistic Alabama asshole responsible for the quote "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Multiple cars in the parking lot were bearing obnoxious license plates emblazoned with the exclusionary "In God We Trust" slogan; whether from Indiana, Missouri, or my unwilling home state of Wisconsin. There were no Confederate flags this time, but just about all the other squares on my "angry white Christian bigot" bingo card were filled in by the end of the event.

With an atmosphere like this, I question why I bother being involved in the license plate collecting community at all.

23 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 6: Border Hell

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest, The World In Which We Live — Andrew T. @ 23:44

My time in Canada may have been four days of bliss...but I'm an American citizen, I live in the U.S., and I had to get over a little something called an "international boundary" before I could have the pleasure of returning home. There was one tip ingrained in my mind: Do what they say, and ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. The truth might be awkward, but lying is worse. If you lie at a border crossing and they find out, you might never be allowed to cross.

Weeks before when I was planning out my trip step by step, my relatives tried to ease my concerns about the border crossing by giving me reassurance: "It's a busy crossing, so there will be lots of cars. They can see your Wisconsin plates; they know you're an American citizen coming home; they won't ask many questions. They want to get people through as fast as possible." Bullshit. Maybe that was true in the halcyon days of the 1990s (pre "war on terror" et al), but it isn't true any more.

The border crossing near Pembina, North Dakota was about six lanes across, and there was not a single other car anywhere in sight. I rolled up in my red car, sticking out from the grey scenery as conspicuously as a sore thumb. That was probably strike number one arousing attention for myself. I rolled my window down and flubbed the next line. That was probably strike number two. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Good mor...uh, afternoon. How are you today?"
Agent: "Your identification?"
I hand over my passport. No surprises so far, though I resent how the days of getting by with a driver's license are over for good.

Agent: "Where are you coming from?"
Me: "Winnipeg."
Agent: "How long have you been out of the country?"
Me: "Four days."
Agent: "When was the last time you were previously in Canada?"
Me: "The summer of...uh, 2002." In all honesty, it had been far too long.
The invasiveness begins. Still no surprises about the questions, though.
Agent: "Where were you staying?"
I give them the name of the hotel I had checked out of earlier that day.
Agent: "Why were you in Canada?"
Me: "I was on vacation, sightseeing and attending a conference."
Agent: "What conference was it?"
Me: "It was the River City Reason Fest conference."
Agent: "What kind of conference is that?"
Me: "It was on the topic of...uh, secular issues and current events." I feel red-hot...I'm in rural North Dakota, and I feel on the verge of having to defend my godlessness to an unsympathetic ear. The conversation turns on a dime, though...and the agent starts delving into topics I hadn't rehearsed for.

Agent: "What is your employer?"
I tell her.
Agent: "What were you doing in Canada for your employer?"
Me: "Nothing. This wasn't a trip for work, it was a trip for pleasure." Oh, but the agent keeps on digging...
Agent: "Where did you go to school?"
I fail to see what this had to do with anything...after all, I've tried to banish memories of my school experiences from my present life...but I knew what to do: ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. I spill the beans about my West Virginia high school and college days.

Agent: "Is this the usual port of entry that you cross at?"
Me: "Since I cross the border so infrequently, I don't really have a usual port. I actually came into Canada at the next crossing west because I was sightseeing in that area." That was probably strike number three, and it was my own fault: Never volunteer information at a border crossing unless explicitly asked. Coming back a different way from which you leave is a red flag of its own, though.
Agent: "How much money are you bringing into the U.S.?"
Me: "U.S. or Canadian?"
Agent: "Both."
I rifle through my wallet and count everything up. It isn't much...probably about $60 in all.
Agent: "Do you have any medications with you?"
Me: "A little cortisone for my rash" I say, pointing to a reddish patch on my palm. Never mind, that was probably strike number four.
Agent: "Are you returning with any goods you did not have when you left?"
Me: "Just five T-shirts," I say, holding up my palm with five fingers outstretched. Strike number five was more like it. The amount I paid for the shirts was well under my personal exemption and I had receipts, so I had nothing to fear. Or did I?

Agent. "Proceed to Garage 1. Your ID will be returned to you there."

Proceed to Garage 1? What was that supposed to mean? Were they going to open the rear hatch and let me go on my way, which was the most that happened crossing into Canada and the most I experienced in the summer of 2002? Never mind, I was to do what they said; they were still holding my passport, after all.

I pulled in. Agents swarmed around, and gave me orders. "Exit the car and empty the contents of your pockets. Leave any digital devices in the car." I reluctantly leave my digital camera on the car seat and dig through my pockets...the prospect of being searched hadn't even occurred to me when I had put things in them. I pull out my keys, wallet, and every scrap of paper I was carrying around with me, and lay it on a tray. The interrogation begins.

"What were you doing in Canada?" I tell them. "What are you bringing in with you?" I tell them. "How much money are you bringing into the U.S.?" Hadn't we gone through all of this already?

Then we got to the paper items, and tension builds. "What's this?" "That's just a hotel bill." "What are these?" "Those are the receipts for the T-shirts I mentioned earlier." They weren't interested in looking at them, though.

"What's this?" the agent says, pulling out a piece of scratch paper covered by addresses for everything from gay bars to Safeway stores. I turn red. "That's a list of tourist attractions in Winnipeg I was planning on visiting." "What were the places that you visited?" "May I take a look at the list?" "You don't remember?!"

I borrow the piece of paper and start going over some of the places I visited and some I wanted to but didn't...the Museum for Human Rights, the Mulvey Flea Market, the University of Manitoba, the Assiniboine Park Zoo, the Royal Canadian Mint. Twenty seconds later the issue is diffused, but a stink is in the air.

"Wait in this room," an agent says, guiding me to a detainment chamber bounded by bulletin boards and wired glass. I looked out through the window. My car was opened. The interior was searched and scrutinized. My suitcase was removed, and its contents removed and sorted through one by one. My backpack was removed, and its contents removed and sorted through one by one. The agents picked through my bag of dirty underwear and flipped through the pages of every paperback book. They found the pad of paper on which I had been writing my streams of consciousness during the trip and seemingly stared at it for minutes on end, flipping through every page and going over every line.

I lost track of the time...the wait might have been 20 minutes, it might have been 40. Was I going to be kept there for hours on end? Were they going to photocopy every page in my travelogue diary and forward them to the FBI to put in my "un-American activities" file? Were they going to confiscate my property? Were they going to let me into the country at all? There was nothing I could do but stare, whimper, and grimace, wondering what would become of me. Until suddenly, the door opened. "You can go now. Your passport is on the dashboard of the car."

"Is everything repacked in my car?" "Yes." I pulled over as soon afterward as I could, and confirmed: My car had been repacked and nothing had been taken, although everything had been repacked in a different place from where I had left it and the whole exercise felt like a violation.

Entering the United States in this day and age is like entering the Iron Curtain. Is this the new normal since the people of West Virginia enabled George W. Bush to create a police state under the 49th parallel?

The scariest take-away about my experience is that it could have easily been even worse. What if I had resisted during the interrogation? What if I had brought my laptop with me, and the agents insisted on checking or confiscating that? What if I had been an ethnic minority instead of a white cis-man? The possibilities and consequences make me shudder.

16 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 5: Human Rights

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest, The World In Which We Live — Andrew T. @ 01:08

Shortly after Stephanie's presentation the day before, one of the leaders of HA²M came up before the stage and commented that the group had a "commitment to diversity." A commitment to a cause is an encouraging thing to hear, but it needs to be put into action in order to be credible. Some of the chatter I heard in the back channel suggested that the speakers were disproportionately white and didn't reflect the true diversity of Winnipeg. One point that I thought stuck out was that although this was a Canadian conference with an overwhelmingly Canadian audience, over half of the speakers were American. I did have a good time at the conference, met a number of great people and new friends, and felt fortunate to be there...but in the interest of questioning and seeking betterment in everything, I wonder if it could be improved.

The post-conference period was spent sightseeing and looking for hidden treasures. I visited two indoor flea markets that an acquaintance suggested might be good places to find old license plates. Alas, it was not to be. Some nut at one had hoisted the Gadsden Flag in his booth, and the only plates I found at the other were overpriced examples surrounded by crucifix, hunting, and neo-Confederate paraphernalia. Very doubtful.

To wash away the experience, I headed downtown. The Esplanade Riel is a cable-stayed footbridge over the Red River that opened in 2003. It's unapologetically modernist, and leaves a terrific visual impact from any angle.

Near the west abutment of the bridge lies the Citizen Garden, covered in thousands of tiny
blue flags decorated with peoples' faces. My initial reaction was pensive: Was this the memorial to some tragedy, like so many installations in the States? No: It was a celebration of life and optimism in the present day. Each flag represented a real person in Winnipeg...2015 of them in all...and their thoughts on what was "cool;" simple as that.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights completed the dramatic aura of the vicinity. It had opened almost exactly one year to the day before, in September of 2014.

Underneath the complex, irregular exterior lies an interior of spiraling corridors and labyrinths that slowly wind their way to a glass observation tower at the very top. Many of the interior spaces are open above, with courtyards visible across many levels. There are artifacts, information, and multimedia exhibits on subjects ranging from individual achievements to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The staff simultaneously say "hello" and "bonjour," in a nod to Canada's multilingualism.

The museum's scope and limitations have been debated, and almost inevitably been mired in controversy...and I wouldn't doubt that there are human rights atrocities going on that didn't warrant a mention in its walls.

Nevertheless, the museum packs an emotional wallop. It reminded me how the human right of universal healthcare is taken for granted in most countries of the world...yet denied in mine. It continually reminded me that I'm livid that my own neighbors and family have rolled back and eliminated labor rights, gay rights, and women's rights south of the border in Wisconsin and Michigan, and I'm livid that a white-supremacist, Christian-nationalist ideological cult is revered as a major political party by almost half the voters in the USA.

The Holocaust exhibit was prominent, and especially poignant. Of the photographs on display, two were particularly eerie as they represented scenes of concurrent, "ordinary" German life: One was of a commercial building partially covered in national flags (i.e., Nazi banners) and posters promoting the national leader (i.e., Hitler). Another was a picture of a young girl on a street corner, making a Nazi salute in tandem with the adults that surrounded her. Had my own family been displaced into Germany, I have little doubt that my own grandmother or grandfather would have been the girl in that position...going with the flow, obligingly supporting the ruling party without giving critical thought as to her neighbors disappear.

What else was poignant? Take some policy points, for one: Disenfranchisement and the withdrawal of political power...union textbooks being rewritten to reflect a racist, Christianist point of view? That's the Deutsches Reich in the 1930s...and it's also the United States of America in the year 2015.

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