youtube.com – posted by jdsamford
THOSE CRAAAAAZY ACADEMICS!
Another day in academia, another twist in the bizarre world of identity studies. The Center for the Study of Sexual Culture at the University of California, Berkeley, is presenting a talk next week on “Queering Agriculture,” dedicated to the proposition that “it is absolutely crucial queer and transgender studies begin to deal more seriously with the subject of agriculture.”
Queer theory has taken over student life on many campuses. Now that gay identity has been thoroughly institutionalized, declaring oneself “trans*,” “genderqueer,” “pangender,” or any of the other rapidly multiplying alternative sexes has become the last frontier of self-engrossed agitation available to students. But apart from the odoriferous leavings of female ginko trees, the “problem” of gender and plants did not seem to be a pressing one, making the application of queer theory to agriculture an innovation that even the most dogged observers of identity studies might not have seen coming. The talk’s presenter, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at the University of Maryland, will allegedly show that “the growing popularity of sustainable food is laden with anthroheterocentric assumptions of the ‘good life’ coupled with idealized images and ideas of the American farm, and gender, radicalized and normative standards of health, family, and nation.”
Is it possible that beneath this stale rhetoric of High Theory lies a healthy skepticism toward the hypocrisies of modern environmentalism? Perhaps, but it is as likely that the lecture will simply impose the jargon of queer studies onto a pseudo-Marxist critique of agriculture and a debunking caricature of the traditional family. Presenter Bailey Kier is a typical product of the modern-day humanities department: he (if that is an acceptable term) has spent so much time researching “queer ecologies” that he appears to have largely missed out on grammar and style. The lecture description is pervaded by such infelicities of language as “the manipulation of reproduction and sexuality are a foundation of agriculture.” No one at the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture noticed these errors, either, because immersion in High Theory has crowded out exposure to the normal workings of the English language.
“Queering Agriculture” looks rigorously empirical, however, compared with other lectures sponsored by the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture. Next month, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University will be presenting on “Race, Sexuality and Affective Heredity before the Gene.” The prospectus explains:
Theorizing “impressibility” as a nineteenth-century keyword linking race and sexuality, the talk explores how scientists, reformers, and writers alike saw themselves as working in concert with a neurobiological substrate that they conceived of as, in its ideal form, fluid, malleable, and forever in dynamic exchange with surrounding bodies, objects, and forces. . . . The talk’s investigation of the pre-determinist materiality of the body provides an important perspective on the biopolitics of affect and the stakes of feminist materialisms.
People outside the academy still do not grasp that such discourse doesn’t represent some eccentric backwater within the university—it lies at the very core of today’s humanities. It’s the serious, selfless study of human creation that is now at the margins, fighting for survival. And the identity-studies worldview doesn’t stay put.
New York’s leftist mayor, the supremely self-confident Bill de Blasio, has of late been promoting his agenda for eradicating economic inequality—a mission he believes to be fully in line with his powers as mayor. Compared with such academic irrelevancies as “feminist materialisms,” de Blasio’s predictable list of income-redistributing and market–manipulating measures seems almost refreshingly down-to-earth. But in fact, de Blasio’s political world is intimately related to the academic hothouse. His ongoing argument that the police are the greatest threat facing young black males today is of a piece with academic racial victimology; it’s a virtual certainty that his administration is rife with gender-studies and critical-race theory graduates.
The current political debate about how to make college more affordable proceeds in blind ignorance of the actual content of college courses. University presidents are expert at presenting a reassuring, normal face to the outside world, pretending that their institutions are all about practical knowledge creation and the elevation of students’ future earnings (the latter function an improper goal for the university in any case). What needs to be understood is that the people running the humanities today are no longer the guardians of our culture, but its nemesis.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Rating: Some will be aware that today is the fifty-first anniversary of a musical singularity, for it was February 7, 1964 when The Beatles once boarded Pan Am Flight 101 to New York. However, as you’re about to find out, today itself is also a musical singularity. Why? Let’s just say it had to do with a certain J. Lennon esquire’s insistence that the band’s Boeing 707 fly over the Bermuda Triangle. Which means you’re about to get your hands on An Adventure To Pepperland Through Rhyme & Space – the epic 48-track double LP download documenting the consequences of an unscheduled detour through a rift in the space-time continuum by the Fab Four…to 1990s Brooklyn.
Having landed in hip-hop’s golden era, it seems the band set up and jammed in a makeshift studio with assorted rap legends. Which is when things got really trippy. And ill. In fact ill-trippy. Although, clearly, the Fab Four eventually got a ticket to ride back to ’64, the music forged in that time-out-of-time was thought to have been lost. Until now. This album reveals the band journeyed through the doors of perception much earlier than previously thought and worked with everyone from P.E. to Spoonie Gee, Tha Liks to Hieroglyphics and Large Professor to Salt n Pepa. Among others. Frankly, it’s a helter skelter ride from ‘mop-top hip-hop’ to ‘let it beats’ – or perhaps we should think of it as ‘blunted rappers mashed with drug-fried band’ which – after all – sounds much like an album title itself. There cannot be a single earthly reason for you not to turn on, tune in and download the music, the images, the ‘liner notes’ and the instrumentals below in assorted formats. Get on it! Soundcloud preview mix players below links…
Could the employee have fished 12 balls out of a fairly large bag, deflated each of them by two pounds, put them back into the bag, and exited the bathroom in roughly 90 seconds? That question will surely become the centerpiece of the next red state/blue state debate between folks who have determined that the Patriots have done something wrong and those who are staunchly defending the franchise.
Yay! (He asked me if I could give his family a ride to school today so he could stay in NYC and celebrate last night)
Starting in the fall, incoming Dartmouth students will be placed in one of six clusters of dormitories and will stay in their assigned clusters through their college years. Each “residential community” will organize social events and will have some resident faculty members and graduate students. The system, much like those used at Yale, Harvard and elsewhere, is an attempt at fostering communal ties.
Sometimes, the delicacy of the beat-sweetening in Tiger Beat On The Potomac is almost too adorable to bear. Here it is today, cuddling up to one of the most monstrous alleged humans of the century.
You're a Republican thinking of running for president. It's a dangerous world, and your foreign policy credentials are a little thin. Time to see Henry Kissinger. Scott Walker did it. So did Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. Rick Perry paid a visit in September - he even tweeted a photo to prove it. "It was an honor to speak with Dr. Kissinger today and hear his thoughts on America's foreign policy challenges," tweeted the then-Texas governor. Rubio has "met with Kissinger a couple of times in the past, and always appreciates his insights," says a spokesman for the Florida senator, adding that Rubio has been reading Kissinger's latest book, "World Order."
OK, so consorting with murderous war criminals has been a common go-to move for Republican candidates since Dick Cheney appointed himself vice-president and puppet master back in Aught-Aught. But even TBOTP has to admit there are certain large brown spots on the apple these guys are polishing. Watch how deftly these areas of rot get mentioned and then dismissed.
At 91 years old, the former secretary of state, national security adviser and intellectual-cum-celebrity has come to occupy a unique place in the foreign policy firmament. Though some historians blame him for countless deaths in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh, Kissinger is more revered than ever in Washington. He has become a Yoda-like figure, bestowing credibility and a statesman's aura to politicians of both parties, including ones who may not actually share his worldview.
Complete bullshit, this is.
Except in certain dead-assed precincts of the foreign policy establishment -- and in the mind of John McCain, but I repeat myself -- Kissinger hasn't been a "celebrity" since Studio 54 closed. (Whether he ever was an "intellectual" is at least up for debate.) And that "some historians blame him" dodge is priceless, but the list of Kissinger's depredations is incomplete. The writer forgot Chile, and East Timor, for starters. And it's not just "some historians," either. I guarantee you there are quite a few people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Chile, East Timor, and dozens of other countries, who were on the business end of Kissinger's genius, who do not feel all that kindly towards him, either. And, yes, there are a lot of Democrats who go to this aging lycanthrope for policy advice, too, just as the story says. (The part about Kissinger and Samantha Power at the baseball game is just too cute for words. Of course, had Kissinger been a Rwandan, he'd have been on the radio directing the mobs, or at least advising the people who were. Power should be careful with whom she goes to the ballpark.) The idea that Henry Kissinger is still considered an influential thinker by influential people is prima facie evidence of the moral bankruptcy of American foreign policy in the second half of the last century, and the beginning of this one. Just to put the "real" back in realpolitik, here's the invaluable National Security Archives file on Kissinger's meddling in Chile after the election of Salvador Allende, which made possible the coup that resulted in the death and torture of at least 10,000 Chileans under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. A taste:
At the height of Pinochet's repression in 1975, Secretary Kissinger met with the Chilean foreign minister, Admiral Patricio Carvajal. Instead of taking the opportunity to press the military regime to improve its human rights record, Kissinger opened the meeting by disparaging his own staff for putting the issue of human rights on the agenda. "I read the briefing paper for this meeting and it was nothing but Human Rights," he told Carvajal. "The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry. Because there are not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State."
An amoral sycophant with the instincts of a sociopath and the conscience of a thumbscrew. He should have rotted away his final decades in a cell somewhere. I don't expect a sense of history from TBOTP, where history is defined by yesterday's tweets. But, Jesus, people, even I know a criminal when I see one.
Bartender, a double Prestone, and see what the pundits in the back room will have.
Let me say this much in defense of the embattled fraternities of Dartmouth College: As a pledge during the winter of 2000, I was never forced to wade in a “kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen,” as one student claimed he did in a dismayingly viral 2012 Rolling Stone article titled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy.”
Oh, there were veritable oceans of bad beer. And, for some reason, everlasting brotherhood involved the ingestion of several Taco Bell gut-bombs in a freakishly short span of time, with predictable results. I am also pretty sure that I consumed a living goldfish. Reason, again, unclear. There was, near the end of the boozy affair, a pig that we pledges were forced to roast on a spit for the duration of a whole night. It was many years before I could eat barbecue again.
But at least there was no thrashing in the bodily effluvia of others. Or, if there was, I had enjoyed too much of Milwaukee’s Best to remember.
The fraternities of Dartmouth are proof that there is very much such a thing as bad publicity. To wit, holding a “ghetto party” (1998) or a Bloods and Crips party (2013). What parent can justify spending $50,000 a year for that? In 1999, the Gamma Delta Chi fraternity actually staged a “panty raid” at two sororities. This seemed hilarious to my still-teenage mind, the very stuff that made college the proverbial four best years of one’s life. It seems a lot closer to brute sexual aggression today.
Dartmouth’s current president, Philip J. Hanlon, was himself once a member of Alpha Delta, the fraternity on which Animal House is based. Hanlon—or “Juan Carlos,” to his onetime brothers—arrived on campus to assume the presidency in the midst of the fallout from the Rolling Stone article, along with other unflattering revelations about the legendary depravities of Webster Avenue’s frat row. After watching applications plummet, he spoke out last spring against a “culture where dangerous drinking has become the rule,” a refreshingly strong rebuke to the fraternities that have long controlled social life on campus.
Dartmouth is hardly an outlier in this respect, its notoriety replicated at virtually every college in the nation with a Greek system. Peggy R. Sanday, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who has extensively studied rape at fraternities, has written that these so-called brotherhoods often have a “superior status” because they are older and more numerous than sororities, which rarely hold parties. Fraternities relish their power, Sanday argues, fostering a culture “that makes sexual exploitation a condition of manhood.”
The evidence is on her side. Fraternity brothers are three times more likely than their nonaffiliated peers to commit rape, a 2007 study found. Greek houses are often the primary purveyors of alcohol on campus, which is involved in 89 percent of collegiate sexual assaults. Women are not guests at fraternity events but, as one Georgia Tech fraternity deems them, “rapebait.” An intelligent, accomplished young woman becomes a “girl” whose own will can easily be disregarded or subverted. Or, to borrow from the chant of a Yale fraternity, “No means yes, yes means anal.” And it is just as clear that fraternities exercise their “dark power” (to borrow a phrase from Caitlin Flanagan’s masterful plunge into the Greek abyss) over administrators who are supposed to monitor them. Of the 95 colleges being investigated by the federal government for the mishandling of sexual assault complaints, all but about a half-dozen boast an active Greek system.
Among those facing investigation is nearly half of the Ivy League: Dartmouth, Harvard and Brown. Yale isn’t on the list but was recently the subject of a similar probe. So was Princeton. Columbia, where a female student has taken to carrying a mattress around campus until her alleged rapist is expelled, is under investigation along with Barnard, its sister school. If these are the colleges that produce our leaders, it’s no wonder that so many Manhattan investment banks and Silicon Valley tech firms replicate the sexual politics of a fraternity basement on a Friday night. Same players, same rules. Impunity is a powerful drug, especially when laced with a dusting of silence.
To his credit, Hanlon appears unwilling to let the present state of affairs continue. Late last week, he released a plan, called “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” whose centerpiece is a ban on hard alcohol at the college, a bold measure predicated on his well-grounded belief that the consumption of liquor is inordinately responsible for the social ills plaguing Dartmouth. Hanlon is also moving to eliminate semester-long pledge terms, a sign that he intends to weaken the Greek houses. And he is instituting residential clusters, hoping students will choose to stay on campus instead of flocking to Webster Avenue.
Combined, these tough new rules may be enough to vitiate the Greek system and send the national media looking elsewhere for tawdry frathouse exposés. There will be a little less drinking; the next panty raid or ghetto party will be met with the summary expulsion of the responsible house. Alumni will praise Hanlon as the savior of Dartmouth and its U.S. News & World Report rankings. They will call him a moderate with a vision.
Moderation, though, is precisely the problem. The moment clearly calls for a national leader to articulate why fraternities, a vestige of the 19th century, have no business on a 21st century campus. Why boys can no longer just be boys. Someone who diagnoses campus sexual assault as an epidemic, not something perpetrated only by the occasional outlier. A president who can eloquently equate the treatment of female students today to that of Jewish and black students 50 years ago—a matter of moral principle, not administrative policy. Someone who is unafraid of phone calls from angry alumni.
While some colleges have already closed down their Greek houses, Dartmouth’s fraternities are among the best known in the country, often landing the school on lists of the nation’s frattiest colleges. Hanlon could trade in this notoriety, instead of merely disguising it, using the bully pulpit of an Ivy League presidency to boost similar frat-busting efforts across the nation.
Often, the Ancient Eight are accused of being self-interested institutions where one-percenters are minted and polished. Once in a while, though, these schools recognize that their prominence carries with it a greater responsibility. In the 1960s, for example, Yale’s patrician president Kingman Brewster Jr., declared that he would not “preside over a finishing school on Long Island Sound,” according to his biographer Geoffrey Kabaservice. Despite the chagrin of some hidebound Elis, he admitted women and welcomed greater numbers of Jews and minorities, thus announcing that a first-rate student could come from Harlem or Brooklyn, not just Hotchkiss or Dalton. Hanlon, who has the support of most alumni, could similarly become an agent of change, instead of merely playing a custodian of tradition.
My own sojourn on Webster Avenue lasted two years. I drifted from the house and, eventually, helped administrators de-recognize it over a crude internal publication that demeaned women. Some called me a traitor. And maybe they were right. But I distinctly remember the horror of one of the victims, a woman who had just learned that the men whom she considered friends had used her as a lascivious punch line. One of the offending newsletters, for example, had promised to reveal a brother’s “patented date rape techniques.”
This was a joke, I guess. I hope. But there is no place for it Dartmouth. There is no place for it at Florida State. There is no place for it anywhere.
Since 1993, architecture students at Alabama's Auburn University have designed and built striking, low-cost buildings through the renowned Rural Studio program. To participate, the students move off campus and across the state to rural western Alabama, where they work with clients in one of the nation's poorest regions. The program has resulted in dozens of structures that improve the lives of individuals and whole communities: an animal shelter, park facilities, a Boys and Girls Club, and a series of houses targeted to cost about $20,000.
And with 16 iterations of the 20K house now built, the studio is getting ready to bring some of the plans to market.
"It's a resource that could be used and replicated in rural communities, that could be affordable housing or supportive housing," says Katrina Van Valkenburgh, a managing director at CSH, a nonprofit focused on supportive housing. Her husband's work as an architect has resulted in the Chicago-based couple visiting the Rural Studio at least once a year for project reviews.
In 2005, students built the studio's first 20K house, designed with the goal that the cost for materials and labor would total no more than $20,000. (The cost of land is not factored into the budget.) This became an annual exercise.
"Each year, the studio would look at a previous version and figure out ways to improve upon it or challenge it," says Natalie Butts, the studio's manager of communications and the 20K program. They honed designs for sustainability, replicability, and cost. "It became a new mission for the studio to develop this project into a product that others can have access to," Butts says.
Rural Studio was then ready to move forward with three budget-friendly, one-bedroom house plans: Dave's, MacArthur's, and Joanne's. (Each home is named after the first client for whom it was built.) The studio shared the plans with Landon Bone Baker Architects in Chicago, who vetted them and ensured they conformed to building codes and standards.
The next step is for partners to field-test the designs. Rural Studio has talked to a variety of groups in the South about building them, including nonprofit housing corporations, parks and recreation departments, and an artist community. "We're interested in seeing how different groups respond to the plans based on their needs, their funding, their siting," Butts says. Three prototypes in the new product line will break ground shortly.
Rural Studio hopes to start selling the plans soon, although Butts can't say exactly when. The price hasn't been finalized, but the aim is to keep them highly affordable. Earlier 20K houses give us an idea what to expect: They'll be small (under 1,000 square feet) and reminiscent of traditional Southern shotgun houses, with gabled metal roofs and generous porches."Whether you're building it in Alabama or you're building it in Illinois, it'd still have the basic standards you'd be looking for."
"Some of the features of [the 20K house] … are particular to where it's been developed," Van Valkenburgh says. "Thinking about air movement and really warm summers, all of those kinds of pieces that come into play." She thinks the plans should prove adaptable to other regions, though. "Whether you're building it in Alabama or you're building it in Illinois, it'd still have the basic standards you'd be looking for ... and that makes a tremendous difference."
The 20K target is based on the smallest loan amount that a person living on Social Security could afford through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Section 502 rural housing loan program. It translates to a payment of about $100 a month. The $20,000 breaks down roughly as $12,000 for materials and $8,000 for labor and contractor profit. Rural Studio has asked Regions Bank to create a mortgage for the homes.The homes have involved more than 180,000 research hours—input that wouldn't be financially viable outside of an academic setting.
Because they're replicable, the new home plans could add an important new avenue for affordable housing in rural and even, one day, suburban and urban areas where land is not too expensive. Whereas trailers depreciate in value, these houses will better suited to becoming assets for low-income owners. And their benefits extend to the community, Van Valkenburgh says, by creating local construction jobs. "Trailers don't have that same piece. It doesn't impact the money where you live in the way that building does," she says.
"We could probably make houses that cost less money, honestly," says Rural Studio's associate director, Rusty Smith, who notes that the homes have involved more than 180,000 research hours—input that wouldn't be financially viable outside of an academic setting. "But the affordability of it is just one component which we don't compromise on. The dignity and nobility that we expect for a house is uncompromised as well."
This is an obituary for Guitar Center, a chain of big box musical instrument stores that was captured and infected by private equity during a national trend of greed and reckless expansionism in the late-1990s and early-2000s. The company started as a Los Angeles organ store, became a successful purveyor of guitars after the Beatles arrived in the United States, evolved into a national competitor over a period of decades, and shall finish, with sad poetry, as the symbol of everything dysfunctional about American corporate finance, management, and retail in the modern age. Its demise is really the end of a generation of business managers, illustrating how they lost their moral compass as well as any ability to lead individual companies or national economies into a stable, rational, prosperous future. This story will focus on the final days of this one company, but it is really about our painful transition to an economic system that obeys objective reality and serves people in a durable, holistic manner.
I have been tracking the evolution of this company for over a year now, and the evidence is incontrovertible: the corporate entity known as Guitar Center, Inc. is in the midst of irreversible collapse dynamics and will cease to hold its position as the industry leader in the short-term. In the mid-term, the company may cease to operate as a going concern and will be reduced to a group of trademarks, service marks and patents that will be sold to a buyer with considerably different plans for the company. Its days as the national industry leader are over.
I shall support my thesis with easily accessible public information, though I also possess considerable insights from industry insiders who prefer not to be named. The idea that this is a doomed entity which can only submerge deeper into dysfunction and, ultimately, oblivion is not widely held. The vast majority of the musical instrument industry exhibits what we intelligence analysts call “normalcy bias,” the attraction to a worldview that things are normal and will remain normal, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. People refer to Guitar Center as “too big to fail,” despite the fact that the firm shares absolutely no characteristics with companies that normally acquire that moniker, such as Citibank, ExxonMobil, or General Electric. They assume that another buyer will emerge to make a simple change of ownership behind the scenes without considering the financial complexities that make such a transaction nearly impossible. Most often, stakeholders in the musical instrument industry assume that the mechanics behind Guitar Center are more complex than they can easily grasp, and so they simple ignore the matter despite its potential impact. As a result, when I visited the NAMM Show in Anaheim, California only days ago, I found that the overwhelming majority of industry figures with whom I spoke spent very little time or energy on the critical analysis of a firm which represents 28% of the industry, a total $2.1 billion out of $7 billion. As a result, we can assume that few people will have contingency plans for potentially disruptive scenarios resulting from Guitar Center’s fate, but that is hardly unprecedented in the history of business. Reality does not need our permission to have its way with our destiny.
Moreover, the media which covers the musical instrument industry is deeply uncritical. Nearly everything I have read regarding the current situation has been either a regurgitation of corporate press releases or a subjective analysis riddled with factual errors and shallow knowledge of business in general and finance in particular. I am told that the tight budgets and intimate nature of the industry make some publishers afraid to engage with controversial subjects that might jeopardize a customer relationship. Either way, many industry professionals are basing their assessment of the market on dangerously incomplete information.
I am not going to provide a long-hand analysis of Guitar Center’s capital structure and every gruesome event in the company’s recent history; if you are so inclined, you may review my past work and browse Google.
A quick summary tells the tale of how close we are to the end, but first we should revisit the beginning. Guitar Center grew with the help of private equity firm Weston Presidio to become a national competitor and, eventually, a publicly-traded company. With the leadership of Marty Albertson, Larry Thomas, and others, the company continued to grow and prosper as a public company until leaders enlisted the help of Bain Capital to take the company private through massive leverage just prior to the largest financial crisis in a century. As you consider any of the other events associated with the present, this Original Sin of the past is the very root of the problem.
Private equity firms like Bain take mid-sized companies and pump them full of debt with the express intent of making them industry-dominating competitors, selling them to the stock market as a candidate for massive growth, and cashing in. To make this possible, private equity’s stake in the company is usually represented by “payment in kind” (PIK) notes, a type of bond that pays crushing interest – in this case 14.09% – but requires no cash outlay until the bond’s maturity. So that 14.09% is accruing, but it isn’t due for years, ideally after the company has been sold to what is often charmingly referred to as “the dumb money,” the retail investors who buy a stock without knowing the company’s true financial position. Before any of the company’s real problems are revealed, the private equity firm receives its payback in the form of stock, since PIK notes can be paid back in any medium of exchange. If all goes to plan, the stock price shoots up after the IPO and the PE firm makes a tidy profit – all in about three to five years.
Bain made two critical mistakes from which it cannot recover. First, it attempted to run this playbook on a company that had just done this very thing with Weston Presidio five years prior. Second, it did so just as the housing fraud and financial insanity which characterized the late 1990s and early 2000s nearly destroyed the U.S. dollar and left us with martial law. Every business maneuver that follows this initial error is too little, too late. Compound interest on debt is the strongest force in the universe, and retail has changed too much for any predictable corporate management technique to have a noticeable effect. The rest of this story is details.
To explain how close the company is to collapse, consider the following timeline:
December 2013: My blog post “Guitar Center and the End of Big Box Retail” goes unexpectedly viral just as GC management is negotiating with its creditors to deal with the fact that it does not expect to be able to honor its financial covenants in the near-term. In response, management claims that the firm is stronger than ever, that every single store is profitable, and that the $1.6 billion in debt with short-term liabilities of over $1 billion is manageable. The company has $25 million in cash going into the Christmas season. The Securities and Exchange Commission begins to investigate irregularities in how GC considers the interest on its bonds to be outside of expenses that would impact EBITDA.
March 2014: The company reaches an agreement with its largest bondholder, Ares Management, to exchange the latter’s PIK notes for equity. $401.8 million in PIK notes are retired in exchange for holding company preferred stock. In a statement by Standard & Poors, the agency expects to lower the corporate credit rating to “SD” which is “selective default” and considered tantamount to bankruptcy because it is a “distressed exchange” in which investors receive less than what they are promised.
April 2014: Bain and Ares offer the bond markets two new bonds to pay back existing bondholders, a $615 million offering of Senior Secured notes with a coupon of 6.5% maturing in 2019, and a $325 million offering of Senior Unsecured notes with a coupon of 9.625% maturing in 2020. These securities are purchased by institutional investors such as LeggMason, GoldmanSachs, and Prudential for their high-yield income funds which go to round out the assets of pension funds, ETFs and other, more conservative portfolios. They produce less than $50 million in free capital for Guitar Center and will still require an all-in coupon payment of around $35 million every six months. Guitar Center press officers attempt to portray this as a dramatic improvement of its financial situation in what is probably the best possible example of the Yiddish word “chutzpah.” Moody’s and Standard & Poors assess the company’s family rating as subprime and its unsecured bonds as junk, with outlook negative. Bond covenant analyses note that the restructuring will only produce enough free cash to pay for the interest on these instruments- there would still be little chance that the company could make strategic moves in the industry. This view assumes that business condition will remain the same or improve. If they get worse, all bets are off.
August 2014: Guitar Center secures a lease in the most expense real estate on earth – Times Square, Midtown Manhattan, New York. CFO Tim Martin claims that not only will this not be a drain on finances, they would make “a lot of money.” He also announces that then-CEO Mike Pratt’s “2020 Vision” was to achieve $3 billion in revenue in just five years – a 20% year-over-year growth in a slow-growing industry. The Times Square Guitar Center debut was accompanied by a 36-second video from the grand opening described as “a new gateway to hell,” featuring fifteen metal guitarists and three drummers playing nonsense simultaneously. It received 500,000 views in the first 48 hours.
November 2014: Guitar Center is forced to admit to bondholders that despite its promises to thrive from its new capital structure, its EBIDTA has slipped 35%, same store sales are down, and total revenue is flat. Secondary debt markets double the yield on its bonds overnight. Investors who committed to the bond months before are willing to take a 10-35% loss in a few short weeks rather than commit to the company’s future. CEO Mike Pratt resigns and is replaced by Darrell Webb, a retired executive whose most recent experience is as CEO of JoAnn Fabrics and the Sports Authority, two companies that also answer to private equity.
December 2014: Guitar Center fires Gene Joly, longtime executive and current president of the Musician’s Friend unit, two days before Christmas.
January 2015: Citing a bloated cost structure that keeps the company from achieving historical profitability, new CEO Darrell Webb fires 42 corporate executives, including the last remnant of Mike Pratt’s team, as well as 28 regional managers. Music Trades reports that the company is down to $10 million in available cash after Christmas.
The constant, smarmy mantra of impenetrability and infallibility has finally been dispelled. Their new executives have, at long last, ceased the comedy routine about how Guitar Center’s stores are always profitable no matter how many times Standard & Poor’s declares them technically in default, or that a billion dollar of debt is totally normal and wonderful and manageable. In a recent email, Webb explains the firings with the dry rationale of needing to be profitable, and foreshadowed that the company will “continue to seek efficiencies.” We seem to be hearing much less about that $3 billion in future revenue and much more about the jobs yet to be cut.
After all the noise, we are entering the final phase.
Nobody can manage this situation, much less lead the organization out of chaos. All reports indicate that Darrell Webb is not there to save a thing – he reportedly has less knowledge of the music business than the Canadian who was just warming his chair. You would think that if Ares Management was serious about saving this company, they would choose a younger, more innovative executive able to lead Guitar Center into a disruptive future, but instead they hired a man who wouldn’t know a Marshall Plexi from a nuclear submarine. I submit that Webb is the perfect choice for his likely mission: to lead the company into an orderly bankruptcy. Should the company achieve Chapter 11 reorganization instead of the final, fatal Chapter 7 liquidation, it must be on good terms with vendors and bondholders. They can lie to employees all they want, but accounts must be in order if there is to be value salvaged from this doomed structure. Thus, the new CEO has been chosen based on a cold-blooded ability to shuffle the books for private equity financiers, not for his ability to lead a musical instrument organization into a disruptive future.
I have already read analyses of Webb’s recruitment as a way for Ares to get somebody more capable of achieving “their” vision. This is a mass hallucination that stems from the old PR team’s attempt to recast the financial failure of 2014 as the addition of a smart, valuable partner with expertise in retail based on that company’s recent takeover of Neiman Marcus alongside their partners, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. Commenters in the musical instrument industry seem to understand little about Ares Management, a very large, serious firm that has, since taking equity in Guitar Center, gone public and engaged in a strategy that would put it more in the category of the JP MorganChases and GoldmanSachs of the world. There has not been a single public comment from an Ares employee since 2014 about the future vision for Guitar Center and I suspect that one does not exist. Go look through Ares’ quarterly reports and press releases and search for the word “guitar.” Perhaps that will provide a perspective on the relative importance of this transaction to a company with a much larger financial play in the works.
This is pure speculation, but given the size of their investment I imagine they see Guitar Center as a deal they made back in the mid-2000s before the crisis, one that Bain screwed up. They probably took the equity as the best way to perhaps get something instead of pennies on the dollar. These days, they’re more busy reopening factories in Europe along with national partners. They have better things to worry about than this sad scene, but this is a conclusion that will be very uncomfortable for members of the musical instrument industry who will not want to feel quite so unimportant.
The fact is, the die is cast. In a couple of weeks, Guitar Center will need to report its Christmas performance to its bondholders. If things do not look good, its bonds will be ripped apart like Radio Shack’s. Moreover, if I had to guess, the $10 million in Guitar Center’s coffers will not be enough to make the payment to their bondholders due in April 2015. In advance of that, they will need to seek protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. Maybe they have another ultra-complex trick to bring out of the private equity playbook, but this whole thing is a waste of time. None of this sells guitars or inspires kids to be better musicians in a world where laptops play the tunes. We’re all analyzing the most mundane details of the terminal symptoms of this sickness that has seized American business culture in the past twenty years. Perhaps we need to heal that disease before we can back to fun things such as playing guitar and running profitable companies.
Here’s what this really means: it’s the end of big box retail, an irrational addiction to growth, and the scourge of unregulated structured finance. For a few years, unwise urban planning and unregulated banks created a new bubble in the American suburbs. People bought homes they could not afford and turned their houses into lines of credit. This swindle eventually brought the economy to its knees and has taken most a decade to regain some state of uneasy equilibrium. Still, it was particularly stimulating to a certain type of retail that also depended on constant growth and financial trickery. The objective truth is that the growth of the last decade was financed by banking fraud, and that financial trickery of this sort only fools people in the short-term. Eventually, you must have a product people demand, sold by competent people who care about the business, financed in a way that makes sense.
This unforgiving reality will work great for local stores and entrepreneurs with a classic, cautious approach to business management. For a while, suspending our disbelief in reality allowed standard-issue corporate financiers to run a pump-and-dump scheme on all kinds of retail, selling risky ventures to “dumb money” and reaping the rewards for a select few. We are all wiser now, and the market conditions simply will not support that behavior.
This is not a moral judgment, merely an assessment of market engineering. Small and smart will carry the future while big, dumb, complex, and dishonest will bite the dust.
These conclusions were my instincts before I conducted research into the example of Guitar Center. I was reasonably sure then, and I am entirely convinced now. The only remaining question is where the industry will go from here. Go ask the good people at Behringer for a preview. Representatives from their company have informed me that since they parted ways with Guitar Center they discovered a network of smaller, more focused retailers who were more than excited to form a stronger relationship with their company, and in turn delight customers even more. This resulted in the company’s greatest annual revenue in history, both in the United States and throughout the world. Behringer seems to think that a world without a single, corporate, banker-driven industry hegemon is not only possible, it’s preferable.
That’s a bright future, if you choose to share that vision. But whether you believe in it or not, this scenario is unavoidable. Guitar Center is finished. Now the musical instrument industry can get back to business.
n a recent CNBC interview, Senator Rand Paul tempered some of his recent remarks about the alleged horrors of vaccination by claiming that he only opposes vaccine mandates because they infringe upon parents’ freedom. When confronted with the question of whether or not discouraging vaccination is a threat to children’s health, Paul launched into a meandering consideration of public health and liberty that concluded with the assertion that “the state doesn’t own your children, parents own the children.”
Paul’s bizarre rendering of the parent-child relationship as unilateral ownership is not the most unhinged thing a well-regarded libertarian has ever said about children. In fact, libertarians exhibit a historical inability to adequately explain how parents should relate to their children, why parents are obligated (if at all) to care for their children, and whether or not moral nations should require that parents feed, clothe, and shelter their children within a libertarian frame.
Consider Lew Rockwell, former congressional chief of staff for Rand’s father, Ron. Rockwell, who may or may not have had a hand in composing the now infamously racist and homophobic slew of newsletters sent out to Ron Paul fans between the late '70s and early '90s, is a professed fan of child labor. Complaining of laws that prevent, among other things, second-graders from operating forklifts, Rockwell opines that “we are still saddled with anti-work laws that stunt young people’s lives.” Like Rand Paul on vaccine mandates, Rockwell sees child labor laws as government overreach. “In a free and decent society, decisions about these matters are for parents, not bureaucrats,” Rockwell writes, referring to whether or not schoolchildren should be breadwinners. The type of society Rockwell envisions here hardly seems "decent," but it would certainly be "free" in the way Paul imagines, and in that sense it is perfectly libertarian.
Rockwell’s mentor, Murray Rothbard, one of the twentieth century’s more famous libertarians, was similarly fond of kids in the workplace. Rothbard imagined that laws against child labor were passed in order to artificially inflate the wages of adults, who viewed children as competition capable of underbidding them. “Supposedly ‘humanitarian’ child labor laws,” Rothbard remarks in his book The Ethics of Liberty, “have systematically forcibly prevented children from entering the labor force, thereby privileging their adult competitors.” While the real impetus behind child labor laws was child welfare, it is telling that Rothbard tended to look upon kids with a suspicious eye, and his ethics bear out this cold approach. Later in The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard, in keeping with the libertarian exaltation of personal freedom, argues that “no man can therefore have a ‘right’ to compel someone to do a positive act”—that is, because all people are free, by his account, your rights cannot impose positive actions on others. This means, Rothbard goes on, that a parent “may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.” He concludes that “the law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.” To do so, for Rothbard, would be pure government overreach.
Such dark fantasies are not restricted to the weird world of libertarian academia. Williamson “Bill” Evers, formerly a libertarian candidate for congress and advisor to the McCain 2008 campaign, also argues that there should be no laws preventing a parent from, say, starving an infant to death. In an article published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Evers concludes, “We have considered the hypothesis that there should be an enforced legal duty of parents to support their minor children. Having found the various reasons advanced in support of this duty inadequate, we can only conclude that no such duty exists … one has to regard the notion of a legal duty of parents to support their children as without merit.” Evers allows that parents might be morally obligated to do something for their children, but also that morals should not be legally enforced. Therefore, vaccination, labor, and finally whether or not to give one’s children the necessities of life ultimately comes down, for these classic libertarian thinkers, to the free will of the parents.
Libertarianism rests on the whimsical notion that all people are isolated, entirely free agents with no claims on others except those that they can negotiate through consensual contracts. The very existence of children flatly disproves this; any moral intuition indicates that children come into the world with claims on their parents at the very least, and their entire societies considered broadly. To avoid a hellish death spiral of infectious disease and neglect, we would all do well to reject Paul and his cohort on the subject of child rearing.
With the complete coeducation of Dartmouth in 1972, there was much resistance by the male students. The female students attending were given the demeaning name of “co-hogs.” This name derived from both the term coed and the “quahog,” which is a clam indigenous to the area. The name was meant to be a derogatory reference to female genitalia. Though many of the undergraduates were in favor of coeducation, in 1975 the song “Our Cohogs” won a competition judged by the dean of the college Carroll W. Brewster. The song consisted of vulgar references to women in college to the theme of “This Old Man.”
They were also sent several letters claiming women to be “the enemy” as well as sexual objects. One of these letters written in 1973 addressed four demands. The first being women’s upper bodies must remain naked in the dining hall. The second being that the women’s “services be available at all times,” implying that they would openly willing to sleep with them. The third demand in the letter demanded the “co-hog softball team must also play naked in the green. Women with large floppy tits may wear bras. The brush area must remain uncovered.” The final demand was that one of the women give the president of Dartmouth a blow job, in hope that it would remove his “faggy” tendencies. The women of Dartmouth were also subjected to violence and open criticism. Butterfield Hall, a mixed sex dorm at the college, was frequently vandalized as well as its residents disrupted by screaming of drunken Dartmouth men.
These attacks and many more like it were used in an attempt to continue to isolate the women at the college. It was an attempt to continue the traditional gender roles that existed in Dartmouth before coeducation. This isolation made sure Dartmouth men, particularly fraternity men of Dartmouth, could assert their dominance over the women.
In early August of 2011, a few days after Congress passed a deal to end the debt-ceiling showdown that brought the nation to the brink of credit default, a conservative talk-radio host in the Milwaukee suburbs went on an extended riff about Gwen Moore, the first African American elected to the House from Wisconsin.
Moore had missed the debt-ceiling vote, and her office explained that she had been unable to make her way through the massive crowd that gathered to celebrate Gabrielle Giffords’s triumphant return to the floor. This account provided an opening for radio host Mark Belling.
“She’s been in the Congress now for about ten years. During that time, she ... has managed to be known for absolutely nothing,” Belling said. “Gwen Moore simply occupies a seat. A very large seat. ... The woman is so fat and out of shape, she literally can’t get to the floor to vote anymore. ... It’s time to vote and here’s Gwen: ‘I’m out of breath! Blew-ee, blew-ee!’ ” (Here Belling affected the exertions of an overweight black woman.) Or, he continued, perhaps there was another possibility: “What do you think the chances are she was sitting on the toilet? ... Maybe Gwen was sitting there on the crapper and this was one that was not working out too well for her or something. ‘Blew-ee!’ ‘Congresswoman, you’ve got to vote.’ ‘I am sittin’ on de toilet!’ ” Belling concluded: “Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, got there, and voted. ... Gwen Moore can’t waddle her way across the street.”
For Belling, this kind of performance was hardly out of character. Back in 2004, he’d been briefly suspended for referring to “wetback” voters in Milwaukee’s Hispanic neighborhood. It was, perhaps, a sign of his audience’s uniform outlook that the diatribe against Moore went unnoticed by anyone who might have objected to it, including Moore herself.
In any case, the riff did not keep the state’s governor, Scott Walker, from appearing on the show a few days later. Belling’s treatment of Walker was notably more deferential. “Have you,” he asked, “sat back and thought about what has been accomplished by yourself and the Republican legislature? Has it really sunk in that you’ve transformed a fiscally reckless state into perhaps the most fiscally sound state in the nation? Has it sunk in, I guess is what I’m saying, do you realize what’s been accomplished?” Walker replied that no, his achievement had not sunk in, because he had been “so busy doing it.”
That accomplishment—effectively eliminating collective bargaining for most public employees in the state, facing down the angry protests that followed, surviving a rancorous recall election—has vaulted Walker into the top tier of Republican presidential contenders for 2016. He is the closest person the party has to an early favorite, and not simply because of Chris Christie’s nosedive from grace or because Jeb Bush is still waffling about his intentions. Walker has implemented an impeccably conservative agenda in a state that has gone Democratic in seven straight presidential elections. Unlike Mitt Romney, or, for that matter, John McCain, he is beloved by the conservative base, but he has the mien of a mainstream candidate, not a favorite of the fringe. His boosters, who include numerous greenroom conservatives in Washington and major donors around the country, such as the Koch brothers, see him as the rare Republican who could muster broad national support without yielding a millimeter on doctrine.
This interpretation of Walker’s appeal could hardly be more flawed. He has succeeded in the sort of environment least conducive to producing a candidate capable of winning a national majority. Over the past few decades, Walker’s home turf of metropolitan Milwaukee has developed into the most bitterly divided political ground in the country—“the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation,” as a recent series by Craig Gilbert in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put it. Thanks to a quirk of twentieth-century history, the region encompasses a heavily Democratic and African American urban center, and suburbs that are far more uniformly white and Republican than those in any other Northern city, with a moat of resentment running between the two zones. As a result, the area has given rise to some of the most worrisome trends in American political life in supercharged form: profound racial inequality, extreme political segregation, a parallel-universe news media. These trends predate Walker, but they have enabled his ascent, and his tenure in government has only served to intensify them. Anyone who believes that he is the Republican to save his party—let alone win a presidential election—needs to understand the toxic and ruptured landscape he will leave behind.
Scott Walker’s parents are friendly and unfailingly earnest, and to hear them tell it, their son was called to leadership by God. His father, Llewellyn, was a Baptist minister, and before Scott could even read, he was summoned to the front of church to offer prayers. At age seven, in tiny Plainfield, Iowa, where Reverend Walker served on the town council, Scott founded the “Jesus USA Club” and would hop up on an improvised soapbox to raise money for a state flag outside the village hall. Not long after that, his family moved to Delavan, a small manufacturing town in southern Wisconsin. Walker went door to door to campaign for a classmate’s father who was running for local office. Walker’s parents told me that his teacher asked him why he was doing that. “Because he’s a good man,” he informed her.
Walker was the prototypical preacher’s kid, acutely aware of the need to present a genial face to the world. “When you’re a ‘P.K.,’ you live in a fishbowl and are trained to be careful so that you don’t do anything that embarrasses your parents,” says his mother, Patricia. He absorbed many of his father’s sermons—these tended to be more homespun than fiery—and would later fill in for Llewellyn occasionally when he was sick. “Sometimes, in high school,” Patricia recalls, “he’d stay awake thinking of all the things in the world he could do something about.”
Walker had an easy smile and impressive 1980s mullet, and he played on the football team, but his friends would apologize if they swore in his presence, and he wasn’t much for chasing girls. “He was a very nice-looking young man, always very neat in appearance,” says Neill Flood, the town’s fire chief, whose daughter was a year ahead of Walker in school. “He was the kind of guy who liked everyone, and everyone liked him. There was never any physical attraction for Scott, girls being all over him.” On Scott’s prom night, his mother recalls, he, his date, and some friends stayed up very late talking politics.
Those politics were staunchly conservative. Delavan was in solidly Republican territory, and by the time Walker arrived at Marquette, the Jesuit university in Milwaukee, he was describing himself as a missionary for the conservative cause. “He would literally say, . . . ‘God has told me I’m chosen to cut taxes and stop killing babies,’ even in casual conversation,” recalls Glen Barry, a classmate who went on to become a well-known environmentalist. On occasion, Walker would compare himself to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., noting that they were both the sons of Baptist ministers. In the 1990 Marquette yearbook, he said, “I really think there’s a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head.”
Campus politics offered few opportunities for Walker to exercise his higher calling, but he did his best to raise the stakes. In freshman year, he was put in charge of an investigation into a lavish homecoming-weekend dinner at the Pfister Hotel that had been charged to student government accounts. The student-body president and vice president resigned, and the participants repaid the tab. Barry was one of the other student leaders at the dinner, and Walker told him that he would need to question him as part of his inquiry. What followed, Barry says, “was the weirdest thing I have ever been through.” Walker announced that he was recommending impeachment of Barry and several others, which led to a full trial before the student senate, with, as Barry recalls, Walker “standing there in his ill-fitting suit coat like a grand inquisitor, asking: ‘Did you know where these flowers for your corsage came from?’ ” The defendants were acquitted, and the prosecutor earned the nickname of “Neidermeyer,” after the authoritarian frat-house enforcer in Animal House.
In his sophomore year, Walker ran for student-body president against a liberal Chicagoan named John Quigley. Quigley argued that the university should divest funds from apartheid South Africa; Walker backed up the administration, criticized student protests, and, in a move unusual for a campus election, emphasized his opposition to abortion. The race was rife with accusations of campaign rules violations, says the fact-checking organization Politifact. When The Marquette Tribune endorsed Quigley, stacks of papers mysteriously vanished from the racks around campus, prompting an investigation by campus police and a harsh Election Day editorial in the Tribune headlined: “WALKER UNFIT.”
Walker lost and retreated from his high-profile campus role. He took a part-time job at IBM and started showing up for classes in a three-piece suit, “like Alex [P.] Keaton,” as one professor recalled to the Tribune in 2002. He mellowed out a bit toward his former foes—Barry recalls standing on a rocking chair in a campus lounge arm in arm with Walker, sharing a pitcher of beer, to the amusement of onlookers. Then, in the spring semester of 1990, right as Walker’s class was on the verge of graduating, he abruptly dropped out of school.
Walker had been an indifferent student at best, but it was nevertheless a strange move. Years later, rumors would circulate that Marquette had asked him to leave. But college officials say he departed in “good standing.” His parents told me that he had cited financial guilt—his younger brother had started college and he worried that his family couldn’t afford both tuitions—an explanation they found unpersuasive. Walker declined to comment for this story. But he has said that he had found a job doing marketing for the Red Cross and wanted to pursue the opportunity full time. A more likely explanation, though, is that he had already decided to embark on his political career. Real politics this time, in the city.
Among U.S. cities, Milwaukee has long been an outlier. In the late nineteenth century, it was the most foreign city in the country: By 1890, a mere 13 percent of its inhabitants were the children of American-born parents. For most of the period between 1910 and 1960, the city was governed by Socialist Party mayors. And, as the twentieth century wore on, Milwaukee stood apart for another reason: It remained remarkably and stubbornly white. The Great Migration that had brought some six million African Americans from the South between 1910 and 1930 and in a second wave around World War II transformed just about every major city in the North—except Milwaukee. Few migrants made it past the great sponge of Chicago, in part because there wasn’t a plentiful supply of jobs to entice them: Milwaukee’s labor market was then amply filled by European immigrants and workers from the declining timber and mining industries up north. By 1960, blacks made up nearly a quarter of Chicago’s population and nearly 30 percent of Detroit’s and Cleveland’s. In Milwaukee, they accounted for less than 10 percent of residents, the smallest proportion of African Americans in any of the 15 largest cities in the country.
It wasn’t until the ’60s that African Americans started to drift into Milwaukee in large numbers. For the next 20 years, the city offered safer streets and better schools than Chicago, and its industrial base was faring better than in many other urban areas. By 1990, Milwaukee’s black population had shot up to 30 percent. Today, it stands near 40 percent, while Hispanics make up another 17 percent.
This delayed arrival would prove highly consequential. Not long after a substantial African American community took shape, Milwaukee’s industrial base began to collapse and its manufacturing jobs disappeared. This left almost no time for the city to develop a black middle class or a leadership elite. Within short order, Milwaukee had some of the most glaring racial disparities in the country. Today, it has the second-highest black poverty rate in the United States, and the unemployment rate is nearly four times higher for blacks than for whites. The city had never been exactly welcoming to African Americans—its tight-knit enclaves of Germans, Jews, and Poles had fiercely resisted housing and school integration. But the decline of the black ghetto so soon after many of its residents had arrived made it easier for white Milwaukeeans to write off the entire African American community, or to blame it for the city’s troubles. White flight, like the Great Migration, came late to Milwaukee, but it came fast and fueled with resentment. Between 1960 and 2010, the population of the three formerly rural counties around Milwaukee County (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington, or the “WOW” counties, for short) nearly tripled, to 608,000.
And if the exiles had any lingering doubts about the wisdom of leaving the city, two men were eager to reinforce the necessity of their choice, every morning and every afternoon on the long commute home. Mark Belling, a Wisconsin native, grew up liberal and supported Jimmy Carter. In the 1980s, though, he took a job in the post-industrial city of Benton Harbor, Michigan, and underwent a conversion. “The entire city was an experiment in American liberalism and it was an absolute disaster,” he said in 2012. “I realized anti-poverty programs, welfare, aid to cities, allegations that ... black underachievement is because of racism, I realized that all of those things were wrong.” Meanwhile, watching Ronald Reagan in office, he was struck by the “undeniable renaissance of America.” “I became far better at arguing my point of view and far more satisfied with my political positions once I became a conservative, because I realized I was correct,” Belling said. “It’s the same thing a lot of people have when they convert to Christianity. They suddenly become very committed and dedicated to it, as opposed to the ambivalence they had about their former atheism.”
In 1989, as the crack-fueled crime wave was nearing its peak in Milwaukee, Belling began hosting a talk show on WISN, an A.M. station. Often, a man named Charlie Sykes would appear as a panelist or substitute host. Sykes, too, had started out on the left. His parents were World Federalists, a movement that called for global government and universal disarmament; his father, an editorial writer at the Milwaukee Sentinel, had managed Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign in Wisconsin. Sykes had adopted his father’s politics; he even ran (unsuccessfully) for the state legislature as a Democrat. He told me that he had grown disillusioned with liberalism while covering City Hall for the Milwaukee Journal in the late ’70s. “I was a reporter covering urban programs that were well- intentioned but utterly dysfunctional,” he says. “I thought: This thing doesn’t work as planned.”
Within a few years, Sykes had gotten his own show, on WTMJ, and for the next 20 years, he and Belling would share the airwaves: Sykes in the late morning, Belling in the late afternoon. Their styles are very different. Sykes is a thrice-married man-about-town with a smooth on-air manner and modish eyeglasses who has built himself into a multimedia brand, with a Sunday TV show on the NBC affiliate, books subsidized by conservative funders (his latest: A Nation of Moochers), and a subscription-based website, “Right Wisconsin” (which sometimes refers to Michelle Obama as “Mooch”). Belling is introverted and brooding—he zips in and out from the station’s suburban studio in his Jaguar, interacting with co-workers no more than necessary. His demeanor on air is more intense, with long foreboding pauses between his acid declamations. In one 2012 riff, he called a young black Milwaukee man who had died in police custody a “piece of garbage” and attacked “the pigs of mothers who are too lazy to put their children in a crib and roll over the top of them while sleeping on a futon on the floor.” Christopher Terry, who worked with Belling at WISN and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says that Belling is more of a “true believer,” whereas “if Sykes thought there was money on the other side of the street, he would sell out in a second.”
Over time, the two shows became known by a single name: “SykesBelling.” In the halls of the statehouse, Milwaukee City Hall, and area county governments, elected officials, particularly insufficiently conservative Republicans, lived in dread of denunciations by the hosts and the tsunami of angry calls from listeners that would follow. Sykes is credited with, among other accomplishments, having blocked public funding for needle-exchange programs and having helped drive into bankruptcy an urban mall after harping on security issues there. In April 2013, he played a clip of “It’s Free (Swipe Yo EBT),” a viral video produced by a right-wing activist in which an African American woman raps about liquor stores where one can allegedly use a food-stamp card. Returning to the same theme later in the year, Sykes declared, “The number of Americans who receive means-tested government benefits— welfare—now outnumbers those who are year-round full-time workers.” No other midsize city has this kind of sustained and energized conservative forum for discussion of local politics. The only counterweights on the left are Wisconsin Public Radio, with its implicit but restrained liberalism, a lefty F.M. talk show in Madison with limited reach, and two African American talk-radio stations in Milwaukee, one of which recently went out of business.
In the past dozen years, two moderate state senators in metro Milwaukee have lost their jobs in Republican primaries after falling out of favor with SykesBelling, while a third has moved sharply right to avoid their wrath. “The listenership is just so much higher here,” says Scott Jensen, the former Republican speaker of the state Assembly. “And the ability to get people to march in step when [the shows] are all hammering the same themes is extraordinary.” Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican state senator in southwestern Wisconsin who is retiring this year, is blunter. “Talk radio gets going and some of my colleagues end up wetting themselves,” he says. “It’s appalling.”
In 1990, at age 22, Scott Walker launched his first campaign, for the state Assembly seat held by Gwen Moore. It was a Democratic-leaning, majority-white district stretching west from Marquette; Moore recalls hearing that Walker thought he had a shot at winning because he was younger and better-looking than the Republican she had beaten two years earlier. “He had a certain kind of vanity,” she says. Walker ran on an anti-crime platform, pushing what Moore refers to as “dog-whistle literature.” This included one mailing that featured an image of a big gun, “implying that the neighborhood was going to go to hell” if Moore won.
Walker lost, and soon thereafter settled with his wife, Tonette, in more amenable political territory. Three years later, he ran in a crowded GOP primary field for the local state Assembly seat in the historically Republican inner suburb of Wauwatosa. This time, he won. The party, which under the leadership of Governor Tommy Thompson was pushing hard for welfare reform and private-school vouchers in Milwaukee, made Walker its point man on criminal justice. He authored a bill calling for “truth in sentencing” (eliminating time off for good behavior) and championed prison privatization, though he also surprised some Democrats by supporting legislation to improve defendants’ access to DNA evidence. As chairman of the elections and rules committee, he advocated for voter-I.D. laws, long seen as an effort to limit minority access to the polls.
But Walker didn’t really seem all that interested in making an impact in Madison—colleagues from both parties recall him as an amiable backbencher. Instead, he seemed most intent on cultivating a constituency via the airwaves. Jensen, then the speaker, started sending Walker on television and the radio talk shows when he couldn’t make it and quickly realized that his colleague had an unerring ability to stay on message. “He’s the kind of guy you can wake up at three a.m. and ask him a question, and he’ll have a nice sound bite for you,” says Jensen. Charlie Sykes adds, “He is probably as media savvy as any politician we’ve ever dealt with here in Wisconsin.”
Walker’s growing profile served him well as he advanced through the political ranks. In 2002, the Democratic executive of Milwaukee County, which encompasses the 600,000-person city and 355,000 in its inner suburbs, resigned amid a pension scandal. Walker won the special election and proceeded to spend the next eight years tussling with the Democratic-led county board over taxes and spending. He succeeded in making deep cuts to county parks and public transit; once, he sent layoff notices to county workers so they would pressure the council to buckle to his budget demands. So often did he call in to Belling’s show—to chat on air or to spin the host during a commercial break—that he had access to an emergency-only phone line to the studio that was off- limits to station employees, even for calls to family. “It was essentially the ‘zombies are rising’ line,” says Terry, the former WISN employee.
During this period, the WOW counties continued to expand. But unlike suburbs elsewhere, they had not grown more diverse. Today, less than 2 percent of the WOW counties’ population is African American and less than 5 percent is Hispanic. According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country. The WOW counties were voting Republican at levels unseen in other Northern suburbs; one needed to look as far as the white suburbs around Atlanta and Birmingham for similar numbers. The partisan gulf between Milwaukee and its suburbs in presidential elections has now grown wider than in any of the nation’s 50 largest cities, except for New Orleans, according to the Journal Sentinel series.
In such an environment, “there’s no persuasion going on at all,” says GOP pollster Gene Ulm, who often works in Wisconsin. In fact, there is not a single competitive state Senate seat left in the entire Milwaukee media market. Both parties focus entirely on turnout, and with impressive results. The WOW counties were in the top eleven nationwide for turnout in 2012, with Ozaukee first at 84 percent. Similarly, among urban counties, Milwaukee County ranks near the top, at 74 percent. (The national average was just over 60 percent.) In midterm elections, Republicans often win because the WOW counties vote no matter what, an achievement that Mark Graul, a Republican consultant, attributes in large part to the motivational power of Milwaukee talk-radio stations. However, in presidential-year elections, when turnout is up everywhere in the state, Democrats win—in fact, they have won every single major statewide race in presidential years since 1984. Even Walker admits that he isn’t working the middle much anymore: “It was always a divided state but it used to be (that) you’d explain it as ‘40/40/20,’ and 20 percent was the persuadable middle,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “That percent has shrunk now to 5, 6 percent maybe ... or five or six people.”
It is as if the Milwaukee area were in a kind of time warp. Like the suburbanites of the ’70s and ’80s elsewhere in the United States, the residents of the WOW counties are full of anxiety and contempt for the place they abandoned. “We’re still in the disco era here,” says Democratic political consultant Paul Maslin. This has affected the politics of the state in myriad ways. The nationwide trend of exploring alternatives to prison hasn’t reached Wisconsin—it has the highest rate of black male incarceration of any state in the country. Sykes told me he could track the desertion of the city through the discussions of Milwaukee public schools on his show. “Through the 1990s we were very interested in education reform, and then it was like a button was switched, and those were someone else’s kids,” he said. “That’s when I realized we weren’t a Milwaukee station anymore.”
Predictably, by 2010, the WOW counties were aflame with anti-Obama fervor, and Walker set his sights on the governor’s mansion. This climate should have favored his primary opponent, Mark Neumann, a highly conservative ex- congressman from southern Wisconsin. But so formidable was Walker’s talk-radio base that it altered the course of the race. Day after day, Sykes and Belling lauded Walker and savaged Neumann. Belling called Neumann a “liar” for criticizing Walker’s county budgets and declared, “No one I know thinks [Neumann] has a chance of winning.” The attacks were unfair but damaging, Neumann told me. Walker beat him by 18 points. In some precincts of the WOW counties, he won close to 75 percent of the vote, but lost to Neumann across much of the rest of the state. To Sykes, it was no coincidence that Walker’s support aligned so closely with the listening range of their stations. “If you look at that map, you see talk-radio land,” Sykes says.
Walker won the general election against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett with 52 percent of the vote. Some prognosticators expected that Walker might fare better than previous Republicans in Milwaukee County, given that he had spent eight years governing it. In fact, he did no better than the Republican norm, with 37 percent. But in the WOW counties, he exceeded even the GOP’s usual sky-high numbers. In his inaugural address, he took the audience on a long rhetorical tour of the state—“Superior to Kenosha; Sturgeon Bay over to Platteville ...” He did not mention Milwaukee.
Barely more than a month after taking office, Walker introduced legislation to eradicate collective bargaining for all public employees except police and firefighters. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled the state to prevent Walker from assembling the quorum necessary for a vote, and tens of thousands of protesters descended on the state capitol for an occupation that lasted three weeks. Nationally, the tumult was described as a kind of alien visitation on Wisconsin’s paradise of Upper Midwestern civility. In fact, the episode had simply brought the polarization between the WOW counties and liberal Milwaukee and Madison out into the open for the first time.
Throughout the protests, Walker remained almost eerily unperturbed—even after he received death threats that resulted in round-the-clock security at his home. “It’s always been difficult for me to understand—if you’re an ideologue, you have passion, and he’s almost the most passionless human I’ve ever encountered,” says Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, a Democrat. “He never reacts with anything other than a shrug or a smile.” Walker’s only overt enthusiasms appear to be his Harley Davidson motorcycle and Ronald Reagan. He and Tonette married on Reagan’s birthday, and every year they celebrate their wedding anniversary / Reagan’s birthday by serving the Gipper’s favorite dishes, such as macaroni-and-cheese casserole and red, white, and blue jelly beans. Walker’s mother attributes his even keel to his faith. “He prayed and read the Bible every day, and when things got rough, [supporters would] tell him they were praying for him,” she says.
But there was another explanation for Walker’s calm. In the WOW counties, his support was near-absolute; on talk radio, his views were echoed and amplified without question on a daily basis. A network of powerful conservative supporters, from the Koch brothers to Wisconsin’s own Bradley Foundation, had rallied to his side. Ensconced in this bubble of affirmation and adulation, Walker believed that he could crush collective bargaining without provoking a backlash.
On the rare occasions that the bubble was punctured, the results could be humiliating. Eight weeks into Walker’s term, a prankster called him pretending to be David Koch. Walker didn’t realize he was speaking to an impostor and chatted chummily with him for nearly 20 minutes about his strategy for dealing with the protests; he hung up without figuring out the ruse. He was mocked around the country for his gullibility, but what the call really revealed was the insularity of his worldview. Only in an environment where Walker was praised so unrelentingly (around the same time, a TV-station manager who was miking him up whispered that she and her children had got down on their knees to pray for him) could the call have ever seemed plausible. The prankster, Ian Murphy, showered Walker with the same gushing reinforcement he had received from Sykes and Belling for years. “You’re not talking to any of these Democrat bastards are you?” he said. “Beautiful, beautiful. Got to crush that union.” Walker responded just as he had on the radio shows, with aw-shucks faux-humility. “We’ve had all the national shows. We were on ‘Hannity’ last night, I did ‘Good Morning America’ and the ‘Today’ show and all that sort of stuff, was on ‘Morning Joe’ this morning. We’ve done ‘Greta,’” he said. Walker’s radar failed to go off even when Murphy urged him to plant provocateurs among the protesters to make it look like they’d turned violent. “We thought about that,” Walker responded, incredibly, before explaining that he had decided against the idea because it might backfire: “My only fear would be if there’s a ruckus caused is that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has to settle to avoid all these problems.”
Walker’s 2013 memoir of the protests, Unintimidated, offers other moments similarly disconnected from reality. In one scene, Walker describes having been besieged by protesters as he was leaving an appearance at a La Crosse factory in February 2011: “We watched in disbelief as the throng of people rushed toward the second exit to block our path. As we tried to pull out, they surrounded the car and began beating on the windows and rocking the vehicle. ... We were dealing with people who were so blinded by their anger that they were not in the least bit afraid to storm and shake a police car.”
In fact, there is scant evidence that any such attack occurred, according to Politifact. Chris Hardie, editor of the La Crosse Tribune, told me that the reporter and photographer covering the event had not seen anything like what Walker recounts: “We tried to backtrack and talk to other people who were there—I even contacted our local TV station, and they still had some video that showed the car leaving the parking lot. They had nothing there that would’ve verified the governor’s story. Even the layout of the grounds of the plant where he stopped didn’t match up with his story in the book. Where they tried to leave one way and it was blocked, none of that seemed to make any sense.”
Walker and the GOP-led legislature eventually pushed the anti-union bill through without the Democratic senators present, which prompted an effort to recall Walker and replace him with Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor. The race got very nasty very quickly. Walker ran an ad charging Barrett with covering up violence in Milwaukee featuring an image of a brutalized toddler—a Willie Horton–style spot one rarely sees in other parts of the country anymore. At one point, Walker declared, “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee,” as if the state and its largest city were separate entities. The final vote showed his suburban base had become more hypercharged than ever. Turnout in Ozaukee and Waukesha counties surpassed 70 percent of voting-age adults, astonishing for a June election; he won some WOW communities with more than 80 percent of the vote. “There were lines of demarcation,” says John Gurda, author of The Making of Milwaukee, the definitive popular history of the city. “And then you get a governor’s—well, let’s call it boldness, bravado—taking action that was just jaw-dropping, and people waffling found themselves on one side or the other. Walker all by himself crystallized those longstanding but latent divisions and made them as deep as the Maginot line.”
In his victory speech at the Waukesha Expo Center, Walker pledged to be “committed to working with [Barrett] to help the city of Milwaukee.” But in the two years since the recall, his actions have only deepened the rift between the city and the suburbs. Milwaukee has been badly hurt by the state funding cuts that accompanied the public-employee union emasculation. City leaders are angry that the state is withholding from Milwaukee much of the settlement award for fraudulent mortgage practices in the city. They feel betrayed by a new state law overturning Milwaukee’s city residency requirement for police officers and firefighters. Walker also eliminated Milwaukee’s regional transit authority, undermining efforts to improve the city’s woeful bus access to suburban workplaces. And in refusing to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, he cut thousands of Milwaukee residents from the program’s rolls. City officials are especially livid about Walker’s signing of a strict voter-I.D. law and a law sharply curtailing early voting, when thousands of Milwaukeeans cast their ballots. A judge overturned the voter-I.D. law in April, but the early voting cutbacks stand. Given how crucial turnout has become in the state, the intent was plain.
Walker has dismissed the complaints about his policies, telling the Journal Sentinel this year, “Increasingly, you’ve had Milwaukee leaders wanting to have help from surrounding suburban areas, like light rail, street cars. I think those types of things in particular get people in Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties worked up, because they don’t feel like they directly benefit, but they feel like they’re being asked.”
Walker made these comments in his characteristically bland way, but inside his team, the conversation sometimes took on an uglier edge. In February, a court ordered the release of thousands of e-mails collected in a wide-ranging investigation by state prosecutors that has led to the convictions of six former Walker aides and allies. The team had used a secret router system in the county office to communicate with each other, and the e-mails revealed an obsession with burnishing Walker’s image in the most small-bore ways. Walker himself urged employees to write favorably of him in the Journal Sentinel’s online comments. The e-mails also included several in which Walker, his aides, and Sykes discussed political and p.r. strategy. When I asked Sykes about these messages, he joked that he was surprised that the release hadn’t included even more communications between him and Walker, given how often Walker wrote him, especially now that Walker has gotten into text-messaging, which, Sykes said, “has changed [Walker’s] life.” “He keeps in very close touch with us,” Sykes said. “I don’t make any secret we’re close to Scott. ... People say, ‘Oh my God, he communicates with talk radio.’ Well, anyone who knows Scott Walker knows he does that all the time.”
But what was most striking was the casual racism of many of the conversations. One anonymous e-mail, forwarded by Walker’s then–chief of staff, went like this: “THE NIGHTMARE ... ‘I can handle being a black, disabled, one armed, drug-addicted Jewish homosexual ... but please, oh dear God, don’t make me a Democrat.’ ” Another compares welfare recipients to dogs: They are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who the r [sic] Daddys [sic] are.” This message was forwarded around by Walker’s then–deputy chief of staff, who remarked that it was “hilarious” and “so true.” Last year, Walker also fired two aides after reporters exposed offensive comments they had made on social media. His campaign’s deputy finance director, for instance, sent out tweets that included references to “half-breeds” and one in which she vowed to “choke that illegal mex cleaning in the library.”
I arrived in Milwaukee on the weekend of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s convention. The crowd assembling at the Hilton was mostly male and nearly all white. The only visible diversity was in the age of the participants, with a large contingent of blue-blazered College Republicans milling alongside older men with canes. During a break in the proceedings, Jeff Johns, the genial chairman of the Ozaukee County Republican Party, warned me about Fond du Lac Avenue, which bisects the black swath of northwest Milwaukee. “You don’t want to travel that at night,” he says. “You’re basically traveling the colored section.” He also voiced suspicions about Democratic turnout operations in Milwaukee, with campaigns “picking people up for their votes” and rewarding them with “free meals and benefits.”
The convention promised to be an eventful one. Some delegates were pushing platform language threatening nullification of federal laws, and even secession, to protest President Obama’s agenda; the party establishment was doing its best to prevent Walker’s national image from being tarnished by these efforts. When I attempted to attend a session titled “Media panel”—with Sykes and another conservative radio host—a stern young doorman informed me that “the media panel is closed to media.”
So I waited for Sykes, and when he emerged, I tagged along with his entourage to the grand nineteenth- century community hall where Walker was hosting a party for the delegates. To Sykes’s irritation, the GOP bouncer failed to recognize him and wouldn’t let him in. “To hell with these guys,” Sykes muttered and retired with three associates to the bar area, where I joined them for drinks. Moments later, a young woman materialized to apologize profusely for the mix-up and to assure Sykes that he was welcome upstairs. Playing hard to get, he told her he might make an appearance later.
Over Sykes’s second glass of wine, we got onto “The Wire,” which Sykes loves, a fact that, along with his cerebral manner, was making it hard for me to reconcile him with his abrasive on-air persona. Later, I asked whether his rhetoric was contributing to Milwaukee’s polarization. “I don’t think radio shows change people’s perceptions, because people’s perceptions are based on people’s own experience,” he said. “We hear that, that we’re driving the divisions, but the divisions are very real and are reflected in the discussions we have.”
The next day began with a string of notables, among them Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Johnson, but the convention was clearly all about Walker. One of his two sons, Matt, spoke in his capacity as head of the state’s College Republicans, and throughout the day, Walker’s parents watched attentively from the front row. His mother had brought home-baked cookies to share with convention attendees, as she often used to do for his staff when he was county executive. (She and her husband wore shirts that read “SCOTT WALKER IS OUR SON” throughout the recall campaign.)
Then Walker himself finally appeared. Wisconsin politicos say his public-speaking skills have improved, but he still manages to come off as phlegmatic and self- impressed at the same time, with a boyish smirk that can recall George W. Bush. This speech was a forgettable recapitulation of his first term’s successes, delivered in tones even more nasal than usual, thanks to a head cold. “We believe in less dependence on government and more dependence on hard work and personal pride,” he said. “Wisconsin is not only great, it’s greater than the one we grew up in.” Watching him, it was hard to believe that a politician so seemingly banal had been the catalyst for such turmoil.
And yet as pedestrian as the speech was, the crowd clearly loved it. This reminded me of what several state political veterans had told me, that Walker’s ascent had not prepared him well for the national stage. In Wisconsin, he occupies a comfortable cocoon; nationally, he’ll face tougher questions and even tougher opponents. A segment in February with Fox News’s Chris Wallace about the investigation into Walker’s county administration and the e-mail release did not go well. “He hasn’t shown the ability to do that, to step out of Nerf territory,” says Chris Larson, a Democratic state senator from Milwaukee. Terry, the former Belling employee, agrees. “No one’s really pushed his buttons, and trust me, when they get a hold of him and he can’t jump in the safety zone, it’ll go hard on him,” he said. In Wisconsin, “if he says something stupid ... he can run to the outlets and they’ll take care of it. He could eat a child on television and [Milwaukee talk radio] would go on about how it benefits children.”
Walker is deflecting any 2016 speculation for now, since he must first win reelection this fall against Mary Burke, a former bicycle-manufacturing executive. But he has been traveling extensively outside of Wisconsin building ties with national Republicans. In a single four-day stretch last year, as the legislature was grappling with the budget, he gave a speech at the Prescott Bush Awards Dinner in Stamford, Connecticut, attended a New York GOP fund-raiser at the “21” Club, and gave a keynote speech to the Polk County Republican Party in Iowa. And there is little doubt Walker believes himself ready for the national scene. In 2012, he took the unusual step of sending Mitt Romney a lengthy e-mail telling him what he was doing wrong. (He got no reply.) Compared with Romney, Walker would offer one clear advantage—it would be hard to cast a small-town preacher’s son as a plutocrat. Otherwise, though, it is difficult to envision how Walker would broaden his party’s national appeal beyond the same shrinking pool of voters that Romney drew from.
After the proceedings adjourned for the day, I headed down the stairs of the convention hall, where I encountered a banquet for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Alliance of Black School Educators. It was difficult to imagine a sharper contrast with the scene upstairs. One guest, Jimmie Spivey, told me he had recently tried to buy a house in Waukesha County but had been told by the lender that, while he could afford the house, he couldn’t afford the taxes. He was struck when he went to visit black friends in Atlanta or Los Angeles to find them living in the suburbs. Another attendee observed, “You’ve got the city of Milwaukee ... and you’ve got the suburbs, and it’s two different worlds,” he said. “I don’t feel a tension, but you feel something. It’s almost like you’re in a bubble if you’re in the city, and you’re in a bubble in the suburbs, and it’s only when the two bubbles collide that something happens.”
On Sunday morning, as the convention concluded with a closed-door prayer breakfast, I headed to my hotel and flipped on the television, just in time for Charlie Sykes’s weekly show. One of Sykes’s panelists raised the issue of “an incident in the fifteenth aldermanic district where supporters of a liberal candidate bought meals for voters.” The fifteenth district is mostly black, the candidate is black, and the former acting mayor who provided the lunches to voters is black. But the panelist didn’t mention any of that. For his audience, who live beyond Fond du Lac Avenue and its check-cashing outlets and shuttered storefronts, over the city line where the humble frame houses and bungalows give way abruptly to McMansion subdivisions with names like Harmony Hills and River Heights, he didn’t need to.
Had two dreams with Bill in them last night. (1) Bill was a bearded but bald (or maybe tonsured? I can’t recall) monk. More of a medieval (vs. Buddhist) monk. We were poring over a book of classical Chinese poetry and I was trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about, contrasting it with poetry in the Korean vernacular. (2) Bill had Dara on his shoulders, and — I was watching this from behind — consequently had a cascade of urine splashing down his back, presumably from the wee one, but it wasn’t totally clear. Way too much urine for this to be realistic. Most of it was being deflected off of a shiny white and turquoise leatherette backpack, which had some sort of animated character on it — it was almost like a cascading waterfall.
This buzzfeed article doesn’t even mention the fact that Wheelock boiled the body of Cato, one of his slaves, in order to make a skeleton for medical training.
Oil painting of Reverend Eleazor Wheelock, who founded Dartmouth College Joseph Steward || Hood Museum of Art - Dartmouth College / Via the-athenaeum.org
Eleazar Wheelock founded Dartmouth in 1769 with the “white-savior” sounding intention of educating Native Americans.
Actresses, chief executives, congresswomen and Olympic gold medalists: It’s no exaggeration that many female alumni of Dartmouth are kind of a big deal nowadays.
What you probably did not know is that 37 years ago at Dartmouth, these accomplished women may have received a welcome that went a little something like this: “Our cohogs, they play four/ They’re a bunch of dirty whores/ With a knick knack baddy whack send the bitches home.”
In the spring of 1975, at the Hums singing competition during Green Key Weekend, then-Dean of the College Carroll Brewster declared “Our Cohogs” the winning song the most creative and original that he heard all weekend, according to records found in Rauner Special Collections Library.
August 1824. Stephen Stark, a member of the Class of 1827 and a grand-nephew of the Revolutionary hero General John Stark, was absent from an exercise considered mandatory by his tutor, Ira Perley. Stark argued that he had a justification to be absent (he stayed in a place 8 miles away from Hanover for the weekend), but the tutor demanded that the student would admit the wrong he committed. According to J. Willard, who worked in a local store in Hanover, Perley “then told the government that Stark was contrary and meant to insult him & wanted Stark to make a confession.” The students submitted a petition, delineating the circumstances of the case and stating that the class supported Stark. However, as Willard added, although “the President humbly confessed that the tutor was more to blame,” he claimed that the faculty cannot admit it erred, and so “whether he [Stark] was most to blame or not they sent him an expulsion for the term of six weeks, which no ever gad the students that they immediately formed a company called the ‘bear lagged rangers.’” These Bear Lagged Rangers embarked upon a three-day rampage throughout Hanover, during which they stoned Perley and his supervising Professor William Chamberlain, burned both faculty members along with President Tyler in effigy, and burned down a barn. Due to the chaos, the faculty was largely unsuccessful in finding those guilty of the vandalism, but at least two students were expelled for being involved. Nevertheless, the student body established itself as a formidable opponent of faculty policies it did not endorse, a fact which probably had an impact on the Faculty’s decision in a different, much more substantial event that took place several months later. This event was the decision to admit the first African-American student in Dartmouth College history (and the second or third African-American student admitted to an academic institution in the US) Edward Mitchell.
I’d be really interested to hear what @GN thinks of this article.
Every once in a while, I am asked what I “make.” A hack day might require it, or a conference might ask me to describe “what I make” so it can go on my name tag.
I’m always uncomfortable with it. I’m uncomfortable with any culture that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express a facet of your own identity ("maker," rather than "someone who makes things"). But I have much deeper concerns.
An identity built around making things—of being “a maker”—pervades technology culture. There’s a widespread idea that “People who make things are simply different [read: better] than those who don’t.”
I understand where the motivation for this comes from. Creators, rightly, take pride in creation. In her book The Real World of Technology, the metallurgist Ursula Franklin contrasts prescriptive technologies, where many individuals produce components of the whole (think about Adam Smith’s pin factory), with holistic technologies, where the creator controls and understands the process from start to finish. As well as teaching my own engineering courses, I’m a studio instructor for a first-year engineering course, in which our students do design and fabrication, many of them for the first time. Making things is incredibly important, especially for groups that previously haven’t had access. When I was asked by the Boston-based Science Club for Girls to write a letter to my teenaged self (as a proxy for young girls everywhere), that’s exactly what I wrote about.
But there are more significant issues, rooted in the social history of who makes things—and who doesn’t.
Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women. As a teenager, I read Ayn Rand on how any work that needed to be done day after day was meaningless, and that only creating new things was a worthwhile endeavor. My response to this was to stop making my bed every day, to the distress of my mother. (While I admit the possibility of a misinterpretation, as I haven’t read Rand’s writing since I was so young that my mother oversaw my housekeeping, I have no plans to revisit it anytime soon.) The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by the order of men.
Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.
It’s not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with making (although it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). The problem is the idea that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it’s almost always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.
In Silicon Valley, this divide is often explicit: As Kate Losse has noted, coders get high salary, prestige, and stock options. The people who do community management—on which the success of many tech companies is based—get none of those. It’s unsurprising that coding has been folded into "making." Consider the instant gratification of seeing "hello, world" on the screen; it’s nearly the easiest possible way to "make" things, and certainly one where failure has a very low cost. Code is "making" because we've figured out how to package it up into discrete units and sell it, and because it is widely perceived to be done by men.
But you can also think about coding as eliciting a specific, desired set of behaviors from computing devices. It’s the Searle’s "Chinese room" take on the deeper, richer, messier, less reproducible, immeasurably more difficult version of this that we do with people—change their cognition, abilities, and behaviors. We call the latter "education," and it’s mostly done by underpaid, undervalued women.
When new products are made, we hear about exciting technological innovation, which are widely seen as worth paying (more) for. In contrast, policy and public discourse around caregiving—besides education, healthcare comes immediately to mind—are rarely about paying more to do better, and are instead mostly about figuring out ways to lower the cost. Consider the economics term Baumol’s cost disease: It suggests that it is somehow pathological that the time and energy taken by a string quartet to prepare for a performance—and therefore the cost—has not fallen in the same way as goods, as if somehow people and what they do should get less valuable with time. (Though, to be fair, given the trajectory of wages in the U.S. over the last few years in real terms, that seems to be exactly what is happening.)I am not a maker. In a value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human.
I am not a maker. In a framing and value system is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like "design learning experiences," which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as "making" is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I "make" other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.
In a recent newsletter, Dan Hon, content director for Code for America wrote, “But even when there’s this shift to Makers (and with all due deference to Getting Excited and Making Things), even when ‘making things’ includes intangibles now like shipped-code, there's still this stigma that feels like it attaches to those-who-don’t-make. Well, bullshit. I make stuff.” I understand this response, but I’m not going to ask people—including myself—to deform what they do so they can call themselves a "maker." Instead, I call bullshit on the stigma and the culture and values behind it that rewards making above everything else.
A quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem says: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” Maker culture, with its goal to get everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making, has focused on the first. But its success means that it further devalues the traditionally female domain of caregiving, by continuing to enforce the idea that only making things is valuable. Rather, I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others—above all, the caregivers—whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.