if you don’t vote, you suck

I really enjoy voting. I enjoy the process — going to my local polling place on election day, standing in line with other voters, seeing the volunteers, buying a treat from whatever local school or church or charity group has set up a table outside the polling place. It makes me feel connected to the community. It makes me feel all citizeny. It makes me feel patriotic.

But this year I’m not doing it. Oh, I’m voting. In fact, I’ve already voted. I voted a couple of weeks ago. This year I voted by absentee ballot. Why the change? Curiosity. I wanted to see what it was like. I’ve never voted with an absentee ballot before.

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Here are some of the things I discovered about voting absentee. First, it’s dead easy. The ballot comes right to your door, you open it, fill it out, follow the instructions, send it back in. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. You can do it while drinking your morning coffee. You can do it in your pajamas. Of course, you can go to your local polling place in your pajamas too, if you want — it’s a free country.

Second, I feel like I did a better job of voting. When I vote in person there are usually some candidates for local office that are complete cyphers to me. I’ve no idea who they are or what they stand for. Offices like the Public Hospital Board or the Soil and Agriculture Commission. I didn’t even know there was a Soil and Agriculture Commission. But with a ballot in front of me and a computer at hand, I was able to make a more informed vote for the Soil and Agriculture Commission (I voted for the former nun — you can never go very wrong voting for a former nun; they have a moral center that informs their decisions, but they also have whatever doubts that sparked them to jack the wimple).

Third, I learned the Secretary of State is pretty damned anal compulsive when it comes to filling out the ballot. You have to use a black ink pen. No blue ink, no green ink, and sure as hell no red ink (what, are you some sort of commie?). Also, you have to fill in the oval completely. No check marks, no Xs, no smiley faces (this ain’t high school). You fail to follow the instructions, your vote gets scrapped.

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Finally, I learned that vote security is fairly tight. After you fill out the ballot, you put it in an envelope labeled Secrecy Envelope, and seal the envelope. The Secrecy Envelope is then placed in an Affidavit Envelope, which you have to sign and date and seal that as well. The Affidavit Envelope is then placed in the Return Envelope, which also has to be sealed. All of these envelopes are the old-fashioned lick-and-seal type, not the fancy new remove-a-strip-and-press type. If you want to vote Absentee, you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot of saliva.

Drop the envelope in the mail, and you’ve done your civic duty. It’s not as viscerally fulfilling as going to your polling place and doing it (and by ‘it’ I mean voting) in the privacy of the voting booth, but it’s really that easy. So why do so few people do it?

In Iowa, during presidential election years, about 74% of registered voters actually vote. That’s not great, but it’s almost 15% higher than the national average. Voter participation drops rather dramatically in midterm elections. Only about 54% of registered Iowans vote, which is still better than the national average of around 38%. Only a third to a half of all registered voters cast a ballot in the midterm elections. That’s pretty damned pathetic.

Sure, election campaigns are frustrating and annoying. I totally get that. Sure, attack advertising turns off voters. And sure, we’ll all be glad when we don’t have to see another campaign advert on television. And sure, we’ll all be glad when the election is over. But will we be glad about the result?

Here’s the thing: if you don’t vote, you suck. I don’t care how discouraged you are — if you don’t vote, you suck. I don’t care what your reasons are for not voting — if you don’t vote, you suck. You suck as a citizen. If you don’t vote, you don’t get to call yourself a patriot. If you don’t vote, you deserve whatever shitty government you get. If you don’t vote, then fuck you in the neck.

It’s SO easy to vote. So easy, and so important. And if you can’t be bothered to vote, then you suck. It’s that simple. Don’t suck. Go vote.

blood simple

The National Review Online — which, despite all the similarities, is NOT the Onion — just published a classic Conservative editorial. By that I mean it’s almost completely devoid of fact and overstuffed with wrong-headed opinion fueled by free-floating anxiety and unfocused anger over a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s titled Kari Hickox, Selfish Hero.

Strictly monitored house quarantine — de facto house arrest — is undoubtedly an abrogation of civil liberties. But 21 days of it — lavishly state-funded — to be followed by perfect liberty assuming no problems, seems like a minimal sacrifice to ask of those who put themselves voluntarily in danger. When it comes to a disease that liquidates your internal organs and pushes blood out your eyeballs, “Better safe than sorry” would seem a dictum to which everyone could agree.

Where to start? Maybe with the fact that doctors and nurses have been volunteering to help in the West Africa Ebola outbreak since August (which is when the World Health Organization declared the epidemic to be an international public health emergency). Most of them did their volunteer work then quietly returned home to the U.S., where they went on with their lives. Without being quarantined. And they didn’t infect anybody.

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Or maybe with the fact that even if Kaci Hickox was infected with the Ebola virus, she wouldn’t be contagious until she became seriously symptomatic. Even if she developed the earliest symptoms — headache and fever — the risk of contagion would be extremely low. You’d have to lick the sweat off her forehead AND have a cut on your tongue before you’d be at risk (which shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement for licking Ebola patients).

But as stupid and offensive as the editorial is, the comments — well, you can guess. Stupid and offensive on steroids. For example:

Let’s be honest, anyone this self-centered went to Africa to prove how wonderful they are. Everything is about them.

This woman is a perfect example of the I, I, I, me, me, me, first person. She and her desires are more important than anyone else’s well being or health.

Every once in awhile you see a woman that makes you involuntarily think, “I pity the guy that marries her.”

She is a Democrat and an Obama supporter, whu [sic] works for the CDC. Yes, she is an Obama operative. She is challenging state governor’s on behalf of Obama. She speaks about science, just like the Obama people are doing. They are taking a superior position, backed by science, and everyone else is just hysterical. I do not know what Obama hopes to gain from this game, but it is a dangerous one.

Lawdy. It’s been three weeks or so since Eric Duncan died. That’s more than enough time for the American people to have educated themselves about Ebola. Three weeks. In three weeks you can teach a flatworm to follow a path in a maze. A fucking flatworm — a simple bilaterian, soft-bodied, unsegmented invertebrate. But can conservatives learn the actual level of risk involved in dealing with Ebola in that same period of time? No. Can elected officials learn the actual level of risk? No.

Why? Because they’ve gone blood simple. That’s a term coined by Dashiell Hammett in one of his early novels, Red Harvest. It describes the addled, irrational, conspiratorial, violent mindset of people who are exposed to long-term, escalating, chaotic fear.

“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”

I know the feeling.

priorities and choices

This guy. Seriously, this guy. His name is Jason Chaffetz. He’s a Republican from Utah. It’s because of this guy — and others like him — that the United States sometimes behaves like a drunk with Alzheimer’s.

Jason Chaffetz (Republican, Utah)

Jason Chaffetz (Republican, Utah)

At the end of last week Chaffetz appeared on a FOXNews show, where he complained about the Obama administration’s response to the non-existent Ebola crisis in the U.S. He was, of course, outraged — which is the default for Republican members of Congress.

“Why not have the Surgeon General head this up? I think that’s a very legitimate question. At least you have somebody who has a medical background who’s been confirmed by the United States Senate.”

The answer, of course, is because we don’t have a Surgeon General. So a better (or at least a more intelligent) question would be Why don’t we have a Surgeon General? The answer to that is because Republicans in the Senate have blocked President Obama’s nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy. Why have they blocked his nomination? Because Dr. Murthy has stated publicly that he believes easy access to firearms in the United States poses a threat to the nation’s public health. (Speaking of firearms as a threat to public health, we just had the 87th school shooting since the massacre of innocents at Newtown almost two years ago — three dead, at last count, including the shooter.)

Not a public health issue

Not a public health issue

It’s bad enough that Chaffetz wasn’t aware that we haven’t had a Surgeon General since July of last year. What’s worse is that we have a political party that believes one Ebola death in the U.S. constitutes a public health crisis, but more than 30,000 firearm-related deaths every year doesn’t. Ladies and germs, that’s your modern Republican party.

So who is this Chaffetz, anyway? He got his start as a spokesman for Nu Skin Enterprises. Nu Skin describes itself as a ‘multilevel marketing company’ which produces and sells ‘personal care products’ and ‘dietary supplements.’  According to the Attorneys General of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (and, most recently, the government of China), Nu Skin is probably a pyramid scheme that scams people into selling its products, which don’t do what Nu Skin claims they do.

Chaffetz apparently decided to get into politics after meeting former President Ronald Reagan, who was visiting Nu Skin as a ‘motivational speaker.’ As a Congressman, he’s best known for two things. First, opposing the right of employees of the Transportation Security Agency to engage in collective bargaining (and subsequently accusing the TSA screeners at the Salt Lake City airport of requiring him to submit to a full body scan because of his opposition). Second, accusing the Obama administration of deliberately failing to protect American personnel in Benghazi while acknowledging he’d voted to cut the funding for embassy security (“Look, we have to make priorities and choices in this country”). Again, this is your modern Republican party.

“We have to make priorities and choices.” — Jason Chaffetz

So, just to be clear, we have a Congressman who began his career defending a pyramid scheme, who claims to have been singled out for retaliation by TSA employees because he tried to prevent them from joining a union, who blames the current administration for not providing enough embassy security in a volatile region after he’d voted to reduce funding for embassy security, and who faults the administration for failing to put a Surgeon General who doesn’t exist in charge of dealing with an imaginary public health crisis, while ignoring a very real public health crisis that kills more than thirty thousand citizens every year.

It’s all about priorities and choices. By the way, Congressman Chaffetz has a line of skin care products he’s sure you’d be interested in.

oxbows and bottoms

One of the advantages (and let’s face it, there aren’t many) to being a freelance writer is that on any given day you can look out the window, see that it’s a lovely afternoon, and say “Fuck it, I’m going to go wander.” You can’t do that very often, of course, if you want to keep beans and tortillas on the table. But just knowing you can say it — and do it — is pretty liberating.

Yesterday I looked out that window, saw that it was a perfectly lovely autumn afternoon, said “Fuck it” (and yeah, I said it right out loud), turned off the computer, grabbed my aging little Fujifilm X10 camera, and walked out the door. I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Sort of.

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The Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. I knew it existed. I’d seen it on Google maps. I knew generally where it was located (it’s only about 20 minutes by car from where I live). I had a basic understanding of what was meant by ‘bottoms’ and ‘greenbelt’. But I’d never taken the time to actually go there. Proof, if you needed proof, that I can be a massive fucking idjit.

This might seem silly, but one reason I wanted to visit the place is because of Chichaqua. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. Some 350 years ago when this area was being explored and mapped by French coureurs de bois and voyageurs, they asked the local Sauk and Meskwaki Indians what the river was called. The river, they were told, was Chicaqua. The French had also heard that same term to describe a skunk,so they assumed that was the name of the river. The French began calling it Rivière Mouffette. Skunk River. And that’s what it’s still called. In fact, chichaqua was a term meaning ‘having a powerful smell.’ The natives had been talking about the wild onions and cabbage that grew along the river banks.

I don’t know why that amuses me so much. But it does.

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What’s weird, though, is the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt is no longer a part of the Skunk River. A century ago (give or take a few decades) folks decided to ‘straighten’ the river. Which is a pretty arrogant thing to do. The idea was that a slow-moving, winding, meandering river was inefficient and prone to flooding. So they dug a massive gash in the ground and re-channeled the river. This sort of thing happened all over the world, by the way — not just in the American Midwest. Nobody realized at the time that a slow-moving, meandering river was a good thing for flooding. It localized the flood, which reduced the overall severity. Nobody realized that ‘straightening’ a river would reduce an area’s biodiversity. Hell, nobody knew what biodiversity was, or why it might be a good thing.

So…big gash, straight river. And about 25 miles of the old Skunk was isolated.

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See that straight blue line on the map? That’s the current channel of the South Skunk River. It’s basically a long ditch. A very pretty ditch, to be sure, and I love wandering along it. Nature has made interesting and lovely, but it’s still a ditch. That wiggly blue line? That’s the old channel. Nothing even remotely ditch-like about it.

Back in 1960, the county bought up about 9000 acres of the old Skunk River channel. The water had never drained from the old channel; the area had basically become a series of oxbow lakes and bottoms. What the hell are oxbows and bottoms? Glad you asked. That’s an oxbow in the photograph below.

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An oxbow is a U-shaped body of water; it occurs naturally in meandering rivers. An oxbow lake is one that’s formed when the U-shaped loop is cut off from the main channel, either because some engineering fuckwit decides to ‘straighten’ the river, or because a big flood (or sometimes an earthquake) will shift the river channel itself. Bottoms, on the other hand, are alluvial lowlands, which probably doesn’t tell you much. It’s what we call that land by a river that floods all the time. Marshy land, mosquito-breeding swamps, rich in sediment. If a river runs through a city, the Bottoms are where the poor folks usually live.

That bench in the photograph below? That’s sitting on bottomland. Oxbow lakes and bottoms. Great for wildlife and flood reduction. Sucks for housing.

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After the county bought up the old Skunk River channel, they sort of encouraged it to be more of what it already was — a wildlife habitat. They re-introduced otters, and bobolinks, and wild turkeys, and a few species of endangered turtles. Other species returned on their own, like Pileated Woodpeckers and various raptors. They preserved old trees and planted tree species that used to grow in the area before it became farmland.

And I have to say, they’ve done a fantastic job. The place is completely fucking beautiful. Within the first half hour I was there I saw two Great Blue Herons walking along the dead-end road that leads to the area. Herons on the road. They were apparently gigging for frogs in the marshy ponds just off the blacktop. I saw the first bobolink I’ve ever seen in the wild. I nearly stepped on a Northern Water Snake that was three and a half feet long.

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Did I get photos of those critters? No, I didn’t. Why? Because I was too busy looking at them to bring my camera to my eye. I’m rubbish when it comes to wildlife photography. What I did instead was photograph the stuff that didn’t move. You know — trees and all that. The water — which I guess does move, even in oxbow lakes. But the lakes and marshes themselves are pretty stationary. I’m not much better at landscape photography than I am at shooting wildlife. I think that’s partly because the landscape is SO BIG and the camera can only jam a small chunk of it through the lens. Still, these photos will, I hope, give you some small idea of the Chichaqua Bottoms.

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I’d only planned to be there a short time. I figured maybe an hour. You know, just a break from work to refresh my mind — then back to the computer. But do you remember that bit I mentioned at the beginning of this post? That bit about one of the few advantages of being a freelance writer is the ability to say “Fuck it, I’m going to go wander”? Well, that’s exactly what I did.

It’s days like this that make the lack of a steady income bearable. Pension plan? Pffft. You can’t put days like this in the bank. You have to spend them when you have them.

a deep, fetid reservoir of stupid

Can somebody in Texas or Washington, DC find Congressman Blake Farenthold and attempt to explain to him the difference between real life and fiction? Because, seriously, there is just no goddamned fucking way this maroon should be sitting on Congressional hearings.

Let me just repeat the key sentence in that short video:

“Every outbreak novel or zombie movie you see starts with somebody from the government sitting in front of a panel like this saying there’s nothing to worry about.”

I am totally gobsmacked. Not by Farenthold’s total ignorance of Ebola and its transmission vectors — I mean, the guy is a dolt, so I don’t expect him to understand how the Ebola virus actually works. I’m gobsmacked by the fact that he actually really no-shit truly spoke from the bench in a Congressional hearing and without embarrassment or any sense of irony referenced zombie movies in a discussion on health policy oh Jeebus I still can NOT completely believe this.

I’ve written about Farenthold before. I predicted that “he has the potential to some day be known as the Louie Gohmert of South Texas.” But I had no notion his fetid reservoir of stupid ran so deep.

ebolapalooza

Are you ready for this? An elementary school teacher in the small town of Strong, Maine attended the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — an educational conference held at the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas, Texas. Dallas is the city in which Texas Health Presbyterian is located. Texas Health Presbyterian is the hospital in which Thomas Eric Duncan was treated for (and died from) the Ebola virus. The Hilton Anatole hotel is almost ten miles from Texas Health Presbyterian hospital.

On her return to Maine, the teacher was placed on a 21-day leave of absence. It takes between two and twenty-one days for a person infected with Ebola to exhibit symptoms.

Strong Elementary School -- Strong, ME.

Strong Elementary School — Strong, ME.

That’s right. The administrators of Maine School Administrative District 58 have placed a teacher on paid leave for being in the same city as an Ebola patient. Why? Because a local parent, Matt Dexter, has a child who is in that teacher’s class. I don’t want to say that Matt Dexter is a complete fucking idjit.

But he is. He complained to the school board:

“[Y]ou sent (this teacher) to a potentially harmful area for exposure, and then to come back and jump into the classroom on Monday seemed a little bit reckless.”

Matt Dexter apparently believes the Ebola virus is very clever — the McGyver of viruses. He seems to think if a patient in an isolation unit coughs or sneezes, those wily Ebola viruses will find a way to escape isolation, sneak out of the hospital, travel ten miles to a nice hotel, infiltrate the hotel’s HVAC ducts, find its way to the room of a visiting teacher from Maine, infect her, then bide its time until she returns to her classroom in Maine, at which point it will leap out and assault his child. Did I mention Matt Dexter is a complete fucking idjit?

“I’m really tired of people telling everyone, on the news, starting at the national level, ‘zero risk, low risk.’ The bottom line is that there is risk. Are we more capable of handling this than Africa? Sure, but why walk around blind and jam people into hot spots we can’t control? It all comes down to personal responsibility.”

You know, maybe the reason everyone is saying there’s a low risk is because there actually is a low risk. And c’mon, ‘low risk’ is an exaggeration. The risk is infinitesimal. Consider this: we had a guy with active Ebola symptoms at large in Dallas for two days, then hospitalized in a facility completely unprepared to treat Ebola — and yet only two other people have tested positive for the virus. The four people who actually shared living quarters with Thomas Eric Duncan while he was symptomatic — the period when he was most contagious — are about to be released from quarantine; they’ve shown no sign of being infected. Why? Because Ebola, despite being incredibly infectious, just isn’t very transmissible.

Possible route taken by wily Ebola virus intent on infecting teachers from Maine

Possible route taken by wily Ebola virus intent on infecting teachers from Maine

And yet Matt Dexter, of Strong, Maine, is about to piss his pants in panic because his child’s teacher happened to spend a few days in the same city as an Ebola patient. But hey, he’s right — it DOES all come down to personal responsibility. Matt Dexter is personally responsible for educating himself before panicking — and he failed in that responsibility. He’s personally responsible for teaching his child the difference between rational fears and irrational fears — and he failed in that. He’s personally responsible for being a role model for his child — and guess what, he failed at that too. Matt Dexter has a personal responsibility NOT to be a complete fucking idjit. Failed.

I feel sorry for the teacher. But even more, I feel sorry for Matt Dexter’s child. All children are, at some point, embarrassed by their parents. But few children have such a legitimate reason to be embarrassed.

a little harmless sedition and mutiny

First thing every morning: coffee and the news. That’s my routine. The coffee because coffee is good, the news because it’s so often horrible. If I read the news first thing in the morning, the day can only get better.

I have favorite types of news stories. One of them is the Republican Shocked to Learn Saying Horrible or Stupid Things Might Not Be Universally Accepted category. You know, like when Todd Akin was surprised to learn there were people who didn’t divide rape into legitimate and illegitimate cases. Or Mitt Romney, who was startled to find that some people didn’t share his opinion that 47% of the population refused to take responsibility for their behavior. I love those little reality checks.

This week’s winner is Debbie Dunnegan Waters.

Supposedly Recorder of Deeds

Supposedly Recorder of Deeds in Jefferson County, Missouri

Ms. Waters is the Recorder of Deeds, an elected official in Jefferson County, Missouri. She recently wrote the following on her Facebook page:

I have a question for all my friends who have served or are currently serving in our military … having not put on a uniform nor taken any type military oath, there has to be something that I am just not aware of. But I cannot and do not understand why no action is being taken against our domestic enemy. I know he is supposedly the commander in chief, but the constitution gives you the authority. What am I missing?

What is she missing? I don’t know…maybe some critical cognitive functioning? I don’t expect elected officials at the county level to be familiar with the details of the U.S. Constitution, but this is some pretty basic stuff, right here. Clearly, she’s heard the phrase ‘domestic enemy’ somewhere, and she seems to understand it’s somehow connected with the Oath of Enlistment. She also appears to realize there’s a link between being President of the United States and being the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. It really shouldn’t be that difficult to reason this through. Most folks learn this stuff in a junior high civics class.

So let me help the poor woman. First let’s deal with that ‘supposedly the commander in chief’ business. It’s right there in the U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section 2, if you’re interested). It says the President of the United States, whether you like him or not and regardless of his race, is the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” There you go. Pretty clear, right?

Okay, now why doesn’t the military take ‘action’ against the president? The Unified Code of Military Justice tells us why. It’s in the section on mutiny and sedition — which is sort of a hint (that would be (Article 94, section 894, by the way). It states any member of the Armed Forces who “with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses, in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his duty or creates any violence or disturbance is guilty of mutiny.” And any member who “with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of lawful civil authority, creates, in concert with any other person, revolt, violence, or other disturbance against that authority is guilty of sedition.” That bit about the ‘lawful military authority’ and the ‘lawful civil authority’? Yeah, that includes the President of These United States. Oh, another thing: the punishment for mutiny and/or sedition? It’s “death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.”

Finally, that stuff about ‘domestic enemies’ comes from the Oath of Enlistment. When you join any branch of the military, you have to take this oath:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

I don’t think you have to mention God anymore, though you did when I enlisted. But that’s irrelevant. What Ms. Dunnegan Waters needs to look at is that middle part of the oath. The part that says “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States.”

So let’s look again at her Facebook comment.

dunnegan twitter

Some people (and by ‘some people’ I mean a LOT of people) pointed out that it’s probably inappropriate for the Jefferson County, Missouri Recorder of Deeds to suggest members of the U.S. military should engage in sedition and mutiny. This, of course, took Ms. Dunnegan Waters completely by surprise. She said,

“I meant no ill intent toward the president. I meant no ill intent toward anybody.”

No, of course not. She just wants the military to take action against him. You know…in the kind, gentle, supportive sort of way the military takes action. And besides, she says, people are just misinterpreting her Facebook comment. In an interview with the local public radio station, she said this:

“I just wanted to know what oath (the military) took. I’m not calling the president a domestic enemy. I’m not calling the president anything.”

Like so many Republicans who say outrageously stupid things, Ms. Dunnegan Waters appears mainly to be surprised that anybody was offended. I mean, how could anybody possibly be upset that she called the president a domestic enemy (which she totally didn’t do, though maybe she did, but if she did (and she did) she didn’t really mean any ill intent, so that’s exactly the same as she didn’t)? And like so many Republicans, she blames all the fuss over how she phrased it, not because of what she said.

“I should have known better than to use certain phrases. Maybe my choice of words was bad.”

No, you said exactly what you meant to say. You just didn’t expect anybody outside your usual circle of Republican nutjobs to notice it. You just didn’t expect anybody would hold you accountable for the things you said. Like so many Republicans who like to talk about stuff like civility and personal responsibility, you just didn’t think it should apply to you.

By the way, Debbie Dunnegan Waters is up for re-election in a few weeks. I hope the good people of Jefferson County, Missouri will give her a lesson in responsibility.