return of the dimwitted sheriffs

A few weeks ago I nattered on about a group of dimwit sheriffs who hold a rather flawed understanding of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (their understanding of the Supremacy Clause, essentially, is this: What? There’s a Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution?). When I wrote about them, these folks claimed to have more than sixty county sheriffs who supported the belief that they are the final arbiters of the law in their county. Now they claim there are more than 200 sheriffs who support that position.

An organization called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association recently held their first conference (in Las Vegas, of course, because where else would ultra right wing Christianists hold a meeting?). The CSPOA conference was organized by this jamoke:

Former sheriff Richard Mack

Former sheriff Richard Mack locked in mortal combat against Imaginary Obama

That’s Richard Mack, former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona (population: 37,220). Mack was the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Officer of the Year for 1994; he’s been inducted into the NRA Hall of Fame. He’s also the author of From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns and THE NAKED SPY: His Mission Began the Day He Died. 

The CSPOA conference was sponsored by the Gun Owners of America, the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, and the John Birch Society. And before you ask, I swear I’m not making that up — it was sponsored by the fucking John Birch Society. The folks best known for claiming the fluoridation of drinking water was a communist plot, the folks who claimed President Eisenhower was a “communist tool.”

But be assured, former-sheriff Mack also has support from equally reputable sources. Like has-been, draft dodging rock musicians with tendencies toward pedophilia.

Former sheriff Mack, former rocker Nugent, former deer

Former sheriff Mack, former rocker Nugent, former deer

The purpose of the CSPOA conference was to instruct county law enforcement officers  about their alleged constitutional powers. They maintain the Constitution of the United States and the 10th Amendment grant sheriffs supreme law enforcement power within their counties. This, by the way, is the 10th Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

According to former-sheriff Mack and his lunatic companions of the CSPOA, the Constitution essentially limits federal law enforcement powers to policing matters of treason, piracy, treaty violations and counterfeiting. That’s it — counterfeiters, traitors and pirates, that’s all the Feds can do. Therefore, the 10th Amendment necessarily confers all primary law enforcement power on the county sheriff. Seriously, that’s their claim. I’m not making this up. The CSPOA folks maintain the following:

The sheriff’s position overrides any federal agents or even the arrogant FBI agents who attempt to assume jurisdiction in our cases.

Yes, they claim the locally elected sheriff has more authority than the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They can only believe that if they ignore that pesky Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. That clause prevents States (and therefore the individual counties of those States) from enforcing their local laws in a way that interferes with federal law. That’s why it’s illegal to own a bazooka in, say, Big Horn County, Wyoming.

Sheriff Dave Mattis, who just happens to be from Big Horn County, Wyoming (population: 11,668), attended the CSPOA conference. He told the other attendees that he’s issued an edict (an edict!) forbidding Federal agents from entering Big Horn County without his approval. Not only that, Mattis also told the conference the Wyoming District Court agreed with him.

Dave Mattis, dimwit liar and sheriff

Dave Mattis, dimwit liar and sheriff

But the court didn’t actually agree with him. In fact, after they learned of Mattis’ claim, the Wyoming District Court issued a statement (and note the court wouldn’t even agree that Mattis issued an edict; they dismissed it as a mere policy and even then they even put policy in quotes — that’s a tough court):

Big Horn County Sheriff, David M. Mattis, issued a “Policy.” In the “Policy,” the Sheriff purports to impose conditions upon federal law enforcement operations in the County. We have learned that it has been reported, erroneously, that the court made a legal ruling in the Castaneda case regarding the authority of federal law enforcement officials to conduct operations in the County. There was no such ruling or decision.

This Court has never issued an order which would serve to limit the lawful activities and duties of federal law enforcement officers and other federal employees in the District of Wyoming. Furthermore, this Court has never made the comments attributed to it which purports to advise state officers they can prohibit federal law enforcement officers or agents from entering a Wyoming County. Those alleged quotations are utterly false.

Any person who interferes with federal officers in performance of their duties subjects themselves to the risk of criminal prosecution.

In less legalistic terms, the court is saying Big Horn County Sheriff Dave Mattis is full of shit. So is Sheriff Denny Peyman of Jackson County, Kentucky (population: 13,494). Peyman held a news conference in which he said this:

I am the highest elected official in this county…I can ask federal people to leave, they have to leave. I can ask state people to leave, they have to leave. [I]t doesn’t matter what [new laws] Obama passes, the sheriff has more power than the federal people.

Dimwit Sheriff Denny Peyman

Dimwit Sheriff Denny Peyman and all of his deputies

It probably ought to be noted, though, that due to Sheriff Peyman’s misuse of county funds (County judge William Smith says the Sheriff’s Department owes the county nearly $300,000) county officials have formed an alternate Jackson County Police Department comprised of Peyman’s former deputies. Sheriff Peyman is now the entire Jackson County Sheriff’s Department; his staff is gone, his policing duties are gone, and he has nothing to do but call dimwitted news conferences. The FBI has apparently been called in to investigate the case. I guess Peyman forgot to ask them to leave.

Despite what these dimwitted sheriffs say, the law on this matter is pretty clear. Federal officers can’t be subjected to state criminal sanctions for carrying out their appointed duties. It doesn’t mean federal agents are above the law; but it does mean no dimwit sheriff can prevent them from fulfilling their lawful duty just because that dimwit sheriff disagrees with the laws written by Congress.

But don’t be too hard on these sheriffs for being dimwitted or telling lies. Lying seems to be part and parcel of the CSPOA approach. Earlier I mentioned that the organization is claiming to have more than 200 sheriffs as members. The operative term there is claiming. I noticed one of the sheriffs listed as members is Bill McCarthy, the sheriff of Polk County, Iowa.

I live in Polk County. I voted for Sheriff McCarthy. I based my vote on comments he made during a debate. McCarthy actually brought up the subject of the so-called constitutional sheriffs movement. His opponent in the election had demanded he join the Oath Keepers — another group of law enforcement officers who believe they get to define the Constitution. This is what McCarthy said:

“I had him and others come in my office and demand that I sign an Oath Keepers promise which is a sign that you support the Constitution.  That would be the last thing I’d ever do is sign a Constitution for people like that. I took an oath when I joined the Marine Corps. I took an oath that caused me to do two terms in Vietnam.  I took an oath in 69 when I joined the Sheriff’s office, and again in 70 with the Police Department, and then again when I was elected Sheriff.  I’m not taking an oath for people who define ‘We the People’ [as those] who look exactly like them and think exactly like them.”

McCarthy won with nearly 60% of the vote. He’s not a member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Claiming him as a member is a lie. But that’s how groups like the CSPOA operate.

Trial lawyers have a maxim: When the facts are against you, bang on the law; when the law is against you, bang on the facts; when both the law and the facts are against you, bang on the table.

These dimwits are banging on the table. They hope that by banging loudly enough, it’ll distract folks from the facts and the law. But the fact is, nobody in the government is planning to confiscate everybody’s guns. But there’s a chance the laws will change to require some minimal restrictions on firearms. If the law changes, all law enforcement officers — including sheriffs — will have a duty to uphold it.

Then former sheriff Richard Mack can resume his badly neglected writing career.

the naked spy

save the date

So I’m walking down this alley, right? Walking down the alley, minding my own business mostly, and in the back of this building–it looks like it might have been a garage space at one time, or maybe some sort of small manufacturing enterprise that went toes up–on one of the boarded-over broken windows, I see this:

Save the date

Sometimes I see things and they don’t quite register in my brain until a few seconds later. I took maybe five or six steps and then my brain belatedly kicks in. Dude, my brain says, did you see that? And I’m all ‘Yeah, I saw it.” And my brain says Well? And I say ‘Okay’ and me and my brain turn around and retrace those five or six steps.

save the date2

And sure enough, my brain was right to insist we turn around. There it is. Save the date. (Okay, there’s also a cast-off blouse or jacket, stained with what appears to be blood; I didn’t examine it too closely because 1) I wasn’t about to pick it up without a pair of latex gloves and 2) I really do not want to be seen standing in an alley holding a bloody jacket in my hands.)

Save the date. I’m just taking it for granted that this isn’t like ‘Save the Whales.’ I don’t think the date is in any danger or is in any way threatened. I’m assuming whoever wrote that is suggesting I don’t make any plans for the 19th day of July because…because why?

Let’s just assume this (this what? Is it an invitation? an announcement? a command?) is a savvy niche marketing strategy, that it’s a direct approach targeting the ‘folks who wander down alleys’ demographic. And while we’re assuming, let’s also assume it’s not targeting a ‘folks who don’t mind standing in alleys holding bloody jackets’ demographic. That leads us inevitably to this question: Uhhh…what the fuck?

I realize this is a small broken window; there isn’t room to include a detailed account of what’s going to take place on that date. But a hint would have been nice.

So I go online to see if I can determine what’s happening on the 19th of July. There’s a Taylor Swift concert in Philadelphia. Wrong city, wrong demographic. Somebody named Tracy is getting married. But probably not in that alley (although that would be a wedding I’d definitely attend). There’s a synchronized swimming competition. Doesn’t sound like a likely candidate. There’s a bull riding event in Florida and a group called Train is appearing in Indianapolis on their Mermaids of Alcatraz tour. Nope, that’s not it. The Red Sox are playing the Dog-Ass Yankees at Fenway. That’s always a good time. And in Des Moines there’s a muscle car auction at the State Fairgrounds and the Civic Center is hosting a student performance of The Princess and the Pea. Probably not events you’d advertise in an alley.

I’m willing to save the date on my calendar (if I owned a calendar, which I don’t, but that’s not the point, is it–the point is this: ‘Why am I saving the date?’ A related point may be ‘Do you really think folks who wander down alleys are also folks who keep engagement calendars?’). I may have to return to the alley with a bit of paint and a brush and use one of the remaining boarded-over broken windows to request more information.

Okay but why am I
saving the date?

It wouldn’t be vandalism. It would just be an appeal for clarification. Right?

we’re still at war

It’s common knowledge that liberals hate America, right? We don’t support the troops, and the only reason we’re not burning the flag right this very minute is because we’re too busy queuing up in disorderly socialist lines for the privilege of spitting on wounded veterans.

At least that’s the litany we hear every fifteen minutes from conservative Republican outlets like FOX News. But thankfully, there exists a courageous news venue that unflaggingly keeps the troops in mind, that regularly reminds us that there are still men and women in uniform serving in a combat zone.

Spc. Andrew Harvey, a 1st Infantry Soldier, patrols along steep cliffs of the Korengal Valley's surrounding mountains during Operation Viper Shake, Afghanistan, April 21, 2009. Photo courtesy

Spc. Andrew Harvey, a 1st Infantry Soldier, patrols along steep cliffs of the Korengal Valley’s surrounding mountains during Operation Viper Shake, Afghanistan, April 21, 2009. Photo courtesy

Is it FOX News? No, it’s not. Is it the New York Times? Sadly, no. Maybe it’s TIME magazine? Nope.

It’s Mother Jones. That’s right, Mother Jones — the notoriously left-wing muckraking magazine. Since June of 2009, MoJo has been publishing We’re Still at War: Photo of the Day. It’s not published every single day, but several times a week they print a photograph of U.S. military forces either in a combat zone or training for deployment to a combat zone. It’s a small thing, but it serves as a constant reminder.

The sad thing is that the American public actually needs reminding.

COMBAT OUTPOST MIZAN, Afghanistan—US Army 1st Lt. Troy Peterson, right, platoon commander for 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, assists his radio operator, US Army Pfc. Justin Cobbs, across a ravine during a dismounted patrol near Combat Outpost Mizan, Mizan District, Zabul Province, on Aug. 16, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Senior Airman Nathanael Callon.

COMBAT OUTPOST MIZAN, Afghanistan—US Army 1st Lt. Troy Peterson, right, platoon commander for 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, assists his radio operator, US Army Pfc. Justin Cobbs, across a ravine during a dismounted patrol near Combat Outpost Mizan, Mizan District, Zabul Province, on Aug. 16, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Senior Airman Nathanael Callon.

It’s become shockingly easy to forget that we’re still at war. While we’re immersed in our daily lives–buying groceries, watching Downton Abbey, making fun of Justin Bieber–men and women are still fighting and killing and dying in Afghanistan. It’s easy to forget because most folks don’t have any meaningful connection to the war or the people fighting it.

There are about a million and a half active duty personnel serving in the U.S. military–the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard. That sounds like a lot of people to have in military harness, but it’s less than half of one percent of our population. Of that million and a half troops, around 70,000 are currently serving in Afghanistan. That’s still a lot of people, but the odds are you don’t know any of them.

There’s never been a point in U.S. history in which the American public has been so separate from its military. There’s a fairly good chance you (whoever you are) have a family member who served in the military at some point in the past–probably World War II, maybe Korea, maybe Vietnam. But the odds of you knowing somebody currently on active duty are pretty slim. The odds of you knowing somebody who has served in Afghanistan or Iraq are even more slim. The odds of you knowing somebody who is currently stationed in Afghanistan are remote.

The sun sets behind U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jamie R. Johnson, a platoon sergeant from Bayonet Company, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, in Afghanistan's Kunar Province March 17. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell, 210th MPAD

The sun sets behind U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jamie R. Johnson, a platoon sergeant from Bayonet Company, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province March 17. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell, 210th MPAD

Last year 301 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan. In 2011, 412 troops were killed there, and 496 were killed the year before that. That’s averaging more than one death a day for the last three years.

Unless one of those dead troops was a member of your family, it’s easy to ignore them. Their deaths were almost certainly not reported on the national news. They might have been given a solemn moment in the local news. But let’s face it–they were strangers. They are as distant from us as the murder of a drug dealer in Newark or the accidental shooting of a 13 year old girl in Ovid Township, Michigan. They are, in a very real and very sad way, nobody at all.

Spc. Jon Saladin, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, walks past an Afghan graveyard during a US–Afghan patrol on April 30, 2012, Ghazni province, Afghanistan. Saladin serves with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Spc. Jon Saladin, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, walks past an Afghan graveyard during a US–Afghan patrol on April 30, 2012, Ghazni province, Afghanistan. Saladin serves with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Except these nobodies volunteered to put on a uniform and take risks in the service of their country. Well, our country. It’s our country too, right? We pay taxes after all (though let’s be honest, we try to pay as little as we can). But the troops sometimes have to pay in a more fundamental way.

So they deserve our support and our attention. They deserve more than we give them. Much more. Mother Jones publishes a photo of the troops a few times a week–it’s not much. It’s not much at all. But MoJo’s We’re Still at War: Photo of the Day is more attention than most news organizations give to the troops. And Mother Jones gives them a name.

Lance Cpl. Cassidy Zacharyasz provides overwatch for International Security Assistance Forces as they conduct a district transition assessment visit with Nawa District officials at the Nawa District Government Headquarters, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 29, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. John R. Rohrer

Lance Cpl. Cassidy Zacharyasz provides overwatch for International Security Assistance Forces as they conduct a district transition assessment visit with Nawa District officials at the Nawa District Government Headquarters, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 29, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. John R. Rohrer

Thanks to Mother Jones we know this:

In April of 2009, Spc. Andrew Harvey served in the Korengal Valley.
In August of 2010, 1st Lt. Troy Peterson and Pfc. Justin Cobbs served in Zabul Province.
In March of 2011, Sgt. 1st Class Jamie R. Johnson served in Kunar Province.
In April of 2012, Spc. Jon Saladin served in Ghazni province.
And just a few weeks ago Lance Cpl. Cassidy Zacharyasz was on duty in Helman Province.

These are real people. They have real families. They’re making real sacrifices. And we need to remember that, like it or not, we’re still at war.

self evident truths

I spent some time looking at the portraits from the Self Evident Truths project before I read the ‘About’ section. I like the photographs. They’re simple, unfussy, comfortable, direct, wonderfully relaxed portraits of ordinary people. I like them a lot.

On the landing page, the portraits scroll by at an unhurried pace — about the pace you’d expect if you were strolling through town and looked casually at the people coming toward you on the sidewalk. It’s pleasant and smile-making to just sit for a while and look at the faces that pass by.

self evident truths 2

Then I read the ‘About’ page. These are the first few lines on that page:

In 2010 iO Tillett Wright began a project called Self Evident Truths, photographing anyone that felt like they qualified to fall on some part of the LGBTQ spectrum, from bisexual, to transgender. Shot in simple black and white, in natural light, with no makeup or styling, the photos were intended to humanize the very varied face of gays in America today.

Intended to humanize. I read that and thought ‘We need to humanize gay folks?’ That notion seems so out of date. It feels like something activists would say in the 1990s.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the portraits. I love the foundational concept — I find something oddly pleasing about portraits of ordinary people categorized in some way. I’d love to see portraits of people who work in grocery stores, or people who are in bowling leagues, or people who frequent swap meets, or people who keep lists of the birds they see. I suspect they’d all look fairly similar to the people we see in the Self Evident Truths project.

But I can’t imagine shooting portraits of birders or bowlers or grocery store employees in order to humanize them. It’s 2013 — do we really need to humanize LGBTQ folks?

self evident truths 1

If the Montana legislature is any indication, then yeah, I guess maybe we do.

Yesterday the Montana legislature voted on a measure to strike an old Montana law that criminalized “sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex.” The Montana Supreme Court ruled that law was unconstitutional in 1997, but the law remained on the books despite regular attempts to have it removed. Why? Because some Montana Republicans apparently felt that if they voted to remove the law, they’d get some of the gay on them. And you know, that stuff is hard to wash out. Or something like that.

This year was different. This year Montana Democrats garnered enough support to have the unconstitutional law stricken from the criminal code. The vote was 38-10. That’s right, ten Republicans still voted to retain the law even though it’s unconstitutional and even though it can’t be enforced. Lawdy.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled them unconstitutional, there are still at least a dozen other states with anti-sodomy or anti-homosexual laws on the books. There are elected legislators in at least a dozen states who are so afraid of gay folks that they refuse to remove blatantly unconstitutional laws from their criminal codes.

But I still disagree with iO Tillett Wright and the Self Evident Truths project on this issue. I don’t think we need to ‘humanize’ gay folks. I think we need to humanize the people who hate gay folks.

self evident truths 3

Visit the Self Evident Truths site. Visit their shop. Buy prints of the portraits. Buy ‘We Are You’ t-shirts. Donate to the project if you can. But work to humanize bigots and assholes. Gay folks are already okay as they are.

Editorial note: When I say ‘gay folks’ I mean everybody in the LGBTQ mishpocha; I just get weary of the acronym. Also? It’s already totally fucking obvious, but for the record let me just point out that all the photos are from the Self Evident Truth project.


I’m a big believer in academic freedom. I’ve managed to acquire a handful of degrees from various colleges and universities, and for a brief time I was actually an academic my ownself. When I heard the State of Oklahoma was considering legislation promoting academic freedom, I was understandably pleased.

I said to myself, “Yay Oklahoma!” I started to read HR1674, the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, with a song in my heart. The legislation begins like this:

[A]n important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.

Who could argue against that? We totally want our students to develop mad critical thinking skillz. Yay Oklahoma! Yay critical thinking skills! The proposed legislation acknowledges that encouraging the development of those critical thinking skills can lead to controversy.

[T]he teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

So far, so good, right? Yay Oklahoma! Yay critical thinking skills! Yay controversy! Controversy is good. Controversy makes you think. Controversy requires you to…wait. Wait a minute. Wait just one fucking minute here, buddy. Biological evolution? The chemical origins of life? Global warming?

Are you crazy? There’s no scientific controversy about evolution. There’s no scientific controversy about the origin of life or anthropogenic climate change. Those are established scientific facts. What jackass wrote this proposed legislation?

This jackass.

gus blackwell and a mallet

Gus Blackwell (Jackass – Oklahoma)

This is Oklahoma state legislator Gus Blackwell. Would you be surprised to discover Blackwell is a Republican? Or that he’s a Baptist minister? Or that he’s spent the last two decades employed by the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention?

I’m not suggesting Blackwell is a jackass because he’s a Republican or a Baptist. There are lots of Republicans and Baptists who go through life without engaging in jackassery. No, Blackwell is a jackass because he’s introduced legislation that would give his Baptist theology the same credibility as science. Blackwell is a jackass because his proposed legislation goes on to say this:

[N]o student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories.

What does that mean? In effect, it means if students were to write a report claiming climate change is a hoax or arguing that the Earth is only 6000 years old and women were created from the rib of Adam, they couldn’t be ‘penalized’ with a bad grade. In an interview, Blackwell said,

“I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks. A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.”

Blackburn is a jackass, but he’s right about that. A certainly student does have the freedom to write a paper arguing against evolution. But if that paper was written for a science class, then the student should expect a failing grade. Not because the teacher may disagree with the student’s belief system, but because that student would be what we academics call ‘wrong.’

Blackwell and his ilk (yes, there is an entire ilk of jackasses like Gus Blackwell) propose this sort of legislation under the guise of promoting ‘academic freedom.’ I’m sorry to say they know as much about academic freedom as they know about science.

Academic freedom, like evolution or gravity or anthropomorphic climate change, is an actual thing. It has an actual meaning. It’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s got nothing to do with students having the freedom to write papers about humans cavorting with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.

creation museum

Academic freedom doesn’t apply to students representing a personal point of view. Legally, it doesn’t even apply to teachers or college professors. In the United States, the courts have ruled that academic freedom resides in the university. Academic freedom gives the university the power to appoint faculty and set standards for their behavior.

All major universities in the U.S. abide by the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which insures that:

  • Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties.
  • Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
  • College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

It was academic freedom that enabled Blackwell to attend Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary and study Baptist theology. Yay academic freedom! But academic freedom doesn’t mean he can legislate that his theology be given equal credibility as science. Boo jackassery!

Happily for Gus Blackwell, though, nobody has proposed legislation limiting his freedom to be a jackass.

faire l’idiot dans les ruelles

I’m completely comfortable writing about photography in most circumstances. I’m less comfortable when I’m writing about — I started to say my photography, but that sounds so pretentious. I’m less comfortable writing about the photographs I shoot. But about a month ago I received an email asking me the following questions:

I guess what I’m asking is how do you develop a personal photography project? Do you just pick a thing and start taking picture of it? Do you make up rules or guidelines before you start? How do you start a photography project?

I nattered on about my approach to the Faux Life series and the Traffic Signal series. But it occurs to me that I haven’t really addressed the actual questions. Since I promised I’d write about each of the three photo series I’ve included on this site, I thought maybe I could use this third piece to at least attempt some answers.

in case you were wondering where the power was

in case you were wondering where the power was

Do you just pick a thing and start taking picture of it? Yes. Well, no. Sometimes.

With the Faux Life series I knew what I wanted before I shot the first photograph — but that’s a conceptual series. I had to develop the concept before I could shoot the series. So in that case, yes I picked a thing and started taking photos of it. The Traffic Signal series grew out of a different project — one that focused more on writing than on photography. It wasn’t until I’d shot some photos of traffic signals that I actually became interested in them as a distinct theme. So no, I didn’t just pick a thing and start taking photographs of it. I hadn’t even considered it as a thing until after I’d taken several photos in which traffic signals were featured.

With the Larking about in Alleys series I was doing just that. Larking about in alleys and shooting photos of stuff I saw there. I’d no idea of making it into a coherent series until a friend of mine (the delightful Beckett Gladney) suggested it.

tobacco row

tobacco row

Do you make up rules or guidelines before you start? Yes. Well, no. Sometimes.

Since the Faux Life series was conceptual, I obviously had to come up with some basic rules before I began shooting. 1) Rephotograph moments from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or Angel) television series, 2) shoot them in black-and-white, 3) post-process the images to shift the focus or make them more dramatic, 4) find an appropriate (or an inappropriate) line from a Jane Austen novel, 5) insure that both the image and the text combine to create something not found in either original.

Those were the ‘rules.’ But I discovered I had to be flexible within the confines of those rules. For example, I’d originally intended to rephotograph action sequences — chase scenes or fights. But they turned out to be surprisingly uninteresting. I learned that the more quiet and nuanced scene carried more emotional impact.

in an alley nothing is ever quite straight

in an alley nothing is ever quite straight

The Traffic Signals series was significantly easier because it had significantly fewer rules. Just the one, really: photograph a traffic signal in such a way that it provides an unexpected perspective of such a commonplace device. Simple.

On the other hand, Larking about in Alleys turned out to be surprisingly more difficult. Initially, I was truly just larking about — wandering idly through alleyways to see what I could see, and doing it for the simple reason that I enjoy seeing stuff not really intended to be seen. But once I began the series, I needed it to be cohesive and coherent. It had to require more than simply being IN an alley and shooting a photograph. The photo had to have (and yes, I realize how loopy this sounds) a certain alley quality. It had to have alleyness.

probably trespassing

probably trespassing

And that meant I had to think about alleys. Alleys in American cities are basically utilitarian. They’re working spaces rather than commercial spaces. They tend to be cosmetically ignored; nobody really cares how an alley looks. They tend to be narrow and confined, though they often open up unexpectedly into a wider space (as seen below). Alleys aren’t usually built for traffic — not in the sense of the efficient transport, by foot or vehicle, of goods or people from one place to another. For the most part, alleys aren’t intended to be thru-ways; they’re a temporary destination — a place to load and unload. Although they’re usually open to the public, the public isn’t expected to use them. The public most certainly isn’t expected to lark about in them.

alley opens into parking lot

alley opens into parking lot

Once I’d developed a sense of alleyness, I began trying to shoot photos that would suggest those alley qualities. It’s not as easy as you’d think.

But that’s it. That’s how I develop a photography project. Which is to say, that none of the three series on this website developed in the same way. I realize that’s not a particularly helpful answer to the questions. But hey, I’m a writer, not a photographer.

alley in the mist

alley in the mist

I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to start a photography project. I suspect it can be difficult to do something original, or to do it in an original way. And I have absolutely no help to offer about that.

Oh, and about the title of this piece? It’s my understanding (and many thanks to Sonya Butler) that Faire l’idiot dans les Ruelles is French for Larking about in Alleys. It sounds so much more amusing in French.

a sad and shabby sort of patriotism

This week’s display of squalid politics by Congressman Steve Stockman just makes me sad. I’ve written about Stockman before. It wasn’t so much that he chose to invite Ted Nugent to President Obama’s State of the Union address. That was certainly shabby behavior. But what I find most sad is this line from Stockman’s press release:

“I am excited to have a patriot like Ted Nugent joining me in the House Chamber to hear from President Obama.”

A patriot. Stockman considers Ted Nugent a patriot. What sort of patriot wonders if the United States would be better off if the Confederacy had won the U.S. Civil War? Here’s what Nugent wrote in a Washington Times column:

Because our legislative, judicial and executive branches of government hold the 10th Amendment in contempt, I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.

Nugent is certainly free to disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court. I often disagree with them my ownself. But it would never occur to me to wonder if maybe the Confederacy should have prevailed in the Civil War. Steve Stockman has some odd ideas about what constitutes patriotism.

Congressman Steve Stockman (Republican Lunatic - Texas)

Congressman Steve Stockman (Republican Lunatic – Texas)

And what sort of patriot dodges the draft, brags about it, but encourages others to enlist in military service and fight in our wars? In a 1977 interview in High Times magazine, Nugent discussed how he evaded the draft.

So I got my notice to be in the draft. Do you think I was gonna lay down my guitar and go play army? Give me a break!

To prepare for his draft physical, Nugent described how he stopped bathing, how he ate nothing but a junk food diet, how he urinated and defecated in his pants. He told the interviewer he smoked meth before reporting for the physical, apparently to be sure he was in the right frame of mind. And, of course, Nugent was declared unfit for military service.

I may disagree with folks who avoided military service during the Vietnam War, but I respect those who were forthright about it — the men who went to prison for refusing to report, even the ones who chose to leave the country rather than fight for a war they didn’t believe in. Those people made principled decisions and they accepted the consequences. I have no respect for people who supported the war but chose to game the system because they simply couldn’t be bothered to serve in the military. In that same High Times interview, Nugent went on to say this:

But you know the funny thing about it? I’d make an incredible army man. I’d be a colonel before you knew what hit you, and I’d have the baddest bunch of motherfuckin’ killers you’d ever seen in my platoon. But I just wasn’t into it. I was too busy doin’ my own thing, you know?

Here’s another ‘funny’ thing about it: Steve Stockman considers this hypocritical braggart to be a patriot.

Ted Nugent (woman-hating, gun nut, coward, pedophile Republican - Michigan)

Ted Nugent (woman-hating, gun nut, coward, pedophile Republican – Michigan)

I don’t think Nugent’s sex life has anything to do with patriotism — you can, I suppose, be a pedophile and still love your country — but I’m going to mention it here anyway, just as an indication of exactly how much bad behavior Stockman is willing to overlook when he’s inviting guests to the State of the Union speech.

Nugent is a self-confessed pedophile. He’s admitted to numerous sexual relationships with underage girls and young women. One of them was Courtney Love, who has publicly stated she gave Nugent a blow job when she was twelve (which would have made Nugent around 28 years old).

A lot of rockers in those days probably did the same thing — and also got away with it. But Congressman Stockman professes to be concerned about young girls. In fact, he opposes immigration reform because he claims it will result in the sexual abuse of girls.

Our failure to secure our border has led to horrific, tragic stories of innocents brutally smuggled into the United States to serve as slave labor, and thousands of young girls forced into prostitution.

Apparently he’s less concerned about the welfare of young girls who voluntarily give blow jobs to rock musicians. Maybe he thinks that’s an example of entrepreneurial spirit?

Still, I admit Nugent’s sexual kinks have nothing to do with his qualities as a patriot — only his qualities as a human being. Stockman, to my knowledge, never claimed Ted Nugent was a decent human being; he only said Nugent was a patriot. So what makes this aging rock musician a patriot in Stockman’s eyes?

I can only assume it’s Nugent’s passionate hatred of President Obama and women Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, and Dianne Feinstein.

In case the audio is unclear, here’s what Nugent said:

“I was in Chicago and I said ‘Hey Obama, you might want to suck on one of these you punk.’ Obama, he’s a piece of shit, and I told him to suck on my machine gun. Then I was in New York and I said, ‘Hey Hillary you might want to ride one of these into the sunset you worthless bitch.’ Then I was out in California and I thought, Barbara Boxer, she might want to suck on my machine gun. Hey Dianne Feinstein, ride one of these you worthless whore.”

Imagine the reaction from Republicans if a Democrat had invited a guest who called President George W. Bush ‘a piece of shit’ to the State of the Union address.

I’m a fan of the First Amendment. I’m pretty close to being a free speech absolutist. I’m proud to live in a nation where pathetic asswipes like Ted Nugent feel free to say any hateful thing they want. But it’s shameful for an elected official of our government to consider Nugent a patriot.

Ted Nugent is no patriot. He’s a coward and a bully. He had an opportunity to serve his country in a war he supported; he chose, instead, to shit his pants. Like every other American, Steve Stockman also had an opportunity to express his patriotism and join the military when he turned eighteen. Did he? No.

Stockman, however, had a unique opportunity to demonstrate his patriotism. On 19 April, 1995 Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children under the age of six. Stockman, an arch-conservative serving his first term in Congress, received an anonymous fax shortly after the explosion, containing information about the terrorist event. It says something about Stockman’s politics that domestic terrorists felt he was enough of a kindred spirit that they’d send him a fax about the explosion. But even more revealing is what Stockman did with that fax.

He sent it to the headquarters of the National Rifle Association. Sometime later he also forwarded it to the Justice Department.

So maybe it’s not so odd that Steve Stockman considers Ted Nugent a patriot after all.

a five dango city

It was a cold, cloudy, wet, grey, miserable sort of afternoon and I was downtown with a couple of hours to piss away on nothing in particular. In other words, a perfect time to go larking about in alleys. Alleys are best photographed in rotten weather because there are fewer people working in them. I actually like the people who work in alleys, but they tend to be camera-shy. And suspicious. It’s just easier to do alley work in foul weather.

So I slipped the little X10 in my pocket and headed out to find a nice juicy alley. First, though, I thought I’d make a little detour to visit to the river.

courthouse across the river

courthouse across the river

I’m of the opinion that you can never go very wrong making a detour to visit the river. Any river. That said, I have to admit there are certain aspects of a river that make you better appreciate a good alley. Like the absence of walls and buildings to block the wind. Let’s face it, rivers suck at wind-blocking.

On the other hand, the absence of all those walls and buildings gives rivers the great advantage of meteorological drama. With rivers you get all that accompanying sky. And you get it twice — once overhead and once in reflection.

there are always pigeons along the river

there are always pigeons along the river

There really wasn’t anything particularly interesting going on at the river. There was the usual flock of pigeons morris-dancing around in the sky. Despite the cold and wet, there were a few intrepid bicyclists and runners tooling up and down the riverwalk and bike path. There were a couple of really bitchy Canada Geese fussing at each other.

It took me a while to figure out why it was so quiet. The construction that’s been taking place along the riverwalk for the last couple of years is largely finished. There were no generators coughing away, no backhoes, no bucket trucks or forklifts, no men with jackhammers. The riverwalk was…quiet.

riverwalk intersection

riverwalk intersection

For years the Des Moines city planners have been making a considerable effort to draw people back into the downtown area. It’s not just that developers have been building loft apartments and faux brownstones — the city has been adding a lot of public art and other quality of life amenities. There’s a new dog park, there’s a skating rink, there are bike trails and pedestrian bridges, there’s a botanical center and a science center and a historical building — all near the river.

Construction has just been completed on a small, two-level riverwalk pavilion. When it opens, it’ll include public restrooms (and trust me, that’s important in a city) and a small cafe or coffee shop.

And in front of the pavilion: five dango.

the dangos of jun kaneko

the dango of jun kaneko

The dango are large ceramic sculptures by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko. A dango is a sort of Japanese steamed dumpling. These don’t look anything like dumplings, but I think there is something dumplingish about them. They’re not bland like dumplings, but they’re simple and strangely comforting. These are happy-making works of art.

There’s something very sweet and childlike about the dango. They were only installed a few weeks ago, but they seem to fit right in along the river. Seeing them, touching them, watching other folks look at them with a sort of bemused confusion — it makes me ridiculously happy.

Still, I hadn’t set out to look at the dango; I’d set out to wander idly through alleys. So I didn’t stay.

 the court avenue bridge

the court avenue bridge

But before I ventured forth alleyward, I decided to check out the other structure that’s been under construction along the riverwalk.

Rivers flood. All of them, they all flood. If you look at the large version of the photo below (or almost any photo of the riverwalk) you’ll see several lines of flood levels. What you can’t see are the tree-trunk-sized logs jammed up in the infrastructure beneath those bridges. When the Des Moines River has once-in-a-century floods (which we seem to have every five years or so now, thanks to climate change and the short-term planning of the old Army Corps of Engineers), it really floods. It’s not uncommon for those balustrades to be under water.

police department

police department

I’m mentioning that because the other structure that’s been under construction is a storm pump station. It’s designed to keep those pesky once-in-a-century flood waters under control. Both the pump station and the new pavilion have exceedingly cool flood doors that can be closed during high water. They look a lot like the doors you see protecting the island lairs of James Bond villains.

I spent an absurd amount of time looking at those doors. I don’t really want to see the river flood, but at the same time I can’t wait until the river floods.

and the snow melts slowly

flood pump station

I was just getting ready to head out and find a friendly alley when my cell phone chirped. I discovered I’d spent about two hours walking a grand total of about three and a half blocks. I had to hurry to meet my friend, so I took a shortcut through an alley.

I did manage to shoot a photo in the alley. But it was blurry.