Vote for Voting

…they’ve realized that this country has gone so flabby that any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, can grab hold of the entire government and have all the power and applause and salutes, all the money and palaces and willin’ women they want.

– Sinclair Lewis, “It Can’t Happen Here”

As long as there are candidates freely announcing that they are election deniers, I will not vote for them. Right now, that type of candidate belongs to one party: Republicans. I voted Republican my whole life for the presidency, up until you know who. But from the local level to the Secretary of State to the Governor to the Congress to the former President himself, it is remarkable that candidates will tell you they deny any past result or any future result where they lose. They blame the election process itself. “It’s rigged.” Or “There’s fraud.” If they win, amazingly, the elections are pristine. Maybe they should’ve played hockey where you learn to meet at center ice and shake hands after the game.

Their logic is easily debunked. I could list the three local Duluth politicians that filed a frivolous lawsuit to throw out mail-in ballots, even though the number of ballots wouldn’t change the result of their elections. The judge threw it out. I could trot out that my Congressman signed on to a lawsuit to overturn the votes in four states. That lawsuit had so little merit the Supreme Court wouldn’t hear it. I could bring up the 65 lawsuits brought up after the 2020 election where they lost their appeal to overturn votes 64-1. The former President’s Attorney General and his own head of the Department of Homeland security said there was no voter fraud. But that isn’t going to change one voter’s mind. Certainly not the voter who’s rolling coal in his truck with a Let’s Go Brandon flag and hasn’t opened a book since elementary school. Their identity is involved.

The easiest way to debunk all this crap is to recognize it as the same tactic a 5-year-old would use in a board game. They win, the game is great. They lose, the game is bullshit.

I’m going to vote as contrarian as I can to make sure no Republican ever gets near the levers of power at any level anywhere ever again. I will continue that course of action until every election denier in the GOP at every level of government is silenced.

Oh, there goes Shmo again. He’s all Angry Shmo. I can see you rolling your eyes. I can hear the “what about [insert topic]” already. I’m talking about candidates who deny election results, not whatever topic you want to distract me with. We can talk about your topic some other time.

And if you try to “both sides” this issue, save it. This is an issue of our form of government itself being attacked by an American political party: the dictator-fetish wing of the GOP. And “attack” is not hyperbole. Look at January 6th. This is not a “both sides” issue. This is an issue of our American Constitutional form of government being subverted by a political party. There is a cancer growing on the American body politic. When you get cancer, do you demand that you hear the tumor’s point of view so you can hear both sides? No. You don’t have a debate with the tumor. You blast the tumor with chemo or get a scalpel and cut it the fuck out. I think a lot about how the night before Nixon resigned, he had a big meeting with the leaders of his own party. That would never happen today.

During the several months from the election to January 6th, there were just a few people around this country that had a spine at the right moment. A few state-level Secretaries of State. A Vice President, if only for a moment. If not for them, the right wingers would’ve pulled it off and it would’ve “seemed legal” like in that Sinclair Lewis quote. But when that didn’t work they used violence. There has been very little accountability for that political violence, especially considering that it was the first time in over two centuries that the presidency didn’t change hands peacefully. Since nobody in charge has been put in jail, this is the lesson they’ve learned: Let’s try it again. All that bullshit less than two years ago wasn’t a failure. It was training.

That’s why they’re working hard to take over Secretary of State positions in every state. Because those are the people in charge of elections. That’s why they’re fighting to take over state legislatures. So they can rewrite the rules for how elections are even conducted. Voter suppression attempts everywhere under the guise of making sure elections are secure, in the absence of any evidence that they’re insecure. There is a case soon to be heard by the Supreme Court called Moore v. Harper. If the wannabe autocrats get their way, this will grant states, under “independent state legislature” theory, to do just about whatever they want when it comes to elections. In 2020, states tried to send “alternate” electors to Congress. If this case succeeds in the Supreme Court (or even if it doesn’t), they will try that very same tactic again. All it’s got to do is “seem legal.” You watch.

I’d like to think that people are as worked up as I am about what happened during the last national elections and on January 6th. I know they aren’t. People are busy trying to make a living. I get it. They feel like elections don’t matter. In many respects, they’re right. If the people trying to tear down our democracy win during the mid-terms, they will proceed with an agenda that undermines our form of government. They will go after the very cornerstone of this experiment: your vote. And when it’s all said and done, it will seem legal. May even be legal, when the dust clears. But as a last resort, they’ve shown they’ll resort to violence to get their way. Because it almost worked.

After the mid-terms, people will go back to worrying about gas prices. How the regional sports ball team is doing. Whether they get a new promotion. Buying their first house. But if the Republicans gain positions during the mid-terms, they will run their anti-voting gameplans. And then, it won’t just “feel” like your vote doesn’t matter. Your vote won’t matter. Period. It’ll feel kind of like it did before, but the American experiment will be over. It’ll be like that T. S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men”:

This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

So, vote like the act of voting itself is at stake. Because, in my opinion, it is.

Afterword:

Why bother with all this? You’re still here, stubborn reader, so I’ll tell you. I wrote my own poem ten years ago where I confessed something: I’m the kind of guy who says “I told you so.” My family landed on this continent around 392 years ago. I want our American experiment to succeed. I fought for it. I consider this scribbling as a way to continue to fight for it. I hope I can change one mind, but I’m not very optimistic. There’s a reason that every election comes down to a dead heat, it seems. And why no matter how heinous a candidate gets, they don’t pay a price for it. Because political affiliation has become intertwined with identity. Instead of something you only did in a voting booth, now, it’s something you fly on a flagpole outside your house. I want to be able to tell my kids that I fought. And I want to be able to say, “I told you so.”

For those who are really interested in why I bother, it’s because of the imagined future depicted in the George Saunders story called “Love Letter.” He imagines a future that slides into autocracy with a whimper. The protagonist is filled with regret that he didn’t do more to try to stop it. I don’t want to have any regrets. So, yet again, I guess it’s all about how Shmo feels.

In any case, here’s the excerpt from that story that shows what I want to avoid thinking as an old man:

Your grandmother and I (and many others) would have had to be more extreme people than we were, during that critical period, to have done whatever it was we should have been doing. And our lives had not prepared us for extremity, to mobilize or to be as focussed and energized as I can see, in retrospect, we would have needed to be. We were not prepared to drop everything in defense of a system that was, to us, like oxygen: used constantly, never noted. We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

– George Saunders, “Love Letter”
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Take a Whiff: A Review of The Chicago East India Company by Christopher Lyke

Take a Whiff:

A Review of The Chicago East India Company by Christopher Lyke

When you finish reading The Chicago East India Company by Christopher Lyke, you’ll know something about the author: “He’d worked with his back, and fought,…” Then you’ll know that people who go to war split in two. One part physically returns home and tries to rejoin daily American life. The other part is lodged in their brain and bleeds over into every thought and action. Halloween in the neighborhood with the kids contains echoes of a time in Afghanistan. In less than a hundred pages, Lyke creates a lyrical drumbeat to help you learn—help you feel—what that post-war headspace is like. The last chapter is masterful and replicates the rhythm of the whole project in miniature.  If you aren’t changed when you close this book filled with concentrated, seething energy, I feel sorry for you.

Christopher Lyke

Ford Madox Ford, famous English novelist and World War I veteran, came up with a term for this mental split. In his book It Was the Nightingale, Ford called this species of man homo duplex: “A poor fellow whose body is tied in one place, but whose mind and personality brood eternally over another distant locality.” Lyke drags you from one end of that spectrum to the other. From teaching school in Chicago to a night patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan. But he really sings to me when he describes life at home in the United States when it’s interwoven with the memory of something overseas. While he’s getting chewed out by a school administrator in Chicago, Lyke writes: 

He stared at me for a while without looking away. It was another silly game he must have learned at a management seminar. A year before, people had been trying to kill me. These tricks meant nothing. 

Here, Lyke nails something I think all the time. In my civilian life, some potential bad thing might seem possible, but then I would think to myself: What’re they going to do? Something worse than shaving my head and sending me to Afghanistan? Been there, done that.

Lyke dramatically captures how one place lives in your brain while your body lives in another. And in those moments, his writing shows how combat throws a different light on every aspect of your civilian life in the aftermath. Sometimes big, sometimes small, but ever-present. 

Many of the chapters are short and entirely about life in the US, but there’s that one-line nugget that demonstrates what people carry with them after war. Sometimes, Lyke shares a dark mood or a sense of exhaustion that isn’t explicitly a result of deploying, but could be. This mimics the genuine uncertainty I sometimes have about what’s a result of combat time and what might just be part of growing older. In this way, this book should be relatable to readers who “soldier on” in their civilian jobs, even though they’ve never been overseas.

There’s a lot of discussion for many years now about the growing “civil-military gap.” The widening chasm between those who serve and civilians who don’t. Storytelling is a way to bridge that gap, and to me, it seems natural that the onus is on the military veterans to tell those stories. But it also requires readers who are willing to be made uncomfortable. It’s kind of a hard sell: Read my book because it’ll make you squirm. Still, it’s why I recommend Lyke’s book. It’s powerful, somewhat angry, but short enough to digest. The parts about life in the big city in a job that you need, but don’t necessarily want, should hook anybody. The way the chapters alternate between the US and the war are spaced out in a rhythm that brings the reader along. That rhythm comes to a crescendo in the last chapter and, dear reader, you’re going to get agitated. And that’s the point.

In Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribehe proposes a way for communities to welcome home veterans. Lyke’s work is a concentrated version of this idea for a reader who is willing to commit: 

…if contemporary America doesn’t develop ways to publicly confront the emotional consequences of war those consequences will continue to burn a hole through the vets themselves… …Offer veterans all over the country the use of their town hall every Veteran’s Day to speak freely about their experience at war… A community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought. 

I don’t know how much of Lyke’s book is autobiographical. Some chapters refer to the main character in the third person, while other stories are told in first person. I suppose I could make some guesses about what’s nonfiction and what might be fictional based on the point of view. I’m reminded of the line from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried that’s almost like a Zen koan: “You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.”

For the longest time, the answer did matter to me, and still does. I believe a war story should be true. But now, I have my own litmus test for truth and it’s one I learned from Jerad W. Alexander in a piece he wrote called “On Telling War Stories”

The subject has a tendency to spray a social gathering with what seems to be an ultrafine shit-mist,…

Lyke’s stories read like the truth to me because I can smell that mist. Even though I was overhead the battlefield instead of on the ground. Even though I’ve never been a big city schoolteacher. I want to shove a copy of The Chicago East India Company into a reader’s hands and say, “Take a whiff.”

***

Eric Chandler is the author of Kekekabic (Finishing Line Press, 2022) and Hugging This Rock (Middle West Press, 2017)

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Seeing the Elephant

A Review of So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 2021) by Randy Brown

Reviewed by Eric Chandler


Randy Brown’s latest chapbook, So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 2021), is small and explosive. That’s why the cover image of a combination heart/grenade is so apt. Grenades are also small and explosive. 

The “Wartime Fun” comment in the title might seem odd, but humor is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. It’s hard to look directly at war. But if a poem is funny, you might be able to hang on long enough to hear what the poet is trying to say. The title also says these are short poems. True, but the words gained power for me surrounded by white space. 

I read somewhere that laughter happens when your brain gets surprised. When I read “Morning Prayer” I laughed because, my goodness, my wife and I love a cup of joe:


Coffee?

Thank God.


A short poem, for sure. There’s even a poem that ponders just how short a poem can be. Another questions what poetry is. The chapbook title comes from Brown’s parody of a William Carlos Williams poem called “This Is Just to Say.” Williams’ plums in the ice box become grenades in Brown’s poem. These poems might be a little “inside baseball,” requiring some familiarity with writing and poetry, but they still made me smirk. 

Still, this is mostly a collection that ponders war. Brown is self-aware when it comes to revisiting one’s experiences in the military. Some pieces are almost meta-poetry. Writing about war writing. In one piece called “a poem” he writes:


You don’t have to make everything

a poem, she said. 


Or about

being a Veteran.


And in his “The New Sherpatudes,” his personal list of aphorisms and nuggets of wisdom, he ends with this one-liner: Nostalgia is a disease, suffered by old soldiers. I think it’s too strong to say that reminiscing about wartime experiences is a disease. We tell stories, after all. It’s intensely human to share our stories. 

We tell those stories in different ways, which Brown covers nicely in a piece titled “blind men & veterans.” Seeing combat has been called “seeing the elephant.” He deftly combines that phrase with the old fable about several blind men describing an elephant differently based on which part of the animal they were each touching. Brown got me nodding when I read this piece:

we each describe

                           seeing the elephant


differently

As for me, I feel guilty sometimes about continuing to dwell on wartime events in my life. My disease of nostalgia. Brown dropped a truth grenade on me in a piece called “on war poetry.” Not funny, but explosive. It made me realize it’s okay to revisit some of the most important moments of my past:


we write the war /

the war writes us


even the ones

who got away clean


One time, I was dangling my toes off a dock into a Minnesota lake when a bald eagle swooped down and snagged a fish out of the calm water ten feet in front of me. The surprise of such an improbable occurrence hit my brain and I let out an explosive “HA!” like a grenade. Brown lobs many surprises that powerful, so go get yourself this chapbook. It really is So Frag & So Bold.

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