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A win-win

June 7, 2017

After hastily throwing together an article yesterday about the mayor’s reaction to Gov. Gerg Abbot’s call for a special session — a call that included (some would say overtly craven and degenerately political) attacks on Austin — I hoofed it on over to the ol’ Paramount Theatre to take in a screening of Kubrick’s klassic “Paths of Glory”, a fine film that portrays a detached and depraved ruling class of amoral generals who, in between their daily routine of fancy lunches and lavish balls, treat with sadistic glee driven by careerist lust the lives of the common men they lord over.

On my way to the theater, I couldn’t help but dwell on the governor’s complaints about burdensome regulations that depress Austin’s true economic potential, especially as I passed one of the most unfortunate blocks in all of downtown. I’ve written articles before about Block 126, a Travis County-owned property that sits at 11th and Lavaca streets. The site is severely impeded by a Capitol view corridor which restricts building height on all but its northeast corner.

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Naturally, the state-protected view of the dome under which so much anti-regulatory legislation is concocted by worthy statesman from such cultural centers as Woodville, Humble, or Euless deserves to be maintained so that we may all be reminded of the paternal lordship of our duly elected masters, those golden ubermensch of high breeding and indomitable intellect.

But with the county eyeing a reshuffling of its various facilities, as well as its interest in partnering with the city on projects aimed at helping the most vulnerable aspects of our rapidly changing community, could there be a mutually agreeable solution for Block 126 that guarantees the greatest good for the greatest number? Standing in the large, empty parking lot on Tuesday, the evening sun casting my long shadow against a lifeless, non-descript white wall across Lavaca Street, I was struck with an answer: Yes! Here then is the perfect place to protect our community’s proud yet struggling culture of Live Music!

With calls for the city to take pressure off of its premier parks by redistributing large outdoor events to other venues, and with private music clubs threatened by mounting market pressures, and with the county’s constant struggle with complaints from neighbors about an outdoor event space along the Colorado River, why not kill three or four birds with one single, publicly-owned outdoor amphitheater-shaped stone at this centrally-located yet underpopulated section of downtown, complete as it is with a stunning view of that temple of fiscal prudence and local preemption?

Surrounded by a cornucopia of bus routes, bike lanes, and parking, Block 121 presents itself as the ideal location for weekly or even daily exhibitions of all flavor of musical diversity, from reggae to hip hop and cumbia to conjunto. Much as it did for other venues downtown, the city could relax burdensome regulations such as noise curfews, allowing the freedom of ear-splitting musical expression to extend as late as midnight even on weeknights since, after all, the area is virtually devoid of humanity after the daily 5:00 p.m exodus of neighboring government offices by parasitic, taxpayer-funded bureaucrats.

Granted, there are a handful of permanent residents at the Westgate condo tower just to the north, but the state-mandated height restrictions do not preclude a partial acoustic-buffering eggshell that could rise up along 11th Street, replacing the existing county office building there. Naturally, in order to preserve for concert goers the vista of that awesome Olympus of state government whose great pantheon includes towering authors of Texas law such as Pa Ferguson, Earle Mayfield, and Bo Pilgrim, the egg would obstruct in neither vision nor sound the wide open eastern boundary of the property.

What’s more, this grand plan could also serve as primary SXSW stage, where brands could sponsor over-the-top set pieces featuring booming pyrotechnic displays and the hippest artists of the day, such as maybe Atari Teenage Riot. In the spirit of combining innovation with tradition, perhaps a hologram Lou Reed could be drafted for tri-daily performances of his cult classic Metal Machine Music. This could help economically pollinate underused sections of downtown Austin as throngs of festival attendees hike from 6th Street towards the new venue. Here are some suggested routes:

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Of course, the influx of thousands of people daily to this site would require a large overhaul of the surrounding infrastructure, work that could conflict with the crowds and their musical gratification. To that end, the city’s Public Works Department could simply stagger the work hours and deploy overnight crews to tear out and reinstall the needed utilities, concrete streets, and extra bright LED safety lights along the surrounding access routes such as 11th, 10th, and Colorado streets. It is of vital importance to get this work done correctly, right down to the finest detail. No cost should be spared, and if even one hair of the final work is unsatisfactory, the city must not hesitate to rip it all up and start from the very beginning, no matter how long it takes.

This all of course is but just one proposition, and perhaps a modest one at that. There are likely a staggering number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, but no doubt a willing partnership between city and county officials could quickly shepherd it to its final stages. In fact, perhaps the biggest obstacle would be securing permission from the one man whose omnipotent Word carries with it the intractable law of the land, the captain whose beck and call we dutifully serve, in whose mercy we are undeservedly privileged to bask, the true leader of Texas himself: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Down, down, down

February 23, 2017

According to U.S. Department of Transportation data, the Austin area is leading the nation when it comes to shedding transit ridership. Pretty cool for a city where, each year, the average driver spends nearly two full days of her life stuck in traffic.

From 2015 to 2016, after politicians had admonished us to Bite Back Against Traffic before then urging us to Get Austin Moving Again, Capital Metro sloughed off 3.9 million transit trips. That 11.9 percent drop places this Progressive Paradise behind Washington, D.C., where the transit system is actively killing people.

In a big city with such a big problem, ascribing blame is no simple venture. Whether Austin’s growing disinterest in transit over the years is a function of falling gas prices, higher fares, the exodus of low-income residents from the urban core, UT’s shrinking contribution for shuttle service, bad weather, Uber and Lyft, a century of government-mandated car dependence, or perhaps the prevailing planners’ religion that focuses on regional commutes above all other trips, I am not qualified to say! But here, for your delight and whimsy, is a snapshot of how Capital Metro’s performance has changed in the past decade:

 2006  2016
Austin population 730,729 931,830
Mass transit trips* 34,394,181 28,968470
Hours of service 1,137,563 1,345,306
Miles of service 15,224,358 17,148,062
Passengers per mile 2.26 1.69

 

*(for this exercise, ‘mass transit’ includes all daily bus and rail services variously available in each year, i.e. MetroBus, MetroRapid, MetroExpress, UT Shuttles, MetroRail, and the ‘Dillos [RIP]. excluded are the on-demand services such as MetroAccess, CARTS, and special event service)

Central Planning

December 5, 2016

Folks familiar with the previous iteration of Project Connect are justified if they feel  somewhat skeptical of the upcoming reboot of the program. The 2013-2014 process was a bungled hash of thumb-on-the-scales public engagement that ultimately produced a deeply flawed light rail proposal aimed more at driving development in dumpy parts of town rather than providing any useful mobility option where it would be, y’know, needed.

Anyone expecting Project Connect 2.0 — set to launch publicly in January — to be a summary expiation of sins past via single-minded pursuit of light rail down Guadalupe and North Lamar would do well to remember how, in the planning process, the perfect (planning euphemism for ‘good’) always loses to the good (planning euphemism for ‘best we could do without upsetting the status quo’). Of course, I am a reflexive pessimist so take my kvetching with a grain of salt, if you please.

As it stands, Capital Metro has pledged to take an all-options-on-the-table approach, which means that goofy notions such as gondola are being given — at least superficially — the same credence as rail and bus rapid transit.

But, hey, that’s cool because it’ll be a big, open process with lots of openings for public engagement. Plus, unlike other projects undertaken by CAMPO, CTRMA, and so many other Capital Metro endeavors, this thing will focus exclusively on the urban core. As Capital Metro Long Range Planning Director Javier Argüello said in an email sent on Friday to members of the Project Connect community advisory group, “The purpose of Project Connect is to enhance existing high-capacity transit services and to select new high-capacity transit investment corridors, thereby improving travel into, out of, and around Central Austin.” (emphasis mine)

Which all sounds like a blast, until you dig the thoughts of one Wade Cooper, chairman of the transit agency’s board of directors. During Monday’s meeting of the board’s Finance, Audit, and Administration Committee, Cooper indicated that he is primarily interested in the “into” and “out of” aspect of Argüello’s assessment and less so on the “around” part.

He related the tale of a survey of his law firm’s employees that lengthy commutes for many of his coworkers.

Said Cooper, “We at Cap Metro — and a lot of the transit stuff I’ve done before — have been very focused on the city of Austin and the needs of individuals in the city of Austin. If my firm is any indication, half of our potential customers are folks that need help outside of the 10-mile radius.”

After discussing the matter with Community Involvement Manager Jackie Nirenberg, Cooper concluded, “I think part of our role as the Cap Metro board is really to be speaking to the needs of the region. This is a document that will have profound influence, but if it doesn’t have profound influence outside the geography of the city of Austin, it’s sort of a wasted effort in my judgment.”

The complete exchange is below. Your job is to read it, weigh it, and consider whether it’s worth your time to get involved in a process that is not-yet-irrevocably tilting towards empowering more of that sweet, sweet sprawl that you love so, so much.

Wade Cooper, Capital Metro Board Chairman: Our law firm did a survey to look at the commute patterns of the people who work at the law firm. The most interesting thing was more than half of our employees go more than 10 miles to get to work and about 25 percent go more than 15 miles to get to work. And I thought that was pretty significant but then I found out that among the people that they surveyed, actually we have a smaller percent of people who commute those lengthy distances. And that may be because our jobs are relatively high-paying compared to other jobs downtown. But what struck me as you were talking, we at CapMetro and a lot of the transit stuff I’ve done before, have been very focused on the city of Austin and the needs of individuals in the city of Austin. If my firm is any indication, half of our potential customers are folks that need help are outside of the 10-mile radius. So I wonder if our public engagement is weighted appropriately.

Jackie Nirenberg, Capital Metro Community Involvement Manager: I’m glad you asked that question because we’re gonna be doing a significant amount of outreach to the outlying communities, recognizing that most people, or a good portion of the people who work downtown and in the center of the city are coming from other places. So, yes, that will be an important part of our public involvement. And they’re represented in both our technical advisory committee and our community advisory committee as well.

WC: That’s something, as we’ve talked about public involvement, it just struck me looking at the commute patterns… half the issue at least in terms of the roadways are people coming from way outside (the city center)

JN: And one of our challenges frankly in messaging this to the folks that live in the core is that it’s not just about the core.

WC: It’s hard to tell people who live in the core that it’s not just about them. (laughter)

JN: It’s quite challenging. And we’ve already gotten a little bit of push-back on that from central Austin neighborhood people.

WC: And it’s even harder to tell the neighborhoods that it’s not just about the neighborhoods.

JN: That’s one of our big challenges is getting people to understand that we’ve got to pull the camera back. We’ve got people coming in… and it’s affecting their daily lives here for the folks that live here, it’s still an effect on what their daily commute is like and what their daily quality of life is like if all of those folks who drive in these single-occupancy vehicles in and out of the city every day. So yes, absolutely, it’s going to be a big focus of our public involvement.

WC: In our strategic plan, we on the board underscored the need and desire on our part to be regional leaders. So I think part of our role as the CapMetro board is really to be speaking to the needs of the region. This is a document that will have profound influence, but if it doesn’t have profound influence outside the geography of the city of Austin, it’s sort of a wasted effort in my judgment.

I got bored

September 29, 2016

So here’s the more or less complete transcript from Mayor Steve Adler’s second mobility bond speech yesterday in front of the Central Texas Democratic Forum. Any garbled audio is noted. I also included the Q&A but left out one particularly irrelevant Q. The typos are mine; the syntax is all his.

I think everybody in this city knows we have some main challenges. We have affordability issues and mobility issues in this city. I think they’re intertwined and we’re ultimately not going to be able solve either one of them without solving the other. And I think that this mobility bond is one important leg for us to be able to do the work.

A $720 million bond on transportation. That’s a lot of money. $720 million. But I would point out to you that the Highway 183 project that’s happening right now on the north part of town is a $650 million project that’s now on the way. The 183 project that is on the east side of town, Ed Bluestein, is a $750 or $742 million project.

Every time we do an intersection of two state highways and we do flyover lanes, that’s a $250 million project. Do you know how much has done cumulatively on transportation bonds over the last 20 years? $630 million. One of the reasons why we have congestion in this city is because we have chosen not to do anything about it.

Austin, in classic fashion, confronted with two alternatives, A and B, will seek to first demonstrate that neither A nor B are perfect, and having determined that neither A nor B are perfect, we will then choose option C, which is to do nothing. And we’ve run out of town. We actually have to do work.

Just by way of scale, I just got back from Seattle. Seattle also has a transportation bond up on their November election. It’s not just the city, it’s the city and the surrounding areas so it’d be like the City of Austin doing it and Travis County. We have in that area 2 million, Seattle has 2.8 million people. Their bond that’s up in November is a transportation package for $54 billion. [gasps] $54 billion. Do you wanna know what going big really is? That’s going big.

So we have a transportation bond package that divides things into three buckets. First bucket, almost $500 million of the$720 goes to those streets that are the most congested points that more people live next to than other streets. We’re talking about South Lamar, North Lamar, Burnet Road, Airport, Riverside, MLK/969, we’re talking about William Cannon, Slaughter Lane. We’re talking about implementing the corridor studies that we have spent millions of dollars on. When we picked these projects as part of the 2010 and 2012 bond elections, we spent thousands of community stakeholder, neighborhood organizations time ??? thousands of people, thousands of hours, millions of dollars. Perhaps the most community vetted plans, transportation plans this city has had.

Now we’re talking about stepping up and doing the work.

Also in that package is identifying and initiating the corridor studies on what will be the next set of roads. Pleasant Valley Road, Rundberg Lane, Manchaca, Colony Park. So the next roads are put in queue in order to have work that’s done.

It looks as if 60 maybe a little bit more percent of the people in this city live within a mile and a quarter of these roads. And while, in this community when we’re focused on mobility, we’re doing work on 183 to the northwest, 183 to the east and south, that we’re doing the managed lane on Mopac. Not everybody is going to want to get out of their car and into a bus. But I will tell you that very few people will want to get out of their car and into a bus if the bus is stuck in the same traffic that the car is stuck in.

If we really want to do a mode change in this city, when you look at all the cities and the work they have done, like Atlanta here 2 percent of the vehicles that are now traveling are carrying over 20 percent of the people on these managed lane roads… If we really want to do that work, we have to do something like these managed lanes so that transit is always traveling at a relatively high rate of speed.

And then we have the I35 corridor where hopefully we’re going to get managed lanes put in there. That work is happening in and around us. We have to do work on our streets here locally as well.

So that’s the first bucket. That’s most of it.

The second bucket, about $100 million is predominately sidewalk work. It is safe passages to schools for children. Now we have children that walking in the street in Airport Boulevard to get to and from school. It’s just not right.

But in this second bucket, most of that $100 million is being spent on sidewalk work. It also has work being spent on bicycle master plan, also the Urban Trail Master Plan.

I’d also add safety component to it. Some of our most dangerous intersections and some of our most substandard roads that we looked at.

And then the third bucket, which is the smallest of the three buckets, deals with some pain points that are not proximate to the corridor work that’s being done. So work on 360, Spicewood Springs Road, on Anderson Mill, Parmer Lane, 620 and 2222. That’s the (macro?).

I think it’s real important that this Council did something that Councils have never done to the extent that we did. Not only did we pass those buckets, but they ??? resolution, a criteria, that we wanted the staff to use when they went and said how they would go about and where they would spend the money within those identified projects. And it’s set the criteria that has to be used. Number one was dealing with congestion. Number two was dealing with transit. Those were really the criteria to be ??? And not only did we say we wanted those to be the criteria that got used, we actually passed a resolution that said that that would be the criteria to be used, and we passed a resolution putting in language so that that resolution would be a contract with the voters and just as enforceable as the bond language itself. That’s something that City Councils just have not done in Austin. And I’m proud to be part of a Council that included that so that people who vote, citizens and residents in the community, know exactly what’s going on.

So this is a package on a very basic level deals with the things that we have to start doing in this city if we’re going to begin dealing with mobility.

Our people tell us that we have $9 billion of unmet needs in transportation in the city of Austin. $9 billion. This bond package obviously doesn’t address all of them. But it is a significant step, the most significant step that we’ve taken as a community to deal with congestion in a meaningful way, to deal with setting up transit, corridors, and significant material way, dealing with safety in our community in a strong and material way.

Which is why it has enjoyed the support at this point of labor, of the Democratic Party, of virtually club and organization that this has gone before. This has pretty widespread support in the community. And frankly we have to do well on this bond to send a message and to establish a pattern and a practice in this community to build momentum. Because we took a significant amount of money that we can bond without raising taxes — $250 million that we did not make part of this transportation package. We formed as a Council, we formed a citizens bond commission that will be seated with that capacity so that it can start taking a look at the other things that we need such as affordable housing, flood buyouts, parks and open spaces… so we have set up that process as well. So it’s important that we do well on this election.

Q: WHY NO RAIL

I will tell you first that I”m a rail supporter. And it’s hard for me to imagine this city, this metropolitan area where we have 4 million people in it in the not too distant future where we don’t have a operating system like that because you just have to have something like that to move people around.

But this bond package was about moving forward with those things where there was wide consensus. Quite frankly, we really couldn’t launch this until we had the TNC election that played through in May. We didn’t want to miss this election cycle in November when we’ll have 300,000 people potentially voting in November. So the question for us was, was there a significant and meaningful and material transportation bond package that we could put together in the months of May and June and there is not that level of consensus on rail. But I am wanting to join with my fellow Council members not only to say that this is something can be considered the bond advisory commission but it’s also something that I’m committed to working toward in order to build that.

Q: MAYOR, A NUMBER OF PEOPLE HAVE QUESTIONED ONE SPOKE IN THE TRANSPORTATION PACKAGE THAT YOU MENTIONED AND THAT’S SOUTH LAMAR. AND OUR NEIGHBORHOOD LISTSERV AND TODAY’S PAPER, A LETTER TO THE EDITOR, NARROWING FOUR LANES DOWN TO ONE LANE IN ORDER TO ACCOMMODATE BUSES AND YOU DON’T HAVE SUPPORT FROM CAPITAL METRO, TO MANY PEOPLE APPEARS TO BE A NON-STARTER.

Mark Twain once said, actually he didn’t say it, it’s attributed to him, “Things that are not true can circle the globe in the amount of time that the truth takes to put on its shoes.” [crowd chuckles] There is nothing in this bond election that takes away lanes for travel lanes for bike lanes. Nowhere in this project. There is nowhere in the corridor studies that have been presented that take away lanes at all, other than on Riverside Drive and in Guadalupe. The plans that were presented in the corridor had three stages to them. Short term, midterm, and long term. Some of the corridors have two stages, short term and long term. The congestion relief components of those corridor plans are not built out in the short term scenario. You have to do the long term, you have to do the full design. So wherever you build you have to make sure you go all the way so that you realize the results. This Council looked at that, the short term midterm, and long term plans, and directed the staff to come back and do the long term plans. There is some short term planning on some places on Lamar that says an interim period of time, let’s take away a lane in order to facilitate the buses or facilitate the bikes. But those same plans real clearly say, but in the long term plan you shouldn’t be doing that because this is what we’re going to do in order to not lose any lane capacity. So anybody who says that we’re losing lanes the way you just described is looking at a short term that is not the state intention of the City Council to execute. Nor does it fit within the criteria that is the contract with the voters where we said, “You’re going to prioritize what’s necessary to do construction.” The only place where potentially someone could walk in, as I’ve seen on the listserv and blogs myself, that we’re losing tens of miles of lanes, is we’re talking about losing chicken lanes. Because chicken lanes slow down traffic because people are pulling into those lanes and making left turns in the middle of traffic. So what we’re doing is putting medians down the middle of the roads which all traffic engineers will tell you will speed traffic, speed through-put, and deal with congestion. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re putting in medians, we’re putting in dedicated turn lanes to allow people to be able to turn. This package does not lose lanes. It adds lanes.

Q: WHY ISN’T CAPITAL METRO SUPPORTING

Capital Metro is supporting it. The question with respect to Capital Metro was what do they think about the bus pull-offs with the queue jumps. And what Capital Metro said was, “Those are good, but we would rather have dedicated bus lanes.” And I hear that. And I would rather Capital Metro have dedicated bus lanes too. Dedicated bus lanes are put into this plan where they can be done without losing lanes. But these plans don’t have us acquiring additional right-of-way. It’s making a smarter use of the right-of-way that we have. And it does it in a way that does not lose lanes. Capital Metro will tell you that they do support bus pullouts and queue jumps especially those bus pullouts happening just past the traffic light so that in the sequencing of the traffic light, they’re able to pull back into traffic. But certainly they would rather have dedicated lanes and I have no fault with that. But if they’re not going to get dedicated lanes, this is what Capital Metro wants.

Q: HOW LONG IS SHORT TERM

We’re not going to do any short term. We’re going to do the full tilt boogie on these plans to the extent that we’re able to. To do all the corridor plans, it costs about $1.5 billion. We’re not going to be able to do $1.5 billion, just like we cant’ do all $9 billion in total needs. But what we’ve told the staff to do is come back with an execution plan, a logistical plan, and a priortization plan that says this is the most impactful way to spend up to almost $500 million and then we’re going to do that in the most impactful way. We’re going to do it in a way that enables us to leverage additional funds. You don’t get money when you go tot he state or the feds unless you come to the table with money. We’ve been watching what’s happening in Hays County and Williamson County. I was talking to [Hays County Commissioners/CAMPO Chair] Will Conley as we were developing this recipe that we’re talking about perhaps moving forward, and a lot of these are state highways, Lamar or Airport, these are state highways. They don’t feel like state highways or look like state highways, but that’s what they are. Hays County and Williamson County raised money in order to improve those roads. They raised a bond of about $140 million and they’ve leveraged it to almost $500 million. And we want to be trying to do that both at the state level and the federal level. We also want to do these roads in conjunction with the developers and the people that own properties that we can leverage their involvement so that we can stretch these dollars as much as we can.

Q: TALK ABOUT THE STATE ROADS. MY UNDERSTANDING IS THAT TXDOT CONTROLS THOSE ROADS, CORRECT? IS THE CITY OF AUSTIN GOING TO BE DOING CONSTRUCTION ON LAMAR AND BURNET, IS THE CITY OF AUSTIN TAKING UP THOSE ROADS FROM TXDOT SO THAT TXDOT CAN BUILD ITS TOLL ROAD ON 35?

The state has not agreed, the city has not agreed to take over those roads. Sen. Watson has suggested that one of the things that should be considered in terms of financing I-35, the managed lane on I-35, that one of the things that should be considered is the city taking over maintenance and operation on those roads for some certain value that would have to be set but that’s the senator’s suggestion, it’s on a list of eight different things that should be considered. And I appreciate what he’s doing to move that project forward. And I appreciate he’s given us all suggestions on how it might be funded. But we have not agreed to do that.

Q: MAYOR, I LIKE YOUR BUCKET 2, I LIKE THE BICYCLE LANES AND I LIKE THE TRAILS, AND IT’S A SMALL PIECE OF THE TOTAL PACKAGE. BUT ARE YOU CONCERNED, THAT THERE’S A LOT PEOPLE IN TOWN WHO ARE ANTI-BICYCLE AND ANTI-TRAIL, ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT A SMALL PIECE OF THE BOND PACKAGE PULLING DOWN THE REST OF THE PACKAGE?

When you put together a plan like this that is trying to draw on the widest consensus of the community, that is not the same thing as saying that everybody in the community will like every part of it. And to the degree that not everybody likes every part of it, it’s a concern. So I see the blogs that say we have too much bicycle and active transportation. And I see the blogs that say we don’t have enough bicycle and active transportation. And I see them both…. But I will say that the indications are that support for this is pretty widespread all over the community because I think we’ve found the right balance on those things. This is not pedestrian, bicycle, sidewalk is not the bulk of what is this plan. But it is more than has ever happened in our history in those areas on a bond program.

Q: DID YOU CONSIDER HAVING THE THREE BUCKETS AS SEPARATE VOTES?

We did consider that and we discussed that as a Council, because we obviously could do this as three buckets, put it on separately or put it together. And we had some people that said, “I’m only gonna support this if we split this up so that I can vote on them individually.” And we had other people who said, “I’m only gonna vote for this if I know that if I support this aspect of it, this aspect will also happen. And if I don’t know this aspect is going to happen, then I’m not sure I want to vote for this.” So some people demanded that we put it all together so that they could be sure that when they made that exchange, when they voted for it, they would be getting the whole package. It’s just like the bicycle stuff. There’s no way to call that in a way that was going to please everybody.

So crazy, it just might work: North Korean accordian band covers A-ha

February 3, 2012

An argument for history, by way of a point about butt sex

February 1, 2012

Of all the necessary qualities it takes to make a good journalist, cynicism and misanthropia are the most essential. A strong abhorrence of common human behavior creates a thirst for justice, truth, and the healing schadenfreude of exposing politicians as the craven, pandering degenerates that they are. Of course, at no other time does this thirst burn in the journalist’s mouth more than during a presidential election cycle. And now, thanks to the nigh-limitless variety of outlets, the Thirst is being serviced with the force of a digital fire hydrant.

This great boon to Democracy does have its drawbacks, however. Prime among them is the relentless demand for news organizations to provide content at a pace that sometimes draws ahead of actual storylines. Naturally, this was also an existent problem in the days of Old Media — just ask the weekend producer at your local TV news station. The historical workaround to this problem is the so-called “evergreen” story — a piece without much timeliness, but of at least moderate relevance. Items about ongoing droughts, the efforts to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, and zomg Twitter, you guys! are all examples of what some might call lazy journalism but others correctly identify as a desperate surrender to the unforgiving demands of the deadline.

Presidential election coverage is regularly checkered with this stuff. Speculation about VP choices, which candidate the voters would rather have a beer with, and how Saturday Night Live is becoming a new power in political satire all appear with a quadrennial consistency as comforting as the 29th of February. I’m not opposed to most of it on the grounds that the journalist has a professional obligation to churn the news cycle and keep things moving. However, one meme that I call on my fellow writers to immediately cease is the trope that this year’s elections are by far the most negatively partisan in the entire history of the nation. Of course, this personal plea has already been rendered moot thanks to New York Magazine‘s Joe Hagan:

It’s going to get ugly—it always does, and this year, it already has. But by almost every measure, the 2012 election is going to be the most negative in the history of American politics. In this, the post-hope election, the promise of Obama’s last campaign has been turned inside out. For all the Republicans’ attempts to emphasize the virtues of austerity, the animating force of their party is hatred of Obama, his “Kenyan” ancestry, his “socialism” and Chicago associates, and the charge that he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and landed us in an anxious, alien landscape that doesn’t feel anything like what people used to call “America.”

Hagan’s thesis centers on the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case. That decision opened up unlimited corporate contributions to Super PACs that independently aid individual campaigns (very loose emphasis on “independently”). I agree with Hagan that, on its very face, the ruling is a hugely dangerous, probably fatal strike to the beating heart of open and equal democracy and should immediately be reversed with some legislative or even executive action. However, I dispute the weak nostalgia Hagan has towards a benign past when Americans were capable of calm political discourse.

First and foremost, the most obvious counterpoint is found in 1860, an election cycle wherein half the country openly pledged to scuttle the Constitution and engage in open warfare against the government should one particular candidate win. But lest anyone write that off as exceptional only because of slavery n’ stuff, let’s go back a few more decades to a time when the national discussion wasn’t much unlike our own today.

In the 1830’s, vast changes in the national economy thanks to westward expansion, industrialization, and advances in capitalistic theory and practice created a troubling growth in the gap between rich and poor. The age even had an Occupy movement of its own known as Workey-ism, a sort of proto-Marxism whose name was derived from the various Working Men’s parties that sprung up in the Northeastern manufacturing centers. It was a nascent labor movement that campaigned for economic equality, a minimum wage, and the 10-hour working day. But unlike today’s Occupiers, the Working Men found a sympathetic ear in the administration of Andrew Jackson who made the destruction of the Second National Bank, a proto-Federal Reserve and like that organization the prime enabler of inequality, the centerpiece of his presidency (pull out a 20-dollar bill and drink the irony).

Naturally the financiers and industrialists who were most affected by the loss of their oligarchic source of guaranteed wealth weren’t much pleased with Jackson’s agenda and invested a significant chunk of change to whip up popular and political fire to bring down the president and his allies. Much as the entrenched power players do today with the likes of Fox News, Newsmax, and National Review, these ancient corporatists funded journalistic organs to broadcast their messages in easily digestible nuggets for the mouthbreathing masses to lap up and soon the rhetoric from both sides denigrated to a wildly indecent level.

One example can be found in a pamphlet nominally written by no less a person than Davy Crockett himself, former Tennessee congressman and future icon of Texas bravery as well as Disney marketing. The work set its sights on Martin Van Buren, then the presumed heir to the Jackson program:

When he enters the senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in a gutter. He is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.

I mean, Sean Hannity’s a prick, but when has he ever called Barack Obama a cross-dressing faggot? And how about this popular song targeting Richard M. Johnson, senator from Kentucky, ally of the administration, popular hero who shot dead the infamous Indian chief Tecumseh, and a known slave-fucker:

The wave that heaves by Congo’s shore,

Heaves not so high nor darkly wide

As Sukey in her midnight snore,

Close by Tecumseh Johnson’s side.

The history of American presidential elections is littered with this kind of stuff. Ridiculous slanders and brutal personal attacks are as inherent to the system as phone banking and baby-kissing (though it’s worth noting that Jackson himself, while out on the trail, delegated the latter duty to his subordinates). After all, these are human actors that Joe Hagan is writing about and humans are, without exception, crude, venal, corrupt animals irresistibly driven by debauched hormonal urges to fuck everyone right in the ass.

At least, that’s the line that a proper journalist would take.

Martin Luther took your legs

January 24, 2012

It’s been several years since I attended my last theology class, but I seem to recall a few biblical admonitions about loving thy neighbor and turning the other cheek and generally doing unto others, etc. To the outsider, Christianity is usually marketed as a religion of peace. In fact, it wasn’t really until the rise of Protestantism that the gratuitous violence of the Old Testament was given much consideration. Until that point, which happily coincided with the development of printing and the rapid (relatively) expansion of literacy, the teachings of Christ and the doctrines of the Church were for the most part closely guarded mysteries of the Catholic clergy. The xenophobic mistrust of this foreign elitism was, in fact, one of the driving inspirations of Martin Luther et al to rise against Rome, proof that evangelicals from the sticks can always be counted on to rouse some rabble.

At any rate, publishers made a mint cranking out copies of the Bible that were for the first time translated into the various vernaculars of northern Europe (Of course, these were watered down rewrites of rewrites from the original Hebrew, something Somebody probably should’ve  thought about before throwing a tantrum over a modest engineering concern.). The gentle passages of the Gospels were still lauded as the core of the faith, but the lurid tales of slaughter and rapine found in the Old Testament obviously played well to the masses. Disregarding one of the core premises of Jesus’ new covenant — which, like all other covenants in the Bible, rendered its predecessors null and void — the armies of new street preachers injected the violence into their wild barnburners and it wasn’t long before all of northern Europe and eventually America were enslaved to this brutal, backwards theology.

So, long and short of it, that’s why you have groups that claim to represent the benevolent interests of Christ on this earth endorsing lying, corrupt millionaires who advocate the expansion of conflicts that lead to shit like this:

The explosions left some of the victims badly maimed. “Where are my legs?” shouted Emad Jasim, 21, at a hospital in Sadr City. “Tell me where my legs are. Why are they not there?”