As an historian, it’s hard to be hopeless

Like many people, I’m still wrapping my head around the 2016 election results. And while I’ve done my fair share of asking, “What happened?” I’ve (fortunately) moved on to the more-useful question of “Now what are we going to do about it?” To that I’m still working on an answer, but here is something I posted on Facebook a few days after the election, explaining why–even for as much as I worry about the next 4 years–it’s hard for me to be hopeless.

(As a side-note: Call me lucky or count me cursed, but this year my 26th birthday fell on Election Day 2016).


Press photo of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Herbert Gaston with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr., following the latter’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. January 2, 1934.

Thank you for the birthday wishes, everyone. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election, and while I, too, am still finding all the words, let me say this: As a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Here’s why.

For my birthday, I got two sets of gifts. The first was a collection of signed books (both published in 1920) about the insurgent, agrarian-based Nonpartisan League. Included with these was a 1934 press photograph of one of the authors, a former-NPL organizer, serving as FDR’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and shaking hands with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr. This is proof to me that eventually the “outsiders” get their turn, and the proposals that were once “radical” become the programs we take for granted.


Two books about the NPL: The Nonpartisan League (1920) by Herbert Gaston and The Story of the Nonpartisan League: A Chapter in American Evolution (1920) by Charles Edward Russell.

The second gift is something I bought for myself, via international auction. It’s a handwritten manuscript page by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, best-known for his work “On the Social Contract,” a cornerstone for democratic thought. Written sometime between 1748-1751, it includes a few notes Rousseau was taking for a planned work on the history of women (unfortunately, it was never finished). Holding the page in my hand, its edges brittle and the ink clearly visible through the other side, I feel I’ve gone back in time 260 years and am looking over Rousseau’s shoulder.

To engage with time in this way changes one’s whole relationship to the world, and without going too much into what I mean by this, let me focus on the following. There are few arrogances like declaring The End of Ideology or The End of History, both of which allegedly occurred the 1950s and 1990s, respectively, because as both people and economies change, so too must change our political institutions. The broader, timeless principles of liberty, justice, and republicanism must always be our cornerstones, but what we build upon them will necessarily vary. To have engaged with history as I have is to discover there have been many “End Ofs” in the last 260 years, and to declare the present The End must be categorically rejected, for where the principles I’ve listed are absent, there will always be tension, struggle, and eventually revolution.


My personal copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract and a manuscript page of Rousseau’s unpublished book on the history of women.

What I like the most about this manuscript page is that when Rousseau was writing it in the mid-18th century, there were a few unquestionable presumptions about the state and economy, these “End Ofs.” One was the divine right of kings. Another was the institution of slavery. Both of these abhorrent concepts were so deeply ingrained in western culture that even to most enlightened minds they were perceived as impenetrable.

But by the end of the next century, both belonged to the dustbin of history.

Similarly, there are institutions and ideas around us now that seem impenetrable – so much so that that one can barely imagine what a society would look like if it embraced true gender and racial equality, organized around economic principles of equity, and substituted citizenship with cosmopolitanism. But 260 years ago the same could be said about many things we take for granted – this is because, as with the Nonpartisan League, over the centuries the outsiders have gotten their turn, and what was once radical became conservative orthodoxy, again and again and again.

So, as a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Because regardless of how many thinkpieces come out proclaiming what happened another “End Of,” as long as we keep fighting, nativism and authoritarian populism will fall. Don’t worry, millennials, we’ll get our turn.


Welcome to the Promise Zone: Secretary Julian Castro Visits Minneapolis

On October 30, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro participated in a Minneapolis forum on affordable housing. With nothing better to do on a Friday morning, I picked up a notebook and decided to play journalist. Enjoy.

Secretary Castro at Mayflower Church in Minneapolis. From the Star Tribune.

I first saw Julian Castro as the nation did, the keynote speaker of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Young and charismatic, the San Antonio mayor shared the story of his childhood, the influence of his Chicana activist mother, and all the that carried him to that stage that night. Watching live on the small-screen of my iPad, eating leftovers in a Houston apartment I couldn’t afford, like many around the country I wondered if this was his “Audacity of Hope” moment. Like that state senator of Illinois, he stressed the importance of the one thing that makes all the difference for those who find all the world pointed at them: Opportunity. It’s this that allows us the chance to rise above our circumstances—and the more we have, the freer we are to live the life we seek.

I was so enamored with Castro’s message that, afterward, I texted a friend of mine who was a delegate to the convention and asked she bring back one of the placards with the word on it. Hanging on the wall right above my desk, I’d often rest my eyes on it, reminding myself that you can’t fault a man for not trying if he’s never had the chance to. That’s something we forget about—because it’s so much easier to judge a man for staying on the ground than offering a hand.

The next year I saw Castro in person at the 2013 Young Democrats of America convention in San Antonio, though truthfully I can’t recall a word of what was said—either of his speech or at the convention as a whole. All I’ll say of those nights is that the rumors are untrue, I’ve already apologized to the state of Delaware, and yes, I’m also surprised I could fit a whole bottle of wine in my coat pocket. (See you in 2017, young liberals). Continue reading

The Death of Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Transtromer

Tomas Tranströmer (c. 1980)

I was saddened to read about the death of Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel Prize-winning poet. Perhaps like so many others, I’d discovered Tranströmer late, and in fact, when he’d won the prize in 2011, it was my first exposure to him. Unfortunately, as this was around the time I’d decided to to become a Serious Writer, my hands were full and so I filed him away, thinking about the growing list of books I’ll read in retirement.

It wasn’t until a few years later, while attending the release party for Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer (2013) that I really began to read and develop an impression of Tranströmer. (As a side note: For anyone interested in the relationship between literary friends, poet and translator, it’s an interesting case study). Shortly thereafter, I purchased a used copy of The Half-Finished Heaven (2001) and read each poem again and again, slowly and quickly, trying to grasp at the layers hidden beneath the surface. (This layering is not uncommon to a Tranströmer poem). Because of this, I could only read the book in small doses.

While such a slow grazing may be anathema for most books, for others it’s a tribute to their quality. This is not to dismiss books that can be read cover-to-cover in one sitting, but there are just some works that are so emotionally draining, so taxing, that it has to be put down. It’s like a rich, chocolate cake — It’s delicious, but please, no more. Not now. 

Today I spent the afternoon re-reading Tranströmer’s poems, and given the news from Sweden, thought the following was appropriate. Though we eventually wear the suit death sews for us, fortunately, what is buried or burned is just a body and not the spirit. Poets live on.

Black Postcards
Translated by Robert Bly


The calendar all booked up, the future unknown.

The cable silently hums some folk song

but lacks a country. Snow falls in the gray sea. Shadows

fight out on the dock.


Halfway through your life, death turns up

and takes your pertinent measurements. We forget

the visit. Life goes on. But someone is sewing

the suit in the silence.

The racial breakdown of police involved shootings in Dallas, TX

Map of Police Involved Shootings in Dallas, TX (2013-2014). Source.

Following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, there was renewed focus on the prevalence of police shootings in the United States. Yet, as was discovered by The Washington Post and scholars everywhere: No federal agency keeps track of this information, and everything the FBI does maintain is limited to raw numbers on “justifiable homicides.” In addition to being self-reported by police (red flag!), this purposely excludes instances when suspects were non-fatally injured or simply shot at and missed. This severely undercounts all instances of police involved shootings (PIS).

Yet, in a highly commendable move, the Dallas Police Department (DPD) released its self-monitored spreadsheets on all PIS incidents from 2003 to 2014 as part of an effort to improve police-community relations. Amazingly, the data includes demographics not only on the victim but also the officer(s) involved. Rightfully so, it was picked up by local and national media with calls that more departments follow the DPD’s lead.

When this release was brought to my attention, the first thing I noticed is that for as rare and rich the DPD’s dataset is, few journalists have actually played with it. The three visuals that exist, which have been copied and shared widely, were made by the DPD themselves — and they’re each pretty similar. Here’s the one that tracks the disposition/outcome of all PIS.

Dallas Police Department - Officer involved Shootings - DIsposition of Suspects

Disposition of Suspects in Police Involved Shootings (Dallas, TX: 2003-2014). Source.

By itself, this is a step forward in that it highlights the deficiencies of monitoring only those instances when the suspect is killed (via “justifiable homicide”). In Dallas, ignoring all cases of injury or shoot and misses would eliminate nearly 2/3 of the data. The fact that this is done elsewhere is egregious and unacceptable.

For as much as I’d like to praise the DPD, though, there was something else that stood out to me. You’ll note in the above that race appears nowhere, even though for researchers interested in this topic, it’s a key component. This is also the case for the DPD’s other visuals (not published here). To simply say that X suspects were involved in police shootings obscures patterns important to policy makers. So, to fix this, I’ve taken the disposition information and broken each down by race. (Note: In my own analyses I’ve removed all females and Asians because they are practically nonexistent in the data).


Suspects Killed in Dallas PIS.


Suspects Injured in Dallas PIS.


Suspects Shot At and Missed in Dallas PIS.

Identifying the race of the suspects presents a whole different picture. For each year in each disposition, black males nearly constitute a majority. This is despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Census, blacks make up only 25% of the city’s population. Next, because the data also includes whether the suspect had a weapon (and what type), we can pull out the race and dispositions of those who were unarmed.

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

From 2003 to 2014, nearly half of all unarmed men killed by Dallas police were black. Blacks also formed nearly two-thirds of all unarmed shoot-and-misses and injuries. This clearly is not a coincidence. (And no, I’m not the first person to suggest that police shootings have a disproportionate effect on the black community).

I want to encourage more journalists and scholars to use this data because until the FBI’s reporting system changes and more police departments release PIS data, we have to squeeze as much as possible out of what’s available. As a researcher at the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I know there are plenty of interesting questions to be asked and answered: What’s the relationship between the disposition and weapon and race of the suspect? What effect does the officer’s race have on the disposition? And lastly, What crimes were these suspects allegedly committing?

So come on, grad students, get moving.

The full DPD dataset can be downloaded from Github (here), though it lacks 2013 data, which will need to be entered manually (or scraped) from the DPD website.

The importance of writing a court opinion well

Joshua Preston Supreme Court

The author outside the Supreme Court (c. January 2009)

This month Texas Monthly published an interview with retiring Texas criminal court judge Cathy Cochran, and in it she discusses the top judiciary reforms of the last twenty years. These include the increased use of DNA evidence, compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated, and policies to curtail false eyewitness identifications. All of these are surprisingly progressive reforms in a state that (often deserved) is criticized for its conservatism.

Yet, legal reforms aside, something in the interview stood out. When Cochran was asked how important a judge’s writing abilities are, Cochran answered:

Oh, very important—if you want to motivate people, if you want to make people pay attention, if you want people to do something, you need to say it well. A good politician rouses the crowd with language that people can understand and appreciate. If you want to be a good writer, you need to read good writers. I love reading Churchill, love reading Shakespeare. You need to make simple analogies that make sense to people who aren’t lawyers. When I started, I had my twelve-year-old grandson read some of my opinions.

Although it’s unlikely many laypeople ever read court opinions, we don’t appreciate their literary value (and even when it involves the Supreme Court, many only read excerpts). Contrary to the John Roberts school that supposes a judge is merely an “umpire” calling what they see, the judiciary is a political entity and its opinions are meant as much to inspire as they are to clarify the law of the land. Lines from Brown v. Board of Education (1954) are carved in marble. Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” has become a pithy punchline. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) is a rallying cry for gender equality advocates. Now when was the last time someone quoted a bill?

Yet, increasingly, fewer judges are writing their own court opinions. Instead, they rely upon law clerks to write the first draft, which is then edited. The consequence of this is that, according to legal scholar William Domnarski writing in The New York Times,

[M]uch of importance is lost …. Judge-written opinions require greater intellectual rigor, exhibit more personal style and lend themselves to more honest and transparent conclusions. …

It is no coincidence that Judge [Richard A.] Posner, the most influential (and most widely cited) appellate judge of his generation, writes his own opinions. His judicial voice is marked with stylistic touches, to be sure, shunning (and even lampooning) legalese as well as disregarding the traditional five-part structure on which law clerks typically rely. But what most grabs the reader is the voice of a judge thoroughly engaged with a problem in the law and working through it with enthusiasm, almost joy. As Judge Posner himself has written, “I know that only a few of the readers of my opinions are not lawyers, but the exercise of trying to write judicial opinions in a way that makes them accessible to intelligent lay persons contributes to keeping the law in tune with human and social needs and understandings and avoiding the legal professional’s natural tendency to mandarin obscurity and preciosity.”

Domnarski then adds that in addition to his political and social value, writing is a necessary part of the legal process. It is imperative for understanding the fine details of a case.

Unlike lawyers who are paid to argue for just one side in a case, judges are paid to pursue the truth. The bench is free from the limitations of advocacy; judges get to test arguments and follow a line of reasoning wherever it might take them. They get to explore the law. The opinion, properly done, reveals the judge sorting through the problem, thinking on the page. For similar reasons, judge-written opinions are also less vulnerable to a judge’s reflexive political and ideological leanings. The act of writing brings judges closer to the specific details and relevant issues of a case, forcing them to reckon with the case at hand in all its particulars, rather than seeing it as an instance of some more general theory or problem. [Emphasis mine].

Being able to fully engage with an idea and then clearly articulate one’s conclusions is a fundamental part of the democratic process. When the writing’s bad or judge’s skip out on their duty, everyone loses. So kudos to both Judges Cochran and Posner for recognizing this.

On Sarah Palin’s Spoken-Word Performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit

Josh Preston Sarah Palin Mall of America

The Author with spoken-word da da artist Sarah Palin at the release of her book-length prose poem, Going Rogue.

Recently speaking at the Iowa Freedom Summit, former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin gave a speech that, as one writer for the conservative National Review wrote, was “meandering and often bizarre.” Satirist Jon Stewart had a field day with this, of course, comparing Palin’s speech to those Lincoln commercials where Matthew McConaughey drives around making sounds. This criticism, though, is unfair.

I mean, sure, if you’re a philistine everything she said was stupid, babbling nonsense (that’s because you’re a philistine), but just look at how Palin’s speech has been excerpted/butchered by the mainstream media (note the formatting):

Things must change for our government. Look at it. It isn’t too big to fail. It’s too big to succeed! It’s too big to succeed, so we can afford no retreads or nothing will change with the same people and same policies that got us into the status quo. Another Latin word, status quo, and it stands for, ‘Man, the middle-class everyday Americans are really gettin’ taken for a ride.’ That’s status quo, and GOP leaders, by the way, y’know the man can only ride ya when your back is bent. So strengthen it. Then the man can’t ride ya, America won’t be taken for a ride, because so much is at stake and we can’t afford politicians playing games like nothing more is at stake than, oh, maybe just the next standing of theirs in the next election.

That’s a total misrepresentation of Palin’s work, and I’m not about to waste anyone’s time jumping on the liberal bandwagon and riding it to philistineville. Why? Because I respect any writer with the courage to stand up and drop one of the dopest SLAM poems of January 24, 2015. Now, I will cede that this wasn’t her best performance (who can forget the 2008 Republican National Convention?), but in this spoken-word, da da dreamscape, it doesn’t take a Harvard Professor to see the influences of John Berryman (the quirky asides), Allen Ginsberg (the not-so-subtle homoeroticism), and William McGonagall (just all of it).

Check it out for yourself, as it was meant to be read:


By Sarah Palin, Former Alaskan Governor.


Look at it.

It isn’t too big to fail.
It’s too big to succeed!

It’s too big to succeed,
so we can afford no retreads
or nothing will change with
the same people and same policies
that got us into the status quo.

(Another LATIN word, “status quo” –
and it stands for:

the middle-class
everyday Americans
are really getting’ taken for a ride.”

That’s “status quo”)

GOP leaders!
By the way!

Y’know the man can only ride ya
when your back in bent.

So strengthen it. 

Then the man can’t ride ya.


America won’t be taken for a ride,
because so much is at stake
and we can’t afford politicians playing games
nothing more is at stake than,

oh, maybe just the next standing
of theirs in the next election.

Walking with Paul Gruchow: A Poem


Minnesota author Paul Gruchow

For those who care about such things, in February 2013 there was squabbling in Minnesota over the possibility of there being a state poem. What’d happened is that, upon the recommendation of a constituent, a state senator proposed “Minnesota Blue” by singer-songwriter Keith Haugen. Naturally, this upset the state literati as, besides the fact that Haugen lives in Hawaii, the poem is boring. In fact, to highlight this, I even had a fake debate with Sally Jo Sorenson of Bluestem Prairie where I tried (and struggled) to defend it.

I’ll leave it to the public to decide who won.

Some, like state poet laureate Joyce Sutphen nominated James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” or Robert Bly’s “Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River,” both of which I think would be fine (albeit broody) symbols. I would personally like to see something by Bob Dylan, but I know that when the time comes, it’ll likely be Garrison Keillor who gets it. And I’m OK with that.

As all of this was happening, The City Pages hosted a contest to select an alternative, and I was fortunate enough to make the final four (“Which of your submissions should be our state poem?“). Sadly, I didn’t win, and the world moved on, the whole conversation on there being a state poem fading away. (To be honest, I don’t even know if the state senator’s bill passed).

I’m re-posting here my submission, which I wrote some time in the fall of 2012 after reading Paul Gruchow‘s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed Editions, 1995). I first discovered Gruchow’s work growing up in Montevideo, MN, which is where he was from, and was fond of his Leopold-esque environmental essays. Sadly, I never had a chance to meet him as, in 2004, he committed suicide.

So, we walk only in prose, talk through poems.

Walking with Paul Gruchow

Kind words and best wishes don’t bring rain.
Subsidies won’t end a drought. His spirit,
like the last boots he’ll ever buy, wear
down down down in the dust.

“We never ran from change, but it sure
ran us out,” he says. “There’ll always be
somewhere to farm but there won’t be farmers.”
Footsteps scare out a ring-necked pheasant.

I ask what happened to the Farmer-Laborites,
the community, the culture. I’ve driven more
Interstates than walked desire paths, can
name more skyscrapers than native grasses.

Out on the wind everything I say is carried,
no telling where it’ll end up or what marsh
it’ll sink in. “I try not to dwell on it,” he says,
“or there’s bound to be a revolution.