Iowa Caucus Guide 2020

Well, it’s Iowa’s big day today, the third caucus process that we’ve gone through as a family since moving out here in 2011. While I believe “Iowa First” is terrible for our nation for a variety of reasons, and I expect chaos and disorganization tonight, I’m civic-minded and politically engaged, so I’ll be headed to our local caucus site tonight to do my part.

I wrote a lot about Iowa the first time we were here (we had a four-year Chicago sabbatical in the middle), with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s (shall we say) “unique” cultural habits and history. And in a quadrennial spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few of those articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why.

Some of the specifics are a little outdated since I first penned them, though their gists and points mostly remain valid. I chuckled while re-reading them all, in any case, so perhaps they’ll bring a smile to your face too. God knows we can use some levity in our current political hellscape . . .

Iowa Geography: An Introduction

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

The Bikini Bottom caucus site has a reputation for rancor . . .

What’s A Caucus?

We live in Iowa, where our state political caucuses play a crucial role in the selection and election of our next Presidents. (Why is this the case? Here’s my take. Should this be the case? No. Here’s why.) The year before we moved out here from New York (2011), I was managing a group blog called Indie Albany. In anticipation of the then-upcoming Presidential campaign season, I had registered a new blog portal called “Cerberus Caucus,” the underlying premise of which was that it would serve as a three-headed place where a liberal, a conservative, and an independent/centrist could argue political points of merit. I was prepared to play the leftist, and I had a hardcore (e.g. scary) rightist lined up, but was never able to secure a legitimate centrist voice, so that project was shelved in favor of others.

I still own the rights to the Cerberus Caucus domain, and a couple of weeks ago, I received a renewal notification for it. Before re-registering it, I did a Google search to make sure that I wasn’t holding something that had become toxic or noxious. I did not find anything problematic or offensive during that search, but I did stumble across an arcane document from 1844 that tickled me to pieces, given (a) how much I enjoy etymology, and (b) how we throw the word “caucus” around here in Iowa as thought it’s something that everybody in the country understands implicitly.

The document was from a book called Nugæ by Nugator, (which is Latin for Trifles by Jester, or Joker). The version of the document I found bore a stamp saying “Harvard College Library, Sheldon Fund, July 10, 1940.” Searches for the two names appearing on the attribution pages (“St. Leger L. Carter” and “Edward St. O. Carter”) mostly reveal a variety of documents from the Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia. If I had to guess based on what I’ve found, the two Carters are the same person, notwithstanding one source related to the recording of copyright where “Edward” states “I am not the author, but proprietor.” I imagine Mister Carter was a prominent citizen of a somewhat self-indulgent creative bent with sufficient community clout to be worthy of respectful deference by Virginia’s House of Delegates, hence the acceptance of Nugæ into the official record of the Commonwealth’s business. (If someone knows or finds otherwise, I’ll be happy to update this assessment).

I reproduce the cover/credit page of Nugæ, and the particular article that piqued my  interest, below. The piece is framed as an unattributed letter to the editor, but I suspect it’s just the work of Mister Carter being cute, since its tone and language read very much like the rest of  Nugæ to these eyes. Note that the piece (which references ex-President Martin Van Buren, a fave of mine, as a longtime Upstate New Yorker) was written during the 1844 Presidential election, which ended with Democrat James K. Polk defeating Henry Clay of the Whigs. I find the text both entertaining and topical, and it made me do a little research to discover that “caucus” isn’t an ancient Roman or Greek word (as I would have supposed), but is a relatively recent addition to our American English dictionaries, most likely derived from an Algonquian word. Huh!

I hope you enjoy this little nugget of bygone times as much as I did. And in closing, here’s hoping we Iowans use our own upcoming caucus wisely (as the Democrats did in 1844 when they selected Polk at the national convention), whether we really know what the word means or not.

 

 

Simple Things: Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)

Johnny Clegg died of pancreatic cancer today at the age of 66. He was an accomplished and inspirational musician, social anthropologist, songwriter and activist. His multi-racial bands Juluka (founded with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu in the early 1970s) and Savuka (formed in the mid-1980s after Mchunu retired and returned to his family’s farm) provided a pointed, potent cultural spearhead through the final years of South Africa’s apartheid era and beyond.

The vast majority of his musical output touched on the sociopolitical and personal realities of life in South Africa, with two songs in particular capturing the world’s fancy: “Scatterlings of Africa” (Juluka, 1982) was a global pop hit, telling the story of the dispossessed and dislocated people of his home continent; and “Asimbonanga” (Savuka, 1987) was an open cry for the release of Nelson Mandela from his prison cell at Robben Island. A 1999 video of Clegg performing “Asimbonanga” with his band, joined by a very special guest dancer — no longer a prisoner, but instead the duly elected President of his people — is one of the most joyful things on the Internet to these ears and eyes:

I can’t write an obituary that would do Johnny Clegg the honor and justice he’s due. NPR has a nice one here and France 24’s obituary provides a more European perspective on his life. It’s also worth reading Clegg’s Wikipedia page, if you are unfamiliar with his life and career, and the numerous honors and awards that have been bestowed upon him over the years. I can, however, share some stories about how special he was to me in my own musical, cultural, and personal development, by way of explaining why his death touches me so.

While at the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, I made a decision to focus my political science major on African politics. My motivations were not entirely altruistic: I found that it was easier to wait until the last minute to work on papers and projects because so few books about Africa ever got checked out of the Academy’s library, while the Soviet or European or Chinese shelves would be picked clean most of the time. Score one for the lazy man with a keen eye for an angle.

Initial motivations notwithstanding, I actually really got into my African studies, and in parallel, I got deeply interested in African music, and spent much of my paper-writing, reading and studying time listening to it. In those pre-Internet (and pre-“World Music” CDs at the Starbucks check-out counter) days, records from Africa were still relatively hard to find, and information about all but the most high-profile artists (e.g. Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, etc.) was scarce. I had an odd hodge-podge of tapes and albums from all over the continent that I played to death for a couple of years, but the popularity of “Scatterlings of Africa” (the album it came from was even reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin) opened up new interest in African music, politics and culture that made it easier to access some true gems of the era and beyond, on and on for me up to this day. (Case in point: the brand new album from Kinshasa’s KOKOKO!, which you should hear!)

While UK artists like The Specials (“Free Nelson Mandela,” 1984), or Peter Gabriel (“Biko,” 1980) helped raise awareness of the cultural price of Apartheid, and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) brought Township music a wider global audience than it had ever had, Clegg’s work always seemed to me to be somehow less manipulative, and more honest, than its European and American counterparts. It was a whole lot easier for the Westerners to bring African musical concepts into their (safe) European homes than it was for Clegg to learn Zulu language and dance, gain the trust of KwaZulu’s musicians and activists, and then merge his own Celtic and folk musical influences with native South African styles and themes, in an environment that was decidedly not safe for such cultural cross-pollination.

There was nothing of the debutante about Johnny Clegg from where I sat as a fan and follower, whereas the appropriated cross-cultural works by the likes of Simon and David Byrne always left me feeling vaguely icky after I listened to them.  (Heck, when you get right down to it, Neil Diamond beat both of those guys to the punch by more than a decade with his “African Suite” from 1970, but he’s not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, now, is he? He deserves it, though, and I commend Tap Root Manuscript to you as well).

Anyway: Juluka and later Savuka were regular, nearly constant, spins on my stereo for years, and you’d likely be amazed at how much isiZulu I can sing phonetically, having those sounds and words deeply burned into my brain through repetition, repetition, repetition. Fast forward to 1987, when Marcia and I are both working at Naval Reactors, hanging out with the same group of friends, but not dating, not quite yet. We did a lot of stuff with various permutations of our social group, but things just did not work out so that it was only the two of us doing something together, no matter how hard I worked to make that happen. After some months and many missed opportunities, a Savuka concert at the legendary 930 Club (the original one, at the deeply scuzzy 930 F Street, not the shiny new, big, trendy, popular, safe one that came later) finally became the thing that got us out on the town together, just she and I, doing and seeing something really, really cool, together. Wow! Fireworks! Wow! That one night made it easier to do other things together, just the two of us, and a few months later, we were couple, inseparable for over three decades since.

So Johnny Clegg was a part of our own story that night, as was Dudu Zulu, Clegg’s dancing partner onstage with Savuka, their traditional jumps and thrusts and leaps and kicks taking the music up to a whole ‘nother level of mind-blowing and ass-kicking. After that tour, and after a few more tours and records beyond that, Dudu Zulu was gunned down near his home in KwaZuluNatal in 1992. That was the end of the line for Savuka, with yet another tragic loss added to the list that Clegg had written and sang about for so many years.

Clegg played on after that as a solo act, and on, and on, and on, and he kept the memories of Zulu and Biko and Aggett and Mxenge and Mandela and the causes they fought for in front of his audiences, lest we forget their importance and their lessons. I learned a lot about the real issues facing South Africa through Johnny Clegg’s music, beyond what the textbooks could tell me. And I learned a lot about how to speak truth to power, and how to use simple language to express complex sentiments, and how to build bigger, better, more innovative things by working with diverse communities, rather than sulking in a silo of social homogeneity.

Fast forward yet again, lots of years, to our first summer in Chicago, 2015. After four years in relatively sleepy Des Moines, it was huge for Marcia and I to have so many options to see so many cool things, right within walking distance of our new condo. As fate would have it, one of the first gigs we spotted and scored tickets for was Johnny Clegg playing at City Winery, with his son, Jesse, opening the show. It was an awe-inspiring evening, and an amazing way to mark the opening of a new phase of our life, just as that Savuka show in 1987 had been a milestone for us all those years before. We loved it! We sang along! We danced! We talked about it and marveled at how wonderful he remained, and how powerfully his songs still spoke to us! Yay, him! Yay, us!

And then soon after that, we learned that Johnny Clegg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and then after 2017, there were no more tours and no more records to follow. Clegg fought that awful disease, but it got him in the end, as it almost always does. He was too young to leave us, but golly, what he life he lived, what a legacy he left behind, and how important he was to me, in so many ways, over so many years.

As we are subjected to racist hate-speak emerging from the maw-hole of our nation’s malefic President this week, it’s shocking, but important, to consider and focus on just how important Johnny Clegg’s messages remain, everywhere, all the time, whenever we are faced with institutional or individual racism and discrimination. No, the Republic of South Africa may not be ruled by a racist oligarchy anymore, more power to it and its people, but us? I’m not so sure . . . if we aren’t there already, we’re in danger of getting there soon, and we need to stand up and join hands and sing songs and tell stories and act in ways that cast light on and denigrate the shrill, shallow, petty evil of racism and its proponents and apologists. Johnny Clegg showed us how to do that. May others emulate him, right here, right now, and tomorrow, and in all the years that follow even after that.

As many people do, when they learn that a beloved artist has passed, we tend to fill up the listening spaces in our lives with the departed one’s music, a phenomenon that Marcia has dubbed “I Hear Dead People,” given how often I do it hereabouts, as the stars of our youth age out and pass on to some great reward. I will note, somewhat sadly, that because I knew Johnny Clegg has been deeply ill, I actually got a head-start on that process over the past year or so, and we’ve been spinning him regularly for a long time, loving his songs, loving his language, loving his stories.

I’m glad we were thinking about him while he was still fighting his final battle, and not just after he flew away from us. That listening will be continuing in the weeks and months ahead, likely with a larger playlist, since I’ve got plenty of his stuff. I close this post with the song I chose to title it, probably my personal favorite from Clegg’s canon. This one was co-written by Sipho Mchunu from the 1982 Scatterlings album. Its bottom line message — “Simple things are all we have left to trust” — resonates with me, in a tumultuous personal and political world, where the little, dear, personal things are really the ones that sustain me, the constant anchors in the noisy rushing flow of life around all of us.

Bless you, Johnny Clegg, for the gifts you gave to so many. You truly made a difference.

Autumn of Evidence

1. I am at home today, taking eight hours of PTO (paid time off). I don’t have any particular reason for doing so — except that I recently realized that I have to take several such days between now and the end of the year, lest I forfeit the time under my organization’s “use or lose” leave policy. I know plenty of other organizations have similar policies, and as a financial manager, I understand them at a conceptual level, since accrued PTO shows up as a liability on the balance sheet, so one does not want to just let it amass endlessly. Still, though: when you pause to think about it, it seems like a perverse sort of corporate practice that was likely spawned from group think in a forgotten Human Resources Department somewhere. “You there! You will go home now and you will like it! Or else!” And so I must, and so I do. Now: before you get all puffed up with self-righteous ire and send me a hateful post or three, yes, I do know that this a Big First World Problem to have — boo hoo hoo, me — and I am indeed grateful for the paid time off that I do receive, knowing how many millions of Americans are not so lucky. I wish they all were, truly and deeply. But  still, that said: this is conceptually stupid, right?

2. I recently got a copy of the wonderful 80 Aching Orphans, a four-disc, career-spanning retrospective box set from The Residents, who have been long-time favorites of mine. In case you don’t know the shtick, the incredibly prolific Residents have been churning out high quality, high concept music since the early ’70s, without ever publicly identifying themselves by name or showing their faces. The Eyeballs have been their longest lasting and best known disguise; in recent months, they’ve rolled out a new stage design involving plague masks and cattle. The Rez are currently touring and put out a fantastic new studio album, The Ghost of Hope (which I wrote about in April) earlier this year, but there’s still a bit of an “end of era” vibe as I listen to the new retrospective discs, since one of The Residents recently, all these years on, left the band and de-cloaked. Hardy Fox has served as band spokesperson since the ’70s as a member of the group’s management company, The Cryptic Corporation, but earlier this month, he let it be known on his website that he was “the anonymous primary composer, producer for The Residents from their beginning until 2015.” The Rez had announced that composer “Chuck Bobuck” had left the group earlier this year, so it wasn’t really surprising on some plane, since most seasoned observers “knew” that Bobuck was Hardy Fox, and that Cryptic Corporation’s other principle executive — Homer Flynn — was Randy Rose, The Singing Resident, formerly known as Mister Skull, among other names. But still . . . I honestly never expected either of them to admit as much, so it feels weird listening to their wonderful, wonderful work in a different head space, where they’re no longer all hewing to N. Senada’s “Theory of Obscurity” and denying their identities. At this point, Flynn-Rose-Skull is the last link to the original four-piece incarnation of the band/company (original Cryptic Corp. members Jay Clem and John Kennedy departed in the early ’80s), so here’s hoping Homer’s a-rarin’ to keep it going on behalf of the mostly retired team. I’ll always be willing to suspend disbelief and pretend I don’t know who he is, if I have to, just to get music this good.

3. Speaking of good music, I will likely post my 26th Annual Albums of the Year Report in the next couple of weeks, ideally before Thanksgiving. (Probably on another day when I’m not allowed to go to work, come to think of it). I went back through the past 12 months of listening and reading and pondering, and I pulled together my first cut of likely contenders for the title this past weekend: the list had 29 albums on it, though I will probably tweak it down to 25 in the final report. You readers got some favorites that you think I need to consider before I put pen to paper (or what passes for that in these digital days)? Holla in the comment section, if so! For perspective, here’s the list of what I thought passed muster at the high end of the scale at the mid-point in the year, and the intro to last year’s report cites the title-winners for the past quarter century. Jeez, I’m a creature of habit, aren’t I?

4. Bet you thought the title of this post had something to do with it appearing on Indictment Day, didn’t you? Sure seems like it could and should. But actually, it’s just a reversal of “Evidence of Autumn,” a B-side title from Genesis (the flip-over track to the 1980 “Misunderstanding” single) that I had used as a title for a similar omnibus post some years ago. As we get our first fall weather here in Chicago this week, the phrase/title popped into my head today when I started this post, and then when I realized I had already swiped it from Genesis, I just flipped the words, and it suddenly seemed even more seasonally apt for the days and weeks before us. But I don’t get political here, though, so you can take it as you read it, free and easy, no comment from me. How ’bout them pretty leaves out there, huh?

Hunnik Asju

Note: Certain portions of this article were separated into their own standalone post, here. If you’re looking for The Mothership, that’s where you need to go . . . 

1. Marcia and I purchased our first home computer nearly 25 years ago. Since then, I have been very good at maintaining and updating Die Maschinen, I always practice “Safe Surf,” and I am averse to technological change for change’s sake. This means I’ve managed to do everything I’ve ever done on computers at home while only owning three Maschinen. (That number could conceivably have only been two, actually, had not my spawn melted down Das Maschine Nummer Zwei accidentally during those awkward early teen years, enticed by the dangerous computer-eating wonders of the early social web). My current Das Maschine has been running like a champ since 2007, but Microsoft, Mozilla and others have announced that they are ending support and upgrades for its operating system (MS Vista), and I’m not willing to maintain an unsupported system for very long once that goes away. I researched updating the OS, but the economics of doing so didn’t make sense, so I finally succumbed and bought a new Das Maschine (Nummer Vier) last week. It arrived yesterday, and last night I went to break the news to Ol’ Yeller 9000 (Das Maschine Nummer Drei) that it was time for us to take a walk out behind the woodshed to talk about stuff, just the two of us. Things went downhill from there, though . . . negotiations are ongoing . . .

Ol’ Yeller 9000 doesn’t believe in fiat currency, so we’re negotiating in precious metal and booze . . .

2. I had hoped and planned that 2017 would be a bit less travel-heavy for me than 2016 had been. Looking at my first quarter route map, I’m thinking this may not actually turn out to be the case:

Upcoming stops: DC (again), Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis . . .

Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon