Thursday, 21 April 2011

Wisconsin - I hear the rain!

I always really look forward to discovering some new music for this blog and Wisconsin has been a real treat.  Not only did I (re)discover two of the state's biggest musical exports, Violent Femmes and Garbage, but I also discovered some new bands I'd never heard of before, such as The Gufs and Bon Iver

Blister in the Sun

I'd heard of the Milwaukee band, Violent Femmes, before I started blogging about Wisconsin, but I would have been hard pushed to have named one of their songs.  When I started researching their music, I immediately recognised Blister in the Sun, probably their most famous song, which comes from their debut album, also called Violent Femmes.  I was really surprised to learn that they released their debut album in 1983, but I guess this makes sense, in the context of the punk era and the other bands which were around at that time.  I'm a big fan of The Pixies and I can definitely hear a pre-Pixie sound in Violent Femmes

I'm re-posting a video from YouTube, which is a live recording from Auckland, New Zealand (I think).  Gordon Gano, the lead singer, is an interesting character and was just 20 years old, when this song was originally released.  A piece of trivia is that Blister in the Sun was the first song in English to be played on the Irish-language Radio na Gaeltachta!

Add it up

Even more exciting was discovering another hit from their debut album, Add it Up.  It's been a while since a song has got me so excited and I felt like I was 16 again, discovering Nirvana for this first time.  Gano's father was a Baptist minister and he continued to worship and write songs influenced by his religion, which caused some uneasiness for his band mates, Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo.  The religious influence on his songwriting comes through much stronger on later tracks, such as Hallowed Ground, but in Add it Up I can hear, Native American chanting, punk rock and Baptist church singing, all wrapped up in one.  I hope you enjoy this song as much as I have!

I Hear the Rain

A lot of the music on their later albums is incredibly dark and I Hear the Rain, from their second album, has to be one of the weirdest songs I've ever heard, although I find it enthralling, if not a little bit satanic!  I don't like everything that the Violent Femmes recorded, but some of the other songs I really liked and have been listening to as I've been blogging about Wisconsin are:

Kiss Off (also from their debut album, Violent Femmes)
Hallowed Ground (from their second album, also called Hallowed Ground)
Color me Once (from the soundtrack for the movie The Crow)

I'm re-posting a YouTube video of I Hear the Rain so you can hear for yourself!

I'm only Happy When it Rains

Maybe it's just this time of the year, but I've noticed how erratic the weather in Wisconsin can be!  Plus 18 (Celsius) and sunshine one day, plus 4 and rain the next.  Maybe that explains the 'rain theme' of Garbage's hit single, I'm only Happy When it RainsGarbage is a Scottish-American band, from Madison and  are much more mainstream than Violent Femmes.  I knew a few of their biggest hits, even before I started researching for this blog (of course, it helps that they were big in the 90's as well, as Violent Femmes were a little bit before my time!). 

I think their most famous track was Stupid Girl which was a top ten hit in the US and the UK.  It reminds me of a particularly fun summer when I was in my early twenties, dancing in The Union Bar in Maidstone!  Garbage had produced four studio albums by 2005, three of which have gone platinum.  As far as I know, they have a fifth album coming out sometime this year. 

Anyway, I'm re posting a video from YouTube for I'm only Happy When it Rains - the videos for this song and Stupid Girl were directed by Samuel Bayer, who also did that really great video for Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit


Also from Milwaukee, The Gufs is one of those bands that has been around for years, but only made it big fairly recently.  One of the greatest things about the Internet revolution is that it has opened up new channels for unknown artists to promote the work that they do.  In 2006 The Gufs suddenly found that their single Beautiful Disaster had become the #2 unsigned artist download and an Internet hit that brought them the success that they deserved.  I'm posting a video from YouTube for a song I really like called Smile which comes from their 1995 album Collide.

Skinny Love

Last but not least, I've been listening to a completely new band called Bon Iver from Eau Claire.  The song I'm posting is called Skinny Love and comes from their debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago released in 2007.  By all accounts, the band spent three months living in a remote cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin and this album was the result!  They seem to have become incredibly popular since then and their music has been used as theme music for TV programmes, amongst other things.  They also have a new album due out sometime this year.  Enjoy!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Wisconsin - What's an Oprah?

When I found out that media Queen, Oprah Winfrey spent part of her childhood in Milwaukee, I thought this would be the perfect excuse to learn more about one of America's most iconic figures.  Like many of you reading this blog, I grew up with the Oprah Winfrey Show and it's, often controversial, social topics.  There's something about Oprah that is universally appealing, whether it's her down-to-earth ability to relate to her audience, or the ability she has to empower those without a voice, she's left an impression on late-20th century life, that would have been a lot less rich and diverse without Oprah on our screens. 

So what is an Oprah?

In preparation for this blog, I read a very concise biography called UPclose: Oprah Winfrey by Ilene Cooper, which is part of a series of biographies by Puffin Books.  It's written in very simple language, occasionally bordering on teenage-magazine speak but, at 179 pages, a perfect overview for me, as I don't have time to read anything weightier.  The title of this blog refers to a slogan that was used to advertise Oprah's move to AM Chicago in 1984, which Cooper uses as the starting point of her book.  You'd think that having an unusual name would mean that people forget it easily, but I know from experience, that the opposite can also be true.  An unusual name (or my case surname) can stick out in people's minds and the show's promoters played on this to Oprah's advantage.

Book cover
 Actually the name of her birth certificate was Orpah, not Oprah, as she was named after the biblical character, Ruth's sister-in-law and Naomi's daughter-in-law, but this proved too difficult for most people to pronounce.  It's an interesting metaphor in itself, as Orpah married into a tribe (or race?) that wasn't her own and, when her husband died, Naomi forced her to return to her own people.  Orpah comes from the Hebrew word for 'nape', as she turned her back on Ruth and did as Naomi bid her.  Oprah herself, became fascinated by the fact that the character of her husband in The Color Purple was called Harpo, which is Oprah spelled backwards - almost, as if Harpo were the male equivalent of Oprah.  She later named her TV studio Harpo Studios in recognition of this fateful coincidence. 

Mississippi, Milwaukee and Nashville

I must admit, unlike most people, I didn't know much about Oprah's childhood until I read this book.  I now know that she famously revealed a lot about herself during her programme and that such things as her being raped, having a baby when she was 14 etc. have been common knowledge for quite a while.  It was all new to me and it's a shocking story, one which will no doubt be made into a film sometime in the future.  Like a lot of people, I could relate to her story on a very personal level.  I also grew up in a poor background (relatively speaking, if you can compare Ireland in late 70's and Mississippi in the late 50's).  I also spent years dreaming of something better and used books as a form of escapism.  The fact that Oprah has managed to transform her life from one of poverty with her grandparents, running around barefoot in potato sacks, to a life of extreme wealth and privilege, is truly remarkable and fits into all of our preconceptions about the American dream. 

Like a lot of young black women and men from the south, Oprah's mother moved to Milwaukee in search of work.  When she'd saved up enough money to rent a small flat, she brought Oprah to come and live with her.  The times Oprah spent in Milwaukee were amongst the lowest points in her life.  With her mother out at work all day, Oprah was left to fend for herself.  There were always men around, relatives and her mother's boyfriends and it was one of her cousins who first raped her when she was only nine years old.  In stark contrast to Milwaukee was the time she spent with her father in Nashville, where she was encouraged to read and go to school.  It was also in Nashville that she graduated from high school and got her first job on local television reading the news.

The Oprah Winfrey Show

I think a meteoric rise to fame was something that life always had on the cards for Oprah.  I guess, there are some people whose voices the world can't afford to ignore and, although things could so easily have gone the other way for her, she worked hard to become a successful TV chat show host, moving from Nashville to Baltimore to Chicago where AM Chicago rivalled that giant of chat shows The Phil Donahue Show and brought her nationwide-fame.  I think timing always helps.  Had she been born ten years earlier it would have been a lot harder for the American mainstream to accept her.  By the 1980's the world was ready for Oprah and she certainly didn't disappoint!  She's often been accused of being a 'token black woman' but I think this underestimates the influence that Oprah has had on white, as well as black, Americans. 

Oprah greatly admired Phil Donahue and his approach to hosting a show.  He was the first mainstream chat show host to broach controversial issues such as gay rights and Oprah has said that without The Phil Donahue Show there wouldn't have been an Oprah Winfrey show.  Both Oprah and Donahue opened the floodgates to chat shows dealing with social issues or 'tabloid talk shows' and others such as Geraldo, Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake became household names in the late 80's/early 90's.  Not just in the United States either, but in Europe and right across the world, a plethora of talk shows erupted, discussing everything from incest to artificial insemination, satanic cults to wife-swapping and cross-dressing.

Harpo Studios in Chicago
 Whilst Donahue and Oprah broke new ground and raised the profile of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, LGBT rights and HIV, a lot of the later shows brought out the worst in society, exploiting vulnerable people, who should probably have been seeking counselling, rather than talking about their problems on television.  Having said that, I'm sure most people will agree that it's compulsive viewing (or at least, it used to be, things have tamed down a lot in recent years).  I also think, from a cultural point of view, the way these shows were interpreted in different countries, says a lot about the way people in that country see the world around them.  Certainly, the British versions of these shows (Kilroy, Jeremy Kyle and Trisha) were a lot tamer.  Although equally exploitative, they usually offered counselling and reassured the audience that the guests would receive help after the show (definitely a very British way of doing things!)  I don't think we've ever had anything like this in Ireland, but that's because our population is so small and everyone kind of knows each other. 

Re-inventing the talk show

Although Oprah admits to occasionally stooping to controversial lows on her show, she decided to re-invent The Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1990's and it became more holistic and focused on health and well-being, as well as introducing her famous book club.  I think it was a smart move to change the focus of her shows and Oprah used her love of books to inspire others, who perhaps wouldn't normally read that much, to start reading again.  She started with the books that she loved most and went on to include others like Steinbeck's East of Eden, which saw this classic novel soar in the US book charts.  For many writers, exposure on Oprah signalled the beginning of a successful writing career - others, like Johnathan Franzen whose novel The Corrections was chosen by Oprah for her book club, cringed at being part of a list of books he described as 'schmaltzy'. 

The Color Purple, Beloved and Precious

Oprah also, famously, played the part of Sofia in the film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Color Purple.  According to Cooper, Oprah was desperate to be selected for the role, because of her love for the book.  Playing Sofia and being nominated for an Oscar must surely rank amongst her highest achievements.  I watched the movie again, although I'd seen it many years ago and it reminded me of how beautiful the story is, not to mention Whoopie Goldberg's performance, as well as Oprah's. 

Oprah set up Harpo Studios in 1986 and used the studio to create TV series and movies that dealt with the lives of black American women.  She also starred in the film adaptation of another Pulitzer prize winning novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison.  It's a book I studied at college, but I didn't realise that a film version had been made, so I also watched this, as part of my research for this blog.  I think it's difficult to turn a book like this into a movie, but it was beautifully shot and I enjoyed the performances of Oprah,  (who played the main character Sethe), Danny Glover (who also played Mr in The Color Purple), London-born Thandie Newton (another coincidence, Thandie means Beloved in Zulu and other languages) and Minnesota-born Kimberley Elise, who played Sethe's daughter, Denver.  I don't know if it's indicative of modern audiences, but Oprah was (understandably) devastated when Beloved was beaten at the Box Office by Bride of Chucky!

A more recent production involving Oprah Winfrey was the 2009 film Precious which received six Oscar nominations and starred Gabourney Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz!

Oprah and other (ad)ventures

O magazine
 Apart from her TV and film work, Oprah also publishes a magazine, called O.  I must admit, I'd never heard of it, but it deals with a lot of the same issues as her show and has been phenomenally successful, like many of the other ventures Oprah has been involved with. 

Most recently, she set up her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa which, despite the controversies around the extravagant nature of the school and the abuse of some of the girls by a former member of staff, it seems to have provided a model environment for young South African women to get a decent education and compete on the global playing field, as well as inspire their peers. 

Everything that Oprah does comes under such scrutiny that I imagine it's quite hard to balance her extreme wealth with her philanthropic ventures.  It's easy to be cynical about a rich Westerner like Oprah getting involved in ventures like this one, I'm sure the everyday reality for girls in a country like South Africa is far-removed from the ideals of the Leadership Academy, but at least she's trying to do something and I kind of think, well why shouldn't she use her wealth to try and improve the lives of (some of) South Africa's young women?  Surely it's better than doing nothing at all?  Mind you, I've read somewhere that Madonna is planning to do something similar in Malawi and the words 'jumping on the bandwagon' come to mind, so it definitely is easy to be cynical about all of this.   

The Oprah effect

Love her or hate her, no-one can deny the impact of the Oprah effect on a whole generation of Americans (and the rest of us!).  I'm definitely a fan, which is not usual for me, as I tend to disregard most of what happens in the world of celebs.  There's something different about Oprah and that's why I like her!  I'm going to leave you with the trailer for Beloved which is available on YouTube. 

Image credits:

The image of the bookcover was taken by me.  It shows the 2007 edition of UpClose: Oprah Winfrey written by Ilene Cooper and published as part of a series by Puffin Books. 

The image of Harpo Studios is by flickruser celikins aka Araceli Arroyo.  You can see more of her photos at

The image of O! magazine is by flickruser forureyezonly who is from Dubai - you can see more of her photos at

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Wisconsin - Bratwurst and Blue Ribbon Chilli

A great site that I often use to find recipes from around the world is  I usually read what's there, see which ingredients I can get my hands on and improvise!

Wisconsin Bratwurst

The first Wisconsite dish I tried my hand at was Wisconsin Bratwurst.  Unfortunately, my local Waitrose doesn't stock Bratwurst, so I had to improvise and made Wisconsin Frankfurters!  Millions of Americans living in mid-West states such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota are descended from German immigrants - Milwaukee was nicknamed 'the German Athens', so it should come as no surprise that 'traditional' Wisconsite food includes the German speciality Bratwurst.  Some Wisconsites might also claim that the most famous of American foods, the Hamburger, was first fried in their humble state!

It felt like cheating this time round, as the concept of putting sausages, bread and chips (fries) together is nothing out of the ordinary (if you compare this to cooking Chakalaka or Togolese Ground nut soup!).  Having said that, I can't remember the last time I cooked 'regular' food.  We usually live on pasta or rice and don't tend to eat what is considered to be 'fast food'.

The Ingredients:

 4 large Frankfurters
4 bread rolls (the only ones I could find were Brioche rolls, which is a bit posh, so typical of Waitrose!)
100g butter
2 Baking potatoes (to make the chips/fries)
1 large onion
A can of American beer (unfortunately I couldn't get my hands on Miller, which is from Milwaukee, so I settled for Budweiser)

First I made the chips, by greasing some baking paper on an oven tray, peeling and chopping the potato into chips and blasting it at 220 degrees in the over for about 40 minutes.  A trick I use to keep the baking paper in place is to oil the baking tray first, then the paper sticks to it and doesn't move around.

Grease a tray and baking paper

Peel and chop the potatoes

Salt the chips and bake for 40 minutes

I always find it hard making chips from scratch and I wonder if that's why potato wedges were invented!  Anyway, they turned out okay and tasted lovely, even if they did stick to the paper a bit.  I must admit, I'd much rather bake the chips in the oven, than deep-fat fry them, which seems really unhealthy!

Whilst the chips were baking, I chopped up the onion and fried it over a fairly high heat, until it softened.  I added a smidgen of chilli powder to give the onions a wee 'kick'.  Once they'd softened, I put the frankfurters on top, having pierced their skins first, then covered the onions and sausage in beer, leaving them to simmer for about 20 minutes.

Fry the onion in butter

Add the frankfurters

Simmer in beer for about 20 minutes

After 20 minutes, I took the frankfurters out of the pan and popped them on my grill.  I set the onions to one side, keeping them warm. 

Grill the frankfurters

Finally, I sliced the brioche rolls, put the frankfurters inside and topped with onions and a side of chips (fries).  I also added HP sauce, to give the dish a distinctly British flavour!

Bratwurst with onions and fries

Wisconsin Blue Ribbon Chilli

It seems like most American states have their own version of Chilli.  What's really interesting about the way Wisconsinites make chilli is that they add macaroni, something I'd never thought of before, but is actually a really natural combination!



500g of Minced Beef
1 large onion
1 red bell pepper
1 celery stalk (or 2 if you like celery, my beloved partner isn't a big fan, so I keep it to the very minimum!)
Brown sugar
400g tin of Chopped tomatoes
300g of macaroni (I used Chifferi, which are like miniature elbows, but other kinds of macaroni would also work)
Tomato juice
Beef stock
Chilli powder

Normally I would fry my onion first before adding beef, but the recipe dictated otherwise and I thought I would follow the recipe to see what happened.  I can't say the end result was all that different, although I believe the beef gets the flavour of the onion, when the onion is fried first.

Fry the beef in olive oil

Add the chopped vegetables

Anyway, in keeping with the recipe I fried the beef until it had browned, then added the chopped onion, pepper and celery.  I then mixed in some chilli powder.  I never know how much chilli powder to put in and think I may have gone a little overboard this time round, as the dish was very spicy!  I guess a good rule of thumb is to add less, taste it when the sauce goes in and add more later, if it's too bland.

Add chilli, but not as much as this!

Add the chopped toms, brown sugar and tomato juice

After frying the vegetables and meat for about eight minutes, I added the chopped tomatoes and tomato juice.  Using tomato juice is another thing I'd never thought of before and it did give the sauce a lovely sweet taste, as Wisconsite chilli is meant to be quite sweet.  I also added the brown sugar, half a litre of beef stock and let the whole lot simmer for 20 minutes.

Once the ingredients had stewed a bit and the sauce had reduced, I added the macaroni and cooked on a medium heat for 15 minutes, adding water to top up the sauce, which was being quickly absorbed by the pasta.  Again, I probably went a bit overboard with the macaroni, as I added a whole 500g pack.  I would suggest less macaroni - depends on how many people you have to feed, I guess!

Add the macaroni

Wisconsin Blue Ribbon Chilli

The end result was incredibly tasty.  We decided to have it with bread, but, in retrospect, we didn't really need that.  I'm getting hungry again, just thinking about it!!

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me - please feel free to re-use them under the Creative Commons License, Attribution (especially to this blog), Share Alike, non-commercial.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Wisconsin - Learning about US politics

In my preliminary research into Wisconsin, I read somewhere that the first meeting of the US Republican party took place in the state, therefore I decided this would be a good enough excuse to introduce myself to US politics and learn about a political system which has such an effect on global affairs. Regular readers of my blog will know how fond I am of the Oxford University Press series A Very Short Introduction, so it should come as no surprise that I found myself turning to L Sandy Maisel's short introduction to American Political Parties and Elections (OUP 2007).

The ability of the writers of this Oxford series never fails to impress me. Tackling difficult subjects in a limited amount of space (usually less than 200 pages, which is about all I have time to read!), writers such as Maisel manage to concisely outline the most important areas in their given subject area, to give the reader a feel for the subject, without getting you bogged down in detail! I would definitely recommend this book and others in the series.

The key features of US democracy

Early on in the book, Maisel describes the two key features of democracy in the US, which are:

- the separation of powers

- federalism

The separation of powers is a model of democracy that was first developed in Ancient Greece and is common throughout the modern world. It separates power into three different branches:

- the Executive
- the Legislature
- the Judiciary

In the UK this translates into:

- the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet (the Executive)
- the elected and non-elected Houses of Parliament (the Legislature)
- the Law/Courts (the Judiciary)

In the United States, the Executive is the US President, the Legislature is the two houses of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) and the Judiciary is the Law/Courts etc. One of the main differences between the US and the UK is that the US President holds far more power and is basically deemed to be the Executive (although I'm sure all of their advisers have a role to play!).

Also the electoral processes for the US Executive (ie. the US Presidential elections) is completely separate from the Legislature elections. Whilst in the UK, the leader of the winning party (or biggest party, in a coalition government) becomes the Prime Minister, in the US, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections have nothing to do with who holds power on Capitol Hill (where the Congress sits).


The Congress consists of two parts. The House of Representatives (sometimes just called 'the House') is (very roughly) equivalent to the House of Commons and is made up of representatives elected within states from a variety of congressional districts (which are like UK constituencies - again, kind of). The Senate has no real equivalent in UK politics and it is a body which represents each of the 50 states, with two representatives per state, regardless of the state's population size. As far as understand it, the election of senators is as close as you can get, on state level, to the Presidential elections and seems to carry a lot of significance, as the two main parties battle for control of the upper house of Congress.

Democracy in Wisconsin, 2011

Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin currently has eight congressional districts represented in the current (112th) House of Representatives. Five of them are Republicans and three are Democrats. Not surprisingly, the three Democrat districts represent the state capital Madison (the 2nd district), which is famed for its political radicalism, Milwaukee with its high percentage of black voters (the 3rd district) and the bit beside Iowa, which is more of a Democratic heartland (the 4th district). Typically for this 'swing' state, Wisconsin has one Republican senator and one Democrat, although from 1993 until earlier this year, there were two Democrats representing Wisconsin in the US Senate.


I think it's hard for anyone who doesn't come from a Federal system of government to understand the impact that this has had on the development of US democracy. Not only does each state have its own democratic institutions and local government, but the approach that each state takes to the way that elections are run varies enormously. Whether it's the way primaries are organised to choose Republican and Democratic candidates for the Presidential elections, the way a state's Senators are chosen or the way the Republican and Democrat parties organise their regional campaigns, the vast differences between one state and another lead to an increasingly complex system of democracy that has added 21st century realities to a system and constitution that was designed for 18th-century life.

The 2000 US Presidential campaign

The 2000 US Presidential campaign, which saw George W Bush become President, brought the realities of US politics onto the TV screens of people all over the world. Many Europeans were baffled as to how Bush could win the Presidential election, despite not having won the popular or even the 'pluralistic' votes. It was the first time that many of us became aware of the existence of Electoral colleges. We also watched in wonder at the controversy surrounding the votes counted in Florida. Something that many Americans had know for a long time, became apparent to the rest of us in 2000, ie. that US democracy no longer works! There have been many attempts to 'fix' the US democratic system, important ones, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which, amongst other things, tried to redress the political imbalances of race.

Some other key words and ideas

 I realise that I haven't yet got beyond the introduction to Maisel's book on American politics, but there is so much in it, which I'll try to tease out in future blogs about the United States. In the meantime, I'm going to leave you with some of the other ideas and conclusions that Maisel touched on:

- the long ballot means that many Americans have a long list of candidates to vote for, at local, state and national level, on election day.

- Americans are called to the polls far more often, on average, than voters in other modern democracies

- most US elections are dominated by the two main political parties. There are no coalitions and elections are 'fixed term', which means that no-one can be forced to leave office until the next election comes round.

- Black slaves used to count as 3/5 of a person, when they were first given voting rights in the 19th century!

- Most southern states voted Democrat until the 1960's.

- there were no political parties when the union was first formed.

- George Washington stepped down after three terms in office. He was so popular that even today, US presidents are strongly 'discouraged' from serving more than two terms (eight years). The only exception was Franklin D Roosevelt, who served four consecutive terms (including the years of the Second World War).

- the Republican and Democrat parties have controlled Congress since the 1860's.

- starting in the 1930's the two main parties did complete U-turns in terms of their policies and the type of voters they represented. Whereas previously the Republicans had represented the urban poor and the Democrats had represented southern farmers, today it's the other way round.

- Each party has 'Hill committees' which raise funds at a national level.

- Women were given the right to vote at national level in 1920.

- In some US cities, party bosses had a lot of political power throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, eg. Tammany Hall in New York, which was a real 'political machine' with bosses like Charles Francis Murphy, galvanising immigrant Irish votes for the Democratic party.

Union march in Wisconsin 2011

- Americans don't really join political parties. How someone is deemed to be the 'member' of a political party varies from one state to another.

- the National Election studies is the most comprehensive survey of Americans' political identity.

- nearly two-thirds of all Democrats are women, less than half of Republicans are. Thirty per cent of Democrats are black against only one per cent of Republicans.

- one third of Americans support independent candidates, yet only two of the one hundred US senators are independent (Joe Liebermann of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont). None of the delegates to the US House of Representatives is an independent, which backs up Maisel's theory that the elections for the House are much less competitive than those for the Senate. Reading between the lines, it looks like at least one third of the US voting population has no real representation in government.

- New Hampshire and Iowa have an unfair influence on the nominations of Presidential candidates, because they traditionally hold their primaries before any other states.

- despite all kinds of legislation to make elections fairer, the reality is that you won't be able to run for an elected position, unless you have the appropriate funds to back up your campaign.

- George Bush broke the previous restrictions on campaign spending when he spent $70 million in private funds, before the first primary vote had even been cast!

- the Instant Run-off campaign promotes a ranked voting system which is based on proportional representation.

- 90% of senators who stand for re-election are successful.

- 70% of all incumbents running for re-election to the House of Representatives, in recent years, have been successful.

- The US has one of the lowest election turnout rates of any Western democracy.

- with the high re-election rates of incumbents, a lot of campaigning focuses on 'negative campaigning' eg. trying to prove that the incumbent is morally or politically unsuitable for their office.

- the way that the US presidential elections work means that many states never see campaigners, as they tend to focus on 'swing states' like Wisconsin.

Image credits:
The image of the Wisconsin State Capitol was taken by flickruser afagen aka Adam Fagen, who is originally from Nashville, but now lives in Arlington, Virginia.  You can see more of Adam's photos at his photostream
The photograph of the union rally during this year's elections in Wisconsin was taken by flickuser markonf1re aka Mark Reichers, who is a freelance writer currently based in Madison, WI.  You can check out more images and text by Mark on his blog.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Wisconsin - Bucky Badger and the World's most fearless Animal

Wisconsin is known as the badger state, not because of its badger population, but because of the Cornish miners who came to this part of the United States in the 1840's, earning the title 'badgers' because of their fossorial work and the fact that they spent their first cold winters in Wisconsin huddled up in caves, living in much the same way as badgers do.

The Animal

There are three main types of badger - the Eurasian badger (with the sub-species meles meles or Common Badger, most familiar to readers in the UK and Ireland), the Ratel or Honey badger, which lives across Africa and Asia and is believed to be one of the world's most fearless animals and the American badger, which is found in most parts of the US and Mexico. 

The badger is a nocturnal creature and lives mostly on worms and insects, although they do sometimes eat smaller animals and have a penchant for baby rabbits!  Contrary to popular belief, they don't generally attack chicken coops and, apart from the Honey Badger, which is feared because of its aggressive behaviour, they are generally peaceful animals and live in harmony with each other and humans. 

Origin of the word 'badger'

There seems to be some uncertainty as to the origin of the English word 'badger' - the Oxford English dictionary links the origins of the word to the French bêcheur which means 'digger'. Other sources claim that it comes from the word for 'badge', which refers to the distinctive white stripe badgers have going down the middle of the their forehead.  Other European languages also refer to the badger as a digger, like the German word Dachs (and the 'badger dog' or Dachshund) or the Latin Taxidea Taxus (American badger).  Some languages call the badger 'grey', like the proto-Celtic brokko (and the English dialect word brock). In parts of Eastern Europe, the badger seems to have earned a bad reputation and Albanians call them vjedull which seems to be related to the word vjedhës, which means thief.  Our attitude towards badgers in the English language also seems a little bit negative, if you think of the phrase 'stop badgering me!'

Badger lifestyles 

Badgers live in complex underground burrows known as setts.  They are notoriously fussy about keeping their setts neat and tidy and go to great lengths to replace old bedding.  They are unusual in the animal kingdom in that they defecate outside their living area in small 'latrines' which they dig into the ground.  They also remove dead badgers from their setts and 'bury' them somewhere outside.  Although they don't hibernate in winter, they tend to be less active then and badgers in Russia will disappear underground for months on end.  They have a great sense of smell, but poor eyesight, seeing in monochrome.  They have incredibly coarse hair and tough skin.  Badgers can't flex their backs like weasels or stoats, however the Honey Badger has the ability to stand on its hind legs, no doubt an evolutionary development to help them hunt insects on the lower parts of a tree. 

You can find out lots more about badgers at

The following Youtube video, which was posted by the Missouri Department of Conservation shows the American badger in its natural habitat:

Badgers and humans

Man is the badger's greatest enemy and, despite the fact that the cruel blood sport of badger-baiting has been illegal for quite some time, the belief, in more recent years, that badgers harbour diseases which are detrimental to cattle, has lead to the mass extermination of badgers in many European countries.  Having said all that, badgers seem to be incredibly popular in the UK and Ireland and charities like The Badger Trust  have been set up with the express purpose of protecting badgers in Britain and elsewhere.  Badgers have been eaten by humans, in the past, and formed a substantial part of the diet for some Native American tribes, as well as many people in Europe and Asia.  Badger hair is still used in the production of shaving brushes.  I thought these had gone out of fashion a long time ago, but I guess they're still used by professional barbers? 

Badgers have also cropped up in literature and folklore.  I'm thinking of Mr Badger in The Wind and the Willows and also the fact that, in Irish folklore, badgers were believed to be have magical qualities, such as the ability to shapeshift.  Modern mythology has given us urban myths such as the man-eating badgers of Basra, claimed to have been released by the British army in Iraq to chase suspected terrorists! 

Bucky Badger and the University of Wisconsin

A google search for 'Wisconsin Badgers' will undoubtedly lead you to one of the many sports teams from the University of Wisconsin-Madison that use the badger as their mascot.  Bucky Badger, in his red and white-striped sweater, has to be one of the world's busiest mascots, attending hundreds of sporting events every year!  A documentary film entitled Being Bucky was released during the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2009 and explores the lives of some of the young men behind the mascot. 

I'll leave you with the trailer for Being Bucky:

Image credits:

The image of the badger was taken by flickruser Fred Dawson,  who is chairman of the Malden Camera club in London.  You can find out more about Fred and see more of his images at his flickr page - thanks Fred for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License.