It all began on a pretty small scale the first year that we moved into our house, in the Fall of 1998. I’d always loved Halloween and decided to put a witch on the tree. You know, the one that looks like the witch has crashed; legs and arms sticking out on each side, a broken broom tacked to the trunk.
I went to Goodwill, got a cool pair of black boots, a pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt, a grey wig and a witch hat. My step-brother and I put the witch up and it looked cool. We stood there in our glory, talking, standing on the opposite side of the tree to where the witch had flown in.
Just then a woman walked up and started talking about my black lab, who was in the front yard with us. “Oh, I just love labs,” she said, and went on about what great dogs they are. Then, in an instant, she reeled back and screamed. I mean a jump about a foot and a serious earth shattering shriek.
Up came her shaking arm, pointing at the boot and wart covered hand that stretched around the edge of the tree. She’d caught the witch out of the corner of her eye and freaked. Her voice was literally shaking and she abruptly walked away, never to be seen again. I don’t think she died, but she certainly didn’t come back to admire my dog. My brother and I walked into the house laughing and my wife innocently asked, “did I hear someone scream?”
A legacy was born. I’ve been doing Halloween ever since. It makes perfect sense that it’s grown. I love it, and the fact that I live on one of the busiest streets in town means a lot of people see the display. Over 23,000 cars a day pass through the intersection near my house.
At first doing stuff for Halloween was just about making cool scary stuff. It was pretty basic. The witch, a grave yard, maybe a few spooking ghouls. Two things fundamentally changed my thinking and the scope of what I was doing.
First, was the Iraq War in the aftermath of 9/11. I was outraged at George W. Bush’s patently illegal, immoral, and fabricated war. As an historian, and like so many other historians, political scientists, and scholars, I could see that going into Iraq was going to be a colossal disaster. For the first time in my life, I wrote the president, the vice president, secretary of defense, and national security advisor. My message was simple: you are about to destabilize the Middle East for at minimum 50 years, probably longer. My letter obviously had a huge impact.
What else could I do? Outrage led to parody and effigy. Both are long political traditions in the United States, going back to the American Revolution.
What was my message? Bush and Cheney were liars. They were deceiving the American people by stating that 9/11 was tied to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Many Americans today still believe it. So, in the midst of my anger I put Bush and Cheney up on the tree, each wearing black pants with flames all over them, and a big sign: “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.” It was simple, but poignant.
So the first big change in Halloween was going political. I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since. The 2016 "Trump Wall" was big, both literally and figuratively, as was the 2017 "Ship of State," the giant pirate ship that covered my entire yard.
The second big change in the display was cardboard. Yea, cardboard. One summer about 10 years ago my wife and I went to a local church art show where a street artist had spent a couple of weeks working with local kids on how to make art out of trash. As I walked through the show I was amazed at what cool stuff the kids had made using cardboard. They had cut it, shaped it, layered, sanded, and painted it. A light bulb literally went on. I had worked with wood most of my life and realized that I could use most of the techniques for woodworking on cardboard. I could cut it with my table and jig saws, sand it, caulk it, and do just about anything.
I’ve been working with cardboard and Styrofoam ever since. They are the perfect medium for what I do. Best of all, it’s free. It took a little while to find a reliable source. I first started with random boxes, but then found a local furniture store. If you think refrigerator boxes are big, you should see what couches and dining room tables come in. My contact in the furniture warehouse is “John the Box Guy.” That’s how he’s listed in my phone.
And so it is. Cardboard art was born for me. It took me a while to accept that what I was doing is in fact art. To me it was just the Halloween thing. Recently, an artist friend looked at what I do and said, “Oh, you’re an installation artist.” I’d never heard the term before, but I’m good with it.
I now get to mix my passions – Halloween, history, and politics. In a lot of ways I’m trying to use the fun of Halloween to provide an historical and political lesson. I want people to think. I also realize that Halloween allows me to get away with what at any other time of year would seem extreme and even bizarre. But then again, this world is looking more extreme and bizarre every day.
If I can get people to smile at the fun of what I do and reflect, even a little bit, on where we are as a nation, then at least I’m doing something.
It’s hard to believe we’re in 2021! I think back and say to friends, “hey, last year we…” But I forget the lost 18 months of Covid, and I’m really talking about 2½ years ago. Too much has happened.
There are so many issues that I might have used for the 2021 Halloween display, but none more important than the Capitol Insurrection. It defines the fragile state of our Union. The Capitol Building in Washington D.C. has been attacked only twice in our nation’s more than 200 year existence.
The first time was by a foreign enemy (the British) during the War of 1812. In August 1814, the British Army landed in the Chesapeake Bay region and launched attacks in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. As part of that operation, they invaded the Capitol and set fire to every public building (except the patent office!) It was a beleaguering moment for the young nation; a low point in what was often called the “Second War of Independence.”
The second time was by a domestic enemy aimed at stopping the electoral vote count process in the presidential election of 2020. Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters rushed the Capitol, attacked Capitol police officers, broke windows, illegally entered congressional offices, and disrupted the election process. They did so at the behest of President Trump.
Now, Trump and his followers claim that the insurrection wasn’t an insurrection. The former president recently (September, 2021) claimed it was all a “hoax.” Such a statement defines the Trump presidency. He has long insisted that if you say something enough times people will believe it. He has made the denial of basic facts – of the truth – a key political strategy.
Trump’s actions are the fulfillment of a much more insidious, Republican strategy that began in the 1990s. The goal: to disrupt any possibility of Democratic Party success, no matter the consequences. The means of disruption: refusal to compromise; get nastier; grind the wheels of government to a halt. All this to maintain Republican Party power.
And be sure – “The Big Lie” (that Trump actually won the election) is what culminated in the Capitol Insurrection – this is no minor issue. What has always set America apart is our citizens’ willingness to accept elections and the peaceful transition of political power. Without that essential commitment, our Union will fracture; we will be reduced to just another rogue political state. The “Great Experiment” in representative government will fail.
What more can one say? If all of this means anything to you, whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent, stand by your nation, not any single individual or party. Accept that some level of compromise is critical for the country’s ability to govern. Recognize that the people who attacked the Capitol were not patriots. They were not defending Democracy.
I leave you with the words of George Washington in his famous Farewell Address. It’s a document every American should read.
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts….”
The alternate domination of one faction [party] over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty….
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions….”
Many of my previous displays have foreshadowed what is happening in America today – “The Fall of Rome,” “The American Ship of State,” “The Death of Democracy,” “The Threat of Tyrants” – it’s all coming to fruition. The U.S. is in chaos and while there is so much to choose from in our quickly devolving political system, this year’s display focuses on two of the major issues that have dominated 2020 – the year that just keeps giving.
Black Lives Matter and the Corona Virus have challenged and awakened many Americans to the racism, corruption, and malfeasance endemic to our “democracy.” The Trump administration, with the support of a pandering, unethical Republican Party, is literally destroying our nation. Whether it’s their refusal to recognize that systematic racism is real and a legacy of slavery, or the utter incompetence of the Covid “response,” the GOP and its maniacal “horror-in-chief” have proven that they possess no ethical mooring. They covet power, little more.
The BLM portion of the display is focused on both the black lives lost to police violence, (keeping in mind that blacks make up only 13% of the population, but are more than twice as likely as Whites to be shot by the police), and on the history behind the movement. Before BLM and MLK, there was a small but potent group of people – abolitionists – who fought for the lives and freedom of Black people. One of the panels includes the historic image of a chained slave with the words, “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER.” This was one of the earliest British abolition symbols and quickly adopted by American abolitionists. Also, in the display are runaway ads from Connecticut newspapers, just to remind people from my state that slavery existed here, not just in the South. Finally, there are important words from three of America’s leading defenders of their people: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B DuBois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. How can one read what these moral, thought-provoking Black Americans said without commiserating with their and their people’s plight?
AND JUST TO BE CLEAR – My display is not meant to be anti-police. I have several friends who are, or were, police officers. They are good people. They work hard, help their community, and often have to face the worst of humanity. The majority do it with compassion and commitment. But there are a small minority – like the officer who murdered George Floyd in broad daylight – who sully the term “officer of the law.” These people endanger all Americans and their fellow brother and sister officers.
AND, those who respond to the idea of BLM with “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter,” don’t get it. Of course, police lives and other lives matter. That’s not the point. It’s the fact that Blacks make up only 13% of our population yet are twice as likely to be shot by the police as White Americans. If you can’t wrap your head around this fact, then you are part of the problem.
The Covid portion of the display focuses on the inept Trump response and the reality of how serious the pandemic is, no matter how much the GOP tries to downplay it. Sorry, it’s nothing like the seasonal flu, which on average kills between 15,000 and 25,000 Americans in a calendar year. The 2018 flu season killed 40,000, and that number alarmed both the CDC and the NIH. America is now at well over 200,000 in only 8 months. This is much worse than the season flu. It’s far more comparable to the 1918 Flu pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans.
How can anyone conclude that Covid isn’t serious, or that Trump hasn’t bungled the response. He denies science, and the GOP and his followers swallow wholesale whatever he says. Please wake me up when we leave the land of disbelief!!
SCOTUS – The Supreme Court of the United States – America’s highest judicial body. Most Americans know little about the history of the court or how it’s judicial decisions impact them on a regular basis. In many respects, some president’s legacies have been more defined by their choices for the Supreme Court than on what occurs in their four or eight years in office. Why? Because Supreme Court justices serve for life, and their tenure can span decades. Depending on the make up of the nine justices, substantial changes to American life can be dispensed. While most Americans think of the court in terms of controversy over abortion or the 2nd amendment, there are so many other cases that effect how we live our lives and how our democracy progresses, or doesn’t.
This year’s display includes not just the skeleton court, with its “left” and “right” benches, but key cases that have been handed down over the last decade that have directed life in America. I know that many Americans hate, and are sick of politics, with our 24 hour news cycle and partisan bickering, but as my previous displays have pointed out, democracy and representative government are ours to win or lose. I’m troubled by the direction that America is going in, and the Supreme Court has had remarkable influence on that direction. Merely look at Bush v. Gore (2000) or Citizens United v. FEC (2010). Each has chipped away at our democracy and the rights of the people over party power and corruption.
So, brush up on your knowledge of the Supreme Court and understand what a critical role it plays in our society. Equally important, understand that placing a new justice on the court of nine is one of the very powerful things that a president can do. With a number of aging justices, big changes are coming, and, be sure, partisanship, power, and the people’s rights will intermingle in ways that will shock and dismay.
Also note the awesome artwork over the center of the display, painted by my daughter, Jessie Warshauer. An awesome depiction of lady justice with wings made of the implements of death. The artwork is not original to Jess, but was custom painted. Many long nights to complete it for her demanding dad.
"The Death of Democracy"
We often forget that the United States is an experiment in representative government and human rights. That “we the people” are responsible for the success of that experiment, and that when we fail to educate ourselves and fail to take responsibility for the direction of our government, we are ultimately the source of the great experiment’s demise.
I teach political history and have read extensively the words of the nation’s Founders. They consistently advise and warn that knowledge, virtue, and the people’s responsibility toward the nation are what will safeguard America from failure. You might think that their words are old, with little relevance for today, but the Founders had a remarkable understanding of human nature.
The echoes of their counsels have never been more important. James Monroe put it best, in his 1817 Inaugural Address:
"It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties."
Democracy can die. We are witnessing it now. Donald Trump is both a symptom and a dark agent of our downfall. He is immoral, unethical, and dangerous, caring nothing for people, ideas, or the most helpless members of our society. Rather, he is a narcissist who whips up hatred against “the other,” uses fear to separate Americans, and enflames culture wars all for his own elevation and aggrandizement. Nothing is more fatal to democracy.
Thus this year’s display focuses on the sage words of previous presidents, the warnings about fascism from political philosophers across the centuries, calls for Trump’s impeachment, and hope for the future through the greatest power we have – voting and political engagement. For if democracy does fail, it’s because we let it.
There is also a new feature. A “hope and fear” section on which visitors can write their own thoughts and ideas. I hope you enjoy the display. Be sure, my goal is to push people to think harder. I try not to be a hater and am not trying to foment hate. These are all just words, people. Remember, we are promised the right of free speech.
"The Trumpian Ship of State"
I came up with the idea for Halloween 2017 earlier than I ever have, only one day after the 2016 presidential election. Like so many Americans, I was horrified and deeply concerned for the future of our nation and the world. My immediate thought was that the American ship of state had gone horribly off course. But what could I really do about it?
As a history professor, I try to get people to reflect and consider their own ideas of what they believe and why. I do this almost every day through teaching, but I also try to reach a wider audience through Halloween. The ship of state is off course. So what should I do? Build a HUUUUGE ship. A tremendous, tremendous ship. And, what should it be called? Why, the USS Constitution, of course!
But what type of ship should it be? Again, the answer is so simple – a pirate ship – because that’s what Trump and his merry band are, pirates, and they’re pillaging our nation. What should Americans – we the people – do? Fight! That’s what. I’m not advocating violence. Just good old fashioned dissent, the cornerstone of democracy.
So, however you decide to do it, make sure you do something. I make Halloween displays and push my students and others to understand history and how it intersects with today. If you want to help me, please join the cause.
Check out this great time lapse video of the construction of the USS Constitution. SO COOL! MUST SEE! We asked an up and coming West Hartford artists, Ben Astrachan and Jackson Zinn-Rowthorn, of the band Porkomorph, to write an original song for the time lapse video. The result is, "King (March of the Proletariat)." Find out more about Porkomorph.
"The Trump Wall"
It's an election year, and Donald Trump has focused part of his campaign on a grand and glorious wall to keep out the "other." Immigrants of Latino descent are all "criminals," "drug dealers," and "murderers." None are families fleeing for their very lives in the hopes that America, a nation made up of immigrants that has always hated immigrants, will once more offer a place of refuge and opportunity.
The Statue of Liberty says "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." No. The welcome sign is no longer out, and masses of Americans who were once equally ridiculed for being a new, unsavory element, are not doing the ridiculing.
And, please, the point isn't that we need to "protect" our borders. Of course we need to do that. How we do it, however, matters. Humanity matters. The lives of people fleeing for something better matters. That the Republican Party and their new henchman, Donald J. Trump, spews such venom and hatred matters.
If he is elected, he will burn this nation down by stoking division and hate.
There's no perfect date to choose as the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, but America has opted for 2015. The nation's first defeat in war, it nonetheless rallied many to take political action by pouring into the streets and protest a conflict that was questionable.
It was the first generation of U.S. soldiers who felt unsupported by their government. It was a war that left millions of Vietnamese dead, but brought millions more to American shores. They now live in our communities and make the nation more diverse. Some celebrate this reality. Others decry it.
The aftermath of Vietnam has, perhaps, taught Americans to "support the troops," but is that all we've learned of war? Perhaps we should ask when war is actually necessary, and there are circumstance when it is. Vietnam wasn't one of those circumstances. Nor was the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Wake up America. Learn your history. Stop repeating it.
11/01/2016, Por ZGS Digital
“Residente de West Hartford Construye una ‘Trump Wall’ para Halloween.” Holaciudad, November 1, 2016.
Ronni Newton “West Hartford Man’s ‘Trump Wall’ Transformed to Message of Hope for Election Day| West Hartford News.” We-Ha | West Hartford News, November 8, 2016. http://we-ha.com/west-hartford-mans-trump-wall-transformed-message-hope-election-day/.
“It’s Halloween and Election Season on North Main St. in West Hartford Http://Trib.al/sza4UdR Pic.twitter.com/FthzWfnhuO.” Microblog. @hartfordcourant, October 4, 2016.cription to access the Courant version.
band.uol.com.br. “Trump E Hillary Viram Decoração de Halloween | Mundo | Band.com.br.” Noticias Band.com.br. Accessed January 26, 2017. http://noticias.band.uol.com.br/mundo/noticia/100000825544/trump-e-hillary-viram-decoracao-de-halloween-nos-eua.html.
Dagbladet, Channel. “Historielærerens Kreative Halloween-Pynt Får Biler Til Å Stoppe.” Accessed January 26, 2017. http://www.dagbladet.no/video/EQn68m8_6K4 .