“Fuck Biden,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and a Wisconsin Death Trip for Our Times

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“The thing to worry about is meanings, not appearances.” —Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip, 1973

Cecil, Wisconsin

I went back twice to find out what the coffin meant, but though cars came and went in the driveway, nobody ever answered the door. Halloween in June, or a sign? Kitsch, or a warning? I’d been driving for a week, since the first night of the January 6 hearings, listening to them on the radio as I counted the flags. Not the American ones but the Trump ones. Trump 2024, two years ahead of time; and the red, white, and blue of the Confederacy, the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden. There are so many now. There’s new folk art too: handpainted “Fuck Biden” placards, homemade “Let’s Go Brandon” billboards, and DIY “Never Forget Benghazi” banners. The cities and towns still ripple with rainbow pride, their numbers are greater, but on many country roads the ugly emblems tick by like mile markers. 

What was the coffin though? I was visiting friends in Cecil, Wisconsin, when we drove past it. They let me out to make a picture. “Careful,” they said, and, “We’ll come back for you,” because they didn’t want to linger. They sped away, leaving me in the green light. I made my picture. I waited. I read on my phone, on Twitter, that Wisconsin Republicans had blocked an effort to repeal a dormant 1849 law making any abortion—including for rape or incest—a felony. My friends returned, we fled. The next morning, the ruling came down: Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade, and Wisconsin became the only “blue” state in which abortion is now effectively illegal.   

In 1973—the same year the US Supreme Court decided 7–2 that Norma McCorvey, “Jane Roe,” had a constitutional “right to privacy” that included reproductive freedom—tennis champion Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the televised “Battle of the Sexes.” Richard Nixon declared, “I am not a crook.” Henry Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize. Also in 1973, a book appeared called Wisconsin Death Trip. It began as a staple-bound pamphlet and as a book became an unlikely mirror of its moment, even as it depicted the last 15 years of the previous century. History’s like that, sometimes, our faith in the forward motion of chronology suddenly evaporating. Death Trip was, on the surface, a benign album of seemingly ordinary photographs—portraits, patriotic displays, happy youth—from one small town in Wisconsin, Black River Falls, during the last decade of the 19th century. Interspersed are excerpts from the town newspaper, the Black River Falls Badger State Banner, and whispers from a “town gossip.” In 1973, a year of crises as varied and vast as those of this year, most white Americans still imagined the previous century as an idyll, apart from a brief interruption for civil war, fought for reasons they thought “romantic.” Virtuous country life, bustling urban industry. American greatness. The Banner spoke other truths. Epidemic disease, whole families consumed; diphtheria, the formation in the throat of a “false membrane”; “astonishing bank failure”; “incendiaries,” arsonists who loved to watch things burn; “vigilance committees”; “the private made public”; a woman, once a “model wife and mother,” who roamed the state smashing windows; soul after soul, remanded to the asylum; so many suicides; a woman who died “from a criminal operation performed upon herself” after she failed to find a doctor with the courage to help her. There was beauty in the book too, even in its carefully arranged photographs of dead infants. That’s what you did then, when your baby died. If you had the money, you hired the town photographer to make the infant’s picture, tucked into a little coffin with flowers, eyes tenderly brushed closed.

By Jeff Sharlet.

Thirty years ago, the book’s author, Michael Lesy, was my teacher. The book, his first, has followed me ever since. “You can get as philosophical as you want,” Michael said when I told him I was headed to Black River Falls. He mimicked cheap gravitas. “‘From the deep ground grows the tree of life… ’” Then comes the end, yours or worse, that of those you love—“and nobody likes it when it happens to them.” A death trip is a memento mori, is a reminder that everybody dies. If that seems obvious, consider the desperate denial embedded in the phrase “Make America Great Again”; the light-eating vanity of Trump; the delusion of a golden brand that will shine eternally. Consider this gloating post-Roe meme: “A thousand-year White Boy Summer starts today.” But nothing lasts forever, not even white boys. A death trip, meanwhile, summons us to the precarious real. Not the myth of greatness. The pulse of uncertainty. The living, such as we are. 

I got the news through a Wisconsin man I’d stopped to speak with that morning, who got it by phone from his wife, who heard it from her doctor, to whom she had gone not to end a pregnancy but to prepare for one. “Mary,” who told me her story on the newly necessary condition of anonymity, had been in the stirrups when the ruling came down. She wanted a baby, and this was the next step in the reproductive technology she and her husband had chosen—until suddenly it wasn’t. Following a course of fertility drugs, Mary now possessed three mature eggs. The nurse stepped out to consult the doctor. But when the doctor entered the examination room, she said, “I’m holding back tears.” 

“I can’t recommend you continue,” the doctor said. Three eggs meant a risk of multiples. Twins Mary could handle. Triplets she could not. Not her finances and not her body. If she went forward, there was a miniscule chance all three eggs could be fertilized. One embryo might have to be removed. And that, as of  9:11 a.m. central time, June 24, in Wisconsin, could be a felony.

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