Tuesday’s Quotes – November 7, 2017 – Election Day

“As heirs to a legacy more than two centuries old, it is understandable why present-day Americans would take their own democracy for granted. A president freely chosen from a wide-open field of two men every four years; a Congress with a 99% incumbency rate; a Supreme Court comprised of nine politically appointed judges whose only oversight is the icy scythe of Death — all these reveal a system fully capable of maintaining itself. But our perfect democracy, which neither needs nor particularly wants voters, is a rarity. It is important to remember there still exist other forms of government in the world today, and that dozens of foreign countries still long for a democracy such as ours to be imposed on them.”
— Jon Stewart, “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction”

Yes, I know off-cycle elections aren’t very exciting for most of us, but keeping abreast of local politics, and participating, is actually the only way to understand what’s gone wrong at the state and national levels.

So, if you are eligible to vote, and have an election happening in your area – please get out there and VOTE!

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Quiet time

With no time today for commentary on several things that need commentary, I instead found myself thinking of this quote from Elie Weisel:

“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”

Something we should try to keep in mind more often.

Pax.

Sound advice

“Any man worth his salt will stick up for what he believes right, but it takes a slightly better man to acknowledge instantly and without reservation that he is in error.”

— Andrew Jackson

Our current, and 45th, president, Donald Trump, has been said to greatly admire our 7th president, Andrew Jackson – even has his portrait in the Oval Office. Not surprising, really since Jackson was also a populist, and a disruptor.

But, there are some taken-ways from the Jackson presidency – he was, after all, a strong proponent of state’s rights (except as it applied to South Carolina’s refusal to pay federal tariffs when he received permission to use US government forces), he was disinclined to interfere on slavery issues, or, crucially, when Georgia claimed land promised to the Cherokee nation, and the Supreme Court ruled it illegal – leading to the heartbreaking, and harrowing, march of the Cherokee to Oklahoma in the “Trail of Tears”. His legacy was tarnished by this event in particular, but there are a few things he’d said that are worth savoring – and this one is interesting precisely because he was an autocrat.

It often seems that autocrats are less likely to acknowledge when they are wrong, or may have made a mistake. But moving forward successfully requires the ability to acknowledge our errors so that we can learn from them and not repeat them. If only more politicians, and our current president, understood that.

Portrait of Andrew Jackson borrowed from history.com

 

Too Soon? Or Old News?

Yes, it’s time for me to repeat much of what I’ve said previously about guns in the United States in the wake of the slaughter in Las Vegas. But this has been an interesting news weekend, so first – The President and the Vice-President staged a very expensive publicity stunt today (his schedule apparenly shows VP Pence needing to be in California before the game in Indiana would have ended & the president tweeted about the lack of spontaneity – actually claiming credit). I’m curious about the price to tax payers for this little stunt. And the fascinating wordplay involved in the Vice President protesting a protest by walking out in protest was almost too good to ignore. But yet again, this is little more than a bit of political theater – designed to keep the flames lit – and to make a peaceful protest against a persistent racial inequality in this country about something else entirely – an unpatriotic lack of respect for our military. Um no, and as I, and many other have said before peaceful protest is one of those ‘rights’ that we are constitutionally bound to – and the open fanning of the flames of anger against the dissenters by government officials is, surely in opposition to the spirit of the First Amendment. Yes, the protesters can be criticized, but the reminder that they are within their rights as citizens should not be lost. Of course, on the subject of protesters not being criticized by the government, we have, once again, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville. This time a much smaller (reports of 40 – 50 people), much more subdued (so far) group, but I expect no criticism of these protesters – who don’t live in Charlottesville – by the White House for their continued push to promote white supremacy and neo-nazism under the guise of preserving history. The President has made it clear previously how he really feels. And yes, they have a right to peacefully protest. And they, too, can be roundly criticized, and their employers should not be pressured by the government to fire them for their peaceful protesting.

Numerically, the next constitutional amendment is the 2nd, but before going back there, I do want to note that, while I think there should be limits on firearms, particularly for the mentally ill, or those on terror watch lists, those limits would not have helped in the case of Stephen Paddock – although reportedly a loner, sullen, and a heavy gambler, he’d never been diagnosed with a mental illness (although it is likely he was mentally ill), and he certainly didn’t have any ties to terrorism. But perhaps looking at our access to semi-automatic weapons – and the corresponding ability to convert them to fully automatic weapons – is worthwhile. These types of weapons have no other purpose than to kill.

It’s important, in any discussion about guns in the US, to understand the 2nd Amendment. I’ve discussed the historical context before, but am repeating it now because it is important to understand. The second amendment to the US constitution, which some people very seriously seem to think is more important that the other 26 – part of a frenzy fortified by the National Rifle Association (more on them shortly) – is a very short, very simple declaration. A mere 27 words, and 3 critical commas, in its entirety, it states this:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Oh, if only the founders could have realized how that would devolve through time. But damn those commas. There are two very different ways to read this. One is that the amendment was referring to individuals having a right to bear arms. Period. No exceptions. No restrictions. And it makes no difference what else the amendment says because of those pesky commas. This view is generally referred to a the ‘individual rights theory’. There is a fringe extension of this view, that feels that, again courtesy of the commas, that the individual rights are explicitly to offer protection from the state (which is mostly fueled by paranoia, not the law). The other view is generally known as the ‘collective rights theory’, and is based on the ‘well regulated militia’ opening. The opening clauses are seen as an indication that the true intent of the framers was to prevent congress from interfering with the states’ rights to self-defense. Under this view, the states do have the ability to regulate arms, and the individual use and ownership of them. But the federal government does not.

Until relatively recently, regardless of what some choose to believe, the courts have generally followed the ‘collective rights’ interpretive path in most decisions. The tide began to turn in 2008, though, when the courts ruled that Washington, DC’s highly restrictive gun laws were unconstitutional. Yes, it is really true – a mere 9 years ago marked the very first time that the Supreme Court ruled that a municipality did not have the right to restrict the possession of firearms in the home.

In order to see what happened, a brief history lesson might be a good place to start.

Historically, the collective rights theory partially would include an individual rights view, in so far as individual ownership enabled the states to call upon its citizenry to defend the state, at a time when the state was unable to supply the weaponry. Each of the original 13 States had their own militias, service was mandatory, and you were expected to supply your own weaponry. Therefore, you needed to have a gun so that you could use it in the service of the state. In reality, at that time, you probably had one anyway for hunting your meals. Over time the militias were dissolved, the guns remained, and so did the local and state ordinances that regulated them. The Supreme Court fairly consistently ruled in favor of state control, and in fact, ‘bearing arms’, was considered to be military terminology, and was not generic to owning or carrying a gun for personal use. In fact, in 1840, the Tennessee State Supreme Court, in Aymette v State, specifically stated that the phrase bearing arms “have reference to their military use, and were not employed to mean wearing them about the person as part of the dress. As the object for which the right to keep and bear arms is secured, is of general and public nature, to be exercised by the people in a body, for their common defence, so the arms, the right to keep which is secured, are such as are usually employed in civilized warfare, and that constitute the ordinary military equipment.” They also noted that the state’s statute was in line with the Federal Constitution’s Second Amendment.

Enter the National Rifle Association. Founded in New York in 1871 by a committed group of retired army officers and National Guard members, who were disturbed by the poor marksmanship that they witnessed during the Civil War, the group started out, and indeed spent the next century, as a civic-minded group that promoted the development of marksmanship skills, gun safety knowledge, hunting, and sensible regulation – including the banning in 1934 of the machine guns that were being heavily used by the high-profile bank robbers of the day. But then times started to change, and so did the NRA. Civil unrest and political assassinations in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave birth to a new view – especially after the creation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Then, as now, there were conspiracy theorists claiming that the assassinations were part of a concerted effort to disarm the citizenry. And by the late 1970’s the NRA had changed focus – from community and hunting to politics and funding from weapons manufacturers. And the Republican party, in a show of just how powerful the NRA had become, charged from supporting handgun control in 1972 to adding a clause opposing federal gun registration efforts to their 1980 platform. It took the NRA nearly 40 years to accomplish, but by 2008 they had successfully swayed public perception enough that they had garnered the political support, and therefore the sympathetic ears they needed on the courts, to begin to see the second amendment reinterpreted. In a somewhat ironic turn – a constitutional coup was accomplished without firing a shot.

As to where we are now?

First, in spite of memes purporting otherwise – the guns used in most of the recent mass shootings were purchased legally. Even is states, like California, with very strict gun laws.

Second, I am increasingly disturbed by the number of people proclaiming, loudly, that gun laws are wasted laws because only good, honest people would comply. Following that reasoning through to its logical conclusion, those that subscribe to that line of thinking would lean toward anarchy because criminals, by definition, break laws. If we should not bother with a law because  some segment of the population will not comply, then why bother with any laws? And, even if you successfully reframe your argument so that it is only applicable to the weapons used to commit crimes, then you need to also consider the simple fact that ALL weapons, except those personally manufactured, start out legally purchased. And the second amendment has an opening clause that you should not ignore if your only argument against restriction is constitutional – as noted above, there is nearly 200 years of settled case law that not only does not ignore that clause, it also defines ‘bear arms’ as being a military term.

Third – seriously,  the worship of the second amendment while blissfully ignoring the others has really got to stop. How can you not be overcome by the dissonance when you are shouting about gun rights, and also talking about closing Muslim houses of worship? Or about allowing only Christian refugees to enter the country? Or actually suggesting interring US Muslims (because it worked so well with the Japanese in WWII?). Or of demanding that football players “taking the knee” in peaceful protest be fire by the NFL?How many other amendments do you want violated or ignored to satiate hate and paranoia?

Fourth – the very definition of mass shooting is clouding the issues surrounding gun violence. Frankly there isn’t one, and that is leading to highly misleading statistics being bandied about. Statistically, any shooting involving four or more victims is classified as ‘mass’. And that’s fair, but it isn’t really what the general populace thinks of when they hear that there were more mass shootings in the US in 2015 than days in the year. The public, probably rightfully, thinks of mass shootings as incidents like Charleston or San Bernadino, or Las Vegas, and according to Mother Jones, the total in 2015 was actually 4. Now, that is not to minimize the extent of gun violence in this country – there is far too much – but it is to point out that a gang shooting or a family member killing their spouse and children, are different types of crime. Heinous in their own right, and every victim is important, but a Dylan Root slaughtering people at choir practice for ideological reasons, does need to be classified separately. And this argument over what constitutes a ‘mass shooting’ allows the entire discussion about gun violence to be taken down to a pedantic level over only one aspect of the problem. And make no mistake, there is a problem. And that problem, is generally with legally purchased guns.

Yes, we can debate mental illness, and wring our hands, and yes, pray for the victims. But while that may make us feel better, it does not address the issue. There are an average of 297 people injured every day in the US by guns – and 89 of those die. 7 of those that die are children under the age of 19. 55 of those that die are suicides – with another 10 surviving an attempt. Annually 824 children and teens deliberately kill themselves with firearms, and another 124 are killed unintentionally. And they kill unintentionally as well. And we can debate what constitutes responsible gun ownership when children are around, and acts of God, when a 5 year old kills a 2 year old sibling with a gun that he received for Christmas. But we should also look at a culture that has bought into the notion that a child lacking the muscle development to adequately use a pair of scissors should be handed a loaded gun as a gift simply because the manufacturer decided to sell a line of small & cute pink long guns directed at young children. And oh yeah, it’s my second amendment right. No, it isn’t. These are CHILDREN. When a toddler shoots and kills mommy in Walmart because she foolishly left a loaded gun in her purse, we can all say ‘what a shame’ and be grateful that the child is probably too small to remember what they did. But what about the 9 year old girl that shot her weapons instructor during a vacation outing at a range that specializes in allowing anyone to fire automatic weapons? She was not old enough, or strong enough to manage that weapon, but she is old enough to have what happened haunt her for the rest of her life. No these tragedies were not an ‘act of God’ – they were irresponsible parenting, they were incredibly poor judgement on the part of the adults in the vicinity, they were the byproduct of a culture that has decided to buy into the notion that everyone having ready access to any type of gun, with no restrictions, really makes us safer. The statistics would seem to demonstrate that they don’t. And more importantly, while gun ownership, of hunting and sport, has always been popular in rural areas, including in my home town, and children had historically been given hunting guns in the middle school years, the trend – so obviously started by, and fueled by, a weapons manufacturing industry in search of new markets – of providing guns an ammunition to very young children is obscene. There is really no other word for it. We have allowed gun manufacturers to convince us that beyond sport and defense, guns are suitable toys. A young child, one that has not yet developed the physical ability to perform fine motor tasks, or the cognitive ability to understand death and object permanence, is not ready to possess a firearm.

“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”

– Samuel Johnson

 

 

Just a couple of things…

It can be so hard to focus on any one subject with this administration, but I want to talk a bit about Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the huge hurricane last week that seems to have gotten very little attention from the White House, even though they are, in fact, US territories whose residents are US citizens. But before that, there’s North Korea. Run by a terrifying toddler. And the United States. With an erratic, tweet-loving toddler promising war and annihilation because the other toddler is playing with very dangerous toys. And I have a daughter living in Japan, at whom North Korea has been lobbing missiles. Both toddlers need a time-out. And adult supervision. But then there’s the NFL (seriously, does anyone give a s**t? Is this really more important than the preceding issues?). What makes that important is manufactured outrage about peaceful dissent and the meaning of patriotism. And what it means when the President of the United States can talk about the ‘good people’ carrying confederate battle flags, Nazi memorabilia, and swastikas, but can condemn, with no latitude, the players that are silently protesting by kneeling during the national anthem, and call for fan boycotts and the firing of the players. More important than Puerto Rico or North Korea? Arguably not – both of those involve real lives. Lagging disaster recovery efforts and acts of war (whether nuclear or not) are, quite literally, life and death issues. Yet the focus, of the media and everyone else, stays on the dissenting players, with plenty of outrage to go around. I’ve heard friends discussing the NFL rules to make their point that the players should be fired. But since this is an issue with some clearly defined rules, and laws, while the life and death issues are mainly ethical, it’s easier, perhaps, to just get the subject out of the way.

Nitpicky perhaps, but first – the NFL rulebook does not reference the national anthem, but the Game Operations Manual does, and any penalties fall into the “may” be used, not “will” or “must” be used, and, according to the NFL spokesperson on Monday, no penalties are being considered for players or teams. So, of course, President Trump is calling for a rule to be added. Because he clearly has nothing more important to focus on  (and not only does it make his base happy, but who can argue over patriotism).

Far less nitpicky, and far more importantly, peaceful protest is a good thing, and is permitted under the 1st Amendment. However, should the NFL, or an individual owner, choose to penalize a player for a rule violation, labor law, and the player contracts, would permit it. And that’s fine, too. It’s true in most employment situations (especially for us non-contract folks that are hired ‘at will’) that our employers can often terminate our employment for reasons that may seem irrelevant to our jobs. And we, regardless of political leanings, often seem to forget that the 1st Amendment stops the government from preventing you from protesting, but does not guarantee you a consequence-free right of free expression. In the case of the NFL, interestingly enough, a number of team owners, including some that supported the Trump campaign, have weighed in on the side of the right to dissent. So it seems unlikely that that many penalties will be handed out, and a rule change is even less likely (but one never knows). But that pesky 1st Amendment, and the restrictions on governmental penalties, is something our president is straddling in calling for the dissenting players to be fired.

Also important to keep in mind, and contrary to the rhetoric, the rights that our military is meant to preserve from outside threats include the right to not stand during the national anthem, and to not recite the pledge of allegiance. These rights are rights even when you disagree with them. If we cherry pick the freedoms we allow for other people (assuming they are not creating a risk to the public), we will likely find our own being curtailed. And that, in a circuitous route brings us, briefly, to the notion that not standing for the national anthem, or the pledge is somehow disrespectful to the flag. It isn’t, but what is disrespectful, is flying a confederate battle flag, or carrying around swastika flags or other symbols of Nazism. There were wars fought concerning both of those things – and the sides that they represented lost. Proudly carrying them around is not only about as unpatriotic as one can get, it is in direct opposition to patriotism, and to what the United States represents. Your own rights of free expression may give you the right to display those flags and banners, but they are very far removed from demonstrating any respect for this country, or its flag. I also recommend that everyone falling for the cries of “unpatriotic”or  “disrespectful” being levied at the kneelers take a few minutes to read through the flag code – it’s interesting how many people routinely violate the code, while believing that they are demonstrating their patriotism, and respect for the flag.

And for those that accuse someone worth a great deal of money of hypocrisy, or of having no standing, or of their (possible, because really you have no idea what there lives are like) lack of familiarity with suffering, or “true” patriotism because they have chosen to use their position, and their affluence, to express support for those facing discrimination? Please just stop. Think long and hard before you go there. First of all, having wealth, or celebrity, does not preclude discrimination for themselves, their families, or their friends. Second, people who have much also have a societal obligation to speak out for those that do not. I understand that not everyone agrees, and that’s fine, but perhaps dial back the anger and hostility for a bit of empathy once in a while.

While we’re on the subject of empathy – although the media, and the president might have left some people confused about the US Virgin Islands, and particularly about very heavily damaged Puerto Rico (particularly with that awful bit of tweeting about how much debt Puerto Rico has – as if that had anything to do with the hurricane, or as if we should be making a value judgement about whether or not we should provide aid to a country that has gone bankrupt – when that country is a a US territory whose citizens are US citizens), the simple fact is that the region needs help. In Puerto Rico’s case, their electrical grid is done, most of their cell service is also out, and they have a critical need for drinking water – yes, restoration and recovery operations have been greatly hindered by the extent of the infrastructure damage, particularly airfields and ports, but that was really no excuse for the White House to largely ignore it for the first several days after the storm passed the islands. Of course, twitter wars with the NFL was obviously more important, and after all it wasn’t like Texas or Florida. I actually found myself wondering, sadly, whether our president was fully aware that these were US Territories, and US citizens, that the federal government has some obligation to. Otherwise, I can’t understand the disconnect. And I cannot repeat this often enough – those people living on those island nations are US citizens.

The NFL controversy, while fully distracting attention from Hurricane Maria’s impact to the USVI and PR, did little to dampen the ongoing, and rapidly escalating, war of words between the United States and North Korea. That situation should frighten everyone – North Korea is busy playing with their nuclear arsenal, and our president, a man not known for subtlety, essentially threatened genocide in his UN speech. Unfortunately, the personalities involved at the top do not leave very much room for de-escalation and negotiation. As one who grew up in the cold war, I am nervous. As a parent with one child residing in Japan, and as a former exchange student host with a former student attending university back home in Seoul, I am also extremely concerned on a personal level. As a human being, I am both frightened, and saddened, that once again, those in power are letting their egos bring them to the brink of war – and a nuclear war really won’t have any winners. To borrow a line from a speech given by Robert Oppenheimer: “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite or they will perish.

Pax.

In no small irony, we came upon this Fallout Shelter sign in Savannah, Georgia this past April. My elementary school had one. For those of you old enough to remember, did yours?

Learning new things every day…

As I browsed around for possible topics for today’s blog, I discovered that today is National Consitution and Citizenship Day.  And yes, that really is an official federal observance. Amazing, there really is a day for everything – and I cannot believe I was completely unaware that we actually had a day dedicated to the anniversary of the signing of the US Consitution in 1787 by the delegates to the Consitutional Convention. So yes, 230 years ago, the delegates to the Consitutional Covention signed off on their handiwork.

According to the Library of Congress, the day was based on I Am An American Day, which had been authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. The day was originally established as the 3rd Sunday in May as a celebration for new citizens. In 1952, Congress repealed that proclamation, and replaced it with Citizenship Day, and moved it to September 17th in honor of the signing of constitution. In 2004, Congress changed the name to recognize the Consitution as well as Citizenship, and also added a pair of requirements to the observation – one being that each federal agency head provide employees with educational material regarding the Consitution (I wonder how many actually read it and understand it? – the agency heads, I mean), and the other that schools receiving federal funds must hold a program for their students on (or near) September 17th.

So Happy Consitution and Citizenship Day! The United States Constitution is a very short, easy to read document. I’m neither an agency head, nor an educator, but, for those that are interested, a copy can be found here, and the Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments) here, and the subsequent amendments (11 to 27) here.

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”  — Thomas Jefferson