Tuesday, July 17, 2018

History; Study or Forget?

Interesting article in the July/August Smithsonian concerning one man's obsession with developing a way to read ancient papyrus scrolls that heretofore have been unreadable due to their condition, or are destroyed in the attempt to read them.  Juxtaposed against this fascinating story is the report I recently read about a proposed change to the content of AP World History courses, a proposal that would only require the courses to cover world history from the year 1450; nothing previous to that time.

First, the Smithsonian article is about Brent Seales, an American scientist who has been experimenting with various levels of X-ray technologies combined with intricate algorithms to "read" ancient scrolls, especially those damaged in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which covered the area around Pompeii in 79 AD.  Specifically, these scrolls, discovered in what is thought to be the palatial home of Piso (father-in-law of Julius Caesar) in the resort town of Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, represent the only known intact library from the ancient world.  Unfortunately, due to the sheer magnitude of the explosion, they are no more than lumps of carbon, the layers fused together.  Over the centuries, various methods have been devised to "unfurl" the scrolls, but none remotely successful enough to apply to the majority of those that still exist.  The situation is not unlike discovering an artifact which appears to be non-terrestrial but with no way of opening it or deciphering its lettering.

Seales has been at it for more than a decade, battling setbacks related to the technology he is inventing, the curators who oversee the scrolls and guard them zealously despite the fact that they cannot read them, and government agencies who mix politics with history when making such decisions.  At this point, there is real optimism that Seales can apply his most recent technological mix of X-ray technology, laser beam bombardment and advanced mathematics, to actually decipher the scrolls providing an incredible amount of information to our knowledge of ancient history.

To me it is an important endeavor, yet perhaps seems a waste of time if we are to believe that understanding world history in high school should not delve any further than the 15th century.  Why such a contrast?

For some, it represents the need to provide an education for our young people that is practical.  Let academics worry about ancient history, let's focus on what makes sense for today.  Certainly, there is some merit to that thought as there is only so much time in a day of education, and hard choices must be made to make the best use of that time.  Unfortunately, there sometimes exists a bias in those hard choices.  Do we ignore ancient history because it reflects people that do not exist today, such as the Mayan or Aztec?  Do we skip those histories because they are not European in origin?  Or because they do not reflect a Judeo-Christian based religion?

Also, these kind of arguments are also used to justify the elimination of art and music classes, or studies of cultures which represent minority perspectives.  I often hear from people who express opinions against a class which emphasizes contributions to the history of America made by women or African Americans or Mexicans, yet are easily irritated when they hear of a college or university that is de-emphasizing a history which is important to them.  Doesn't understanding all sides of a story enhance our lives and create an environment where we become more tolerable of those that are different than us?  It saddens me that it seems so easy to stoke a populace to dehumanize people that come from a different country, have a darker skin color or worship a different version of god, yet so difficult to excite people about learning about cultures that differ from our own.  It makes me wonder if, when we are at last visited by an alien being, will we welcome her to learn about the universe or destroy her out of fear that such knowledge will challenge/threaten the foundation of our beliefs?

On occasion when I watch a Nat-Geo or Discover or History channel program about ancient Egyptians, it is striking to realize that so much knowledge about this time is lost or hard to uncover, not just because of the ravages of time, but because some generations purposefully destroyed information to eradicate the previous pharaoh or family or culture from history.  While we abhor the treatment of Nazi Germany of the people that they labelled sub-human, they at least spent a lot of energy to accumulate vast caches of art and historic treasures.  For money, probably, but at least they understood the importance, unlike stories of ISIS soldiers who wantonly destroy ancient sculptures and statues which do not reflect their fundamentalist version of religion.

Such hatred of people or perspectives different from their own is a black mark on all of us as it takes our own conscious or unconscious xenophobic tendencies and puts them into action.  On a slightly less insidious scale, it seems to shed a light on our current president's clear agenda in reversing everything created by the previous president.  In his case, I toggle between the ideas that he truly believes that only policies created by white people are worthwhile, and the utter egocentric nature of a man who truly believes that only he can solve all problems.  Alarmingly, President Trump takes it even further, right to the present minute, declaring what is real and what is fake news based on his own personal perspective, and what sheds good and bad light on his life.  Ugh!

It is too easy to say that those who refuse to understand history are doomed to repeat it.  It is a saying far too simple to apply to the larger cultural tendencies and even the very nature of our DNA which still provides us with the energy to fight or flight when under duress.  And, of course, history is generally only appreciated or embraced as we age; it is not a young person's game. 

But that makes it even more critical that our institutions support the study of mankind's history, even that which presents us with a different perspective, or information not to easy to swallow.  Nothing bad ever happened in America is a nice talking point for a right wing radio host, and might make a certain person of pale skin feel better about our slaughter of the indigenous culture or slavery or some men's obsession with controlling a women's right to choose, or the plight of a family which makes the most difficult decision possible to flee their war torn or violent country only to have their children separated from them because of an artificially created line in the ground, but perhaps a study of history might teach us otherwise. 


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Freedom vs Security

In my last post I touched on the concept that we routinely sacrifice personal freedom for various benefits.  For instance, we regard freedom of speech very highly, but accept the restriction that we can't maliciously lie about another (libel), or cause a panic in a closed setting by yelling Fire.  Our freedom of speech is regulated by more important societal needs, especially when those overall needs are related to preventing anarchy and/or lawlessness.

In fact, one might easily argue that there are/have been legal exceptions to every amendment ratified to the Constitution (except perhaps the third), either due to an temporary emergency or to preserve a freedom (or prevent a larger, more far-reaching public catastrophe) or simply because interpretations change as societal norms change.  In other words, no right is absolute.

As indicated above, all speech is not protected under the first amendment; hate speech being another example.  And the separation of church and state which has evolved from the notion that government must not establish a religion is continually being challenged by those who believe that we are a Christian nation which somehow grants approval to discriminate those of non-Christian beliefs whether by making laws that ban travelers from "Muslim" countries, or justifying even worse behavior against those of this faith due to the horrible actions of a few who adhere to a fundamental/radical version of the faith. 

The 2nd amendment does not (to my knowledge) allow for the ownership of tanks, bazookas, or other weapons deemed unfit or unsafe in the hands of non-military persons. 

The 4th amendment has been strengthened or weakened by Supreme Court decisions over the years, depending on the liberal or conservative leaning of that particular Court.

The 5th amendment was routinely ignored in police interrogation rooms before the Miranda ruling of 1966. 

The 6th amendment which guarantees a speedy trial by an impartial jury might be considered one of the most violated of the amendments if you count the current backlog in many judicial courts, and the history of lynchings in the South in the early 20th century. 

The 7th amendment is one of the few parts of the Bill of Rights not to be incorporated (applied to) the states which probably means that it is the least used and useful of the amendments. 

The 8th amendment has been used to sue against over-crowding in prisons and the use of the death penalty, but since both still exist, it is not an absolute. 

The 9th amendment, which states that there are other fundamental rights not enumerated in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, has been used to overturn state laws forbidding contraception as an infringement of marital privacy, as a basis for Roe vs Wade which overturned a Texas law which made it a crime for a woman to obtain an abortion, and a Pennsylvania law that made it a crime to obtain an abortion without spousal consent.  Obviously, this amendment will be under scrutiny in the coming decade with the appointment of a new justice of the Supreme Court.

The 10th amendment, which can be referred to as the states rights amendment, will also be more in the spotlight should the new dynamic of the SCOTUS lean towards a more traditional interpretation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  How far will it go to allow states to pass laws that other states find illegal, and which freedoms will those states attempt to restrict will depend on how far right the Court turns, especially in the areas of privacy, workers' rights, and the separation of church and state.

In the end, the real question is not what freedoms are we willing to regulate, but how far should we regulate them, who should we allowed to decide the breadth of those restrictions, and, most importantly, which freedoms are we willing to trade for enhanced safety and affluence.

For instance, we all believe in innocence until proven guilty, but we routinely relinquish that right by having to disprove our guilt by taking a urine or drug test as a pre-condition for employment.  One's word that he doesn't take illegal drugs is not sufficient, regardless of whether that person has a history of drug use or not.  We are guilty, until we prove otherwise. 

History provides many examples of a populace willing to deny basic freedoms, especially to those considered to be "others", as a way to establish blame for their national problems, or feel better that those problems are being addressed.  Then, once the screw is turned, another group is labelled undesirable, then another, and pretty soon no one is immune from potential condemnation, whether by physical evidence, mere association, or lack of adherence to the laws which demonize the scapegoats.

But what about trading freedoms for a truly better outcome.  I wrote a story called The Archives (http://wurdsfromtheburbs.blogspot.com/2010/06/archives.html) which depicts a world at peace but a peace based on a lie.

Remember, there have been 17 more amendments to the Constitution since the original 10, one which reversed the ruling of another (prohibition), one which granted the right to vote for women (before that, most states did not allow women to vote, but some did), one which limits the president to two consecutive terms, one which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and a number of others which we may take for granted today but which represented illegal activities before their enactment.

Would we be willing to sacrifice the rules which hire most government employees without respect to political affiliation, so that a new government could truly change policies?

Or end the lifetime appointment of certain justices so new courts can be established with each new administration?

Or term limits for Congress or no term limit for the president?

Or the requirement that there be a presidential election, even in times of national crisis?

Or the restriction of the press to publish news not sanctioned by the government?

How readily would a nation, weary of tough times, or convinced that tough times, real or imagined, could be fixed by giving up just a bit of freedom, succumb to such a proposition if the advocate packages such a proposal using phrases which engender patriotism and loyalty only to each other, while establishing black and white choices as to who is US and who is THEM?

It wasn't that long ago that a great nation of proud people make such a choice, creating the worst scourge of death in modern times.  Civilized people, tempted by easy answers to complex problems, national pride, and conscious and sub-conscious prejudice by a visionary with all the answers to all the problems. 

Who knew that freedom was so complicated?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Rule of Law 3

This will be the last post on this topic, at least for now.

First, there were a few more amazing essays in the Lapham's spring edition called Rule of Law.  One was by Joan Cocks, professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke College, called Immune From the Law? and the second by Ralph Nadar called Land of the Lawless. 

Cocks essay discusses various outlying organizations that reject the most basic understanding of our society and the rules which have been established by society, which admittedly, attempt to balance the level of individual freedoms with the need for laws that limit such freedom.  She details a few of these organizations using history to describe other times when tectonic shifts in society created an environment that produced philosophies and reactions similar to that which we are seeing today in light of the growing fear of globalization.  As I read my summary, I realize I am not giving her essay true justice, but found it extremely fascinating and helpful in understanding the wave of nationalism (populism) that exists in the world today.

Nadar's essay focuses on what I can only label as a rebuke to the belief that America operates under "the rule of law" and that "nobody is above it".  Again, an enlightening piece, notwithstanding the possible scenario should Robert Mueller subpoena President Trump.  Nadar delves into many examples of how the rule of law is skewed most severely to benefit those with resources which the average person does not have access to, resulting in laws that do more harm than good, if good is measured as the most benefit for the most people. 

As a connection to this essays, and perhaps, a way to illustrate how the points made by these two thinkers can be linked to current events, I did some research on illegal immigration.

First, are you aware that President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)?  And, that this law, among other things, required employers to attest to their employees immigration status, made it illegal to hire and recruit illegal immigrants as workers, legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants, and (hold on to your hats) granted amnesty to about 4 million illegal immigrants who had entered America before 1982, lived continuously in America since then, had committed no crimes, admitted their guilt of illegal entry, paid a fine, and possessed a minimal understanding of English and American history, etc.  Then, as a follow up to address the children of said illegal immigrants, signed an executive order in 1987 legalizing children whose parents qualified under IRCA, thereby creating a blanket deferral of deportation for these children.

The law was intended to address the illegal immigration problem by focusing on one of the main reasons people were entering America - jobs - with some of the onus placed on the employers who, it was thought, would significantly help stem the tide of illegal immigration if they stopped hiring the immigrants.

That law is still on the books.  It is still illegal to hire an undocumented worker, or help an undocumented worker obtain false identities so as to obtain work.  And, since then, E-Verify has been created, which is an internet-based system that compares information entered by an employer from an employee's Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to records available to the US Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to confirm employment.

Unfortunately, the law is unequally enforced.  The recent images which were splashed all over the media, while embarrassing the president to back off the separation of children from their parents did not change his belief in a zero tolerance immigration policy.  After all, those people were breaking the laws his supporters are all too eager to note.

But what about the employers who are hiring undocumented workers?  Most estimates put the number of illegal immigrants working in our country at 8 million individuals.  How many of those employers are in jail today, separated from their children?  Where is the zero tolerance policy on them?

You see, the law was not meant to punish employers.  There were some years under Bush (1) that an aggressive approach to identify businesses was employed, but the simple fact was that some industries are dependent on employees who will work long hours for low pay and no benefits.  And, of course, some of those industries have friends in Congress so the actual working of the law only requires a "good faith effort" by employers.   If someone produces a SS card and driver's license and is willing to work 12 hour days in the blazing heat or close quarters of a meat processing plant, the employer can quite easily avoid the  responsibility of checking the employee's eligibility to work by blaming the employee who presented false documents, especially since there has been no federal law passed to make E-Verify mandatory. 

President Trump does support E-Verify, and has indicated he would sign a bill making it mandatory.  Such bills have passed through committee, but as far as I can tell, have never received a floor vote.  Democrats have resisted its passage without addressing a path to citizenship for those who have lived and worked productively in America for multiple years, without criminal activity, and those children who were brought to America illegally by their parents.  Similar to the handling of illegal immigrants by President Reagan and Congress in 1986.  I am not sure why some GOP representatives do not support it, but could conclude that their votes are effected by campaign donations from industries that depend on undocumented workers to turn a profit.  Or perhaps they represent the constituents in the states whose economy is more dependent on undocumented workers.

Why our elected officials can't do both, help stem the tide of illegal immigrants by removing one of their main reasons for entering illegally, while also establishing a path to citizenship for those who have proven themselves to be productive law abiding people since their arrival, speaks to the essays mentioned above.  The fact is, there is a small but vocal minority of Americans who wish our country to be white again, and resist granting citizenship to so many brown skinned people, while there is even a smaller but far more powerful group of people who have lined their pockets via the sweat and blood of workers who allow them to avoid paying certain taxes (or worse, collect the taxes from the workers but don't turn them in), that there are far too many Americans who seek simple answers to complicated questions, and too many politicians, who are more concerned with getting re-elected, or making pretty speeches, than they are with actually solving the immigration problem.  And, sadly, that a partisanship wall has polarized our country into an us vs them mentality.  It is as if cooperation has become a bad word.

So, employers are generally immune from the law while undocumented workers and illegal immigrants are treated with zero tolerance.  Our President calls for cooperation from the Democrats while demonizing them personally, and ridiculing them at every turn for their past efforts.  And, those with the most continue to reap the benefits of our great country as demonstrated by the recent tax reform effort and the ongoing attacks on programs that help the least fortunate.

Certainly, justice has never been blind, and perhaps will never be as long as humans are in charge of the system which determines right and wrong.  And, if my choices are having a system of rules and laws that are followed by most people, at least most everyday people, rather than no system, then I choose the former.  Thankfully, we have people who will continue to remind us that the Rule of Law is a concept that requires fairness in the creation and execution of the laws which encompass it, and that we need to be always on guard when our body of laws tilts too far in one direction or, worse, viewed as a method of controlling the populace while rewarding those in power. 


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Farewell Bubba

Much sadness today as we said farewell to our beloved Bubba.  While he was only 6 and a half years old, Bubba was experiencing a lot of pain these last few months as he seemed to have lost the birth lottery in regards to his knees, hip, and back.

It is very easy to remember the first day we met Bubba.  We had been looking for a rescue for a few weeks, then received an email from a local shelter that they had a Beagle-Lab mix, 2 months old, that we might like to meet.  My daughter, her friend, and I went to the house and there he was, the cutest puppy you might ever see.  While he seemed to have large feet, they told us he would peak at about 45 pounds.  He was affectionate, he was active, it was love at first sight.

As the days passed into weeks, Bubba grew.  And grew.  And grew.  Once he passed 60 pounds, we knew the shelter people may have underestimated his growth potential.  Eventually he topped out at 90 lean and muscular pounds.

Bubba's favorite games involved balls and tug-of-war.  He had a favorite, hard plastic, red ball with a tennis ball inside it.  Bubba destroyed virtually every toy ever given to him, except for that ball.  As I look at it now, there are numerous holes from his teeth and practically every inch looks effected by chewing.  Bubba would chase that ball, grab it through one of the large holes in it, swing his head back and forth, then prance back to me so I could throw it again.  In the last few weeks, Bubba could only chase the ball a half dozen times or so before he got tired, but he still reveled in that game.

Bubba also loved tug of war.  We purchased a tightly wound rope a few years back which he would carry over to one of us to pull.  He was extremely strong, and mostly won that game, occasionally either ripping the rope from our hands, or pulling us off the chair we were sitting on. 

We often bought Bubba cloth toys with squeakies inside.  He would find the squeaky noise, then rip apart the toy and remove the squeaky, using the plastic part as chewing gum for a bit.  Then the cloth would be ripped into shreds.  To be honest, sometimes watching him play could be a bit disturbing, as he gave those toys no mercy.  (We believe that the cats who also live with us saw him play which deterred them from playing with him as well.)
We were told very early that Bubba was a DAWG, not some prim and prissy poodle.  Perhaps that was reflected in the way he played.  While he may have had Beagle ears, his demeanor and attitude said hound.  Bubba was a HOUNDDAWG.

Despite that sometimes aggressive play, Bubba was very gentle with children.  At this point, the neighborhood kids don't know he has gone to doggie heaven.  I know they will be very sad to hear of his passing as many people considered him the neighborhood dog, almost a mascot.  He tolerated little kids running up to him, hugging his neck, petting him almost to the point of smothering him but he never seemed to mind.  He gave and received affection unconditionally and in that regard he was a great example and influence.

Bubba also loved the water.  These last few days, my wonderful wife Nora, let him swim in our local creek, something we didn't always do because he would smell horribly afterwards.  While we couldn't leave him swim unleashed, he still enjoyed paddling about, dunking his head.  When we took him on vacation, he would gravitate right to the baby pool, walk right in, drink the water, then plop down.  As a result, we purchased a pool for him at home which he loved to rest in when the heat soared.  He was in the pool everyday this week.

Bubba was treated to ice cream yesterday and today.  Along with the river dunk, and the peanut butter treats Nora had made for him, Bubba was king this past week.  It was the least we could do.
Unlike our cats, Bubba loved to go in the car.  When he saw one of us grab his leash, he was excited to go for a walk, but when he saw us grab the leash and the car keys, he was ecstatic.  He would jump right into the back seat, sometimes hanging his head out the window, sometimes sitting in the middle of the seat, looking straight out the front.  On longer rides, he would eventually settle down and relax. 

Today, knowing this would be a one way trip for him, I felt strange seeing his excitement as he practically dragged me to the car.   Nora took a picture of him in the back seat, one of many she took today including the one below.  If you look closely, you can see a stool on the chair in the background. That is because Bubba was having a love affair with every chair in the house.  Self soothing, the vet called it, indicative that he was in pain, as he generally expressed his tenderness when we left the house.  We won't have to put chairs on chairs anymore when we leave, but we also won't be greeted at the door by the most lovable dog ever created. 

Of course, Bubba, being a DAWG, could be very irritating,  His games of grabbing virtually everything left where it shouldn't be, could be exhausting.  I often called him effen dog when he bounded down the stairs with a shoe or blouse or razor or whatever he found in a room with an open door in his mouth.

Effen dog.  He annoyed us, he frustrated us, he stole our hearts.  He will be missed.

As we drove home from the vet, an empty collar in the back seat, water running down our faces, we momentarily felt like we had abandoned him, left him on the floor in an office without company.  Suddenly the check engine light went on.  Bubba!  He was OK, running without pain, ripping apart toy after toy to find the squeaky inside, chasing the big, red ball, playing tug of war, looking forward to a dip in heaven's creek.  He was telling us that our sadness would eventually pass, but that he would remain in our hearts forever.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Rule of Law 2

I ended my last post with the following question:

What do we do when the rule of law has been altered so insidiously that it no longer seeks justice for the many, but prosperity for the few?

Some might think it is specifically directed at the policies of the current administration, and certainly there is reason to be alert when one considers the changes that have been implemented in the area of environmental protection, consumer fraud protection, and worker's rights, to name a few.

But, after reading The Rule of Law edition of Lapham's Quarterly, it is painfully obvious that the law has been fashioned far to often to benefit those with the most, at the detriment of those in the minority or without resources.  In other words, that this is nothing new.

Two effective illustrations to that point are Lie of the Land from I Saw the Sky Catch Fre by T. Obinkaram Echewa, and an excerpt from Jill Leovy's Ghettoside.

I Saw the Sky Catch Fire consists of memories told by the grandmother of the narrator about the Women's War of 1929 in Nigeria.  It details the process by which the residents of the small villages in Nigeria slowly lost their rights, both as landowners and citizens.  To put it bluntly, "the while man made and broke laws as he went along, shook hands to treaties he had no intention of keeping, violated oaths the same day, week or month that he swore them."  Similar to how we treated the native American Indian here in North America, the law was used without concern to gain whatever those with the power and the arms wanted to gain.  When the law was violated by a native to the land, he was punished swiftly and violently.  When it was violated by someone in power, the law was changed to provide justification for whatever atrocity might have been committed.

(I could mention here the recent justification of separating illegal immigrant children from their parents, a cruel and horrendous policy that has been defended by citing, not only the rule of law but the Bible as well, but I will resist the desire to pick such low hanging fruit.)

Jill Leovy's piece reflects the research she did in the early 2000's while working as a crime correspondent for the LA Times.  For me, it addresses two salient points.  First, the wonderment of many in the white community about why law abiding citizens in minority communities, especially African American communities, do not more actively help the police turn in those criminals that live among them, and second, how those in minority communities perceive the law and the police. 

If I had a nickel for every time I heard a white, right leaning pundit dismiss statistics about the disproportionate representation of blacks in the judicial system who are arrested, charged and incarcerated with the statement, "well, they are criminals, so they should be put in jail", I would have a bunch of nickels.  The fact that most research shows a race bias in our criminal justice system, from the perception of the everyday officer, straight through to the judges on the bench, seems easily ignored.  Sadly, there will not be a time in their lives when a white man will be transported back in time to his teenage years as a black man, to live the same life he did again with a darker skin.  Assuming he was an average youth, he most likely will have 2-3 brushes with the law, only this time his parents won't be called, he will be arrested, his bail won't be met, he will be remanded to await trial, and his sentence will be executed to "send a message", not suspended since "boys will be boys".   

Is it any wonder then, why some in black neighborhoods who have experienced first hand the effect that having a darker skin has during a police interaction, not to mention the very real possibility that they have heard family stories handed down a few generations which describe the Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century and the complicity of the police in the lynchings of that time, might be less than encouraged to cooperate with the police.  Past history indicates less than positive future results.

Leovy came to believe that inner-city violence was a occurring at the level of a "public health catastrophe" and began a website to track the murder victims, which listed over 1100 in the LA 
county area alone in 2004.  Truly an epidemic!  But, rather than doubling down on efforts to address the problem, cops patrolling these areas often heard the phrase "one time" to reflect the fact that they seemed to prefer one short visit to a black neighborhood, along the lines of "been there, done that" as opposed to making a real effort to address crime.  One might even conclude the white majority who controlled the law, preferred a high murder rate; less of them to worry about.

Contrast that, and the crack cocaine epidemic of that time which claimed the lives of still more African American young people, or the HIV epidemic of the late 20th century that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in the gay communities, with the current opioid epidemic which is getting so much more attention since it is effecting white communities, and perhaps we might get a glimpse as to why minorities not only distrust white laws and its corresponding system of justice, but, as Leovy discovered, might gravitate to a ghettoside "law" which while also ruthless at times, better reflected the everyday existence of the residents of the area.  Or put more directly, was one they understood and felt was consistent, as opposed to the white man's system that always leaned towards a prejudiced and impersonal result.

Attempting to govern a free people via the Rule of Law, is certainly progress over a ruling class limited by birth or income or political ideology.  But we must not forget that the rules are created and enforced by people, and thus subject to the best and worst of our species.  History is replete with laws that seem barbaric today, and there are undoubtedly some current laws that will be viewed by future historians with befuddlement, just as I (hope) we view white only bathrooms and water fountains of the mid-20th century today.

The challenge is to walk that tightrope between obedience of the Rule of Law so as to avoid chaos and anarchy, while always staying alert to those laws which demonize other humans, create or encourage non-equal treatment of those in the minority, and which are used to justify crimes that violate one of the Big Rules that transcends religion and nation; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rule of Law 1

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Rule of Law, how it is a key fundamental in our democracy, and for some, how the Trump Presidency seems to be a threat to both the basic tenets of its importance and the underpinnings of the ideals which created our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Heady stuff!

But after reading the Lapham's Spring edition, called Rule of Law, I find my belief in the founders perspective that all men are created equal, their insistence on the three branches of government as a protection against tyranny, and the noble concept that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, somewhat questioned.

This is not to say that I doubt the importance of the founders' grand experiment with democracy, nor their belief that rule by the people is preferable to rule by divine right.  It is clear, that some form of democratic rule in which the people have a say in the direction of their country is a far better system than one without such inclusion.

But what, exactly, were the founders' main concerns when they created those incredible documents during the tumult of our nation's birth?  We often forget that most of those great men were land owners and/or men of business, with education and wealth beyond the vast majority of their fellow colonists.  They understood the history of property rights, were well versed in the meaning of the Magna Carta, and knew very well that commerce, personal ownership, and laws which protected one's ability to create and sustain that wealth, were threatened by a government that found it all too easy to take without asking and tax without representation.  Was it merely about money and land?  Certainly not, but lets not be naive to think that they did not abhor taxes mainly because it cut into their profits, less so because of the morality of the issue.

In Lewis Lapham's preamble, he describes very succinctly the distinction between values which enable a democratic society to prosper as compared to values which embody a capitalistic society.  Values reflected in the various forms of trickle down economics that basically say that "money ennobles rich people making them healthy, wealthy and wise;  money corrupts poor people, making them lazy, ignorant, and sick."  It is the driving force that exults in tax cuts that transfer upwards of 80% of the advantage to those already rich, while justifying cuts to the safety net programs that stave off poverty, starvation and death of the less advantaged.

This is not to say that the framers wanted our country to fall to a state where only the rich have power and influence, but it is a result of their core belief that possessions and wealth must be protected from the government's grasp, and it is perfect justification for a populist leader who can manipulate that message to turn the everyday citizens against any government regulation that restricts individual rights regardless of whether that restriction protects against polluted air and water, the destruction of the environment, or the creation of a "corporation" that has all the power of a person but no responsibilities for those people who create it when that entity breaks laws or engages in immoral acts.

When the government becomes the enemy of the people, there must be recourse for the citizens to retake rule and create a new form of government.  It is a rallying cry that was as apparent and powerful today as it was 242 years ago.  But what do we do when the government is run by people who have perverted the rule of law to only favor those with wealth and influence, who set themselves above the law while using its tenets to control the population?  And, who do so, not through force or deceit (Mueller's probe not withstanding), but by convincing the citizenry, through attacks on the free press, government run propaganda outlets, and a constant stream of divisive tweets that divert our attention by demonizing those who disagree, are of different color or country of origin.  Who then use the foundation of our unique government, the executive, legislative and judicial the branches, to create a fortress of laws that will protect their wealth at the expense of the people?     

What do we do when the rule of law has been altered so insidiously that it no longer seeks justice for the many, but prosperity for the few?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trump's Summit with Kim Jung Un

I was planning at least two, perhaps three posts on the Rule of Law now that I have finished the Lapham's Spring Edition called Rule of Law, but yesterday's historic summit in Singapore demands a comment.

First, if I were to be consistent with my belief that it is important to remain positive and seek the silver lining in most situations, then clearly this is a great achievement by President Trump.  For now at least, the tremendous tension that existed just a few months ago when the two leaders traded personal insults and the phrase fire and fury was being bandied about as a strategy for resolving our differences, has been replaced with hand shakes and compliments.  Talking is always better than fighting.  It is the basis of all international treaties, all meetings between rivals, whether they be business, ideological or national.

And so, it is incumbent upon us to remain optimistic that finally, regardless of how we perceive President Trump's methods and his overall policies, there is a positive dialogue between the United States and North Korea.

The good news is that while coverage of this summit on MSNBC has included comments by many knowledgeable people about international negotiations, North Korean life, past agreements made and violated by North Korea, and the plethora of details that separate how this process has transpired compared to past approaches, there has also been a real effort to give the President the benefit of the doubt, to suggest that perhaps a new approach is what was needed, and to attempt to understand Trump's thinking and perspective.  Far from fake news, the coverage has presented the pros and cons of this meeting using lessons from history, facts related to past attempts to address the Korean Peninsula situation, and an in-depth understanding of how intense, difficult and time consuming these kind of negotiations have been and will be in this case.

We can only hope that Kim Jung Un is ready to bring North Korea into the family of nations, first by removing its stated goal of reuniting Korea under his control, second, by addressing the structural inequality that exists in North Korea based on a series of rules that grants more or less rights to North Korean citizens based on genetics, relations to the dictator's family, and past activities by ancestors related to past wars.

Also, we can also hope that President Trump is less focused on improving his chance of reelection, or his place in history, and more interested in the interests of the United States, its citizens and our allies.

In essence, it appears that we have already given Chairman Kim two wins, things he, his father and grandfather have long sought; parity on the international stage, and a reduction in military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.  At this point, this summit gives North Korea fodder for its propaganda machine that will present this meeting as a coup for Kim Jung Un, the leader of a country that has openly threatened our country and closest allies, and has one of the worst human rights records in the world today.

Have we, in effect, rewarded North Korea for establishing a nuclear program?  Certainly from their perspective, it could appear that we have come to the table out of fear that North Korea could strike our mainland with a nuclear tipped missile.   And if that is the message, what other countries might pursue the same course?  Why wouldn't Iran double down on its nuclear program using this summit as an example of what nuclear capability can gain?

Finally, in light of the recent G-7 summit which featured a reluctance of Trump to contribute to a joint statement of support and cooperation, this agreement with one of the world's most notorious autocrats, in addition to Trump's stated desire to bring Russia back to the G-7 and his open admiration of other strongmen such as Jinping in China, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in the Phillipines, make me feel uneasy that Trump's admiration for leaders who do not have to work within a democracy reflects on his preference to act alone, without consult or recommendations from others. 

In the end, perhaps that should come as no surprise if we understand that this has been Trump's recipe for success his whole life.  Expecting a leopard to change its spots is unrealistic, yet we continually act  surprised when he does what he has always done.   Which makes it all the more surprising that Trump would expect Kim Jung Un to change his spots.

The spectacle is over.  Let's hope that the meat and potatoes of this attempt to bring some form of peace to the Korean Peninsula in specific, and that part of the world that includes many of our strongest allies in general, relies more on the traditional forms of diplomacy, the use of informed opinion and factual knowledge of the history of the region, and a sincere understanding that verification within a closed country with an autocratic leadership is a far reaching and incredibly difficult goal, perhaps far more difficult than President Trump seems to think.   

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Individual vs Group Success

Interesting article in the June National Geographic called "Greed vs the Common Good" written by Dylan Selterman, psychology teacher for undergrads at the University of Maryland.  The article is based on the reaction of Selterman's students to his offer of extra credit points on their term papers.

The origin of Selterman's exercise was inspired by an address delivered by Garrett Hardin 50 years ago which described what Hardin termed "the tragedy of the commons", which explains Hardin's belief that when many individuals act in their own self-interest without regard for society, the effects can be catastrophic.  (For more info, simply google "tragedy of the commons" and you will find many resources to read).

Selterman's exercise, which was developed by Professor Steve Drigotas of Johns Hopkins University (and which Selterman experienced as a student), offers each student of the class the option of choosing 2 points or 6 points, but with the proviso that if more than 10% of the students choose 6 points then no points are awarded to anyone.  The theory behind the exercise is to illustrate that extra credit points are analogous to any finite resource, water, land, fuel, etc, and that when too many people take too much of any resource, the community as a whole suffers, but when everyone takes just enough, the resource is sustainable and the society thrives.

Over the years, most of Selterman's classes received no points, as did Selterman's own class when he was a student.  Even after it became known that this exercise was part of the class, the reward was rarely achieved. 

Why can't his students put aside their greed and take the easy two points?  Selterman has concluded that, while he still believes that most people are willing to sacrifice for the common good, it can be very tricky to get people to cooperate, especially in large groups of complete strangers.  Combine that difficulty with the societal pressure to accumulate wealth, and the free market theory that if everyone strives for maximum personal benefit, society as a whole will thrive, it is easy to see why students aren't inclined to think of wealth accumulation as a cooperative goal rather than a personal goal.  It becomes a race to have more than others, not for all people to have more.

Selterman recently added a wrinkle to his exercise, to emphasize the point that despite the lack of cooperation among large groups, the group can still prosper if just a few more individuals act in its interest over their own.  To check this theory, Selterman gave the students a third option, to receive no points.  Each student choosing zero points would cancel out one who chose 6, thereby reducing the percentage, perhaps even to less than 10%.   So far, a higher percentage of classes have earned the extra two points than under the original premise, but this new option has only been used for a few years.  And, success in the classroom is a far cry from success on a global scale. 

Still, the point is clear that everyone can have an impact, that all actions are worthwhile and meaningful because one might never know when you represent the one action (or vote) that makes the difference.
It is a wonderful message that reminds us that we can solve our problems, even when they require a global approach, but that each one of us is responsible to do our part, regardless of how significant (or insignificant) our action may appear.

I too, remain hopeful that a more collective approach, one that attaches value and significance to how prosperity is gained, is achievable, despite the dual threats of America first, and the prestige associated with accumulating individual wealth. 

My hope is that a values based perception will gradually alter our adoration for those with riches beyond what any individual needs, resulting in a judgement of the super rich to include the harm that accumulated individual wealth does to society as a whole.  It seems obvious that there is no justification for one percent of a population to enjoy 50% (or more) of the fruits of a group's efforts, yet that is what capitalism without morals or restrictions can produce.  Add to that the popular viewpoint that tribalism is patriotism, and the motivation for any individual for self-sacrifice is limited at best, completely eliminated at worst. 

The unfortunate problem is that it is most often those with the most accumulated wealth, those for whom dog eat dog, or survival of the fittest, or any other such trite saying that rewards selfishness, backstabbing, and success no matter the cost, use that very same wealth and power to convince the everyday person that only the rich know how to handle money (trickle down economics), that only deals that advantage us should be signed (the art of the deal), and that all of our problems are the result of other groups (the Wall) which discourages cooperation, foments distrust, and makes solving the BIG problems of climate change, income inequality, and poverty all the more daunting.

Sometimes I wonder why Death is the not the great equalizer for theories that rejoice over individual accomplishments but downplay communal ones.  After all, in the end, everyone dies, regardless of how many homes, or cars or wives you collect.  And, very few religions teach that the richer you are, the better the afterlife you will earn.  One might even say that most religions teach the opposite. 

Perhaps the answer to why Selterman's students don't often take the easy two points is the same for why we delude ourselves into thinking that during the 80 or so years we exist in our lifetime, as compared to all eternity, he who has the most toys wins is a valid hypothesis.  This may simply be a function of the fact that homo sapiens have only existed a few hundred thousand years, as compared to a universe billions of years old.  We are infants, still understanding our role in the cosmos, still exploring our relationship with ourselves, our fellow travelers, and our Creator.

Let's hope we give ourselves the time and the chance to discover some real answers and develop some longer lasting priorities.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


This morning I encountered a sidebar discussion called The Rights of Things in the Laphams Quartterly called Rule of Law.  It reviewed 10 situations in which the rights of "things" were debated, either through theoretical articles or actual law suits.

The 10 things were: Artificial Intelligence, the Whanganui River, frozen embryos, apes, trees, corporations, cetaceans, a monkey selfie, autonomous cars, and zombies.

A few thoughts.

Obviously, those that involved lawsuits for "things" that were not human, the monkey selfie, apes, cetaceans, the Whanganui River, and the frozen embryos, were filed on behalf of those things by humans in an attempt to acquire rights for those things. 

In the case of the river, a New Zealand court granted legal personhood thereby giving the river recognized rights as to how it is used, or abused, and which led to other rivers receiving personhood as well, something I did not know.

The rights of Great apes were first recognized, also in New Zealand in 1999, and in Spain in 2008.  A number of lawsuits aimed to protect specific cetaceans, and the entire class as a whole have been unsuccessful in the United States.  The monkey selfie was ruled to be "owned" by neither the monkey or the human who owned the camera used by the monkey.

The bit on trees was from a comment by a legal scholar who believed that trees might be an example of a natural object that could be recognized as having legally protected interests, an opinion reflected in the fact that there is a white oak tree in Athens, Georgia that, legend claims has ownership of itself, and for which that status is recognized by the local government, not state or federal, however.

In the case of the frozen embryos, Louisiana, in 1999,  designated that ex utero embryos are "judicial persons" that can sue and be sued.  When a group attempted to sue, on behalf of the embryos, the woman from whom the embryos were harvested because she decided not to use them (decided to destroy them, in other words), the courts ruled against the group, but only because the embryos had been created in California, and were therefor citizens of that state.

The paragraphs on AI, zombies and autonomous cars were comments by legal theorists on the possibility that some types of rights or personhood may eventually be granted to these "thing". For AI, perhaps some form of First Amendment protection, for autonomous cars, a legal recognition as nonhuman entities so they might carry insurance like human drivers, and for zombies a similar designation, perhaps suspended personhood, which might protect and hold them to certain legal obligations,

And then there is the corporation.

First, it seems to be the ultimate expression of arrogance by humans that, while granting rights or personhood to "things" that God created, such as rivers, apes, cetaceans, and trees, most likely seems ludicrous to a majority of people, granting the same rights to a man made entity, the corporation, doesn't provoke the same befuddlement. 

The idea that the corporation can hold property, enter into contracts, sue and be sued seems almost second nature, even though if you think about it for a second, you realize that the idea that one can divert responsibility for ones actions to an entity created out of nothing seems much more ridiculous than a monkey owning a picture of itself.  Why then do we accept this fact as obvious, even indisputable?  First, it might surprise you to know (it surprised me) that the Supreme Court established in 1886 that corporations are protected under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.  (To refresh your memory, the 14th Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection laws and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the Civil War.) 

I know it is fashionable to pretend to know what the founders were thinking when they created those wonderful documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and its Amendments so I won't engage in such speculation.  I feel very certain that this amendment was conceptualized in the smoke filled rooms of the super rich of the late 19th century who required a legal way to continue to amass their fortunes, a legal way, set in what one might call the stone of our democracy, the Constitution.  In essence, an iron clad way for rich people to protect their wealth and property.  And, even more insidious, to protect them from their greed and incompetence when the corporation fails or engages in illegal acts. 

Wow, what a coup!

And, of course, we come to the 2010 Citizens United decision which, based on the precedent that corporations have legal rights, rules that restrictions on campaign spending is a violation of the first amendment, freedom of speech.

The coup de grace!!

I am not sure how I feel about granting personhood to animals or rivers.  Clearly, it seems that we need some type of legal protection for the various entities on planet Earth, and the planet itself, due to the rampant greed that has created an entire legal cottage industry whereupon mankind uses and abuses whatever is necessary to make a profit.  If we assume our planet, our universe was made by the Creator, and that all the inhabitants, human as well as animal, the plants, the land itself, then one would think that it follows that we would revere the scope and breadth of this creation and not need laws to prevent us from spewing harmful vapors into the atmosphere and garbage into the oceans. 

Perhaps, some day, as we evolve to truly understand the gift that She has given us, we might consider such times when the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency was even necessary, yet alone assailed by its purported administrator and his president, as a time of great barbarism and backwardness.
For now, I applaud all those idealists who fight for legal protections of our fellow inhabitants on Earth, and our environment, who file lawsuits on behalf of the life all around us who do not have access to and representation within our legal system, and I vehemently disagree with those who expect me to accept the current state of the law of the land that has granted personhood to the corporation, an entity that can be created merely with a piece of paper and a signature.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Women in Charge

Not sure if I have mentioned it, but the Spring Edition of Lapham's Quarterly is titled Rule of Law.  So many interesting reflections on this topic, but today's post concerns two excerpts, one from a book and one from an address at the Third National Conference of Women of Color and the Law at Stanford University, written by women.

The first is from Birth Control Laws by Mary Ware Dennett,  For those of you unfamiliar with Dennett (and you can count me in that group), she was a contemporary and often time critic of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.  While both women advocated birth control for women, Sanger favored women accessing such control through the medical profession, while Dennett feared this restriction would limit access, especially among women in lower economic situations. 

Dennett's book attacks birth control laws from two fronts; that controlling the size of one's family, and all the issues involved in having children, economic, social, religious, etc, suggests that there should be no laws against birth control, and second, most birth control laws, especially those that prevent the dissemination of information about contraception by labeling them pornographic, are much more about society's perception of sex than about family planning.  (Dennett was arrested and convicted of mailing obscene material under the Comstock Act, but the ruling was overturned by a judge who deemed her pamphlets educational and scientifically accurate). 

The excerpt from the address is from Angela Y. Davis', activist and professor who spent time in jail while on trial for murder.  Her reflections about the law and the justice system make a number of points about how the law is used disproportionately against those of color, and those of the female gender.  Her time in jail, and afterwards in meeting with incarcerated women, paint us a picture of far too many people who, while guilty of criminal activity, are subjected to far more severe sentences than those with money or influence.  And worse, that the circumstances that might compel such criminal activity, again, while not justifying the action, remain ignored so that a woman with few, if any positive choices, turn to crime to support their families, or drugs to mask the nature of their impoverishment.

Davis was attempting to remind those future lawyers that it is not enough to understand the law.  One must understand the social conditions that define those people of color that find themselves at odds with the justice system. 

Which brings us to Pennsylvania politics.

Yesterday was primary day in Pennsylvania, a day like most others except that perhaps one if five registered voters also stopped at their local polling center.  For those of you who live in Pennsylvania, you may already know the dismal facts about the dearth of elected women in our political system.
For the rest of you, the statistics are disheartening. 

No woman has ever been elected Governor.  (Pennsylvania is among the majority here, as only 23 states have elected a female governor),

No woman has ever been elected Senator.  (Again, Pennsylvania is not alone; only 24 states' electorates have seen fit to elect a woman Senator.  However, Pennsylvania is one of only 14 states to have never elected either a female Governor or Senator).

Only seven women have been elected to serve in Congress, in the US House, and three of them were chosen in special elections after the death of their husbands.  Currently there are zero women representing Pa in Washington, the last being in 2015.

Woman don't fare much better in Harrisburg either.  Currently, Pa ranks 38th out of 50 in terms of % of women serving in office in state legislatures.

It is truly sad that in a nation which celebrates its stand for freedom and equality, that our record on female leadership in government is so dismal.  We barely crack the top 100 in rating I found.  And, of course, we have never elected a female president.  So, why is this so important? 

We are a representative democracy, emphasis on representative.  If those who make our laws, who are lobbied to alter existing laws, who decide which laws even to consider to vote on, are one dimensional in their ethnicity, gender, background, economic standing, etc, then our government will only represent that particular bias.  If women, or minorities, or any subset of our democracy has little or no access to the workings of our government, then we the people will suffer for its lack of diversity.

But, the times they are a changing.  Whether we credit the election of President Trump and his seemingly anti-women persona and agenda, or the fact that women have begun to break the glass ceilings which limited their rise in business, or the belief that women should not be limited because they are the primary care givers at home, women are seeking office in rising numbers.

For me, it seems plain enough that if we are interested in electing officials who understand the day to day struggles that American families face, we must vote for the true multi-taskers of our society, those who are expected to nurture our children, stroke the egos of the men, and keep the economy and structure of the family intact.