Saturday, July 31, 2010

political antibiotics

I saw a sign recently that had echoed the recurring theme of "throw the bums out" ,referring to Congress (and perhaps local and state officeholders as well) . There is a sentiment in our country that if we just "clean house" that somehow things will get better and our problems will disappear.It is usually accompanied by cries of "career/professional politician" directed at incumbents at election time, used to attack them as unworthy of the office.

Somehow people think that experience in a job is a bad thing, if the office is elective. And that inexperience or amateur status is to be preferred. Now, there is something to be said for a fresh perspective unfettered by habit and routine. And long tenure in any position does not guarantee competence. But to blindly toss out all incumbents without careful examination is like emptying a fridge into the garbage to eliminate bad odors. You end up with a clean appliance but go hungry...you have to check each item and only toss out the bad stuff.

Or, to use an analogy that popped into my head recently. It's like antibiotics. For quite a while doctors regularly prescribed antibiotics for sick patients exhibiting symptoms of infection. They worked quickly and seemed to solve the problem for both patient and doctor. More recently this has changed and doctors are more reluctant to prescribe them, though many patients do not seem to understand and still request them.

There are three reasons. One is that some bugs have begun to develop resistance to the usual drugs, including antibiotics. Another is that only bacterial infection can be treated by antibiotic, and some bugs are viral. And the third factor is that our bodies contain both good and bad bacteria but the antibiotics don't distinguish between the two. It kills both, and in the process weakens the immune system, making it vulnerable to other illnesses.

I believe this is true with Congress and other representative assemblies. There are, to be sure, bad apples that need to be removed. But we must distinguish between the good and the bad and not generalize to our own detriment. If we are not careful we may get worse "bugs",get no fix of problems because we trade (elect) one bad bug for another, or we weaken the whole system of government because we have elected a whole bunch of well-meaning but untested rookies who don't know how to use the system to best benefit us, while tossing out proven problem solvers due to guilt-by-association.

Please, think before you vote.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

SCOTUS

SCOTUS is the acronym for Supreme Court of the United States, also known simply as "the Court". Periodically there are vacancies in its membership and the President is called on to nominate, and the Senate to consent to, a new justice. We are that point in our history again and I thought it was a good time to briefly comment on my views on the Court and why careful consideration is important to American freedom.

Many will rail against "judicial activism" and urge support for a "strict constructionist"...also railing against "unelected" deciders of law and those who argue for the view of the Constitution as a "living document". To them I say, activism is vital to our national health and ,yes, the Constitution is a living document that we need to continually re-evaluated through the years. The Founders were not psychics - they could not spell everything out because they did not know what would come up. So they built in flexibility in the document so that it ,and we, could adapt to changing times.

The three branches of government- legislative, executive, and judicial -have separate and distinct functions and areas of power, and also have ways to check the power of each other. This is to prevent over-reach by any and to keep government balanced. As far as the judiciary is concerned their area of power is the interpretation of the law. They are charged with the duty to uphold the Constitution by making sure that all the actions of the other two branches (plus the local and state versions of those branches) are in agreement with the rules of the Constitution , because it is the supreme law of the land.

In order to do this the Court may strike down laws or other governmental action as unconstitutional. It does so in response to cases appealed to it from lower courts. These are brought by ordinary citizens who have not found relief from any other source. We work under the mantra of "majority rules, minority rights". The will of the majority acts through the legislative branch and that is vital to a stable country. But when the rights of a minority are being trampled on it can easily become a "tyranny of the majority" - think of slavery and racial segregation/discrimination that went on for decades even after slavery was outlawed. This is where the Court steps in.

Long standing tradition is important and legal precedence is as well. These are vital to preserve, for the sake of a stable society, and thus conservatism has its place. But liberalism does as well, coming from the same root as liberty, and seeing that only in growing are we truly free. It is akin to matters of faith where some are mired in legalism...those who won't do anything unless they firmly believe God has spelled it out as okay. Versus those who believe that God has set us free to live , giving only simple guidelines, and that if it is not specifically denied as bad we can try it. Sticking to traditions in law makes as much sense as in matters of faith. The faith version of this is the proverbial 7 last words of the church "we've never done it that way before".

I believe that the Court stands as the defender of the powerless against the powerful. But you say, don't citizens have recourse through Congress? Yes, the ballot box and Congressional phones lines/emails are open for all and we can make our views known. But when the majority opinion is destructive of the rights of an individual where are they to go but to the Court?

Just after Pearl Harbor there were thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry who were interned in relocation camps because they were deemed, solely on the basis of their race/national origin to be suspect in their loyalty to the US. Not for anything they had done but of who they were. They had no recourse in Congress, popular opinion of the majority was against them, so the only way to seek relief against unfair treatment was to go to the Court.

Unfortunately, this is one of the times when the Court failed. In Korematsu v US (1944) the Court decided that the exclusionary zones on the West Coast, excluding those of Japanese ancestry, were constitutional. The Chief Justice even said that the defendant was not excluded because of his race! It took us almost 40 years to apologize and say that the decision was wrong. Similarly it took over 50 years to determine that "separate but equal" rationale for racial segregation in schools was wrong (Plessy v Ferguson 1896 to Brown v Board of Education 1954). And it took Constitutional amendments (13th,14 th) and the Civil War to fix the situation and finally outlaw slavery after the disastrous Dred Scott decision in 1857. So it is important for the Court to get it right.

Some in our country would like to restrict the jurisdiction of the Court, even some (Texas GOP platform) who would like to do that in cases involving the Bill of Rights! My friends, the Bill of Rights is toothless without the Court. The right of legal counsel when on trial (Gideon v Wainwright 1963) or advice of legal rights when arrested (Miranda v Arizona 1966) were both strengthened by the Court. When popular opinion in reaction to current events (think 9-11) looks for scapegoats among the powerless there is great need for an entity like the Court to stand up in defense.

Some have said that the Court must be impartial. One justice nominee, who is now the Chief Justice, said it was to be an umpire, calling balls and strikes . This envisions a level playing field between the parties to a case. This can hold when there are two individuals involved. But when the case involves the law-making or law-enforcement group (like Congress, President,etc) versus an ordinary citizen, there is no level playing field. So the Court must take steps to re-examine the law and the Constitution and find out if there is to be relief for that individual. Law-makers and Law-Enforcers need no defense - they have the power. It is the individual who needs protection for his/her liberties.

For those who would blanch at a "re-examination" of the Constitution let me give you a parallel situation. For those of you who are people of faith, relying on a scripture for divine guidance. Have you learned all you can from your first reading of it, or do you often have the experience that you see new things/new truths or understand more each time you re-read it? I know I do.
Is it because God changed? No, it is because we have grown and times have changed and we need a fresh understanding of divine will to apply to our new situations. It is much the same with the Constitution. It has not changed, but the times and we have , and there is always a need to further our application of its principles and laws to the times we live in.

The same judicial nominee/now justice said that benefit of the doubt should go to the lawmaker/law enforcer. No, that is not how our system of justice works and he should know better. The benefit of the doubt should always go to the one accused "innocent until/unless proven guilty". An activist Court is a hallmark and defense of individual liberty and we should demand and celebrate that -today of all days.

Happy Fourth of July everybody! :)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gettysburg

As we get set to celebrate Independence Day, another anniversary looms that should gives us pause for reflection. On this day,July 3rd, 147 years ago, the battle of Gettysburg ended. It was the bloodiest battle in the Civil War and one of the most deadly in all of American History (46,000 casualties, including almost 8,000 deaths). It was seen as a turning point in the war, the beginning of the end. And it was memorialized in Lincoln's Gettysburg address. The Union was saved , we began to be one people once again, but at a great cost.

Much has been written about the war, too often simplistic notions of what lead to it and what it was all about, but oftentimes it becomes an intellectual exercise , devoid of emotion or an understanding of the people involved. Michael Shaara wrote a book called The Killer Angels, about Gettysburg, later made into a miniseries. I watched it years ago and very much enjoyed it, now I want to read the book.

Especially after I just finished reading Gods and Generals, which was written by Jeff Shaara, Michael's son. This one is about the period leading up to Gettysburg, as seen through the eyes of four key generals: Robert E Lee, Thomas Johnathan (Stonewall) Jackson, for the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott Hancock , Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, for the Union. It shows where they came from (beginning in 1848 and the Mexican war) and what made them who they were, ultimately showing them in the early battles of the war.

The picture that emerges is of four deeply religious individuals (and their fellow soldiers) who all thought they were doing God's work, defending their homes, families, communities. Good people or faith can disagree and God is not bound to any of them. Pious words are easy, actions are not. They were often at the mercy of events that swept them along like a flood. And all saw situations where comrades were split by the war, friendships broken, in part due to the fact that we still did not see ourselves as one nation, but as a collection of states. None were really vocal or active in the debate over slavery, they simply were doing their duty as they saw it.

It also shows that just following orders can be disastrous. There were key parts in the battles when lower level commanders knew the top general was wrong, yet could not bring themselves to challenge the orders...too much military mindset training. And it brings home the reality of war, away from the cold strategy, to the human cost in blood, sweat and tears. Did you know that many of the soldiers (mainly the south) did not have shoes and marched barefoot?
One of the battles shown in the book is the town in which my wife went to college, Fredericksburg. I have been there with her and so I had some sense of what the terrain was like. I have also been to Gettysburg and seen the battlefield, though many,many years ago.

Two things that struck me as I read, apart from the observations above. One is that I shudder to think that people recently would even hint at the word secession (Texas Gov Rick Perry and others) and that states' rights would be the rallying cry for so many. How can we go back to the divisiveness of pre-Civil War days and have state governors think that they can just ignore federal law? That issue was settled, in much blood, and I believe it is only those with no true understanding of history that can spout careless words and concepts like these.

The other thing is that in all our conflicts we must channel our differences through peaceful means and ratchet down the rhetoric. It is healthy to have lengthy , and often contentious, debate over serious issues. But one thing must be certain. We debate as Americans, one nation united by history and purpose, and certain key principles. We must not seek to divide but to unite. As Lincoln had a forgiving attitude ("malice toward none ...charity towards all") towards the rebellious southern states, let us be gracious toward those we disagree with and focus on what we share in common, not those things that can so easily divide us.

As General Sherman once famously said "war is hell" and no one in their right minds (and hearts) would ever seek it willingly. These books (Gods and Generals, and Killer Angels) both show that and remind us that seeking peace is a much preferable goal.