ORIGINALISM AND THE SUPREME COURT: HOW DOES JUDGE GORSUCH MEASURE UP?

By Paul M. Lewis

As Judge Neil Gorsuch faces Senate confirmation hearings this week, we would do well to think what is meant by the concept of originalism. Gorsuch is a well-documented proponent of that legal theory, and it is one that can profoundly affect many of the cases that routinely appear before the Supreme Court.

Originalism is the belief that judges should accept the words of the Constitution, as they were understood at the time when it was written. It therefore touches upon the most basic questions that comes before a judge, namely, how to interpret a law in a given case, and if that law comports with the Constitution. Decisions using originalism as their founding argument usually align quite well with conservative principles. For example, gay marriage was not legal (it was never even considered) in the late 18th century, and no reference was ever made to it in the Constitution. Therefore, originalists say, that document cannot be used to make it legal today.

Justice Antonin Scalia, a well-known originalist, voted against the claimant in Obergefel v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. In his descent, Scalia even went on to call the ruling a “threat against American democracy,” although he adds that the ruling was “of no personal importance to me.” And while we can legitimately question the veracity of that claim, given the conservatism of his Catholic faith, as well as what Scalia has said elsewhere about gay people and their rights, what is at issue here is the stated legal reasoning behind his decision. He goes on to say that what is of overwhelming importance to him is this: “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court,” adding that the courts have created liberties never intended in the Constitution.

In theory, originalists claim that they have no right to interpret laws, including, indeed especially, the Constitution itself, unless by interpretation we mean the parsing out of exactly what the writers of the Constitution meant at the time when they wrote it. This raises a number of obvious questions. First, how are we to know exactly what was in the minds of men (and there were, of course, no women framers), and white privileged elite men at that, who lived and thrived and thought as men did in the 18th century? It is difficult enough to get into the heads of people living today, in such a way as to discern exactly what is meant by what they have written. And yet we know, or can know, the recent history and the surrounding culture in a most immediate way. Which suggests yet another question, one that goes to this very issue of history and culture. The writers of the Constitution were men who lived high above others of their time in terms of wealth and power; some of them owned slaves and considered them to be property (e.g. Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, among others); they looked upon women as less than full citizens; they believed that only white male property owners should be able to vote and hold office; and they were overwhelmingly Protestant Christians. If these are the things the founding fathers embodied and believed in, do they really represent what we in today’s world ought to be attempting to understand and to emulate? Should this be the major contextual basis for interpreting the Constitution?

Originalists consider the Constitution to be a “dead document.” It is not a “living document” because it is not open to the interpretation of the present day. What it says is what it meant, nothing more, and any finagling with its meaning is, and ought to be, anathema. But nowhere does the Constitution itself make this claim. And while it may be argued that there was no need to say it, no need to make it explicit as this was simply understood, is that not an argument against itself? If the words of the document do not make it clear and unambiguous, then who are we to “interpret” the document to mean something it does not literally say?

The main dessenting argument against originalism in essence comes down to this: We cannot, and should not, attempt to literally apply a document, signed 228 years ago by a group consisting of all white men who believed in the very limited freedoms of that era, to the highly varied and extremely different world of the 21st century. Indeed, belief in originalism, as applied to the US Constitution, is very closely allied to a fundamentalist approach to the scripture of any religion you may care to name. Like originalists, religious fundamentalists hang on every word of the sacred text. They believe it says what it means in a literal way, and is not to be interpreted by humans so as to comply with current historical or cultural norms. The idea behind the notion is that God spoke to his people in this scripture, and because God does not make errors, nothing he said in the book can be wrong. According to this theory, our job is simple: to read, understand, apply verbatim, and obey. Those who do so, however, all too often encounter strange notions of what to eat, how to dress, and what we can and cannot say or do, according to rules that were put in place perhaps thousands of years ago, as if the world had not changed an iota in the intervening centuries.

If the Senate confirms Judge Gorsuch, just how strict an originalist he proves himself to be remains to be seen. The Heritage Foundation, a highly conservative political think tank, has written a lot about originalism by way of explaining and defending it. In “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution,” they discuss how it is possible to ascertain the original meaning of the founding document. Among other things, they suggest the obvious, such as discerning the “evident meaning of the words” according to the lexicon of the times; in addition, they recommend studying the surrounding debates of the time on the Constitution, looking at the words in the context of the political philosophy of the framers, reading contemporaneous interpreters, and examining the “evidence of long-standing traditions that demonstrates the people’s understanding of the words.”

But just as with religious fundamentalism, so with political originalism, one really cannot completely get away from interpretation. Too many things in sacred texts contradict one another, or are simply considered utterly outlandish in the modern world. The most obvious of these in the Bible is no doubt its support of slavery, but there are many others, as well. So then, is it all right to pick and choose what we think ought to be followed literally, leaving out the ones we choose not to acknowledge? Even the religious argument against abortion relies on interpretation. Abortion per se is nowhere condemned in the Bible. Instead, Christians rely on the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” commandment to support their position. Yet, it must be conceded that exactly when the life of a human being begins is a matter of opinion, of interpretation. The same can be said, covering the same issue, when it comes to originalism. The exact time when one can be identified as being alive as a human person is not clear. Is it at inception, or at birth? And yet, originalists claim that abortion is not supported by the Constitution. Why? Where does it say that life begins at the moment of conception? And if it does not say so, how can a law against it be considered anything other than an interpretation. Yet, originalists do not interpret. Or so they say.

Are originalists, and conservatives generally, the real upholders of the law and tradition, stalwarts who want to keep America on the straight and narrow, who fear a loss of self-identity, of “soul,” if we are not careful? Or are they merely proponents of small government, of upholding the rights of those who are already powerful and privileged, and of applying laws strictly, even harshly, because otherwise how are we to keep ourselves safe in a dangerous world? These notions of power and self-protection and aggrandizement of our country at the expense of all others have become binding principles among conservatives today, even more so with the advent of the Trump administration. And again, it’s worth remembering that originalist interpretations of the Constitution align very closely with these conservative beliefs.

It is therefore incumbent on senators, Democrats in particular, to question Judge Gorsuch very closely on his political philosophy. Not on the specifics of how he would rule in this or that hypothetical case. No judge can be expected to respond to the hypothetical, when details are unknown. But judges can well be held accountable for past decisions, and questioned closely on them. In legal terminology, this notion is referred to as stare decisis, a term that means to stand by things decided. Stare decisis can tell us a good deal about Judge Gorsuch, and it a valuable tool in helping us to understand just how he thinks judicially. Can words be understood in the context of the modern world? Are we constrained to live by notions espoused hundreds of years ago, in a different era with a very different cultural and historical context? Or can we live in the present, applying our knowledge, our intelligence, and our experience to the principles laid down by those who came before us?

This is what I would like to know about Judge Gorsuch. And depending on what his answers to these questions may be, I would like to see him confirmed or rejected. At this point, my guess is that, given the judge’s past rulings and his writings, we ought to hold out for a better and more open-minded new justice of the Supreme Court.

 

 

WHERE YOU LIVE IS WHERE YOU BREATHE

By Paul M. Lewis

There are so many things happening in the political world these days that it’s hard to decide which to highlight. That being so, why not go for the biggest, the most menacing, the one that has the greatest overarching effect on all of us—namely, climate change, the warming of the very globe we all call home?

Yet the topic of climate change, in and of itself, is too vast and complex for any one article. It needs to be broken down into component parts. There are innumerable ways of approaching the myriad of issues related to it. But one that is surely among the most important, and yet which gets far less attention than it should, is that of overpopulation. In 1944, the year I was born, the world had fewer than 2.2 billion people in it. Today there are nearly 7.5 billion, an increase of more than 5 billion in the space of 73 years. Predictably, we will also see that number rise to 8 billion by 2024, and to 9 billion in 2042. What are we to do with all these people? How to feed them? Where to house them? Where to find enough arable land to grow crops for them? How will they make a living for themselves and their families? And what will be the effect of vastly increasing numbers of humans on the environment?

As daunting as these figures and these questions may be, hiding from them is not an option. We must look at them head on and not flinch. Once recognized, we then have to decide what to do about it, how to change what we otherwise know is coming. And, although it may be tempting to go to what seems like the simplest and most direct solution, that is, for people to have fewer children, as true as this may be, that option has not proven to be a particularly feasible one, at least as far as governmental regulations are concerned.

The one exception is China, with its now defunct one child policy. The population increase there has leveled off markedly in the last several decades, since the inception of the policy. For example, there were 33 births per thousand women in 1970, but only 15 births per thousand in 1998. This is an enormous difference, but the decrease comes with its own set of problems. Boys, always more desired in traditional Chinese society, were wanted and kept, while girls were often aborted, or sometimes even abandoned at birth. As a result, there are unnaturally more males in the population today than there are females, a major demographic and societal problem. And the rapidly aging population of China now has far fewer younger citizens to help support their elders in retirement. Additionally, it’s obvious that no western-style democracy would ever be willing, or able, to put into place the kinds of prohibitive restrictions the Chinese government did.

The best control on population growth is, and always has been, education—and education for girls, in particular. Note, for example, that the number of births per woman in Japan is 1.3; that same number for Guinea-Bissau is 5.7 births per woman. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school—even at the primary level—tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.” Let’s hear it, then, for more education.

But we know that there exist a number of obstacles to the education of children. Many countries are simply too poor to offer adequate teaching facilities for a large majority of their children, and there are others where social, religious and cultural factors prevent girls in particular from receiving an education. All of which points to a substantial likelihood that world population will continue to rise, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s therefore incumbent on us now to do what actually is in our power to help counteract the most deleterious effects of overpopulation.

The Trump Administration has already demonstrated that it does not believe in global climate change, or at least that the warming of the globe has anything to do with human activity. This perhaps should not be all that surprising. According to the Pew Research Foundation, almost three-quarters of Americans don’t trust the consensus of 97% of world scientists, who assert otherwise on climate change.

When it comes to actual numbers, however, and to hard data related to worldwide temperature variances, this is not really a question of belief. To cite one recent example, of the thousands that could be given, this past February was the warmest February on record. If the world really is warming, regardless of whom or what we believe may be responsible, it’s imperative to try to do something to prepare and protect ourselves and our environment from its worst effects. Decreasing the amount of fossil fuels used is what is most frequently suggested. And that must be done. But here, again, we run into corporate, and now governmental, doubters. If you don’t believe in human-induced global warming, why should you do anything about it?

Where, then, does that leave us? Fortunately, we do not have to rely solely on government at the federal level to effect changes. These days, a majority of the work is being done at the state and local level. And while I’m of the opinion that we need more than that, sometimes in the moment we have to take what we can get. Additionally, it’s encouraging that many businesses, and the military, have weighted in on the need for action to address global warming.

One plan that has gotten recent press (see “Housing is key factor in climate goals” in the Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017) puts the emphasis on greater collectivity within cities—in other words, population density—as a way of drastically reducing commuting and the consequent use of gasoline. The idea, obvious enough, though not necessarily easy to accomplish, is to create urban spaces where people can both live and work in their own neighborhood. This eliminates the need for long commutes by car, and it allows people to get to jobs and places to eat and shop and play that are either within walking or biking distance, or that can be readily reached via fast, clean, affordable and reliable public transportation.

What’s being suggested is not so different from the kind of city I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s. My family did not have a car, and that fact never felt to me like a burden. My father walked to work every morning; my mother took the bus to the department store where she worked; and my brother and sister and I all either walked or took the bus to school. The local grocery—a literal corner store—was a block away, and we lived across the street from our parish church. Sometimes, it may be that what was good was mistakenly discarded in the pursuit of what we like to think of as progress.

This new, or not so new, concept of closely packed housing near places of work and shopping and worship may not be welcomed by all. We have grown accustomed to driving in our private cars, sometimes long distances, to work and elsewhere. The concept of the soccer mom has become so acceptable as to even go unnoticed. Meanwhile, she drives her children hither and yon to team practice, to sporting events, and even to parent-arranged “play dates.” What ever happened to kids playing with others in the neighborhood? Some of the most affordable and desirable housing has been put up in sprawling suburbs with few amenities within easy reach. It is not uncommon in places like Los Angeles for an individual to drive an hour, even an hour and a half, each way to and from work.

As much as we may wish for a house in the suburbs with three bedrooms and two baths, it may be that we have to face the fact that it is, in the long run, unsustainable. And if it is difficult to maintain now, with the population we currently have, what will happen in 2042, when there are 9 billion people on the planet? The idea of attempting to reduce some of the excesses of overpopulation through the encouragement of urban population density is of course not a panacea. Indeed, like most things, it falls far short of a complete solution, and it brings with it its own pluses and minuses. It is, though, one of the many factors about which humans will have to make choices in the coming years, if we are to hope that our children, and their children, will be able to live on a healthy planet.

The truth is that change is coming, whether we like it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. Surely, it is better to look directly at what will be, and to make the adjustments needed now, in order to help diminish some of the worst effects of these eventualities. What is needed is a willing coalition of ordinary citizens, of city and county government officials, of the private sector, of state leadership, and eventually (or so we can hope) support and encouragement at the federal—and the international—level, to make the kinds of changes that are needed.

This is a tall order, especially in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. But in the end, the consequences of doing nothing may be too terrible not to contemplate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIBERTY and NATURE Embracing for Life

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SOME THOUGHTS ON EMBRACING FOR LIFE

by Paul M. Lewis

Emma Lazarus wrote, as seen on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless and tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This is—or was—the sacred promise of America, and if that doesn’t sound like today’s refugees and immigrants, the poor and dispossessed of the earth, it’s hard to imagine what else it could describe. What does the notion of liberty actually mean, other than freedom of choice, the ability to do as one wishes, unfettered by physical or social constraint, so long as others are not harmed and, in doing so, one does not unduly trample on the rights of others?

But why, in the picture, do we see Lady Liberty embracing Mother Nature? The two come together because none of us, neither human beings nor any of the other creatures of the earth, can live our normal lives beyond the boundaries of the physical world, or beyond an emotional and social context. What this suggests is that our vaunted freedom to choose is best used in opting for the right and the good, not only for ourselves, but for the life of the planet as a whole. It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize the natural world in all of its diversity. As Yeats put it a century ago: “…the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees, the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh, or fowl…whatever is begotten, born, or dies.” This is the world of nature, seen, experienced, and lived in by all of us.

The two figures are depicted as holding each other and kissing. Just as with human lovers, each needs and chooses the other in an ultimate exercise of freedom. But that choice can only be made in the absence of coercion and of political or social authoritarianism. If Lady Liberty and Mother Nature hold each other today, it is the duty of each of us to do all we can to ensure that continued ability to embrace and kiss. In so doing, Liberty and Nature engender love and creativity, as well as a hope for a better future for us and for the planet. If the politics of the day work against this, only our will and our eternal vigilance can counteract it.

 

SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

from the artist – Kevin L. Miller

Lady Liberty is one of the primary symbols for the United States of America. Mother Nature, of course, represents all of Nature and the Earth itself. When a friend and former colleague suggested that I might consider drawing Lady Liberty and Mother Nature as friends, I thought “What a good idea!” But when I began to develop a composition on the screen of my mind their “friendship” became much more – a deeply committed intimate relationship of love and mutual support. And this seems entirely appropriate, since the U.S. and the Earth need each other in order to survive. America cannot thrive if the Earth becomes unable to sustain life. And the Earth will cease to be able to do so, if the U.S. and all of humanity does not quickly learn how to nurture, honor, and respect our planet. Lady Liberty and Mother Nature are embracing for life. Their intimate embrace is a fundamental necessity, whether we and the world’s nations and leaders acknowledge it or not. If we want to avoid the looming Sixth Mass Extinction and leave a planet where our children and grandchildren can thrive, then we will support and celebrate Lady Liberty and Mother Nature embracing for life.

 

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE TRUMP HAS WON–NOW WHAT?

By Paul M. Lewis

We will see what the election of Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States brings with it. So far, there seems little doubt that it does not bode well for the environment, for the battle against global climate change, for the physical health of millions of Americans, especially the country’s poorest, for international affairs, or for transnational trade. In the end, it might even presage bad news for the working class, those very individuals whose support—due to the eccentricities of the Electoral College—propelled him into the White House in the first place.

Trump claims to have been elected by an overwhelming vote of the people, but the latest count shows that he lost the popular election by 2.8 million. He consistently lost in almost every major urban center in the country, while eking out Electoral College wins in several states. In Michigan, for example, he won by only about 10,000 votes; in Wisconsin the number was approximately 22,000; and in Pennsylvania it was by some 40,000. If we add in two other Trump victories, namely Florida and South Carolina, where he won by 120,00 and 177,000 votes respectively, we come to a total of 370,000. That number cinched for him the 84 electoral votes that come with these states. Compare that to the number of electoral votes Hillary Clinton won by taking California and New York—also 84. In other words, Trump received 84 electoral votes with only 370,000 popular votes, while Clinton got them by winning 4.9 million popular votes (the combined number she received in California and New York). Is it fair, or even democratic, to allot the same number of electoral votes to both candidates, when one took the popular vote in the states mentioned by more than 4 million? Ultimately, the question of the viability of the Electoral College has to be left up to the American people as a whole to consider. But one thing is for sure: in no way can Trump’s win be considered a landslide.

Leaving aside for the moment the whole issue of how, or by how much, he won, what has to be faced now is what will he do with his newly found power? Since he has not even been inaugurated yet, we are mostly left to speculate. We do know that he has already nominated a conglomeration of billionaires for his cabinet. Overall, these individuals represent a group that promises to stymie federal regulations that protect the environment and people’s health and wellbeing, and instead will lobby for the rich and powerful, and who—if confirmed by Congress—would in some cases work to undo the very agencies they were sworn in to protect. Beyond that, his actions, and even his demeanor, so far are not promising. He has already managed to deeply offend the Chinese, cherry pick a company that was going to move its operations to Mexico and prevent—or bribe or bully—them from doing so (whether or not such a policy is sustainable is an open question), cozy up to dictators like Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and now he claims to openly doubt the combined intelligence gathering prowess of the country. We can only presume this is because he fears that Russia’s meddling in our presidential election for the purposes of promoting a Trump win will cast doubt on his legitimacy as the winner. And beyond even this, he continues not only to question, but to deny outright any human part in the warming of the globe, and to name like-minded people to positions that oversee the country’s efforts to do its part in battling climate change.

Given all this, when Trump becomes president of this country on January 20, 2017, what are we going to do about him? For one thing, everyone who believes in American democracy must work through their elected representatives—of both parties—in order to rein in Trump’s excesses. Democrats and Progressives may not agree with much that Republicans stand for, but already senators like John McCain (R-Arizona), and even Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), have expressed concern and are speaking out about Trump’s dangerous dismissal of the CIA’s findings related to Russia’s interference in our electoral process. Unfortunately, the GOP Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has not yet found the courage to do so, but political pressure has worked on him in the past, and he may yet come round to standing up for a full and fair examination into Russia’s role in Trump’s win. The country deserves such an inquiry, and we all ought to be concerned about the president-elect’s blithe and offhand dismissal of such astounding findings. Trump tells us he is an intelligent man and does not even need the daily security briefings that are part and parcel of any learning curve for a new chief executive. But this is not about how smart any individual may be. It’s about knowledge and information; it’s about keeping abreast of what is happening in a changing world. In a word, it’s about what is called intelligence, which Trump clearly needs.

More and more, it will be incumbent upon all Americans to keep themselves informed and to stand up and be counted when, as seems all too likely, Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style and his more than questionable ideas and theories go against the good of the American people. It’s not inconceivable that his bizarre notions and his authoritarian impulses may pose a threat to the country, or even to the world.

If there ever was an expectation that Trump might show himself, after the election, to be more mature, less impulsive, more willing to accommodate the desires of all the American people, the time for it would be now. We can certainly hope that those who voted for Donald Trump were able to see something in him that many of us who didn’t cannot. If he succeeds in renewing the tattered infrastructure of the county, or in legitimately and sustainably bringing jobs back to those who have lost them and who have felt left out by the processes of the automatizing of industry and of globalization, we ought to be glad. But even then, at what cost might such benefits come, if indeed they come at all? What price are we willing to pay for such hoped-for benefits?

In the end, the country is stronger than any one individual, however misguided, or even malign, we may think his intentions to be. While awaiting the answers to the many questions about Donald Trump and the kind of president he will prove himself to be, we should remember and trust in the strengths of the checks and balances built into the Constitution. We would also do well to believe in the patriotism and love of country we see in many, of both parties, in Congress; and as individuals we must live our lives with as much watchfulness, dignity, and integrity as we can muster. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This is a quote often attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Thomas Jefferson. Whether or not it was he who said it is hardly the point. These days, and always, it is a thing we would all do well to remember.

 

 

 

 

MOTHER TERESA, POLITICS, VALUES AND WHAT IS OF ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE

By Paul M. Lewis

Formally, at least in the Catholic Church, a saint is a person who has led a holy and exemplary life and about whom an official proclamation has been made by the Pope that she or he is now in heaven, the latter evidenced by the fact that at least two authenticated miracles can be attributed to that individual’s intercession with God. Following these criteria, the Church declared just the other day that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (nowadays, the city is known as Kolkata) has been decreed a saint.

Yet, in spite of this official endorsement, controversy has continued to follow the new saint. There are those who argue against the wisdom of making a claim in favor of her saintly life, to say nothing of her actual sainthood. Their arguments are relatively well known. They include allegations of her having been willing to accept charitable contributions from sometimes highly questionable sources, a supposed over eagerness to hobnob with the rich and famous and powerful of the world, a marked tendency on the part of the nuns trained by her to refrain from administering medication that might have saved lives, or at least alleviated suffering—in favor of the goodness, even Godliness, of suffering—and, finally, attempts at overly enthusiastic, if not outright forced deathbed conversions of lifelong Hindus or Muslims to Christianity. Surely, if any one of these is true, it could be said there may be reason to question at least the first criterion of saintliness, that of having led a holy and exemplary life.

Having said all this, it is not my intention here to try to pass judgment on Mother Teresa. I admit to not having any certainty as to whether the allegations made against her, or the nuns of her order, are true or not; as much as some critics vehemently insist they are. And there are large numbers of people who truly revere her for what she has done and who now pray to her. What interests me, instead, is the complexity, the complications, and the controversies that come to us all as we lead our lives. Mother Teresa’s example is striking for the most part not only because she became famous, but also because her actions have had an outsized impact on many people’s lives.

Knotty and convoluted issues related to what is appropriate or inappropriate, good or bad, and right or wrong regarding our various chosen courses of action plague each of us in our everyday lives. Such choices run the gamut from the relatively small, for example, just how bluntly truthful any of us should be in our interaction with others, on to larger issues, such as whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to wear the hijab, or the burkini, in public. Exactly how accommodating, generally, should one culture be towards another in the face of prevailing opposing local norms, especially given the potential threat of violence; indeed, how obliging or amenable ought a culture be regarding any other way of thinking and acting, when there is a clear-cut clash of values? And there are larger questions still, such as who has the right to decide when a life should be considered viable—whether in the womb or after birth—or having to do with the taking of life generally, either in war or by way of a state-sanctioned death penalty? And what of our human relationship with the environment, with the very earth itself? Was it “put here for man’s use,” or do the animals, all of nature, have their own right to exist, totally separate from anything related to human beings?

Clearly, some people have a lot less trouble with moral ambiguity than others. We don’t have to look far in today’s political landscape to find people willing to condemn entire swaths of humanity because they come from a place somehow deemed to be “less than,” or because they are simply perceived to be too different from the numerically prevailing white population. Or just the other day, when it was reported that Kim Jong-un, the iron-fisted ruler of North Korea, condemned a high-ranking military man to death by firing squad because he was politically incorrect enough to slouch in his seat while the Great Leader was delivering a speech. And, lest we forget about religion with which we began this discussion, members of one faith are hardly immune from condemning millions of others to supposed hellfire because they are infidels or apostates or atheists. And to bring it back to Mother Teresa once more—again if what has been alleged is true—just how certain do you have to be of the righteousness of your religion before prevailing upon a man or woman, in the throes of the death agony, to renounce the beliefs of a lifetime in favor of your supposedly superior religion? Where exactly is common sense there, or simple human understanding, to say nothing of empathy, mercy, or compassion?

I guess it could be argued that it’s just all too human for us to believe that the conclusions we come to are the right ones. And to that extent, we may all be guilty of a blind belief in our own absolute rectitude. After all, isn’t this the very nature of what we mean by a value system, that is, that we possess an unshakable inner assurance in it, and a dogged confidence that our judgments equate to whatever is right and best for the world? Otherwise, how else would we have come to these conclusions in the first place, or why continue to hold to them? And if I am right in my values, than doesn’t it stand to reason that you are wrong in yours if you do not agree with me?

The problem with this argument is that values change, not just from one person to another, but sometimes from one stage in life to another (how many young liberals go on to become old conservatives?), from one culture to another, or from one historical era to another, and if that is the case, how exactly can we be assured that we are so absolutely right? Yet, most of us persist in doing just that. It seems to be almost a part of the human psyche, a kind of biological imperative, or at least an evolutionary accommodation that has proven itself to be somehow advantageous for the species. And yet, I keep coming back to my earlier question: what of understanding, tolerance, empathy, and compassion? Surely, these are equally human virtues. Where do they come in to play? Are they not perfectly legitimate, too, just as much as any others that can be named?

When it comes to living with other people, whether they be of a different language, culture, religion, political persuasion, sexual orientation, or simply a completely varying worldview in general, what may be of greatest use is an ability to negotiate, to adjust, to enter into a kind of give and take, and the occasional ability to back off a bit, a simple willingness to adjust and habituate. Dare I say, to compromise? It might even be said that this comes with a degree of maturity in life, that is, learning when it’s best to speak forthrightly, and when to make some accommodations. Although, admittedly, there can be a very fine line between diplomacy and not speaking up when one ought to. As Walt Whitman puts it, sometimes you’ve got to “stand up for the stupid and the crazy.” But he also cautions, “argue not about God.”

Following Whitman’s advice, I’ll keep my own counsel about whether or not Mother Teresa is “in heaven.” But I will, on the other hand, say that I think Donald Trump is a mean-spirited ogre of a man, who riles up the fears and hatreds of suffering people for his own aggrandizement and self-promotion. And anyone who doubts that humans have had a disastrously deleterious effect on the earth, our home, simply does not know what he’s talking about. In other words, sometimes I speak out about my values, and sometimes I choose not to. But I always act according to them.

At our innermost core—or so it is my belief, my value system—each of us is the very image of the Divine Spirit. That image sometimes gets hidden, forgotten one could say, by our overwhelming ego needs, our foolishness and our ignorance. And all too often our vaunted values arise out of this state, what’s referred to in Sanskrit as maya, or illusion. In the end, the best we can do is what Krishna suggests in the Bhagavad-Gita, that is, try to become one with Brahman, the One Indivisible. He, Krishna, then goes on to say that, in so doing, the individual who achieves this state becomes so blended that he or she “sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained.”

Now, there’s a heaven I wouldn’t mind inhabiting, with or without Mother Teresa. And there, I think, is a value no longer subject to change.

PLEASE HEAD TOWARD THE EXIT IN AN ORDERLY FASHION

By Paul M. Lewis

The Brexit vote this past week was a great shock to almost everybody, even to those who supported Britain leaving the European Union. And the fact that the decision to exit won by more than a million votes was perhaps even more surprising. The British bookies, too, lost their shirts, since they had placed odds on the UK remaining part of the EU. What happened? Why would so many people want the United Kingdom to part company from the union of European states it had, if slowly and somewhat reluctantly, joined over forty years ago?

There are many answers to that question, as pundits have been reporting on for some time now. Top among them is that many British voters, especially the English (as opposed to the Scots, the Northern Irish, and some of the Welsh) felt as though they were somehow losing their country to immigration. Within that context, many feared specifically for their jobs, in particular those that newcomers might qualify for if they did not come with a great deal of education or experience. Additionally, there has long simmered a feeling among many that the Englishness of England was becoming a thing of the past. That may in fact be true, if things are viewed in the short term. For the past several hundred years now, England has been more or less white, Christian, and of course Anglo-Saxon. It’s worth remembering, though, that those early Germanic settlers were not always there. According to most accounts, the Anglo-Saxons began arriving in the late 5th century. They did not come all at once, instead arriving incrementally for two hundred years or so, while slowly intermingling with the original Celtic inhabitants and the remnants of the Romans who had settled there.

The Celtic language had previously been used for centuries, with Latin coming to replace it as the language of business and culture around the middle of the first century of the Common Era (CE). Later, the Germanic languages of the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—grouped together and coming to be known as Early English—began to meld with, and finally replace, both Celtic and Latin; the only exception being that Latin continued on for many hundreds of years as the language of the church and of education. French, too, could be added as an influence, after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The point here is not to attempt, in so short a space, a history of the English people, but merely to point out the multicultural and multilinguistic heritage of England. It wasn’t until the 8th century, for example, that the famous historian, Bede, wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), a time when one could say that England was just becoming English, and so needed a history of its own to explain itself. Bede finished his great work in 731 CE, some 1285 years ago. On a planet that is four and a half billion years old, and within the context of modern humans evolving some one hundred and fifty thousand years ago, it’s not unreasonable to think that this is a relatively short period of time. Indeed, humans have been living and interbreeding among tribes and races ever since the beginning.

Given this longer historical framework, it’s a fair question to ask: What exactly is meant when people say that they want to keep England English? Or keep America American, for that matter? No one needs a lesson on the multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, and multilinguistic heritage of the United States. Even the Native Peoples of this continent have been here for only probably 10,000 to 20,000 years, depending on which archeologist you believe. A long time in terms of human memory, to be sure, but not so long from other perspectives. Who, therefore, owns a country and its heritage? And what is a country even, but an arbitrary enough system of geopolitical borders? Granted, within those borders there is a shared history (for however long, or short, it may be), often a shared language, and to an extent anyway, shared religio-cultural values. But there is nothing to say that these borders, or these shared elements of human culture, are forever immutable. That’s not meant to imply that people can’t also have a kind pride in their shared history, but at the same time remember that the narrative chronicle of any country is always a relatively brief one. Countries, whole empires, that once considered themselves solid and unchanging have come and gone, and today we dig up artifacts from out of the dust that once belonged to glorious nations now no longer in existence. Nor should we forget that, not so far back, we all came from the same roots

Britain has made its choice to leave the EU, as much as there are those who are calling for a re-vote, a new referendum, now that the sober light of day is just starting to reveal the magnitude of what has been done. I do not believe that this will happen. The die has been cast, and the United Kingdom—or some form of it, if Scotland and Northern Ireland eventually choose to opt out—will have to make the best of things. Indeed, there is chaos enough already attempting to make sense of the consequences of the vote and to figure out how to disengage from the European Union without too much more damage being done. Further uncertainty and chaos, in the form of a new campaign for and against another vote on the Brexit, is not needed. What is best now is to move toward the exit in an orderly fashion, while preserving as much economic, political, and social stability as possible.

But neither does this mean that the enormity of the decision shouldn’t be studied in depth. It should, in fact, be dissected as cleanly and as clearly as possible, so as to understand both how and why it came about, and what it means in terms of how the British people now think of themselves. Other countries too ought to investigate the whys and wherefores of the vote, in order to understand how similar trends, feelings, and beliefs play out among them, and what that may portend.

Surely, the European Union itself, as a political entity, is not without some culpability. It is all too easy to find fault with the so-called ignorant (as some think) in Britain, who voted out of the union. But there is little doubt that the bureaucracy of the EU is itself partially to blame, as it has become an unresponsive and inflexible monolith. As such, many people—not just the British—believe they have had no real representation in Brussels. Americans in particular ought to remember what happens when a group suffers under the onerous and unfeeling mandate of a government that levies taxation without at the same time providing for equal and fair representation.

That said, I continue to believe that the Brexit was a grave mistake. The flaws of a system can surely be overcome, if there is enough political will to do so. The ideal of a common union of nations is a grand one, especially on a continent that has been the genesis of two utterly devastating world wars. What is needed now is not the resurgence of more and more nationalism, not walls, literal or metaphorical, but a wider, a more inclusive, a more open and welcoming embrace of humanity. In that sense, we can all learn from this serious mistake made so recently by the United Kingdom. And in the process, with luck and a good deal of work, perhaps we can also help our British cousins mitigate, or even begin to reverse, some of the more deleterious effects of so short-sighted a decision.

 

 

HOW TO WIN THE 2016 ELECTION – Don’t Repeat the Nevada Democratic Convention Debacle!

by Kevin L Miller

It’s a gorgeous May in South Central PA, where I have been truly enjoying the preparation and planting of my 16 large raised vegetable beds, while reading and listening with increasing alarm to reports of the sudden split of the Democratic Party into two factions, following the disastrous Nevada State Democratic Convention on Saturday, May 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. Yesterday I planted a lot more tomatoes, okra, zucchini, melons and eggplant on our acreage that is closer to our Trump-loving neighbors here in the woods. Then I devoted yet another hour to reviewing many different videos of the Nevada Democratic Convention debacle. Google “Nevada Democratic Convention videos” and look at any of them that are not edited by conservative organizations. The footage has gone viral and leaves no doubt that the establishment Democrats in Nevada royally screwed the Bernie Sanders constituency.

The result is that the emerging division between Bernie’s Social-Democrats and Hillary’s Centrist-Democrats has suddenly deepened and polarized, so that hundreds of thousands of Bernie’s supporters are now shouting “Hillary NEVER! Bernie FOREVER!” They will NOT vote for Hillary now, and this puts the nation and the world in peril of a Trump presidency, which would be, quite simply, the beginning of the apocalypse. How did we get to this sorry state? The Democratic Party establishment lacked the imagination to recognize and embrace the mushrooming revolutionary movement within their ranks. Instead, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz and the establishment, dug in their heels, lectured and scolded the Sanders campaign and supporters, and ultimately misused all their rules in an attempt to silence and subdue the Social-Democrats. This is not the way to heal wounds and achieve reconciliation.

All it took was one filmed and well-documented State Democratic Convention (it happened to be Nevada) to inflame and enrage the Social-Democrats, and the party split in half — or nearly so. At this point, the division may be 3/5 Centrist-Democrats vs 2/5 Social-Democrats. Of course, that split would be enough to cause Democrats to lose the election to Donald Trump, and the schism will likely become closer to 50/50 as the election season rolls on, especially after the impending spectacle of the Philadelphia Democratic Convention which promises to be cataclysmic.

To be clear, no one can condone the behavior of either faction at the recent Nevada Democratic Convention. All reasonable people certainly condemn the implied death threat phone calls made by a few extreme Sanders supporters to Democratic officials, and deplore the fist fights that reportedly may have broken out on the floor of the convention. Violence is never the answer. Never!.. BUT… after watching the videos of the abusive antics of Chairwoman Roberta Lange on the floor of the convention, and reading the accounts of the repeated massacre of Robert’s Rules of Order and the convention’s own rules, any rational person has to understand the rage and profound frustration of the Social-Democrats at that event, and the subsequent bitterness.

In Nevada, the Democratic establishment met secretly, without consulting the Social-Democrats, and changed the rules before the convention. They brought the rules change to the floor for a “Yea or Nay” vote, before a quorum was present. On the videos, when the Nays clearly had it, the very shrill chairwoman, Roberta Lange, nevertheless gave it to the Yeas. When a standing vote count was properly called for, she refused. When a point of order was called, she ignored it. When one of the Social-Democrats politely petitioned the chair for the time to read their minority report, the chair denied them that right, after also ignoring their petitions. Then a slate of 64 contested Sanders delegates was rejected, against the screams of the crowd. And finally, the chair, discarded Robert’s Rules of Order, moved abruptly to adjourn amidst the roar of NAY, and did so, slamming the gavel down on the podium and storming off the stage, which was protected by a line of gray-uniformed big burly armed police who looked for all the world like the Gestapo. The screaming crowd was instructed to leave immediately. These videos have to be seen to be believed. The Democratic establishment’s behavior was completely outrageous, out of line, and undemocratic. While no one can condone any threats or violence perpetrated by the Sanders supporters, anyone who reviews the videos and written factual accounts will completely understand the frustration and rage of the Social-Democrats.

One video records Barbara Boxer’s presentation to the convention. A personal note here: I’ve always adored Barbara Boxer. She looks wonderful, by the way — never better — and her hair and outfit at the Nevada convention were magnificent. She now adds a beautiful, magnetic presence to her obviously superior intelligence and substantive professionalism. I can’t help speculating that she may be positioning herself for a VP nomination. But her approach to the raging convention after Roberta Lange and convention officials had already enraged the Sanders constituency, was NOT cool: “I’m a Hillary supporter. We have the votes! We have victory! Yay!… (loud booing from the crowd) Keep on booing, and boo yourselves out of this election!” It gives me NO pleasure to report this, because I have always been an enthusiastic Boxer supporter. I attended one of her fund raisers at a wealthy private home in southern CA many years ago and met her and bought one of her T-shirts, which I wore proudly for many years. I have very recently mentioned her name several times as one of my personal choices for VP. But she handled this very badly. Basic psychology tells us that such an approach is not the way to win friends and influence people. And it is emblematic of how far the Hillary-supporting Democratic establishment has to go to get to a place where they can reconcile with the Bernie Sanders people. This is NOT good! This approach is exactly the way to hand the election to Trump and kick off the apocalypse. “Yay!…” as Boxer would say.

What is fascinating about our current election is that in the three remaining candidates we have the whole political spectrum. On the extreme right is the fascist authoritarian tyrant Donald Trump. On the far left is the Social-Democrat Bernie Sanders. And smack dab in the middle is the Centrist-Democrat, Hillary Clinton. At this moment no one has any idea who is going to win the general election, because it now appears that all three of these figures are going to remain on the public stage right through the November election, although one of them, probably Bernie Sanders, will not be an official candidate. He is going to get very close to the Democratic nomination, and his supporters will say that he would have won it, if the Democratic primary system had not been rigged and the many super-delegates, pre-selected and pre-committed by the Democratic Party establishment, precisely to prevent an insurgent like Sanders from succeeding. It is likely that Senator Sanders will continue campaigning for a grass-roots political revolution right through the election, in order to keep pulling Hillary Clinton to the left and win in principle if not in fact. The louder her supporters demand that Bernie leave the stage, the larger his crowds will grow.

So, how does anyone WIN this election? Well… If the factional rancor continues as it is developing now, all Trump will have to do to win is sit back and laugh while the Democratic Party splits in half. Democrats have to hope and pray that it is not too late for the Democratic establishment to make nice and offer concessions to the Social-Democrats, or all of us are going to suffer the terminal illness of a Trump presidency. First of all, people like Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer and Debbie Wassermann-Shultz, true liberals in the Democratic establishment, need to STOP lecturing and scolding Bernie’s campaign and his supporters and address them with the respect and deference due a huge constituency within their party, rather than treating them like naughty children who are being disrespectful to their parents’ authority. You can’t reconcile with somebody by berating them.

Then, frankly, the Hillary Clinton campaign needs to co-opt Bernie’s revolution and take away any reason for his supporters to resist them. The Democratic establishment should remove Debbie Wasserman-Shultz from the equation, because she has become a lightning rod in this conflict. They need to reign in the authoritarian voices within their ranks, and they need to change the rules around super-delegates, allowing them to be apportioned according to the popular vote, rather than committed in advance — in many cases long before Bernie ever declared his candidacy. Then Hillary needs to simply adopt Bernie’s playbook, lock, stock and barrel, exactly the way her husband Bill did with all of his opponents to win elections. He proved it works! Finally, after adopting all of Bernie’s positions, Hillary needs to offer him the VP slot on the ticket, whether he takes it or not. If these things were to happen, Bernie and his supporters could declare victory, and Hillary would win the election and send Trump back to his gilded Manhattan cage. There is still hope, if the Democratic establishment can grow the balls and imagination required to to embrace Bernie’s revolution.

But, let’s face it… That’s not likely to happen. It’s not human nature. And although Bill Clinton is probably a highly respected voice within his wife’s campaign, I doubt that she or her operatives have what it takes to see that they need to do exactly what he did to win elections, and steal all the thunder from the opponents by co-opting their messages and swallowing them whole. No… the rule of the day is dogmatic polarization, whereas Bill Clinton’s co-opting tactics require vision that goes far beyond compromise. It is very likely that the Democratic establishment will circle the wagons and become even more authoritarian and abusive with the existing rules, in the mode of the chair of the Nevada Democratic Convention. This will enrage and drive the Social-Democrats even farther away from the established Democratic Party and any hope of supporting Hillary in the general election. The Philadelphia Democratic Convention will now inherit the once-predicted fate of the Cleveland Republican Convention, and become an absolute madhouse of rage and conflict. The Democratic Party will emerge badly damaged and split. And Trump is likely to win the election. The END!

P.S.: By the way… I have not changed my mind. I voted for Bernie in the PA primary, and I am still supporting him and his positions. But if Hillary, or Daffy Duck, or a fence post, wins the Democratic nomination and remains the strongest alternative to Trump in the polls, then I will vote for that alternative that has at least some chance of defeating Trump and averting utter global disaster. But there is now some slight possibility that even if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, she may not emerge by election day as the strongest candidate against Trump. Anything can happen now. A Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. and the world. The Democratic Party establishment must step back and get real about the heroic surgery they will now have to perform if they are to heal the gaping wounds within the progressive electorate body, and win this election.

 

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE A COUNTRY GREAT?

By Paul M. Lewis

A number of people have recommended to me an article written by the brilliant, conservative-leaning intellectual (graduate of Oxford and Harvard), Andrew Sullivan, published in the most recent edition of the New York magazine, entitled “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic.” Its subtitle goes on to say, “And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.” In it, Sullivan makes a convincing case for the notion that over time democracies become almost too democratic, what he calls hyper-democratic, and as such they tend to implode on themselves. Within that context, he goes on to quote Plato, who tells us that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”

Although Sullivan nonetheless still maintains that democracies are wonderful places to live, he says—no doubt, rightly so—that nothing lasts forever. Indeed, the excesses of democracy are all too often seen in the passions and the tyranny of the mob. The Founding Fathers did what they could to temper this, but over time such protections have eroded away. As an example, just look at the untrammeled chaos, the blind furor of the zealots in the current primary season. Sullivan refers to this as “last stage political democracy.”

The excesses of social media, seen on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, are further examples of unregulated democracy. If it were not so, why would China, and other repressive regimes (North Korea also springs to mind) want to limit, or even forbid, its access? The web itself has virtually no monitors, no elite experts who can serve as intellectually legitimate analysts to correct errors, or to call a lie a lie. Either that, or there are so many claiming to be experts that, in the end, no one knows who is legitimately so, and who is not; there is no longer anyone to modulate people asserting themselves or their pet ideas, or to say, “No, what you are claiming is misleading, untrue, even immoral.” Hyper-democracy, in other words, seems to bring us to the point of what might be called hyper-equality, wherein the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of each person are sacrosanct (we are all equal, after all) and automatically asserted to be on the same level as those of everyone else, no matter how unskilled or inexpert they may be. Where then is judgment, circumspection, logic, prudence, let alone wisdom? As a result, we get a presumptive Republican nominee for the highest office in the land in Donald Trump, who is the very epitome of uncouth, uncultured, uneducated, even unprincipled, self-aggrandizement. In other words, the brashest, to say nothing of the richest, gets to speak the loudest and rises to be the leader of the pack. As Orwell said so presciently back in 1945, speaking, ironically, about communism, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

As brilliant an essayist as Sullivan is, and as thorough and insightful an analysis as the article provides (I highly recommend that it be read in its entirety), it seems to me that virtually any political system can ultimately devolve into tyranny, and that democracy is no more susceptible to doing so than any other. I suppose it could even be asked: how many other forms of government are there, aside from democracy itself and tyranny? Just look at two of the other largest and most powerful countries of the world, Russia and China. Nobody would accuse either of them of ever having been hyper-democratic, as much as Russia may have made a few tentative steps toward democracy once communism fell. There is little doubt today that each is caught up in the throes of an increasingly repressive dictatorship. Indonesia can be cited as another example of a country that went through the horrors of the tyrannical Suharto regime, only to emerge briefly and hopefully into the light of democracy, having elected Joko Widodo (aka, Jokowi) in 2014; sadly, however, he now appears to be leading his country back towards a form of hyper-religious rigidity, if not outright dictatorship. Virtually all of the promising Arab Spring movements toward democracy, too, have surrendered to dictatorship and tyranny. Gen. el-Sisi in Egypt, as just the latest example, has taken away most of the rights of civil society that hopeful democrats had, not so long ago, thought to be within their grasp. And look what happened in Libya once the hated dictator fell, with help from the democratic west. Can it be said that the tyranny of a dictator was any worse than the tyranny of warring clans, or the horror of an emerging ISIS? The point once again is that these, and many other countries that could be cited, collapsed into oppression and subjugation, not out of a context of hyper-democracy, but out of either the chaos of their own recent history, or a long-standing predilection toward autocratic rule.

My fear is that people generally—no matter what form of government they live under—have a built in penchant, even a longing, for a “big daddy” who will take control, rule their lives, and tell them what to do and when to do it. All too often, we want to be relieved of the burden of having to think, analyze, and make difficult decisions on our own. This may especially be so when the world becomes even more complex and confusing than it normally is, or when outside factors over which most of us truly have little or no control, things such as the globalization of the world economy and even the terrible effects of the ever increasing warming of the globe, come into play. When this happens, people become desperate for plain, simple answers, ones which they either do not want to parse out themselves, or which they feel themselves incapable of grappling with. They want relief from the burden of needing to live in a more or less constant state of questioning, uncertainty and unpredictability. When such times come about, the Trumps of the world rush in to offer surety, decisiveness, and an ability to get things done now, not after endless dithering and debate, while democracy makes its slow, messy, erratic, moody, and unpredictable way forward. The supporters of Donald Trump, like those of Xi in China, or Putin in Russian, or Jokowi in Indonesia, or Erdogan in Turkey—many others could be added—want certainty in an uncertain world, and are all too willing to go along with the scapegoating of disempowered minorities by way of easy explanation.

As simple as it sounds, it takes a lot to live with ambiguity. It takes a kind of centeredness within oneself, a sureness of who one is, and a belief that this identity will not change, no matter what happens out there in a disordered and topsy-turvy world. But that is not easy. Many of us (myself included, I admit) are not all that comfortable with change; we find it unsettling, disconcerting, and unnerving. But the world is, by its very nature, variable, fluctuating, inconsistent, an unpredictable place in which to live.

Still, while all of this may certainly be true, it does not relieve each of us of the responsibility of facing the world head on, whether shivering in our boots, or cursing with all our might against the vicissitudes of ill-starred fate. Donald Trump, with his simplistic promises of making American great again, and pointing a finger at whoever his latest scapegoat may be—criminal illegal aliens stealing our American jobs, or terrorist Muslims hiding behind every bush, ready to pounce on an innocent and unsuspecting populace—will not be able to rescue us, no matter how much anyone may want him to.

Democracy, even with all of its flaws and failings, and its all too human tendency toward chaotic imperfection, is still always better than dictatorial tyranny. And if, as Sullivan notes, hyper-democracy can be a gateway to autocratic totalitarianism, then so be it. If this is the case, it’s up to each of us to prevent that from happening. Who else is there to do it? If we can learn to be more comfortable with ambiguity, and take on a little more responsibility for informing ourselves and making things right that have gone wrong, then maybe we don’t need someone out there to do that for us.

Maybe America already is great, not because Donald Trump asserts that he can make it so, but because we, the people—you and I—are capable of taking on the task of responsible self-government. In the end, it’s up to us to make some mature decisions and not opt for the easy fantasy of an imperious and domineering generalissimo, riding in to deliver a hoped-for, if ever illusive, rescue. It’s our choice and, with hard work and determination, we really are capable of making democracy work for all of us, no matter what late stage our political life may find itself in.

WHAT DOES MONEY SAY TO US?

By Paul M. Lewis

Not surprisingly, the decision to remove Andrew Jackson from the face of the new $20 bill has been controversial. There are those who continue to adulate Jackson. And although as a young man he could be rowdy, self-willed and quick to anger—he killed a man in a duel to defend his wife’s honor—he was also brave, self-made, and he championed everyday people, defending them, as a lawyer in court, against the elites of the day. He had an abiding hatred for the British, whom he fought against as a young teenager during the Revolutionary War, and by whom he was captured. While in captivity, an English officer ordered him to polish his boots; Jackson refused, and the soldier slashed the left side of Jackson’s face with a sword, leaving lifelong scars. Later, as an officer himself during the War of 1812, Jackson is reported to have fought bravely and was loved by his men.

That is one side of Jackson’s personality. The other side, a darker one, is that he was an owner of almost 150 slaves, whom he sometimes treated with extreme cruelty, and he had no love for American Indians. While president of the United States, he became famous, or infamous, for his terrible treatment of the Cherokee people. The Cherokee had lived for centuries in the southeastern portion of the United States, occupying much of what is now known as the state of Georgia. Although the history is a complex one, and the Cherokee were themselves undermined to an extent by their own political infighting, they were driven off their ancestral land, in no small part due to Jackson’s efforts, and ordered on a forced march to trek a thousand miles to the west to live on the southern Great Plains. This was an utterly alien land to them, where they had to make a home among other Indians whom many of the Cherokee themselves looked upon as “uncivilized.” Along the way on this exhausting march, as many as 4,000 died, and many more expired after having arrived in so-called Indian Territory, due to the disastrous effects of such an onerous and punishing journey. It has long been referred to as “The Trail of Tears.”

Again and again during the course of his presidency, Jackson proved his utter disdain for Indian peoples, in spite of the fact that he and his wife adopted an Indian child. As such, many American Indians today, perhaps the Cherokee in particular, detest his memory. They have long loathed the fact that the face of this man, who so tragically used and abused their ancestors, was on the front of one of the most commonly used bills in US currency. In the April 24, 2016 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Becky Hobbs, a contemporary member of the Cherokee Nation, says of her elders that they “wouldn’t even touch a $20 bill because they so despised Andrew Jackson.” To add insult to injury, the calamity of removal, as it was called, befell the Cherokee in large part because white men wanted what had been Cherokee land, so that they could use their black slaves to clear the land and plant cotton. And this in spite of the fact that the Cherokee had made many accommodations to white civilization and were convinced that their future, such as it was, lay in cooperation with, not opposition to, the Americans. Indeed, when forced off their land, they took the US government to the Supreme Court and won a judgment against the administration, which Jackson proceeded to ignore.

All this raises a number of questions related to the topic of who should be on the face of a country’s banknotes; what message ought to be put front and center about a nation? Take the European euro, as an example. Maybe by way of not offending anyone in so multinational, multicultural, and multilingual a political association of states as modern day Europe represents, no one individual appears on the euro. Instead, each of the seven bills (€5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500) features representations of generalized and stylized “European architectural monuments” on the obverse, and—tellingly, or maybe hopefully—bridges on the reverse. In China, not surprisingly, Chairman Mao’s face appears on many of the banknotes of the renbinmi, along with occasional pictures of various Han Chinese faces and depictions of other nationalities to be found within modern day China. Renbinmi, after all, means “the people’s currency.” The Russian ruble mostly shows famous monuments, such as St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Moscow Kremlin, as well as depictions of towns famous in Russian history and culture. The South African rand, again not surprisingly, depicts Nelson Mandela on the obverse of most bills, along with an assortment of animals native to the region, such as the lion and the water buffalo, on the reverse. But American bills have traditionally been mostly about men—white men specifically—from our storied past. Thus, Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill. Countries, in other words, tend to place their heroes front and center, at least as long as the powers-that-be can agree that they are heroes (e.g. Vladimir Ilych Lenin was dropped from the Russian Ruble in 1992).

It’s perhaps an understatement to say that money means many things in the life, history, culture, and politics of a nation. Who, or what, appears on it is also fraught with meaning. In the form of bills or coins, money is used by every citizen of that country, and in the case of large and influential countries—none more so than the United States—by those living outside of the country, as well. It is handled by virtually every adult, and many children, in every country every day, often multiple times within a twenty-four hour period. As such, its look and feel sometimes may hardly register on the consciousness of those who use it. And yet, there is little doubt that most Americans can tell you who is on the one dollar bill, the five, the ten, and case in point, the twenty. Maybe especially the twenty, since almost everyone uses ATM machines these days, and they dispense only bills of that denomination. But what of the vaunted melting pot of the country? If only white men are depicted on currency, how does that in any way represent American diversity? Andrew Jackson’s picture has appeared on the $20 since 1928. Where are the women; where are black people, Latinos, Asians; and where is the depiction of the American Indian? Even the iconic “Indian head nickel” (a coin, not a banknote) is no longer issued by the US mint, and hasn’t been since 1938.

But that is about to change. The US Department of the Treasury has decided to remove Andrew Jackson from the obverse side of the $20 bill, putting him on the back instead, and replacing him with Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave, conductor on the Underground Railroad, and rescuer of countless slaves in the process—in other words, a true American hero. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who spearheaded the effort, has said that the design will be released in 2020, although it is not clear how long after that the bill itself will come into use. Still, this is a huge change, and a major step forward, for a country whose idolization of all things white and male has been endemic.

When it does come to be, how will a black woman feel when she goes to her local ATM and sees a twenty dollar bill with the face of Harriet Tubman on it? How will Becky Hobbs, the Cherokee woman, feel when she no longer has to view Jackson’s despised face, at least on the front of the twenty? Will it actually make any difference to either of them, or to anyone else? I’m guessing that it will, since symbols, which register both consciously and unconsciously, really do mean something to people. When all you see around you in terms of the literal wealth of the nation are pictures of white men, what message does that send? It says that they have the power, the influence, the authority; it says they have mastery and control over others.

None of this is meant to suggest that all white people, men or women, have influence and authority. Just ask Donald Trump’s backers, or even Bernie Sanders’s, how much in control they feel. Still, white people are, at least for now, the majority in this country. But that too is changing fast. Whites currently represent about 62% of the US population. It is projected that they will lose that majority status within the next 30 years, and white children will be a minority by 2020. Here in California, whites are already a minority, at about 38% of the population, while Hispanic peoples are at 39%. Isn’t it, then, about time for somebody other than a white man to be represented on the face of US currency?

Trump has, of course, already declared himself against the idea of having an ex-slave black woman on the face of the $20 bill, claiming that it’s just another example of liberal overreach and political correctness. But that is what we have come to expect from the Donald. To him, political correctness is just another term for whatever he happens to be against.

The real question is why a country would not want to put its best face forward on the very thing that, literally, touches every citizen of that country (and which each of those citizens touches). Putting Harriet Tubman and others like her who have overcome monumental adversity and helped their fellow citizens in the process on the face of American currency is the right thing to do. They are among the best the country has produced, and they represent the immense richness of our social, cultural and racial heritage. For my money, it’s time we left more dubious and questionable historical figures behind and picked people whom all of us can actually look up to.

HIGHWAY OR TRAIN, INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP: WHAT’S THE AMERICAN WAY?

By Paul M. Lewis

Not long ago, my partner and I were driving to Northern Arizona from our home in Southern California. We go each month to visit with my partner’s mother, who is in hospice care at a nursing home there. It’s usually at least an eight and a half hour drive each way, longer if somebody was texting, or chatting on the cell phone, or otherwise distracted, and so has caused an accident.

For the most part, we try to work it out so as to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic on the freeways, leaving early enough to give ourselves some breathing room. We also tend to take the northern route, heading up Interstate 15 to Barstow, and then taking I-40 east until it meets Arizona state route 89. Taking the I-10 east instead might cut off a few miles, but the 40 is so much more beautiful. It goes through the magnificent Mojave Desert National Preserve in California, and once you’re in Arizona you pass through an enchanting forest of juniper trees.

When there’s a problem on the roads, it’s always in the LA megalopolis. For us, getting to Barstow entails taking the 405 to the 22 to the 55 to the 91 to the 15. Anyone who drives the LA freeways knows what I’m talking about, and for those unfamiliar with these routes, it’s maybe enough to say that they can be torturous. One of the worst places is the intersection of the 91 and the 15, near the Inland Empire town of Corona. That’s because so many people have moved to the southern part of Riverside County, where housing at least once was a lot cheaper, in search of the American dream: a house with 3 or 4 bedrooms, living room, dining room and family room, plus a yard out back with grass where the kids can play and the dog can romp. If you’re lucky, or rich enough, maybe you even have a swimming pool, to boot.

For years, that intersection narrowed down to one lane, and traffic backed up accordingly. On a dark winter’s morning, driving east on the 91 and approaching the 15, you could see a gargantuan necklace of headlights, as cars awaited their turn to get onto the westbound 91. Nowadays, Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) is in the midst of a monster construction project there, involving a multiple lane overpass.

Which is what got me to thinking. The last time we came through there, we were on our way home, and so it was the middle of the afternoon. The behemoth hulk of the half-built overpass was plainly visible, hanging in midair, as workers and machines scrambled over the area following their appointed tasks, ones not necessarily apparent to us passersby. Still, progress was clearly being made, or I guess that’s what it’s called. At least, you could see that more of the road had been completed than when we started our regular treks to Arizona, something like eight months ago.

And no doubt, the folks who use those freeways everyday, commuting back and forth to jobs nearer the coast from communities like Riverside, or Lake Elsinore, or Murrieta, or even as far south as Temecula, will be overjoyed once the work is done. My guess is that things will be better for them, at least for maybe a year or two, until the traffic catches up with the improvements—as it always does—and we’re back once again looking at what will then be a double, or even a triple-line, necklace of headlights.

The Caltrans budget for the current 2015-16 year is 10.5 billion dollars, an almost 2 billion dollar, or 11.9%, increase over that of the previous year. Even though this represents less than 10% of the state’s overall budget of about $113 billion, it is still a lot of money. Though some might say even that’s not enough. After all, without our freeways, how would people get to work, how would goods and services be moved, how would anyone get anywhere, for any reason? But remember this, too, that the ten billion plus dollars spent by the state on Caltrans this year represents only a tiny fraction of the amount spent over the years on the building of this kind of infrastructure. In other words, that ten billion is the cost for maintenance, and some isolated construction projects, on a system that basically already exists.

What has occurred to me many times, as we drive through that interchange between the 91 and the 15—or any other you may care to name—is why did we never invest the same monumental sums of money into rail connections? In my freeway-smog addled mind’s eye, I imagine my partner and me, for example, sitting comfortably in a bullet train, heading east out of downtown Los Angeles straight to Phoenix. Then, after relaxing for a short wait in a beautifully appointed train station there, we would take another line north from Phoenix to Prescott (our final destination); or, if it had to go to Flagstaff first, then from there on a smaller branch line down to Prescott. This same kind of convenient train travel could of course be reproduced in all fifty states. But that is not what we have. What trains are available are hardly convenient. Years ago, we took a train trip from Los Angeles to Seattle. It was supposed to leave LA at noon, and arrive in Seattle at 8:00 PM the following evening. Instead, it left at 4:00 PM and arrived at 3:00 o’clock in the morning two days later. Does that instill confidence in getting from place to place on time, to say nothing of comfortably? This huge delay happened mostly because there is, for the most part, only one train track between these two major west coast cities, and freight trains often take the right-of-way. It’s not supposed to be like that, but the freight carriers far prefer to pay the relative pittance of a fine for not giving way to a passenger train, and so slowing down their own operations.

If the government—and of course the people who elect their representatives—made train travel a priority, we could have made that same journey in a matter of hours, not days. Just as Europeans do on their trains, or the Japanese, or nowadays even the Chinese. The travel time, for example, between Paris and Marseille—a journey of approximately 775 miles—takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes on the TGV (train à grande vitesse, France’s version of the bullet train). You leave from central Paris and arrive in central Marseille. No need to bother with highways, airports, or parking, or sitting in traffic. You can read, chat with your fellow passengers, or just sit and look out the window. And all this for about 25 euros, just over $28 US dollars, according to the current exchange rate. Is that what it costs to actually operate these state-of-the-art trains? Probably not, but the government is willing to subsidize the cost, and so are the French people. By contrast, the distance between Los Angeles and Phoenix is about 365 miles. The Amtrak ticket costs $100 more than the ticket between Paris and Marseille, and it is estimated that the trip will take over 10 hours. In other words, it would cost 4 times as much, and take more than 3 times as long, for my partner and me to go half the distance. And we would still have to either rent a car in Phoenix to get to Prescott (a two hour drive), or get ourselves to the airport there to pick up the shuttle van.

Why would we ever do that? Indeed, why would anyone take a train in the United States, when travel by car is so much faster, cheaper, and more convenient? The answer obviously is almost no one. But what is behind these questions may be more interesting. One estimate of the cost of building the interstate system is that it takes approximately $1 million for every mile of highway built. Using that estimate, and multiplying it by the almost 48,000 miles of interstate highways we have in this country, we come to the mind-blowing total of approximately $48,000,000,000. To put it in words, because most of us are not used to seeing that many zeros after any number, that is forty-eight trillion dollars. Naturally, the money was spent to build these roads over the course of many decades. Still, by way of comparison, the entire US GDP, the Gross Domestic Product (i.e., the cost of all goods and services produced in the country in a given year) is projected to be just under $18 trillion dollars for 2016.

I learned a long time ago, working for many years at universities, that budgeting is always a matter of deciding on priorities. When my boss told me I could not hire an adviser I thought we needed, but I learned later that another office was able to, it was clear that that other office had a higher priority in the hierarchy of what was considered important at the university. Each of us does the same thing with our own household budgets. New car? Well, maybe not this year. Maybe it’s best to get the roof fixed, or pay down that outrageous credit card bill.

Although admittedly far more complex, the basic principle is the same when it comes to countries. Money is ultimately put where you, the taxpayer (via your representatives), want it to go. And Americans want their cars, and their highways. We want to be able to go out our front door, jump into our automobile, and hit the open road. Or that’s the fantasy, at least. We’re rugged individualists; we want independence, free choice; we want to go where we want, when we want, and to be able to stop whenever it’s convenient. Leave the trains—those giant conveyor belts of groups of people—to the socialists in Europe, or the communists in China. So, don’t look for a diminishing of car travel any time soon in this country. California has been attempting to build a bullet train between LA and San Francisco for several years now, but with all of the court challenges against it, the project has just barely begun. And even if and when it is completed, it will be required to run without state subsidy.

In the end, we get what we pay for. Americans have always wanted what we think of as our freedom of movement: the car in the garage ready to whisk us off whenever we choose either to work, or to school, or to an enchanting land of adventure. But along with this comes packed freeways, bumper-to-bumper traffic, huge costs, and polluted skies. If that is what we want, then that’s what we’ve got. And if anybody prefers a nice train ride, swift, clean, reliable and cheap, well, they’d just better take a trip to Paris to find it.