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.

ANTONIN SCALIA: A JURISPRUDENCE OF FUNDAMENTALISM AND DISCORD

By Paul M. Lewis

Much of the praise so recently heaped upon now deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has come as something of a surprise to me. Even President Obama eulogized him as having “given extraordinary service to our nation.” I get it that people do not want to speak ill of the dead. That, at least, is the polite take we have all been taught, as if the mere fact of a person’s mortality ought to make us somehow more forgiving of who that individual was in life. But sometimes the truth will out, regardless of conventional views on etiquette and protocol, because what a person did and said while alive, and how that individual treated others, should mean something.

Scalia’s fundamentalism, his so-called originalism in the reading of the Constitution, has to appear at the top of the list in terms of what I see as his faults. This is especially so because it has the potential of influencing others to follow the same rigid and overly literal attempt to understand a given text, in the same way as Christian fundamentalists read a passage from the Bible. In its essence, this is exactly what Scalia did with his reading of the Constitution, adding that it must be understood and interpreted exactly as its framers understood and interpreted it. We were, in other words, somehow supposed to ferret out their “intent.” The obvious fallacy of this position is that it’s hard enough for us to understand what even those close to us are thinking, let alone someone whom we do not actually know but who is still a contemporary. How, therefore, are we ever to fathom the thoughts and feelings, indeed the intent, of people who lived hundreds of years earlier, those who led vastly different lives in terms of the historical moment and culture of the day, their comprehension of what was important in human life, as well as what shaped that world’s values, needs, interests, technology, to say nothing of its ill treatment of whole classes of people? This would have included, by the way, all women, indigenous peoples, most foreigners (except those from Great Britain), anyone whose religion was not protestant, in addition to people of different races, ethnicities, and it goes without saying, sexual identities. How an otherwise intelligent individual, such as Scalia clearly was, could ever have come up with such a theory, and use it as a guiding principle of interpretation in case after case, remains a mystery to me.

But let us suppose that—against all odds—Justice Scalia had actually been able to somehow enter into the heads of Jefferson and Madison and the others. Let’s accept the fact, at least for argument’s sake, that he could have known, really known, exactly what these men were thinking, what their intent was. Even then, should we accept that originalism is a good way to interpret the Constitution?

We ought to begin by remembering, first of all, that these individuals were all white men. And not just any white men. They were of the upper class, wealthy landowners, to the manor born, as their British ancestors might have said. They were mostly protestants, they came from the same class, the same cultural background, went to the same colleges (Harvard, Princeton, William and Mary), knew many of the same people, and of course many of them owned slaves.

I am in no way attempting to denigrate these men, but they were men of their time. That doesn’t mean they also didn’t do marvelous things. To the contrary, they formed a new country that came to be the envy of all those who loved free thought, and they created a representative democracy that has lasted, more or less intact, for well over two hundred years. As such, they were in many ways remarkable men, albeit not perfect ones. And as grand a document as the Constitution they created was, and is, it failed to resolve one major division among the people who created it, and among all who have lived under it ever since, namely, the terrible tension between centralized federal power and states rights. In simplified form perhaps, but in essence, this is what led to the Civil War only some 80 years after its enactment, and it continues to haunt us to this day.

The point I am attempting to make is that reasonable people might well think that the Constitution has to be an evolving document, one that ought to be continually construed, interpreted, and understood according to the lights of those who are living under it at any given time. It’s worth noting that even its resonant opening phrase, “We the people,” at the time would have referred only to free, white men. And it is clear that not even an Antonin Scalia would hold to that in today’s world.

It is also true that Justice Scalia did not act alone, that he had the support of the other conservatives on the bench. But most Court observers recognize him as perhaps the leader of this faction; and certainly he often acted as its mouthpiece. Employing his strictly orthodox fundamentalism, his reactionary approach to interpreting the Constitution, Scalia did much harm to the living, breathing people of this country. Perhaps first and foremost among such decisions was the disgraceful overreach of Bush v. Gore, which landed us with an almost equally reactionary president for the next 8 years. In addition to that can be added the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the overturn of McCain-Feingold and other campaign-finance rules, the infamous Citizens United, which miraculously turned corporations into people, and Scalia’s leadership in blocking much of Pres. Obama’s climate-change regulations. In the course of doing all this, he claimed that he attacked ideas, not people, but that is hardly how his scathing and vituperative dessents often came off. He seemed to reserve a special degree of toxic, hate-filled language for gay people, in fact. He spoke, for example, of the so-called gay agenda, which according to him was “promoted by homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.” Opprobrium, for those who may not know—but a thing which Scalia, with his Catholic education, probably knew well—has its etymology in the Latin word opprobrium, unchanged in form, and meaning scandal, dishonor, or reproach. It refers to harsh criticism meant to bring about censure and public disgrace. In this same heinous rant, he went on to say: “Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a life style that they believe to be immoral and destructive.” Does this sound like attacking an idea, or is more of an all-out frontal assault on a whole class of people?

Antonin Scalia may have had a flair for the dramatic in his writing. And many have noted his geniality among colleagues, including his friendship with liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But an ability to turn a phrase, or crack a joke, or even to befriend someone whom he disagreed with politically, philosophically, and legally do not in my view make up for the tremendous harm this man has caused to so many. We can only hope that President Obama will nominate a fairer and more even-minded replacement to him on the Supreme Court, and that somehow the Republican-controlled Senate will give that individual an open and honest hearing. Granted that, given the intransigence and obstructionism in evidence in Congress these days, it may be only a fool’s hope; but even so, it’s worth a try.

If not, it is clear that we will be at the mercy of the next president, whoever he or she may be, in conjunction with, or opposition to, the Congress. And given the current depth of division and discord evidenced in the country, a rift reflected so glaringly, so alarmingly in the discordant and uncompromising jurisprudence of this Supreme Court justice, we can only hope against hope that we will be better served by a new appointee than ever we were by Antonin Scalia.

 

“RED,” A PLAY ABOUT MARK ROTHKO BY JOHN LOGAN

By Paul M. Lewis

When the curtain goes up on John Logan’s play “Red,” we see Abstract Expressionist artist, Mark Rothko, sitting in a chair in his studio, smoking a cigarette. He is facing the audience, staring at something in front of him. We come to realize soon enough that this is one of his paintings (another is actually visible to the audience directly behind him). For anyone not familiar with Rothko’s later paintings—and the play mainly deals with these works of the 1950’s—they are iconically large canvasses consisting of juxtaposed floating colored rectangles on a darker background. Those referenced in this play are exclusively red and black.

Rothko’s newly hired young assistant, Ken, enters and stands behind him, ignored by the painter. After a few moments, we realize that Rothko does know Ken is there. Without even a glance in his direction, the painter asks him: “What do you see?” Ken, who is clearly in awe of the great man, much his senior both in years and in experience, replies innocently enough: “Red.” And the play is off and running.

The production my partner and I went to see recently took place at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, although we had already seen another version at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles a few years ago. Both productions were very well done, with the actors in each playing off their individual strengths and idiosyncrasies—greater forcefulness or anger in one portrayal of Rothko, more subtlety and intellectuality in another; youthful energy and verve in the part of Ken in one iteration, while more of an emphasis on innocence, morphing into maturation, in the other.

There is much discussion of the concept of red in this drama. Logan portrays Rothko as challenging his new helper to understand more deeply what is meant by the color, both in terms of its physical manifestations, as well as its psychological implications. Is there even any such a thing as red—simple red? Or is it, as Rothko points out, better thought of as: “plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral?” I suppose he could have added crimson, lobster, ruby, cherry, vermilion, cardinal, cuprite, and so on, as well. The point being that, to an artist, the über-category of red is of little use as an honest, visual description of the almost endless possibilities of physical reality.

Rothko and Ken then go back and forth in naming other categories of red that relate more directly to the feelings and emotions that the color can represent: passion, wine, lipstick, apples, rust on the bike on the lawn, an albino’s eyes, atomic flash, the Russian flag, the Chinese flag, the Nazi flag, red light district, red tape, rouge, viscera, flame, Santa Claus, blood, slash your wrists, and on and on. Slowly, Ken—to an extent our stand-in as audience members—begins to get the feeling of what Rothko means when he paints with “red.”

But there is also black. Big blocks of color that are again not merely of one hue, but are composed of browns and umbers, endless underpinnings of multifarious earth tones. We see coal and we see night; we see darkness and the symbolism of race, prejudice, bigotry and bias; the absence of light, the Stygian world, mourning, and of course death itself. But we also see the Cosmos, filled with light and only seemingly black because it reflects off of nothing, or nothing that registers with us at least.

And what happens when red and black are juxtaposed? There is an immediate play of one off the other, such that our eyes see what both is and what is not there. Logan has Rothko expound on the concept: “Look at the tension between the blocks of color: the dark and the light, the red and the black and the brown. They exist in a state of flux—of movement. They abut each other on the actual canvas, so too do they abut each other in your eye. They ebb and flow and shift, gently pulsating. The more you look at them the more they move…They float in space, they breathe..Movement, communication, gesture, flux, interaction; let them work…They’re not dead because they’re not static. They move through space if you let them, this movement takes time, so they’re temporal. They require time.”

Of course time is needed. Because we are talking about physical manifestation, about the world as it appears to us, as we live in it in our bodies, and this cannot be experienced except temporally. It’s there for now, but gone in another moment. We are here for a second, and then disappear again into the endlessness of Cosmic energy, only to come together once more in some other form. Matter cannot be created; neither can it be destroyed. It simply is, and can be perceived only by those whose very form has been cobbled together by its own seemingly random interaction. The subject matter of the play has to do with the nature of art. But if art is both a reflection and an enhancement of nature, a highly idiosyncratic while at the same time universalized vision thereof, then it is in that sense also a play more generally about the full panoply of the human experience.

Rothko, the man, was not without his flaws. He was arrogant, bombastic, argumentative, contentious, prideful, jealous, domineering, and conceited. He was so full of himself and lived so hermetically, so much in his own head, that he eschewed nature as being too messy. But he was also highly sensitive, energetic, insightful, intellectual, emotional, fearful, depressed, and of course ultra-talented. Given all this, the play may not be for everyone. If you don’t like long discourses on art, or contentious dialogue between master and apprentice, or Abstract Expressionism for that matter, this may not be what you might choose to spend your hard earned money on.

But if you are interested in exploring what art is, that elusive, fragile, delicate, phantasmagorical mix of the real world—whether it be paint, or canvas, or light, or clay, or physical movement, or words, or sound, or whatever the medium—and something else, some ultimately indefinable ethos of the human spirit, something pointing beyond humanity to another level altogether even more subtle, exquisite, elegant, refined, eternal, spiritual, if you will, then “Red” was written for you.

Also thrown front and center into the mix are questions of Rothko’s politics. We are reminded in the play of his social-revolutionary youth. His anti-establishment leanings did not sit well with gallery owners, museum curators, or even some of the rich who ultimately bought his paintings. One of the major turning points in the play, in fact, has to do with his struggle over the commission he received to paint murals for the famous—and famously rich and exclusive—Four Seasons Restaurant located in the new Seagram Building in New York City, for which he was paid handsomely (more, we are told, than any other commission in the history of modern art). In that sense, we are back once again with the conflict between light and dark, between artistic integrity and commercialism, idealism and money; we might even say, between red and black.

The family of Marcus Yokovlevitch Rothkowitz (his original name) moved to Portland, Oregon in 1913, when Rothko was only 10 years old, having fled the Cossacks and the pogroms of the old Russian Empire. Logan has him describe the neighborhood as a ghetto, filled with “thinky, talky Jews.” He was, of course, also himself in life both “thinky” and “talky.” He understood what it was to be the outsider, and he knew fear, tension, and the everlasting interplay of the opposites. Logan portrays how Rothko saw that movement was essential to growth, that the son succeeds the father, the apprentice takes over from the master, and that one art movement must kill off its predecessor (as much as he hated it, and railed against it, when Pop Art came to displace Abstract Expressionism).

Rothko will be remembered as a master of this tension, of strain and stress and the push-and-pull that so utterly enthralled and mystified him. I will not reveal how the play ends, except to say that it does so with an answer to a question. Although my own preference might have been to allow that question to hang in the air, unanswered, for us all to contemplate.

Rothko is famous for having said: “If you are moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” Who can fully plumb such questions? Can art, or even a great artist like Mark Rothko, ever reveal to us what is, in the end, indefinable, unfathomable, and ultimately unanswerable?

 

 

 

 

 

 

BERNIE or HILLARY… or BOTH?

by Kevin L Miller

I just read a quote from Robert Reich (secretary of the treasury under Clinton) about the current choice between Hillary and Bernie, that I find insightful:

“This election is about changing the parameters of what’s feasible and ending the choke hold of big money on our political system. I’ve known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change. The upcoming election isn’t about detailed policy proposals. It’s about power – whether those who have it will keep it, or whether average Americans will get some as well.”

Hillary has been saying that Bernie is an idealist who cannot possibly accomplish his goals, while she is the hard-nosed pragmatist who knows the system and how to get things done. Well… She’s right. She IS the system, so she should certainly know it by now. But the system doesn’t work. Politics doesn’t work anymore. The environment is in the toilet. Climate change is threatening the very survival of all life on earth. The top 20 richest Americans hold as much wealth as the bottom 50%. The entire established social contract is anachronistic and broken and leading us to destruction. As Hillary is suggesting, we may have very little chance of changing the fundamental workings of society in a way that might save us, but don’t we have to TRY at least?

Bernie photo

Hillary is way more presidential than Bernie. No doubt about it. She knows how to evade reporters’ questions and appear unperturbed under fire. Bernie doesn’t look like any president of the USA that I’ve ever seen, and that’s exactly what I like about him. He just tells the plain unvarnished truth as he sees it, and those pronouncements from him have not changed in 30 years. By contrast, Hillary’s positions seem to reverse with every shift in the breeze, according to what is politically expedient, whether you want to talk about the KXL Pipeline, gay marriage, foreign trade, or you name it. We cannot trust that her positions today will still be the same tomorrow, because they certainly don’t sound like what she was saying yesterday. How can anyone trust a leader like that?

I was already a big fan of Bernie for years before he announced his intention to run for the nomination. I remember writing to friends many months before he declared, that I wished he would run, and they indicated that they didn’t really know who he was. Almost nobody knew who he was, and a lot of people who did, considered him a joke. He started with terrific odds against him and has risen to tie Hillary in the Iowa polls and beat her handily in the NH polls. And he has done this without a political PAC or dark money or giant Wall Street contributions of any kind, but with very small donations from millions of Americans. This unlikely candidate… this frumpy, grumpy, gravel-voiced, bald-headed, unpolished Jewish social democrat who will not compromise the truth… has already proven that he can beat the odds with his unconventional tactics. If he can do that, then maybe… just maybe… he can also lead the masses in changing the system enough to give humanity a fighting chance at survival.

Bernie-Sanders-jpg

For me the choice is clear. I’m voting for Bernie’s idealism in the primaries. Obviously, if Hillary wins the nomination, I won’t have any choice but to vote for her in the general election, because turning over the nation and the world to a President Trump or Cruz would spell the end of all hope. But I’ll feel a whole lot better about our chances if we inaugurate Bernie as our next president, because I am confident that he will do everything in his power not to sell the masses to the highest bidder, and put all of his energy into moving us toward sanity and survival. If we can’t vote for that, then we’re in very big trouble. And besides… the majority of major polls are showing that Bernie would beat Trump and Cruz by a much wider margin than Hillary. Voting for Bernie in the primaries turns out to be the practical thing to do.

Let’s be practical and vote for the idealistic candidate — Bernie! — Peace, – Kevin

 

 

BERNIE OR HILLARY: WHAT DO THE HEAD AND THE HEART HAVE TO SAY?

By Paul M. Lewis

Next Monday, the 1st of February, 2016, we begin—and here, you choose how best to characterize it—either: 1) the democratic process of selecting a candidate from each party to run for the presidency; or 2) the giant circus act, including legions of clowns and endless pratfalls; or 3) all hell breaking loose. Also known, of course, as the Iowa caucuses. And soon after that, on Feb. 9th, we will get the results of the first actual primary voting, when New Hampshire holds its election.

I’ll leave it to another time to wonder about the sagacity and utility of the whole process of selecting candidates, of why two states with so few people and so little diversity get to set the stage for the debate (note that Iowa is 92% white, and New Hampshire is 94% white—hardly a reflection of America as a whole). More important and germane for the moment is the question of who the candidates actually are. But I also won’t bother—for now anyway—with the Republicans, as I consider them to be virtually a lost cause. Does it matter if Trump or Cruz wins in either of these places? The former is a blowhard of a buffoon, who touts overly simplistic answers to complex and weighty questions of policy and practice, while the latter presents himself as a rigid and doctrinaire authoritarian, with frighteningly xenophobic and jingoistic tendencies.

That leaves me with Hillary and Bernie to think about. And as a lifelong Democrat anyway, it’s only right that I do so. I will admit to having not paid as much attention to the contest as I should have, indeed, as much as I have done in years past. My partner and I have been preoccupied for months with matters of family, specifically with eldercare and its endless and enervating demands of what is best to do, how it should be paid for, and if what’s provided, in the end, really is sufficient. But this too is a topic for another time.

The question remains, am I for Hillary, or for Bernie? And how should I reply to the endless requests for money I’ve gotten on my email every day without fail from both the Clinton and the Sanders campaigns. So far, I have to admit, I haven’t donated a single dollar.

So, how to respond, especially when I fear that I haven’t done enough of my homework yet to feel as though I’ve fully plumbed the ins and outs of either of their policy positions? Of course, I know in a general way who is who, and what they more or less stand for. Hillary is the middle-of-the-road candidate, pragmatic and practical, who knows how to get things done, and who isn’t too afraid to crack a few heads along the way. While Bernie is more the ideologue, a guy who doesn’t shy away from calling himself a socialist, almost a dirty word in American politics—or at least so it has been up until now—and who stands for lots of things that I like, such as a single-payer healthcare system, the breakup of too-big-to-fail banks, free higher education, etc.

But Hillary poses a question about Bernie that is not irrelevant: if elected, would he be able to work within the system, especially if, as seems likely, at least one of the houses of Congress remains in Republican control? And if both are under GOP domination, he would be stymied on virtually all counts. Of course, the same question about ability to work with a Republican controlled Congress could be posed in regard to Hilary, as much as she apparently thinks she could do so, or at least that she would not be so utterly shut out by the Republicans as he (perhaps its own dubious and uncertain assumption).

To an extent, I’m beginning to feel as though this is coming down to a debate between the head and the heart. I have to admit that my own more pragmatic side leans a little bit toward Hillary. I keep hearing that nagging inner voice of reason, so-called anyway, saying things like: “Bernie would never be able to pull in that vital one-third of people in the general election, the Independents, who will ultimately decide the race. So why risk voting for him as a candidate and sending those middle-of-the-road voters running straight into the arms of Trump’s shallow and overly simplistic answers, to say nothing of his racism, or to Cruz’s totalitarian extremism?”

The other more idealistic, and dare I say more hopeful, side of me wonders why I shouldn’t vote for a candidate who finally embodies some of the values I have long cherished, but always thought too far outside of the mainstream of American politics. Isn’t this my one chance to do so, maybe my last and only opportunity to side with a guy who has the guts to say what needs to be said, and damn the consequences?

Not that even Bernie is without his flaws, mind you. His take on some issues related to race, for example, leave something to be desired. As the cogent and insightful commentator, Ta-Nehisi Coates, said recently writing for The Atlantic magazine: “Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies…This is the same ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.” But it hasn’t worked, as anyone can see who looks at the still enormous disparity in economic opportunity between the races in this country. As Coates goes on to point out: “We now know that for every dollar of wealth white families have, black families have a nickel…We know that in a city like Chicago, the wealthiest black neighborhood has an incarceration rate many times worse than the poorest white neighborhood.” These are specifically racial, not just class, divisions, and Bernie has not addressed them. Neither has Clinton, it could well be argued, nor any other candidate in the race, for that matter. This is Bernie we’re speaking of, though, and haven’t we come to expect more of him?

But, in regard to Bernie, is it wise to think that the good ought to be the enemy of the perfect? Furthermore, should we even consider questions of pragmatism when it comes to choosing a candidate? If you don’t have somebody you can believe in, someone whom you can get excited about, someone you’re willing to work for, or at very least whose campaign you’re willing to open your wallet for, then what chance does he, or she, have against boisterous and bloviating bigots?

So, this is where I’m at for the moment. I get it that a lot rides on who wins the upcoming presidential race. So much is at stake, from questions of global climate change, to international policy as it relates to Iran, China, Russia, and the Middle East, to immigration, to healthcare, to the economy, and even potentially to new justices for the Supreme Court. More still could be added to this list, big questions having to do with race and class, education and employment, the use or abuse of public lands, and on and on.

So, do I follow my head or my heart? That really is the question. And I have to admit; I don’t know the answer yet. I love much of what Bernie stands for, and I at least like many of Hillary’s positions. But who could win, and who could best govern if they do win? For me, given our odd and dysfunctional primary system wherein the most populous state gets the last chance to vote for a candidate, it may well be a moot point. By the time we Californians cast our ballots on June 7th, it might all be settled anyway. Just in case, though, it’s probably time for me to try to sort this head-heart thing out once and for all. And as soon as I figure out how to do that, I’ll be sure to let you know.