Two recent events have brought me back to my historical fascination with Constitutional history, and to my admiration for the foresight of at least some of the founders.

Specifically, I speak of the judicial ruling on gay marriage handed down by Judge Vaughn Walker, who struck down Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage approved by California voters in November 2008.  And I speak as well of the controversy over the Muslim community center that some wish to build within two blocks of the old World Trade Center site in New York City.

In both cases, the rights of a few are being trampled by what I believe to be the fear and intolerance of the many.  In other words, these are living, breathing examples of what some have called “the tyranny of the majority,” what James Madison in Federalist 10 called “the violence of faction.”

Judge Walker’s decision was roundly criticized in conservative circles as being the perfect example of “liberal judicial activism.”  Here was an openly gay judge (one, by the way, who was placed on the bench by that well-known liberal activist Ronald Reagan) thwarting “the will of the people.”  Similarly, President Obama, who on Friday offered a strong defense of the right of Muslims to build their community center wherever they wish (and on Sunday offered a mealy-mouthed partial retreat from that brave stance), has been accused by the right of being “an elitist” who is “out of touch with mainstream Americans.”  Obama’s Friday statement was called “professorial” (in a bad way, I guess).  He was said to be too much of a Constitutional scholar to understand why people would be offended by having the community center so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks.  Or maybe these are some of the same wack-jobs who still believe that he’s too much of a Muslim to understand.  Whatever.  (For the record, I am a Jewish New Yorker by birth.  I grieved deeply over the 9/11 attacks on what I have always called “my city.”  I have no problem with the Muslim community center being built in that area.  It seems to me a wonderful statement on tolerance and unity and all that is supposed to be good about our nation.)

Before I say more, let me refer you to two sites.  The first is the Huffington Post, where Bob Cesca today had a terrific piece on the mosque controversy.  The second is a blog post from November 2008 that links the Prop. 8 vote to Federalist 10.  The Lazy Slacker and I have never met, and I only discovered his piece after starting this one, but we’re in agreement on this.

Our Constitution was written by men who feared tyranny in all its many forms.  They tried to keep the Presidency from becoming too powerful because they feared a despot.  And they took great pains to keep simple majorities from determining all policy in the new Republic.  They saw great danger to liberty in the formation of a true perfect Democracy.  This is why the Constitution originally had Senators appointed by state legislatures and why it created the Electoral College to elect Presidents; direct elections were reserved for members of the House of Representatives. And this is why the Constitution’s authors made the third branch of government, the Judiciary, the one branch that (at the time) had no popularly elected constituency, a co-equal branch of government.

The founders recognized that factions — “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” — were “a dangerous vice” that threatened a Republic’s survival.  [Quotes from Federalist 10]

The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as “the will of the people.”  There is the will of the majority, and in our system of government that is often a sufficient basis for making important political and social determinations.  At times, however, majority opinion infringes upon the rights of significant minority communities.  Such is the case with respect to gay marriage and the construction of the New York City mosque.   Judge Walker’s “activism” is in fact a fulfillment of his constitutional duty.  The majority of California voters overstepped their bounds in November 2008.  They indulged their own prejudice, sought to impose their views of morality and marriage on others, and so stripped gays of a right that ought to be theirs.  In the same way, public opinion on the location of the Muslim center should not and cannot be allowed to deny New York’s Islamic community their right to build on the site in question.  This is not Al Qaeda building the center, nor is it any group in any way associated with the 9/11 terrorists.  These are people seeking to worship and gather as a community, under the leadership of an Islamic leader who worked extensively with that well known coddler of Muslim terrorists, George W. Bush.  As Cesca points out in his article, if pundits and politicians on the right are really worried about the “hallowed ground” of 9/11, maybe they should look into blocking the construction of the huge underground mall planned for the exact site of the twin towers.

My point is this:  As Americans we tend to believe that the will of the majority is always sacrosanct.  It’s not, nor should it be.  James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other architects of our Constitution understood this.  Sometimes the rights of the minority trump the desires of the majority.  Gay rights and tolerance for Islam are not popular causes in this country.  But perhaps the greatest measure of a Republic is not how often it heeds the desires of the largest, loudest crowd, but how much care it takes in protecting the liberties of those groups that are smaller and quieter.

Did you know that in Australia voting is compulsory?  That’s right.  It is against the law NOT to vote in Australia.  Those who don’t show up at the polls on election day are asked to explain their absence, and if they can’t give a satisfactory explanation, they can be fined.  Voter participation in Australia is typically above 90%. 

In many third world countries that are taking their first hesitant steps toward some form of democracy, people risk their lives to vote.  Violence against voters is actually quite common throughout the world.  And historically speaking, it has been common in the United States as well.  Election day violence occurred in northern machine cities (like New York, Chicago, and Boston) and southern rural areas alike.  For centuries, in all parts of the world, people have fought and died for the right to vote.

As many of you know, I have a doctorate in American history.  I don’t think it’s possible to study the history of our nation, particularly the founding years (not my specialty, but I loved the period just the same), without coming away with a profound appreciation for the genius of those who conceived our political system.  Was it flawed?  Of course — these men were limited by the prejudices of their time.  But they managed to develop a system that was both strong enough to sustain representative democracy over the centuries and flexible enough to maintain its relevance even as the world changed in ways that none of them (with the possible exception of the brilliant Benjamin Franklin) could have foreseen.

What does any of this have to do with this week’s BOW (Buffoon Of the Week) Award?  Isn’t it obvious?  I could point out all the stupid, dishonest things done in the name of one candidate or the other over the past week, but really that was nothing new or striking to report.  Same fools doing the same foolish things. 

But as vile as some of the campaign tactics have been recently, the fact remains that we live in a nation that makes all of us the final arbiters of our own political fates.  There’s the old joke — “Everyone always complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.”  Well, people in the United States are constantly complaining about their government.  More than eighty per cent of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track right now.  And yet even the most optimistic projections put this year’s voter turnout at perhaps 70% of eligible voters.  Historically that would be a great number — higher than any election in the past half century.  And yet, if the projections are correct, nearly a third of American voters will have chosen to stay home.  

So to all those voters who waste their right, their opportunity, their obligation to participate in this week’s election, who through their apathy or laziness or ignorance take this precious gift for granted, this BOW award is for you.  I wish every person in the country would go out and vote for my candidate, but failing that, I just wish every person would go out and vote.  Yes, this all very cliched, and I apologize for that.  But as great as the promise of this nation might be, her chance of realizing that promise is dependent on all of us.  Democracy is more than a collection of rights.  It is, in fact, the nexus of rights and responsibilities.

So go out and vote.

The Earned Income Tax Credit is a refundable tax credit that gives money to low income workers.  It is paid for by the taxes paid by higher income earners.  Under John McCain’s definition of such things, it’s socialism.  The EITC was enacted in 1975 under Republican President Gerald Ford and vastly expanded by Ronald Reagan in 1986.  So under John McCain’s definition of such things, Ford and Reagan were socialists.

Our entire system of taxation — the progressive income tax — is based on the notion that those who make the most pay more proportionally than do those at the bottom of the income scale.  This idea was first put forward by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.  He wrote, “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” Under John McCain’s definition of such things, Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, was a socialist.  The Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which established the federal income tax, had no greater champion than Theodore Roosevelt, John McCain’s political hero.  Under McCain’s definition of such things, Teddy Roosevelt was a socialist.

McCain’s desperation is understandable at this stage of the campaign, and nothing Sarah Palin does can surprise me anymore.  But their demagoguery on this issue is disgusting.

What a week!  It seems that with this being an abbreviated work week because of the 4th of July holiday, the usual idiots in the media and politics went out of their way to fit in a full week’s worth of buffoonery.  So we have lots of choices for this installment of the BOW (Buffoon Of the Week) Award.

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Odds and Ends

February 24, 2008

My local newspaper ticked me off this morning.  At least half of it did.  For those of you who don’t know, the Chattanooga Times-Free Press used to be two papers, one progressive, the other conservative.  The papers merged and since neither editorial board was willing to cede control of content or opinions to the other, they both maintained (and continue to maintain) editorial pages.  Anyway, the conservative side of the paper was attacking Barack Obama today for saying that he thought the United States should use foreign aid funds to combat world poverty.  According to the paper, Obama’s proposal would cost up to $865 billion over 13 years.  Nevermind that the war in Iraq, which this side of the paper supports wholeheartedly, would cost more than twice that amount over the same period.  Wouldn’t combatting poverty be a better use of our treasure and power?  Isn’t it possible that we’d be thought of better throughout the world if we were as generous with food and medicine as we are aggressive with guns and bombs?

My daughter (the older one) is reading the Constitution and Bill of Rights for homework.  And because it’s densely written, and because Dad has a Ph.D. in history, we’ve been going through it together whenever she has trouble deciphering a section.  Reading it through once more, explaining to her what the clauses mean and why they’re important, I’m struck repeatedly by the genius of the Founders.  In particular I was struck by the following clause in Article I, Section 8, which gave Congress the power “To promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  My daughter thought it very cool that the copyright I enjoy on my books is provided for in the Constitution.  I thought it was cool that our Founders so prominently recognized the importance of the arts and sciences, even if our current leaders do not.

One of my dearest friends from college, Carla Wise, a brilliant, wonderful woman who has studied science and ecology for years and years, is now making a go of writing professionally.  Her focus is on sustainable agriculture and the local foods movement.  Here’s a link to her latest blog post, which is well worth reading:

The Reagan I Remember

January 31, 2008

I am so sick of listening to the Republican Presidential candidates trying to lay claim to the “Reagan Legacy,” and if I hear John McCain say one more time that he was “a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution” I’m going to puke.  It’s time for a reality check, folks.  Ronald Reagan might well have ushered in a new political era, one in which conservatism, specifically religious conservatism, proved transcendant, (and one which is, to all appearances, finally, mercifully drawing to a close) but to call him a Great President is to strain credulity to the breaking point.

The Ronald Reagan I remember embraced trickle-down economics, a financial theory that was discredited half a century before by the onset of the Great Depression.  He cut taxes for the wealthy, increased military spending to ridiculous levels, and thus presided over soaring budget deficits, incurring a debt of over a trillion dollars that to this day continues to be a drag on our national economy.

The Ronald Reagan I remember propped up repressive but pro-Western governments in Latin America and Africa.  He funded a civil war in Nicaragua, giving arms and money to the brutal Contra rebels in violation of United States law, and he raised the funds by selling arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, despite his claim that he would never, under any circumstances, negotiate with those who took hostages.

The Ronald Reagan I remember pushed for cuts in Social Security that were so draconian that members of his own party in Congress refused to go along.  He relaxed environmental controls on American businesses, setting back by decades national efforts to clean up our water and air.  During his presidency the gap between rich and poor widened to historic levels, more people fell into poverty and homelessness than at any time since the 1930s, increasing numbers of American workers found themselves working full-time but still earning too little to rise above the poverty line, the financial circumstances of African-American and Latinos worsened.  It was morning in America if you happened to be wealthy and white, but otherwise, good luck to you.

Of course, Reagan’s supporters always point out that he presided over the end of the Cold War.  Actually, they usually claim that he “won” the Cold War, as if the downfall of the Soviet Union was his doing alone; as if the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, were all some sort of Cold War Preseason that didn’t count; as if during the period from 1947 to 1987 diplomats in the State Department, leaders of both parties in Congress, and our allies in Western Europe were just sitting there twiddling their thumbs waiting for the Gipper to come along and save them.  Give me a break.

Actually, when you think about it, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have a great deal in common:  huge deficits, regressive tax policies, utter disregard for the environment, attempts to inject religion into our government and politics, unscrupulous Attorneys General (Edwin Meese was Reagan’s Alberto Gonzales), cavalier attitudes toward Constitutional limits on Executive power.  The only difference was that Reagan managed to do it all with charm and elegance and grace, while Bush comes off as bumbling and incompetent.  But in other ways they’re really quite similar; it’s just the times that have changed.  And thank goodness for that.

Today’s music:  Jerry Douglas (Restless on the Farm)


December 11, 2007

Ever go to  Great site.  It’s kind of a compendium of the daily posts from various left-leaning blogs (along with clips from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, when they’re airing new segments).  Yesterday, there was a post from Jamie Holly lamenting the spate of deadly shootings we’ve seen in the States over the past week or so — the Omaha mall shooting, the Colorado church shootings.  It’s worth a read (as is today’s lead post, in which Tony Perkins, the leader of the far-right Family Research Council, is taken to task for blaming secularists for the church shootings).

Jamie raises the point that those on the right who seem all too willing to sacrifice our personal freedoms in the name of “Homeland Security” — the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the detention of suspects without trial, the illegal wiretapping of law-abiding American citizens, the use of torture against detainees — refuse to give an inch when the discussion turns to limitations on our Second Amendment right to bear arms.  Why is it that the Second Amendment is more important than the First (freedom of expression), or the Fourth (freedom from “unreasonable search and seizure”), or the Sixth (right to “a speedy and public trial”), or the Eighth (no “cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”)?  Why is it considered patriotic to allow the Federal Government to erode our personal liberties, but a crime against the intent of the Founders to enforce a ten day waiting period for the purchase of an automatic weapon?

Every year in this country, thirty thousand people die from wounds inflicted by firearms.  Every year!  That’s nine times the number of people who died on 9/11.  I offer that not to downplay the significance of the attacks on New York and Washington, but rather to point out the terrible cost of gun violence.  Even if we were to take out suicides and gun accidents, that would leave eleven thousand murders and cases of manslaughter involving guns.  Isn’t that too many?  Shouldn’t that be considered a matter of national security?  Weren’t last week’s shootings acts of terrorism?

Where are our national priorities?

Today’s music:  Sphere (Sphere)