Nothing Left to Say
Las Vegas.: another tragedy; more carnage; more bodies and destroyed lives. Another "law biding" citizen with military weapons. The endless media coverage would have you think this is an unusual event but it is only unusual in that all the deaths occurred in one place. On average every day 93 people die by the gun in this country. Yes every day and 7 of them are children. And we accept that as normal. Just another day in America.
I have nothing left to say. It has all been said and nothing changes. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Every time it is more guns will make us safer and more people die. We seem to all be crazy.
I wrote the following poem after another mass killing but felt the need to share it now.
The Price to Be Free
This time twenty eight
This time Newtown
This time a tow headed boy, a curly headed little girl
This time a five year old, a child of six
This time a teacher, a mother, a lover
Every time they say it’s not the guns
Every time they say it’s not the bullets
Every time they say it’s not the hate
Every time they say it’s not the yelling and the lies
Every time they say it’s not the line in the sand
Every time they say it’s not the wars
Every time they tell us it is the price to be free
Last time it was Oak Creek
Last time it was only six
Last time it was Aurora
Last time it was a dozen
Last time it was a father, a mother, a daughter
Last time was supposed to be the last time
But every time there is a next time
Every time there are the screams
Every time there are the tears
Every time there are the hollow eyes and the fear
Every time there are the bodies
Every time there are the pious empty words
Every time there are the guns
Every time they tell us it is the price to be free
A friend asked if I was going to write something about Charlottesville. I said, no, that it was too raw, too soon to have a real perspective. And then I couldn't stop thinking about it.
First and foremost Charlottesville was an outrage and a tragedy. But there is a new tragedy every day. It is endless, ceaseless. We are numb from it. How do you sustain outrage day after day? It is the new normal. Outrageous people have made it commonplace and almost acceptable.
It is somehow how apropos that this took place in Charlottesville, Virginia the home of what Thomas Jefferson called his most important contribution, the University of Virginia. When we visited a few years ago you could walk around the main quad that Jefferson had laid out and which remains to this day the way he designed and built it. A place for learning, principled discussion. A space for peace and reflection. The very seat of the Enlightenment in America.
Yet this place embodies at its core the central contradiction of Jefferson and of our nation. How could a person write such impassioned, stirring words - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" and simultaneously possess other human beings thereby depriving them of any semblance of liberty or equality? It is also probable that Jefferson was a rapist, at least by modern standards. He began his "affair" with Sally Hemmings when she was 15 or 16 years old, too young for consent - as if a slave could refuse.
This contradiction is mirrored in the nation. People speak of liberty and freedom but mostly they mean freedom for their group and to do what they want to do regardless of the impact on others. We all speak the words but mostly live in our little enclaves; closed worlds of like minded people. Too often freedom comes down to being free to denigrate, discriminate or hate.
It is worth remembering what precipitated the Charlottesville events. The "Unite the Right" gathering was to protest the city's plan to remove a statute of Robert E Lee and rename the park from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. After 150 years the Civil War continues. The South lost the war but largely won the peace through a concerted campaign of Jim Crow, lynchings and violence and continuing to today's efforts for state rights (at least where they find it useful), voter suppression and reverence for the "heroes" of the Civil War.
Think of those Civil War monuments, of what could have been done. Consider as an alternative how Germany has handled the Nazi memorials. Germany banned the swastika from public life. And since 1945, its government has worked to systematically get rid of Nazi-era memorials and architecture. Nazi officials were buried in unmarked graves. Swastikas were ground off buildings. Monuments and statues from the Third Reich were torn down. And most importantly the monuments and statues that were retained have been used as vehicles to educate people and especially children about the horrors of the Nazi regime. I have heard many people justify the retention of Civil War monuments and the use of the Confederate flag as honoring those who fought, those who died and as part of their history and heritage. I have yet to hear one person use those monuments as a vehicle to discuss the horrors of slavery, to explain how the economy and prosperity and wealth was built on forced labor, of the crime of succession and the traitors to the nation who tore the country apart, of how the actions of these historic figures resulted in a war that took nearly 1 million American lives, of the use of "state's rights" as a cover for racism and discrimination. If Germany had taken our approach there would be statutes of Hitler, Goring, Gobbelels and Eichmann and the children would be learning about their glorious Nazi heritage.
So the war never ends, we know no peace, " A thousand people in the street...Mostly saying, 'hooray for our side'"
We know not what we do.
Lady in the Harbor
Somehow the 4th of July and hearing Joe Jencks perform his song "Lady of the Harbor" soon after triggered this dream about the Statue of Liberty:
The Lady of the Harbor stands tall and proud, a sentinel to those who would be free, raising her torch above the glistening sea. I look down on her from a tower above. I see peace and love.
But in the air the whispers say, "they are not like me, they are different, they do not belong". Voices of hate and fear.
From the Lady a tear slowly forms and rolls down her steel cheek until it adds its salt to the sea. Like a mother crying for her lost children.
The whispers grow louder becoming shouts, demanding action. There are raids and roundups. With each brick in the wall, each knock on the door, Her flame grows fainter fading into the night, lost in the sea. Finally it is extinguished and gone. Darkness descends. Darkness prevails.
But the voices are not done. The words are co-opted, shouted and screamed, turned on themselves until truth and reason disappear with the light. On the Lady's plaque the words on the inscription grow faint. The "huddled masses" are not needed, have been replaced - the words are erased. "Yearning to breathe free" is too dangerous - deleted. The wretched, the homeless are wanted no more. They are invisible like the words on the plaque. Finally the plaque is blank and follows the tear into the sea. Swallowed by the same darkness.
Then someone says that the Lady is un-American. At first there is a gasp but the refrain is repeated and repeated, louder and louder. This new word travels fast. The case is made. She is a foreigner, worse she is French, she is undocumented, she is unrepentant, she is colorblind. She is dangerous, the children will learn the wrong lessons. She must be removed, deported.
They celebrate her departure.
As I watch the people who drove the Lady away build a barrier. Perhaps it is to wall themselves in, to protect the rest of the world from them. They are free to hate, to be alone with their weapons, alone with their fear.
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door. by Emma Lazarus
On a warm spring afternoon I am sitting outside with an adult beverage watching the carpenter bees eat my house. Its not as bad as it sounds. After years of trying to discourage them we have come to an understanding - they confine their drilling and burrowing to a couple of large fascia boards and I leave them alone. Since they reuse the same nests and areas each year the damage is somewhat limited and I accept this as the price for all the good they do.
The males swarm around by the dozens trying to get a date. They come and buzz around me but the males don't sting so it just provides an opportunity to watch close up the "impossible" i.e. the flight of creatures that some have claimed should not be able to fly. When not on the dating scene the bees work the flowers and bushes in our yard. Its a perfect symbiotic relationship, the bees get nectar for food and we get flowers pollinated.
Carpenter bees are classically "busy as a bee," in constant motion as long as the weather is warm enough. Still I can't help but wonder if there are any lazy ones. Are there a couple of males (I'm sure it would be the guys) hanging out in the nest sucking down mugs of fermented nectar and watching the Three Stooges on TV? Well, probably not.
So where does it start? If bees are hardwired to be busy, to work, to do their part for the social order and not be slackers, where does the tendency to be lazy, to get a unfair advantage, to take advantage of others, to be greedy, start? Is it something that happens mostly among "higher" order creatures?
A few years ago we volunteered to work at Okonjima Nature Reserve, a cheetah wildlife preserve in Namibia. This preserve rescues and rehabilitates cheetahs and where possible returns them to the "wild". I put wild in quotes because released cheetahs are confined to a preserve that is fenced to keep them in so they don't eat farmers livestock and to keep poachers out. Still at 55,000 acres (about 4 times the land mass of Albany, NY or 3 times Las Cruces NM) it is both large and wild. What they have found after releasing dozens of cheetahs into the preserve over the years is that after having been in rehab where they are fed and cared for until ready to be released, a few of the cheetahs will not hunt for themselves. They are dubbed "welfare" cheetahs and live out their days in 5-8 acre enclosures eating donkey meat delivered to them.
It is impossible to know if their condition results from never having learned to hunt (many of the animals at the preserve because their mothers were killed when they were kittens) or if they just were addicted to the free food. Perhaps they are the cheetah equivalent of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens". As we consider primates it seems more evident that some individuals are looking for a free ride when they can get it. It is interesting to consider that the more intelligent a species is, the more likely there are to be individuals who want to beat the system, live off the work of others or gain an unfair advantage, often by hook or by crook.
These elements of greed, deception and entitlement are evident in what economists call rent seeking. No, rent seeking does not mean renting out your spare room via Airbnb. Investopedia defines rent-seeking "as efforts to obtain economic gain from others without reciprocating any benefits to society," i.e. getting something for nothing or freeloading. This often involves lobbying and campaign contributions designed to obtain subsidies, grants or tariff protection from governments. These activities don't create any benefit for society; they just redistribute resources from the taxpayers and consumers to the company or individual.
A good example of rent seeking is sugar, that stuff we tend to eat too much of and which is difficult to avoid since it is added to nearly every packaged or processed food we buy, from cereal to soda, sport drinks to apple sauce. The sugar industry has been very effective in lobbying for tariffs on sugar imported to the US. As a result, the price of raw sugar is about 6 cents a pound higher in the US than the world average. Six cents? A pittance you say right? Well, Ben Franklin admonished us to be "penny wise" and in this case it means that US consumers paid about $1.4 billion more in just one year (2013) than they should have. That is money that the sugar industry took from your pocket and put in theirs (source: Heritage Foundation report). Their only added expense was the money spent on campaign contributions and lobbying. Nice work if you can get it.
A second example is the way a very well know billionaire got rich. The New York Times reported that this individual received at least $885 million in tax breaks, subsidies, and grants for his apartment, hotel, and office developments in New York City. That is nearly a billion dollars that City, state and federal taxpayers had to pay because an already rich person did not. And that was just the properties in New Your City. He became a billionaire by taking money from you and me. And he is one of many, the takers, the greedy, the ones who live off other people's labor.
Rent seeking behavior is characterized by greed, deception, deceit and a strong sense by the perpetrators of entitlement and often superiority. This requires an advanced brain and apparently it is a successful strategy for reproductive success since it seems to have thrived through homo sapiens' evolution. So should this behavior be vilified or celebrated? Should we all be bees or welfare cheetahs? That in effect is one ingredient in the political divide on the country.
The fence is gone
They say it was barbed wire
They barracks are gone
They called them chicken coops
The towers are gone
They say they were wood
The guards are gone
They say they carried carbines
The prisoners are gone
But the ghosts remain
If you stand at the edge of the compound
You can almost see the them lining up at the mess hall
If you listen closely
You can hear the voices
English over here
Japanese over there
The wind whispers of times forgotten
Forgotten to hide the shame
Now in 2017 I am standing at the edge of a cotton field where row on row of barracks once marched across the muddy land, home to 8400 Japanese Americans. The ghosts still linger. Each family known by a number that replaced their name. Another step to invisibility. This camp is in Rohwer, Arkansas far from much of anything but importantly on a rail line to facilitate the transport of prisoners.
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal and incarceration of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent (about 70% native born Americans) to camps in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.
The Supreme Court upheld the action in Korematsu v. United States. In a 6–3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. Six of eight Roosevelt appointees sided with Roosevelt. The lone Republican appointee, Owen Roberts, dissented. The opinion, written by Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. During the case, Solicitor General Charles Fahy is alleged to have suppressed evidence that questioned the need for removal. To this day, the Supreme Court has not overruled its decision. Since this stands as the law of the land it could offer precedence to the incarceration of Hispanics, Muslims, or other targeted groups.
From the vantage point of 75 years later it is easy to vilify those who advocated and implemented the internment program. It is difficult to put ourselves in that time and place. Perhaps the closest we can get is to recall the aftermath of 9/11, the fear, the anger and even the desire for revenge. The attack on Pearl Harbor understandablely brought those emotions and more. In the book In Defense of Internment, Michelle Malkin argues that the internment was appropriate and just. Unfortunately rather than present an historical analysis based on verified evidence the book is mostly a polemic focused on discrediting opponents.
The book does reproduce important original documents including Japanese diplomatic communications and US intelligence reports. Perusing these documents reveals a couple of key patterns. First, while the Japanese government did try to establish a spy network in the US they had little success. Support among people of Japanese heritage was virtually nonexistent. Second, the US intelligence assessments show little evidence of support and indicated that internment was probably not needed. In fact a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence stated that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or sending signals to enemy submarines. Its is worth noting that not a single instance of espionage or sabotage was ever prosecuted or proved among the 120,000 internees.
The real driver for internment was the long standing racism against people of Japanese background. Historian Nikki Nojima Louis paints a picture of the racial environment on the West coast through newspaper headlines and stories, oral histories and other documentation. Political leaders and leading newspapers in the West had been calling for the expulsion of Japanese at least since the beginning of the 1900's. In1923 the state of Washington passed a law that effectively prohibited native born Japanese Americans from owning property. Japanese immigrants had already been prohibited from owning property and were also prohibited from becoming citizens. This law was modeled on the slightly less restrictive California Alien Land Law of 1920 targeting Japanese farmers who owned or leased land.
When the Rohwer camp was closed after the war, everything was torn down - the barracks, the mess hall, the guard towers even the barbed wire fence. It was as if the shame was already so clear that the stain needed to be eradicated. Only the land remained. Land that the prisoners had transformed from worthless waste to valued crop land. Today that land grows cotton and rice and corn.
In 1945 the residents erected two large concrete monuments in the Rohwer Memorial Cemetery. The first was decorated with floral patterns and artwork symbolic to both Japanese and American cultures. This monument was dedicated to all those who died while interned at the relocation center. The second monument commemorates the young men from the Rohwer Relocation Center who fought and lost their lives while serving in the U.S. Army’s 100th Battalion and 442nd Combat Team. The juxtaposition of these two monuments speaks louder than words.
To this day the 442nd Regiment of Japanese American soldiers is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American military history. The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts.
Just as black soldiers fought for their country only to return and be denied basic civil and political rights, returning Japanese were targets of racial slurs, discrimination and vigilante violence.
And so the ghosts remain
The ghosts of our past
Too easily forgotten or ignored
But if we fail to heed them
They may be the ghosts of our future
Sometimes you are just having a bad day; things are not going your way, people are unkind. You are feeling like a Gloomy Gus and you just want to go eat worms. It can be hard to shake these moods to return to that happy upbeat person trapped inside. I've been there and am ready to share a couple of techniques that I find helpful and you may as well.
Ice Cream. Yes, ice cream can give you at least temporary respite from the troubles of the world. To get maximum benefit you need to hold the ice cream in your mouth and let that creamy sweetness slowly melt on your tongue. This allows the healing vapors to directly ascend to your brain, bringing immediate relief. Ice cream also releases seretonin, the pleasure chemical, giving you a sense of well being and happiness. But there is more. Ice cream has been scientifically shown to make you smarter. Of course the very fact you are eating ice cream proves you are smart, but a Japanese scientist demonstrated that people who ate ice cream for breakfast did significantly better on intelligence tests. Ice cream for breakfast! Did you get that? It doesn't get much better than that.
Now, as effective as ice cream can be sometimes it is not enough. Sometimes you need something more, the touch of human kindness. Where can you find that any day of the week? A car dealer. I know what you are thinking - a car dealer? That is where all those nasty, pushy salespeople who haggle price endlessly and yell or cry if you won't buy their car can be found. That was then; this is now. Somewhere along the way car dealers had an epiphany. They all (well, most) found religion or ate too much ice cream and now they are warm and welcoming and wonderful.
I was recently been in a bad moody (sorry if it was obvious) and even ice cream didn't snap me out of it so I stopped in at my local new car dealership. A young woman greeted me with a broad smile and a warm handshake. She offered me coffee and a comfortable chair. She inquired how my day was going, how I was doing. I confessed that things were not good; it had been a day. She was most solicitous and asked how she might help. A convertible, I replied, I might need a convertible.
People who drive convertibles with the tops down always look like they are having fun, They are carefree, laughing and happy. Oh, and the sun is always shinning. A note of caution, people in convertibles with the top up are trapped and miserable, hunched over the wheel wanting to burst out through the canvas covering. Nothing says happy like a top down drive with car songs blasting from the radio.
At the risk of sounding like the old curmudgeon that I am, I must say that young people today don't know diddly about car songs and probably don't even know what diddly means. If I may elucidate, car songs are songs about cars. Often they include girls, which is OK, and occasionally surfing. Surfing songs are only legally permissible outside of California on perfect sunny days in a convertible with the top down. Even then don't over do it. When you hear the music coming from young peoples' cars it is often rap or hip hop or worse, pabulum pop or what masquerades as country these days. Most of today's country music would have Willie turning over in his grave if he was dead, which he is not thanks to all the pot he smoked. He may not know where he is or who he is but he's still on the road.
Car songs mean the Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" or "409" (She's real fine my 409, She's real fine my 409, Giddy up giddy up giddy up 409). Wow, they just don't write lyrics like that anymore! And lets not forget the quintessential car song "Hot Rod Lincoln" "Son, you're gonna' drive me to drinkin' / If you don't stop drivin' that Hot Rod Lincoln." That's a car song.
But I digress. The sales rep and I walked out to the lot. Over in the far corner was a 2017 124 Spider convertible; a red convertible. As we put the top down the sun came out right on cue. She handed me the keys; my mood brightened. We hit the street driving north to the entrance to the interstate. The ramp is a nice tight right hand sweeper. I settled into a line, punched it, hit the apex and as we approached the driving lane I had to slow down to merge with traffic. A smile crossed my face.
Back at the dealer I thanked the saleswoman for the drive but confessed I didn't intend to buy the car. "I know," she said. We both smiled. It was going to be a good day.
To a large extent we take civilization for granted and consider ourselves civilized people. But was the development of civilization a entirely good thing and what was lost along the way?
What is civilization? Like pornography we know it when we see it but it is hard to define. According to Webster civilization is characterized by:
1. a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained
2. refinement of thought, manners, or taste
3. a situation of urban comfort
Today we would likely add a high level of technological development in areas such as transportation, communication, science and medicine as well as the developments of the arts - music, art, literature, dance etc.
When you are riding in your self driving vehicle, chatting on your smart-phone and anticipating oysters flown in fresh today at a good restaurant this all sounds like a good thing. But it wasn't always so wonderful and for many poor people in the world it still isn't.
This presents two interesting questions; was early civilization distinctly better than the hunter gatherer societies that preceded it? And if it was such a good thing why did it take so long to develop?
Why create civilization?
Why did humans exist for 200,000 years as hunter gathers and only develop agriculture and a settled "urban" lifestyle i.e. civilization in the last 10,000 years or so? What was the benefit? Scientists have provided a number of factors that made the change possible - a warming climate, brain development, domestication of crops and animals - but little to explain why humans made the change. One would expect that the benefits of a agrarian lifestyle must have outweighed the downsides. And while sustainable agriculture and larger and larger settled communities were necessary prerequisites for civilization the downsides were substantial and many of those downsides persisted into the twentieth century.
What were hunter gatherer societies typically like? In general hunter gatherer groups were egalitarian, without hierarchy, shared decision making, had no poverty or wealth and were highly cooperative. Although there is controversy on this issue, many believe that hunter gatherers were mostly non-violent and lived in peace. Dr Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, argues in Psychology Today that violence was rare and evidence to the contrary comes from studies of groups that had already been badly treated by encounters members of civilized societies.
Compelling evidence suggests that hunter gatherer societies were more egalitarian than industrial societies. There were typically no kings or chiefs. Women often had equal influence and status likely stemming from two factors. First, women were normally the "gatherers" while men hunted. And the gathering is what supplied most of the food for the group. Second, women were the source of children and like all creatures a fundamental driver is the need to reproduce, to perpetuate the species. Female fertility was a miraculous and mysterious thing. Some researchers suggest that it was not until after the domestication of dogs that the men figured out the relationship between sex and childbearing (we can be a bit slow on the uptake). Until then religion tended to be matriarchal featuring fertility goddesses who were often depicted as pregnant. The predominance of male gods mostly occurred after the guys realized that they had a part in this endeavor and started walking around with puffed out chests handing out cigars.
Hunter gatherers typically worked only12-20 hours a week, showed less stress and mental illness and were less susceptible to infectious disease. For example, at the time of first contact with Europeans, suicide among American Indians was virtually unknown. In addition Indians were taller, had much better hygiene were healthier and better feed. Oh and they lived longer. In a paper, Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers, Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan indicate that pre-modern populations shows an average modal adult life span of about 72 years, with a range of 68–78 years. It was well into the twentieth century before civilized societies achieved those levels.
The development of agriculture and the clustering of people in communities often brought starvation and rampant disease. Survival rates were very low but those that did survive passed on greater immunity to small pox, plague and other diseases . Most genetic lines died out. We are the descendents of the survivors.
Earlier farmers subsisted primarily on grains which caused cavities and tooth loss unheard of in hunter gatherers. Their poor diet and malnourishment weakened immune systems and their grain stores attracted insects, rats and other pests. Human waste and close proximity of people and animals polluted water and resulted in epidemics of smallpox, influenza, measles, dysentery and the plague. As a result they were smaller in size, less healthy and had shorter live spans.
Many of these things are a mixed blessing that bring benefits to some (or many as in the case of education) but at a cost to the members of the civilized society.
Increasing levels of civilization has brought increasing levels of anonymity or at least the opportunity for it. Hunter gatherer societies were a bit like small towns - everyone knows everyone's business. Living in small tight knit groups of 20-50 people everyone knew everything about everyone. There were no secrets, no privacy and for much of their time no strangers. With civilization and especially with increasing urbanization and mobility people live in smaller family units or none at all, often don't know their neighbors and spend increasing time among people they don't know and don't interact with except in the most superficial manner. Beyond the isolation, loneliness and depression that this engenders, it also allows the rise of the most abhorrent human propensities. This is epitomized on the internet with wide spread vicious anonymous attacks based on race, religion, disability, politics, gender and any other thing that differentiates humans into categories of "us" and "them". It is humanity at its worst. Civilization indeed.
While there have been many attempts to escape civilization including utopian communities, back to the land movements, hippies who dropped out and people who relentlessly moved to the "frontier", civilization seems here to stay short of nuclear holocaust or environmental disaster. But it is useful to know where we humans came from and to remember we can live quite well while working less, needing less, eating better and being more community minded. So when the modern world seems a bit too much get in touch with your inner hunter gatherer.
The cold gray concrete column rises from the promontory, standing like a sentinel, a reminder of our past, a warning about the future. It is a testament to truth, in a place that bares your soul; where you can not lie to yourself.
It commemorates the Great War. It has been a hundred years since the war to end all wars and in that time not a single day has passed when war has not raged on. Perhaps that is why this memorial is not festooned in red, white and blue - just a gray obelisk such that we might consider our actions in the cold, clear morning light rather in the intemperate world of shadows. It reminds us that words are all too easy and mask the reality of the fear, the hate, the dying. The black and white that once seemed clear bleeds away into the unending gray.
If we allow it to give us pause, to ignore the bravado, it might serve as a guide helping us consider the true costs of war: the maimed, the displaced, the orphaned, the grieving survivors; those endless fields of graves growing only headstones and hatred. That tower of concrete might bring us to consider another way, a way not predicated on the power of guns and bombs, not dependent on destroying those who are different, those we don't understand.
The wind blows cold across the dead winter grass. The concrete glowers even in the February sun. The wind may blow good or ill; we may continue down the same old road or we can carve a new path. Look up, consider the lessons this place has for us before you decide.
Part III - Determining a Winner
The founders aversion to democratic elections resulted in some interesting electoral structures. For example the Constitution specified that Senators would be elected by state legislatures rather than direct election. This proved convenient in many ways. For example when New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912 Albert Fall famously walked around the New Mexico legislature handing out packets of money just before the vote which made him one the first two New Mexico US Senators. This practice was common in many states where candidates found it so much simpler than campaigning. It took 125 years before this process was changed via the 17th amendment to the Constitution ratified in 1913.
One of the most idiosyncratic institutions devised by the framers of the constitution was the Electoral College formulated at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by the Committee on Postponed Parts (now there is a committee that would fit right in today).
What the founders really wanted was for the "people" or at least those they saw fit to enfranchise, to elect individuals such as themselves who would in turn select a president. They meant Electors who were educated, rich property owners, not subject to the emotions or hysteria of the mob, , what today we would call the elite and were then often referred to as the ruling class. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, thought that “the people could not be trusted to intelligently rule themselves” so it should come as no surprise the founders thought that a ruling class should be in control. The Electoral College was the mechanism by which they sought to accomplish that.
The other critical issue that made the direct election of the president anathema was one seldom discussed or even noted - slavery. When Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed direct national election of the president, the savvy Virginian James Madison responded that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South: “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” What he meant was that since slaves could not vote the South would have a much smaller voting population if direct election was in effect. Therefore the South would likely be out voted by the North. The Electoral College would level the playing field since the number of electors a state had was based on the state's total white population plus three fifths of the number of slaves. This was no small matter as 40% of the population of Virginia were slaves; in South Carolina it was 54% in 1780 rising to over 60% later. The electoral college system proved very effective, with southerners Washington, Jefferson and Monroe all elected president.
The "people", being the ungrateful wretches that we are, never followed the founders script very well and the Electoral College now votes based on the rules in place for each state. Because most state have winner-take-all rules, presidential candidates have no reason to pay much attention to the issues of concern to voters in states where the statewide outcome is a foregone conclusion. In 2012 two-thirds of general-election campaign events (176 of 253) were in just 4 states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa). Thirty-eight states were ignored.
So the lasting remnant of this odd system is that often states with small populations have a disproportional influence and a few swing states have an outsized influence on the election and so get the lions share of the campaign focus and money. The most obvious effect is that it is possible for a president to be elected via the Electoral College while not receiving a majority of the popular vote. While we used to think such an occurrence was a remnant of the past we have now had this happen twice in the current century - not a recipe for legitimacy or for unifying the country.
So should the Electoral College be eliminated? Well if you are in a swing state why would you want to give up the power that comes with the status quo? These "battleground” states receive 7% more federal grants than “spectator” states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.
Since the Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution it would take a constitutional amendment to change it, meaning that members of Congress from at least some of the states that might be disadvantaged by direct election by popular vote would need to support it and two thirds of the states would need to ratify it. Not easily done.
There is a creative alternative that does not require a constitutional amendment to achieve the same effect. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is an agreement among a group of U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact is designed to ensure that the candidate who wins the most popular votes is elected president, and it will come into effect only when it will guarantee that outcome. For that to occur the legislation must be passed by states which together have a total electoral vote of at least 270, enough to elect a president. As of 2016, it has been adopted by ten states and the District of Columbia. Together, they have 165 electoral votes, which is 30.7% of the total Electoral College and 61.1% of the votes needed to give the compact legal force.
Thomas Jefferson, paraphrasing Joseph de Maistre, said that "The government you elect is the government you deserve". That seems too simplistic. The jury is still out on whether a large group of people can govern themselves effectively and fairly over a long period of time. The Founders were clearly skeptical of the American people's ability to do just that.
Government is people acting through a set of institutions and processes that they devise and continue to change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Ben Franklin said that the government crafted at the constitutional convention was a republic "if you can keep it." Franklin may have been a bit self serving in that remark because our ability to keep the republic is directly related to the mechanisms that he and his fellow framers built into the constitution. If the republic is going to continue we need to be willing and able to consider those processes and improve them where necessary and possible. That can only happen, be accepted, and be seen as legitimate if the broadest spectrum of the citizenry are engaged and participate. And that struggle continues.
What changes to the electoral process would you support or advocate? Consider some options:
Determining a Winner:
I look forward to your suggestions and comments.
Part II -Voting
One fact about voting that we hear about is that only about 50% of eligible voters actually vote. That number is actually worse if you consider that for non-presidential elections and local elections the turnout is usually much lower. In addition, many people are not eligible to vote. Many states disenfranchise people who have been convicted of certain classes of crimes and voter suppression efforts have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of people.
But even among people who can vote the majority often fail to do so. There are many explanations for this, from people being too busy or not being interested in politics, to the inconvenience of the process (election day is a work day, many states do not allow early voting etc). This year in particular gave credence to the old adage that if god had wanted us to vote she would have given us candidates.
What is hard to fathom is that so many people fought and in some cases died to gain the right to vote - women, Blacks, people who did not own property, Irish, Italians, and Jews among others. This began at the very start of the Republic, well, really before the Republic started. Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband who was attending the constitutional convention and admonished him to “remember the ladies.” Apparently he forgot because women would fight for over 100 years to gain suffrage.
There are those who advocate for interpreting the Constitution based on the original intent of the founders. Perhaps they do not realize that in the first presidential elections only about 6% of the population was eligible to vote - or perhaps they understand that perfectly and would like to return to the days when voting was limited to white males of property and means. After all, the founders were no fans of democracy. James Madison expressed a widely held belief among the founders when he said "democracy was too precious to waste on the common man."
Most were petrified of "democracy" where the "great unwashed" i.e. people without education, wealth or proper dispositions (e.g. women) would select office holders. Perhaps that is why the rate of desertion among soldiers in the American Revolution (those sunshine patriots) was so high. Those doing the fighting were not expected to have a say in the governance of the new Republic. Interestingly, after fighting the War of Independence the commitment to voting was almost non-existent. Although just 6% of the population were eligible to vote in the first presidential election only 38,818 people out of a population of about 3 million (2.4 million free) actually voted for a voting percentage of about 21%. So George Washington was elected with only 1.3% of the population voting - quite the mandate!. But it got worse. Two years later only 13,332 people voted out of population then estimated at 3.9 million or less than 0.5%. Democracy got off to a slow start.
So who should be allowed to vote and what is the best process to select a president? It is tempting to say that everyone should be allowed, perhaps required, to vote but this not only goes against our entire history as a nation but there does not seem to be a practical way to make it happen especially when it is in so many groups’ vested interest to reduce the voters in opposing groups. Universal suffrage may be an American ideal that people across a broad spectrum of the political landscape espouse but it has never been achieved and seems unlikely to be in the future.
Many techniques have been tried or suggested - "motor-voter" (including voter registration with motor vehicle registration), automatic registration, same day registration and innumerable get out the vote campaigns. So far none seem to have had a substantial or lasting effect on voting participation.
Some political scientists have suggested that voting should be restricted to those who have at least a baseline knowledge of government, politics, policy and candidates. Or if not restricted that those who are more knowledgeable should be given more votes or have their votes count more. This has been tried with voter literacy tests. While we usually think of those tests as Jim Crow tools to stop African-Americans from voting they actually began in Connecticut in 1855 to disenfranchise immigrants. New York City did much the same in the 1920s and similar tests were used by many states in the north and the south. Literacy tests were not banned by Congress until 1975.
What limits on voting are acceptable? If not knowledge or literacy as thresholds, what about people with dementia, cognitive impairment or developmental disabilities? One concern has been that someone is likely to influence or manipulate those with impairments. But aren’t the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on campaign advertising and activities meant to influence and manipulate as many of us as possible? Should such activities be prohibited?
While today people are no longer technically prohibited from voting based on race, sex, religion or ethnicity, voter exclusion is more subtle and tactical. Polling places are moved to inconvenient locations, are reduced in number to create long waits, and names are purged from voter rolls. People who have committed crimes and "paid their debt to society" are excluded from voting in many states. This seems ironic since one might suggest that former criminals are uniquely qualified to judge many of our politicians.
I'll leave it there until we wrap up next week with Part III- Determining a Winner.
One Small Voice
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