Friday, December 28, 2012

Vicious Viruses

If you are a regular reader of this blog—and oh, how I hope that you are—you may have noticed my failure to post Wednesday. A vicious virus struck me at 3:00 a.m. Wednesday, and I was quickly beyond reason. I couldn’t lift my head from the pillow except for biological imperatives best left unspecified. Twelve hours later, I fell into a deep, restorative sleep, and by this morning, I was strong enough to sit up, sip liquids, and stare at television.

Still, I found time to think about vicious viruses that attach themselves to the walls of reason—the social, economic and political viruses that blind us to all else, stifling our capacity to listen and learn, stealing our compassion for the needs and suffering of others.

Atticus Finch, the hero and Father of Every Year, tried to find the antidote for the virus in his community: racism. He used logic, he appealed to God, he provided evidence, and he bore the indignities of taking an unpopular position with grace and resolve. He lost, and so do all of us when we allow a virus to spread, mutate, and infect anew.

The Right to Life debate is such a virus. Representative Paul Ryan, presidential candidate Rick Santorum, failed Senate candidate Todd Akin, and many more conservative voices argue passionately for the rights of the fetus from conception. Theirs is a sacred mission, fueled by their faith, but their faith falters once the child has been born. Ryan, for example, believes that government must not regulate, legislate, or render aid to fight poverty or its circumstances, reasoning that doing so impedes the work of churches and charities (http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2012/10/24/paul-ryan-poverty-speech_n_2010827.html). In other words, once government intervenes to insure the life of a fetus, it must then withdraw to allow faithful citizens and philanthropic souls to throw lifelines to one of every five children in this nation.

Even members of Ryan’s own faith object to his proposals and reasoning. Sister Campbell, leader of the Nuns on the Bus campaign, counters that compassion should not end at birth and that charities alone cannot win a war on poverty. I agree and marvel that the Right to Life infection does not invade the hearts and minds of citizens and governing officials when the subjects of capital punishment, hunger, health care, poverty, or waging war are brought to the House or Senate for a vote.

Another contagion is the Second Amendment fever. Some fear the loss of it so fervently that they are willing to put twenty children, ages six and seven, in harm’s way. Even though our nation has already lost approximately 100 citizens annually in mass shootings for the last forty years, gun advocates would have us risk even more, arguing that more guns will keep us safer, huge or limited ammunition clips will not alter bad human behavior, and background checks at gun shows are just big government run amok. We want teachers and FBI agents and local police officers and welfare recipients and train engineers and pilots and health care personnel to submit to background checks, to prove their competencies, and to sit for psychological tests in order to preserve and protect the public good, but Second Amendment fever makes sufferers incapable of seeing government regulation as anything but a Storm-Trooper threat.

An acquaintance and fellow student in a recent Political Storytelling course that I enjoyed very much asked me during a break, “How can people on the right support the candidates and policies? How?” I told her that I didn’t have the answer, but that most of them seemed to be single-issue voters uninformed about many of the social, economic and political realities that face the nation. What I meant, of course, is that many people, left and right, carry the virus of climate change or Right to Life. Some have a low-grade Second Amendment fever; others drink the Kool-aid and take on faith the idea that trickle-down economics is a sound idea in spite of more than forty years in which nothing trickled down, only up.

Rest, America. Heal. Get well by getting the rest of the story, the one beyond your single-issue. Advocate for one and all, not just your own particular religion, literary icon, or economist. If the House of Representatives could shake off allegiance to Grover Norquist and the illusion of big, heinous government, we might just get a deal and a little national health.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Another Sandy: Sandy Hook

Last week, I honored all those still struggling after Hurricane Sandy. I asked that those near to Sandy’s path remember to be fully present in the long-term, to be the person who holds the hands of others just because they need a moment’s support, [to] be the one who listens to the same list of fears and losses each time the sufferer needs to tell of them all, [to] summon patience and empathy beyond measure. I regret that another occasion requires that I repeat myself. Twenty children and six educators died at the hands of an armed intruder.

When the news reached me, I cried. I’m crying now. I cry for lives ended so suddenly, so cruelly. I cry for anther national tragedy. I cry for innocence lost. I cry for parents who surely must have presents wrapped under a Christmas tree, gifts that will never be given. I cry for the nation that mourns, then argues about what to do.

Norah O’Donnell of CBS This Morning stirred the debate by challenging President Obama’s record prior to Friday, December 14, 2012 as proof that he could have, should have had done something sooner--as if millions of children without health insurance or an economy on the brink of collapse or a recalcitrant Congress more concerned with clawing its way back into power were not oversized helpings of trouble and work. Chris Matthews of Hardball challenged a gun-control advocate to explain how a single change in school or firearms policies would have saved those children.

I can’t imagine what such televised moments might do to the hearts and minds of grieving parents, stricken relatives, and a community in shock. I can’t imagine why new anchors insist upon making partisan what has not yet become partisan. Both O’Donnell and Matthews spoke before the NRA or GOP had weighed in on the matter. I suppose in this 24/7 news cycle they couldn’t afford to wait upon the actual news; instead they tried to create some for the rest of us to gnaw.

Let reason prevail please. Let us make sensible policy and legal changes that will help protect women from their abusers, children from the troubled, and men from themselves. Let us care more about life than about tools for death.

But above all, let us walk in the shoes of others, as Atticus advised. Let us summon perfect empathy for the brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and First Responders who will never be the same, for whom the future has grown bleak. May they find the sun again while carrying the impenetrable shadow of personal sorrow tucked in their hearts.

(On September 5, 2012, I posted an essay about mass shootings in America. It features data that you may find useful as you navigate your way through grief into an analysis of policy changes that may or may not make it through our divisive political reality.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12. 12. 12.

Today, on the twelfth day of the twelfth month in the twelfth year of the twenty-first century, celebrities and artists will come together to remember and raise money for people whose holidays and futures were redesigned by Nature’s fierce architect, Hurricane Sandy. May the stars align on stage to shape new constellations for the men, women, and children trying to find the joy in the season.

Such grand gestures are wonderful, and I admire those people who conceive them and all those who execute them. I’d love to be among them, but I’m an ordinary citizen, no one extraordinary. I’m neither celebrity nor star, and I’ve never lost to Nature’s fury. Tornadoes have changed course and skipped my home. Earthquakes have rattled the occasional dish, but I’ve never sustained losses or needed to run outside. I don’t live on flood plain and where waters have risen, I’ve barely had to change my route or routine.

Lest anyone think I’ve sallied through life unscathed, I must grant that I have not. I have lost. My heart’s been broken. I’ve been betrayed and forced to let go.

I’ve also been a witness on the sidelines when others endured an F-5 tornado. Two women, each living alone, had to be pulled from the wreckage of their homes, from beneath the roofs resting on the ground. One woman was already a widow, the other would soon lose her husband, wasted by Alzheimer’s, but on the night his home fell in, he was in a nursing home across town, unaware of any storm or hazard to his loved one. Each woman had to choose a new car, their own having been crushed by the weight of timber and trees. Each lost her most intimate possessions, the trinkets accumulated over time, the ones that recall the sounds and sights of children, love, holidays, and weddings.

Because of those women and my own casual brushes with loss, I know that the most important people in the healing and rebuilding process are people like me. Those celebrities and artists will lead many to give generously, and those funds will help ameliorate the suffering, but it’s the people who are there for the long-haul that matter most.

Be the person who holds the hands of others just because they need a moment’s support. Be the one who listens to the same list of fears and losses each time the sufferer needs to tell of them all. Summon patience and empathy beyond measure.

Above all, try to remember Maudie Atkinson when she lost everything she owned one rare, snowy night in Alabama. She simply said that she’d rebuild and that the new building would be better than the old one. She had hope and faith. May all those afflicted have the same, especially in this season of love and giving.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Unvarnished Words

I’ve recently moved from an urban home with high-speed Internet, capable of downloading rich text and graphics in seconds. I enjoyed a vast array of cable programming, including premium channels that featured documentaries and access to PBS stations proud to pay for Bill Moyers’ knowledge, British classics, and Frontline news. MSNBC was available without an upgrade, and NPR was a clear signal from several stations inside my home and car.

Now I dwell in the beauty and peace of Nature where Internet is primitive. I’ve been trying for three days to download an update that Microsoft deems critical for my computer and its security. The connection to the server snaps after hours and hours watching a blue bar try to fill a gray space. I then must begin again. Today, I stalled before going to work at the computer just so I could avoid the molar-grinding consequence of learning that the damn server couldn’t handle the strain.

If I get in my car and drive 35 miles, I might pick up a clear NPR signal, but the programming is light, frothy, certainly not talky. Much of the day brings music to listeners instead of some of my favorites like Snap Judgment, This American Life, Science Fridays on Talk of the Nation, or Garrison Keillor. I must buy a satellite radio and hope for the best.

The only educational channel available through Direct TV’s upgraded, high-definition programming package for my area must not be well-funded and/or run by men and women with limited horizons. I found Independent Lens available after midnight. The search guide does not even recognize the name Moyers, but I can count on seeing Downton Abbey when it returns January 6, 2013. Huzzah.

So I’ve been watching more C-Span than I once did. I’m taking my news direct from the mouths of newsmakers, and I must say, the words of Ebenezer Scrooge come to mind: Bah, humbug!

Yes, Bah, humbug! to you, Senator Inhofe who took a classic, short-sighted view of a bill to underwrite and support green energy initiatives in America’s military efforts. He says we can’t afford to spend money when the current needs are so great. He took a similar position when Rachel Maddow invited Inhofe to engage in a serious discussion about climate change after the publication of his right-wing Climate Denier book, full of disinformation generously provided by right-wing think tanks. During that interview, Inhofe admitted that he was once on the side of climate change until he learned just how much fixing the problems that man creates might cost. (http://thinkprogress. org/climate/2012/03/16/446008/inhofe-maddow-global-warming). Now, Inhofe joins many others in the GOP to vote no because we simply cannot afford to do the right thing for the next generations, for the future health of this earth, for the preservation of our place in the universe, especially if the right thing seems to be endorsed by so-called Progressives, liberals, or green-leaning folks.

Sound noble, wise? Not to me. Senator Inhofe is just a mouthpiece for climate-change nay-sayers, a man of limited wit, but infinite greed. He has proudly gone on record saying that his hand is open for money, money, more money from energy. Indeed, according to SourceWatch, “James M. Inhofe … accepted $311,800 in oil contributions during the 110th congress. $160,800 of those dollars … from industry PACS. In total, Inhofe received $662,506 from oil companies between 2000 and 2008, which makes him a top recipient of oil money. In addition to oil, Inhofe has received $152,800 in coal contributions during the 110th Congress. $94,500 of those dollars were from industry PACS” ( php?title=James_M._Inhofe). Inhofe's hand is still open during the 112th Congress and beyond.

Other nations have invested in high-speed Internet across the entire country. Granted, our country is much, much larger, but if we fail to wire our nation, we can and will fall behind. Other nations have upgraded their infrastructure, includng high-speed rail carrying people to work without the high cost of gasoline and constant road repair. Wind and solar power complement other energy sources and have reduced other nations’ dependency upon finite, expensive resources. Chile was able to rescue workers after a tunnel collapse because of safety measures that the U. S. refuses to require because of the cost of those upgrades, and men with the same convictions as Inhofe have made arguments about this nation’s inability to pay for safety and life itself. At some levels of government, citizens are just numbers, beans for Bean-Counters to tally and weigh against profits, dividends and Wall Street acclaim.

So my advice to you is you could do worse than tune in to C-Span, completely commercial free, by the way. You cannot do worse by heeding the advice of Oklahoma’s James Inhofe. He does not have your best interests at heart. He would trade the quality and quantity of your years on this earth for thirty pieces of silver in his palm.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Congressional Responsibilities and Dereliction of Duties

Some vows are made to be broken. We don’t really mean them when we say them-- although most of us would never admit we don’t. For example:

·      I swear I’ll never eat that much turkey again--ever!
·      I will never forget my phone again. I know you need to contact me when I run late.
·      I take you to be my lawfully wedded spouse. Before these witnesses, I vow to love you and care for you as long as we both shall live. I take you with all your faults and your strengths as I offer myself to you with my faults and strengths. I will help you when you need help, and I will turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will spend my life.
·      If You get me out of this one, I promise never to get myself into such a mess again.

Good intentions, but human nature has a voracious maw for rationalization. We know that a Thanksgiving turkey, center-stage on the table set with both leaves, will swallow all our protestations from the previous year. And those promises two people make while standing center-stage among flora, fauna, and overdressed friends--well, however well-meaning those people are in the moment, at least 30% of their words will come to nothing more than divorce decrees.

One vow very much in the news today is the one that State and federal elected candidates and incumbents have made to one Grover Norquist and the Americans for Tax Reform organization. Conceived by a twelve-year-old boy and now a core support column for the GOP ideology, that vow reads:

I pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ District of the State of _____ and to the American people that I will:

One, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and

Two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Break Norquist’s vow, and his supporters will deliver a final judgment involving primary challengers, campaign funding, and votes. Many candidates and incumbents have been intimidated into signing in order to serve, but once elected, those public servants must swear allegiance with another oath. The Founders, of whom the GOP is so fond, declared in the Constitution that the legislative branch, The Senators and Representatives ... shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (US Constitution, Article VI, Section III)

In 1884, after the terrible Civil War, the Congressional oath grew to seventy-one words and now reads:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

We and those in Congress should therefore know what the duties of the office are. Are those duties merely complemented by Norquist’s pledge, or is that pledge an obstacle in executing the duties of office well and faithfully? Here is a very short synopsis of the Congressional powers enumerated in the Constitution.

It shall make law and enact law. It shall provide funding for essential government services, and it may borrow money if sufficient revenue cannot be raised for those services deemed essential. In short, Congress is in charge of the annual budget, and it may direct how monies are spent. (For a more thorough explanation of Congressional power, please read the information posted here.)

In my opinion, Norquist’s pledge is an end-run around specified Constitutional responsibilities for Congresswomen and men, and any woman or man who promises to uphold the Norquist pledge instead of the Constitution has broken faith with those who elected him and all those in the nation who count upon the good judgment of Congress to provide necessary government services.

Furthermore, any person holding office should weigh the evidence of the nation’s needs, then deliberate upon the best solution for the greatest number of people, without regard to constraints imposed by a small, third party. Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform, you and I have the right and a duty to offer our best judgment about how to resolve the injustices and problems that face our nation, but I do not have a right to deny your rights or discount your needs for service, and that is often the end result of upholding Norquist’s pledge. He believes and has often stated that his goal is to shrink government to a manageable size so small that he can drown it in a bathtub.

Such an ideology violates the social contract, one that has evolved since the Magna Carta to the great modern experiment known as a democratic republic, the United States. In that experiment, government serves the people who call it into existence, and it does so as the needs of the people swell according to the conditions in which they live.

Atticus taught his children to uphold higher laws when human suffering and injustice were at stake, not to settle for the status quo of segregation when human life and well-being are at risk. Members of Congress should heed his lesson.

Not to lead with regard to budget and government services is a dereliction of duty, one of the seven deadly sins in days of old, for people are in need, the infrastructure endangers our well-being, and quality of life depends upon decisions and choices about climate, wages, and health care. Not to raise revenue when revenues are needed to wage wars and return soldiers safely to their homes and full employment is to neglect the Constitutional responsibility with which Congress has been charged. Furthermore, upholding a promise to a third-party instead of the oath of office sworn before an entire nation should be an impeachable offense for those Congresswomen and men have abdicated. They must stop calling for presidential leadership and man up themselves! Higher law calls to them, one above Norquist.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Simple and Abundant


"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." (Hans Hofmann)

When first I became host to my family for holidays, I imitated what I had experienced as a child at a great-aunt’s home where her five siblings, their spouses, and their children gathered to celebrate with their elderly mother. Aunt Ruby made egg noodles from scratch; they took prizes in taste so she made huge batches of them for all to enjoy. She also had a talent for dressing, but she made two huge pans full, one with onions and one without. Lizzie, one of the few career women among her brothers and sisters, bought, boiled and peeled dozens of shrimp for all to enjoy. I still can’t imagine a major holiday without good shrimp and cocktail sauce, heavy with horseradish.

Gerald’s wife, Nina, was forward thinking. She believed in the magical healing powers of vegetables and vitamins; she preached against fats, sugars, and salts. Of course, other family members rolled their eyes when she offered suggestions about diet, but they welcomed her vegetables to the table.

Opal made bread, pies, and cakes. My mother brought the ambrosia, the ubiquitous green bean casserole, and rich, gooey desserts. Ham and turkey appeared, sliced thickly, and the feast began.

In summer, for the Fourth of July, a holiday near Great-Grandmother’s birthday, we cranked and cranked until several gallons of homemade vanilla ice cream were thick and cold enough to give us headaches. While it cured, we ate tomatoes ripe and warm from the garden on sandwiches or grilled burgers. Later, anyone who did not want ice cream and cake could enjoy thick, sweet watermelon.

With more than thirty people at the tables, we needed and enjoyed great variety. This even extended to the fruits of hunting and fishing. One uncle brought squirrel, another rabbit. A third netted crappie from his farm pond to fry fish in deep iron skillets on hot fires outside. If the meal was close to milking time, he also brought tangy milk, still warm from the cow’s udder. The oldest cousins gigged frogs and brought them to the cooks to fry. Wild onions and soft, scrambled eggs were stirred and cooked for anyone who wished to avoid wild meat.

So it was with these memories that I began to play hostess. I bought, boiled and peeled shrimp. Several days before the event, I baked two or three kinds of cookies, several different candies, and two or three pies. I made sweet potatoes with melted marshmallow and just in case a guest preferred mashed potatoes and gravy, I made some of those, too. Every holiday table from Thanksgiving through Easter featured at least two vegetable dishes, one featuring asparagus and butter, the other involving Brussels sprouts or green beans. My mother-in-law also made a wickedly good jello salad for all to enjoy. It set beside a fruit or fresh green salad on the buffet line, just behind bread dressing, made the family way. A large boat full of gravy placed nearby added the right flavors to the dressing. Cranberry relish or jelly could be found near the end of the line. In those early years, I used fresh cranberries for the relish, and I never thought of using anything but fresh pumpkin or sweet potatoes for one pie. Another pie was fresh peach, the peaches having been picked and preserved by me. Jalapeno jam was also on hand to spice up the meats: ham, turkey or both.

As you might imagine, I began the actual feast day exhausted because I had worked long days before the event to hand-wash crystal, china, and silver; clean every corner and nook of the house; decorate; bake and stir--all after putting in a full day as a school teacher. Still, I pasted a smile on my face to greet guests, then counted the hours until I could finally relax. I made small talk over appetizers, excused myself to stir a dish or change the oven temperature for the next entrée item. Then, while diners watched football or chatted, I prepared generous platters for guests to take home. By the time I finished, they were at the door to leave, and I was left to wash everything by hand once more.

I performed this dance year after year, never enjoying the moment as much as I longed to. I suppose I would still be suffering under a false sense of duty if I had not been forced to surrender to my own frailties and scale back the menu. Then, I focused upon what people truly enjoyed, what they deemed the bare essentials. I also accepted their help.

I began to use every day dishes instead of china. I bought fine cheese, boxed crackers, and ready-to-thaw platters of shrimp. Ham or turkey, never both, was the anchor meat. I served only one kind of potato, one vegetable plainly dressed, and canned cranberry relish. Rolls came from a can or the freezer aisle, and a single pie, usually fresh pumpkin or peach, was dessert. My mother-in-law still brought that delicious Jello, and even though I have the recipe for transforming gelatin into something so tasty, I lack the gift. Now that she has passed, that menu item has been consigned to fond memory. My daughter has added her own signature to the meal. She prepares an amazing squash soup.

Thus, having eliminated the unnecessary, we enjoy what is necessary for these occasions: each other. May you always do the same on Thanksgiving and for many holidays to come.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Teach Your Children Well; Teach Them to Persevere

Atticus created several challenging lessons for his children. He wanted them to restrain their rash, emotional impulses in favor of civility and reason. Above all, he wanted them to learn empathy and the courage of their convictions. Every child needs to master these lessons in order to grow and become a worthy citizen, but I offer a few more to prepare your child for what lies ahead, and I think Atticus would approve.


The merits of public education and the costs of a college education are often in the news lately, weighing heavily on the minds of parents. Some doubt the wisdom of sending their child to public school. Others wonder if the current trend toward virtual schools and home schooling may be right for them. Above all, they worry about helping their child pay the high cost of an education after high school. With this post, I offer some tips for preparing your child to take the path that is right for him or her, whatever that path may be.


First and most important is to consider what employers and college admissions officers have in common when considering candidates, and that is the ability to persevere. Can your child power through mild setbacks such as a head cold or forgetting about a deadline or even an unkind gesture from a peer? Will your child reassess and plan, or will your child fall apart? You can train a child to become a malingerer, using minor aches and pains to avoid responsibilities and consequences as easily as you can train a child to be resilient and resourceful.


Help children learn to persevere by teaching them to think creatively. For example, if they become frustrated while painting or building with blocks because they cannot accomplish what they had in mind, encourage them to re-imagine the design instead of crumpling the paper or knocking down the blocks. Doing so will help them transfer that skill to other complex processes, including a puzzling algebra concept that seems to make no sense whatsoever. Coach your child to re-imagine, rethink his options. He can search for algebra help online, call a classmate, or ask the teacher for help before school the next day.


New material can be tough to master, mistakes happen, and visions sometimes do not translate into the real world well. Successful people do not walk away. They reflect and ask, “What if?” Teach your children to succeed by giving them staying power.


Later in high school, when your children fall behind and a deadline looms as large as a storm cloud overhead, don’t rescue them and solve the problem for them. In life, there is no way out but through, and children must learn to push through even if it means they will lose a night’s sleep or must negotiate an extension all by themselves or accept the consequences of their procrastination by accepting a very low score. They will learn valuable lessons about meeting expectations and enjoying their benefits.


Help your children think through consequences, however. They do not have your experience, and they need your input as they develop into independent, responsible adults. How many young girls have forsaken their passion for analysis and research because being a girl sometimes seems the wrong gender for science, math, and engineering? How many have forsaken the field of play because, as my daughter’s off-and-on best friend once said, athletic girls are not feminine and they intimidate boys? Let your daughters know that they cannot go wrong if they pursue what challenges and interests them. They need to learn to be comfortable in their roles as a female, but more important, they need to learn to enjoy all aspects of their promise as a human being. So do boys.


When your sons grow weary of the coach who turns a blind eye to their heart in the game and instead turns a seeing eye to their imperfections, help your sons overcome. Never let them quit mid-season or mid-year. If they signed on to play for the team or school, they must see it through and delay their decision until their obligation is at an end. Then they must determine if they love the game enough to play again or find another game to enjoy. Beware, however, not to nurture a serial quitter, the one who tries something one year and something else the year after and the year after that. Employers and college admissions officers look for candidates who know how to see something through to the end.


Parents must also guide their children into the most challenging opportunities available through their schools. If Advanced Placement (AP) or the International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula are available, your children should enroll in as many as possible. These courses are rigorous, and rigor teaches perseverance. It also teaches your children to compete at the highest levels. They will be better prepared for college, and decades of data exist to prove this claim.


Lest you think AP or IB does not apply to your child because he does not plan to enroll in college immediately after high school, think again. Children who plan to join their parents in a family business and bypass college will have acquired higher order skills in reading, writing, computing, thinking, and civics. Those who intend to serve their country in a branch of the military will have the same higher order skills plus solid experience in persevering. And those who enter college may do so with several earned college credits. Data also show they will be more likely to complete the most competitive degrees, including medicine and engineering.


Employers, military recruiters, and college admissions officers look for those who have high aspirations and are unafraid of a challenge. Help your children develop both by teaching them to persevere, think creatively, accept responsibility, and welcome challenge. If they learn these lessons from you, they can acquire a fine education wherever they happen to be.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Halls of Justice

When Atticus asked an all-white male jury seated for Tom Robinson’s trial for the forcible rape of a white woman, Atticus appealed not just to the civil law, but also to higher, sacred law, urging the men to set aside prejudice and tradition in favor of justice. Atticus said, “For God’s sake, do your duty” for there, in that courtroom and under the Eyes of Heaven, all men must be and should be treated equally. Clearly, Atticus held courtrooms in high esteem, suggesting that errors in men’s judgments may well be corrected in those rooms, especially if men present their most moral and ethical selves as they deliberate upon the evidence.

George Washington seemed to have a similar sentiment when Congress considered and later confirmed the first Attorney General of the United States. In offering the post to Edmund Randolph, Washington wrote:

“Impressed with a conviction that the due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good Government, I have considered the first arrangement of the Judicial department as essential to the happiness of our Country, and to the stability of its political system; hence the selection of the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice, has been an invariable object of my anxious concern.”

Washington’s words in bold font above, with one slight change, now remind visitors to the New York State Supreme Courthouse of the crucial role that justice plays in the execution of governance. Architect Guy Lowell substituted the word true for due during the design and construction of the building in the early years of the twentieth century. Whether he did this in error or with intent is an argument for historians; what is clear is that for almost 100 years, men have looked up to those words carved in granite and admired the sentiment that calls them to govern well, falling back upon the pillars of good government, the judiciary, when men disagree about governing choices and actions.

But this branch, the judicial branch, is under attack today. Campaign advisors and strategists as well as the Chamber of Commerce have vested interests in judicial outcomes. Consequently, SuperPac money flows more freely and generously when a declared or tacit understanding passes between a sitting elected official or candidate and a donor. In Texas, for example, campaign contributions in excess of $100,000 and $200,000 qualified the contributor for membership in the Pioneer and Ranger programs, and these, according to Texans for Public Justice, resulted in 146 of 548 donors receiving political appointments in the Bush administration ( subjects/NoComment). When the appointments are to the judicial branch, it becomes more likely that justices will be partisan and deliberate with an ideological agenda.

In Iowa, 2010, three justices were removed because they turned aside a ban on same-sex marriage; a fourth wore a target on his back in the 2012 election. I am happy to report, however, that he retained his seat after a public educational campaign about the nonpartisan role a justice must play and how justices are vetted and appointed.

Those who would alter the nature of justice by appointing cronies to the bench or by politicizing the judicial branch claim that they are in a fight for freedom, but in Iowa, the question was whose freedom shall have precedence? Iowans for Freedom (IFF), the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), and a Mississippi-based organization known as the American Family Association (AFA) argue that their freedoms have been challenged because the freedom to marry has been granted to the LBGT community. IFF, NOM, and the AFA seek to limit another man or woman’s freedom in favor of their own, and they have put money on the line to affect the outcome of legal judicial reappointments. In my home state of OK, an aggressive telephone campaign urged voters to oust four justices who had ruled against a proposed personhood amendment to be voted on by the people in November 2012, but a last-minute television ad campaign featuring a prominent Democrat and Republican, united to speak for retention, won the day.

Worrisome to me is this campaign of retaliation for unfavorable decisions. It raises questions about the correct role of government with some citizens and citizen-groups taking the position that the last and final branch of government should become as politicized as the legislative and executive branches, that it should answer directly to the people when it rules in ways that some people do not understand or endorse.

Sadly, this is a debate in which few people engage, and even fewer show up to listen. If they did, they might learn that the proponents for a judicial branch elected by and for the people, a branch that answers to the whims of the electorate, runs counter to the Framers’ intent. Consider the points made in the first Federalist paper devoted to the judicial branch, Number 78, penned by Alexander Hamilton (http://www.founding federalistpapers/fedindex.htm).

·      in a republic it [Judicial branch] is a no less excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body.
·      And it is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws. . . .
·      the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments. . . .
·      the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks. It equally proves, that though individual oppression may now and then proceed from the courts of justice, the general liberty of the people can never be endangered from that quarter; I mean so long as the judiciary remains truly distinct from both the legislature and the Executive. . . .
·      ‘there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers’ (Hamilton quotes Montesquieu from Spirit of Laws to defend his point about the necessity for an independent judicial branch, and he continues in his own words). . .
·      nothing can contribute so much to its [the Judicial branch’s] firmness and independence as permanency in office, this quality may therefore be justly regarded as an indispensable ingredient in its constitution, and, in a great measure, as the citadel of the public justice and the public security. . . .
·      It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their WILL to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.

Hamilton explains the role of the judicial branch in a republic and argues for the absolute independence as well as superiority of the judiciary in order to protect the people themselves from the whims and vicissitudes of the other two branches of government, and from themselves. A man’s day in court and a law’s examination in court are essential to correct the misdirection and errors in judgment to which human beings are prone. Not to understand or appreciate the judicial role is not to understand and appreciate the Republic which protects us from tyranny and abuse.

The IFF, the NOW, and the AFA must make their arguments for or against an issue inside a courtroom, not in the marketplace of politics. More important, they must and should graciously grant the superiority of the court’s judgment until such time as new law may be written and tried in the public arena on its way to a courtroom.

So what is the duty to which Atticus calls us? To know and understand the role of the judiciary in the lives of U. S. citizens and to grant the judiciary a superior role in determining what is just.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Since 1988, it [voter turnout] has fluctuated, from a low of 52.6% of eligible voters (and 49.1% of voting age population) in 1996 to a high of 61% of eligible voters in 2004, the highest level since 1968."

About half of the eligible voters decide outcomes that will determine the nature of the Supreme Court, the collegiality of Congressmen and women, the role that our nation will play in the world, and the social, economic and physical health of our citizens. One of every two voters will vote and determine our futures.

Look at the person standing on your right.

Now look left.

Consider your neighbor.

Think about your relatives.

Can you honestly say that you are just fine, completely content to let those folks shape your future?


Then vote! Vote November 6, 2012.

Vote with all the information and intelligence you can bring to bear.

Your life, your well-being, and the future of this nation depend upon it. Vote!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bullying Beyond the Classroom: Telling Employees For Whom to Vote

Last week, I wrote about school bullies and giving your children a bit of armor to protect themselves. This week, I wish to consider intimidation as a factor in the outcome of the 2012 election, especially because employers are exercising undue influence over their employees' votes.

I grant that intimidation is a tool in our culture. The arms race is a form of intimidation. The country with the most offensive tools stays ahead of its competition. Athletes step onto the field and into arenas, fully aware that size and an icy glare may win the contest before it's begun. We even coach our kids to stand tall in the face of intimidation and to become adept at intimidation as a means to an end. We also expect college professors, especially in law schools invented in Hollywood, to intimidate their attorneys-in-waiting.

Real teachers, on the other hand, avoid intimidation. They understand that like justices on the bench, they must be impartial and fair as they wield power. What teachers know and how well they share their knowledge will affect future presidents, physicians, attorneys, and long-distance bicyclists. If teachers lack ethics and civility, then their charges learn to be unethical and incivil.

Employers also wield power. Theirs is power over the livelihood and security of their employees. The CEO, CFO, and Chairman of the Board may not become involved in day-to-day operations such as hiring, firing, and work assignments, but no one doubts their clout should they wish to become involved, especially in smaller communities where one’s loyalties, social connections, and off-the-clock activities are more easily and widely known. But in communities large and small, especially now that employers routinely search Facebook posts, an employee can be released if his political allegiance diverges from the company’s.

I repeat: it is legal to terminate a person’s employment if he supports a candidate that the boss does not. If an employee wears a t-shirt imprinted with a candidate's name to work, proselytizes for a candidate in the break room, or knocks on doors after work to hand out campaign literature, he may find himself applying for unemployment benefits

But, you sputter, we have free speech guarantees in this nation. And yes, yes, we do, but 49 (a big 98%) states are at-will employment states. In other words, you serve at the will of your employer’s need and even political whim. Only Montana requires that an employer show cause for terminating an employee (“10 Workplace Rights You Think You Have -- But Don’t” by Donna Ballman, 3 May 2011 at articles/2011/05/03/10-workplace-rights-you-think-you-have-but-don’t).

But, you sputter once more, we have federal protections, don’t we? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules, the Lily Ledbetter law, Affirmative Action guidelines, a Federal Trade Commission. Wouldn’t one of those commissions or laws protect me?

Maybe. But how long do you have? Do you have 17 years lying around to wait upon justice? That's how many years Lily Ledbetter waited upon it. She learned that she was paid less than her male counterparts in 1992. She sued later and pursued her case to the Supreme Court. It ruled against her and sided with Goodyear Tire in 2007 because Ledbetter did not sue within 180 days of becoming aware of the pay discrepancy. Two years later, in 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, nullifying the 180-mandate for any and all who follow in Ledbetter's footsteps.

Another Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, and its implementation have provided employers with the freedom to direct how employees should vote, and candidate Romney has taken full advantage of that ruling. In the now often replayed conference call to small business owners, former Governor Romney tells his listeners to advise their employees about which candidate to support and to tell their family members how to vote (http://www.slate. com/blogs/the_slatest/2012/10/18/romney_s_nfib_call_gop_hopeful_tells_employers_to_tell_ employees_who_to.html). He has that right.

But such a right calls into question the rhetoric of some GOP Attorneys General and Governors who have argued against early voting, even going so far as to claim that large groups traveling to the polls together will unduly influence voters to vote as a block? Yet those officials have not expressed concern about any undue influence if employers advise employees for whom to vote. 

Certainly, large groups traveling together to vote may affect outcomes in the same way that folks traveling to national conventions may affect outcomes. The people go because they already share interests and convictions and those undecided among them may even be so grateful for the opportunity to participate that they will allow themselves to be led in this most sacred of citizen responsibilities. Human relationships are complicated, and the reasons for supporting one candidate over another are legion, a truth that campaign strategists prey upon every day. 

Those strategists dance around ethical dilemmas and spin their candidates into the images they believe we voters want to see. They calculate whether direct mailing or robo-calls are effective. They send candidates out to shake hands and kiss babies because close human interaction is powerfully persuasive. They craft messages that will dazzle listeners even if they distort facts and invent outright lies.

I am free, however, to toss the candidates' direct mail in the trash. I can slam the phone down on the latest recorded message. I can stay away from rallies and conventions. And I can read, read, read in order to detect distortions and lies. I can discern the spin and vote according to the best interests of this nation as I understand them.

I cannot, however, easily ignore an employer’s real or implied and legal threat to eliminate my job. My well-being and my children’s well-being depend upon a job. Whatever social nets exist for the unemployed and underemployed, they are insufficient. It’s my duty to hang on to a job that provides for my family, pays my mortgage, and fuels my car.

Thus, when an employer preys upon human relationships and issues real or implied and legal threats to eliminate my job if I support the wrong candidate, he exercises undue influence, and he should be prevented from doing so. He is not different from a classroom teacher who behaves in such as way as to fail a student if the student has the naked temerity to think, write, and reason in ways antithetical to the teacher. And an employer is not different from police officers who bully citizens into confessions regardless of the evidence. We have protections in place because we believe authority figures should not unduly influence students or citizens whether they are seven, seventeen, twenty, or forty-five. We deserve protections for voters, too.

The right to vote must remain sacrosanct.

The right to the privacy of your vote is invaluable.

The right to vote your conscience must be inviolable.

So even if your employer has a legal right to tell you how to vote, that employer is unethical.

Unfortunately, right now, workers must protect themselves. They must keep their convictions to themselves.

Ain’t that a shame in a nation that holds the right to free speech as sacrosanct? Employees ought to be as free as their employers to speak their minds and argue their case.