Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Freedom Demands Responsibility

The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom. --John Locke

John Locke was a key component in the education of our nation’s Founding Fathers. Locke’s ideologies influenced The Declaration of Independence, arguing for the sacred privilege of men to revolt if the Executive or Supreme Power infringed upon their rights as men to preserve life and liberty. Locke also argued for the governmental supremacy of the legislative branches of government, a foundational component of the new government that resulted from a revolution to separate from British rule..

In the words cited as introduction to this post, Locke declares that the purpose of law is to preserve and enlarge freedom because law guarantees freedom. Locke’s contention is that men enter into governmental agreements in order to preserve their lives. Government exists to protect property and life, and that is exactly what many of our laws accomplish.

Traffic laws, for example, exist to insure that qualified drivers have access to vehicles upon roads. Furthermore, citizens agree to hold themselves to a wide array of restrictions that serve the greater good of preserving life. Solid lines divide highways, letting drivers know which space to use and when they may invade the space dedicated to other drivers. Traffic signals direct the flow of traffic and facilitate sharing the roadways safely. None of us complains about these impediments to our freedom simply because these impediments secure our ultimate freedom: the freedom to live.

Warning Sign on Mexico Highway: Beware of the Armadillo (Photo by Connye Griffin, 2010)

Similarly, seat belt restrictions protect our freedom to live whole and long. Data proved that seat belts save lives. Without them and similar safety devices, chests turned concave against steering wheels in high-speed crashes or entire bodies were flung into the air like blankets in high winds, but unlike fabric, those bodies fell against hard ground, maimed, their animation ended.

This logic following from consumer and citizen protection has extended to many products, machines, and human interactions. We have even censored our First Amendment privileges if our words are an abuse of our freedom. If one maliciously and cruelly inspires panic, resulting in a loss of life or harm, then the words themselves become criminal.

Except when the Second Amendment is the topic. Gun-lovers, National Rifle Association members, and under-informed citizens object loudly to restrictions. Some even threaten revolution to protect their freedom to be part of a “well-regulated militia.”

Iron Link Chain Against Weathered Wood (Photo by Al Griffin, 2013)

But recent legislation has not endangered the right to keep and bear arms as long as one is not mentally incapacitated and willing to submit to a background check in all sales venues, including gun shows and private homes. These restrictions were proposed in order to protect the most vulnerable among us: unarmed citizens; i.e., students in libraries or classrooms, movie-goers, passersby, and children walking to and from schools. Like seat belts and solid lines, the restrictions merely exist to preserve the ultimate freedom: the freedom to live.

Counter-arguments hold that we cannot preserve every life so why should we bother? Why tamper with the Second Amendment? But traffic laws do not save every life, and we are proud to uphold them because we know that more will surely die on a completely unregulated roadway. We agree to show proof of citizenship and identity to board planes even though a few madmen slip through our restrictions and threaten to end us. We are also happy to give personal information in order to use a credit card, buy a home, and insure our property. Why then is there such a hue and cry about guns?

Because it is a topic that quickly and easily inflames some and divides loyalties. I contend that the first loyalty should be to the principle for which government exists: the preservation and enlargement of freedom, including the freedom due students, movie-goers, and passersby--the freedom of ordinary citizens to go about their lives reasonably secure in the knowledge that government works to secure the peace among them.

Be a responsible citizen. Uphold the principle of government. Agree to certain, limited restrictions that grant greater freedoms.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bet On the Grass!

Many fine and gifted writers have advised us, in both fiction and nonfiction, that Life buds, blooms and blossoms in spite of man’s best and worst works.

Summer Daylilies in the Backyard. Photo by Al Griffin 2005

When horses and men and bombs turned whole swaths of Europe into mud, the grass lay in wait until man’s boot heels no longer crushed its will. Then sun and seed collaborated to heal the landscape.

When frontiersmen clear-cut whole forests in order to plant and turn fields to their own uses, plants fought against extinction. They spread themselves far and wide, sent up shoots in those fields, and dug roots deeper just outside the farmer’s rectangles.

When Andrew or Katrina or Sandy shifted sands beneath the feet of men, pushing entire neighborhoods out of their way, the shore endured, shaped and sloped differently, producing waves more fierce or unusually tame, but the water continued to ebb and flow without regard to man’s woes.

When EF5s blast through a town, they churn and spin like a high-powered floor- cleaning machine. Bare earth and building rubble tell the tale of the tornado’s path, but next year, plants and grass will have taken hold, softening the ground, masking the misery.

Florida Everglades. Photo by Al Griffin 2011

In the face of all such force and power, we should be humble. We should heed the bird song high in the trees. We should awaken with the crows and roosters to enjoy the sun’s warm kisses. We should watch Venus introduce the evening and give way to the moon and stars. We should let grasses tickle our toes and perfumed blooms our noses. We should recognize that all these have been and will be again while we will not.

With such a view to the present, to the way of things, all the machinations and mischief of man recede. The politics and squinty-eyes plots become insignificant for few, if any, will endure as long as or as beautifully as the grasses, flowers, trees, and birds.

Take a deep breath and a long, long view to the horizon. Worry less and savor more.

Cancun, Mexico. Photo by Al Griffin 2010

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Choose Wisely

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies have a similar delightful plot built upon misunderstandings and misjudgments. Each one features strong female characters and a large complement of self-serving fools. Through them all is a recurring theme: choose wisely if you wish to be happy.

Viola and Olivia, from Twelfth Night, serve to illustrate this point. Each woman must make her way alone at a time when doing so is difficult for women. Viola believes her twin brother, Sebastian, drowned in the same shipwreck that washed her ashore in a foreign land. She no longer has him, her living shield against the dangers in this world. Olivia, on the other hand, has a fine estate with a cadre of loyal, if mischievous, servants, but her brother and father have passed away, leaving her as vulnerable and unsure as Viola.

Both women choose extraordinary defenses. Viola decides to dress as a man so she can seek employment without compromising her virtue, and Olivia locks herself inside the gates of her estate after announcing that she will remain apart for seven long years of mourning. These decisions endanger any joy that each woman might find.

But both women change course and undergo a transformation in order to claim their happiness. Viola must risk the consequences of her self-imposed disguise, and Olivia must rejoin the world. Once each woman has reversed her decisive course, the good fortune characteristic of comedy rewards her, and each lives happily ever after. Viola marries the Duke for whom she once worked, and Olivia marries the once-lost, then found twin brother, Sebastian, a man with a heart as large and a mind as sharp as his sister Viola’s. Thus, Olivia regains a sibling, this time a sister named Viola, and Viola regains her sibling, Sebastian. Once empty lives have grown full.

I think of these gals and their dilemmas often, and I find that their stories inspire me. They, like Atticus, dare convention. He stands against segregation and racial prejudices to defend an innocent man. Viola dares convention as well, arguing that love requires something of us, some conviction in the heart and brain that makes us better human beings, and she lays down her disguise to claim love. Olivia dares convention by falling for and marrying a man who is not her social equal. He is instead a man who stands for courage and family and friendship--all quite good traits in any world at any time, better traits than titles or annual incomes.

I ask, as I think of these ladies: as a nation, have we made choices that jeopardize our pursuit of not just happiness, but life and liberty, too? I believe we have.

We have chosen not to insure that every child has access to a quality education equal to his talents and aspirations. As a result, we have whole communities wherein most children do not escape the socio-economic traps of their birth. They are instead confined to a continuous cycle of low expectations and lower employment opportunities.

We have also chosen not to face our most difficult moral conundrums. We continue to use barbaric methods to grow animals for food. We continue to plead ignorance about our personal responsibility for climate change, and we decry the cost of making this world safe and self-sustaining for our children. We continue to introduce and even pass Draconian legislation built upon the false presumption that people in need of food, shelter or income are hangers-on, ne’er-do-wells, illegal immigrants, and the progeny of hopeless, lazy parents. We also assert that we are the exception, that our torture is not torture after all. And we invoke the Constitution only when it suits us; we are quite content to argue fiercely, even threatening domestic violence, for the Second Amendment, but not so fiercely for Constitutional equality if the labor force in question is of the female gender.

Each of these conundrums endangers the domestic peace. Some citizens have grown weary of being ignored by elected officers; they gather in public protests. Others have spoken or printed angry threats.

These conundrums also deprive some citizens of their happiness, abbreviate the lives of citizens poorly educated, and imprison many in low-income neighborhoods without razor wire fences. Furthermore, if the measure of our humanity is equal to the ways in which we treat the least among us and the beasts, then we must admit that we have not evolved toward enlightenment, that a few of us may be self-actualized, but most of us still struggle with basic biological and psychological needs.

Let us together face and resolve our conundrums. Let us decide and choose wisely. Let us prefer the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for all.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Shifting Blame with False Equivalencies

I’ve read about the similarities between prisons and schools, between prisoners and students. A few common elements are:
  • Prisons and many schools have easily secured entrances and exits.
  • Both places serve foods high in carbohydrates to sedate the people therein.
  • Both places set clothing standards for the people therein.
  • In each place, prisoners and students move within boundaries, confined by an agenda for activities approved by officials and experts.
But an analogy that presents prisons and schools as the same is a false equivalency. Students, with parental permission, can leave at any time during the day. They can be absent due to illness, family events, and medical appointments. They enjoy regular breaks from school, and every day, throughout the school year, they leave, going home, to jobs, and to recreation. Prisons offer none of these options, and prisoners cannot decide when to leave or when to attend.

For decades now, we’ve participated in a false equivalency about leadership, assigning both praise and blame to the president while allowing Congress to fly under our radar. I think we need to reconsider.

First, the Constitution establishes three branches of government, each with its own responsibilities. According to Article 2, Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution, the President shall be:

  • Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
  • He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
  • He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
Simply stated, the President has limited power and must share some power with the Senate. He does not have Constitutional authority to make or break the economy, to establish law, or to ignore law duly authorized by Congress.

Congress, on the other hand, has broader powers. According to Article 1, Section 8, Congress shall have:
  • … Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
  • To borrow money on the credit of the United States;
  • To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
  • To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
  • To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
  • To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
  • To establish Post Offices and Post Roads;
  • To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
  • To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
  • To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
  • To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
  • To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
  • To provide and maintain a Navy;
  • To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
  • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
  • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
  • To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings; And
  • To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
Three bullets for a President versus eighteen for Congress. Eighteen enumerated powers for Congress, powers that include collecting taxes to pay debt, defend the nation, and provide for the general welfare. A president has a Constitutional duty to recommend to Congress measures he or she deems necessary and expedient, but he has no authority to implement those measures. Only Congress can do that.

So budget woes, veterans’ affairs, health and human services rest at the feet of Congressmen and women, in the arms of the Senate. They are responsible for and have a duty also to borrow money in behalf of the nation, regulate international trade, coin money, establish post offices, promote scientific progress, and to protect copyright and patents for the sciences and arts.

Has Congress neglected its Constitutional duties? It would seem so. Yet the Office of the President has become the target for blame. It’s the President’s agenda. It’s the President’s spending. It’s the President’s overreach. It’s the President’s religion, race, birthright and more while Congress dons its Invisibility Cloak, leaving only the index finger exposed, necessary to redirect blame.

While I recognize that much has evolved over time, the foundation remains strong. The President has more influence, but his or her ability to make law and balance budgets just doesn’t exist without the cooperation and collaboration of Congress. A President may veto, but he cannot create.

Congress is guilty of sloth, of being derelict, of neglecting to uphold its Constitutional duty by and for the American people. If you want this nation to grow and prosper, call your Congressmen and women--please.