Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Roger B. Taney, the NRA, and Hillary (Not That Hillary)

Roger B. Taney, the NRA, and Hillary  (Not That Hillary)

There’s a first time for everything.  First steps, first words, first day of school.  This is a story that starts with my first experience with the NRA.

Summer camp, 1969.  The traditional spectrum of activities: baseball, basketball, soccer, and swimming.  Less interesting rainy day things like lanyards and clay.  And riflery.  That was pretty cool for suburban kid.  All that wonderful solemnity of going to the cabinet to get the guns (fairly harmless bolt-action .22 caliber rifles), making sure the chambers were clear, marching them across the camp to the riflery range, right hand on the stock, forestock in your left, pointed down and away from you. And Hillary, the riflery instructor.  She was petite, had shoulder-length light brown hair, hazel eyes, fantastic freckles. And she was a dead shot.  I was smitten.  And in my completely clueless proto-teen mind, I held to the idea that if I could just shoot well enough (a few five bulls-eyes targets would do it), I might win myself an NRA sharpshooter patch (it, too, was very cool, crossed rifles against a white background), and her enduring admiration.

In the fog of middle age, I can’t even remember Hillary’s last name, but I can remember how I felt about guns.  It was fairly uncomplicated, without Constitutional references.  They were regular, normal parts of life, and should be licensed and legal for regular and normal people.  My parents didn’t want them in the house, but my father, and most of my friend’s fathers had served in WWII or Korea, gone through basic training and had used them.  Some of our neighbors hunted, and I would imagine many of them owned guns. The 1969 version of the NRA seemed like the Boy Scouts or the Rotary. 

Whatever powerful (and delusional) drive I might have had to get that NRA patch, I have to admit I fell short.  I ascribe it purely to my nearsightedness.  Besides, Hillary was way too old for me.  But, perhaps it served to send me back to reading history, and, in a round about way, to the NRA in 2011.

But first, a stop in 1857.  The Supreme Court, ruling in the Dred Scott case, declared (for only the second time in our nation’s history) that an Act of Congress, the Compromise of 1820, was unconstitutional, and that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories.

The decision was written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and, it was, by design, the strongest possible statement of Southern and slaveholding interests.  First, Taney ruled that African Americans could, by virtue of their birth, never be citizens of the United States, whether they were free or slave.  At the time the Constitution was adopted, he wrote, blacks had been "regarded as beings of an inferior order" with "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Then, he went on to declare that, even though individual states opposed slavery, even though Dred Scott’s owner had travelled with him to free states, and to free territories, that did not change Dred Scott’s status.  Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the federal territories. It was irrelevant whether a community had slaves or was even sympathetic; it was irrelevant whether there were laws prohibiting slave ownership, slaves were property, and a property owner could take his property wherever he wanted, and use it as he saw fit.  To do otherwise was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process. An entire, multigenerational history of hard-won compromise between slave and free states was wiped out with the stroke of a pen.  In his self-absorption, Taney erroneously thought his would be the final word; in fact, he probably had as much to do as any other person in igniting the Civil War. Roger B. Taney, the ultimate activist judge.

Earlier this month, the House adopted HR 822, the  “National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011”.  Under the act, a gun owner who obtained a valid license to carry a concealed weapon in his or her home state could carry in other states, as long as those states allow concealed weapons and don't have specific rules about concealed weapons carried by nonresidents. What’s particularly intriguing about HR 822 is that state and local ordinances restricting the places in which one may carry a concealed weapon, or who may obtain a license, may not be enforceable against a visitor from a state that has less restrictive licensing rules.  What we have is a race to the bottom, with the state with most expansive view of gun rights essentially setting the law of the land. 

Further, the NRA has successfully supported the “restoration” movement, a nationwide push to allow violent felons to regain their gun rights after they are released from prison.   A number of states have now adopted this rule (occasionally, as was reported in The Times on November 13, with catastrophic results).

We ought to think carefully about that.  49 states (all but Illinois) allow concealed carry, under defined circumstances, but those circumstances can vary greatly from state to state. Even though the individual legislatures of those states have carefully decided who may get a gun, applying criteria that are reflective of local mores and values, those local qualification rules will be inapplicable to out of state visitors. Perhaps the citizens of many of those states don’t mind-perhaps they are very gun friendly.  In fact, about 35 states already have some form of reciprocity on gun permits.   But there are also ten "may issue" states, where the licensing authorities have some discretion in the issuance of permits. HR 822 blows up this regulatory framework.  The NRA calls it nothing more than a national driver’s license for guns.  It’s quite a bit more than that.  HR 822 allows a twice-convicted felon with a history of mental problems to regain his permit in Minnesota (a “shall issue” and “restoration” state), stride through the streets of New York City while packing heat, and take the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building.

What about the 10th Amendment?  It, and nullification are the favorites of politicians of a certain stripe whenever they disagree with a Federal law.  To Rick Perry, the 10th Amendment is the 11th Commandment.  What about the rights of the people of the State of New York to regulate (not prohibit, but regulate) gun ownership to further public safety?  Not so important.  If Texas says one of their citizens can have a gun, New York must bow to the Lone Star State, and Federal Law will enforce that. 

Roger Taney would have approved.  For him, certain types of constitutional rights (slave-ownership) superseded all other rights.  For the NRA, it seems unrestricted gun ownership and usage, by literally anyone, holds the same position of esteem.  Not the NRA of my youth.

As for me, I still feel the same way about guns and the Second Amendment; that gun ownership is a right to be freely exercised by rational, law abiding citizens, subject, just like any other right, to certain reasonable and limited restrictions.  I guess that’s so 1969.

I wonder what Hillary thinks about HR 822.  I don’t know where she is these days, or whether she can still pick something off at 100 yards, but something tells me, she wouldn’t have gone for it either.  At least I hope not.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What John Ford Knew About American Politics

What John Ford Knew About American Politics

A good weekend has beautiful weather, politics and baseball in it.  A superb one adds a John Ford Western.

Ford may be the finest truly American filmmaker of all time, and although his most famous works are probably “The Quiet Man,” and “The Grapes of Wrath”, he made a remarkable series of magnificent Westerns, including  “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” “Stage Coach”, and “My Darling Clementine.” Ford’s Westerns are notable for their beautiful cinematography and location shooting in Monument Valley, their strong and nuanced characters, and a decidedly American perspective on right and wrong.  Ford’s characters aren’t cardboard cutouts. Watch John Wayne in ‘The Searchers” as the distilled essence of revenge-driven racism and anger, or Henry Fonda as the ambitious martinet Colonel Thursday in “Fort Apache”, or even Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” and you can see that virtue, heroism, and high ideals often don’t come wrapped together in perfect packages.

Ford understands the American psyche.  He gets what makes us tick.  He does something only the smartest politician does; he trusts our compass to find our way through moral ambiguity and make our own judgments.  

We had elections this last week, and the results show once again just how smart and discriminating we can be, and how insightful John Ford was.  Thousands of state and local races were decided, and among them, a very few took on a more national significance.  In Virginia, a disappointed-with-Obama electorate handed Republicans effective control of the State Senate, which means they now are completely in charge.  In Mississippi, the Republicans took control of both houses of their Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, but a controversial ballot measure that would have defined life as beginning at the moment of conception, was surprisingly and soundly defeated.  In Arizona, Russell Pearce, the combative Republican President of the State Senate and author of the most restrictive anti-immigration legislation in the country, was recalled and replaced by Jerry Lewis, a kindler and gentler Conservative Republican.  In Ohio, a non-binding resolution blocking the individual mandate of Obamacare won by a large margin.  But, at the same time, Ohio voters rolled back a draconian attempt by Governor Kasich and the Republican controlled state legislature to effectively destroy public service unions.  And in Maine, the people overwhelming restored a four-decade tradition of late registration voting.  The Republican governor and legislature had changed that, hoping to reduce Democratic turnout.

What John Ford knew was that we care not only about virtue of the ends we seek, but the manner in which we seek them.  In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, Jimmy Stewart’s good and productive life was built on a pair of lies, and he’s left to acknowledge them as an old man.  In “Fort Apache”, Henry Fonda realizes, too late, that the Indian Chief he tried to trick has outsmarted him.  His command is destroyed, and he rejoins them in a final act of suicidal honor.
In “The Searchers”, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards draws back from a climatic act of murder, but he’s not ready to return the world of the living.  He walks away from home as the door literally closes on him. 

It’s sometimes said that America is a “center-right”.  We aren’t center-right.  What we are is centered; centered on a core concept of justice, centered on a sense of fair play. Centered on John Ford’s vision of America.  We don’t like big and abrupt changes, and so bellwether states like Ohio can show their disapproval of Obamacare.  We know that human beings are imperfect, but we resent too much interference in our personal lives, and so the very socially conservative and pro-life Mississippi voter can decisively vote down a proposal that seems to go too far.  We have a healthy suspicion of authority, and don’t approve when it’s abused to benefit one group over another (Ohio and Maine).  We play hard and rough at times, but we do care about justice.  Finally, and decisively, we don’t like mean, and so Russell Pearce, who embodied that “virtue”, was shown the door.  

Once again, we have managed to be better than those who aspire to lead us.  I find that encouraging.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Andy, Opie, and The Third Rail

Andy, Opie, and The Third Rail

There’s a wonderful episode of the old Andy Griffith Show called “Man in a Hurry.”

It was first aired in 1963, and tells the story of a hard-driving businessman named Malcolm Tucker who’s car breaks down outside of Mayberry on a Sunday, and his furious (and futile) efforts to get it repaired so he can make it to his important meeting in Charlotte the following day.

Mr. Tucker is stymied everywhere; the garage is closed, no one is working, people are in their Sunday best, and the only long-distance telephone line in town is a party line (and that’s monopolized by the elderly Mendelbright sisters, who have their regular Sunday talk).  He blusters and pleads, and even resorts to stealing Gomer’s pick up truck, but the meandering pace of Mayberry on a Sunday is not going to be disturbed.

I sometimes think of this episode when I watch the arguments over immigration, which is the true Third Rail of American politics.

Immigration is at the confluence of a series of deeply visceral issues.  Entitlement programs, education, employment, race and ethnicity, assimilation, all the little fears and sometimes prejudices that creep into our daily lives. 

If you watch the GOP Presidential debates you come away with the sense that all our problems would be solved if we could only hermetically seal off our (Southern) borders.  They compete with each other over who can be tougher: fences, double fences, electric fences, barbed-wire fences, high tech surveillance, drones, boots on the ground, moats with alligators.  Immigrants need to be walled off, arrested, interned, deported.  The candidates also take potshots at each other’s sins.  Mitt Romney had an illegal gardener.  Perry, in a rare moment of humanity, supported the education of illegal immigrants.  Michelle Bachmann has no sin, but points out that President Obama has many (especially of the Kenyan relative kind).

And it’s not just in Washington-Arizona has Sheriff Joe Arapio and the relentlessly partisan Jan Brewer grabbing for microphones and a Fox News gig.  State legislators everywhere are competing with each other to be tougher, bolder, and more restrictive.  Alabama and South Carolina laws make transporting or harboring an illegal immigrant a criminal offense, create a misdemeanor for failure to carry registration documents and requires law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of anyone stopped or arrested.  The Obama Administration has challenged several of these in court, but given the ideological split in the Federal courts system right now, the ultimate outcome is uncertain.

Although many Republican strategists see this as a wedge issue to pry away votes in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, it’s not purely party driven, nor is it entirely monolithic.  Republican-supporting business interests are quietly lobbying for guest worker programs, and the farming industry is desperate for (often illegal) migrant workers.  On the other side of the aisle, organized labor is more leery.  The New York Times had an interesting article about how immigration sometimes cuts across party lines in strange ways, such as Senator Schumer teaming with Senator Mike Lee of Utah (the Tea Party candidate who unseated incumbent Republican Robert Bennett for being insufficiently conservative) to support visas for foreigners who buy real estate, and Representative Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) who sponsored a bill for visa programs for tech and highly skilled workers.

But, nevertheless, the loudest cries seem to emanate from the conservative side of the aisle, including the radio and television shock-jocks, and are often coupled with voter suppression legislation on a state-by-state basis which is clearly intended to limit minority (and particularly Hispanic) voter turnout.

But why all this?  What are the philosophical (as opposed to political) underpinnings beneath all this passion?  One thing we can say with absolute certainty; with the exception of Native Americans, we are all immigrants, or at the very least, from immigrant stock. My grandparents and their extended families immigrated-I can see their records in the Ellis Island archives. Every DAR member’s ancestors were immigrants.  African-Americans have their own tragic history with immigration.  And, while we’ve had nativist and anti-immigrant movements before, including an entire party, the Know Nothings, we’ve had wave after wave of immigrants from every part of the world.  So why now for the moats, the alligators, the fences on fences?  What are we saving ourselves from?

Of course, I’ve just engaged in a type of solipsism.  My personal history and my present world are filled with immigrants.  I live in New York City, where public school students speak over 130 languages at home. The cab driver is South Asian, the physics teacher from Jamaica, the dry cleaner Korean, the real estate broker has a deep Irish brogue, the doorman is Ecuadorean, and the gentlemen down the hall on my floor are respectively, Spanish, Iranian, and Scottish immigrants.  So, when I look around my town, the place I live, this diversity is my reality. 

It may be my reality, but it is not necessarily others. And regardless of what I may think of even the darkest motivations of the worst of the anti-immigrant activists, there are some real considerations that have to come into play.  Eleven million undocumented aliens are too many, particularly if they place additional burdens on an overtaxed educational, social welfare and healthcare system.  That number tells us that previous attempts at immigration legislation, quotas, and limited amnesty haven’t worked particularly well.  The tendency for certain immigrant groups to cluster themselves in mini-ghettos and isolate themselves culturally creates significant barriers to assimilation-even more importantly, to citizenship in the fullest sense of the word.  It is critical that immigrants learn English and are able to fully participate in and contribute to the society they elected to join.  So, it’s not enough to just buzz off the anti-immigrant section of our electorate as yahoos or racists. An effective immigration policy has to couple compassion and our historic openness and tolerance with a system that has defined and enforced rules.  It must also demand of our new guests (and possibly future fellow citizens) that, while they honor the customs of their native lands, they are fully supportive of ours. 

Which brings me back to Mayberry.  After being irritated by the bumpkiness of Gomer, Barney, and Wally (who owns the filling station but won’t work on Sunday,) Mr. Tucker is finally convinced he is marooned and calms down enough to allow himself to be brought home to Andy’s house, fed by Aunt Bee, and generally treated like a member of the family.  The closing shot is of him asleep in a rocking chair on Andy’s porch, a partially peeled apple in his hand. 

These are potent images of small-town simplicity and friendliness, of escape from the driving, pushing, success and money-oriented life.  The women have gender roles familiar to the time (homemaker, teacher, librarian), but they are smart and strong.  For all their quirkiness, and the citizens of Mayberry are alike; all white, rural, unsophisticated but not unintelligent.  They slow down on Sunday; most go to church, where the minister gives a predictably bland and gentle sermon. They aren’t critical scolds, but they have a clear sense of right and wrong and of both community and self-reliance.   They are fictional characters, but somehow seem more authentic that our modern politicians who claim the same values.

I don’t know how many Mayberrys, if any, are left in America, but I think they occupy a space in many people’s souls, a yearning for a quiet place, untouched by time, with friendly and familiar faces.  Immigration-at least the modern type, less European, more Latino-threatens that.  It tells us that the quiet place is not forever, that the new and strange will push out the old, and that the world we knew is no longer ours to own completely.

We struggle with that, whether loudly in the streets, or quietly in our hearts.  We know our country is becoming more and more diverse, and that sometime in the foreseeable future, those of European ancestry will no longer be in the majority.  Our politicians largely ignore that: they often pander to either our worst xenophobic instincts or our liberal guilt. Few speak openly and honestly about the societal challenges to come, fewer still about the expectations of a common future.

We are going to have to have that conversation, fences, moats, alligators, and drones notwithstanding.  It’s the Third Rail, but it’s going to be touched.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In Search of a Champion

In Search of a Champion

This past summer, when I started to think about what I wanted to see on Syncopated Politics, I anticipated some sort of erudite unified field theory of everything political, with multiple voices assaying one big issue after another in depth, with balance, with moderation. 

I couldn’t have been more naïve in my hubris.  It is extraordinarily difficult to fill a blank screen with something coherent.  And, it is even harder to analyze the problems presented by such a complex organism as the country and the world we live in.

You wouldn’t know that from listening to the Republican Debates, or the White House Press briefings.  You certainly wouldn’t know it from the slick ads that run in the media (Herman Cain’s notwithstanding).  Politicians rehash the same nostrums over and over again, the same orthodoxy that substitutes for independent thinking.  Tax cuts for rich people, tax cuts for the middle class, deregulation, drill baby drill, ever more stimulus; all to keep applying the astronomically expensive cattle prod to an already insensate economy.  Reminds one of the wonderful old advertisements from the Patent Medicine Era called “One for a Man, Two for a Horse”.  Colorful, but with very little chance of actually curing anything more than an overfilled wallet.

Yet, in the real world, the world we live in, simple hasn’t and doesn’t work, and there absolutely nothing that can give us any assuredness that doubling down on simple will work better.  At the Columbia University conference I attended in September, some of the world’s smartest economists didn’t just disagree on nuance, they often took diametrically opposed positions.  If they don’t know, why should we think our political aspirants do?

Obviously, our politicians don’t know.  But what they can do, far more effectively than even Nobel Prize winning economists, is to lead, to frame the debate, to set direction, to create consensus.  At this, they have proven to be even bigger failures than in coming up with viable solutions.  And the people know it.  Walk away for a moment from echo chamber of spin and outrage, and the people know that their leadership has failed them.  Approval of Congress now stands at 9%, a number so extraordinary you wonder more about who is in the 9% then why the rest disapprove.

This vacuity is not the sole province of the GOP.  The New York Time’s Thomas Freidman wrote a superb column in the aftermath of Steve Job’s death,  “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio”.  Yes, it’s true that the Republicans are devoid of any real ideas, and can be mean and loony and myopic, hell bent on destroying Obama at any cost.  But the President isn’t rising to the occasion.  Where are your ideas, Mr. Obama?  Why won’t you push for them?

Mr. Obama came into the office thinking he might be a post-partisan President.  He’s not, of course: he’s the most polarizing President since, well, George W. Bush, who was the most polarizing President since Bill Clinton.  Clinton, Bush, Obama.  All represent a new turn in American politics.  De-legitimization.  I remember reading a respected, fairly apolitical journalist talking about Bill Clinton a few months after he took office “he won’t do” said this talking head.  The Washington elites, the power brokers, the connected who always make out well, regardless of which party controls the White House, they had decided “he won’t do." Too coarse, too outsider, too low born, too something.  Not their kind.  Clinton outfoxed them, but the first impression still sticks in my mind.  Dubya’s “win” came with an asterisk that never quite washed away, he literally became a President of 50% plus one vote and then decided to govern that way.  Rather than a bipartisan or just open-minded approach, he installed his fixer, Karl Rove, in the White House to run both his campaign and policy, outsourced decision-making to Dick Cheney, spent over five hundred days on vacation, and just dared us to dislike him.  He ruled with an iron hand, holding the narrowest of majorities, knowing his own party would back him regardless of results.  Bush II left compromise a discarded tool-he simply didn’t care what the rest of America thought, and fancied that willful deafness was leadership.

And then, Obama.  The arc of his ascent was stunning: a state legislator to Senator, to President, in the blink of an eye.  Watching Hillary Clinton, and then John McCain, react to him, you couldn’t help but get the impression that both of them thought exactly the same thing “What the Hell is he doing here?  How can this guy be beating me?”

Well, he did beat them, with skill and nerve and eloquence.  He preached moderation, inclusion, compromise, one nation, and people wanted it. But none of it worked when he became President, and the electorate soon realized it.  The campaign never ended. From the moment he took the oath, his enemies aimed a sustained barrage of personal accusations, innuendo, birthers, madrassas’, Kenya, etc. etc. To this day, there are many in this country that think he has no right to the job, and far more who would do anything get rid of him.  Just yesterday, the Loudoun County (Virginia) GOP sent out an email depicting him as a zombie with a bullet hole in his head.  Ha ha-all in good fun!!!

So, Mr. Obama, in this environment, what’s next?  Well, here’s some cheap advice. Be a champion.  Champion your ideas.  Make them big ideas-not the “bite sized initiatives.”  Go big.  Lead.  Fight for what you believe in.  Show the rest of us you have a direction.  Show us you care about something more than kumbaya.  Because whether your term in office has 14 months left or 62 months, remember that you will be fought every last inch for any initiative, regardless of whether it has merit. There will be no kumbaya.  It was Bill Clinton’s genius, even through his lowest moments, to give the impression of rolling up his sleeves every day and going to work for the American people. Do the same.  Make your case-tell us why your ideas are better.  Make the Republicans fight you on concepts, not slogans, and use every tool in your toolbox.  Stop relying on the rest of us to see the smallness of some of your opponents and the games they play.  Show us the largeness of your ideas.  Be a champion for what you believe in; and win or lose next year on what you believe in. 

Roll up you sleeves,  President Obama, go back to work, articulate where you want to go, and start punching.  Trust the American people to make the right choice, because we will choose regardless.