Sunday, June 9, 2013

Takers and Trustees

Takers and Trustees

I grew up in a segregated Northeastern suburb. 

There weren’t separate bathrooms or water fountains, or any of the overt symbols you would have seen in the South in that era, but it was segregated nonetheless. Segregation was enforced geographically; there places, even whole towns, where certain people could live, and others where they couldn’t.  In my second grade class there was an African-American boy (Tommy) who lived on the other side of the four-foot fence that separated the back of my school yard from a development populated exclusively by African-Americans.  I was too young to notice anything unusual about that: it was walking distance from where I lived, and a couple of blocks from my parent’s pharmacy.  The cop who walked the beat was Irish, and nearby were the German deli that sold Schaller & Weber, the kosher deli with Hebrew National, the Chinese laundry, the Italian baker who snuck me sprinkle cookies, and the candy store owned by people with the decidedly un-trendy tattoos on their arms from the camps.

This was the world I lived in, with a lot of different looking people.  But by third grade, Tommy was gone, and so was his entire neighborhood.  The city fathers had decided to build senior housing on the other side of that fence, and the white-washed houses with the green trim and the laundry lines were now a large vacant lot. Like a palimpsest, they wiped it clean; without conscience, they took those people’s homes and tossed them in the street. 

I have no idea what happened to Tommy or his family. I don’t even know whether the land was owned or leased.  As an adult, it’s easy to see that his community was moved, en masse, because it could be.  They were powerless.  More than 100 years after Dred Scott, in my town, at least, African-Americans had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." 

I was reminded of that story when I read an obituary in The New York Times of Bob Fletcher.  In 1942, FDR declared part of West Coast a war zone, and 120,000 Japanese were rounded up and placed in internment camps.  Mr. Fletcher was, at the time, working as an agricultural inspector for the State of California.  A member of a Japanese farm family from the town of Florin approached him with an offer: manage the farms of two of neighbors, pay the bills and take all the profits until they could return.

He accepted.  For the next three years, he ran the Tsukamoto, Okamoto, and the Nitta farms, living in a bunkhouse for migrant workers on the Tsukamoto farm.  When he married, his wife joined him in the bunkhouse: neither felt it was appropriate to occupy the Tsukamoto’s living quarters. When the Tsukamotos returned, they found their house cleaned and money in their bank account; Mr. Fletcher had only kept half the profits.

Many of the Japanese left Florin after the war.  Some had lost their homes and farms when they were unable to pay the taxes while they were interned.  Fletcher’s efforts saved the three farms.  He was not especially popular with his non-Japanese neighbors, before the war, Japanese children had been required to attend segregated schools, after, many local businesses didn’t want to serve them.  Apparently, he didn’t care.  He felt they were mistreated, and acted with courage and conviction.  Without the formal title, Bob Fletcher became a Trustee, someone who holds something for another’s benefit, and acts as a fiduciary, with integrity.  

Representative government is a form of Trusteeship, not so much in the way Edmund Burke articulated it, but as a form of legal Trusteeship, to follow the law and act prudently within that context.  We elect people to serve our interests.  We give them power over our persons and our property.  We expect them to exercise their best, unbiased judgment for all of us, not unduly benefitting themselves, or their party, unduly.

We have to be careful in the way we use the T word.  Trust can’t be situational; if you always distrust one of the parties on every single issue, then that is no longer an issue of integrity, it is one of ideological purity.  If you would trust Obama with the NSA snooping, but not Romney (or vice versa) then you are missing the point.  Because the power of the government is immense, like a stupendous machine, and unless you are comfortable with any sane person using one of the high-tech gadgets on it, then you should reject that gadget.  I just read polling numbers that indicated that roughly 80% of Americans support the installation of cameras in public areas, and facial recognition technologies with those cameras to root out terrorists.  I find that mind-boggling. Walk outside the confines of your home (or maybe stay in your home if the curtains aren’t drawn) and it’s OK for Barack or Mitt to say “Pull up Joe on screen 3, let’s see if he shaved this morning.”

In the end, trust has to be based on two concepts.  The first is that whomever is in charge will abide by the Constitution.  If they do that, then we can’t have a gripe with them in that context.  That is the covenant we all entered into 230 years ago.  The second is that, while we know partisan politics means that our elected officials will have their thumb on the scales, that thumb can’t be too heavy.  In short, they must be Trustees and not simply Takers.

But the temptation to be a Taker is great.   Power is intoxicating; a prize that people ache for, and few want to give up.  Inevitably, despite the best intentions of the best people, it can be abused.  The Barack Obama of 2007 opposed the massive surveillance by the NSA.  The 2013 version, freighted with the responsibilities of keeping the country safe, now sees the value.  The opposite is true of Republicans, who were more than happy to have it so long as Dick Cheney was getting the read-outs, but now rush to the microphones for ritual denouncing.

That reflects a troubling trend in this country, an intensifying situational ethics.  You can see it wherever there is single party (or single person) dominance—the Takers are carrying the day.  Whether it’s Mike Bloomberg (someone I generally admire) trying to legislate personal behavior, or Red States such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and now even North Carolina, who are rewriting the tax code to benefit their contributors and re-writing the parts of the Constitution they disagree with, it is the same principle.  Get in charge, do what you want, ignore the wishes and even the rights of everyone who is not a member of your club.  Take. 

That has to be wrong.  It is irrelevant if two-thirds of New Yorkers support gun control laws that are greater than Heller allows.  And it is irrelevant if two-thirds of Arkansans would ban abortions, in contravention of Roe v. Wade.  In the end, it is no different than the people who took Tommy’s home, or herded the Tsukamoto, Okamoto, and Nitta families into the camps.   Power is not the equivalent of right.  We cannot be Vandals, sweeping in once elected and taking what we want, regardless of the law.

Gandhi once said, "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”  He might have added that a Democracy’s greatness is measured by how it treats those presently out of power.

Bob Fletcher obviously understood that.  And I would imagine his widow, Teresa, does as well. She was the person who cleaned the Tsukamoto’s house before they returned.

That, I suppose, at its most elemental level, is what being a Trustee is all about.