Sunday, December 29, 2013

If I had wings like Nora's dove

"Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders." 
Henry David Thoreau

There's a beautiful moment in the Coen Brothers' new film 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (actually there are quite a number of beautiful moments, but I'll start here with this one). Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, down and out upon the scene —the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960's. He's broke, bumming a place to sleep from night to night on the different couches of a small circuit —from patrons of the art to fellow folkies. Still the singer has his dreams of making it in "show business" —as he quaintly tries to appreciate the meaning of the term. His record label has allegedly sent a copy of his solo album 'Inside Llewyn Davis' to a promoter of some accomplishment in Chicago. As his desperate circumstances seem to grow more and more desperate the singer decides to set out for Chicago to take his fate by the horns. It's something of an epic journey getting there (encounters with John Goodman always succeed in bringing that epic dimension to a Coen Brothers' narrative) and at long last when the singer comes face to face with his hope for fame the promoter allows as how he hasn't heard or even seen this record."Play me something from 'Inside Llewyn Davis'," he asks of Davis.

They sit together facing each other out upon the floor in a darkened empty performance space, low light streaming in from a door left open. Davis shares a heart rending version of the traditional ballad 'The Death of Queen Jane'—the moment is a triumph, transcendent (and filmed that way). There's barely a second's pause as the promoter considers what he's heard.

"I don't see any money in it," he observes.

The story doesn't end there or resort to some scene of dramatic confrontation. Instead it is just this poetic instance of perfect failure. Quiet Llewyn Davis puts his guitar back in its case, at that moment knowing his dream defeated, over with, that knowledge plain on his face. He doesn't argue his case. His song had done that, stated his best. He'll resolve to resign his dream of fame and set out with the merchant marine, no more a folk singer by trade. (He'll fail at that, too —this is that dark a comedy.)

It's a dark scene in a dark and melancholy movie; but somehow it put me in mind of hope.

It's important, I think, to appreciate the historical moment of this dramatic moment. This Greenwich Village, this Chicago and the road between them was in the America of the early 1960's. Don Draper was sipping highballs, touting 'the new and improved' and screwing secretaries uptown in his high rise, just a few blocks from these cold water flats down in the village with their fire escape sense of address. Madmen advertised and Modern was the mainstream design aesthetic, Kennedy spoke of a 'New Frontier' and MacNamara ran the Pentagon —Mutually Assured Destruction was the very latest in political science.(Kubrick was just started working on 'Dr. Strangelove' about then). The very idea of progress had gone insane. Set against this backdrop, these young aching artists sang the old songs, ballads from Appalachia, blues from The Delta. For all their politics were Leftist and Progressive in name, these young singers and artists and poets were the ones standing astride the tracks of supposed progress and shouting 'Stop!'—or perhaps singing it sweetly.

Did they succeed or fail? That's a question you could answer a number of different ways, considering the movement, the aesthetic, the different artists as individuals. Did they find a receptive audience? Did they change the world at all? Have a lasting impact?

This is where I come around to the idea of hope. The very next day after I saw the Coen Brothers' film, and drove home trying to explain my reactions to it to my son, I came across this article by Rebecca Solnit in —about hope of all things, something she describes as "an orientation that has nothing to do with optimism." As Solnit sees it, "[o]ptimism says that everything will be fine no matter what, just as pessimism says that it will be dismal no matter what. Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all..." That mystery and its large dimension allow for meaning and purpose even in failure, beautiful failure."[W]e don’t know how it will turn out... anything is possible."

You mightn't save the world with song —or even yourself, but there is something in the trying.

In Solnit's article she maps an aspect of hope that disappoints those who want to consider success or failure in obvious and immediate terms. She points to the example of Thoreau, dying in obscurity, owning more of his own books than he ever sold, yet long after he was dead and gone influencing the minds of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, changing the world that way. She shares an anecdote about Charles Black, how as a teenager growing up in Austin, Texas he had a chance encounter with music that changed him —and through him the world.

He was riveted and transformed by the beauty of New Orleans jazzman Louis Armstrong’s music, so much so that he began to reconsider the segregated world he had grown up in. “It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black,” he recalled decades later.

Charles Black would grow up to be a lawyer, dedicating his life to racial justice and civil rights.  He would help reverse segregation nationwide, aiding the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Draw that thread from the mournful horn blowing 'St. James Infirmary.'

That notion of the power of music to transform the world subtly and powerfully —even unknowingly, that hope surviving failure —to me that's what that gorgeous moment in the Coen Brothers film was all about. A little later in the film Llewyn Davis goes to visit his father who is failing in health at a nursing home. He wants to say goodbye as he'll soon be off to sea with the merchant marine —or so he thinks. The old man is non-responsive, practically catatonic but for how miserable he seems. Yet as his son sings him a few verses of Ewan MacColl's 'Shoals of Herring' —a song 'he always used to like' —a look of sweet ease and peace passes over the old sick man's face —only for a moment time and its weight and worry falls away for a father and his son. There is this tiny instance of timelessness (the same kind of eternity Solnit describes for hope). It's only another moment, gone the next, but that moment as captured in this sad dark movie speaks so eloquently of those songs and that time, the difference they were truly intended to make in this world.

Call Llewyn Davis a failure and I can relate to him (though he sings and plays guitar better than I ever dreamed). I, too, have taken my stabs at fame. There's a novel never published somewhere in the house, some poems and songs I've written and recorded. I wrote a speech once for a politician I admired which he never quite gave. (My CD collection is much like Thoreau's library.) I don't know what any of it amounts to at this point, but I think I know what I've tried, what my intentions were. They were stabs at fame, but also statements of belief, prayers of a sort, blind stabs at saving the world. I know that sounds grandiose and silly at the same time, but there is in the creative some amount of that instinct to save the world —to save ourselves —our each and every lonely soul. We so often fail in the attempt, forgetting ourselves, losing and leaving something behind. Bottled messages to wash ashore somewhere else if ever —or scattered seeds.

We mightn't save the world with song —or even ourselves, but there is something in the trying.

Solnit offers the notion of seeds to describe the hope in these arts and offerings —the trying.
(Thoreau would be proud of her).

I don’t know what’s coming. I do know that, whatever it is, some of it will be terrible, but some of it will be miraculous, that term we reserve for the utterly unanticipated, the seeds we didn’t know the soil held.

Somehow those seeds and those songs combine for me. Maybe it's some aspect of them carried on the wind like in Dylan's old song, the one with all those 'how many' questions answered with that resigned kind of refrain: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind." Something in the asking of those questions manages to matter in the end though —the singing of those songs does, too —all of them, though we might only notice the seeds that flower, the songs and the singers that become famous.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Separate and unequal

"Now, the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story.  And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity — the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.  And with every chapter we’ve added to that story, we’ve worked hard to put those words into practice."

The subject of income and economic inequality has gained some notice recently —not that it's exactly a new problem —who was it that said 'the poor will always be with us'?— but both the Pope and the President have proffered thoughts on the subject in these last couple of weeks —the President with his bully pulpit, the Pontiff quite literally pontificating. We even had the one quoting the other in a recent speech.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

We've had that argument about outcome versus opportunity going on for a long time. The distinction or failure to distinguish between the two has been the stumbling block, the seeming insurmountable obstacle, to many many's the debate that might otherwise have been constructive.

What strikes me as I consider what I've heard from both the Pontiff and the President, as I consider the problem I am asked to, is that something other than outcome or opportunity is at stake, because there is something more meaningful than a game going on. There is more than process or result at issue. It's sure as hell more than politics. There is something we are being asked as Americans and as human beings about who we are.

When certain of the Cultural Conservatives in this country talk about this being a Christian nation it is supposed to be my obligation —as a Progressive —or a Liberal —or whatever the appropriate label, to object and react with horror and condemnation and/or a detailed historic argument about Enlightenment Era Deists et cetera, et cetera. I could certainly go there, but I won't just now. What with it being Advent and all, maybe it's alright to consider the term 'Christian' as it applies —perhaps as an adjective describing some quality or aspect, rather than a categorization —to consider the mythos and meaning implied with such a descriptor: The Son of Man, The King of Kings, born in such famously humble circumstance: a manger —were it today maybe it would be under a highway overpass or in the shelter of a garage attached to some hotel with 'no vacancy' burning neon bright in a darkened window. What should that tell us about our regard for the poor? for each other —each and every one of us? —the pluribus of our unum?

I wonder if we could reconvene our conversation with that notion of the ultimate human dignity centering things, if we were to accept that larger meaning in the founding premise of our national narrative —we might come back around to considering economic opportunities, even outcomes, but we might find something more meaningful than the whole of life considered a game or a contest with winners and losers. We might come round to a very basic respect for one another at least, where we are asked for reverence, where we are asked for love.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22nd

I am just barely old enough to be considered a baby boomer —still I'm not quite old enough to be one of those people who remembers where they were on November 22, 1963. I might have some sketchy fragments of watching the funeral I recall, but I am not even sure. Memory can be deceptive. What I do recall growing up —in an Irish Catholic family in the Boston area— was a common reverence for the man and a sense of identity with him. I saw the same memorial portrait of him —a pullout from the newspaper— framed and on the wall in both my grandparents homes, cousins houses too. For all he was a wealthy privileged man of power he was also somehow one of us. The grim fact of his murder, the majestic ceremony of mourning, they hung there on the wall, or upon our hearts, with moment not unlike the images of Saints and the Crucified Christ.

The first day of my education was at The John F. Kennedy Memorial Elementary School in Franklin, Mass. I came of age hearing his speeches telling me to "ask not" what my country could do for me, but what I should do —sending the word forth about torches passed forward to new generations. Those speeches —that voice and call— were a huge part of what formed my understanding of being an American. We landed on the moon remembering he'd sent us.

With time of course the worship wore off. The contrasting portrait of the womanizing rich kid whose dad bought him elections came along, courtesy of the iconoclasts. I learned of things like the Bay of Pigs fiasco. I heard the arguments back and forth about flaws and virtues. He was weak or he was clever in dealing with Kruschev —at Vienna —over Cuba —the Berlin Wall. He caused Vietnam. He would have ended it. He was a civil rights champion or a foot dragging, cautious and opportunistic politician.

Over time I've come to believe and accept a little of both narratives. JFK was a flawed man, both measured and inspired, craven and noble —a bit of both. He was one of us. And it strikes me that it was the terrible fact of his death that allowed us to love him, to allow his better angel a voice and hear him in a way we seldom listen these days —in our modern oh so skeptical state of mind.

"For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Those are the words that come to mind for me just now. From a speech he gave to college students, about the challenge, the promise, the possibility of peace. I woke this morning hearing that speech in my mind — I've heard those words all my life, tried in my own flawed way to remember them, words so very well said.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


"I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all."  
~ James Baldwin

I grew up reading history. It was something we did in my family. My dad never understood why anyone would ever read a novel. Let alone poetry. He respected Shakespeare though, I think it was old enough material for him to pass muster. My easy readers when I was in the first and second grade were titles like 'Meet Abe Lincoln' (there was a whole series of them: Meet Ben Franklin, Meet Ulysses S. Grant — I collected them all —the first manifestation of a lifelong problem with book hoarding). And for a long time when I pondered history I was impressed with vast expanse of it behind us. Events I was told about happening a hundred years ago or two hundred possessed this awesome majesty and authority over the mere present. So many great ideas had already been recorded in the annals, the most important lessons taught, it was hard not to suspect the future of only unraveling, aging, winding down. I grew up believing the responsible citizen protected the past, honored it, even over his own experience.

Now I find myself in my fifties. I still find history a fascinating subject, but those measures of time that used to connote irrevocable monuments of established truth seem scant. More than half way to a hundred myself I suddenly have this different sense of the human scale of time. Fold my lifetime back twice in the opposite direction and the characters we've built awesome monuments to and enshrined in our sense of history were politicians navigating their own very human existences through bloody warfare or "politics by other means."

Read the histories of other cultures, hear their languages —or check out their wikipedia pages— and you get the same sense, or at least I do. People live with these assumed narratives that they afford great weight —senses of enormity and eternity —and seen just differently they are only the matter of a few lifetimes strung end upon end.

Living in our global village we can start to see these different narratives encounter and inform one another. I watch Swedish language crime dramas on Netflix and notice American idiom in the conversation where I no longer need the subtitles. All are changed and evolve. This is the kind of thing that drives cultural conservatives to climb the wall. Musty old academics rant that we no longer teach the classics and our standards are degrading, our culture becoming lost; angry mullahs countenance murder in defense of their traditions and truths. I wonder if they all aren't acting upon that same awful sense of history —the past with such meaning winding down to a future without. Blindness to the present truth and its future.

I was talking about this with my wife as we drove in the car the other night. We came to this formulation, that the older we get the younger the world seems. This is true of our country, our society, civilization as a whole. Humanity itself might still be in its adolescence. That could be a hopeful thought, but it's also a wistful thought really, knowing we'll only be around so long to watch it all grow and evolve —just possibly improve.

I think about the history our children's children will know and I pray they will love and cherish it —and at the same time not take it too seriously.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


The signs are all over town here in Holliston. “Casi-no!” with emphasis on the “no!” Folks put them on their lawns as a show of emphatic non-support for the idea of a casino, not here in Holliston but in Milford, the next town over. I’ve not partaken of the lawn sign business myself on a couple of accounts. I actually don’t have a lawn first and foremost and if I did I’ve got to admit I’m just not all that dead set against them having whatever they decide they want in Milford. I’m no expert in the details, but as I understand it the Milford development as proposed is to be located on land just over the line from Holliston with fairly direct access to Route 495. Thusly it seems relatively well situated for what they nowadays call a “destination casino resort experience” or some such. Not my cup of tea personally, but to each his own.

What any town does on one side of the line is going to have some impact upon the town on the other, I understand that. But with the Milford site’s direct arterial connection to 495 one could imagine the impact on Holliston being minor, even beneficial with some prudent planning decisions. To talk to some of the folks who oppose the casino, though, you would think this one proposal is the camel’s back breaking straw that will see our little version of Bedford Falls (It’s a Wonderful Life) start upon its sad decline into Pottersville —flashing lights, gunfire and floozies flouting feather boas in the streets —dead gangster’s clogging our scenic lake in their cement overshoes.

The first time I ever encountered this fervent opposition I was sitting in a room of like minded liberals. The book club discussion had wound down and the topic came up. One of our participants was selling the lawn signs. I admitted to not sharing in the zeal and I quick found myself surrounded and being accused of uncaring disregard for the plight of compulsive gamblers, crime run rampant in the streets, etc. I pointed out this is a Foxwood’s Resort Casino we’re talking about, that my mom —not exactly a gun moll for the mob— used to ride the Senior Center chartered bus to Foxwoods in Connecticut with her friends. A good friend of mine had told me about catching some pretty good music acts there. I was lectured then at length on the corrosive social costs of gambling. I had to ask at that point if anybody was prepared to stand at Town Meeting and move that the town not accept any lottery money from the state. About then I was told the lighting of this casino was such that to support it, or even not oppose it avidly enough, was to evince a craven disregard for starlight.

It was about then I concluded that there was some plane the Casi-No! crowd was operating on that I simply couldn’t fathom or navigate. And I swam for shore.

Then I came across this piece in my favorite local online community news site, There’s Nothing to Worry About: A Satire. The author waxes sarcastic at what he sees as the logical inconsistency in the traffic study and recent presentation of proposed roadway improvements involved in the casino proposal. That’s fine. I see some inconsistency in the logic of his critique just as well. Reasonable folks can disagree. But then came this little tidbit all wrapped up in the same swift sarcasm of the rest of this satire:
As for other impacts, frankly, they go under the heading of “None of Your Business.” Still, we can rest assured: our property values won’t go down, they’ll go up. Only a handful of employees’ kids will end up enrolling in grades K-12, and they’ll all speak the King’s English. Crime will actually go down, because there’ll be more police. And the project is quite modest in size, really. Tiny! You’ll hardly even know it’s there. According to the experts, all the bad stuff you might have heard about casinos, none of it is true. None of it.
I’d been seeking a concise retort to the lawn sign bumpersticker sentiment “Casi-No!” ever since that night I wandered out into the gorgeous jilted starlight from our book club. And this author’s satire may have offered up the analogy I was looking for. If all this pseudo-civic umbrage really boils down to fretting over property values and the wrong kind of people maybe coming to live in town —and what’s worse expecting to see their kids educated along side ours —well, the obvious parallel is with the Know Nothings of the 1850′s. They, too, had a mind for resenting outsiders and cloaking jealous spiteful bigotry in supposed high minded civic concern. Back then the scary immigrants were Irish and German Catholics, and the resonant political message was that these weren’t quite Americans showing up in our towns and cities to build things, they were maybe just a little foreign to our ways —to the King’s English, you might say. As one critic put it, the Know Nothings bespoke “the spirit which is forever carping about the foreign-born citizen and trying to abridge his privileges.”

“Casi-Know-Nothings” —that’s a lot to put on a lawn sign I suppose, maybe too subtle. Come to think of it, I don’t even have a lawn.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

It is only rain that falls
choosing nothing
nor the wind

we that thirst attribute grace
or wrath, claiming to know
a mind

to water and warming light.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Justice of the double edged sword

The Supreme Court is in the news these days, handing down decisions left and right —if you'll excuse the expression. And both main stream and social media are breathless with their exclamations. One day the justices are "gutting" the Voting Rights Act and the howls of indignation go up. The next it would seem The Nine have made gay marriage the law of the land. Break out the the glitter and champagne and oh-so-tastefully decorated cake.

I'm thinking a little closer and more skeptical scrutiny might give rise to a little less outrage on the one count and a little less exaltation on the other. 

I just recently finished reading"The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction" by Charles Lane —harrowing stuff  —the history is of an episode of brutal racial and political violence that, together with the court actions that followed it, signaled the basic collapse of Reconstruction in the South. In his narrative Lane points specifically to two landmark Supreme Court decisions that served to usher in and assure that collapse and I'm thinking their example might be instructive as we regard the current day. The first of these, The Slaughterhouse Cases involved a group of New Orleans butchers who found themselves compelled by state law to trade with a slaughterhouse that had been sited and licensed with an eye to protecting the public health, so said the state anyway. The butchers argued it was only carpet bagger crony capitalism run amuck. Thereto the Mississippi River had served as the open gutter for offal in much more of a free market arrangement. The butchers contended that, public health be damned, the state was compelling trade with state sanctioned monopoly. The appeal they took all the way to the highest court argued that the state was infringing upon the "privileges and immunities" due all free citizens —in this instance their right of free trade. They pointed to the newly minted Fourteenth Amendment of The Constitution and its guarantee of protection for those privileges and immunities. Though the amendment had been written with the rights of newly freed slaves in mind, its protections rightly should extend to all citizens, black and white, former slave and master alike—so went the argument of New Orleans' friendly neighborhood butchers anyway.

The  Supreme Court didn't buy the argument. As it turned out, the justices deemed dumping slaughter refuse into the river upstream of your neighbor's favorite fishing spot was not a right the U.S. Constitution, even as it was freshly amended, was meant to protect. Looking back across the years who would complain about the state's protection of public health standing up to Constitutional challenge? Am I right? One can well  imagine applause from the civic minded back in the day. But it was the logic the court  announced in coming to its decision that would have the devastating effect upon Reconstruction and the cause of Civil Rights. 

Justice Samuel Freeman Miller writing for the majority noted "there is a citizenship of the United States, and a citizenship of a state, which are distinct from each other, and which depend upon different characteristics or circumstances in the individual." The Federal Courts could not intervene in matters of state citizenship and could only act to protect specifically enumerated federal rights. As Jack Beatty put it, in his own brilliant and depressing history of the era, "Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900," these rights included "access to ports and navigable waterways, the ability to run for federal office, and to be protected while on the high seas... they did not include what we call 'civil rights.'"

This reining in of supposed federal over reach would not go unnoticed. The federal prosecution of The Colfax Massacre would meet it head on. 

The bloody violence and atrocity that occurred of an Easter Sunday in Colfax, Louisiana in 1873 had been in essence an open battle over who would hold the seat of local law enforcement. White Supremacist vigilantes and free blacks had each laid their claim. It was the Colfax Courthouse that had been burned to the ground, those defending it who had been murdered. Citing The Slaughterhouse Cases as precedent, the Supreme Court would hold that the mass murder at issue was not a matter for federal prosecution and jurisdiction, but a matter for those local courts, those same local courts now in the hands of the criminals. In essence, to the victors had gone the spoils.

Justice Stephen J. Field, a dissenting justice in the 5-4 Slaughterhouse decision, would later write that Miller's  opinion and the unhealthy precedent it had set for cases like the Colfax massacre had effectively rendered the Fourteenth Amendment a "vain and idle enactment." The collapse of Reconstruction and the birth of Jim Crow would follow to prove his point.

I'm put in mind of this history as the various parties curse or applaud the blatant aspects of these recent Supreme Court decisions. First let's look at the rulings on marriage rights. Yes, DOMA was struck down, but reading the logic of the opinion once again you find the justices proffering that notion of distinct citizenships, state and federal. The court found that the federal government had no basis for curtailing rights that states had granted. This may have been an apparently pleasing result for advocates of marriage equality, but the decision most decidedly did not affirm same sex marriage as a federally protected civil right. Where the court might have done exactly that, the matter of California's Proposition 8, the justices instead demurred. They found the appellants had no standing before the court as aggrieved parties. The practical effect was to throw out their appeal and leave lower court rulings uncontested, as the California constitutional officers had chosen not to contest them. While I can applaud the progress made —or not unmade— on marriage rights, I am left with this disquiet. I fear the justices stopped short of a ruling that would set a clear path for marriage equality even in states where the notion is less than popular. There is an important difference between civil rights and popular rights. 

With the ruling —or the non-ruling— on California's Prop 8, I am left wondering if the victory being celebrated isn't a hollow one. The appellants were told they had no standing as private citizens to appeal on behalf of their state's constitutionally enacted law. The state's constitutional officers had elected not to appeal—that was that. The practical effect in this particular case may be laudable, but is it so hard to imagine a case where a governor and a state attorney general act or fail to act counter to the people's rights and interests? Where this case might serve as a less than healthy precedent? Reading history, I think not.

Just as I fear some of the cheering for the court's rulings on marriage rights may be over loud, I also believe at least some of the anguish being expressed over the Voting Rights Act may be somewhat overstated. At the very least it is in the power of the American people to find a silver lining in this dark cloud of an opinion. 

The VRA, passed nearly fifty years ago, can really be seen as something of an answer to the abuses and injustices that the Slaughter House Cases and The Colfax Case had so unfortunately enabled. States where the notion of state sovereignty had taken on the aspect of a white hood and a burning cross were confronted with federal law actively affirming —and enabled to enforce— the constitutional rights of citizenship —not the least of these, voting rights

"Pre-clearance" was the issue at point in the recent Roberts' Court decision. Particular states where past abuses had been most egregious were singled out for special requirements of the law. Any change to voting requirements or accommodations had first to be cleared with the U.S. Justice Department. In striking down the pre-clearance requirements justice Roberts cited the last fifty years of progress over the prior hundred in abuse. With the law in place and working so effectively it seemed we no longer needed it. We have a New South, “(n)early 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” he said and the special scrutiny upon those singled out states was no longer equitable. 

Justice Ginzberg compared the reasoning to abandoning an umbrella in a rainstorm —inasmuch as under the umbrella you're dry.

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty to be validly indignant about in the VRA decision of The Roberts Court. The same guys who profess that they are mere umpires calling balls and strikes for the lawmakers who define the batters box seem to have no problem with the fact that their discerning judgement on historical progress on civil rights in The South is counter to the opinion Congress had in renewing the pre-clearance provisions of the VRA as recently as 2006. But, just as what they didn't say bothers me with the marriage rights cases, here I take heart in what they did not strike down. For optimists and pessimists alike there is still something pretty important left in the cup. The court did not declare the entirety of the VRA unconstitutional, only the pre-clearance requirements as they were applied to some states and not all. As I think about that more and more, I take some comfort.  The court did not say there is no place for federal oversight in Birmingham, Alabama or Colfax, Louisiana. It said there should be no more or less of that federal oversight and state accountability there than there ought to be right here in Boston, Massachusetts or outside Cleveland, Ohio. Thinking of our own Tom Finneran, I have to admit I'm almost okay with that.

It seems to me the court has left a decision to us in this case. It is up to us what we make of their opinions.  Already, we're seeing states, where VRA Justice Department actions had previously counter ordered redistricting plans that  disadvantage minority voters, dusting off the same old maps, testing the new/old limits of decency and democracy. It remains to be seen how the Obama Administration Justice Department will respond. We, the people can respond though, with a clear call for law and enforcement that protects the rights of every voter in every corner of this country.  We can choose to wring our hands and see  The VRA as  "gutted" and rendered toothless. Or we can choose to see voting rights as a common cause for the entire country. 

So it is I find myself urging against resigned despair on the one hand and cautioning against easy early celebration on the other. With marriage equality, just as it is with voting rights, it seems there's some American history yet to be written.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Thoughts on the senate debate

"Senators, we hear, must be politicians – and politicians must be concerned only with winning votes, not with statesmanship or courage. Mothers may still want their favorite sons to grow up to be President, but according to a famous Gallup poll of some years ago, they do not want them to become politicians in the process." 
~ Senator John F. Kennedy, "Profiles in Courage"

The two candidates for the U.S. Senate, contending in a special election here in Massachusetts, will face off this week in a head to head debate for the first time. Whichever candidate wins the debate, or even if neither one does, one can only hope the episode wins some much needed attention to the contest. Maybe it's me and the unique and peculiar sampling of media I happen to take in at my house, but the one thing I've noticed about this election is how little notice it's been receiving. And how what attention there's been has been puddle deep, barely splashable.

Pond scum? We should hope for such depth.

Sure one can seek out coverage and always find the pundits on the opinion pages turning familiar soil. The partisans have affected their predictable postures. But what is striking is how precious little engaged discussion about differences of policy or political approach we've managed to hear thus far. We get the cartoons instead. The Democrat will unflinchingly champion the President and his side in the constant struggle that is Washington, D.C., except where maybe it's unpopular. The Republican promises... well, not to champion the President, but as far as the national GOP is concerned, folks like Boehner and Cantor and McConnell —let's just say there's an elephant in the room.

Asses and elephants: I'm thinking that maybe the reason I've seen so little discussion going on about the election is that there are a lot of citizens just plain sick and tired of both creatures and the game of mutual caricature that has become our politics. And maybe there's a clue there for both the candidates about how to win back our attention.

Gabriel Gomez, first let me say that I agree it was downright scummy to post ads with your image right along side that of Osama bin Laden. I'd have lost my temper as well, but please admit, too, that it was equally scummy when the group you were speaking on back when was doing the same to President Obama. The politics of attack ad anti-advocacy gets scummy. Let's get past that and on to the subject of the U.S. Senator you would be. In that regard I would be very interested to hear just exactly how you think you would improve and even reform the GOP Senate Caucus. Don't bother disparaging Democrats. That stuff is old hat from GOP candidates countrywide and Democrats do a good enough job of disparaging or embarrassing themselves most of the time. While you want to run as a Republican somewhat removed from the national party you will become a part of that caucus if you win and we here in Massachusetts want to know how you (and we) could change that caucus for the better. How would you change the dynamic from within your party, across the aisle, and throughout the senate chamber? Speak to that and I will be all ears.

Congressman Markey, I would ask you to answer a very similar set of questions. It might be tempting after more than three decades in the House of Representatives to suggest that your record speaks for itself, that your ideals and inclinations are plain. That might all be true, but this election isn't a referendum on your political personality, however well cultivated that may be. How will you change the U.S. Senate —not as one more rank and file member of your party's caucus, but as a singular voice? Where, why and how would you challenge Democratic leadership —even a Democratic president for the better fate of the country?

That's the ideal of the senate after all... that form of debate.  It's not a body premised on procedures and partisan lockstep —the disciplined herding of coalitions and precounted votes. The senate's premise is principled and openly deliberate debate, asking hard questions even of our own, even of ourselves. Answering in candid earnest. That's what I'll be watching for this week, not the easy answers or push button politicking. There's that something a past U.S. Senator of Massachusetts once profiled as courage, that's what I'll be watching for.
Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests ... Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment... And thus, in the days ahead, only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival in the struggle with a powerful enemy...
Maybe our enemy these days isn't as singularly obvious as it was in the 1950's when "Profiles in Courage" was written. Maybe it wasn't even then. But are the challenges we face any less serious today? Any less about survival? Do we require any less courage of our statesmen? of ourselves?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Balance sheet blues

The news this morning had some passing reference to the so called immigration reform making its way through congress. A senate committee had moved and various partisans to the debate were voicing their thought on the latest development, the balance struck between "protecting American jobs" and bringing in the talent American industry needs, and of course the temporary workers who would do for a living what "Americans" considered beneath them. Somewhere in there was mention of a path to citizenship. 

The whole account left me wondering... whether to sigh, scream or whimper?

What struck me saddest was the afterthought aspect of the citizenship. The way the immigration reform debate is being framed for the public you wouldn't think we were a community, or a country. We would seem to be nothing more than an economy —a labor market processing people as a necessary commodity, like soybean and pork bellies. We are not concerning ourselves with citizenship in this debate, we are concerning ourselves with "workers" —highly skilled workers we want to lure here because we claim we are incapable of educating our current populace to do the work they do —and utterly menial workers because there are jobs we'd never ask "our own" to do. We want our economy to be a convenience to us and just now we need to tune a resource. 

I shouldn't dismiss these practical economic concerns I suppose and I don't think I really mean to. But some part of me aches when I hear this discussion beginning and ending and never engaging upon the question of citizenship in human terms. What discussion there is of community focuses on jealous measure of what we can afford to allow immigrants in terms of resources and services like healthcare and education. We should be sure to structure the temporary work program to keep them temporary, there's always more where they came from and we don't want them settling into place where they might age and require medicine or have children to educate. Those high skilled types, let's assure ourselves their incomes and the taxes they pay on them will render us a net gain.

Is there nothing beyond this balance sheet?

I'd like to believe there is something. I'll admit It's hard to give it a name, let alone make it a part of this debate going on. But I really do think we need to. I think maybe we need to place citizenship at the heart of this discussion of reform. Citizenship as something we embrace and engage in, not a licensed membership of exclusive entitlement. What do we mean when we say the word 'citizen'? What place —of privilege and responsibility— do we afford the citizen in our community. Martin Luther King used to use the term 'beloved community' and when he did, as soon as those words formed in your mind you knew what it was about, exactly what he was after. 

Is there such a thing as a 'beloved citizen'? 

If there is, who would we offer that status? Who would we deny?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The punishment they seek

Now and then a case comes along and we're compelled to examine the issue of capital punishment.  Often the subject comes up in an instance where the guilt of the convict is in doubt, or the circumstances of the crime and the criminal give us pause. Perhaps the murderer is barely an adult or someone of such diminished capacity, such sorry chances in life, that we question our state disposition to simply dispose of them. We stop at the thought of what we are doing to the least —to the lowest— of our citizens.

It's right that these cases give us to deeply consider state slaughter, even in the name of justice. They serve as a premise for valid debate: whether the justice being dispensed is even handed or socially skewed, whether or not the prospect of ultimate punishment serves to deter ultimate crime —these are worthwhile questions. Those who would oppose capital punishment ask them and they turn to their statistical answers, that capital punishment is imperfect as justice, ineffective as deterrence. With each of these visits maybe some small progress is made towards further limiting the practice, and there is some satisfaction for the activists in making it that much harder for the state to simply execute its most undesirable persons.

I've long argued though that the true challenge in contesting capital punishment doesn't present itself with the plight of that occasional somehow sympathetic death row inmate. It's not to be found in some bloodless cost benefit analysis of the practice as a public policy option either. This question resides on another level. It might be a question about law and government and policy, but it's also a deeply personal one each and every one of us has to answer the hard way, honestly. How do we answer the question when we can stare it squarely in the very human face of one we've come to unabashedly despise?

These days we find ourselves presented with just such a face. The senseless murder of three innocent spectators at the Boston Marathon finish line with bombs that maimed and scarred so many more: within days we had the faces of the criminals and then their names. One of them would die in the manhunt that followed upon the atrocity, the other one we captured. But even before that capture it seemed we were set upon a special standing for this particular crime. These murders and maimings were "acts of terrorism," authorities told us, and the pressure cooker home made bombs were "weapons of mass destruction." This conception of the crime, as federal crime, so quickly offered, made way for one very specific possibility. Where the crime was committed here in a state with no provision for capital punishment, taking these crimes as federal crimes allows us to consider killing the man in our custody who committed them.

And who could fault us if we did?

Who can look at the faces of those innocents who died at the bombing scene, the young policeman gunned down days later, the many left so damaged they may never wholly heal —who could look there and not feel rage? —not demand justice? —and, yes, retribution? But this begs another question in turn.  Should we feel any differently when the crime is one of lesser notice, on a smaller scale? Do we feel less for the victims of obscure more ordinary crime? What aspect of this atrocity justifies our killing the culprit where we would spare others?

The sharp and quick answer of course is the terrorism.  There is a political or ideological color to this crime —we're told this by the surviving killer himself, that the bombs were our punishment for the wars we wage in distant Islamic countries— and with this what reservations we have about capital punishment are put aside. This is not a incident of criminality in a civil society, so the argument goes, this is an act of war. Certain politicians announce that even allowing the war criminal Miranda rights is a dangerously mistaken notion. This is an enemy combatant.

What's striking in all this is how the killer and those who would consider killing him happen to agree —that this particular crime was murder of a special stature. These deaths and dismemberments meant something more because of the ideology that motivated the perpetrators. We might rightly call the Marathon bombings senseless, but it is the sensibility behind them that we would consider punishing with death. One has to notice that in so doing we elevate the craven criminality to the level of warfare, the criminal to the status —as he might frame it in his own mind—of a soldier and a martyr.

This paradox where it comes to terrorism isn't exactly news. The core strategic objective of many a terror campaign over the years —throughout history— has been the severity of retribution elicited. Punishment for punishment is meted out and the fringe cause comes somewhere closer step by step to level footing with the power it challenges.

But with the Boston Marathon bombings we have something slightly but very importantly different. From what we've learned thus far it would appear this violence wasn't a part of some coordinated terror campaign. There was no mastermind calling the shots from some darkened cave. The "religious motivations" that drove the bombers were vaguely ideological. These weren't holy soldiers so much as they were sentimentalists, alienated young men hungry for a sense of meaning and consequence to their actions, to their existence. Anything to escape anonymity and a sense of purposelessness —anything to attain celebrity. Islam might might have seemed to offer a cosmic sort of celebrity, but one has to wonder if this was merely a choice of brand, not much different from the notoriety of spectacle slaughter to an Aurora, Colorado multiplex shooting spree —or the carnage of a Connecticut schoolroom.

The dead don't know the difference.

This is where the question of the punishment folds back upon itself for me. I am one of those who generally and statistically argues against the death penalty. As I consider them now I know these murders are not statistical cases. And I realize none of them ever are for those touched directly by crime. Just now I don't think I can frame this as a political argument with obvious sides. I've been more certain about this issue in the past. Words like mercy and compassion and redemption, what do they mean to us weighed against a word like justice? Who holds that scale to weigh them? I suppose we each of us have to. This is where it becomes personal.

I don't regret that we've made it difficult to execute even our most despicable citizens in this country. Yet there is the bind. It is with this that I worry what signal of meaning we give in those rare instances when we choose to do just that. As we render each state killing so carefully, deliberately —ritualistically even—we might unwittingly dignify the reckless crimes of desperately warped children. With our extraordinary punishment we might offer the notice and sense of importance they crave. We might punish with the very reward they seek. Wouldn't that serve to invite the next atrocity?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Snowfall, New Year's Day 2013

Snow from the placeless sky
Not falling but wandering here—
Perhaps journeying

To the scene,

The next day empty.

Tears spent like necessary coin
Achieve mere purchase.

There is that image of a child we are given
To represent the new year
In the wordless story The Old Man passes
And The Infant staggers
On from there to age in turn.

They are the same being.

This is the supposed consolation,
That place at the edge of a wheel turning
Without sense of travel
Only that weight gathering, then passing—
Gathering again.

Is it Faith that assumes purpose?

But this day with its damage cannot
and aches at what it evinces
In brokenness. The Innocents

Their names written, again and again
Until never is understood.

Until forgotten into meanings only others might entertain.

Is this then the light that becomes possible?
Ever real in this numb terrible knowledge?

Beneath this heaven's dull metallic shell
Darkening like a bruise

This moment seeming ashes become again the snow

Cold and pure —is this clear sight?