Archive for September, 2010

Equal Protection

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

On November 4, 2008, uniformed Black Panther members stood in pace at the entrance of a polling place in Philadelphia with night sticks. One can click here and decide for yourself whether the individuals were attempting to intimidate voters. If such an incident had occurred 10 year ago, it is unlikely that with conflicting testimony as to what really happened could be definitely sorted out. In this age, eye-witness testimony is more persuasive gi given the video evidence.

The Bush Administration response to the incident was not as aggressive as it could have been, pursuing civil as opposed to criminal sanctions against the individuals involved. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice won a default judgment against the individuals, a judgment that the Obama Department of Justice gave up when it inexplicably dropped the case.

In response to the Obama Administration decision, Christian Adams in the Department of Justice Civil RIght Division resigned. He later testified before the US Civil Rights Commission that the case was dismissed because of a disinterest in pursuing Civil Rights cases directed against minorities. Adams’ accusation while damning, was difficult to prove. He could be dismissed as a disgruntled, politically-motivated holdover from the Bush Administration. Some argued that there was no proof that voters were actually intimidated by the Black Panther thugs despite the actions. Nonetheless, the civil case had already been won, and the Department of Justice refused to accept victory.

The issue has been resurrected with the testimony of the Christopher Coates, the former head of the Voting Rights Section of the Department of Justice, before the US Department of Civil RIghts Commission. He had been directed by the Justice Department not to not comply with the subpoena, but complied nonetheless.

Coates justified his decision to testify:

“I did not lightly decide to comply with your subpoena in contradiction to the DOJ’s directives not to testify,… If incorrect representations are going to successfully thwart inquiry into the systemic problems regarding race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Civil Rights Division, problems that were manifested….in the New Black Panther Party case that end is not going to be furthered or accomplished by my sitting idly or silently by at the direction of my supervisors while incorrect information is provided…. I do not believe that I am professionally, ethically, legally, or morally bound to allow such a result to occur.’’

Coates largely corroborated Adams’ testimony. The Holder Justice Department had decided not to pursue cases against minority defendants “until we reached the day when the socio-economic status of blacks in Mississippi was the same as the socio-economic status of whites living there.’’

It is impossible to paint Coates as a political partisan bent of causing problems for the Obama Administration. He was originally appointed by President Clinton, worked for voting rights for the American Civil Liberties Union, and received awards for his efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If he is concerned about selective, race-based civil rights enforcement, he brings with that concern a cache of credibility

Even more important that any particular economic or social policy, the election of President Barack Obama represented a seminal event, The US could be said to have overcome is original sin of slavery and racial discrimination. It is not that bigotry would cease to exist or disparate conditions equalized, but Obama’s election and his inuaguration with nearly 70% approval, proved that the United States had crossed an important threshold in race relations.

The case in Philadelphia is a small one. No election outcome depended on what happened there, but it is still potentially damning. If the Justice Department proves not to be committed to equal protection of the law, it is denying a fundamental promise of America. Presuming President Obama is committed to an America undivided be race, he should determine who in his Justice Department refuses to believe in equal protection of the law and dismiss them. His legacy may be threatened.

What Would Buckley Say?

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Practical politics and principle often chafe against one another. A well-functioning democracy rarely secures its entire trust in any single political party or faction. Adherence to principle is important, but sometimes even the most ideologically devout must reluctantly yield to compromise. A smug ideologue boasting political purity is self-indulgent. A political sail who responds instantly to the political winds is untrustworthy. A statesman pushes a polity when he can, accepts those times when he can’t, and has the wisdom to know the difference.

In 1967, the sainted Conservative William F. Buckley supported the Vice-President Richard Nixon over Senator Barry Goldwater, despite Buckley’s narrower political differences with Goldwater. Buckley followed what has come to be known as Buckley’s rule:

“The wisest choice would be the one who would win. No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest. I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win. If you could convince me that Barry Goldwater could win, I’d vote for him.’’

Given the Nixon presidency, both its end in disgrace and Nixon’s domestic movement toward the Left, one wonders whether Buckley would have liked to reconsider his decision to support Nixon. Would a second Goldwwater loss in 1968 be better than the Nixon victory?

A chance to apply the Buckley rule cam last week in the Republican primary contest. If I were a Delaware resident, I would most probably have voted for Congressman Mike Castle in last week’s Republican primary. Although I would disagree with many of Castle’s vote, I know he would vote for a Republican Senate Majority leader. National Review, the magazine Buckley started, also endorsed Castle. Besides pure tactical considerations, they were also concerned about personal baggage that burdened Christine O’Donnell.

There is outside possibility that Republicans can takeover the Senate this fall and one Republican Senatorial victory could make the difference. Mike Castle almost certainly would have won the general election. O’Donnell, who bested Castle in the Republican primary, has moved the open seat to the probable-Democratic-victory column.

In fairness, despite a late endorsement from Governor Sarah Palin, O’Donnell did not so much win the race, a be the last person standing as Castle let the nomination slip away in the grease of arrogance. Castle exhibited the “I’m entitled’’ attitude that has angered the public. He did not make a sufficient effort to address concerns that Conservatives had with some of his votes. He did not have to. He thought he was a sure winner.

Public anger is not unreasonable. In the last two years, many ordinary Americans have suffering economically, while rich bankers were bailed out by the government. Many ordinary Americans worry about their jobs with unemployment uncomfortably close to 10%, while the government bails out union jobs at GM. Many ordinary Americans struggle to make the mortgage payments, while those who recklessly borrowed far more than they could afford are relieved of some of their obligations.

In this political environment, Castle represented the out-of-touch elite, while O’Donnell’s ordinary resume made her an “every man’’ standing up to the elite. Ironically, the very act of dismissing her qualifications reinforces her symbolism as a member of the beleaguered classes.

O’Donnell does not appear to have the political skills to usher her past this race in a very peculiar election year. This very much like when comedian and failed talk-show hostAl Franken was elected to the Senate, during the anti-Republican 2008 elections. O’Donnell’s election to the Senate — a long shot — would probably be a one-election exception.

WIlliam Buckley also once remarked:

“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.’’

Given O’Donnell’s educational and professional pedestrian past, perhaps we can argue that she represents someone selected from those names in the phone book. If she manages to win election to the Senate, we will have an opportunity to test Buckley’s hypothesis.

The Need to Hang on to Books

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

We are undergoing a minor renovation of our basement that has stirred up more than drywall dust. The basement has become a repository of children’s toys that once belonged to our children who have officially “launched.’’ My concern is the hundreds of books stored there. The books belong largely to me and the toys are kept by my wife for the times when grandchildren visit. The renovation has initiated a struggle to decide what to keep and what to dispose of. It has also evoked a thoughtful consideration of the reasons we clutch onto physical objects we rarely use.

I have always enjoyed reading. Over the years the accumulated books have overflowed the available shelves. Is this a indication of the need for more shelves or a warning that I need to consider trimming my library?

Why do we bear the burden of caring books through our lives? Many of the books could be donated to libraries and barely be missed. Some of the books are classics the contents of which could be found on line. One of my favorite books is dog-eared copy of the Federalist Papers which can be found and searched on line. In the event I wish to consult with James Madison, John Jay, or Alexander Hamilton, I am more likely to have access to the Internet than to be in my basement office near my physical copy of their essays.

No one argues that all books should be disposed of in favor of their digital counterparts. Some books have intrinsic value beyond their words. Some are signed by their authors. For others, there may not yet be a digital copy. Some books are works of art in their binding and illustrations. The fraction of my books that would fit into these special categories is small.

Are my books an intellectual trophy boasting the amount and quality of what I have read — my intellectual bona fides? Are they a safety line to what I thought I once knew? Are my books a simple library decorating theme to create a warm environment to relax in? Why do I carry these hundreds of pounds of paper through my life?

Some point out that paper books are easier to read, and there is truth to this argument. However, digital displays are rapidly approaching the resolution of books. A recent study showed that reading on a electronic book was only 10% slower than reading paper. This discrepancy is likely to disappear with higher resolution displays, while the advantages of carrying an entire library with you everywhere in a few ounces grow. The sale of electronic books now exceeds the sales of hardcover books at Amazon. As a sign of the times (some perhaps some believe the end times) the next edition of the venerable Oxford Dictionary may go entirely digital

Others enjoy the tactile feel of books: the way a page lingers on the fingers or the substantial weight of a book in the hand. The distinctive smell of old and aging pages lends authority to the words contained. These sensual pleasures are not to be dismissed, but will ultimately prove less important than the convenience of electronic books. In much the same way, a fountain pen is a pleasurable way to write, but most people now pound out their thoughts on a keyboard.

I am now convinced that the strong inclination for some of us to keep a library overfilled with books points to a more fundamental need, a need illustrated in an exchange on the television program, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The android character Data has a discussion with his creator, Dr. Noonian Soong.

SOONG: Now, let me ask you a question. Why are humans so fascinated with old things? Old buildings, churches, walls, ancient things, antique things… tables, clocks, knick knacks… Why?

DATA: There are many possible explanations.

SOONG: If you brought a Noophian to Earth he’d look around and say, “Tear that old village down. It’s hanging in rags. Build me something new, something efficient.” But to a human, that ancient wall, that old house, is a shrine, something to cherish…. Again I ask you, why?

DATA: Perhaps, for humans, old things represent a tie to the past.

SOONG; And what’s so important about the past? People needed money, They got sick. Why tie yourself to that?

DATA: Humans are mortal. They seem to need a sense of continuity.

Books like other items are physical manifestations of past times. Perhaps we remember what was going on in our lives when we read a particular book. We may have obtained certain books during a period when we had a particular interest or were struggling with a particular question. Simply holding certain books can trigger nostalgic memories. Physical books bring people a sense of continuity with the past.

However, technology has changed. We should not ignore the advances of new technology just because of a comfort with the present. Even the human need for physical continuity does not quite justify hundreds of books in a world where many books are quickly retrievable digitally. We do not do justice to those special books associated with special memories, when they are lost in a confusion of hundreds or even thousands of volumes. Culling books from our collection allows us to focus on the more unique and important ones and frees us from the pressure of clutter.

In the long term, a modest special collection of books might find a home when we pass. However, if the collection is too large and the gems included too small a percentage, the books may simply be disposed of. If we want our important books to survive us, we increase the odds by maintaining a small, well considered and organized collection. Loving reading and loving books may overlap, but they should not be confused with each other.

These are brave words. In the process of renovation, I have managed to prune my collection, but not nearly to the extent justified by my argument.