Friday, April 15, 2011


Three different items of note converge today that make it quite clear the Republican Party is opposed to reality.

The current leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President believes the sitting President was born in Kenya.

As the state of Tennessee seeks to make science illegal, one member of the state legislature thinks that Albert Einstein was a Christian creationist.

The assumptions behind the "budget" of Rep. Paul Ryan are inherently false.

This isn't conservatism in any accepted understanding of the word. It isn't "reactionary" in the time-honored Metternich-de Maistre tradition. It isn't even fascism. It is, quite simply, embracing anything and everything that contradicts uncomfortable realities that might force tough decisions that would upset the current status quo.

It is one thing for an individual to believe in the existence of fairies. It is quite another for an entire political party to legislate based on ideas just as fanciful. Yet, we are seeing it even now.

The Constitution II

Unlike most nation-states, what makes Americans a unique national entity, what provides our identity is not ethnicity, or language, certainly not religion. What makes an American, well, an American is that remarkable document that created our current form of governing structure, both reflects the changes of the past two centuries as well has helped effect some of those same changes, and remains, despite all the criticisms and claims to the contrary, the living, breathing heart of this country.

Our military does not make us free, the Constitution does. Our police do not keep us safe, the Constitution does. Our industrial might, our technological superiority, our vast entertainment industry do not make us the envy of the world, the Constitution does. Our collective acquiescence to any particular economic practice does not provide opportunity, our Constitution does.

To be an American is to live under the Constitution, to admire its flexibility as well as its intransigence. To be an American is to abide by the idea that we are a nation not of race or religion or language but a nation of laws, binding on all. One can be a communist, an atheist, a Catholic, a Lutheran, a libertarian, and still be fully American. One can speak Spanish and Armenian and Urdu and Tagalog, and still be an American. The single requirement for being an American is swearing allegiance not to any God or economic or social system, but to the Constitution. The military and elected officials do not swear an oath to capitalism or plutocracy but to the Constitution. From the President to that homeless woman on the corner, ideally all are bound to the limits and strictures not of power or privilege, but to the Constitution. Making these ideas and ideals real in our day-to-day living is what it means to live as Americans.

If I am ever asked what I think it "means" to be an American, this is my answer. We are not a culture, let alone a single society bound by shared history and traditions outside the civil and legal ones enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution knows no preference regarding gender or race, religious or moral code, but sees all as part of what makes the United States the truly great and unique place that it is. To be great is not to be militarily unchallenged, still less economically powerful. To be great as America is to celebrate our differences bound only to the civil practices set forth in the Constitution. This is the source of our strength, because it is, in the most fundamental way, who we are.

The Constitution I

It's tax day - well, actually, this year Monday is tax day, but you know - and it is with a mixture of happiness and amusement that I see a coming together of various threads and strands from a variety of discussions and matters that are leading me to write a couple posts on the United States Constitution. Being tax day, it's always fun to note there are cranks out there - I've even seen them covered on C-SPAN, years back - who insist the income tax, despite having its very own amendment, is unconstitutional. It is easy enough to find refutation of this claim.
This argument [viz., that the income tax is unconstitutional] is based on the premise that all federal income tax laws are unconstitutional because the Sixteenth Amendment was not officially ratified, or because the State of Ohio was not properly a state at the time of ratification. This argument has survived over time because proponents mistakenly believe that the courts have refused to address this issue.[emphasis added]

Here is the Law: The Sixteenth Amendment provides that Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes on income, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration. U.S. Const. amend. XVI. The Sixteenth Amendment was ratified by forty states, including Ohio (which became a state in 1803; see Bowman v. United States, 920 F. Supp. 623 n.1 (E.D. Pa. 1995) (discussing the 1953 joint Congressional resolution that confirmed Ohio's status as a state retroactive to 1803), and issued by proclamation in 1913. Shortly thereafter, two other states also ratified the Amendment. Under Article V of the Constitution, only three‑fourths of the states are needed to ratify an Amendment. There were enough states ratifying the Sixteenth Amendment even without Ohio to complete the number needed for ratification. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the income tax laws enacted subsequent to ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in Brushaber v. Union Pacific R.R., 240 U.S. 1 (1916). Since that time, the courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the federal income tax.
I use this as an example in order to make a broader point. We so often hear or read, more recently from those on the right, but certainly those on the left as well, this or that function of the federal government or even this or that agency of the federal government, is unconstitutional. Recently, a commenter on another site wrote the following:
I suggest that we eliminate every Federal program which is constitutionall prohibited, such as the Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing, non-military NASA programs, the EPA (which we need, but is actually unconstitutional), the NEA, the NEH, the DEA, NPR, and PBS. To name just a few off the top of my head.

And the insane war on drugs is, of course, spectacularly unconstitutional, destructive to our society, and expensive.

Sell off all federal lands and buildings not used for constitutional purposes and use the funds to make one-time block payments to retired people or people nearning retirement who are or will be dependent on Social Security. Then eliminate Social Security (which is also unconstitutional).
That's quite a laundry list of totally illegal actions on the part of the federal government, don't you think? Except, of course, the author is dead wrong. As in the case of the income tax claims, one often reads such nonsense from people who do not know - or do not care if they do know - that these matters have already been adjudicated.

In the course of preparing these two posts, I discovered this marvelous annotated rendering of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The annotations are nothing more or less than summaries of court cases which have defined and clarified the relevant portions of this particular amendment as it has been contested in law. For example, as the author noted above claimed that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is unconstitutional, the question of the constitutionality of enforcing, via the federal constitution, housing laws might be an important consideration:
Buchanan v. Warley 98 invalidated an ordinance which prohibited blacks from occupying houses in blocks where the greater number of houses were occupied by whites and which prohibited whites from doing so where the greater number of houses were occupied by blacks. Although racially restrictive covenants do not themselves violate the equal protection clause, the judicial enforcement of them, either by injunctive relief or through entertaining damage actions, does violate the Fourteenth Amendment. 99 Referendum passage of a constitutional amendment repealing a ''fair housing'' law and prohibiting further state or local action in that direction was held unconstitutional in Reitman v. Mulkey, 100 though on somewhat ambiguous grounds, while a state constitutional requirement that decisions of local authorities to build low-rent housing projects in an area must first be submitted to referendum, although other similar decisions were not so limited, was found to accord with the equal protection clause. 101 Private racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing is subject to two federal laws prohibiting most such discrimination. 102 Provision of publicly assisted housing, of course, must be on a nondiscriminatory basis. 103
As there is a large body of substantive case law in which the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment applies to housing, and as the executive branch of the government is the branch that executes the law, then it stands to reason, without too much thought, that having a federal department to oversee the enforcement of housing laws is quite constitutional.

The counter-claim on this topic, as on so many others related to the insistence that this or that or even most functions currently including a federal jurisdiction, actually violate the constitution of the United States simply ignores the facts of the matter. For example, the above author claims Social Security is unconstitutional. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court found, in a 1937 case, the exact opposite to be true. Which is why we still have Social Security.

Now, one can, I suppose, claim to disagree with the reasoning behind this or that Supreme Court case. After all, not too many people would agree with Chief Justice Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case, which included the legal finding that Americans of African descent were not citizens, enjoying - in the words of that decision - "no rights a white man has to honor." All the same, since the cases cited in the annotations are still binding, it might be better perhaps to claim, "I do not agree with the current law that sees Social Security (or whatever else might be the pet peeve of the day) as constitutional." The first construction is, quite simply, wrong. Like claims about the income tax, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and pretty much anything else, it is false. False beliefs are fine, no one can insist an individual must hold beliefs that align with facts (the internet would be a dull place if everyone thought that!). All the same, to claim something is the case when it manifestly is not, and to go on making these claims even after abundant evidence has borne this out, is to lie. Pure and simple.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jesus And American Politics

I don't know if I've ever been explicit on this point, and I think it surprising that such clarity is even needed, but as it is the persistent belief among some that Jesus would endorse a particular partisan or ideological political position, I think it only fair to state quite baldly that I would never make such a claim. Furthermore, the idea that, say, "Jesus was really a liberal," or, "Jesus was pro-life," are two manifestly erroneous statements. Trying to lasso the Son of Man to any ideological or political commitment is wrong on many levels.

This does not mean that one cannot see in the teachings and life of Jesus certain tendencies and preferences. It does mean, however, that these are thoroughly theological in nature. One can be a devout Christian and hold diametrically opposed political views from the person sitting beside one in worship on Sunday morning and that's OK. There are no absolute demands for certain political or social or even cultural ends embedded within Christian doctrine. There are, to be sure, certain theological claims that impact how we interact with others, how we view others, how we are to live our lives toward others. These, in and of themselves, however, do not require any particular set of political principles in order to manifest themselves.

I do what I do here in the full understanding that the positions I stake out are my own, and could be wrong from top to bottom. Yet, I could not and would never say that this attitude necessitates I remain silent. As Barth said about the Christian faith, "We must never claim to have the truth. We must always live as if we had the truth," so, too, my attitude toward politics. I hold both as principles, well-founded on the merits, and avoiding all sorts of practical errors along the way.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Celebration Of A Lost Genre

One of the cultural by-products of the feminist movement in the 1970's was the emergence of what came to be known as women's music.
Women's music (or womyn's music, wimmin's music) is the music by women, for women, and about women (Garofalo 1992:242). The genre emerged as a musical expression of the second-wave feminist movement (Peraino 2001:693) as well as the labor, civil rights, and peace movements (Mosbacher 2002). The movement was started by lesbians such as Cris Williamson, Meg Christian and Margie Adam, African-American women activists such as Bernice Johnson Reagon and her group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and peace activist Holly Near (Mosbacher 2002). Women's music also refers to the wider industry of women's music that goes beyond the performing artists to include studio musicians, producers, sound engineers, technicians, cover artists, distributors, promoters, and festival organizers who are also women (Garofalo 1992:242).
I remember listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near a lot as a kid. While a lot of media attention swirled around Australian Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman", that was a watered down, poppy version of the much more radical ideas in women's music. Here is one of Near's more famous songs, "Gentle, Angry People", a title that kind of proves the point that the vocal ideas were not quite ready for prime time.

Personally, I thought the whole Lilith Fair thing in the 1990's could have been the seedbed for this same kind of thing. Except, watching a documentary on it, it is clear the professional rivalries, differences in musical styles, and audiences created more friction. The audience for Sarah MacLachlan . . .

. . . is far different from the audience for Liz Phair (just a warning, some might find this offensive).

Interestingly, the whole thing was about ready to fall apart until The Indigo Girls arrived on the scene, bringing a sense of joy and solidarity to their offstage time. The widening of possibilities present in the diversity of the performers at Lilith Fair showed, in some respects, the success of women's music, but also the dangers that women's music tried to overcome - buying in to capitalist notions of competition, of swagger and toughness rather than seeing all the differences as a source of strength.

So, here's to that half-forgotten genre that reminded women that their voices were important, their words had power, that they could achieve much together as women.

So, some random stuff that might even contain a woman singer or two.

La Villa Strangiato - Rush, Live in Rio
Time Crunch - Jordan Rudess
Ballad of Big - Genesis
Blue Monday - Dr. John
Masquerade (Live) - Steve Howe
Controversy - Prince
Sweet Dreams - Yes
Violin Concerto in D, Movement 1 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Radiant Hearts - Black Mountaint
Did I Happen to Mention - Julia Fordham

See, I managed to get a woman in there!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Ambiguous Anniversary (UPDATE)

Today is the sesquicentennial of the opening shots of the American Civil War. No event in our history, with the exception of our founding, is the source of more historical and popular curiosity, debate, discussion, general interest, and controversy. In part because post-bellum academic historical reflection on the causes of the Civil War was dominated by southern historians who combined an agrarian romanticism with a collective professional mendacity that is breathtaking in its thoroughness, generations of Americans were taught that, while certainly misguided, the southern secession and resulting conflict were far more the result of northern perfidy than southern intransigence on slavery. At this historical juncture, thinking again about the day-long shelling of St. Sumter in Charleston, SC harbor (an event, unlike the resulting conflict, that left no one dead), it might be nice to read one of the documents the state of South Carolina produced to defend its decision to secede from the union.
The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
The entire declaration, it should be noted, does not mention a generalized adherence to "State's Rights", the insistence upon which so many post-bellum Confederate apologias have centered. Such an abstract principle is not, nor could ever have been, the cause of any conflict. As this declaration by the people of South Carolina through their representatives makes clear, the sole reason for secession and war was the right of southern states to keep and hold other human beings as chattel.

One point should be noted regarding their view of Abraham Lincoln. This document, produced in December, 1860, four months before the attack on Ft. Sumter, the legislators declared that Pres. Lincoln had every intention of waging aggressive war to destroy slavery. This, despite repeated statements to the contrary by Lincoln during the campaign, and his many statements regarding restoring Union as his sole purpose. Furthermore, the idea of "The War of Northern Aggression" begins right here, in the sincere, if erroneous belief, that the entire war was planned, from the start, and that the attack on federal troops in South Carolina was a pre-emptive action on the part of South Carolinians.

With all the nonsense currently swirling around concerning Pres. Obama - he's a Marxist Muslim anti-American radical born in Kenya - and the actions of the federal government - they want to steal our money and our guns to impose socialism, Sharia, and gay marriage that will destroy the real institution and the country in the process - has a dangerous precedent in our history. That nearly half of those who are self-declared Republicans believe that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii should trouble anyone who cares about America. Our nation was rent asunder by people who exploited lies and phony conspiracy theories to bolster their own economic and political agenda. Over half a million Americans died because a powerful, relatively small number of slave holders across the south feared the end of their hold on power.

Anything else, any other excuse, any other alleged reason, is a lie. One hundred fifty years later, we need to remember so that they truly will not have died in vain.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coats has this on another persistent lie about the Civil War.
It's worth considering how this claim lingers. James McPherson is a Pulitizer-Prize winning historian, one of the titans of his field. Bruce Levine wrote a highly readable investigation into the charge. Historians from the Park Service have debunked the myth. There is a website specifically devoted to further debunking the myth. And yet it does not simply linger, it thrives and actually spreads to reputable places like The Takeaway. The information is widely available. We simply can't cope with it.

That black people are participants in the spread of this myth doesn't mean much to me. I'm sure somewhere there are Jews who deny the Holocaust. All this says to me is that it is extremely painful--for blacks and whites--to face up to the fact that Civil War was about the right of white people to pilfer the labor of blacks. We really need to believe that our ancestors were better than this. But they weren't. And, as proven by our inability to accept the truth, neither are we.
See, if blacks fought for the Confederacy, then the war had nothing to do with slavery. But the war had everything to do with slavery, and no blacks fought for the right of states to hold their fellow blacks as chattel. Lies piled on top of lies.

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