Archive for August, 2008

We all have a dream

Posted on August 29, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?

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Thomas Hobbes in America

Posted on August 27, 2008. Filed under: The Founders | Tags: , , , , |

I was rereading Christopher Hill’s often-intriguing book Puritanism and Revolution and came to his chapter on Hobbes. It seems relevant to the discussion of religion in the American Founding.
 
Hobbes and Locke were contemporaries in adulthood, though Hobbes’ writings predate Locke’s. Locke certainly was influenced by Hobbes’ work. Both men address the question of how to reconcile natural rights, government authority, and religion.
 
For Hobbes, there was no such thing as natural rights. The idea of a “state of nature” is, as Hill puts it, “a logical abstraction rather than a piece of historical description.” For Hobbes, humans without government were humans in chaos; the “natural state” was one of want, war,  and ignorance.
 
Therefore, when nonconformists in Hobbes’ day said that a government that did not respect natural law or natural rights could be legitimately overthrown, or at least not obeyed, he responded that this was nonsense. It is society, organized into government, it is government itself that creates all rights and laws, and so there is no way to use some imaginary pre-civilized era as a control over or yardstick for the legitimacy of a human government.
 
When it is the state itself that creates all rights, then the only way to decide what is just is to have the state decide. This seems like a harsh “might makes right” philosophy, but if you follow it through, it leads to both separation of church and state and religious tolerance. Because politics/government are purely and completely human-made, then religious belief or doctrine has no place in it. We created it, we run it, we make its rules, and we are the final authority over it.  Because God is not at all human-made, politics has no place in religion. Humans cannot have authority over God, and therefore humans cannot say which religion is the true religion, and have no authority to persecute anyone for their religious beliefs.
 
In a democracy, then, the people make their own government and give it the right to decide what is just, and pursue religion privately with no government interference.
 
Locke, of course, did not agree with Hobbes that there was no natural law, and no natural rights. And it was Locke who appealed to the American Founders, for his philosophy grants our government a sort of spiritual authority, wrapping our human laws and decisions in the mantle of obeying a kind of cosmic justice. This is what makes it easy for people to rename natural law as God’s law, specifially Christianity. We say, our laws are rational products of the Enlightenment, but they are also tapping into God’s law, the world God made for humans before we started making governments. We’re living how God meant us to live.
 
I think the Founders generally took the view that in creating our democracy they were fulfilling not only their human potential, but restoring cosmic justice.
 
But they remained a little Hobbesian, too. I think the Founders understood government to be a human creation which is best understood in human terms. And they knew that the authority to decide what was democratic, what provided liberty and justice for all, came from themselves and the citizens of the United States. If it did not, what would be the point? How would the U.S. government be new if it claimed strictly godly justification, just as every government in history had done beforehand?
 
No, the Founders did not threaten dissenters with God’s fury. They took a Hobbesian view that the government they and the people were creating would live or die on human merits, and in doing so raised the bar for what human law, what government, should accomplish.
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Posting bail is un-American

Posted on August 12, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , |

One of the great founding principles of the United States is the right of equal opportunity. This means that no one is born with political advantages; for example, in a monarchic society, someone who is born into the nobility has political rights and protections from the law that “commoners” don’t have. Therefore, people outside the nobility do not have equal opportunity to succeed in their society.

In the U.S., equal opportunity has been popularly enshrined in the notion of every American having the chance to live the “American dream”: everyone has equal opportunity to work, vote, succeed, own a home, go to school, and more. Ideally, no American is barred from these things because of their social class, income, color, or anything else.

We of course fight a constant good fight to make sure this is true in America. There are always some people who want to set up barriers to equal opportunity. But we can never let this happen, for, as Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in the 1830s, later wrote in Democracy in America, equality of opportunity is the thing that truly sets America apart, the jewel of our democracy.

de Tocqueville was bothered, therefore, by one commonplace in the American system that he felt was a slap in the face to equality of opportunity. Was it slavery? Unequal wealth? City slums? No. While he saw those things were aberrations in our democracy, one thing he chose to comment on in particular was posting bail.

This seems like a very small thing. If you’re arrested, you can post bail to stay out of jail until your trial. That seems fair.

But it’s not fair, because it gives those who have money an advantage over those who don’t. If you’re not poor you can post bail; if you’re poor, you can’t. So poor people go to jail, while others don’t.

And if you are accused of a horrendous crime, like murder or child sexual assault, you have to post a much larger bail, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This only guarantees that wealthy people will not be imprisoned while awaiting trial no matter what they are accused of.

Currently, this inequality of opportunity has come up in the context of immigration. If you are accused of being an illegal immigrant, you are most likely poor. Therefore, you can never post bail when you are arrested. And so you sit in jail until you are deported. Or, worse, you don’t even sit in jail, but are immediately put on a bus or a plane back to your native country.

This means your loved ones have no idea where you are. If you are never in a police station, you can’t make a phone call home to tell them. At least if you’re sitting in jail, your family knows what has happened. But illegal immigrants cannot post bail, and legal authorities know this, and so the whole process is skipped.

Even if an illegal immigrant is given a chance to post bail, everyone knows s/he will not be able to pay. Therefore, there is no real chance to protect oneself from immediate repatriation, no chance of having a trial.

One might argue that since illegal immigrants are not U.S. citizens, they cannot complain about not receiving due process. And one might feel that the problems of illegal immigrants are worlds away; U.S. citizens will never face this problem.

But you might. No one is guaranteed that they will never be arrested. Anything can happen. And if it does, will your wealth qualify you for justice, or will you sit in jail?

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Mitchell and Webb present history

Posted on August 11, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

One more Mitchell and Webb while I keep working!

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Proving citizenship proves difficult

Posted on August 7, 2008. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Some states are ratcheting up the requirements for getting a driver’s license–and I mean way up.

In Massachusetts right now, you must present four distinct pieces of ID to prove your identity. What are they? The web site for the Commonwealth Registry of Motor Vehicles actually does not say. You have to take your chances. Since most people’s main form of ID is a driver’s license, those without one must bring in a passport, birth certificate, bank statement, social security card, report card, bank signature guaranty… I suppose the list goes on. I can’t think of anything else.

Ironically, most people seeking their first driver’s license are teenagers who most likely do not have a passport, bank statement, or social security card. And few people of any age have a copy of their birth certificate handy (and it’s not quick or easy or cheap to get one).

All this to prove your identity as a state resident? Of course not. It is really to prove U.S. citizenship, and part of our extremely inefficient war on terror.

The problem with this sudden expansion of requirements for getting a license is that it is really part of the eroding our of founding principle of equality of opportunity. This is the right of all Americans to have an equal opportunity to succeed, and equal access to necessary tools for success. One traditional example of this is that in the U.S. there is no aristocracy, no group that is born with access to power that no one else has. 

In a climate of fear about terrorist attack, it is easy to start setting up barriers to equality of opportunity. Suddenly you need difficult-to-obtain identification to get a driver’s license. No one ever explains why, or tells you how to access this information, or even, in the case of the Massachusetts RMV, what this identification is. You are just meant to accept it.

Suddenly you will also need proof of citizenship to vote. Suddenly you have to undergo a special process not to appear on a potential flight risk/terrorist list kept by the government at airports.

When rules like this are made without notice, explanation, or justification, they destroy equality of opportunity. They intimidate many people into giving up what they were trying to get (a driver’s license) or to do (vote), and no one protests because they either don’t know about the new rules or they are afraid of how they will look if they protest.

Look into your state’s requirements for a driver’s license. Seem familiar? Or has there been a change?

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More Mitchell and Webb history

Posted on August 5, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

I am in the thick of research on the American Puritans and the Thirty Years’ War, so for the moment, here’s another video from That Mitchell and Webb Look. It’s American history, technically!

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