Short Attention Span Theatre

Last time I mentioned how lots of misinformation gets thrown around during U. S. presidential election cycles. While some of the blame certainly lies with the “experts” the media trot out to let you know what you should think, there remains a certain level of responsibility on the part of the news consumer/voter. I’d like to call your attention to some recent events involving both the exercise of Constitutional power by our elected officials and the race to win election. In each case, a little memory, research, and critical thinking on the part of citizens could help them put things into the right perspective.

Remember last spring when President Obama was attempting to negotiate a deal with Iran to control its nuclear weapons program? Senator Tom Cotton and other Republican senators wrote a letter to the government in Iran under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They informed the Ayatollah that such an executive agreement would be subject to change or revocation by subsequent legislative or executive action.

             c001095_200                          Seyyed_Ali_Khamenei

                            Cotton                                                                     Khamenei

Secretary of State John Kerry reacted publicly and angrily to this letter, saying it was an unconstitutional attempt to undermine the president’s negotiating power on foreign matters. He stated that the letter had no precedent, that he had never seen anything like it during his years in government, and that if he had, he would have repudiated the letter and supported the president, any president, in the matter.

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Kerry

Unfortunately, his statements that he had never seen anything like Cotton’s letter and that he would have supported whoever was president are simply untrue. In 1984, the Reagan administration was actively seeking ways to bring down the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, in part by finding back-door ways of supporting the anti-Sandinista Contra rebels. A group of ten Democrats in Congress, including majority leader Jim Wright and Intelligence Committee Chair Edward Boland,  wrote a letter to Daniel Ortega, head of the Sandinistas, expressing their approval for his regime and vowing to oppose any further U. S. aid to the insurgents. Republican Representative Newt Gingrich reacted angrily, declaring that the letter was unconstitutional, imprudent, and possibly illegal.

Now, if you ask me, that sounds like a completely analogous situation. Based on Kerry’s statement about the Republican letter to Iran, he should have distanced himself from the “Dear Comandante” Democrats and supported President Reagan. Instead, after winning election to the Senate in 1985, Kerry visited Nicaragua to meet Ortega and assure him that he and his colleagues considered the Contras “terrorists.”

Some pundits have claimed that the Nicaragua letter is completely different from the Iran letter. They base their claim on two points: 1) Congress had passed a law in 1982 ending Reagan’s support for the Contras, and 2) many other nations are currently involved in the negotiations with Iran. However, this very claim validates the current Republican position that they can undo Obama’s foreign policy decisions by legislating against them. And if the president negotiated a treaty, the senate would still need to approve it before it took effect here, regardless of how many other countries were involved.

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“Rats!”

Lest you think I’m playing favorites, I’ll go on record saying that Republicans are not blameless in this matter. If they objected to the Democratic letter to Ortega in the ’80s, they had no business doing the same thing in the Iran situation. Also, you’ll find many conservative sites claiming that Kerry signed the Dear Comandante letter. Well, here’s the signature section of the letter:

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Not a Kerry among them.

So, what’s the point? I believe that part of holding our elected officials accountable is remembering what has occurred in the past. We would be far less easily swayed by the sensationalist claim that, “Nothing like this has ever happened before.” [This is as silly as the belief held by most sports fans that the greatest player or team or game or dynasty has happened within their own viewing experience.] There’s really very little new under the sun. Also, we would be able to tell if our leaders and reporters are remaining true to their claimed core beliefs or giving off the aroma of hypocrisy. If something is illegal or unconstitutional, it’s just as wrong for your side to do it as it is for your opponents. You can’t have it both ways.

As we become more and more inundated with information, we must also be aware of issue framing by media sources. When current vice president Joe Biden was a candidate for the 1988 presidential election, he admitted to press reports that he had plagiarized material for a paper when he was in law school in the ’60s. This became a major factor in his decision to withdraw from the race. However, as David Greenberg pointed out, there was little mention of the plagiarism when Biden became Obama’s running mate in 2008. This means one of two things: either reporters are willing to overlook misbehavior if they believe in a particular candidacy but point it out when they don’t support someone, or they have come to believe that plagiarism is no big deal. Either possibility is just as scary as entrusting the preservation, protection, and defense of the Constitution of the United States to someone who claimed he did not understand the rules and procedures for citing sources. WHILE HE WAS IN LAW SCHOOL.

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“You got me.”

The current parallel: media scrutiny of candidate Donald Trump’s history of Chapter 11 bankruptcies. Many feel that this demonstrates an inability to manage corporate finances responsibly or a callous disregard for the jobs and livelihoods of employees. While this may be true, his actions were permissible and public. He took advantage of a legal opportunity, even if we feel that the legal opportunity needs revision.

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“I don’t need to steal someone’s law school paper. I’ll just buy it.”

If reporters supported Trump’s candidacy, would they downplay his financial history? Is bankruptcy worse than plagiarism? These are issues a responsible voter will investigate and ponder in order to make good choices in elections. You should not just believe what pundits or candidates want you to believe simply because they make television shows or write on line.

Remember, no one can deceive you without your consent.

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Give Me Gridlock or Give Me Death

A little while ago, I wrote about the upcoming summer Olympics and how both the athletes and the fans misunderstand what should go on there. Well, every summer Games coincides with a United States presidential election, and the misunderstandings and distortions that go along with this make anything from the world of sports fade into insignificance.

For some reason, Americans love to think the president “runs the country.” They use phrases such as “most powerful man in the world” when speaking of the officeholder. They forget, or do not realize, that the Constitution speaks of Congress first and the president second. They would be shocked to realize that the president holds eight (8) powers. They are indignant that Congress can delay or prevent his initiatives and nominations.

I was reminded how widespread the problem is by an article in October’s Atlantic called “Our Fragile Constitution.” You can read the full article here, but the piece presents a slight variation on the tired old anti-partisan refrain, “Can’t our government stop fighting and start fixing?” I would really hope that such a venerable and respected publication as The Atlantic would bring some learned perspective to this question, but alas, this essay is confused at best and purposely misleading at worst.

Yoni Appelbaum purports to have uncovered the source of the problem through a revolutionary new idea presented in The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson. Perhaps what prevents the U. S. government from acting to fix the country is not in the stubborn partisan proclivities of today’s elected officials, but rather something written into the Constitution itself!

Appelbaum traces Nelson’s claims that the revolutionaries in the American colonies really preferred George III to Parliament, and attempted to write a royal executive into the Constitution. However, because of their carelessness and misunderstanding of history, they inadvertently created a balanced system where the legislature could delay the presidential initiatives that the citizens prefer. He concludes that the United States should not feel obligation to this “dysfunctional” system. Let the president give the people what they want!

There is so much wrong here that I hardly know where to begin. Despite calling the Constitution “fragile,” an idea reinforced by the accompanying graphic,

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Appelbaum admits that the American system has endured far longer than most other presidential governments. Indeed, he is trying to make the case that the Constitution is not fragile enough, and the United States is hurt by following a system that limits executive power. I can only conclude that Appelbaum is feeling the excitement that motivates Americans to a much larger voter turnout in presidential election years than in midterm contests.

Appelbaum operates from the typical post-New Deal assumption that the best national government is an active, powerful one. By contrast, the greatest fear in the early United States was a national government that wielded too much power. Consider the economic question. Historians such as Charles Beard have proposed that the framers created a document that ensured the hegemony of economic elites.

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“Must be nice to have money!”

The wealthy should have supported it overwhelmingly, right? Not necessarily. The debate over ratification of the Constitution shows a much more nuanced situation. For example, in New York state, many of the wealthiest merchants opposed the new federal system. They feared that Congressional control of interstate commerce, found in the Constitution,  would rob them of the revenues they were collecting through local taxes on such trade. Their faction, what we would call a “special interest” today, was willing to let others suffer in order to benefit themselves. Remember, they did not want the Constitution.

Fortunately for historians and political scientists, the framers of the Constitution wrote down for posterity the reasons they created the system that they did. The Federalist Papers began as letters published in newspapers around the country, and explained to skeptics why the Constitution produced the best possible government for the new Unites States. Far from showing a misunderstanding of history, these essays demonstrate a far better understanding than Nelson or Appelbaum possesses.

In Federalist 10,  James Madison acknowledges that forming factions to achieve selfish goals is part of human nature, and the best any government can hope to do is reduce the destructive effects of these factions. This makes sense in the context of the New York merchants and the Constitution’s central control of interstate commerce.

In Federalist 47, Madison points out that branches or agencies of government can, themselves, be factions, and any concentration of power in one branch or agency will tend to produce tyranny. Such a government would not protect people from harmful factions, but would itself cause harm. In order to prevent this, he proposes a separation of powers in a balanced government in which no single interest is able to dominate.

Federalist 51 spells out exactly how Madison expected such a balanced government to behave. Rather than assuming, as Appelbaum asserts, that the branches of government would cooperate for the good of the country, Madison proposes that, “Ambition must be made to counter ambition.”  The fact that parts of the national government would pursue their special interests, and try to prevent the others from accomplishing theirs, means that any cooperation will be difficult [sound familiar?], AND THE FRAMERS WANTED IT THAT WAY. This applies to political parties as much as it does to branches or agencies of government.

Do you see why it’s silly for Appelbaum to assert that Nelson’s book “raises [the] disturbing possibility” that government inaction is “the product of flaws inherent in” the Constitution? Madison himself wrote that he preferred gridlock to government action.

And for the life of me, I cannot figure out what Appelbaum is calling the “misreading” of history by the founders. He cites evidence from Nelson that many in the colonies preferred royal prerogative to Parliamentary rule. If that was a misunderstanding, we’re right to limit the power of the president, aren’t we? If their limiting of the executive was purposeful and based on a misunderstanding, why does Appelbaum say the framers created “an executive whose authority King George could only envy?” How could such power make today’s presidents feel powerless to move the country forward?

Problems between Great Britain and her American colonies did not stem from the weakness of the executive, as Thomas Jefferson’s litany of charges against the King in the Declaration of Independence demonstrates. They happened because there was no check on the power of Parliament. The framers assured this would not be the case in the new government they created.

If political writers such as Eric Nelson and Yoni Appelbaum want to make the case for changes in the United States’ system of government, they should just man up and say it. They have no leg to stand on when they accuse the framers of the Constitution of being naive or misguided. Just look at the documents they left us.

If Madison were alive today and heard the calls for cooperation and bipartisanship, he’d simply shake his head. Largely unchanged in the 227 years since its ratification, the Constitution is functioning exactly as intended.

Please Stay Home

Back when Al Gore had just invented the Internet (remember how he called it the “Information Superhighway” before he decided that nobody should drive cars?), pundits extolled its potential virtues constantly. In those heady days, they made pronouncements eerily reminiscent of the early stages of television: it will bring the contents of every library in the world into everyone’s home; it will give us access to museum collections the world over without leaving our homes; it will allow people to travel virtually to places they never could go. They did not foresee, but knowing Americans they could have foreseen, that the Internet would excel at two things: shopping for toys and shopping for pornography. On-line dating, of course, simply combines the two. These must have been the same prescient souls who predicted that the horseless carriage would solve the pollution crisis in cities.

 

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(“Be careful of your new high-button shoes, Chester.”)

Anyway, I heard these predictions about the Internet and thought, “This is horrible. Nobody will visit the Grand Canyon any more. They’ll just look at pictures of it on their computers.”

Almost immediately, I realized, “What am I saying? This is GREAT! Nobody will visit the Grand Canyon any more.” No more lazy slobs who just want to drive right up to a natural wonder in their air-conditioned land yachts and experience nature by riding in a tram car instead of taking a challenging hike. (Did you know that there are plans to build a cable car in the Grand Canyon?) No more people who would push you out of the way to take a picture on the way to the fast food and then toss their litter beside the trail. I’ll have the place to myself!

Of course, my Utopia did not come to pass, but I’m sure that virtual tours are saving some wear, tear, and vandalism on natural and man-made treasures around the world. This past Sunday, though, I experienced something that made me re-visit the dreams of my earlier years.

As un-American as this seems, I have absolutely no interest in football, midget, Pop Warner, high school, college, or professional (or European, for that matter).

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(Touchdown?)

I don’t care for the week-long buildup for a single game. I don’t care for the pre-game, halftime, and post-game analyses by retired players who need to feel relevant. I don’t care for the endless personnel changes punctuated by short bursts of violent game action. I don’t care for the legions of fans who believe they know better than coaches and general managers, and play in “fantasy leagues” in order to feel smug. But, most of all, I don’t care for something that would consume my entire Sunday sitting inside in front of a screen, dragging on late into the night while I desperately searched for a way to prolong the onset of the new week.

I can say this because I am a recovering football watcher. I have been clean for twenty-seven years now (I went off to college before it was a Club Med, and so I had no television for four years). I just take it one weekend at a time. But I cannot help but look back on my life from age 8 to age 18 and think of how many beautiful Fall days I’ll never get back because I was afraid to miss a single play of a televised football game.

Last Sunday was beautiful here.

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It was the first weekend of Autumn, 70 degrees, gently breezy, dry, and sunny.

Fall Day 3

I just had to spend the day outside. You don’t see colors or breathe air like that every day.

Fall Day 4

Knowing winter would be here all too soon, I headed out for a bike ride. I felt free and easy, like I was flying, but I was not going any faster than usual. I could not put my finger on why it felt so good until I approached a green light

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that STAYED GREEN while I approached and crossed under. No cars waiting to pull out from the side streets. In fact, there was hardly a car on the road.

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Now, I’m not a cyclist who is afraid of traffic. I’ve ridden in cities from coast to coast, and I’ve never hesitated to  make any move I’ve needed to, like getting in the left lane to make a left turn. In general, car drivers are much better about following traffic laws than cyclists. I just make sure to signal my intentions so motorists know what I’m doing and I follow the same regulations they do. I figure that I won’t give them any reason to be angry at me, such as running red lights or impeding their progress unnecessarily, and everyone will be happy. I hardly ever have confrontations with cars.

And yet, there is a certain tension that comes from concentrating on your line, while avoiding road hazards, when you hear a vehicle approaching from behind. After three or four hours, the mental tiredness of this constant awareness adds a significant amount to your exhaustion. But last Sunday I felt none of that because I had the roads pretty much to myself! And I owe it all to the NFL. Most everyone was sitting inside in front of television sets watching the games, giving me an exhilarating, yet thoroughly relaxing ride. I did not lament that so many people were missing out on a wonderful day. My long-forgotten Utopia had finally arrived.

I don’t watch football, but I’m glad you do.