U.S. Constitution

Trump and Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech

Posted on July 5, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part four of our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Here we take a look at Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City (now Cooper Union) on February 28, 1860 and compare one part of it with the rhetoric coming from Trump supporters in 2016.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “war on Christianity”and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

In the Cooper Union address, Lincoln represented the new Republican Party, in only its second presidential election season. He was in 1860 still walking the fine line of saying that while the Republican Party was dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery into the west, it would not try to abolish slavery in the south. In most of his speeches on the campaign trail, Lincoln tried to do two things at once: force southerners to accept a Republican victory, if it came, by emphasizing that winning the popular vote would mean that most Americans wanted to stop the spread of slavery and therefore southerners could not claim that the election had been hijacked by a radical minority; and convince southerners that this antislavery majority did not mean that the south would have to get on board with the rest of the nation and abolish slavery.

This is the context for the statement we’re about to quote from the Cooper Union address, in which Lincoln addresses proslaveryites and debunks their claim that they have a Constitutional right to enslave other people and, therefore, an implied right to secede from the Union if slavery is abolished or even limited to the south. Here is the candidate:

…But you will break up the Union, rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound: but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours to take slaves into the Federal Territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such  right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

Sub out “slaves” and the right to enslave for the right of anyone and everyone to buy and openly carry guns anywhere in public, even schools, or the right of self-professed Christians to deny public services to people who they feel offend Christianity, or the right of anti-choice legislatures to deny women access to health care from providers that also perform abortions, and you have a Democratic speech right out of 2016.

Many people today who self-identify as conservative in our new sectionalism of conservative v. liberal consistently claim a constitutional right to deprive others of their personal liberties. Yet the Constitution, as Lincoln points out, is “literally silent about any such right”. The Second Amendment does not protect private gun ownership for private use; it protects the right of American citizens to own guns so they can fight in local militias sanctioned and controlled by local governments. The Constitution does not mention Christianity in any way, and the Founders officially denied any Christian basis for the United States. Abortion or the rights of fetuses are not in the Constitution.

Too often an American’s right to freedom of speech, which actually is in the Constitution, is construed to protect “rights” that are not in the Constitution. Ever since the Supreme Court decided that actions could be identified as speech, this has happened. If it’s constitutional to protest outside an abortion clinic, clinics must be unconstitutional. If religious freedom is protected in the Constitution, then all of my religious beliefs must also be constitutionally protected (nope—see Gay Marriage, Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment for a rundown of the difference between religious worship and religious belief).

But conservatives who believe that all their beliefs are enshrined in the Constitution are often deaf to these arguments. As Lincoln put it, they will destroy the Government, unless they be allowed to construe the Constitution as they please, on all points in dispute between them and liberals. They will rule or ruin in all events. The eagerness of Trump’s supporters to destroy the federal government that they see as denying them their constitutional rights is a harvest sown by neoconservative Republicans for over thirty years now. This anti-government, Constitution-bending activist section may likely dispute the outcome of the presidential election if Clinton wins. And so we find ourselves, like Lincoln, facing a possible contested election over chimerical Constitutional rights. Secession seems slightly less likely today than in 1860… but it seemed unlikely to most observers in 1860.

Next time: on with the 1860 campaigns

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Make America great again–by supporting its federal government

Posted on March 2, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re re-running this post from a few years ago to counter the constant message of the Republican presidential campaigners and those of their supporters who get on TV and the radio saying that what makes America great is its people, not its government. Marco Rubio just made this statement a few days ago at a rally.

How the Founders would shudder to hear this. If the American people are great, it’s because of their government, which empowers and ennobles them, gives them national, political, and individual freedom, and relies on the people themselves to participate in the government, by voting and/or serving in public office.

When you have a government like that, you are free, even determined to offer free public education for all, to make sure everyone gets enough food, to sit on juries so your fellow Americans can get justice. Our representative democracy—still so very rare in the world, the first of its kind, and in the minority even in the 21st century—is what gives us our national character, our optimism, our passion for justice, our sense of fair play. We infuse our government with these good things.

When we decide the federal government is the root of all ills, that decision is usually led by  selfish people who don’t want to help their fellow Americans eat or get justice or live in decent housing; they are out for themselves and themselves alone. They call themselves libertarians or rugged individuals, and they claim that they are returning to original American values that made the country great.

These people are voted into office and there they pervert the federal and state governments into criminal systems that oppress the poor and non-white and female. It’s vicious circle: People who hate the government go into it to destroy and pervert it, and then the government actually becomes the root of all evils they said it was. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If America is no longer great, it’s because of these people saying they themselves will make it great again by destroying the government.

But we need to cling to our representative democracy, our principles of liberty and justice for all, taxation with representation that helps people get the things they need. We need to let it keep us generous and fair-minded. A woman on the radio this morning said she voted for Trump because “I just want a change. I want a change.”

Change in and of itself is not positive. You can’t just say I’m fed up and I will throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can’t say “change” when you mean “I want to get my own way all the time and not help anyone else.” You will get a change for the worse, and you might find that it’s a change you don’t end up liking.

Here’s the original post. We’re in it for the long haul to November and beyond.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

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Michael Hayden: don’t be ashamed of torture

Posted on February 23, 2016. Filed under: U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

We were innocently listening to the radio when an interview with retired Air Force General Michael Hayden came on. He ran the NSA for a decade (1999-2009) and was director of the CIA. He’s just written a memoir, which unfortunately over the past 15 years has come to mean a high-level military director reveals all the ways he violated our Constitution. Whether he expresses regret or not is always the question; Hayden answered that question in the negative very quickly. The transcript we’re relying on can be found here.

 

 

In explaining the monitoring of all Americans’ phone calls by the NSA, Hayden was unapologetic:

SIEGEL: …in order for this program to work over the years – and we’re talking about a threat that we foresee existing for many years…

HAYDEN: …Right.

SIEGEL: You’re going to store my data through many different CIA directors, NSA directors, FBI directors, members of Congress, presidents, all the while telephonic history – at least the metadata history – is going to be accessible to the government.

HAYDEN: It’s going to be preserved. And access was a very important part of this program. And it was accessible by about two dozen people at NSA whose access to the database had keystroke monitoring on it. Now, look, any power in the government can be abused. But what you’ve just described is an equally powerful argument against arming policemen. That can be abused too, Robert.

SIEGEL: That can be abused.

HAYDEN: We actually need to give government some power to protect us…

—How the argument that the federal government monitoring all phone calls at all times and keeping that data seemingly forever is comparable to refusing to let the police carry weapons is beyond us… except that it’s actually a dead-on comparison: our police are fatally over-armed, carrying military-grade weapons they don’t need that they come to abuse, and our government is violating the Constitution by stripping us of our privacy, a power which can only end in one of two results: either the monitoring is so light and uninformative that it’s never consulted and therefore ignored; or it is gradually and inevitably used to monitor more and more citizens for its’ own sake (i.e., abused).

 

…SIEGEL: Toward the end of your tenure at the Center Intelligence Agency, the question of interrogations became extremely controversial. You advised your successor – President Obama’s nominee, Leon Panetta – what to say about waterboarding. I want you to tell us what your guidance was.

HAYDEN: Yeah. I simply said do not use the word torture and CIA in the same sentence ever again. You can object to some of the enhanced interrogation techniques. You can, in your heart of hearts, believe they meet some legal definition of torture. But Leon, you’re taking over a workforce that did these things in good faith, that did these things with the assurance of the attorney general that they indeed were not torture. Do not accuse them of felonies.

SIEGEL: As a matter of institutional politics or as a matter of truth?

HAYDEN: Well, certainly as a matter of truth. Look, I get it. Honest men differ. A lot of good people describe these things as torture. The definitive legal judgment under which the agency was operating – and, you know, sooner or later, Robert, somebody’s got to call balls and strikes, and that’s the way it is.

—“Interrogations” is the new euphemism for torture. So is “enhanced interrogation”. What is interrogation enhanced by? Torture. We don’t think one has to consult one’s “heart of hearts” to know that water boarding and electro-shocking and force-feeding is torture: if you wouldn’t want it to happen to you if you were in military custody, it’s torture. The idea that you can do something bad “in good faith” is already tenuous: it’s technically possible, but only if you don’t know that what you’re doing is bad. No one tortures in good faith because everyone knows it’s bad. Hayden’s argument is, frankly, exactly what Nazi soldiers said after the war: I didn’t know it was bad, I was told it was good.

And we would add that Hayden sort of protests too much: you don’t threaten people and try to stop them from calling something torture if you really don’t believe it was torture, or if you really believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. You do that when you know it was torture, and that torture is wrong, and you want to hush it up.

The last statement is beyond belief. “Honest men differ”? And the last sentence is telling: he starts to say the definitive legal judgment is that it was not torture, then right-turns into saying well, the judgment the NSA was working from (a cobbled-together judgment created to justify NSA’s actions as opposed to an official legal judgment), then just drops it and says “we just decided it was necessary.” Anyone who resorts to baseball analogies to justify torture is beyond callous; they’re not in their right mind.

We’ll break the next section down bit by awful bit:

SIEGEL: But if we read accounts of ISIS waterboarding hostages somewhere in Syria or Iraq, I don’t think we’d hesitate but to say they’re torturing these people.

HAYDEN: Well, did ISIS have someone present who was legally and morally responsible for the well-being of the hostage? Did ISIS have someone there with monitoring devices on the body of the hostage? Does ISIS have a rule that anyone in the room can call knock it off if they believe the interrogation..

—Hayden conjures up a 1984 image of an American sitting quietly in the corner while someone is tortured making sure that the person being tortured is happy. And telling the torturers to stop if the torture impacts the prisoner’s well-being.

SIEGEL: …Now the person that’s being waterboarded can’t call knock it off.

HAYDEN: No.

SIEGEL: You’re saying somebody who’s part of the team.

HAYDEN: Right, who’s part of the team.

—If you’re “part of the team”, are you likely to tell your fellow-torturers to stop? If, as Hayden claims, the torturing was done in good faith because Americans felt it was the right thing to do, when would anyone step up and say to stop?

SIEGEL: I will – I checked reference books. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary cuts you a break. They say it’s a form of interrogation, waterboarding. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it a method of torture. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a form of torture. I mean, must one take a very legalistic and narrow view of torture rather than say look, you guys – what you did, you believed to be legal. You were acting in the flush of 9/11 with the expectation of further attacks, but this was wrong. What you did was wrong.

HAYDEN: Oh, that’s a totally honorable position. I get that. What I don’t get is someone who says by the way, it didn’t work anyway.

—Hayden uses the word “honorable” in a despicable way here to mean “bleeding hearts who don’t want to live in the real world”. That’s why he then takes an otherwise baffling left-turn to say it’s crazy to claim that torture doesn’t get results.

SIEGEL: You would say it worked?

HAYDEN: I would say we got information from the people against whom we used enhanced interrogation techniques. We moved them from a zone that was pretty much represented by defiance to a zone where they were at least more compliant, more willing to talk about the things we believed we needed to know to keep the country safe.

—Of course they got information; people who are being tortured will say anything to stop the torture. It’s terrible and telling that Hayden refers to that information as “things we believed we needed to know”—the torturers decided to believe what they heard. Of course they did; you have to find a way to sleep at night.

The interview moved on, but we were left a wreck in the wake of this passage. Americans do not torture. We led the world in banning torture of prisoners of war. We believe in justice for all. If you can find an American who believes an American military service member should be water-boarded if captured by an enemy, then we might change our minds, but that won’t happen.

It reminds us of something Abraham Lincoln said in a debate with Stephen Douglas where Douglas had gone on for a half-hour justifying slavery as not so bad. Lincoln basically said, Douglas seems to think slavery is good but if you asked him to be a slave himself he would say no.

We don’t want to be tortured, so we shouldn’t torture—even if it produced good information (which is does not). We can’t let people like Michael Hayden convince us otherwise.

 

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Confusion on the campaign trail in South Carolina

Posted on February 19, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

We were listening to NPR yesterday morning and heard yet another story about the upcoming primary in South Carolina, this one focused on the drive to win the votes of military personnel, who make up about 25% of eligible voters in that state. It very quickly changed from just another story to one that brought up several boggling contradictions. For this post, we’re working from the transcript of the story.

Just outside the small town of Walterboro in South Carolina’s low country yesterday, the stage for a big outdoor rally featured giant American flags and camouflage bunting.

—Camouflage bunting? This is very hard to picture. The whole point of bunting is that it is another way to display the colors of the U.S. flag, which is desirable because it shows loyalty to and support for the United States. Using camouflage bunting creates a queasy equivalence of the nation with the armed forces, and we wondered who made it. A quick look online did not uncover U.S. flag-type bunting, though camouflage-pink baby bunting is available… it made us wonder if one of the campaigns created it especially for South Carolina campaigning, which again creates a queasy one-to-one identification of the U.S. with its military (and nothing but its military).

…in the hours before that speech by Donald Trump began, a long line formed on the wooded property, including many voters with military ties, among them 58-year-old Jim Shinta, a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force.

JIM SHINTA: I never registered to vote before until this election.

—If you are eligible to vote and never vote, you are not doing your duty as an American. Participating in our representative democracy is crucial. When people do not vote, the system becomes rigged in favor of those who know they can push through un-American policies and laws simply because no one will turn up to vote against them. Serving in the armed forces can be a way to serve your country, but voting—keeping our democracy alive and in good working order—is far more important. There’s no America to defend if there’s no participatory democracy.

GONYEA: He says Trump is the reason. Shinta likes Trump’s promise to restore U.S. respect around the world.

What do you want to see Trump do in that regard?

SHINTA: Defeat ISIS number one, close the borders – that’s number two.

—We have commented recently on this mindset (at Nation of Refugees and Immigrants have always been scary looking, but that’s never stopped us before); here the desire to defeat ISIS is oddly connected with closing the U.S.-Mexican border, and the message is that all outsiders are evil threats and the U.S. must destroy the worst of them and keep out the rest of them, and live in a splendid isolation of perfection. The day the U.S. closes its borders is the day we should dismantle the Statue of Liberty. But we get the feeling Shinta does not mean all borders—he probably doesn’t mind non-Latin or non-Syrian immigrants coming in. It’s a partial border closing, a racially based border selection, that again sits ill with the concept of liberty and justice for all.

…Nearby is 49-year-old Shawn Sauerbrei, who was in the Marines for 23 years. He has no doubts about Trump, saying it’s great to have a candidate who’s truly committed to helping veterans. He also says people should take some of Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric with a grain of salt.

SHAWN SAUERBREI: You know, if he uses the language, it’s Donald. He makes people cheer. He makes people think that OK, he’s going to do something.

—The conflation here is dangerous: Trump says he’s going to do some crazy things that you can ignore because they’re meaningless… yet these are the things that make people happy—they’re the things people want him to do. So which is it: we can ignore it because no one really means it, or it’s exactly what people want? This question is immediately answered:

GONYEA: But on some of Trump’s very tough talk, Sauerbrei says it’s warranted, like when Trump says he’ll bring back waterboarding and worse.

SAUERBREI: I think we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do for terrorism. If he wants to bring it back – hey, if it works it works. If it doesn’t, I’m sure he’ll try something else.

—This is a prime example of deciding something is okay and then ignoring all evidence it is not. Torturing prisoners has been proved over and over to be worthless, because people will say anything to stop the torture. So it doesn’t work. Sauerbrei himself goes back and forth: at first torture is “what we’ve got to do”, and then “if it works it works”, and finally “if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else”. Deep down he knows torture is pointless and even counter-productive, but like the people he discounts in his previous statement, the talk of torture makes him cheer because it means Trump will do something.

Even if torture did get good, solid results, a nation devoted to justice can never, ever use it. The U.S. led the global campaign against torturing prisoners of war in the 20th century. We can’t let it now lead a global campaign promoting torture. It’s not compatible with our founding principles, and we would think someone who took an oath to protect his nation would be more interested in protecting it from tearing its integrity to shreds.

…Meanwhile, at a Jeb Bush event in North Charleston, 48-year-old Derek Robbins says the military has been neglected under President Obama. Robbins’ son currently serves in the Air Force.

DEREK ROBBINS: We have one in the service. And so we see how important that is. And to see the military, you know, to be downgraded – it’s very important to rebuild that strength.

—The idea that the military is being pushed into a dark corner and allowed to rot is just another example of deciding something is true and sticking to it no matter how many proofs to the contrary you see around you every day. Let us offer just two graphics:

001_military_spending_dollars

002_military_spending_percent_of_world

Since September 11th, military spending has skyrocketed, and actually had a strong surge upward during President Obama’s first term (after a slowdown during Bush’s second term). Even the decline in Obama’s second term leaves spending levels far higher than they’ve been for nearly 40 years. So the military  has not been neglected…

…unless you mean spending on people, not equipment. What these veterans in South Carolina are really talking about is support for people in active service and for veterans, especially those with health problems related to their service. The U.S. treats its veterans shamefully for the most part, providing little to no health care, counseling, insurance, or just plain money and time and people and care for the men and women who serve in its ranks. Veterans dying on a wait list for VA hospitals make the news, then fade away. The high suicide and murder rate among veterans is well-known, yet the government does almost nothing about it.

When this is the problem, people should say so plainly instead of making broad statements about the military being downgraded and needing to rebuild its strength. No military is stronger technology and materiel-wise than ours. But our military is weak and tottering when it comes to the mental and physical health, the income, and the security of its members. If Trump torturing POWs and bombing the sh** out of China will fix those things, then we’re all for it. But it won’t.

And so we leave South Carolina with a sense of foreboding. Simply being in the military is not patriotic. You have to support, and vote to support, the founding principles of this nation if you want to protect and defend it. Let’s hope the vote turns out well for the democracy and justice the U.S. is meant to stand for.

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A Holiday Gift: Religious Tolerance

Posted on December 22, 2015. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a sharp video from Dr. Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton, on the PragerU site that explains the origins of religious tolerance in the English colonies of North America, and the astounding breakthrough that was the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He even gets the Puritans right! Since WordPress won’t let us import the video, we just have to give you the link:

Religious Tolerance: Made in America

Enjoy, and enjoy watching a short video rather than reading reams of text from the HP crew. That’s our gift to you!

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A Nation of refugees

Posted on November 17, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

The wars in what we grew up calling “the Middle East”, from the Syrian civil war to the battles against the so-called Islamic State, are doing what all wars do: creating millions of refugees. This is not new in human history. Why is the U.S. a nation of immigrants? In large part because millions of people fled war in Europe during the 19th century. From the revolutions of 1848 to the wars that created Germany to the people who fled Europe after WWII, war has always grown our population in the U.S.

But that last one in the list, WWII, is actually an anomaly. It was after WWII that the U.S. began adopting policies that limited immigration, even for people claiming refugee status. There were multiple reasons for this; anti-immigration policies had begun to multiply in the 1920s and 30s, and affected people’s ability to leave Europe for America before the Second World War. These policies led to the refusal of the St. Louis in May 1939,  because it carried 937 Jewish Europeans seeking refugee status in Cuba; Cuba would not take them, and according to the Immigration Act of 1924 that cut immigration from southeastern Europe sharply, neither would the U.S. (The Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe where they fell victim to Nazism.) After WWII, the Cold War encouraged U.S. officials to restrict European and Asian immigration as we became a fortress closed against Communism.

So we actually became less welcoming to Refugees from Foreign Wars, as they used to be called, during WWII. Famously, it took an emotional visit by First Lady Rosalyn Carter to starving and dying Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War to change our policy and allow them to enter the U.S.

In the 1920s, the U.S. banned immigration based on religion and race: “undesirable” Catholics, Jews, and people who were not considered white at that time like Italians and Czechs and Russians all had their quotas lowered. Since the 1950s, immigration has been viewed through the lens of politics and religion: Catholic Latinos in the 1970s-90s, and now Muslim Middle-Easterners are the new bogeymen. In the late 19th century and to the 1930s, southeastern European Jews and Catholics were decried  loudly by panicking white Protestants: their mission from the Pope or whoever controlled them was to destroy the U.S. government and our white nation. Today, the nativists panic as they claim… the exact same thing.

Muslims can’t understand democracy. They can’t participate in it. They won’t learn English. They hate our free society. They’ll bring their religious laws here and try to enforce them. They’ll destroy our government. They’ll commit acts of terrorism.

All of these hate-panic claims were once made about Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and Catholic immigrants. Somehow none of them came true.

Yet some of our political leaders are clearly nostalgic for the bad old days. Rick Santorum thinks all Syrian refugees should go back home and fight ISIS. Somehow they will succeed where Russian air strikes have not. Carly Fiorina wants all refugees screened for terrorism before they can come here. Rand Paul has a blanket “no” when it comes to Muslim refugees. Bobby Jindal thinks all refugees should be constantly monitored in the U.S., ankle-bracelet style. And Mike Huckabee thinks it’s “crazy” to take poor people from the “desert”, “who don’t speak our language, who don’t understand our culture, who don’t share a [sic] same worldview, and bring them to Minnesota during the winter”.

Luckily none of these people are running the country. Our president faced this front of ignorance by reminding us of who we are:

When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who is fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful, that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests (for) our compassion.

This is a much-needed counter-attack against those who insist that instituting the religious tests that our Constitution absolutely outlaws and deplores as undemocratic will keep our democracy safe. Suspecting people who have fled for their lives in a war of being warmongers whose only goal is to destroy any nation that takes them in and offers them hope is beyond ignorant. And it’s beyond American.

Whenever anti-immigrant, hate laws were passed in our history, there were Americans who stood up against them. There are always Americans who fight for justice for all. That’s our true identity. That’s American. Let’s remember that. Let’s remember who we are and how we got here, always aspiring to greatest-nation-on-Earth status, because the old saw is true: if we destroy everything we stand for in the name of security, the terrorists win.

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Court decisions are not “democracy”?

Posted on November 13, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

We were listening to the news and heard someone being interviewed say that an issue in their state had been decided by the state Supreme Court, and therefore the issue “was solved by the courts, not by democracy”.

This idea that the judiciary, one of the three branches of our government as described by our Constitution, is somehow not part of our democratic system is a baffling one. We are forced to repost our original rebuttal of this idea, from 2008, here in the continuing effort to fight this misconception:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule–the basis of democracy–ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature–Congress–cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Black Votes Matter… but not in Alabama

Posted on October 21, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Back in June 2013, we posted about the Supreme Court decision that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. You can read that here; in this post, we focus on the inevitable evil that is beginning to come of that decision.

Basically, the SC decision removed a restriction that had been placed on states with the worst records of preventing black Americans from voting: that restriction said that if one of those states wanted to change anything about its voting laws, those changes had to be approved by the federal government. This stopped states from passing new laws that kept black Americans from voting.

And now we see the first fruit of removing that restriction: Alabama first made a government-issued ID mandatory for voting, and has now shut down 31 DMV locations—in majority-black counties.

As the report in The Nation says,

The state is shuttering DMV offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest concentration of black voters. Selma will still have a DMV office but virtually all of the surrounding Black Belt counties will not. “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed,” writes John Archibald of the Birmingham News. “The harm is inflicted disproportionately on voters who happen to be black, and poor, in sparsely populated areas.”

Alabama describes the closings as a cost-saving measure, but the impact has clear racial and political overtones. Writes Archibald:

“Look at the 15 counties that voted for President Barack Obama in the last presidential election. The state just decided to close driver license offices in 53 percent of them.

“Look at the five counties that voted most solidly Democratic? Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Bullock counties all had their driver license offices closed.

“Look at the 10 that voted most solidly for Obama? Of those, eight—again all but Dallas and the state capital of Montgomery—had their offices closed.”

This is the very type of voting change–one that disproportionately burdens African-American voters–that would have been challenged under Section 5 of the VRA, which the Supreme Court rendered inoperative. “The voices of our most vulnerable citizens have been silenced by a decision to close 31 license facilities in Alabama. #RestoreTheVOTE,” tweeted Congresswoman Terri Sewell from Selma.

Congresswoman Sewell is calling on the federal Department of Justice to investigate, but what can it do? Its power to suspend any violation of Americans’ constitutional right to vote has been stripped away by the Shelby decision.

As John Archibald (quoted above) says in an op-ed,

It’s not just a civil rights violation. It is not just a public relations nightmare. It is not just an invitation for worldwide scorn and an alarm bell to the Justice Department. It is an affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen. It is a slap in the face to all who believe the stuff we teach the kids about how all are created equal.

But Alabama Secy of State John Merrill says there’s no problem:

Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama’s chief election official, said late Wednesday that the state’s closing of 31 county driver’s license offices won’t leave residents without a place to get the required I.D. card to vote.

…Merrill said state election officials “will issue (photo voter I.D. cards) on our own” at county Board of Registrars offices. “Every county has a Board of Registrars,” he said.

…Merrill said his office will have brought its mobile I.D. van to every county in Alabama by Oct. 31. He said the van will return to counties when requested. “If they can’t go to the board of registrars, we’ll bring a mobile crew down there,” Merrill said.

…One must ask why Alabama should have to use mobile vans to register people when it already had DMVs in place to do so? Mobilizing a fleet of “mobile ID vans” to replace the DMVs you shut down is like breaking your car window so you can tape a plastic garbage bag over it and then vaunt your great “fix”.

It seems clear that this is a bold, open blow against civil rights in Alabama, and like attacks on immigrants, these moves tend to spread from state to state; we fear Alabama will not be the last to decide it doesn’t have to let black citizens vote. Keep an eye on your own state, and if you like, protest the Alabama move at #RestoretheVOTE.

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Kim Davis, the Supreme Court, and tyranny of the majority

Posted on September 15, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

If you read the HP regularly, you know that in 2008 we ran our first post on gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority. That’s when California legalized gay marriage, and when we heard someone on the radio complain about the role of the California State Supreme Court in making that happen. We explain in the post how the judiciary was specifically created to overturn majority laws/votes that oppress minorities, and therefore court rulings overturning laws against gay marriage are not, as is so often claimed, unconstitutional. Here’s the bulk of the post:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

Over and over we reposted this article as new states approved or disallowed gay marriage. When on June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell et al. v. Hodges that gay marriage is constitutional—or, more pointedly, that denying it is unconstitutional—we happily reposted for the last time on that subject.

Being historians, however, we knew that the backlash would not be long in coming. The clamor for “religious rights” that has grown up suspiciously in synch with the campaign for equal marriage began to claim that upholding gay Americans’ rights was oppressing Christian Americans’ rights. This is based on a fundamental and perhaps willful misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which we post about here. The First Amendment protects freedom of worship, not belief: here’s the gist from our post:

Worship is generally defined as attending a religious service, but it can be extended to prayer, pilgrimage, wearing one’s hair a certain way, and dressing and eating a certain way.

What worship is not defined as is belief. This is the crucial misunderstanding so many Americans have. Worship is an outward manifestation of belief. But it is not belief itself. And that’s why the First Amendment says nothing about religious belief. Absolutely nothing at all. This is what makes separation of church and state possible: religious belief is not allowed to determine what services the state provides. This means people who have certain religious beliefs can’t be refused state services, and it means that people who have certain religious beliefs can’t refuse to provide state services to people their beliefs condemn.

That’s why all these “religious freedom” bills being passed are bogus. They enshrine beliefs as rights (this is nowhere in the Constitution) and then say the First Amendment protects those beliefs by allowing people to refuse to serve others because their religion says to. Beliefs are amorphous. They are not concrete activities like worship. Anyone can have any belief they want, and their right to express those beliefs is protected. But if that expression comes in the form of refusing state or federal government services, then they cross a line by saying the state or federal government must conform to their beliefs.

This is what’s happening when county clerks refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The clerks are saying their right to do so is protected, but it is not. If something is legal in this country, the government must provide it—end of story. If people feel they cannot do that, then they should resign their position (quit their job). You cannot refuse to uphold U.S. law on the basis of your religious beliefs. The First Amendment specifically says this by saying Congress shall establish no religion.

So when Kim Davis and her ilk say their religious rights are being trampled, they are wrong. There’s a right to freedom of worship in the U.S., but not to protection of religious belief.

Yet Davis and her fleet of lawyers and her opportunistic supporters are making the same complaint against the courts that were made throughout the marriage equality campaign: Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in an NPR report that “People are tired of the tyranny of judicial action that takes people’s freedoms away, takes their basic fundamental constitutional rights and puts them in jeopardy.”

Ah, the scourge of “judicial tyranny”. It ruins everything for people who want to oppress others. It seems we will have to keep running our post on the judiciary and its role in stopping tyranny of the majority for as long as people misrepresent and contort the Constitution to serve their goal of restricting liberties, establishing a state religion, and claiming that offering liberty and justice to all is contrary to their Christian beliefs.

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Stop saying “slaves”, “Union”, and “Compromise of 1850”—they’re all inaccurate

Posted on September 11, 2015. Filed under: Civil War, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

We were delighted to find this article on the History News Network: “There are words scholars should no longer use to describe slavery and the Civil War”, by Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. You need to go read it yourself, and not just because it affirms our decision here at the HP to refuse to use the word “slave” (see Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America). It’s important because we all know that terminology is the best weapon in any fight. Are people who oppose abortion anti-choice or pro-life? The first is negative, the second positive. Establishing the labels “right to life” and “pro-life” was the smartest thing anti-abortion advocates ever did, because those subjective labels skewed the public perception of what was being debated and what was at stake.

Labels created today go down in history and do the same thing: they shape how we think about past events. Let’s let Dr. Landis take over from here:

…We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.

Legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany Law) has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative packages that avoided disunion in the antebellum era. …Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement. In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!

Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.

This excerpt reveals how powerful language that has been handed down for hundreds of years can be. Landis also advocates dropping “the Union” because this upholds the Confederate claim that the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War.

There are many words and phrases that were carefully crafted to shape perception that we use unthinkingly today: reservation, the opening of the West, Japanese internment camps, inner city, Gilded Age, carpetbagger, housing projects, robber baron, etc. Some are euphemisms (reservation, opening), some have become joke terms that imply that the people or issue in question a) weren’t that bad and b) don’t matter anymore because they have forever disappeared from our society when they haven’t (Gilded Age, robber baron). Some are vicious insults created by racists frantic at the notion that someone might help black people (carpetbagger). Others originally meant “poor, dangerous black people” and now are utterly meaningless (inner city, housing project). And don’t get us started on the meaningless parasite that “community” has become.

If you read the HP, you know we’re all about truth defeating myth, so we welcome the movement to speak accurately and honestly and fearlessly about our history, and we urge you to make your own changes and take back your history and your present-day reality.

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