Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Knowing What We Don't Know

We all know that O.J. is guilty. We know it beyond a reasonable doubt. We know it because we watched the nightly news for what seemed like half of our lifetime. Each evening we got an in-depth two minute report in which a lovely, well-augmented/endowed, lip-glossed beauty explained exactly what testimony occurred that day (with the exception of Greta Van Susteren duly noted here as she is none of the above.)

Although the members of the jury had eight to ten hour days of mind-numbing testimony for weeks on end, we got it in the condensed version and therefore we knew with certainty what was the real truth. Well, it’s possible we got it right on that one.

Now, despite my resolution to the contrary, I come to le’affaire Schiavo. We (I speak euphemistically here) know that she is alive and responsive or maybe in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery. We are absolutely certain that with therapy which has been denied for the last fifteen years, she will recover. Or, maybe we know that Michael was an abusive husband who was responsible for her condition and now wants the possibility of testimony removed. Could be we know that Judge Greer is a euthanasia supporter who wants to exercise his exclusive judicial power. Or, maybe we know that fifteen state courts, eight state appeals courts, five federal district courts, at least three times in the State Supreme Court and once or twice in the US Supreme Court the case has been examined?

We know that a reputable neurologist has said no way. We know that dozens of reputable physicians have said maybe. We know that no MRI has been performed or maybe there have been CAT, ECG, PET and MRI tests all of which have shown no cortical activity. Or, maybe we don’t know what we don’t know.

Each evening I grapple with what the news reports. I watch the fools who stand outside the hospice with emphatic signs protesting the injustice of it all. I ponder the question of why she must die of thirst and starvation rather than from a more humane termination such as might be provided for the beloved and faithful family pet that has been diagnosed as having no hope of recovery. I wonder what I would prefer and when hope should be abandoned. I wonder how the law of the land, which is only law and not emotional preference, can possibly deal with how to make these decisions.

And through it all I wonder about all of these people who have such great assurance about knowing the proper course of action without knowing what they don’t know.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

From Beyond the Grave

If you don’t live in Colorado and aren’t one of the fourteen people who read the state’s “other” newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, you probably won’t encounter the last gonzo dirty trick of the Duke of Doonesbury. Yep, he planned it all along. He laid the seeds in 1977, almost too long ago to let most of us believe that anyone would remember, let alone seriously consider following through with it. Hunter S. Thompson has got to be grinning like a drug-crazed, motorcycle riding, guns-a-blazing, madman in the great beyond. He’s pulled off one last highlight to the abject foolishness of his fellow man.

As reported in the Rocky (that’s what we call it here to distinguish it from the more uptight and respectable Denver Post), Hunter laid out the plans for disposing of his mortal remains after his demise whether timely or sudden.,1299,DRMN_21_3634898,00.html

Get this. He wants his ashes scattered. Well, not exactly just that mundane act which is fairly common for those who live and love the mountains and forests. He wants them fired into the air from a cannon. OK, I hear you saying that’s not too unusual. The cannon is to be shaped like an upside down mushroom! Sort of a mushroom mortar memorial. The toadstool of TNT, capable of hurling ten pounds or so of ashes five hundred feet into the Aspen area atmosphere.

And, he wants the mushroom to be clutched in a raised fist—sort of the last act of defiance. Think Mexico City Olympics 1968 abstract done in green bronze and one hundred fifty feet tall. An arm and fist holding an inverted mushroom that erupts to spread Hunter across the canyons, ski-slopes, trout streams and pine log taverns of his former home. Symbolically just one foot shorter than the Statue of Liberty.

But wait, there’s more. The fist is to have two thumbs. What could be the significance? Is this a post-mortem admission of bi-sexuality? He went both ways? Is it a perverse paean to the politicians who practice their duality on every significant issue? Is it merely an engineering acknowledgement that with only one thumb on a bronze fist it’s a real bitch trying to hold onto an inverted fungus that shoots ashes to the heavens? Will we ever know?

Suffice to say that this is real! This is serious. This is really being considered by the good folks of Woody Creek Colorado. And, the debate is already heating up with several of the glitterati of Aspen griping that a 150 foot statue of a hand with a mushroom and a congenital deformity that ejaculates ashes one last time fulfilling the hallucinogenic-inspired ramblings of the man is not quite consistent with the surroundings of the pristine forest and snow-capped mountains.

Why they couldn’t simply laugh and say, “what a card that Hunter was”? Then dump the ashes in a Tupperware urn and throw it in the trunk of a 1972 Corvette and push it into the Roaring Fork.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Baseball and Congress

I had to dig out my Constitution yesterday and do a quick read-through. I couldn’t for the life of me remember where among the enumerated powers—those delegated to the Federal government and those reserved to the States—was the part about producing media shows on bulked-up behemoths of baseball. Why, I’ll bet Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and Jay would have been great fans of the sport. They seemed to be educated men who would delight in the nuances of the game. They certainly would have enjoyed an afternoon at the village green, sipping a Samuel Adams Lager and discussing the delicate timing of the 4-6-3 double play followed by a vigorous argument over the merits of the designated hitter. But, I’ll guarantee you that they wouldn’t have even for a moment considered the imposition of governmental control over the sport.

But, there it was on the Panasonic Plasma in my very own family room. The usual suspects in the Congress are front and center for the cameras, demanding further investigation, proposing testing (can you say 4th Amendment violation?), protecting the children (always a good posture), asking questions in the format of “when did you stop beating your wife”, and looking suitable miffed when the high-power, big-name, audience-drawing players repeatedly invoked their 5th Amendment privilege. What great theater. What a perfect example of a government gone so far beyond what the Framers considered that even Britney and Paris could see the problem.

Henry Waxman, that wonderful representative of the downtrodden who would cure every social ill with more federal intervention, waxes eloquently about the health risks, the disappointed fans, and the tarnished records. Elijah Cummings shakes his head dramatically at how the likes of Cobb and Ruth would have never done such things—oops, bad examples. They were more into excessive drinking and abuse of women. They didn’t yet have the wonders of modern medicine at their disposal.

And, of course, in the wings of the House committee arena we find Senator-with-a-cause-du-jour John McCain. Yes, John stands by to make all things right, regardless of Constitutional guidance that might stand in the way. That’s John who straddles the liberal-conservative line so brilliantly by on the one hand proposing First Amendment restrictions on Internet sites, libraries and election campaigns, while simultaneously seeking to gut the Second Amendment with increased gun control and ownership restrictions. Beats me whether he’s trying to appeal to or alienate both sides. But, he sure doesn’t like that steroid business in those baseball players and we’ve got to put a stop to it before kids in America’s high schools give up their pot, coke and meth for designer ‘roids.

Frankly it is a shame. It is a disgusting example of what big business and big money can do to a national pastime. Baseball, however, is just a game. It’s a way to spend an afternoon in the warm sunshine or the air-conditioned bar with a friend or two enjoying a beer and passing the time. Hell, that’s why they call it the “national pastime”, not the national-fanatical-sports-watch-every-second-or-miss-the-big-play game. You don’t watch baseball like football or basketball with great concentration to avoid missing the alley-oop dunk-a-rama or the hail-Mary to the end zone with two seconds on the clock. Baseball is meant to be a background activity on a lazy afternoon. All that spitting, scratching, bat-tapping, shoe-cleaning, rosin-bag tossing isn’t high drama, it’s time-killing for beer-drinking.

But, we’ve got TV audiences to please. We’ve got records that must be challenged and broken. We’ve got players earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per game and they must be paid. Why, the Colorado Rockies have got pitchers on the payroll for millions who haven’t even played in the same league for the last two years! That means you’ve got to be bigger, faster, stronger, and more impressive than mere mortals. You’ve got to be cream-n-clear huge to pay the bills.

Unfortunate circumstances all, but not the job of Congress to correct, investigate or regulate under any interpretation that I can glean from the Constitution. Maybe this might be the time for someone to bring forth that dusty old Tenth Amendment and ask the Supremes (who aren’t on the disabled reserve list this week) to make a decision on whether we should call this game or play it under protest.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Nibbling at the Republic II

When Ben Franklin emerged from Independence Hall on the day that the announcement was made that their work was done and a new Constitution had been written, a woman approached him and asked, “Mr. Franklin, what form of government have you given us?”

His reply tells us a lot. “A republic, madam. If you can keep it.” Which, of course brings us to the question—what the hell is the difference? We’ve all heard the response to gripes about democracy, but do we know what it means? We are a constitutional republic, not a democracy. OK, what’s the difference? It tells us much about the original question regarding whether or not the Founders believed in democracy.

The basic principle of democracy is that government is “by the people.” The society makes the choices of public policy through expression of the popular will. Hence, in its essential component the majority rules. But is that a good thing? Is it even possible? Certainly not in a large society and arguably not even in a small group. Large societies would find it impossible to poll the electorate for decision making. It simply isn’t practical to ask everyone what to do about a problem and even if it were, the decision might not be made with very much information by the group. Who wants to come home from a hard day flipping burgers at the local fast-food emporium to study the ramifications of tax policy, highway construction and relations with Lower Slobovia. The hell with it, just vote no on everything!

So, we have the less direct form of democracy, representative government. It seems like a pretty good idea. The members of the society choose representatives to make the decisions on our behalf. We elect candidates based on their qualifications, experience, and platforms to become knowledgeable on the issues and then select the best course of action for the society in consideration of priorities, availability of resources and the public good. If they do what the majority prefers, they keep their job. If they don’t satisfy the people, they get “un-elected.” And, if they find that their decisions aren’t what the masses want, they have a limited opportunity to convince the great unwashed of the wisdom of their choice and why it is a better course for most of us.

But, that only slows the tyranny of the majority a bit. The elected representatives will still pander to the masses. It’s “bread and circuses” in slow motion. Give them what they want and I’ll be able to keep my job and the perks that come with it. Upset the greater number and I’ll be looking for a new gig. If we read the Constitution that came out of Philadelphia, we’ll begin to see that even this indirect form of democracy didn’t reassure the Founders. They wanted a bit more control.

They gave us some unusual process to form our federal government. It’s a very strange balancing act between public input and control by the educated elites. The Madisonian concept of three distinct branches of government breaks from the British parliamentary concept of fusion of power that merges executive, legislative and judicial functions. Separating the functions and then structuring those elusive checks and balances we all talk about is a masterful work. But, was the described government a democracy?

Let’s take a look at how the people select the membership of that government. It isn’t as straightforward as most of us think. (A lot of folks learned that in the 2000 presidential election!)

First, let’s look at the biggest branch of the government, the legislature. We’ve got a bicameral legislature in the Constitution, one comprised of two chambers unequal in size, power, and selection method. The larger chamber, the House of Representatives, dilutes the power the most. More members from smaller districts mean less authority and impact on policy. They are the ones that get elected directly by the people. True and simple indirect democracy in a nutshell.

But, the Senate was a different story. From the ratification of the Constitution until the 17th Amendment in 1913, the two senators from each state were NOT elected! They were appointed by the legislatures of the respective states. Certainly we could argue that this was democracy, but it was democracy once-removed from the electorate. The legislature of the state got elected, but then it would be one of the “good ol’ boys” who got the prize of going to the Senate of the US. This is clearly a method of keeping the emotional masses from having too great an influence on policy. And, these appointees could quite effectively negate the directly elected group on the other side of the legislature from running away with things. (Since 1913, we have had direct election of senators. Clearly democracy but we might debate whether that is a better method.)

The executive might be the smallest branch of the government, but it could also be the largest depending upon how we measure. There are only two Constitutional positions—the prez and the veep. If we look at the total number of functionaries in the executive however, we find millions. But, only two are elected. All of the rest are appointed and hired. Not very democratic at that level. Let’s just consider the presidency for the sake of determining the Founder’s commitment to democracy. Is he/she elected by the great unwashed? Not exactly!

Since 2000, only the totally uninvolved are unaware of the Electoral College. We almost all know now that the President is elected by the EC, not the popular vote. And, the EC rules are largely determined by the respective states, not by the Constitution. Who is an elector? We have to go to the states to find out the selection processes. How do they vote? Again, the rules are generated locally in large measure.

We can draw some generalities regarding the EC. Most states have pluralities determining a vote for all electors under a “unit rule.” Get the most popular votes in a state, not necessarily a majority of the votes, and you get all of the states electoral votes. Even those states that don’t have legislative mandate for a bloc vote of electors will do so by custom. The result is that presidents are often elected with less than a popular majority. In many instances, considerably less. The process also means that careful counting of a state’s EC votes can lead a candidate to focus on a remarkably small number of states to create a winning EC majority. Clearly not very democratic at that level. Add one last piece to the mix—many state electors are appointed rather than directly elected.

Finally we get to the third component of the federal government, the judiciary. Not elected at all. In fact, that is a pretty good thing as far as justice is concerned since the judges won’t be running for re-election at the expense of plaintiffs and defendants in front of them. No, the judges are appointed by a President who is not directly elected and confirmed by a Senate which was for the first 120 years of the Republic not elected either.

All of this should lead to the conclusion that the Founders were pretty apprehensive regarding the ability of the people to govern themselves effectively. We’ve moved toward popular democracy considerably since the first years of the nation, but most assuredly there are still a lot of buffers between the masses and the policy makers. Good thing or bad thing? Probably quite a bit of both.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Nibbling at the Republic

I always asked my political science students in the American Government course to write their first paper on the subject, “did the Founding Fathers believe in democracy?” This was after the first three weeks of class when we had time to study the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention and the foundation document itself.

We had discussed Thomas Hobbes controversial pronouncement in the 17th century that the power of government came from consent of the governed, not from a divine right. We talked about Rousseau and his social contract that really argued against the Ben Franklin assertion that those who would sacrifice basic liberty for some security deserved neither. Rousseau knew that when we enter a social community we are no longer free to act in whatever manner we choose—we do give up liberty for security. The only question is how much liberty for how much security. And, we talked about John Locke and the inalienability of basic rights. We possess our rights; they are not bestowed upon us by a benevolent government. Hence our Bill of Rights which doesn’t bestow, but simply iterates what government can not do with regard to essential rights inherent in our humanity.

We talked about federalists and anti-federalists, noting that the basic concept of federalism is one of delegated and reserved powers. And, I diligently highlighted that if we believe Hobbes and Locke, then we know that the source of any power to delegate or reserve comes from the lowest level, the people.

Part of the classroom discussion would cover the question of political power itself and how those who have it jealously guard it. That would inevitably lead to the consideration of whether a free nation can allow the tyranny of the majority. By that time, little lights could be seen beginning to glow behind the otherwise glazed over eyes of the students. Cliché phrases like “we the people” and “majority rules” and “winner takes all” began to collapse. That would be when I’d introduce the unholy trinity of True Democracy, the universally revered pillars of American political ignorance—initiative, referendum and recall.

For those who have forgotten their sixth grade civics lessons, these three processes are available only to the states. They aren’t part of our Federal constitutional government. There is no national initiative, referendum or recall. It only takes place in some of our states. Most states have at least one of the three and the majority have all of them.

Initiative is the process by which any citizen can write a law in their basement on the rusty old Smith-Corona, then collect petitions to get it on the ballot. A simply majority vote makes the proposal law.

Referendum is the process which frees the legislature from the responsibility of doing their job. When a law is so politically dangerous that they don’t want to deal with the fall-out of voting for that which must be done, the legislators refer the measure to the voters thereby taking the pressure off of themselves. Simple majority makes it the law.

Finally, recall is the process by which we can purge ourselves of folks that we elected just months before without waiting for the next cycle of elections. So, we acknowledge our abject stupidity in placing someone totally intolerable into office. We compound the majority rule process by another majority rule process to correct the first error of majority rule electing someone who would do what we knew needed doing but didn’t want done when it was done. Confused?

Given all of this info, the students then were asked to write a 500-word essay on whether our Founders really believed in democracy. It isn’t an easy question. Can we tell from the Constitution how they felt about power to the people? Does the governmental form which they gave us in 1789 reflect the basic principles of democracy? Does the government of 2005 still reflect what the Framers gave us more than two hundred years ago?

What do you think?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Sticks 'N Stones

I just don’t get it. See, I admit it before anyone can challenge me with an emotional argument then throw up their hands in disgust and exclaim that I “just don’t get it.” That isn’t a good rationale for a position, but it is certainly common enough as a final frustration purge to end a debate. Not getting it is the implication that you simply aren’t wise enough, mature enough, sophisticated enough or compassionate enough to understand something so basic.

I realized two days ago that I just didn’t get it when it all came together in my warped little mind. It was the feature story on the front page of the Denver Post. (,1413,36%257E53%257E2752189,00.html?search=filter) In a world at war with terrorist attacks, oil shortages, civil wars, genocides and who-knows-what-all about to befall society, the front page story is about a twelve-year-old girl who is taunted at school by other 12-year olds. This isn’t news! It’s the way immature 12-year olds have acted since the dawn of history. But, we are a more sensitive society aren’t we? Well, to be perfectly honest, no we aren’t. We are a guilt-ridden society. We are a politically correct society. We are an intolerant society. We are a boorish society. We are a society in which we seek perfection of the imperfectable while at the same time trying to be inoffensive while offending.

I grew up a long time ago in Chicago. Ethnic slurring was a basis of the urban vocabulary. About the time we learned to distinguish between boys and girls we also learned to distinguish between Polish, Italian, German, Irish and Greeks. We didn’t have the benefit of hyphenated Americanism in those days. We called each other by offensive slurs and we told jokes that stereotyped all nationalities and ethnicities in turn. And, we tempered it all with the childhood rhyme about “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” You know what? It’s still true!

I do get the part about offensive language. I know that some words have been elevated to a special stature in their alleged ability to permanently harm the delicate psyche of a person. I can a watch Chris Rock today as I watched Richard Prior twenty-five years ago use the common, offensive term for an African-American with impunity. I can stroll through Black neighborhoods anywhere in America and hear young folks address each other with the word. They seem to survive it quite well. They revel in the usage. But, let a twelve-year-old taunt another in school and it seems that laws must be invoked, investigations must be conducted and inevitably heads must roll. Does this seem a bit contradictory? That’s the part I don’t get.

We shield ourselves from these words through cutesy, pre-pubescent phrasing in which everyone know what we are saying but we don’t say it because Momma will wash our mouth out with soap for using such language. If a twelve-year-old says, “she used the N-word” it seems like a reasonable circumvention. If a 45-year-old journalist writes, “a student taunted the victim with the N-word” it seems a bit juvenile at best. Did this start with Johnny Cochran and the racist allegations against Mark Fuhrman or were we doing it earlier?

It doesn’t end there. In the last year, I’ve heard the President of the University of Colorado suggest that “the C-word was once a term of endearment” for a woman. Really? I don’t ever recall nuzzling up to a member of the opposite sex and whispering little C-words in her ear. Why can’t adults deal with language, which is comprised quite basically of only words which have no power to break bones like sticks and stones, in a forthright and adult manner? Whom are we protecting and from what?

And, of course, we also have the ever-popular basis of all modern pre-adult conversation, the ubiquitous “F-word.” If the typical high-school or college student were denied use of the F-word, that ready replacement for nouns, verbs, adjectives, exclamations and exhalations, they would be reduced to grunting for food. The F-word is a good word with a place in the hierarchy of offensiveness that has been forever deteriorated by its excessive use. Now, if we really want to get attention and be rude, crude and lewd we have nowhere dependable to go.

So, I admit, I just don’t get it. I don’t get why we’ve lost the ability to hold name-calling to its proper low level of offense. I don’t get why we have to administer punishment to the Board of Education because a couple of kids in a school of 700 seem to have brought their parental crudity to school in their back-pack. And, I don’t get what we are accomplishing with the circumlocutions of A, B, C, N and F-words when everyone knows what we mean in the first place. Will we soon have to filter the N-word from polite conversation by hiding it out as the “14th letter-word”?