What if we are Unequal is the Fourth of July?

On the Fourth of July, the people of the United States of America celebrate the country’s Declaration of Independence from the government in England.  It is only to be expected that many are thinking of the words of Jefferson that “all men are created equal”.  Contemplating those words, a very little investigation finds their promise not fully met.

In saying the promise is not met, I do not mean that I subscribe to theories which find in these words an aspirational goal.  I use the word “promise” in the sense of a sign of further good.  It might be more accurate to  say the premise has not been worked out to its conclusion.  All persons share equally in humanity, and deserve respect as human and the equably applied protections of law and social order.  It would be absurd to suppose that all will make equal use of such equal protections, even as those with similar upbringing may reach very different places in society due to natural talents or their lack.  But it is quite another matter where we find these protections not in fact equally applied.

There are a great many such injustices perpetrated still in the United States.  I can hardly claim Frederick Douglass’s eloquence, though I borrow the style of my title from him.  I can hardly claim, as he could, to speak for an oppressed class.  The only case for injustice that might be found in my life is one common to most American teachers: a feeling that perhaps the profession is underpaid.  That particular complaint I doubt as a general thesis – teaching is a common human activity, however worthy: little wonder that teachers historically and currently have been found among slaves, lower classes, and the ill-rewarded – and in my particular case I have by any reasonable standard enough and more than enough to live on.

Similarly, before I go on to examine national faults, I may as well state what I believe: that in no other country, despite all American failings, is the general case of the population notably better.  Certainly some other nations – mainly those which have been brought also to subscribe to the ideals of liberty – equal or surpass the United States in various meritorious accomplishments: health, peace, general wealth, cheerfulness, or artistry accomplished and valued.  But – though it may change on the moment, and will change with years as these things do – accounting for extent and variety, I do not all in all find the United States second to any, for which I thank God and His Providence.

But to say the faults do not, in the end, ruin the case of a country is not to excuse those faults.  I may not speak as one who has been strongly affected by them, but I can observe.  What unequal treatment do I observe?  I will mention three classes briefly.

I observe, even before coming to men, that we enforce our laws very unevenly and with little honor.  Those holding power emphasize the punishments for breaking laws they find useful for their own purposes, and let others lapse.  Laws found unjust are ignored or explained away – or excused despite their indecency – as seems fit to those responsible for their execution.  Little effort is made to change unjust laws, and ineffective ones are rarely replaced with anything better.  The Constitution itself is widely ignored, particularly those parts which would put any stay on the power of government.  I put this first because our theory of government is – or was – built on the rule of law.

When I do turn to observe men, I notice several states of inequality, though perhaps in importance I rate them differently from the picture commonly presented.  If the system of government is built on rule of law, and I put that first, then the extent of the country was built largely by the sword – or rather the rifle.  This is no more than most other nations have done, so is perhaps not a greatly notable public wickedness except in that it contradicts the principles of liberty.  But it is the remaining state of the people conquered which, when considered, becomes a great charge of injustice.  Various island territories – with a total population of over four million persons, though the great majority of that is in only one, Puerto Rico – have been held by the United States, some of them for over a century, and with little change.  Perhaps they are not badly off materially, but their status hardly can be held to meet our ideals.  And we cannot pass over the native American peoples who were neither left to their independence nor fully integrated into American society once conquered: the remaining reservations seem at times by the nature of their administration little more than interior colonies.

If the system was built on law, and the country was taken from others, much land was worked by slaves.  Now slavery is illegal; now racial discrimination has been outlawed; but in fact race seems to muddle society as much as ever – though confusion is better than outright oppression.  But consider the situation.  Some still harbor resentment, distrust and disdain – either for those ingrained social habits make seem inferior, or for those who can be associated with oppressors.  Certain protections and favoritism are shown by some laws and policies – yet these have not, on the whole, seemed to make a great deal of difference to the relative standing of “the races”, but have (that I can tell) mainly created resentment.  Politically, the assent of black persons is treated as a trophy for a platform – or else their blind following of one party is assumed, and dissenters from that party often treated with disbelief.

We have, as I have traced here, three injustices, three major failures to pursue equality of station, that pursue us from the faults in the founding of the country, however understandable those faults were at the time.  Given time and space I might detail others: for example, the spread of time and money as punishments and its effect on the poor.  But whatever I detailed, if I looked for reform I would find little interest in ending any of these oppressions.  The levers of government have been bound in most states tightly to the major parties, and the major parties accept, more or less, the tight binding of persons – in the form of regulations, taxes, and high public spending – by the mechanisms of the government.  It is difficult to make effective changes without subscribing to this system, and the system is not made now to promote those who promote justice.

What are our priorities?  Today, we find the chief figures of one major party, although they pay public attention to the problems of the black population and other minorities, mainly committed to the furthering of the murder of children and the celebration of perversion.  Meanwhile the chief figures of the other major party, although they may decry the abuse of laws and Constitution from the party platform, appear wrapped up mainly in the preservation of their privileges and wealth.  As far as I can tell, neither party gives any attention, however fleeting, for the residue of American conquests.

Pleasures made rabid on the one hand, and wealth gained by curious means on the other, and in the middle – very little interest in this proclamation of equality, or in any real reform to achieve the other stated goals of the American government.  Justice, domestic tranquility, and the blessings of liberty all are strained; and as for that liberty – liberty is held in less esteem than the maintenance of a machinery of national aggrandizement.

Review: Star Wars Episode VII

The Force Awakens is the newest installment in the Star Wars film series – and significantly more satisfying than the last few to be released.  In terms of plot and structure it takes a lot of cues from the first two films made.  The plot is well-organized and not too complicated to communicate.  Visually it is very cleanly filmed, and the aesthetic fits in well with the expected “Star Wars” look.  Perhaps most impressive is that the trailers played up the hype without giving away the plot twists.

It’s not really a film that could stand on its own.  Coming in, it might  work for a completely new viewer, though all of the references and a lot of the drama would get lost.  Going out, it has set up many questions and answers very few of them, as well as outlining the main tensions for the next couple films, so it is not a finished story.  With that understood, overall I’d give it about a B+.

In a week or so I will be posting a longer bit to discuss some of my thoughts about the plot and background, but for now I am steering well clear of even possibilities of spoilers.

A Note on the Tenth Amendment

In a recent discussion about the ACA, I was asked to read (and respond to) several pieces on the tenth amendment.  I must, it should be noted, did not realize quite the importance my partner in discussion attached to these links, and – in honesty – considered the arguments set forth in them to have been already adequately dispatched previously by another.  In any case I was reluctant to respond in detail when the subjects under consideration were already multiplying extensively: tempers having (I hope) cooled somewhat, I will present my rebuttal independent of that discussion.

I believe the best of the pieces presented was Dr. Schwinn’s essay “The ACA and the Tenth Amendment”, posted on the Supreme Court blog.  In style, clarity, and – by virtue of its sponsors – authority, it stands as the opinion most significant among the various similar sources cited.  I say it is the best – but I believe Dr. Schwinn’s argument is flawed.

0.  The Tenth Amendment, Text

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

I. A Personal Statement on the Authority of the Supreme Court

The judgment of the Supreme Court is, in any particular case, the final word in law; and as precedent, takes a place somewhere between an opinion to be given the most careful attention and a simple final decision of the question and similar matters.

Additionally, by fairly long tradition, the Supreme Court has the power to consider the validity of laws under the Constitution of the United States.  Although never given this power under the Constitution, the Court must logically have the power to judge based on the Constitution if it is to uphold the most fundamental laws of the land – and under any interpretation, the Court has that actual power, regardless of authority.

What this does not prove, however, is that the Court’s opinion represents the final say on all law and constitutionality in the United States.  It is sufficient here to point out that the Court has periodically reversed itself.  That is to say, it is possible to disagree with the judgment of the Supreme Court – and let me mention here that its decisions are rarely unanimous – and not be wrong; and in point of fact, parties across the political spectrum regularly object to Supreme Court decisions and hope to see them overturned either by further law or further judgments.

In sum: Supreme Court decisions are near-binding precedent in law; and should be carefully considered but are not binding on opinion.

II. Dr. Schwinn’s Opinion

In Dr. Schwinn’s estimation, the tenth amendment serves essentially no purpose:

“…The Court acknowledges that the Tenth Amendment serves two principal purposes.  First, it prohibits the federal government … from using [the states or their officials] as mere instrumentalities of the federal regulatory agenda.  Next, it … protects against federal legislation that goes too far into areas of traditional state concern…  But these are loose constraints, easily bypassed by the federal government … Moreover, any enclave of traditional state concern is necessarily ill-defined and eroding with increasing national integration… [The Tenth Amendment] states but a truism.”

III. Contra Dr. Schwinn

In this opinion – and the piece in general – Dr. Schwinn confuses the status quo – the “what what is”, a phrase stuck in my mind as something a professor of mine once called it – with what (with apologies to Latin scholars everywhere) I am going to call the “status sit“: the way things should be.  (Feel free to improve the phrasing.)  To someone axiomatically inclined – as I am – to see the Constitution as not only limiting but delineating the powers of the Federal government, the conclusion appears to be, not that the Court’s decisions render the legislature’s actions acceptable, but rather that the Court is derelict in its duty to the Constitution, the law of the land.  The cavalier reference to “increasing national integration” as though such a thing were both inevitable and desirable (though at least acknowledging a previous difference) is not a thing calculated to cheer the soul and satisfy the spirit of the – dare I say – determined Jeffersonian.

IV. Argument from the Texts (Amendment, Constitution, and Schwinn)

But supposing that for the sake of argument we take Dr. Schwinn’s statement as an acceptably accurate one; suppose we abide by his judgment that the Tenth Amendment is in fact merely a truism.  This either proves too little to prove his case, or too much.

If he means merely that the Tenth Amendment adds nothing to the Constitution – why, then, we may disregard it, and study the Constitution without it.  And then we come to a further problem: for the interpretation of the Constitution in all points is not a settled subject.  Dr. Schwinn would have us drift with the times, and with Court interpretations; others like myself would have us all believe that it meant something specific.  Dr. Schwinn acknowledges the controversy over, for instance, the Commerce clause:

“Consider the clause at issue in the cases challenging the ACA, the Commerce Clause: ‘The Congress shall have Power To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.’  Terms and phrases like ‘to regulate,’ ‘commerce,’ and ‘among the several states’ are inherently indeterminate and susceptible of a wide range of interpretations, especially as society, technology, and trade change and evolve.  (If there is any doubt that these terms and phrases are ambiguous, look at two hundred years of contentious litigation over their meanings.)”

But he merely waves it away.  The Court has (both generally and especially recently) tended to take an expansionistic view of the Federal government’s powers; therefore it must be the correct meaning.

He acknowledges that previous sittings of the Court have taken a different view:

“To be sure, the Tenth Amendment had its heydays.  During the first, in the early nineteenth century, the Court interpreted the Tenth Amendment to bar federal legislation related to manufacturing and production ‘areas traditionally within the states’ police powers[‘].”

But he again dismisses this earlier view (incidentally supporting my earlier contention that the “opinion of the Supreme Court” cannot be considered anything like a final authority on Constitutional meaning): “…This high point of the Tenth Amendment ended decisively in 1941, when the Court in United States v. Darby upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.”

Thus he proves too much: the Tenth Amendment is meaningless; so we must defer to Constitutional interpretation – and yet he has not proved the Progressive interpretation correct, merely assumed such a thing.  By discarding the Tenth Amendment, he has “proved” so much that he has merely moved down to another turtle.

Alternatively, if we take “truism” as a factual description, rather than a dismissal (as evidently was not intended by either the 1941 Court or Dr. Schwinn, but bear with me here), such a description fails to answer the problem at all: it makes the Tenth Amendment self-evidently true – and calls into question the entire march of the Federal government toward sovereign interior power.  Let me quote an excerpt from Madison on the relationship of the States and the Federal government: in Federalist 45, he begins his argument for the proposed constitution – after several digressions on other governments – by urging that, “The State governments will have the advantage of the Federal government…”  I will of course admit that this view was not shared, either as an opinion or a goal, by all of the Federalists (or probably all of the anti-Federalists).  Hamilton’s goals, for instance, were indubitably in favor of a more concentrated power (though one wonders whether, having participated in a revolution brought on by, among other things, the forced buying of what were essentially publishing licenses, even he would be quite accepting of the modern state of affairs).  At any rate, Madison sums his ideal up later as follows:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

“The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government. The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense, the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.”

In conclusion, I will merely note this: that the period of marked Federal ascendancy is one that was marked in its beginning by a war started in part (how small or large, I leave to your opinion, but I demand acknowledgement of some motivation) to secure the rights (however heinous – a topic for another time) of the individual States; that this expansion was slowed, in some measure, by the peace (in some measure) of the Reconstruction; and that in the crisis eras of World War, Depression, World War, Cold War, and Gulf-War-on-Terror, the role of, funding of, spending by, and perceived dependence on the Federal government has proceeded almost unabated – the “almost” being, mainly, the presidency and a half of one Calvin Coolidge.  Madison seems to have been proved distressingly right in his governmental calculations – and depressingly wrong in his historical ones.  (Though I leave aside his calculations on defense – to over-generalize, Americans have been unwilling to fund a military, and unwilling to leave well enough alone when they do happen to have one.  But that is a topic for another time – and not an area of my expertise.)

An Astonishing Lack of Concern

The other day, I saw popping up in my facebook feed a picture bearing the following quotation:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life.  In fact, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed.  That’s not pro-life.  That’s pro-birth.” – Sister Joan Chittister

Without any significant attempt at research, I will merely mention that the sister is a Benedictine nun, and so I assume she is herself an advocate for the right to life as taught by the Roman Catholic (and, one is to sincerely wish, every Christian) church.  Making this assumption about her own moral views, this is a statement that should be heeded by us all.

If this were it, it would not have provoked this blog post.  If it had been shared by a fellow pro-life friend, it would not have provoked this blogging escapade.  No: I saw it shared instead by a few people who to the best of my knowledge defend the legality of abortion.

To which I have this to say: You have no right to post that.  You would perhaps clothe and feed a child lucky enough to be born alive, but you have no problems with denying the child his or her life before he has a chance to cry or suffer – and before he has the chance to live freely, love, serve, work, play, babble, talk, make friends.  You are like the man on trial for murder defending his action by explaining that his victim was homeless and hungry.  You do not kill the homeless, the injured, the “useless”, the Untouchables, the helpless – or do you now?  You are no better than the “eugenicists” of the early 20th century, and you post this quotation?  Either you completely lack self-awareness, or you are attempting to stir up guilt in someone who might be human enough to feel some to deliberately turn the issue away from your own failing.

So much for that.  Worse, the quotation is without a target.  Is there anyone who actually desires to see children unclothed, unfed, ignorant, hopeless?  You might find a very few such depraved men if you searched hearts, and a much smaller number who might admit to it.  And if I received this admonishment from a trusted source, one whose own morals were humane, I would I hope accept it as a call to further charity on my own part.  Even coming from someone who does not believe in the worth of life, it is a welcome reminder.

But I have a sneaking suspicion this was not what was intended.  I find myself thinking that this is one more straw man, that what is really being implied here by the posters, is, “If you do not think that government-backed “social” action is the correct thing to do to relieve children’s suffering, you are misguided”.

I do not myself believe, but will admit that others likely better than myself have held to, the thought that government should be a chief motivator for public charity even beyond common goods.  It may turn out – I doubt it completely – that these men and women are right.  But in the mean time, may I not pursue these goods without having motives assumed to be wrong because my methods differ?

And I ask you, after all, who is doing more for children than those who are also generally pro-life?  Which politically and morally-motivated population is the group working to teach their children well and rigorously at home; or to found solid schools outside the grip of bureaucratic incompetence (and anyone who has ever visited the DMV must, if honest, admit that bureaucracy is incompetent).  Which side of the argument tends to back voucher and charter programs to give students in failing schools more choices?  (And I admit we can argue the efficacy of some of these attempted solutions: but the effort is there.)  Or if we must look to the Establishment, No Child Left Behind may go down in history as a failed bill, but on a scale of disaster from 1 to “Obamacare”, it rates about a 3 – and, to quote that favorite idiocy of FDR’s, at least something was tried.  As I said, in all but the most dire straits, an idiotic approach, but one much beloved by Progressive.  I suspect, though I am not as familiar with the situations, that this could be carried out across the spectrum of needs Sister Chittister was crying out to help meet.  And from her, without more solid information, I can take the advice.

But from you, defender of abortionists, worrier about a “woman’s right” to “her own body” (but apparently not about her responsibility to use that body wisely, or to protect the body of another which is developing inside), from you this just makes me angry.  It is not an opinion you have a right to voice – even if, deep down, I am grateful for the Grace common to humanity which allows you to recognize some right when you see it.

Some Thoughts, on the Saturday before Easter

I am not very good at Lent.  I find the common exhortations of the Lenten season, especially in Holy Week, uncomfortable to contemplate and draining to pursue.

Am I a sinner?  Certainly.  But I am also saved by Christ’s work, His death on the cross and resurrection.  I can maintain this in serenity.  An exhortation to “take up your cross” I can absorb with equanimity, even while I note that I do not do very well at following this requirement.  Do I give all I can spare to charity?  No.  Do I too often regard my time and effort as my own?  Yes.  The list could, of course, go on to list all possible sins of omission and commission: but these things I know – I believe myself to be fairly self-aware.  In short, the contemplation of myself, even in relation to God, is no great hardship.  Imperfection can be freely acknowledged – who else has no sin?  who can expect to equal God?  And I am saved, in the end – let grace abound.

But if we turn from this introspection to consider Christ, the vague self-satisfaction of, “I am as good as you other humans,” becomes uncomfortable and starts shifting in its seat.  Here is another human – yet when posed the questions I use to compare myself to others, Jesus can say, “No, I have not sinned.  No, I cannot ‘compare myself’ to God: I am God.”  And not only does Jesus live His perfect life, He then dies His perfect death and in His perfection overcomes death – in order that I might live, and you might live, and those awkward people over there might live (and likely better than me), if only they will acknowledge His Name and come to Him.

The Resurrection is easy to glamorize.  This Man rose from the dead!  His life gives us life!  And living is easy – at least for those of us with easy lives, and I have one of those.  If we read Scripture correctly, though, I wonder: does it not seem like our “life” on this earth is to be compared to Christ’s life and suffering on this earth?  By this I do not mean that we should abandon the really good things God sends us: instead, we are instructed to put away the pleasant follies and comfortable sins for the sake of the witness to Christ.  If Jesus, God, could put aside real power and knowledge and infinity for some thirty years to bring us His life, we can, should, must, in imitation of Him (but not in our own confidence) put aside the trivial things and useless idolizing we in our pursuit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil have fallen into.

And this seems hard, and awkward, and uncomfortable.  Much easier – for someone like myself, at any rate, as I think of things intellectually first and only then in physical reality, or with emotion – to live in the sun of “believe” and kick the “repent” under the couch when visitors come over while making only the expected show of “love”.  Then maybe this is the use of Lent.  I would never try to tell someone that they “must” – likely not even that they “should” observe the season: I take little notice of it myself, beyond my delight in noting signs and seasons for reasons mostly numerical.  I doubt anything I written is a great insight on the matter.  But as someone who (despite my love of clouds and rain) prefers the comfort, the season’s contemplation is useful to me.

Placeholder First Post

In which Jon makes notes and writes some things so that he has a post on which to experiment with themes.  Jon will be writing here on politics and religion; will review and discuss various books and performances; and will vary the pace with observations on sports and personal life.