Saturday, January 18, 2003

Tocqueville and the Supreme Court
I have been setting up an office/study/library in our spare bedroom. My father built bookcases using uprights and brackets from a closet organizer system and thick pine planks. They line two walls. There's enough space for my photography equipment, boxes of photos and negatives, and all my nonfiction. All of it. Even the stuff that has been boxed for years.

For the past two weeks I have been opening up boxes. I probably could have finished in a weekend, but I have a fatal tendency to want to read every book I touch--at least skim it, reacquaint myself with it. Sometimes it's been a pleasant shock of recognition: so that's where you were!; sometimes more of a jolt of disbelief: why the heck did I ever buy that? But once, and only once, did I experience the body blow of synchronicity.

Years ago, I bought a second-hand copy of a Vintage paperback edition of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Tocqueville had been a favorite of mine in college, so, of course, I had to take a quick peek to make sure it's was good condition. (I always tell myself that; it makes me feel that I'm doing something productive, instead of just indulging my habit). And there it was:

The peace, the prosperity, and the very existence of the Union are vested in the hands of the seven Federal judges. Without them the Constitution would be a dead letter: the executive appeals to them for assistance against the encroachments of the legislative power; the legislature demands their protection against the assaults of the executive; they defend the Union from the disobedience of the states, the states from the exaggerated claims of the Union, the public interest against private interests, and the conservative spirit of stability against the fickleness of the democracy. Their power is enormous, but it is the power of public opinion. They are all-powerful, as long as the people respect the law; but they would be impotent against popular neglect or contempt of the law...

Not only must the Federal judges be good citizens, and men of that information and integrity which are indispensable to all magistrates, but they must be statesmen, wise to discern the signs of the times, not afraid to brave the obstacles that can be subdued, nor slow to turn away from the current when it threatens to sweep them off, and the supremacy of the Union and the obedience due to the laws along with them.

The President, who exercises a limited power, may err without causing great mischief in the state. Congress may decide amiss without destroying the Union, because the electoral body in which the Congress originates may cause it to retract its decision by changing its members. But if the Supreme Court is ever composed of imprudent or bad men, the Union may be plunged into anarchy or civil war.

I believe that by acting imprudently on Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court has plunged this nation into a political civil war. I am not disputing the merits of one claim against another; nor am I saying that they did not have the right to decide, once the question was cast in constitutional terms. I am saying that the Supreme Court failed Tocqueville's statesmen test. Faced with a bitterly divided electorate, a prudent and statesman-like Court would have found a way to speak to the issues without favoring one candidate or another.

By effectively handing the Presidency to George Bush, the Supreme Court justices guaranteed that they would be seen as part of the political machinery, instead of above it. They guaranteed that some part of the population will always distrust their decisions, and scrutinize them for political implications. They guaranteed that, for a large part of the population, the current President is in the White House by appointment, not election, and his government therefore illegitimate. The legacy of this Supreme Court to the nation is bitter partisanship and rancorous strife.

Friday, January 17, 2003

The World Turned Upside Down
The story goes that, after Cornwallis's surrender, British troops marched off the field to the sounds of a tune called "The World Turned Upside Down."

I'm beginning to hear the distant sound of bagpipes.

In the world I came into in 1970, when we moved to the United States, a Republican was someone who believed in small government and personal liberty. How did we end with a Republican government that blithely creates a massive bureucracy to carry out the biggest internal spying program ever developed? Republicans were the party of fiscal responsibility. How did we end up with a Republican government that announces it has spent the federal surplus and is launching the country into a protracted era of fiscal deficits?

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Why I will Never Be a Popular Blogger
I finished my blogger rounds this evening, and something struck me: I will never be a popular blogger. I don't have the partisan fire, the gift for invective, the poetical voice. I don't have the sheer rage that seems to drive so many in the blogosphere. I don't have the ability to shut out opposing opinions and cling to my convictions as if to a life raft in the midst of 10-foot swells. I certainly don't have the ability to be funny at will, although I can be sarcastic on occasion. I have no expertise in any one thing except running libraries, an arcane field if there ever was one. I have no desire to be part of a tribe, or join a movement, or march to a different drummer with ten thousand other folk.

Here is who I am: a middle-aged woman with a longing to see all the world before she dies; a daughter, a sister, a best friend, sometimes a lover, but basically a loner even in Yankee Stadium on the sixth game of the World Series. I am fascinated by everything around me, and want to learn all I can. I am a collector of music and will listen to almost anything, from tango to classic rock, depending on my mood; the only thing I insist on is a little Ella Fitzgerald every day. I can speak two languages well, three others badly, and read about four more with a dictionary at hand. I learned to read when I was three. The first adult book I read, when I was six and allowed to look at my father's bookcases, was The Odyssey; the second was Les Miserables. They left me with odd ideas about adventure and justice. The next book was The Martian Chronicles, and it started my life-long affair with science fiction. I can make my own clothes if I want to, but I'm lazy. I learned to swim before I could walk, and I learned to walk on a beach. For some unkown reason, I love Scotland, especially the Highlands, and have done so before I set foot in them. I love to try new cuisines. I dislike competition, but play a good game of Scrabble and a mean hand of Double Solitaire. I give money to the St. Vincent de Paul society at my local church (which I never attend) because they use it all for charity, and their only requirement is that you live within the parish boundaries. I am a First Amendment absolutist, the result of having grown up in a society where the concept of freedom did not exist. I believe that as a rational, self-supporting adult I have the right to make my own choices and my own mistakes, and resent anyone trying to impose their choices on me "for my own good".

But mostly, I like people. All kinds. I find the dichotomies we set up to separate ourselves from others ridiculous, and our labels for each other banal. I believe that you are impoverished intellectually and spiritually if you don't experience other cultures. I am not naive, and understand clearly that there is evil in the world; but I don't find it where most people do. I don't give a damn who you pray to, as long as you don't try to force your God on me (He can handle that one himself when She is ready). I don't give a damn who you sleep with, as long as it is a consenting adult (or adults for that matter). I find evil in the carelessness, selfishness, and inhumanity with which we treat each other and our world.

I believe that you should talk in measured tones and listen about six times longer than you talk (I'm working on this one), and make an effort to understand the other point of view. I have a temper like a hung-over marine, but if I am pissed off at you, you can be sure it won't be because of your color, your religion, or your politics. But if I am, run and hide until I've cooled down (certain things I never cool down about, and you get to figure out which is which). When it comes to friends, I believe in quality over quantity. I have a small group of friends, some of whom go back thirty years. The kind of friends that can smack you one upside the head if they think you are being a screwup, but will help you hide the body if necessary.

If I end my blogging having made one such good friend, I shall account it a triumph.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Once in a While, Good News
The projects. Awful scars on the street maps of Chicago. Don't go there, even during the day. Even from the L, they look like something out of a nightmarish dystopia. Big cages surrounded by bare ground. Chain link fence with razor wire. Broken playgrounds where children cannot play because the drug dealers are busy scoring. No trees, so no one can hide behind them. Ugly forerunners of bad prisons and worse hospitals. Barren warehouses for those nobody wants to remember.

Nothing has ever infuriated me so much about America as the so-called "housing projects". Even when brand new, they are cheerless concrete barracks, the dormitories from hell. Obviously built by people who view future occupants as some kind of cross between pigs and robots. There are no human touches, no human scale. I want to grab the idiot architects by the throat and shake them: Did you ever realize that it was supposed to be housing for people? Do they not deserve homes?

Somebody in Chicago is listening. After they tore down the infamous Cabrini Green project, it was replaced by North Town Village, a mixed-income development. Sometimes they don't even have to be torn down. Archer Courts, one of the ugliest developments, was recently renovated by a for-profit company, the Chicago Community Development Corporation, that buys and renovates privately-owned buildings specifically for low income housing. The Archer Courts renovation was done without displacing a single tenant. During the second phase of the renovation, they will build 43 thre-story townhouses, nine of which, in addition to the 147 apartments, will be reserved for low-income housing.

It won't work everywhere. Renovations and new developments like these have to have a some sort of hook. Cabrini Green sits right next to Chicago's biggest and fanciest shopping district. Archer Courts is in the middle of Chinatown, near the Eisenhower and Dan Ryan expressways. And this kind of developments will not satisfy the need for low and moderate income housing. But the more successes, the more interest. And if these experiments are successful maybe, please God, I will see the last of those damn projects come down in the United States before I die.

By the way, the Archer Courts development won a Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence. If you want to see what a low-income housing project can look like, go to here, look under "housing" and click on "Archer Courts".

UPDATE: One of my correspondents tells me (thanks, R!), that actually the first designs submitted by architects for public housing were not only much better looking, but also cheaper. They were told to change them by the government types. Figures. My correspondent also recommended some books on the development of public housing. At the rate I'm going, my "to read" list is going to look like the Encyclopaedia Britannica!

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The Economic News
Even as, how shall I say this, economics-challenged as I am, I like to go visit the financial newspapers once in a while, on the same principle that Willie Sutton had for robbing banks: 'cause that's where the money is. The news is not encouraging, folks.

From CNN Money: The Conference Board's survey of U.S. Chief Executives show that although their confidence in the economy edged up in the fourth quarter of 2002, they expect a jobless recovery. Twenty percent of the executives expect to cut prices, thirty-one percent see no change in prices, and "many" expect to raise prices on the average by 1.3%. (I wonder what the complete report looks like. The implication from their numbers is that 49% of the executives expect to raise prices. It would be interesting to know which sections of the economy are planning increases and by how much)

From The, Finance and Economics Section, a cheery little story about banking and terrorism: "In private... bankers with long experience of financial crime say that many of the rules introduced since September 11th to keep terrorists out of the mainstream financial system will not achieve their aim. And in the end, customers will pay more for banking, because of the high cost of making detailed checks." (Ever since my (former) bank tried to introduce fees for speaking with a teller, I am aware that EVERYTHING is reason for a bank to pass on costs to the customers)

From John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group mutual fund company, says that fund managers trade in and out of stocks too much, charge too many fees, rely of manager "stars" that don't do nearly as well as the S&P 500, and concentrate on on risky specialized funds. Bogle, who is sarcastically called "Saint Jack", is ignored by his peers, even though the facts he cites are "irrefutable and undeniable". The reason, according to Fortune, is that the big money is on the opposite side: Bogle is "only" worth $20 million, while Abigail and Ned Johnson, of Fidelity Investments, are worth a reported $10 billion. In the meantime, average investor return since 1984 is expected to drop below 3%, less than the inflation rate, "which means that over the past 18 years, the average mutual fund investor has gone nowhere, or maybe even a little bit backward". The solution? The investor must do a better job in choosing funds. (Am I the only one who thinks that these personal responsibility slogans are merely a smokescreen for "grabbing your money and giving you nothing in return"? First, it was medicine. The shift to HMO-based health care meant that we had to "be proactive" in our own health care. Now, it's investing. Well, I suppose it has ALWAYS been investing. As Enron, WorldCom, and the other debacles of last year show, they can get away with it).

And, the icing on the cake, from the Financial Times: "Bush tax cut is unconservative." Enough said.

(p.s., I've been having problems with linking. I'll try again later)

Monday, January 13, 2003

Excuse Me, Mr. Scalia?
During a revival-style meeting in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Justice Scalia stated that although the Constitution says Congress cannot "establish" a religion, the framers did not intend for God to be stripped from public life. According to Scalia, this was contrary to our whole tradition, to "in God with trust" on the coins, to (presidential) Thanksgiving proclamations, to (congressional) chaplains, to tax exemption for places of workship, which has always existed in America.

Why don't we ask the Father of the Constitution what he thinks about this?*

Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In the strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion...Better also to disarm in the same way, the precendent of Chaplainships for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. Memoranda, 1820?

There has always been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive proclamations of fasts and festivals, fo far, at least, as they spoken the language of INJUNCTION, or have lost sight of the equality of ALL religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.

Nothwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full estblishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. ibid.

Has Justice Scalia, whose reputation as a scholar is unenviable, forgotten to read James Madison?

*all quotes taken from James Madison on Religious Liberty, Robert S. Alley, ed., Prometheus Books, 1985.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

While visiting Tim over at The Road to Surfdom, I ran into a discussion of travel writing. Of course, that triggered my own little obssession. I've spent the evening sitting here, looking though a bunch of old Fodors and Eyewitness Guides, a stack of National Geographics and Adventure Travel magazines. I want to go traveling again.

Ever since I can remember, my mind has been roaming the world. What I thought was a passionate love of history turns out to be a passionate love of places. Geography would have been a better field of study, except that these days it seems to be all political geography or anthropological geography or some such. I like places. Beautiful places, odd places, unique places, all of them are grist for the daydream mill.

My imagination is fed on a mixture of fact and fiction, and that is a dangerous thing. When the image clashes with the reality, a sort of unpleasant deflation happens. I remember my first view of Fort William, in the Highlands of Scotland. I had pictured it as a mixture of Victorian elegance and Scottish scenic grandeur. Imagine my shock when I got off the train and the first thing I saw was a giant, very modern supermarket (a Safeway, I think). The beautiful old converted parsonage I stayed in faced the loch...and a huge parking lot for the tour buses. Fort William is the entryway to the Highlands; it provides a convenient overnight for all the see-the-beautiful-British-Islands-in-sixteen-days groups. Still, there was beauty there if you looked for it: Ben Nevis from the loch, looking like an elephant at rest, its long trunk stretched out; the Water of Nevis cascading down the Lower Falls; the long stretch of the lochside gardens at sunset, as the boats furled their sails for the night; the "monster" I saw looking up at me through the green-gray waters that turned out to be an underwater plant with broad green leaves and reddish fruit.

But when the image and the reality match, there's nothing in the world like the exhilaration of seeing a place with your eyes that you have often explored in your mind. That's what happened the first time I visited London. Somehow I had pictured it exactly as it was, ancient, modern, noisy, quiet, elegant, dirty, crowded, exciting, quintessentially English, wildy polyglot. I had loved it for years: Londres... Londinium... London... A place where anyone could feel at home and everyone is a bit of a stranger. On my first trip, London welcomed me with a brilliantly blue fall day, sunlit, warm, and gently breezy. My first encounter with a Londoner other than a taxi driver or a hotel clerk was with a woman that emerged from the side door of Kensington Palace in full lady-in-waiting rig (slightly dowdy but clearly expensive tweed suit, sensible shoes, umbrella), and who responded to our hello with a wonderful smile and a "welcome to London, my dears." I have been there several time since, once during a petrol strike, and it has never disappointed me.

And there is the sheer joy of discovery: the massive basalt towers of Staffa rising out of the ocean; the deep green of Lake Superior; the walls of a mission shimmering white in the Texas heat; the lupine-covered floor of a drought-stricken Lake Tahoe; the brilliant red sunset from the pier in Key West...