Quietus

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of my first longitudes post.  It also precedes my wife and me migrating to a warmer clime for six months, where I won’t have access to a (real) computer.  Therefore, I’ve decided to go on indefinite hiatus. 

I’ve truly enjoyed writing these 240 or so essays and am grateful to all who take time to read.  I’ve tried to keep a mix of lighthearted and serious—life, after all, is both.  With the lighthearted, I hope I’ve provoked a smile or laugh.  With the serious, maybe I’ve encouraged (in my amateurish way) some considerations.

In that light, here are some of my favorite lighthearted and serious quotes.  And to get one last lick in, I encourage all to watch a new documentary on the late George Carlin, entitled George Carlin’s American Dream

While most of my heroes are musicians, comedian Carlin is one of the exceptions.  He was not only damn funny, he had guts and integrity and was unafraid to butcher sacred cows.  He remade himself several times, getting better with each remake.  And it goes without saying we agree on a lot of things. I could easily list a hundred Carlin quotes, but in the interest of variety, I’m limiting myself to four.

We need you now more than ever, George.

Peace.

Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups—George Carlin

Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance—George Carlin

Rights are an idea. They’re just imaginary. They’re a cute idea. Cute…Rights aren’t rights if someone can take ’em away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of TEMPORARY privileges; and if you read the news, even badly, you know the list gets shorter, and shorter, and shorter—George Carlin

When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and Smiley shirts—George Carlin

George Carlin being arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 after exercising his temporary privileges

If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses—Lenny Bruce

The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials are stunning but you look at the dome of the Capitol and remember the mob that stormed it in the name of a miserable lie that is being repeated this election year and how do you explain this?  The mob went to the same schools we did, learned about Jefferson and Lincoln, and yet they are fascinated by fascism and long for a dictator—Garrison Keillor

I went to church Sunday morning, which I need to do if I want to know whether I’m a believer still or if it’s just nostalgia—Garrison Keillor

He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire—Winston Churchill

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself—Mark Twain

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect—Mark Twain

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind—Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you want to get laid, go to college.  If you want an education, go to the library—Frank Zappa

The United States is a nation of laws, badly written and randomly enforced—Frank Zappa

Republicans stand for raw unbridled evil, and greed, and ignorance, smothered in balloons and ribbons—Frank Zappa

Liberals can understand everything but people who don’t understand them—Lenny Bruce

I am really enjoying the new Martin Luther King Jr. stamp – just think about all those white bigots licking the backside of a black man—Dick Gregory

Lots of people who complained about us receiving the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war, for killing people. We received ours for entertaining other people. I’d say we deserve ours more—John Lennon

Agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation—Oscar Wilde

All authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised—Oscar Wilde

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel—Samuel Johnson

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing—Socrates

Modern Christianity is an encyclopedia of traditional superstition—Gore Vidal

Are we a dream in the mind of a deity, or is each of us a separate dreamer, evoking his own reality?—Gore Vidal

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country…and we haven’t seen them since—Gore Vidal

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—Unwritten Rules of the Game

 

how democracies die

For those of you late to the game, I’ve been reviewing a recently released book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called How Democracies Die. The gist of this book is that democracies usually don’t die via military coups, but instead crumble from within, via legitimate elections and failures of “gatekeeping” measures, and that conscientiousness on the part of political parties is the best guarantor of maintaining democracy.

***

Americans are justly proud of their Constitution, which frames our government, and stipulates a federal separation of powers, the rights and responsibilities of state governments, and which includes 27 important amendments (the first ten of which are known as the Bill of Rights). I’ve talked with a few people who feel America’s constitution (our written “rules of the game”—see previous post) is so strong, that our country is impervious to democratic breakdown.

But Levitsky and Ziblatt say that America’s constitution is often vague and ambivalent and susceptible to radically different interpretations. Also, the U.S. Constitution has been used as a model, almost verbatim, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines, yet those nations nonetheless plunged themselves into dictatorships (under Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Ferdinand Marcos, respectively). Germany’s Weimar Republic had a constitution “designed by some of the country’s greatest legal minds,” yet it “collapsed rapidly in the face of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of power in 1933.”

FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The authors argue that, while written rules of the game are important, along with referees to enforce them (e.g. judiciary), these work best in conjunction with unwritten rules, or basic norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration is the idea that “we may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate.”

And institutional forbearance means “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.”

Think of democracy as a game that we want to continue playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them, to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow….In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play.

The authors cite certain powers held by the executive and legislative branches that are vaguely addressed in the U.S. Constitution, or not at all, but both branches have adhered to certain unwritten rules regarding them. For example, the Constitution doesn’t limit the number of terms during which a president can preside. However, all U.S. presidents since George Washington, other than one, have limited themselves to two terms in office.

The Constitution also does not limit the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court. However all presidents (again, other than one) have adhered to the unwritten rule of limiting the court to nine justices.

Additionally, the U.S. Congress has the power to filibuster (which the framers designed to assist minority parties in the Senate), block presidential court and cabinet appointments (“advice and consent”), and impeach. But for most of the country’s history, Congress has exhibited institutional forbearance, courtesy, and “reciprocity” regarding these powers.

How Democracies Die highlights that, excluding the Civil War era, on only three occasions since 1776 have democratic norms (checks and balances) been seriously violated in America:

mccarthy

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt at court packing, his issuance of 3,000 executive orders, and his decision to seek a third term in office. (However, FDR never slipped into autocracy due to bipartisan resistance. Also—due to the dire situations of the Great Depression and WWII, most historians have given FDR a pass, similar to what occurred with Lincoln’s violation of habeas corpus during the Civil War.);
  2. McCarthyism and red-baiting in the 1950s;
  3. Richard M. Nixon’s authoritarianism and illegal activities in the 1970s, which resulted in a looming impeachment and his eventual resignation.

On all three occasions, guardrails held due to bipartisan cooperation. “Episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of ‘death spiral’ that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But the authors state that, beginning with civil rights legislation in the 1960s, things began to slowly change in the United States. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, which have held our democracy together like cement on brick, have increasingly become passé.

And over the past few decades, our unwritten rules of the game have been violated at an alarming rate, creating a toxic atmosphere that has allowed a Donald Trump to attain the highest office in the land. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss this trend in a powerful chapter entitled “The Unraveling.”

I’ll tackle that chapter next time.

nixon

Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution

constitution

The eminent historian David McCullough (“John Adams,” “Truman,” “The Johnstown Flood,” etc.) was interviewed on “60 Minutes” last year.  He bemoaned the fact that so few Americans today, especially younger Americans, know even basic facts about their country’s history.  He gave the example that, after a speech at a major university, a young woman approached him and gushed “Mr. McCullough, until your speech I didn’t know that the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast!”

McCullough’s a gracious man.  He didn’t laugh or get angry when he related this anecdote.  He didn’t even blame the co-ed.  Rather, he blamed parents and an American educational system that so often de-emphasizes the teaching of history.  One could tell McCullough was tremendously sad.

robertson

Phil Robertson

Recently, various media outlets have been displaying just how historically challenged many Americans are.  I’m talking about the backlash to criticism of Phil Robertson’s (“Duck Dynasty” TV show) inflammatory remarks in GQ Magazine about African-Americans and gays.  I won’t go into how idiotic and bigoted I think Mr. Robertson’s remarks are.  Any rational, thinking human being, Christian or non-Christian, knows that this guy is, shall we say… quacking utter nonsense.  I’d quote his offensive remarks but they’re readily searchable.

But I’ll say a few words about the backlash and how the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is being used and abused by certain people –predominately people with an agenda from a certain side of the political aisle.

Here’s the entirety of the text to the First Amendment, one of ten amendments that comprise the Constitution’s Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I’m sure most Americans are unable to rattle off these 45 words verbatim.  But memorization’s not important.  What is important is that we understand what the amendment means.  Which is that Congress shall make no law that establishes religion (Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state”) nor prohibits freedom of speech, press, or peaceful assembly.

Mr. Robertson wasn’t thrown into jail.  He wasn’t even arrested.  Why?  Because he didn’t break any law, because Congress didn’t make any law prohibiting his speech or religious beliefs (as twisted as his speech and religious beliefs may be).  His freedom to drool his ignorance to GQ wasn’t violated.  In fact, his words were printed in a major magazine for all the world to see!  He can continue to drool his ignorance.  And the rest of us are allowed to analyze his words and either pity or castigate them, while he continues to paddle his canoe and blow his duck whistles (I guess that’s what he does, since I’ve never seen his show).  He just can’t do it on TV anymore.  The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Mr. Robertson the right to be on TV.

Mr. Robertson’s producers suspended him because his words and ideas were offensive, and probably because they don’t want to lose advertisers.  They’re allowed to do this.  Employers fire people for this stuff all the time.  If I’m sitting in my office and decide to start yelling about anuses and vaginas, and approach enough workmates with the idea that homosexuals are sinners, I’ll probably get fired.

This whole ugly mess does have some violations, though.  For starters, violations of empathy for a persecuted minority and – dare I say it – Christian decency on the part of Mr. Robertson.  And that plus common sense and historical understanding on the part of his defenders.  It’s hard for me to understand the priorities of Robertson’s apologists.  They evidently feel it’s real important to shut up his critics.  But they’re not overly concerned about the 14-year-old gay kid, maybe struggling to come out of the closet, who has to hear that his sexuality is one step removed from sex with animals.

Once again, rather than trying to solve the real problems facing this country, Americans are sucked into a sordid debate because of some yahoo who has a microphone stuck in his face.  And half the debate is being waged by folks who don’t even understand – or don’t want others to understand – the most important amendment to their own Constitution.

capitol