Category Archives: Constitution

The Library And The Culture War

Over the years, I have come to admire two professions above most others: social workers and librarians. The social workers I’ve come to know are simply wonderful human beings–compassionate, caring and non-judgmental. (If we admire traits we personally lack, that would explain my awe about that “non-judgmental” thing…) The librarians I know are dedicated protectors of the First Amendment, and absolutely fearless defenders of our right as individuals to access whatever information interests us.

The traits of both professions are obviously anathema to the White Christian Nationalists who control today’s GOP . Those culture warriors are especially intent upon controlling what other people can read, and that single-minded devotion to cultural control brings them into fairly regular conflict with librarians and the mission of the nation’s libraries, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by a recent headline from The Guardian: US library defunded after refusing to censor LGBTQ authors: ‘We will not ban the books.’

A small-town library is at risk of shutting down after residents of Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund it rather than tolerate certain LGBTQ+-themed books.

Residents voted on Tuesday to block a renewal of funds tied to property taxes, Bridge Michigan reported.

 The vote leaves the library with funds through the first quarter of next year. Once a reserve fund is used up, it would be forced to close, Larry Walton, the library board’s president, told Bridge Michigan – harming not just readers but the community at large. Beyond books, residents visit the library for its wifi, he said, and it houses the very room where the vote took place.

“Our libraries are places to read, places to gather, places to socialize, places to study, places to learn. I mean, they’re the heart of every community,” Deborah Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, told the Guardian. “So how can you lose that?”

What was the library’s sin? It refused to remove materials about sexual orientation from its shelves–materials that the residents asserted were “grooming” children to adopt a “gay lifestyle.”

The controversy in Jamestown began with a complaint about a memoir by a nonbinary writer, but it soon spiraled into a campaign against Patmos Library itself. After a parent complained about Gender Queer: a Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel about the author’s experience coming out as nonbinary, dozens showed up at library board meetings, demanding the institution drop the book. (The book, which includes depictions of sex, was in the adult section of the library.) Complaints began to target other books with LGBTQ+ themes.

One library director resigned, telling Bridge she had been harassed and accused of indoctrinating kids; her successor, Matt Lawrence, also left the job. Though the library put Kobabe’s book behind the counter rather than on the shelves, the volumes remained available.

“We, the board, will not ban the books,” Walton told Associated Press on Thursday….

The library’s refusal to submit to the demands led to a campaign urging residents to vote against renewed funding for the library. A group calling itself Jamestown Conservatives handed out flyers condemning Gender Queer for showing “extremely graphic sexual illustrations of two people of the same gender”, criticizing a library director who “promoted the LGBTQ ideology” and calling for making the library “a safe and neutral place for our kids”. On Facebook, the group says it exists to “keep our children safe, and protect their purity, as well as to keep the nuclear family intact as God designed”.

I’m sure the person who wrote that had spoken to God personally about the threat. (That’s sarcasm. I admitted I’m judgmental…)

Apparently, libraries across the country are facing a surge in similar demands to ban books. The American Library Association has identified 729 challenges to “library, school and university materials and services” just in the last year–and an estimated 1,600 challenges or removals of individual books. That figure was up from 273 books the year before.

“We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to remove books, particularly books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with racism,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, told the Guardian last year.

There is certainly “grooming” going on, but those responsible aren’t trying to sell small children on the glories of homosexuality, or destroy what’s left of the nuclear family. The real “grooming” has been done by hate-mongers like Alex Jones, the late and non-lamented Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and his fellow-travelers on Fox News–aided and abetted by fundamentalist churches and  various Rightwing organizations.

The GOP’s groomers play to the racism, misogyny and homophobia of their White Christian Nationalist base, encouraging them to direct their hysterical fear of cultural change at the nation’s libraries.

In this fight, my money is on the librarians.

 

Justice, Justice..

Like many of you, I get the almost-daily newsletter from Heather Cox Richardson, who reliably reports on current events and provides valuable historical context illuminating them.

Last week, Richardson made a “catch” that I had missed–and it provided further evidence of the corruption that was (along with monumental incompetence) a hallmark of the Trump Administration.

Evidently, during a Senate hearing and in response to a question from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, FBI director Christopher Wray  shed light on the Administration’s short-circuiting of the background investigation into then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Note: I’m not sure when that hearing occurred–it may have been one held a year or so ago.) According to that testimony, more than 4500 tips about Kavanaugh that were received by an FBI hotline were “separated out” and transmitted to the White House without investigation. The FBI subsequently interviewed only people designated by the White House.

The agency completed the supplemental background check triggered by the accusations of sexual assault in exactly four days–and FBI agents did not interview either Kavanaugh or Christine Blasely Ford, the woman who publicly testified against him, or the other women who came forward to lodge similar accusations–Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick. 

The lack of clear vetting extended far beyond the allegations of personal sexual misconduct. As the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights pointed out in a letter objecting to his elevation to the Court, Kavanaugh’s judicial conduct was a matter of equal concern.

Judge Kavanaugh’s 12-year record on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, as well as his known writings, speeches, and legal career, demonstrate that if he were confirmed to the Supreme Court, he would be the fifth and decisive vote to undermine many of our core rights and legal protections.  In case after case, he has ruled against individuals and the environment in favor of corporations, the wealthy, and the powerful.  He has advanced extreme legal theories to overturn longstanding precedent to diminish the power of federal agencies to help people.  And he has demonstrated an expansive view of presidential power that includes his belief that presidents should not be subject to civil suits or criminal investigations while in office despite what misconduct may have occurred.  Many of our organizations opposed Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit,[1] and our fears and concerns have been realized.  Judge Kavanaugh has not served as a neutral and fair-minded jurist.  He has served as a conservative ideologue who lacks the impartiality and independence necessary to sit on the highest court in the land.

The letter went on to document the cases in which Kavanaugh had displayed his lack of “impartiality and independence,” his lack of commitment to racial justice, and his “extreme and disturbing views about presidential power.” The letter was signed by 180 organizations.

Then there was the matter of the 15 ethics complaints filed against Kavanaugh, alleging judicial misconduct during his tenure as a lower-court judge. Once he was elevated to the Supreme Court, proceedings investigating those complaints were dismissed.  Dismisal was because the ethics rule provides that proceedings may be concluded if the judge charged with conducting them finds that “action on the complaint is no longer necessary because of intervening events.” The intervening event in Judge Kavanaugh’s case was his appointment to the Supreme Court. “That is because the Act covers complaints only about circuit judges, district judges, bankruptcy judges, magistrate judges, and judges of some special courts.”

And so here we are… 

That this very flawed, partisan individual is on the Supreme Court is certainly troubling, but there have been other Justices whose flaws have been widely recognized. (Alito was an example well before Boggs.) What is far more troubling was the corrupt process that led to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. It’s one thing to find, after the fact, that a nominee lacks hoped-for judicial temperament or intellect. (The allegations against Clarence Thomas, for example, were fully aired, and most Americans only subsequently realized that the Senate had believed the wrong testimony.) Refusal to conduct a thorough vetting is a far more serious matter, and it’s pretty clear that short-circuiting a full and fair investigation was a deliberate–and successful– act of the Trump Administration.

I tend to harp on the importance of institutions, because the health of the American polity ultimately rests upon the integrity and ongoing utility of those institutions. Separation of Powers is a foundational element of our system of government, and when one branch can effectively control another by ignoring institutional safeguards in order to place favored individuals in positions of power, that foundational element is violated.

Elevating Brett Kavanaugh and denying Merrick Garland a hearing were two steps in the Right’s determined campaign to eliminate individual liberties and move America toward autocracy.

They have to be stopped.

 

Let’s Try This One More Time…

What’s wrong with the argument–made on this site most recently by Paul Ogden–that our differences about abortion should be resolved by democratic debate, and not by Judges issuing edicts?

Certainly, we Americans decide lots of things democratically–legislatures in the various states make policies about taxation, about criminal law, property rights, public transportation and innumerable other issues, and those decisions presumably reflect the majority sentiment in those states. (Okay, maybe not, given the extent of gerrymandering…but theoretically.)

Why do you suppose that those legislators and their constituents don’t get to vote on other matters: the right to free speech, the right to pray to the God of your choice (or not), the right to read books of one’s own choosing, the right to be free of arbitrary searches and seizures, the right of citizens to cast votes in elections…

The reason we don’t subject those and similar rights to majority preferences is because the courts have determined–properly–that under our constitution, they are fundamental rights. And the majority doesn’t get to decide whether person X or person Y is entitled to fundamental rights.

Ever since Griswold v. Connecticut, in 1965, the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged that personal autonomy–the  individual’s right to make “intimate” personal decisions–is one of those fundamental rights. The doctrine of substantive due process, often called the right to privacy, is shorthand for the recognition that certain decisions should not be made by government. The doctrine answers the question “Who decides?” by drawing a line between the myriad issues appropriate for resolution by majorities acting through government, and decisions  that government in a free society has no business making.

The question, by the way, is who decides–who gets to make a particular decision, not what the decision should be.

The deeply dishonest ruling in Dobbs didn’t simply mischaracterize history in order to impose a minority religious belief on all Americans. It attacked the rule that restrains government’s intrusion into the private lives of its citizens. Its “reasoning” would allow fundamental rights–to bodily autonomy, to the choice of a marriage partner, to decisions about procreation– to be decided by legislatures chosen by “democratic” majorities.

Unless you are prepared to argue that the right to make those very personal decisions is not a fundamental constitutional right, allowing abortion and contraception and same-sex marriage to be decided by majority rule is no different from putting my choice of reading material, or your choice of religion, up to a vote of your neighbors.

The reason so many people are outraged over Dobbs and disgusted by the misogynistic culture warriors in the Indiana legislature is because they recognize that we are arguing about a very basic American principle: the right of each individual to live in accordance with his or her own deeply-held beliefs rather than in servitude to the beliefs of others–even if those others constitute a majority (which in this case, they pretty clearly do not.)

The reason so many women understand  Dobbs to be an assault on women is that its result requires believing that a right to self-determination claimed only by women is not a fundamental right, but a privilege that can be withdrawn by legislative bodies.

By definition, rights don’t depend upon your ability to obtain a favorable decision by a majority of your neighbors. 

Think of it this way: I may strongly disagree with the way in which you are using your freedom of speech. I may think your religion is ridiculous, and your choice of reading material stupid–but I don’t get to vote to shut you up, close your church or censor your books–and you don’t get to vote on my reproductive decisions. 

That’s because fundamental rights are not subject to majority vote.

I’ll end this diatribe with one more repetition of the libertarian principle that undergirds the real “original intent” of America’s particular approach to government–and especially animates the Bill of Rights: Individuals are entitled to live their lives as they see fit, until and unless they are thereby harming the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to extend an equal liberty to others.

Autocrats and theocrats have a whole lot of trouble with “live and let live…”

 

“Don’t Know Much About History”

That old Sam Cooke tune should be Justice Alito’s theme song.

Distortion–or flat-out lying–about history hasn’t previously been a feature of Supreme Court decisions, although it’s nothing new in political discourse. (Remember the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman,” despite the fact that the statement was demonstrably false? Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage.)

Alito’s recitation of history in Dobbs has been rebutted by historians, and its falsity was recently the subject of a lengthy essay in the Guardian. 

As the essay notes, Alito claims that a reversal of Roe v Wade “restores the US to an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”

This assertion, however, is easily disproven.As historians have exhaustively explained, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible foetal movement, usually between 16 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Connecticut was the first state to ban abortion after quickening, in 1821, which is roughly two centuries after the earliest days of American common law. It was not until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalised in every state. In the wake of Dobbs, social media was awash with examples from 18th- and 19th-century newspapers that clearly refuted Alito’s false assertion, sharing examples of midwives and doctors legally advertising abortifacients, Benjamin Franklin’s at-home abortion remedies, and accounts of 19th-century doctors performing “therapeutic” (medically necessary) abortions.

The essay also emphasized that anti-abortion fervor was not motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists.

In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws were entangled in arguments about nativism, eugenics and white supremacism, as they dovetailed with a cultural panic that swept the US in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of the vast changes in American society wrought by the conflict. This panic was referred to at the time in shorthand as “race suicide”

The increasing traction today of the far-right “great replacement theory”, which contends that there is a global conspiracy to replace white people with people of colour, and has explicitly motivated white supremacist massacres in the US, is often said to have originated with a French novel called The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. Published in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade enshrined American women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, it is a dystopian account of “swarthy hordes” of immigrants sweeping in and destroying western civilisation. But there were many earlier panics over “white extinction”, and in the US, debates around abortion have been entangled with race panic from the start. 

As a similar post at FiveThirtyEight.com put it,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.”

Historians point to the numerous newspapers, lectures and sermons that led to the original criminalization of abortion by warning that Catholics and other foreign-born immigrants were likely to outnumber Protestant, native-born Americans. The essay cited one representative example– a 1903 editorial pointing out that the Protestant population of the US was increasing by 8.1% while the Catholic population was increasing by 21.8%, and characterizing those statistics as an “alarming condition of things.” The article noted that there were “on the average more than five abortions a month, none of them in Catholic families”. In case the message wasn’t sufficiently clear, the piece was headlined “Religion and Race Suicide”.

When the resurgent Ku Klux Klan paraded in Louisiana in 1922, they bore banners that read “White Supremacy”, “America First”, “One Hundred Per Cent American”, “Race Purity” and “Abortionists, Beware!” People are sometimes confused by the Klan’s animus against abortionists, or impute it to generalised patriarchal authoritarianism, but it was much more specifically about “race purity”: white domination can only be maintained by white reproduction.

The article is lengthy, but well worth your time to read; it contains a meticulous recitation of the thoroughly racist roots of opposition to abortion. My only quibble is that It gives only a nod to the White male patriarchy embedded in the numerous religious dogmas that require the subordination and submission of women. Without the benefit of that moral “fig leaf,” I doubt whether its clearly racist roots would have carried the movement so far.

I do absolutely agree with the essay’s conclusion:

The assault on women’s rights is part of the wider move to reclaim the “commanding place” in society for a small minority of patriarchal white men. And, as Alito’s decision shows, where legal precedent and other justifications cannot be found, myth will fill the vacuum.

No matter how ahistorical that myth…

 

Allow Me To Repeat Myself…

In the wake of the Court’s ruling in Dobbs, several pundits have approved of the decision as a “return to federalism.” Earlier this year, I posted about America’s experience with federalism, and obviously, that analysis bears repeating.

The issue, of course, is “Which rules should be nationally-imposed, and which should be left to more local “laboratories of democracy”? Certainly, not all policy needs to be nationally uniform–there are plenty of areas where local control is appropriate. But questions about who is entitled to fundamental human rights–and what those rights are–clearly isn’t one of them.

Students who have been taught the actual history of the United States are aware of the multiple problems the country experienced under the extreme federalism of the Articles of Confederation; those problems were severe enough to prompt the replacement of the Articles with our current Constitution. In the (many) years since, however, we seem to have forgotten about the very negative consequences of national fragmentation.

The application of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments was meant to establish a national floor–to ensure that a citizen moving from say, New York to Indiana, would not thereby experience a reduction of her fundamental rights as an American citizen. Justice Alito’s evisceration of the substantive due process clause is–among other incredibly negative things– a step back toward the fragmentation of the Articles of Confederation.

Furthermore, modern technology and communication–and the needs of businesses serving a mobile population–have made uniformity imperative even for matters that were properly left to state and local governments in the 1800s.

As I’ve noted previously, the need to rationalize and unify large areas of the law gave rise to the work of the Uniform Law Commission. The Commission drafts and promotes state enactment of uniform laws in areas of state law where uniformity has been recognized to be both desirable and practical. Probably the best-known uniform law is the Uniform Commercial Code– a comprehensive set of laws governing all commercial transactions in the United States. (It has national application, but it isn’t a federal law–it was uniformly adopted by each state’s legislature. In that sense, it respected federalism.)

Obviously, commerce isn’t the only area where uniformity is “desirable and practical.” Federal action in the face of a pandemic would certainly seem to qualify, and before the incompetence and massive ignorance of the Trump administration, the federal government largely directed public health responses to threatened outbreaks.  Numerous health officials have addressed the disastrous results of Trump’s decision to leave COVID response to the states. It is not hyperbole to suggest that a more co-ordinated, federalized response wouldn’t just have saved lives, but in all likelihood would have cut short the period of most vulnerability.

No serious student of governance believes that, in a country as large and diverse as the United States, all decisions should be made at the federal level. The question with which we should be grappling is “which responsibilities are properly federal and which matters are properly left to state or local governments?”

What laws need to be uniform if we are to be the United States of America, rather than a haphazard collection of Red and Blue fiefdoms? It is incomprehensible to me that anyone would choose to leave basic civil liberties up to the states–that, after all, was precisely the “federalism” that led to the civil war.

Certainly, America’s division of jurisdiction among local, state and federal levels of government is still useful–state and federal governments really have no reason to assume responsibility for handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, for example– but we need to recognize that many of our historic assignments of responsibility no longer make much sense. State-level management of elections, for example, was necessary in the age of snail-mail registration and index cards identifying voters; in the computer age, as we have seen, it’s an invitation to misconduct.

As a practical matter, federal programs have made a mockery of  the increasingly awkward pretenses of state “sovereignty” where none really exists. Think of federal highway dollars that are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits. Or the myriad other “strings” attached to federal funding that remind state-level agencies who’s really in charge.

If we ever get serious about actually governing again, we should take a hard look at these divisions of responsibility, and recognize that some matters are genuinely local, some require national action, and still others are planetary and must be addressed globally. Climate change is the most obvious.

I’m willing to leave zoning decisions up to local municipalities, and a substantial portion of criminal justice measures up to the states. When it comes to fundamental rights and global threats, a phony and facile “respect for federalism” is both dishonest and suicidal.