Toss the Word Salad…

I got up this morning wondering if I was “woke” without knowing exactly what that means. Earlier in the week two Fox News contributors criticized Joe Biden for worrying more about “wokeness” in the military than winning wars. One of them then added:

“The problem with Republicans is that we surrender the frame. We allow ourselves to be lulled into this concept that what we really need to be talking about is whether or not there are people who liked the wrong meme, or might be members of the wrong listserv, or get their news in the wrong places. Look in China right now, Tucker, they’re not doing gender sensitivity training. They’re not wondering whether or not their military is woke enough.” 

I like to think I’m adept at languages, but recently I’ve been struggling with my own mother tongue. Maybe with some gender sensitivity training I’ll grasp what it means to be woke and figure out which memes to like or when I’m being gaslighted. I was an English major and love all aspects of the language as you can see by looking at my bookcase, but it seems to me we’re in uncharted territory now.

We’ve seen political correctness called out as the enemy of right-thinking people and remember when he and she were the non-binary pronouns of choice. Cultures were studied not canceled. Lamplighters did the gaslighting. Mimes were silent actors. No one knew a trope from tripe, and revenge porn was somewhere in a future far away. Is it any wonder word-salad found its way into Wikipedia?

“A word salad, or schizophasia, is a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases. Word salad may describe a symptom of neurological or psychiatric conditions in which a person attempts to communicate an idea, but words and phrases that may appear to be random and unrelated come out in an incoherent sequence instead. Often, the person is unaware that he or she did not make sense. It appears in people with dementia and schizophrenia as well as anoxic brain injury.”

My favorite English teacher taught me years ago that logocide is the practice of destroying or eliminating a word’s conventional usage. Earlier generations would have been shocked to know that gay refers to homosexuality, because until 1960 its primary definition was “carefree and cheerful” “bright and showy.” Today that’s the rarely used secondary meaning I bring up only to show how fast usage changes. 

Those of us who yearn for precision in language are driven crazy by Trumpish Republicans who conflate socialist and socialism with the inflammatory communist and communism of the Joe McCarthy era while wrapping themselves in Donald Trump flags and labeling insurrectionists patriots. Hashtag is not a breakfast potato order and Pizzagate has nothing to do with the Italian food. QAnon, Proud Boys, and Oathkeepers are the new Boy Scouts of America, and sextingand revenge porn are the pitfalls of young love. Is it any wonder we’re upset and confused?

Granted, my screed recalls the “back to basics” movement, but rather than look back let’s look forward and update the curriculum. We should add civics and history to reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, because there’s something missing in American education when the President of the United States thinks Frederick Douglass is a Black Lives Matter troublemaker and Andrew Jackson, architect of the Trail of Tears, “has a very big heart.” So, yes, let’s get back to basics and drop cancel culture, tropes, memes, gaslighting, wokenesshashtags and all the other weird wordplay that distracts us. Let’s let the editors at the Dictionary of American Slang toss that word-salad while the rest of us engage in some straight talk.

The City as a Character…

Most of us have a favorite city. New York, London, and Paris are high on most lists, but it could be any city. It becomes a favorite because we associate it with a visit, a person, or maybe even its skyline.

As a writer I’m interested in story telling but especially fond of those in which the city is not just a setting but a character. For example, it’s hard to think of anything by Charles Dickens’ – Bleak House, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, even A Christmas Carol – where the city in not omnipresent and interactive. Fred Schwarzbach, author of Dickens and the City says, “He teaches us to read the city like a book.”

While Dickens is a good example, he isn’t the only writer whose city serves as a prominent character. It would be impossible, for instance, to separate James Joyce from Dublin. In Ulysses he takes the reader on a 24-hour romp through its bars and brothels, and in Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the city is as central to the narrative as the personalities of Stephen Daedalus and Molly Bloom.

Mr. James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious. He lived in an old sombre house and from his windows he could look into the disused distillery or upwards along the shallow river on which Dublin is built. (Dubliners, A Painful Case)

Joyce and Dickens involve the reader in their plain and gritty cities, but my favorite city-as-character fiction is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the heart of his masterwork The Alexandria Quartet. Each of the four volumes – Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea – has a different narrator who takes us through his or her version of the same story of love and betrayal against the exotic backdrop of the decadent old city.

So, the city claimed me once more—the same city made now somehow less poignant and less terrifying than it had been in the past by new displacements in time. Some parts of the old fabric had worn away, others had been restored… For my part I had come to see it as it must always have been—a shabby little seaport built upon a sand-reef, a moribund and spiritless backwater. True this unknown factor, ”war” had given it a specious sort of modern value, but this belonged to the invisible world of strategies and armies, not to ourselves, the inhabitants; it had swollen its population by many thousands of refugees in uniform and attracted those long nights of dull torment which were only relatively dangerous, for as yet the enemy was confining his operations strictly to the harbour area. Only a small area of the Arab quarter came under direct fire; the upper town remained relatively untouched, except perhaps for an occasional error of judgment. No, it was only the harbour at which the enemy scratched and scratched, like a dog at an inflamed scab. A mile away from it the bankers conducted their affairs by day as if from the immunity of New York. (Clea, Book II)

I always admire the way travel writers develop a sense of place as they describe a city, but city-as-character writers use them in a different way–as a cloth to wrap their stories in. Good writing is good writing regardless of its setting, but creating complex literary fiction using the city-as-character technique sets these authors apart.

Maybe the best example of a writer incorporating the city-as-character technique is Woody Allen and New York City. Between 1966 and 2005 he wrote 35 screen and stage plays located there and set them to quintessentially American music by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Best known is Manhattan (1979) where every frame from every angle in every season reveals its character – all in black and white.

From his early films like Play It Again Sam and Annie Hall to Manhattan and Bullets Over Broadway Woody was writing this extended love letter to Manhattan – its people, its idiosyncrasies, its diversity, and its architecture – because, above all, Woody Allen is in love with New York City.

In 2005 he began setting his stories in other cities, Match Point in London, Maria Christina Barcelona in Barcelona, Shadows and Fog in Berlin, and my favorite, Midnight in Paris. One critic suggested he started using foreign locations after he had filmed every street corner in Manhattan.

Don’t be misled when I discuss Allen as a writer just because you know he began as a standup comic or heard he’s involved in a messy family story. He’s a literary genius. What Joyce was to Dublin and Victor Hugo was to Paris, Woody Allen is to New York. 

In the future, as you read a novel or view a film maybe you’ll notice settings in a different way. Do they inform the reader as a character would? Do they place the other characters in context? What part do they play in the unfolding of the story? Do they or impose themselves on the characters or just provide a backdrop? You decide but you may read differently if you do.

The Importance of Being Ernest…

My last post drew a number of interesting comments, especially Marilynn’s belief that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita could only have been written by someone who experienced or fantasized about what is described – a middle-aged professor’s sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl. Jon Maksik, a very good writer friend, pointed out such a belief could only come from an inability to separate the art from the artist. And now we have Ken Burns’ three-part documentary on Hemingway. 

I don’t find it hard to separate the art from the artist in Nabokov’s case. I’m convinced Lolita sprang solely from the literary imagination of a creative genius. It’s much harder to separate art and artist when it comes to a writer like Hemingway whose protean interests, appetites and geography are important in his work. Add in the self-mythologizing, quantity of literary output, and 100 years of critical attention. Then it’s even more difficult. I’m sure he would have enjoyed the attention but hated the documentary with its heavy emphasis on the darker aspects of his character. 

Tastes and tastemakers change over time. Books and writers move in and out of favor. Catcher in the Rye and J.D. Salinger held America’s attention for a generation. The Great Gatsby wasn’t a big seller but the Fitzgeralds were celebrity favorites though few literary critics regarded Gatsby as special. Many now believe it’s the great American novel. Hemingway’s own widely quoted opinion, was “All American literature comes from one book from Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” There are cycles. Now, we’re having another look at Papa. 

He won two Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Committee noting his “mastery of the art of narrative, most recently in The Old Man and the Sea.” My guess is he’ll be remembered more for the way his prose changed modern writing than for any one book. Like Fitzgerald and Salinger, critics and biographers have focused as much on his life and lifestyle as on his art. In this documentary Burns and Novick show all his warts – meanness, insecurity, narcissism, womanizing, misogyny, alcoholism, androgyny and mental illness – while hoping the writer’s work will speak for itself. I wish it had been more balanced.

My interest in Hemingway is a mixture of personal and literary. For 25 years I lived just down a two-lane Idaho road from where he committed suicide. His son Jack (Bumby in A Moveable Feast) and I were good friends and Jack’s daughter, Mariel, told me she had a giant crush on my son, Brent, before she became a movie star. The town doctor, Doc Saviers, was my doctor as well as Ernest’s. Years later, Marilynn and I had drinks in Hemingway’s 4th floor walk-up apartment at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine on the Left Bank in Paris when our friends Jon and Leslie Maksik were living there. In 2015 we visited the Hemingway home and museum in Key West and on the way stopped at Marathon Key where we climbed aboard a replica of Pilar, the fishing boat he designed for Cuba and Key West. That’s most of the personal stuff.

Lately, we’ve been watching the Burns/Novick documentary and reading a slew of articles adding to and feeding off the series. Of course, interest in Papa Hemingway never faded but the focus on his work has.

In his 50’s he was regarded as washed up. After For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) there was a 10-year dry spell and a bout of deep depression. He lamented that “the gift was gone.” But he persisted, began to write again and published Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950. A year later he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, the book that caused Mark Shorer America’s premier scholar to say “He is undoubtedly the greatest craftsman in the American novel of this century.” In 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and seven years later put a shotgun to his head. Dead at 61. 

I read A Clean Well-Lighted Place, his short story about two old men in a Spanish café when I was a college freshman. It was in a lit class and followed a reading of War and Peace. The contrast was astonishing. In the Hemingway story nothing really happens – which is the point. Nada, nothing, is the key word throughout the story. The prose is spare to the point of boredom. This was the new American writing, a style suggested by Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, his mentors.

In his 40 years, he was prolific – seven novels, six short story collections, and two works of non-fiction published while he was alive, as well as four short story collections, A Moveable Feast and two more non-fiction works published by his executors posthumously. All this on top of his work as a war correspondent in WWI, the Spanish Civil War, and WWII.

Unlike Nabokov and Lolita, it’s difficult to separate art from artist in his case. He identified with many of his characters – Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and Into the Trees, Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Macomber in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Harry Street in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. All of them sad but noble characters.

Hemingway was also a sad character, progressively so, but less noble except in the self-mythologizing he was so good at. Not that there weren’t admirable things about him but alcoholism and nine major head traumas (concussions) help explain much of what happened to him later in life.

A recent book, Hemingway’s Brain, by Andrew Farah a professor of psychiatry at the University of South Carolina Medical School argues that “Hemingway suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as the result of numerous severe concussions during his life, and his ultimate dementia was complicated by alcoholism as well as untreated diabetes and hypertension, possibly contributing a vascular component. This condition not only informed Hemingway’s day-to-day life, interactions, and relationships, but the later literary works as well.”

The Burns/Novick documentary covers most of the concussions – a WWI ambulance crash, a London car crash during the Blitz, a Jeep accident in Germany following D-Day, a fall on the Pilar, and two plane crashes in Africa (in two days). In his last year he was treated with multiple electro-shock treatments administered at the Mayo Clinic in an effort to deal with his depression. In the end they had the effect of erasing his once photographic memory. This photograph shows a large lump on the left side of his head, evidence of one of the head traumas.

My first taste of serious literature was reading Steinbeck and Hemingway. Last year I paid a $1900 library fine to Roosevelt High School for the copy of The Old Man and the Sea I never returned and still have in my bookcase. If my taste has matured it is due in large part to the Hemingway influence.

I admire his art, and there was a time when I might have defended the man, but evidence of his character flaws is overwhelming. #MeToo is having a field day feeding on the carcass, and I’ve separated my appreciation for the art from the artist who made it. I know my own writing wouldn’t be the same without his and I wouldn’t have had all those pleasurable hours where I felt his presence with Bumby under fall skies in Idaho.

Postscript: Do you wonder why Mary “forgot” and left the keys to the gun locker out on top of the freezer when he had tried to commit suicide that way before?

Lolita is Back…

Marilynn and I have been battling for years over the derivation and significance of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous 1955 novel. To refresh your memory, the first-person narrator is a middle-aged literature professor obsessed with a 12-year-old girl whom he nicknames Lolita and with whom he becomes sexually involved after marrying her mother. The premise is creepy, but the book is an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature often cited as one of the best books of the 20th century.

Our disagreement centers on her belief that the book could only have been written by someone who experienced or fantasized about what is described in its pages, while I think it’s a work of pure literary imagination. The Annotated Lolita unpacks my side of the story. The Nabokov text in The Annotated Lolita is 309 pages, but the book is itself is 455 pages, including Editor Alfred Appel Jr.’s 67-page introduction, 6 pages of bibliography, 6 pages of Nabokov notes, and 138 pages of annotations. Serious scholarship.

Now…why am I talking about Lolita? It’s because the same creepy, icky subject matter is swarming around us again – but this time it’s not a work of literary imagination. Real people are involved.

The flood gates opened a couple of years ago: for months in 2018-2019 we were treated to salacious tales of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual obsession with teenaged masseuses and questionable friendships with Prince Andrew, Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton and others, until it ended last year with his suicide in a rat infested New York jail.

Now, it’s Representative Matt Gaetz, the Trump whisperer, who’s under investigation, suspected of sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl and other possible crimes. And, while that saga plays out, HBO’s four-part series Allen v. Farrow reminds us that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow have been fighting since 1992 over her accusation that he sexually violated their 7-year-old adopted daughter Dylan, now 35.

Yes, Lolita is back or least the syndrome is. A recent New Yorker article revisited the case of Joyce Maynard, the 18-year-old Harvard freshman who became J.D. Salinger’s lover when he was 53. More about that later.

I have skeletons in my closet too, but none of them are teenagers. Tell me, what’s the lure? Is it their innocence? The sweet smell of youth? The risky “game?” Or is it a sickness? Anthropologists tell us girls are fertile and ready for sex when they begin menstruation. That’s the rule in primitive cultures but ours draws a line. The age differs in various jurisdictions but in America it’s a crime to have sex with an underage girl or “to induce someone cross state lines to engage in sex in exchange for money or anything of value.” This was Jeffrey Epstein’s problem. Now, it’s Matt Gaetz’s problem.

Like Lolita, the whole thing is both creepy and criminal. Epstein and Gaetz, assuming the latter is implicated, were trafficking teenage girls for sex. It’s close to child pornography – another variation on the theme.

These subjects don’t touch most of us. But they can. Several years ago, I discovered that someone I knew had done prison time for possessing a huge cache of compromising photographs of children. He was the father of my son’s friend, a husband and well-respected doctor in the community. So, what’s that about? Is it more deviant than being romantically involved with a teenager? I suppose it depends on whether it was acted upon. In that case, it’s even more deviant. As an aside: while there was no evidence that he acted on his obsession, when he was released from prison one of the straightest smartest women I know began a relationship with him. Go figure…

Nabokov was a provocateur. My friend and classmate, Frederick “Hoddy” Schepman, chose graduate school at Cornell because Nabokov taught there, specifically because he taught a graduate course in which Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the 19th century’s scandalous novel about an unfaithful young wife, was the only text. Nabokov believed it was the greatest novel ever written. But, then again, maybe not. Nabokov was a shape-shifting provocateur.

At the end of Madame Bovary and Lolita the title characters die. Emma Bovary commits suicide with arsenic and Lolita dies in childbirth. These are not happy stories and many of the real-life stories of older men and very young women are even harder to read. What about the women?

Last week, Joyce Maynard discussed the phenomenon in a Vanity Fair article about what J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen have in common. She answers the question by saying, “The world knows them as iconic artists whose work transformed the cultural landscape of America. I see them both as predatory men with a taste for teenagers. Both possess the outlook of aging cynics who idealize and seek out innocence and—having done so—destroy it. Here comes another disturbing similarity in their stories: In the case of each of these celebrated men, when a woman has dared to shine a light on their dark and disturbing behavior—in Allen’s case, possibly criminal behavior, which he continues to deny—their supporters close ranks in the manner of a human shield. Often with stunning success, they deflect allegations made against the object of their devotion and turn on the person responsible for delivering them. That person would be a woman.”

Maynard knows from experience. At 67, she has spent the last 50 years trying to become something or someone other than the predatory tramp who besmirched the reputation of a great novelist. And she has. In those same 50 years she has written 11 novels and 9 works of non-fiction yet her reputation is frozen in relation to Salinger. Women who act as she did are shamed, dismissed, devalued, humiliated and demonized. Older men who prey on young women are often excused with a wink as in “boys will be boys.” Lolita is fiction. Matt Gaetz is a sitting U.S. Representative and the 17-year-old girl he’s accused of trafficking is a real person. It’s time for a reckoning.

Marilynn and I will continue to disagree about Lolita. I recognize it’s controversial but think it’s great art. She focuses on the depravity of the predator and the unforgivable violation of the child. I get it. I feel the way she does about Epstein and Gaetz but I’ve tucked Humbert Humbert and Lolita away in an art-for-art’s-sake silo. If we’re going to forgive, let’s forgive Joyce Maynard, Monica Lewinsky, and all the other women who have been shamed for falling in love with older men who knew better but preyed on teenage girls. 

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” (The opening lines of Nabokov’s Lolita.)

Photos by Penguin Books, MGM, and New York Pos

What’s Next for Us?

I spend an inordinate amount of time wondering how America got itself into the current dystopian mess – hate crimes, mass murderers, white supremacists, voter suppression, QAnon, and thousands of American “patriots” storming the US Capitol, with some intent on murdering the Vice President for performing his Constitutional duty. Maybe if we knew how we got here we could turn things around. The question is how did we get here?

Three recent Supreme Court cases may tell the story. They are:

1. Bush v. Gore (2000)

2. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

3. Shelby County v. Holder (2013)

I’m not alone in the view that these cases were wrongly decided. It’s arguable that the current political s**tstorm can be traced to one or more of these decisions. Undeniably, there were other contributing factors (Vietnam, Watergate, Iran Contra, and Clinton/Lewinsky), but these three cases, decided in this millennium can still be amended, reversed, or worked over and bring us back to a state of equilibrium.

There are scholars who would disagree, but these decisions have had a outsized impact on where we are as a country today. It’s important to note that they were not decided on principles explicitly enumerated and/or debated by the authors of the Constitution or tied to any particular orientation such as originalist, textualist and other jurisprudential interpretations. All three were 5-4 decisions based on political results rather than Constitutional principles.

  • Bush v. Gore was a one-off case that turned on the 2000 presidential vote count in Florida. The count was disputed, and the Supremes remanded the case to the Florida court for adjudication. A recount was ordered and initiated in several Florida counties. Immediately, with no clear winner, the Bush team, led by James Baker, filed a petition to stop the recount with Bush leading by 327 votes. There were contentious disputes over “hanging chads,” mail-in ballots, uncounted ballots, differences in how votes were counted, and timing. It is unclear why, but the US Supreme Court bought Baker’s argument and stopped the recount thereby giving the Florida electors to Bush. That raised Bush’s total to 271 electors – one more than needed to win – and decided America’s future for generations to come.
    • Democrats should have challenged based on the one-man one-vote principle expressed in the Supreme Court’s Baker v. Carr (1962) decision. If every vote counts as in “one-man, one-vote”  then why didn’t the Supreme Court follow through with the recount?
      • According to legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, “Bush v. Gore broke Justice David Souter’s heart. “The day the music died,” he called it. It was so political, so transparently political, that it scarred Souter’s belief in the Supreme Court as an institution.” (emphasis in original)
      • Adding to the politicization of that decision were the following: 1. on the eve of the election Sandra Day O’Connor made a public statement that a Gore victory would be a personal disaster for her. 2. While her husband was considering how to rule on who would become the next President, Clarence Thomas’s wife was so intimately involved in the Bush campaign that she was helping to draw up a list of Bush appointees and finally, 3. Antonin Scalia’s son was working for the firm appointed by Bush to argue his case before the Supreme Court, the head of which was subsequently appointed as Solicitor-General.
    • The court awarded the presidency to Bush and Gore graciously conceded in the interest of national unity.
    • 9/11 happened nine months later. To Bush’s credit the crisis was well managed and an abundance of goodwill created worldwide.
    • We will never know how Gore would have handled the crisis, but it is inconceivable that he would have been squandered all that goodwill and sympathy for the US with an invasion of Iraq based on false intelligence about WMD. 
      • This was a Cheney/Bush strategy to redeem George H.W. Bush’s reputation for not pursuing Saddam Hussein all the way to Baghdad during Desert Storm. 
      • Consider the consequences of that decision and the rabbit hole it created in the Middle East.
  • Ten years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that FEC rules limiting corporate spending in elections were an infringement on the corporation’s First Amendment free speech rights. It had blocked Citizens United, a conservative non-profit, from promoting and airing a film critical of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the presidential primaries and a lower court upheld the FEC position. Citizens United sued to reverse that decision.
    • The regulations in question were based on 100-year-old statutes intended to prevent corruption in federal elections. The court’s decision insured that corporations would henceforth be regarded as “citizens” for purposes of federal litigation. The spigot was open for unlimited contributions.
    • Dark money” from anonymous donors set new records for influencing elections in the decade following the Citizens United decision. Dark money groups have reported nearly $1 billion in direct spending on U.S. elections to the FEC since Citizens United. 
    • For every dollar in dark money by groups that do not fully disclose their donors in the decade before Citizens United, at least $10 were spent in the decade after. ( 
    • Citizens United suggests our elections are for sale while undermining voter faith in the incorruptibility of elections.
  • The final case in this triad is Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 case brought by several jurisdictions to strike a requirements in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required certain states and local governments with a history of “invasive and insidious” racial discrimination in voting to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws and practices.
    • The Roberts court in a 5-4 decision ruled the preclearance requirement unconstitutional because the disparate treatment of these states was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day” and thus not responsive to current needs.
    • The Court held that Congress cannot subject a state to preclearance based simply on past discrimination, noting that since the coverage formula was last modified in 1975, the country “has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions”
    • By 2018, five years after the ruling, nearly 1,000 U.S. polling places had closed, many of them in predominantly African American counties. There were also cuts to early voting, purges of voter rolls and imposition of strict voter ID laws.
    • A 2020 study found that jurisdictions that had been covered by preclearance requirements substantially increased their voter registration purges after the Shelby decision. (Wikipedia)
    • Since the inauguration of President Biden, 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills intended to restrict or suppress voter participation, including all the jurisdictions that required preclearance under the Shelby County ruling. 

The Declaration of Independence and Constitution notwithstanding, America has a checkered history when it comes to voting rights. 

  1. At the time of the Declaration only white male property owners were allowed to vote and the Constitution counted negroes as 3/5 of a person for census purposes but did not allow them to vote.
  2. In 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed ending slavery in the US but did not give negroes voting rights.
  3. In 1870, passage of the 15th Amendment prohibited discrimination in voting based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” technically ensuring negroes the right to vote but ushering in the era of Jim Crow prohibitions denying them voting rights.
  4. In 1920, the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote.
  5. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act gave the Federal Election Commission “preclearance” authority over states with a history of racial discrimination to review any changes to election law.
  6. In 2013 the Voting Rights Act was stripped of its preclearance provision and a new era of voter suppression initiated.

As a Constitutional law student in the ‘60s, I observed the Warren Court lean left to protect racial minorities and the disenfranchised. In the 70s and 80s I saw the court move center right under the leadership of Chief Justices Burger and Rehnquist and regarded it as a normal reaction to a left-leaning Warren Court. But it was the Bork, Thomas, and Kavanaugh confirmation hearings that convinced me the process was corrupted and stripped of any pretense of neutrality. The Court is now an unpredictable political instrument based lifetime appointments by whomever happens to have the power when there was a vacancy.

Governmental change comes at a glacial pace. I won’t live long enough to see the changes I think are needed, but I believe they are possible. Social scientists have documented an “optimism bias” in humans. Optimism is hard to come by these days, but I’m a subscriber.

The changes needed involve rethinking the electoral process (Electoral College), protecting voting rights (uniform rules to ensure all voters have access and opportunity), a Constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United to control election spending, and the possible implementation of term limits or additional Justices to the Supreme Court.

By today’s standards, these are radical changes, but we need them to bring democratic practices up to date and ensure a more even-handed justice.

  • The electoral college is an outdated relic of an earlier age and needs to be updated.
    • Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution is the foundation document for the Electoral College, but is universally criticized for: 
      1. Making “swing states” more important than the others
      2. Permitting the election of a candidate who does not win the most votes
      3. Allowing the winner-take-all feature to cancel the votes cast for the losing candidate
  • Voting rights should be uniform, fair, and ensure access for all Americans. HR 1 and SR 1, two bills now before Congress would insure this.
  • Money should not determine the outcome of an election.Citizens United v. Holder should be reversed. Yesterday I received a solicitation from Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer rights advocacy group, asking me to support passage of a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that would deny corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money in electoral politics. So far, 22 states and 800 cities have passed resolutions supporting the amendment and polls show 3 out of 4 Americans support it as well.
  • Supreme Court justice should not be subject to the partisan whims of electoral politics. Term limits, expanding the number of justices, and/or the periodic rotation of justices would help minimize the politics and restore faith in the institution. Legislators are elected and can be voted out. Justices oversee and enforce the law but lifetime appointments make them essentially above the law. This can be modified to assure fairness.

We can’t turn the clock back; we have to live with the consequences of Bush v. Gore, the Iraq invasion, the Trump phenomenon, the appointment of 3 conservative Supreme Court justices and 200 federal judges with lifetime appointments, and an abundance of race related murders. This is a critical time in our history, a time to reflect on what kind of a country we want and what kind of government will enable us to get there.

Is it too much to ask citizens and elected officials to act for the common good? Other countries do it. Why has it become so difficult for us? Can American individualism subordinate itself in order to arrive at a collective good to restore a functional system. The jury is out; Congress is stalemated and unable to function, our roads, bridges are falling apart, our airports are third world quality, we have no rail system, and every day we wake up to news of gun violence. We are losing our advantage in tech innovation, medical devices, space exploration, and, most of all, our quality of life. We need strong leadership with vision and good values. My optimism bias says we can come together in a bipartisan way in spite of our recent past. But, we need to move decisively if we’re going to recapture the innovation advantage and live up to our professed ideals.