Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Court keeps expanding First Amendment

I spent three decades defending the First Amendment and exercising the press freedom that it guarantees. At times, however, I have to doubt the reasoning that extends First Amendment protections to practices I consider unrelated to the authors' definition of free speech.

The Supreme Court this week found in the First Amendment's language a prohibition against any state limiting the sale of violent video games to minors. Any such prohibition, the court majority said, inhibits free speech protected by the First Amendment. Having read press accounts of the decision, I cannot understand whose First Amendment rights are being inhibited. Is it the right of minors to expose their young minds to destructive violence or is it the right of game makers to sell its deleterious products? If the former, I question whether First Amendment protections are meant for minor children (would the court protect an adolescent's "mooning" of his parents or teachers or shouting "you suck!" over a bullhorn?). If it's the right of game makers, I question whether the First Amendment was ever intended to protect that kind of speech.

Andrew Cohen wrote an interesting explication of this week's two First Amendment cases for the Atlantic.

The video games case divided the court in an interesting way. The ruling left liberal Stephen Breyer and conservative Clarence Thomas in the minority with conservative Antonin Scalia (usually Thomas' philosophical mentor) defending the "liberal" position of free access for children to violent games. The California law the court shot down (excuse the violent metaphor) only required that children have a parent's permission to buy a "mature" rated video game. If parents have any role in child development (and that might be an open question these days), a state should be able to reinforce that role by statute. Extending full constitutional protection to the whims of immature children will inevitably lead to conflicts with parents who believe their role is to help mold children into mature, responsible, caring adults.

If the argument is that video game makers have a right to express their "art" in any way they see fit (including the murder of innocent "virtual" bystanders), the California law did not inhibit their ability to create their "art." It did not prohibit the use of violent video games by children. It only prohibited the purchase of these games without a parent's permission. Taken to its logical conclusion, the court could find that distillers should be allowed the freedom to sell their "artistic expressions" to 6-year-olds. Although the Constitution does not expressly mention it, there are and should be rights of parents to discipline and nurture their own children.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Eulogy for 'The Sweetest Dog'

In 40 years of marriage, my wife and I had a dog for about seven and a half years. You wouldn't think four paws would have such an impact on us. But this morning, after I had dug a grave in the dark last night and had laid our sweet Little Bear into the earth, our house echoes with emptiness. Throughout my interrupted sleep, I kept expecting to hear her shuffling about on the floor beside our bed, scratching for a comfortable spot. This morning, as I went to the shower, I did not have to step around her. As I went downstairs, it was only my two feet I heard on the steps. There was no reason to open the back door, no need to step aside so that a blur of fur could rush outside, but I walked out the back door anyway, walked over to the mound of earth I had piled atop her body and felt an immeasurable loss.

When I arrived home last night, my wife had just taken Little Bear for a walk, which always delighted our dog. An hour or so later, Bear was wandering around outside instead of curling up near us inside — very strange behavior for this dog. We looked closer and realized she was panting heavily and was unsteady on her feet. She was weak and dazed. I lay down beside Bear on the floor and told my wife, "I think she's dying." We rushed her to the emergency vet, who immediately diagnosed abdominal bloating caused by stomach torquing. Emergency surgery might save her, but she was unlikely to survive the surgery. We opted to relieve her pain and tearfully say goodbye.

My wife and I have a habit of sitting on the deck on evenings when it's neither too hot nor too cool and watching the sun dip below the trees and then fully disappear into darkness. Because Bear had always been our quiet, contented companion on those evenings, I don't know whether we will be able to enjoy sitting on the deck in the evening again.

We buried her within sight of the deck, where we can look out at her resting place and think of her as keeping us company, quietly uncomplaining, "the sweetest dog."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The literature of celebrity and politics

I've come to the realization that both Bristol Palin and her ex-boyfriend, Levi Johnston, have books coming out. Thousands of writers are out of work, but these two teenagers can get their memoirs published by major publishing houses? I fear that both books might end up on the bestseller list. Just the fact that I can use their names without having to explain who they are is a sad commentary on our melding of politics and celebrity — and how "celebrity" has somehow become its own occupational category.

Bristol is the daughter of a former Alaska governor who quit in mid-term after an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency. Johnston is the teenage boyfriend who appeared in the audience at his girlfriend's mother's speeches, looking uncomfortable and out-of-place. Bristol was a pregnant teenager when her mother ran for vice president three years ago, but she's likely the only teen mom who has made a career out of making an embarrassing mistake. Not only is she paid for being a spokesperson for an abstinence-advocacy group, she even appeared on the "Dancing with the Stars" television show. (I didn't watch it; was she the star or the dancer-in-training?)

Palin's book reportedly implies that she was the victim of a sexual assault by Johnston. In his book, Johnston is reported to be highly critical of the whole Palin family. When has a she-said/he-said dispute ever achieved such literary success?

For that matter, when has a losing vice presidential nominee ever become the entrepreneurial commodity that Sarah Palin has, with her own gig on Fox News, a couple of books, a successful speechmaking business, a national bus tour and I'm afraid to imagine what else? Henry Cabot Lodge (1960), Bill Miller (1964), Ed Muskie (1968), Tom Eagleton (1972), Bob Dole (1976), Geraldine Ferraro (1984), Lloyd Bentsen (1988), Jack Kemp (1996), and Joe Lieberman (2000) were rarely heard from after their party ticket lost the election. OK, John Edwards (2004) did achieve a bit of notoriety after the election, but not in a good way. Palin has joined that uniquely American job category, the celebrity who is famous for being famous, and now it appears her celebrity is transferable to her offspring and even to her antagonists.

America has developed a history over the past century of idolizing its past presidents, giving them fat pensions, Secret Service protection and presidential libraries. Some have earned excellent salaries (on top of their pensions) just by making speeches. As a nation, we have come a long way since the days of John Quincy Adams, who won a seat in the House of Representatives after leaving the White House, and Thomas Jefferson, who reportedly stood in line for lunch at a boarding house after his inauguration.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

After the veto override, teachers keep jobs

Governor Perdue vetoed the Republican legislature's budget, saying the budget made too many cuts in education funding. The legislature, along mostly partisan lines (with five Democrats in the House siding with the majority), voted to override the veto.

Then a strange thing happened: School superintendents in Wilson, Raleigh and Charlotte announced that they would have enough funding from the sharply constrained state budget to retain all current teaching positions. No layoffs for teachers. Despite dire warnings that the Republican-written budget would result in massive teacher layoffs and a resultant decline in educational quality throughout the state, it looks like most school systems will survive with their teaching positions intact. Some support positions, even some "central office" positions, will be eliminated; after all, even Perdue's budget contained severe cuts in education funding. But massive layoffs of teachers statewide? It doesn't look like that will happen.

That's not to say that there aren't severe -- and questionable -- cuts in state funding. Mental health services will suffer. Prisons will be without peacekeeping chaplains. Many teacher aide positions will disappear (although there will be money to reduce class size in kindergarten and first grade -- a tradeoff whose wisdom I question). In what seems to me might be the worst for the long-term health of public schools, legislators decided to eliminate the Teaching Fellows scholarship program. For 25 years, this innovative program has provided four-year scholarships to students willing to teach in public schools for a minimum of four years. Teaching Fellows targeted academically superior students and provided enrichment opportunities in an effort to improve the quality of the state's teachers, and it is teacher quality, more than any other factor, that improves student performance. (Full disclosure: My younger daughter was a Teaching Fellow and was an exceptionally good math teacher in three different school systems, more than fulfilling her obligation to the state, before resigning to raise her children.) If the Republicans running the General Assembly are going to reduce class size, thereby increasing the number of teachers, they'll need a Teaching Fellows program to attract students into the ranks of teaching.

For legislators (and others) who want to know what's wrong with public education, I recommend this article from The Atlantic. Although many of the problems cited are confined to New York City Schools and other heavily unionized systems, the interests of the entrenched bureaucracy and the "us first" attitude of the teacher unions (the North Carolina Association of Educators is an affiliate of the National Education Association) also apply to North Carolina.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Goodbye to a 50-year-old glove

I buried my old baseball glove yesterday, not in some sacred spot under home plate or beneath the dugout but in the kitchen trash. After 50 years, it was time to let it go, so I dumped it unceremoniously and without remorse. I no longer have any use for this artifact of my youth.

I've been trying to remember if I had another baseball glove before that one, and I suppose I must have, but it is not memorable, perhaps a hand-me-down from one of my older brothers or a cheap faux-leather toy, not a tool in the sports equipment bag like the glove I got when I was 10 or 12 years old.

As best I remember, it came as a Christmas present, in the dead of winter far removed from hot summer days of baseball season. It was by far the best sports equipment I'd ever claimed as my own, though its now-forgotten generic brand name fell far shy of my brother's professional-level Rawlings glove made of leather as soft as a pillow and fingers as long as my foot. I can still remember that my brother's glove cost an astounding $18, about a day's wages for either of my parents at the time. My glove must have cost about half that or less.

The glove got plenty of use in those ephemeral days when every boy in my class would bring his baseball glove to school, and we'd choose sides and play ball at morning recess and afternoon recess (yes, twice a day). I also used it in the organized play of church-league games and in the back yard as my athletic brother tried in vain to salvage me from my klutziness. My glove stood out on the playground because it was black, as black as a man's dress shoes — a color almost unheard of in baseball gloves then — and in those clearly not-politically correct days, I took some ribbing about the racial origins of my baseball glove. I oiled it and flexed it and wrapped it tightly around a baseball to improve its shape. On the left hand of a better athlete, I'm sure it would have been more than adequate for a teenager in the early 1960s, but in my hands it never made it to a high school or American Legion baseball game.

Years later, after I was grown and married, I rescued the glove from a coating of mildew it had developed in a cabinet on my parents' back porch, where it had lain unseen for years. I have a photo of me wearing that glove as I played a game of catch with my son in the back yard of my childhood home. My son was learning to use his first baseball glove more than two decades ago.

I can toss out the old black glove now without regrets. Not one of my five grandsons has shown any interest in baseball, and the game is not the ubiquitous glue that, 50 years ago, taught young boys coordination, athleticism, camaraderie, teamwork and orderliness. It's an artifact as ancient and useless today as the flat, inflexible baseball glove that I remember from early childhood. That glove must have belonged to my dad or one of his brothers. It looked like the fat, awkward glove that Babe Ruth had used in the dark, mythical past. That old glove, which must have been tossed out with the trash when I was my grandsons' age, was not as old then as the black glove I just threw in the trash.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

You can't manufacture in South Carolina?

The dispute between airplane maker Boeing and the Machinists union could be the labor fight of the decade. Boeing has built a new assembly plant in North Charleston, S.C., a testament to the resilience of the Charleston area, which had its signature U.S. Navy shipyard yanked away by base realignment. Charleston lost thousands of jobs when the Navy pulled out, and landing Boeing's highly sought-after 787 Dreamliner factory promised a new era in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

But Machinists in Washington state complained that the new assembly plant was a violation of federal labor law and appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, which found that building a new factory in a non-union state violates labor law. Who would've thought it? That decision is now on appeal and will likely end up in federal court. This fight comes after Democrats gave up their plans to acquiesce to labor's demands for "card check" unionization, which would eliminate secret ballot elections for unionizing. Democrats never brought the issue to a vote, even when they had strong majorities in Congress after the 2008 elections.

Boeing apparently made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build a new assembly plant in a location that would not be subject to labor unrest. Machinists had gone on strike four times from 1989 to 2008. A Boeing official said the company could not afford to stop production every three years. Charleston was just one of several locations, including Kinston, N.C., that Boeing considered.

If labor law prohibits a company from building new factories, that has to come as a surprise to most people. The steel industry, automobile manufacturing, textiles and other manufacturing moved production from heavily unionized northern cities to "right to work" states throughout much of the 20th century. In the latter part of that century, companies moved manufacturing from the South to even lower-wage factories in foreign countries. Reducing costs is a motivating factor in any competitive environment.

Apparently it is not wages that motivated Boeing's move but production consistency. When you're selling multi-million-dollar aircraft, a strike every few years is extremely expensive, and Airbus, the European consortium, is all too eager to make up for Boeing's production delays. The Charleston facility, which is already built, would supplement Boeing's Washington plant. No union members in Washington have lost their jobs, nor have wages been cut. All that Boeing has done is ensure the continuation of its production schedule. The NLRB has found that to be a violation of federal law. If the courts finds that to be illegal, manufacturing in this country is truly endangered.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Was that a debate or a display?

I turned on the TV for the first time in a couple of weeks last night to watch seven Republicans in New Hampshire answer questions before a friendly audience. It's hard to describe the spectacle as a debate.

However, I found the discussion remarkably civil and most of the candidates for the GOP nomination for president fairly reasonable-sounding. Even Michelle Bachmann, whom I'd never seen before, seemed less the fire-breathing loony as she has often been described than simply a very conservative member of Congress. Ron Paul, a holdover from the 2008 GOP debates, defended his title as the most far-out candidate, repeatedly calling for truly radical policy changes, such as eliminating all overseas military operations. On the other hand, there is some solid logic in Paul's contention that America would be better off defending its own borders than defending Iraq's or Afghanistan's.

Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner in the GOP contest, looks as presidential as he did in 2008, but he still comes across as overly aggressive, never missing an opportunity to change the subject from whatever he was asked to what he really wanted to talk about — the "failures" of Barack Obama. This is not conventional wisdom, but Romney appears to me to be over-coached, told by consultants to repeat his campaign themes no matter what the question, and his themes come across as well-practiced platitudes. I didn't think he helped himself in last night's event.

Rick Santorum also surprised me a little. It takes some audacity to run for president after losing your last Senate race, but Santorum stood in and won a few points. But he looks a bit geeky, and it's hard to imagine him staying very long in this race.

Tim Pawlenty came across as well-informed and rational. He won points by citing specific accomplishments as governor and translating those into presidential policy. I thought he helped himself, though one pundit I read criticized him for not taking advantage of the opportunity to attack the front-runner, Romney.

Visually, Newt Gingrich came across as the old man on the stage. Heavier and much jowlier than when he was speaker of the House, Gingrich sometimes slipped into his lecturing mode and lost both moderator John King and the audience. But Gingrich occasionally showed how he can cite specific historical incidents to explicate his points in a manner that leaves others awed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the event for me was Herman Cain, the former pizza CEO and political novice who largely held his own against the seasoned politicians beside him. Cain was forceful in his answers and espoused largely mainstream, Chamber-of-Commerce-friendly policies. His might be the longest shot of this GOP showcase, but he's not an impossibility. Wouldn't it be extraordinary if the 2012 contest were between two black men — Obama and Cain?

This is the first heat of a long and complex contest. Six months from now, the Big Seven will probably be winnowed to four or five, perhaps with the addition of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. It's a long way to the GOP convention and even longer to the general election, but last night's event showed that the Republicans have some viable candidates. If the economy remains stagnant, President Obama will have a tough fight against one of the GOP hopefuls.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Intensely interested but lacking access

When I was working as a newspaper editor, I used to tell people that editors and reporters don't necessarily know more about politics and policy than the average, attentive citizen, but our jobs just kept us more focused on current events.

Almost two years out of the news business, I'm still intensely interested in the political process and governmental policy. For followers of politics and policy, this is an intriguing time on both the state and national levels. But I have to admit that my knowledge of the ins and outs of politics is not what it used to be. I still devour all the national and state political/governmental news in the News & Observer every morning (and deeply regret the diminution of news coverage caused by the fall-off in newspaper advertising), and I read some online blogs, columns and news that keep me informed about the state and national political scenes. I am intensely interested in whether President Obama will be able to replicate his 2008 strategy, whether N.C. Republicans will succeed in tearing down the programs and policies put in place by state Democrats over the past century, and whether the Congress will ever find the political will to address the budget deficit and debt crisis.

I'm no longer being paid to think about these issues, write about them and assign reporters to cover them, and I miss that intimate involvement with the forces that shape out daily lives. People spend most of their days doing what they are paid to do, and I am no longer paid to pay attention to politics and politicians. I find myself in the position of so many of the people I used to talk to in my former career — intensely interested observers of the political sphere.

But there is another difference between the way I used to view politics and how I view it now. As a newspaper editor, I had access to the candidates, strategists, foot soldiers and advisers in the political game. It was not unusual for a candidate for governor or senator to drop by my office and talk policy. What the candidates wanted was favorable news coverage or, perhaps, and editorial endorsement. What I got in return was some insight into the candidates and the strategies in an election. I also got to form an opinion about the personality and intellect of the candidate. Very few intensely interested observers got this insight, and now I understand just how privileged I was to have that access. Since leaving the newspaper business, I have talked one state legislator, a congressman and a few county and municipal officials (all of whom I knew personally from my earlier career) but no governors or candidates for high offices.

My interest in politics and policy may be undiminished, but my knowledge and understanding have declined because I no longer talk to the folks making the big decisions.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Perdue can help herself by vetoing budget

Republicans rode into town determined to make big changes. After more than a century in the legislative minority (except for a brief period in the 1990s when they controlled the House), Republicans held substantial majorities in both the House and Senate. They promised big — no tax increases, a budget passed long before July 1, improved schools, a better business climate.

Three weeks before the end of the fiscal year, the budget is finally on Gov. Bev Perdue's desk, and the best thing Perdue might do is veto it. Perdue has complained that the budget shortchanges education, and the chairman of the state Board of Education has vehemently complained about the budget, which, among other things, eliminates teacher aides after kindergarten and phases out the Teaching Fellows scholarship program. With five Democrats voting for the budget, Republican leaders have a veto-proof majority in the House. Nevertheless, Perdue has nothing to lose in vetoing the budget. She can make her point more effectively than she has in all the speeches and press conferences while challenging Republicans to stand behind their actions. Perdue's criticism of Republican budget cuts has resulted in an uptick in her popularity ratings, although she still has a long way to go to get re-elected. Pat McCrory, who is running hard to be the Republican gubernatorial nominee again, has to hope that Perdue will quietly let the budget pass.

Legislative Republicans have done more than pass a budget that undoes much of the educational strategy and tactics of the past 20 years. They have unashamedly aligned themselves with business interests to the detriment of the public in bill after bill. The broadband bill, pushed hard by the giant national corporations that have virtual monopolies in most areas, forbids new municipalities from getting into the broadband business, as Wilson and a few other cities have done. Although titled with other words, the bill is really a monopoly protection bill. Most North Carolinians will not have the option that Wilson residents have, to choose a cheaper, faster cable TV and Internet provider. Republicans pushed a bill that would prohibit Raleigh and other cities from ensuring that rental housing is safe and habitable. Republicans even tried to prohibit the Department of Transportation from forbidding left turns on some highways because some business people complained that the left turns, though dangerous, were good for business. They even tied the extension of unemployment benefits to budget cuts, making out-of-work North Carolinians pawns in a game of political chicken.

Republicans may be able to proclaim that they have won majorities and passed a new kind of budget, but Democrat Perdue can only help herself by vetoing the Republicans' budget. By 2012, as voters realize how cozy Republican legislators are with big corporations and how little they care about the plight of individual voters, the GOP gloating might be over.