Friday, July 26, 2013

New voting laws discourage turnout

The North Carolina General Assembly has passed a new set of voting laws that will require a photo ID and will eliminate a number of "convenience" opportunities to vote. As I have stated before, I don't have a big problem with voter ID as long as the law is applied fairly and those voters without a driver's license have ample and cost-free opportunity to get an ID. I'll give the Republican legislators who are pushing the voter ID bill a free ride on this one, despite critics' claims that the bill amounts to voter suppression and is racist. The law applies equally to white, black, male, female, Democrat and Republican.

But the curtailing of early voting and the elimination of same-day registration, straight-ticket voting and other conveniences for voters is clearly intended to shrink the electorate and shrink it in a way that will benefit Republicans and reduce Democratic turnout. As the Obama organization has proven twice, turnout is everything.

Early voting applies equally to voters of both parties, but it seems clear that Democrats have taken advantage of the reduced barriers to voting. Democrats have done a better job of getting voters to the polls early and boosting their turnout. Rather than work harder to match their opponents' early turnout, the GOP legislators will simply make it harder to vote early. As for straight-ticket voting, this convenience for voters has been a thorn in the side of both parties. When they ruled the legislature, Democrats separated presidential voting from the straight ticket in an effort to blunt the popularity of Republican presidential candidates, who had won North Carolina for the previous 32 years until 2008. The separation required an extra click for voters, but it was seen as worth it to state Democrats who didn't want to be lumped with unpopular Democratic presidential candidates (Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, etc.).

I have no personal interest in this matter. I have never voted early, and I have never voted a straight ticket. I've always enjoyed going to the polls on Election Day, and I never wanted to give one party absolute control, nor did I think one party had a monopoly on talent and integrity.

The new voting laws will be challenged, but it may be hard to prove that making it less convenient to vote is an infringement on the right to vote. (Who said voting had to be convenient?) It is, nevertheless, a blatant attempt by Republicans to eliminate the votes of many citizens who lean toward the Democratic Party. If this suppression of voting prevails, Republicans could enjoy an advantage for decades. Or they could so anger Democratic voters that their turnout actually rises.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A eulogy for my sister

This is the eulogy I offered at the July 20th memorial service for my little sister, Margaret Tarleton Fritz (1952-2013):

    My sister Margaret inherited many of her traits from our Mother. Like our Mother, Margaret never forgot an important date. She knew everyone’s birthday, anniversary, or graduation date, and she sent specially selected cards to recognize those occasions. She could remember the first and last names — and sometimes the middle names — of second and third cousins.
    I was not similarly blessed. But I do have some very distinct old memories. I’ve told this story many times, and Margaret swore I was making it up, but it’s the truth. It is as clear as any 61-year-old memory can be. It’s a memory of the day I first laid eyes on Margaret. The four Tarleton siblings were sitting in the back seat of the family car — I think it was a 1946 Chevrolet  — waiting for our parents to bring our new baby sister home. I was three years old. Frances was seven. Larry would soon turn nine, and Bill was ten. Mother and Daddy at last got into the car with the new baby while the four of us in the back eagerly tried to get a look at our baby sister. Mother asked what we thought we should name her. I don’t remember what any of my siblings suggested, but I clearly remember shouting out what I thought should be her new name: “Hal!” Mother said, “We’re going to call her Margaret.”
    Many years later, our Mother told of how the doctor and delivery nurses could not get Margaret to start breathing when she was born. After some anxious minutes, Margaret began breathing but she didn’t cry the way newborns typically do. So a nurse picked her up by her feet and prepared to give her the traditional slap on the bottom to get her to cry. Doctor Sorrell intervened. He said, “Don’t you hit that baby. She’s been through enough already.” Yes, she’s been through enough.
    Margaret inherited another trait from our Mother, one shared by all five of the Roberson girls who grew up on the Wade Mill village during the Great Depression. Like all of her maternal aunts, Margaret was stoic. I have no doubt that in the past month or two, Margaret must have endured horrible pain, but I never heard her complain. She even died quietly; she just slipped away without a shout or a whimper. She always said she never wanted to call attention to herself.
    What she called attention to were her children and grandchildren. She would do anything for her children, even at the risk to her own financial, physical or emotional health. She once said that she wanted her daughters to have all the opportunities she never had. Growing up two miles outside a town of 500 people didn’t offer a lot of cultural enrichment, so we five Tarleton children played with each other in the barn loft and the woods and the fields. Margaret made sure her daughters would have the opportunity to dance, play music and dream of great careers. She would make it possible for them to attend a distant private college and to study abroad. She would do anything for her children and grandchildren. She would live her dreams through them.
    Margaret had a way of making other people feel special. Sometimes all it took was a birthday card from Aunt Margaret. Sometimes it was encouragement from understanding Aunt Margaret during a teenager’s emotional crisis. One year on her birthday — I think it was her 18th — she asked Mother and Daddy to sit together in the den and remember what they were doing on this date many years before. Then she gave Daddy an “It’s a Girl!” cigar and gave Mother a bouquet of flowers. She thanked them for having her, their fifth and final child.
    It is probably impossible to understand Margaret, or any of us four siblings, without knowing about Aug. 5, 1962. On that evening, our older sister, Frances, died in a car accident. All of us, but especially Margaret, the only other girl, felt unspoken pressure to live up to the promise of Frances, who really was as good a person as any 17-year-old could be. Margaret and Frances shared a bedroom the last few years of Frances’ life, and Margaret would not sleep alone in that room for some time after that night in 1962. Margaret has spoken many times about how much she missed Frances and envied women who had sisters to share their thoughts with.
    Margaret didn’t want to call attention to herself and never wanted a fuss made over her — at least that’s what she always said, but I’ve always suspected otherwise. When she received her diagnosis in June, she did not tell her brothers or her cousins or any of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who would want to know. When Larry and I found out that she was sick and called, we talked to Tom. Margaret didn’t want to talk to us. Maybe she was just too weak to talk. Maybe she was so depressed that she couldn’t bear to talk about it. But I think that stoic demeanor she inherited from our Mother and her reluctance to call attention to herself were also factors in her reticence.
    Two years ago, at my suggestion, the four of us got together with our spouses at Larry’s mountain place in Cashiers. Our sister-in-law Karen, Bill’s wife, was not her usual self, and Margaret and I worried that she must be very sick. Weeks after the weekend in Cashiers, she was diagnosed with cancer and died in December 2011. Last year, we returned to Cashiers, and Bill fell ill, suffering chills and nausea, and he took to bed for most of the day. But the next morning he was up and ready to drive back to Jacksonville. A few months later, he had a heart attack and died after heart surgery. Margaret declared to me that she was not going back to Cashiers again; that place made people die. We haven’t been back to Cashiers this year, but here we are. Margaret, it wasn’t Cashiers. It was just, as John F. Kennedy liked to say, “Life isn’t fair.” I would add, “Death isn’t fair either.”

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Zimmerman verdict inevitable given Florida law

I'm reluctant to do this because it's a lose-lose proposition, but let me weigh in on the George Zimmerman verdict.

That verdict shocked and appalled some people, but it should not have been a surprise. Testimony at the trial made it clear that Trayvon Martin was seen by witnesses atop Zimmerman, who was on his back on the ground, and Martin was flailing away at the community watch zealot. Given that testimony and Florida's broad self-defense law, the jury could not find Zimmerman guilty of murder or even manslaughter. State law allows a person who feels his life is threatened to use deadly force against an assailant, regardless of other circumstances.

Zimmerman may have been guilty of being overly suspicious, of assuming police-like duties for himself, and of disobeying a 911 dispatcher who ordered him not to follow the suspicious character he was tracking. But he was not charged with any of those offenses, if they were crimes at all.

You can't blame people for being upset about the verdict. A couple has lost a son to a senseless incident. An act of unnecessary violence has gone unpunished. But the fault is not with the jury or the criminal justice system. The fault is with the state laws that set so low a threshold for claiming self-defense and stoke the popularity of concealed handguns.

Suppose George Zimmerman did not have a concealed 9mm handgun. This incident would have turned out differently. Trayvon Martin would have been angered by the "cracker" stalking him through a gated community. He might have knocked down the stalker and jumped on top of him. He might have punched him in the nose and banged his head against a concrete sidewalk. But it's doubtful that he would have killed Zimmerman or that Zimmerman would have killed him. The easy-to-obtain and popular concealed weapon permits and the broadly worded self-defense laws make incidents like this inevitable.

Martin's death is a tragedy. Zimmerman's acquittal is troubling in the broad sense that the law does not address the fundamental issues and the prosecution over-reached with its murder indictment.

Some critics have compared the verdict to the verdict in the 1955 Emmit Till murder. There is no comparison. Till's murderers were welcomed by a racist society and vindicated by a corrupt justice system. Zimmerman faced a jury in a fair trial, and he leaves a free man but a pariah to American society who has to fear vigilante revenge wherever he goes. The only similarity is that in each case a young black man died violently, but, most tragically, that happens on a near-daily basis in America.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

America fits description of "failed state"

"Failed state" is the term American officials use to describe places like Somalia or Libya, where there is no effective central government to enforce laws, provide services and protect people.

Who are we to cast aspersions?

Congress has not passed a federal budget in — what, three years? The U.S. Senate recently finally agreed on an immigration bill — a crucial policy matter that Congress could not reach consensus on for a decade. But the House of Representatives, if it takes up the immigration matter at all, promises to start over and come up with a bill that the fragile Senate coalition will not approve. End result: No immigration policy reform of any kind.

Likewise, Congress has failed to pass a farm bill, despite the expiration of the current federal farm policy. This issue involves not only price supports for various farm commodities but also authorizes food stamps (or SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which millions of Americans rely on for food. Without a new farm policy, America could lose its status as a major food exporter.

Last year, Congress failed to agree on spending cuts and thereby allowed punitive spending cuts take effect. These across-the-board cuts are forcing federal employees to take unpaid leave in order to save the government money. This is no way to run a railroad or a government.

"Failed state"? If that means a government that fails to function in the way it was intended, then yes, the United States is a "failed state."

The problem lies in the hyper-partisan brand of politics that has emerged as a result of Internet- and cable TV-based acrimonious, divisive commentaries on both ends of the political spectrum along with the strategic redrawing of congressional districts to increase partisan power. Most congressional districts are now non-competitive — they are either solidly Republican or solidly Democratic. Neither party has much incentive for compromise because compromise will only weaken incumbents' appeal in their politically homogeneous election districts. The emphasis is always on winning the next election, not on working for the good of the country as a whole.

The first step toward fixing this "failed state" is to mandate that all congressional redistricting (required each decade by the Constitution) be performed by nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions, not by state legislators. While it is possible to divide districts down to individual households, natural (rivers, mountains) and political (county and precinct lines) should be followed in drawing districts. That should help elect less strictly partisan representatives. 

Second, something must be done about the acrimony in election campaigns and the continual focus on the next election. Without violating the First Amendment's guarantee of free-flowing political speech, the influence of big donors, political action committees and third-party organizations must be muted or countered in a way that will allow representatives to compromise on important issues.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Moral Monday protests are futile efforts

The protesters who come to the Legislative Building in Raleigh every Monday have taken to calling these excursions "Moral Mondays." The name prompted one upset legislator to suggest "Moronic Mondays" instead.

A better moniker might be "Futile Fulminations." Despite the size of the crowds, estimated at as many as 100,000, and the willingness to be arrested, just as the civil rights protesters of 50 years ago were willing to go to jail for their principles, these protests have little chance of succeeding. The complaints of the protesters are wide-ranging, from reductions in education spending and stagnant teacher pay to reductions in mental health funding to taxation changes that will benefit the wealthy and hurt the poor to restrictions on abortion. These are genuine issues, any one of which can spark heartfelt debate.

But what the protesters are ignoring is that the Republican Party, out of power for most of the past 120 years, is determined to have its way with state policy, and it has nothing to fear from the populace. Republicans won control of the General Assembly in the 2010 elections, garnering the right to draw redistricting maps, which they did with a vengeance. The result is that safe Republican districts dominate the state House and Senate. No matter how much the protesters complain, argue or get arrested, there is virtually no incentive for any of the Republican legislators to listen to them. Their electoral districts contain  strong majorities of GOP voters who will vote for someone with an "R" after the name no matter what goes down in Raleigh. Incumbent Republicans have nothing to fear from the Moral Monday protesters.

The people of North Carolina, unfortunately, have much to fear about the Republican legislative majority, which is threatening the fragile public education system, the once-prestigious university system, the health care of state residents and even the ability of citizens to cast votes.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Gettysburg still echoes after 150 years

One hundred fifty years ago tonight, the largest battle ever fought on American soil was marching toward its bloody, tragic and, ultimately, fortunate end. The crossroads of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was the unwilling host of this three-day battle and remains the most-visited Civil War site in the nation.

I have visited Gettysburg twice, but I'm ready to go again if the opportunity arises. My first visit was on a rainy Saturday about 40 years ago. My parents and sister had come up to our Alexandria, Virginia, home for a visit, and we drove to Gettysburg from there on a misty, intermittently rainy Saturday. My wife and I went to Gettysburg about 10 years ago, spending the entire day driving and walking over the battlefield and having to leave before we had quenched our thirst for this critical battle of the war that tore America apart. If you can't visit, I suggest a look at the Civil War Trust's Gettysburg website or the many volumes of histories and myriad documentaries of the battle that killed or wounded around 40,000 Americans. The Diane Rhem Show featured a panel discussion of the battle today.

The battle was the so-called "high-water mark" of the Confederacy, but the out-manned Confederate army lost each of the day's fights. Nevertheless, the battle could easily have gone the other way. If Ewell had acted promptly and pushed the Union troops off the high ground on July 1, if Union soldiers had not held the line on Little Round Top on July 2, or if Longstreet had moved more quickly and decisively on July 3, the outcome could have been different. Or if Robert E. Lee had been more specific and less trusting of his lieutenants throughout the battle, the South might have pushed Meade and his troops off the gently rolling Pennsylvania hills and might have frightened the Northern electorate into an armistice, status quo antebellum. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has written with William R. Forstchen a convincing and readable alternative history ("Gettysburg") based on the idea that Lee might have taken Longstreet's advice and dug in the weary Confederates on defensible ground between Gettysburg and Washington, forcing Meade's hand. The United States came close to being divided; the victory at Gettysburg (my great-great grandfather fought there for the losing side) turned the tide of the war, along with the conquest that same week of Vicksburg, Miss., and put an end to the scourge of slavery.

As the Diane Rhem Show segment pointed out, slavery really was at the heart of the Civil War. But it was not the only cause of the war, and it was not the primary motivation for many soldiers North and South. My ancestor, a Mexican War veteran, was a poor farm laborer who owned no slaves and no real estate. He had no coin in the game being played by wealthy planters wanting to preserve their wealth and their way of life. But he, and many others like him, fought bravely and gave their lives (he gave his at Third Winchester in 1864) for a cause that was beyond slavery. State sovereignty might have been too big a term for their uneducated minds, but they could understand that their homes were being threatened and their friends were being killed.

As Civil War history is being constantly rewritten, Tony Horwitz points out that new scholarship suggests that war might have been avoided altogether. With greater wisdom, less bravado and more diplomacy and caution on both sides, the war might have been avoided. The Union's expenditures on the war would have been enough to buy and free all of the South's slaves and provide those freed slaves with land and capital to start new lives — all without the loss of more than half a million lives and the destruction of homes, public buildings and farms.