Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Abraham Lincoln and Civil War memories

A North Carolina legislator has compared Abraham Lincoln to Hitler, calling our 16th president a tyrant and holding him personally responsible for 800,000 deaths. People like him are running this state's education system?

First, some admissions: Many southerners reviled Lincoln, partly because he threatened the economic system of the South, which was based on slave labor, but also because of his decision to forcefully prevent the Confederate states from leaving the Union. The Civil War wreaked horrendous damage upon the South, where nearly all of the battles were fought, and where federal policy called for destroying the ability to wage war, which included destroying crops and farmland that could support armies and civilians.

An elderly teacher from my childhood told about a Confederate veteran she had known when she was a child. Given change at a store, the old man refused to accept pennies because they bore the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, a man he hated. That is how ingrained and intense feelings toward Lincoln were.

News coverage of the Lincoln-Hitler analogy raised the question of whether secession of states was constitutional. Some "experts" said the states' ratifying of the Constitution made secession unconstitutional. That, it seems to me, is a stretch. There was nothing in the Constitution that forbade secession or made a state's ratification irrevocable. Secessionists claimed, with some validity, that their decision to leave the Union was no different from the Continental Congress' decision to leave the British Empire.

Even if we assume secession was a legitimate course, it need not lead to Civil War. This disagreement could have been fought in the courts instead of on the fields of Manassas, Gettysburg, Shiloh and other places. Secessionists in South Carolina are primarily responsible for turning the disagreement into armed conflict. They fired the first shot, bombarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in an effort to unseat the Union garrison. Lincoln responded by attempting to reinforce and resupply that garrison and by raising an army to enforce Union authority throughout the seceded states.

Small miscalculations often lead to tragedy. The secessionists were certain they could expel federal troops from the South. Lincoln was certain that a show of force would bring the secessionists to their senses. Both were wrong. What followed was the greatest tragedy in American history, but it came with one benefit: It ended slavery decades before that economic system would have died from its own shortcomings and the public's revulsion.

Lincoln did cancel habeas corpus and jailed people without trial, but he was facing imminent assassination and sabotage by Confederate agents and sympathizers. For any errors Lincoln might have made, he gets a pass based on his soaring rhetoric that defines American principles of "government of the people, for the people and by the people," and "malice toward none and charity for all."

His assassination denied the nation an opportunity for more peaceful and amicable reconciliation, with charity for all.

Lincoln as Hitler? Ridiculous! A shameful analogy!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why the years go by so fast

It's an accepted fact that as one grows older, the years go by faster and faster. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, seasons all come faster than they did a few decades ago, when it seemed Christmas would never arrive. Now, a new Christmas season comes before the detritus from the last one is cleared away. Birthdays click by before you can do the math on the last one.

My wife and I have discovered a complement to this accepted fact about years: as we grow older, there is less time to do the things we have to do, need to do and want to do. Keeping the house clean, keeping the yard mowed, keeping the garden weeded and pruned, keeping the laundry done, preparing meals, shopping for groceries — the time to do all these things gets more difficult to find as the years rapidly pass.

If the years are flying past, I suggested to her, then the hours of each day must also be speeding by like a meteor flashing across the night sky. Look aside and you miss it.

We are trapped in this vortex of continuously shortened years. These shortened years require shortened months, which require shortened weeks, which require shortened days, which require shortened hours, and, therefore, we cannot find the time in these perniciously shortened hours to do the things we need to do and want to do.

We cannot slow down the passing years, no matter how much we'd like to freeze time at moments with our children and grandchildren or with siblings, parents and friends. We can only accept the loss of time and the rapidly compressing windows of opportunity to go to the places we want to go, see the people we want to see, do the things we want to do. We can only live in the moment and accept the unmowed yard, the disheveled house, the unweeded garden. Concentrate instead on what is most important, what is most precious, what matters most, and reserve your shortened hours for those times. Time flies, so grasp it while you can.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Senate filibuster dead and buried

The filibuster is dead. Long live majority rule.

Senate Republican leaders tripped the switch Thursday after Democrats vowed to filibuster the confirmation of Neill Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and executed the rule that a super-majority will be required to end debate on the Senate floor.

The filibuster had been rarely used in Supreme Court nominations, but these are rare times, and Democrats had enough votes to stop the nomination with more than 40 votes pledged to force the traditional, 60-vote super-majority to end debate over the nomination. Frustrated by this barricade, Republicans vowed to destroy one of the most hallowed traditions of the Senate, the liberty to continue debate indefinitely so long as a substantial minority of senators allowed such a delay.

Republicans had a nominee in Gorsuch who was as moderate as any Republican nominee could be expected to be. He was well qualified and well respected. In an ideal world, judges like Gorsuch would be confirmed with minimal debate. But this is not an ideal world, and Democrats were united to fight the nomination. Republicans vowed to do anything to get Gorsuch seated on the Supreme Court, even if it meant tearing apart the Senate.

Democrats had some righteous indignation on their side. President Obama nominated a well-respected jurist, Merrick Garland, to replace Antonin Scalia a year ago. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination, contending that the voters in the 2016 election should decide — a unique piece of illogical reasoning in the annals of American politics. Democrats argued that Republicans' refusal to even discuss Garland's nomination was even worse than a filibuster.

Democrats' record in defense of the filibuster has not been pristine. When Obama's federal court nominees languished for months because Republicans filibustered their nominations, Democratic leader Harry Reid pushed through a rule change that eliminated the filibuster in federal judgeships not including the Supreme Court.

Now the filibuster is gone, and no one knows what its demise might mean in the Senate. The hyper-partisanship in Congress can hardly get any worse, and the 60-vote cloture requirement seems quaint in an era of non-stop debate and non-stop campaigning outside the halls of Congress. The death of the filibuster might mean little in the long run. Filibusters have not been what they originally were for years now. Rarely has a senator talked non-stop for days to block legislation as was done in the first 150 years of the Senate. For years now, only the threat of a filibuster was enough to stop legislation. We had filibuster-lite, a watered down, painless blocking movement.

What is being lost, and has been lost for years, is the sense of camaraderie, of principle above party, of public interest over partisan interest. The dead filibuster is just one more symptom of the disease.