Friday, March 22, 2013

The Truth of Appearance

In a recent piece, writing about our tendency to think we can disguise our true selves, I wrote something like this:
                        “The truth of who one is always shines through.”
I meant that though its operation is mysterious, somehow the essence of who we are and what we are is accurately conveyed to others. Despite what we might want to keep hidden, and conversely, despite our lament that somehow no one ‘really gets me’—which usually means no one understands how brilliant or empathetic or generous or loving I am—somehow those with whom we deal, even remotely, get who we are. It’s almost as if the Oscar Wilde image in Portrait of Dorian Gray—of a man whose degenerate life progressively transforms a portrait once painted of him—comes true for all of us. How we appear reflects who we are.
This is truly uncanny when you think about it. Whole areas of literature, notably in Shakespeare studies, are devoted to the truism that there is a gulf between appearance and reality. People in Shakespeare plays wear masks and disguises which fool all their adversaries. Women dress up as men and men dress up as fools or beggars, and no one finds them out until they reveal themselves in the end. Everyone dissembles and pretends to be good, especially villains like Iago, and then turn out to be the embodiment of evil. The basic idea and moral is contained in proverbs, such as, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
            And yet, what I just said is that, where people are concerned, you can. What a person is comes through somehow in what we see and hear and touch and sense, however vaguely. The question is, how? Given all we now know about the apparently solid world of matter, which physics now tells us is composed of smaller and smaller bits of virtual “nothing,” how does the appearance of a person or even a thing convey its inherent truth, its value, its essence? How can we judge a reality that science has proved is so fundamentally different from what it appears to us, to our normal senses, to be?
Actually, we are quite used to evaluating things based on their appearance. Men judge women, almost exclusively at first, by their appearance. Hence the multi-billion dollar cosmetic, apparel and facelift industries. Women, increasingly these days, judge men in the same way: by the cut of their clothes, which indicates apparent wealth or status, or by the prominence of their jawline, or the amount of hair they still have on their heads, or the tightness of their buttocks. It should be added that for both genders, there are different evaluation metrics used for different intentions, i.e. whether one is looking for a long-term partner or a short-term roll in the hay. But in both cases, the way someone looks figures prominently into the judgment. Nor does the “what you are shines through” statement necessarily restrict itself to looks alone. Who you are can be conveyed by a way of standing or walking, by a way of listening or talking, by the kind of attentiveness or lack thereof that one projects, not to mention what one actually says about others or life in general. But all of that is, in this arena, somewhat beside the point. What is really meant by the phrase is that each person broadcasts a signal, and in return some not-necessarily-sensory sense that we all have, to one degree or another, is able to pick up such subtle signals from every person we meet— signals about who he/she is and how he or she will behave in given situations. We have a feel for how much and whether we can trust someone in a crisis, and whether we would want to spend a lot of time with that person that goes well beyond outward appearances. And even beyond that lies the mystery governing why certain people are attracted to each other. Some scientists reduce it to pheromones and/or the compatibility between individual chemistries; astrologers attribute it to heavenly configurations at our birth; others attribute it to subtle scents that each sex, even below the level of consciousness, can perceive; or emotional pattern preferences we’ve picked up from our families. And within cultures, certain physical attributes and dress and makeup and behavior patterns tend to loom larger in how attractive any ‘other’ is perceived to be.
It makes sense, of course, that this would be the case. After all, the very essence of mating and reproduction depends, so biologists tell us, on a female making the right choice for a mate—not only a dependable one, but one who will contribute the best possible set of genes to her offspring. So the way one looks, which biologists would reduce to the sign of a prospective mate’s health and therefore possession of beneficial genes, is of crucial importance in the competition for reproductive success, and thereby, of life itself. The same is true, on a more general but no less important level, in the social need for alliances.
Such evolutionary requirements might also help explain the ubiquity of deception. If so much depends on an animal finding a mate possessed of the “right” stuff for the propagation of the species, then it might be useful for an individual to pretend to have more of it than he/she actually has. A male might pump himself up to greater size, or display more ease spending his presumed wealth than is warranted by the facts. A female might spend an inordinate amount of money and time on various aids to enhance her hips or breasts or eyes or lips or scent. Which many in our culture are routinely encouraged to do. ‘It’s fair to deceive if it gets you into the game,’ seems to be the general message. But then does this not militate against the original idea of what you see is what you get? If there is all this deception, then what you see isn’t what you get. What you get, the next morning, is often something far blander and less delicious smelling and healthy-looking.
Indeed, according to Julian Jaynes in his classic The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, deception is the key to consciousness itself, which is to say, to human nature. But not just any deception, because Jaynes was well aware of the many forms of deception engaged in by animals, presumably not conscious, of every sort. What Jaynes was citing as a key to human consciousness was long-term deception. A human can deceive not just in the moment, but over days, months, and even years before revealing his true purpose and nature. Most humans make a practice of this in negotiations, for example: ‘Never let the other party know what you’re thinking. Make him think you’re naïve or dumb or his friend.’ And of course, in war, deception is the heart of the matter. The military commander who best disguises his intentions will generally win the battle. For Jaynes, much of our waking consciousness is thus spent in planning for or engaging in deception.
How, then, can we say that the truth of who and what we are shines through? How, then, can anyone have any confidence at all that he or she will be able to judge a partner sufficiently well to base a decision as important as sex or marriage upon it? And if that judgment turns out to be wrong—and results in breakup or divorce or worse—does that mean that who a person is can never be counted on, never actually shines through?
These are imponderable questions. The major task of life is trying to cut through pretense and deception in order to find the truth of another person’s, or another group’s or another nation’s real nature and intentions.
So we are back to the original question: just what can it mean that ‘a person’s essence shines through?’ Can we even say it? Perhaps. Perhaps what we can say is that we must, on some level, believe it; must believe that there is a level of knowing, not reducible to logic, that comprehends the inside based only on the outside. Though even as we say it, we must add that this belief varies between cultures. In some cultures, like the Italian for example, people almost never believe a first impression. It is taken for granted that everyone is always trying to make a better impression than is warranted (Italians refer to a whole cluster of ideas and practices relating to this creation of a good impression as bella figura), and that it is wise to expect from others not only deception but outright betrayal. That, of course, leads to the very large problem of mistrust and even paranoia in almost all Italian interactions. Most Italians accept this, since it is generally considered better to be surprised by genuineness than to be made a fool of. And where the folkway known as mal occhio is at issue, it goes even further. For those who believe in the evil eye, any attempt to admire what someone else does or has is met with the greatest suspicion by the one admired. This is because that admiration, in the evil eye world, obscures beneath it the actual intent to harm. If I admire something you have or do, it means I actually envy it, and would either like to have it as my own, or, if I can’t get it, for it to be diminished or destroyed. Better that you should suffer loss than that I should be without. On the other hand, most people in evil eye cultures would not only take precautions (hence the use of amulets), but would also assume that they know what you are really like. They would assume that you are envious and willing to do whatever you can to get what they have. But what if you have no such intention? What about your essence coming through?
One must admit that it is a very shaky thing, this essence. What do we even mean by it? Is there an essence or essential truth of a person? Some fixed, inherent way of being that is genetic or generic, one of a kind? Or would it be more accurate to say that people are more situational—good in some contexts and nasty in others? Honest and straightforward in some, and deceptive and ruthless in others?
Perhaps one could say this: that, one way or the other, via honesty or dissembling, what a person essentially is comes through (once, after several days in a sesshin, and spending endless hours finding fault with every other person’s quirks and tics, I suddenly saw each one, tics and all, as perfect; perfectly unique and thereby possessed of a transparency, an authenticity that I would not change for the world). And we realize it sooner or later. Of course, we would prefer to realize it sooner, before we make fools of ourselves. But how? For one thing, by getting to know ourselves and our proclivities better. For example, if we can keep ourselves from believing what we truly do not believe, but which our hormones or need for company or money or addiction or flattery pushes us to believe, then we might be better able to perceive what an other truly is. The problem, that is, may be as much in ourselves and our need to believe, as in the absence of that “shining through.” Which is not to say the problem is an easy one to solve. Most of us are so shaped by what the other thinks of us (Sartre noted that we are literally made by the other, our self image constructed by how the other sees us), that we are easily duped, and most of us know it. We are easily induced to like those who seem to like us, or seem to be like us. We are always inclined to evaluate such people with more goodness or genuineness than they turn out to deserve.
Given all these barriers and qualifications, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the entire mechanism, both the shining forth and the perception of that shining forth, remains a mystery. For most of us most of the time, it’s an obscured one, and we find that we cannot really and truly know another until we have taken the plunge into some sort of relationship. Taken a bite of the apple. And by then, it’s often too late. All we can do next time is try to purge ourselves of all the inducements that we are aware of, and try to uncover that inner sense we all have—that evolution has forced us to have—of what another is, and let it operate as it should. To tell us whether another is hostile or friendly, genuine or phony, a true match for us or a disaster. This sense or intuition will not necessarily be conscious, or even brain-based. It’s not necessarily amenable to practice, for it’s a commonplace of our time that most of us keep making the same mistakes in judgment over and over. Rather, it will be prior to our usual knowing. We might call it a kind of gnosis, heart knowledge perhaps. And what it comes down to is that we perceive far more than we know, far more than we give ourselves credit for. Psychologists have done numerous experiments with this, demonstrating that we perceive quickly, almost automatically, and well before we are conscious of even having a perception, much less a judgment about it. Nor, again, do we even know if all the kinds of perception involved are being measured. Is there a psychological measure for “heart knowledge,” for example? How could there be when science does not even acknowledge its existence? And yet…
And yet all we may be able to conclude is that it appears to be useful to pay attention: attention to what we actually perceive; and equal attention to what we con ourselves into perceiving for extraneous reasons or needs. After that, if we’re truly attentive, we might at some point tap into the operation of that subtler, prior kind of perception, and realize, as I did once during that sesshin, that people really do project quite uniquely who they are; and that we on our side actually can and do perceive it quite exactly.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, March 09, 2013

After Newtown

The principal came into the class, just before lunch, and whispered into the teacher’s ear:

            “We’re on lockdown. I’m not exactly sure what it’s for, but I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.”

            The teacher—she happens to be my daughter—knew what she had to do. She turned out all the lights. She drew the shades so the room would be nearly dark, as if no one were there. She told the children, 5th and 6th graders, to crawl beneath the desks, make themselves as small as possible, and stay there. As a reading specialist, she is supposed to teach them reading, but there would be no more of that. Something was amiss and the grammar school in Newark, CA was on lockdown.

            Now my daughter has been on lockdown before. She used to teach in a grammar school in South Central Los Angeles, and there were helicopters chasing criminals in the neighborhood all the time, so the school would go on lockdown regularly. But before today, she never worried much about it. It was clear in L.A. that the danger was outside and the targets were criminals, not children.

            After Newtown, that casual attitude towards lockdown is out of the question. No one knows anymore whether a lockdown means an external threat, or a direct threat to the school, to the innocent children in the school. That’s why the kids are told to hide and be silent. That’s why the windows are closed, the shades are drawn, the lights are extinguished, and the children shrink to zero: To create the impression, if some killer like Adam Lanza should break in searching for easy targets, that the classrooms are empty. (Whether this makes sense or not is another question). And the kids know exactly what to do; though my daughter had not been there the day they had their drill for this, the kids remembered it perfectly and did what they had been taught. That’s what teaching involves now: teaching kids to nullify themselves in case a killer comes to school. Of course, two of the boys were fooling around, until, that is, my daughter told them in no uncertain terms that this was serious. They then stopped fooling and vanished like the others.

What is the effect of such instruction on school children? It appears that it scares the bejesus out of them. One of the little girls asked my daughter if the hunted person were armed. She said he probably was. Imagine. Little kids having to disappear, imagining what might happen if automatic weapons suddenly start blazing, with them as the target. Some of them no doubt remembering nightmare images they’ve seen of Newtown.

Today, the lockdown in my daughter’s school lasted more than an hour. Kids cowering beneath their desks and tables for over an hour in a darkened room, with no idea how long the danger would last. Five of them had to go to the bathroom, and had to use the waste paper basket; they’re not allowed to leave the room. All were famished by the time they got to lunch, because those in the lunchroom at the time of lockdown likewise had to stop eating and hide beneath their tables.

Imagine being a teacher in such a situation. No information on what the hell is happening, or how dangerous it is, or how long the terror is going to last, and unable to reassure the terrified kids in her charge that it will soon be over. This is America in the 21st century, after Newtown. Schools that used to be safe places; even boring places; places that kids couldn’t wait to get out of so they could go play; are now places that can become fortresses at a moment’s notice. Fortresses of isolation filled with fear that someone armed to the teeth with the weapons that are perfectly legal and even common in America might burst in and start shooting you and your classmates for no reason.

Making this possible is what the crazies in the NRA consider freedom. Most Americans that I know most decidedly do not. I would guess that most kids in lockdowned schools don’t either. How long is it going to take for the cowardly creeps in Congress to catch up?

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Capitalism on Life Support

           There are increasing numbers of thinkers who seem to be coming to similar conclusions about our economic system, i.e., that capitalism, which only a few short years ago was being hailed as the greatest economic system ever conceived, with no rivals and no sign of anything ever replacing it, is now near, if not collapse, then serious revision. The latest foray into this line of thinking comes from Jerry Mander’s latest book, The Capitalism Papers (Counterpoint: 2012). Though Mander outlines several key structural problems with capitalism as we know it (amoral, antidemocratic, dependent on war and inequality, and unconducive to happiness), the most serious problem Mander focuses on is capitalism’s need to grow. Growth is the soft underbelly of capitalism, at least in the 21st century. And the reason growth is problematic, which I’ve addressed before, is that a constantly growing economy—which virtually every politician and economist always calls for as the solution to our problems—can no longer be sustained by the earth. Growing the economy is shrinking the ecology. We are running out of everything that capitalism needs and plunders from the earth—its soil, its fish, its water, its minerals, its fossil fuels, its plants and animals. For centuries, capitalists could steal these natural resources without fear of depletion, because there always seemed to be more. The entire “new world” was a bonanza of new resources, and within a short time of its “discovery” was being plundered for each of them in turn: timber, iron ore, precious and other metals, oil deposits, topsoil itself, and so on. It might even be said that the “discovery” of all this wealth gave the world (i.e. European nations devoted to exploitation) a false sense of security. No one could ever exhaust so fantastic a bounty of natural resources as the north and south American continents possessed.
            Alas, depletion has come to pass. Worse, along with the depletion has come the poisoning of what is left via chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and, with the increased burning of fossil fuels, the menace of global warming due to the accumulation of CO2 as combustion’s inevitable by-product. And all of this depletion is driven to ever more insane levels by the form of corporate capitalism that has prevailed for a century—“never-ending wealth accumulation, laissez-faire governance, the free movement of capital, strict hierarchies, and manipulation of all political contexts that might otherwise seek to control it.” Nor are these simply aspects of some bad apples in the corporate barrel. Mander, who himself spent his early years as a capitalist running his own advertising firm, points out that the structure of corporations demands fealty to one thing only: ever-expanding profit. Even if there were a few corporate executives willing to make moral decisions, they could not do so because their duty to their stockholders demands policies and actions that increase profits and hence stock prices. Mander says it this way: “A corporation is itself essentially a machine…in which human morality is anomalous” (61). Or again, “Whatever the personal feelings and inclinations of employees who work for it, the priorities of the corporate entity are always the same, focused like a laser on profit, growth, self-interest, economic domination, accumulation of capital, and shareholder benefits” (60). In other words, the problem lies at the very heart of corporate capitalism, and this very core puts it at odds not only with human morality and well-being, but with the very Nature upon which it depends for its resources:
            What is exquisitely clear is that the inherent aspects of capitalism, especially when operating on a large scale, make it structurally incompatible with the survival of nature, the well being of humans, and of the society we have tried to build around it. (14)

            Of course, the immediate question becomes, well, if this structure is so productive of negatives, why don’t people or governments change it? That answer, as we all probably know by now, is that corporate capitalism, being the accumulation of capital (money), uses that money to keep itself in place in a very simple way: It buys the government under which it operates. In some cases, it overwhelms whole nations with rules (such as those promulgated by the World Bank and the World Trade Organization) that make it impossible for even a nation to survive unless it knuckles under to the exploitative export economy it might otherwise seek to avoid. Loans from the World Bank are conditioned on turning what might have once been a self-sufficient national economy (with its people feeding themselves) into an export economy focused on cash crops or cheap goods for trade. The beneficiaries are, of course, the corporations that profit from those traded goods. Nations that refuse are targeted as “socialist” or “communist” as in the case of Venezuela or Bolivia or Cuba. Domestically, the power of our billionaires to shape and control legislation becomes so pervasive that democracy degenerates into a sick joke. The Koch Brothers, with a combined net worth of $42 billion, finance not only think-tanks promoting their agenda, and organizations and scientists who cast doubt on global warming science, but also allegedly ‘grass-roots’ movements like the Tea Party to make it appear that the ‘people’ are on their side. Sheldon Adelson buys a politician like Newt Gingrich outright, and singlehandedly keeps him in the running for the Republican presidential nomination. He also, through the millions he gives to Republican senators, all but derails the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense—because of less-than-fawning remarks the latter once made about Israel. Mander tells us a vignette relating to this. Doug Tompkins, who made a fortune with the Esprit corporation, turned his millions to environmental causes by supporting foundations devoted to projects like saving the rain forests. Mander, hired by Tompkins to run one of his operations, at one point gave Tompkins his best advice: instead of investing in think-tanks and foundations, invest in buying a senator or representative or several; then they can carry the legislation you really must have in order to accomplish something. Tompkins was revolted by the prospect, and refused. But the point was clear: the United States government, especially after the Citizens United decision, is up for sale. The people, with their votes, mean hardly anything anymore. The agenda and the candidates are designed, set, activated and accomplished by lobbyists working on behalf of banks, Wall Street brokers, and major players in corporate America.
            The reason, in large part, can be traced to television. Here is where Mander is at his best, because, having worked in advertising for much of his adult life, he knows whereof he speaks. Television now controls almost the entire political (and economic/mental) life of America and the rest of the world. This is because any candidate must advertise on TV if he is to have even a chance to compete for state or national office. The amounts needed to finance TV commercials are staggering. In the last election, President Obama spent nearly a billion dollars to win his re-election. For members of Congress, the demand is equally insatiable: to finance an election, and then a re-election, a Congressperson must begin fundraising for the next campaign the very day he/she is elected. This critical need for money gives big corporate donors the inside track where influence is concerned, and so allows democracy to be bought and sold in broad daylight. It goes without saying that the interests of such big money donors do not usually accord with the health of most human beings or the planet itself.
            Mander’s chapter on the influence of television—not only in securing elections, but in shaping the daily life and thought of the entire planet, and thereby convincing people that corporate capitalism and its useless products offer the best of all possible worlds—is worth the price of the book alone. He calls it “The Privatization of Consciousness,” and what he means is that modern consciousness, far from being shaped by parents or families or a common vision of what it means to be human, is shaped, in private and for private ends, by television advertising. And of course the private ends to which television advertising owes its fealty and dedicates its power is corporate capitalism. It is essentially a one-way street: corporate advertisers speak, and everyone else has to listen. Mander traces this development to the need, right after WWII, of American corporations to make use of factories lying idle with no armaments to produce. What could possibly re-occupy all that production capacity? Consumer goods; consumers would have to be persuaded to buy more and more. The situation was similar to that following WWI, only this time, a new powerful medium was ready to be used: television and the images it broadcast. As Mander puts it, advertising has
effectively reshaped the consciousness of the United States and the entire planet: our self-image, the way we aspire to live, our habits, our thoughts, our references, desires, memories. (175)

In dollar terms, total U.S. advertising amounted to a mere $2 billion in 1940, but by 2010, the total had skyrocketed to $150 billion, most of it dedicated to getting you to buy what you do not need (what youdo need, like food, water, basic clothing, requires no advertising.)
Most important of all is Mander’s discussion not only about how pervasive TV viewing is, even among infants, but how powerful it is even with those, and I include myself among them, who think they are immune to its influence. The power lies in the way TV is able to embed images in our brains, unimpeded by either logic or our belief in our ability to resist. It’s evolutionary: we have evolved to believe what we see. Equally important, images do not communicate through the language of logic; rather “Images ride a freeway into your brain and remain there permanently. No thought is involved.” You may say, “I don’t believe this,” but the images remain anyway. This is what Mander’s onetime partner, Howard Gossage, called the “dirty little secret” of advertisers: that their “silly superficial meaningless trivial imagery nonetheless goes into your brain and doesn’t come back out. Once in, you can’t get rid of the images.” To test this, just think “Jolly Green Giant” or “Ronald McDonald” or that little green Geico gecko. And note that the images don’t make any claims about their products nor do they try to persuade you about their value in any way: all is association, imagery, suggestion. As Mander puts it:
…the problem is the image itself. Once it is ingested, it becomes our frame of reference. Over time, we begin to imitate the image. We slowly begin to merge with the imagery…We absorb the advertising. We become what we see. And we share its values. (183)

Of course, when it comes to political advertising, the same principles apply, and are
being used more and more effectively. As an example, Mander cites the case of the swift boating of John Kerry when he ran for president. The commercials planted an image in the public’s mind that had almost no relation to the truth. But the truth didn’t matter. It was the images that mattered, and that Kerry failed to respond to early on, thinking they were so preposterous no one would believe them. He was wrong. The images took hold, unrefuted, and by the time Kerry started to hold press conferences to logically refute them, the game was lost. And he lost.
            Mander’s answer to this is the answer provided in several Scandinavian countries. Paid political advertising is banned in electoral campaigns, and candidates are all provided with equal amounts of free time on television. I have proposed this myself. But as Mander notes, “It would be nearly impossible to implement such a system in the United States, where the television industry depends on the income and has the lobbying power to demand it.” It now also has Citizens United. Still, it’s one of his major recommendations for finding an alternative to our present corporate capitalist system. There are many others, including cooperatives, like those that started in Mondragon Spain, and local businesses that are legally prevented from going anything like global. But it may be that short of a serious crisis and revolution, none of these suggestions has any more chance of working than free TV time for candidates. The power of corporate capitalism is simply too great right now. On the other hand, the residual anger and frustration over the financial collapse and bailout of the very banks who brought it on five years ago, and the increasing public knowledge of how virtually every politician is bought and paid for by corporate cash, may soon start to result in something that no one can prevent. I for one certainly hope so. And just the fact that what would have been anathema a few years ago—the questioning of free markets, globalization, capitalism itself, and the actual mention of heresies like socialism and Marxism—has now become more and more common, suggests that something is happening here, Mr. Jones. And no one quite knows, yet, what it is.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, March 03, 2013


From our earliest days as a nation
We struggled with representation
Should a person equal a vote
Or some other system of note?
Is fairness our highest priority
Or shall we be ruled by minority?
And what will be your reaction
If you are the wrong part of a fraction?


It is time to write about fractions.  You probably thought that the three-fifths fraction went away with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and you would be partly correct.  Unfortunately, the philosophies that generated the voting blocs that demanded political power through counting slaves as 3/5 persons have not gone away.  Other fractions were debated, but the three-fifths rule was a compromise to the plantation economy demanding an edge.  The rule was enacted in1787 and provided 47 votes in the House of Representatives in 1793 versus the 33 that the number of voters might have authorized.  As the national population expanded, so did the advantage of counting slaves for representation in Congress, although they were denied the right to vote.  In 1812, the year of our 2nd war of independence from England, that number jumped to 76 versus 59; in 1833, the number became 98 versus 73.  You can only imagine how crestfallen those states became when they lost the Civil War and had to change to voting by counting only citizens in the census.  The census every decade also provided an opportunity to periodically enforce the concept. But you need to recognize that any system that has the potential to permit an unfair advantage will likely fall prey to that monster sooner or later.  The very term gerrymandering is derived from Governor Gerry of Massachusetts who, in 1812, sculpted the electoral lines for state senate districts so that one appeared to be a salamander.  After more than one hundred years of line drawing to gain advantage, the federal government ruled in 1964 that each district should be roughly equal to other districts in population numbers.  “Isopopulation” rules might seem difficult to circumnavigate, but people are creative and political people are deviously creative.

In 1964, during the civil rights crisis, the federal government issued guidelines for “one-man equals one vote” changes in our electoral system. About a decade later, I was elected to a district school board in Connecticut based on that revision in district lines.  Can you imagine having isopopulation districting and a fair electoral system?  It actually happened in a state where Democrats and Republicans were essentially even in numbers.  Both sides were motivated to play fair and campaign on issues, at least for a time.  Allow me to look back to the sixties for a moment to actually paint a bit more of the picture, however.  The “Solid South” was indeed solid and solidly Democratic in the fifties and sixties, but party was less the critical identifier than social conservatism in the South.  One only had to see the billboards denouncing John F. Kennedy or Chief Justice Earl Warren to understand that civil rights were seen as an abomination rather than a popular sentiment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to counter the common practice of denying voting rights of minorities, but this did not dispel disenfranchisement.  Soon, the Nixon “Southern Strategy” evolved as the leading solution to fighting change, including change protecting civil rights.  Democrats merely registered as Republicans and continued doing what they had done for a century.  The Solid South remained solid, but the Ds changed to Rs.  The Voting Rights Act pushed by President Johnson was later overwhelmingly extended three times (the last time for 25 years) demonstrating a sense of the Congress that safeguarding the right to vote in a Democracy was of the essence.  Some states including the Solid South, plus Virginia and Arizona were found to have an historical pattern of infringing voting rights and therefore had to have any voting changes pre-approved by the Justice Department before they could be enacted.  Most recently, Shelby County Alabama has filed suit with the Supreme Court to strike section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.   That provision requires states like Alabama prove that any new law does not discriminate against minorities in the voting process.  By way of disclosure, Alabama had attempted over law 200 changes that had to be amended because they were found to be discriminatory since the last renewal of the law by Congress (2006).  Despite that evidence, Justice Scalia made the comment in court that the law has become a  “racial entitlement,” and that Congress was unable to act effectively (despite the overwhelming majorities in both House and Senate in each of the four renewals).  He claims that the Congress is unable to do the job.  Without saying so, it appears that he feels that he is up to the task of saying no to the federal oversight.  Although Scalia denounced the Congress for being too intimidated by voters to do the “right thing,” he openly assumed that the Supreme Court could.  Judicial legislating?  Of course not.  Laws are too important to be written by an intimidated Congress.  Besides, the efficiency of the Supreme Court is unmatched as in Bush v. Gore and without error as in the Inquisition v. Everybody.

The Supremes notwithstanding, various states have provided creative ways to enhance their odds to eliminate the rising power of minorities.  Michigan comes to mind as the place that democracy forgot.  What need have we for municipal elections when the governor can appoint an all-powerful Emergency Manager for cities and towns in fiscal trouble?   So far, each of the half dozen or so that Governor Rick Snyder has declared has been overwhelmingly black in racial makeup.  None have been released from emergency powers.  The Emergency Manager in each case has stripped all powers from duly elected city officials including Detroit, most recently.  Why gerrymander when you can simply appoint a dictator?  Recall that even Mussolini was credited with running the trains on time.  Emergency Managers can sell municipal property to friends or hire and pay those friends with impunity.  There is no check or balance.  The numerator for black municipalities in that Michigan fraction is always zero.  Voters repealed PA 4 to stop this heinous practice last November, but the majority Republican legislators created a temporary law (PA436) in lame duck session to circumvent the voters and then made that law take full effect on 28 March.  Can you imagine the temerity of the voters to attempt democracy?  Shame on the voters.  Hail Snyder.  Should these fractions be legal?  Of course, democracy is messy…so I have heard.

Gerrymandering has made a huge comeback as shown in the last national election.  The GOP, despite being outvoted in House elections managed a 55% majority of House seats. They had over 500,000 fewer votes.  Oh! those darned fractions.  Even Virginia resorted to some questionable tactics by deliberately redistricting DURING the presidential inauguration when a Democrat (Marsh) went to the event and the State Senate went into session unannounced.  The state was reapportioned in 2011 and the state constitution calls for reapportionment ONLY every ten years.  I presume this will go to the courts since the meeting appeared to be in violation of announcement rules and the reapportionment is only two tenths of the way to ten years.  Which way do you think the Supremes would vote?  There was lots of gerrymandering to overcome the more than half million plurality won by Democrats and there were other attempts that were unsuccessful, but even this tactic was not the sole card for the minority.

As in Cleveland in 2004, the election in November 2012 was rife with problems of people being disenfranchised through assignment of poll hours in racial minority districts and by elimination of early polling as well as a variety of other tricks that were highlighted in the Florida elections and where it was attempted as in Pennsylvania.  The net result is that the fractions that we normally associated with losing an election are quickly becoming false notions.  If a state has the power to redistrict when it wants and is run by either party (mostly red, but CA and MA could play a similar blue game), then the danger is that minority party rule as we have witnessed in failed governments could seriously damage our democratic process.  The GOP has decried its lack of support from Blacks and Hispanics and yet has done nothing to change its message.  It has only sought to re-package the same message.  Meanwhile it has a strategy to change the electoral system so that they can win control through a plan they call REDMAP.  The RED has the double meaning of redistricting and Red = Republican.  Forget 60% in the Senate.

George Giacoppe
03 March 2013