“We Are Different. We Are One”

Justices Ginsberg and Scalia

Last week, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. She was a champion of women’s rights and equal justice. But the thing that stands out to me the most was her enduring friendship (which started long before she joined the Supreme Court) with fellow Justice Antonin Scalia. Ideologically, the two could not have been further apart — Ginsburg a liberal, feminist icon, Scalia a stalwart of conservative jurisprudence. Yet, somehow, these two were still able to see the humanity in each other and enjoy a vital and lasting friendship. How? Perhaps it was because they shared a love of country and purpose. They just pursued it in different ways, ways that they respected in each other even while disagreeing. If only some of that collegiality and higher purpose could be injected into our politics in general and the naming of Ginsburg’s replacement in particular.

The Constitution is clear on filling a Supreme Court vacancy. In Article II, Section2, Clause 2 it states that “[The President] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the supreme Court….” Nowhere does it state any limitation on this power such as delaying till after an election in an election year. Currently there is a lot of debate about whether or not the President and the Senate should wait. There is neither a precedent or history of this happening. The Constitution, though, is clear. There is no requirement to wait.

The Democrats and Republicans are both playing a lot of politics with this situation, which is to be expected. The real problem, from my perspective, is the road this is taking us down. Because Senate Republicans have decided to take a vote on President Trump’s nominee this year while they chose not to take a vote on President Obama’s nominee in 2016 (the very definition of hypocrisy), there is talk of the Democrat’s taking revenge. The next time they control both the White House and the Senate, some scholars are suggesting that Democrats may attempt to pack the Supreme Court. This would be a big mistake for our country.

US political power and influence have always swung back and forth between the dominant two parties, currently Democrats and Republicans. That’s how our system works. But lately, both sides have tried to set themselves up to be the permanent party in power. This hasn’t yet gone so far as to flout our constitution and laws flagrantly, but it feels like we may be headed there. We have already started to abandon our well-established precedents.

One of these precedents was to never govern by executive order. This was broken by President Obama starting in his second term. He began to use executive orders to accomplish what he couldn’t through legislation due to the Republicans in Congress opposing him. This had never been done before because of the fear that a subsequent president of the other party could simply undo all those executive orders and bypass Congress himself to accomplish his goals without Congressional legislation. President Trump has done just that. While this is not strictly illegal or unconstitutional, it is highly troubling. This is not how the Constitution designed things to work. Congress is not there for the President to find a way around. It is the governing body of our country. It is the most direct representation of the citizens at the national level. The first article of the Constitution governs the legislature and is the longest of the first three articles.

Now we have the dangerous idea of packing the court. It has the same problem that governing by executive order has. If the Democrats add four more Supreme Court Justices in order to tilt the court back in its favor, what’s to stop the Republicans from doing the same when they next control the Presidency and the Senate? Where will it end? How many Supreme Court Justices will we end up with? Thirteen? Seventeen? Twenty-one? You get the picture.

This isn’t politicians playing politics. It’s beyond that. It’s politicians trying to game the system in their favor. That has to stop. We the voters need to put an end to it. Yes, Senate Republicans are behaving as despicable hypocrites. They should have voted on Obama’s nominee back in 2016. If they didn’t want to confirm him, they should have defeated his nominee on the floor of the Senate. And the proper answer to that kind of behavior should have been to vote out those Senators who behaved so inappropriately. But that didn’t happen. Why? Well, because we as Americans have come to identify with our “side” in politics as much as our politicians. Instead we need to be more like Justices Ginsburg and Scalia.

The secret to their friendship was that they saw each other as individuals. They shared a “reverence for the Constitution and the institution [they] serve[d]” though they differed in their interpretations. But they never decided that the other was unworthy of their friendship and respect. We need to be the same way with those who hold political beliefs different from our own. Too many times, we vilify the other side, shaking our head in disbelief that someone could think that way or vote for that person. Perhaps a better response is to actually ask. What issues are important to you? Why do you think that way? But then we need to listen with a desire to understand. If we do that, perhaps we will discover that our goals aren’t that different from theirs. We just disagree on the ways to get there. Then we might be in a position to work together to find ways to compromise on achieving those shared goals. That’s what we need our politicians to be willing to do — compromise to achieve our national goals. But they sure won’t as long as the people who vote for them won’t.

So seek out opinions different from your own. Understand how others are different from you, how they think and what they value. Who knows, you might discover as the leads in the opera Scalia/Ginsburg sing, “We are different. We are one.”

Malcolm X: A Man for Our Times

Malcolm X

With the death of George Floyd at that hands (or rather knee) of a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that followed, I found myself wanting to try to understand the perspective of those who don’t share my white privilege. I thought back to the days of civil rights marches and protests in the 1960s. Growing up, I had learned about the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I also learned, but only in passing, about a man named Malcolm X.

What a learned in school about Martin Luther King, Jr. was only the headlines version, but I’ve heard much of his “I Have a Dream Speech” and read his “Letter from a Birmhamham Jail”. The only thing I learned about Malcolm X was that he was an angry Muslim that rather than believing in non-violence advocated for violent resistance. So in the midst of protests that occasionally turned violent, I decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was a complex and dynamic man who isn’t done justice by the simplistic view of him that I had before I read this book. He grew up poor with only an eighth grade formal education. After the eighth grade he moved from the Lansing, MI area to Boston. There he live with his half sister and started work as a shoe shiner. Later he moved to Harlem where he used and sold drugs. He was eventually caught and incarcerated for these crimes and served ten years.

While in prison, Malcolm X spent most of his time either in the prison library or reading in his cell. He always sought to learn and grow. He also converted to the Nation of Islam. After leaving prison, he preached around the country, opening new temples (later called mosques). It was during this time that he rose to public prominence for his views. He was opposed to integration, feeling that the white man was the problem and that the black man needed to take pride in himself and to support and nurture his fellows. His speeches were fiery, and he never shied away from telling it like he saw it. It was during this time in his life that he gained the reputation as an angry, violent man.

Eventually Malcolm X had a falling out and a parting of the ways with the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. In the process of this severance of ties, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca that change him profoundly. On this journey he had seen Muslims of all colors and nationalities live and worship as one during the Hajj. When he returned from this trip, he no longer saw the white man personally as his enemy. Instead he took the racist actions of men as his opposition. Unfortunately, no one in the media or public life seemed willing to acknowledge his growth. They still associated him with his days as a minister in the Nation of Islam. And while he was still in the process of redirecting his life in this new direction, he was assassinated.

For me, Malcolm X represents what we need today for civil rights. The 1960s led to institutional and legal changes required to move us further toward a more just and fair society. But now we need to face the hard facts of changing the culture itself. That’s the change that Malcolm X was trying to effect when his life was cut short. He wasn’t willing to wait any longer for justice for his people. The Black Lives Matter movement embraces that spirit. We’ve removed the overt racism that existed in our laws. Now we need to remove it from where it is embedded in our institutions.

For me the lesson of Malcolm X’s life is that we are always capable of learning and growing. The challenge is often that those around us aren’t willing to accept the changes that we go through. In Mecca, Malcolm X was able to see the humanity in everyone and that softened his heart but not his resolve. That’s what is missing in our politics today. Our politics is strong on resolve but lacks the heart of compassion and understanding. I hope that we can all embrace those qualities and work to embody them just as Malcolm X strove to in the last two years of his life.

Vital But Flawed Read

Earlier this year, I discovered The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work by Donald F Kettl. I saw it advertised on the page of The Atlantic magazine. To my understanding, federalism is part of what made and continues to make such a vast and diverse country as the United States of America work. The blurb in the ad intrigued me, and I decided to buy the book and read it.

While the content here is of vital importance to anyone living today in the United States of America, the presentation is in sore need of further editing. The ideas are complex and deserve a fair amount of repetition in the text. However, it is overly repetitive to the point where I repeatedly found myself skimming passages that I was sure I had read ten or twenty or fifty pages earlier.

That said, it is important that the evaluation of the problem covered in this book be distributed far and wide. The solution proposed does not come till the final chapter, and it is embarrassingly meager and inadequate. Nonetheless, it is the description of the role of federalism and its role in our current political dysfunction that I find most compelling. It uses a blend of history and data to show how what was meant to (and has) preserved our republic for over two hundred years, is now on the verge of tearing us apart.

So I hesitatingly recommend reading this book. But if you can find a detailed summary of its ideas, this might serve you better. I can only hope that a second edition more ably edited will be forthcoming. I expect it might then become a bestseller.

Infinite Detail Indeed

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan is speculative fiction at its best. It feels only a few years (if that) removed from today and has a perspective that really makes the book unique. While some may call it a dystopia, I see it more as an exploration of revolutionary idealists and their perspectives after the revolution.

There has been an event that knocks out the internet all over the world. It’s gone, along with all the trappings that go with it. The world struggles to manage without all that it has come to depend on. And it appears to have been done on purpose. Why? There are lots of reasons that are best experienced in the book itself. But in the end, the revolutionaries debate whether they got it right or not. And will things just go back to normal? And like any good artist, the author poses the question and leaves the answer to the reader.

On top of this fascinating exploration of political ideals in the realm of digital privacy, the author is a fantastic storyteller. The chapters alternate between before and after the internet is taken away. We slowly learn the stories of individuals who were affected by the events or made them happen. The connections slowly come to light as the prose paints vivid and realistic views of a world that could someday be our own.

If you are looking for an entertaining, well-written novel that will make you think, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Seeing the “Other”

As soon as I finished Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, I went to my library’s web site to borrow and start reading the sequel Starsight immediately. It does not disappoint. And where the first book was kind of like Top Gun in space, this followup is more of a spy thriller in space. Warning: casual spoilers ahead. I will end up revealing things you won’t know if you haven’t read both books, but nothing that I think will completely ruin your experience should you decide to read them.

For me, the beauty of this book can be summed up in the pseudo word “sonder”. It is defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

The main character, Spensa, goes on a mission as an undercover spy to discover a way to save her people. In the process, she interacts with a number of different races of aliens who are part of the intergalactic society known as the Superiority. As humans have been kept captive on her world for centuries, she sees all these races as her enemies to be overcome and defeated. But in the process of her spy work, she engages closely with a number of them, even becoming friendly with some. She starts to experience a form of sonder realizing that not all of these people are her enemies, not even all in the Superiority government.

Oh, Saints and stars. I couldn’t keep up the warrior act any longer. These weren’t my enemies. Some parts of the Superiority were, of course, but these people…they were just people. Mrs. Chamwit probably wasn’t a spy, but was instead really just a kindly housekeeper who wanted to see me fed. And Morriumur…they just wanted to be a pilot.

Chapter 28, Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

This is what I love about science fiction. In the midst of a page-turning story, I found an exploration of the very same challenges we find in our daily lives. And these experiences sometimes help me to see and have experiences wholly different from mine. A whole different perspective opens up.

This feels particularly important to me in our current polarized times. It is easy to see others who don’t think like me, as enemies or “others”. But they are all the main characters in their own lives with their own struggles and triumphs. And I believe that remembering this on a regular basis will help bring the world closer together. We won’t all agree, but I hope that by seeing the “other” as someone just like us trying to figure it all out, we can have some compassion and patience. And with that, we may even find ourselves not so far apart as we initially thought.

Escaping My Echo Chamber

echo canyon

We all live in an echo chamber constructed by the algorithms that build our newsfeeds. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media do their best to feed us more of what we like in order to keep us on their site or in their app. I recently decided that I wanted to get out of this box.

I think it is important to seek out ideas different than my own. I want to understand how the world works not only from my own perspective but from that of others who may think differently than I do. But I recently started to notice that all of the news I was seeing seemed to have the same slant. It felt repetitive and one-sided and made me uncomfortable. It reinforced what I already think and believe, but what about people on the other side? Surely they must have a valid perspective that led them to think the way they do. So I decided to take action.

The first thing I did was to seek out more news sources. I don’t read, listen to, or watch much news. I mostly listen to NPR in the car and occasionally look at Facebook online. I started by seeking out two separate news sources, one from the left (CNN) and one from the right (Fox News). I looked daily at each home page and read one or two of the articles there. After a few days of this, I’d had enough. I still felt like I was in an echo chamber, or rather two completely separate echo chambers with little depth to the reporting.

What I wanted was a more nuanced and complete picture of what is going on. Both of these sites operate on the “headline news” model. What’s happening now is what’s important to them. Getting there first is the driver as well as keeping people on their sites to view their ads. I wanted something deeper. I knew there were real people behind these stories, but I wasn’t seeing that in the reporting.

My next step was to subscribe to The Flip Side, a service that sends a daily email about a particular topic in the news with excerpts from the left, right, and in-between. It is a quick five-minute read each day that helps give me perspective on the headlines without drowning me in the partisanship. Very valuable and free. This was an improvement, but I was still missing a more complete picture.

So I sought out long form journalism with different perspectives, one left, one right. I settled on The Atlantic and Reason, respectively. I noticed that I had been reading and appreciating a lot of articles in The Atlantic. And Reason was a magazine I was familiar with and respected. I started to read what was on each website when I wanted to find out more about what was in the news. I found more substance and reporters genuinely seeking to understand things rather than spout a party line. Granted, they each are coming from their own world view, but they do so with thought and care that goes much deeper than throwing up a flashy headline as clickbait.

My final, and to me most important step, was that I now subscribe to both of these publications. I value what they do and having both of their perspectives. And if I value what they do and want them to continue doing it, I need to support them financially.

Today I get my news from both the left and the right and feel like I have a better perspective on the world and better insight into why each side feels the way they do. And I think that helps me be a better citizen than being stuck in an echo chamber that just tells me what I already know and like.