Friday, October 16, 2015

Does the law help or hinder?

     PHILADELPHIA: George Washington didn't want to attend the Constitutional Convention, never mind be its president. But duty called, again, and the weary general left his beloved plantation over the summer of 1787 to sit for three months in a mahogany armchair that is still there, a gilt half sun carved into the back.
     My wife and I found ourselves in the City of Brotherly Love last week, to attend a wedding. We had the chance to do a bit of sightseeing. I chose the Barnes Foundation, the eccentric private museum gone public. More Renoirs than you can shake a stick at.
     And my wife, officer of the court that she is, chose Independence Hall, the former seat of the Pennsylvania legislature, now shrine to the idea that Americans, at one point in our national story, could, if not exactly set aside their selfish interests, then bend them a little toward a national unity in such short supply nowadays.
     Visiting Independence Hall, like visiting the Liberty Bell, is free, but for the former you need a timed ticket. Requesting a ticket at 9 a.m. got us one good for 11 a.m., and I scanned nearby attractions, looking for one that might be worth two hours.
    "What's the 'National Constitution Center?" I asked a ranger, who said in essence, "it's a center dedicated to our nation's Constitution." Not much to go on, but enough to send us shuffling there to see what it was about.
     We ended up in "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet," and if that sounds like traffic school to you, it's good you didn't marry me or my wife, because it was a toss up which of us were more delighted. How could you not love an exhibit that tells you, right off the bat, that Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice out of Italy in his pockets, risking a death sentence, to see if it could grow in our nascent country?
     "This is so cool," my wife gushed. "I love this."
     The centuries-old relationship between our government and seeds mirrors the national schism we have now. In the 19th century, the idea was to kick start agriculture and get the hardiest plants into the hands of farmers. So the government not only gave seeds away for free, but sent scientists around the world to find more. Eventually putting the government on a collision course with the seed industry, which couldn't turn a profit selling what the government gave away, one of the countless ways business and government clash.
     Chicago is well-represented, alas, in the section on tainted foods, which included a series

of South African postcards mocking tainted canned meats.
     Just before 11, we pulled ourselves away, with great reluctance, and bolted for Independence Hall, where we met our guide, park ranger Helen McKenna, a 21-year National Park Service veteran. You would think her talk would be a bored recitation of Founding Fathers minutia. But other than pointing out Washington's chair, she explained that guides to independence Hall get to write their own presentations, and proceeded to deliver a short tutorial in American freedoms that probably was more challenging than many college classes.
Not happy to live in a nation of laws.
 McKenna asked our group to consider whether we think that the law protects our freedoms, or limits them. Then she asked that we divide ourselves accordingly and explain our choices. I joined the 50 or so people on the side who feel protected by the law, facing seven on the other who feel hobbled by it, which augurs well for the Democrats, since the belief that law maintains and supports our social order is a distinctly Democratic notion, while the idea that it hobbles our God-given freedoms and must be pared back in all places, is the Republican mantra.
     Afterward, I quizzed McKenna on how the groups usually divided themselves, and she said it varied widely. She's had entire school groups of African-American students gather on the "limited freedom" side and when she asked them to explain why, they said, "Trayvon Martin."

     I wasn't used to tours of historical locations being mini-civics lessons, and wondered how that came about.
     "It is a new thing," said Jane Cowley, public affairs officer at Independence National Historical Park. "It's called 'facilitated dialogue.' Our park rangers interpret history, interpret the resource for our visitors. It's a technique used to engage the visitor, as you experienced."
     It is not a practice limited to the rooms where our nation was born.
     "The interpreters (or tour guides) research, prepare and present their own programs both in Philadelphia and throughout the country," said Kathy Kupper, the park service's national spokesperson. "This practice allows the material to be fresh, not feel canned to the interpreter or the audience. They do have guidelines to go by such as the theme of the tour must be consistent with the overall goals and themes of the site, for instance at some point during the tour of Independence Hall, the ranger will let you know that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed in the building. From there, the ranger could craft his or his tour and go in several directions. A good ranger is constantly adapting the tour to fit the audience, tying in facts and ideas that can help connect that particular audience to the resource."
     Does this ever present a problem? Intellectual analysis of our history is not very popular with ... umm ... certain sections of the electorate. 

     "It's definitely received very positive reviews from all the visitors who have taken the tours," said Cowley, adding that some 3.6 million people come through the park, which includes the building where the Liberty Bell is housed, the Ben Franklin Museum, plus several other sites.
      "The National Park Service also interprets all of our history, the good and the bad and the sometimes controversial," said Kupper. "Our sites include Japanese internment camps, Pearl Harbor, cold war sites, a Confederate prisoner of war camp, battlefields, places where people were enslaved, etc. All the information provided must be accurate and properly sourced. A good tour also presents multiple points of view. However, sometimes a tour of one of these sites or a tour of any site that is particularly thought-provoking or presents different points of view might not appeal to a visitor."
    I bet. Though it certainly appealed to this visitor.
  McKenna left us by holding up a enlargement of the sun at the back of Washington's chair, and quoting Benjamin Franklin.
     "I have often looked at that behind the president," Franklin wrote, "without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting."
     Franklin decided that it was indeed a rising sun.
     But that was 228 years ago. What about now, McKenna asked? Would you agree with Franklin? Is the American sun rising or setting?
     "What would you say to him," she asked, "and what examples would you cite?"
     That's easy. I know what I would tell Franklin, and the example I would offer: the tour I had just taken. As I was both pleased by the agriculture exhibit and doubly-pleased by the fact that the woman I married loved it too, so I was both intrigued by the issues that McKenna raised, and delighted that we live in a country where a government tour guide is free to raise them. For that alone, I side with Franklin: rising, still.


  1. Now that would be an historical tour that promotes critical thinking and not just date recitation. Thanks for sharing.

  2. By nature, I'm an optimist and would tend to see the sun rising, but when I ponder the possibility of even the least idiotic of the Republican candidates becoming President, I see that sun sinking, inexorably sucked into a morass of prejudice, ignorance and violence.


  3. Glad to see a place where gov't encourages critical thinking rather than "teach-to-the-test."

  4. I see that sun as rising, but boy are those eyes fierce and judging. The bit at the top looks like a carved Kilroy.

  5. Seems to me that, when Washington was sitting in that chair, the sun was clearly rising. Now, it's high up in the sky, shining all over the world. Unfortunately, the government that the Founders established does plenty to cast shadows in many instances and many places.

    Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and the conclusion that "a corporation is a person" unfortunately seem to indicate that "we the people" aren't as important as "we with a lot of money" in determining what policies are pursued. (Not that the Founders weren't a bunch of guys with money and land, themselves, of course.) But the fact that the Constitution left open the path to evolving from mainly serving the interests of a citizenry that was white, male and well-off to protecting and furthering the rights of the rest of today's citizens counts for plenty. It's sad that so many remain interested in limiting the rights of folks that may be different than they are, or who may not have the money to influence those in power.

    To me, the most basic civics lesson is very simple, indeed. Vote. Many potential voters love to rationalize that "they're all the same", while not bothering to cast their ballot, but the make-up of the Supreme Court demonstrates clearly that "they're" not.

    1. Jakash:
      Back in the 80's and there was a corrupt banker/financier by the name of Charles Keating. He purchased clout by making donations to politicians of both parties, who reciprocated by blocking or hindering investigations by banking regulators and the SEC. They were known as the Keating 5 which included the likes of McCain and Glenn. Into the 90's Dole violated campaign laws, Clinton received illegal contributions from foreign corporations, (with no controlling legal authority!), voters were becoming angry and more willing to vote out incumbents. The established Democrats and Republicans joined forces and began a relentless cry for campaign finance reform, yes that's the ticket! So we ended up with an array of intricate laws like McCain–Feingold, all designed to restrict a challenger's ability to mount an effective campaign against an incumbent. Citizens United is one of many political organizations that mail out letters to potential donors making dire predictions of what will happen if the other party gets the upper hand. People read the brochures mail in donations, they have the freedom to associate in this manner. Conservatives or progressives can come together to advance their agenda, freedom of association is not just the freedom to attend a pancake breakfast in the basement of a Church or Synagogue. The executives pool all these resources, then decide to make donations to a candidate, or run ads for or against an incumbent or challenger leading up to an election. When Citizens United Vs.FEC successfully overturned some provisions of McCain–Feingold, and provisions of half a dozen other laws deemed unconstitutional, they have more freedom to operate, but also unions, environmentalist groups, advocates for seniors and veterans etc,. all benefited from the ruling.

    2. You are a wealth of knowledge, Bernie. Good info.

    3. Thanks for replying to my comment, Bernie. I'm sure you know and care more about this than I do, but that doesn't make your positive spin any more compelling, IMHO. You make it sound like this was a victory for seniors, veterans, etc., while the main impact has been to open the floodgates for money from big-time political operatives to influence elections. From Wikipedia:

      "In the case the conservative lobbying group Citizens United wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton and to advertise the film during television broadcasts..."


      "A dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens was joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor. To emphasize his unhappiness with the majority, Stevens read part of his 90-page dissent from the bench. Stevens concurred in the Court's decision to sustain BCRA's disclosure provisions, but dissented from the principal holding of the Court. The dissent argued that the Court's ruling 'threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.' He wrote: 'A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.'"


      "Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who attended the announcement of the ruling, said the court 'struck a blow for the First Amendment'."

      "Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose opinions had changed from dissenting in Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce to co-authoring (with Stevens) the majority opinion in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission twelve years later, criticized the decision only obliquely, but warned, 'In invalidating some of the existing checks on campaign spending, the majority in Citizens United has signaled that the problem of campaign contributions in judicial elections might get considerably worse and quite soon.'"

      Hmmm... O'Connor certainly seems to have been right about that. And imagine! The conservative members of the court finding in favor of a conservative lobbying group. A sheer coincidence, I'm sure.

    4. I'm sure we can find common ground on this, and most issues. You probably agree that corporations are like soylant green, both are made of people! There is the popular, in some circles, Evelyn Hall quote "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." To me that includes looking askance at legal niceties, that abridge first amendment rights, and prevent people from getting their message out. You and I can recognize a message that is a twisted glurge of nonsense, these type of ads can and do backfire on a candidate every now and then. In my opinion the vast bulk of campaign finance laws should be trashed, except the laws mandating full disclosure of who is doing the funding. As long as there are politicians willing to pass legislation benefitting one group of people, at the expense of others, malefactors will devise and execute schemes to corrupt politicians.

    5. I appreciate the friendly response. Full disclosure is certainly important. We differ on how much regulation might be beneficial, though, and whether money = speech. I would support measures to attempt to minimize the importance of money to the electoral process. If I could, though of course I realize that this is ridiculous and impossible, I would actually ban all television advertising for political purposes, as it is almost uniformly worthless and misguided, though effective in affecting the type of people that it affects.

      Anyway, we certainly have common ground when it comes to your last sentence, but I don't quite see why that means we shouldn't even TRY to thwart the malefactors where (or should I say "if") possible.

  6. Political conservatives definitely tend to be sun-is-setting people. The country is always in crisis, on the brink of something or other, this upcoming election will decide if we are free men or slaves, blah blah blah.

  7. The Park Rangers at the National Park System are a very competent group. I've always been impressed by their professionalism and willingness to interact with the public. I found this to be true whether the Park is in an urban area or a place like Yellowstone. My wife and I enjoyed our visit to Independence Hall several years ago. The Ranger did a fantastic job (she may have been McKenna). Afterwards, we drove to Pat's for a Philly cheese steak sandwich. In my view, that was a fine dining experience.

  8. I must say, you had a deep and detailed observation on churches. I observed the reason behind borrowing church loan and finance from very close and I came to know that when they are really in financial trouble or about to foreclose, they seek for loans and financing.


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