Defending the rights of all

The American Civil Liberties Union was started almost 100 years ago with the intent of defending the rights and liberties of Americans that are guaranteed under the Constitution and the laws of the United States. In its almost a century of existence it has been condemned and criticized by liberals and conservatives. More recently, liberals were angered when the ACLU backed the National Rifle Association in opposing a national gun registry. In the 1970’s the ACLU supported the rights of a neo-Nazi group to hold a public rally in Illinois. That also didn’t go over well with the left.

Conservatives have never liked the ACLU’s support of such things as affirmative action, and abortion and reproductive rights. The same is true of the rights of prisoners, immigrants, and anti-war activists. The right loves to target the ACLU over its opposition to school-led prayer in public schools. So it is interesting to see that long standing division of opinion about the ACLU’s role in defending civil liberties, playing out in today’s news stories.

The Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU argued yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court that the state’s requirement that requires individuals to register to vote within 20 days of an election is unconstitutional. Claiming that the requirement is “overburdensome,” the ACLU has stated that Massachusetts should provide the least restrictive means of registering voters–i.e. same day registration. The current policy has a chilling effect on potential voters, according to the ACLU. This doesn’t make conservatives who are concerned about voter fraud happy.  In another case that is irking conservatives, the ACLU has backed LGBT efforts to force a Colorado maker of wedding cakes to accommodate gay couples that want one. The cake maker says that doing this violates his religious rights. The ACLU has weighed in against this interpretation of the First Amendment saying that “You can have the freedom to believe and preach your faith, until your actions harm other people.” Opposing discriminatory conduct, at least in the eyes of the ACLU trumps religious freedom.

In Pennsylvania, the ACLU yesterday defended the actions of a retired naval officer who wants to broadcast taps every night from his home. The local government had singled out his 57 second performance as a “nuisance.” Not so, says the ACLU who have argued that the state’s cease and desist order is unconstitutional. It is content-based discrimination in their view. Liberals aren’t applauding the ACLU for this.

When you look at the long history of positions taken by the ACLU it’s pretty clear that its goal continues to be defending our rights and liberties against encroachment by government. And it doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum one supports.  We should be grateful that we’ve got an organization like the ACLU in our corner when and if we ever need it.


Britain’s dilemma may be ours

The recent defeat handed to the Conservative Party in Britain may hold lessons for the United States. Prime Minister Theresa May called for an early election, gambling that her party’s platform would attract more seats in the House of Commons giving her a mandate to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. She, however, misjudged her popularity. May’s party suffered a humiliating defeat and now must form an “agreement” with another minority party to hold what was once a solid Conservative majority in Parliament.

May won her position as Prime Minister only a year ago. She stressed British nationalism and a call for the end of unrestricted immigration as allowed by the EU. Her rise to power was much like what happened here last November. An early supporter of President Trump, she applauded his Muslim ban and supported him in his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Essentially, May took a position similar to Trump, stressing Britain’s former greatness and blaming outside forces and the “elites” for ruining her country. Signs saying “Make Britain Great Again,” showed up at her rallies. It was May who extended an invitation to President Trump to make a head of state visit to the UK. That visit now looks to be very much in doubt.

A funny thing happened to May when the public got a chance to weigh in on her year of stewardship in Britain. Perhaps they realized that with Brexit, their country stood to lose access to the European market that accounts for more than a quarter of the country’s economy.  Many Brits did not vote last June, figuring that Cameron would stay in power as Prime Minister.  But his position supporting Britain’s remaining in the EU cost him his job. He resigned over the exit vote and Theresa May became his successor.

Now that reality has set in, the British electorate has decided that they don’t want what they thought they wanted just a year ago. Those to didn’t vote last year, did vote this year.  Those that worried that leaving the EU would leave Britain isolated and bereft of traditional trading partners wanted a “do over.”

It may be a stretch to see a similar change of heart in this country as we look toward the 2018 mid-term elections. Congress is up for grabs — particularly control of the Senate.  Trump will continue to hold his base. No question about that. But if enough American voters take the route of their British counterparts, after a sober evaluation of all of the unfulfilled promises of the Trump administration, assuming we don’t see his proposed reforms in taxes,  healthcare, and immigration,  we just might see a major shift in the balance of political power in this country. And if this happens, Trump will probably end up a single term president.


The name game

The Massachusetts State Legislature is considering a bill that would mandate that schools with names related to Native Americans must change them. The bill, which is having a public hearing today, would prohibit the use of Native American mascots — including names, symbols, and images in public schools in the state. The issue isn’t a new one. Critics of the use of such symbols and names have pushed for this kind of law for some time. The Cleveland Indians of baseball and the NFL Washington Redskins are probably the two greatest flashpoints in this cultural controversy at least at the national level. I’ve always felt that these images, some of them like the Cleveland team’s Chief Wahoo, are demeaning to a group of people that have had enough heartache in history. I would have replaced them a long time ago. They are a product of an earlier time period when Carnivals let you pay a quarter to see bearded ladies, Siamese twins, and cows with two heads.

But some raise the question of whether the government should be involved in requiring the changes. State Representative Randy Hunt is of the opinion that it is a matter for local authority to resolve. “it should be left up to school boards and parents to work out.” He says.  “If they think the names are not up to community standards, they should change them. Local control is the way to go on this; it should not be a state mandate.”

I have a lot of respect for Randy Hunt. I have voted for him in the past and consider him a friend. But  think he is wrong on this one. When left to “community standards” it will always come down to what the majority wants.  There is no room for effective minority in-put. When Hunt says that the issue of whether to get rid of what can be perceived as racist imagery, is “opinion based” he is correct. But the opinion of the majority shouldn’t be the way to decide these kinds of questions. Especially at the local level. Left to opinion, I suspect that a lot of basic rights would go away.  If the majority, for example, doesn’t like a particular piece of artwork displayed at town hall, or perhaps the political slant of a local newspaper, would they be eliminated?  Conversely, if the majority favored not allowing a particular religious group to erect a building for worship services, would that be fair? If the majority in a community didn’t like inter-racial marriage, would that be a basis for preventing such a thing to take place?

Just about every issue we confront is “opinion based.” We need to be careful that the majority opinion doesn’t always carry, especially when it comes to areas related to cultural sensitivity. In the case of mandating by legislative action an end these negative images of minority groups in our schools, I’m comfortable that this is the proper role of government.


A view of graduation

This was the weekend for a lot of high school graduations. One of my grandchildren walked proudly across the field and picked up her diploma as we all cheered and took pictures. The keynote speaker wisely kept his words to a minimum allowing the focus to be on the graduates. That was as it should have been.

On the drive home, I thought about my own high school graduation some 55 years ago. I remember the gymnasium being extremely hot. Why we didn’t have it outside on the football field, I don’t know.  Maybe they didn’t do that kind of thing then. There were a few speeches and some awards. And then we were out of there and into the real world. Some of our classmates we would never see again.

None of us had any idea of what the future was going to bring.  How could we?  It was  still a time of relative comfort and our world seemed secure.  We seemed to have achieved something of a status quo arrangement with the Soviet Union. President Kennedy was in office — actually a neighbor living down the road in Hyannisport.  I think we took that for granted the fact of having the nation’s Chief Executive living close by. There certainly weren’t the creature comforts and technological gadgets that today’s graduates have. The transistor radio, color television, and cars with automatic transmissions were the top of the pole back then. McDonalds had a couple of restaurants on the West Coast. There was one WalMart and it was in Arkansas. It seemed that everyone who wanted a job had one. There wasn’t any state or federal welfare to fall back on so working was part of the culture. What crime there was, was confined to the cities. Our doors were usually unlocked. Drugs were for headaches, muscle aches, and occasional gastric problems and we bought them at the locally owned pharmacy. We were dimly aware that in some parts of the country there were people being denied their basic rights, but it wasn’t a front burner issue for us. And besides, they were Negroes, people that were just about invisible where we lived. Being gay or “queer” was something that people just whispered about and anyone with a progressive agenda was considered a “Red.”  It was illegal to purchase birth control devices of any kind without a prescription. In some states, even that didn’t get you a condom. Women stayed mostly at home, managing the kitchen and the children. To get divorced you had to go to Nevada. There seemed to be a great fear in that time that communism was going conquer the world. To be ready for the Russians, the Strategic Air Command had nuclear-armed bombers in the air 24/7.  That seemed good enough. Vietnam wasn’t on anybody’s list of problems and if you had a foreign car it was a Volkswagen beetle. The sporty crowd drove Austin Healeys  or Triumphs.

Who of us could have known what would come?  That President Kennedy would be dead less than two years after our graduation. That thousands of us would end up fighting and dying in a jungle war in a far-off corner of southeast Asia. That cities would burn as racial strife boiled over. That the counter culture would sweep away many of the old accepted values that were part of our parent’s generation. That we would land on the moon by the end of the decade.

I thought about all this as I watched my granddaughter and her classmates celebrate their completion of high school.  Their future is out there. What kind of a world, I wondered, would they be entering?

When the laughter ends

I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember comedian Jackie Mason. His career was on an upward swing when in October 1964, he crossed the line during an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Sullivan, who was standing in the wings, signaled Mason that he had to cut his routine short (this was a live show) Mason gave him the finger. Sullivan, who had a lot of power in the entertainment industry, didn’t think it was funny and Mason didn’t work on television for almost two decades after. He was essentially blackballed by the industry. A long time later, Mason had a comeback of sorts, but he said, “It took 20 years to overcome what happen in one minute.”

While the envelope is constantly being pushed these days, there remain at least some constraints that reasonable people take into consideration. You don’t, for example, make jokes about the Holocaust or thalidomide babies. And you don’t make light of presidential assassinations. Comedienne Kathy Griffin’s attempted parody that featured the severed and bloody head of President Trump, crossed that line and she knew it. As I watched her tearful explanation as to what her intent was in the tasteless and unfunny skit, I saw a woman not sorry for what she had done but one who could clearly see that her career had probably ended.  I suspect that is the case. He claim of artistic freedom was almost as if Jackie Mason had tried to explain that his one finger salute was meant to let Ed Sullivan know that he was going to be finished in one minute. Griffin’s emotional news conference  was phony and self-serving. Those who flocked to her defense as a heroine of free speech–and there were many, should be ashamed of themselves.

There have been other comedians who have skirted the boundaries of good taste. Eddie Murphy and George Carlin come to mind.  But I have to say that their routines were actually very funny. No so Ms. Griffin. Billing herself as the Queen of the “D” list of entertainers, I’d say that she got an “F” for what she did earlier this past week. Perhaps in 20 years or so, Griffin, like Jackie Mason will have a chance for redemption.  But for now I’d guess that she’ll be lucky to be a headliner at a Holiday Inn lounge. She should remember Mason’s words: “It took 20 years to overcome what happened in one minute.” We might also ponder the wisdom in those words.

Looking at the toll of foreign wars

I was a bit late in getting to the cemetery in my hometown to place an American flag on the grave of a friend who was killed in the Vietnam War.  I had obligations this year on Memorial Day and the rainy and cold days since then prevented me from doing what I do each year and that is, remember a young man who never got the chance to experience the lives that our generation has been able to lead.  It was sad looking at the grave and thinking about what he had missed. And I think it bothered me even more to have the feeling that he really died for nothing.

Vietnam, like the rest of the conflicts our military forces have been engaged in since World War II, was no threat to the United States. It was one of those political wars that have become so much a part of American strategy in our own times. Like the post WWII falsehood perpetrated by our government that the U.S. was lagging behind the Soviet Union in the development of strategic weaponry, Vietnam was  sold on the basis of the “Domino Theory.” The fact that China had gone communist just a decade earlier, made politicians worry that if Vietnam fell to the Reds, it would continue the fall of other democracies across southeast Asia.  You could lose elections if that happened on your watch. So we followed the French in trying to prop up an unpopular regime to thwart that end.

Almost half a million U.S. soldiers were pumped into Vietnam over a ten year period. They fought valiantly.  Almost 60,000 of them never came back. One of them was my friend. But despite his contribution, there was no light at the end of that tunnel. In the end, the failed military effort was summed up in an image of the 1975 final evacuation by helicopter of the American embassy in Saigon.

Now we have troops engaged in combat in places that the Average American citizen could not locate on a map. Many are on multiple deployments. We are told that their mission is to bring democracy to people who have a great desire to be free. Out troops, we are assured, are defending the American homeland.  It has a familiar ring to it.  My generation heard the same message half a century ago.  As I stood at the gravesite in the quiet of this morning, I couldn’t help but think — what a waste. My friend really didn’t die for any high-minded ideology. His bravery was wasted on a false assumption. The sacrifice made by all those soldiers did not make this country safer, nor did it prevent what ultimately happened — Vietnam became a communist dictatorship. Today we can go to WalMart and buy shirts and sneakers made in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. My friend’s death had nothing to do with that.



Beach access denied

If the rain ever stops falling and it finally warms up enough for people to start thinking about going to the beach, good luck finding much access to the sand to put a towel. Not only are the public beaches almost impossible to get into during July and August because of crowds — even with the high prices that towns charge for parking, but if a shoreline walker is lucky enough to get on a beach and strays off the public sand, he can expect a private police person to flag him down and direct him back to where he came from. That’s because here in Massachusetts, an old colonial law allows shorefront property owners to restrict access to the low water mark.  Back in the 1700’s, in order to encourage dock building and other commercial activities, the legislature made what was called “King’s grants” to people who owned the beach. Today, unless you are toting a shotgun or a fishing pole (the old fishing and fowling exception) you are not allowed to walk on a private beach.  Technically, that could mean a place like the Brewster flats where the tide goes out about a mile and a half is off limits. I’ve seen shorefront houses with TV cameras on the roof providing 24 hour coverage against trespassers. That is true even in the winter!

So it was good to see a win for the little guy in New Jersey.  You may recall that a couple of years ago Hurricane Sandy devastated the coast, washing out beaches, parking lots, and many of the adjacent houses. To re-build the beach, the Army Corps of Engineers spent millions of public tax dollars building dunes and trucking in loads of sand.  And guess what?  The homeowners that benefitted from this didn’t want outsiders to use the beaches when the job was done. But the state of New Jersey, to its credit, is making these homeowners share the sand with the people who actually helped pay for it. This is because the state ruled that a reconstructed beach had to have a public easement.  In other words, if private property owners wanted to have the Corps fix their beaches, they had to let the public use them.

Reading about this reminded me of how the Massachusetts town of Sandwich had to deal with beachfront property owners when two years ago the Corps agreed to move some of the sand being dredged from the Cape Cod Canal to a badly eroded section of vulnerable shoreline. When the property owners learned that to get sand on their section of beach, they would have to sign a public easement to let regular people sit on it they balked and took the matter to court. The delay in sealing the deal cost the town an extra million dollars and limited the sand replenishment just to a section of public beach. It was a classic case of “I’ve got mine, screw you” on the part of the beach property owners. If only we were in New Jersey.