Right to Bear Arms

May 27, 2014

A silly visual pun, but is it any more silly than the tortured “originalist” intepretations of the US Constitution by the likes of Justice Scalia when it comes to the right to “bear arms?”  Joe Nocera points out today in his column, that new scholarship makes clear, if it ever was not clear, that The Framers meant for citizens to have the right to form armed militias – they didn’t have, and didn’t want a standing army in those days. Now, we have quite an army; an entire military-industrial complex.  The one that the army guy, Eisenhower, warned us about.

Is Scalia listening? It really has nothing to do with hunters, homicidal maniacs, criminals, and other gun lovers, that many today feel should be regulated.

The justice likes to claim that he bases his opinions only on what The Framers said, or what they “meant,” but of course, he decides what they meant.  And his originalism is remarkably flexible, always hewing to the latest right-wing conservative line.

Now, none of this is too surprising, but what did bring me up a bit short was Nocera’s comment that this position by the Republican establishment is relatively recent, c. 1980.  It coincides with the Reagonzo Revolution, the ascendance within the Republican party of the angry, somewhat bigoted men, white men.  Thanks again, Ronnie.

Humanity 101

March 5, 2014

Lee Lorch interviewed in 1949
An exemplary character, Lee Lorch, died this week:

In the spring of 1946, Mr. Lorch, a graduate of Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, Cornell University and the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics, returned from wartime service in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps to teach math at City College. Like millions of veterans, he could not find a place to live. After a two-year search, having lived much of the time in a Quonset hut overlooking Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, he, along with his wife, Grace, and young daughter, moved into Stuyvesant Town. So did 25,000 other people.

As he later put it, he had all the credentials: “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”

In 1943, Frederick H. Ecker, the president of Metropolitan Life at the time, told The New York Post: “Negroes and whites don’t mix.” If black residents were allowed in the development, he added, “it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all surrounding property.”

A lawsuit against Metropolitan brought in 1947 by three black veterans, and co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had failed in the state courts, and no local laws prohibited such discrimination; the city had not only supplied the land, and tax breaks, to the insurance company, but had let it select tenants as it saw fit.

With 100,000 people vying for the 8,759 apartments on the 72-acre tract, no boycott could possibly work. Any successful protest had to come from inside: Polls showed that two-thirds of those admitted favored integration. Mr. Lorch’s wartime experiences, like seeing black soldiers forced to do the dirty work on his troop transport overseas, had intensified his resolve.

Mr. Lorch became vice chairman of a group of 12 tenants calling themselves the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town.

“When you got into Stuyvesant Town, there was a serious moral dilemma,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with William Kelly of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Video Project. “In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, people had seen the end results of racism.”

Some 1,800 tenants eventually joined the group. “Stuyvesant Town is a grand old town; but you can’t get in if your skin is brown,” went one of its chants, wrote Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times in a book about Stuyvesant Town’s history. A group of 3,500 residents petitioned Mayor William O’Dwyer to help eliminate the “no Negroes allowed” policy, and supported anti-discrimination legislation before the City Council.

But Metropolitan Life held firm. And in early 1949, Mr. Lorch paid the price. Despite the backing of a majority of colleagues in his department, the appointments committee at City College blocked his promotion, effectively forcing him to leave.

Mr. Lorch was “unquestionably a fine scholar and a promising teacher,” an alumni committee later concluded, but some colleagues “regarded him, rightly or wrongly, as an irritant and a potential troublemaker.” Mr. Lorch himself charged that the college “protects bigots and fires those who fight bigotry.”

The New York branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and other groups protested the decision to the Board of Higher Education, to no avail. In September 1949, Mr. Lorch found a teaching job at Pennsylvania State University, but his reputation preceded him; upon arriving at the campus, he was taken directly to the university’s acting president.

“He wanted me to explain this stuff about Stuyvesant Town — that they’d been getting phone calls from wealthy alumni essentially wanting to know why I had been hired and how quickly I could be fired,” he recalled in the 2010 interview.

Mr. Lorch’s wife and daughter had remained in the Stuyvesant Town apartment, at 651 East 14th St., and he and his wife soon invited a black family, Hardine and Raphael Hendrix and their young son, to live there for the entire academic year.

Metropolitan Life refused to accept the Lorches’ $76 rent check, and began devising ways to get them out. At Penn State, Mr. Lorch was denied reappointment. Accommodating the Hendrixes, a college official told him, was “extreme, illegal and immoral, and damaging to the public relations of the college.”

The decision brought protests from Penn State students, Albert Einstein, the American Association of University Professors and the American Mathematical Society, as well as from The New York Times and The Daily Worker, the paper of the Communist Party U.S.A.

The Worker argued that Mr. Lorch, who was often linked to the Communist Party, was “an all-too-rare sort of bird among academic circles these days. He actually believes in the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the Negro people equality! And he not only believes in it, but stands up and fights for what he believes. Amazing!”

In June 1950, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the insurance company’s exclusionary policy. Succumbing to political and economic pressure, Metropolitan Life admitted three black families that year.

But it also moved to evict Mr. Lorch and 34 other protesting tenants. They dug in.

“We had decided — and this was the general feeling on the committee — we weren’t going to go quietly, that we would resist, they’d have to throw us out by force,” Mr. Lorch recalled.

In the meantime, in September 1950, he accepted a new academic post, becoming one of two white professors at Fisk University, the historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn. His wife, a longtime activist herself — she had led the Boston School Committee in its effort to stop women from being fired as teachers the moment they married, as she had been — returned to Stuyvesant Town, where the Teamsters union supplied protection for protesting tenants.

In January 1952, as tenants barricaded themselves in their apartments and picketed outside City Hall and Metropolitan Life’s headquarters, the company compromised: Mr. Lorch and two other organizers would move out, but the Hendrixes got to stay.

Seven years later, only 47 blacks lived in Stuyvesant Town. But the frustration the campaign helped unleash culminated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.

At Fisk, Mr. Lorch taught three of the first blacks ever to receive doctorates in mathematics. But there, too, his activism, like his attempt to enroll his daughter in an all-black school and refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his Communist ties, got him in trouble. In 1955, he was again let go. Only tiny Philander Smith College, an all-black institution in Little Rock, Ark., would hire him, and then only when it could find no one else.

“Because he believed in the principles of decency and justice, and the equality of men under God, Lee Lorch and his family have been hounded through four states from the North to the South like refugees in displaced camps,” one of the nation’s most important black journalists, Ethel Payne of The Chicago Defender, wrote in May 1956. “And in the process of punishing Lee Lorch for his views, three proud institutions of learning have been made to grovel in the dust and bow the knee to bigotry.”

It was Grace Lorch who made the headlines the next year, for comforting Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine after Ms. Eckford’s walk through a group of angry hecklers outside Little Rock Central High School, a moment which was captured in a famous photograph. Mr. Lorch, who had become an official with the Arkansas chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., was working behind the scenes, accompanying the black students to school, then tutoring them as they awaited admission to the high school.

Once more, whites abused the Lorches for their activities, evicting them from their apartment, harassing their young daughter, burning a cross on their lawn and placing dynamite in their garage. And black leaders, mindful of Mr. Lorch’s Communist associations, kept their distance.

“Thurgood Marshall has been busy poisoning as many people as he can against us,” Mr. Lorch complained in October 1957, referring to the lawyer who was leading the N.A.A.C.P.’s desegregation campaign in the courts, and who would later become a justice of the United States Supreme Court. The group’s field secretary, Clarence Laws, wrote to Mr. Lorch: “The best contribution you could make to the cause of full citizenship for Negroes in Arkansas at this time would be to terminate, in writing, your affiliation with the Little Rock Branch, N.A.A.C.P.”

When, at the end of the school year, Philander Smith declined to renew Mr. Lorch’s appointment, it was official: No American college would have him. So in 1959, he moved his family to Canada — first to the University of Alberta and then, in 1968, to York University, until he retired in 1985.

Lee Lorch was born on Sept. 20, 1915, at a home on West 149th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, to Adolph Lorch and Florence Mayer Lorch. His wife, the former Grace Lonergan, died in 1974. Mr. Lorch is survived by his daughter, Ms. Bartels; two granddaughters; and a sister, Judith Brooks.

Mr. Lorch was often honored by his fellow mathematicians. In 1990, he received an honorary degree from the City University of New York.

In his 2010 interview with Mr. Kelly, Mr. Lorch insisted that it was his wife and daughter, not he, who had paid the greatest price for his principles. Asked if he would do anything differently, he paused. “More and better of the same,” he replied.

Instinct and the Power-Elite

September 12, 2013

A news item in the NYTimes today quoted Joe Lhota, Republican candidate for mayor of New York:

Mr. Lhota said that Mr. de Blasio’s “knee-jerk response to any new program is to raise taxes,” an approach he said was “instinctively wrong.” Instead, Mr. Lhota said the mayor should look to find efficiencies in the city’s budget.

Ah…you can’t make this stuff up.  A “knee-jerk” response to increase revenue is bad, but cutting the budget is obviously good, especially since he and his friends will not even feel it.  But how does he know this for a fact?  Raising taxes is “instinctively wrong.”  Might we say that Mr. Lhota has a knee-jerk response to tax hikes on the wealthy?  Sure seems like it.  It’s just pure instinct.

Of course, Mr. Lhota’s response to increased taxes for the wealthy may be instinct only among his social circle, so it is probably a learned response, with no instinct involved at all, but it sure seems like a reflex!

The article also includes this:

He mounted a direct attack on Mr. de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme, saying that Mr. de Blasio was trying to “separate classes” as a political strategy.

“Calling it a tale of two cities, that level of invective has no place in any campaign, at all,” Mr. Lhota said. “It divides people. What we really need to do is to work together and provide a solution, not separating people and then saying that the ends justify the means.”

I would like to know what level of invective is appropriate in a campaign according to Mr. Lhota?  Tale of two cities seems rather tame to me.   By all means, let’s work together to raise taxes on Mr. Lhota.

Prison State

April 17, 2013


I read The New Jim Crow some months ago, but put aside my posting on it because it is simply too depressing, but prisons were on my mind again this weekend when I heard a talk by David Rothenberg at our local public library.  He is the founder of The Fortune Society, which provides support for ex-offenders who want to reclaim their lives after doing their time – more on that later.

I have commented before (here and here) on the American prison-industrial complex, but this book was extraordinarily powerful:  not because it said anything surprising, but for the detailed manner in which it documented the rise of the War on Drugs, the crudely political appeals it employed, the systematic racial bias found in the effects of its policies, and the punitive and devastating impact it has on African-American and Latino populations in the country.

For crimes which rarely result in the incarceration of young white men, young black men are being sent to jail in incredible numbers, and for long periods, and while there, in crowded and often inhumane conditions, they are simply warehoused.  Then, eventually, they are sent home.  The rising rate of imprisonment, shown below, has not been linked with any reduction in crime, and most of the victims are non-violent offenders.  When released, they are subject to a wide array of fines and restrictions that shocked me – new details – in their resemblance to practice in 17th and 18th century Europe:  For example, it was news to me that convicted criminals must pay the costs of their trials!  (Only in these drug cases.)  Not to mention that all their property can be confiscated.  A new class of debt-fine-peons has been created that is peopled by men already at a severe handicap for reclaiming their lives through gainful employment.


The two charts following clearly indicate the remarkable position of the USA regarding imprisonment of its own citizens.  What is it about the USA that requires that we incarcerate people at nearly seven times the rate of China, France, or Australia?  The second chart below indicates the clear racial bias of the War on Drugs:  there is ample evidence that drug use and related criminal activity is no higher, it may be lower, among citizens of color than among whites, yet their rate of conviction and imprisonment is many times higher.  The problem is obvious, and it is only sustained by a system in which there is money to be made off of the prison system and political hay to be made.

Michelle Alexanders’ book is perhaps most interesting in her history of the political side of the War on Drugs, which got going under Reagan.  It was a great Republican theme, Law and Order, that allowed all sorts of coded appeals to racism no longer legitimate with the formal end of segregation and Jim Crow.  It worked wonders, and it’s not dead yet.  It doesn’t matter that we have an African-American president:  he’s not bucking this system much, and he talks about ‘shared sacrifice‘  as he advocates cutting social welfare programs.

I searched for negative commentary on the book out of curiosity regarding the response of conservatives.  I found little!  Most of the negative reviews were from leftists who felt that the author had not gone far enough in her critique.  (She may agree with them, but she clearly stated that she had very specific goals for this book, i.e., to expose the unfairness and destructiveness of the War on Drugs and our incarceration policies.)  I did find one review in Forbes, or a business journal like that, and it was generally favorable!  The author had clear libertarian leanings, and some of those people are not happy with these policies.  Indeed, Alexander points out that many conservatives initially resisted Reagan’s declaration of war on drugs because it would expand Federal power into the arena of state law enforcement.

090601-hmfj-chart-4 (1)

Incarceration Rates

David Rothenberg’s talk was moderated by former governor of NJ, Jim McGreevey.  He spoke of his career in show biz, and he’s a great storyteller.

You can hear him  Saturday mornings on WBAI, a local super-left-wing station that I rarely listen to since it’s filled with ranting and absurd propaganda, where he plays Broadway tunes and discusses social issues.  His organization is named for a play he produced in the 60s that was one of the first to honestly portray the brutal conditions in prisons:  the ensuing discussions of the show, including participation by ex-convicts, inspired him to create the agency that has expanded and is a model today.

Nattering Nabobs of Non Sequitur

January 28, 2013

Is it just me, or am I right in thinking that the Republican Right has reached new heights, plumbed new depths of pure illogic and nonsense?  I am thinking of two statements from two articles in today’s NYTimes that were on the same page of the printed version. Firstwe have the whiz-kid Paul Ryan shouting about how Obama wants to effect the “political conquest” of the Republican Party.  Well, here’s hoping!  Anyway, the article  goes on to say this:

On Sunday, in a stinging rebuke to Mr. Obama, he said that had Hillary Rodham Clinton beat him to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and gone on to win the presidency, “we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now.”

“I don’t think that the president thinks that we actually have a fiscal crisis,” he said. “He’s been reportedly saying to our leaders that we don’t have a spending problem, we have a health care problem. That just leads me to conclude that he actually thinks we just need more government-run health care.”

Is Ryan speaking well of the same Hillary Clinton who made government controlled health care, single-payer at that, her top priority during her hubby’s first term?  And who was demonized by the Republicans for it?  Does he think she doesn’t think we have a major health care problem?  Or is he convinced that she would have dealt with our financial crisis better because of what she learned at the side of her similarly vilified husband, who happens to have run the only budget surplus this country has seen in recent history.  And who was a Democrat.

Then we have the other piece focused on the other intellectual leading light of the Right, Eric Cantor.

After successfully engineering the latest debt ceiling vote last week, Mr. Cantor flew to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he road-tested those themes as the lone House Republican leader rubbing elbows with the international élite.

Citing a struggling single mother with a gifted child in a poor city neighborhood, he told Davos attendees, “We need to create some type of competitive mechanisms” to help her escape the bad schools she is stuck with.

I imagine that a lot of those intellectually élite representatives of countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, China, Japan, and so on, are going to be thinking, “Why don’t you Americans just improve your public education system?”  I’d love to hear about the “economically competitive mechanisms” that are going to bring entrepreneurs running to serve the needs of communities with lousy schools, especially the run-of-the-mill students there.  (After all, it’s only in Lake Woebegone that everyone is above average).  Maybe the same corporations that are doing so well serving our out-sized prison population.

Deficit Scare Tactics

January 24, 2013

Yeah, that Krug.  When he’s right, he’s right!

To say what should be obvious: Republicans don’t care about the deficit. They care about exploiting the deficit to pursue their goal of dismantling the social insurance system. They want a fiscal crisis; they need it; they’re enjoying it. I mean, how is “starve the beast” supposed to work? Precisely by creating a fiscal crisis, giving you an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare.

The idea that they’re going to cheerfully accept a deal that will take the current deficit off the table as a scare story without doing major damage to the key social insurance programs, and then have a philosophical discussion about how we might change those programs over the longer term, is pure fantasy. That would amount to an admission of defeat on their part.

Shoot the Messenger: Comedy & Criticism with Nate Silver

November 4, 2012

Click for Richard Sala source.

Statistical reports and observed reality do not always correspond, as my favorite comics artist, Richard Sala, illustrates with the image above.  This gives an opening to right-wing critics of the statistician Nate Silver, who has consistently rated Obama the favorite in this election at his blog, 538.com.  I find the attacks on him to be laughable:  yes, he says he votes Democratic; yes, he has strong opinions on the importance of state as opposed to national polls; yes, he predicts the popular vote to be rather close but still rates Obama at more than 80% likely to win.

So what?  As they say in the pundit world, “Here’s the thing…”  In a few days the election will be over and we’ll see whose predictions and analysis were good, and whose were bad.  Let’s just wait and see, heh?

George McGovern

October 17, 2012

I caught a few seconds of a favorable recap of George McGovern’s life on the TV in my office lobby (Whaaa Favorable?) and checked in, only to find out that he is near the end of his life.  McGovern is generally dismissed these days as an out of touch super-liberal who was buried in a Nixon landslide.

Well, let’s see:

  • He wanted to end poverty in America, and guarantee all working people an income sufficient to live with dignity.
  • He wanted to end the stupid and murderous war in Vietnam.
  • He wanted to enact a health care system that would ensure that everyone got high quality care.
  • He wanted to ensure that American citizens enjoyed their civil rights.
  • He actually spoke the truth in his work as a politician, as in this bit recounted at Wikipedia: 

“It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”

The Senate reacted in startled, stunned silence, and some faces showed anger and fury; when one member told McGovern he had been personally offended by the speech, McGovern said, “That’s what I meant to do”. 

So, we got Richard Nixon instead:

  • He was actually a lot more ‘liberal’ on issues of poverty and government support than today’s Republicans!
  • He said he wanted to end the Vietnam War, but he had alread spent four years, conducted several massive expansions and bombing campaigns , ended thousands of lives (hundreds of thousands of Asian lives) on a purported ‘end the war’ policy.
  • He wasn’t interested in civil rights for Americans, especially those who didn’t like him.  So he went and burglarized McGovern’s offices, broke into medical files, bugged people’s lines, made enemies lists, etc…
  • He spoke the truth occasionally, but it may have been by accident.

Oh yes, have we forgotten?  He resigned rather than face certain conviction in an impeachment trial brought up on just some of his sordid mis-deeds.

Americans Speak Out: We Want Our Welfare State!

October 17, 2012

Posted Image

A recent study queried Americans about their preferences regarding wealth distribution, and found “a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.”  When asked to choose from among three charts representing wealth distributions of unnamed countries, Sweden was the favorite.  But oh, those suicide rates!

Here, I want to go on record as a champion of The Welfare State, so much abused and denigrated now.  Society exists to provide food, clothing and shelter to its members.  Nowadays, it also is supposed to supply medical care and other aids to well being.  I see the welfare state as a higher stage in the evolution of society: it is dedicated to ensuring that all members of the social realm have at least the minimum acceptable level of these social goods.  Very simple.

Critics will argue that welfare states don’t meet those goals, but the Scandinavians certainly are a good counter-argument.  Or, they can argue that that type of society cannot work here – more American exceptionalism, but in a bad way!  And they will say, that ultimately, our free-wheeling system provides more to more people, but those people seem to have other ideas.

Americans – get your act together.  We Want a Welfare State Now!

click for source