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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Don't take our country back, give it - for you and me

It's our country, and it's their country. It's my country and it's your country. It's a Christian country and a Jewish country and a Muslim country and a Hindu country and a Buddhist country and an atheist country. It's a country where Africans, Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans, Arabs and Persians are as American as the baby born in Cleveland. If the White House is anybody's house, it's everybody's house, white being the unbroken, unrefracted presence of all colors of visible light.

We may not all share the same tenement, the same block, the same neighborhood, or even the same city. But whether we came here from somewhere else or we had relatives on the Mayflower, we are a people who believe that this land was made for all of us.

"This land is your land. This land is my land," sang Woody Guthrie, in what was once held as a universal truth. "This land was made for you and me."

Not anymore.

These days, there are many who hear that song as, "This land was made for me and people like me, and we want it back!" It is in that barren, rocky and unforgiving context that all the sad, forced battles over immigration, religion, and sexual rights take place.

Sailors raise their right hands and take the oath of U.S. citizenship during a naturalization ceremony held at Cabrillo National Monument.
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Juan E. Diaz. (May, 2003)

Wouldn't it be great if, instead of passing laws like Arizona's recently quashed SB1070, making immigrants outlaws and turning law enforcement into thugs defending cultural xenophobia, we felt compelled to pass laws which insure everyone, EVERYONE, gets a piece of our country's "pursuit of happiness" idiom? That would be the greatest show of American unity! But that appears to be too threatening a principle for those who prefer you were more like them before they accept you.

For people like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, it seems states' rights are necessary to protect those who prefer their own cultural isolation, and who cleave to their right to impose it on their neighbors. Want your country back, whatever that means? Get behind Scalia.

In his dissenting opinion, Monday, to the Court's decision on the Arizona immigration law, Scalia talked about state sovereignty, and  wrote "Arizona has the inherent power to exclude persons from its territory," and "the States have the right to protect their borders against foreign nationals." So, one might infer that had he been a Supreme in the 1950s, Scalia would have dissented in Brown v. Board of Education, since public schools are often properties of the state, and if the state wanted to exclude Negros, it had the power to do that.

It also seems that he would have no problem, hypothetically,  against a state kicking out a minority that went against the principles of the state government, like if Oklahoma decided to expel their Muslim communities because their presence threatened the integrity of the anti-Sharia law amendment that Sooner voters passed two years ago (which has been struck down by at least two courts as violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution). The state, he would argue, is exercising its sovereign authority to "exclude persons from its territory" and "protect its borders."

Indeed, Scalia seems to lament the nineteenth century laws and decisions, when  "primary responsibility for immigration policy... shifted from the States to the Federal Government," and he appears to base his opinion on a pioneer ideal of states being able to operate more independently in protecting their territory, like they were still guarding a frontier. They fought to get 'em. They fight to keep 'em.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In a bizarre, glass mostly full kind of reaction, Jan Brewer, Arizona's finger-wagging, tongue-twisted Republican governor, embraced Monday's split SCOTUS decision as "a victory for the 10th Amendment and all Americans who believe in the inherent right and responsibility of states to defend their citizens." In ignoring the actual result of what the Court's majority rejected, Brewer must have concluded that as long as Scalia got their argument, they had won. "We must use this new tool wisely," she said, as if she were a ruler rallying her troops, "and fight for our safety with the honor Arizona deserves."

(One wonders, what is it about governors who see themselves as rulers of their own little country? No wonder so many feel they could be president. When they are president, though, they are just as nonplussed about state assertions of power as the current administration.)
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

With Scalia overtly signalling from the bench that he, for one, would entertain a case brought against President Obama for his recent executive order stopping deportations of immigrants brought here illegally as minors, on top of his pushing for the additional arguments that led to the death of campaign finance reform in the decision known as Citizens United v. F.E.C., there is little room for doubt that the justice is aggressively pursuing an agenda that plays into the hands of his monied friends on the right.

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, next week, let's remember that along with celebrating our independence from Britain, we are acknowledging our interdependence on each other. E pluribus unum -  out of many, one: one nation, with liberty and justice for all.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
- "This Land is Your Land," lyrics & music by Woody Guthrie


Monday, June 04, 2012

The stink of corporate money and the spoiling of our political infrastructure

English: Official photo of Governor Brian Schw...
Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

"[W]e will see whether the [Supreme C]ourt decides to blow the stink of Washington into Montana, or whether we can preserve our fresh mountain air." - Montana governor, Brian Schweitzer (D), in an op-ed published Sunday, in the New York Times, discussing his state's open challenge to the court's 2010 Citizens United decision
We do not all live in Montana, but we are all susceptible to the foul smell of corruption from the burst dam of corporate dollars flooding our elections this year. In Big Sky Country, they have had a law on the books against big money in elections since 1912, when, Gov. Schweitzer says in his op-ed:
"...the people of Montana approved a ballot initiative banning corporate money from campaigns (with limited exceptions). We later banned large individual donations, too. Candidates in Montana may not take more than a few hundred dollars from an individual donor per election; a state legislator can’t take more than $160. And everything must be disclosed. "These laws have nurtured a rare, pure form of democracy. There’s very little money in Montana politics. Legislators are basically volunteers: they are ranchers, teachers, carpenters and all else, who put their professions on hold to serve a 90-day session, every odd year, for $80 a day. "And since money can’t be used to gain access, public contact with politicians is expected and rarely denied. "
It sounds so idyllic, being able to just knock on the door and say, "Howdy," to your elected representative, one who hasn't been compromised by the corrupted stench of special interest money. But the Supreme Court, last February, stayed that 100 year old law because it violated the ruling in Citizens United. "This means," the Montana Commissioner for Political Practices explains on the state's website, "that, until further notice, corporations may make independent expenditures to support or oppose a candidate or political party." Direct corporate contributions to candidate or party are still prohibited, under the Montana law.

The stay was in reaction to a 5-2 Montana Supreme Court ruling, on December 30, that found the state's law to be an exception to Citizens United v. F.E.C., because of the Treasure State's sordid history of copper barons buying influence at the turn of the last century. Schweitzer relates the story of one senator from the state, who the U.S. Senate expelled once it was found that, at a time when statehouses chose U.S. senators, he "gave each corruptible state legislator $10,000 in cash, the equivalent of $250,000 today."

UPI, which describes the actions of the state court as "Montana's cheeky slap at Citizens United," explains what might happen when the Supremes meet in D.C., on June 14, to figure out what to do about the case:
"They could let the state court ruling stand -- highly unlikely. They could put the decision off to a later conference. Or they could 'summarily reverse' the state court ruling, undoing the Montana Supreme Court decision without hearing argument."
Of the three possibilities, the second is certainly the one that gives those who oppose the infamous 2010 decision the most hope, especially if it means a refinement of the original ruling. According to SCOTUS' order staying the Montana decision, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, who dissented in 2010, supported the stay as "an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway."

Certainly, there is a growing movement among states and municipalities across the country to create a constitutional amendment that would make regulating all corporate campaign contributions legal. Gov. Schweitzer argues for it in his column. The Boston Herald reported last month that "56 cities and towns across Massachusetts that are calling on Congress to pass an amendment overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling." And New Jersey's Upper Township Gazette reported, Monday, that the American Dream Movement is supporting efforts in the NJ Senate to pass a resolution "which 'expresses strong opposition to' the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. FEC decision by calling upon Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment that would define a person as 'only a natural person' with regard to campaign spending by corporations and their protection under the First Amendment."

Prose and Thorn recently reported on other efforts, in California and Illinois, to push for similar legislation.

All the legal back-and-forth aside, this is a fight for who controls the agendas of lawmakers - big corporate money, or the voices of the people. As Schweitzer warns, if there is no revision of Citizens United, and there is no political will to put forward an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, "the Washington model of corruption — where corporations legally bribe members of Congress by bankrolling their campaigns with so-called independent expenditures, and get whatever they need in return — will have infected" not only our nation's capital, not only Montana, but also the chambers of every capitol building in every state, and every city hall in every town in America.